For Christmas 2014, I picked up a Surface Pro 3 for my boys. They had been using hand me down laptops that had a battery life of about five minutes and a nasty habit of dropping the wireless connection randomly throughout the day. Whether doing homework, cutting and uploading videos to YouTube, editing photos in Photoshop, playing Garry’s Mod and Portal, or just watching Netflix, it has proven to be an outstanding family computer. After a year of the Surface Pro 3 being our primary family PC, I was excited to check out the new Surface Pro 4. We’ve been running it through its paces here at our house for the past month, and all I can say is that this is going to be the most disappointing loaner return ever.
First off, the new keyboard is fantastic. With the new Surface Pro 4 type cover, Microsoft has changed the keys and spaced them out a bit. It feels much more like a standard keyboard with the raised keys and the greater travel distance of each key (slide back and forth in the image below to compare). Moving the “Function” key to the left side of the keyboard was also an improvement, at least for me (sorry, lefties). The dual-button trackpad is much larger, and great for browsing, but you’re going to want to connect a mouse for finer detail. In fact, after connecting my wireless trackball, I was able to use the Surface Pro 4 as my main work machine using the new keyboard. Were this my machine and not a review loaner, I would definitely look into purchasing the docking station so I could use it with my dual monitor setup.
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Accompanying the new keyboard is a redesigned stylus. The two-button design has been replaced with a single button and an eraser. It’s much more intuitive for new users, but after a year of using the second button, not having it did take some getting used to. Microsoft also finally addressed the question of where to store the pen by adding an incredibly strong magnet so you can attach it to the side of the tablet. After a few dozen times in and out of my backpack, I have yet to have it fall off. Instant access to Cortana with a click of the top button is slick as well.
Speaking of Cortana, the Surface Pro 4 comes with Windows 10, and I felt like the entire experience was much smoother and cleaner than with my Surface Pro 3 running Windows 8.1. You really feel like Microsoft has embraced the duality of the Surface Pro 4 by making it work well both in tablet mode and in desktop mode. Microsoft and Intel worked closely together to tweak both Windows 10 and the 6th-gen Intel chips to make the Surface Pro 4 the most powerful tablet on the market. So powerful, in fact, that you’ll likely never go back to your old desktop or laptop again, especially if you pick up the Surface Dock.
Here are just a few things we have been doing with the Surface Pro 4:
Photography / Videography
My youngest son is a GoPro fanatic, but he has a tendency to let his videos pile up. Soon, all his micro SD cards are full and he can’t shoot again until he spends hours cutting and publishing to YouTube. Having the Surface Pro 4 right there in the living room with its integrated micro SD card reader, he can start processing his videos as soon as he walks in the door or while everyone is chilling out watching a show before bed. If he does fall behind, he can still offload the videos to the up to 1TB internal hard drive or onto a USB drive until he’s ready to begin editing. The 6th generation Intel i7 processor makes short work of even 4K videos, allowing him to upload, edit, export, and publish to YouTube all in the span of an episode of Bones.
For photographers of all skills and interests, the 12.3″ 2736 x 1824 PixelSense display of the Surface Pro 4 is a great size for mobile previews and editing. Images are rich and bright, and touching up in Photoshop with the digitizer is a dream. Most importantly, Windows 10 and the 6th gen processors work beautifully together to maximize battery life. Unless I’m doing intensive 3D renderings or complex filters on large photos, I can sit and edit photos for hours. When I do need to do processor intensive functions, the Surface Pro 4 is considerably faster than the 3 — according to Microsoft, 30% faster.
Apps and Gaming
Performance-wise, the Surface Pro 4 is more than capable of handling all but the most graphic intensive games. You can find many reviews online of people playing Minecraft, Assassin’s Creed, and even Fallout 4 after some tweaking. I really love that the kids can play video games without retreating to another room. It helps keep them engaged with the rest of the family, and I get to see exactly what’s going on.
The one downside for gaming is that you’re going to want a decent mouse, and that usually means USB. This isn’t a deal breaker, as the Surface Pro 4 has a single USB port, but it is an annoyance if, like me, you prefer to store your Steam games on an external USB hard drive. This means you either need to purchase a USB hub, reducing the portability of your setup, or switch to a less responsive bluetooth mouse.
Podcasting / Streaming / Music Production
The Surface Pro 4 makes a great broadcasting or music studio machine. It’s small enough to take into any room, and with the 8.0 megapixel rear-facing autofocus camera with 1080p HD video recording or the 5.0 megapixel front-facing HD camera, you can leave the USB port open for a high quality mic or a USB video capture card.
When I brought home the Surface Pro 3 last year, I was sure that only buying one was going to be an issue in a two teenager household. I was surprised to find that my oldest preferred doing his homework on his decrepit 7-year-old laptop. The primary reason was the keyboard. While it was miles ahead of the touch cover, the type cover was still different enough from a standard keyboard that typing errors and constantly looking back at the keyboard became a real issue. It could also be a little buggy. Folding back the keyboard and then trying to use it again would frequently make the mouse cursor disappear.
With the new keyboard, the Surface Pro 4 has become a fantastic homework machine. It’s simple to connect to a wireless printer, and all your familiar Office apps are available natively. With the high performance Intel processor the kids don’t get the frustrating lag when Alt+Tabbing back and forth between their homework and research on any number of browser tabs. OneNote or Evernote work flawlessly with the new stylus making it easier than ever to jot down, organize, and recall notes.
So, how does it compare overall to the Surface Pro 3? Despite my ravings above, it’s actually fairly close. If you already have the Surface Pro 3, there’s no compelling reason to replace it with a Surface Pro 4 as two of the biggest improvements, the stylus and the new keyboard cover, are both available for the Surface Pro 3. One significant improvement that is not available on the 3 is the new processor. For this reason alone, if you are looking to pick up a Surface Pro, I highly recommend paying the extra and jumping straight into the 4. That extra battery life and performance go a long way. I’ve also had a couple of issues with hardware on my Surface Pro 3. While Microsoft has been excellent with their warranty coverage, I still have to think that with the latest version of their flagship hardware, they’ve worked out some of these kinks.
Starting at $999 for the i5 (I’d skip the m3 version unless that’s the limit of your budget), the Surface Pro 4 does everything you could want from a tablet, and almost everything you would ever want from a computer in general. Running a full version of Windows 10 that has been specifically designed to work with the latest 6th generation Intel i5 or i7 processor, the Surface Pro 4 can handle absolutely anything you can throw at it while still offering a battery life of up to 9 hours. And with the new processors, features like 4K video and a Cortana that is actually responsive become a reality. If it’s in your budget, the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 is the perfect family computer.
The Surface Pro 4 was provided to me by Intel for review purposes. All opinions are my own. All images by Randy Slavey.