Microsoft has carved out a new space in the tablet and ultrabook market with the introduction of its Surface Pro. The question for consumers, and especially business users, is where does it fit, what is its primary use, and what specific functions will it serve that would justify the near-$1,000 cost? Even more relevant to consider: how do you use your tablet now, and would using a Surface enhance that experience, or your productivity?
I have been using a Surface Pro for a few weeks on the road to figure out its potential as a business tool for us travelgeeks, especially the ones who go internationally.
My take: The Surface Pro is really an enhanced netbook with a fast processor (Intel third-generation Core i-5 1.7 Ghz with 4 GB of ram) and touch screen in a 10.6” package with a clever magnetically-linked keyboard and kick-stand. It is a hybrid between a tablet and ultrabook, but the reality is that it is not the best solution for either and by necessity has certain built-in compromises.Microsoft has clearly created a unique piece of sophisticated and solidly built hardware with top-of-the-line components and elegant and simplistic tablet design that creates its own space, but is that enough?
How their vision coincides with market reality and demand remains to be seen, especially if you are not a fan of Windows 8. An in-depth article by Jason Evangelho describes its features and talks about some of its drawbacks from a different perspective from mine.
Many are comparing the Surface Pro with the iPad third or fourth generation tablet, or (probably a more accurate equivalent) to the 11” MacBook Air. One thing’s certain: it is not an iPad and never will be in terms of functionality, connectivity, weight, ergonometric, apps and screen resolution. But it really was not designed to be. The Surface Pro is more akin to a multi-function 10” laptop than a tablet. It suffers by comparison to tablets but it shines in comparison to lugging around a heavier full-featured computer when you travel. I travel a ton and predominantly work in Windows, although I carry an iPad and MacBook Air 13” (running Windows). I thought it would be great to be able to work with a smaller notebook when I wanted the convenience of an iPad but needed the ability to run full Windows programs. That was obviously whatMicrosoft had in mind.
In either mode (tablet or ultrabook) the Surface Pro offers certain clear advantages over iOS or Android, but it has, in my view, some near fatal-design issues that may keep it from being adopted in the mainstream for either use. I have been using the Surface Pro as an alternative to my iPad and laptop to determine whether it has sufficient utility and is worth the price, considering its limitations.
One of the primary deficiencies with all iOS and Android-based tablet-computers except the Surface Pro is their inability to run full Windows programs especially for productivity. While Microsoft touts the fact that their tablet will run millions of Windows applications, for the most part they are reallyprograms. Apps, especially ones customized for a tablet, are often vastly more convenient to run. The Microsoft App store has a paucity of applications and is almost laughable when compared to Apple and Google. When I tried to match the 60 Apps on my iPad and Android, I found almost none existed in the Microsoft store, and some programs will still not run on Windows 8.
Why you want the Surface Pro:
Full Windows compatibility: The tablet will run virtually all Windows programs, both for Windows 8, which is native, and for previous versions of Windows. However, there are caveats to this, which I note in my comments as to why you should carefully consider its negative attributes;
Screen resolution and quality: The 10.6” 1920 x 1080 HD display is good, with 208 pixels per inch (ppi) resolution, but I found after a few hours of use that there was eye strain which I never experienced with the iPad third or fourth generation retina display. There clearly is a difference especially because of the way certain programs and typefaces are rendered on the screen.
Microsoft went the extra mile to insure its display was one of the best in the class of those few tablets that use optical bonding of the display surface. The process of marrying the screen to the tablet using different forms of chemical bonds prevents condensation, delivers cleaner text, improves contrast, and reduces glare and light reflectivity making the tablet easier to read outdoors. The technique is expensive, so not many manufacturers bother with it. Presently the Nexus 7 and the Nook employ the same manufacturing process which is why in some modes these tablets are so easy to look at. For the Surface Pro, there is also a built-in downside to their display technology because of Windows 8, which I note below.
Touch Screen: The integrated touch screen is incredibly convenient, but of course that is the essence of all tablets and even some ultrabooks. Having said that, I noted that there was sometimes a lack of accurate response when touching certain functions that work better with the use of the supplied stylus. It’s not a big deal but becomes aggravating when commands are not executed by repeated touching. My next laptop will definitely have a touch screen because I find myself using it more natively than a mouse;
Keyboards: The Surface Pro offers two kinds of wafer-thin keyboards which are magnetically and electrically linked to the base of the tablet. One is a touch-sensitive Touch Cover and absolutely flat; the other is called Type Coverand is a smaller version of a standard keyboard with individual tactile keys. It is fairly easy to type with and I much prefer it to the touch model. Neither keyboard compares to a traditional laptop in terms of accuracy, ease of use, and comfort but they are close enough to be functional. In comparison, the iPad mating keyboard offered by Logitech is even smaller than the type cover, but it is more versatile because it is linked to the iPad by Bluetooth, rather than direct mechanical connection.
Surface Pro footprint: I spend a lot of time on airplanes, especially in coach class in Europe because of the exorbitant costs of Business or First class. I often need to work on long flights. This can pose a real space problem when I use my 13” laptop because of the clearance between seats and position of the passenger in front of me when their seat is reclined. I don’t like typing with a computer in my lap, so I often cannot use it, especially on smaller aircraft. The Surface Pro has about the same footprint as the iPad with the Logitech keyboard attached, either in landscape or portrait mode. This means that the Surface can be used on the service tray, but there is a problem which is unique to the Microsoft design: the Kickstand. While the integration of this angled support of the tablet is clever it also can cause a real problem on certain airplanes trays.
Kickstand design is clever but maybe not so smart: Microsoft incorporated a swing out angled support piece that allows the tablet to stand in landscape mode and then it folds back into the body when not in use. It’s a great idea and is very convenient if you are using the tablet on a flat non-slip surface. It may not be so functional for use on an airplane.
The average dimensions of your service tray are 9.5”-10.5” x 16.5”-18”. The Surface requires 10” from the front of the tablet to the edge of the kickstand, which means it may not completely fit unless the keyboard is slightly extended toward you. If you push the tablet forward, the rear edge of the kickstand will drop. Your option is to retract the kickstand and let the tablet rest on the seat in front of you but this really is not a good alternative. So while the design of the tripod-type support is innovative, I think Microsoft failed to take into account one of their primary audience; airline passengers, especially in First or Business Class because of the extra clearance between seats. The kickstand also precludes the use of the tablet in portrait mode except when handheld, or when using an external keyboard.
Memory and micro-SD slot: The Surface comes in two configurations; 64 GB and 128 GB. However, the 64 GB version really only has 29 GB useable space, which in today’s world is minimal. Another 64 GB can be added in the micro-SD card slot to store content;
Inputs and Outputs: The tablet will allow connection to a digital light projector for presentations using HDMI or VGA through a separate adapter, and also supports a full USB 3.0 connection for virtually any peripheral. This is a real advantage over other tablets, although some Droids have a micro-USB connection but do not allow the use of an external drive. I always carry an external USB hard drive for backing up documents and video files, so this is a great feature;
Power and Accessories: The tablet’s battery life is poor in comparison to other ultrabooks or tablets. This is due to the Intel processor, which is more powerful than other similar devices. The downside is that you cannot rely on this computer for any long-term use without the ability to charge it. There is talk that Microsoft will add a battery to a new keyboard design to improve run time.
Don’t leave WiFi on if you put the tablet to sleep because you may find the battery has been depleted after just a few hours. Microsoft is not quoting standby times, but the best practice is to turn the tablet fully off if you will be traveling. The 48 Watt charger will rapidly bring the battery to full capacity in about 2.5 hours. The Surface RT charger is a 24 watt device which will work with the Pro, but takes much longer to reach a full charge. The RT charger is about half the physical size of the higher capacity unit for the Pro, and takes less space;
Weight: The Surface weighs two pounds and is about a half inch thick. As a tablet, it is much more difficult to use than its competitors due to its weight and thickness. You really need two hands to comfortably hold and control it. After a while this becomes a problem. In addition, there is no way to use the supplied keyboards in portrait mode.
Why you don’t want one
Readability and eye strain with non-Windows 8 applications: The Surface Pro was designed to run Windows 8 applications natively. Optimized for the latest operating system, they run without a problem and look great. That is not the case for programs that have not been updated. Specifically, the text must be magnified or scaled to either 125% or 150% to comfortably read;
No Google Exchange Active Sync (EAS) mail service through Outlook: Google is not supporting Windows 8 and EAS, which means that you cannot merge and sync contacts and calendar in one program like we are all used to doing in Outlook. The express mail program that is supplied with the device is minimal and provides a limited usable screen size for reading mail in landscape mode. If you are traveling and doing a lot of email, this is a real drawback. If you turn the tablet to Portrait mode, you cannot use the supplied keyboard;
Handheld use of the tablet: For more than five minutes it is not comfortable, nor can it easily be held with one hand. That means forget reading e-books, web surfing, working on lengthy documents, or watching movies;
Memory: Only 29 GB is available for use in the 64 GB model;
Power and duty cycle: This is one of the critical flaws in the Surface Pro, and in my view, will be a real negative to anyone that wants to use this as a substitute laptop when traveling. The battery capacity is poor, which translates to maybe a three or four hour useable life before recharge, especially if WiFi is turned on. On long flights, unless you can plug the unit into a 110 Volt charger, it is almost worthless as a work tool.
Also, there is no sensing when the keyboard is closed, which means you can leave the display on inadvertently until it times out. I do not like the power button, either. There should be a requirement to depress it for several seconds to turn the unit on so that it does not become active accidently from movement of the tablet in a carrying case;
The system is twelve-volt and five-volt based rather than using a five-volt standard USB power supplies. This means that yet another power supply must be carried, and it is large. To be fair, they have incorporated a USB port on their supply to charge other devices like smartphones, but I would rather use one USB supply to power all of my devices with common equipment;
Connectivity to the outside world: There is only WiFi and Bluetooth with no LTE, 3G, or 4G access to any network unless you link through your phone or portable hotspot, which means running down two batteries at the same time and jeopardizing your ability to make and receive phone calls. This is a significant problem, especially for international travel. I would prefer to use my tablet as my hotspot with a local SIM card because I have a lot more battery capacity (on my iPad or Android tablets). If you are overseas, WiFi networks in foreign countries have become their own sub-cellular networks at costs of up to $.18 or more per minute. In Europe, there are few open hotspots. For me, a tablet is not functional without global connectivity, and I would bet that Microsoft will embed 4G and more battery capacity into their next generation of the surface;
Stylus Pen: Microsoft supplies a stylus to communicate with the keyboard. This is a nice feature, but unfortunately sometimes is required because touching small points on the screen do not respond without using the pen. The stylus pen is magnetically attached to the side of the device at the power connector, rather than being inserted into an opening. I found this arrangement is somewhat mickey-mouse and aggravating;
Cameras and Audio: While there are two cameras (front and rear facing) they are only 720p, which means minimal quality for photos and video conferencing. There is no ability to switch between cameras while recording or using Skype. I also find the speaker output levels to be low and not really sufficient in a noisy environment, especially in a large conference room;
There is no question the Surface Pro is a fully functional ultrabook but with some severe limitations which can be a real drawback for business travelers. While it will clearly do things that no other Apple or Android tablet can, it is by definition a limited solution. If you need a small-format tablet and computer that has to run Windows programs and you can tolerate its design compromises, then it can certainly enhance productivity.
The real question is whether a 10” notebook is practical, except as an occasional-use tool for running Windows programs like Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. The reality is that both Apple and Android have hundreds of thousands of Apps that will do just about anything that you can do in Windows, in a more customized environment. If you can get away with a smaller screen, less resolution, much shorter battery life, very limited or no connectivity, and a non-standard power supply, get yourself a real notebook or ultrabook.
If you are an iPad or Android user but thought that the Microsoft Surface Pro would replace your tablet and ultrabook, I think at some point you (if you have the bucks) might want to carry both the Surface and your traditional tablet. Both the iPad and Android are better at doing certain things than the Surface, yet the Microsoft addition will also perform tasks that are not possible with iOS or Android.
Microsoft has created a sophisticated piece of hardware that can perform the functions of a tablet and ultrabook. The reality is that the Surface Pro works well in both environments but is too much of a compromise. If that works for you, then the Windows tablet will be a great addition to your travel tools arsenal. Just be sure you don’t stay too far from a power outlet for too long a time. - Marc Weber Tobias