Surface for Windows 8 Pro: The Tesla of Tablets

Surface for Windows 8 Pro: The Tesla of Tablets

Finding the ultimate tablet for creative professional work has proven incredibly elusive. In the first part of this series, I explored the history of tablets and the qualities (or rather lack thereof) that make them the ideal mobile tool for designers. The launch of Windows 8 and the introduction of Microsoft’s own tablet line – Surface – brought new hope for a tablet that might take the best qualities of the iPad and merge them with more productivity-centric (and stylus-enabled!) capabilities. Unfortunately, the Surface RT failed to deliver on this promise and my follow-up survey of the tablet landscape revealed only a few promising, yet still-unproven, products looming on the horizon.

Enter the Surface Pro.  With full Windows 8 Pro compatibility, ultrabook-level performance, and a true Wacom-based stylus, Surface Pro looked to be the pixie-dust-filled answer to my prayers.

On launch day, I stood in line for three hours just to get my hands on it. I’ve been using it for creative and productive work (and play) for the last two weeks. Has it lived up to my lofty expectations? Read on for more…

(If you do not have time to learn about my explorations, you can skip to the handy chart to find out if the Surface Pro is right for you.) 

No Such Thing as “No Compromise”

Microsoft bills the Surface Pro as a “no compromise” machine. Frankly, that’s just not possible. Every mobile computing device has to make compromises somewhere, it’s just a matter of which compromises you decide are worth making and which you do not. One could argue, actually, that Steve Job’s genius was that he knew exactly which compromises to make when designing an “insanely great” product. Remember the iPad launch and how he compared it to the netbook? Very specific and deliberate compromises were made in order to create a product that did a few things great rather than a lot of things mediocre. Although he nailed it for the most part, some were upset that it had no USB port, couldn’t play Flash, had no upgradable storage, and, for me personally, had no active stylus (not even as an option).

Well, Microsoft has taken exactly the opposite approach. They’ve crammed as much technology as possible into a 2-pound, half-inch-thick slab of magnesium. And that decision is exactly what makes everything good – and bad – about the Surface Pro.

Good: Dark, Minimal, Edgy Design

If you’ve seen and held the Surface RT, then you pretty much know exactly what the Surface Pro is like. It shares the same design language, material, and finish as the RT and is also an exquisite example of hardware design (although a few of my industrial design colleagues may disagree…). It shares the same spine connector for the innovative touch and type covers, although with a few extra connection pins (more on that later…). The biggest difference between the two devices is the added thickness and weight – both of which are not unnoticeable but in some ways just add to the feeling of it being a “serious” machine. The other change is the addition of a perimeter vent used to exhaust the extra heat from the high power CPU. In my experience, I have never heard any noise nor felt any appreciable air – even under moderate load – from the device, which is an amazing feat!

Good: Laptop-Level Performance

The Surface Pro comes loaded with an Intel Core i5-3317U. I won’t go into detail about the numbers on this, but suffice to say it is definitely fast enough and combined with a SATA-based SSD and 4gb of RAM makes the Windows 8 experience really fly. Coupled with the full version of Windows, the Surface Pro is more than capable of running Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and other more processor- and RAM-intensive applications along with any of the millions of applications designed for Windows. I just wouldn’t recommend using some of them with the built-in 10.6” touch display given the odd dpi scaling and touch input issues (more on that later…)

Good: Delivering on the Paperless Dream with Active Stylus

The biggest reason that I bought the Surface Pro is its inclusion of an active stylus with industry standard Wacom technology, 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity, and Microsoft’s “palm block” technology. What this means is that there are actually two digitizers built into the display – one for touch and one for pen input. Because the Surface can detect when the pen tip is in proximity (about 1-2” above the display), it can automatically turn off touch input preventing accidental marks and allowing you to rest your hand on the screen while sketching. The dedicated pen digitizer also means that the tip can be narrow like a ballpoint and it can register input far more accurately than a capacitive stylus like on an iPad. After years of trying just about every stylus on the market for the iPad, it was just such a relief to use one that actually works. If you have any interest in sketching or handwriting notes on a tablet, you owe it to yourself to try it out – it really DOES work.

Handwriting on iPad

Handwiritng on Surface Pro

With the Surface Pro at my side and writing notes and sketching ideas in OneNote (either the desktop or Metro version), I have actually been able to live the “paperless dream” I have been seeking. The experience is natural enough and precise enough to act like paper – only more organized, shareable, portable, and less wasteful. I would go so far as to say that OneNote is THE killer app for Surface Pro, although there are a few small things I wish it did better.

The stylus itself is really nothing special – its nice dark-magnesium-looking finish belie its plastic construction, the eraser end is not beveled at all (an odd design choice), and although I don’t mind the external magnetic docking design, I wish it was a little stronger.

If you’re an artist and want to see if it Surface Pro passes the muster, then check out Mike Krahulik’s (aka “Gabe”) review on Penny Arcade.

Good: True Productivity

Strangely, unlike Surface RT, Office 2013 does NOT come bundled with Surface Pro. I understand that Microsoft hopes most owners of Surface Pro will either have Office provided through their work or will subscribe to Office 365. A one-month trial is included but for a $1000 product sold directly by Microsoft, you would think they could throw in at least a year’s subscription or a stand-alone copy of home edition to sweeten the deal.

Regardless, the ability to run the full version of Office on Surface Pro means you really can get work done (I’m typing this blog article on my Surface Pro with the type cover). Over the course of the last two weeks I’ve had a number of what I would call “signature Surface moments” – something I’d imagine they could (should?) include in their advertising:

  • While at a coffee shop on my way to a client meeting, I was able to download a PowerPoint slide from Dropbox, edit and add it to a deck that I was working on, and save it to a USB flash drive. Try that with an iPad.
  • At a moment’s notice I was able to flip my “tablet” out on to a conference table to take extensive detailed research notes in an Excel spreadsheet, using the type keyboard, without swearing at an onscreen keyboard.
  • In another situation, I was able to open an Illustrator file, make a few edits, and save out PNG images to our shared project folder. It is refreshing to be able to access ANY file in ANY program from ANY source on my Windows 8 tablet—unlike iOS’ broken file management system.

Bad: Battery Life

I was really, really hoping that the three month delay from RT to Pro meant that Microsoft would surprise us with a Haswell-based CPU or, more likely, a specially-designed, lower-powered Ivy Bridge based CPU (like the “Y” series revealed by Intel just a few weeks before Surface Pro shipped). But alas, neither came to be and the Surface Pro ships with the standard “U” series Ivy Bridge i5 running at the full 17 watt design. The good news is that it’s a relatively quick processor but the bad news is that even with a large 42wh battery the Surface Pro struggles to last longer than five hours on a charge. While this is quite good by ultrabook standards, it’s pathetic for a tablet (even the RT tablet manages 8 hours on a charge). This was almost a deal breaker for me and the single most frustrating problem, but in the end I decided that as a work-centric device, it would be a rare occasion that I’d ever be away from an outlet for more than five hours. So far, that has been true. I have tweaked some of the power settings and should they consistently improve battery life, I will let you know.

I primarily use my device for lightweight tasks although do appreciate that I have the ability to run heavy-duty applications if and when I need it. If I were more practical, I would probably have purchased one of the atom-powered tablets like the Samsung Smart PC or Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 (which offer much longer battery life at the cost of performance) but I’m a sucker for the beauty – both in hardware design and display quality – of Surface Pro compared to those devices. Like an Apple product, it is more of an emotional purchase and definitely more than just specs on a sheet (I just wish that one battery life spec was a little better!)

Bad: Unfinished Software

Perhaps the most ironic part of the Surface Pro is that a software giant like Microsoft would nail the hardware but leave so many loose ends in the software – odd things like some settings being on the “Metro” side while others, including the power settings, still residing in the clunky desktop control panel.

One big issue is that Microsoft tried to make the desktop side work for touchscreens by scaling up the DPI so that onscreen text and icons are relatively larger (this is especially important for the Pro because of its high resolution 1920×1080 display). As far as I can tell, this technology hasn’t evolved at all since Windows 7 and is a BIG issue especially for a tablet that promises to switch seamlessly between a touch-friendly 10” display and mouse-friendly 27” monitors. The scaling works OK for native Windows elements (Explorer, etc.) but unfortunately it seems every application treats DPI scaling differently. Adobe applications, for example, ignore the scaling and render toolbars at a microscopic, untouchable size. Others, like Spotify, don’t know what to do so Windows scales them up, resulting in ugly, blurry text. Even Microsoft’s own Office program appears to ignore the DPI scaling and instead implemented its own mouse/touch toggle.

Another surprising “gotcha” is that the much vaunted stylus does not work as expected in creative tools like Photoshop, Illustrator and others. Many of these applications don’t benefit from pressure sensitivity – a key feature for graphic artists (note: I have confirmed that both Sketchbook Express AND the desktop Sketchbook Pro DO work with pressure sensitivity). Through some research and after reaching out to Microsoft directly I’ve learned that it is an issue with Microsoft using a different/newer pen API rather than the older version that most Wacom tablets use and which many software applications have been designed around (Ink API versus WinTab API). Microsoft has assured that they are working on a solution to be released as soon as possible.  I appreciate their responsiveness to the issue, but really this is something they could have EASILY foreseen and should have corrected BEFORE the product shipped, especially considering how heavily they have advertised pen input as a key feature.

There are a few other small annoying quirks. Most desktop applications do not take advantage of touch at all – for example pinch-zoom gestures are ignored by Photoshop – which I guess is to be expected but is still frustrating given that they DO work in some applications like Internet Explorer. Another quirk is the Airplay-like “Play To” feature requiring a Windows 8 certified DLNA device, rather than just standard DLNA certification, meaning there are literally only a few devices on the market that can playback streaming audio or video from a “Metro” app in Windows 8. This is ridiculous because from the desktop side I’m able to stream perfectly fine to my DLNA home theater receiver yet it doesn’t even show up as an option in the Metro side.

Bad: Apps

With the active stylus, apps like Fresh Paint and Sketchbook Express actually make sense and work wonderfully. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any another Metro apps that are any good for painting or sketching. Hopefully, apps like Penultimate, Paper, Adobe Ideas, and Wacom’s own Bamboo Paper will be ported to Windows 8 and Alias will release a Metro version of Sketchbook Pro (which is currently only a desktop application). But this is a software issue, so this should get better over time.

In general, compatibility with desktop-based Windows applications is only important because of the limited Windows 8-specific app ecosystem. On a device that, in my opinion, should be more tablet than laptop, desktop compatibility should hopefully be an unnecessary burden in the next generation, when apps are richer and more plentiful.

The Verdict: Neither a Laptop, Nor a Tablet, But That’s the Point

A common criticism is that by trying to be both a tablet and a laptop, Surface Pro fails to really be good at either. Although this is technically true, Surface Pro CAN be both when needed and it does a remarkable job of straddling that divide. It’s up to you whether a one-device-does-it-all is right for you. For me personally, I would rather it leaned more tablet. Really the only drawbacks are lack of touch-friendly apps and the poor battery life. But the power, compatibility, productivity, and pen more than make up for those deficiencies.

I don’t plan on using it to completely replace my work laptop – I plan to use it as my on-the-go and sketching-at-my-desk device. But it *is* my only “laptop” for home use – a big reason for how I justified spending $1000 on a “tablet.” Unfortunately for Microsoft I don’t think it will have the mass appeal of each of those dedicated device types, but I think it will do incredibly well in the niche that it serves and is a great starting point for Microsoft to diversify their hardware offerings.

A Tablet Six Months Ahead of its Time

Could it be that the Surface Pro, like its Tablet PC ancestor, is ahead of its time? As soon as ecosystem partners, software and apps catch up in the next six months, as Intel gets their Haswell generation chip ready, or alternatively boosts their Clover Trail Atom processor to a more acceptable performance level, software loose ends are tied and apps tweaked, we would have a quite wonderful product experience. Yet, despite its technological achievements, we are looking at a V1 product — wonderful in its capability but, overall, more appropriate for early adopters.

The Best Tablet for Productivity

Should you buy it? It depends. I did. It is definitely the best Windows 8 tablet on the market, but at this moment in history that is not saying a whole lot.

If you want a full-featured machine crammed into a tablet form factor, then this is for you. If you want a tablet that you can ACTUALLY do detailed sketching, this is for you (but you may want to wait a few weeks until Microsoft solves the API issue if Photoshop is important to you). If extended battery life is important to you and you don’t mind a little less horsepower, then you may want to check out what Lenovo and others have to offer. If you’re still not sure which tablet is right for you, I’ve updated my handy purchase flow chart to make it all clear.

In the end, buying a Surface Pro is kind of like buying a Tesla, it’s fast, stylish, ahead of its time, but with a little range anxiety.

What Lies Ahead…Software Fixes and Battery Stop-Gaps

Software fixes for most (hopefully all) of the mentioned bugs are certainly on their way. It was also revealed that the extra connector pins on the accessory spine are high-current and connect directly to the battery – meaning there could be some innovative new battery-filled touch covers in store

Next Year: Surface Pro 2

Intel will release Bay Trail and Haswell, converging on the perfect balance of battery life and performance from both directions. These should be available by the end of the year, which means Surface Pro 2 could have much longer battery life while still delivering great performance.

Long Term: The Future of Productivity

The future of productivity-focused computing devices could get really interesting. I found myself touching the display of my MacBook Pro because I had become accustomed to it in just 2 weeks on my Surface and missed that capability. I also found myself drooling over Panasonic’s crazy 20” 4k tablet (with pen!) demoed at CES.

The desktop metaphor is definitely evolving. With iOS and OSX slowly converging, and Windows 8 crashing touch and mouse environments into each other (whether we like it or not), there is definitely going to be a lot of interesting converged computing experiences in the future.