Imperfect, Heavy, Light, Powerful, and Excellent.
Just shy of one year ago, I transitioned Blogging Kit from a Macbook Pro and iPad combo to a Microsoft Surface Pro 128GB. In light of this week’s announcement of Surface Pro 3 and my acquisition of a Surface Pro 2, I think it’s time to reflect on what that experience was like. Like most folks, I was a little skeptical about the idea of combining a laptop and tablet into a single unit. Would it be too heavy? Would the performance be too low? Would the battery life be awful? And what about the new Windows 8 OS that’s been the subject of so much teeth-gnashing? I’ll try to answer all these questions and more as succinctly as possible. Hit the jump and let’s get into the question: what’s it like to live with Microsoft’s vision for computing in the future?
1. The Operating System, starring Windows 8/8.1:
Windows 8.1 Update 1 had a good head start with Windows 8, as I started using it during the first publicly available betas about 9 months before launch, dual booting on my MacBook Pro. That experience gave me plenty of time to figure out how to navigate the OS well before launch, so I didn’t have the struggle that a lot of people did. Of course, it probably helps that I just naturally enjoy exploring and discovering new things. The early Windows 8 experience did have its struggles, though. I’d become accustomed to the iPad and even to my Windows Phone 7 device, both of which had lots of apps available in their stores. Windows 8’s store was notoriously barren by comparison, and that led to some early frustration when trying to use Surface Pro as just a tablet. Too many apps and features were missing to make for a satisfying experience Nevertheless, the device’s ability to handle legacy Windows desktop apps with aplomb kept me satisfied enough to continue, and the app store dilemma became less important by the day. If there’s one thing Windows really needs to fix, though, is its way of presenting the desktop. The desktop is still wrapped in the trappings of an archaic system whose time has passed, and it’s time for Microsoft to update it to a more modern presentation that has fonts big enough to read on high DPI screens and large enough to operate with a finger.
With 8.1 and the new 8.1 Spring Update (really? We couldn’t just call it 8.2?), virtually all my complaints about Windows 8 evaporated. While some dislike the new aesthetic, I’ve personally found myself loving the flat colors, active tiles, and removal of extraneous effects. My sincere hope is that as Windows evolves it gets even flatter and the metro aesthetic becomes more pervasive.
Suggestion: Use a Microsoft account, and use OneDrive! I can’t stress these enough. If you’re using Windows 8–and on a Surface Pro, you will be–you shouldn’t create an old-fashioned local account. Doing so cuts you off from some of Windows 8’s best features. Among these is the ability to have almost your entire PC configuration, right down to tile sizes, locations and apps installed, backed up to your OneDrive account in the event you either need to restore your PC or you sign into a different Windows 8.1 PC. Best, though, is that with OneDrive you get 7GB storage for free, which, while not enough to cover, say, your music and photos collection, is probably plenty to ensure your critical documents are all safely backed up within moments of you making any change. It’s easy to learn to save to your OneDrive folder, and once you’ve become accustomed to having that safety net you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.
2. The Hardware: Build Quality, Heft, and Capability.
Surface Pro Docking Station
I used to lug around a 2010 MacBook Pro 13.3″, which weighed 4.5 pounds, and an iPad 1, which weighed 1.5 pounds for a total of 6 pounds. So when I say that the 2.5 pound total of the Surface Pro and Type Cover was a big weight off my back, I’m really not kidding. The sacrifice was that I had a smaller screen, but the gain was a far more powerful processor and far superior screen resolution and pixel density. The build quality is exceptional: there is literally zero flex to this device, its magnesium shell is hard and sturdy enough to withstand probably more abuse than you should feel comfortable making your PC go through. As a tablet, it’s half a pound heavier than that original iPad was, but as a laptop, it has a huge advantage over anything Apple offers. But you probably wonder what I use my Surface Pro for?
I’ve spent most of the past year as a film school student at UCLA, which means that a lot of my workload involves editing and transcoding video, compositing after effects compositions, transferring footage across different media and so on. I use Adobe Premiere for most of these tasks, and my Surface Pro has handled them all with grace. I’ve had no problems editing and rendering 1080p video in real-time. And as you’d expect from a Windows machine with a full-size USB port, working with external hard drives and optical drives is a breeze. Suffice to say, I also do the basics including working in Microsoft Office, writing in Final Draft, checking email, browsing the web, yadda yadda. Overall, I’ve had no complaints save one: early on, my first Surface Pro had some serious problems with the Marvell Avastar wifi chip and had to be exchanged, a problem that’s not entirely uncommon with this device. More on that later.
Let’s be honest: the webcams on this device suck. They’re flat-out terrible, and there’s no getting around that fact. They’re fine for basic Skype video calls, but that’s pretty much it. If you really need to record video, use something else. Anything else.
I frequently take notes in OneNote MX (that’s the metro version), especially lately. Like most students, I have tended over the past few years to type my notes, but recent studies show that students who take notes by hand tend to do better on tests. Well, I’m all for evidence based research, so I took this to heart, but I’m also lazy, which means I don’t want to type things after I’ve written them down. Enter Surface Pro’s stylus and voila: I can hand write my notes and have them in a digital format all at the same time. Hell yes. I find that the stylus, despite its cheap plastic feel, works well as a digital inking device. Some complaint about the lack of a dock for the stylus, but honestly, I’ve no issues with that. I’ve been using it for a year and have yet to lose the thing.
Art Related Work
Last note on usability: my fiancée, artist Kelley Frisby, got her Surface Pro on launch day precisely because of the integrated Wacom digitizer with 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity. From the outset, the usage here was contentious because Surface Pro shipped without a pressure sensitive driver that Photoshop could understand. However, once that driver materialized, she took to using the stylus all the time. And when we learned about Manga Studio Pro from artist Jonathan Case’s website, things really went off the hook as she found it to be far superior to photoshop for creating hand drawn illustrations. That she can have her Surface Pro on her lap with pressure sensitivity while she draws, and her keyboard handy for using keyboard shortcuts, is a huge benefit that other tablets simply don’t offer. Truly, if you’re an artist who draws and paints digitally, Surface Pro is the device for you. Nothing else combines so many hardware capabilities and broad software availability.
3. Battery Life
Surface Pro Kickstand
This is the one serious issue that has dogged the Surface Pro since its original launch, despite the fact that it was never as bad as people claimed or the fact that Surface Pro 2 completely mitigated the issue (and by all reports, Surface Pro 3 does even better). Early claims were that Surface Pro got about 3.5 hours of battery life. And under certain circumstances, that’s true: watching 1080p videos with the brightness up while downloading stuff in the background will, like any other device, eat battery life much more than average usage will. But that’s only part of the test, isn’t it? Under normal usage, which I’ll define as the web, email and word processing, Surface Pro 1 will get 5 hours battery life right out of the box. With some mild tweaks to the power profile, which I’ve detailed in one of our most popular posts, it’s entirely possible to get 6-7 hours of battery life. My best time was just over 8 hours total, but with a caveat: I was working with the wifi turned off, writing in Word, in a low light situation where I could comfortably turn down the screen brightness to minimum. Most people I know get in the range of 5-6 hours.
Why I Switched
Let’s be as clear as possible here: the Surface Pro is not a flawless device, but then, neither is anything else. My chief complaints are that the desktop in Windows 8.x needs a Modern UI revamp, and I wish the screen were a little bigger. I hope to upgrade to a Surface Pro 3 at some point in the future for that very reason, though my suspicion is that the artist community, such as my own wonderful Kelley Frisby, will hesitate to upgrade as a result of the new device’s possibly inferior N-Trig digitizer.
So that leaves the big question: why did I switch? That’s a complicated question. First, I was never sold on Mac OSX, but when Apple’s Bootcamp 5 update removed my ability to install Windows 8 as a dual-boot OS choice, claiming it wasn’t compatible with the computer I’d been using for 2.5 years (and at that, running Windows 8 on for 9 months), the final straw broke. This was the third time Apple’d created problems for my devices, following the iOS 5 update that slowed my iPad to a crawl and the iOS 4 update that made my iPhone 3G all but unusable.
The prospect of having a tablet and laptop all in a single device was also very appealing to me. Yes, there are compromises: it’s a little heavier than a tablet and a little smaller than a typical laptop, but the overall effect is a nett positive, and I’m happy to say that my year with Surface Pro has me convinced: Microsoft’s vision of a world where tablets are just slim, light, touch-friendly PC’s is the right one. That we now see even desktop all-in-ones becoming large tablets (seriously, have you seen the Dell Venue Pro 18″ tablets? Crazy!) and touch slowly but surely spreading even to budget level laptops, is a good sign the convergence Microsoft predicted when it announced the original Surface Pro is really happening.
Problems I had & Solutions Microsoft offered
Surface by Microsoft
I mentioned the problem my original Surface Pro had with its wifi chip awhile ago, but there’s more to that story. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago my Surface Pro once again began having problems with the wifi chip, and no update, driver replacement, or even a system reset helped. Eventually, the device started blue screening repeatedly, so I took it in to see what Microsoft could do for me. To my complete surprise, they handed me a brand new Surface Pro 2 and even let me pay the difference to upgrade it to the 256GB/8GB model, which I eagerly did. The new device is basically all the great stuff about Surface Pro 1, distilled into a purer form. Same weight, size and shape, slightly better screen (though I honestly can’t tell the difference, for what it’s worth), and the Type Cover 2 is a fantastic little keyboard that does its job with aplomb. I’m very happy indeed, and more than glad I bought the extended warranty.
I’ve seen a lot of folks argue that the Surface Pro series is too expensive, and I can understand why. $999 before you even add the keyboard seems like a pretty tough pill to swallow, especially for a tablet when you live in a world of $499 iPads and $199 Kindle Fires. But I think it’s worth remembering what you get when you buy into the Surface Pro system:
1. You get an ultrabook that can run just about any legacy Windows app you can throw at it. It has excellent RAM options (4-8GB) and storage options (64-512GB), a full-sized USB port and both wired and wireless external monitor support (the latter via Miracast). In Apple land, this costs you $900 minimum.
2. You get a tablet that can do anything an iPad or Android tablet can do, plus more, with the only drawback being sheer numbers of apps. Even that is changing as the Windows Store approaches 200,000 and will soon merge with the Windows Phone Store to boot. And because it’s Windows, you also get the perk of individual user accounts right out of the box. In Apple land, this is another $400+
3. A digital drawing/inking solution. Whether you just take notes or you do fine art, the Surface Pro has you covered. You don’t get this in Apple land at all. You instead buy a USB tablet that does not have a screen for $100+, or you buy a Cintiq to connect to your Macbook for $1,000.
Long story short: at first glance, yes, it looks like Surface Pro/2 is expensive, but you get a tremendous amount of value for your money.
Would I recommend the Surface Pro or Pro 2? Absolutely, especially if you’re an artist or someone who’s just sick and tired of lugging around multiple devices. We live in a world where our computing hardware is not just powerful but can do its job with surprisingly little energy or heat. There’s just no reason to carry two devices in your bag in addition to the smartphone in your pocket. If I could have a wish granted, it’d be for Microsoft to add an extra USB 3.0 port, thunderbolt, and move from an SATA to a PCIe SSD. Mind you, it doesn’t exactly need those items, but the hardware nerd in me would be really happy to have them.
As for Surface Pro 3, well, I’d love to review it, and more importantly I’d love to put it in the hands of our classically trained illustrator so she can put it through its paces and render a verdict on its usefulness as an artist’s digital tablet, but so far haven’t had any luck getting time with the new device. But hey, if Microsoft would like to let us borrow one, we could probably work something out!
Oh, almost forgot: do buy Microsoft’s extended warranty for Surface Pro, no matter what version you buy. It’ll really pay off if anything ever goes wacky with your device, and it even offers accidental damage protection, which is usually pretty expensive if it’s offered at all.