Surface 2: Not enough of a PC, too much of one – or just right?

Summary:Are we seeing the death of the PC and the birth of choice or just another turn of the wheel?

Now that I've been using a Surface 2 as my main computer for more than a week, I thought it would be a good time to see where I stand on the post PC/PC plus/death of the PC/evolution of the PC question.

Having been around the industry for a while, I was using PC to mean personal computer long before IBM and Microsoft co-opted the term, so I don't see it as synonymous with Windows — in particular not with Wintel.

A Mac is a PC, just a PC used by as small a proportion of the computing population as ever . A smartphone is a PC too, just not a PC that's practical for doing a lot of things, though superbly well suited to others.

And a tablet is in-between; it can be more like a big phone or more like a small notebook.It can be a netbook without a keyboard, or a netbook with a touchscreen, given how many tablets immediately have a keyboard or cover-including-stand connected: I see a lot of things that look like a Surface but turn out to be a tablet with a folding cover; while the kickstand isn't perfect, a built-in stand is a fantastic idea.

For me, it's all about what you do with it, and what you can do with it. Playing solitaire, browsing the web, looking at photos; a tablet is lovely for that.

Twitter and Facebook? Given that if I have an opinion I'm incapable of keeping it to myself, I either need a phone with a really great touch keyboard (the reason I started liking Windows Phone in the first place was for the superb on-screen keyboard) or an actual keyboard.

In fact, all that relationship building, community, shopping, auction stuff: in all but the rarest of cases (Uber, Instagram and um, Path?) you can do it as well or better in a desktop browser.

You might not buy a new PC to do it if you don't have one because a tablet is far cheaper, but you can do it on your PC. You can maybe do it better with a decent keyboard and big screen (Tweetdeck, I'm looking at you), although it feels very nice and personal to do it on something you can hold in a hand rather than perch on your knee; personally I think something that does both is quite a good option.

What I am probably missing here, as a person who likes a lot of choice and power and configurability in my software is the increasing desire towards simplicity in apps. I would rather have Tweetdeck with five or six columns of tweets than one simple, single stream of tweets. I would rather have Word with a (collapsible) ribbon of hundreds of features that are there when I need them and not intrusive when I don't.

But according to Aaron Levie, the CEO of Box, far more people want the simplicity and they wouldn't say it was at the expense of features; they would say the simplicity is the feature. You could call that wanting apps, not applications. If that's the new model, what I see as the limitations of a tablet are its strengths. It's the "less is more" argument (only to me, less is less and more is more).

Is Surface 2 a PC?

Where does that leave the two-in-one, PC-and-tablet idea? If you don't want a PC at all, having the desktop is too much PC for you. If you do, the question is whether not having all possible applications is not enough PC for you.

For me, before the Surface 2 my thinking was "need a keyboard, might as well pull out the laptop, hello Surface Pro". But in the last week, after having hammered out a few thousand words on a Surface 2 in a couple of days and having had to keep reminding myself that just because it had Outlook didn't mean it could do everything my PC can, I've been just as likely to pick up the Surface 2 as any of the laptops around the office.

It can't do everything, but for what I've needed in the last week it's come remarkably close nearly all of the time.

Where did it miss? I have a desktop-only utility I keep some password reminders in; I could bite the bullet and switch to a proper password safe that works on all my platforms.

I need a clipboard extender so that if I copy something, forget to paste it and copy six other things, I can go back and get all of them later. Huge time saver, probably not possible on Windows RT. I need word count in OneNote; it's an add-in so I can't install it on RT (my clipboard extender counts words and reduces text to plain characters that won't break a CMS too). And then there's the image editing.

Experimenting with the Lumia 1020 on a recent US trip, I took some photos I love and would have needed a point and shoot or SLR to achieve before (the 1020 can shoot macros from far closer than my Casio point and shoot, though I might have to pop it on manual focus to do it). I got a great shot of the night sky over the Santa Cruz mountains. But there were more stars when I looked at the sky than in my photo.

Could I enhance it? I tried Photoshop Express, which is a nice enough Windows Store app; some of the settings improved the images, some just made them grainy. For real control, I want to pop the images into Photoshop or Lightroom (especially when the 1020 gets the ability to save 36-megapixel RAW files).

To me, tablets are just another form factor.

I think people are buying a lot of them because they're cheap and cool and personal and small-and-light (PCs tend to let you pick any two or three out of those four).

But calling them "the birth of choice" sounds as if this is the only generational shift in computing we've ever had. It's not, by any means.  Tablets probably aren't the final evolution of the personal computing form factor; I want my giant wall screen as well, and my giant touch desk surface. They're just one more choice.

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Topics: Tablets, Microsoft Surface

About

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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