The new Surface Pro 4 is Microsoft taking a victory lap — and a well-deserved one at that.

After three generations of pitching “a tablet that can replace your laptop” — with mixed success — the formula has finally clicked. The 2015 version of Microsoft’s tablet adds the latest Intel processors, a slightly larger screen (perfectly sized at 12.3 inches with a just-right 3:2 aspect ratio), and a handful of hardware and software tweaks, but doesn’t radically change the DNA of its predecessor, 2014’s excellent Surface Pro 3 . That’s a wise move, because at this point, the Surface Pro line is less about pitching the very concept of the tablet PC with a detachable keyboard to wary shoppers, and more about seeing how far it can go in refining the finished product.

Looking at the finely polished Pro 4, it’s worth remembering the humble beginnings of the Surface line . Debuting in 2012, Microsoft’s line of tablets were, if not outright mocked, then damned by faint praise at best: an overreach by a software-and-services company into the rough-and-tumble world of computer hardware; a Hail Mary response to the megasuccess of Apple’s iPad the previous year. Any design innovations — the snap-on keyboard, the fold-out kickstand — felt overwhelmed by quirks and compromises. Not the least of which was the choice of operating system: either the much-maligned Windows 8, or the the severely limited (and now deservedly extinct) Windows RT . In those early days, the Surface was looking less like an Xbox-style home run for Microsoft, and more a Zune -like fiasco.

View full gallery
Sarah Tew/CNET

But that’s all ancient history — call it the Ballmerzoic Era. The 2014 Surface Pro 3 became what Microsoft always hoped it would be: the flagship device for touch computing on Windows, the go-to alternative for those who wanted both a tablet and a laptop without feeling shortchanged on either front. The Surface Pro 4 refines the hardware formula even further, and with Windows 10 on board rather than Windows 8, the platform’s final big compromise evaporates too. Now, the Surface line is the design leader: Apple’s upcoming iPad Pro and Google’s Pixel C tablets are the ones aping Microsoft’s design, adding snap-on keyboards and ramping up the multitasking chops of their touch-first operating systems.

But, as a very refined product, the Surface Pro 4 is not inexpensive. The wide variety of configuration options and accessories mean that its starting price of $899, £749 or AU$1,349 is not very realistic. For that entry price, you get a Surface Pro tablet with an Intel Core M3 CPU, 128GB of solid state storage and 4GB of RAM, plus a touchscreen stylus that magnetically attaches to the side of the screen.

From the handful of systems we’ve tested with earlier Core M processors from Intel, it’s just not what you’re looking for from a full-time, all-day, everyday computer. The latest versions may be better, but we have yet to benchmark them in a consumer laptop or tablet. A more suitable choice for most will be the mainstream Intel Core i5. Microsoft has updated the processors across the board in the Surface Pro 4 line to Intel’s still-new sixth-generation models, sometimes referred to by the codename Skylake, and a configuration with a Core i5 jumps to $999. Double the storage to 256GB and the RAM to 8GB, and you’re at $1,299 (and that is the specific configuration tested here). You could spend more than $2,000 for an even faster Core i7 processor and bigger hard drive.

But no matter how much you spend on a Surface Pro 4, when you open the box and set it up, there will be one important missing ingredient. The Type Cover, a slim keyboard and screen protector in one, is still sold separately, no matter which Surface Pro 4 configuration you buy. From the earliest days of the Surface, that keyboard cover has rightly been called out as an impressive engineering feat, and the latest version even improves on that. It now features widely spaced island-style keys (like those found on practically every laptop), and a larger touchpad with a better touch surface.

Like the previous Type Covers, it connects via a magnetic hinge along the bottom of the tablet, and folds shut over the cover for easy transport. Also like previous Type Covers, it costs an extra $129, £109 or AU$199. We rarely see a Surface in Microsoft’s advertising materials or press previews without the keyboard cover attached, but for some reason, the company still won’t pack the most noteworthy part of the Surface ecosystem into the box. For such a premium product, it’s an omission that continues to mystify.

At least the touchscreen stylus — improved over last year’s version, and magnetically attachable to the tablet’s edge — is included by default. Likewise, the display is a tad larger (12.3 inches diagonally versus 12), without expanding the overall size of the tablet.