Hands-on with Microsoft's super-exciting Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book tablet/laptop hybrids

We got some hands-on time with Microsoft's Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book at Adobe's Max conference in LA. Here's what we thought of these really innovative tablets-cum=laptops.

There were new Lumia phones, a pretty awesome HoloLens tech demo and a hat that almost stole the show – but the main attractions for Digital Arts readers at yesterday's Microsoft launch event were the new versions of the Surface Pro tablet/laptop hybrid that’s been very popular with creative pros.

We got some a short amount of time with them at the Adobe Max conference in Los Angeles, so here are our initial thoughts. Expect full reviews soon when we're back in the UK.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

The Surface Pro 4 is an upgraded version of the Surface Pro 3. As expected, the Surface Pro 4 is more powerful than the Pro 3 – 30% faster than Surface Pro 3 and 50% faster than MacBook Air, according to Microsoft. This is due to being based on Intel’s new Skylake platform and its upgraded Core i5 and i7 processors. There’s more RAM – 16GB – and up to 1TB of storage.

There are three options for the Surface Pro 4's chips: 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-6650U processor with Intel Iris graphics 540, 2.4GHz Core i5-6300U with Intel HD graphics 520, and a 900MHz Intel Core m3-6Y30 processor with Intel HD graphics 515.

Ignore the last one as it won't run creative apps useably. Instead, look to the i7 model with more powerful graphics if you want to edit videos in Premiere Pro or anything else demanding (as they extra oomph from Iris will really help). If your demands or budget are more modest, the cheaper i5 models are worth checking out.

Here's how the pricing breaks down:

Core i5, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD – £708 plus VAT
Core i5, 8GB, 256GB – £899
Core i7, 8GB, 256GB – £1,083
Core i7, 16GB, 256GB – £1,208
Core i7, 16GB, 512GB – £1,499

US buyers also get the option of a 1TB drive, but it's not avaiable as an option in the UK – and Microsoft is being coy as to why.

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Initially, you could easily mistake the Pro 4 for the Pro 3 – but on closer inspection there are some significant changes that make a big difference to the overall experience. It's thinner, it has a bigger screen without a bigger overall size thanks to thinner bezels, and the screen resolution is noticeably improved. Microsoft said that it's essentially as thin as it can get without being forced to get rid of the USB port.

More importantly, Microsoft has made the screen’s surface thinner, so there’s less of the parallax effect between where you place the pen on the screen and where the Surface thinks it is.

The resolution of the screen has been raised to 2,736 x 1,824 - aka 5 megapixels or slightly less than that of the iPad Pro (which is a less-widescreen 2,732 x 2,048). The pixel density is 267dpi.

One of the best things for creatives or anyone who likes to use a stylus is the improved pen, which really is so much better. It can attach to the side of the Pro 4 magnetically in an instant, which is so much better than the annoying and fiddly loop on the keyboard that you were required to use previously.

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The pen has better pressure sensitivity – up from 256 levels of sensitivity to 1,024, which is still half that of the Wacom Cintiq Companion 2's 2,048.

There's also a right click button and an eraser on the end, so it's overall more useful and more practical. Also, pressing and holding on the top brings up Cortana. This pen can be used with the old Surface Pro 3 but won't attach to the side of the older device using magnets.

There are different pen tips for note-taking, writing, sketching, drawing and shading. It also clips magnetically to the side of the Surface Pro 4 (or Surface Book).

Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to try these out.

The keyboard has also been improved with more space between the keys for a better typing experience that I noticed immediately, and the trackpad is 40% bigger too. Some models also have a fingerprint sensor next to the trackpad for added security. 

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Microsoft Surface Book

The Surface Book is a otally new product with a different approach - if the Surface Pro 4 is tablet first and a laptop second, the Surface Book is a laptop first (and a tablet second). 

Without the keyboard attachment, the Surface Book is little more than a larger Surface Pro 4. The 13.5-inch, 267dpi screen has a 6-megapixel resolution of 3,000 x 2,000 - but there's the same screen technology, and Skylake platform and chips underpinning it. Also the same pen.

I was so surprised at how light the tablet was on its own - I could imagine using it one handed in presentations perhaps without any problems at all

Where the Surface Book really comes into its own is when you snap on the keyboard unit, which connects magnetically. This has a full laptop keyboard and trackpad - but also contains an Nvidia GeForce graphics chip for better performance in both 3D apps and apps that can take advantage of the GPU for 2D or general processing tasks (for example Photoshop, Illustrator, Painter or Premiere Pro).

It's really easy to attach and detach the keyboard, which is done by pressing and holding on a button on the keyboard until the screen says it's ready to detach and you simply pull it off. It snaps back into place using magnets. The hinges feel sturdy and hard wearing. The Surface Book looks nice, too, and it was attracting the most attention during Max so I think it's going down really well with its target market so far

You can flip the keyboard behind the screen - where the keys stop working - and use the Surface Book like a tablet, but with the added oomph from the graphics chip. At its launch event, Microsoft demoed editing a simply-textured T-Rex model in Maya to showcase its 3D performance.

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UK pricing for the Surface Book has yet to be announced, though it will cost from $1,499 (around £985) in the US.

We do know that there will be a choice of two CPU options: a 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6600U or 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U – both with Intel HD graphics 520. Nvidia's graphics chip in the keyboard is a custom chip with 1GB of graphics RAM that's been created just for the Surface Book.

“The new GPU is a Maxwell based GPU with GDDR5 memory,” an Nvidia spokesperson tells us. “It was designed to deliver the best performance in ultra-thin form factors such as the Surface Book keyboard dock. Given its unique implementation and design in the keyboard module, it cannot be compared to a traditional 900M series GPU.”

Look out for Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book reviews on this site soon.