Should you upgrade from a Surface Pro 3 to a Surface Pro 4?

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I owned a Surface Pro 3 from launch week in June 2014 through roughly three weeks ago. It was an excellent machine, easily one of my favorites in over three decades of buying a great many personal computers. In terms of overall usefulness, the Surface Pro 3 might have been the best machine, bar none. I used it as a productivity “notebook” and as a consumption tablet, and it served me well in both capacities.

After some back and forth debate with myself, I finally decided to moved up to a Surface Pro 4. After using the newest Surface Pro machine for a few weeks, and challenging my own decision, I thought I’d spend a few minutes answering an obvious question for WinBeta readers. Is the Surface Pro 4 a viable upgrade from a Surface Pro 3? My answer is a bit nuanced, as you’ll see, and all I can say right now is, “it depends.”

Surface Pro 4
Surface Pro 4

Look at that screen!

The single biggest reason that I even considered moving from a Surface Pro 3 to the Surface Pro 4 is the quality of the latter’s display. I saw the two models side-by-side in a Microsoft Store shortly after the Surface Pro 4 was released, and I noticed the difference between them instantly. Long story short, the Surface Pro 4’s display is significantly improved, at least to my eyes.

To begin with, I love high-res displays. I work a great deal with text, as a writer and an avid reader, and I’ve grown to abhor pixelated text. The iPad 3 with its groundbreaking Retina screen was my first experience with superior resolution, and I haven’t looked back since. Yes, Apple is big on marketing-speak, but in this case they weren’t lying–the iPad 3’s high resolution provided superior text compared to anything else on the market at the time, and Apple can take some credit for improving this particular metric industry-wide.

In this regard, the Surface Pro 4 shines. It’s significantly higher in terms of PPI (267 PPI vs. the Surface Pro 3’s 216 PPI), and to me at least, there’s a noticeable difference. The Surface Pro 3 doesn’t have a poor screen by any means, but I’ve never owned a Windows machine that displays high-quality text as well as the Surface Pro 4.

The higher resolution and slightly larger screen isn’t the only thing that’s significantly improved. I also like whites that closely match standard color temperature, that is, not too warm (reddish) nor too cold (bluish). I also like high contrast, where blacks really stand out against the whites. That, too, is important when you’re reading and writing a ton of words. In this regard, the Surface Pro 4’s improvement over the Surface Pro 3 is equally impressive.

Here are a few metrics:

Surface Pro 4 vs Surface Pro 3 Display Metrics Chart
Surface Pro 4 vs. Surface Pro 3 display metrics.

In short, whites on the Surface Pro 4 are much closer to standard white, and contrast is very high. This combines to make for a much more pleasant experience than my Surface Pro 3, where whites were quite a bit colder and contrast was much lower. Along with its excellent color performance, these factors combine with the higher resolution to result in a display that’s simply a joy to use.

Displaymate, which makes products for calibrating displays, regularly evaluates a number of devices based on a variety of image quality metrics. According to them, the Surface Pro 4 enjoys one of the best displays on the market.

Based on our extensive Lab tests and measurements on the display for the Surface Pro 4, Microsoft has produced an excellent professional grade high performance display for Windows that breaks a number of LCD Tablet performance records. In fact, the Surface Pro 4 has one of the very best and most accurate displays available on any mobile platform and OS. It joins near the top of a small set of Tablets that have excellent top tier displays – ideal for professionals that need a very accurate high performance display for their work, and for consumers that want and appreciate a really nice and beautiful display.

In addition, what is particularly significant and impressive is that Microsoft has systematically improved every display performance metric over the already excellent Surface Pro 3, including the display’s Maximum Brightness, Contrast Ratio, Absolute Color Accuracy, Viewing Angle Performance, and with lower screen Reflectance, resulting in much better performance in Ambient Light.

Bottom line: If you really, really like excellent displays, then the Surface Pro 4 is a superior machine and well worth the upgrade.

Design and build

Put the Surface Pro 4 next to the Surface Pro 3 and you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart. The latest model is a bit thinner and lighter, but otherwise they look and feel almost identical.

The Surface Pro 4 pen and active digitizer is better on paper, being of Microsoft’s most recent PixelSense technology. I really can’t tell much of a difference in practice, but then I only use the pen for basic notetaking. My drawing skills are elementary (as in, elementary school), and so I don’t use the added pressure sensitivity and overall better design.

The Surface Pro 4 Type Cover is also significantly improved, but you can use that on your Surface Pro 3. It’s worth the upgrade all by itself.

Surface Pro 4 Type Cover

Bottom line: Both the Surface Pro 3 and Surface Pro 4 are well-built and -designed machines, and unless you’re a creative professional who will really use the extra Pen capabilities, there’s not so much to justify an upgrade.

Performance and reliability

Intellectually, I know that the Surface Pro 4 has a newer generation Intel processor than the Surface Pro 3. In practice, I can’t tell the difference in performance. Both are Intel Core i5 machines with 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSDs, and for how I use them, they might as well be identical.

In terms of reliability, however, my Surface Pro 3 had plenty of time for Microsoft to get rid of the bugs. It was finally, after many firmware and driver updates, a stable, reliable machine with decent battery life (typically 7+ hours). My Surface Pro 4, however, is already less reliable than the Surface Pro 3 was from the start. At least the older model could go to sleep reliably.

Bottom line: much has already been written about the Surface Pro 4’s many firmware issues, and so I won’t beat that dead horse here. If you’re looking for the most stable machine, however, then I suggest that you do not upgrade to a Surface Pro 4 right now. Give it a month or so more, because we’re expecting (or maybe hoping for) firmware to resolve the issues soon.

Conclusion: should you or shouldn’t you?

Of course, such an upgrade depends a lot on a person’s finances and situation. I can imagine few scenarios.

Scenario 1: You’re already planning to buy a new machine

If you have someone to pass your Surface Pro 3 along to who can benefit from it, and need to buy a new machine anyways, then the decision should be easy. The Surface Pro 4 is an excellent 2-in-1 and well worth the purchase–assuming, as do I, that Microsoft will resolve the current firmware issues.

Scenario 2: You want a really good display and are willing to pay for it

If you can get enough money for your Surface Pro 3 to make the upgrade to the Surface Pro 4 make financial sense for you, and want a machine with a vastly improved display, then by all means, go for it. This is my personal scenario. One caveat: I also write about Microsoft products, and so having the latest and greatest adds another layer of value to me.

Scenario 3: You’re a creative professional who needs the best screen and pen input

If you do any kind of creative work where screen quality and pen input is important, then depending on your business I’d say you could probably justify the investment. Certainly, editing photos is a much better experience on the Surface Pro 4 given its wider color gamut and the Surface Pro 4 Pen is a real upgrade.

Everyone else

For many people, the Surface Pro 3 is likely a perfectly fine machine and it would make absolutely no sense to swap it out for a Surface Pro 4 if any serious money is involved. Given the reliability issues with the latest machine and the lack of a fix so far, I sometimes find myself almost regretting the decision.

Nevertheless, should Microsoft resolve the nagging sleep and display issues, then in the end I’ll be happy I made the investment. Let me know in the comments whether upgrading to a Surface Pro 4 could make sense for you.