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Surface Pro 4 Impressions

Background

I’m a huge fan of the iPad. My iPad Air is my most used device, outside of my work laptop. I appreciate the tablet form factor in general, and have really only been disappointed by the iPads lack of ability to do some more of the general computing tasks I do.

I started getting interested in the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 earlier this year. It looked like an ideal compromise, but I refused to buy one because of the abomination that was Windows 8. By the time Windows 10 dropped, there were already rumblings of the Surface Pro 4, so I waited a bit longer. Finally, in the past couple weeks, we had two huge announcements: the iPad Pro and the Surface Pro 4.

Both looked like exciting devices. Both have screens about the size of a piece of letter-sized paper, which would be great for reading. But the Surface Pro 4 was especially interesting because it brings Windows 10 to the form factor. I use my Windows 10 desktop most the time at home over my aging MacBook Pro. It’s definitely a bit rough around the edges compared to OS X, but Microsoft is really churning on it and I’ve been very happy using it.

The Microsoft Store

While hitting the mall with my daughter this weekend, I dropped into the Microsoft Store and was surprised to see they had both the Surface Pro 4 tablet and a Surface Book to try. I stuck my daughter in front of an Xbox One with Forza, and proceeded to poke away at both them for a good 15 minutes. Since I couldn’t install anything on them, I used Google’s Octane 2 benchmark to get a comparison point for performance. Conveniently, the mall also has an Apple store, so I ran the same benchmark on a current MacBook Air and 13″ Retina MacBook Pro.

Surface Pro 4 Impressions

  1. The Surface Pro 4 is slightly heavier than the iPad Pro, but it is still a very manageable weight. I can see carrying it around easily or sitting on the sofa with it on my lap.
  2. Construction quality appears really good. The screen is bright. The kickstand is slick. And having a USB 3.0 and Mini Displayport connector makes hooking up to peripherals and an external monitor easy, which is something the iPad Pro can’t do.
  3. Precision of the pen is really good. It flows smoothly, and can do fine lines, including a signature, easily. It’s comfortable in the hand, and the “eraser” end feels natural. The only downside is it only attaches magnetically to the Surface Pro 4 on one side of the tablet, and in one direction. And you can’t just randomly attach it to the side. The pen needs to be turned to the correct side for the magnet to attach.
  4. Palm detection while using the stylus was a bit slow. Any time I put down my palm, it scrolled a little bit before it figured out what I wanted to do. Since this is software, I’m sure it is something Microsoft will churn on and get right.
  5. The keyboard smart cover is nice. I actually thought it was a bit too stiff, but the trackpad works well. I’m sure I could get used to the keys, though, and be productive with it. It attaches firmly and easily.
  6. The power connection isn’t up the the quality of Apple’s MagSafe connector. It doesn’t attach as firmly, and the cord comes off the connector to the side, not straight, so you have to put it in one way.
  7. Windows 10 felt snappy, and responded easily to touch.
  8. The Surface Pro 4 doesn’t have a cellular data option. I have this on the iPad, and would miss this on the Surface Pro, but it’s not a deal killer. It is a pretty big oversight on Microsoft’s part though. The always on, always ready internet is now.

Surface Book impressions

I played with the Surface Book too, but I actually preferred the Surface Pro 4. In tablet mode, it felt too large. The keyboard and trackpad felt really good, but it didn’t feel any more special than my MacBook Pro keyboard. In convertible mode (screen turned around, attached to base), it is too heavy for normal use. The mechanism for detaching the screen for tablet mode is slick, and worked well, but I suspect it’s going to be a point of failure.

The Surface Book has potential, but I found it too laptop-like. The Surface Pro 4 is an excellent tablet that can become a laptop replacement, while the Surface Book is a laptop that can become a tablet for a little bit.

Performance

Here’s the fun part — the Octane 2 scores:

System Score
Surface Pro 4, i5, 4GB, MS Edge 23,994
Surface Book, i5, 8GB, MS Edge 28,979
13″ MacBook Air, 1.6ghz i5, 4GB, Safari 21,036
13″ Retina MacBook Pro, 2.7ghz i5, 8GB, Safari 25,520
iPad Air, A7, Safari 7,153

The Surface Pro 4 sits closer to the Retina Macbook Pro than the Macbook Air. I suspect, once loaded up with the i7, it will be a direct competitor of Apple’s MacBook Pro and not the Macbook Air. I also added the iPad to try and infer what the iPad Pro will do. Even if the A9X is 2.5x faster than the A7, it still leaves it way behind even the base Surface Pro 4 with an i5 at essentially the same price point. The iPad Pro is going to be a tough sell going head to head with the Surface Pro 4.

The Surface Book is definitely a MacBook Pro killer. It’s going to put a lot of pressure on Apple for their next iteration of laptops.

Summary

The Surface Pro 4 is a big win, to the point I’ll be ordering one. It has all the media consumption capabilities of a large iPad, while also allowing me to click open the kickstand, slap a keyboard on, and do real work, all on the same device. I could see it becoming my primary computing device. With the pen, this is going to be an awesome tablet for editing photos. I can run real Photoshop, with my favorite plugins, and do high quality edits easily.

Microsoft has really knocked it out of the park with the Surface series, and the Surface Pro 4 in particular. As a Java developer, I’ve been pretty critical of Microsoft in the past. But Satya Nadella has really turned the company around. Microsoft is a technology company again, not just a bunch of sales people trying to suck every dollar possible out of windows and office sales to enterprises.

And great job to the Surface team for building such a truly stunning device. I look forward to seeing what else comes from you all in the future.