Surface Pro + Windows 8 Pro: The Premier Computing Experience

Four weeks ago, when it finally came on sale in Germany, I bought a Microsoft Surface Pro running Windows 8 Pro. I had to go to several stores, tough, because it was in such high demand, but at the third one I finally found the 128 GB version I wanted.

Computer Setup 2013 With Surface

I should preface the following discussion with saying that my old laptop has been in service for over 7 years. So maybe any performance improvements I noticed were purely based on the fact that my baseline for comparison was so slow.

Great as a tablet, great as a desktop

Obviously, the Surface Pro is a compromise. On the one hand it is a tablet, on the other hand, it sports an x86 processor like a regular desktop/laptop/ultrabook. So of course it can match neither the battery-life or low weight of a tablet, nor the raw power of a desktop computer. Instead, it hits the sweet spot in between tablets and ultrabooks: full compatibility with millions of Windows desktop apps, but also mobile enough for use away from the desk.

For me this means, I can hook it up to mouse and keyboard, a monitor and a bunch of other periphery via a USB 3 docking station and use it just like I would with a normal mid-range desktop PC. And when I don’t feel like sitting at my desk, I just unplug power, USB and the monitor cable and I got myself a tablet with several hours of battery life.

And if I leave the house and need to use a computer on the go, I just slap on the Touch Cover. It’s not only light-weight and protects the display, but also makes it possible to use desktop apps in tablet mode. If you are like me and rely heavily on keyboard shortcuts to be more productive even in tablet mode, you will want a cover.

Touch versus Type Cover

When deciding whether to get a Touch or a Type Cover, I opted for the former, because it is thinner and lighter than the Type Cover. But even after some practice I still make a lot of mistakes trying to type quickly. I haven’t tried a Type Cover, but I assume it would be better in that regard. But since I got a full-sized keyboard at home, weight and size were the determining factor for me.

Other accessories

As I said previously in Getting Ready for Surface Pro, there are a couple of accessories I needed to complete the Surface:

  • 64 GB storage card to supplement the limited internal storage,
  • Blu-Ray disk drive to watch DVDs,
  • USB 3 docking station to connect ethernet, a second monitor and other USB devices,
  • DisplayPort-to-HDMI-adapter to connect my 27 inch display.

I really wish Microsoft were offering a docking station that just plugged into the keyboard connector. That would make it so easy to use the Surface in desktop-mode.

Many input modes to choose from

As I said, the Surface is great as a tablet and great as a desktop, so regardless of what you want to do with it, you can pick the input mode that works best for a given task: keyboard, mouse or touch.

But the Surface Pro also came with a stylus, which is extremely helpful. For instance, in tablet-mode taking notes or making sketches in OneNote is so much easier with a stylus than by drawing on the screen with your fingers.

And because you can use desktop apps in tablet mode, you will often find yourself having to hit extremely small controls. And while touching these controls works in most cases, there have been instances where I accidentally hit the button next to the one I intended to hit and deleted an email instead of flagging it, for instance.

The stylus connects magnetically to the connector for the power cable. That connection is sturdier than I initially thought and I haven’t yet had the stylus fall off while carrying the Surface.

Metro finally makes sense

And in tablet-mode, one can finally see, why Microsoft is pushing Metro apps so much. Metro’s touch-first user experience is extremely well suited for tablets. When in desktop mode I use Windows Photo Viewer to view pictures. But in tablet-mode there is no better way to browse your photos by flicking through them with touch gestures.

Unfortunately, there are still a lot of things you can only do on the desktop or that are really limited in the Metro environment. And admittedly, there are several issues with using Windows 8 in a desktop-only-setup. I talked about my own complaints after using Windows 8 for a month. Hence I am really excited about version 8.1 coming out soon. Several of the rough edges of the RTM version have apparently been addressed, as you can see in Paul Thurrott’s thorough rundown of the improvements. Since I still have my old laptop I plan to upgrade that to 8.1. soon to see for myself.

Minor Annoyances

I am not going to lie, despite its many excellent qualities there are a few things that have annoyed me about the Surface Pro. For instance, when I unplug the monitor cable, it will automatically switch to the internal display. But instead of using that display’s native resolution of 1080p, it will use 720p. Not only does that make things look blurry, but it also prevents Metro apps from starting, because they require 768 pixels in the vertical. And when I then go and plug my monitor back in, it will have forgotten the display calibration and work with a sub-optimal gamma.

While the magnetic power connector is super-easy to unplug, the USB and DisplayPort connectors are extremely tight. Whenever I plug them in, I’m a little afraid I might break them.

Because the back-flip is built in at a fixed angle, and I am rather tall, the front facing camera points more at my chest and at my face. This requires me to make video calls in a rather awkward position. But since I don’t actually make video calls (except for once to try this out), that’s not a big issue for me personally.

Conclusion

Yes, at 980 EUR plus 120 EUR for the Type Cover and about 200 EUR for other accessories the Surface Pro isn’t cheap. And despite some minor annoyances, it is a great, very versatile computing platform.

I have gotten great responses from people who were very critical of using Windows 8 on a desktop, but were delighted by the Surface Pro. If it were a little more affordable, I think it would be the only kind of computer most people would need. I know it is my go-to computer and will be for years to come.

Things to Read

Similar to the Things To Watch series where I talk about TV shows and web videos I like, I want to formalize my book “reviews” into series I’ am going to call Things to Read from now on.

As always, I keep my LibraryThing page pretty current in terms of the books I buy and read at any given moment. But this series isn’t only about books, but occasionally also about interesting things I stumble across on the web (although I also share those on my Twitter in a more timely fashion).

Here are the highlights among the things I have read recently.

The Sibling Effect

The Sibling Effect by Jeffery Kluger talks about the special bonds we share with our siblings. They are there for us all the way from when we are little to the day we die; unlike parents, our own children or even spouses with whom we only live for a part of our live. The author explains multiple aspects of the relationships among siblings, many times drawing on his own experience of having brothers and (later in his life) significantly younger step-siblings. But the book also has a chapter on sibling-relationships in the animal kingdom, which are often less harmonious than those of humans (among sharks, for instance, the largest embryo eats his or her siblings in-utero). But of course, there are some complicated sibling-relationships among humans, too, and those are discussed as well. In the end, I think reading this book made me feel even more blessed about the wonderfully close bond I share with my sister :-)

The Pastry Box Project

This is an online project for the duration of 2013. In their own words:

30 People Shaping The Web. One Thought Every Day. All Year Round. Sugar For The Mind.

Obviously not every thing written there is something I agree with or even something I care about. But the breadth of topics – including some I would normally never think about – makes this a really interesting read and something I aim to check out every day. I can’t wait to for this to be made into a book or another medium that may last longer than a web page.

Just My Type & Thinking With Type

I am not that into typography. In fact, I am routinely annoyed when people spend way too much time looking for new typefaces to use in their stuff. It was for this reason that I bought two books to educate myself on the topic: Just My Type by Simon Garfield and Thinking With Type (2nd edition) by Ellen Lupton (I also own her excellent Design It Yourself).

I have only flicked through Thinking With Type, because as the subtitle says, it’s “A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students” and thus not something one reads before going to bed. I will have to make time to really dive into this one.

Just My Type, however, is a book that one can in fact read as bedtime stories. For instance, it tells the story of how Comic Sans and other typefaces came about. You will also learn something about Helvetica (one of the most overrated typefaces, if you ask me) and how it is related to Arial. There is also a brief introduction to distinguish the terms “typeface” and “font” which I as a layman found very helpful.

Showing Up for Life

Showing Up for Life was written by William H. Gates, Sr, father of Bill Gates and talks about his principles and values for life and particularly family life. He also uses the expression “showing up” a lot – and I mean a lot – to the point that it gets kind of annoying sometimes.

All in all, though it’s a great, very personal book. It makes it sound like Bill Gates was blessed with a wonderful childhood, which may have played a large role in where he is today. I’ve also learned that Bill Gates was called Trey (for William H. Gates III)in order to avoid confusion with his father Bill.

I also just love the foreword from his son:

Dad, the next time somebody asks you if you’re the real Bill Gates, I hope you say, “Yes.” I hope you tell them that you’re all the things the other one strives to be.

Capital

Unlike the aforementioned works, Capital by John Lanchester is a work of fiction. For a long time, I hadn’t been reading any fiction at all, but in recent months the share of fiction I read has been increasing steadily (thanks in large part to the excellent recommendations from M). As I said on Twitter the other day, Capital “with its many intersecting storylines is the most captivating book I’ve read in a while”. In fact, a large part of my time in Amsterdam last week was spend sitting in Vondelpark enjoying Capital.

I don’t want to summarize the book here in fear of giving away anything (M is still reading it, I think), so if you want to, check out the description on Amazon. It’s just wonderful. In the beginning, it reminded me sometimes of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy which had a couple of elements occurring in more than one of the stories, linking them in interesting ways.

Other

There are two other fiction books, I’ve read recently and would like to mention/recommend, although they are both available only in German: Bestattung eines Hundes by Thomas Pletzinger and Der Tag ist hell, ich schreibe dir by Tanja Langer.

In the non-fiction department, I am currently reading Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson, a very interesting book about maker culture. I have wanted a 3D printer for quite a while now, but they are still to expensive to buy as a toy. If Anderson is to be believed, however, they will become affordable in the not to distant future. Until then, one might want to check out Hackerspaces (there are even some in Germany).