Thoughts on the Microsoft Surface Pro

Introduction

About a week ago, I happened upon those rarest of unicorns: a Microsoft Surface Pro 128 GB at a local Best Buy. I bought it along with a Type Cover.

(The obligatory disclaimer: For the benefit of anyone who doesn’t already know me, I’ve been primarily a Mac user for most of my adult life, and I’m the co-founder of a Mac & iOS software shop. On a fairly regular basis, I like to play around with other platforms firsthand to see how they’re evolving and just generally stay in touch with the rest of the industry. I’m not blindly loyal to Apple — I definitely have my beefs with them. But overall I feel, for now at least, Apple has the best ratio of doing things right to doing things wrong. So, there’s my bias going into this.)

The Surface Pro is a tablet form-factor Windows 8 computer that, unlike the Surface RT, is backwards compatible with classic Windows applications. Due to the additional hardware (especially battery) requirements, it’s a bit heavier (the Pro weighs about 2 pounds) and thicker than the RT as well. Otherwise they look more or less the same.

Unboxing

Out of the box, impressions are very good. The packaging and unboxing experience is Apple-quality. Device build quality is excellent. The hardware feels tight and solid. Thoughtful touches like an extra USB port (for charging only) built into the power brick are clever.

A misstep is the lack of any dedicated on-device silo for the included pen stylus. It does attach magnetically to the power port when the port is not in use, but obviously this prevents docking the pen and charging at the same time. Furthermore, being a magnetic connection only, it is likely to detach and rattle around loose into your bag. Or worse, fall off onto the sidewalk somewhere when you’re not looking, never to be seen again.

Metro UI

The interface previously known as Metro (abandoning that name was a terrible idea — I have no idea what it’s called now or how to refer to it) is spartan, but refreshingly different. Overall, I like the way the Metro interface looks, with a couple of exceptions:

1) Auto-hiding toolbars.

Metro prefers to present your app content full-screen, which is useful much of the time, such as devoting the entire screen to a web page. However, it does entail an extra swipe to get back to your tools. Using the back button in the Metro-fied IE, for example, first requires a swipe to bring up the toolbar, and then a tap on the back button.

(UPDATE: I’ve since been told left-to-right and right-to-left swipes act as back/forward in Metro IE. I don’t remember that being mentioned anywhere, and I didn’t think to try it.)

Which brings me to:

2) Mystery gestures.

Although Windows 8 does helpfully walk you through the most important gestures during the first boot setup process, it is easy to forget (or not realize in the first place) that considerable parts of system functionality are hidden behind a swipe-up/left/right from the screen edges.

An especially strange gesture is one to bring up an app switcher. Starting from offscreen left, you swipe right, then back offscreen to the left in one continuous motion, with the panel sliding in from the left (opposite your final finger motion).

The same gesture without the final swipe back to the left does two separate things depending on how fast you do it. It either switches between the two most recently used apps (if you do it quickly) or docks two apps side-by-side (if you do it slowly). It’s a very overloaded gesture.

Moving tiles around the Start screen felt very finicky to me. I could never tell when I was going to move a tile vs. just scroll the Start page. Pressing and holding didn’t seem to reliably put me into “tile moving” mode. As far as I can tell you have to sort of tap, hold, then drag against the dominant scrolling axis. I still can’t get it to predictably move tiles every time I try. Even weirder is a hidden “tile options” toolbar that you access by “flicking down” on a tile, which is a different gesture (although in speed only) than dragging it.

Apps

Microsoft’s bundled Metro apps, such as Mail, Calendar, IE, and so on, are well-executed, and work well with the touchscreen. It is a shame then that so few third-party apps have been ported to the Metro interface. The heavy-hitters are here: your eBays, Netflixes, and Amazons. Beyond that, you will be making trips to the Desktop mode. Unlike the RT, which includes “Office Home & Student 2013 RT”, the Pro includes only a trial of Office.

A few of the Metro indie apps I tried were competently done, however the Windows Store is much more junk than useful software. By which I mean hastily thrown-together apps full of stolen intellectual property, novelty/useless apps, and just plain badly written apps. Few apps outside the major developers have high user ratings and it’s easy to see why not.

But, the big draw of the Surface Pro is that you aren’t limited to these apps. It’s a full Windows 8 computer, so you can flip over to the “Desktop” and install whatever you like. This duality is simultaneously the Surface Pro’s biggest pro and con.

Desktop

Microsoft has a huge chicken-and-egg problem. Apple really lucked out by having massive developer adoption of the iOS platform out of the gate. I suppose this was a benefit of being first-to-market with a touchscreen device of its caliber. I don’t see this happening in Metro-land yet. That Microsoft had to make a “Pro” tablet with “full Windows” is both a boon to experienced Windows users and a vote of no-confidence in Metro straight from the top. They are between a rock and a hard place and I would not want to be them.

Windows 8’s desktop looks weird to me. The flat window chrome looks like some sort of mistake. I appreciate that they were probably trying to sync up with the Metro design language, but it does not translate to a conventional desktop UI in my eye. The best I can explain is it’s like there was some sort of textured background image that was supposed to be there for the window chrome and it failed to load. Maybe I’m too used to Windows 7 on PCs?

Because of the high resolution screen, Windows runs at 150% scale out of the box. Windows does not visually scale well. Outside of 100%, the tolerances between on-screen controls and their labels start to drift, in a way that they don’t on Hi-DPI Macs. It looks kludgey, probably because it is. Even at 150%, you have to aim pretty carefully to hit most Windows widgets with your fingertip.

I don’t know what the deal is with font rendering on Windows, but it is a far cry from Mac OS X’s. Even with ClearType enabled and tweaked with the control panel, I still see jagged edges on fonts, which seems insane on a display of this density. If you’re used to the pristine rendering of typography on a Mac, especially a Retina Mac, get ready for a nasty surprise.

I installed some classic Windows apps and by and large everything worked out OK, other than my confusion over the absence of the iconic Start button in Windows 8. The only way I could figure out how to launch classic Windows apps was to root around in C:\Windows\Program Files which (maybe this is the Mac user in me) seemed like something I should be staying far away from.

Eventually I realized/discovered that these apps were being added to the Start page, but all the way on the right edge, where you can’t see them unless you happen to be in the habit of periodically scrolling all the way to the right edge of the Start page.

One app that, to my surprise, didn’t run well was Google Chrome. It installed OK, but seemed to get “confused” during its first-run setup wizard, and became unresponsive to screen taps. As the Surface is pitched as a tablet, I didn’t want to resort to plugging a mouse in. I don’t know what a beginner would have done at this point, but I know enough about Windows to find the Task Manager and killed the Chome process from there. On the next launch, Chrome bypassed the wizard and presented a browser window, but I still couldn’t interact with any of the controls on the window using touch. Except sometimes I could. But most of the time I couldn’t. It seems to be a Chrome, not Windows, problem, but for a major app like Chrome to be essentially unusable is awkward at best.

(UPDATE: I’ve since discovered that my problems with Chrome, as well as some other apps, were related to the default 150% scaling of the Windows UI mentioned above. If you set these apps not to scale their UI, it often fixes them. They become tiny and hard-to-use without a precision pointing device, but they work.)

There were some other weird things I ran into that seemed like they should have been non-issues. For example, when you go to Amazon.com and type into the search box, it offers a pop-up list of suggestions. For some reason in IE, at least on my Surface, I can’t pick anything from that list. It just doesn’t respond to taps. I’m not familiar enough with Windows to know if this is an IE thing or a Surface thing. But doesn’t it seem like something that should… just work?

Pen

Being an occasional illustrator, I was excited about the included pen. It works well, but as with most devices that include pens, feels sadly like an afterthought. Being a Wacom-like (not capacitive) stylus, you get a level of precision (and pressure sensitivity) that almost no other computer or tablet offers built-in. The only other device that comes to mind is the Samsung Galaxy Note series.

Additionally, the Surface is smart enough to reject touch input when the pen is within about an inch of the screen, which prevented me from making accidental marks with the palm of my hand 99% of the time. (It happened a few times if I brought my wrist down before the pen tip, but it works much better than any capacitive stylus ever will.)

Outside of drawing apps, the pen works like a mouse pointer and causes the UI to sprout scrollbars where needed, and so on, much like the Tablet PCs of yore. Holding the pen button down when you tap acts as a right-click. It is nice to have a precision input device available for when touch won’t do, as long as you don’t lose it when it detaches and falls off in the street.

Type Cover

The Type Cover is a surprisingly type-able keyboard, and turns the device into a pretty nice mid-range Windows laptop. The whole time I used the Surface as a tablet it felt like it was straining a bit to accommodate the metaphor. (That the OS still refers at times to “your computer” and “your PC” doesn’t help.) Attaching the keyboard and switching to the Desktop made it seem a bit more “normal” for lack of a better word, but of course lost all of the Metro nice-ness.

Here again, we fall into that awkward duality, because I’m not sure I would recommend the Surface Pro to someone looking for a Windows laptop. Mainly because it must be propped up by the kickstand behind the display, making it much harder to use anywhere other than on a desk or other flat surface. A tablet propped-up at a fixed angle with a magnetically attached, loosely-hinged keyboard works as well in your lap as you’d expect.

There’s also a laptop-style trackpad on the Type Cover, and I screwed up the very first time I used it because it is set by default to treat a single-tap as a click — a setting I never use anywhere. I think this is more of a commonly used default for Windows users. I went looking around everywhere for a setting to change this and couldn’t find one. Eventually I discovered that changing this setting requires you to download a separate “Trackpad Settings” app by Microsoft (!) from the Windows Store (?!) which was, at least, free.

After using the keyboard for a while, I detached it and went back to tablet usage. Shortly after, I noticed that the on-screen keyboard had stopped appearing, which stopped me dead in my tracks when it came time to enter my password to unlock the device. I’d tap the password box, but no on-screen keyboard. Finally, I found a button that lead to Universal Access-type options that gave me an on-screen keyboard (although, oddly, not the Metro one, but a different one) and I could log in.

I couldn’t get the regular on-screen keyboard back for the life of me, so I started Googling and came across a forum discussion where another Surface user said they were advised by Microsoft to (I’m paraphrasing) “detach and reattach the Type Cover a few times” to resolve this issue. Sure enough, this worked. I can’t imagine what problem causes this or how this is a fix, but it’s not acceptable for a $1,000 device, especially one where the hardware and software are made by the same company. I can only assume a patch for this is in the works (if it’s a software bug) but this is exactly the sort of thing that would never happen on an iPad.

Screen

Last but not least, I should mention the screen. It’s 1080p, and very clear, crisp, and colorful. It’s a nice screen. My unit looks like it has some backlight bleed at the bottom when the screen is displaying full black. I can live with it, but I know a lot of my pickier Apple cohorts would send it back for replacement.

But, a 16:9 screen on a computer is just weird to me. I can’t get used to it. In landscape (which seems to be Microsoft’s preferred orientation for the device) it’s like looking through a mail slot. Rotating to portrait affords you unprecedented vertical space, which would be awesome for web pages, except almost none of the sites I visited fit into the narrow width of the display in that orientation, which leaves you to either zoom in on content columns or do a lot of left/right scrolling.

Heartbreakingly, some apps refuse to rotate into portrait, even apps that would really benefit from it, such as Autodesk’s Sketchbook Express.

Summary

To summarize, Microsoft has made some amazing strides forward, but can’t push the envelope as fast or hard as Apple can due to the overwhelming number of must-have third-party Windows apps that won’t see a Metro port any time soon. It needs native Metro apps in a bad way.

The hardware, when running native Metro apps, is great overall and a compelling alternative to the market leaders. If they stay focused on shedding the multiple personality disorder the Surface has, I could see it being a popular device 5 years from now. Let’s hope for Microsoft’s sake they can ride it out for that long.