Surface Pro 4: Everything you need to know

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The Surface Pro 4 is a tablet that at minimum roars, and if you go the max, screams. All models have a 12.3-inch brilliant display featuring 10-point touch sensing. There’s an accelerometer for motion detection along with a gyroscope. It senses ambient light, although we found that dim light can cause it to flicker.

You get two cameras, one on the rear that does 8 megapixels and 1080p video recording with shake control. The front side is 5 megapixels; neither has a flash. There are stereo mics and stereo speakers with Dolby. A standard 3.5mm headphone jack is standard, as is Bluetooth 4.0 (up to a 100m of range on a good day with no interfering objects in between devices).

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You can connect it with its full-size USB3 jack, or via a Mini DisplayPort jack. There’s a Surface Connect port on the bottom, which in the dark, serves as an easy, “this is the normal bottom” indicator. The display smoothly flips in rotation. Spinning it doesn’t make it dizzy.

It weighs almost nothing, between 1.69 and 1.73 pounds, depending on the model. It has a very thin chassis, with an easel pull-out stand. No keyboard is included. Although any Bluetooth keyboard should work, we recommend spending the $129 for the Surface 4 keypad. It fits well although it’s not super-well balanced for weight. (Watch Network World's Surface Pro 4 tips and tricks.)

There are three chip options: in-town driving with Intel’s M3 chipset, freeway speeds with i5 Intel, and in-need-of-radar detection with Intel’s i7. We wonder how these three chipsets could run so fast in such a slim case. We never felt any real warmth from the case, even when pushing the Surface Pro 4.

It’s all solid state inside. “Disk” storage—actually SSD storage—comes in denominations of 128, 256, 512, and 1024GB (1TB). You get Wi-Fi any way you want it—no phone carrier connectivity is included. The warranty is one year.

Here’s our detailed evaluation of the Surface Pro 4, broken down by the role that you may be using it for: power user, game player, developer or artist. The Surface Pro 4 has something for you in any of these roles, and you’ll pay for it. Prices start at $899 and climb to over $2,000. We tested with an $1,800 version sporting the i7 chipset, 8GB of user memory, and 512GB of storage.

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The three items we feel you’re paying for in terms of value are: 1) overall speed and storage 2) the brilliant display, look-and-touch and its pen control and 3) the thin, light form factor.

Based on our benchmarks, the Surface Pro 4 running Intel’s i7-based chipset performed twice as fast as any notebook, phone or tablet we’ve ever tested.

The Power User

Even though you bought the high-end options, 16GB of memory and a terabyte of storage, your Surface Pro 4 weighs roughly the same as the least-provisioned version. As a power user, you definitely need the optional $129 keyboard. But it’s going to be worth it. You’re going to have world-class speed, whether from the local Wi-Fi network, or from the i7’s native speed, which tested far faster than any of the business-class tablets in our March 2015 review.

Our previous winner—a Durabook with an i5 chipset, did the SunSpider Javascript benchmark in 126 milliseconds, and the i7 chipset inside the Surface Pro 4 does it in 93 milliseconds. That’s also less than half the time needed by an Apple MacBook Air with a slower i7 chipset with the same specs.

We tested the included Surface Pro 4 pen, and even the lefties in the room liked it. You’ll want it for taking notes instead of filling up endless yellow pads. This is important if you don’t want to cart the keyboard with you, as the pen is mightier than the keyboard. You’re going to need to train the pen and its character recognition software. It learns.

Inside all models is Windows 10. It can recognize your face, which you’ll want, because it shuts off after 15 minutes of inactivity; there is no “on-forever” mode. Hold it up and boom, you’re back online. It integrates easily with an Active Directory infrastructure, or with Office365 or Google online apps.

Salespeople will also get much dazzle from their larger-than-an-iPad screen. In terms of battery life, we watched just over six hours of Netflix with other tasks in the background before the batteries were exhausted. Used conservatively, it can last almost a day. It consumes 22 watts using the charger.

The charger, however, has a short tangle-prone cable. In most useful positions, it is plugged in up-and-away from the unit, not perpendicular to the unit, or underneath. We judged the charger, which will be used perhaps every day, as the least ergonomic feature of the entire kit.

The viewing angle is fairly wide, which in a presentation, is good, but on an airline might be bad. It’s not a 4K/UHD display, but we found it better than other tablets we’ve used to view videos. It’s really beautiful, and a rival of the Retina screen technology, in our opinion. Next year, we expect UHD.

Then there is the Pen. The Pen is included with all Surface Pro 4s, and is connected via Bluetooth 4. It doesn’t need to actually touch the surface of the pad to allow precise cursor positioning. It requires only a small bit of user training to improve its character recognition accuracy. People who use a character resembling a backwards “3” for the letter “E” will need to spend a moment to permit the character recognition to utilize its learning capability to increase accuracy. Once trained a bit, cursive writers—especially with penmanship that was reasonable to start, will find it like a yellow-pad for taking notes, minus the inevitable smudges that come from wanting to wrest a hand. The correct position, of course, is to let lines automatically scroll-up for you. Office 365 knows what to do.

The Gamer

If you’re a hefty subscriber to role-playing games and take no prisoners, you’re smiling because the Surface Pro 4 potentially packs a huge amount of processing into a very thin and portable space.

Yes, the display will appeal to you, because you want bright, vivid, and comparatively little glare. Don’t even think about the M3 or i5 chipsets -- it’s the i7 all the way.

But gamers might growl at the lap-unfriendly optional keyboard. It will stay attached to the Surface Pro 4 very well, but the weight balance is all wrong unless the easel stand is used, and the rubber surfaces may or may not agree with a typist’s attack angle. This effect seems to become exacerbated when using the trackpad, and the trackpad can be key in some RPGs. It’s rubbery surface has good and rapid finger positioning, but seems to lack (pardon the unscientific nomenclature) the right feel for rapid keyboard-to-trackpad cursor positioning. It’s not awful. Someone will accessorize this.

The Intel Chipset you’ll use with the i7 contains Intel Iris Graphics. It’s fast, somewhat generic in compatibility, and no, not the latest nVidia kit. Think about it: there’s no room. The LED light persistence is low, and the display is very crisp. Ultra-graphics intensive competitions may be won by much heftier systems, but you’ll have a good showing.

The upside is that Bluetooth 4 headsets pair easily with the Surface Pro 4, and with an SSD atop 8 or more GB of memory and the i7 chipset, performance (competitively speaking-- for perhaps a year or so) will not be your problem. Wi-Fi goes at full speed, and works with any 802.11 protocol up to and including 802.11ac. It’s not the ultimate gamer machine, but you needn’t apologize for it. Start killing orcs now.

The Developer

Your day is: Git. Fetch. Edit. Compile. Test. Swear. Run it in the hypervisor. Coffee. NetFlix while it’s running in the cloud. Test again. Document if you must. If time is money, you, too, are in the SP4 with an i7 chipset, along with enough room for whichever virtual machine images you need. It’s 16GB for you, and the terabyte drive. The small package and huge sized display mean grab-and-go-and-compile.

Here’s where the SSDs become even more lovely: no disk noise, rapid access time on read I/Ops—but also on write I/Ops. Compile, link, while listening to music or watching a video—and the i7 Intel chipset provides lots of muscularity. You can bog the SP4 by saturating network bandwidth, or using apps with huge memory swapping behavior, like watching a high-res video whilst rendering another video, we found. It’s rather tough to do, however, provided sufficient network piping.

To keep your machine and code more secure, you can use Microsoft’s front-facing camera and Hello, an authentication app that’s buried in the Settings>Accounts>Sign-in Options. This app has nothing to do with the other Windows Hello apps found on the web, it’s simply a feature of the security setting. Once trained, it automatically unlocks the SF4 if it recognizes your face, and Hello isn’t on any of the menus, although Microsoft teases its capabilities on its website. Can Hello be fooled? Thankfully, not easily. We tried a comparatively high-res print out of our face to see if it could be fooled. Hint: darker pics in darker ambient lighting environments have a small chance.

Maybe you’ll like the optional $129 keyboard—it’s fine on flat surfaces, like an actual desk. In your lap as you’re by the pool? Still OK if you’re stationery and using the easel stand. Wi-Fi? Great, even if the access point is far away and it’s an 802.11n in the high range or better still, 802.11ac.

But there’s an odd problem with the keyboard. When using the touch keyboard, if one touches the shift key, one expects the next letter typed to be in upper case—but it’s not—unless you press the shift “key” on the screen whilst doing so. This is disconcerting, and contrary to most behavior. We were sufficiently stunned to look to see if this was just a silly default settings behavior problem—but it's not. You must press the shift key as though it were a typewriter.

You’ll also want to change the default screen brightness from automatic if you are using the SP4 in a somewhat dim ambient light environment. Failing to do so, causes a strange flickering of the display’s brightness.

And you’ll want to turn off AutoPlay, which is on by default—unless you don’t mind a newly attached drive attempting to take over the machine.

Underneath Windows 10, there’s Hyper-V 3, unless you want to use VMware or Parallels or even VirtualBox. We tried all three. The SSD gives them a kick. All this said, it still takes a lifetime 18 seconds to come out of sleep, and less than a minute for a full-on boot. Yes, you’ll growl when it doesn’t know which user to log you in as, necessitating minor grumbling if the PIN you chose doesn’t work for some reason—like it’s the wrong one for the wrong logged-in user.

The Artist

You’re different. Use any chipset selection. Get a fat disk. Take pictures. Or not.

The pen is your friend, as are the multi-touch surfaces. The pen let’s you take shapes you like, outline them, or use them as guides for artistic endeavor. Photoshop can make rapid objects, and the pen can be used to manipulate them, although you’ll find yourself doing crazy key combinations to do rapid effects editing.

The accuracy of cursor placement with the pen is very good. Unlike styluses that fit inside a tablet unit, championed by Palm Fujitsu, and others, the Pen is an active device. It invites users to move objects around, or to highlight objects. It has some smarts, including understanding a few diacritical and editor’s strokes.

The default line it uses is fat, but this can be remedied and worked around if need be. You don’t have to touch the surface, and your Pen holding posture becomes almost a wand. It can move objects around nicely, and this is helpful, as the Surface Pro 4’s Windows 10 implementation doesn’t quite have context mode sensitivity totally nailed down.

Take as an example, a Samsung running Android. If a textbox appears, so does the keyboard. This doesn’t necessarily happen on the SP4’s Windows 10. Occasionally, and more often than necessary, we feel, the keyboard has to be invoked. Autocomplete helps this, as many common blanks are auto-filled, especially on web pages.

Overall

There are many roles for the Surface Pro 4. It’s not inexpensive, but it’s extraordinarily light and can be very, very fast for its ultra-slim dimensions and weight. The keyboard ought to come in the box as a bundle. The Pen is more useful than we’d imagined, and its vivid display and serious performance work well. The Surface Pro 4 models are almost as much about style as their large substance, and substantial price.

Tom Henderson runs ExtremeLabs, in Bloomington, Ind. He can be reached at kitchen-sink@extremelabs.com.

This story, "Surface Pro 4: Everything you need to know" was originally published by Network World.

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