Before you wade into this, it might be helpful to know that I’m in the graphic arts industry, working as a trainer, writer, production artist, and retoucher. Thus, my primary applications are Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. Only rarely do I venture into Microsoft Word, and I only launch Excel when I have to fill out an expense report. Consequently, my requirements are that a laptop have a good color display, plenty of RAM, and good performance.
I’m a Mac user of 25 years’ standing, and I still regard the Mac as my native habitat. But because most of my clients in the AEC (architecture, engineering, construction) space are on Windows, I need a PC laptop for training sessions. I’ve had ThinkPads for years, because I value their reliability and excellent keyboards, but they were heavy. After years of carrying around heavy MacBook Pros and ThinkPads, I switched last year to a MacBook Air and a Surface Pro 3—together, they weighed about what my 15-inch MacBook Pro did.
So, why buy a Surface Pro 4 when my SP3 is only a year old? Well, the increased RAM (16GB; the SP3 maxes out at 8GB), the new model weighs a skosh less (1.7 lb, as compared to the 1.8 lb SP3—big deal), has a slightly larger display (a whopping 12.3 inch in versus the 12 inch SP3), and the supposedly even better stylus and keyboard.
The package is Apple-like in its elegance and simplicity (put down the pitchforks, fanboys). There’s a clear plastic tab on the lower right corner with a subtle pointer indicating that you should make an incision so you can pull out the innards. There is almost no text, no instructions, just a lovely photo of the SP4 on the sleeve. If you lack the spatial reasoning skills to open it, you’ll never get to enjoy the SP4.
Pull the protruding inner box out, then lift the two thick flaps to reveal the Surface on the left, and then use the finger-hole in the cover on the right to reveal the power supply.
Lift the Surface, and you see the small user guide and the new pen. Documentation is minimal, in keeping with the intuitive design of the Surface. Again—so much like Apple.
The clear protective sleeve on the SP4 is imprinted with icons to show you where the major controls (on/off, volume control, camera lens indicator, camera-on light, microphone) are. Peel it off to get started.
When you power on the Surface for the first time, it displays a series of friendly progress notifications as it wakes itself up.
Continuing the minimalist approach to documentation, a single screen presents the controls for the redesigned pen.
It was the pen that first won my heart and tempted me to buy a Surface Pro 3, and the new pen is even better. The HB tip doesn’t “click” like its predecessor; its tip is slightly soft, but not mushy (like a firm fiber point), and feels like a very fine point gel pen as you lay down ink. The two buttons have been replaced with a single strip along one side of the pen, which serves two purposes. It allows the pen to snap magnetically to either side of the Surface screen, and the bottom of the strip can be pressed (much like a trackpad button area) for a right-click.
The pen now boasts 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity, up from 256 levels in the SP3 pen, and can also be used with a Surface Pro 3 (although it doesn’t snap quite as securely to the side of the screen). Not all applications take advantage of this refinement, but Photoshop retouching is a dream. Being able to draw directly on an image makes mask creation and retouching considerably easier. And I’ve recently discovered ArtRage, which offers natural-media-like pencil, pen, and watercolor tools that respond beautifully to the Surface pen. The top of the pen functions as an eraser, if an application supports it; Photoshop and ArtRage do, and the eraser is also pressure-sensitive.
Four replacement tips for the pen are available in a set for $10, in a range of hardnesses (B, HB, H, and 2H). The pen ships with an HB tip. Oddly, the replacement tips don’t ship with the Surface Pro 4 pen, but replacement pens ($59.99) include the 4-tip set. The tip case even doubles as an extractor when you need to pull out a tip for replacement; its bottom half actually comprises two curved plastic arms, which can be pinched together to grasp an installed tip.
You can use the Surface Pro 4 as a tablet, relying just on the touch screen to navigate and type. I would go nuts; I need a real keyboard, so I consider the type cover indispensible.
The updated type cover features a larger trackpad, now made of smooth glass. It comes in Black, Blue, Bright Blue, Red, Teal, and Onyx (a special black version which includes a Fingerprint ID feature). The keyboard is full-sized, more rigid than its predecessor, and the gaps between keys are a tad wider than those on the SP3 type cover. The type cover is not included with the Surface; you have to purchase it separately (about $130). When it’s folded over the tablet, it puts the Surface to sleep, like the iPad’s Smart Cover. It isn’t Bluetooth; it connects directly to the Surface with 6 tiny teeth connectors and a very strong magnet. There’s no separate charger for the type cover; it charges when it’s connected to the tablet.
A second magnetic strip allows the keyboard to snug up to the tablet at an angle that elevates the rear edge for a comfortable typing angle. Because of the sturdier build, this works better than the SP3 keyboard, which flexed too much for my tastes; I used to press the keyboard flat on the desk for an even more stable feel But I don’t find that necessary with the new type cover. By the way, the new type cover works with the SP3, too.
The svelte power connector block contains a USB charging port—how thoughtful is that? The connector itself is magnetic, snapping into the port on the right side of the tablet. On battery power, the tablet provides up to 9 hours of video playback, according to the Microsoft specs.
Because I use the SP4 for Photoshop, and need to demo Creative Cloud applications to audiences, I sprang for the 16GB i7 version with a 512GB SSD. (I’m also hoping that maxing it out the RAM will help me resist the next version when it arrives.) The SSD makes for quick launch of the OS and applications, and 16GB RAM allows me to run Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign comfortably, along with the occasional browser or other app.
The SP3 could not burn a CD/DVD for some reasom (hardware/BIOS limitation, apparently). I didn’t expect the SP4 to be able to do so, but tried it anyway. Pleasant surprise, it works! Of course, you have to have an external burner.
There are a lot of pixels packed into the 12.3-inch display— 4,990,464 of them, in fact. The pixel dimensions are 2736×1824—that’s 267 ppi, almost print resolution. Details are crisp, and modern applications should adapt to the high resolution. Older apps, though (such as Adobe’s CS6 apps and the CC version of Bridge) display with miniscule text that’s unreadable even with my cheap drugstore reading glasses. The only solution for those apps is to change the display resolution to a setting that will drive you nuts. So if you depend on older apps that will still run on Windows 10 (the SP4’s native tongue), but aren’t adapted to high-res displays, you’ll have to juggle your display settings to make those apps bearable.
I found the display’s color rendering to be very close to my Eizo ColorEdge CG241W; running a calibration with my X-Rite i1 Display Pro tweaked it to perfection.
The kickstand on the Surface is unique: it can be positioned to any angle— from barely cracked at 1 degree, to almost 180 degrees. I have no idea what the method of retention is, but it’s secure, and doesn’t “creep” while you’re working. When I’m working in Photoshop, I like to rotate it about 70 degrees, so the top of the tablet is slightly elevated off my desk.
While the kickstand is versatile and nicely engineered, it does sort of saw into your leg if you’re using it on your lap, as a, well, laptop. And its finely machined edge doesn’t provide much traction, so the Surface can slip off your lap if you’re short like me.
But here’s an easy fix. Go to your neighborhood auto parts store and pick up some plastic door guards. I picked the clear because they seemed a bit softer (and thus probably having better traction) than the black ones. But, hey, go for the chrome ones if that’s what thrills you. Cut to length and slip over the kickstand edge, and you’re good to go. There’s no adhesive, so you can remove if you wish.
The SP4 has only one USB 3.0 port, no optical drive (where would you put it?), and no Ethernet port. So you’ll probably be wanting to accessorize. This is the Domino Effect: buying the computer is just the beginning. The expensive part is preparing the nursery for the new baby. I recommend:
Type cover: Only a crazy person would try to survive with the onscreen keyboard, and you’re not crazy, are you? Standard type covers are $130; the special Onyx cover with a fingerprint reader is $160. Well, it’s $159.99, but I’m tired of typing nines.
USB Hub ($10–$20): You might want to use a mouse and possibly an optical drive, so consider getting a multi-port hub with at least one powered port.
USB-to-Ethernet adapter ($8–$20): If you need to connect to secured networks, pick up a small Ethernet adapter. Even better, some USB hubs include an Ethernet port, so consider getting a two-for-one solution.
Mouse ($10–$40): The trackpad is excellent, if you’re a trackpad fan, and you already know I love the pen. But for graphics programs, I find the trackpad annoying. My favorite is the wireless Logitech M525, about $40. It’s not too big, not too small, and travels well—it’s the Goldilocks mouse.
Mini DisplayPort video adapter ($10–$40): If you want to connect the SP4 to an external monitor or a projector, you’ll need a video adapter. You might want to check out Monoprice.com for connectors and cables; their prices are suspiciously reasonable, but I’ve found their products to be perfectly fine. I have three adapters—MDP to VGA, MDP to DVI, and MDP to HDMI. Note: if you’re connecting the hi-res SP4 to an old 1024×768 VGA projector or monitor, you may find your display image area shrunken on the tablet screen, and you’ll have to juggle resolution. Because of this, and because common business projectors often do a lousy job of rendering color when I’m teaching Photoshop, I bought my own projector (Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 2030; it’s gorgeous).
Microsoft Wireless Video Adapter: Connect the Surface wirelessly to your TV or projector. Note: the adapter has two ends—the HDMI male end, and a USB male end, required to provide power. With an older projector or TV, you may have to do a bit of creative adaptation to provide power to the receiver. I was lucky; both my oldish Samsung TV and my Epson projector have USB ports in addition to the HDMI port. On another TV, I had to rig up a powered USB port; no big deal—just one more wire to contend with.
Surface Dock ($200): Attached to the power port via the special SurfaceConnect cable, the Dock (which works with the Surface Book, Surface Pro 4, and Surface Pro 3) provides 2 Mini Display ports, 1 Gigabit Ethernet port, 4 USB 3.0 ports, and 1 audio out port. (By the way, although the connectors look the same, a Mini DisplayPort is not a Thunderbolt port.)
What about the Surface Book?
I considered the Surface Book, but two aspects made me choose the Surface Pro 4:
—The Surface Pro 4 is completely self-contained; the battery and brains are all in the tablet. But the Surface Book’s power and processing capabilities are divided between the tablet and the keyboard, which might diminish the usability of the tablet when it’s disconnected.
—While the Surface Book weighs just a bit more than a MacBook Air (3.3 lb, versus the MBA’s 3.0 lb), the Surface Pro 4 weighs just 1.7 lb; that was easy math for me.
Pros: Good performance thanks to 16GB RAM and the quick SSD storage. Sharp display with excellent color rendering. Lightweight; can be used in pure tablet mode or standard laptop mode with the optional type cover.
Cons: If you’re accustomed to a 15-inch or larger laptop screen, the Surface display may seem small (but you might be surprised how quickly you get used to it); the limited ports mean you’ll probably need to buy accessories to fill in the blanks. And you can count on needing the $130 type cover.
My only gripe about the SP4—and this is minor—is that it can be awkward to use on your lap with the integrated prop to hold it open. The prop is thin and can cut into your leg, and can be a bit precarious; if a flat surface isn’t available, you may find it easier to just use it in tablet mode.
The Surface Pro 4 is a very capable computer in a thin, lightweight incarnation. If you do heavy-duty video editing, it might not be quite sufficient for your needs. But for graphic artists, it’s a great solution because of the excellent display and the naturalistic pen.
What can I say? I’m in love.