In late 2015, Microsoft and Apple both released tablets they said could replace your laptop.
Apple’s iPad Pro was a great and super-refined piece of hardware. But to me, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 came much closer to the promise of being a true laptop replacement.
History now seems like it’s repeating itself.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, Microsoft is releasing a long-awaited update to the Surface Pro 4. The new model, which starts at $US799, will be called simply the Surface Pro.
A lot has changed over the last two years. But after testing the new Surface Pro for about a week, my take is similar — Microsoft’s new device is a better bet for most people than the Apple iPad Pro. Microsoft’s taken its inspired original design and refined it. While Apple seems torn over whether to focus on tablets or computers, Microsoft’s new Surface Pro is a killer device that incorporates the best of both kinds of devices.
Meet the new boss
With the new Surface Pro, Microsoft is abandoning its famous tagline, “the tablet that can replace your laptop.” Instead, it says the new device is “the most versatile laptop.” The change just reflects what’s been going on in the market — tablet sales are declining, and most owners of Surface Pro devices already use them as laptops.
The marketing message may be different, but the new Surface Pro is largely unchanged from its previous iteration, for better and, in some cases, for worse. It’s a great, little, lightweight, touchscreen Windows 10 laptop that’s perfect for road warriors and creative types. But it does come with a few tradeoffs.
Microsoft has made some nice tweaks to the new device. The Surface Pro is the same size and weight as the Pro 4, but includes Intel’s latest chips. The built-in kickstand on the new model can go as low as about 20 degrees, making it an ideal sketchpad. The new Surface Pro runs quieter and cooler than its predecessor.
And for the first time in Surface Pro history, Microsoft is offering models with LTE modems built in, so you can get online when you’re on the go.
The new Surface Pro also has a longer-lasting battery than the Pro 4. Microsoft says it will last about 13.5 hours, but that seems to be overstating things. I got around 6 hours of use per charge. Your mileage will likely vary depending on how hard you push it.
But Microsoft didn’t address some of the shortcomings of the previous model. Like the Pro 4, the Surface Pro only sports one built-in USB port. And the Surface Pro still doesn’t sit neatly in your lap, even with the official Surface Pro Type Cover keyboard accessory attached, thanks to its reliance on its kickstand.
Time to accessorize
Speaking of the Type Cover, you’ll need it to get the most out of the Surface Pro. The Type Cover is an attachable case for the Surface Pro that doubles as its keyboard and transforms it into a kind-of laptop.
The basic version of the Type Cover costs $US129. You’ll have to pay $US159 to get the luxury fabric-coated premium edition.
If you want the Surface Pen, you’ll now have to pay extra for it too. Instead of including the Pen with the Pro, as it’s done in the past, Microsoft is selling it as a $US99 accessory.
Microsoft has upgraded both the Type Cover and the Pen. The new keyboard feels a little nicer to type on, and its trackpad is more responsive. The Surface Pen is four times more sensitive to pressure than the previous version. And the Surface Pro will now recognise when the Pen’s tip is pointed at an angle to the screen, so you can shade with it like a pencil.
But the accessories add up. For a fully-tricked out Surface Pro, with the cover and Pen, you’re looking at $US1,059, and that’s just for the base model. If you want a beefier processor or additional memory, the base price can go up as high as $US2,700, plus another few hundred for those key accessories. It gets pricey, quick.
The good news is, if you own any previous model of Surface, your existing Type Cover and Pen will still work with the new Surface Pro, as will your wall charger. That can cut the cost a bit.
Versus Apple, versus Microsoft
When Apple released the original iPad Pro the hardware was pretty great, but it was held back by the apps that were available for it, which just weren’t as fully-featured or robust as their counterparts for Windows or Mac computers. The new iPad Pro is supposed to be even better, and the upcoming iOS 11 will give it a lot more laptop-like features. But Apple’s tablet still has the same shortcoming when it comes to apps.
In my estimation, the Surface Pro has a killer edge with Windows 10. Microsoft’s latest operating system is very good in its own right. But because the Surface Pro runs the full version of Windows 10, it can run a tremendous range of software, from the desktop versions of Microsoft Office to games like “League of Legends.”
For many people, the decision will come down to taste and familiarity. If you’re already getting work done using iPhone and iPad apps, the iPad Pro might well be perfect for you. But I’m betting that most of the time, Surface Pro will be able to handle a broader array of tasks for a wider range of people than the iPad Pro.
In fact, I think the Surface Pro even compares favourably with Apple’s MacBook Air. Both machines are thin and light, but the Surface Pro has a touchscreen. And for me, Windows 10 is better suited for getting things done than Apple’s MacOS.
If you’re in the market for an iPad Pro or a MacBook Air, you should at least consider a Surface Pro. As much as I’m loathe to repeat Microsoft’s marketing mantras, it really is a versatile little machine.
A more complicated question is how the Surface Pro stacks up against Microsoft’s other laptops. Since it released the Surface Pro 4, Microsoft has introduced the high-powered but pricey Surface Book and the student-focused Surface Laptop.
I’ll have more to say on this later, but the choice basically comes down to what you want to do with your computer.
At $US999, the Surface Laptop is, well, a regular laptop, making it better-suited to sit on your lap. That’s something that the Surface Pro is bad at. So, if you need a more traditional computer with a bigger screen, the Surface Laptop is your best bet.
The Surface Book has a detachable tablet screen, and more horsepower. But it also starts at $US1,499, making it a costly alternative. Plus, the Surface Book is bigger and heavier than either the Pro or the Laptop, something road warriors should keep in mind.
The bottom line is that while the Surface Pro has some tradeoffs, it packs a lot of versatility into a slim and portable design. Just know what you’re getting before you get it.
Get the latest Microsoft stock price here.