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Surface Pro 4 Review: a step (or 1,024) forward

Surface Pro 4 Review: a go-anywhere drawing solution

by Tablets for Artists

microsoft surface pro 4 with surface pen

Type of Tablet

Convertible 2-in-1

The Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book (read our review) have arrived on the scene to a great deal of fanfare. Some artists who already have a Surface Pro 3 may be wondering if it’s worth getting the 4. Others may be trying to decide between the SP4 and the pricier Book.

The SP4 can become a laptop when you add the optional (purchased separately) Type Cover; it’s a tablet-first device, whereas the Book is a laptop-first device. The Pro 4 and the Book have the same screen resolution, a very high 271 ppi, though the Book’s screen is larger. Both the SP4 and Book are built from magnesium alloy and come in just one color, a silvery gray, though the SP4’s Type Cover adds a splash of color, with 6 colors. Only the Onyx (black) has the fingerprint sensor, though, to give you that Get Smart cred.

UPDATE: There have been many reports of short battery life and other issues and this takes a bit of glow off the Surface Pro 4 review, which would otherwise be very positive. The last updates issued by Microsoft were Dec. 2 and Dec. 17, which fixed some issues but not the power management. They did suggest a workaround, which you can read here, which is to put it into hibernate instead of sleep mode. Also, Windows Hello facial recognition drains the battery  and may be to blame for the issues. You can say bye-bye to Hello by turning it off in Settings> Accounts > Sign-in options. Will be following these issues and updating further.

UPDATE #2: Microsoft issued a Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book firmware update on Jan. 27, 2016. This one improves battery charging, Bluetooth, and the fingerprint sensor. Apparently it improves the sleep bug (the battery drain issue) but does not completely fix it. You should receive a notification on your device, and follow instructions. They should automatically install, but if you’re doing it manually, go to Settings > Update & Security > Windows Update > Check for updates and follow the steps.

UPDATE #3: Microsoft released a slew (16!) updates in April, 2016, which apparently have corrected issues with screen flickering and waking up from sleep or hibernation, and other issues. Guess the early adopters were really beta testers. Anyway, it’s considerably improved. Note that they do not install all at once after you update.

List of updates at the Microsoft update page.

Specifications

Windows 10 Pro
Display: 12.3″
Digitizer: N-Trig
Screen Resolution: 2736 x 1824 pixels (271 ppi)
Processor: 6th-generation Intel Core i5; i7; entry-level model has Intel Core M3
RAM:  4 GB, 8GB, or 16GB
Hard Drive: models with 128 GB, 256 GB, 512 GB, and1 TB
Ports: one USB 3.0, MicroSD slot
Core M3 model is fanless; others have hybrid cooling system
Kickstand allows posing at any angle
Glass trackpad 40% larger than SP3
8 MP rear camera, 5 MP front (SP3 had 5MP for both)
new Surface Pen and nib kit included
Pen has 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity
graphics are all integrated, no discrete
Keyboard has fingerprint sensor (only the Onyx/black color)
weight 1.76 lbs. (786 g) tablet only; 2.44 lbs. including Type Cover and pen

What’s in the Box

Surface Pro 4
Surface Pen
Power Supply
Quick Start Guide
Safety and warranty documents

Surface Pro 4 vs. Surface Pro 3

As you can see, the Surface Pro 4’s screen is a bit bigger; its screen resolution is quite a bit higher, and it still manages to be a little lighter. Microsoft’s PixelSense screen is a mere 400 microns thick and uses Gorilla Glass 4; the Surface Pro 3 used Gorilla Glass 3 and did not have PixelSense, which pushes the optics closer to the screen. The footprint is the same on the SP4 and SP3, as is the 3:2 aspect ratio, which resembles a sheet of drawing paper. This aspect ratio, which emulates the Golden Mean, is generally better to draw on than the 16:9 tablets. The pen now magnetically snaps to either side of the tablet, instead of using a pen loop.

There is also no Start button on the tablet bezel in the SP4; there was in the SP3, but it’s less useful in Windows 10.

Here is a Surface Pro 3 vs. Surface Pro 4 comparison chart.

FeaturesSurface Pro 4Surface Pro 3Difference 
Dimensions11.5 by 7.93 by 0.33 inches11.5 x 7.93 x 0.36 inchessame
Thickness8.5 mmSP3 9.1SP4: 7% thinner
Screen size12.3"12"SP4: 5% larger
DigitizerN-trig, 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivityN-trig, 256 levels of pressure sensitivitySP4: 4x as pressure-sensitive
Resolution2736 x 1824
(4,990,464 pixels)
2,160 x 1,440
(3,110,400 pixels)
SP4: 60% more pixels
Screen ppi (pixels per inch)271ppi213 ppiSP4: 27% denser
ProcessorIntel gen. 6Intel gen. 4SP4: 30% faster
Weight (tablet only)1.69 lbs, 767g - Core M
1.73 lbs, 786g - i5 and i7
1.76 lbs, 798 gSP4: slightly lighter (4% for Core M, 2.5% for Core i5and i7)

 

surface pro 4 review

Surface Pro 4 with Surface Pen

The Surface Pro 4 with i5 with 128 or 256 GB of flash storage would be fine for most artists who use Photoshop or the whole Adobe Suite. But if you use really resource-intensive programs, then the i7 is better. For instance, Autocad 3D requires the i7.

The Book has an option with dedicated NVIDIA GeForce graphics, good for gaming or getting a boost in Photoshop performance.

Battery Life

9 hours of video for the 8GB Ram i5 with 256 GB storage

Portability

At 1.76 pounds, it’s very portable. If you add on the Type Cover (.64 lbs./292 g) and pen (21 g) then you get about 2.43 lbs., still not a bad load.

 

Surface Pen

surface pen surface book

The new Surface Pen for Surface Pro 4 (see it on Amazon) snaps to the sides of the tablet via magnets, unlike the Surface Pro 3 and earlier Surfaces which had a pen loop. The pen is much improved, now enabling 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity. Not only that, but it has its own nib kit , which has 4 tips that simulate artist pencil leads of HB (preinstalled), H, 2bB B, and a fine-point pen. The nib kit does not come with the pen that comes with the tablet. You can buy it separately (it’s inexpensive) or, if you buy an additional pen, the kit is included. The pen that comes with the Surface Pro 4 has a silver barrel, but the additional pens come in other colors.

The pencil leads have some friction and give some bite, somewhat like drawing on paper. Another boon is that you can buy a nib kit if your nibs wear down or get lost. The pen also has an eraser tip that feels cushiony. The previous pen had two buttons, one of which activated the eraser, but this new one has just one, which can open OneNote or Cortana, or take a screenshot if you double-click the button. Microsoft says the new pen has reduced latency–perhaps it won’t go into sleep mode when not touching the screen, so will be faster. The digitizer is N-trig, connected by Bluetooth, and takes an AAA battery that Microsoft says lasts a year. The pen itself (the barrel, not talking about inking) comes in 5 colors.

surface pen nib kit

new Surface Pen nib kit

Compare this to the previous Surface Pen, which delivered 256 levels of pressure sensitivity. Its single, preinstalled nib would wear out quickly and was not replaceable, forcing you to buy another pen. So if you’re ready to buy one, the new Surface Pen is the right choice. The new pen is backward compatible with the Surface Pro 3, though you’d still get 256 levels of pressure sensitivity, not the 1,024 of the Surface Pro 4 or Surface Book.

For some images and discussion of drawing with the Surface Pro 4 pen, and a comparison with Wacom pens, please see this review of the Surface Book. Here’s an image of the line from one of the pen tips. You can change the canvases as well as the brushes in your art program to get different effects with the different tips.

While this is cool, there are many, many brushes available for Photoshop and you can get any effect. Depending on your screen, though, you might not get the little “bite” of friction that the pencil nibs offer.

.surfacepentiptestBtip

 

Type Cover

surface pro 4 type cover

Surface Pro 4 Type Cover

The Type Cover has been redesigned and is also backward-compatible with Surface Pro 3. It has dedicated buttons for Windows shortcuts, media controls, and screen brightness. The Type Cover comes in 6 colors, and is lighter and slimmer than its predecessor. The keys are now spaced apart and have better travel for faster and more comfortable typing. The keys are sturdier than on the last version, and the keyboard has a better magnetic connection to the tablet part. The trackpad with 5-point multitouch is 40% larger, and now made of glass. You can fold back the cover so you can still use the tablet while it’s connected, or fold it over the tablet to protect the screen. The keys are backlit.

Only the Onyx (black) Type Cover uses Windows Hello, a fingerprint ID system that lets you log in to the computer and shop in the App Store. It costs a bit more than the non-fingerprint ID Type Covers (there is also a non-fingerprint-ID Onyx Type Cover). The Onyx fingerprint Type Cover can be pre-ordered from the Microsoft Store here.

surface dock for surface pro 4

Surface Dock

Surface Dock

The Surface Dock is optional. It can be used with the Surface Pro 3, Surface Pro 4, and Surface Book. It provides two additional ports: four USB 3.0 ports, and two 4K-capable DisplayPort outputs. The slender Surface Book lacks an Ethernet port, but the dock provides one. This can come in handy when traveling in places without steady Wi-fi.

Pros

new Surface Pen and nibs
faster processor
many configurations
hybrid cooling system (or fanless on the Core M) quieter

Cons

Still not ideal as a laptop replacement, due to top-heaviness
Opinions divided on N-trig

The Verdict

If you like N-trig, then this is a very promising computer with great specs for speed, a display that’s high-resolution with high contrast for deep blacks, lightweight, and it can do double duty as a laptop, though the Type Cover doesn’t feel as solid as a traditional laptop. For now, though there are still battery drain issues to be fixed, the workaround should provide release. Even taking that into account, this Surface Pro 4 review is mostly positive, and this sleek machine opens a new chapter in the Surface Pro story.

See more info or order from the Microsoft store

 

The iPad Pro is a competitor to the Surface Pro 4. Read our iPad Pro review.

end of Surface Pro 4 review