In defence of the Surface Pro (yes, really)

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Today’s big news in Microsoft-land is that actual sales numbers for its Surface line of tablets have found their out in to the open thanks to its latest financial filing with the US Security and Exchange Commission. Geekwire has done the maths, and it reckons Microsoft has only shifted 1.7 million tablets with the Surface brand in a year. By comparison, Apple sells 14million or more iPads a quarter.

We already knew from last week’s results that Microsoft was forced to write down almost $1bn of unsold Surface RTs alone, the importance of today’s analysis is that the Surface Pro is struggling as well. For reference, the RT is the low cost ARM-powered tablet designed to directly compete with the iPad and Android devices which is only capable of running Windows RT – a cut down version of Windows which isn’t able to run normal desktop applications. The problems facing RT devices – like more apathy than apps from developers – we’ll deal with elsewhere.

The Surface Pro, on the other hand, is a laptop in tablet form. To use an old adage, they are two devices separated by the same name. The Pro has a ‘proper’ Intel Core i5 processor which is just as happy running Skyrim, Civ 5 or PhotoShop as it is running a lightweight ‘Modern UI’ app designed for mobile devices.

Microsoft Surface Pro Review_1_1Disclosure time: I own, and use, a Surface Pro and have done for a few weeks now. Unlike many other journalists, I paid real money for mine – although it was heavily discounted at the point of purchase. The Surface Pro isn’t available in South Africa yet, but in the US it costs $999 for a model with a 128GB SSD hard drive, and I paid just $399 as an offer to all attendees of Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference at the start of the month.

Was it money well spent? I think so. Had I paid full whack I’d have been vastly underwhelmed and I could never recommend it at that price. But I was attracted to the deal because I’ve been reporting from overseas trips and press conferences for the last two years using an ASUS Transformer tablet running Android, and the idea of being able to carry something just as light in my bag which doesn’t have any of the performance limitations of the Transformer was just too tempting.

I love Android as an interface, and the workflow of mobile apps for writing and posting into a WordPress backend is great for reporting from events. But having a proper desktop and that extra speed an x86 CPU gives you is undeniably better.

What’s more it has a truly fantastic screen. It’s exceptional by any standard for laptop or tablet. Sure, you need to play around with the scaling settings a bit to make text readable at such a tiny pixel density, but dear me is it worth it.

Microsoft Surface Pro Review_3_1The TypeCover keyboard is at least as comfortable to type on as the Transformer’s sturdier dock too. I’m just as accurate too – important when filing copy quickly. To top it all, the battery life in real world use (for me at least) tends to be a bit higher than most reviewers claim, normally exceeding five hours on account of the fact I’m mainly typing rather than doing anything too heavy lift.

That’s the good stuff mostly dealt with. The problem with the Surface Pro is that the list of bad is as long; and for $999 it’s waaaaay too long. The plastic chassis is sturdy to hold, for example, and performs some strange miracle by cooling the CPU without a fan, but it also has clear signs of not fitting together very well with gaps and unaligned panels along the top edge. Worse, you only have to look at it sharply to scratch it – after three weeks spent mostly stowed in the double protection of a laptop bag and a soft cover over the top, there are deep gouges all round, scuffing on the corners and the area around the power connector looks worn out due to fact it’s a little tricky to get the magnetic jack on right.

After a year, this is going to look old. Certainly older than my Transformer Prime. Possibly older than my ZX Spectrum. I simply don’t think it’s going to withstand the dusty air and long car rides of a South African writing career in any way, shape or form as well as the Transformer has or my trusty Lenovo back-up.

Microsoft Surface Pro Review_3The Prime recently survived being dropped on the metal lattices of a Mendel Prusa 3D printer and came away with just a few scratches, the Lenovo I’ve dropped out of the boot of my car. I would assume either incident would be the end of the Surface Pro.

Worse yet is the physical kickstand, which has received a duly proportionate amount of derision in reviews. It pops out of the back to support the Surface while it’s on a desk, converting from handheld tablet to serious work device in a second – theoretically. But it’s almost as if someone designed the cover first, considered it genius, and then built the tablet around it. ASUS has been churning the ideal convertible device – the Transformer – for ages now, and it’s unbeatable as far as using a tablet as a work machine goes. The heavy base of the Transformer stops the entire set-up being too top heavy, it adds a full size SD card port and – more importantly – a second battery that doubles the tablet’s lifespan.

By comparison, the TypeCover is lightweight, attached just by magnets and doesn’t have a proper hinge. So it has no benefit beyond the keyboard, and means that to type with the Surface Pro on your knees you need to extend the kickstand and carry something solid enough to support the whole thing. Matthew Baxter-Reynolds calculated that this means the Surface Pro actually has the same portable footprint as a 15inch Macbook Pro – I don’t necessarily think that’s a fair comparison, but the Pro is more than a bit inelegant.

And if the magnetic catch to the keyboard decouples the chances are the Surface Pro will go tumbling backwards on to the floor since your hands are on the TypeCover not the tablet. It’s also the most fragile feeling tablet I’ve tested for a long time.

Microsoft Surface Pro Review_2_1On top of all that you have Windows 8. I’m a Linux man – I’ve used Ubuntu exclusively for everything for years and I just can’t adjust. Small things about Windows 8 continue to confuse me, even with the new 8.1 beta update applied. Like how come when I’m in the Start menu and I see something interesting in a live tile – like a mail or news headline – when I tap it I get taken to the front page of an app rather than the story itself. That doesn’t happen on Android, you tap on a Tweet or a story and you get taken straight to it.

But I did title this piece ‘In defence of the Surface Pro’ and that’s because even despite its flaws, I love it and think it’s the future. I constantly marvel at how powerful phones and ARM tablets are getting, but the Surface Pro proves to me that they’re still no real replacement for a real desktop if you want to work fast. Switching between full blown Tweetdeck to WordPress to GIMP to LibreOffice without the delay inherent in a mobile OS has made it indispensible. This much power in something this small really is unprecedented – and while I wouldn’t pay the full whack for it, I’m very happy with my purchase.

Microsoft Surface Pro Review_2For the time being, anyway. I’ve made a deal with my Surface Pro. I’ll keep it if I can get Ubuntu Touch running on it – a Linux interface from Canonical that’s maturing nicely. Of course, Microsof may yet have the last laugh – turns out it’s chosen a WiFi chipset so obscure that there’s no easily functioning Linux driver for it, nor is there likely to be soon.

So here’s my proposal. I’m going to write about my efforts to convert the Surface Pro to the light side of operating systems, and blog about my attempts here. If it works, it stays, otherwise… there’s a Surface Pro for sale, going cheap.

Microsoft Surface Pro Review_1
Here, let me fix that for you.

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