Apple Inc. (AAPL) may be the company that commercialized the tablet with the iPad in 2010, but it’s Microsoft Corporation (MSFT) that designed a tablet that can realistically replace a laptop PC: the Surface Pro.
After a somewhat rocky introduction in 2012, Microsoft kept the original Surface Pro’s basic form factor, but relentlessly improved the design. The launch of Windows 10 improved the experience further.
The Surface Pro 4 is the fourth generation of MSFT’s 2-in-1 tablet and Microsoft hasn’t been shy about touting its superiority to Apple’s MacBook Air.
I happen to own the latest MacBook Air and Microsoft sent me a Surface Pro 4 to test out, so now seems like the perfect opportunity for a hands-on review with a nod to that MacBook Air comparison Microsoft keeps making.
Will the company’s latest professional tablet live up to the hype? Read our Surface Pro 4 review to find out.
Surface Pro 4 Review: Tried and True Form Factor
The first Surface Pro reviews praised two of Microsoft’s design choices in particular: the Surface Pro’s built-in kickstand and the optional Type Cover.
The combination of the two is what makes the Surface Pro such a successful form factor. Pull out the kickstand, flip the magnetically attached Type Cover to reveal its keyboard and the Surface Pro transforms into a passable laptop.
I say “passable” because while it works well on a flat surface, on an actual lap it’s pretty awkward. A flat bottom laptop is more stable and more comfortable. The Surface Pro 4 release included an improved Type Cover that’s stiffer and Microsoft also just released a new premium Signature Edition Type Cover that the review unit was equipped with, but the basic issue remains.
The Surface Pro 4 has the same dimensions as the previous generation Surface Pro, but shaves a little off the thickness. Equipped with a Type Cover, it’s roughly one pound lighter than the 13-inch MacBook Air, although the Apple laptop is good for an additional three hours on battery power.
As a laptop — especially one that’s not always used on a nice, flat surface — the MacBook Air wins on usability and battery life, but the Surface Pro 4 is lighter and offers the advantage of doing double duty as a tablet.
Surface Pro 4 Review: Killer Display, Spring for the Core i7
The Surface Pro 4 absolutely destroys the 13-inch MacBook Air when it comes to the display.
The Microsoft tablet is 12.3-inches, just an inch under the MacBook Air’s 13.3-inch screen, but the resolution of the Surface Pro 4 is much higher: 267 pixels-per-inch compared to just 128. The Surface Pro’s display isn’t just far sharper, the color reproduction and viewing angles are better as well.
And the Surface Pro 4 supports touch and pen input, while the MacBook Air’s is for viewing only.
It was tough to compare the performance of the two devices. The review unit Microsoft sent had a 6th generation Intel Corporation (INTC) Core i5 CPU with 4GB of RAM, while the MacBook Air was equipped with a 5th generation Core i7 and 8GB of RAM.
The Surface Pro 4 seemed really sluggish in comparison, but I’ve spent time with review units that had better specs and they were impressively responsive. I don’t know if it was the mid-range processor, the low amount of RAM (8GB and 16GB options are offered) or the fact that the review unit would benefit from a clean re-install of Windows 10, but the $999 Surface Pro 4 was seriously smoked by the $1,349 MacBook Air.
I don’t think I’d even consider the cheapest, Core m3 option …
I suspect if the Surface Pro were equipped with the 6th generation Core i7 and 8GB RAM, the story would be much different, but in that configuration the Surface Pro 4 would cost $250 more than the MacBook Air, plus another $130 for the Type Cover ($160 if you want that Signature Edition version or the one with Fingerprint ID).
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that in the Core i7 configuration (which is the one MSFT uses for its comparison), The Surface Pro 4 is going to be a more powerful package than the similarly equipped MacBook Air, although at a bit of a price premium.
Surface Pro 4 Review: Specs
- 12.4-inch Multi-touch PixelSense Display at 2736 x 1824 pixel resolution with Surface Pen support
- 6th generation Core i5 CPU
- 4GB RAM
- 128GB SSD
- USB 3.0, microSD card reader, Mini DisplayPort, Cover port
- 5.0 MP front-facing camera, 8.0MP rear-facing camera
- 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0
- 9-hour battery life
- Surface Pen included
- Magnesium alloy frame
- Windows 10 Pro pre-installed
- 11.5 x 7.93 x 0.33-inches, weighs 1.73 pounds
- MSRP $999
Note: Specs reflect the Surface Pro review unit supplied by Microsoft; other configurations are available.
Surface Pro 4 Review: Conclusion
There’s a reason why everyone from Apple to Samsung (SSNLF) and Alphabet Inc’s (GOOG, GOOGL) Google is now selling a professional tablet with a magnetic keyboard cover. Microsoft’s Surface Pro has proven to be a hit with the prosumer, ultra-portable crowd.
Microsoft has done a superb job of stuffing what are essentially the guts of a business-class laptop into a tablet form factor, including niceties like accessory ports. However, the Surface Pro 4 is expensive. Even the base model Core m3 version (which I wouldn’t recommend) starts at $100 more than the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, while the Core i7 version with 16GB of RAM and 1TB of storage pushes the price to $2,700.
And don’t forget, you need to buy the Type Cover as well.
However, for the money — and as long as your definition of laptop doesn’t actually include using it on your lap and you don’t mind a tablet that’s a little on the unwieldy side — the Surface Pro continues to cover both bases reasonably well.
Maybe not as well as a MacBook Air on all fronts of the laptop side and not as well as an iPad as a consumer tablet (good luck finding your favorite mobile apps for Microsoft), but as a single device it remains pretty tough to beat. Especially if you’re a creative professional who can take advantage of features like support for Windows applications and the Surface Pen.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.