Saturday, May 21, 2016

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Review: Nearly perfect

Should you buy a laptop or a tablet? That question still remains to be answered. Apple in particular is betting that tablets (iPad Pro) is the solution for the future. But in the Windows camp, Microsoft and it's partners are going multiple ways. The most popular and versatile option being the 2-in-1 form factor which is able to be both a tablet and a regular laptop. Microsoft's Surface Pro lineup has come a long way. Being refined each and every part of the way, the Surface Pro 4 is nearly a perfect machine for being a tablet and also a laptop for day to day use.

In terms of the hardware, Microsoft has got it spot on but the software in the other hand is not as perfect as the Surface Pro 3 when it first came out to the market. I will be taking this review from a basis of a computer rather than a tablet, because honestly, I rarely used it as a tablet because Windows 10 just isn't made for touch.
My experience in buying the Surface Pro 4 in Malaysia — "I waited for a few days and out of the blue, an email from Lazada came up saying that my order has been cancelled and that a refund towards my payment will be made in the next two days. This made me very even furious compared to what I was facing when they told me to wait for two weeks" Continue reading.
Before jumping into the nitty gritty stuff, I have to talk about buying this Surface Pro 4 itself. It's no secret that Microsoft was having some serious yield issues in the start mainly due to Intel not having enough Skylake processors for production. But that was Microsoft's side of the problem, my side of the problem has to do with a combination of hardware and logistical issues.

Long story short, the unit that I am using right now is the second Surface Pro 4 model because the first one I got had a dead left speaker and the online store I ordered mine took 3 weeks to tell me they were out of stock. You can read more about that story here.

Design


This is Microsoft's 4th attempt at making a tablet that can replace your laptop, most of the exterior changes made are merely design tweaks. Gone is the Surface branding as Microsoft is trying to be like some fruit brand with the reflective Microsoft logo on the back. The logo on the back not only serves as the only branding on the device but is also a handy mirror if the screen on the front is not reflective enough for you. But, the shiny logo has it's drawback, it is a fingerprint magnet. And if you're hoping for a shiny Intel Skylake sticker, there's not one here.

And of course, Microsoft's signature kickstand that gave the Surface line it's name is present here on the Surface Pro 4. It is not much different from the one on the Pro 3 but I did notice (when comparing the Pro 3 and Pro 4 side by side) that the hinge mechanism on the Pro 4 is a little larger and that the Pro 4 is able to stand out more of a 85 degree angle before snapping in.

For the most part, the kickstand served me well. However, I did come to realize that the kickstand is not as versatile as a laptop hinge and the most apparent issue is that the kickstand cannot go beyond the 90 degree angle. To solve that, I usually prop the kickstand on something like a book to get that desired angle.
As a whole, the device feels great in the hand. The ports and the buttons are nicely laid out and in the case of the buttons, they feel very tactile. The magnets on the side used to secure the Surface Pen is a nice touch and most of the times, the pen does stay pretty snug on the side. And probably the best design choice of all is the microSD card slot which sits under the kickstand. Some people might be ticked off by the microSD card slot but I personally only use microSD cards these days so the slot is very useful for me
Skinning the Surface Pro 4 — "So, is it worth the money? I would say yes because they are using high quality materials and compared to other skins available, drband has the most affordable prices. I will most likely try dbrand once again when I get my hands on a new smartphone" Continue reading.
Also, here's a tiny thing that Microsoft improved with the Surface Pro 4. That is that the microSD card slot is now spring loaded opposed to the manual release slot on the Pro 3.

The overall design of the Surface Pro 4  looks good, but I can't stop imagining it with that black magnesium case that earlier Surface models came with. It's not that I don't like the silver-esque color but since there are multiple Surface Pen colors available, there should also be multiple color options. Since Apple is already starting to give their laptops the pink paintjob, I guess it won't be long before Microsoft start making the Surface available in different colors.

Performance

The model that I have been using is the baseline core i5 model with 128GB of SSD storage paired with 4GB of RAM. Personally, I don't use too many applications and I am pretty content with the 128GB of storage which rounds up to about 60GB of storage for me to keep data locally after installing all of the essential applications that I use. However, I am certainly not happy with the 4GB of RAM. I really don't understand why Microsoft didn't make 8GB of RAM standard on the Surface Pro 4. The price of DRAM is only going lower over time and it's not like the SP4 is using DDR4 memory, it is just the usual DDR3 low voltage cards in single channel.

Another gripe I have is regarding the absence of a USB Type C port. Most of the laptops coming out these days have it and it's not like the Intel chipset doesn't support the new interface. I would have liked to see a USB C with Thunderbolt capabilities replace the mini-DP port and it be cool to charge the Surface with a external battery pack. The single USB port in the other hand is just right for me, my only use for it is to plug in the Logitech Unifying receiver for my mouse.

Surface Pro 4 Key Specifications:

  • 12.3-inch PixelSense display (2736 x 1824)
  • Intel Core i5 6300U @ 2.4GHz
  • Intel HD Graphics 520
  • 4GB LPDDR3 memory
  • 128GB SSD
  • 8MP rear camera
  • 5MP front camera
  • Wi-Fi 802.11ac & BT 4.0
  • Windows 10 Pro
  • USB 3.0 port
  • Mini DisplayPort
  • 3.5mm jack
  • 292.10 x 201.42 x 8.45mm
  • 786g
  • $1,129
But other than that, I am pretty content with the overall performance of the Core i5 6300U processor. Honestly, processors these days are pretty capable for the usual work like browsing the web and using Microsoft Office. As a student and an occasional blogger, what I do is mostly relates to some heavy web browsing, Photoshop, OneNote, some coding and a lot of Twitter (I interchange between Tweeten and the Twitter app). I personally do not play any AA or AAA games by any stretch but I have recently become addicted to the Disney Crossy Road game which is not at all CPU intensive.

But seriously, Crossy Road is very addictive

For years now, I have been relying on my desktop which has a 23-inch monitor. Those were the days. I had my doubts when I decided to get the Surface Pro 4 which had a 12.3-inch display and the number itself already sounds small. Surprisingly, I got used to the smaller screen pretty quick. By cranking up the scaling from 200% to 150%, I felt pretty much at home.

For me, the default 200% scaling makes things look a little too big to my liking and only at 150% that things started to look like my desktop monitor. Most noticeable is at that scaling, the facebook and twitter website has a nice padding on either sides.

Some people might disagree with me on the 150% scaling because the text and icons look very small. This is a very personal kind of thing and people have questioned me when they use my Surface on how I'm able to survive with things looking so small. But there is something that is constantly bugging me, scaling on Windows 10 is still not perfect. At 200%, everything scales nicely but when toned down to 150%, some programs end up looking badly scaled.

btw, if you want to see benchmark scores, check out Anandtech's review here

Type Cover 4

It is a little silly that Microsoft still doesn't include the Type Cover with the Surface Pro 4 nor do they have any bundle pricing if you buy the Type Cover with the Surface Pro 4. The new Type Cover 4 has been redesigned with new island styled keys and a larger glass trackpad. In day to day use, the trackpad is very fluid in scrolling and reacts nicely to the Windows 10 gestures most of the times.

One thing that is a hit or miss is the Type Cover connection to the Surface. I wouldn't say it is bad but it is certainly not perfect. Sometimes it just randomly causes the trackpad to not work while the keyboard functions normally. And often times, putting the Type Cover flat on the surface causes it to disconnect. Not exactly sure if this is a software issue or a physical connection issue.

The overall typing experience is very good, keys are nicely spaced out, the backlighting is quite effective and the key layout is just the way I like it. Would have liked another 'Ctrl' button on the right though. However, there is something that I have noticed, typing on the keyboard while it is propped up at the second angle tends to bring out a deep clicky sound. The keys feel solid but the Type Cover 4 is by no means a quiet keyboard.

That is why sometimes, I prefer to type with the keyboard flat on the surface. Particularly in the library.

Another thing I've noticed is that the cloth like material that the Type Cover 4 is made out of tends to attract a lot of debris. However, that is easily fixed with a damp cloth.

Last but not least is the lapability factor. You can't talk about the Type Cover 4 without mentioning it's lapability. The Type Cover 4 is capable of being used on the lap but not for long periods of time as the hinge resting on my bare legs is not the most comfortable thing. Also, given the nature of the setup, I found that using the keyboard is fine but using the trackpad is not that ergonomic at all

Windows 10

The Surface Pro 4 comes with Windows 10 Pro and since I got it back in December, there has been quite a number of firmware and software updates released to improve the hardware performance of the device. For the first few months, the big problem was that the Surface was unable to properly go to standby mode which caused the CPU to continue running even after it was put to sleep.

This causes the Sleep of Death (the scenario where the Surface could not be turned back on without a soft reset) to take place randomly when the Surface goes to sleep. What made the Sleep of Death annoying is it's unpredictable nature, sometimes when I am rushing to class, I end up just putting it to sleep and chucking it in my bag. When I take out the Surface in class (20 minutes after), the whole Surface is so hot because the CPU is running but the fan is not turned on. fyi, that also cause the battery to drain pretty badly.

That was one of the problems that caused the delay of this review. But Microsoft did eventually release a patch that fixed the issue. The problem might be fixed, but I will always live in the fear that the Sleep of Death will come back once again. It's actually pretty scary. On the bright side, this sleep issue has taught me how to soft reset the Surface and also acquainted me with the UEFI Bios

Another problem that has bugged me like big time is the fans. For some wild reason, the fans will ramp up to maximum speed when the processor usage is low. This is an unexplainable issue, sometimes the fan goes full speed and sometimes it doesn't. I am not particularly sure why this is happening but I can bet it has something to do with Windows 10.

One of the coolest things about Windows 10 is Windows Hello which is Microsoft's biometric authentication platform. On the Surface Pro 4, Windows Hello comes in the form of an iris scanner. This is definitely the coolest thing on the Surface Pro 4...when it actually works. Whether it works or not really is up to luck. But it looks like Microsoft is working on improving iris scanning algorithm as there has been quite a number of updates on it recently.
Windows 10 review — "Formerly called Project Spartan, the new Edge browser looks nothing like IE other than a few similar design cues. It looks somewhat like Firefox with a Windows 10 theme put over it. Deep down, Microsoft made a lot of changes to the core runtime of Microsoft Edge to give it a performance edge" Continue reading.
Honestly, there isn't too much to talk about Windows 10 on the Surface Pro 4. Most of the new Windows 10 stuff like the Start Menu and Cortana I have already talked in my lengthy Windows 10 review and not much can be said until the Windows 10 Anniversary update comes out. With that update, I will be able to talk in detail about the specific features that takes advantage of the Surface Pen.

As for my opinions of the Surface Pen?

In the last couple of months, I only used the Surface Pen a couple of times. Even as a student, I have only tried taking notes with the pen a couple of times only as I still prefer to type than write. The latency for me is still an issue coupled with the fact that the screen gets pretty warm after writing for long periods of time making the experience not so pleasing.

Battery Life

This is the tough part, I would like to say that I managed to go through a full day with a 100% charge but that's not the case here. The Surface Pro 4 barely even makes it through half a day on a full charge. There are reviews out there which claim that you could get about 7.5hours of battery life which is pretty darn close to Microsoft's claim of 8 hours of battery life. But the fact is that software (and firmware) updates are rolling out pretty often and each update brings a new set of changes to the battery performance. Sometimes it's good and sometimes it's bad.

The best that I could get is around 5 hours of constant usage and that is with the brightness turned down to 0% and the device being in Airplane mode. With Wi-Fi on and the brightness set to 50%, I only managed to get a little over 2 hours of battery life and I was using Edge opposed to Chrome. The battery life is frustratingly bad and I need to always lug around the power brick.

Conclusion


The biggest drawback of the Surface Pro 4 has to be the software experience. Even 6 months after it's initial release, the software is still buggy. The bad software caused a lot of issues to stability, performance and battery life. The Surface Pro 4 might be thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air, but it just cannot compete with Apple's 12 hour battery life.

Microsoft has built a magnificent piece of hardware that is very versatile in different situations and the idea of using magnets to attach things is still very much original. But I would rather have a slightly thicker and heavier device than a buggy one.
My first week with the Surface Pro 4 "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." Continue reading.
The Surface Pro 4 is not what you call an affordable system, you could easily buy something from Lenovo or Asus with the same specs or even better for the fraction of the cost. I chose the Surface Pro 4 mainly because I seem to have a thing for Microsoft and I love the idea of the convertible form factor. As a student, I did not have a load of money to spend on a computer. So, I am fortunate to have gotten this.

So, how has the convertible form factor thing gotten to me? Well, I have to say that I am liking the form factor but the software in my opinion is still not taking full advantage of the hardware. I hope that with the improvements being introduced with the Windows 10 Anniversary update will make me want to use the pen more often. The pen in my opinion is the most unappreciated thing on this device.


Insider talk

This is the first tablet/laptop review I have done on this site. Previously it was just smaller devices like phones and wearables. What I can tell you is that this review took a long time to write and curate. I did have some initial drafts but those did not seem to capture what I was experience. I could have published those revisions but I didn't. I believe that this final version you are reading has everything I want to express in the best possible way.

Most of the photos you see have been taken months ago which shows how much I have been planning this article. I actually took a lot of photos and tried out different styles but the photos you are seeing is just a portion of it. The more the review was delayed, the more photos I managed to capture. Besides the Windows 10 review, this is probably my second longest article I have ever written. In terms of the actual delay, I believe this is the second most delay article, the most delayed being the Star.21 review which took almost a year to complete.

one other reason why i don't use it as a tablet because it is heavy, don't want to break a $1,000 tablet. At about 1kg, the Surface Pro 4 is not a light tablet by any means.

dw