Back in 2003, the fully-fledged Windows Tablet PC was a pretty amazing machine. You could work on it (I wrote hundreds of thousands of words on my Acer C110, with its 9in screen and tiny keyboard). You could play games on it. You could read on it. You could do everything you could on a laptop and more. It cost more than a normal laptop, and the performance tended to be lacklustre compared to laptops of the same price. But it allowed you to do things no other laptop could do, from note taking using a stylus (with handwriting recognition which put the Newton to shame) to reading nascent ebooks in a much more natural way than on any other device. It was expensive, and clunky, but it worked.
Or at least, it worked for me. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for the rest of humanity, which – despite the constant promotion of the platform by Bill Gates – took one look at Tablet PC, went “huh?” and bought normal laptops instead.
Fast-forward to 2014 and Microsoft is still trying to sell people on the concept of the one-size-fits-all combined Windows PC and tablet. The company is so convinced this is the right way to go that it’s backing its hunch by building its own hardware, the latest of which is the Surface Pro 2.
Microsoft wants you to think of Surface Pro 2 as a “no compromises” PC that’s also a tablet. This is exactly the same line which Gates span in 2003, and unfortunately for Microsoft, it looks like being about as successful as marketing spin as it was ten years ago.
I’ve spent the last few weeks using Surface Pro 2 extensively. I’ve taken it on trips, where I might otherwise have taken my iPad. I’ve used it at home, instead of my MacBook Air, for everything from playing games to social media to business with Office. Although I’ve enjoyed the experience in some respects, the compromises Microsoft has been forced to make in creating something which supposed replaces both PC and tablet are probably more than I’m willing to put up with.
By being a tablet, Surface Pro 2 is a compromised PC: compared to laptops with equivalent performance it’s expensive, especially when you factor in buying a keyboard (£100 to you, sir!). It’s high-end ultrabook territory.
Compare it, also, to Apple’s latest iPad. The iPad Air weighs half as much (1lb vs 2lbs), has longer battery life, and will cost you $200 (or $79 if you want cellular networking, something that’s not even an option on Surface Pro 2). And that 64GB Surface Pro 2 will have a lot less space remaining after Windows has eaten into it than you’ll get with the iPad.
So what, exactly, is the point of the Surface Pro 2?
The good parts
First of all, the positives, starting with the software: Windows 8.1 is the best version of Windows yet, and brings the ageing operating system into the 21st Century. It reminds me in some ways of the transition between DOS and Windows, though: lurking underneath the sparkly new tile-based user interface is the old style Windows desktop, like a shark about to surface, but the gestural-based interface is smartly done. It took me about ten minutes to get used to it, and once I’d worked it out it was excellent.
I think Microsoft has managed to pull off something with the Metro interface I wouldn’t have thought possible: an interface that works just as well in a tablet as a laptop. Yes, the big tiles make lovely touch targets, but even if you’re using a trackpad it’s still nice to use.
Native Windows 8 applications designed to use the “Metro” interface look great. If there was anything which might persuade me to adopt Windows, it would be the availability of lots of high quality Metro apps. The Windows 8 Twitter client is a truly lovely implementation of a touch interface: Simple, easy to understand, without the kind of over-fancy use of touch that often bedevils iOS Twitter apps.
And there are some neat tricks which make Windows 8 a great experience. The ability to pull two apps on to the screen and have them running side-by-side works very well on a screen that’s a lot wider than it’s tall (but more on that later). The Charms system for sharing content is good, although it doesn’t feel as robust as the equivalent on Android (several times it claimed to have shared something, only for me to find out later it had done nothing of the sort).
But this leap forward comes with a caveat: Windows 8 is handicapped by Microsoft’s reluctance to break with the past and developers’ reluctance to jump into the future. Compared to the huge back-catalogue of old Windows apps or the library available to iPad users, Metro apps are still relatively few and far between. All too often, you’re pushed into the old Windows desktop, which not only looks jarring but isn’t optimised for touch. And this, of course, means the apps themselves aren’t optimised for touch.
Microsoft is caught in the classic developer dilemma: why should developers create apps for Metro and hit a small percentage of the Windows market, when it can develop for the classic desktop and hit all of it?
Looked at from the perspective of a Mac user, this looks all too familiar: it’s the confusing world of Classic, Carbon and Cocoa all over again. The Windows desktop is like a cross between Classic and Carbon: an old-style interface you’re dumped into when you want to run “legacy” applications, that’s also a currently-supported API.
It’s as if Apple had introduced Cocoa while also fully-supporting application development in Classic Mac OS. It only makes sense if you don’t really believe Metro isn’t the future.
And, looking at Microsoft’s flagship software Office, I wonder if it believes in Metro itself. Outlook, Word, and Excel all run as traditional Desktop applications, which makes them less suitable for with with touch and generally feel old-fashioned. I’m sure Microsoft has a “Metro-ised” Office somewhere in the works. But it’s not here now, and that casts a shadow over Metro.
And there’s another issue too. Remember I’m not, primarily, a Windows user. My perspective is of someone who works primarily on the Mac, and who doesn’t have a decade of every-day Windows use. I don’t have the location of the Windows Update option in Windows 7 memorised in muscle memory.
This makes it easier for me to look at Windows 8 as a novice, but much harder to see quite how jarring Metro is and how powerless a regular Windows user might feel. Moving features around is a horrible thing for experienced users: it takes away their feeling of mastery of the machine and makes them feel, once again, like a neophyte. It’s frustrating. So take my view of Windows 8 with that important caveat.
Surface Pro 2: Is it a laptop…?
When I compared Surface Pro 2 to the iPad on Twitter, I got what can only be described as a shitstorm of protest from Windows advocates.
“Ah yes,” they said, “you don’t get it. Surface Pro 2 is a ’real’ laptop when you need one, capable of being used with a keyboard and running powerful apps”. Well… kind of.
First, of course, it doesn’t actually ship with a keyboard – although the plus side is you get to choose which kind of keyboard you have.
I tried the Touch Cover with the original Surface RT, and my opinion of it hasn’t changed: it remains a disaster area. The problem with a physical keyboard which provides no tactile feedback is you can’t touch type on it, as unless you’re looking down at it you don’t know where your fingers are accurately. This makes it far too easy to misjudge your finger position and get not one but several typing errors in a row when you type quickly.
Of course, there’s no tactile feedback with onscreen keyboards either – but your eyes are looking in roughly the same area, which means you’re always aware of where your fingers are in relation to the keyboard. This eliminates the “multiple quick position error problem”.
Either no one really thought about the ergonomics of how you type when making the Touch Cover, or they didn’t care enough and simply wanted to upsell you to the a Type Cover, with its proper keys.
The Type Cover 2 is actually pretty good. As someone who types a lot, I’m picky about keyboards, and the Type Cover has just about enough “snap” and responsiveness to it to make me happy. It’s also backlit, which is great for when you’re using the Surface is a dark place.
My only criticism of it is that it tends to bend a little if it’s not on a flat surface – for example, of it’s in your lap. However, it’s rigid enough in most circumstances.
Microsoft has also taken on board the criticism of Surface’s signature kickstand. The idea of the kickstand was to prop the Surface up when you’re typing, giving it a more “laptop-like” angle of view. However, the problem was the angle of the kickstand was optimised for use on a desk: use the old Surface on your lap and you end up peering down at an awkward angle, or being tempted to push the Surface so far back it topples off your lap.
The new kickstand comes with a second angle that’s almost right for using in the lap comfortably. The problem now is more one of overall position: unless you have spectacularly long thighs, the Surface Pro 2 needs to be almost at the end of your thighs in order to get a comfortable typing angle. This feels precarious, so you’re more likely to pull it forward a little and move your arms into a slightly uncomfortable type angle.
It’s an improvement, undoubtedly: but if you spend a lot of time with your laptop in your lap, you’re going to find it uncomfortable. It’s a compromised piece of ergonomics made necessary by the need to balance the competing elements of kickstand, weight of device and size of cover.
Surface Pro 2 isn’t as comfortable as a real laptop for lap use, but it’s OK. And apart from this, it’s a pretty good modern Windows device. It’s certainly fast enough to cope with everything you’re likely to throw at it, although you can probably forget about doing CAD (and yes, someone really told me on Twitter than the Pro was better than an iPad because “you can do CAD on it”. Well, no you can’t.)
However, there’s one big downside: Storage space is at a premium. The cheapest model comes with 64GB, but you don’t want this one unless your needs are very light. Install a few apps and games, and all of a sudden you’re going to get warnings about running out of disk space. 128GB should be the minimum for most users who want to use Surface Pro 2 as a one-device-fits-all laptop replacement. Realistically, if you want it to be your only device, you’re going to want 256GB or more. And if you need the room, you’re going to have to pay quite heavily, because the jump between 256GB and 512GB will cost you a rather expensive £400.
A second downside – sort of – is the screen. First things first, though: it’s an excellent quality display, with a lovely high resolution and great colours. It is, however, physically pretty small for doing much of the high-end, power-hungry work that a full PC is useful for. If you’re an Excel wizard, you won’t appreciate the lack of cells you get on screen at the same time. If you want to do Photoshop, it’s just not big enough. You want to hook it up to a larger, second monitor – and this makes it less of a portable device, and more a carryable desktop.
The high resolution screen also occasionally plays against the Surface for software reasons. Although Metro apps work really well with it, Windows Desktop apps just don’t expect to have that many pixels to play with at that density, and so just tend to make everything really, really small. Chrome, for example, wanted to occupy just a quarter of the screen and randomly hide it’s icons when in full-screen Windows 8 mode. Star Wars: The Old Republic never worked properly at all, although I’m led to believe some judicious tweaking of .ini files will get it running.
Of course, this is Windows: you can tweak things and make them work much better, but that takes time and an amount of computer savvy which you shouldn’t need to have simply to get things looking nice on a high-res screen.
Surface Pro 2: Or is it a tablet…?
It’s when you use the Surface Pro 2 as a tablet that it’s flaws really begin to overwhelm the experience. Although it can function as a tablet for short periods, when you use it for an extending period, the experience is painful.
Much of the reason for this comes down to basic ergonomics. The form factor is awkward – because it so long (wide) it balances badly, and is very difficult to hold in one hand. You can rest it in your lap, of course, but then the width becomes an issue.
In choosing a wide, narrow screen, Microsoft has mad something which is acceptable as a PC but more difficult to use as a tablet. A good example of this is the on-screen keyboard – used in landscape mode, you can’t see a lot of the window you’re typing in. And portrait use is even worse.
This, I think, reflects an underlying assumption: that onscreen keyboards are always only useful for writing short pieces of text, such as a quick reply to an email. If you start from the assumption the on-screen keyboard is only going to be used in emergencies, then the trade-off between a widescreen and worse keyboard typing experience is obvious: screen is more important than keyboard.
However, the problem with this is that on-screen keyboards can actually be used to churn out lots and lots of words (I’m typing this review on one – and guess what? It’s not on the Surface). If you have big hands, you might struggle, but after a little practice it’s easy to churn out hundreds of words at a time using the screen.
There is one clear win for the Surface Pro 2 as a tablet though: the stylus. If you spend any time at all annotating documents, drawing diagrams or scrawling notes, you will definitely like the stylus. No matter how good your finger painting is, you really can’t beat a pressure-sensitive digitiser for accuracy or flexibility.
What lurks beneath
Because the Surface Pro 2 really is just a normal Windows 8 computer, it shares all the quirks you may have come to expect about Windows. For example, lurking just below the surface (ho ho) is the same old hodgepodge of drivers and crufty old code which leads to the kinds of issues you’re no-doubt used to.
In my case, this manifested itself when I attached a Type Cover. Now the Type Cover is a standard piece of hardware for a Surface. It’s designed to be used with this machine. And yet, when attached, the keys didn’t work. The touch pad did, and the keys lit up their backlights nicely – but nothing I could do would make them actually work.
Had I been a regular user, I would probably at this point have been heading back to the store to get a replacement for the “faulty” cover (And, in fact, reading the Surface forums that’s exactly what some users did). And, when I got the replacement home, I would have run into exactly the same problem – because this isn’t a hardware problem, it’s a driver problem. I know this, because after some Googling, downloading, and general farting around I managed to fix it.
Even software designed for Metro still sometimes felt more like old-style Windows than newer, more reliable tablet apps. Installing the Twitter app from the Windows Store was easy, but it wouldn’t let me log in, failing with an OAuth error. As, in fact, did every other Twitter client. Except using the web, of course. That worked fine. Hello! 1997 called and wanted your shitty buggy operating system that takes a degree in the Windows priesthood to make work back. The problem turned out to be a stupidly simple one: Windows hadn’t correctly set the time, which broke Twitter’s OAuth-based login. This is exactly the kind of issue that you won’t find if you’re using a tablet that runs an operating system designed this century.
On a Windows laptop, this is kind of par for the course. You expect this kind of stuff to happen on a “real” computer. But because you feel like you should treat it as a tablet, it just feels like the wrong behaviour on a Surface. Apple and the other tablet manufacturers have trained us to expect things to just work to a level Windows, with its years of cruft, just can’t handle.
The Surface Pro 2 is an odd beast. I almost wish Microsoft hadn’t called it a Surface, and had kept that name for machines where the focus is on making a brilliant tablet, rather than a desktop PC.
Because that’s what Surface Pro is: a traditional desktop PC which can also be used as a tablet in a pinch. The tablet experience isn’t anything like a modern tablet, missing out on the portability, ergonomic factors, and flexibility of use. It also comes with the high maintenance costs of a traditional PC.
Its one standout feature which isn’t about it’s prowess as a laptop is the pen, a technology which Microsoft has been seemingly obsessed with since the Tablet PC era, and that users have resolutely failed to see the point of. Maybe this time it will be different. Maybe the broad acceptance of tablets will mean the pen looks more attractive. I could be wrong on this – but I doubt it.
If you’re an old-school Windows diehard who kind of liked the idea of Tablet PCs in 2003, but couldn’t find one powerful enough, you’ll like the concept of Surface Pro – although you’ll probably hate Windows 8’s interface. For everyone else, you’d either be better off buying a cheaper Windows laptop or an iPad Air.