Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review: It's faster, it's better, and it has more competition

This time around, what sells the Surface Pro 4 is on the inside.

At a Glance
  • Microsoft Surface Pro 4

    PCWorld Rating
    $767.99 MSRP $1,300.00
    View
    on Amazon

    The combination of an Intel Skylake chip, a new Type Cover keyboard and faster SSD speed help push the Surface Pro 4 into a higher echelon of performance.

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. 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.  

Subtle changes outside, big changes inside

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 2160x1440 pixels on the Surface Pro 3, to 12.3 inches and 2736x1824 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. 

This time around, what sells the Surface Pro 4 is on the inside: a sixth-generation Intel Skylake processor that kicks up 3D performance by as much as 81 percent.

surface pro 4 compare Rob Schultz

The Surface Pro 3 (left) and the new Microsoft Surface Pro 4.

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. 

And, of course, there’s the price. The Surface Pro 3 offered an $800 Core i3 starter option, but the Core m-based Surface Pro 4 starts at $899. The SP4 Microsoft gave us to test carries an Intel Core i5 with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, a $1,299 tablet (though you can get it on Amazon for $1199). You’ll pay up to $1,599 for the highest-end Core i7 version. Note that the Type Cover keyboard will cost an additional $130 even though we’d consider it an essential accessory. Microsoft hasn’t said anything about integrating the Surface Pro 4 with an LTE option, but we’d expect that to happen eventually.

surface pro 4 right Rob Schultz

The Surface Pro 4’s kickstand is easier to swing out, but otherwise remains the same.

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.

surface pro family tight crop Gordon Mah Ung

The Surface Pro 4 (left) is the latest in a long line of Surface tablets.

Next page: Surface Pro 4 setup and performance.

At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating
    $767.99 MSRP $1,300.00
    View
    on Amazon

    The combination of an Intel Skylake chip, a new Type Cover keyboard and faster SSD speed help push the Surface Pro 4 into a higher echelon of performance.

    Pros

    • New Intel Skylake processor dramatically increases performance
    • Redesigned Type Cover more closely approximates laptop keyboard
    • New Surface Dock is now semi-portable

    Cons

    • Battery life is slightly lower than Surface Pro 3
    • New Surface Pen tends to slide off tablet
    • The "curse of the missing cursor" still rears its head occasionally
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