I came to love Surface Pro so why does Windows 10 feel like duct taping my fingers together?

Third time is the charm for Surface Pro, but what is the future for hybrid devices and Windows 10?
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

You can call me one of the Surface faithful: I've not only used every single version of Microsoft's Surface line of tablets, I've bought most of them too.

I bought the original Surface RT the night they went on sale in New York, and stood chatting to Microsoft employees in the Time Square store until after midnight so they could run my credit card. I didn't quite take to it as a work machine though so the Surface became a fun tablet for browsing and keeping up with Facebook and playing hours of Spider; classic tablet tasks.

I tried to get a Surface Pro the week they came out but I wanted the 128GB model and had to wait until they were in stock — and that quickly became my main machine in the office and out, for the gorgeous touch and pen screen and the speedy Core i5. As I don't do 3D modelling or video editing or CAD work or serious gaming, I've never found a Core i7 worth the extra power and shorter battery life.

Indeed, when Surface 2 came along, I found I didn't actually need a Core i5 either. I tested out the Surface 2 when it launched and liked it so much I bought a 64GB model. From December last year until July this year, it became my main machine — carried out to conferences and events, perched on my knee in the office, carried around the house for gaming and browsing and when I needed to look up something in OneNote for my crafting.

The two positions of the kickstand were more flexible and the second generation type cover was a great improvement too. I did still have to carry my extra 'shelf' to compensate for how short my legs are, but the Surface 2 was so light it didn't weigh me down.

My Surface Pro sat by my chair and if I needed something only Windows proper could do — usually installing desktop software to test or transcribing a long interview in Windows Media Player so I could use the WMKeys plugin to give me custom keyboard shortcuts to play, pause and rewind — out it came. That was only two or three times a month though.

The rest of the time, I had a lightweight tablet with a good keyboard and a screen as great as the Surface Pro that also lasted me all day at an event. With Word and Excel and OneNote and Internet Explorer and the Tweetium app for Twitter and Explorer for file management, I had the parts of Windows I really needed.

The Music app wasn't ideal for playing back recordings from my handheld recorder and it was annoying that OneNote on my phone could record audio OneNote on Windows RT wouldn't play for me, and arranging multiple screen captures into a single image is far easier using layer in Paint.NET than jiggling things around in Paint. But even so, entire weeks went by when my Surface 2 was all the computer I needed.

Windows Phone 8.1 helped there, because shape writing on the Word Flow keyboard is good enough that I can quickly jot down notes that I used to write with the pen (I don't write as many words but I can read more of them.)

I tried the Surface Pro 2 as well and I certainly preferred it to the original Surface Pro; it was lighter and the two kickstand positions made it more stable, and it was probably faster — but as I wasn't doing anything demanding enough to stress the original Surface Pro. I didn't really notice, and I didn’t feel the need to buy one.

I was so happy using Surface 2, I almost didn't buy a Surface Pro 3 either. Instead of rushing to the Microsoft Store the first day I got to the US, as I had for the Surface Pro and Surface 2, I waited until I was literally on the way to the airport to fly home, and I stuck with the 4GB of RAM, 128GB SSD model instead of trading up to 8GB and 256MB.

I liked the way the pen could open OneNote and the new keyboard looked nice but I wasn't sure that what I saw as incremental improvement were worth pulling out my credit card again. I didn't even set the machine up as soon as I got back to the office; I carried on working on my trusty Surface 2 for several days.

But when I did fire up the Surface Pro 3, I quickly fell in love.

The keyboard improvements alone make me much more efficient (barring a tendency for the space bar not to put the space I planned between words every time - that might be my thumb but sometimes feels like a driver issue).

If you've been annoyed with the trackpad on Surface keyboards in the past, the smooth surface and physical click are infinitely more responsive. The extra magnetic strip does make touching the icons on the taskbar a little more fiddly, but it's worth it. Between that magnetic strip, the kickstand that tilts to any angle you want and the much thinner, lighter case, the Surface Pro 3 works even better in my lap than the Surface 2.

When the Surface RT first came out and people said that was the right size and weight for the Surface Pro, I kept bringing up physics; the motherboard for the Core i5 chip was bigger and the chip needed a much bigger battery than the ARM equivalents. Plus you needed the fan for cooling and the space for the fan and vents. Want a more powerful machine? Pay for the power in size and weight.

For some time I've mocked Intel for its inability to create mobile devices without crippling its processor. Atom was a good way to keep old foundries productive long enough to pay off their setup costs, but why did we want chips that didn't have full SSE, a 64-bit processor or key hardware virtualisation and other Core advances — when the Core chips could be made to run at those low power levels anyway? But the Core in the Surface Pro 3 has me impressed with Intel again.

I'm sure the Surface Pro 3 is thicker and heavier than my Surface 2, but I couldn't say how much without measuring because it doesn't feel a lot heavier or much thicker. I'm getting less than the battery life of my Surface 2, but not by much. With Surface 2 I've stopped worrying about plugging when I'm working out of the office, because it just keeps going.

Recently I opened my Surface Pro 3 at 10 in the morning and worked until after three in the afternoon, with wi-fi on and the screen at about 80 percent brightness. "I ought to plug in," I thought to myself; but I still had 49 percent of my battery left. Working at home, with a good 802.11 ac wi-fi signal, I've had well over 10 hours of use. That's only a little less than I'd expect from my Surface 2.

If it's longer than you've seen in reviews, remember how dependant battery life is on what you're doing; I don't let many applications run in the background, I use Internet Explorer rather than Chrome and Windows Defender rather than third-party anti-virus software. I also run three different Tracking Protection Lists in IE, that stop dozens of tracking scripts on most web pages. If your Windows behaviour is different, you might see different battery life.

The other thing I quickly came to love about the Surface Pro 3 was the screen; not just the quality, but the resolution and aspect ratio.

That extra width makes the Windows 8.1 option to have one or two modern apps running in windows next to the desktop really useful. I can keep Tweetium in a narrow pane on the left and keep an eye on Twitter, while I research in a browser window that takes half of the desktop and write in a OneNote window that takes the other half — and have almost the same desktop area as I would keeping the desktop full screen on my Surface 2.

Or I can have Tweetium and Microsoft Reader open to a PDF and the desktop with OneNote maximised. Or I can decide to concentrate on work and make the desktop full screen for a while to avoid distraction. I've got lots of choices for the different patterns that make me productive and I can control them all with my finger, dragging the right app to the right window and making that the right size.

I don't want either/or. I don’t want a single 'full-screen' app that's only properly full screen when I rip off my keyboard (which is the tablet mode we've seen in the Windows 10 video demonstrating the continuum interface) — and I'm much more likely to just fold it back out of the way than detach it.

If that app is something I use for more than gaming, I want the keyboard for typing into it anyway. But that doesn't mean I want to do everything with the mouse as if I didn't have a beautifully sensitive touch screen.

If I want thumbnails of open windows I can select with the mouse, I'll use Alt-Tab. When I drag my finger on screen it's because I want the direct interaction of moving things; dragging an app into place, flipping back a page in immersive IE, zooming in OneNote or Word or the browser window, swiping up or down for extra options.

Losing that in the technical preview of Windows 10 feels like having my fingertips filed off.

I swipe to get the app commands in the Photos app — and nothing happens. I have to open the charms, which are on a tiny, mouse-sized menu I can hardly touch accurately, and I have to select the App Commands charm — and only then do I get the finger-sized commands that are going to be as awkward for mouse users to use as the mouse-first tiny charm menu is for my finger.

One of those commands makes the app full screen, which strips off the (ugly) title bar that otherwise wastes the quarter inch of the app window, but not the taskbar, which wastes the bottom half inch. But if I Alt-Tab to another window and back, the app is no longer full screen. I can't drag it outside the desktop where I want it, still less drag another window out there to sit alongside it. I can only pretend it's a desktop app it was never designed to be. I can't use IE with my fingers at all; I can’t swipe to go back a page, I can't swipe to open a new tab and I can't swipe to share a link to Twitter or Facebook or send it to OneNote.

I can't even drag a window into the right place with my finger unless I want it to snap to half the desktop because there's no easy finger resizing any more.

On Windows 10, I have to put my finger away and do everything with the trackpad because I have to be precise again.

three windows 8.1

This is how many tweets I can have in a Tweetium window next to my desktop on Windows 8.1

three windows 10

On Windows 10, that Tweetium window loses space at the top to the title bar and at the bottom to the taskbar; arranging all three windows took much longer and I see fewer tweets even allowing for the difference between the Surface Pro 2 and Surface Pro 3 screens.

This isn’t hybrid Windows. This is Windows nailed back onto the desktop as if we'd never had Windows 8 and Windows 8.1. This is treating the design language formerly known as Metro like a browser window, surrounding it with furniture that doesn't fit in with the design style of the app itself in a way that's far less successful than the 'dense Metro' style of Office 2013, where the ribbon and menus and touch commands give you a real continuum of behaviour. If I can use touch to do something as fiddly as auto fill in Excel with my fingertip, elegantly and accurately, why can’t Store apps get the same elegance?

Why can't I choose to have modern apps on the desktop or off them, in the same way I can choose to have a Start menu or a Start screen? Why can't I have something that uses all the power of a two-in-one device, instead of assuming it's two things just nailed together that I swap between? Treating the touch screen as nothing but a giant mouse is saying that Tim Cook was right when he said Surface was a flying, floating car or a toaster-fridge. Backing away from the advances of Windows 8.1 would be the real compromise.

So far, we’ve only seen the desktop experience in Windows 10, and that's optimised for mouse and keyboard users. The approach for hybrid devices isn't in this build and isn't even ready to demo, so all we've seen is a video. I'm certainly not going to judge Windows 10 on that. This feels like a desktop version of Windows because it's only showing off the desktop features.

But I'm also not going to use Windows 10 on my Surface Pro 3, my main PC, yet — much as I would love the new home view in Explorer and the multiple desktops. Because I don't want to lose the fluid, flexible productivity I get with having both touch and keyboard, both modern apps and desktop side by side, not duct-taped together.

I want having two modes of interaction (or three or four if you count keyboard and add voice) to give me more options than just having one.

I want an elegant solution that's truly hybrid, and I know Microsoft should know how to deliver that. After all, that's why I'm using a Surface in the first place.

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