It’s been a crazy month. I won’t go into the details, but it started with a trip to Redmond (where I was immersed in All Things Microsoft, spent inordinate amounts of time trying to buy (a) an umbrella to shield me from the omnipresent rain and (b) a Band 2 in size Small, which should have been easy to find in the heart of Softie Land but proved impossible). Two days before I left home, though, I took just-in-time delivery of the new toy I’d been anticipating since its unveiling in early October: the Surface Pro 4.
With a million things going on all at once for the last few weeks (one of which was a series of interviews for an FTE position with Microsoft – but don’t panic; like Jean Luc Picard, once temporarily known as Locutus of Borg, I have escaped assimilation – at least for the moment), there was little time at first to explore its features.
Add to that a week-long conference, a killer workload, preliminary work on a major remodeling project, the diagnosis of a chronic condition in one of my canine babies and the resultant vet visits, family “stuff,” volunteer work and more. Then when I did finally get my Band 2 (Amazon came through, as usual), I was so enamored of it and had so many people clamoring to know how I liked it that I ended up writing that review first. But after weeks of drowning in the murky waters of Too Much To Do, I finally fought my way back up to the Surface.
The delay is probably a good thing, as it gave me time to work with it more and discover more reasons to like it (as well as solidify my opinions as to what still needs to be improved as the Surface 5 goes under construction). The following is my opinion after spending almost four weeks with this dignified little laptop/tablet and falling in love with its quiet competence, while most of my friends were lusting after its flashy-dressing big brother, the Surface Book.
There was no question, after seeing the broadcast of Microsoft’s “Windows 10 Devices Event” introducing its new Surface line on October 6th that I was going to be getting a new portable computer. The first question was: Which one? By the time the presentations were all over, I knew I wanted a Band 2 (which I have already reviewed elsewhere in this Technology Insights blog) and I knew I wanted a Lumia 950XL (but that’s another tale for another time). The only decision was whether to upgrade my Surface 3 to a 4, or jump to Microsoft’s sleek new more-laptop-than-tablet that they managed to keep secret. I had already made my plans to get a new Surface but I hadn’t expected them to “throw the Book at me.”
I did mull it over, but in the end, for me the choice was obvious. Oh, the Book is sexy as all get-out. The screen is a little bigger, and the specs are impressive at the high end, with an NVIDIA GeForce GPU and up to a terabyte of SSD storage. There are two USB 3 ports, a full size SD card reader, and an incredible 12 hours of battery life. Not to mention that hinge that has so many tech toy fans coming unhinged. But the configuration I would want, with an i5 processor and 16 GB of RAM, is priced at a (not so) cool $2699 – and that’s with just the 512 GB SSD.
Instead, I could spend $1499 (around $1650 with the new and improved keyboard – which is worth it; more on that later) for a Pro 4 with a Core i5 processor, 16 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage and save a thousand bucks for other things. Given my particular use case, it was a no-brainer. Now, I will say that if I were going to use my portable as a desktop replacement, my decision most likely would have been different. But I have a monster machine, a desktop tower with a 4.0 GHz processor and 32 GB of RAM that runs six monitors so all I need the Surface for is a good on-the-road machine. And the Pro 4 in the configuration mentioned above fills that bill just fine.
The obligatory unboxing
I ordered the week after the unveiling, but ship date on both the Microsoft site and Amazon was shown as October 26. I was flying out on the 29th and thought that probably, giving my usual luck when it comes to timing, it would get here an hour after I left. This time I got lucky, and it showed up on the 28th, so I got to take it Redmond with me (which turned out not to be such as good thing after all, given what happened to my brand new pen – but more on that later).
I’ve had every Surface Pro since the original. I never had an RT (Tom did) but the Pro had me – someone who has lusted after every light, thin, tiny laptop computer since my first Sony VAIO in the early 2000s that cost me almost $3000 and that was followed by three more VAIOs, the last of which was the wafer thin disappointingly low-powered (for the price) X series machine that put form way ahead of function – at hello.
Quick aside for a bit of Sony trivia: how many of you knew that VAIO stands for Visual Audio Intelligent Organizer?
The new iteration of the Surface had me at Hello, too – Windows Hello, that is. It’s just one of many “little things” that makes my latest Surface such a delight to use. So much so that if I could find a way to hook it up to six monitors (or maybe even just four), I would seriously consider getting a docking station and using it as my primary computer. I’ll talk more about this feature in Part 2.
Taking it out of the box for the first time, I could see that the size of the Pro 4 was almost the same as the 3. It’s a little thinner and a little lighter, but the other dimensions are the same. You do, however, get more screen real estate because the bezel is a little thinner. Probably the most noticeable difference is that there is no Windows button on the right side of the screen as there is on the Pro 3. That’s okay, since I don’t think I ever used it even once.
The body finish is the same (which is good, since I think the magnesium alloy material is pretty classy looking). If you’re super observant, you might notice that the word “Surface” on the back has been replaced by just the Windows logo. The kickstand is the same “any position” type as on the Pro 3, which is orders of magnitude better than the “two position” stand on the Pro 2, which itself was a big improvement over the one-position-fits-all stance of the original.
Here’s the key(board)
I had already received my new keyboard (Type cover) a few days before, and had been using it with my Pro 3 (yes, it’s backward-compatible). I had already grown extremely fond of it, and if I were told I could have only a Pro 4 with the old keyboard or I could have a Pro 3 with the new keyboard, it wouldn’t be an easy decision. The improvements to the keyboard are significant. There is a slight spacing between the keys now so that they have a “chiclet” design and this makes it far easier to type accurately for someone like me who touch types at high speeds for long periods.
The other dramatic improvement is to the touchpad. I hate touchpads. One of many reasons that I’ve stuck with desktop PCs when many people were abandoning them completely for laptops is my distain for the keyboards (I prefer a curved but compact ergonomic keyboard like the Microsoft Comfort Curve (with wrist rest removed), which is my “everyday” workhorse keyboard. But more than the keyboards, I have always despised laptop pointing devices. Touchpads, J-mice (the little “stick” between the middle keys), tiny trackballs (yes, some laptops long ago had those) – none ever worked well. Yes, of course I know that I can plug my external ergo keyboard and my Logitech gaming mouse with all the customized programmable buttons into a laptop, but that makes it a lot less portable. And especially with a very small and light computer like the Surfaces, portability is sort of the whole point.
That’s why I was pretty thrilled to find that the touchpad on the Pro 4 actually works pretty beautifully. It’s much bigger than the one on the 3, and it’s smooth as glass. I still plug a mouse in most of the time, but when I’m in a truly mobile situation such as at a meeting, I don’t find myself wanting to pull my hair out when I try to do things on it. Big kudos to Microsoft for the huge bump in usability that these hardware changes have made.
Here is my whole collection of Surface keyboards, from the horrible “Touch” keyboard that we got with the original to the first Type cover for the Pro 2 to the backlit cover for the Pro 3 to this great keyboard/cover, complete with fingerprint reader, that was released at the same time as the Pro 4.
Power to the people – and the Surface
There are a couple more pieces of hardware to talk about before we boot the thing up and look through the Windows. The power brick is identical to the one for the Surface Pro 3, which is to say it’s amazingly small and light compared to those that came with laptops of yore (or even a couple of years ago). It has a built-in USB port, although I rarely use it since I generally carry a USB hub with me if I’m taking any extra USB peripherals. When I’m going to be doing “real work” while traveling, I bring along an external keyboard, a mouse, a small USB hard drive that all of my data lives on, and sometimes one or even two portable USB monitors so I can have a three-screen setup. Below is my working setup with the Surface in my cabin on board a cruise ship.
USB aside, the power bar is small enough that I can wind up the cord and tuck both it and the Surface itself into a medium-sized purse along with my phone, important cards and cash (yes, I’m an old fogey who still actually carries some) and go, and not feel burdened or weighed down at all. That’s pretty cool.
The Pen is mightier …
Then there’s the pen. I had a love/hate relationship with the Surface Pro 3 pen. I loved the precision of it; had to admit that the N-Trig technology is quite good. However, I hated that unlike with the Pro 1 and 2, both of which used Wacom technology, I couldn’t use my Note’s pen on it. Now that wouldn’t have mattered except for the other thing that I hated about it: despite my pleas, Microsoft didn’t provide an internal storage slot for it. What they did give me, with the 3, was a laughable little stick-on loop that a) looked very tacky and b) promptly fell off the first time I pulled the pen out of it. Seriously?
Well, they didn’t fix the problem(s) above with the new pen for Surface 4. They create a magnetic system for holding it to the side of the Surface, which looks pretty classy but has one huge failing: it doesn’t hold it tight and the pen falls off any time you bump it against something while carrying it or putting it into or out of your bag.
The pen will stick to either side of the tablet and this keeps it very handy, but this is a setup for losing it – which is exactly what happened to me, less than a week after I got my new Surface. Ironically, I lost it somewhere on the Microsoft campus while rushing from place to place during the aforementioned job interview process. I ended up trekking to the Microsoft Store in Bellevue to shell out another $60 for a replacement. That was a great big “ouch.” As many times as I’ve heard others like me plead with the company to build in a slot inside the chassis for storing the pen (which, after all, is something that Samsung has done with its Notes and Asus has done with its VivoTab, among others), you have to wonder if someone up there in the accounting department is counting on lost pens as a revenue stream.
Here’s the solution that I finally settled on. It’s not elegant, but so far I haven’t lost the pen again. I use the clip and attach it to the “channel” on the bottom of the keyboard when I’m carrying it. Then I snap it to the side of the screen when I’m using it.
As for the pen itself, once you’ve figured out how to keep up with it: It’s pretty great. There have been some big changes since the Pen 3, and they’re for the better. There’s one long button instead of two side buttons, and now there is an “eraser” on top that works like a pencil eraser – you turn it upside down and erase with it. But that’s not all. Press down on that “eraser” button to click it and it automatically opens OneNote. Since my motto is “With OneNote, I can organize the world,” I love this feature. Double-clicking takes a screenshot. How cool is that? And a long press-and-hold pops up my new best friend, Cortana (I’ll be giving her a blog post of her own in the near future, as she so richly deserves after winning over my skeptical heart).
Pressure sensitivity has been improved greatly. The new pen has 1024 different levels (the old one had only 256). It also has interchangeable tips that come with it. Bottom line is that the pen works well. I’m not an artist but I draw a little, and while the Surface pen isn’t quite the same as a real pen and paper, it’s remarkably close for electronic media and it does things I can’t easily or conveniently do with an ink pen, such as changing colors or stroke thickness almost instantly. The pen on the Pro 3 was good – the one made for the Pro 4 is better.
Have I forgiven Microsoft for switching from Wacom to N-Trig? Oh, yeah. Have I forgiven them for not including an internal slot for it? Almost.
And so much more
There’s a lot more to the new Surface than just the hardware. In fact, in this review I’ve barely even touched the Surface, so to speak. That’s why I’ll be continuing this with a Part 2 that I hope to have up here in a few days. Thanksgiving is coming, which means I get to take the whole day off from “real” (i.e. paid) work, and in between cooking enough lobster mac & cheese and various and sundry other dishes to feed a small army (or more appropriately for my family, a small navy), I’m hoping to be able to grab a few hours of free “me” time to finish this up. Meanwhile, if you’re the type who doesn’t like to skip ahead to find out the ending, spoiler alert:
I really, really like my Surface Pro 4.
Stay tuned for more details.