Bluetooth and tablet keyboards have always offered a compromised typing experience. Their thin designs necessitate cramped keys and shallow travel, resulting in missed strokes and a mushy typing experience.
The Microsoft Surface Type Covers have come the closest to offering a true laptop typing experience. But even through three generations of Type Cover that saw refinements, including a larger design for the Surface Pro 3, keys still feel cramped, and the trackpad is only a few steps above useless.
Microsoft has again refined the keyboard, this time for the Surface Pro 4, adding Chiclet-style keys, a glass trackpad, and an optional fingerprint sensor. Do these changes nudge the Type Cover up closer to quality QWERTY? Read on to find out.
Build & Design
Kudos to Microsoft for retaining the same smart connector on every generation of Surface tablet. Not only is it a great design that is secure and sturdy, as well as easy to snap on and off, it enables Touch and Type Covers to work across generations of Surfaces.
Surface Pro 3 owners should especially welcome this news, as both the Pro 4 and Pro 3 are the same size, and the new Type Cover works perfectly well with the older Surface.
The new Type Cover has 78 backlit keys, each with ample spacing between them, just above the glass trackpad, with the optional fingerprint sensor on the lower right portion. The Type Cover is available in black, blue, bright blue, red, and teal, while the Type Cover with Fingerprint ID is only available in onyx, which is exactly the same as black.
It measures 11.60 x 8.50 x 0.19 inches, and weighs .64 pounds, making it about the same size as the Pro 3 Type Cover.
It has the same felt-like covering, with the “Surface” branding replaced with “Microsoft.” The optional pen loop is no more, as the Surface Pro 4 has a magnetic dock for the Surface Pen.
Like the Pro 3 Type Cover, the Pro 4 Type Cover features magnets in its upper portion to create the sloping effect, which aids typing comfort.
Going with a Chiclet key design is the best thing Microsoft could have done. Having 78 individual keys instead of a large block of keys makes a noticeable difference in typing. It’s more comfortable and accurate, with less errant keystrokes. Keystroke travel seems about the same on both Type Covers, but the Pro 4’s is crisper, snapping back quickly. It’s quieter, too.
Comparing the two Type Covers side by side reveals the Pro 4’s has a lot less wasted space the edges. The Chiclet keys are a bit smaller, but not enough to make a negative difference. The new Type Cover also has one more key, 78 to 77.
Looking at the keys, the Pro 4 Type Cover ditches the Windows 8 Search, Charms, Share, and settings keys in favor of volume controls, PrtScn, and Ins. Print screen is a nice option given that the old Windows key+volume down is no longer an option (the Pro 4 doesn’t have a Windows key) for screenshots, but we would have liked to see the settings shortcut retained. There are also still no keys for controlling screen brightness, just two for the keyboard backlight. That’s an odd choice. The Pro 4 also has a new key next to the cursor keys that doubles as a right-mouse click. Given that the trackpad is right below it and accomplishes the same task with a simple click, we question its usefulness.
With that in mind, the new glass trackpad is bigger and better. It’s glass now, and much smoother than the Pro 3 Type Cover’s textured plastic. This alone makes it easier to use, even though it doesn’t seem to be any more responsive than before. It’s still single piece, with both left and right clicks, in addition to apps and multi-finger gestures like pinch to zoom and two-finger swipe.
The touchscreen is better at all of this, but for those that don’t want to muck up the Surface Pro screen with fingerprints, the touchpad is a passable alternative. It’s still disappointing that it’s not more responsive, however, given Windows 10 move to cursor friendly navigation.
The fingerprint sensor comes at a $30 premium, and it’s quick to unlock and mostly accurate. Setup is easy, but about 20% of the time it didn’t recognize the fingerprint at first touch. A second touch remedied that almost always, but given the price of the Type Cover it should work at least 99% of the time without effort. While it spares us a few seconds of typing in a password or pin, it’s ultimately not worth the added cost.
A Surface Pro is incomplete without a Type Cover, which is a shame because they cost either $130 or $160. Pro owners simply have to get one. The good news here is that the change to Chiclet style keys is a huge improvement, and brings the Type Cover QWERTY as close to a full-on keyboard as it seems possible. Even Pro 3 owners banging away at the block of keys on the Pro 3 Type Cover would be wise to take a close look at Microsoft’s new offering.
The bad news, other than the price, is that the trackpad is just okay, and the fingerprint sensor is a work in progress. We’d be willing to overlook this if Microsoft just bundled the Type Cover with the Surface Pro.
Bottom line, the new Type Cover offers greatly improved typing, a semi-improved trackpad, inconsistent fingerprint sensor, and a premium price tag.