Microsoft Surface Pro 4: Australian Review

Microsoft’s Surface division is under siege. In the four years after the Redmond giant got the idea of making the world’s best convertible, it has had the field almost entirely to itself. Now, heading into 2016, the Surface is surrounded by its competition, fighting for dominance at every price point. Is the Surface Pro 4 a big enough stick to beat back the opposition?

What Is It?

The fourth iteration of Microsoft’s convertible tablet/laptop replacement, complete with the now-iconic infinite kickstand and magnetic smart cover.

This year’s Surface runs Windows 10 out of the box, and is designed from the ground up to be the new flagship Microsoft experience. It has a nifty depth-sensing camera alongside the front-facing camera for Windows Hello facial recognition login, and dual-microphone design for supposedly interference-free interaction with its new digital assistant, Cortana.

The Surface Pro 4 has a base spec that includes the Intel Core m3 processor, 128GB SSD and 4GB of RAM for $1349. There are five other models in the range, all with Intel Core i processors based on the Skylake family, ranging all the way up to a meaty Core i7 model for $3399.

Here’s the full range:

• Surface Pro 4 w/ Intel Core m3, 128GB SSD, 4GB RAM: $1349
• Surface Pro 4 w/ Intel Core i5, 128GB SSD, 4GB RAM: $1499
• Surface Pro 4 w/ Intel Core i5, 256GB SSD, 8GB RAM: $1999
• Surface Pro 4 w/ Intel Core i7, 256GB SSD, 8GB RAM: $2499
• Surface Pro 4 w/ Intel Core i7, 256GB SSD, 16GB RAM: $2799
• Surface Pro 4 w/ Intel Core i7, 512GB SSD, 16GB RAM: $3399

You’ll be able to pick up the Surface Pro 4 from the Microsoft Online Store and the new flagship retail store in Sydney from 12 November.

What’s Good?

I feel like we start every Surface review with this point, but it bears repeating: Microsoft really know how to put a screen on a tablet. The Surface Pro 4 with its 12.3-inch (2736×1824) display is gorgeous. It’s bright, sharp and reproduces colours incredibly well. Microsoft want this new Surface to be for professionals and artists, which is a huge ask. It’s easy to just throw any old display at a laptop or convertible for people in an office, but Microsoft shoots for insanely accurate colour reproduction, and doesn’t miss.

I’m not the only one who thinks so, either. Dr Raymond Soniera and his team at DisplayMate Labs have called the Surface Pro 4 one of the most accurate tablet displays ever.

From his analysis:

Based on our extensive lab tests and measurements on the display for the Surface Pro 4, Microsoft has produced an excellent professional grade high performance display for Windows that breaks a number of LCD tablet performance records. In fact, the Surface Pro 4 has one of the very best and most accurate displays available on any mobile platform and OS. It joins near the top of a small set of tablets that have excellent top tier displays — ideal for professionals that need a very accurate high performance display for their work, and for consumers that want and appreciate a really nice and beautiful display.

In addition, what is particularly significant and impressive is that Microsoft has systematically improved every display performance metric over the already excellent Surface Pro 3, including the display’s maximum brightness, contrast ratio, absolute colour accuracy, viewing angle performance, and with lower screen reflectance, resulting in much better performance in ambient light.

The Surface Pro 4 delivers uniformly consistent all around top tier display performance: it is only one of a few displays to ever to get all green (very good to excellent) ratings in all test and measurement categories (except for brightness variation with viewing angle, which is the case for all LCDs) since we started the Display Technology Shoot-Out article series in 2006, an impressive achievement for a display. See the Shoot-Out Comparison Table for the detailed test and measurement results.


Microsoft has worked hard not only to improve the display of the Surface Pro for the fourth iteration, but it has also worked to boost the effectiveness of the Surface Pen. It’s a smarter bit of kit these days thanks to a few design improvements that have made it easier to hold and use to write and draw on the PixelSense display, but Microsoft still hasn’t figured out a great way to store it. The Pen Loop on the Surface Pro 3’s Type Cover sure looked ugly, but it kept the Pen in place better than the magnetised clip on the left-hand side of the tablet. As soon as you put this thing in your bag, the Pen is coming off the side of your device and you’ll be rummaging for it later.

One thing that has improved in leaps and bounds over the last model, however, is the Type Cover: Microsoft’s now iconic clip-on keyboard attachment. The Type Cover now has spaced out keys (thank God) which are a real joy to work with. The Type Cover has been better with every generation, but you always had to take care not to activate two keys at once when your fingers flew across the deck.

Now that the mechanical keys are all spaced out, it’s much better to type on at speed, feeling just like a traditional laptop keyboard. The biggest improvement on the Type Cover comes from its the integrated glass trackpad, which is now enormous compared to previous models. The trackpad always felt like an afterthought on the Surfaces Pro of old, but now it’s large and in charge.

One of the most interesting things about the Surface Pro 4 is how Microsoft has not only gone back to the idea of a vented cooling, but how it managed to reintegrate the fan system while still making the chassis thinner than the previous, fanless Surface 3. The Surface Pro 4 with its vented fan system is 8.38mm thick, while the fanless Surface 3 is 8.63mm. It’s a miniscule difference (and really makes you think about how thin this thing would be without its fan), but it shows that Microsoft really took care while designing it so as not to go back to the massively thick chassis of the Surface Pro 2. The cooling system works well to keep everything ticking along, but it’s worth mentioning you do get an unusually loud fan noise from the unit whenever it spins up. If your significant other is a light sleeper, don’t use the Surface Pro 4 in bed.

The Surface Pro 4 comes with Windows 10 out of the box, and it’s a joy to use here. You don’t get any third-party bloatware slowing your roll, and all the flagship experiences are front-and-centre to show off the best the new operating system has to offer. You get your dual-microphone array for Cortana (which I couldn’t get working for some reason), as well as an infrared, depth-sensing camera for Windows Hello. It’s a facial recognition feature that lets you unlock your machine just by looking at it.

Hello takes a bit of setting up to get it working, but to cut down on errors, it’s worth sitting right in front of your machine where you use it most. For me, it’s in the office, so doing it under our insane fluorescent lights means that it recognised me best.

Windows 10 is also kind to the battery on the Surface Pro 4. We got 7 hours out of the Surface Pro 4 with moderate use, which is just enough to get you through a workday. You may be scrambling for a powerpoint around 4pm, but there are a heap of energy-saving features you can engage to sip power for that last 60 minutes. And while 7 hours isn’t by any means industry-leading, it’s the best battery result we’ve ever got out of a Surface Pro, so that’s something to celebrate.

What’s Not So Good?

I don’t know what it is about the way Microsoft builds the Surface, but every time a new one ships it seems to do so with buggy-as-hell Wi-Fi. Previous iterations of the Surface have had a Wi-Fi module that hogs battery, others have had general niggles and bugs, and this one is no different.

The Surface Pro 4’s Wi-Fi is the buggiest I’ve ever seen on a Microsoft convertible. It drops network connectivity constantly, can’t find a single network you want when you go to reconnect, and generally just drives you wild with its inconsistencies.

These are day one issues that will only really plague early-adopters, and I’m sure there’s already a fix coming from Redmond (there always is), but Surface Wi-Fi has been so bad for so long it now bears mentioning in the review.

The Wi-Fi also takes a pretty measurable toll on your battery, too. Even when the network adapter is disconnected from an access point, merely having the module activated costs you an obscene amount of power. At 50 per cent brightness with Airplane Mode activated and a single Chrome tab open, you’ll get a respectable six hours out of the Surface Pro 4. Turn on the Wi-Fi module, however, and that time is sliced down by two hours. Four hours of battery is honestly what we’ve come to expect from previous Surface tablets, but it’s insane that using basic features on a machine made this year costs you so much power.

It’s unkind to compare it to the MacBook Air (the design is completely different, allowing for more batteries), but its 10+ hour battery life promise is one that Microsoft really needs to try and adhere to with these flagship devices. Don’t get me wrong: the battery is still better than anything we’ve seen in a Surface Pro before, but it’s nowhere near perfect yet.

While we’re almost unfairly comparing the Surface Pro 4 to other devices, it’s worth talking about the price. The Surface starts at $1349 this year. That’s for the Intel Core m3 model with its 128GB SSD and 4GB of RAM. From there, you get the choice of five other SKUs, all with Intel Core processors. Here’s the full range again (because screw scrolling up):

• Surface Pro 4 w/ Intel Core m3, 128GB SSD, 4GB RAM: $1349
• Surface Pro 4 w/ Intel Core i5, 128GB SSD, 4GB RAM: $1499
• Surface Pro 4 w/ Intel Core i5, 256GB SSD, 8GB RAM: $1999
• Surface Pro 4 w/ Intel Core i7, 256GB SSD, 8GB RAM: $2499
• Surface Pro 4 w/ Intel Core i7, 256GB SSD, 16GB RAM: $2799
• Surface Pro 4 w/ Intel Core i7, 512GB SSD, 16GB RAM: $3399

You have to hand it to Microsoft for creating a range of products to cater to almost every niche. The $1349 Core m3 model is for students and casual users, the $1499 Core i5 model comes in for the working professional, and the rest of the line is for those needing a little more grunt or proper power and storage for creative work. The offering could always be simplified, but for now, it’s good.

The problem hits home when you start to compare the laptops and convertibles Microsoft is competing against across the various categories. For example, $1349 is expensive for a student’s machine, especially one that’s packing a Core m3 processor and not the Core i5 that the competition may be rocking. The Apple MacBook Air, HP Pavillion x360 and other cheaper, less powerful machines are all much better choices for students when you consider that the price tops out at around $1100 in the category. Hell, even Microsoft’s own Surface 3 is better value than the Intel Core m3-powered Surface Pro 4.

The $1499-$1999 models are great, but again, when compared with competing OEM devices designed for business folk on the go, you realise that no IT manager in their right mind would spend $2000 per seat for a single piece of equipment. Not unless they had that sweet Silicon Valley money, they wouldn’t.

It becomes more of an issue moving up the line, too. I’d argue that most of the creative types Microsoft is trying to woo with the Pro 4 wouldn’t be prepared to part with a Mac just for the sake of portability and a touchscreen. Think of it this way, they can split the difference between having a touchscreen and Fifty-Three Pencil on their iPad tablet, and porting their designs to their MacBook Pro or MacBook Air and still come out with change to spare when compared to the $2499 and upwards Surface Pro 4.

At the absolute top of the tree — the $3399 Core i7 model — the proposition becomes almost entirely bonkers. The only people you could probably persuade to buy this one is gamers, and even then they’re setting themselves up for disappointment. The Pro 4 is just as average for gaming as its older counterparts were thanks to integrated Intel Iris graphics. Dedicated graphics cards only arrive on the Surface Book slated to come out at the same time as the Pro 4, and that packs a price that puts Surface in the shade.

The gaming performance on the Surface Pro 4 is acceptable for games that don’t have a demanding frame rate (think Cities: Skyline or older games like Half Life 2 and you’re there), but gamers would be much better off pouring their cash into a Razer or Alienware machine instead.

So at just about every price point, the Surface Pro 4 is too expensive. And that sucks.

Should You Buy It?

The Surface was always a weird proposition.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

Price: from $1349

  • Beautiful display.
  • Amazing all-round performance.
  • Great Windows Hello face recognition.
Don’t Like
  • Iterative updates from Pro 3.
  • Tabletesque keyboard.
  • Premium price tag.

A company that makes the world’s most popular operating system and sells it out to the OEM crowd decides to throw acid in the face of its business relationships and start making its own hardware. The reason? It wanted to show people what should be done with Windows. Translation: our partners have kind of half-arsed it a lot of the time. Here’s Redmond’s sizzling hot take.

Microsoft continues to mess with its partner ecosystem by releasing more incredible Windows hardware in the Surface Book, while simultaneously pissing off its retail partner network with a new online store and a push into retail.

But weirdly, all this bullish experimentation works, and out of it comes a device that works as a fantastic all-rounder.

Sure, you’ll pay a premium for it because Microsoft, but quality costs. It might not have the competition beat on the dollars, but I’d argue that the Surface Pro 4 would last longer and hold up better against the test of time than a rival OEM device in a similar form factor with its bloatware, poor accessories and almost useless warranty.

If you can justify paying the premium on the Surface, you’ll nab yourself a beautiful, reliable, fast and genuinely fun tablet. For all the crap we give it on price, it’s nice to have a capable tablet and capable laptop in the one device, even if the combination is still a little janky.

I’ve always been a massive Surface fan, despite being a day-to-day Mac user. This is exactly what Microsoft needs to do to woo the Cupertino faithful back, to be honest. Every year, the Surface gets better and better.

When you think about it, there aren’t as many changes in this year’s model as there have been in previous generations: it’s more of a refinement exercise. Microsoft perfecting the Surface Pro 3 and updating the specs for good measure.

We gave the Surface Pro 3 a solid yes, and with this new, updated model, we’re sticking with that verdict.

Long live Surface.

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