For the past several months I’ve been trying out Microsoft’s Surface Pro, a tablet and computer in one that runs a new version of the Windows operating system, plus all Windows applications.
The product has met with some controversy, partly a result of being such a radical departure from a standard Windows computer. To some, it’s trying to be both a tablet and computer, without excelling at either. To others, it’s a tablet that’s too heavy because it’s encumbered with the hardware needed to make it also work as a computer.
So I decided to take the time to use it as it was meant to be, a single device, and to determine whether it would be a good replacement for carrying both a notebook and tablet.
The Pro, along with the lookalike Surface RT (a lower-cost tablet), is the first computing hardware developed by Microsoft (excluding the Xbox game machine). It’s a beautifully designed solid slab with angled edges and is built of what Microsoft refers to as vapor-magnesium, a richly finished black metal, with a beautiful 10.6-inch touch screen. It’s much more handsome than most other computing products.
Photo courtesy of Microsoft. Microsoft’s Surface Pro is a laptop in tablet form, taking a different direction from Apple.
The Pro is best used with one of its optional keyboards, which also works as a protective cover. It has a display that responds to two kinds of touch: finger and pen. The aspect ratio is more elongated when compared to a conventional tablet, making it good for computing, but less so for using it as a tablet to read books in the portrait mode.
Microsoft has taken a different direction from Apple, which has professed that a tablet and computer need to be two different devices. Microsoft’s approach is much more difficult and risky to accomplish because not only does it put constraints on the hardware (weight for example), but it also means developing an operating system that works in both environments.
In addition, Microsoft wants to use the same OS on conventional Windows computers, adding further restraints. As a result, the product will take time to evolve to meet the needs of all of its users, and it may fail to satisfy everyone, at the start.
But after carrying it with me for a few months, I like the product a lot, and find that I am able to do most of my work on it, using it as both a tablet and computer. It’s lighter and more compact than my 13-inch MacBook Air, and nearly as compact and tolerably heavier than an iPad.
The immediate advantages are carrying a single compact device, never needing to worry about whether my tablet and PC are in sync or where the files are, nor needing to carry multiple power adapters and keeping two devices charged. One unexpected benefit has been that the TSA thinks it is a tablet, and I’ve never been asked to remove it from my bag at security checkpoints.
I’ve enjoyed using the product and like the clean and modern design of both the hardware and software. The areas where I have struggled were unexpected. It’s been hard to migrate from a Mac and Google environment to this Windows platform, and I’ve been unable to get my Gmail or Apple contacts and calendars synched to the Outlook program, or even just imported once.
This is actually not all Microsoft’s fault. Google has purposely erected barriers to prevent Gmail from working with Microsoft software, such as preventing the synching of calendars and contacts with Outlook. And Apple doesn’t have an export function that allows me to import that same information into Outlook. As a result, I use the Gmail email and calendar apps instead of the more powerful Outlook. My advice to Microsoft is that you need to provide the tools to help others migrate.
It took some time to get used to the new Windows OS because it’s almost like working in two environments. You start out with the simple and fun touch-based Modern interface (previously called Metro), a selection of tiles of varying sizes, each of which represents an app or a website. Examples include Internet Explorer, New York Times, Gmail, Dropbox and Facebook. Many of the tiles display information in real time, such as a news headline and the arrival of a new message.
Tapping on one of the tiles takes you to the standard Microsoft desktop where you have access to your normal Windows applications, such as Office and Internet Explorer. You can easily switch back to the Modern view with a quick swipe from the right edge.
It’s not always easy to use finger touch or pen in the desktop mode. It can be hard to accurately point to and select the buttons and menus with your finger or pen. That’s where the keyboard with its trackpad and the optional Wedge Touch Mouse Surface Edition provide help.
There are two types of optional keyboards, one with keys that move ($149), and another that is more like a membrane with fixed keys ($129). Both worked well, but I preferred the first. I think a keyboard is essential to using the product.
A wide folding stand hinges off the back and securely props up the unit on a flat surface. It’s good for reading, but it’s more difficult to use on your lap when using the keyboard, as you would use a normal notebook.
The charging cable attaches to the left side, and is held in place with a magnet. When the charger is not plugged in, the included pen snaps onto the same connector. (Pen replacements cost $30.)
The display has excellent 1920 x 1080 resolution screen and it’s brighter than many PC laptops. It’s responsive with a 1.7GHz Intel Core i7 processor, 4GB RAM and a choice of 64GB or 128GB solid-state memory. (I recommend the 128GM model). It has one USB 3.0 port, a microSD slot, audio jack, and a mini-display port. The product weighs 910 grams (about 2 pounds). When I used it, the battery lasts about 3 hour,s writing email, surfing the web and reading with WiFi on.
The Surface Pro will delight some and frustrate others. If you like to be on the leading edge of new technology and can endure an occasional frustration, such as learning how to do familiar tasks in a different way, then by all means consider this product. There’s a lot to like about it and Microsoft deserves credit for the risk it’s taken.
The Surface Pro costs $900 or $1,000, depending on the memory, and the optional keyboards cost $120-$130. (Microsoft.com).
Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer" published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.