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Surface Pro 4 review: Microsoft's safer choice is a (deceptively) big upgrade


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The experience of using the Surface Pro 4 is upgraded more than its appearance is (Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

This year Microsoft not only gave us a new kind of 2-in-1 with the Surface Book, but it also launched an upgraded version of its classic 2-in-1. Join Gizmag as we review the terrific Surface Pro 4.

If you've used a Surface Pro 3, then the Pro 4 is going to look very familiar. There aren't any major size or form factor changes, and its big upgrades come in subtle – deceptively so – places. Things like a slightly bigger and sharper screen, an improved cooling system (so the fan runs less frequently) and longer battery life.

In a nice change of pace from what we see from many companies, Microsoft is sharing one of the Surface Pro 4's biggest upgrades with owners of the Surface Pro 3. The new models' Type Cover, which is backwards compatible with the SP3, has snappier-feeling keys and a larger glass trackpad. The Pro 3 was already doing pretty well in this respect, but the new keyboard cover makes laptop mode a practically uncompromised experience.

There's also a (US$30 more expensive) Type Cover with an embedded fingerprint sensor on it, but that's a better fit for Pro 3 owners than buyers of the new model. That's because the new Surfaces have a front-facing camera with facial recognition capabilities, basically voiding out any need for a fingerprint sensor.

Logging into your PC with facial recognition sounds like something out of a sci-fi flick, but it's here today and, in the Surface, it's awesome. After teaching Windows 10 to recognize you (just by staring at your screen for 20 seconds or so during the initial setup), every time you wake up your Surface Pro 4 it will log you in without your having to do a damn thing – no passwords, PINs or fingers required. It's worked 100 percent of the time for us, it's fast (just a couple of seconds is all it takes to log you in) and it's the easiest and most convenient password replacement system we've used.

The Surface Pro 4's screen is a big upgrade over the one in last year's model. The Pro 3 looked crystal-clear in laptop mode, but once you pulled it closer as a tablet, you could notice visible pixels more than you would on a tablet like the iPad Air 2. The Surface Pro 4's 267 PPI display looks every bit as sharp in tablet mode as it does as a laptop. To borrow an Apple marketing term, it's "Retina" no matter how you use it.

The Surface Pro 4's screen is also 5 percent bigger than the one on the Surface Pro 3, giving you a slightly bigger window into your content. It isn't a dramatic difference – and this alone isn't reason to upgrade – but more screen, less bezel is always a welcome change.

The Surface Pro 3 could be a noisy device at times, with its fan running pretty frequently – sometimes during the most mundane of tasks. Microsoft's new hybrid cooling system in the (Core i5 and up) Surface Pro 4 models adds liquid cooling to the mix so the fan doesn't have to kick in as much.

On our Core i5 review unit, the fans run much less frequently than they did on our Surface Pro 3, even when batch-editing RAW images in Lightroom and working with high-res images in Photoshop. Turning off Flash in web browsers is practically essential, though, or you'll hear much more whirring.

One area where we find the cooling in Apple's MacBooks to fare better is when plugged in. Even while charging, our equivalent Core i5 Retina MacBook Pro stays quiet; on a charging Surface Pro 4 we get noticeably more (and louder) fans than we do on battery power. A plugged-in, charging device will always generate more heat, but (with the same workflow) Apple's fans don't kick in nearly as often when plugged in.

The Surface Pro 4's hybrid cooling system is still, however, a huge improvement – and one of the best reasons to upgrade.

We also spent a few days with the entry-level (Core m3) Surface Pro 4, and that completely fanless model is silent as the grave. The downside there is that it's 25-28 percent slower than our Core i5 review unit (based on our Geekbench 3 results).

If your needs don't demand loads of raw horsepower, then that silent model is still a zippy machine that may suit you just fine. We were able to edit a batch of Lightroom RAW images, with Photoshop and a web browser running in the background, and it handled it all surprisingly well (not as snappy as on the i5, but completely acceptable).

Your decision comes down to a 33 percent faster (single core benchmark) to 40 percent faster (multi core) Core i5 Surface for just an extra Benjamin. As long as you can live with click-to-play Flash in your browsers, the fan and heat output situation on the Core i5 model is good enough to make its $100 difference in price worth it for most.

In our experience, battery life is another big step forward, especially in the i5 Surface. Our battery benchmark (streaming video with brightness at 75 percent and no major background apps running) has the Core i5 Surface Pro 4 only dropping 9 percent per hour – the same as the Surface Book. The Core m3 model dropped 11 percent per hour (another reason we think the second-tier model is a better choice).

Both results are improvements over the Surface Pro 3: when we reviewed it in 2014, it dropped 16 percent per hour in the same test.

There are also more subtle improvements that make the Surface Pro 4 much more enjoyable to use than its predecessor. Little details like both sides of the tablet being magnetized, so you can stash the Surface Pen on the left while it's charging on the right. Things like one edge of the pen being flat, so (when stuck to the side of the Surface) the pen is more likely to stay put while you're carrying the device around. We also experienced better palm rejection when using the pen – we haven't had any accidental touches while scribbling on the new Surfaces.

The Surface Pro 4 looks like a minor upgrade over the Surface Pro 3, but that's a little deceiving. With less (or no) fan noise, a slightly lighter build, longer battery life, facial recognition login and 10-20 percent faster performance (when comparing equivalent Core i5 models), we think SP3 owners will be very happy upgrading to either the Surface Pro 4 or Surface Book. At the very least, do yourself a favor and snag the new Type Cover for your older device – that alone is a huge upgrade for laptop mode.

We'll run a hands-on comparison between the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book before long, but the short answer is we see the SP4 as the safer, more all-purpose choice. It's several hundred dollars cheaper, there's no battery sacrifice for tablet mode and it works great as a (slightly undersized) laptop. The Surface Book, while not for everyone, is very tempting with its ultra-light tablet mode, bigger screen and more traditional laptop form factor.

Microsoft had a bold vision with its original Surface, back in 2012. Many of us nearly wrote the device off after initial battery life woes, miserable Windows Store app selection and Windows 8's clunky nature.

But Microsoft stuck with that core vision and refined it in all the right ways (on both a hardware and software level), to the point where you could easily argue that the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book are the two best laptop-ish kind of work/play mobile devices you can buy today. It's now a pleasure to both type and use the trackpad in laptop mode, and the better-then-ever Surface Pen, along with Windows 10's handwriting recognition, lets you do more in tablet mode than ever before.

The 2-in-1 is no longer a novelty; this is now a proven form factor – to the degree that Apple is launching a product that could easily be called a Surface clone. The laptop and tablet spaces are going to continue to converge, and Microsoft – a company that once looked like it missed the boat in the mobile era – was by far the single biggest driving force behind this shift to 2-in-1s. We can't wait to see what comes next.

The excellent Surface Pro 4 is available now, starting at $1,030 for the fanless Core m3 model and $1,130 for the (recommended) Core i5 model. Both of those prices include the new Type Cover keyboard, though it's still sold separately.