Most of the reviews written when the Microsoft Surface Pro was announced and then released made the same point: this isn’t quite like anything else on the market. It isn’t. So why would you buy one or consider buying one? That’s a really good question. Maybe I can help you answer it.
I got into this machine partly because it is affordable and with a good Best Buy return policy worth trying out. I’ve still got a bit of time to decide whether I’ll keep it or not.
I’m currently using the original Surface Pro (SP) but much of what I say probably applies to the Surface Pro 2 (SP2). I picked up the Surface Pro because it was substantially cheaper than the SP2 and more powerful than the Surface 2 (S2). I wouldn’t consider buying a Surface RT because of the weakness of its Tegra 3 processor for what it wants to do. You can currently get an original Surface Pro with 128GB of storage for $599 at Best Buy. With $100 back from an old XP machine that dropped it to $499. The Surface 2 didn’t qualify for that program and was only $50 less at 64GB of storage, better battery life, no digitizer, no Desktop apps and less power. The Surface Pro 2 was $999. While the original Surface Pro is at this price point or less it remains a good value I think.
Not A Great Notebook
Most of the reviews will point out that despite the same internals as a common notebook computer the form factor compromises the Surface Pro’s ability to seriously replace a full notebook.
I regularly use a notebook on my lap and the different keyboards that come with the SP really don’t support lap typing as well as a traditional notebook. The original SP also doesn’t have the improved 2 position stand that the SP2 and the S2 have, making it even less useful as a notebook replacement. If you want a tablet with a hard bottomed keyboard that mimics a traditional notebook look at the Asus, the Dell and others. The Surface line can be used this way but it is a compromise. Many reviews I’ve seen advised to skip the keyboards made for it because while serviceable as a quick keyboard and a convenient screen cover they may disappoint and they aren’t cheap.
As a notebook I find the screen too small and the lack of a stable platformed keyboard and trackpad as serious negatives. When I want to do work that involves a lot of typing on my lap or at a spacious table the larger screen of a traditional notebook is still preferred.
A Too Heavy Tablet
Other reviews noted that at 1.5 pounds for the Surface 2 and 2 pounds for the SP and SP2 your really at the upper limits of what may work for a tablet for you. Early reviews of the SP noted heat issues and weight as drawbacks for usability. I have a Nexus 7 that works for a nice, small reading device and this won’t replace that for portability or usability for one handed reading.
A Powerful Niche Device
So with these liabilities why would anyone want to consider the Surface line and especially the Surface Pro? The reason is that it does some things very well that more traditional tablets and notebooks don’t do as well. What this means is that it probably won’t replace your notebook for doing real work at home or traveling, and it won’t replace a small tablet for doing one handed reading, but it may be just the device for doing other kinds of work in ways your notebook and your tablet don’t really accomplish well. It is at this point that you then have to consider if your needs merit the budget consideration of this not so cheap device.
Maybe the best way to illustrate this is to list ways that I have found it useful to use.
A Table Reader
I lead a good number of Bible studies or small group meetings and I want the right sized touch screen with various texts available to me to instantly refer to while I lead these groups. I’ve used both my Nexus 7 in a case and my Yoga 2 Pro for this and both work passably. On my Nexus 7 I can run the Android version of Logos and the Olive Tree Bible Software both of which are nice for reading. On the Yoga 2 Pro I can use in Windows 8 mode the Logos Windows Store app and the Olive Tree app. I find the Olive Tree Windows Store app a bit more developed than the current Logos offering. It is easy to run both of them at the same time in Windows 8 and simply swipe back and forth between them giving me more options of current texts nearly instantly available. I can also run the Logos 5 Desktop software. This works OK but is really designed for keyboard and mouse. I could have the Yoga 2 Pro in traditional notebook form instead of stand position but that would be quite obtrusive on a shared table with the group.
The more I use screens for Bible studies the more I realize I want multiple screens. I might have different languages up, maps, different Bible translations, etc. all instantly available depending on Q/A or the flow of the conversation. I find screen navigation slightly better on Windows 8 compared to IOS and Android yet if you need to quickly grab a Bible passage it can interrupt the class so actually using multiple devices is quite handy.
Of the three devices I currently have I’m finding that the Surface is the right size for the purpose. The Nexus 7 is a bit small, and the Yoga 2 pro a bit large. The single most important feature of the Surface line is the kickstand. I really can’t emphasize how useful this small addition is to the tablet form factor and how transformative it becomes for the Surface line. I’m quite surprised more tablets aren’t doing this but instead relying on bulky covers like I use with my Nexus 7.
As a table reference reader I find the Surface Pro to be better than the other two devices. I can flip back and forth between the Logos and Olive Tree apps, giving me faster access to texts. I can keep a Word document or two in the mix and if need by use Logos for Windows desktop with a small Bluetooth mouse. This configuration is really ideal.
A Podium Note Reader or Power Point Prompter
Another thing I use a table for is for sermon or speaking notes. I’ve used my Nexus 7 in this role a number of times and it generally works well. As I’m getting older I’m finding I’d like a slightly larger screen to work from. I’ve seen many pastors using Ipads for this and I assume it works well. I think a Windows machine has a slight edge over an Android tablet and an Ipad for OS navigation.
Fast app switching in Windows 8 along with side by side split screen work really work well. My Nexus has task switching which goes well but the dumb simple left swipe in Windows 8 is mindless and requires almost no break in concentration. It also much more easily does split screen better than both alternatives.
I also use Word and PowerPoint for my work. Even though MS has now released Office for IOS the full Windows versions will likely continue to have the edge. I have used Google Docs for speaking notes but a full Windows machine with full Dropbox or OneDrive have a slight edge over making these work with Android and IOS.
Using the Surface Pro with full Power Point works very well. I can do similarly with the Yoga 2 Pro but the Surface Pro at 10 inches rather than 13 is arguable the better size.
Typing on a Plane
I am 6’5″ and don’t fit well into coach seats on airplanes. I have tried doing work on various notebooks on a plane (HP Pavilion, MacBook Air 11, Yoga 2 Pro) but the confines of the notebook form factor simply doesn’t work for me in a coach seat if all three seats are filled in the row, which they almost always are.
I can pair my Nexus 7 with a Bluetooth keyboard and type away on that but the screen is pretty small. Also, the case that my Nexus 7 requires to use as a stand does work, uses a bit more space than the Surface and hangs off the back edge of the seat back tray. Here again the Surface Pro actually lets me do some work with a decent keyboard like the Logitech K810 which is illuminated and types well. The Surface lets me work on a plane like no other device I have.
A Dell or Asus tablet with keyboard might work (I haven’t tried them) but I thing again the form factor wouldn’t be as flexible as the detached keyboard.
Full Windows Browser
I use Chrome on the desktop as my regular browser but I’ve found that IE11 is my preferred browser on touchscreen Windows 8 machines. The Windows 8 (as opposed to the desktop IE) browser works well with touch and gives a good full screen immersive experience. While it doesn’t allow plugins (like Lastpass) if you’re using full Windows 8 on the Surface Pro line you can always switch over to it if you need a plugin.
While Chrome on Android is tolerable, I regularly find IE on Windows 8 to be far superior. Any page will work with flash, etc. No compromises. This is very helpful for a tablet that can sit on a table. You can easily play Twit.tv and watch podcasts from the website. Everything renders properly. You can split screen anything and even go to desktop if you need to.
I find I regularly choose the surface for reading my newsfeeds, Facebook and twitter in a full browser.
While the Windows App Store Twitter client seems rather plain it actually works very well in 1/3 screen mode with the browser in the 2/3rds space if you mostly use Twitter for content discovery as I do. This seems about the best arrangement to me for really reading Twitter and the links I find there.
Note Taker with Stylus
Part of the trip I took involved attending large group presentations where, as is often the case, hauling out a full notebook and clicking away taking notes would have been awkward and discourteous. People do it, but it isn’t really the way to go. The institution provided pen and notepad as is common, but paper really doesn’t work for me. I lose paper and don’t really have a filing system. This is why I have a computer.
The Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 come with a stylus with a digitizer. While I can use my finger or a dumb stylus on my Yoga 2 Pro it really doesn’t work well for handwriting notes on the screen because your finger and hands will create lines. Here again is where the Surface Pro line excels. The tablet is the right size for holding in your lap in auditorium seating and taking notes with the stylus in OneNote. It is unobtrusive and silent. It really works well as a note taker if you don’t want to use a keyboard.
PDF Reader and Marker
I sometimes have to read reports with documents in Word or PDF. I need to read those reports, make notes on the document, highlight, etc. Here again the stylus and the Microsoft software work well. In the spring of 2013 I tried out a Samsung Ativ Smart PC 500 with their stylus. I was continually frustrated with the Samsung software. My wife has a Galaxy Note 10.1 with a stylus but again the software didn’t do the job. I find that of everything I’ve tried the active stylus with Microsoft software works the best for this. I can mark up documents and keep my markings without having to print, read, mark up and then manage the paper. I also don’t have to open a large notebook in an interview where again its presence is intrusive and the typing is rude.
Questions About the Device
Heat: Early reviews of the Surface Pro had many comments about heat. For most of what I do with it doesn’t really tax the Core I5. While a couple of times I’ve noticed some heat on the back it hasn’t been uncomfortable and I haven’t noticed any fan noise. It might be that later units in the run and the continued improvement of the software (Windows 8.1 so far) and the firmware update have resolves many of these problems. I’m sure if I were taxing the CPU I’d notice the heat and the fan but most of what I’m using the machine for the Core I5 can easily handle it.
Battery Life: The real advantage that the Surface Pro 2 has over the Surface Pro is the Haswell chip. I’ve used this Surface Pro for two weeks now and am finding that in most cases the battery life for me has been adequate. After taking notes for a couple of hours with the stylus, turning the screen on and off as needed the machine still had most of its charge. As with all notebooks battery life is a function of use. I find the screen to be bright enough that most of the time the brightness is low while I use it.
Screen: The screen looks good. I’ve found the resolution just right for the size. No complaints.
Cameras: It’s a shame that MS skimped here. The front facing one is probably adequate for Skype but the rear one isn’t good for much. A tablet camera on this could be very useful for acting like an on the go photo copier for paper documents but the camera really isn’t much good. I’ll keep using my phone camera for this.
Connectivity: Here again the Surface Pro being a full windows machine really shines. Hooking up via Wifi to printers works just like with a full notebook. Bluetooth keyboards and mice work perfectly. You’ve got a USB port so with a hub you could do anything you might want just like a notebook.
Speakers: OK but not great. I’d prefer them louder.
This is where we return to the “value” question. These are hard comparisons to do because the products are so different. It all depends on how you want to use the product.
Ipad Air: An Ipad Air with 32GB of space sells for $599, 64GB-$699 and 128GB-799. The OS will take up less storage space but there is also no Micro-SD slot. It is half the weight, has far longer battery, but the OS and the processor are fall less capable. You can use a Bluetooth keyboard with it with MS Office for IOS. Safari for IOS is probably the most capable mobile browser but it won’t do flash. The App store has the best apps and the best selection. Dropbox will run on it but only in Mobile mode so the updating isn’t as automatic as on full Windows or OSX. No stylus or digitizer.
Surface 2: At $549 for 64GB storage (plus Micro SD slot) you’re only $50 less than a Surface Pro at Best buy with 128GB of storage. You get 200GB One drive for two years. It weighs half a pound less with 75% more battery life. The App store is the worst of the three (IOS, Android, MS) and you can’t use traditional Windows Desktop apps. The future of Windows RT remains somewhat up in the air but I think Microsoft will stick with it. You have the two setting kickstand which is a huge improvement over the originals. No stylus or digitizer.
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014): Weight is closer to 1 pound and the battery life is great with Android. You get a true Wacom digitizer like the Surface Pro and SP2 but you need to use the Samsung applications which are not as capable or compatible as the Microsoft offerings. No kickstand so you’ll want to use a case which adds bulk and complexity. 32GB will run you $549. Dropbox works in mobile mode so syncing is a bit more cumbersome.
Surface Pro 2: 128GB for $999. You’ve got the improved kickstand and cameras. You’ve got the Haswell processor with better battery life and heat management. You’ve got the same digitizer and full Windows OS. 200GB Onedrive storage for 2 years. All of that costs you $400. Runs Windows Store apps and Windows Desktop Apps.
Right now if you can get a Surface Pro for $599 (especially if you can pair it with trading in an old XP notebook for $100) it’s a great deal on a 10″ “tablet” if that’s what you want to call it. You have to consider all the cons (weight, battery life) verses how you will in fact use it.
Let me know what you think. I’ll update this as things develop.