I’ve been warming up to the Microsoft Surface line of tablets lately. The latest version, the Surface Pro 4 (starts at $899 direct; check Amazon price), is a step in the right direction and has a few bells and whistles that might make you think twice before pre-ordering that fancy new Apple iPad Pro that comes out this month.
The Pro 4 is a tablet that acts like a laptop. It runs standard Windows apps, has a fast Intel Core processor (sixth generation) all the way up to the i7, and has a cover keyboard you can add for $130 that converts the tablet into a laptop you can use on the plane.
On paper, the Pro 4 is an incremental upgrade from the Surface Pro 3. It’s a hair thinner, a hair faster, and lasts a hair longer. In my tests, the screen on the Surface Pro 4 looks sharper and a bit more colorful, which makes sense since Microsoft says they’ve improved the display and made it a bit bigger and with a smaller bezel. (Dell is the leader in making devices with a screen that stretches all the way to the edges; the XPS 13 is still one of my favorite laptops.)
Before you split with your $899, though, there are a few things to keep in mind.
One is that the Microsoft ecosystem is a bit disjointed. With a tablet, you really want to just dive in and get content quickly, then flop down on a hotel bed and read an e-book. A tablet is all about instant intake. Windows 10 is a vast improvement in terms of touch access to apps, but you can’t quickly buy a book in the Microsoft Store (you have to use the Nook app). You can easily rent movies and watch TV shows, but the only “all you can eat” music app is not integrated into the Store, it’s a separate app called Groove. And, I’m still not seeing a wealth of touch apps in general. There’s one for Skype, Evernote, a few newspaper apps, plenty of games, and of course all of the Microsoft apps including a few that sync up with your Xbox One, but I can’t think of a single touch app that’s groundbreaking or brand new for Windows 10 and runs in tablet mode.
Another really important spec to think about is battery life. Microsoft says the new Surface Pro 4 will last about nine hours. That’s not bad for a tablet, since the iPad Air gets about ten hours per charge. But for serious business work with the cover keyboard and using the Pro 4 as a laptop, it’s not nearly as good as, say, an HP EliteBook 840. In fact, with the long-life battery option, you can squeak out about 33 hours of battery on the 840. Laptops just last longer, unless you get the super-thin “air” models. I’ve used an EliteBook on trips before and just left the charger in my office, knowing that it will last the entire time. It’s not possible on the Surface Pro 4.
This is not intended to discourage you too much. The Surface Pro 4 is a powerful tablet that acts like a laptop, and I’m becoming a fan of the idea (power and portability). I know I can load Adobe Photoshop on one and do some editing, or even play a game like Fallout 4 and expect the processing power to keep pace. There’s no way either of those scenarios will pan out on the upcoming iPad Pro. The Surface has finally edged into the realm of possibility for me since they are now thin enough for true portability and powerful enough for real work.
It’s a good reminder: The Surface Pro 4 is not as handy to use as a normal tablet, due to the lack of innovative apps and the splintered ecosystem. It’s not as long-lasting as a laptop. Whether you spring for one has more to do with whether those two factors are easy to overlook.
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