For the past month or so, I’ve used an Apple MacBook Air, Lenovo Yoga Pro 2, Dell XPS 13, and most recently, a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 — the tablet Microsoft says can replace your laptop.
I don’t know about that last part.
But when it comes to actually getting stuff done, I love using the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, which starts at $US899, more than any other computer I’ve ever tried. Including the MacBook Air.
Which is why it was so was heartbreaking when two consecutive Surface Pro 4 tablets up and died on me.
Here’s why I loved using the Surface Pro 4, and what went wrong.
Just off the top, the Surface Pro 4 has some serious compromises -- horse power, ports, and the ability to really use it on your lap come to mind. But in exchange you get a light, fast, high-performance touchscreen device for getting things done.
In lieu of a mouse, it comes with the super great Microsoft Surface Pen stylus for handwriting and precise movements.
Yet, it doesn't really get to 'Laptop Replacement' status without the $129 Surface Pro 4 Type Cover. Since the Surface Pro 4 comes with a full, no-holds-barred version of the Microsoft Windows 10 operating system, you need the keyboard to bring it up to its full potential.
But the Surface Pro 4 Type Cover is entirely great. It's backlit, the keys are beautifully spaced and comfortable to type on even for prolonged periods, and the mouse trackpad is JUST slightly less responsive than Apple's legendary version of the same -- which still makes it about a thousand times better than your average Windows laptop.
Even with the case, the Surface Pro 4 is thin and light, and is totally graspable in one hand if that's how you want to swing it. Note the funky 'Surface Connect' charger, which sits flush on the bottom.
That lightness and flexibility has other advantages: Kind of like an Apple iPad Smart Cover, it can fold back on itself to make a stand.
The Surface Pro stands up by using a kickstand that folds out from the back of the device. The disadvantage is that it doesn't really stay up if you don't have anything to brace it against.
Which means that the Surface Pro 4 is a laptop that's not actually great at sitting on your lap. This isn't actually something I do a lot, and I tend to use it in its tablet setting in those scenarios, but this is definitely something to be aware of.
On the other hand, the kickstand means that you can place the device in all kinds of various configurations, to your needs. I folded it this way so I could read a link and take notes on the included OneNote app during a Skype call.
There are other compromises with the Surface Pro 4. The main body of the device itself has only one USB port, plus a mini-HDMI port for external monitors, plus that weirdo charger.
There's one saving grace. The Surface Pro 4's power supply, the thing that sits between the wall and the device, has a USB port. But it can only handle power, not data. Which is to say, I can use it to charge my phone (as I'm doing here), but not sync it.
But there's a lot of stuff that a MacBook just can't do. The Microsoft Surface Pen, for example, has become my new best friend. Click the button on the back once, and it launches OneNote. it it takes a screenshot for me to edit with the stylus. Hold it down, and you get Cortana, the Windows 10 personal digital assistant. Turn it upside down and it's an eraser, just like a pencil.
Actually drawing with the Surface Pro 4 is a breeze. There's no real lag, so writing isn't a chore. And by using Microsoft OneNote, my scribbles get synced to my iPhone and other devices, too. I've taken to using the Surface Pro 4 for all my notes.
Since the Surface Pro 4 runs a full version of Windows 10, you get all the best parts of Windows, too. Not only can you split screen apps, which is nice when I'm writing a story based on notes I've taken in OneNote...
But you can evenly split the screen four ways. BOOM. It's not always necessary, but when you use it for things like moving files around, it's handy, especially for touch.
Another cool thing is that you can log in with your face, with what Microsoft calls 'Windows Hello.' They say it's impossible to fool. And it works a lot of the time.
While the Surface Pro 4 doesn't have a lot of juice for gaming, Windows 10 can stream games from an Xbox One console over a local WiFi network via the built-in Xbox app. So while hardcore PC gamers probably won't like it, the Surface Pro 4 can indeed be good for games for most people.
With access to all that desktop software, including full-featured web browsers, it can do most everything. For instance, even though there's no official Google Hangouts app for the struggling Windows Store app market, you can still get to it from the browser like on any other computer.
In a lot of ways, the Surface Book laptop (which I haven't tried) seems to address a lot of those compromises, with a hinged connection that stays up on its own and a ton more graphical horsepower for movies and games. But it also carries a much higher price tag -- it starts at $1,499.
Despite how much I loved using it, I can't recommend the Surface Pro 4 because of what seems to be some glitchy hardware. My first one had what Microsoft promises was a flukey hardware error, and kept throwing me Windows 10's completely adorable version of the Blue Screen of Death. Eventually, it failed completely. I can't even turn it on now.
I was willing to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt, especially since my replacement seemed to be fine. But after about a week, this second Surface Pro 4 started registering 'phantom clicks' in the top-right of the screen, which constantly selected, moved, and closed windows -- and I wasn't even touching the screen. This was apparently a known issue with the Surface Pro 3, but we haven't seen many complaints about it with the SP4, and Microsoft told us they haven't seen this problem at scale. Regardless, I can't use it anymore either, which is super disappointing.
For me, personally, the Surface Pro 4 just perfectly matches the way I work, compromises and all. It's light, it's fast, and it has the tools I need and want to get stuff done -- at least, when it works. But how does it stack up against the Apple iPad Pro, the new challenger? Stay tuned...
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