I was an early adopter of the TabletPC platform. I was using a slate made by Motion Computing over seven years ago when I taught undergraduate classes. I used it for my lecture notes, my PowerPoint presentations, and for grading. The digitizer pen meant I could grade and comment on student papers without ever printing them out – I was able to go completely paperless. I proclaimed it the “future of computing” – but the rest of the market never caught on.
When the iPad came out, I was thrilled that slate computing might actually come into its own, but that obviously wasn’t going to happen on the iOS platform – the device has far too many limitations. But Apple did their part, convincing people that they might want real computers they could hold in their hands – even if Apple wasn’t going to be the one to provide them.
Which takes us to Spring, 2013 – a wonderful time when multiple Windows 8 tablets and hybrids are on the market. I chose the Surface Pro because of the build quality, form factor, gorgeous screen, and digitizer pen. I would have liked a larger hard drive, more battery life, and a discrete GPU – but I wasn’t going to not get the device that did everything I needed because I was pouting over it not doing everything I wanted.
I’ve used it nearly constantly for three weeks (including one travel week), and had a series of epiphanies as I did so:
I Can Expand the Storage?
The first thing I did when I bought the Surface Pro was put a 64GB SD card in it ($55 at Amazon). It’s ridiculous to me that this seemed like an amazing luxury, but several generations of iPads had conditioned me to expect to pay an obscene premium for extra storage – and then be stuck with what I had until I bought entirely new hardware. But the Surface Pro is a real computer. You need more storage? Put in a larger SD card.
It’s a Real Operating System?
When I booted it up, I logged on using my Microsoft Windows 8 account (I already used Windows 8 on my home computer), and was pleased to see that a significant number of my settings and preferences were already stored by Microsoft in the cloud. I then immediately went into Control Panel and tweaked the additional settings specific to the Surface Pro to make them run just the way I like. After years of dealing with the locked-down architecture of iOS, it felt like coming home to my favorite furniture, after staying in a long series of generic hotels.
I was also able to organize my thousands of files in my familiar folder/directory hierarchy. I installed Dropbox, pulled everything down (actually, I cheated – I moved them over using the USB 3.0 port (!!!!!) and an external drive, then let Dropbox verify the download), and Voila! – there was everything I had ever written, created, or archived since I was fifteen. And it was all organized logically and readily accessible. I could move it, rename it, or drag-and-drop it onto external media connected by – let me say it again – a real, honest-to-goodness, USB 3.0 port.
I could also listen to my music, without having to route it through iTunes. I have thousands of DRM-free songs purchased legitimately through Amazon. Moving them, and then listening to them, was as simple as dragging-and-dropping. I then had my choice of media players (I still use WinAmp), since the Surface Pro runs the full version of Windows 8.
I Can Run Office and Adobe?
Consequently, WinAmp isn’t the only thing the Surface Pro will run. I immediately installed Office 2013, Adobe CS6, and GIMP (it’s faster than PhotoShop for basic tasks, in my experience). I use all these programs daily, and there’s nothing on iOS that comes close to their functionality. They all run BEAUTIFULLY on the Surface, although I highly recommend using the digitizer pen (which is wicked fun, by-the-way) or an external mouse if you want to create images.
The first thing I tried was to bring up one of the standard Excel spreadsheets that I use constantly. It makes over 50,000 computations and makes extensive use of conditional formatting. It has never opened correctly (or even in a usable fashion) in any iOS product I have ever used. Not only did it open more quickly on my Surface Pro than on my laptop, the spreadsheet looked gorgeous and worked perfectly! More importantly, I wasn’t just viewing it. I could edit it just like I could on any other PC.
I Can Run Anything?
Ultimately, that’s the amazing thing about the Surface Pro. All tablets are excellent for media consumption – and when using the Metro-style, “Windows Store” apps the Surface Pro is every bit as slick as the iPad for this purpose. But with a single tap, the Surface Pro gives you the option of having all of the functionality of a full computer at your disposal. The small screen and touch/pen input can sometimes make using the older, legacy PC programs feel a little kludgy – but the fact that you can do it at all on a device the size of a legal pad is a miracle. Attach a keyboard cover and connect a bluetooth mouse, and the experience becomes just like using any other touch-enabled, fast PC. The difference is that when you’re done it becomes a slate again.
I put all of my old, familiar utilities and applications on the Surface Pro, and they all run brilliantly. To give it a fair shake, though, I also purchased a few of the Metro equivalents and did my best to get proficient with the Metro UI. It took a couple of days, but for many tasks I eventually concluded that the Metro interface is superior, although I still spend nearly all my time on the Desktop view.
“Anything” Includes Games?
I don’t expect a slate to be a gaming powerhouse – yet (but it better be in the next few years or I will be very disappointed), but the integrated Intel HD 4000 chip is actually surprisingly nimble, even on the 1920×1080 Surface Pro screen. Civilization V (which is now touch-enabled) is unquestionably the killer app for making all of your gamer friends want to go out and buy a Surface Pro yesterday. It’s one of the greatest games ever made, and playing it – the full version, not “Revolution” (a great game in its own right) – on a slate feels like stepping into an episode of Star Trek. Minecraft also played brilliantly, albeit with the mouse and keyboard attached.
But, just to reiterate, that is the beauty of the Surface Pro. Attach the mouse and keyboard, and it becomes a full computer. Yes, it has a smaller hard drive and a weaker GPU than I would want in an ideal world, but those are small prices to pay considering all of the amazing utility it provides.
I Can Write On It?
No discussion of that utility is complete without mentioning the digitizer pen. Combined with One Note, the digitizer pen means I can finally stop carrying a legal pad to meetings. Digital paper is much better than the real thing – it’s automatically backed up, and you can change it to unlined or graph paper with a touch. Plus, when I played around with it, Windows 8 has surprisingly good and intuitive handwriting recognition. I would love to see Microsoft replace every textbook and sheet of paper in a high school somewhere with Surface Pros (and train the teachers and students in the full range of their capabilities), just so everyone can see how versatile and convenient the technology is.
In addition, not only can you “write” on the tablet with the digitizer pen, you can also comfortably compose on it with the type cover. While travelling, I wrote over eight thousand words – using the familiar, comfortable Word interface – in three days. I was not even a tiny bit slower than I would have been on my computer at home, and I think the touch interface may have meant that I worked perhaps a little bit more quickly.
When I was done working, I closed up the tablet and slid it into its tiny Skooba Tablet Messenger v.3 bag (which I review here – it’s the perfect to go with the Surface Pro), and carted the Surface Pro to my next meeting. It took up less space and only slightly more weight than the legal pad I would normally have brought – and had nothing approaching the footprint of the laptop I would have needed to create 8,000 words.
Throughout my trip I just kept staring at my Surface Pro, in awe that something so tiny could do so much. Most of the reviews I had read prior to my purchase had complained about the things that the Surface Pro can’t do (run for 10 hours on the battery, play Crysis 3 at max settings, float in your hand like a feather, etc.); but I don’t buy technology for what it can’t do. I buy technology for what it can – and the Surface Pro’s list of things it can do is astonishing. It runs every Windows productivity app I could throw at it, along with a number of very good games, all in a solid, beautifully engineered, slate form-factor that can be used as a laptop as necessary. Oh, and you can add any USB-enabled peripheral without any headaches whatsoever, and the HDMI port is in no way proprietary. That’s enough of a technology miracle for me, at least until next year.