Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Review: I Love It, But Not For Real Work

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Review: I Love It, But Not For Getting Real Work Done

Nobody knows what to make of the Microsoft Surface. It's neat looking, but also kind of awkward. Great at certain things and oddly tantalising, But who's it really for? This latest hybrid iteration, the Surface Pro 4, is a refinement of sorts and sometimes subtle tweaks can go a long way toward making something worth buying.

What Is It?

Microsoft Surface Book And Surface Pro 4: Australian Price And Release Date

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Review: I Love It, But Not For Getting Real Work Done

The Surface Pro 4 will start from $1349 when it launches in Australia on November 12; you can pre-order one now if you're really keen.

Microsoft constantly claims its devices, particularly the Surface, are for people who make stuff. It's for people who want a truly portable computer that isn't just a bunch of lame and limited apps, but a thing suitable for getting real work done. Hey, I do work! Sign me up! In fact, the work I do -- video and photo editing -- generally requires an extremely powerful system for editing to be as seamless as I want. My computer of choice is a 15-inch Macbook Pro Retina, maxed out in almost every spec.

It's not that I think the Surface Pro 4 can keep up with my Macbook Pro. It's big and heavy for a reason. Discrete graphics, lots of RAM, powerful CPU, etc. But, god I hate carrying that heavy Macbook around. So I thought it would be a great experiment to see how the Surface Pro 4 with its much more portable footprint, handled my day-to-day.

Photo And Video Editing Woes

Let's face it: A modern day computational marathon for most PCs is running some combo of Adobe apps all at the same time or playing graphics-intensive games, which I admittedly don't do at all. But I do use Lightroom, Photoshop, and Premiere Pro on a daily basis, so those apps were the very first things I installed on my new Surface Pro 4.

The Surface Pro 4 I reviewed was only running with 8 GB of RAM and an Intel Core i5 Skylake processor. If I were buying a Surface for myself, I would totally max out the specs (and my credit card) with 16 GB of RAM and an upgraded i7. But for review purposes, this will have to do.

Really the super-spec'd Surface Book, with its discrete graphics embedded in its detachable keyboard, is the thing Microsoft created to handle heavy computing. They even demoed Adobe Premiere with 4K video at the launch event. But I wanted to see how much I could get away with working on the more portable, and more affordable, Surface Pro.

I started by loading some 4K video footage into Premiere. In practice, the Surface Pro 4 handles light HD video editing just fine. But 4K video doesn't really play back for more than a couple of seconds before getting choppy an stalling out altogether. Even at one-quarter resolution, I couldn't watch anything smoothly.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Review: I Love It, But Not For Getting Real Work Done

Working with photos in Lightroom was mostly fine, but nothing like the speed I'm used to with a higher end system. This was expected, but the real weakness that became hellishly apparent while photo editing was the clunkiness of the trackpad. This year's Surface boasts a much-improved trackpad and keyboard compared to Pro 3. That's not a lie. It is better, but not where it needs to be.

To be honest, I have no complaints about the keyboard's keys. It feels like a real keyboard, and I never got annoyed with key travel or the flimsiness often mentioned in regards to last year's Surface Pro 3. The trackpad is another story. It has a nice glass texture this time around and the larger area is helpful, but there are still huge problems. Every time I place my fingers and scroll, there is a significant lag that hampers that initial gesture. If your fingers remain on the trackpad, subsequent scrolling is fine, but if you lift your fingers and put them back down, that first scroll is always on a delay. It makes the Surface feel sluggish.

Here's the old Surface Pro 3 keyboard on the left, and the new one on the right:

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Review: I Love It, But Not For Getting Real Work Done

The trackpad just lacks the smoothness and precision when doing things like dragging very small sliders in Lightroom. Again, it ruins your flow completely. It also requires too much pressure to click. If you're just cruising around the web you can use tap instead of click, which is great.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Review: I Love It, But Not For Getting Real Work Done

But with programs like Premiere Pro and Photoshop, you need to do a lot clicking and dragging, which isn't possible with the tap gesture. Keeping your finger pressed down on this trackpad is an uncomfortable affair. Of course, you're free to plug in an external mouse via the USB port or connect one via bluetooth, but who really wants to do that? It undercuts the whole mobile aspect the Surface preaches.

For heavy work like this, I would never choose the Surface Pro 4 as my sole device. I think almost nobody would. As a secondary device it makes some sort of sense. Its light and portable makeup goes a long way for someone like me who has to work in unpredictable scenarios with other heavy gear in tow. It's just capable enough to get some light photo and video editing done in a pinch, but who wants to even think about dropping $1500 or more on a secondary computer? It's a great niche use, but not one that's practical for many people.

For The Love Of Writing

A great stylus is one of those things that makes the Surface so tantalising, but in my experience very few people actually use it.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Review: I Love It, But Not For Getting Real Work Done

And I am one of those few. I mainly opt for handwritten notes in meetings, as well as drawing casually in apps like Sketchbook. It really is a fantastic aspect of the Surface Pro 4, and the improvements in the pen tip's traction make it feel way more natural. It's grippy, like a felt marker, instead of super slick. You can also buy interchangeable nibs that provide different levels of traction, though we didn't get a chance to test them. The new eraser on the back of the stylus is particularly great to use, vastly increasing the speed of written tasks.

The big rub is that I didn't really notice a difference in latency that Microsoft described, nor could I detect the increased levels of pressure sensitivity. I directly compared the Surface Pro 3 and 4, watching closely for a difference in lag. I'm sure it's there, but just too small for most humans to detect. In any case, the responsiveness is better than any stylus I've used on the iPad, and I've tested a lot of those. It will be very interesting to see how the Surface compares to the iPad Pro and its Pencil stylus due out next month.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Review: I Love It, But Not For Getting Real Work Done

I also wish Microsoft put a little extra effort into integrating features that would make me want to use the stylus more. The immediacy of note-taking is lost when it takes a minute or two to wake up the computer and open an app like OneNote. It's a simple user-friendly feature that Samsung finally included in the new Galaxy Note 5 by automatically activating a quick note-jotting page when you slide out the stylus. With the Surface, it could be even more useful tied to an app like OneNote rather than Samsung's own S Note app.

Still, the act of writing or drawing is near bliss. Just make sure you factor in the cost of a replacement stylus, because you will lose the one that ships with the Surface. The magnetic mount on the side of the Surface, while aesthetically pleasing, is too weak by a long shot. My stylus kept falling off until I eventually lost the damn thing. I want the fabric holster on the old keyboard back.

Not Quite A Workhorse

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Review: I Love It, But Not For Getting Real Work Done

Workaday, computer-ish activities went smoothly using the Surface Pro 4. That is, when things worked. Too often something essential just... didn't work. I would fold out the keyboard only to find that the trackpad wasn't being detected at all. Sometimes I just had to reconnect it, other times I had to restart the Surface completely. A couple times the dang thing simply crash on me and took f o r e v e r to start up, like over 5 minutes (which is a lifetime in our immediate, "NOW NOW NOW" world).

Little unrefined interface details also cropped up here and there. For example, I needed to type a response in Slack, a work-friendly collaboration app, while using the Surface as a tablet. But when I activated the touch keyboard, it covered the text field in the Slack window. I could no longer see what I was typing. I could move the keyboard sure, but then my arm covered half the screen. And when using Adobe Lightroom, the integrated Intel graphics weren't playing nicely with the app, causing nothing but blue screens where photo should be. Eventually, I had to switch off hardware acceleration in Lightroom, which solved the problem.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Review: I Love It, But Not For Getting Real Work Done

Thinking past those problems, I really love Windows 10. It's better than OS X. I was a PC user up until about 2007 or so, and I truly missed the speed of navigating Windows. Cortana is even useful for unexpected things like simply launching utilities. "Hey Cortana, launch Control Panel," was a common utterance.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Review: I Love It, But Not For Getting Real Work Done

Edge is a perfectly fine browser, though I had little reason to switch from Chrome. I just wish everything under the hood worked all the time, as it should.

But the real competition for the Surface Pro 4 the one Microsoft's always been gunning for, is the MacBook Air. Something light and portable, with just powerful enough to get by day-to-day. The problem is that Microsoft also wants the Surface to be for people who make shit. Just look at almost any Surface promo, and you'll see someone toiling away in some spec-hungry creative application. But making shit requires a powerful computer. It's this split personality that makes people not really sure what the Surface is for. Microsoft should stop trying to masquerade the Surface as something for doing intensive work. It's just can't -- at least not yet. Maybe the maxed out i7 with 16 GB of RAM version of the Surface Pro 4 does better with some of these tasks, but I can't see it feeling exponentially better.

The Surface may go toe-to-toe with a Macbook Air, but its real strength is in out iPad-ing the iPad. It's a great second device to take anywhere and do some fun half-productivity, half-creative work. I enjoyed the device most when just putzing around the internet, reading news sites, taking notes, and watching movies. If refinements were made to make Windows 10 just a bit more touch-friendly and allow the hardware to hum smoothly, it would be an amazing machine for those things -- a true laptop killer.

But for hard work, I (and probably you) need more.


    What's with 'fuck' being so prominent on gizmodo recently? Bit of a turn off, to be honest.

      And 'shit', which is also prominent in this article. Is Gizmodo now aimed at immature 12 year olds? It is unbelievably childish writing.

      Last edited 22/10/15 2:46 pm

        They're just words. Get a life for fucks sake.

          And this is supposedly a publication for public consumption

      Agreed. I have older friends and relatives who are interested in technology. Hard to point them in this direction for daily news if this is the sort regular review language they are going to see.

      Most of us say it but do we need to read it? Does it ADD anything to the article?

        ITT: old people have never used swear words and are terrified by them

    This is literally the most useless review I've ever read.

    Guys, my iphone is shithouse at rendering 3D animation compared to my APEXX 4 workstation. Therefore, it's a useless phone.

      And even then Im fine doing Lightroom work on my Surface Pro 1

      I can't upvote because the Giz site is fucked, so I'll comment +1 instead.

      This has got to be up there as one of the most useless, biased and outright stupidest reviews I've ever read. It is so bad, I would suggest actually deleting this article and getting someone who knows something to write up a new one.

      Edit: Also can't believe this guy is claiming it takes 1-2 minutes to get into OneNote. You can literally hit the Surface Pen button and it will open OneNote in a maximum of a few seconds.

      Last edited 22/10/15 3:46 pm

      Except that this is exactly the way that Microsoft is positioning the Surface4, at graphics professionals and replacing your existing laptop. The review is hardly biased, he says Windows10 is better than OSX, but the laggy trackpad, crashes and poor performance put it out of contention to be what MS is advertising the Surface to be - a workhorse that you can take anywhere.
      It looks like a great ultrabook for tooling around the net, and doing light work.

        And there you prove the guys above point. It isn't a comparison to osx, a tacky mobile OS that is boring as bat stuff. See we don't need to swear to get our point across.

        I run large database intensive applications developing and more on it. The i5 is not meant for the work the author is talking about and yes Giz is crap and apple fanboys. Anyone who thinks that the ipad pro is even close to a replacement for the office PC is on drugs. That comment from Cook is a sign of desperation for a company that has lost it's way and relies on marketing and sheep to continue. Nothing they do is new it is all just catch up these days and make it pretty for the common folk.

    I read this on the Giz US site and I really do wish Giz US would stop comparing the Surface Pro to an iPad ('but its real strength is in out iPad-ing the iPad'), again the two devices are completely different. Cortana isn't available in Australia yet so that part is a coming soon or watch this space. Please Giz AU, stop using Giz US reviews.

    Last edited 22/10/15 3:18 pm

    "finally included in the new Galaxy Note 5 by automatically activating a quick note-jotting page when you slide out the stylus."

    I have that feature in my Galaxy Note 2 that I have had for years. Yanks must be getting crippled phones.

      I think in Note 5, quick note starts up even if your screen is off, which if I remember correctly doesn't happen in Note 2.

        But which the SP3 & 4 both do, also with the screen off, when you click the top button on the pen. I didn't understand that point in the review, unless that feature was buggy in the review device?

          Precisely what I thought. I have used it on a SP3 and its quick. Hit it and bang OneNote is open, even if the device is locked and saves whatever you do in Quick Notes. A second or two maybe to open. Not sure how he gets a minute.

        Nope, exactly the same in the note 2, phone can be locked, screen off and pulling out the stylus opens the note taking program.

    I think this is a pretty weird article also.

    I use a 3 year old i3, 4gb ram at work and run it with dual monitors, excel, word, crm, outlook, indesign and/or illustrator and it copes for casual usage/touch ups etc.

    I fail to see how a device 3 years newer with better ram, processor, ssd harddrive would falter to the extent you are claiming it does.

    Also, define work?

    Most of the workforce need a device that can run office suite, a CRM and thats about it.

    Misleading title. I'd say author is still a paid macfag.

      > Also, define work?

      Apparently rendering 4k video on a 12" i5/8gb laptop.

      Last edited 22/10/15 3:59 pm

        ps. I still have a surface pro 1 in my room that has been my main machine for years. runs photoshop, runs lightroom and I steam stream all my games.

        Prior to steam streaming i played dota 2 and hon on it for the last 4 years lol.

        I dont get the sentiments pointing to the fact power is not enough on a sp4 with ssd and a new skylake processor lol

    This is the most useless review for the Surface Pro 4 that I've seen.

    Thanks for letting me know that what is basically a tablet isn't very good at editing and rendering 4K video. Oh wait, I already know that because I'm not stupid.

    And I have to echo the sentiments of everyone else here. Why is there swearing throughout the review? If I wanted unprofessional writing, I'd get my review from a reddit comment. It's criminal that someone got paid to write this.

    So the message in this review is that the Surface Pro 4 isn't as good as a tricked out, $3000 Macbook Pro? Thanks for nothing, Gizmodo.

    Lots of hate towards the trackpad. Which is fair enough but I think the reviewer forgot it has a touch screen in addition.

      Also when using a surface pro for work, typically I use a small bluetooth mouse?

        An I would suggest a small bluetooth mouse hardly has an impact on portability. Unless you're computing on a cliff-face or something.

          Like Bear Grylls checking his email "on the road".

          Like the Surface mouse. I use it with my X1 Carbon. Its pretty flat when transported. As for touchpads. I liked them 8 years ago. Where they only accepted one finger input and had buttons. Screw gestures when you have a touch screen.

      I don't know about everyone else, but I personally have never used a track pad, find them useless.

    It’s a great niche use, but not one that’s practical for many people.
    I think in terms of the Surface Pro target market intensive editing of 4k video in lightroom might be the niche use as a whole. I'm not saying it's invalid, just that the value of the SP4 as a PC doesn't hinge on lightroom performance.

    I'm a software developer and I use the SP3 as my only PC, running IDE tools, compiling software, running servers and VMs, some design and photo editing. It's fine. I have also seen a lot of SP3s in the business world used as just a basic laptop for Office, email, SharePoint & web browsing, all of which is still a typical workday for some people.

    The immediacy of note-taking is lost when it takes a minute or two to wake up the computer and open an app like OneNote
    That might just be an issue with the pre-release SP4 device? Because my SP3 has nearly exactly what you describe in the Galaxy Note 5, you click the top button on the pen and OneNote opens within seconds, ready for note taking. Even if it's asleep. The SP4 has this feature too.

    But when I activated the touch keyboard, it covered the text field in the Slack window.
    The keyboard can be either 'floating' or 'docked', if you dock it then it won't hide the window underneath.

    Microsoft should stop trying to masquerade the Surface as something for doing intensive work. It’s just can’t — at least not yet
    It can, just not for you apparently. Like I said, I'm a software dev and I do some reasonably resource intensive stuff as part of my job. My SP3 is my only PC and I've never felt held back. I doubt I'm the only one.

    Last edited 22/10/15 4:51 pm

    Dude.. your review is comparable to taking an old VW onto the autobahn and complaining that it cant keep up with the exotic cars going 250km/h.

    If you were reviewing the Book... then it might have merit, but you have completely missed the point of what the Surface is for.

    Yes, equating 'real work' with 'editing 4K video in Premiere' doesn't make a lot of sense. My i5 SP3 happily captures and edits 16 tracks of audio through a USB interface at 24bits/48khz, which is the most intensive thing I need it to do. 'I love it but it can't replace a dedicated video workstation' might be a better headline.

    After reading the comments, all I can say is, you MS fans are a touchy group of fuckers. The author tried this surface tablet and it wasn't right for him and you guys just want to lay the boots in. If you like it, buy it. Don't condemn someone just cause his opinion is different from yours.

    What video editor worth his/her salt uses a frickin' trackpad for anything? Seriously, I might almost have believed the author was a trained professional until I read that (although admitting that a laptop was his usual edit machine, and that he edits in 4k, should probably have been a clue).

    "Of course, you’re free to plug in an external mouse via the USB port or connect one via bluetooth, but who really wants to do that?" Every professional video editor on the face of the planet, I imagine. Seriously (again), anyone with any thought of doing serious work of any kind is going to have the best portable mouse they can find. Only a complete idiot would even think they could do serious work without one.

    "The immediacy of note-taking is lost when it takes a minute or two to wake up the computer and open an app like OneNote." Correct me if I'm wrong but can't you press the button on the top of the pen and it will wake up the Surface and launch One Note? You certainly can on a Pro 3. It seems to me that Samsung have copied Microsoft here.

    "Microsoft should stop trying to masquerade the Surface as something for doing intensive work. It’s just can’t". Bullshit! I used a Pro 2 for a full year to run After Effects, 3DS Max and all my real-time music software, even on stage. It worked brilliantly for all of it. Sure, it is limited by it's specs but that was the one and only thing holding it back. A new Pro 4 with Iris graphics would be a real powerhouse. I have pre-ordered a Surface Book but I have no intention of taking it until I have tested the Iris Powered Pro 4 and whichever I choose will replace a Dell M3800, a laptop with a lot more professional grunt than any MacBook, as well as the Thinkpad 8 I had to buy to do the rest of the stuff my SPro 2 could do. If I had my time over again, I'd have updated my SPro 2 to an SPro 3 and saved myself a grand or two.

    The reviewer's just angry, because his Surface Book hasn't arrived yet.
    People who do 4K video editing for a living should get a powerhorse laptop, or already have a desktop.

    Really? The Surface Pro 4 isn't as good as a "nearly maxed out" MBP 15"?

    Let's see: based on the specs, you had a 256GB i5 Surface Pro 4, which, if you include the cover, cost about 2200 dollars.

    A "fully specced" MBP 15", if you don't include the 1TB drive, costs over 4200 dollars. If you *do* include the 1TB SSD, it comes out to just shy of 5 Grand

    Last edited 23/10/15 1:00 am

      I think his main issue is MS is marketing it as 'Twice as fast as a Macbook Pro' and positioning the Surface as the kind of thing to run high end apps on.

        Uh, that was the Surface Book they were talking about, and I'm pretty sure they would be comparing a similarly priced MBP.

          You guys are both confused. The guy who presented the 2015 Microsoft keynote said the the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 was twice the speed of the Apple Macbook Air not the pro.

    Um... then it should have been listed as an 'opinion' piece - not a device review.
    Because all he did was whinge it wasn't a Mac.

    And the swearing is unforgivable. That in itself outlines the poor journalism that this site is touting.

    well hopefully no one comes here expecting to read a decent hardware review, regardless of the brand/make/type of device, especially when they use language of a 12 year old. Do yourself a favour Gizmodo and just repost a review by people who know what they're talking about:

      Note even the Verge has issues with their review

    Why is everyone making out that editing 4K video is not representative of normal computer use these days? Don't most phones shoot 4K video now (even iPhone has caught up!)? It seems like a good metric to test a PC in a heavy usage scenario.

    Track pad use is the main interaction with a laptop these days, give me your % of time spent interacting with a computer with a touch screen and a keyboard. I think you will find that 90% of your interaction is actually with the trackpad. If it is not bloody good (and that is where a Macbook excels) then your experience with the machine will not be good.

    I have a Surface Pro 3 and a Macbook, and both are good machines, but the Macbook IS better IMHO mainly based on OSX's reliability and the MacBooks awesome glass trackpad.

      With all due respect there is no way a MacBook running a core M 1.3 GHz processor has comparable performance to a SP4 running a 6th gen core i5 or i7 processor with PCIe NVMe storage and similar ram. I do agree though trackpads on Apple laptops are excellent.

      Also others report the SP4 edits 4k video without much difficulty. I can't comment from personal experience whether the author or other reviewers are correct but I can comment that my lowly surface 3 has no problem opening OneNote in about 2-3 seconds so not sure how he is struggling to do something that's relatively easy for most of us.

      Regardless, overall performance benchmarks of the SP4 are currently best in class for ultrabooks per one of the few websites that took the trouble to run a comprehensive set of benchmarks:

      Last edited 23/10/15 8:46 pm

        Who was comparing the Surface 4 to the lower end Macbook? Price and weight-wise the Surface4 with keyboard is in the 13" Macbook Pro space.

        Last edited 25/10/15 6:56 am

    Read this: "I enjoyed the device most when just putzing around the internet, reading news sites, taking notes, and watching movies"... you need a surface pro 4 for that?

    Apple paid the writer BIC MONEYYYYY.


    It is the future, Faggot I.T "writers' bitching about it are fuckin short sighted.

    You have been saying the same shit for 4 years, I have been calling you out and the tables are turning in favour of the Surface, fuckstains.

    This review is pretty bad... also lost me after stating that odd crap about premier like apps requiring heavy duty clicking and sliding etc., yet chooses to use a track pad to achieve it and then complains... what a joke. Anyway the SP4 I setup and tested over the past few days worked almost flawlessly... a few quirks with the high screen resolution, scaling and older desktop apps was the only issue. Speed wise great for the spec'd i5 and woke up from sleep in like a second or 2... boots from cold in about 5 seconds!!! Really weird review!

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