Oct 24 2013

Surface Pro 2: first impressions


For several years all of my computing, note taking, and organization has happened through a few devices. Most of my mental computing work (actual writing, modeling, programming) happens on my laptop, a 3 year old Dell Core 2 Duo. My note taking, conceptual thinking, and written calculations happens on an iPad (3rd gen) with a Jot Pro stylus. Finally, all my creative work, any CAD stuff done at home, and gaming are done on my PC. The PC is irreplaceable, as no portable system can do what my PC does. But the two mobile devices could in principle be combined in the Surface Pro 2.

Any replacement would have to support handwriting, have long battery life, and be able to run my Windows applications, such as Matlab, R, LaTeX, the Adobe products, and Office. The Surface Pro 2 is a Windows 8 laptop with a Wacom digitizing pen screen. Rather than a "convertible", it's an actual tablet with accessories that emulate a laptop. There is a snap-in keyboard and a "kickstand" which props the system up. It has a USB 3.0 port and mini-display out, so it could be used with most external hardware and with a projector.

Here are my first impressions:

  • My interaction with the Microsoft Store was sort of awful. I pre-ordered the Surface Pro 2, and selected the Touch cover as an accessory. When it came time to ship, my credit card company flagged the purchase as a possible fraud. I called MS, and they said not to worry, I would still get my laptop on the date promised. This was a lie, as a few hours later I got a notice that my order was canceled. A second call to MS allowed me to re-pre-ordered it, and I only got it a couple days later than expected. The first MS store rep also told me that the Touch cover for the Surface Pro that I ordered wouldn't work, which was also a lie. Fortunately, MS has a person who maintains their Twitter account that knows what he or she is talking about, more than I can say for their phone representatives.
  • I do not recommend the Touch Cover. As a pretty good touch typist, it's barely usable. I have about one error per two or three words. Probably will return it.
  • Logging in to the Surface is a hassle because your login is tied to your Outlook.com account. I keep very obscure, long, random passwords for all my online accounts, including my Outlook.com account (which ordinarily I have auto-filled-in by 1Password). Since MS uses that info to log into the account, I had to type that awful thing several times. Getting the machine not to require a password every time I woke or booted the computer was non-intuitive, because ... Windows 8. The option is several layers into the control panel, and it wasn't found by search. Eventually, I got it to wake without password and boot only with a 4 digit PIN. That should be an option when you set up the machine.
  • The screen is a pretty good pixel density, which is a double-edged sword. Obviously, better pixel density improves anything scalable, such as video and apps designed for a scalable desktop rather than one based on fixed pixels. But most applications weren't designed for that, including really big major products like Adobe Illustrator. There is no solution to this at present, nor do I expect there to be for CS6, since it is now obsoleted in favor of Adobe's current business model as a hostage taker/blackmailer. At my native resolution, the font on Illustrator menu items looks like 6 pt font. That's not easy to read.
  • The experience with the MS app store has been kind of miserable. Many commonly used apps available on iOS, such as Feedly, are not there. The ones that are there are fairly gimped or totally nonfunctional. The Facebook app, for instance, does not allow system level sharing (such as "share my desktop screenshot") commands, which you would think it would. The Twitter app DOES allow for it, but using it permanently breaks the app. I'm not kidding, the app has to be reinstalled to get it working again. Also, scrolling in the Twitter app sucks balls. The Evernote app, called "Evernote Touch", should not exist. Microsoft should be throwing money around to make this better right now, because if this is their strategy going forward they have a serious issue.
  • The kickstand angles aren't bad (there are two), but you definitely will have to conform yourself to the machine rather than the other way around. Contrast that with my laptop which accommodates nearly any angle of the screen.
  • Microsoft drastically reduced screen real-estate for scroll bars in Windows 8. Then they released a device that uses people's fat fingers. WHY?
  • Battery life is looking like 8 or 9 hours for a typical day, which is excellent.
  • Evernote proper has a note type called "Ink Note", which combined with the stylus is all I've ever wanted out of paperless technology. Evernote (NOT the app) works very well all around on the Surface.
  • Now that I'm using it, I have to say that Windows 8 really IS as bad as everyone says. Restarting is a chore, finding settings is ludicrously hard. It's an all around UI failure. I've been on Team MS for a couple decades, but I'm really not so sure now.
  • I'm not at all convinced that the stylus storage option using a magnet is reliable. They really should just include a band to push it into.
  • I guess Microsoft skimped on RAM, because during my first day of usage it said I needed to close some programs, like Firefox, in order to run other things like games. That's sad, because RAM isn't expensive. I get the reasoning, since using an SSD as a virtual cache would be a very bad idea, but couldn't they have spent a little extra for the $1000 model and put in 8 GB?
  • I tried playing a lightweight 3D game, one of Telltale Games' Monkey Island episodes, and it basically worked fine. This definitely is not a gaming rig, but point and click type ought to work fine. I didn't even have to turn the settings all the way down.
  • Playing Youtube videos fullscreen could be better. The "fullscreen" icon is really small compared with my index finger.
  • Why would they not make the screen lock when you close the Touch Cover? It's bizarre.
  • Microsoft ostensibly has made a thing that you would switch to from an iPad, but they made its functionality different enough from the iPad to be confusing. When you push the screen lock button the computer actually goes to sleep, as a laptop would, rather than just turning off the screen, as an iPad would do. Contrast this with what happens when the screen turns off from inactivity, where the computer is still on! Very weird. Also, given enough time asleep, the Surface appears to Hibernate, requiring more time to turn on the next time. This isn't like an iPad, which is always ready to go. MS has muddied the water by copying some features (a lock button) but having it do subtly different things.
  • The on screen keyboard is better than iOS's, except for the fact that the screen doesn't react to it. Menu items or buttons that occupy the space where the keyboard are simply remain covered up until you hide the keyboard again. Poor.
  • Auto dimmimg of the screen is dodgy as hell.