Matt’s Surface Pro 4 Review

Matt’s Surface Pro 4 Review

I’ve recently upgraded my main device from a Surface Pro 3 to a Surface Pro 4. You could say I’m a bit of a fan of the Surface lineup, and with good reason. To be honest though, I didn’t expect a big difference in the experience of using the new model, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised – it’s a solid upgrade to an already impressive device.

Surface Pro 4 - rear

Spec Level

Both my previous Surface Pro 3 and the new 4 are the mid-range Core i5/256Gb/8Gb model. This is, in my opinion, the sweet spot for most people.

The lower models make do with only a 128Gb SSD, which gets pretty full reasonably quickly once you load up Windows, Office and a bunch of data. With only 4Gb of RAM, multitasking a number of programs can put a heavy load on the system – with 64-bit Windows 10 available to take advantage of the additional memory it’s a smart investment to step up to 8Gb if your budget can stretch. You’ll have a much snappier system that you’ll get a longer service life out of.

The higher-end models are kitted out with the extremely powerful Core i7 CPUs, but unless you’re into gaming or video editing the additional horsepower won’t make a huge difference to your day to day work. The bigger capacity SSDs are always welcome, of course, but come at a considerable cost increase. With a clever combination of cloud storage and systems, general business use won’t come near needing the additional space. A Core i7 Surface runs hotter, which means the device will be louder as it runs it’s fan. And thanks to the extra power, the battery life takes a hit.

Hence why I once again put my money down for the Core i5/256Gb/8Gb model. The lower end models don’t have the processing capacity that I need from my main device. The higher end models, whilst screamingly fast and powerful, are simply too much for my day to day needs in my business. I suspect that would be true for most people.

 

Surface Pro 4 - front

Hardware

Looking at the two devices, initially it’s near impossible to tell them apart. There’s a different logo printed on the rear of the device – a reflective, stylised Windows logo replaces the previous SURFACE branding, for instance. Certainly, Microsoft has adopted the “evolution, not revolution” path for Surface development. That’s a smart move considering the target market is business professionals. However, the longer you look, the more subtle upgrades you find.

On opening the device, you notice that the SP4’s screen is slightly larger than the SP3, which is driven at a higher resolution as well. The bezel surround is slightly thinner, and the Windows button from the SP3 has been removed. I was initially apprehensive about this, as I used to use that button a lot on the SP3 to wake the device from sleep. Thankfully though this hasn’t proved to be an issue at all.

The new Type Cover is another subtle, but solid upgrade from the SP3. The keys are spaced a bit wider and slightly re-arranged. If you’re used to typing quickly on the SP3’s type cover, expect that it will take a couple of days for your muscle memory to reset to the expanded layout. As with the SP3 the keys are backlit and quite comfortable to use, especially considering how thin the keyboard is. The touchpad is larger and wider, and seems a lot more sturdy. It’s considerably smoother as well, which you immediately notice.

The new Surface Pen is another solid upgrade over the pen that shipped with the SP3. It’s actually backwards compatible, and I had been using a SP4 pen on my SP3 for a couple of months after my original went mysteriously missing. The new button layout is considerably easier to use and more accurate. When used with the SP4, the new Pen securely snaps to the side of the device thanks to magnets – a MUCH better arrangement than the SP3’s fabric loop retainer, which is prone to sagging over time and having the pen catch on your bag as you pull it out or put it away. The tips on the new Pen are also replaceable – anyone who’s had a SP3 pen break its tip will appreciate that you now don’t have to throw the whole pen away. Again, nothing revolutionary, but good functional upgrades that really improve real-world usage.

All the other good hardware from the SP3 is still present in the SP4 – fast SSD storage, secure TPM chip for drive encryption, USB3 and DisplayPort connectivity, Dock connector, etc. The device itself is still the same mix of high-quality construction whilst being light enough to hand-hold in tablet mode, which I often do when flying (you can’t have a laptop out during take off and landing, but a handheld tablet is fine) or taking notes in a meeting.

I’ve not experienced any of the problems that I had with my previous SP3, or other SP4 users have reported. But then again, having only recently upgraded and having always run the latest software and firmware, I may have come late to the game once everything was fixed. Certainly (and thankfully) the problems surrounding Sleep of Death and horrible power consumption/poor battery life that others have struggled with have eluded me.

 

Windows 10 Logo

Software

As with my SP3, I’ve loaded up the latest Windows Insider build of Windows 10 from the Slow Ring. Microsoft have really been working hard on improving Windows with the new builds, and the latest builds have continued to deliver improvements in functionality, performance and stability. Now that the Anniversary Update is available for everyone, I’d strongly recommend upgrading to it.

One of the big functional improvements is the inclusion of the Windows Hello biometric authentication system. This is a combination of hardware and software, with the SP4 being built with the infra-red facial recognition camera that Windows Hello needs. Once you’ve registered your face against your account, logging into or unlocking your device is as simple as waking up the Surface and looking at the screen for a couple of seconds. I’ve found the facial recognition to work flawlessly and fast. It’s brilliant. No more insecure, easy passwords that you have to remember. Set your account up once, then use the facial recognition to log in from then on.

Edge, the new Microsoft web browser, continues to improve in the latest Insider builds too. I’m making a concerted effort to use the new browser in day to day work, and so far I’ve been impressed. Edge is able to take advantage of Windows Hello to sign you into websites automatically once you’ve registered your Office365 account or Windows LiveID. It’s a nice bit of integration that improves security (again, no need to have easily-guessed passwords) and reduces friction when using cloud services. Which brings me to…

In recent builds of Windows 10, Microsoft has vastly improved the integration between Windows and Office365. If you have Office365 deployed in your business, you can join your devices to your Office 365 tenant and log into your device with your Office365 / AzureAD account. This is currently a very under-appreciated feature, but I feel very strongly that it’ll be a real game changer once people start to discover it.

This is big-business tech that’s now available seamlessly to any organisation without the overhead of running Active Directory Domain servers. And its included in any Office365 business plan – no extra costs involved. It works from anywhere, on any network (not just on the corp network, like traditional AD). One you’ve signed in with your Office365 credentials (and then set up your Windows Hello recognition), you can sign into all your Office365 services absolutely seamlessly without any further authentication prompts.

  • Open Outlook for the first time, and it detects your email address and credentials and sets up your mailbox.
  • Log into Sharepoint in the Edge browser and you’re signed straight in.
  • Open Skype for Business, and you’re signed in automatically and online.

This is a massive upgrade in capability, security and manageability for small firms – anyone with an Office365 subscription needs to be seriously investigating this for their business – the bigger your team, the more value you’ll be able to realise out of it. If this is you, please give me a call and I can help explain further. It would be such a shame not to leverage it.

Cortana (Microsoft’s virtual assistant, like Apple’s Siri) continues to improve, but I’ve got to admit, I’ve not used her much.

OneNote continues to be of massive benefit to me on the Surface. Whilst I’m sure this is equally applicable to any other Windows tablet, it just works so well on the SP4. I constantly find myself taking notes in OneNote vs paper, because it’s so easy to keep everything organised and filed away. The SP4 pen, as mentioned above, is brilliant with OneNote.

 

What would I like changed?

After working with the device for the past 2 months, there’s a couple of things that do distract from the overall design and execution. Thankfully, they’re pretty minor:

  • There’s still only a single USB port, which is a real problem if you have both a wireless mouse and a wireless UC headset, both with their own dongles. Given the target market of this device, a second USB 3 port would be very much appreciated. Probably avoidable if you use a bluetooth mouse, but after 3 years I still haven’t found anything that works as well as my favourite Logitech mouse. Apparently the new version can connect via Bluetooth though, so when my current one dies I might upgrade.  If you’re in a similar boat, let me know what you find works.
  • Windows Hello can be a bit inconsistent. Not with the biometric recognition – that seems rock solid. But some times it is unable to turn on the camera, and you have to log in with a PIN. Or it will complain that there’s no internet connectivity (???), and so you’ll have to sign in with a PIN. Simply putting the device to sleep and re-waking seems to fix this though, and the facial recognition works again. Nothing needs a reboot – it’s just as if it gets a bit confused. More polish is needed. But that may well be a result of me using preview Insider software builds as well.
  • And that’s about it, to be honest. After solid business use, I’m still very much enamoured by the device. It tends to Just Work, which is exactly what you want on a device that’s running your business.

 

Conclusion

It’s not going to be a massive surprise to anyone that I really do like the Surface Pro 4. For me, it’s the perfect blend of power, security and portability. It’s close to the perfect device for what I use it for and for my style of business. I love the handwriting and note-taking in OneNote, and the seamless integration with Office365, including the AzureAD authentication. I love how portable it can be, whilst also being powerful enough to run everything that I need for my business.

If you’re looking at introducing new devices into your business, if you’ve got staff who travel or spend a lot of time on the road, or if you’re just looking to upgrade your laptops to include better security or manageability, the Surface Pro 4 should be on your shortlist.

Get in touch if you’d like to talk about how I can assist with piloting or integrating these devices into your firm, and the benefits your team could gain.

Matt Russell

I started MattRussell.co as a way to help business owners cut through the confusion and get real value from their IT systems. If you're a business owner who wants to improve your tools, or if you're an IT consultant helping business owners unlock their potential, you'll find something interesting here.

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