Sunday, December 27, 2015

My first week with the Microsoft Surface Pro 4

Not a review

Third times' the charm and the Surface Pro 3 announced last year was probably the best representation of a tablet which can replace a laptop. But the question is, how do you succeed a pretty solid device. Well, Microsoft's new Surface Pro 4 tablet builds upon the existing form factor of the outgoing Surface Pro 3 and improves on it with some new hardware configurations all while boasting a thinner and lighter design. The star of the show is the new 12.3" PixelSense display which has 5 million pixels and also Intel's new Skylake CPUs which are more efficient compared to the Haswell processors on the Surface Pro 3.
New Surface and Lumia, thoughts on the Microsoft event"While Apple happily called Microsoft the productivity masters during their iPad Pro announcement, Microsoft was not shy to compare Apple's products with their new hybrid tablet offerings. Panos Panay did not directly compare the new Surface devices to Apple's iPad Pro but instead did a more subjective comparison between similar products." Continue reading.
But despite the somewhat incremental update, there has been a fair share of the problems that Microsoft is facing with the Surface Pro 4 (and Surface Book). The Surface Pro 4 has been plagued with some hardware defects and software issues from screen bleeding to speaker pops and issues with battery life, this is by no means a small problem since there has been a lot of complaints and Microsoft even issued an official note to acknowledge the problems being faced by early adopters. Even I had problems buying the Surface Pro 4 and had to outright replace the first unit that I received due to a hardware defect.

So, yeah I bought the Surface Pro 4 last week and I have been using it to do some daily tasks for the past week. After an adventurous week of dealing with some software and hardware issues of the Surface Pro 4, here's what I think about the device.

Old vs New

I am not new to the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 as I have been playing around with it in the last year. So, I am quite familiar with the overall hardware of the two generation of Microsoft's tablet hybrid. The first thing that everyone is highlighting is that the Surface Pro 4 is lighter than the Surface Pro 3 but only by a margin. But the truth is that the new Type Cover with island styled keys is actually physically heavier than the old Surface Pro 3 Type Cover. Add it up with the new Surface Pro 4 and boom! The Surface Pro 4 is a heavier product overall…by 3 grams. Not something that you will notice but the heavier Type Cover probably has to do with the new glass trackpad.

Surface Pro 3 - 798g
Type Cover (2014) - 295g
Surface Pro 3 combo - 1,093g

Surface Pro 4 - 786g
Type Cover (2015) - 310g
Surface Pro 4 combo - 1,096g

Another thing that I have noticed is that the microSD card slot on the Surface Pro 4 features a spring loaded mechanism opposed to the manual frictio slot on the Surface Pro 3. Not a major game changer but I can tell you that it is easier to unmount the microSD card now and it'll probably not accidentally disconnect. Since we're at the hinge, while Microsoft didn't specifically point out that there is a new hinge on the Surface Pro 4, I think that the mechanism has been improved. For one, the braces that hold the hinge is now a little wider and the Surface Pro 4 friction hinge can now stay open even if it slightly opened, something that just could not be done on the Surface Pro 3. Again, this does not mean anything in terms of real world performance.
Finally, physical hardware on the Surface Pro 4 has been altered to suit the new features on the Surface Pro 4. Most notably is the capacitive Windows button on the right has been removed to make way for the larger 12.3" display. The volume rocker which used to be on the top left corner has been moved to the top to make way for the embedded magnets to serve as a pen loop holder for the Surface Pen. And the last change that I noticed is the edge of the kickstand which will rest on the table or your lap is now a little wider for better comfort.

Hardware

The Surface Pro 4 is actually my very first laptop, previously I was using a used Dell laptop inherited from my sibling and It feels great to have something brand new. In terms of choice, I was considering between the Dell XPS 13 and Spectre X360 alongside the Surface Pro 4. All three devices were in the same price bracket and the hardware specifications were all identical. Ultimately, I went with the Surface Pro 4 mainly because I wanted Surface Pen to. But my second choice would be the Dell XPS 13 because of it's excellent battery life and compact form factor. Plus the fact that the XPS 13 has a USB Type C port and Thunderbolt connector which Microsoft is yet to implement, maybe next year.

Surface Pro 4 specifications

  • 12.3" 2736 x 1824 PixelSense display
  • Skylake Core m3, i5 or i7
  • Intel 515, 520 or Iris graphics
  • 4/8/16GB RAM
  • 128, 256, 512 or 1TB SSD
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • 802.11 ac Wi-Fi
  • 5MP front camera
  • 8MP rear camera
  • 292.1 x 201.42 x 8.45mm
  • 786g(i5/i7) or 766g(m3)

Firstly I have to say that the Surface Pro 4 is actually a little heavier than what I was expecting it to be. Sure it may be the most compact tablet on the market right now but there are times where I feel that the Surface Pro 4 + Type Cover combo is a little heavy to my liking. But the exterior hardware itself feels very nice, the bezels are just about right (not that thin to restrict holding it as a tablet) and the placement of the volume rocker to the top edge is not that inconvenient as I thought it would be. But, the shiny Microsoft logo on the back of the Surface Pro 4 is bugging me as it is a fingerprint magnet but it also serves as a pretty convenient little mirror.
Windows 10 Day 3: Using Windows 10 with a touchscreen"Probably the simplest one is gestures, Initially I thought that Microsoft removed the Windows 8 gestures in Windows 10 but it turns out that they did keeps some of the useful ones (another hit for my Windows 10 review providing somewhat false information). If you swipe in from the right of the screen, the Notification Center will come out but if you swipe in from the left, the Task View will come up and my personal favorite gesture." Continue reading.
I opted for the 128GB with 4GB RAM Surface Pro 4 which costed $1,229 with the new Type Cover. The 128GB of SSD storage is actually just about right for me as I don't play games and most of my files are on OneDrive. But, I would have liked an option for 8GB of RAM as it can be a little limiting when running emulators on Visual Studio to deploy applications.

As for the Surface Pro 4 itself, the screen is excellent with nice color and ample headroom in terms of brightness. Speaking of the screen, Windows 10 defaults to a 200% scaling the Surface Pro 4 but I found it a little restricting in terms of space on some programs so I tuned it down to 175%. Windows Store applications in general have been optimized for the high resolution display but some Win32 applications still look a little fuzzy when scaled up. One example of the scaling issue is with the video player Microsoft Edge, the player controls are not scaled up to size when compared to the same video player on Google Chrome.

Type Cover

Just like every other year, Microsoft is still selling the Surface Pro as a tablet only with the Type Cover still a premium $130 accessory. I don't see why Microsoft doesn't just include it in the box or provide a bundle pricing for the Type Cover. Just look at all the advertising content that Microsoft uses with the Surface Pro 4, most of them feature the Type Cover even if was something related to the functionality of the Surface Pen. The Type Cover is an integral part of the Surface Pro and I would recommend you to get it even if you don't type that much as the Type Cover also acts as a protective layer for the Surface Pro 4's display.

The new Type Cover this year comes with island styed keys (spaced out) which features an impressive 1.5mm key travel and also backlighting all in a cover which is just 4.95mm thin. For me, they spaced out keys is way better than the one found on previous type covers but I am still getting used to typing on the Type Cover. I am still pressing some wrong keys but it should get better over time. Performance in general is pretty impressive for such a thin keyboard but I am not a fan of the deep clicky sound that the keyboard makes. It's a little louder to my liking but I did notice that the keypress sound is louder when it's propped up to the second angle opposed to being laid flat on the surface (no pun intended).

In terms of the keys layout on the new Surface Pro 4 Type Cover, I am quite happy with the size and placement of the keys. The SHIFT button is nice and wide, the backspace button is also nicely sized, the row of hotkey buttons on the top is just what I needed (thank god there's a dedicated print screen button now) but I am a little disappointed that there's no CTRL button on the right side. Beyond the new keyboard layout, Microsoft has also jammed in a new precision glass trackpad that is good enough to refrain myself from using the touchscreen.

However, just like the new keyboard, the clicking sound on the new glass trackpad is just as loud if not louder than the keyboard on the Type Cover. But overall, this new Type Cover is a joy to use. I am personally not a fan of the soft felt on the outside of the Type Cover as it attracts dust easily but I did try cleaning it with a damp cloth and that did the trick. The new keys and glass trackpad is cool but I would have liked to see the keyboard take it to the next level like having some battery cells to extend the battery life. That would be cool and I wouldn't mind the extra bulk for better battery life.

Surface Pen

To me, the Surface Pen is still a little foreign and it doesn’t feel as 'cool' as all the promo videos depicted it to be. I mostly use it to navigate on the screen when using the Surface with the Type Cover so I don’t over smudge the display with fingerprints. But other than that, I still have not found a proper use case with the Surface Pen in my daily workflow but I am looking into taking notes on OneNote with the Surface Pen but it'll take a couple of weeks (or maybe even more) for me to get used to that.

As for the Surface Pen performance, I still notice a little parallax when inking text on OneNote and doing some coloring in paint. Also, inking on the Surface pro 4 display for long periods of time isn't that comfortable as the display gets a little toasty. But things like palm rejection and the handwriting keyboard is superb in recognizing my somewhat poor handwriting. Personally, I am not an artsy person and my drawing standard is pretty basic, I'm not even sure what the difference is with 256 and 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity, to me it's the same.

The new Surface Pen that comes with Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book comes with a new design and also some color choices when bought separately. Unlike the previous Surface Pen, this iteration only comes with two buttons, one on the top of the pen which also doubles as a handy eraser and the second button at where your thumb or index finger rests. The second button which acts as a right click is actually a little hard to press because it is sitting quite flush with the pen.

Through pre-installed surface app, Microsoft allows users to customize what happens when the top (eraser) button is pressed. At stock, a single click will launch OneNote, a double click will take a screenshot and a long press will launch Cortana. For my use, I modified the single click to launch Wunderslist and left the double click as an empty command. Finally, the magnets on the left edge of Surface Pro 4 holds the Surface Pen pretty nice, I have yet to see it slip out.

Software

Of course this runs on Windows 10 and you can say that Microsoft somewhat built Windows 10 around the new Surface Pro 4. The deep hardware and software integration allows the Surface Pen to perform at it's tip top condition without any latency issues compared to other third party apps. I am quite happy with Windows 10 so far and I have been using it since it was made available to everyone on July 29. But on the Surface Pro 4, Windows 10 has it's issues like the problem with standby time when the device is in sleep and the trackpad occasionally does not function even after installing the latest hardware update which was made to address this issue.
Windows 10 review"Microsoft has already made it clear that Windows 10 will be the last version of Windows as the company moves towards Windows as a service. This means that future version of Windows will be called Windows 10 and only the underlying version number will be update each time. With this new Windows as a service scheme, Microsoft will constantly innovate." Continue reading.
Speaking of software updates, I had to install like a bunch of updates on the first day and updating took about 4 hours even with the SSD, I was expecting it to be a little faster since it's not on a hard disk. And to top it off, I had to install the same set of updates a second time because I had to replace the first unit that I received due to a hardware defect with the left speaker. Also, the fan is basically turned on the whole time Windows 10 was updating and also when I was installing Microsoft Office and Photoshop. I can tell you that the fan is by no means quiet. Adding upon that, the Surface Pro 4 in general will always activate the fan when i'm on Chrome. I am not even sure if this is some hardware or software issue but the fan sound is getting a little annoying
Well, the reason why I insisted on installing all the updates first is because I want to play around with the Windows Hello biometric login. It was only made available after a hardware update and setting up Windows Hello to detect my face for a secure login was pretty simple. Just set up a pin and let Windows Hello scan your face for a couple of second and that's it. I have been using it very frequently and most of the time it managed to sign me in when I turn on the display.

Other than Windows Hello, I am also liking the Continuum feature on Windows 10 which automatically changes to tablet mode with the fullscreen Start Screen when I fold the Type Cover back and use the Surface Pro 4 as a tablet. It also switches back to normal desktop mode when the keyboard is back in use. The experience is pretty smooth and I wonder why It wasn't turned on by default.

Conclusion

Overall, I am quite happy with my decision of choosing the Surface Pro 4. The battery life and the ergonomics of the kickstand is not perfect but I think I'll grow into it as the time goes by. I am actually not too bothered about the battery life as I'll mostly be using the Surface Pro 4 plugged in. But after one week of using the Surface Pro 4, I can firmly recommend the Surface Pro 4 to anyone looking for a new laptop even if you are not into the digital inking thing, the Surface Pen and touchscreen will come in handy.

Looking for another article to read? Take a look at my previous article where I talk about what happened with my purchase of the Surface Pro 4 in Malaysia which took nearly 1 month to arrive. Continue reading.


Insider Talk

This is actually not a review by any means, just the usual first impressions but I did notice that my paragraphs about the Surface Pro 4 has been quite in depth and somewhat sounds like a review. So, maybe this is some sort or a quick review? At the moment, I am planning to do a full review of the Surface Pro 4 only in February next year. This should be one of the last articles of the year, stay tuned for some articles about CES 2016, should be an interesting year ahead.