Microsoft Surface Pro 4 review: It’s faster, it’s better, and it has more …

21 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Microsoft Surface Book Review: So Good, I Might Switch Back to Windows.

Although Microsoft has tried hard to sell the Surface as a laptop replacement, its keyboard has felt flimsy — something to tolerate when a real laptop isn’t available. It’s a turn from the expected, and for me at least, it’s a computer so enticing, and habit changing, that I’m thinking—Hey, what about Windows? It’s got clever design, which enables its 13.5-inch, 3000 x 2000 display (267 dpi) display to detach from the rigid keyboard base so that you can wield the display as a mondo tablet. The Pro 4 is imperceptibly lighter than the 3, ever so slightly thinner, and has a slightly larger display. (The overall height and width of the tablet itself remain the same thanks to smaller bezels around that display.) It’s still very much a full-featured Windows 10 PC in a light and portable package.

The base model ships with the latest Intel Skylake Core i5 processor for $1500—it’s basically a Surface Pro 4 with much fancier industrial design. You can upgrade it to a Core i5 with a discrete Nvidia GeForce graphics processor starts at $1700, and you can climb the specification ladder to an i7 with Nvidia GPU and 1TB of storage for $3200 The bulk of this review refers to the base $1500 configuration, however, we did some testing with a souped-up $2100 Core i7 model with Nvidia graphics as well. If you had any trouble choosing, you have a taste of the dilemmas facing Apple, Google and Microsoft, the three players waging an epic battle for the future of computing.

I’ve found opening up the Surface Book requires two hands because it’s magnetically sealed together to ensure nothing moves around while you’re carrying it. The Surface Book’s announcement sent a tense shiver of surprise into the world of consumer electronics, but it didn’t exactly come out of nowhere.

The biggest improvement comes with the new Type Cover, which, sadly, still isn’t included with the Surface and requires you to spend another $130 to get it. And if you want a real graphics chip in an ultrathin chassis—something every other computer maker says couldn’t be done—yeah, Surface Book’s got that too. But the most interesting new addition to the game is Microsoft, suddenly re-energized after suffering a long decline in the personal computer business.

The keys are raised and separated, like you’d find on a standard laptop keyboard, and are much better to type on than the flat, condensed keys of earlier Type Covers. Under Satya Nadella, who became Microsoft’s chief executive early last year, Microsoft is embracing a fragmented vision of the future, in which no single device, or even a single category of devices, reigns supreme. The first featured an Intel dual-core Skylake Core i5-6300U, 8GB of LPDDR3 in dual-channel mode and a 512GB M.2 PCIe SSD drive and integrated graphics only. Microsoft recently doubled down on its hardware push by acquiring Nokia, which made spectacular Windows Phone handsets that were hobbled by Microsoft’s exceedingly minimal operating system. It’s a single OS for phones—new Microsoft Lumias are due in November—computers, tablets, and even for the company’s next-gen Xbox One gaming console.

The new one is much better: it’s fast and smooth to scroll with, and the larger size makes it much easier to do all of those cool Windows 10 multi-finger gestures. At a recent news conference that electrified not just Twitter but even some people in the real world, Microsoft wowed its loyalists (yes, there are Microsoft fanatics) with a number of new products that exemplify this idea. Samsung’s Note devices have built-in holes for their stylus, although in avoiding that approach, Microsoft was able to make the stylus larger and more like a regular pen. Fortunately, the Pro 4’s display is still a touchscreen, and I found myself reaching up from the keys to touch something on the screen much more often than reaching back to the trackpad.

Microsoft says the unique mechanism allowed the company to balance the heavy display, which Microsoft calls the Clipboard, without upending the keyboard base. The more I used Microsoft’s new machines, the more I thought that perhaps no single kind of device is destined to win the war for second place to the smartphone.

The other cool thing about the Pen is that it now includes an eraser on its top side that lets you quickly erase whatever it is you just wrote or scribbled. Microsoft tells me it has an update coming to address both the Chrome and Edge scrolling issues, and hopefully the company can make scrolling there as smooth as it is in the rest of Windows. We’ll have smartphones and then a dizzying array of desktops, laptops, tablets and hybrid devices — and different people, for different reasons, will choose different sets of each. It made Windows, the operating system that became the lingua franca of the PC era, and it made Office, the software that made those Windows machines useful to businesses. And it can’t be picked up from a desk with one hand when it’s open (like you can with a laptop) as the attached keyboard will just flop around awkwardly until you close it.

Probably, but like the joke from The Office goes, “people want atmosphere and attitude, that’s what the pieces of flair are about.” And the Muscle Wire Lock is definitely a piece of flair. Microsoft’s new plan is to still make Windows and software for Windows, which it licenses to other hardware makers for their machines — but now it also makes its own phones and Surface devices, and it makes applications for iOS, Apple’s mobile operating system.

It uses an electrically charged nickel titanium alloy wire called Nitonal that can change shape and then snap back based on the electricity applied to it. Apple’s entry-level iPads are much cheaper, but Microsoft is going after customers of the MacBook Air (which starts at $899) and the iPad Pro (which starts at $799, plus $169 for a physical keyboard and $99 for the Apple Pencil). Apple makes hardware and software, but just about all of its products are integrated; Apple’s software works on Apple’s hardware, and in most cases nowhere else. It’s an old story, but true tablet apps are still lacking for Windows, and many of the apps I use on the platform are designed for the desktop environment.

I have been using Macs since 1987 and have invested a lot in software and accessories, so I don’t see myself abandoning my Mac laptop for the Surface. From the outset, it looks just like a shiny big magnesium clamshell, but as we know, this laptop is a convertible, and the whole thing works because of an immaculate hinge design. But because it doesn’t sell its devices for a profit and barely markets them, Google’s hardware partners don’t seem to mind its device business. Obviously in order for the display to be detachable, it has to contain all of the guts the device needs to run, including processor, flash storage, battery, etc.

You could also say he’s setting up the company as a circular firing squad. (Sure, Microsoft has long made Office for the Mac, so you can argue that iOS apps aren’t such a big change, but it has been a long while since the Mac threatened Windows’ hegemony, while iOS is arguably an existential problem for large parts of Microsoft’s business.) Another, perhaps deeper problem is the mixed messages Microsoft is sending to customers. Jan Dawson, an industry analyst, pointed out that when Microsoft released the Surface Pro 3 last year, it sold the device as a “no-compromise” tablet that doubled as a skinny, MacBook Air-like laptop. Details of how Microsoft did this haven’t been disclosed, but I’ve heard guesses from other OEMs on everything from an internal Thunderbolt connection to some proprietary design. Since Windows 10 launched earlier this summer, Microsoft has been fixing a lot of bugs and issues, but there are still a number that crop up in my daily workflow.

This is probably the most beautiful display I’ve ever seen on a computer, and its rated contrast ratio, which is an indication of the widest gamut of light and dark the screen can represent, blows all other competitors away. Moving on from the strictly standalone screen, you can also reattach the display backwards on the keyboard, so that it folds up with the display facing outwards. But Microsoft kept working at the device and its software, and the incremental fixes began to reveal the fundamental utility of a tablet that could be used like a PC. If you bought a Surface Book without the GPU for instance, and somehow obtained a base unit with the GPU, marrying the Clipboard to either base would work just fine, Microsoft says.

For years, most PC makers have chased low prices by forgetting about user experience; they’ve larded their machines with preinstalled adware, failed tests of basic functionality (Windows trackpads were difficult to use) and abandoned customer service. While the base unit and display combine into a laptop that’s not exactly lightweight at 3.34 pounds, the tablet section feels manageable at 1.6 pounds. I think that’s exactly how Microsoft designed this, and why the company keeps calling it a “digital clipboard.” The only time I’ve used it in this mode is literally to take notes, because using it as a tablet to play games and watch movies is a little awkward without a kickstand or case to prop it up.

The new Surface Pen is greatly improved thanks to a more resistive tip, but there’s still a slight lag that will irritate artists who want to draw on this professionally. You can remove the display when it’s powered off, but if you drain the battery, you’ll have to wait until it’s at least 10 percent before you can undock it again. Given that this is a $45 instrument with some complexity that’s also non-biodegradable, I’m surprised Microsoft isn’t offering a recycling program where you’d get, say $10 off your replacement if you mailed back your dead one.

The performance was bad enough that I would suggest holding off on making any purchasing decision until you know for sure the firmware delivers on its performance promise. Windows 10 also does a good job of switching between a touch-friendly mode and one more suited to a keyboard and mouse, especially if you enable it to do so automatically.

Microsoft is really advertising this as a clipboard, but Windows 10 isn’t ready to let everyone just use a stylus and take notes everywhere as it’s still a limited experience. Microsoft has shaved the thickness of the glass so thin that to your eye, the surface is finally starting to feel like you’re actually writing or drawing pixels right on the display. Microsoft said it’s an IPS panel that uses a “negative photo-aligned liquid oxide display.” That’s a fancy way of saying that during construction of the panels, the layers are carefully aligned to increase contrast and image quality. I played a few graphics intensive games like Tomb Raider, and found that they hummed along nicely at high frame rates with the graphics set to medium quality. Because the keyboard and tablet both use the same Surface connector, you can use a single cable to do both, or just charge them combined in the regular laptop mode.

But even though that’s everything I want in a laptop, the accommodations Microsoft made to enable the tablet end up making the laptop experience less than ideal. Of course, for its lovely display and the impressiveness of the design that allows the laptop to quickly transform into Godzilla tablet, the device’s ambitions promise more than they deliver in terms of utility. Having a removable display doesn’t make this the “ultimate laptop.” Microsoft can clearly make a laptop that competes with the MacBook Pro with all the best ingredients, but it just needs to find a better recipe to combine all its innovative hardware. With Intel’s 5th-generation Broadwell chips, the CPUs would hit their higher Turbo Boost speeds and then, within a few minutes, fall back from, say, 2.9GHz to 2.6GHz. The answer is how much heat the PC can handle, how much fan noise the maker is willing to subject you, and how hot the skin temperature of the laptop can get.

Moving on to Maxon’s Cinebench R15, which measures a PC’s performance at 3D rendering, I compared the same stack of Ultrabooks using various Haswell and Broadwell Core i5, Core i7 and Core M CPUs to again see the Surface Books outpacing the the pack. In our test of the Core i5 unit without discrete graphics (the same configuration Microsoft uses for its 12-hour promise), we actually saw longer run times. If you decide to play a graphically-intense game or edit video, you better bring a Kindle paperwhite with you for entertainment after the battery runs dry because it definitely won’t go 12 hours doing that. One issue I’ve had occur a couple of times on both units: The trackpad in the Base loses sync with the Clipboard, requiring a detach cycle to re-enable.

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