Imperfect, Heavy, Light, Powerful, and Excellent.
Just shy of one year ago, I transitioned from a Macbook Pro and iPad combo to a Microsoft Surface Pro 128GB. In light of this week’s announcement of Surface Pro 3 and my acquisition of a Surface Pro 2, I think it’s time to reflect on what that experience was like. Like most folks, I was a little skeptical about the idea of combining a laptop and tablet into a single unit. Would it be too heavy? Would the performance be too low? Would the battery life be awful? And what about the new Windows 8 OS that’s been the subject of so much teeth-gnashing? I’ll try to answer all these questions and more as succinctly as possible. Hit the jump, and let’s get into the question: what’s it like to live with Microsoft’s vision for computing in the future?
1. The Operating System, starring Windows 8/8.1:
Windows 8.1 Update 1 had a good head start with Windows 8, as I started using it during the first publicly available betas about 9 months before launch, dual booting on my Macbook Pro. That experience gave me plenty of time to figure out how to navigate the OS well before launch, so I didn’t have the struggle that many people did. Of course, it probably helps that I naturally enjoy exploring and discovering new things.
The early Windows 8 experience did have its struggles, though. I’d become accustomed to the iPad and even to my Windows Phone 7 device, both of which had lots of apps available in their stores. Windows 8’s store was notoriously barren by comparison, and that led to some early frustration when trying to use Surface Pro as just a tablet. Too many apps and features were missing to make for a satisfying experience Planet Amend.
Nevertheless, the device’s ability to handle legacy Windows desktop apps with aplomb kept me satisfied enough to continue, and the app store dilemma became less important by the day. If there’s one thing Windows really needs to fix, though, it is its way of presenting the desktop. The desktop is still wrapped in the trappings of an archaic system whose time has passed, and it’s time for Microsoft to update it to a more modern presentation that has fonts big enough to read on high DPI screens and large enough to operate with a finger.
With 8.1 and the new 8.1 Spring Update (really? We couldn’t just call it 8.2?), virtually all my complaints about Windows 8 evaporated. While some dislike the new aesthetic, I’ve personally found myself loving the flat colors, active tiles, and removal of extraneous effects. My sincere hope is that as Windows evolves, it gets even flatter, and the metro aesthetic becomes more pervasive.
Suggestion: Use a Microsoft account, and use OneDrive! I can’t stress these enough. If you’re using Windows 8–and on a Surface Pro, you will be–you shouldn’t create an old-fashioned local account. Doing so cuts you off from some of Windows 8’s best features. Among these is the ability to have almost your entire PC configuration, right down to tile sizes, locations, and apps installed, backed up to your OneDrive account in the event you either need to restore your PC or you sign into a different Windows 8.1 PC.
Best, though, is that with OneDrive, you get 7GB storage for free, which, while not enough to cover, say, your music and photos collection, is probably plenty to ensure your critical documents are all safely backed up within moments of you making any change. It’s easy to learn to save to your OneDrive folder, and once you’ve become accustomed to having that safety net, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it.
2. The Hardware: Build Quality, Heft, and Capability.
Surface Pro Docking Station
I used to lug around a 2010 Macbook Pro 13.3″, which weighed 4.5 pounds, and an iPad 1, which weighed 1.5 pounds for a total of 6 pounds. So when I say that the 2.5 pound total of the Surface Pro and Type Cover was a big weight off my back, I’m really not kidding. The sacrifice was that I had a smaller screen, but the gain was a far more powerful processor and far superior screen resolution and pixel density.
The build quality is exceptional: there is literally zero flex to this device. Its magnesium shell is hard and sturdy enough to withstand probably more abuse than you should feel comfortable making your PC go through. As a tablet, it’s half a pound heavier than that original iPad was, but as a laptop, it has a huge advantage over anything Apple offers. But you probably wonder what I use my Surface Pro for?
I’ve spent most of the past year as a film school student at UCLA, which means that a lot of my workload involves editing and transcoding video, compositing after effects compositions, transferring footage across different media, and so on. I use Adobe Premiere for most of these tasks, and my Surface Pro has handled them all with grace. I’ve had no problems editing and rendering 1080p video in real-time.
And as you’d expect from a Windows machine with a full-size USB port, working with external hard drives and optical drives is a breeze. Suffice to say, I also do the basics, including working in Microsoft Office, writing in Final Draft, checking email, browsing the web, yadda yadda. Overall, I’ve had no complaints save one: early on, my first Surface Pro had some serious problems with the Marvell Avastar wifi chip and had to be exchanged, a problem that’s not entirely uncommon with this device. More on that later.
Let’s be honest: the webcams on this device suck. They’re flat-out terrible, and there’s no getting around that fact. They’re fine for basic Skype video calls, but that’s pretty much it. If you really need to record a video, use something else. Anything else.
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