Microsoft Surface Pro – Revisiting My First Impressions

A few months ago, I purchased a 128GB Microsoft Surface Pro.  I then reviewed it in a post on this blog.  I wanted to give an update now that I have used it extensively for some time.  My ultimate verdict is unchanged, this device is fantastic, and I highly recommend it.  All of my initial opinions are still valid, and I recommend that you peruse them for a general overview. These are simply some additional thoughts.

 

 

 

Battery Life

The battery life is surprisingly good.  I went into this relationship expecting the battery life of a long lasting laptop, 3 to 4 hours of consistent use.  In reality however, I am getting closer to 5 hours which beats all laptops I have owned handily.  True, it doesn’t compare to a ARM tablet running Android or iOS, but 5 hours is more than enough for me.

 

Build Quality

The tablet itself is well-constructed.  The only issues are the stylus and charging connector.  They are somewhat difficult to attach.  It’s not a deal breaker, and attaching them is not that difficult.  However, it is probably my biggest gripe.  The magnetic attachments should be as easy as attaching the keyboard is, or the charging connector on MacBook laptops; get the plug roughly lined up and let the magnet do the rest of the work.

 

Apps

The Windows Store has grown significantly, but it is still a long way away from iTunes or Google Play.  You can run Android apps using BlueStacks as I mentioned in the previous article, but I find it’s not worth it.  Most of the major bases are covered with the Windows Store(Facebook, Twitter, Evernote, and so on).  However, I have found I don’t use many apps at all.

The touch version of Internet Explorer is surprisingly good, and it displays web pages as any other browser would.  There is no mobile version problems, no compromises to the website layout or flow to make it work in a browser (I’m looking at you Android browsers).  It just works, as expected.  Navigation is a breeze, and the touch recognition on links and buttons is fantastic, even with my largish fingers.  Therefore, I don’t really use the apps.  If I want to check Facebook, I go to the Facebook website.  If I want to write a quick Evernote note, I just go to the website.  This way there is no dumbing down of the service to make it work in an app.  You get the full experience.  The only service that is inconvenient to deal with in the web browser is Amazon Kindle.  But, there’s an app for that which works beautifully.

I believe that 99% of people would be able to get along just fine with the current app selection when supplemented by both the excellent web browser, and the normal progams that you can install since it is a normal, functioning computer running a full version of Windows.

 

Software

Absolutely wonderful!  I run a complete version of Office 365.  I can install Photoshop or, for the time being, I am using GIMP.  I have all my favorite text editors and IDEs for programming.  I have a WAMP server for local testing of websites.  I run Linux in a virtual machine.  I can print without any drama or problems.  I can connect to my home network and do file sharing and the like.  It runs everything like a champ.  Oh my god, how did I live with my old Android tablet.  It was crippled compared to this beast!

My only complaint is that normal computer software (not apps), that was not developed within the last few months, and is not somewhat recent Microsoft software, are not designed for touch interface.  The touch recognition is great, as that’s done by Windows, but programs designed for a mouse and keyboard will often clump commands and small buttons close together.  This works fine with a mouse, but makes touch a bit difficult.  This is not denigrating Windows or this tablet in any way.  It is mildly inconvenient, but the fact that a tablet will run that software at all is incredible.  And, now that Windows 8 is in widespread use, and Windows 8 touch devices are available, most software will adapt.

 

Windows 8

Perfect for touch.  It’s a breeze to use, it includes great touch recognition.  The gestures are fairly intuitive and are picked up easily.  I still prefer the traditional Windows 7 like start menu for desktops, but the big full screen Metro UI start menu is perfect for a tablet.  Honestly, outside of business environments, most of the people complaining about Windows 8 are, in my opinion, simply resistant to change.  I’m okay with that.  I understand it.  I am one of those people (I want my start menu back for my desktop).  But if you power your way through the changes between previous versions of Windows and 8 and make a few tweaks to default programs, it isn’t really worse than Windows 7, just different.

 

Camera

On par with other high-end tablets.  It’s not a great camera, but it is functional and acceptable.

 

Keyboard

I purchased a type cover keyboard with my Surface Pro.  It works great and integrates smoothly with the tablet.  The tablet intelligently hides or displays the onscreen keyboard depending on whether the type cover is attached and deployed or not.  The keyboard is small, but that is the same size as any other keyboard on a small laptop/netbook.  I can type effectively, I use it to take notes in class a lot.  It’s very thin and light, so it doesn’t bulk up the tablet.  I highly recommend it.

However, the trackpad mouse on the touch cover is far from brilliant.  It’s small and a bit sluggish.  But I find that I still do most everything with touch anyway, even when the keyboard is deployed.  I only use the trackpad for precision stuff, and it’s adequate for the task.  If you plan on using the mouse a lot, I recommend you invest in a separate Bluetooth mouse.

 

Wireless

I have read of some people having issues with the wireless connectivity with the Surface Pro.  I have had absolutely no problems.  That being said, most of the wireless routers I connect to are high-end and fairly new.  So I can’t generalize and say it will work across the board.  But I haven’t had even a hint of a problem.  It also has excellent connection range.  It beats my Droid Razr Maxx significantly in range and reported wireless signal strength.

 

Heat & Cooling System

I have never heard the fans on this device, but I can tell that they work and are doing there job based on how, and when, the Surface Pro cools under load.  So it’s deathly quiet which is good and expected for a tablet.  Despite the fans, it does get a tad on the warm side, but not bad, and cooler than many laptops would be under the same conditions.

 

Ease of “Hacking” & Modification

It runs Windows.  Any modifications you can make to Windows, you can do to the tablet.  If you want to disable services and stuff because you like tinkering with boot times and power draw, feel free.  If Windows isn’t your style, load up another operating system.  I haven’t committed it to a partition yet, but I have successfully booted LiveUSBs of both Ubuntu and Linux Mint.  They both work and I was able to connect to a wireless network although it was a little finicky (I’ll probably do a write-up of installing Linux on this later and I will go over that then).  I have doubts that a Hackintosh install would work well with the hardware, but that’s pure speculation (feel free to try it and let me know how it goes).

I will caution you that Linux does not work as smoothly on the Surface Pro as does Windows.  Don’t expect to be able to swipe your way around Ubuntu without some problems.  Microsoft went to a lot of effort and spent a lot of money perfecting their touch interface, and, as it is their device,  they have perfect hardware support.  Linux just can’t compete with that right out of the gate.  Over time, hardware support will improve, and popular distros will be better suited to touch screens (or some popular touch screen distros will pop up).  In the meantime, the Surface Pro can be used as a normal Linux laptop, if paired with a mouse and keyboard, with supplemental touch screen capabilities.

Personally, I won’t be replacing Windows with Linux at all.  I like Linux, I have used Linux as my primary OS off and on for years.  But I’m not one of those people who feels that either Linux or Windows is better than the other.  They both have their strengths and weaknesses.  On this tablet, Windows’ strengths are magnified greatly.  I will probably throw a Linux distro in it’s own partition just for the hell of it, but Windows works great, I have a virtual machine, and a Linux server for when I need Linux.  I also don’t see the need to mess with Windows all that much.  It has staggeringly fast boot times and great battery life as is.  The only changes I have made are to some default programs.

 

Ultimate Verdict on Microsoft Surface Pro

If Android tablets or iPads have never been or seemed that great to you, but you love the idea of a tablet form factor computer, get this.  If you have an Android tablet or iPad, and love it, but want just a bit more, sell it and buy this.  If you have no opinions or experience with tablets, buy this.  If you don’t have money for a tablet, skip meals every other day for a while and buy this.  If this device sounds interesting or appealing in any way, buy this.

I am deathly serious.  I am a computer dweeb.  I program computers for fun… who the hell does that?  I have so many computers, tablets, and phones around me running so many operating systems it would make many people’s heads spin.  I have multiple monitors attached to my desktop.  I live on these geeky devices!  But, if I had to get rid of all but one, the Microsoft Surface Pro would be the one I’d keep.  It’s a jack of all trades, master of 2 or 3.  It is not perfect for every use case, but it is perfect for several, and adequate for almost all.

 

8 Comments

Cathy zaborowski

Will Surface Pro run Mathematica? I want to get my husband a tablet but nothing so far runs Mathematica. Thanks

Reply
John Morris

The short answer to your question is yes. The Surface Pro will run Mathematica, as long as it is a version of Mathematica for Microsoft Windows (as opposed to Apple OS X or Linux). Another example of a tablet that will run Mathematica is the Acer Iconia W700.

Now for a longer answer that will help you in shopping around. As you have discovered, most tablets, are not regular computers capable of running normal programs. They are in fact, big smartphones. They have very different hardware and operating systems, aren’t very powerful, and are limited in what they are capable of doing.

Only a handful of tablets on the market now use normal computer hardware and a normal operating system, which are requirements for running things like Mathematica. The Surface Pro is one.

If you want to keep shopping around for other tablets, here are tips for knowing whether it will work or not. The only tablets on the market today capable of running Mathematica, that I know of, have two common elements.

1.) The operating system is Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro. If the description or specifications of a tablet mentions iOS, Android, or Windows RT, the tablet is not a regular computer capable of running Mathematica.

2.) The processor/CPU will be made by Intel or AMD. For example, the Surface Pro has an Intel Core i5 CPU. If a tablet’s specifications list a processor from a different company, like NVIDIA, Qualcomm, or ARM, it it is not a regular computer capable of running Mathematica.

With the tablets sold today, if the tablet meets those two criteria it should run Mathematica. However, many tablets meeting those criteria are slow, and won’t run Mathematica very well. To run Mathematica quickly, you should look for tablets running an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor/CPU. The Intel Atom processor is very common because it is gentle on battery life, but it is slow. Two popular choices are the Surface Pro and the Acer Iconia W700 I mentioned above.

Reply
Ger Barlo

Are there any other tablets that are a good to take notes on and specifically do maths on as the surface pro? Are there any of the intel atom tablets with a good active digitizer for writing on? Are the atom models slow for stuff like web browsing with multiple tabs and streaming HD video with something like word/onenote open? I ask as I am tight on budget at the minute and oftin spend the full day on the go away from power.

Reply
John Morris

Any modern tablet with an active digitizer should work well for taking notes, math or otherwise. The key is that active digitizer.

In your list of activities, streaming HD video is the most demanding on the processor; however, a recent Atom processor should handle it. Particularly if you use a streaming technology capable of GPU acceleration like the Windows 8 Netflix app. For web browsing and Microsoft Office, it will work no problem.

I haven’t personally tried it, but I have heard good things about the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2.

Really, any tablet with the active digitizer should suit your note taking needs, regardless of whether it is Windows 8, Windows RT, or Android. And an Atom processor with Windows 8 should drive most basic activities, video streaming included.

Reply
David Ruan

Hi

Great reviews, I guess most of us just don’t need speed ratings. What we need is practical examples. With that in mind I have autocad 2010 I think. Will the Surface Pro 2 run this, you said in a previous post you were a user.
Regards
David

Reply
John Morris

I haven’t run AutoCAD on the Surface Pro specifically. However, I have run Solidworks, a variety of programming IDEs, compression programs, virtual machines, and video editing software. The Surface Pro handled them all like a champ. Inside, it’s essentially a very powerful laptop.

AutoCAD isn’t any more resource intensive than Solidworks or video editors, so I am confident it will manage AutoCAD without issue.

The biggest limiting factors will be the mouse, and screen size. I would definitely recommend hooking up a larger external monitor and using an external mouse instead of the trackpad on the type/touch cover for any meaningful CAD work. But the Pro will run it, no problem.

If you need a good external mouse, I got the Microsoft Arc Touch Mouse, Surface Editiona while ago, and am a fan. It’s bluetooth, so no need for cables or USB dongles. And it collapses into a flat and easily portable form when not in use.

Reply
Alex

Thanks for your great review! Any thoughts on the new surface (which is slower than the pro)? Any advances on Linux distros working well in your surface? I’d love to see a video of the surface running mathematica!

Reply
John Morris

I recently sold my Surface Pro and upgraded to the Surface Pro 3 (the one with an i5 processor and 128GB of storage). In many respects, the two devices are similar. There are slight improvements that are very nice, such as the adjustable kickstand, the touch-sensitive windows logo/button moved to the side where it’s less likely to be touched while writing, more ergonomic design, et cetera. Most of these are fairly minor however.

The two areas where the SP3 blows away the original showcased in this post is in screen size and battery life.

One of my least favorite aspects of the Surface Pro was the small screen. I have three monitors on my desktop computer. I’m accustomed to a large workspace. Jumping to the 10″ screen was jolting. It was worth it for the device’s portability and overall quality. But I had wished it was slightly bigger to match more traditional laptop sizes. The Surface Pro 3 does precisely this. The added size is countered by a thinner build and other weight saving improvements. But the extra few inches makes a huge difference in usability for me.

And the battery life is better. I get about an hour and a half longer battery life for any given task. The orignal’s battery life was enough for me, but it is very nice to have the extra.

Overall, I think the new Surface Pro is an all around improvement, and the i3 and i5 versions are a bargain for the price. If you’re in the market, and not in a hurry, I’d wait to see what the rumored Surface Pro 4 will be like. If it’s not much of an improvement, at least it will lower costs of the Surface Pro 1, 2, and 3. But, I highly recommend either the 1 or 3 (never tried the 2 myself).

Regarding Linux distros, I dabbled some more, but mostly gave up. They were functional, but completely lacked the polished experience Windows gave on the device, certain features didn’t work (which ones varied depending on the kernel and distro, but I never got everything working all the time), and as has happened on every laptop I’ve ever owned, Linux significantly decreased the battery life, even with tons of tweaking.

I’m operating system agnostic, and Windows is just a better fit for my desktop and laptop/tablet situation anyway. Linux only serves as a hobby on those two devices and the hobbyist element can be fulfilled by VirtualBox virtual machines and SSHing to my Linux server(s).

I don’t currently have Mathematica. My school is built around SolidWorks and MATLAB at the moment, and doesn’t even mention Mathematica, so I can’t make a video at the moment.

I have run SolidWorks on both the SP and SP3, but don’t have, and can’t afford a license for both my desktop and Surface Pro, so can’t demonstrate that at the moment. It did, however, work perfectly on both. My designs weren’t overly complex, I’m sure a humongous assembly would eventually overtax it. But it never even shuddered for me. I currently have MATLAB on it. As a test, I just streamed an HD Netflix show, ran a MATLAB script with a large plot, while transferring a large file over my home network simultaneously stacked side-by-side, and the CPU never spiked above 50% usage, there was plenty of RAM, and it was completely responsive.

I don’t know how the i3 CPU would handle that, but the i5 never even blinked. I have never seen the Surface Pro or Surface Pro 3 hiccup or pause in a reaction unless I’m running multiple virtual machines using 90%+ of the RAM. If you’re worried about power, get the i5 or i7 version and don’t look back.

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