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.
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.
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.
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.
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.