Editorial note: I wrote this post (and the last one) using the Surface Pro. I also created/edited images used in this post and the last one too.
As a designer, Mac systems are the norm. Go to most agencies and print shops around the country, and you’re more than likely to see all manner of permutations of computing products from Apple. So here comes Microsoft’s Surface tablet with lofty aspirations as the next generation in tablet computing. Does it work? Is it the greatest tablet ever? Or is it the end of Microsoft? Join me after the break to find out.
I’ll be honest. My relationship with Apple products has definitely cooled in recent history. My 2nd gen Ipod Touch can no longer download podcasts simply because I refused to pay for the software upgrades for IOS. My 2007 17” Macbook Pro died a few years back because the “logic board” (a fancy name for motherboard) failed. My last Mac before that was an amazing device, the G4 desktop with the cool blue plastic case. It was built well and functioned reliably. But my recent attempts to use Apple products have been thwarted by either cheap components or out and out greed.
Admittedly, I was leery of purchasing Microsoft’s tablet-that-isn’t-quite-a-tablet. It’s got a fairly steep price point, and I wasn’t too sure of how much I’d really use one. Not to mention, it’s Microsoft. I thought they only made software. So what the heck are they doing making hardware?!
Well, all my Mac-supporting friends will be in shock to discover that the Surface Pro is actually a great device for people in our industry. If you can set aside the pro-Apple bias and look at this computing device for what it is capable of (as opposed to who makes it), you might be as pleasantly surprised as I have been over the past week or so.
First, before I get into the review proper, let me go over the basic information about this device.
I have the Surface Pro (128Gb model) with the Touch Cover in black. Other specs are as follows:
- 3rd Gen Intel® CoreTM i5 Processor (1.7 GHz) with Intel HD Graphics 4000
- 4GB RAM—Dual Channel Memory
- Full-size USB 3.0
- microSDXC card slot
- Headset jack
- Mini DisplayPort
- Cover port
There’s more too. Detailed specs can be found on Microsoft’s Web site at:
Essentially, what this all means is that there are actual computer components in use as opposed to some specific mobile chipset. Real computing power in a teeny package. Many who get the Pro version opt for the Type Cover (the one that looks more like a real keyboard). I opted for the Touch Cover mainly because I have enough keyboards already, and if I’m working at a desk, it’s pretty easy to just grab a keyboard and plug it in. The Touch Cover gives me a more functional cover for the device that isn’t just a crappy mushy keyboard. Plus, I rather like the “quickness” (it’s hard to describe sufficiently) of typing on the Touch Cover.
Also, the Pro version comes with a pen stylus that was developed in conjunction with Wacom. If you’re not aware of who (or what) Wacom is, they make the most common drawing tablets out there. The older Intuos line was some of the best they made. The regular version (Surface RT) does not include the stylus, among other features.
Also, just to give you a sense of how I’ve been using my Surface Pro, here is a list of apps that I have installed (both desktop applications and from the app store):
- Microsoft Minesweeper
- Microsoft Solitaire Collection
- Microsoft Office 2013
- Adobe Photoshop
- CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada
- Cisco AnyConnect Secure Mobility Client
For the most part, these are all free apps that you can get from Microsoft’s app store. But with the Surface Pro, you really don’t need to rely on the app store for very much. I explain a bit more about this later.
About The Review
Just briefly, I thought I should describe how this will work. One of my favorite movies is “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, a classic spaghetti Western if you haven’t seen it. The title of the movie was meant to describe the main characters but I thought that they would be appropriate here as review categories. But keep in mind, by “Bad”, I don’t necessarily mean showstopping problems. That’s what “Ugly” is for… In this case, “The Bad” are simply things that I personally didn’t think were that good and may not necessarily be that big of a deal to you (though I suppose it’s all relative). Anyway, onwards!
The device is really nicely designed. It’s a bit on the heavy side for tablet. But it feels solid and well built. It has a unique styling that may not appeal to everyone, but I like how it looks. The kickstand is a nice touch as well.
Its hard to believe that Microsoft designed these things (maybe they hired someone?). The Surface Pro came with a series of apps pre-installed that pull feeds from Bing on topics like news, finance, and sports. The news stories are presented in a magazine-style format with a nice large cover photo, and an elegant page layout presentation for the text.
It’s really nice to be able to have my morning coffee while browsing the news on this device. It feels a lot like the old days of opening up a newspaper (remember those?!). Sipping on coffee and swiping through the morning’s stories can’t be beat!
I know people prefer to type on a real keyboard. But seriously, it’s not that difficult to learn to type on this thing. I’ve read many reviews where people complained about the Touch Cover and more strongly recommend the Type Cover. It’s too bad. In my opinion, while the Type Cover does provide a more keyboard like experience, it’s just not a very good keyboard. If you want to do heavy duty document generation with this device, then it’s really simple. Plug in a good keyboard. The Touch Cover is great for what it is, a more mobile keyboard in an extremely portable form factor. It does have drawbacks. You just don’t get the same kind of haptic feedback that you get with raised buttons on a keyboard. But with a bit of practice, you’ll be able to type quickly and efficiently in no time. Of course, you’ll need to know how to touch type to begin with, but that’s a different problem.
This is by far the greatest part of the Surface Pro. It was the main feature that convinced me to get a Surface Pro. Many apps with pen support (like Microsoft’s FreshPaint) are also capable of supporting the pen’s pressure sensitivity. Unfortunately, Adobe Photoshop does not currently support pressure sensitivity on the Surface Pro. But I hear there’s a patch in the works. No big deal though. You can still adjust things like brush size with the keyboard. Also, one nice thing about the pen is that when you are on the go with your Surface Pro, the pen has a magnet in it that allows it to click securely into the power port along the right side so you can tote the pen along with your tablet!
I am actually finding that it feels really awkward now to use a mouse to click on things. Tapping buttons to dismiss dialog boxes is far superior to having to move a mouse cursor. Similarly, using touch to do things like play a bit of Solitaire feels exactly right. Dragging cards around the game board is great! In a similar vein, the new version of Internet Explorer works really great with touch interactions. I don’t recommend using IE on the Surface Pro for the same reasons that you shouldn’t use it in general. But there are times where it just feels much better to explore the Web using touch interactions with the new IE.
Though not technically a feature of the Surface Pro, this is one of the best applications that Microsoft has made so far. It works extremely well with the pen, but you can also just type into it. OneNote serves essentially the same purpose as a piece of paper. You can draw/sketch/handwrite anything you can imagine into it. You can then annotate your sketches by typing stuff on it. Also, if you made some goof up while sketching, just hit CTRL + Z to undo it, and it simply disappears. With this app, I may never need a sketchbook ever again.
The Surface Pro uses standard laptop components and as a result it is x86 compatible. Essentially what this means is that you can install anything that would work in Windows 7. So I have the full desktop version of Photoshop installed. It’s not some weird gimped mobile version that has a fraction of the features. It’s just Photoshop, the way it was meant to be.
I had a strange experience one day. I was browsing the app store looking for new interesting things to install. But it’s really not necessary for the Pro version. I realized that I can pretty much install anything on this device since it can run any application that works on Windows 7. The app store is just extra.
About a week ago, I was in a meeting where I was trying to explain some concept that I had sketched out in OneNote. After unsuccessfully trying to explain things, I decided to connect my Surface Pro to the projector and show off my concept sketches. It quickly synced the display to the projector and within seconds, I was able to explain my ideas much easier.
It’s really more of a convenience thing, to be able to connect the Surface Pro to a projector. It’s probably not something you might do all the time. But when it’s needed, it’s really great that the feature exists.
I thought I should mention something about this. Many comments I’ve read on tech blogs have blasted the Surface Pro for its battery life. But in all actuality, I haven’t found it to be a problem. In fact, the battery life is quite good. I bring it to meetings untethered to the power source. It lasts for quite a while that way. And when I get back to my desk, it is a simple matter of plugging it back in if it needs it. Worst case scenario is that you have to carry the power adapter with you. As a grown human being, carrying things like that is not very challenging.
The App Store
The app store is a bit barren still. It will certainly take some time before it’s got as much stuff as iTunes or Google Play. But! For all you budding app developers out there, it’s a prime opportunity to help get your app seen as you won’t need to compete with a billion other things. But if you’re looking for cool new apps, you might need to wait a while. Fortunately for the Surface Pro, you probably don’t even need it (though CBC’s hockey app is pretty great if you like hockey… Yes. It’ll stream Coach’s Corner.)
To be honest, the email program is not that great. It’s a bit too simplistic. You can’t even add filters for your mail. Plus, you can get a more robust email client with free Web tools (e.g. Gmail). The mail client certainly works. I can send and receive email messages with it. And it provides a suitable indicator for new mail messages, both in the app and on the lock screen. But it’s just not that impressive.
Once you get into Windows 8’s desktop mode, it looks virtually identical to Windows 7 with the exception being that there’s no Start menu. It does seem properly optimized for touch, but there isn’t too much else that sets it apart from its predecessor. It’s essentially a touch-enabled version of Windows 7 with a fancy new overlay to replace the Start menu. It’s not that bad, but I guess I was expecting something a bit more revolutionary.
This device is not cheap. When you buy a Surface Pro (or RT), you’re getting just the tablet portion of it. If you want either the Touch or Type Cover, you have to pay extra. If you want Microsoft Office (to get the exceptional OneNote) add more to the total cost. I do understand that they need to make some money back after investing in this technology. But I just didn’t anticipate how much it would cost after all was said and done.
The one thing worth mentioning is if you buy a Surface at the Microsoft Store (as I did), they can put together a nice package bundle with lots of other goodies like a carrying case and screen protectors, all for a lower price than if you were to get all those bits separately.
I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing Surface ads appearing in RSS readers. Also, have you seen those “Scroogled” ads on TV? Or what about those ads where people are dancing around with their Surfaces in office conference rooms and all that? For such a compelling device as what the Surface is, the marketing just doesn’t align with the product. It seems either desperate or at best, boring.
Still has bugs and technical problems
I just don’t understand how this device was allowed to launch with some of the bugs and technical issues I’ve encountered. It doesn’t happen frequently, but one example is that I have needed to reseat the keyboard cover in order to get the touch pad working normally.
Another weird issue I had was with the magnetic connector for charging the Surface. I had run the battery down and I clicked the connector to the Surface. The next thing I know, my Surface is beeping at me to warn me the battery is really low. I had to quickly disconnect and reconnect the charging cable to get it to charge, even though it was clearly connected the first time.
I have also encountered some intermittent technical issues, like the system freezing up, and it seems like if Microsoft really wants to steal market share away from Apple, they’ll need to fix stuff like this before they launch a product.
Customizing the live tiles is an exercise in frustration
I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how to customize the placement of my live tiles consistently. Not only is the interaction strange and unnatural (swipe just the top of the tile to turn on editing mode), but to move a tile to a different location is incredibly difficult. I just can’t get it to work no matter how hard I try, and when I somehow do manage to get a tile to do what I want, I have no idea what it is that I did to get it under my control. I would expect most Surface customers would experience the same level of frustration that I had with it.
Perhaps Apple holds all the patents for drag and drop via touch interactions which could explain the clumsiness of this experience. Fortunately for me, I don’t work with the live tile view that much where I need to spend a lot of time trying to drag them around my screen.
Sum It All Up
There is still a lot of stuff I haven’t yet messed around with yet. But for what I have done with it so far, it has been great using this device both at work and at home. And I’m not just saying this because I forked over a giant mound of cash for it. I would have bought an iPad in a heartbeat if it had a USB port on it for me to plug in my Apple-branded keyboard. But for some reason Steve Jobs decided that people don’t use computing products to be productive, as if all I ever do with a computer is look up cat pictures on the Internet, and I need a fancy looking device for that. No, I wanted to do things with my iDevices beyond just consume content from iTunes. But alas, even that was not meant to be.
But with the Surface, it does come with a USB port. I can plug in a mouse or a keyboard or any number of USB-enabled devices, and actually use my Surface to get work done. It’s glorious. Sure, it doesn’t lend me any hipster cred to sit in a café and pull out my Surface Pro and get some work done. But who cares about that.
It does have problems. The glaring technical issues are my main points of contention. Would it kill Microsoft to try and iron those things out BEFORE they launch a product? It mars an otherwise good experience.
The Surface Pro doesn’t quite belong to any particular category of device. But to me, that’s exactly where its strength lies. It can switch between doing lots of different things that you would require 2 or more devices to perform in other scenarios. There are some really great things about the Surface Pro that I personally find extremely useful. I have been able to connect to my company’s VPN with this device without having to lug my company laptop around. I can jot down ideas in OneNote and then connect the Surface Pro to the conference room projector to help with presentations. It also functions in ways that are difficult to express with words. It has a lot to do with how it feels to do things with this device. Dismissing dialog boxes by tapping buttons just feels correct. It feels futuristic to work with a desktop operating system using a few simple gestures. The Surface Pro is definitely an interesting device and I am constantly finding more ways that it can integrate into what I do. If you can afford it and can see beyond the Microsoft brand (along with excusing some of the technical problems), you might find yourself as pleasantly surprised as I have been.