Microsoft Surface Pro Review

I’m going to take a quick detour from Office 365 topics and talk a little about the Microsoft Surface Pro.

Earlier this year, when I attended Microsoft TechEd in New Orleans, I had the opportunity to buy a Surface Pro and a Surface RT at a very reduced price. This offer was extended to all attendees of the conference. I decided to pull the trigger and purchase both units and a Type Keyboard to use with the Surface Pro. I figured that if I didn’t like them, I could turn around and sell them and be no worse off.

Because of the way I work, I chose to break out the Surface Pro first. My goal with this device was to have a one device for everything solution. I wanted something to replace my laptop, my desktop, and my tablet.

Just to give you a frame of reference, I have been an Apple device user for about four years. I am on my second iPad, which is the third version of the device. I also use an iPhone 4, which I switched to from the original Motorola Droid. The iPad that I currently use is a Verizon LTE device that I can also use as a personal hot spot. I also have a Bluetooth keyboard from Logitech that I have used in the past at conferences to take notes. The iPad has been the closest thing to a one device solution, and it obviously does not completely fulfill that role.

Now, back to the story.

When I opened the box for the Surface Pro, I was immediately impressed with the build quality of the device. It is solid. It’s a little heavy compared to the iPad, but I had to keep in mind that this is a full blown PC, not just a tablet. I was disappointed to find that the power brick uses a funky proprietary power connector. (I know, I know… so does the iPad.) One of my gripes about all devices is the need to carry around multiple connectors to charge with. I had hoped for a USB charger for the Surface Pro, but again, because this is a full PC that may not be a good fit. It is worth mentioning that the brick has a USB port on it that you can use to charge other devices.

I connected the power cord and snapped on the Type Keyboard. I was pleased to find that the Type Keyboard has a small but useful touch pad built in. The keyboard was not as good as the full keyboard on my Lenovo T420, but didn’t take much getting used to.

Because I am a System Administrator that travels from time to time, I had an external drive with me that had most of my software on it. (A USB 3 Drive!) I connected the drive to the USB port on the Surface Pro and started installing my software. I installed Office 2013 Pro Plus, the Chrome web browser, Notepad++, Royal TS, my company VPN client, and some other utilities I use on a regular basis. Everything performed well.

I left the device plugged in to charge and went to bed.

The next morning, I decided to only take the Surface Pro to the conference. I knew that they had wireless coverage everywhere, so I shouldn’t need my hot spot. I wanted to force myself to use the Surface instead of my laptop or iPad, so that I would have a better understanding of how it would work for me in a real world situation.

During my first session of the day, I wanted to use OneNote to take notes. Decision time. Use the new modern/metro interface, or go back to the desktop interface I was so used to. I decided to use the new interface, and see how the Surface performed as a tablet. I had the Type Cover connected, so I flipped it around behind the Surface and began using the touch screen keyboard. A nice feature of the Type Cover is that it deactivates when you flip the cover around completely behind the device, which is good because you can’t help but hit keyboard buttons as you hold the device in this configuration.

The default configuration for the on-screen keyboard is to have giant keys that stretch across the entire bottom of the screen. That made typing with my thumbs as I held the device with both hands an unworkable situation. I knew that I could split the keyboard on my iPad to make it “thumb friendly” so I started looking for that option on the Surface. I discovered that you could indeed do the same thing, so I made the switch. This was a much better interface for thumb typing.

Again, performance was great. Everything ran smoothly and I knew that my notes were being saved to my SkyDrive, which is where I had my OneNote notebook saved. Typing with my thumbs was getting to be a drag.

No problem! I just flipped the Type Keyboard back around to the front and extended the Kickstand on the back of the Surface Pro so that I could use it like a laptop on my lap. Here is where the Surface started to disappoint me. Using it on your lap with the kickstand is not pleasant. It is a narrow device, so I had to keep my legs together more than I normally would when I’m sitting. I also felt like I was fighting to keep the device stable. It felt like if I were to take my hands off the keyboard, the Surface might be inclined to take a dive off my lap. A full laptop is definitely a better solution in this situation.

Through the day, I switched the typing configuration back and forth several times. For sessions where I was taking fewer notes, I would configure the Surface as a tablet and use the on screen keyboard. For sessions in which I needed to type more and at a faster rate, I switched to the Type Keyboard.

Disappointment number two was battery life. I had to find a power outlet before lunch to charge up. I noticed that lots of other Surface Pro owners were in the same situation. I think the worn out extended battery I had on my Lenovo T420 might have given me better battery life than I was seeing in the Surface Pro.

After lunch, I needed to connect to the office and take care of an issue that had come up. I went down to the coffee shop in the convention center and sat down at a table in a quiet corner so that I could use my phone and Surface without too much interruption. Using the Type Keyboard at a table is not a bad situation at all. I did find pretty quickly that the built in touchpad was not sufficient for what I was working on, so I broke out the Bluetooth mouse I had with me. In this configuration, the Surface Pro worked very well. I was able to connect to my company through VPN and take care of the issue with no problems. The screen was a bit small, but still quite usable in a pinch. This also gave me the opportunity to get a full charge on my device.

After dinner in the evening, I wanted to sit down and go through my notes and do some other work. Understand that I am getting older and have recently found the need to hold papers and devices a bit farther from my face to read them. I have some cheap reading glasses, but don’t need them very often. I found that using the small screen of the Surface Pro for an extended period of time was not an ideal set up. I was wishing that I had an external screen in the hotel room that I could connect to.

Because of some of the work I am involved in, I often need to use virtual systems to test software and other configurations. The limited memory in the Surface Pro made it painful to try to run multiple virtual systems simultaneously. I know, this is a tablet and not designed for that, but getting back to my goal of having one device to satisfy all of my computing needs, this was another disappointment.

Overall, the Surface Pro was not a bad device. It does a pretty good job of being that all in one device, but with some limitations and frustrations. I’m disappointed that there is no LTE option on the device. As it is, I would still need to carry my iPad to use as a personal hot spot if I needed to do some work in a location with no wireless access. Alternately I could switch to a pocket sized LTE hot spot, but I would still be required to carry yet another device. Also, the awkwardness of using the device on your lap makes it frustrating when you are trying to take notes in an audience.

In the end, even though I wanted to like them, I sold the Surface Pro and the Surface RT. I never even opened the RT because I considered it less capable than the Surface Pro and since it didn’t measure up, I decided not to bother. I should also note that I would not have even considered purchasing the Surface Pro at the regular retail price. Microsoft has very much over priced these devices compared to other offerings.

In my humble opinion, Microsoft needs to stick to what it does best. They provide excellent software and services. This has always been their strong suit. Let’s let the hardware manufacturers do what they do best and then Microsoft can concentrate on their core strengths.



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