I picked up even Microsoft Surface Pro 3 at the airport duty-free store on my way back from Scotland. That was a few weeks ago. The madness of National Novel Writing Month prevented me from blogging about it. I’ve had the machine long enough now to give my first impressions.
The Surface Pro is Microsoft’s flagship product for Windows 8, a hybrid of tablet and laptop. It looks like a big tablet with a magnetically attached tear-off keyboard screen cover. (You need to buy this separately.) It runs Windows 8.1 on a full Haswell processor. Microsoft bills it as being able to replace both your tablet and your laptop. It is certainly as powerful as most modern laptops.
The Surface Pro is beautiful. It is stylish, light and give a similar feel of quality to most Apple products. The screen on the Surface Pro is beautiful. It’s of retina quality.
The most obvious comparison is to the iPad. The Surface Pro is not as light as an iPad Air. It is 800 g. It is slightly thinner and about the same weight as a legal pad or A4 notepad. It is obviously intended to be so since it comes with a pen and you can write on it in exactly the same way as you would a paper pad. Indeed this is one of the reasons I bought it.
The pen works well and there are a few interesting tricks that you can do with it. For example, when you click the top button, the Surface Pro opens a new page in Microsoft OneNote even if the computer is asleep at the time. This is both flashy and useful.
The key cover was a surprise. I was not really expecting very much from it but it turns out that the keyboard is at least as good as the one on my Macbook Air. The trackpad sucks. It’s about the same quality as the one on my netbook. It’s not quite as important as it is only netbook similar because the Surface has a touchscreen that is very responsive indeed.
The Surface Pro has a kickstand which lets you set it up at almost any angle. It’s not quite as useful sitting on your lap as a conventional clamshell laptop but it usable in such a position. It is quite excellent when used on a table or desk.
Microsoft claims that if you own a Surface there is no need to carry both a tablet and a laptop. I’m not sure how correct this is. I am not a big user of tablets. I had two purposes in mind when I bought the Surface and I have to say that it completely fulfils them.
I wanted the Surface to work with PDFs. Specifically I wanted to be able to mark up and annotate PDFs of my manuscripts using Drawboard. I also wanted to be able to use the Surface as a reader for my vast collection of PDF role-playing games and supplements. The Surface does both of these things brilliantly. I used it to mark up a manuscript and then connected the Surface to a 24 inch monitor and opened the annotated PDF alongside the Microsoft Word document that spawned it. Making corrections was easy.
Making handwritten notes in the under-rated OneNote is a pleasure. I find myself using the machine and my Asus Vivotab for this more and more.
Battery life seems to be about nine hours of light usage. You can get a full workday out of this machine if you work like me. It seems to be quite typical for a Haswell processor laptop. It’s not comparable to the battery life you would get from a modern MacBook Air but then a MacBook Air does not have a retina touchscreen.
In general I have been impressed with the Surface Pro but it is has had its downsides. The first one is the most important. I had more blue screens of death using the Surface Pro in the first three days than I had with all my other Windows computers put together over the past five years.
That sounds worse than it is. The machine crashed approximately 5 times. Almost all those crashes were under the same circumstances. They happened using full-screen mode in Scrivener on a large novel manuscript. They happened when the screen was set to approximately 150% scaling.
There seems to be a conflict between the way Scrivener operates in full-screen mode and the way Windows 8.1 scales ultra high-resolution screens. It does not happen if you look at one text within Scrivener. It only happened to me when I looked at an entire manuscript. There might have been a corrupt .Net installation on the machine. It looked that way when I ran CCleaner. Since then there have been no more crashes only glitches in full screen on Scrivener.
There is one more thing that bugs me. After an update when you arrive at the Start screen it sometimes looks as if the computer has frozen. The first time this happened to me I did a hard reset. Since then I have discovered that if I just let the computer sit for 20 seconds, it works normally. This is annoying to say the least particularly on a machine that is supposed to be the flagship of Windows 8. Hopefully there will be a firmware update or a patch that solves this at some point in the not too distant future.
These annoyances aside I have found the Surface Pro to be an excellent machine. I havebeen using it as my main work machine in the shared workspace that I use as an office. I wrote most of my NaNoWriMo novel on it without any problems. It’s just a pity about the bugs – they somewhat take the shine off an otherwise very impressive machine.
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