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Surface Pro 4 – Real field experience

Let’s start by a quick introduction. I’m a geek; I’ve been using devices in mobility for a while. Since using a handheld I was dreaming that one day, I would be able to have only one device next to my phone for all my uses. Until recently, the number of devices in my bag only grew. Until one day in April this year, when the Surface Pro 4 made the dream coming to life…

Surface Pro 4 at desk

My Surface Pro 4 home desktop setup

Back in 2003 I used for less than few days a Slate Windows Tablet PC based on Windows XP. I liked the stylus idea, but the experience was not so great, especially because most applications where not yet designed for this. Since then, the tablet situation has changed a lot. With Vista and then 7, tablet pcs evolved, and while the stylus was getting better, the rest of the hardware was still far from perfect: heavy, low battery life (expect 2 hours and a half at best). Then came the iPad, which changed a lot the state of the art for the slates: good battery life, light, but with a mobile OS and its limitations and no stylus. Then came Surface, and Surface Pro. I will focus this piece on Surface Pro 4, which replaced my previous 2 years and a half old Surface Pro 2 one month and a half ago.

I ordered on mid-march a Surface Pro 4 with a Core i5, 8Gb RAM, and 256 Gb SSD. I added a Black Type Cover, and a docking station. It was ordered on a Wednesday on Amazon, and next day it was delivered. I basically opened it and plugged in the charger and started the configuration (I have a low bandwidth connection at home (2M at peak), so assuming it would take a while to download everything, I would use the Surface Pro 2 until Friday evening, while the Surface Pro 4 got updated.

One thing that I didn’t like during the configuration was that I had to set my start menu: compared to Windows 8.x which reproduced it on each device, it is not the case with Windows 10, which I find odd, as I really appreciated to have that synced between all my devices. At this small exception, the setup experience of Windows 10 is as you expect quite streamlined and efficient. The cherry on the cake is Windows Hello: it setup assistant guided me to set it up right after the association of the machine with my Microsoft account, followed by the setup of a pin code as a backup (just in case it doesn’t work as expected). And Hello facial recognition works very well, with or without glasses, being in the dark or in the light (I guess the problem will be to remember the password on the long term for many people…).

The Microsoft docking station

On Friday evening, I unplugged my former Surface Pro 2 and its docking station, to replace it by the Surface Pro 4 and its respective dock, it was all set, with the two ultra wide screens (Dell U2913W, 29” 2560*1080 screen resolution) plugged via display port on the station. The new docking station features key improvements compared to the previous iterations:

  • Two display ports instead of one. Before, to plug 2 screens, you were required to use screens compliant to DP 1.2 MTS standard, and chain the second one behind the first one. Now this is still possible, but you can also use one display port on the station for each screen.
  • The angle of the tablet is no longer fixed. The connection between the dock and the tablet is done by the cable and not by the docking station itself. As a result, you can now use the tablet to draw on it as you are not tied to a single inclination while docked to the station (this was among the main concerns I had with previous Surface docking stations): as a result, a Surface Pro 3 or a Surface Pro 4 can now be used for graphic inputs, similar to what you would be doing with a Wacom Cintiq tablet.
  • There is a gigabit Ethernet port while it was fast Ethernet only on the SP2 docking station
  • The four USB ports are all USB3 (against one with the SP2 docking station)

My Setup & Experience

On the desk, with the two screens, it almost fully replaces a desktop (the desktop has been now re-purposed and specialized as gaming rig – and it is its only use). My former SP2 was also used in this configuration with less RAM and less SSD space and the Surface Pro 4 only does better in this area.

There was a noise concern during the few first weeks of use, with the fan kicking quite often, but this changed during last week of April with the last firmware and drivers update. It is no longer the case, and the fan became rare, and when kicking in, barely audible. And Windows 10 makes use of multiple screens just great with the improvement made on snapping modes (edge of screens act as magnets for the windows when you travel them on the screen, making the positioning of a windows quicker – something the ones using only one screen will never notice).

But I did not choose my Surface Pro 4 for a desktop only purpose… Let’s talk about mobility now. And let’s put first a disclaimer about my previous device: In the past while I used my SP2, I found it too heavy for my note taking, and I bought an additional 8 inch Wacom enabled windows 8 tablet which became my specialised note device (with the second rationale that it could be a backup device, just in case).

First obvious point here: the Surface Pro 4 is lighter, and combined with the instant availability (SP2 did not have Connected standby) I do not have to use my 8 inch tablet anymore. More than being light, the Surface Pro 4 is well balanced, and it has a good battery life. And it comes with connected standby, which means that it is available in a second, either by opening the type cover, either by pressing the power button, or by pressing the eraser of the stylus. This a is making it perfect for note taking and the integration of the stylus makes a real difference beyond the simple fact of note taking:

  • One press on the eraser of the stylus opens OneNote to allow you to take quick notes (over lock screen, you will be writing in a new page)
  • Press twice on the eraser and it will take a screenshot (very useful in some context, sure everyone who do manuals or support will understand what this brings in)
  • One long press on the eraser opens Cortana

As a result, you will finally consider that even without taking notes, the Surface Pen is bringing something key. Better: you can even set the actions of the eraser button to something else. But to come back on the note taking or drawing experience, the precision of the new pen is greater and the feel is perfect: the experience approaches what you may feel writing on a paper.

The last generation of Type Cover is much better than the previous generation. It is more rigid, the typing experience is better with a good travel of the keys (better than on recent Macbook), and it finally comes with a great touchpad with glass surface and the size seems to be a very good compromise, while the sensitivity would be similar to what you would expect from a Macbook. It is so good that I sometimes forgot to switch my Bluetooth mouse on, which is something that never happened with my previous machines.

Let’s talk about battery life

My Surface Pro 4 is now about a month and a half old. I saw recent went through with the updates provided over April; those upgrades have tremendously improved stability (specially wake up from standby) and overall battery life. On average, within my normal conditions of use, I’m now able to reach a bit more than 8 hours of battery. There are however some key elements to take into consideration to reach this battery life :

  • Prefer Store application versus equivalent desktop applications : most legacy desktop Windows application have not been designed with battery life in mind. I still have both available on the machine f. However, I would use the desktop version only once plugged in.
  • For browser, I prefer to use Microsoft Edge while on battery. Edge is consuming less battery than Chrome. And while it doesn’t have extensions yet in production release, they should come with next Windows 10 update which would be released in July 2016. The difference in terms of battery usage between Chrome and Edge could be between 10 to 20 percent depending of your use. On the browser side, I’m eagerly looking into Opera last announces : they are promising something even greater on that side… Probably further testing to do…
  • Ultimately, in rare occasions, I still experience some battery life issues : I often test beta store applications, and it happens that sometimes it consumes much more than expected. I would then try to troubleshoot to understand from where comes the battery drain, and eventually I would uninstall the culprit (powercfg /energy and powercfg /sleepstudy command line options are really helpful in this area)

Conclusion

The Surface Pro 4 is my perfect mix of laptop, convertible and tablet. It works perfectly for my use, it is versatile and provide a good battery life and it definitely reduced the number of devices in my bag. At the end, I have only my Surface Pro 4 in it, and that is probably the best conclusion I can provide for this test.

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Marc Wecker

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