Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 – A Belated Review

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  June 1, 2016

Since reviewing business endpoints is a part-time job for me, it isn’t unusual to get review units until well after they’re delivered to other fulltime reviewers. That was the case with the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 tablet/PC that I received in early March. Since I hadn’t spent much time with earlier versions of the product Microsoft piquantly calls, “the tablet that can replace your PC,” I was looking forward to the experience.

Unfortunately, the first days and then weeks after I received the review unit were plagued with technical glitches similar to those other reviewers have discussed. That delayed my evaluation but fully reinstalling the OS, as well as several Microsoft driver and firmware updates resolved those problems.

Interestingly, commercial opportunities for the Surface Pro 4 have continued to evolve since its launch. The success Microsoft has enjoyed in the still nascent tablet/PC market has inspired vendors, including Lenovo and Huawei to launch “Surface-killer” business solutions. Additionally, after buddying-up with IBM to increase sales to enterprises, Apple launched iPad Pro solutions with features that addressed business users’ needs.

Rumors are have begun swirling about possible new features/functions coming in the upcoming Surface Pro 5 so my experience with the current generation product seems worth discussing.

Microsoft Surface – a look back

Before digging into those details, it’s worth considering what led Microsoft to develop the Surface platform in the first place. The seminal event was then-CEO Steve Ballmer’s keynote at CES 2011, when he announced the company’s plan to develop a version of its OS for ARM-based devices – Windows RT (RT). That was big news at the time, especially since it threatened to shake-up Microsoft and Intel’s “Wintel” alliance—one of the IT industry’s longest and most powerful partnerships.

But remember that Ballmer’s announcement came about nine months after Apple’s iPad began taking the industry by storm, and some industry pundits (particularly Apple cheerleaders) were already proclaiming the “death of the PC” and envisioning a future when iPads and similar tablet/PCs replaced desktops and laptops. Since Intel’s power efficiency efforts were not progressing fast enough to suit Microsoft, developing ARM-based Windows devices must have seemed like a reasonable course.

Problem was that most PC vendors were reluctant to create products running a still-evolving OS with unknown market potential. So, taking a page from its successful Xbox development efforts, in April 2012, Microsoft launched its first RT/NVIDIA Tegra-based Surface tablets at a high-profile event in Los Angeles, along with plans to deliver a follow-up “Pro” version with 3rd generation Intel Core silicon. Unfortunately, the first RT-based Surface products ran into difficulties almost immediately, especially when customers discovered the devices couldn’t support Microsoft applications they already owned.

By 2015, after reportedly losing billions of dollars on its RT experiment, the company phased-out the OS and replaced it in the Surface line with Windows 8.1 running on Intel Atom chips. Meanwhile, Intel Core-based Surface Pro solutions were actually doing pretty well, especially among businesses who appreciated the device’s portability and the ease of incorporating it alongside their existing Windows-based desktops and laptops.

Surface Pro 4 – Under the hood

While the first three versions of the Surface Pro leveraged Windows 8 and 8.1, the Surface Pro 4 marked the line’s full support of and integration with Windows 10, making it a flagship for Microsoft’s hopes for the new OS. But significant improvements also occurred in the hardware. The Surface Pro 4 included the most recent Intel silicon (6th gen Skylake M3, Core i5 and i7) along with the company’s latest integrated graphics engines (HD Graphics 515 and 520, and Iris Graphics 540).

Microsoft also doubled the maximum options for storage (to 1064GB) and memory (to 16GB LPDDR3 RAM). Both are significantly larger than the storage/memory options Apple offers for the iPad Pro, a critical point for businesses employing applications with robust compute/storage requirements. Microsoft also increased both the size and aspect quality of the Surface Pro display, to 12.7 inches (diagonal) and 2736×1824 pixels (267 ppi), notable improvements over previous generation solutions that also surpass the iPad Pro’s 264 ppi Retina Display.

Surface Pro 4 – In the field

So how was my experience with the Surface Pro 4? After ironing out those initial technical glitches, the system worked fine. The evaluation unit Microsoft provided me was what I’d call a medium duty system – an Intel Core i5 6300U CPU, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage – that would be more than adequate for business. Performance was crisp and Windows 10 works like a champ, as did all the common processes and business applications I threw at it.

Microsoft has fixed one longstanding Surface Pro problem – the keyboard – which marred mostly laudable previous generation systems. The new backlit keyboard looks professional, feels extremely solid and works well, qualities you want in a business-focused machine. Though the N-trig active pen (or stylus) isn’t something I need regularly in my own workday, it’s an interesting input option that worked fine during my tests.

Major disappointments?

  • First, battery life on the Surface Pro 4 never achieved the 9 hours of Web browsing Microsoft claims—6 hours is more likely. That’s disappointing since numerous lightweight Ultrabook laptops deliver better results. It could also injure the Surface Pro 4’s chances among regular, long distance business travelers.
  • Second, the apps in the Microsoft Store continue to be a shadow of what’s available in Apple’s App Store and Google Play. That hurts the Surface Pro 4’s tablet functionality, as well as Microsoft’s market ambitions. But considering the company’s ongoing mobile market problems, the situation also seems unlikely to improve significantly.

Final analysis

Those issues aside, in the Surface Pro 4 Microsoft has delivered a tablet/PC that’s ready for modern workplaces. This latest Surface Pro builds on previous Microsoft achievements, and extends the company’s ambitions to act as a leader in next generation business endpoints.

Apple’s iPad Pro may garner more headlines (and reportedly close mores sales). But the Surface Pro 4 offers better options for robust, complex applications and for organizations that depend on Microsoft solutions and services.

Can it truly “replace your PC”? That depends entirely on specific business needs and use case requirements but the Surface Pro 4 is one of the more compelling tablet/PC workplace solutions that I’ve used and reviewed.

Overall, Microsoft has loaded this newest Surface Pro solution with new or significantly upgraded compute, memory, storage, display and keyboard components. Those make the Surface Pro 4 a pleasure to use, and a highly effective solution that is worthy of business organizations’ careful consideration.

© 2016 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.