I have to admit, my back is a mess. I carry too much stuff, with all my camera gear, tripod, laptop, hard drives,.
My old laptop was too bulky, heavy and had the bad habit of overheating thanks to an accident involving chocolate stuck in the air vent (don’t ask).
I searched for the perfect travel device for a while. I even thought of replacing my laptop with my Android tablet to do my online work and editing on the road, but it just didn’t work well. Typing on a screen is horrible, using fingers to edit photos is horrible and Lightroom/Photoshop were only available as dumbed-down apps with limited functionality.
I had an eye on the Surface Pro brand for a while. The Surface Pro 3 was an excellent device but I still hesitated in spending that much money (it’s not a cheap device!). Eventually, Microsoft released the Surface Pro 4 (SP4) just recently and, I took that opportunity to finally get one myself. Was it worth it? (Spoiler: Yes, totally).
Addendum: Although this review was written about a year ago, it still stands and I am still extremely happy with my device. Do I still recommend it? Absolutely!
What is the Surface Pro 4?
The Surface brand is a hybrid Windows-based PC designed and manufactured by Microsoft. It originally was launched back in 2012 but completely failed to take off. Since then, Microsoft polished the device and improved the operating system (as in, got rid of Windows RT) and delivered an excellent premium device that is quickly gaining in popularity.
Most Tech publications love to compare the SP with the iPad, especially since Apple released the iPad Pro. However, that’s a completely ridiculous and irrelevant comparison. The iPad is a tablet (yes, even the iPad Pro) that runs its own operating system (iOS) and functions on apps and dumbed-down versions of software like Adobe’s products. A tablet is not a replacement for a computer, especially when you need to use complex software like Photoshop.
The SP however, is a hybrid device. It’s a laptop in a tablet body (a laplet? Please God no…). It runs a full version of Windows 10, which means it has all the same capabilities of your laptop/desktop. It comes with a 12.3″ touch-screen and weighs less than 800g (<1.8lb). It also has an optional Type Cover keyboard that has been improved since it release and feels wonderful, even when typing long posts while on the road.
Since it runs Win10, that means you can install anything you want and not have to worry about finding apps. Hope this clears up the confusion about whether the SP4 is a tablet or a laptop.
The Technical Stuff:
The SP4 comes in various configurations (with an increasing price tag). The version I have is the i5/8GB ram/256GB storage. I’ll be mostly talking about this version since I own it and tested it. This is also not an in-depth tech review with crazy benchmarks. There are plenty of that online. This is more of a review of my real-life usage experience.
Sure, the SP4 is bigger than your average tablet (see comparison with an iPad Air), but it’s still pretty small, thin (8.5mm/0.3in) and light enough to carry around and use on your couch/bed/local café. It has an excellent adjustable kickstand that allows you to prop it anywhere at various angles.
The build quality is solid. It’s a premium device and it shows.
No flimsy plastic covers here, it’s all in a beautiful silver-colored magnesium casing. The kickstand is sturdy and doesn’t wobble, which is great since you can actually rest your palm on the screen and not have it fall apart. You can also tilt it pretty far back for comfortable usage.
The device has various ports: a USB3 port, a mini DisplayPort and the charging slot on the right side, a headphone plug on the left side, the Cover port at the bottom and a microSD card slot in the back behind the kickstand. The power and volume buttons are on the top. There’s also a rear-facing 8MP 1080p camera, a 5MP front-facing one as well as a Windows Hello face-authentication camera (which works really well). And of course Wifi, Bluetooth, etc..
Thanks to the DisplayPort, you can connect it to a larger monitor and it works perfectly well. You can check on the Internet how people use it to connect multiple monitors and use it as a replacement to their desktop computers.
The charger that comes with it has a proprietary power connector (sticks with a magnet) and has an extra USB port to charge your phone/tablet while using the SP4. Sadly, no USB-C ports yet.
The SP4 has the latest 6th-generation Skylake intel core processors: the m3, the i5 and i7. The m3-powered version is completely fanless and silent while the i5 and i7 models have internal fans for heavy usage. I decided to go with the i5, mainly because I intend to keep the SP4 for a few years and I needed something a little more powerful than the m3 but I didn’t think the i7 was much more powerful compared to the i5.
The internal storage (SSD) varies from 64GB for the cheapest version, up to 1024GB for the highest end. Since there’s expandable storage (microSD) and the ability to connect an external drive through the USB port, I went for the 256GB and frankly, I’ve yet to fill even half of my on-board storage.
As for the RAM, you have the option between 4GB up to 16GB. I wouldn’t recommend 4GB RAM nowadays, especially if you intend to use editing software. I found 8GB to be a sweet spot.
The screen.. Yes, let’s talk about the screen. It’s one of the most gorgeous screens I’ve encountered. It’s 12.3 inches (31cm) of clear, bright, color-accurate goodness for the eyes. The resolution is 2736×1824 (267ppi) with a 3:2 aspect ratio. It makes me want to drool all over my photos when I see them displayed on the SP4 screen.
Of course, the screen is also touch-enabled and pretty responsive. Windows 10 allows you to switch to “tablet mode” which simplifies the user interface, opens apps in full screen and makes it easier to use gestures. When not in tablet mode, it can be sometimes tricky to click on buttons since the screen resolution can make everything quite small (especially if you have fat fingers).
If you don’t like using your sticky fingers, the SP4 also comes with an awesome pen.
The pen is also one of the marvels and best features of the device. It’s very responsive, and I haven’t experienced any significant lag and the tip just smoothly glides on the screen. There’s a side button that works as a right-click and an eraser/button on the top. The eraser (apart from, you know.. erasing) also serves as a button for various features: Click once and it opens OneNote, click twice and it takes a screenshot, and finally long-press to summon Cortana, Windows’ virtual assistant (like Google Now or Siri). It has a magnet on the side that allows you to stick it to the side of the screen, in case you tend to lose your stuff. The battery is replaceable (AAAA type).
The pen comes with a little rubber tip (HB) that is smooth on the screen, but I highly recommend purchasing a kit of extra tips to suit your needs. It’s very cheap (10$) so it’s well worth it. I personally am fan of the H tip.
And finally, there’s the Type Cover. It’s a pretty thin keyboard that doubles as a screen cover that you can magnetically attach to the bottom of the SP4. It has the right thickness to prevent it from being bulky but also allows comfortable typing without springing around (hint: I’m writing this whole article on the type cover).
The trackpad has been greatly improved since the last generations. It’s bigger and is covered in glass which makes it a real pleasure to use.
Unfortunately, the Type Cover is not included with the SP4 and has to be purchased separately. It is absolutely essential though, in my opinion. There’s no way I’d type long articles on the touch-screen keyboard.
PS: The pen and Type Cover are retrocompatible with the SP3.
I’ve had the SP4 for a few weeks now and I find myself using it constantly, even though I have a workhorse desktop computer available.
Bugs and Stability:
Windows 10 is still pretty new as well as the SP4, and they are both being polished regularly. There are a few bugs here and there (nothing major) from time to time but most have already been fixed with all the updates. And no, I have not had a single crash or blue screen (BSOD).
Lapability (is that even a word?):
I find the SP4 pretty comfortable to use on my lap, especially when the keyboard is not attached. I can adjust the kickstand to make it lay almost flat and doodle, browse or edit photos with the pen. Even with the cover attached it’s still usable, albeit a little more unstable. I can totally see myself using it in uncomfortable places such as airplane tray tables or long bus rides.
I’m a huge fan of Evernote which is my default note-taking software, but I’m finding myself using OneNote more and more since it’s pretty easy to open (one click on the eraser) and such a pleasure to take notes writing on the screen.
I also tend to use Edge (Windows’ browser) more and more as it’s lighter, faster and allows drawing and note-taking on any page with the pen.
Using the pen also rekindled my love of drawing (which I used to do as a hobby before photography came in the way). There are plenty of drawing/sketching software that work perfectly with the Surface Pen (Sketchbook, Mischief, Fresh Paint..) and I find them much more responsive than Photoshop (which, let’s face it, has become more and more bloated).
The big question! Microsoft advertises up to 9h of usage. I don’t know what settings they used to reach that amount but I found myself having about 6~7h usage depending on what I’m doing. It would be probably less (around 4h) if I edited constantly on Photoshop+Lightroom with decent brightness level (I hate working on minimum brightness) but for regular browsing/videos /sketching/note-taking with medium screen brightness, I found the battery life reasonable enough. Again, I don’t expect it to last as long as a tablet with a few apps running on it.
So, how does the device fair when used for photography-related stuff?
The main reason I got the surface was to replace my laptop and be able to edit on the road during long bus/plane rides. I wanted something powerful enough to do the job, yet small enough to carry without breaking my back.
So, here’s my setup:
I have the SP4 inclined so I can use the pen on the screen comfortably, I also keep the cover attached to be able to use shortcuts when editing.
Since there’s only one USB plug available, I use a hub to be able to plug a card reader, an external HDD and a mouse if necessary.
The software I mostly use are Adobe CC (Lightroom and Photoshop) and the Nik plugins. Remember: these are the full versions of the software, not the simplified apps.
Storing my photos:
Since the SP4 doesn’ have a card reader, I use an external one that I plug on my USB hub.
In my line of work, when I’m on assignment, I barely shoot more than 50~60GB of photos. So I can safely import them all on the on-board SSD drive without running out of space. I can also use the microSD card to store my images if need be (make sure you buy a fast card). As a backup, I also use my WD MyPassport drive since it’s quite easy to just stick in the SD card and let it import without plugging it.
Lightroom and Photoshop testing:
During my tests, I was able to use Lightroom and Photoshop without any hiccups. I made sure to turn off the “Graphics Processor” in Lightroom’s performance preferences since the SP4 doesn’t have a dedicated GPU.
I personally found that using keyboard shortcuts to zoom/move was easier than using my fingers (pinching on the screen), especially when it came to tilting. Maybe I’m just not used to it.
The screen has excellent palm-rejection that can also be adjusted for left-handed users. However, it also depends on the software too.
When working on files located on an external HDD (instead of the SSD), it took about 30-40s to save a large TIFF file. It might seem slow to some, but I’m not concerned about speed.
Tethering with Lightroom:
I usually don’t do any tethering since I don’t shoot in a studio/controlled environment, but a few people asked so I tried it at home. I hooked up my Canon 6D to the SP4 and launched Lightroom. It all went smoothly with barely any lag. The photos were up on the screen in 2-3 seconds.
How does the 8GB RAM hold up?
I did a test with my RAW file open in Lightroom, imported to Photoshop as a TIFF file with multiple layers, while having OneNote open and while streaming music on Google Chrome + a few extra tabs open on Edge (I like to work with music, what can I say?). Here’s the RAM usage:
Pretty good! Of course if I wanted to work in the best conditions I wouldn’t have as many tabs open in my browsers and I’d close all unnecessary software.
I also didn’t have any lag issue with the pen while editing both in Lightroom and Photoshop. I did run into some sluggish moments with Lightroom from time to time, but I blame it on the software becoming more and more bloated since I have the same issues on my desktop too. Adobe, please take note.
Editing in cramped spaces?
In case I feel like editing in cramped spaces, I’d use the SP4 on my lap without the Type Cover. Fortunately, the latest Photoshop CC update added a few more touch-friendly options.
Again, I would either store my photos on the SSD drive, or I could just simply have them on my external drive, and create Smart Previews with Lightroom to do some light editing.
What about editing speed?
The whole idea is to have the flexibility to edit on the road. I am not concerned about speed. I mean, I’m editing on a plane or a bus! I’m not going to whine about the extra 5 (or 30) seconds Lightroom is taking to open my images because they’re on a microSD or external drive.
Note about the plugins:
I mentioned I use Nik plugins to further edit my photos. While they work as supposed to on the SP4 and I didn’t encounter any performance issue, I wouldn’t recommend them. Why? Simply because they don’t scale with the high-resolution display. You’ll end up with extremely small buttons and barely-readable text. You might want to check yourself with the plugins you use.
To summarize it all, I am very pleased with the Surface Pro 4. It’s an excellent lightweight device that can (and has) replace my laptop and it’s barely larger than a tablet.
It is a premium device, so the price is pretty high, but so are Macbooks and other Apple devices anyway (and people don’t moan about it). The build quality is fantastic and the OS is pretty stable. The screen is fantastic and the pen is a joy to use either to take notes, doodle or edit directly in Lightroom and Photoshop.
This is definitely a device that has earned a space in my backpack. I’m happy to bid my chocolate-scented-overheating-bulky laptop goodbye for now.
If you have any questions about the device, let me know in the comments section and I’ll try to answer as soon as possible.
Disclosure: I have bought the device myself and have not been asked or paid to do any review. This is based purely on my own usage and I just wanted to share my opinion. Some links provided are amazon affiliate links, just in case you wish to buy a device and help me earn extra pocket money for more gadgets (because we never have enough gadgets).