Surface Pro 4 – The Good, The Bad and The Frustrating

Analyst opinion


Published/updated: February 2016

By Tony Lock

I recently acquired a Surface Pro 4 as part of an equipment refresh here at Freeform Dynamics. The purchase process itself merits a mention as it was not without its challenges. In particular, it was impossible to get the Microsoft UK online store to accept the order for the tablet, keyboard and associated accessories. However, staff on the telephones at Microsoft’s shop soon had everything sorted out, and even though the order was placed a week before Christmas the new machine was delivered in the two days promised. I have now been using the surface Pro 4 for over a month and would like to give a brief summary of my experiences, both the good and the frustrating.

Starting with the positive, the tablet combined with the keyboard delivers great capabilities in an amazingly thin and light footprint, making it excellent for those who, like me, spend a lot of time travelling for work. Indeed, the i7 processor combined with 16Gb of RAM ensures the system has the compute power to handle most anything you need it to do. The screen quality is excellent and the keyboard is extremely responsive, delivering almost ‘laptop’ feel when used to type.

It’s obvious the Surface Pro 4 really does possess the potential to be a very portable desktop replacement for all but the most demanding application use cases. That said, there are some issues that Microsoft needs to address, and to do so speedily. Most of these have already received great publicity, especially the poor power management resulting in a very short usable battery life and the almost total inability of the machine to be stowed in “sleep” mode, a problem that often reveals itself by turning your briefcase into a mini–sauna.

Hopefully the firmware update delivered at the end of January has, at least partially, addressed some of these issues, but I have not yet been able to test how much things have improved. Given the Surface Pro 4 is one of the first machines using Intel’s sixth generation chips, it’s possible to understand at least some of these “teething” problems.

However, there are a couple of things which I find it very difficult to comprehend, one reasonably trivial, at least to most people, the other anything but. The relatively trivial matter concerns the woeful downgrading of the software native to Windows to handle pen input for standard “Office” applications. I should mention that I have been using pen/stylus input with Windows for much of the past seven or eight years. Indeed, I have often resorted to this mode of working using the first generation Surface Pro as well as several Fujitsu computers, including my Q704, to which the new Surface Book appears to bear an uncanny functional resemblance.

These machines handle pen input with great alacrity, a result of the excellent functionality built in to Windows 7 and Windows 8.1. Alas, Windows 10 has lost many of these capabilities, especially functionality concerned with editing text. For those of us who make a lot of use of handwriting recognition, this is a significant backwards step. This regression is likely to inconvenience only a small subset of the entire user community, even though it is something I find perplexing given how sophisticated the software was in previous versions of Windows.

A matter of far greater import to the entire user community, and to all those considering buying a Surface device concerns the extremely poor communication of Microsoft when asked about issues being experienced by users. I am not referring to the folks on the Surface help desk, both those on the web site and those answering the support line telephones; I have nothing but praise for the many folks in these roles with whom I have interacted in recent weeks.

What does worry me is the extreme reluctance of Microsoft executives and product managers to interact with the user community concerning the many issues we users have experienced. Just a bit of communication on how things are going would work wonders. The vast majority of users who have had problems want their Surface computers to work. Even the online Surface community hosted on Microsoft’s own website enjoys very little input from Senior executives.

Update – The firmware patches in January increased battery life to over 6 hours, but then Microsoft released a ‘hardware’ patch on February 17 that made things much worse again. Battery life now reduced to 4 hours at best. Does anyone on the Surface team know anything about testing?? Apparently not.

Microsoft please note – YOU should be just as much part of the online community as the users. Please engage with us. The vast majority of users are tolerant of problems if they are properly acknowledged and you give some idea of when they will be addressed. Leaving people who have invested in kit that is positioned as premium technology in the dark for so long with little or no feedback creates frustration and bad feelings. Most of us, myself included, really want the Surface Pro and Surface Book to reach their full potential, which could be huge.

But after the February release disaster, Microsoft is running the risk of alienating its users. The head in the sand, there is no problem approach is incredibly irritating to people who have paid premium prices for devices they want to work well.

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