Mobility

Going Pro: One hot Surface that's a joy to touch

Deb Shinder compares the Surface offerings and shares what she likes and dislikes about the Pro device.

Back in January, I spent some time getting to know the Surface RT and came away pleasantly surprised. I was able to get real work done to a much greater degree than I expected, but there were some frustrations involved and a few important elements missing. I looked forward to the release of the Surface Pro, hoping it would fill those gaps without too much of a tradeoff in terms of weight, bulkiness, and battery life.

The Pro was released on February 9, but it almost immediately sold out at Best Buy, Staples, Microsoft Stores and online. Despite the fact that I'm married to a Microsoft employee, I wasn't able to get my hands on one until the following weekend. Even then, it involved several hours of calling around to different Best Buy locations and finally driving to a store in a different city to snag the last one in stock.

A tale of two Surfaces

If you've used the RT model (or an iPad or later model Samsung Galaxy tablet), your first impression of the Surface Pro is going to be that it's thick and heavy (Figure A). There's just no way around the fact that replacing the NVIDIA ARM processor with a Core i5 means increased heft. At 2 pounds and over half an inch thick, it would have seemed tiny a few years ago. Now, coming from the 1.5 pound, 0.37 inch RT, not so much. However, it's more compact than most current ultrabooks and has the same (or more) functionality. Figure A

You can see the difference in thickness between the two Surfaces, as well as the slight difference in the angle created by the kickstands.

Other differences include more RAM (4 GB vs. 2 GB), USB 3.0 vs. USB 2.0, more storage space (if you're able to find and want to pay an extra $100 for the 128 GB model), a higher resolution display (1920 x 1080 vs. 1366 x 768), and a more powerful operating system (Windows 8 Professional vs. Windows 8). In my case, it also meant finally getting a microSD card slot that actually works, since the one on the RT device was useless.

Light weight and a slim physique aren't the only things you have to give up when moving from the RT to the Pro, though. You'll also give up more money. The Pro sells for $899-$999, while the RT is $499-$599 (both prices are without a keyboard/cover). RT comes with a version of Office 2013 that includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote; the Pro doesn't. Of course, because it runs the full-fledged Windows 8 Pro OS, you can install any edition of Office you want (which means you can have Outlook, Access, and the other programs that were left out of the Office 2013 RT version) — but that bumps the cost up even more.

The RT model doesn't support pen input, but the Pro does. That makes it capable of four input methods: touch, keyboard, voice (through Windows 8's voice command and dictation features), and pen. I love having that kind of flexibility.

The biggest compromise involved, for me, is the battery life (or rather, the lack thereof). RT is advertised as getting 8 hours, but I got closer to 10-12. Like the Energizer Bunny, my RT just kept on going. The Pro gets around 5 hours with moderate usage. That's not awful for an ultrabook, but there are some that do better, and it's downright lousy for a tablet. I'm hoping that the next generation of Surface will run on Haswell processors, which will double that. Meanwhile, I'm pleased with the standby battery performance. Unlike some laptops I've had, it uses little battery when it's idle, so with very light use, I saw the battery last for several days.

Getting there is half the battle

After the inevitable comparisons to the RT, I decided to put that aside and evaluate the Pro on its own merits. As with the RT, our relationship had a bit of a rocky start, but once we got past a few bumps, things were a lot better.

I had come to love the Type keyboard that I bought for the RT, so the first thing I did was snap it onto the Pro — only to find that it didn't work. Well, actually it did, for three or four keystrokes, and then it stopped working. I snapped it off and back on, and this time the device didn't even see it; the onscreen keyboard popped up. On and off again, a few times, and then it worked, but I didn't love this at all. The keyboard had worked flawlessly on the RT for over a month.

Out of curiosity, I snapped the keyboard off the Pro and back onto the RT, but it didn't work there either. I tried again, and it did. Ugh. I tried wiping off the contacts, put it back on the Pro, and it seemed to be fixed, although it stopped working again the next day. That time, I cleaned the contacts on both sides thoroughly with alcohol, and so far, so good. A web search indicated that some other users have had the same problem.

Once I was able to type, the next step was adding more storage with a microSD card. After all, expandable storage is one of the Surface's big advantages over the iPad, and I'd been awfully disappointed when I got an RT with a defective slot. Thankfully, the slot itself is far more accessible on the Pro, not hidden behind the kickstand. I inserted a known good micro card into the slot and ... nothing. There wasn't a "What do you want to do with this disk?" pop-up message or even a SD card showing up as a drive in Explorer. Could I really have gotten that unlucky twice? Unlike with RT, this time even trying to push the card farther in with my finger and holding it didn't make the card temporarily appear.

I turned to the web again and discovered that you need to reboot after inserting the card for the first time. I crossed my fingers, held my breath, and waited while it restarted (which was really fast, by the way). That did the trick. There was "SDHC (D:)" under Computer in the Explorer tree. Whew!

My next task was to test Office on the machine. I hated not having Outlook on the RT, and I was excited about being able to install Office Professional. One of the nice new features in Windows 8 is the ability to mount ISO files, so after downloading Office Pro from MSDN, I double-clicked the file on the desktop and got an error message that I'd never seen before: "Sorry, there was a problem mounting the file." I tried again and got the same result. I even tried copying the file to a different location, but that didn't work.

I researched the web, and one forum said that the problem was a drive letter conflict when you have an SD card inserted. Another poster noted that he received the error, but the file actually did mount. So, I checked in Windows Explorer, and sure enough, it showed that the file had been mounted three times. Apparently, the error message is, itself, an error. I ran setup and Office installed with no problem (Figure B). Figure B

Microsoft Office Outlook on the Surface Pro.

Making it mine

Because it's running Windows 8, I could customize the Surface Pro just as I did my Windows 8 desktop computer. A big frustration with my ARM-based Surface was the feeling that it was less "mine" because of the limitations imposed by the RT operating system.

One nice thing about logging in with a Microsoft account is that many of my customizations, such as IE Favorites and settings, Explorer view settings, and so forth, were saved from my Surface RT and applied automatically.

If you look closely at the taskbar in Figure B, you'll see that one of the first things I did was install Start 8, which adds back a Start button and Start menu to make desktop mode a little more functional. I've been using it on my primary workstation for a while and love it. I fully expected to pay for it again — at $4.99 (USD), I considered it a bargain — but when I logged into Stardock's web site to download and buy it, I was told that I already owned it, and if I wanted to buy it for someone else as a gift, to continue. I exited the cart and got a message that the software had been activated. Next, I installed another Stardock product, Décor 8. Unlike Start 8, which adds real functionality, Décor 8 is purely aesthetic, but it provides the much-appreciated ability to select your own background graphic for the Windows 8 Start screen rather than being stuck with the artsy drawings that Windows gives you. You can see my piano keys background in Figure C. Figure C

Décor 8 lets me make the Start screen with a custom graphic background.

Getting down to business

Now that I had Windows 8 looking and acting the way I wanted, it was time to put the device to the same sort of test as I'd done with the RT — using it to do my real work. A couple of things were noticeable immediately. Not unexpectedly, the Core i5 processor is far faster than the ARM chip. Bootup is quick and performance is snappy. I didn't experience the lags I wrote about in my RT article, even when composing long documents or posts. The higher resolution display also made a big difference. Pictures really pop and videos display beautifully.

One thing I especially wanted to check out was the digital pen. I bought the Galaxy Note 10.1 specifically for that feature, and I use it to edit photos, draw diagrams, and take handwritten notes. I wondered if the Pro's pen support would live up to the Note's S Pen. Surpringly, it's hard to tell the two apart. I drew and wrote in OneNote without any problems.

I wanted to install my favorite photo editing program, which happens to be Corel PhotoPaint. I have the installation disc on DVD, so that provided a reason to hook up a USB DVD drive to the Surface and see how that worked. I plugged it in, and it was instantly recognized and worked flawlessly; the file copy operation was relatively fast (although the drive was a USB 2.0 device and didn't take advantage of the fast USB 3.0 port). The application appeared to install, but when I tried to open it, I got an error message saying "its side-by-side configuration is incorrect." A web search on that one wasn't very fruitful, although it indicated that it wasn't a Surface-specific (or even Windows 8-specific) problem.

I was disappointed to learn that Adobe PhotoShop Touch (which I use on the Galaxy Note) is available only for iOS and Android; there's no Windows version. I'm still looking for a good photo editor to install on the Surface Pro, preferably one that's touch-enabled. NOTE: I've downloaded the trial version of Corel Paint Shop Pro X5 and it does install properly and works. I'll be taking it for a spin in the next few weeks.

What's hot and what's not

The best things about the Surface Pro are its snappy performance, the ability to run (most) "legacy" applications on the desktop, the beautiful display, and the pen. I was glad to see that the pen does snap onto the charging contacts nicely and is held pretty securely, but it would have been nice to have a slot to tuck it into so that it's not just lying around when you're charging the device. Even a second set of magnetic contacts, perhaps, on the top edge of the device would help.

I'm not crazy about the extra thickness and weight, and since the Pro won't hold a charge long enough to get through the whole day, I hate that the charger is also bigger and heavier than the one for the RT (albeit still fairly small compared to many laptop chargers).

After working with the Pro for a while, my feelings are very similar to those I have for the Surface RT, but for different reasons. In both cases, I have the vague sense that this could be the perfect computing device, but it isn't ... quite. Each of them has something important missing, something that the other one has.

The bottom line

When it comes down to it, the RT is a great tablet and the Pro is a great laptop, but one doesn't completely substitute for the other. I'm glad I have both; I can foresee that I'll use them for different purposes and situations. In fact, I already do. When I want something that will let me do email, web searches, and Facebook all day long, more comfortably than on the phone but with minimal carrying burden, I grab the RT. When I'm going to be doing "real work," which in my case means writing articles, serious blogging, or doing accounting chores for my business, I'll take along the Surface Pro (and its charger).

And if the rumored mini-Surface should ever materialize, I might get one of those, too, for the ability to take it along with me on more of an everyday basis where I wouldn't take the larger devices. With my 5.5 inch Galaxy Note II phone, a mini tablet is less compelling than it once was — but the Note still doesn't do Windows, so I'm also intrigued by the idea of a Surface Phone.

Many people (including me) were hoping the Surface Pro would be the magical all-in-one device that could "do it all." In that respect, I was disappointed. However, as an ultrabook (that's ultimately what it is), it's outstanding. It's a far better laptop than the lightweight Sony X, for which I paid almost twice as much, and it beats its battery life by about an hour. Despite having half the RAM, it's snappier and more functional for my purposes than the 3.5 pound HP laptop for which I paid $500 more, and it's a lot easier to carry around all day. Neither of those devices have a touch screen, either.

After adjusting my expectations, I'm not at all unhappy with the Pro, although I'm eagerly awaiting the next generation of Surface devices, which I hope will take us one step closer to Microsoft's envisioned future of computing.

About

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

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