Exploring the Surface Pro at work
When the Surface Pro was released in New Zealand, I decided to jump head first into a world where I don’t have a desktop or even a powerful laptop anymore but instead work off a tiny 10.6″ device. I work in the operations team as an Infrastructure Engineer here at Xero HQ and the idea of abandoning my powerful PC for a lightweight alternative seemed quite scary at first.
We build our software online, so naturally believe that it should be possible to do accounting on any device, anywhere, not just from a desk in an office. We’re always looking at better ways to work and the Surface Pro presents a brand new opportunity to look at how the idea of working on an ultra portable device full time could actually work.
My job involves being up-to-date pretty much every moment of the day (and sometimes through the night) monitoring systems that make our platform tick, responding to alerts as they come in as well as keeping our developers happy. Being able to carry my device and emails with me everywhere I go is incredibly useful and makes it easier to deal with things as they come in rather than catching up (and drowning in email) every time I go away from and come back to my desk. It makes a huge difference being able to respond to an issue on the spot when your PC never leaves your side.
I’m two and a half weeks into a month long experiment in which I put my somewhat overpowered desktop-replacement laptop away and am using the Surface Pro full time. To my surprise, it’s been extremely positive. The device just looks like any other tablet (perhaps a slightly chubby tablet) from far away, but the power of being able to run any Windows application is much more compelling than I thought it would be.
Setting up for work
If I was given a Surface Pro and a desk to work at for my job I’d be a bit upset. While the display on the Surface is beautiful (coming in at 1920 x 1080 on a 10.6” display) it’s a bit small to get any real work done without ending up with headaches from squinting. That said, to work on the device full time – as well as comfortably – I have managed to find what I believe to be the perfect solution.
The Surface only has one USB 3.0 port, but luckily over the last few months USB docks with video out ports have become readily available. We have a few spare HP 3005pr port replicators lying around in the office so I used one of those which has a DVI port, HDMI port, a gigabit network port, four USB 2.0 ports, and sound in/out. Somehow, this all works over a single USB port which is amazing in itself.
This means I am able to plug in two 1080p external monitors (I could even do three if I used the built in mini-Displayport plug on the Surface) as well as network and my mouse with just one USB port. Every time I’m away and come back to my desk it’s simple to just plug in the Surface and keep working.
How the Surface Pro works better
Having a device that is as portable as the Surface Pro makes a world of difference for a number of reasons. Having a full Windows computer in such a small package is extremely freeing and is a breath of fresh air. It’s so easy to just pick it and take it anywhere.
Unlike my laptop, which didn’t go many places with me, I take the Surface Pro to meetings, coffee catch ups and pretty much everywhere else I went. It ultimately ended up even replacing my physical notebook (despite my reservations about the stylus being a bit old school) it’s quite nice to take notes directly on the device I use for everything. Now I can’t just lose all that paper! Using Onenote MX meant I was able to scratch down notes in much the same fashion I would during meetings into a physical notebook.
The device was a talking point, too, with many people I met remarking how interesting the Surface looks and their reaction when I told them it was my entire work PC was always priceless. If someone walked up to my workstation, they’d do a doubletake when they realized the screens and everything were working off such a tiny little tablet.
When on the go it’s a pleasure to use thanks to that high resolution screen, too. A large chunk of business grade laptops come with sub-par displays (generally something like 1366×768) that are frustratingly bad to use and ultimately leaves little room to work in. The ability just pull off the keyboard and go properly mobile is quite useful, especially in meetings where having a laptop propped up in front of you is actually quite rude.
The Surface has two different keyboard options. First, there’s the touch keyboard, which is similar to the smart cover for the iPad but has a touch keyboard built in (the keys are slightly raised but don’t physically move). Then there’s the type keyboard, which is for more serious typing. It’s made of similar materials as the touch but has mechanical keys so is much better for writing long documents or emails on the go. Both keyboards have tiny little touchpads built in right at the front so you can use the mouse.
When I’m away from my desk I carry both versions of the keyboard and if anyone was to ask me which I prefer, I’d enthusiastically say ‘both!’ The touch is a great keyboard for when you’re not planning on doing a lot of typing (it’s definitely got a learning curve but it does grow on you) whereas the type is great for those emails that end up more like novels.
The small, but useful, trackpad on both keyboards is augmented nicely by being able to interact directly with elements on the screen with touch. I’d say that’s part of the magic – being able to just directly tap an element on the screen it becomes leagues more natural to interact with a computer. Why would you drag a mouse around when you can just tap on what you want to use?
The media seems to paint a strange picture about this, they think it’s too hard to reach over the keyboard and touch the screen. Quotes like “Reaching over to a touchscreen is too difficult, and too imprecise” from PC World make it seem like touch doesn’t make any sense, but I disagree. When you’re presented with either touch or using a trackpad sometimes tapping things on the screen just makes a heap more sense and is considerably more natural than using a mouse.
The most amazing thing about using the Surface Pro is having the full version of Windows in such a small package. I can use lots of desktop applications at once, as well as the new ‘Modern’ style touch based ones if I want to. Windows 8 makes so much more sense when touch is involved; I often find myself working on the desktop with a chat window or my email attached on the side of my screen. I’ve never been sure about how touch would fit into my workflow, but just having the option of a Modern style application snapped to the side of the screen meant that I developed new habits. It was often easier to just touch the screen and reply then it was to click around and open the desktop version of the application.
As for performance, the Surface Pro certainly doesn’t leave me wanting, even as someone who runs virtual machines and often has a significant number of applications running. It doesn’t miss a beat, even when powering those external screens! Considering that the Surface Pro features a Intel Core i5 quad-core with 4GB of RAM, it’s pretty powerful.
The thing I loved most was that it doesn’t create an obnoxious (or even noticeable) amount of fan noise when cooling itself unlike many business laptops. My only complaint would be that there aren’t models with a bit more RAM right now but it’s unlikely the average user would need more than 4GB of RAM.
There’s one big disadvantage of being part tablet and part ultrabook that I found, which comes down to the way that the device can be angled when in use.. It’s got one angle and only one for on a tabletop, so if you want to angle it any other way you’ll need to hold it yourself. It’s not a problem in most cases, but if you were to want to use the Surface on the couch or in an armchair, you have to disconnect the keyboard and go into tablet mode.
The not so good
Unfortunately some of these freedoms come with bad sides. The Surface Pro is an all round good device but because Windows 8 is such a version one touch product, it’s really not great in a lot of cases. The first and biggest issue I had with it is when it comes to DPI scaling. Because the pixel density is so high on the Surface, Windows uses DPI scaling to scale elements large enough to read and touch on such a small screen.
This works fine on the device itself, but when you plug in external screens it becomes an issue. Windows isn’t smart enough to scale per screen yet, so the external screens get that scaling too, making elements large and stretched in some cases. This meant when I was working on external monitors I would have to disable the scaling for the external screens and things on the Surface’s built in screen would become very tiny.
The other disappointing thing about the Surface line of devices in general is that there’s no 3G/LTE out of the box. It would make much more sense if the device could be online all the time, but at least it’s compatible with USB modems for now. In Wellington we’re lucky to have a CBD-wide WiFi network, so it’s not too much of an issue, but there were times when I wanted to get online and couldn’t without making a hotspot on my phone.
My other annoyance is that Microsoft is yet to release a proper touch-friendly version of Office 2013. The current version has ‘touch mode’ but all it does is slightly space out the elements and rearrange them for the screen size. The applications are OK, but I do wonder just how much more useful it would be to have a fully touch compatible Office suite. I just can’t fathom why there isn’t even a preview version of this available yet.
My final issue with the device is the onscreen keyboard. It’s not very good and makes using the Surface in tablet mode far more difficult than it needs to be; it’s oversized and not particularly good at recognizing what you’re trying to type. Autocomplete seems to be essentially non-existent and the keyboard doesn’t even suggest as you type, which has come to be expected on mobile devices..
A lot of the issues I have with the Surface Pro are likely to be solved later this month with the release of the Windows 8.1 preview. The high-DPI issue with external screens is apparently resolved and the OS now lets you choose per screen, which resolves my biggest annoyance with the device. The keyboard is getting some love too, with auto-updating suggestions and better prediction as well as a bunch of other touch enhancements.
All this said, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the Surface Pro to businesses that are looking for ways to get their staff more mobile. As Ultrabooks have slowly caught on over the last year, this is the first time I’ve ever considered a tablet PC completely able to replace my entire workflow.
If you have any questions about the Surface Pro, feel free to ask them in the comments and I’ll answer them for you!
This is an abridged version of a post written by Owen that appeared on The Next Web.
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