At the end of November I concluded with a post about how I was going to be all in on the iPad Pro and use it as my primary work machine. And then, as I was looking through Apple’s News app, I started to see a lot of people talking about the Surface Pro 4 versus the iPad Pro. The Surface Pro line has always intrigued me, and by all accounts many thought the Surface Pro 4 was the culmination of all of Microsoft’s work, and done very well at that.
I was intrigued by it, so I went in search of answering some of the questions I had about the device and overall how it works in use:
- What’s battery life like?
- What are the apps like?
- How are people using it?
These are pretty basic things, and easily found about the iPad — almost without trying. But I devoted an entire Sunday to my search and even though I trolled the depths of Reddit, I was still left with far more questions than answers. Every review I read seemed to only expand slightly on a press release, or generally assume the person coming to the device would be a long time Windows user, or a long time Surface user. All, terrible assumptions.
I never found a review that told me what the Surface was like from the perspective of someone who just hasn’t used Windows in a decade, or for someone who just has no clue what to expect. Or someone coming from an iPad even.
I was frustrated. Here’s a device which a lot of people are saying is a more compelling, and often a better option than the iPad Pro, but their proof of this amounts to little more than “trust me”. As I ranted all day on Twitter, it became clear I would have to try the device for myself.
I purchased one with a Type Cover 2 from Best Buy, my plan being: at the end of the test, keep which ever device is better (not better for me, better overall) between the Surface Pro 4 and the iPad Pro. I purchased the 128GB, Core i5, 4GB RAM model and red Type Cover 2. Some of you might think I am joking when I say I would switch from the iPad Pro to a Surface Pro 4, but honestly I would if it were the better machine out of the two — I’m not married to Apple devices as much I am to the device which is the best.
I immediately put the Surface Pro 4 to work as my main computer — much in the same way I use my iPad Pro — meaning I can and will jump to my MacBook when needed, but otherwise try to stay on the main machine. It is also impossible for me to remove my biases about the Surface, so I want to roughly outline what I think those biases are:
- I was fearful the Surface would actually be a better machine than the iPad Pro. Both all around better, and better for me. It felt like I was close to having to eat my words when I was standing in line to pick it up. I was almost certain, from what I was seeing, that me not liking the Surface would be little more than personal preference.
- But also, in the back of my head I thought there was no way it would be as good as iOS, just no way.
- I am a long time Microsoft share holder.1
- I really want Apple to have strong competition for the good of everyone (better products come out of strong competition) and for that reason alone I want the Surface Pro 4 to at least be a good machine.
With all of this said, here’s my full thoughts on the Surface Pro 4. Know that I was prepared to give this device a full month of usage before writing this, but I couldn’t even bear to use it for a full week — and even that was far longer than I wanted to go after just a couple days. Even still, I did my best to really dive into the ecosystem and dig for the good stuff about the device, which you can only glean from reading far too many comments on Reddit.
Hardware / Design
I’m starting with the hardware, because everyone I have seen is in agreement that the hardware itself is stellar. And I am in full agreement. This hardware and design of it, leaves me with no complaints. I am not doing that bullshit comparison with Apple products — this is really well made, solid, hardware. There’s nothing about it that I have a problem with at all from a looks or build quality perspective.
That should say enough for any readers of this site, but I want to talk about a few more things in further detail.
If you read this site regularly, you will note that I often dream of a kickstand for my iPad. This is my first time getting to use the kickstand for anything more than a demo in a store, and it is everything I dreamed of and more. It works exceedingly well and is a glaring omission on iPads. Being able to adjust the angle is nice, being able to have it just slightly tilted off the desk is nicer still, but always having a stand with you — needing no extra room — is the nicest part of the entire thing. The entire system, from the way it looks, to the angles it provides, to the way it feels is just perfect.
I would pay an extra $100 to have a kickstand like this on my iPad Pro, and I am quite surprised Apple has not outright swiped this idea from Microsoft. The iPad Pro practically begs for one.
The Surface Pro 4 has two forward facing speakers. At first the gap in the casing because of these speakers really bothered me, but then you listen to audio and you no longer care. Way better sound than even the new iPad Pro. Not better quality sound, but it is directed at you instead of parallel to your ears — no surprise here, but that makes a large difference.
To test this yourself and see what I mean, take a speaker and listen to it pointed parallel to your face and in front of you, and then point it at your face. Tell me which you prefer. The Surface Pro 4 has speakers pointed at your face, the only direction which makes sense — functionally speaking at least.
Type Cover 2
A lot of people profess their love for Microsoft’s Type Cover, with many saying this latest version is far and away the best yet. I agree: it’s very good. The keys are very large, backlit, and free of wiggle while still providing a good amount of travel. It feels like roughly the same amount of travel as on Apple’s Magic Keyboard — certainly more than Apple’s Smart Keyboard Cover for the iPad Pro.
The trackpad is also very good, but at times finicky about differentiating between a right and left click. If you are coming from a MacBook line of computers, then you are going to get tripped up for a bit being clear about which type of click you mean to make. You can get used to it, but it will take a bit. Even still I end up right clicking all over the place.
There’s two more parts of the Type Cover I need to talk about, and the first of those is the angle it sits at. If you notice in almost all the product images, the Type Cover magnetically sticks about a half inch to the bezel of the Surface Pro 4 and then folds down. This provides an angled keyboard, and I don’t like it at all. It’s too extreme for my fingers to comfortably type on. You can, however lay it flat out. It works, but it’s less than ideal. It is very clear the Type Cover wasn’t intended to be used this way, as it sits too far away from the device — requiring a lot of desk space — and it doesn’t like to stay very flat (it tends to pucker up near the hinge).
The Type Cover looks stellar when it is used with the angle, but it is infinitely more comfortable to type on when it is flat. Not only that, but it feels far more solid when laid out flat. When you are typing on the keyboard at an angle, it sounds hollow. But when it is flat on a desk, it sounds like a solid keyboard. I don’t see the need for that angle, and hope they ditch it for future versions.
All of this brings me to the last point: how does it compare to Apple’s Smart Keyboard Cover? In my review of the iPad Pro, I declared the Smart Keyboard Cover as one of my favorite keyboards on the market — it still is. The Type Cover is better, in every way. Though I prefer the fabric Apple chose, I prefer not having the fabric on the keycaps. The backlight is a welcomed addition as well. While I like the short nature of the Smart Keyboard better, the pure typing experience is better on the Type Cover, and at the end of the day typing experience is what matters the most.
This was a tough call for me, and the two keyboards are very close, but on different fronts. So I had to go with my gut and that’s the Type Cover by a small margin. It feels like a true laptop keyboard, whereas the iPad Pro Smart Keyboard very much does not. If you hate what Apple has been doing with keyboards lately, you are really going to love the Type Cover. Even if, like me, you like what Apple has been doing, I think you will like the Type Cover.
The Microsoft Pen has an eraser, the Apple Pencil doesn’t — be sure to keep that in mind since the naming is completely backwards here. That said, the Pen is almost completely different than the Pencil. Like with the Type Cover, there are some better and some worse things. Let’s go through what the Pen is packing first.
The Pen has both a tip for writing/drawing and an eraser. It also has two buttons, one at the eraser and one on the flat side of the pen near the tip. The Pen also magnetically attaches to the Surface with quite a lot of force, so much so I have yet to see it come off when I didn’t intend for it to. The Pen is powered by a AAAA battery, which is said to last 12-18 months. Lastly, the Pen has a clip on it — yuck.
The eraser button is really cool, as it has three functions:
- Click once to open OneNote and bring up a new note to write in.
- Click twice to take a screenshot, which is then opened in OneNote and allows you to make a selection for cropping the screenshot.
- Click and hold to activate Cortana.
I love all three of those functions, as they are very handy when using the Surface Pro 4. The other button on the Pen serves to invoke a right click when tapping the pen, and I have yet to use that in practice. That button is a little hidden and I only found it by reading more about the device on various websites. I still completely forget it is there.
Overall I find the Pen to be fine, but not outstanding. I like the quick access buttons on it the most for sure, but I don’t like the feel of the tip on the screen. To Microsoft’s credit here, they do sell other tips you can try out, which I have not tried. I should clarify that it is not a bad feel, it’s just too mushy for me. It feels like writing with a felt tipped pen to me, whereas the Apple Pencil feels like writing with a soft pencil to me — some will like the felt tip feeling a lot more, but I have never cared for that.
Which brings us to the comparison with the Apple Pencil, and as with the Type Cover these two come very close, but for very different reasons. The Pen is better as it needs no constant charging, it has awesome quick action buttons, an eraser, a place to store itself, and interchangeable tips. The Pencil is better as it has better screen feel, and better feel and weight in your hand. I write far more legibly with the Pencil than I do the Pen, and I think the overall writing and drawing experience is better with the Pencil.
That said, I also have to mention that outside of drawing the Microsoft Pen and the Apple Pencil interact with the OS in very different ways. The Pencil effectively works the same as your finger would when you aren’t writing/drawing with it. The Pen on the other hand works differently, as it works more like a cursor. A great example of this is a webpage. With the Pencil I can scroll the page, with the Pen if I try to do the same, it starts selecting text or clicking on things. I can’t fathom why this was the decided use case, but it trips me up all the time as it works opposite to how I would expect it to work. Using the Pen on the screen is effectively like using the cursor, only every time you touch the screen you are also simultaneously left clicking.
All of that said, I have to give the slight edge to the Apple Pencil here. It draws better and feels better in the hand and is a far simpler device while also working as expected in the OS. It is a very close margin though and I wouldn’t think twice if anyone prefers the Pen over the Pencil — they are truly that close. The Pen certainly expands Windows itself more (with the button shortcuts), but the Pencil expands apps inside of iOS more. The Pen, unlike the Pencil and Type Cover, comes free with the Surface Pro 4.
All of this brings us to Windows 10. At the outset I figured that if anything would cause me a problem, it would be Windows itself. It’s been the better part of a decade since I last used Windows, so going from what I knew in XP Pro to Windows 10 was a huge jump to make. I am happy to say that from what I can see (and once I got the Surface Pro 4 all updated) Windows 10 seems like a very solid and good OS. Like any OS it has its quirks, but nothing that I wouldn’t be able to internalize in a short amount of time. I don’t fully understand every aspect of it, but nothing stopped me from using it by any means.
The oddest part of Windows 10 is the tablet mode, and I am not alone in this as Reddit and other forums are filled with the question: “What benefit is there to using tablet mode?” Truly there is very little that I can tell, and that I have read about. In Tablet mode, the Start menu tiles are now your desktop, all apps launch full screen, and the onscreen keyboard comes up automatically if no other keyboard is attached. Overall I used Tablet mode a few times before deciding it just doesn’t make sense. I do think Windows should always present the onscreen keyboard if there is no other keyboard attached, but that’s a rather minor thing. Tablet mode isn’t compelling in any way, and I think that’s probably the worst trait of Windows 10 on a Surface Pro 4.
Overall Windows 10 is great, but as a tablet OS it is not great. So perhaps the most surprising thing is that I found Windows 10 enjoyable.
There’s this gimmicky sounding feature of Windows 10 where you can unlock the screen with your face. It’s amazing to use. If you wake up the Surface Pro 4 while looking at the screen it will sometimes unlock before you even see the lock screen, and it works really well. I honestly thought this would be a stupid feature, but damn is it useful.
I have no clue how secure it is in practice. I’ve read that it can’t be tricked by identical twins, but I have also read it can be fooled by pictures. I don’t know. What I do know is that it works really well to unlock the computer.
I like Siri and use Siri, but Cortana was a frustrating service to use. It has long lag times and doesn’t always parse what I am saying correctly. Overall the experience wasn’t great, but I also don’t think it is overly needed. While I use Siri a lot on my iPhone, I rarely ever use it on my iPad — same on the Surface Pro 4 with Cortana, I just didn’t ever need it.
One of the biggest looming questions I had going into this, was what the app market is like. I searched for lists of best apps, and other things that you might easily find for iOS and nothing came up with any sort of satisfactory answers.2 I was happy to see there is a Windows Store for buying software, much like the App Stores from Apple. There is also the plethora of third party software which has been lurking around for decades.
Overall though, the app market is sad. Putting aside design all together, the apps themselves were either functionally broken, or just laughably bad. I didn’t try any of the games, which dominate the Windows Store, but all productivity software I did try was shit. I won’t pull that punch either, because I truly mean “shit”.
Except for the stuff made by Microsoft. The entire Office suite is genuinely great. OneNote in particular is a delight to use. There are two versions of OneNote though, and I have no fucking clue why. The version you get from the Windows Store for free is so baked into the operating system that it is painfully dumb it doesn’t come installed (likely because Microsoft has gotten in enough trouble for this over the years). The OneNote 2016 version I got with my Office trial stays running in the tray, but isn’t used when you use the quick buttons on the Pen. The 2016 version does have a cool feature when you tap on the tray icon, bringing up a small window to take a quick hand written note. Very cool, but I have to have them both running? None of this makes sense to me. Office is an acquired taste, but it’s far better than what I have seen from it in the past 5-6 years.
The biggest app problem I kept running into is that many of the apps I rely on are not 64bit apps, and are still 32bit, so their performance is lacking. Slack, HipChat — both are 32bit Windows apps. This is a bit crazy and I think, sadly, indicative of effort being put towards Windows by what I will call ‘modern’ companies. Which is to say that these companies don’t seem to care much about Windows.
The third party software market for the Surface Pro 4 should actually be its strongest selling point, given the long history of Windows, but it is in fact the biggest drain on the platform. The apps just aren’t here. They are no where to be found. Not Tablet focused apps, not modern feeling third party windows apps.
This isn’t my being picky about the design of these apps either. There’s a bunch of “Markdown editor” style apps in the store but they are either broken (one lost a file of mine completely) or functionally laughable — not to mention all ugly. But I can stand ugly if stuff at least works. And that’s the thing, nothing is consistent. You think Twitter on the iPad Pro is laughable? Try Twitter for Windows. I feel bad for Windows users.
What Microsoft has put forth (and they give you a lot out of the box) is pretty much spot on. Well designed, and functionally great. It’s everything else that is missing. With enough sleuthing I could probably find a few solid things to use, but I don’t even have to try on OS X or iOS — it is just pushed in my face all day until I try it. I feel like I would have to constantly beg for good software on the Surface Pro 4, which it seems like is something Microsoft has been doing with limited success in the past.
To me this is one of the most damning things for the platform, but not the most damning thing.
I didn’t talk about battery life in the hardware section, because it really needs its own section, and it fits best right here. Because I have to say the battery life is an absolute joke. I had seen low end reports of 7 hours and high end reports of 9 hours on sites. In actual use, the most I got out of the battery was 4.43 hours of battery life. On any day when I did a video call (something I do often on all my devices) you can cut that number in half, likely more.
It’s an absolute joke.
In fact just editing this very post in Word, with the Edge browser open to grab some links, just that has me down to 72% battery life and I have only been at it an hour. To put that in perspective I have been using my iPad Pro for 5 hours and 6 minutes already today and have 55% battery remaining. The thing is, it doesn’t have to match the iPad Pro, but it has to be in the same county. Right now they are worlds apart.
You simply can’t make a device like the Surface Pro 4, something which begs to be used wirelessly, and have a shitty battery in it. If there is one reason not to buy the Surface Pro 4, this is it.
My iPad Pro can do an hour of video calls, a couple more hours of audio calls, and hours more of work and still have battery left at the end of the day —meaning the end of my day when I go to bed not when I stop with my day job work. I never once managed to get the Surface Pro 4 to last beyond lunch time, except for the day I was sick and didn’t start using it until after lunch, and the day I started to use it an hour before lunch. Still, I had to charge it at least once before I went to bed. It reminds me of computing circa 2005.
The battery life on this tablet is simply infuriating. There is a slower option, with a Core M processor which would likely be far better at power management, but honestly it would be too slow. This Core i5 feels like the slowest I would want, a Core i7 would be great, but can you imagine the battery life with that beast?
Real World Usage
Now that I have touched on the hard and fast points about the device, I want to talk about how it functioned in the real world. Just because I think certain things are shitty sounding above, it doesn’t mean they are a deal breaker for everyone, so let’s walk through what I normally do on a machine.
- Google Hangout
- Publish to my website
- Email (not much actually
That’s all very light work, and well within the bounds of what the Surface Pro 4 should be able to handle. And indeed it can mostly handle all of this, but there are some very problematic areas.
The biggest issue I ran into is that 4GB of RAM is not nearly enough to power this device — 8GB should be the minimum, and I wouldn’t laugh if someone said it needed 16GB as a base. This thing eats through RAM like I do when presented with a bag of tortilla chips and hot queso.
Running just Slack, HipChat, and the Edge browser would net me 80% or more used RAM on a regular basis and I consider that the bare minimum apps I need open at one time. It was a mess at times and you could really feel the strain On the system. There were times when my typing would be severely behind what I had actually typed on the keyboard to the point where it became a game for me to see if I could stay ahead of the damn computer.
The next biggest issue was the complete inability of the Surface Pro 4 to handle Google Hangouts. This is something I do all the time, and it was almost comical on the Surface Pro 4. I first tried in Google Chrome, but that ate over 50% of my battery life during a 40 minute call. Google Hangouts doesn’t work in the Edge browser, so I next tried it in IE 10. This was better for battery life as a 40 minute call ate about 45% battery life. But the entire time I was on the call in IE 10, the CPU was maxed out at 100% and the Surface Pro 4 got so hot that I actually didn’t feel I could hold it if I wanted to. Both my MacBook and iPad handle this with grace, so it’s beyond me why this is such a hard thing for the Surface Pro 4 to handle. Even viewing the video of other people on the call was choppy, and my coworkers told me they could easily spot when I was on the Surface Pro 4 and not my iPad Pro.
The next issue I ran into was good writing software. I wrote a lot in Word 2016, which is a nice app, until I remember Notepad still existed, but the drawback to Notepad is the complete and utter lack of spell checking. There’s just no other good app, and I bought many of them to try out from the store. There are many I know of from days past with Windows, but that was a search which I never got to before the device broke my will to keep chugging along.
When it came to publishing to my blog, I had to jump back to the MacBook as I could not figure out how to resize an image and compress it. I almost installed Photoshop for this simple task, before deciding to cut my losses and grab the MacBook. This isn’t ideal on my iPad Pro either, but I felt lost on Windows. I think this is solvable with more time on the system, as this is mostly my inexperience with Windows coming into play. Even then, there are plenty of times I grab my MacBook for this very task when working with my iPad Pro. This isn’t a deal breaker, but I did have a lot of trouble working with images in a similar manner to how I would work on my iPad Pro.
On a good note, I loved carrying the Surface Pro 4 and setting it up. It is a much better system, case, and pen holder than the iPad Pro. It feels more solid too. As a package of hardware it is really great and I loved taking it around and using it. But then you run into the battery life issue — this is a device you need to treat like a laptop: bring your charger with you. I opted to just bring the iPad Pro as a backup — almost a threat to the Surface Pro 4 each day that if it died the iPad Pro would take over. That threat didn’t work, unfortunately.
But, hey, the suede like feel of the fabric on the Type Cover is lovely to carry, I just don’t like my hands resting on it when typing. It feels more luxurious than the Smart Keyboard Cover though, so that’s something.
I don’t think, given more time on the system, that there is anything I couldn’t do on the Surface Pro 4, but I do think that I won’t ever be able to find software with as much polish as I can easily find — and often for free — on iOS or OS X. From what I gather,3 it doesn’t exist. And none of that even comes close to addressing the battery life and performance of the device itself.
I noted before, that with the MacBook the hardware can be slow because the operating system is so good at managing it — that’s the polar opposite of the Surface Pro 4, where the hardware needs to be faster just to address shortcomings in either the OS or the software running on the OS. The iPad Pro, as I have said, feels like the hardware is outperforming the OS — something I am sure the Surface Pro 4 dreams about as it watches me use my iPad Pro next to it while it recharges.
Outside of all of the above, I have some miscellaneous thoughts on the Surface Pro 4, which I have broken down into good and bad.
- The full sized USB port is really nice to have. I rarely use USB, but I needed to print some labels and it was so nice not to have to go dig for my adapter just to plug in the damn printer.
- When you are actively using the pen, and you reach a text entry field, Windows 10 will pop up a little rectangle that you can write in and your writing will be translated to text on the fly. This actually worked really well for me, and was a great thing to have. I really like this feature.
- The eraser on the Pen is very handy.
- The screen is gorgeous, just as gorgeous as all my other retina quality screens.
- The Windows News app is great, I like it a lot.
- The charger has a USB charging port in it, on the brick, which is great because you will need that to charge other things since you will always need that charger plugged in.
- The placement of the camera in the dead center of the landscape bezel on the Surface Pro 4 is awesome. I hate the front camera placement on the iPad Pro — it makes for awkward video conferences.
- When writing in the middle of the screen with the Pen, I could see the display flexing a bit and it unnerved me.
- I could not get the on screen keyboard to come up in Word 2016 when in tablet mode. Others report this works fine for them. No clue why this is.
- It can take forever to wake up the machine, often more than 10 seconds. When you are used to iOS, or even Macs, this feels broken.
- Many times, overnight, the machine would get into a state where once you tried to wake the device, it had to boot back into Windows as if it restarted or something.
- As a tablet, this is a non-starter. Flat out, it’s not a tablet.
- The charger plug has a white light on it. This is great, because you can see that it is charging. Except the light never turns off or changes color — even when the device is fully charged. So it is effectively pointless.
- When you plugin headphones with a built in microphone it doesn’t start to route all audio to the headphones. Sometimes it doesn’t even register the microphone. I need to try this with more pairs of headphones, but I only have one pair with an inline mic as it turns out.
By now you can probably tell that I won’t be keeping this device — I didn’t even make it past a week. It’s not that this device is bad — the battery life and apps are — but it’s that the device is disappointing. Using it, you can see how great it truly could be, but it doesn’t even come close to living up to that.
It’s not a tablet in any sense, which is fine, but it’s also not a great laptop either. I can’t see recommending the Surface Pro 4 to anyone. You are better off buying a full laptop, one which can hopefully handle simple Google Hangouts. You are better off with an iPad too. That will likely incite a great many fans of the device, but as it stands right now there is too much missing, which can be had for the same or less cost than you can get with the Surface Pro 4.
The iPad Pro will cost you the same, but you will get an App Store full of amazing software and a battery that can actually last through a full day of work. Most laptops will cost less, and maybe they won’t have as great of battery life (unless you get a MacBook Air), but at least they won’t get bogged down, or tempt you with the idea that you don’t need to worry about battery life. And even at that, the battery life on the Surface Pro 4 isn’t so much better than a laptop as to materially change the situation and use cases between something more mobile like the Surface Pro 4, and a laptop.
I wish the Surface Pro 4 was a better device, and I still think it can get there, but as of right now it is no where near there.
Not all hope is lost though. Since getting the machine I have installed two rounds of updates and with each round the device has gotten markedly better. None of that goes to address the software market for it, and I haven’t seen any noticeable difference in battery life, but it is getting better. It’s clear Microsoft is committed, which is why I wish I could keep the device and keep an eye on the progress it is making, but not at the expense of losing the iPad Pro — which has proven to me already how invaluable a computer it is.