All things modern.
There is no arguing that tablets are ideal for content consumption. However so far content creation has fallen outside of the capability of tablets and their operating systems. In producing the Surface products, Microsoft has attempted to replicate the expected user experience of content consumption and also address the issues which affect content creation. There are many reviews of the Surface on the internet and the general consensus is that despite the platform’s lack of applications, the experience is either on par with or exceeds that on other tablets.
This article will focus on the advantages and disadvantages on the big brother of the Surface, the Surface Pro, the one that Microsoft has marketed as an ultra-book in tablets clothing and capable of doing real work; “the tablet that can replace your laptop”. But can it really? You can decide if the Surface Pro can replace your laptop by looking the benefits and drawbacks of using it as such.
As far as size and weight are concerned, the Surface pro is one of the smallest and lightest computers you can buy while still having reasonable power for productivity. There are smaller tablet PCs out there but they are underpowered at the moment. The pace of change in this particular market is quite rapid so it is unclear how long the Surface Pro can retain this crown. The size of the device, while enabling extreme portability, is detrimental to it’s usability as will be discussed later on.
Price-wise. The Surface Pro is one of the best value purchases based on specifications alone. When one considers the magnesium case, the touch screen, active digitiser, dual webcams, Haswell Core I5 processor, 8GB RAM and 256GB SSD (on some models) the price paid represents good value.
The quality of the accessories is also on par with the machine. For example the Type Cover 2, despite its high £110 price tag is one of the best keyboards I have used on a mobile device. The keys represent the most appropriate use of soft touch plastic I have seen although based on experience with such plastic coatings, I am sceptical about long term durability. However this highlights one of the benefits of having a detachable keyboard; when it wears out, you can just buy a new one without having to worry about splitting apart your laptop to change it. The keys are very soft requiring very little pressure to register a keystroke making typing very enjoyable. In fact the type cover requires far less pressure than the Touch Cover which should more appropriately be called the ‘press cover’ as one needs to press quite firmly on the keys, making missed letters a common experience. Lastly the backlight on these keyboards both touch and type are very even, adjustable in intensity and seem to read you mind when deciding when to turn on and off. Lastly, dedicated keys for Search, Settings and Share add another level of usability by offering quick access to these often used functions.
The display also is one of the best I have seen on a mobile device. Contrast levels, colour saturation and viewing angles are all good. Noteworthy is that these good qualities of the display remain when used in portrait mode as well. This is commendable as too many displays on even high end laptops look good only in landscape orientation. Unfortunately like all glossy displays, the amount of friction when using the touch screen with a finger is too high. This is easily remedied however with a matte screen protector, which simultaneously helps reduce reflections. The display also includes an active digitiser and pen, which will be discussed further in the cons section of this article because unfortunately it is a disaster.
Unfortunately the tablet form factor is just not conducive to productivity in any use case. Consider for example use in the tablet mode. The small display size means that in order to stand any chance of hitting small targets in desktop mode the user must select display scaling and this unfortunately negates any benefit of having a nice high resolution display. In this use case the pen is usually called upon to save the day. Unfortunately Microsoft’s implantation of the Wacom active digitiser is woeful. The digitiser has accuracy problems even in areas other than the display edges which have been the traditional weak spot for Wacom powered machines. Despite many efforts to calibrate and even resorting to a registry hack to enable 273 test point calibration, it was still too inaccurate to be of any use. In fact the errors resulting from use (e.g. hitting file>close instead of file>save) made the pen worse than useless.
The other issue for content creation in tablet mode is text input. The Surface Pro offers two options for this; on screen keyboard and handwriting recognition. The drawbacks of on screen keyboards are well known so I will not go into that here, but assume that this method of input is not going to be used by a serious creator. Again the pen should save the day in theory. Unfortunately the inaccuracy of the pen (especially at the bottom of the screen where the text input panel usually resides) is so atrocious that even the best handwriting is difficult enough to recognise by a human let alone a machine. Here the small size of the display presents an additional problem. Windows 8 appears to like the size of the input panel to remain constant despite the resolution or physical size of the display you are using. On the Surface Pro this unfortunately means that the text input panel takes up over half of the display., So you can enter text, but you often can’t see where it is going or indeed if you are making any mistakes. Unlike Windows 7, there is no way to adjust the size of this input panel.
The text input panel takes up an unnecessarily large proportion of the display area.
The second use case is as a traditional laptop with attached keyboard. Despite the excellent quality hardware comprising both the tablet and the keyboard, the compromises made to try to create an all-around device again manifest themselves in decreased usability. Because of the way that the keyboard is attached and the high centre of gravity of the Surface Pro in laptop mode, a table is required to use it. It also takes up quite a lot of space on a table top so much so that trying to use it in laptop mode on a train table one day resulted in it sliding off. Fortunately I caught it before it hit the floor. Even if you can find a large enough table top, the small size of the display makes what you have on the display very hard to read as it is now very far away from the user’s eyes. Display scaling is the only way to alleviate this. Pointing is also a problem. To use the pen in this mode requires unnatural bending of the wrist. The touchpad on the type cover works wells, but you cannot click and drag and there is no setting to enable this. To drag a window or make a text selectionthe user must hold down the left button and drag with another finger. This is a wholly inappropriate solution.
When used in laptop mode, objects on the display look very tiny as it is so far away from the user.
As you can see, the attempt to combine a tablet for consumption and a machine for production into the same device has not worked. The problem is due to a combination of ergonomics and the poor implementation of existing technology. There are two possible solutions for this. Either wait until humans evolve more arms or tentacles and bionic eyes or try again with the Surface Pro 3. Use N-trig instead of Wacom for the digitizer as it is far more accurate and don’t try to sell the device with a keyboard as it is just too small to be used in this way.