With Surface Pro 4, Microsoft appears to have settled on the design for its "tablet that can replace your laptop" and is now refining it to keep ahead of its rivals.
There are plenty of new competitors. This year, Apple and Google have launched tablets that are, like the Surface Pro, designed more for productivity than media consumption. PC-makers have introduced Surface clones such as the HP Spectre x2 and the Lenovo Miix 700.
On the surface, the new model looks similar to last year's Surface Pro 3. Both slates are the same size, though the new version is 8.4mm thick, down from the Pro 3's 9.1mm.
It has the same integrated kickstand that can be adjusted to stand at any angle from zero to 150 degrees.
It weighs 786g, down from its predecessor's 800g. But it is still not as handy as the typical, albeit smaller, 10-inch slate. It is awkward and tiring to hold the Surface Pro 4 with one hand, but the same can be said of the Apple iPad Pro (723g).
Inside the matte-grey magnesium chassis are hardware upgrades. It comes with the latest Intel Core processor (M or I series). Internal storage caps at 1TB, while the maximum amount of memory is now 16GB. These changes bring the Surface Pro 4 in line with premium laptops.
But the 1TB storage option is unavailable at the Microsoft Singapore online store. The highest-end version includes an Intel Core i7 chip with 16GB RAM and a 512GB solid-state drive ($3,399).
Surpassing the wonderful display on the Surface Pro 3 is no easy task, but Microsoft has done it. The Surface Pro 4 has a brilliant, bright display. Colours look accurate and viewing angles are impeccable. There is virtually no gap between the display and its protective Corning Gorilla glass layer.
The screen size has been bumped up to 12.3 inches, from the 12 inches of the Pro 3. The bezel is thinner, making the screen appear much larger than it actually is. The display resolution has also increased to 2,736 x 1,824 pixels, from its pre- decessor's 2,160 x 1,440 pixels.
The included Surface Pen is better than before. It now attaches magnetically to the side of the tablet. What I like best is the eraser at the end of the pen, which lets you delete your mistakes easily. The pen button also gets a new function. Press and hold it down and you will trigger Microsoft's Cortana personal assistant.
Unfortunately, the Surface Pen is not as good as pen and paper. It is also not as good as the Apple Pencil stylus for the iPad Pro. There is just the slightest bit of lag between the act of writing and seeing the words show up. In comparison, the Apple Pencil has almost no latency.
The Surface's Type Cover keyboard turns the tablet into a laptop. The new keyboard, also compatible with the Pro 3, is much improved. It is sturdier so there is less flex while typing. The island-style keys use the full width of the keyboard and feel less cramped. The touchpad is larger, with a smooth glass surface. It is precise, responsive and a delight to use.
After trying the Surface Pro 4 for a week, I am still not totally convinced about its "lapability", a term coined by Microsoft to describe how well a device can be used effectively on your lap. The Surface Pro 4 still feels inferior to a notebook PC in this aspect.
In fact, the iPad Pro with its keyboard accessory feels more stable and has a smaller footprint too. The downside is that Apple's keyboard lacks a touchpad and has no backlight. You also cannot adjust the angle of the iPad Pro when used with the keyboard.
Unlike the iPad Pro, the Surface Pro 4, at least for the initial launch, has no 4G support. Microsoft has not said if this feature will be added later.
Where the Microsoft slate is clearly better than Apple's tablet is the software. Windows 10 and its variety of desktop-class apps make the Surface a true productivity device.
The Surface Pro 4 lasted just five hours in our video-playback battery-life test at full screen brightness and volume. Considering its bright, high-resolution screen, this result is not unexpected. Most users should see a longer battery life in normal usage. Unlike with our test, most users would probably not have the screen at full brightness as it is almost unbearably bright.
Prices start at $1,399 for the Core M version. Add the $199 optional keyboard and the Surface Pro 4 becomes as pricey as a premium notebook. The keyboard should really be bundled for a so-called laptop replacement. But to be fair, the Surface feels like a high-end gadget, so these prices are reasonable.
If you already have the Surface Pro 3, the Pro 4 is probably not worth the upgrade. But you should definitely get the new Type Cover keyboard.
PROCESSOR: Intel Core i5-6300U (2.4GHz)
GRAPHICS: Intel HD Graphics 520
SCREEN SIZE: 12.3-inch, 2,736 x 1,824 pixels
CONNECTIVITY: 1 x USB 3.0, 1 x mini-DisplayPort, microSD card slot, headphone jack
BATTERY: 39 watt-hour
VALUE FOR MONEY: 3/5
BATTERY LIFE: 3/5
Verdict: The Surface is the best tablet that can also double as a laptop, but its high-resolution display takes a toll on its battery life.
This article was first published on December 2, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.