Microsoft Surface Pro 4 First Glance – a heart breaker and a deal breaker

As those that know me will know, I’m a big fan of Apple products. Some call me a fanboy – but my view is that I like them because they work. I’ve owned my Mid-2012 MacBook Pro 15″ since… Mid-2012, and have barely lost a day of productivity. The last time the MBP was out of action was when I dropped it on the corner onto granite, and dented it. Apple took it in and replaced nearly everything, a process which took a few days.

That said, 3 years is a long time in technology, and the MBP has seen better days. It’s out of warranty and some of the connectors have stopped working, and it’s getting a bit slow. It’s time for a replacement and the rumors are that Apple will have a new machine in Q1 of 2016.

And here it is that I find myself browsing the world of computers.

Why not the iPad Pro or MacBook?

I love the new MacBook, it looks great. But, for me it is underpowered and the keyboard is a little cramped, and I’m certain that it’s not well built enough to survive the pounding that anything I own will go through. I went through 3 MacBook Airs before I was smart enough to move to the Pro, and those light machines can’t handle it.

As for the iPad Pro… it’s just a big iPad. That will suit some people, and the screen and battery life are glorious, but I can’t download 20GB of email from Office 365 locally, or curate complex documents. A few of the reviews have said the same – the iPad Pro is an awesome consumer device, but it’s no laptop replacement.

A Mid-2015 MacBook Pro isn’t an option – it’s way too incremental an improvement over what I’ve already got. So Apple… you’re out!

Then it must be the Microsoft Surface Book?

The next logical device is the Microsoft Surface Book. On paper, it looks like it’s the ultimate laptop convertible. There seems to be no downside to this thing! It’s a laptop… it’s a tablet… with 12h battery life and no downside.

My take on the Surface Book is that it’s very much a first generation device. Is it the future of computing? Hard to tell. Certainly, it appears to offer the best of both worlds, but the battery as a tablet is very limited, for example, and it can’t charge from base station to tablet – you have to be plugged in. I also heard various problems with docking and undocking the base.

I walked into Best Buy and they admitted that whilst they did have Surface Books in stock, I couldn’t see one because their demo device didn’t power on any more and they were awaiting a replacement from Microsoft. That sealed the deal.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

And so it is that I find myself writing this on a Microsoft Surface Pro 4. I’m sat on the sofa, tapping away on the keyboard on my lap, with the kick stand propping up the screen. The keyboard case is remarkably stiff and I find myself typing remarkably quickly, though I’m still not quite used to the offset keyboard, so accuracy is off.

For the last week I’ve been traveling with both my SP4 and my trusty MacBook Pro, so I can be sure not to lose productivity. I’m not ready to make a final conclusion yet but I think you’ll find the initial findings interesting.

It is conceptually amazing

The concept of the SP4 is amazing. It’s light, it’s a tablet, and it has a detachable keyboard. It claims a 9 hour battery life and Windows 10 is convertible-friendly, so you can switch in between use cases on a dime.

The screen is fantastic – detailed and crisp with great colors, and the kick stand means you can get comfortable on any surface. Microsoft Edge is a good browser and is quite effective in tablet mode, which is very nice browsing on the sofa, where you can detach the keyboard and save all that weight.

I’ve got the i5 version so it’s not got the raw power of a MacBook Pro, but I find it responsive and speedy enough for my needs. I figured the i5 version would have better battery life, and it’s far less expensive. Office 2016 is also awesome, and can be downloaded via your Office 365 subscription.

It excels at some things

The SP4 absolutely excels at some things. For example I just ran an off-site, and I used OneNote with the pen to take notes, taking pictures of white boards with the camera, and it was awesome.

Same with being used for email in a café or train station – you can pull it out, and the keyboard is remarkably good to get out content quickly. I used the iPad Pro keyboard and was much less impressed. It can’t match a full size keyboard like the MacBook Pro, but it’s not far off.

It misses the mark in the real world

I’ve been trying to work with the SP4, but so far it’s not met my expectations. See, there are deal breakers.

First, the Wi-Fi is flakey. This is well documented on the web, and running all the updates in (which takes 4 reboots and over an hour) helps. But I still can’t access my iPhone hotspot, which means I get no internet on the go.

Second, the claimed 9 hour battery life is simply not true. In very modest use, it’s 3-4 hours of browsing and email. I don’t understand how a consumer product company is allowed to make statements like this. I guess you might be able to get 9 hours of video playback with the screen turned off.

Third, the usability is off. I put the SP4 down and then pick it up some while later and open the keyboard flap. It doesn’t turn on, you have to press the button for this. And depending on how deep it has gone to sleep, you have to wait several minutes for it to come to life. Or sometimes it doesn’t come to life at all and you have to hard reset.

I’ve taken a hard line – I must try to use the SP4 first, and use the MBP as a backup device, but too many times I’ve got frustrated with the SP4 because I had actual work to do, and pulled out the MacBook Pro.

Fourth, the tablet mode isn’t quite right. I had a Lenovo Yoga, and that converted automatically between tablet and PC mode when you flipped the keyboard. Not so with the SP4, you have to manually switch, which is frustrating. What’s more, many apps (Slack, for instance) aren’t tablet-enabled, so they aren’t responsive and the on-screen keyboard gets in the way. Slack is my primary messaging tool, so that’s another deal breaker.

And last, the so-called lapability factor of the SP4 is off. The kick stand means that the keyboard is 3″ closer to you than in the MacBook Pro, which means that the SP4 is horribly uncomfortable on an airplane or train, and because it doesn’t have a hinge, the keyboard and screen don’t support each other. On a flat surface, it’s awesome, but elsewhere, it’s really unpleasant.

Final Words

I’ll be traveling with the MBP and SP4 over the next few weeks and I’m hoping I come to like the SP4 more. Perhaps it will come into its own in situations I haven’t encountered yet.

But for a fourth generation device, the SP4 has too many deal breakers.

5 thoughts on “Microsoft Surface Pro 4 First Glance – a heart breaker and a deal breaker

  1. den

    Yup – I’m with you there John. I looked at both iPad Pro and Surface 4 and came to the same conclusions. Others say that the iPad Pro is just a fab (and insanely expensive) consumer device. The keyboard is rubbish. Surface Pro almost got me but like you, I could see all sorts of gotchas with the kickstand and found the keyboard sort of ‘hmmmm.’

    Unlike you, I didn’t fork over the $$$ only to be left with buyer’s remorse.

    The best outcome for me would be a re-engineered 15 inch MBP that has a touch screen but loses some of the flab.

    Again, like you, I’ve had very good service out of the MBP range but unlike you I’m on my 4th in 4 years. One I destroyed with an ill timed slop of vino, one went tits up and had to be rebuilt but I was able to pass that on to a colleague who loves it, another I reengineered myself but even then ran into performance issues and added weight. My latest MBP ain’t much different to the last one I really loved but augmented with the new external keyboard, trackpad (I hate Force controls) and a 27 inch screen. It’s like the old Mac but more so and still portable.

    Looking forward to a refresh in 2016 that I would seriously consider if it has enough RAM/disk and uses a decent graphics controller instead of the shitty ones they’ve been shipping the last few years.

    1. John Appleby Post author

      To be fair, the keyboard is surprisingly useable. I’m not so much slower than on the Mac with some practice.

      The 2016 MBP is practically guaranteed to have a discreet GPU option because the integrated Skylake GPU cannot drive a 5K screen, but the DisplayPort 1.3 standard supported by Skylake does support 5K in a single cable. I think Apple will go big with this machine.

      If the iPhone is anything to go by, Apple has been ruggedizing its devices. Perhaps the next MBP will be vino-resistant?

  2. Shane

    Just some notes – I think a lot of the issues are Windows 10 based. I’ve had to create a custom power mode to get the power usage and ‘wake’ settings right.
    Also, I run the preview version of Windows 10 – wifi issues have been fixed (mine never ever used to automatically connect to a known wifi).
    Tablet mode is automatically switched on when you disconnect the keyboard…granted, not the same as folding it back and switching into tablet mode, but useful to know.
    Also, I highly recommend the ‘Surface’ app to be downloaded- it gives you a few options to customize the surface to your liking.
    Good luck!

    1. John Appleby Post author

      Thanks Shane. I’m going to update this shortly because the first major update to Win10 has come and it has transformed the Surface. Looks like many of my complaints were indeed caused by Win10. Will download the Surface app and see if that helps further.

  3. Pingback: Microsoft Surface Pro 4 - The Return - People, Process & Technology

Comments are closed.