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10 tips to make the most out of the Microsoft Surface Pro 4

There are two things that have amazed me about using Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4. First, Microsoft didn’t set a bunch of settings which should have been done by default – or as part of the installation process. Second, the seasoned tech bloggers who write about the Surface don’t have a good understanding on how enterprise customers would use such devices.

With that in mind, here’s my list of SP4 tips.

Get the keyboard and dock

The $130 SP4 keyboard is pretty decent, and don’t bother buying the fingerprint version, it’s a waste of $30 (read below to understand why). It also (if you set it up right, read below) allows your SP4 to switch automatically between tablet mode and PC mode. Neat.

The $188 Surface Dock is compatible with Surface Pro 3 and 4 and supports up to two 4K screens. Microsoft’s documentation isn’t great but I believe they can only be driven at 30Hz, not 60Hz, despite the fact that the Intel Iris graphics card in the i7 Surface Pro 4 supports 4K at 60Hz. Still, that’s pretty decent.

Enable Microsoft Hello

For reasons unknown to me, the biometric login of Microsoft Hello isn’t enabled by default. This enables password-less login using a 3D thermal image of your face, and is amazing. Because it’s infra-red, it works in extremely low light.

You go to Start -> Settings -> Accounts -> Sign-In Options and enable Windows Hello from there. Make sure you use the “Improve Recognition” button a few times to get a great picture of your face.

Setup Cortana

Like Hello, Microsoft’s personal assistant, Cortana, is not properly configured out the box. This means it doesn’t know who you are, or recognize your preferences. Thankfully, Microsoft made this pretty easy to configure.

Select the round dot next to “Ask me anything” on the task bar and the Cortana preferences will come up. You select the second icon down, which is the Cortana Notebook, and make your way through each of the settings. This massively improves the experience.

Install all the updates

Unfortunately my SP4 came with very out of date software. It took 10+ restarts to get all the updates in, and firmware updates for the SP4 come every week that make things better.

In the latest update, battery life finally got better, up to ~6-7 hours, which is a huge improvement. I don’t get anywhere near the claimed 9 hours, but such is life.

If you don’t want to support Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 beta testing program (irony intended), then hold off buying the SP4 for a few months. They are ironing out bugs continuously.

Disable Sleep and Enable Hibernate

Sleep doesn’t work right on the SP4; instead, if you put it to sleep, the battery will drain. Microsoft are supposedly working on a fix, but in the meantime, you can (fairly) easily disable sleep.

Go to Start -> Settings -> System -> Power & Sleep -> Additional Power Settings -> Choose What the Power Buttons do, and change all of them to Hibernate from Sleep. Now, your SP4 will Hibernate instead of Sleep.

This isn’t as annoying as it sounds, because the SP4 wakes from hibernate in 5-10 seconds.

Enable Automatic Tablet Mode

Again (see a theme here?), Microsoft didn’t enable automatic tablet mode. The SP4 can be configured so it knows when you are using it as a tablet or PC. Flip the keyboard over and it can turn into tablet-enhanced mode, which is great.

Go to Settings -> System -> Tablet Mode and change the “When this device automatically switches tablet mode on or off” to “Don’t ask me and always switch”. Yay!

Use Battery Saver Mode

Battery saver mode seems to make the CPU a little less hungry and dims the display a little. If you are on a plane, you can use this and squeeze out 25% more battery with very little downside.

Plus, the SP4 is well over-powered for most of my use cases, so whatever performance degradation the battery saver mode brings, doesn’t hurt me too much.

Use the SP4 on take-off

One of the best things about the SP4 is that unlike a full laptop, you can flip the keyboard over and use it as a tablet during take-off and landing. The FAA rules on this aren’t exactly clear (they state small handheld electronic devices), but I have not been asked to put the SP4 away yet.

Once up in the air, you flip the keyboard over and turn on the kick-stand, and work as a regular laptop. Some airlines like Southwest, and the new American Airlines planes, offer WiFi from gate to gate, so you don’t even need to stop talking to the team online. Even when you lose 15 minutes of connectivity at either end of the flight, you still win ~30 minutes of work back in the day.

Configure the Surface App

The surface app is a bit short on features (more come with each release), but it allows you to configure the pen sensitivity to your liking, and configure the pen as a remote. This allows you to get better handwriting and is pretty neat.

Use OneNote for remote collaboration

I’ve got a workshop on Monday morning and won’t be able to make it in person due to other conflicts. I’ll pull open OneNote tablet version and share my screen with them across the country and start to white board.

Once the meeting is complete, you can switch to the full OneNote desktop version (yeah, there’s work for Microsoft to do to integrate the two versions) and use handwriting recognition to turn your notes into text.

Final Words

I’m still going to be returning the SP4, but won’t manage to get to the store before January due to travel commitments, so I’m going to be using it for a few more weeks.

What’s interesting is that as Microsoft slowly solves the glitches in the hardware and software, it becomes a much more usable device. There are still several serious glitches, but I’ve managed to work around most of them so I have a device which I can make do with. Will I be a convert in the next 3 weeks before the returns period expires?

Either way, I hope these practical tips help you configure your SP4 to be a more useful device. Did I miss any?