Surface Pro 4 Review

As my family’s tech support guy, I purchased and configured some computers for family members. I bought a Surface Pro 4 (i5, 8GB, 256GB) with a keyboard on sale for $1000. I’ve had a chance to use it for nearly a month. My overall impression is that the Surface Pro 4 falls short of good in most dimensions. I’m writing this review using the Surface.

Software

Windows 10 support for the Surface is painfully bad. The constant glitches make it frustrating to use. Just now the touchpad wouldn’t recognize a tap so I could fix a spelling error. And then the taskbar wouldn’t pop up when the pointer goes to the bottom of the screen. It frequently doesn’t recognize the keyboard when attached. I have to randomly touch things hoping it will connect. Sometimes the computer wakes up and freezes. It sometimes gets confused when switching between tablet and computer mode. I’ve had Windows Hello go into a cycle of locking the screen, turn off the screen, come back on and recognize my face, then go back to my desktop. Over and over! The touchpad forgets my settings when I log in, but remembers when I just open the Settings app. It does not “Just Work” like an iPad. Windows 10 is a usability nightmare.

The battery drains quickly. I haven’t timed it, but it definitely lasts far less than both a MacBook and my 2013 MacBook Pro. Occasionally Windows 10 will tell me that Edge uses less battery than Chrome, but Edge is unbelievably slow. I’ve been using this Surface for a month, so all the indexing and scanning it might do on a new machine is long finished. Microsoft really needs to focus on energy consumption.

The Surface Pen is utterly useless. Drawing on a screen is a niche task. For most users the only place you might use it is with OneNote. Microsoft, in their infinite wisdom, provides 2 versions of OneNote with different feature sets. You write your notes, but only OneNote 2016 can convert handwriting. You can draw diagrams, but only OneNote app can convert shapes. Even there it’s stupid. It converts squares and circles into nice shapes, but it doesn’t do anything with lines. They also support converting math equations. It took me a dozen tries to get “3 X 3” recognized. Surely it would be easier to type for all these use cases.

Finally, touch support is terrible. (Just now I took off the keyboard and the screen froze. I had to sleep and wake up to get it going again.) The onscreen keyboard isn’t as smart as iOS. I turned on spell checking, add a period on double space, etc. The on screen keyboard isn’t doing any of that in Chrome nor Edge. It sometimes does the right thing when I search in Windows. Just typing this paragraph in Chrome using the on screen keyboard has been frustrating. When I position the cursor near the bottom of the text, the keyboard pops up and hides the text I’m editing. Just now the keyboard goes up and down as I type for no damn reason. I have to tap the text again and again to get the keyboard. The whole thing is just terrible.

Hardware

The Surface feels like a premium product. No plastic, very solid build, good construction. It is comparable in quality to a Macbook Pro. The screen is excellent. The speakers sound good to me. The cameras seem quite good. Certainly the front-facing camera looks much better than my Macbook Pro. WiFi has been working great so far. I like the magnetic power plug, and magnetic holder for the pen. Thus far the fans haven’t come on, so it’s very quiet. Finally, the weight is really nice for a laptop.

On the other hand, the combination of a tablet and a laptop means both suffer. The tablet is just too big and heavy to use as comfortably as my iPad (1.7 vs 1 lbs). As a laptop, the kickstand is awkward to extend, and it is definitely not stable on a lap. The keyboard actually has nice key travel and feel, but it is wobbly and bouncy when typing. The touchpad is tragic compared to a Mac. Seriously, how can the combined efforts of the PC industry not create an acceptable touchpad? Finally, the Surface gets warm even as I’m typing in this review. That’s not good for a tablet.

Conclusion

When everything works, the Surface Pro is not bad. When things don’t work, I’ll toss it aside and use any Apple product instead. As a reasonably competent programmer, it took me a long time to resolve some quirks. There are still several I haven’t fixed. When I post issues to the Microsoft forums, the bots there invariably suggest I reboot, and then reinstall the OS.

I don’t believe it’s in Microsoft’s DNA to actually do anything well. Everyone knows that Microsoft ships half-baked broken crap in version 1. Then they spend years fixing some old issues and adding new broken features. If you must have a Windows device and you have low expectations, then I suppose the Surface Pro is no worse than any other PC hybrid. Nevertheless, I’m considering returning this computer and demanding my relative buy a conventional Windows 10 laptop. I think the tablet/laptop support is totally broken in Windows 10. I’m hoping a simple laptop won’t have so many bugs. I’ll reconsider when the Surface Pro hits version 10.

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