Work computers don't get much more versatile than this. Microsoft's Surface Pro 4 tablet boasts a bigger screen, better security and a much-improved keyboard compared to last year's Surface Pro 3, making it an enticing option for business users. And the Surface Pen is still an indispensable tool for serious note-takers. However, short battery life means the Surface Pro 4 might not last through the end of the workday without a recharge. Plus, with a starting price of $899 (reviewed at $1,329), it's pretty pricey compared to traditional laptops with similar specs. But despite those downsides, could this be the tablet that replaces your work laptop?
The Surface Pro 4's design will be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you want to use your work computer. Like all previous devices in the line, the Surface Pro 4 is a detachable tablet that pairs with a magnetic snap-on keyboard. The tablet is propped up by a fold-out kickstand, which can be adjusted to almost any angle. In addition, the included Surface Pen stylus snaps snugly to a magnetic strip on the tablet's left edge.
Workers who want a versatile machine will love the Surface Pro's flexible design. As a stand-alone tablet, it's perfect for jotting down notes and annotating documents with the pen. The keyboard snaps on easily for more traditional work.
But there are clear trade-offs to the system's 2-in-1 design. For one, you'll spend a little time fussing with the kickstand when you want to set up the system at a conference table or desk. Moreover, the kickstand-based design isn't very comfortable for use on your lap as a traditional laptop. At least you'll no longer have to settle for an inferior keyboard, as the Surface Pro 4's keyboard received some big upgrades over last year's model. But more on that later.
Commuters and frequent travelers will appreciate the Surface Pro 4's incredibly portable size. The machine weighs just 2.37 lbs. with the keyboard attached, making it lighter than nondetachable rivals like the Dell XPS 13 (2.9 lbs.), the HP Spectre x360 13t (3.26 lbs.) and the Apple MacBook Air (2.96 lbs.), though all of those machines have larger, 13-inch screens. The bottom line is that when I tote the Surface Pro 4 around in my work bag, I hardly notice it's there.
The Surface Pro 4 has a more limited array of ports than your average laptop. The device has a single USB 3.0 port on its right edge, alongside a mini DisplayPort adapter for connecting to monitors and projectors. On the back of the device, behind the kickstand, you'll find a microSD card reader for expanding the system's internal memory.
If you want Ethernet connectivity, additional USB ports or the ability to link the Surface Pro 4 to multiple monitors at once, you can pick up Microsoft's desktop dock, which is sold separately for a really steep price of $199.
The Surface Pro 4's 12.3-inch display can feel a bit cramped for split-screen multitasking, but its superhigh resolution mostly mitigates that issue. Microsoft actually managed to increase the size of the Surface Pro 3's 12-inch display without increasing the tablet's overall size by decreasing the width of the bezel around the screen. Still, a 13-inch display like the one on Dell's XPS 13 is slightly more comfortable to work on.
Size aside, the Surface Pro 4's display, which boasts a superhigh resolution of 2736 x 1824 pixels, looks gorgeous. Text is crisp, images are colorful and clear, and the screen is really bright, topping out at 382 nits. That outshines competing notebooks like the Spectre x360 (339 nits) and the Satellite Radius 12 (338 nits).
I already mentioned that the Surface Pro 4 has a magnetic strip along one edge, which provides a handy place to stow the pen when it's not in use. That's an issue that most pen-equipped tablets, including Apple's iPad Pro, have yet to address.
The Surface Pen feels better than ever, thanks to a few key changes from last year's model. For starters, it offers four times the pressure sensitivity, which makes writing notes on the tablet's display feel smoother and more accurate.
However, the new rubbery eraser nub at the top of the pen is probably the best addition. The nub lets you flip over the pen to erase stray strokes, in the same way you would with traditional paper and a pencil. Likewise, the pen's tip also has a more rubbery feel, which provides a bit of extra resistance as you write on the screen. It feels much better than the hard plastic tip on most styluses.
Keyboard and trackpad
The Surface Pro 4's snap-on keyboard is still sold separately for $130, but it's mandatory for anyone who wants to do any real work. Compared to last year's model, the new keyboard has been improved in a couple of important ways. First, the keys themselves offer a more laptoplike typing experience because they're better spaced and offer deeper key travel with each stroke. In addition, the trackpad is larger and more sensitive, so it should be much more comfortable for extended work sessions than the Surface Pro 3's puny trackpad.
Finally, Microsoft is releasing a version of the keyboard with an embedded fingerprint scanner, which should provide a nice security boost for workers, though I didn't have a chance to test it out for this review. That keyboard costs $30 more than the standard model.
Nonetheless, the Surface Pro 4's built-in 3D camera might make fingerprint scanners redundant.
The tablet's front camera can reliably identify users, letting you log in just by looking at the device.
Microsoft calls the system Windows Hello, and security experts say it's even more secure than a fingerprint or password. The camera can't be fooled by a photo, and it even works in the dark, thanks to a built-in infrared sensor. I tried it out and found that the tablet quickly recognized me each time I powered it on, delivering me to my desktop in just a few moments.
While frequent travelers will love the Surface Pro 4's lightweight design, they won't be thrilled by its substandard battery life. The device ran for a disappointing 6 hours and 5 minutes on our battery test, which simulates continuous Web browsing over Wi-Fi.
That's not the worst we've seen, though. Toshiba's Satellite Radius 12 lasted a paltry 5 hours and 17 minutes on the same test. But other hybrids performed much better, including the HP Spectre x360 (9:28). The MacBook Air is still the battery-life king, though, running for an epic 14 hours on the same battery test. However, that system has a lower-res display and lacks 2-in-1 functionality.
I didn't notice any slowdown while using the Surface Pro 4, even during heavy multitasking. My review unit came equipped with a 2.4-GHz Intel Core i5-6300 processor with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of solid-state-drive storage. The system sped along just fine while I edited a large spreadsheet with HD video streaming in the background and about a dozen tabs open in my Firefox Web browser.
It racked up a very good score of 6,811 on the Geekbench 3 benchmark test, which measures overall performance. That easily beats most rivals, including the 13-inch MacBook Air (5,783), the Toshiba Satellite Radius 12 (5,779) and the HP Spectre x360 (4,037).
The Surface Pro 4 also fared very well on our spreadsheet test, matching 20,000 names with their addresses in 4 minutes and 11 seconds. That's significantly faster than the Spectre x360 (5:04) and the Satellite Radius 12 (5:34).
Microsoft sells the Surface Pro 4 in a range of hardware configurations. The baseline model comes equipped with a low-power Intel Core m3 processor with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of SSD storage, for $899. That's speedy enough to handle basic business tasks, but heavy multitaskers will want to opt for higher specs.
Our midrange review unit is the sweet spot for most business users, in my opinion. It comes with an Intel Core i5 processor with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, for $1,199.
The top-end model has a speedier Core i7 CPU with 16GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, for $1,799.
Remember that none of these configurations comes with the keyboard; that accessory is always sold separately for an extra $130.
The Surface Pro 4 is a supremely versatile work machine. It's easy to detach the keyboard when you want a canvas for taking notes and to reattach it when you want to get down to serious work. The keyboard and stylus accessories have seen big improvements over last year's model, and new security features are a big benefit for business users. Plus, the Surface Pro 4's lightweight design makes it ideal for commuters.
However, there are three main reasons to pass on this premium 2-in-1. First, its short battery life could be a deal breaker for people who work away from their desk. Second, its kickstand-based design makes it awkward to balance on your lap while you type. And finally, at $1,329 for the midrange model and keyboard, it's pretty pricey compared to more traditional notebooks that offer comparable performance.
On the other hand, those might be small trade-offs for such a flexible work computer.