Microsoft Surface Pro

As some folks know (probably the same 8 people who have read this blog), purchase I picked up a Microsoft Surface Pro (128GB) yesterday. After my Nexus shattered (it would cost as much to buy a new one as it would to have Asus repair it), try I was tablet-less, buy information pills adrift in a sea of potential situations where my phone is out of reach, and when I knew something was happening somewhere…but what?

Joking aside, here’s a run-down.

What’s in the Box?

I didn’t take pictures, but there’s a power cable in two parts (power connector is proprietary, which blows), the tablet, the stylus, and a manual.

Physical Presence

The Surface is pretty hefty. I haven’t weighed it, but I’d say it’s about as hefty as Game of Thrones in hardcover. It’s also not svelt. I’d say it’s more akin to the first generation iPad than the current generation iPad. I realize that there’s a contingent out there for whom this will be a problem, but we’ll get to that.

The “VaporMg” case is…OK? I guess? The built-in kickstand is great, but it doesn’t make that cool sucking-sound that it did on stage in presentations. I was kind of disappointed by that. Normally, these devices aren’t very “user-maintenance friendly”, but I think this one takes the cake. Along the edge there’s a series of vents that allow the innards to expel heat, which isn’t something you think about a lot on a tablet, but we’ll get to that also.

There are a few ports and buttons around the edge. The top has a power button and a mic. The right side has headphones, volume rocker, and USB port. The left side has a MicroSD slot, power connector, and a port for external video connections. The power port is elongated, and has a series of magnetic connectors. The power doesn’t snap in physically; it’s just magnetically held there, but it’s a powerful hold. When not charging, the stylus’s rocker buttons (if you know Wacom stylus design) serve as a magnetic male to the female port. I wouldn’t trust the stylus to remain connected during a vigorous trip in a backpack, but it sure beats having the stylus loose on a messy desk. The bottom is given over to the keyboard connector. Again, another really powerful magnet keeps it in place. This time, it DOES make that satisfying sound when connected.

Turn It On

If you’ve used Windows 8 on a desktop system, then there is no difference in presentation between what you get here and what you get on the desk. Except you can smear fingerprints on this screen and have something to show for it. I showed it to a co-worker, and he made one swipe of the Modern UI before professing that he could already see that Windows 8 really does best on a touch device. Beyond that, I won’t review Windows 8. Short answer: I’ve used it with real effort, and I like it.

The screen is pretty bright. The glass was ultra-shiny when I unboxed it, and I debated whether or not to touch it (hint: I did) and foul the fine finish with my human-grease. The sound was just OK; Better than what you’d get out of most tablets, I think, but it’s not very loud. I watched a video last night, and I had to crank the both the Windows and the player’s volumes up to max to hear it. It does have Bluetooth, so I can connect my headset to it.

The resolution is 1900 X 1280, which is what is “standard” for PC’s these days. But I installed a game (Prison Architect) and it couldn’t handle the screen. I was unable to get it to fit properly. But I switched to a 1900×1280 wallpaper, and it fit perfectly.

Performance

It’s fast. There was a lot of talk about Surface RT being sluggish and all that, but I can’t speak to that. Swiping on the Pro is instant and gratifying. Sometimes a bit too instant. I’ve occasionally had to chase tiles around as the screen moved under my timid finger. Be direct. Be forceful. Stab that icon like you mean it!

The big sell for me was the stylus (no matter what St. Jobs claims). I’ve always wanted to get rid of paper: it’s transient, and uncategorizable without additional filing systems. Electronic note taking is great, but adding the layer of handwritten notes and drawings, and it’s basically all you could ask for. I still mourn the  assassination of the Courier (moment of silence…), but so far, the stylus is awesome. The digitizer was designed by Wacom, so it’s got pedigree, and while there’s still a delay between stroke and cursor, the fine tip of the stylus puts those marshmallow stylus poseurs on other tablets to shame. I can take a page of notes in OneNote, sync it to my SkyDrive, and review it on my PC. It’s my organizational Nirvana.

GAMES!

I actually haven’t gotten this far, would you believe? I did install Steam (Suck it, Newell!), though. As mentioned above, I tried Prison Architect with disastrous results, but it’s an indie game in alpha, so I didn’t expect much. This morning, I installed Civilization V because I was reminded that it had touch-screen controls. I fired it up and (after downloading the .NET framework) it had an option to run win Windows 8 mode with touch controls. The game seemed to run well; I was at work, and didn’t get to really PLAY the game, but I’ll check in with it later.

Aside from that, there’s whatever is on the Marketplace, which is to say “almost nothing”. But I have hope: Unity just released update 4.2 the other day, which has FREE support for porting to Windows 8 devices. Assuming it’s not too much work, I hope developers will flip that switch in their existing Unity games to get a piece of the Marketplace before it becomes a dumping ground like those other app stores.

Keyboard

I picked up the Typing keyboard, not the membrane-style Touch keyboard. It’s not tiny, and it’s not full-sized, so the placement of the hands is off. But it’s really nice. It comes with a built-in trackpad because, yes, despite being a touch-centric device, you can use a mouse pointer. The underside of the keyboard is a non-slip felt. No logo, no leatherette material. It’s pretty weak as a fashionable cover, but it’s a keyboard. Cut it some slack! And it protects the screen when not in use.

Problems?

I need to use it more to say for certain, but these come to mind.

Battery! At full charge, the meter says about 3 hours. That was in “performance mode”. Turning off the wifi, setting the power saver mode to something more conservative, remembering to put it to sleep instead of letting it time out…those measures should help, but this is not a marathon-use device on battery.

Proprietary power! EVERYTHING in my house uses micro USB connectors, except for the 3DS and this. That means I have to buy more power cables to have them where I need them, and to avoid having to pack up the power everywhere I go.

Survivability! I’ve never really been a “screen protector” kind of guy, but I’m deathly afraid for this device, mainly because it’s nature demands that it move about a lot, and also because of it’s price.

Fairy Fingers! I actually had it easier on the desktop than with touch when it came to organizing the Modern UI. Deleting and moving tiles is an exercise in patience, as you have to move the tile just a little bit before you can unsnap or delete it. And I still ca’t figure out how to delete pages in OneNote without resorting to the trackpad. You need some very small and nimble fingers to do most of this, I assume.

Windows 8! Nah, not really. Just hater-baiting, because this is really where Windows 8 feels right. Sadly, due to the price and entrenched perception, normally open-minded folks who claim to hate Windows 8 will never get to see it in it’s native environment like this.

Here’s the “More On That Later” Section

I was at Best Buy, standing around waiting to catch the eye of a sales person (you’d have a better time finding Bigfoot with your eyes closed in pitch dark in the middle of a forest) and I was checking out other options. I saw the Galaxy…something tablet. It has a stylus as well, and was 1/2 the price of the Surface Pro. There were also laptops, again at a fraction of the price of the Surface Pro. I caught myself thinking “why not just get one of those and save money?”

The reason is because both of those options only did half of what I wanted. The tablet did tablet stuff, but not desktop stuff. The laptops had a physical keyboard attached at all times, which makes touch-screen use difficult. Both were portable, but neither did everything. That was my main criteria, and my reason for going with the Pro.

But wait! The Internet cries. A laptop is more powerful! A tablet doesn’t have that shitty Windows 8 Modern UI! Well, you’re both right. Had I wanted horsepower, I would have gone with a laptop, but I have a desktop already. I couldn’t take notes or draw on a laptop, and it wouldn’t be easy to stand up, walk around, and still use the thing on the go. If I had wanted a consumption device, I would have gone with a tablet. But I’ve owned an iPad and a Nexus. I have owned an iPhone, a few Android phones, and a few Windows phones. I have enough consumption devices in my life right now that I needed a productivity device instead. Trading the full power of each to have both in one package is what I expected, and what I wanted. So I don’t mind that it’s an “underpowered” laptop or a “Windows 8” tablet.

One thing I’ve noticed over the months since Windows 8 and Surface have been released, any criticism of Surface as a brand have been solely focused on RT, with none of the praise that Pro deserves. I can’t speak to RT, but whenever a blogger on a tech site wanted a punch-line, it was always Surface RT. It would have been really easy for those kinds of people to have their contacts get them a Pro so they could have something worth talking about, but…nothing. It was like a conscious effort to ignore the positive side of the product line.

Pro is a solid piece of hardware that makes a decent home for a solid piece of software. Yes, the price is daunting, putting it out of reach of many who consider price over form and function, which is sad on all counts. Reduce this in price by $300-$500 and I bet you’d be hard pressed to find one on shelves. You can get cheaper laptops; you can get cheaper tablets; you can’t get both in one package for cheap, though. That’s kind of sad, because I think the Pro is “the” device that actually promises a potential death of desktop computing at the hands of mobility, not because it dumbs it down or because it’s portable, but because it’ll do what desktops do, and it’s portable with far less compromise than you get from other devices.