Microsoft Surface Pro 4 first look: powerful, super-portable and featuring an amazing screen

Here are our first thoughts on the new Surface Pro 4 – the successor to one of our favourite pieces of creative tech of the past year.

Note: This is a first look at the Surface Pro 4. We'll publish a full review

The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 has satisfied one expectation: It’s taken the proven success of the Surface Pro 3 and gone even further, offering a substantial performance boost and other improvements.

Now comes the harder part. The tablet ecosystem has dramatically evolved since the launch of the Surface Pro 3. New Surface clones like the Lenovo Miix 700 and the Vaio Canvas will ship soon (though the Vaio will only be available here in the UK via import). Then there’s the Surface Pro 4's flashy new family member: the Surface Book, a two-in-one boasting incredible battery life and a pricey external GPU option. Suddenly the Surface Pro 4 is simply machina sapiena, and the Book is machina maxima.

The Surface Pro 4 may have to resign itself to living in the shadow of the Surface Book. As for the rest of the new competition, the Surface Pro 4’s impressive features, performance, and overall experience have set some tough new standards for high-end Windows tablets in. We’ll see if any of them can meet the challenge.  

You’d be forgiven for mistaking the Surface Pro 4 for the Surface Pro 3 at a glance—the two generations of Microsoft tablet are nearly a mirror image of one another. At 11.5 by 7.93 by 0.33 inches, the Surface Pro 4 is a mere 0.03 inches thinner than the SP3, and at 1.73 pounds, just 0.03 pounds lighter.  

Look closer, and you’ll Microsoft trimmed the bezel and bumped up the display size from 12 inches and 2,160 x 1,440 pixels on the Surface Pro 3, to 12.3 inches and 2,736 x 1,824 pixels on the SP4's display. (The additional pixels, though, were just enough that I had to bump up the text size to 175 percent, rather than the default suggestion of 150 percent.) Likewise, Microsoft gave the keys on the new Type Cover keyboard a bit more breathing room compared to the tight clump on the SP3’s Type Cover. 

Microsoft also re-engineered the Surface Pro 4 to distribute heat throughout the top portion of the rear panel, eliminating hot spots and allowing the optional Core i5 and Core i7 chips inside to run at full speed – something the SP3 couldn’t do. 

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Otherwise, the Surface Pro 4 should feel comfortably familiar. You’ll still need to find the power button (top left, next to the volume rocker, like the Surface 3) and there’s the standard single USB 3.0 port, miniDisplayPort connector, and microSD card reader. The Surface Pro 4 integrates 802.11ac Wi-Fi, same as its predecessor, as well as Bluetooth 4.0.

The slightly wider form factor means that the SP4 won’t work with the Surface Pro 3's dock, but the charger appears to be identical. (Note while the Surface Pro 4 connector is identical to the Surface Pro 3's, the Dock’s Surface connector is chunkier.)

The kickstand remains almost the same: On the SP3, it swings out easily about 30 degrees into “stage mode,” then more slowly back until it reaches the maximum 150 degrees. On the SP4, there’s just a fluid range of motion from 0 to 150 degrees.

That’s not necessarily an advantage; the stiffer SP3 hinge holds the tablet solidly in place, while you may nudge the SP4 out of position if you’re constantly jabbing at the screen. Still, it’s easier to get the tablet angled to where you want it. Both tablets feel about the same in your lap.

The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 breaks a number of tablet display performance records, including consuming a surprisingly meager amount of power for its size, display expert Ray Soneira says.

The SP4 also improves considerably over the Surface Pro 3, which also had a well-regarded display, in almost every way, Soniera concluded in a report. It also has the most accurate on-screen colours of any tablet display that he has ever measured, he wrote:

“[T]he Surface Pro 4 has one of the very best and most accurate displays available on any mobile platform and OS. It joins near the top of a small set of tablets that have excellent top tier displays – ideal for professionals that need a very accurate high performance display for their work.”

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Both the Surface Pro 4 and the Book feature a new set of Surface-specific setup screens that serve as a useful introduction to two new features: Microsoft’s digital assistant, Cortana, as well as the new Surface Pen (which we’ll discuss more later). This accomplishes two things: first, it ensures you’ll hit the ground running. And by waiving (or not) all the privacy concerns associated with Cortana before you actually use it, you slide gently into Microsoft’s world.

And it’s a pretty nice world. 

The inclusion of Windows 10 means that the Surface Pro 4 doesn’t need the dedicated Windows hardware button, and can instead use the soft Windows button on the screen that launches the Start menu.

We'll be putting the Surface Pro 4 through our usual Adobe Creative Cloud, Cinema 4D and Maya benchmarks soon – and we'll publish the results shortly.

I’ve used the Surface Pro 3 for eighteen months or so, mostly as a daily driver, so my fingers have grown quite used to the Surface Pro 3’s Type Cover. While it doesn’t quite boast the rigidity of a laptop's keyboard, I’d say the Surface Pro 3’s Type Cover comes pretty close.

What’s most notable about the Surface Pro 4’s keyboard is that the keys are smaller – about 16 mm square, as opposed to 18 mm for the SP3 – but spaced more widely, about 3 mm apart, whereas the SP3's keys almost bump up against one another. All told, the SP4’s key pitch is a more spacious 19 mm, with 1.3 mm of travel.

Although the SP4 keys feel slightly stiffer, I was able to type comfortably. Based on the light that leaks from behind the SP4 Type Cover’s keys, I suspect I’ll have to be careful about dropping crumbs during a working lunch. What’s interesting, though, is that the SP4’s spacebar seems to be almost sealed, while the other keys have more noticeable gaps.

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The Microsoft Surface Pro 4 also boasts a larger trackpad, but solid palm rejection means you don’t have to worry about where you place your hands.

The trackpad is wider and smoother, about 30 percent larger than the SP3's. And it’s smooth—your finger easily glides right over it, like a gaming mousepad.

I confess that I’m not as much of a fan of the revised Surface Pen, which magnetically clamps to the side of the Surface Pro 4 tablet. Say what you will about the SP3’s pen – that fabric loop meant that thing wasn’t going anywhere. With the SP4, you may find that the Pen slides off and disappears into your backpack every so often – although carrying the SP4 with the Pen at the top helps, too. I still think inserting the pen into the chassis, as the Samsung Galaxy Note series does, is the way to go.

The Surface Pen has quietly evolved into a fourth input device for the Surface line, beyond trackpad, keyboard, and touchscreen. There are some features I really like: For one thing, simply flipping it upside down and sliding it across the screen erases what you’ve written, like – well, an eraser. Clicking the top of the Pen launches OneNote, clicking it twice saves a screenshot. Clicking and holding launches Cortana’s oral search – which is really quite handy while in tablet mode.

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But something about the Surface Pro 3’s pen resonates with me a bit more, especially when writing. Microsoft’s new SP4 boasts a technology called PixelSense, which helps reject your hand when inking. That worked flawlessly – but, then again, I haven’t had many problems with the Surface 3 or Surface Pro 3’s pen, either. And maybe it’s the way I scrawl notes, but the Surface Pro 4’s stylus just didn’t feel as comfortable on the glass as the SP3. Some people won’t like how the SP4 eliminates the right-click button from the Pen, either.

Both stylii still leave a trail of e-ink that lags behind the stylus when making broad, sweeping strokes. Still, if you didn’t like how pressure distorted the SP3’s display, you’ll be happy to know that’s vanished from the SP4.

The Surface Pen’s battery isn’t rechargeable, so you’ll have to replace the battery when it expires, in what Microsoft says will be a year’s time. (We were apparently mistakenly told by Microsoft that the Pen's battery was not replaceable, and it doesn't unscrew like the SP3 pen does, which fooled us. The cap does slide off, however, so you can replace the battery.) Microsoft also sells a pen tip kit which may very well provide a more comfortable solution than what the Pen offers, but I didn’t have a chance to try it.

There was something predatory in the way in which the mandibles of the original Surface dock (shown here) clamped the tablet, holding it fast. The new Dock is far more deferential.

This time around, what Microsoft calls the Surface Dock is a power brick. And that’s fairly close to the truth: Compare the dock’s actual power brick to the dock itself – Microsoft carved them out of identical hunks of plastic.

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Functionally, however, the dock is an upgrade over the previous docks: There are four USB 3.0 connections, and not one but two miniDisplayPort connections, plus gigabit ethernet and a Kensington lock. (You can still use the tablet’s existing USB port, as well.) It’s all routed through a sturdier Surface connector, which snakes from the Dock to the tablet via a short length of cable.

The real advantage here is that the new Dock permits the SP4 to recline to any position, while the earlier docks locked it into a single position. I like that. It doesn’t seem to work with the SP3, though – I was able to power the SP3 via the dock, but when I attached a mouse and keyboard, they didn’t work.

About the only concern I have with this is that the Dock is small enough to fit in a backpack or carry-on– which means you have a decision to make. Do you tote along the combined 2.5 pounds of the Dock and its power brick, or leave it at home? Remember, that’s significantly more than the 1.73 pounds the tablet itself weighs. (The Type Cover is about 0.63 pounds, for a total weight of 2.36 pounds.)

Image: The new Surface Dock (right) sits next to its power brick (left).

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