With Microsoft's Surface Pro about to arrive in UK stores, it's probably a good time to round up my experiences of using a Surface Pro as my main laptop for the last couple of months.
My HP touchscreen PC was starting to show its age, and its first generation Core i3 wasn’t quite powerful enough for some of the tools I’d added to my workflow since I first bought it more than three years ago.
Windows 8 had certainly given it a new lease of life, as I’ve mentioned in the past, but it was time to bite the bullet, hand over the credit card, and start the migration to a new PC.
Moving from one Windows 8 machine to another isn’t hard, especially when you’re keeping the same Microsoft account. Settings move across as soon as you log in for the first time, and Surface Pro’s bundled Office 365 click-and-run installer just needs an Office 365 account (or an Office 2013 product key) to start working.
There wasn’t much more software I needed to install: TweetDeck, Lightroom, the Flickr Uploadr, Skype and Chrome are about all I need on a Windows desktop these days (well, along with Steam to install my cloud copy of Civilisation…).
A Core i5 processor and 4GB of RAM make the Surface Pro fast and responsive – and that makes it an excellent machine for working with photography. The 1080p screen is bright and clear, and it has some of the best and deepest blacks I’ve seen.
Microsoft ships the Surface Pro configured for 150 percent scaling, and I’ve left it on. While 100 percent scaling is crisp, fonts are just too tiny to be easily legible.
That screen scaling is probably the Surface Pro’s biggest flaw. If software has been written to support it correctly, you’ll have some of the best text and graphics Windows can give you. But if it isn’t you can end up with massive windows that can’t be shrunk, or teeny tiny fonts that need an additional magnifying glass to be read. Microsoft needs to get developers to build scaling-aware software that can give you the GUI the Surface Pro’s screen deserves.
No matter what amount of storage you opt for, you’ll find an SDXC card a worthwhile investment. I bought a 64GB card with my Surface Pro, and use it for additional document storage, and to hold pictures I take while on the road.
It’s worth considering using the trick of mounting the SD card in an NTFS directory, so you can use it in Windows 8 libraries (especially if you want to use it to host backup files for Office documents and for OneNote notebooks).
There’s a lot to be said for Surface’s pen — especially if, like me, you use OneNote a lot. The size and weight of Surface make it easy to hold while taking notes (something that was a little difficult with earlier iterations of the Tablet PC). It took a while for Microsoft and Wacom to release driver that supported pressure sensitivity in applications such as Photoshop.
One thing about the Surface Pro’s mix of touch and pen is that it’s easy to use the two together. If you’re drawing with the pen, you’ll quickly find yourself scrolling the screen with one finger, or using your other hand to make selections.
Mixing pen and touch turns out to be faster than just using touch or pen on their own; and if you throw in the Type Cover, you’ll also find yourself using the keyboard as well. UI research specialist Bill Buxton has talked about multi-modal computing, using MSR’s natural medium Degas art software (itself the basis of Windows 8’s excellent FreshPaint app) to demonstrate how mixing input methods would work. Surface Pro’s multi-modal hardware makes it an ideal platform for exploring these ways of working — and it’s fascinating to realize that those features are at the heart of everyday tools like Office.
Not everything is perfect. You do need long legs to type using a Type or Touch Cover on your lap, and mine just don’t quite make the grade. There are persistent rumours that Microsoft will be launching additional covers, and extra connectors that aren’t there on the Surface RT make a heavier keyboard case with an extra battery a distinct possibility. While Surface Pro’s battery life isn’t too shabby, a little extra wouldn’t hurt — and adding more stability and comfort to the mix would certainly be a bonus.
I did find buying a couple of accessories useful. Surface Pro doesn’t have an Ethernet port, and if you don’t want to be limited by the vagaries of wireless networks, you’ll want a USB to Ethernet adapter. I decided to invest in a USB 3.0 to Gigabit adapter to take advantage of the fast network I’d put in my office. I also invested in a case, getting Incipio’s ballistic nylon case — which, while originally designed for the Surface RT, turns out to be a good fit for a Surface Pro and a Type Cover keyboard, with plenty space for a pen.
Surface Pro is to Microsoft’s hardware range as the MacBook Air is to Apple’s. It’s a light, modern laptop that’s easily portable, taking up a lot less space in the bag than the last generation of Windows machines. The addition of touch makes it that little bit different, and it’s an attractive machine that gets attention wherever you might use it – on a plane, in a coffee shop, or even (in tablet mode) on the Tube.
And that’s what’s probably the most different about Surface Pro; despite one or two niggles, it truly is a laptop you can use anywhere.