With each successive Surface, Microsoft has won over new users to its innovative device. Naysayers who questioned the usability of the odd 3:2 aspect ratio screen now accept that for anything but watching wide-screen media, it’s actually a likeably useful format, with its gains in screen height very handy for most apps and certainly all browsers. Those who questioned the detachable Type Cover, and wondered if it could be used for more than a short email or tweet have had a try, and probably like it. While the ‘is it a tablet or a laptop?’ crowd have now seen almost every tech company do something similar, firmly entrenching this form factor’s credibility.
So with the Surface Pro 4, evolution is the name of the game. The few areas that may have been wanting in the previous Surfaces have received attention. In keeping with Microsoft’s now very apparent mission to deliver exceptional quality, the two main external bits – the keyboard and screen, see some good improvements.
The 12.3-inch 10-point touch screen has an unusual resolution of 2736 x 1824, which is dictated by the 3:2 aspect ratio. It’s a good choice, being sharp enough to look as crisp as any other high-DPI or Retina display, but not so high that apps and web pages need to be individually scaled to be readable. Exceptional contrast and the extreme viewing angles make this screen arguably the best available on a portable device today. Only an OLED TV will give you deeper blacks. The actual 1300:1 contrast ratio becomes pure numerical semantics – this screen just can’t be faulted. With 100% sRGB colour, it’s well into the realm of being a professionally useful working tool. It really is a superb, and you can view the screen almost side-on without losing any contrast or colour depth.
The Surface Pro 4 Type Cover looks the same as previous models, but has a new key mechanism that gives a very clear bump when a key is pushed, and a quick and springy rebound. It’s close to silent, too. The trackpad is much larger now, and is made from low friction glass. It still has the same light felt texture on the back. Our Surface 3 workhorse has grubbed up a bit in the last few months and cleaning isn’t as simple as a quick wipe. Still, the new keyboard action is the nicest you can get in such a slim chiclet design today.
It’s still sold separately at an RRP of $199, but there can’t be more than a handful of people in the world that have bought any Surface without a keyboard, so pricing it separately is part PR to keep the perceived price of the main unit lower, but admittedly part good sense because it’s backwards-compatible with earlier Surface Pros. Nevertheless, it should be bundled.
Storage is another big tick, at least in terms of read speed performance. All Surface 4 Pro models, regardless of capacity, use an NVMe SSD. This currently ultra-rare next-gen tech is not a budget solution, further underlining Microsoft’s premium pitch. We benched read speeds at 1165MB/s, or about double what a premium SATA SSD can deliver in ideal conditions. Write speeds, however, were a relatively sad 102MB/s. That’s spinning disc territory.
The fabulous kick-stand is here again. Honestly, there’s no better way to prop up a tablet, or have it posed in laptop mode. It goes all the way back, is terrific on the lap in couch mode and it folds flush when not in use. It’s an engineering wonder and it shames any other solution with its elegance.
And, the Pen is now magnetically attached to the side, can be used as an eraser, powers down when not being used so can last months on a single battery, and is even nicer to use thanks to the ‘optically bonded glass’, which reduces the gap between the screen and sensor layer, so it all feels more natural.
There’s no doubt that Microsoft absolutely excels at innovative hardware design, and tightly controls manufacturing – the quality of the construction and materials is instantly evident. While other laptop and tablet manufacturers experiment with shapes and form factors that eventually fall by the wayside, the Surface was a risky new form-factor at launch which Microsoft has gradually made better and better.
Best of all, the six different CPU, RAM and SSD configuration options – which span $1,399 for a basic m5 CPU, 128GB SSD and 4GB RAM, to the full i7, 16GB and 512GB SSD at $3,399 – let you take home the same clever design and premium manufacturing regardless of your performance choices.
Once again, Microsoft has delivered an outstanding device. Other products will do the same job, but the Surface 4 Pro is a classier way to go about it.