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

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

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

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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  • The Surface

    The Surface 2, yes the one that comes Windows 8.1 RT/ Office 2013 RT Is more that enough for 80% of tablets users. The others might need a tablets that comes with a full version of Windows. Of course, others will disagree, but I'm not only talking about, I own a Surface since day 1 and have recently upgraded to Surface 2.
    • Dock It, you will need only one

      I have a Surface 1 Pro. With a docking station I have been using it as my only computer. The only thing on my docking station is 2 large monitors and wired Ethernet connection. I had a large keyboard for awhile but found going back and forth with different keyboards was more difficult. My fingers have learned the type keyboard on the Surface so well I do not need the larger one. On the go it plays games on the train as good as any tablet. My fingers are too large to play games on a cell phone. Pop it open with the pen for notes in a meeting; I have gotten rid of the pad of paper used to carry. SkyDrive gives me plenty of storage with automatic backups. I am taking a master's in computer science. I find it is the only PC I need for everything.

      Still there is one problem. The screen is too small. When I can get a 13" or 15" hybrid with the same dpi and digitizing touch then I will replace the Surface.
      • Try one of the new Sony Vaio's

        The 13 inch models (I have the Duo) are basically tablets that have pop-up/pop-out keyboards. Yeah, it's a nearly 3 pound tablet, but...

        Because it can do so much (full Windows, OneNote with a Stylus), I find myself reaching for it more often than my original Surface RT these days.
        • I looked

          My Surface Pro is 207ppi, a 13.3" Sony Duo is 165ppi or a 25% reduction. I do not care about the 300ppi point commonly use for retina display but I want at least stay over 200ppi.

          I am waiting to look at the Sony Flip 15.5" with 2880 x 1620 or 213ppi. I know it is 5 pounds but with the SurfacePro I have come to really like OneNote and want a bigger sheet of paper. Since it will totally eliminate my 2 to 3 pound portfolio with its pad of tree paper the weight I carry will not change that much. Again, I am waiting for a test drive before dropping $2K.
  • Tablets are not far cheaper than laptops. Especiallly ones one decent ram

    and no sd card expansion slots.
    Johnny Vegas
    • SD Card

      All Windows tablets have and Micro SD card expansion slot along with a USB connector.
      • And how is that different than the iPad???

        Funny how now a feature that fanboys use to complain about the iPad is great for the Surface.
        • Defend the hive!

          Hallowed are the Ori
  • PC or not to PC

    I think IBM started the PC brand with both their product naming and commercials. The IBM PC. you can try to take it back but it just becomes difficult to know what you mean by PC when it would be much clearer to be more specific. Words are created for a reason and to attempt to refer to multiple things by the same common name leads to unclear communications and is a journalistic abomination. :-)
    • create/co-opt?

      personal computer was a thing for quite a while before IBM used the PC name, and the definition of what is a personal computer is getting too broad to be just Wintel IMO
      • Programmable Calculators

        I remember when HP first came out with a programmable calculator. They pushed it hard at that time as the first "personal computer". When they used the PC initials it meant something different. They often tried to confuse the initials to mean both. Adds had both phrases in big letters. I was just about to buy an HP PC (programmable calculator) when TI came out with their version and bought that.
  • Surface 2: Not enough of a PC, too much of one – or just right?

    Just right. The Microsoft Surface 2 is versatile enough to be used as a PC or a tablet.
    • Not my PC

      Not until they have Visual Studio for it.
      • Set up and Azure Visual Studio VM

        If you have an Azure account, you can set up a VM running VS and RDP into it.
        • EDIT:

          Or just RDP into any machine running VS....
        • Awfully expensive Telnet terminal

          I use RDP to admin boxes, but am old enough to not have too many romantic notions about timeshare computing.
          • RDP into Azure VM

            Scott Hanselman did an excellent piece on this; it might be cheaper than the daily cost of electricity to run a more powerful PC in some areas ;)
          • What goes around, comes around

            Many of the growing pains of the mainframe era were revisited during the PC era. Multiple users, re-entrant code, and pre-emptive multitasking all had to be reinvented in each era. Response time was a critical mainframe measurement that will be re-evaluated in cloud computing.
            Info Dave
        • Ditto on that...

          And with AWS adding GPU instances, they are making claims that you can setup an instance that does heavy duty graphics work as well as playing games. (They stream the video to the viewing device via low-latency H.264). I don't know how well this works but even if it's just "decent" and not spectacular, how much longer before something like Google glass will be able to let you do Visual Studio, full-blown photoshop and the latest 3D first-person shooter games? Of course all of this requires an always-on, speedy, low latency connection. However, if this is almost always available to you, how much money should we spend on local horsepower and form factors? Should we even consider local horsepower? IMO, the only downside is the monthly fees for the cloud, potential end of even trivial expectations of privacy and the potential power granted to network operators to wield a power that isn't deserved.
      • Because we all know

        that the average computer user needs Visual Studio on their PC.
        Michael Kelly