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Surface Pro 4 i7 Iris 540 – Usability, Battery Life, Gaming

Posted on November 24, 2015

I was lucky enough to be an “early bird” in receiving the Surface Pro 4 i7 / 256gb / 16gb version from my local Microsoft Store at the Garden State Plaza. Since Thursday afternoon, the reddit community requested that I run a ton of various tests and benchmarks to see how this model faired. Is the battery life bad? What about GAMING and video? Both major draws for the i7 version. In the last few days with the testing I’ve done and real-world use, my review is broken down into general usability, battery life, gaming results / benchmarks, and undervolting. I will also compare it to Surface Pro 2 because that is my prior device and I have chosen to upgrade from it. But, I also owned a Pro 4 i5 for a month and had to return it — I will explain why I upgraded and will be keeping the i7.

SP4-i7

Surface Pro 4 i7/256gb/16gb… right from the MS store

Usability

I think it’s important to say what I use the SP4 for. Primarily it is my note taking device and for video watching in bed or on the couch. It is also my all around general travel device – I need to be able to program on it comfortably for my business as well as for college. SP2 was an excellent note taking device and ok for video, but the screen size and poor keyboard made it hard for getting programming work done comfortably. The SP4 addresses these problems completely. I’ll highlight all of the things the SP4 excels at in usability for me as well as where it falls short.

Pen quality/note taking

The number one reason I own a Surface Pro in general over a regular laptop is the the ability to write and take notes. I have to take a lot of math and computer science theory based classes, which require good note-taking skills and organization.  The Pro 4 combined with OneNote is the best note taking device there is. I do not notice any pen “drifting” like I did with the SP2 and it feels very natural. I love the eraser and the added traction – they really try to make it feel like you’re writing on a piece of paper. At this time, there is one major problem with OneNote 2016 – you need to disable the automatic handwriting recognition in the options. Otherwise, your ink will disappear at random. This frustrated me for a day or so before I even knew what was going on. Microsoft is aware of the problem and is working on a patch, I’m just not sure why it was shipped like that to begin with. Either way, once it’s disabled note-taking is absolutely a dream on the Pro 4. I love OneNote 2016/2013, and I think combined with the Pro 4 is THE most powerful note taking device on the market right now.

n-trig pen with eraser makes CS notes easy...

The new pen with eraser makes CS notes easy…

Keyboard

It seems Microsoft finally listened and got the keyboard right in this 4th iteration of the Surface.  The keyboard is a night and day experience coming from SP2. The keyboard feels solid and the keys are nicely spaced. I can honestly say that programming on this device is not an issue for me for now. They did remove the right control key it appears, to accomplish this. I don’t personally use this key for anything, and the extra space between all of the keys is a godsend. The trackpad is just OK, I wasn’t really expecting a whole lot out of it but it is usable. I do not really use the trackpad when casually browsing the internet if I have the keyboard attached, I prefer to just use the touch screen or the keys to scroll around. You won’t be disappointed in the new touchpad, at least if you’re coming from Pro 2 – whose felt touchpad was practically unusable.

Microsoft Removed the right control key and spaced the keys out more

Removed the right Ctrl, spaced the keys out more

Kickstand

Love it, it’s perfect. Any angle you could want or need, even in awkward spaces it does very well. “Lapability” is there. For the last year and a half I was huge user of the “FreedomCase” because the SP2 lacked extra angles that this case could provide. I feel like this is no longer necessary with all of the angles you get (but would like a case for protection of the outside). The kickstand experience is no different than Pro 3 (I’ve tried both) so there’s really not much new here for those in that category.  The larger size of the tablet and keyboard combined can be a frustrating experience at lecture halls, however, where the tables are so small. My i5 Pro 4 fell off the table and onto its face (carpet! no damage!) because I wasn’t paying attention to how close it got to the edge. Pro 4 is ~12in wide and ~9 1/2 in long with the kickstand as straight up as possible measured from point to point. Need to really be careful. For the most part, college is the only place that tables like this are really going to be a problem.

small lecture hall tables are sligthtly stressful...

small lecture hall tables are slightly stressful…

DPI Scaling

The SP4 runs at a very high resolution, and “upscales” applications to make them viewable. What do I mean by this? Here’s a gif created by a reddit user: Photoshop CC Scaling.  The default scaling, as you can see, for applications like photoshop are horrendous and difficult to use. It’s too small and does not conform to Window’s scaling settings. ” I’ve run into this problem with a few applications already, some of them are small time like MARS MIPS Assembler, and others are major applications like VMware and Photoshop. Dan Antonielli has a great fix for this problem that involves a registry hack and placement of a “manifest file.” So far, I’ve only needed to use it for those applications, and he provides a complete step by step tutorial that is easy to follow. If an application is not scaling correctly, then follow these instructions and it should resolve the issue. I wish there was a better way of doing this. It’s 2015 – we shouldn’t have to do registry edits to get things like this to work the right way.

DPI scaling woes on SP4 cause “interfaces-for-ants”

 Camera, Microphone, USB and other things

The front and back camera are nothing to write home about – they’re pretty good, but that’s about it. I’m glad that the quality has increased enough to the point that I can now use it as a document scanner! It’s not stuck on a singular focus. I can take a picture of a page and have it saved in OneNote now without having to use my iPhone to get the best quality. But, compared to the iPhone6+ the zoom is poor which is a major downside. I typically take photos of the whiteboards if I am too tired to take notes or the professor is going too quickly. The zoom quality is just terrible for that purpose on Surface devices, and unfortunately the SP4 is no different. For skype calls and quick video, the mic and camera are just fine. The USB port? It works, but come on, still only ONE USB port? It really needs two, but I guess MS decided against it again. The last thing I’ll say is about the charging head: over time, these heads are prone to fraying and breaking from stress if you don’t take care of them. So get a second charger because one day it’ll break on you no matter how much you take care of it. They cost a ridiculous amount of money, but if they break under warranty MS will still give you one for free. For the price of that charger, it’s a better deal to simply buy an external battery if you can’t get it on warranty. An Anker Astro Pro 2 is $100, now you have power that is portable for nearly the same price.

Battery Life

9 hours is the advertised battery life of the SP4 for all models. I was not really surprised to see that in my experience, it did not even come close to this estimation. The problem is partly a “best case” scenario of course, and the other perhaps larger issue is that not all browsers use equal battery life. I use Firefox as my primary browser and after a few videos, email, and taking notes with onenote the whole time, the battery lasted roughly 5 hours. This is consistent in most of my actual use cases. When using Edge to watch video alone, the difference is staggering. Microsoft has done some extreme optimization to the Edge browser (gpu acceleration?); it uses very little CPU to play a YouTube video. For comparison, playing a 4K video on YouTube in Firefox yielded an average CPU usage of 70%-80% VS Microsoft Edge’s 5%. This causes the unit to spike to 60C, and the fans to kick on immediately, which is demonstrated in a video I uploaded.

[VIDEO] Microsoft Edge will save battery. Firefox/Chrome will eat it.

In conclusion, if you want maximum battery life, you need to be using Edge for browsing. Period. The difference between these two browsers and how they perform with video content is staggering and will significantly affect your battery life even if you watch 1 video for 10 minutes. I hope that in a future update, Firefox will at least come up to par with Edge or around it for video performance. The good news? The fan is not obnoxiously loud, even on full blast. Hear what it sounds like at the end of the above video.

Gaming Results

The i7 540 Iris is faster — (~28%-55% as reported here) than the the i5, but is it really worth it? The price difference between i5 and i7 is about $300 — not a small chunk of change, so if you are considering this for gaming, this section really applies to you.

I tested Minecraft, Skyrim, Fallout 4, Goat Simulator, Bioshock Infinite, and GTA V. I believe the videos speak better than writing much in a blog post, so here are the links to all of my tests below with my rating on whether it’s playable or not. Most of my tests show Intel’s Xtreme Tuning utility, so you can watch the clock speed and CPU usage the entire time.

In most instances, the games are playable on low settings. You’re not going to be rocking any new game on high settings with the i7 — but you can still get game time in even on some new titles. I feel like GTA V should be possible to play, but something seems wrong there. I suspect the drivers aren’t optimized enough yet to handle that title; the benchmarking tool crashed when I attempted to run it as shown in my video. I will probably test it again at a later date. My verdict here: if the i7 will be your ONLY device and you want to play games, then get it. Otherwise it’s more beneficial to put that money toward a good graphics card in an actual gaming desktop. I travel, where the Surface is my only device for month or so. Therefore, I prefer to carry the maximum power available with me.

Thermal Throttling & Temperature

With the Surface Pro 3, the i7 version was infamous for reaching hot temperatures of 80C and suffering from “Thermal Throttling.” When the processor got too hot, it would throttle the clock back severely, giving the SP3 i7 version a very serious hit in performance. It had terrible cooling issues. I performed a wide array of benchmarks and tests and can confirm that there is NO thermal throttling on the Surface Pro 4. The following video uses FurMark & Prime95 running at the same time for 15 minutes to show that in no instance to Thermal Throttling kick on. The temperature is, on average, 60C only occasionally spiking to 65-70 for a very short time. The results are a big win in this category over the SP3. No one likes a toasty tablet that overheats.

Power Limit Throttle & Undervolting

The SP4 i7 doesn’t have thermal throttling, but it has what’s called power limit throttling. It throttles which decreases performance significantly. It’s not a thermal throttle, it’s a “Power Limit Throttle.” In my test videos, you can see that power limit throttle is activated quite often while playing intensive games or performing benchmarks. Here’s the problem: TDP for the Intel 6650U used in SP4 i7 is rated at 15W. Turbo Boost Long Power limit (PL1) is set to 25W.

After approximately 20 seconds or so of exceeding this power limit, the system caps it back to 15watts for the duration of use. The power limit throttling is detrimental to the i7’s performance and the clock speed takes a huge hit. During testing, I was able to eliminate power throttling from occurring while running Intel’s own stress test. The key to helping to alleviate some of the the power throttle is the undervolt the CPU & iGPU – meaning to run it at a lower voltage to escape hitting the throttle or to not hit it as soon. In the below video, I explain how that it is done and show you the entire benchmark results and process.

 

The values of -110mV for the processor and -90mV for the IGPU have been the most stable results that I could find and indeed in the intel test results in approximately a ~0.20 ghz improvement because it did not power throttle. However this does not prevent all throttling and, unfortunately, there is no way to completely escape power throttling at this time. Games are really where it kicks in hard, of course, and Intel’s stress test does not weigh very heavily on the iGPU side. I highly recommend undervolting because you will gain 2-4 more FPS consistently depending on the game. You just need to remember to turn off the undervolting by selecting the default profile when you’re done (or reboot the Surface) because connected standby will cause a shutdown with it on.

So, will Microsoft update the firmware of the Surface Pro 4 to have a more liberal power throttle? My answer at the moment is likely not. It appears that this chip was designed only to be used in short bursts as per the 15 watt spec posted by Intel and Microsoft is doing just that; following Intel’s guidelines. This is sad because the iGPU, theoretically, has so much potential that could be tapped if were allowed it to sustain 25W. Even with increased heat and power use, many would still appreciate the ability to use it while plugged in and get that extra power for games or intense apps.  The only ones who know the long term effects of this would be Microsoft and Intel themselves; at this point it’s up them as to whether or not we’ll be able to squeeze more performance out of the i7 in the future.

Final Thoughts

I love the Surface Pro 4 i7. It’s faster than i5 because of its burst capabilities, and is still a faster processor. I’ll be keeping it as long as no hardware issues crop up over the next month, but I think Microsoft screwed up and released SP4 out of the gate too early at the detriment of customers like me. I almost entirely gave up on this device if it was not for the i7. One of the primary reasons I exchanged it out is because the i5 version is plagued with “Intel display driver error has recovered” crashes, which would intermittently cause the system to lock up for 5-10 seconds at a time. Trying to get work done like that is extremely annoying. This issue occurred to me sometimes 10 times per day or more while using it. I got fed up with it and the lack of response/acknowledgement from Microsoft after updating to Windows 10 Threshold 2 and seeing no change.

Since I wanted to upgrade to the i7 and get another 30 days to evaluate the device, I swapped it out for a new one and hoped for the best. I lucked out. The drivers on the i7 appear to be more mature than the i5; because i7 has no such problems. It’s stable as a rock. On my i5 also experienced 3″blue screens of death” – a couple may have been driver related, but it is always hard to tell sometimes what is a hardware fault vs software. Overall, the i7 has survived my torture testing with Prime95 and FurMark as well as a host of other tests – never once a BSOD or crash. Real world use has been as-expected.

I hope Microsoft learns from this and doesn’t jump the gun in future releases of Surface. What I find most disturbing is that no tech sites have been talking about issues that are easily reproducible on the i5 that should have been caught by QC at Microsoft well before they shipped out. For now, I’m going to enjoy my i7 and kudos to them for a device, that when it works as intended, is an amazing piece of hardware.