Does the Surface Pro 3 do what Microsoft suggest?

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 with keyboard/coverThe advertising for the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet PC includes the strapline “The tablet that can replace your laptop”. The most important word in this boast is the smallest – “can”. It doesn’t say “will” or “does”, it says “can”.

I’ve been intrigued by the Microsoft Surface 3 since I saw an earlier model last year. As an IT consultant who almost always sees clients and their problems in front of their own computers, it’s important for me to be as well equipped as possible when looking at clients’ problems. Netbooks were a bit of a revolution in this respect, but they are quite low-powered compared with a “proper” laptop, their screens are small, and they are as slow to boot up as any laptop.

So what does the Surface Pro 3 offer that’s different?

  • The drive is solid state. This means it’s very fast and. more importantly for me when I’m with a client, it boots up in a matter of a few seconds. The other big advantage of a SSD is that there are no moving parts, so it’s much less vulnerable when moving it around.
  • The screen of the Surface Pro 3 is 13″ (across the diagonal, of course). This doesn’t sound much bigger than a 10″ netbook screen, but it is. I don’t feel any discomfort or strain in using the 13 inch screen for extended periods. In most situations, the high resolution screen of the Surface Pro 3 gives a beautiful, crisp, bright image. Read on, however, for the huge downside as far as the screen is concerned.
  • The model that I bought is about in the middle of the range. It has a 256gb solid state drive (SSD), an i5 processor, and 8gb RAM. This makes it a perfectly respectable machine in terms of performance.

Yes, I went and bought one a month or so ago (I don’t event want to think of the runaround that PC World gave me in buying it, and I still don’t understand why John Lewis have decided not to stock a machine in the middle of the range).

Anyway, I was extremely impressed initially, and found that I really did start to carry it around with me instead of my iPad when seeing clients. It certainly does offer more “usefulness” in this type of situation. I do still like it so much that I’m trying my best to live with the downsides, but, frankly, I’d be embarrassed if any of my clients bought a Surface Pro 3 on the strength of my enthusiasm without making the downsides very clear.

The downsides

Magnifying glassThere’s only one USB port – albeit a fast USB 3 port. OK, this is a clear limitation that you may have to live with, and one port is more than you get on an iPad. I dare say you could attach a hub to extend this to four or more ports, but these are never very satisfactory if you’re connecting a CD/DVD drive (which the Surface Pro doesn’t include) or an external drive.

It freezes solid about once an hour. This is not peculiar to my own machine: a bit of googling shows that lots of other people experience it and nobody seems to have an idea of what is going on. A reboot by holding down the on/off switch for about 20 seconds (not the 5 seconds that most machines respond to) is the only solution.

Much, much more important in the real world (well, in my own real world at least) is that there are several programs that I use on a daily basis that have a huge problem when run on the Surface Pro 3. That problem is that text and/or images are reduced in size to the point of only just being legible/visible. I haven’t really got to the bottom of this yet, but I understand it’s something to do with the programs not being able to cope with the high resolution (2160 X 1440) screen. Some of the programs I’m having this difficulty with are:

  • Photoshop Elements 11. The menus and icons are all shrunk, but the images can be viewed OK.
  • Evernote (the Premium version, I’m sure the free version is the same). Things are mainly OK, but images and web pages embedded in a note are horribly shrunk.
  • Faststone Image Viewer. The images can be viewed at the proper size but the menus and other text items are shrunk to near-invisibility.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 in profileI wasn’t quite ready to devote a blog post to the Surface Pro 3 as I haven’t used it enough, but these problems are so big that I really wouldn’t want anyone else to buy one without being aware of them. I should point out that most programs are absolutely fine (eg Microsoft programs, web browsers), but the whole point of my buying the Surface was to know that I could carry with me ALL of the functionality of my laptop. I haven’t given up on it yet: I’m trying to find workarounds. It could also be, of course, that new versions of the affected programs will include solutions.

So, to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this blog post, I think I could just about scrape by with only the Surface Pro, but a great machine is rather badly compromised (for now, at least) by the screen resolution problem.

Is there a market for the Microsoft Surface – if so, where?

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 with keyboard/coverThe first version of Microsoft’s Surface Pro was launched in February 2013. Since then, I’ve mentioned it occasionally, en passant, but have often wondered where its market lies and whether that market is large enough to sustain the product. Well, we’re now into the third version, called Windows Surface Pro 3 (natch), so either it’s starting to sell or Microsoft’s pride is as big as its pockets are deep.

The pitch from Microsoft is that it’s a tablet that does everything that your laptop will do. Hasn’t that market been snaffled by iPads and Android tablets? Up to a point, it has. You can get all the internet connectivity you like with a “normal” tablet, but there is one major function that most tablets lack and that is USB connectivity.

You can’t just plug in a USB flash drive and copy stuff between machines without engaging brain. Instead, you have to think about what facilities you have and what’s the easiest way of moving stuff. This is quite likely to be via a cloud service such as Dropbox. Life’s often less complicated if you can just connect a USB drive and do a “file copy”. Well, the Surface Pro does offer a USB port (just the one, notice) so that could be a clear advantage. A USB port also means, of course, that you can use a mouse. It also offers a micro SD card port – handy for data storage expansion, backups, and data transfer. I advise checking this out, though, as some places I looked said that the micro SD port is only present on the top-end versions.

The other major boast of Microsoft is that the Surface Pro lets you run any program that will run on a Windows 8 laptop or desktop. Now this may not arouse more than a “so what?” shrug in most people, but it could be very important to others. It means, for instance that Photoshop, Microsoft Access and Microsoft Outlook should all happily run on it – and you won’t get all those programs running on any other tablet as far as I know.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 with screen penThe nearest competition for the Surface in this respect will probably be the Mac Air. The Mac Air, though, is – of course – a Mac machine running OSX and not Windows. I have no doubt that it would run Photoshop and the Mac version of Outlook, but there’s no version of Microsoft Access that will run on a Mac. I would love someone to point out that I’m wrong on this (excluding running Windows under “Parallels” or other virtualization software). Also, I am aware that some versions of Office 365 now include a version of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint for the iPad. This is very useful, but you still can’t run Outlook or Access on an iPad.

So why am I bringing the subject up now? Well, a computer support client of mine found a good deal on buying the previous version of a Microsoft Surface RT and we were having fun playing with it. It’s worth repeating here that the RT version of Surface will only run the installed applications and then added “apps”. It won’t run ordinary “desktop/laptop programs”. That might sound like a fatal flaw until you learn that Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint are exceptions to this and that they are included free of charge on RT machines. That’s as much as a lot of people need as far as “serious” stuff is concerned (you can also browse the net and do email, of course).

Getting up close to a Surface for the first time, I was very impressed with the quality of the finish. It just about feels as if it’s gained something of that mysterious quality that only products from Apple usually have. The 12 inch screen might be slightly on the small side for anyone who gets tired reading small stuff and, for my money, that would be one thing that would stop me from being able to use it all day as a replacement for a laptop. You can, however, plug in a larger monitor (but that wouldn’t slide into your backpack with the slimline Surface (weighing only about 800 gms)).

I don’t want to start nit-picking, but I do think Microsoft’s boast that it’s a replacement for a laptop is a bit OTT as a laptop with only a single USB port would probably drive you mad if the Surface Pro was your only machine. USB hubs aren’t a perfect solution for this problem.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 in profileThat aside, the only real gripe that I have is to do with marketing. The beautiful, thin, keyboard/cover is not included in the box (or price). You have to buy it extra and it runs into three figures. OK, so this gives the buyer the option to restrict him/herself to using the Surface just like a tablet (with the on-screen keyboard), but I can’t help feeling that the main reason for splitting the tablet from the keyboard/cover is to do with price perception.

The Surface Pro 3 is expensive. You can see the full price range of the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 here, but remember that those prices exclude £100 worth of keyboard/cover. In short, the price (without keyboard/cover) ranges from £639 to £1649 (including VAT).

At those prices, I’m having a very tough time convincing myself that I can’t live without one. Convincing myself, that is, that there’s a gap somewhere between my laptop, netbook, iPad, and smartphone that can only be filled by a Surface Pro. I think I’m just going to have to keep working on myself as there’s little doubt that it’s a very nice piece of kit that I would definitely like to own. If you are thinking of buying one, I would strongly recommend seeing it in the flesh first so that you can weigh up the quality of the finish against the possible usability drawback of the small screen. As usual, I would recommend that the obvious place to go and see one is John Lewis.

© 2011-2015 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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