I went hands-on with the Surface Pro 4 and it was awesome

I made my way to the Microsoft kiosk yesterday at the Glendale Galleria to pre-order the new Surface Pro 4. Little did I know that, like announcement of the Surface 3 a few months ago, they actually had demo units out for display. Pretty obvious what I decided to do next.

As an artist, I was most interested in seeing how the Surface team improved the new Surface Pen, so a lot of my attention when examining the new device was focused on that. As noted above, I was also completely unprepared for the opportunity to play with the device, and was on a schedule, so forgive me if I missed anything important.

I’m always looking for excuses to blow money I don’t have at Haagen-Dazs and Uniqlo, so if any of you have questions or want me to test something out at the Store, hit me up on my Twitter @OliverWinBeta and I’ll do my best to fulfill your request.

The device

I had a chance to sample the Surface Pro 4 with the Core i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM, and 128 GB of storage.

Like the official information suggests, the device itself hasn’t really changed dimensions. It’s virtually identical in width and height to the Surface Pro 3. It’s noticeably thinner, but not in a game changing or awe commanding sort of way. Panos Panay, head of Microsoft’s devices division, bragged during the Windows 10 Devices presentation that the only reason they stopped at 8.4mm was because they needed to leave room for a full sized USB port. This highly suggests that, once the new USB Type-C connector catches on, we’ll see future iterations of the Surface lineup go much thinner. I salivate at the thought.

The Surface Pro 4 has also gone on a slight diet, dropping 0.3 lbs down to 1.73 lbs for i5 and up versions, and even further down to 1.69 lbs for the cheapest Core m3 version. I suspect this is because of the lack of a fan in the Core m3 version. In practice, nobody’s going to notice the difference, though I appreciate that the Surface team did actually lighten it.

As mentioned by our own Brad Stephenson earlier, the capacitive start button (that DOES vibrate) on the side has been removed. Unlike Brad, I welcome this change. Many Surface Pro 3 artists have noted that drawing on the device often inadvertently triggers the button, unintentionally summoning the start menu. I’ve also never found myself using it, preferring instead to hit the start button on the type cover, swipe from the left to multitask, or just touch the bottom left of the screen. Though ergonomically questionable in some use cases, the button made sense in Windows 8/8.1, where the Start button wasn’t terribly prominent in full screen Store apps. However, with the UI changes in Windows 10, I suspect the Surface team may have felt the button redundant. While it’s a nuisance to some like myself, I can certainly empathize with users who will miss it.

The display

Where things start to get interesting is in the display. In addition to increasing the resolution, the display size itself was increased by 0.3 inches by shrinking the surrounding bezel. The difference, in this case, is actually quite noticeable. Viewed side-by-side with its predecessor, the Surface Pro 4’s display feels more airy, more comfortable to touch and draw on. The screen itself is also sharper per the higher pixel count, and the colors slightly more vibrant. It’s a marked improvement over the Surface Pro 3’s display.

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Surface Pro 4 on the left (blue), Surface Pro 3 on the right (red)

Reviews have shown that the Surface 3’s (non-Pro) display has among the best color accuracy among portable computers, and I expect the Surface Pro 4 to continue this trend of excellence.

The kickstand

The kickstand in the Surface Pro 4 is virtually identical to its predecessor. Why mess with perfection? Actually, that’s not quite right. I personally don’t find it perfect, as resting my right arm on the tablet while drawing, or putting force down on the pen to get higher pressure often subtly changes the angle of the kickstand. I’ve asked the Surface team to put in some kind of locking mechanism, but I’m obviously in the minority, and I can see why introducing such for this generation might be more trouble than it’s worth.

The magnetic pen attachment

The Surface Pro 4 also features a new magnetic attachment area on the left side for the Surface Pen. It works brilliantly. The pen attaches firmly. If you’re tossing the device in a bag, or carrying it about, there’s little chance of the pen being knocked off. There’s a little bit of wiggle room with positioning the pen with respect to the parallel height of the device (not the depth. The pen sits firmly in the center of the device’s thickness), but I doubt that’ll be an issue.

The new Type Cover

One sore point of the Surface Pro 3 was its Type Cover. I wouldn’t call it bad, but it was far from great. The trackpad was still too small. The keys felt mushy. Some have even described the keyboard as cramped. The cover body itself felt rather unstable, flimsy even. There were many a founded criticism of the old Type Cover.

In my short time with the keyboard, I feel Microsoft has answered those criticisms clearly and resolutely. The new Type Cover is spectacular. The keys are more spread out, encompassing the full width of the cover body. The key travel feels deep. Pressing each key feels wholesome, like typing on a full laptop. The tactile feedback feels substantial. It’s also seems pretty quiet, though it’s impossible to say for sure given the hustle and bustle of the mall behind me.

The new Type Cover, like Apple’s vaguely-named new MacBook, employs butterfly scissors as its key actuation and resistance mechanism. Few good things have been said about the new MacBook’s keyboard, and my own experiences with it confirm it isn’t exactly pleasant to type on.

Not so with the new Type Cover. This is what ultraportable typing should feel like, and I’m dazzled that Surface team could fit so wholesome and satisfying a typing experience into an even thinner Type Cover.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Gh4o9IqeEU

The touchpad is also a marked improvement. It’s 40 percent larger than its predecessor, and it feels great to use. The clicking mechanism is much softer and quieter, unlike the sharp, blunt, hard feeling of the old touchpad. This is what the touchpad should’ve been from the beginning.

Finally, there’s the Type Cover body itself. It feels rock effing solid. It could probably stop a bullet if employed in such a ridiculous manner. Again, that the Surface team managed to fit such a substantial structure into a Type Cover that’s lighter than its predecessor is just bewitching.

I can perfectly understand current Surface Pro 3 users not feeling the urge to upgrade devices, but there’s absolutely no reason not to upgrade to the new Type Cover, especially since, as always, the Type Covers are backwards compatible. I reckon it’ll feel like a whole new device. It is, in my opinion, that dramatic an improvement.

The only flaw I can think of is that the keys felt rather slippery, but I suspect that’ll be cured once they get broken in and our subtle finger oils settle down on them.

I haven’t been able to ascertain whether the fingerprint reader will work on the Surface Pro 3 as well.

As we reported earlier, there are two versions of the new Type Cover being sold: one with the new fingerprint reader, the other without. The non-fingerprint version retails for the traditional $130 USD, and the other, according to the Store rep, will retail for $160 USD.

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new menu key next to the left arrow

It’s also worth noting that the new Type Cover adds a menu key next to the left arrow.

The stylus

The new Surface Pen is significantly changed from the Surface Pro 3’s pen. The body of the pen is no longer uniformly circular, but contoured with flat, perhaps even slightly concave, sides where the user is expected grip the pen. The pen is noticeably bigger and more substantial, or at least it feels that way. Highly subjective, but the pen felt slightly heavier than its predecessor as well, but by no means offensive in any way. And it still maintains what I feel is a proper, even weight balance throughout the pen. The pen body is a significant improvement.

Other changes include the positioning of the buttons. The third generation pen had two plainly visible supplementary buttons on the side of the pen. I say plainly visible because with the new pen, there’s only one on the side, and you wouldn’t realize its there by looking at first glance. Examine closely the image below.

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Note the leftmost portion of the dark gray ridge

Notice that the leftmost portion of the dark gray ridge seems to be outlined, physically protruding out the pen body? This button, which performs the right-click function, is embedded inside the flat contour of the pen’s body. In my brief interactions with it, it wasn’t terribly pleasant to actuate. It was hard to press, and required shifting my grip to accommodate it. I wouldn’t be surprised if I change my mind on that later on when I get more comfortable with it. It’s not really any worse than the previous pen though.

The eraser

The eraser function on the previous pen wasn’t at the top like one would expect, but it was the second side button. This was not only unintuitive, it was also kind of a waste of buttons. With the new pen, the eraser function is on top, built into a rubbery nib designed to emulate a real eraser. I tried erasing with it.

OH. MY. GOODNESS. GRACIOUS. It feels so close to an actual eraser that if you blindfolded someone, he/she probably couldn’t tell it was a digital pen. It is an euphoric tactile sensation. It has the perfect amount of resistance against the Surface Pro 4’s screen that erasing with it is actually REALLY FUN. I found myself painting things just for the sake of erasing them. In fact, I think it’s better than the real thing, as you don’t have to deal with the paper’s coarse, unstable texture and all the dirty scrapings. As with the Type Cover, the Surface team absolutely NAILED the eraser. I’m punching myself for neglecting to take a video to show you all. But I don’t think that would do it justice. You have to experience it. The only thing I wish it had was pressure sensitivity. It doesn’t, but that’s a perfectly fair concession.

The drawing experience

Aside from Windows 10’s apparent inability to allow the top button to summon the desktop version of OneNote, the most common complaint I know of with the Surface Pro 3’s pen (and by extension, the Surface 3’s pen, which is the same thing) was its strong tendency to jitter drawing diagonal strokes at slow speeds. For me personally, my biggest complaint was the poor and inconsistent sensitivity for feather-light strokes.

Unfortunately, the new Surface Pen doesn’t eliminate either of those problems. It does however significantly improve upon them.

The above video was shot with my Lumia 1520. I’m not a big camera guy, and this was on the spot, so I couldn’t do that great a job recording it. Apologies if the video quality is poor for your taste. To test the pen, I used the beta version of popular Japanese paint program PaintToolSAI 2.0. It’s a simple, extremely lightweight (the frickin’ download is 2.0 MB) painting application, and I chose it because it has the best pen and brush strokes I’ve seen outside of Clip/Manga Studio, and because the beta doesn’t require installation to use, so I could download and test it on the spot.

As you can see, the slow jitter problem is still there, but in my view it’s a lot less pronounced than what I get with my Surface 3. Forward a little bit, and you can see I recreate the same stroke vertically, with little to no jitter. So regrettably, the problem is still there, and I don’t expect it to be addressed this generation either. Compensating for this issue has been easy for me, as I tend to draw fast and long curves, often with no software stabilization. For those of you affected by this issue, you might want to try drawing a teeny bit faster and upping the software stabilization (built into programs like Manga/Clip Studio and PaintToolSAI, can be added to Photoshop with add-ons like Lazy Nezumi).

For me, I really wanted to see how the new pen improved upon pressure sensitivity on feather light strokes. For some context, the Surface Pro 1 and 2 featured Wacom tech that was superior in this regard (they had several other, much worse flaws, mind you). The lightest, faintest of contact with the screen would produce a perfectly commensurate stroke. Not so with the Surface Pro and non-Pro 3. The point of physical contact with the screen doesn’t actuate the drawing, and it doesn’t do so until you put just a tad bit more pressure. I dislike this, but the real problem is that this “tad bit more pressure” is in my experience seldom consistent, which makes it hard to produce feather-light strokes as I can’t intuitively tell how much pressure I need to put down. This usually results in me either not pressing hard enough, or pressing too hard, to where I get an ugly, unintentionally thick stroke.

Like the jitter problem, the new pen doesn’t fully fix this, but improves it. The actuation force required is much lower now, perhaps even to a bearable point, but it’s still inconsistent. I suspect firmware optimization may be able to mitigate this further, but it’s impossible to say at this point.

Mind you, none of these flaws are issues if you’re just doing standard note-taking or music writing, so don’t let the negativity above dissuade you if you’re using the Surface Pro 4 as a productivity device rather than a digital painting one.

In better news, pressure sensitivity has improved. My drawing style is with fast, long, sweeping strokes, so pressure sensitivity with the previous pen was never an issue, but I can feel a greater range that’s easier to control with the new pen. It’s not as good as my UC-Logic based Yiynova MVP22UHD v3 drawing tablet, but very few things are as good as that masterpiece. I reckon the new Surface Pen is on par, perhaps even a bit better, than the Wacom-based Surface Pros in higher range pressure sensitivity. As it should, seeing as how it now carries the same levels of pressure sensitivity.

Another improvement is in responsiveness and accuracy. The 3rd generation pens, at least earlier on, had a fair bit of cursor lag and was a slight bit off at some points. I believe it was fixed as time went on, as I see few remnants of that issue with the Surface 3. The new pen, however, is pinpoint accurate, and immediate in responsiveness, perhaps thanks the G5 chipset and the PixelSense magic. I have no complaints at all about the parallax and the responsiveness. Absolutely no calibration needed.

I haven’t been able to discern whether the Surface Pro 3, when paired with the new pen, will be able to make full use of all 1024 pressure levels. I expect that answer to be no, but it’s a coin toss at this point. At least the new pen does actually function correctly with the old device, as I’ve tested it.

The pencil nibs

I had the good fortune of being able to sample all four of the custom pen nibs, as the Store rep graciously broke open a brand new nib set at my request. My timing was extremely fortunate, as they had just barely gotten the nibs.

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4 custom pencil nibs

As I seldom work in the pencil and paper medium, I can’t speak that well to whether these nibs faithfully replicate the characteristics of each pencil softness. I will say that none of these feel like real pencils, as the screen simply doesn’t have the matching paper texture.

They do, however, each carry unique characteristics.

  • 2H – the thickest nib of the four, and it’s SUPER slick. The slipperiest drawing experience I’ve ever had on a digital display, and that says a lot, as most of them are pretty slippery. It also feels like the softest of the four. I’d love to use this for super fast sketching, or for drawing extremely long, flowing curves.
  • H – similar to 2H in slipperiness, but with a much thinner, even a bit harder tip. It feels much more conducive to precision drawing. It’s extremely faint, but I detect just a bit more resistance when drawing with this nib.
  • HB – I’m can’t exactly recall, but this might be the same as the standard nib that comes with the pen. I haven’t confirmed that for sure though. This feels very similar the standard pen nib, which has a strong, if even slightly rubbery, surface resistance. This, and the standard pen (if they’re not same thing) both feel great for standard note-taking and precision stroke drawing.
  • B – the most grippy of the four, but only slightly more so than HB/standard. Truth be told, I had a really hard time discerning the difference between this and HB.

I did not detect any of the annoying “clickiness” found on the current pen when pressing against the screen, but again, as this test was conducted in a noisy shopping mall, I can’t state that resolutely.

I apologize if my assessment of the pencil nibs in the short time I had is insufficient in detail. I readily admit I do not have the skill with real life mediums (or any medium, for that matter) to be able to discern the more subtle differences between the nibs, so take the above however you please.

From what I’ve been told, the pencil nibs come in the aforementioned set of 4. They do not come with the Surface Pro 4 itself, but do come with standalone Surface Pen purchases, and can also be purchased individually without the Pen. I could not get the pricing for any of the above.

The packaging for the pencil nibs is quite fascinating.

Profile view of the pencil nib pocket

Profile view of the pencil nib pocket

As seen in the above two photos, the pencil nibs come in some kind of claw pocket contraption. The top of the pocket carries four nibs, and the large claw on the bottom is used to pull the nibs directly out of the pen as is if pulling lead strands out of a mechanical lead pencil. It’s quite difficult to pull the nibs out of the pen using bare hands. All told, it seems like a very portable, great way to take the nibs with you.

Conclusion

Holy crap that was a long review. This was all I could manage with the about 15 or so minutes I’ve played with the device. I hope this preview was as useful to you as it was invigorating for me to write.

I’m sad to see that the stroke drawing issues have not fully been addressed, but there are noticeable improvements, so I do believe the Surface team is working hard to address these issues for future generations of the device. I’ve been able to successfully draw very well with my smaller, less powerful Surface 3, and have quite a lot of fun doing so (barring the nonsensical right-click touch issue present in Surface 3 with Windows 10, but that’s another story entirely) so I expect the better, more precise, more responsive, meatier pen paired with the larger, absolutely gorgeous display to be a blast to draw on in spite of the persistent flaws.

All told, I’m quite torn between purchasing the mid-range Core i5 with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, and going for the cheapest, fanless Core m3 version for a few reasons. I want to save money for the Lumia 950 and a new monitor, and my workload currently doesn’t involve anything that the fanless CPU can’t handle. But the 4GB of RAM kind of bothers me. I’m also worried that, should my needs start to expand, I might find myself handicapped by the lack of power. While I trust the Surface team knows what its doing given the current generation chassis and the new Skylake power efficiency enhancements, there’s still no concrete evidence that the thermal ceiling is managed well with the new Surface Pro 4.

I kind of wish the Core m3 came with 8 GB of RAM instead of only 4 (it can’t be configured any other way), but nothing I can do about that now. In all likelihood, I will go with the Core i5 and just work my butt off. Feel free to chime in and see if you can sway me one way or another.

Any of you fortunate enough to live near a Microsoft Store can pre-order any of the Surface Pro 4 devices and accessories at no charge. You are encouraged to pre-order every configuration you’re considering buying, so that your local store can have a proper allocation for you when you do make your final decision. These devices should be ready for you October 26th.

Also, a HUGE thanks to Anita at the Glendale Galleria Microsoft Store kiosk, who took the time to break open a fresh set of pencil nibs and help me change through each and every one of them for testing. Thanks to Stephanie and Armin as well for their help and input.

Please feel free to discuss below, or tweet/message me @OliverWinBeta if you have any questions or would like me to try something out with the Surface Pro 4 when I get the chance. Also, please share this review on you favorite social media sites.

Look forward to a comprehensive review once I actually purchase the device later this month.

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