When the iPad came out, reviewers pointed out that the iPad itself simply disappeared when you used it. The iPad became a featureless black frame, and what you were really using was an app. Fire up a text editor, a game, a browser, whatever, the iPad hardware was just a simple glass window into the app itself.
If you used an app that was clean, polished, and functional, then you saw the iPad as clean, polished, and functional. Luckily for Apple, developers came out with a lot of clean, polished, and functional apps within the first year, so the iPad got a great reputation.
Judging the Surface Pro means looking at two ways – judging the frame, and judging the picture. And actually, as it turns out, there’s two different pictures – Windows 8 Metro, and Windows 8 Desktop. Let’s get started.
The Surface Pro Judged as a Frame
The Surface Pro is a better window frame than the iPad. It’s more powerful, has a pretty good optional keyboard (the Type Cover), and the built-in kickstand means I can be productive in more places while carrying less baggage. I love love love having USB and a micro SD memory card slot built in.
A few small niggles keep it from being perfect. With the keyboard attached and the kickstand extended, it’s exactly the depth of a coach class tray table on a 737. My wrists end up doing a delicate dance, hanging right off the edge of the tray. On the regional jet I’m on now, even first class doesn’t have a tray big enough for the Surface. With a normal laptop, I’d just angle the screen up to give myself more space, but the Surface Pro only has one angle. It’s inevitably the wrong angle.
Other small (?) problems: the battery life is a joke, lasting me three hours at best. (In comparison, when I take my MacBook Pro or my iPad to client offices for all-day meetings, I don’t bother bringing my power adapter.) The Surface Pro gets hella hot for a tablet, hot enough that I thought twice before putting a Gelaskin on the back. The Pro has a Micro SD card slot rather than a real SD card slot, which means I can’t take memory cards straight out of my cameras and put them into the Pro to check out my pictures. Well, I can, but I’d have to replace my SD cards with Micro SD cards using adapters, and that makes the Surface Pro’s price keep inching upwards. And about that price – $999 for a tablet with no keyboard? Really? And another $139 for a keyboard? I thought Apple was supposed to be the expensive vendor. These are all minor problems – but they add up like the Surface’s Pro’s price.
Overall, though, it’s a heck of a good frame – but you can’t judge frames by themselves. So how does the Surface Pro act when we put pictures in the frame?
When Metro/Modern is the Picture
Microsoft revamped the Windows 8 user interface with Metro/Modern, a simple, clean tiled desktop that first appears on bootup.
Slide through the tiles, click on the app you want, and the Surface Pro’s operating system fades into the background and it becomes a good frame, just like the iPad.
But that’s where the problem starts: there just aren’t many good Metro apps. There aren’t even many passable ones. Even Microsoft’s built-in Metro apps, like Mail and People, suffer serious drawbacks. Let’s start with something simple: listening to music with the Metro Music app. I’ve copied MP3 files onto a Micro SD card because I want to listen to music on the plane, and I don’t want to use up the precious space on the 128GB onboard SSD. I’ll just fire up the Music app and play things from that folder:
You’re telling me that to play music, I have to leave Metro and go into the legacy File Explorer? Alright, I guess. Let’s give it a shot:
So I can use Micro SD card slot to copy things onto the Surface Pro’s precious little 128GB SSD, but I can’t actually use it for music? The only way I can play a external folder full of music is to use the desktop Windows Media Player, hit control-O to open files, navigate to the folder, add them, and click Open. I have to remember that I can’t use the Metro UI to play my external music – that only works on Sybil’s desktop side. UPDATE – @spindriftpages points out that you can make symlinks to fool Windows into using the external drive for music when you’re on the road. Obviously not something most users are going to think of, and they shouldn’t have to.
Thankfully, when there’s not a good Metro app, the Surface Pro can still be a frame for all your favorite legacy Windows apps.
When The Legacy Desktop is the Picture
In theory, the great thing about the Surface Pro is that it’s a frame for your tried-and-tested apps like Microsoft Office, Visual Studio, and SQL Server. In practice, the 10″ 1080p touchscreen is a horrendous frame. Take the brand-new Office 2013:
How am I supposed to accurately touch anything – especially as small as the down arrows next to the charts? Forget using your finger – most of the time, the touch targets are way too small. Every time I interact with any desktop app on the Surface Pro, I have to make a decision: should I use my finger as a pointer, pick up the stylus to use as a pointer, or, if I’ve got the keyboard clicked in, should I revert back to the touchpad? This sounds like a First World Problem, but once you’re used to simply interacting without thinking, this becomes horribly annoying. Constantly asking yourself, “What should I use right now to interact with the screen?” gets old fast.
It gets worse the instant you start using other applications. Take Microsoft SQL Server 2012:
SQL Server users will instantly recognize that the dialog isn’t supposed to look like this – it’s a hot mess.
The problem stems from how Microsoft chose to handle the Surface Pro’s 1080p screen. Years ago, when Apple rewrote the way OS X handles display resolution, they made a smart bet. They saw the increased pixel density coming, and as a result, apps work much better on very high resolution screens like the MacBook Pro’s Retina display. Microsoft didn’t make that bet, and it shows big time on the Surface Pro. It’s too high of a resolution on too small of a screen, and Windows isn’t built for high DPI screens.
Microsoft scales up some parts of applications, but not others – resulting in dialog boxes you just can’t use regardless of whether you’re using the stylus, the keyboard, or the finger. I end up using the finger very often, and not to touch the screen, either. It gets worse when you hook up an external display – even unabashed Microsoft cheerleader Paul Thurrott gripes about the problems:
“So while the Surface Pro’s 1080p screen looks OK at 150 percent scaling, when you duplicate or extend or replace that screen to a second display, like my 27-inch Planar monitor, which also runs at a native 1080p resolution, it looks terrible. Onscreen elements are now gigantic, and the Windows desktop looks like a Fisher Price toy.”
The Awkward Act of Switching Pictures
The Surface Pro’s beautiful screen is handicapped by the poor picture decisions. Metro apps work well on the screen – but there’s not enough of them. Desktop apps fill in the gaps, but they work horribly via touch. As the Metro app selection grows, you’re going to be switching back and forth via both Metro and legacy desktop. But you might have to do that even if you only use one half of Sybil’s personalities, because Microsoft’s own settings even require switching back and forth.
This one frame is expected to do double-duty, hosting both Metro apps and legacy desktop apps – and it fails miserably pulling off both personalities at once. Take something simple – editing a Markdown text file. I’m writing this blog post using MDown, a Metro app for Markdown. Markdown is a simplified WYSIWYG text editing platform that I’ve grown to know and love.
However, when I go into the desktop and double-click on a Markdown file:
The Surface Pro acts as if it’s never seen a Markdown file before. Even though I’ve got MDown installed on this Surface Pro, AND I CREATED THE FILE ON THIS SAME DAMN LAPTOP, I made the unimaginable mistake of trying to access the Markdown file via the desktop Windows Explorer – which has no concept whatsoever of Metro apps. This is utterly unthinkable for a productivity device.
What happens in Metro, stays in Metro.
Using Windows 8 on the Surface Pro becomes a frustrating guessing game. If you can’t find what you want, you should probably try over in The Other Side of the Operating System. Tried using Microsoft Update to update your Microsoft apps? Ah, no, that doesn’t work – you have to switch over to Metro, then go into the Windows Store, and hit update from there. You’ll learn to swing both ways.
UPDATE 5/17 – Commenters have suggested that maybe MDown didn’t register extensions. Sure, but then how come MDown (and all other Metro apps) are missing from the application dialog below? This comes back to Sybil’s split personality – Metro apps don’t show in Sybil’s desktop side.
The Verdict: Beautiful Frame Around Microsoft’s Homework
The Surface Pro is a wonderful frame. Oh, sure, it’s not perfect – the battery life sucks, the frame gets hot, the fan is annoying, the magnetic power cable isn’t magnetic enough, the 16:9 screen is awful for a tablet, and the kickstand isn’t adjustable. It’s overpriced, especially for a Windows machine with just 4GB of memory, 128GB of storage space, and no cell modem. But in today’s market, the hardware can legitimately compete with the iPad as one of the best frames out there.
The picture just sucks. It’s not passable – it’s not even acceptable – it just outright sucks. It’s Microsoft’s childish homework that really belongs taped to a Seattle fridge, not a public gallery.
If you’re an app developer, then it’s a frame around your own homework. The Modern UI app situation is dire, and it’s up to you to make it better. However, if I was a developer, I’m not sure I’d focus my limited time on the Windows 8 app store. Windows consumers are already used to buying good apps directly from developers via the web – why introduce a middleman that slows down your application release process? Sure, there’s an incremental revenue gain if you can get a good app into the Windows app store, but why not just release a desktop app and get exposure to everyone?
And when it comes to conventional desktop apps, the Surface Pro is the wrong pixel density: a touch-sensitive 10″ 1080p screen simply doesn’t work for legacy applications. Touch targets are too small, and you keep clicking the wrong thing.
If you’re only going to use Metro apps – few as they are – get yourself a Windows Phone.
If you want to use legacy apps, get a laptop with a 10″ 720p touchscreen, or a larger (13-14″) 1080p screen.
But I’m Keeping Sybil Pro for Now
I bought the Surface Pro to use as a backup laptop: a secondary presentation device in case my main laptop bit the dust. I make a living teaching people via PowerPoint. For a long list of reasons, I can’t really switch presentation tools, and the iPad doesn’t cut it as a secondary presentation device. The Surface Pro does. It runs Dropbox to sync my presentations and client files, it runs PowerPoint just fine, and I can do email on it in a pinch. The Surface Pro isn’t my favorite device for any of those tasks, but as a backup (or perhaps even as a primary travel device), it gets the job done.
If it wasn’t for the resolution problems, the Surface Pro would be an amazing presentation device. I love love love being able to draw on my PowerPoint slides whenever there’s a question that requires some sketching. However, I cringe when I have to do SQL Server demos on it – I never know which screens are going to look okay, and which ones will be unusable (like the restore-databases dialog).
If I could put up with the Windows 8 frustrations on my primary desktop, my travel bag might just have two Surface Pros in it. For now, though, I’ll stick with my MacBook Pro Retina as my primary, and the Surface Pro will ride shotgun. I still love OS X as a primary productivity setup.
Sadly, Sybil can’t even displace the iPad as my secondary laptop bag resident during the flight. Sybil will stay in my overnight bag because she’s absolutely miserable to use on a plane. I was hoping I could work on SQL Server demo scripts while in the air, but the horrendous touchscreen problems and the single-setting kickstand make it unworkable. (I just tried again and gave up in frustration.) For me, the Surface Pro is just an expensive insurance policy; it gives me peace-of-mind that I can do my presentations and (possibly bad) demos if my MacBook Pro dies during a trip. I can’t imagine there’s a lot of consumers willing to burn $1200 this way. Even worse, a MacBook Air would accomplish the same goal for slightly less money – plus allow me to carry one set of AC adapters that do double duty for either device.
And now if you don’t mind, I’m going to shut this down and switch to the iPad. I want to get some Ridiculous Fishing in before we land.