Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Review

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The first thing that you’ll note when you see Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 is that it is, beyond a doubt, cool to look at. Microsoft launched the tablet-hybrid in India in January, just a few months after the launch in the US. Microsoft loaned us a Surface Pro 4 (Core i5/ 4GB RAM/ 128GB SSD) (priced at Rs. 89,990), along with the Surface Type Cover Keyboard (priced at Rs. 12,490), and the Surface Pen (which is bundled with the tablet), and we’ve been using this hardware quite heavily for the last couple of weeks. It is a stunning achievement, and hugely useful in many regards, yet it involves some major compromises which can’t be ignored either.

The first question we need to answer is whether this device is a tablet or a laptop. Microsoft’s own messaging is clear; it sees the Surface Pro 4 as “the tablet that can replace your laptop,” but from the perspective of a tablet, this device has a number of problems.

One of the biggest issues occurred within the first few hours of testing the device, (and repeated twice more during the course of our review process) was particularly worrying – the Surface switched off in the middle of use. The first time this happened was right after we’d just started using the Surface, and were just setting up the different tools we’d need to use for work. The second time this occurred, we were watching a movie and turned the screen off for a moment to take a call. The third time happened while writing this review, and removed around 500 words of unsaved work – which incidentally is as good a reminder as any to never write using a tool that doesn’t autosave work!

The Surface Pro 4 simply went dark and refused to respond to anything. A quick search on Google Showed that this is not an uncommon issue for the Surface family of devices. It’s also an unfortunate reminder of the black box nature of tablets and tablet-like devices. There was no indicator to tell us what was wrong, no lights or beeps to guide us to errors. Instead you only have an opaque slab, and no indication if anything you’re trying is making a difference. The actual problem was easy enough to solve after a few minutes of looking around on Google, but the fact that you have to do this at all, several months after the Surface was launched, definitely meant that we started this review feeling pessimistic.

Secondly, its battery life is a far cry from what we’ve come to expect from our mobile devices, and perhaps worse still, the Surface Pro 4 simply doesn’t feel well optimised for use as a finger-friendly device. There is a tablet mode in the settings that you can quickly switch to, and this is probably the best thing to do when you simply want to watch some Netflix or listen to some music, but this means that you can’t easily switch to desktop-mode tasks.

Simply put, seen as a tablet that can do the work of a laptop, the Surface Pro 4 falls short. On the other hand, how does it fare if you look at it as a laptop that’s small and light enough to be as portable as a tablet? Suddenly, it becomes a far more interesting device. It’s not a powerhouse, certainly, and it wouldn’t be the first choice for people with specific hardware needs – but if you’re looking for a highly portable machine that is great for the typical “work” use case, then the Surface Pro 4 is great to use. Over time the Surface Pro 4 has come a long way towards winning us over. Read on to know how.

Look and feel
The Surface Pro 4 is a sleek looking tablet with sharply angled edges and when you consider the design from a purely aesthetic perspective, it’s fantastic. The 12.9-inch display obviously dominates the design, but beyond that, the angled body, the way the ports have been laid out, and of course, the iconic Surface kickstand at the back, make this a great looking product. The tablet is just 29.2cm X 20.1cm X 0.8cm in size, and weighs 786g; the keyboard adds another 292g, taking it up to just over 1kg. It’s roughly the same weight as the smaller 11-inch MacBook Air; the 13-inch Air is closer in screen size, which at 1.35kg is significantly heavier. And when you take into account the fact that you can easily disconnect the keyboard from the Surface Pro 4 when you’re doing something like reading a book using the Kindle app, or watching a movie, then the lightweight device really shines.

The same can be said about the Surface Pen as well – it works really effectively (although there were a few issues with palm rejection, which we’ll address in the Performance section) and feels remarkably well built. It’s accurate to use, and displays a small pointer on the screen when you’re hovering close to contact – this allows you to be extremely precise with the Surface Pen. At the same time, it’s relatively thick compared to many other styluses we have used, and this is a plus point, in our opinion. The extra size allows for a comfortable grip and the added heft allows for greater precision. We’re not artists, but for simple sketching, the Surface Pen was excellent to use, and it also works extremely well for note-taking.

Windows has long allowed for handwriting recognition input, and this works fast and fairly accurately with the Surface Pen as well. You can’t write as accurately or as quickly with the Surface Pen as you would be able to type, but using something like One Note, you can easily sketch down notes when you’re talking to someone. It’s a pretty reliable way to make handwritten notes that can be backed up to the cloud instead of being lost in notebooks. And our favourite thing about the Surface Pen is that you don’t need to keep charging it up – Microsoft claims that the battery will last for 18 months, using coin cell batteries.

Specifications
The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 we reviewed was the entry level model, priced at Rs. 89,990. This model comes with a 6th generation Intel Core i5 processor clocked at 2.40GHz, along with 4GB of DDR-3 RAM, and 128GB of storage. The tablet comes with a number of ports, as discussed earlier, and also includes built in speakers with Dolby sound. As you’d expect, you can’t upgrade the parts in this tablet, so whichever model you buy, the specs are final and can’t be changed down the line.

The 12.9-inch display runs at a resolution of 2736x1824pixels (4K), at a density of 267ppi. At the typical viewing distance for a tablet or laptop, this is quite spectacular. Everything looks sharp on the screen, and reading text at a small font size is quite easy. The screen is great for watching movies on, or playing video games. The viewing angles are similarly comfortable. You can look at the screen from the sides, and recline it to the angle that’s most comfortable for you without losing out on the visual fidelity. It’s a huge step forward from the typical Windows laptop screens you get, and that makes this a really comfortable computer to work on.

Performance
On a day to day basis, the Surface Pro 4 proved to be up to just about any tasks that a journalist has – which is admittedly not a very draining experience, though we did manage to run Photoshop just fine. Opening dozens of Chrome tabs, editing PDF files, and simultaneously working on a Word and Excel documents while listening to music the whole time was perfectly smooth. That’s simply not possible if you’re using an Android or iOS based device. We were doing this while also transferring photos from a USB drive we’d plugged in, and there was absolutely no slowdown, and no awkward issues of hopping around from app to app – everything was just going on all the time in front of us, and we could pick and choose what we needed to do, when we needed to do it.

Also, it’s worth noting that while the Surface Pro 4 does heat up when you’re using it, this never gets unbearable even when you’re doing something like gaming. The one area where the performance is disappointing is battery life. We’ve seen some people claiming 7 to 9 hours of use on a full charge, but that’s not been the case in our own experience. With the suggested settings for the battery management and brightness, we typically got up to 6 hours of use on the battery. The Battery Eater Pro test (which shows the minimum battery life under heavy use conditions – your actual usage will last for longer than this) lasted for 1 hour and 32 minutes. And running the standard video loop test we use for mobiles, the Surface Pro 4 lasted only 5 hours and 35 minutes.

When you’re gaming or going something else that’s battery intensive, you simply have to plug in the Surface Pro 4. It’s a far cry from other tablets which give you a lot more backup.

Verdict
At the end of the day, the Surface Pro 4 is a very impressive Windows tablet. Unfortunately, that’s still a very small category. It’s certainly not the best tablet we’ve used. It’s held back by certain issues – scaling of visual elements, for one, and oppressively limited battery life for another. The power and the portability of this laptop are impressive, but it perhaps falls short of delivering that something extra to justify its price tag.

With that said, having Windows to use in such a portable form factor was a delight. The Surface Pro 4 boots up near instantly giving tablets a run for their money, and it was able to handle a wide range of tasks with ease. And since it’s running Windows 10, we were able to go from launching the Netflix app and watching movies to running all the tools that we use for work on our regular laptop without any compromise or searching for alternatives. The amount of software that’s available to Windows users means that you can get a lot done without wasting time searching for tools, and the appeal of this is hard to overstate.

And while this might not be a powerful gaming machine, the Surface Pro 4 can be used to play recent games if you turn the settings down a little. Considering how small and convenient this laptop is, it’s kind of amazing to realise that you’re carrying a device that will let you spend a couple of hours inside Skyrim when you’re stuck on a long flight.

Those are not going to be reasons for everyone to spend around a lakh on this laptop – but for some people at least it’s going to be a very appealing device indeed.

Price: Rs. 89,990

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