Switching the wrong way for the right reasons

When you think about a computer user “switching,” you probably imagine those old Apple commercials with John Hodgman as a lovably clueless Windows PC, unwittingly selling the audience on the benefits of using a new Mac. To be sure, those benefits are many: best-in-class operating system and software including the iLife suite and now-free iWorks suite with a stable and intuitive user interface. Unparalleled build quality and battery life. Outstanding extended warranty with convenient walk-in service. Seamless syncing within Apple’s walled garden. I recommend Apple products to my parents, the faculty, parents, and students.

I got to a point this year, though, when they just weren’t meeting my needs. I would walk in to a board meeting with my iPad to find that it didn’t let me download and expand the .zip file containing all the agenda items. I’d find a website on the iPad and couldn’t use the Diigo browser extension to save it or Evernote extension to clip it. I’d pack for vacations and discover that I needed two devices and chargers (my iPad and my MacBook Pro) so that I could be both entertained and productive, and hand carrying all of that was uncomfortably heavy. I’d then have to spend time syncing media, password files, and documents so that I could have offline access to them in airports and on the plane. So I started looking for a device that could replace them both.

At the risk of sounding like a shill for Microsoft, it became clear that the Surface Pro was the only device that met my requirements of good battery life, laptop performance, and portability. No iPad would run VMWare’s virtualization products or a robust video editor like Adobe Premiere, and getting a Macbook Air or Pro would require me to have separate tablet. Lenovo’s Thinkpad Helix had poor battery life, while its Yoga 2 Pro could go up to only 4GB of RAM – a common limitation of many ultrabooks and hybrid devices that I found. So after visiting one of Microsoft’s “Specialty Stores” (basically a standalone kiosk) in Seattle’s Pacific Place mall, I pre-ordered my unit – a Core i5 with 256GB SSD and 8GB of RAM – which arrived on launch day, June 20. I was also considering the Surface Pro 2, but I like the larger screen size, 3:2 aspect ratio, thinness, and longer battery life of the Pro 3.

A month and a half later I’m quite happy with the purchase. The build quality is excellent, with a sharp, hi-res screen and sturdy magnesium alloy case. The keyboard is not as solid as a real laptop’s, and the trackpad is not as good as a MacBook’s, but it’s comfortable to type on. The kickstand is stable at any angle from 0 to 150 degrees. I can fold the keyboard back and rest the kickstand on it for lap viewing. And it’s adequate for working on my lap, which was a major complaint of Peter Bright at Arstechnica – not quite as comfortable as a laptop, but the added convenience of being able to hold it like a tablet makes up for it.

And wow, the things I can do with it:

  • Plug in an external hard drive (try that on your iPad)
  • Run full versions of Adobe Premiere Pro and 64-bit Photoshop – with stylus support!
  • Run virtual machines using VMWare Workstation
  • Listen to streaming music using the XBox Music app, which also works on my Android phone with a subscription
  • Take handwritten and typed notes in OneNote, which comes as both a desktop and Modern app.
  • Read books and websites on a real tablet in a better aspect ratio than 16:9 devices like the Google Nexus 7. The 3:2 ratio is, as Microsoft says, closer in proportions to a real sheet of paper.
  • Enjoy¬†a full browser experience with real extensions

That’s not to say that it’s been a smooth road all the way. I’m a lot more fluent in the MacOS and Unix command line than I am with Windows, so there was a learning curve. Windows 8 still isn’t as intuitive for me. Here’s what vexed me the most:

  • The trackpad is not great. It’s fine for casual use, but for Photoshop you’ll want to use a mouse or the stylus.
  • Switching from Evernote to OneNote without a robust transfer tool. There are two helper programs but they seemed finnicky. I ended up just keeping most of my data in Evernote and copy/pasting my important to-do lists over. I was very happy with Evernote while I used it but was intrigued by OneNote’s integration with Windows, Office and the Surface Pro’s stylus.
  • Google Chrome’s stable build lacks hi-dpi and Modern app support. The main installer didn’t work at all in Hi DPI mode and Modern mode, so I had to install the dev build. It seems pretty stable, although touch support isn’t as good as in IE (never thought that I would say IE was better than anything else at doing anything!).
  • Google isn’t making native Gmail or Calendar apps for Windows 8, and Microsoft’s built-in Calendar app doesn’t support the CalDAV standard. I ended up using the Offline Gmail and Calendar apps in Google Chrome and making shortcuts to these on the Start screen.
  • Windows 8 still just doesn’t have apps that I enjoy on my iPad and Android phone like Flickr and Spotify.
  • The Amazon Kindle app doesn’t let me read personal documents or newspaper subscriptions – only books. This means that I can’t read Le Monde in the mornings or the independently-purchased Cosmic SciFi Storybundle. Major bummer, since reading things in tablet mode was one of the reasons I bought this, although I expect that Amazon will update the feature set of their Windows App…some time.
  • Not all Windows apps are hi-dpi aware, which means in desktop mode a lot of menu text, buttons, etc. will be very small. This wasn’t an issue for me since I’ll hook it up to an external monitor, mouse and keyboard for heavy-duty productivity.
  • OneDrive is very particular about invalid characters and paths that are too long. I had to do a fair bit of pruning before all of my data would sync.

Should you buy the Surface Pro 3? I like it, but I can’t imagine my parents learning to use it and my girlfriend upon observing me use the stylus to crop an image in Photoshop remarked that it wasn’t as smooth as she would have liked. For 90% of users, using a traditional laptop will probably be more straightforward, even if they then have to carry around another tablet. But a lot of my complaints above have to do with the relative novelty of the Windows 8.1 interface paradigm and hi-dpi displays, which means they will disappear over time. In the meantime, if you’re a very mobile worker like me who wants one device that can do a lot of things – and you’re willing to deal with the learning curve to use one – then the Surface Pro 3 is a device that should be at the top of your list.