Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Surface Pro: Observations

I quit my incessant whining and picked up a Surface Pro. A few folks have asked that I share my impressions of the device. I’ll try to stick to things the professional tech writers usually decline to address or the elements of the device they all seem to be completely wrong about.
The very first thing I noticed is how clean the OS install was. There was no OEM bloatware, anti-virus software, or other digital debris. Clean and fresh it felt, and I couldn’t find anything in the programs list I wanted, or should, uninstall.  I proceeded to install all my software which went really quick while I continued to work at my workstation. The next thing I noticed was that my Surface Pro was loaded with a watermarked and invalid version of Windows 8 Pro that could not be activated.
Tl;dr Version: I had to return the device and get another one. Don’t let it discourage you from getting one, apparently the malfunction my first one suffered is markedly rare, I hope.
My next Surface Pro was likewise unfettered by useless crap the likes Lenovo, Dell, and friends like to load machines with. I loaded my programs quickly, which included Office Pro 2010, Photoshop CS6, Autodesk’s Sketchbook Pro, and the Windows Phone SDK. Oh, and Minecraft, of course.

Some observations:


It’s not a Tablet

It’s been marketed, compared to, and held beside tablets and a few enlightened Ultrabooks but it does not fall into either of these categories. If I had to push it into an existing stratum, it’d be closer to an Ultrabook, but it only somewhat resembles one. The Surface Pro is definitely a design outsider and won’t appeal to everyone, but to certain other folks, it will be just what they’ve been looking for.
If you like to draw, particularly in programs like Sketchbook Pro, you’ll find a decidedly improved experience. I find myself way more inclined to just sit and doodle, something I have not done in a long time. Rendering visuals has always been something I had to set myself up to do on the computer, but with the Surface Pro I feel like there are fewer boundaries between me and making a sketch of concept work.
For every other piece of visual rendering software, Photoshop included, I still prefer an external tablet to the Surface Pen interface. Because that software pretty much requires keyboard shortcuts to be efficient, grabbing up the Surface and just drawing on the screen isn’t practical. You’ll still want to carry your portable Wacom for that, but the experience isn’t diminished and the color accuracy is really good requiring almost no correction later at my workstation.

Touch Enabled Applications

Microsoft has a few good touch enabled applications, but they aren’t quite there yet. The calendar app needs more options with regard to setting recurring events, and the SkyDrive app needs better management and editing options with shared folders. By way of example, you can’t set an event in the calendar app to recur at custom intervals, such as a two-week pay period, or table top RPG session interval. Nearly every app pre-loaded on the device is like this, almost there and yet miles away, lacking just enough functionality to be useless.
Relative to the Calendar app, I’m looking at you as well Windows Phone division. Fix it so I can set it to two week or custom intervals. Go-go. I don’t want to carry Apple’s iPod Touch just to keep track of my calendar.

EDIT: The SkyDrive App does have the functionality I've been whining about. At some point in the last couple of weeks, or I was too dumb to find it. It's a great application and allows for the manipulation and management of personal and shared folders.
The Windows Store is rife with touch enabled games though, and while that’s not really my thing, the Surface Pro could be a pretty awesome mobile gaming platform. It’ll run regular games requiring a Desktop OS and many mobile games one would play on their phone. If you’re looking for a device that can run Fruit Ninja and Skyrim, the Surface Pro could be a really good choice.

Battery Life

Be prepared to pack your charging cord. Buy one of those zippered pencil cases at Wal-Mart made out of wetsuit material and stick the power brick in it. Put that in your bag and carry it with your Surface Pro. You will need it. Microsoft extends its apologies by having a handy USB charging port on the brick for your cell phone so that it is at least providing an extra service for taking up space in your bag.

Type Cover & Pen

Even as thin as it is, it’s still better than any keyboard on a mobile device I’ve used, that wasn’t Apple or Lenovo. I winced when I laid down $130 for it, but I’m glad I did. I wish I’d acted quicker on the limited edition Year of the Snake which is now out of stock. I think they still have the blue one with skulls though.
Some of the reviewers complained about the pen falling off the side while they hypothetically walked down the street carrying it. I’m not sure why anyone sane would do this, unless they were looking to get mugged or basically failed at the Internet. I mean, there is an array of awesome cases for sale on Etsy for crying out loud!
Sticking the pen to the side seems like workspace management as opposed to a place to store it in transit. I have my workspace partitioned between two shelf levels to keep my design notes and materials from devouring my writing utensils and being able to stick the Surface Pen to the side while I work is pretty nice. I think almost every reviewer harped on the pen thing and totally missed the point of why it is there, granted I’m not sure what Microsoft’s marketing hype led everyone to think on that particular point.


My Surface Pro synced up with my Lenovo LT1421 better than my Lenovo W530. I had to visit a website, download drivers, and reboot with my workstation, but with my Surface, I just had to connect and wait a few moments. Every other external display or input device has loaded up similarly and I’ve had no trouble pairing my Surface with another device.
You’ve only got one USB port; Bluetooth capable devices are your friend.
Also, get a case or two. As I stated earlier, there are a number of great cases out there and the best place I’ve found to look, other than the Microsoft Store, is Etsy.

The Bad

Microsoft has gone out of its way to convince the public that this device is a tablet and that it can compete with other tablet devices. I’ll be able to pass my iPad to my wife after she’s forced to turn hers in, but it’ll hurt. There are many things the iPad does markedly better than the Surface Pro, but these things are not intrinsic to the devices, it’s still a Microsoft versus Apple thing.
If Microsoft could improve the touch enabled applications people use every day and the battery life of the Surface Pro, they would have an iPad killer. Until they do that with their own pre-loaded applications, there is no incentive for independent developers or big names to do the same. I don’t have to look hard to find a better calendar app, chat client, cloud storage, or email client than what comes loaded on the Surface Pro, whereas I all but ignore the marketplace with my iPad for the same functionality.

The Good

I really like the display. I’ve not seen a screen this nice on anything that small other than the iPad’s retina display. High density displays really pop on smaller devices and struggle to impress me on larger ones like Apple’s new MacBook Pro line. Seriously, Retina display MacBooks are the worst idea I’ve seen Apple come up with in a while.
Aside from being great for consuming media, it’s very good for creation as well if you’re the type that sets color to display. Like I said earlier, you will have to adjust somewhat if you have a color calibrated monitor for finishing your work, but the adjustments I’ve had to do were really minor and worth the time to have a more mobile work machine.
It’s clear holding the device in your hands that it was developed using some of the most advanced rapid prototyping methods. I wish the microSD card slot was behind the kickstand like on the Surface RT, but that would be my only quibble with port placement and overall build quality. There have been some complaints about having a single viewing angle with the kickstand, but it hasn’t been a problem for me.


The Surface Pro isn’t for everyone. You can’t just hand it to anyone and have them acquire the same outcome with the pre-loaded applications. However, the more tech savvy folks will be drawn to this device not for what it can do out of the box, but for the potential it has if set up properly. Developers, professionals, and folks looking for a daily carry that’ll talk to the network at the workplace will find great things in the Surface Pro.
Regular folks looking for the really good tablet computing experience Microsoft advertises as a feature of the Surface Pro should, unfortunately, buy an iPad. If Microsoft fixes the touch enabled applications that come pre-loaded with the device, I’d amend that assessment.

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