Wednesday, April 16, 2014

First Impressions: Microsoft Surface Pro

Our trusty X201 had been getting long in the tooth, and Xiaoqin decided to try some Android development. If you've ever tried Android Studio, you'll know that it's a CPU intensive process since it's based on IDEA IntelliJ. The build system associated with Android Studio, Gradle, is also a massive CPU hog, and introduces no small amount of latency to the process. I never thought I'd miss the days of Visual Studio, but it's quite clear that compared to Microsoft's tool set for development, Android is quite a bit behind, and extremely unstable. Of course, in terms of market share, the positions are exactly reversed.

After trying out a Surface Pro in the store a year or so back, I vowed never to buy a conventional laptop again if I could buy a Surface Pro-type device. Fortunately, Microsoft was having a sale on refurbished Surface Pros, so I was able to pick up a 128GB model for $450. You can find them for about $500 if you're willing to put up with a 64GB model. With USB 3 and a microSD card slot, it's probably no big deal if you can't find the 128GB model.

As a laptop, it's quite impressive. It's about 50% faster than the older X201, and 3X faster on boot up, hibernation, and recovery from hibernation, with boot times going from 30s to 10s. And yes, this is with the X201 upgraded to an SSD. There are a few strange fit and finish issues, such as the mini display port slot not being very deep, so when inserting a standard cable there's a little bit of chrome sticking out. The tablet comes with a pen, but there's no place to put it except in the magnetic charging port, and the magnetic charging port isn't strong enough to retain the stylus without loss if there's any pressure whatsoever on it. Since this is an expensive Watcom digitizer stylus, you really do want to keep track of it!

Running Lightroom is fast as you might expect, with no hitches and the Surface Pro had no problem driving the 27" HP monitor with a 2560x1440 display. One nice mode you can run is to have the touch screen run the Start screen, while the big display runs the desktop. This gives you a nice touch UI for the touch part, while having the desktop to do real work. Of course, Microsoft had to glitch this up---in this mode, desktop apps still launch onto the small screen instead of automatically selecting the big screen. It's this kind of inattention to detail that gives Apple its edge over Microsoft, though I've found Macs to have their share of problems when using multiple screens.

The device has a fixed, 4GB of RAM, but surprisingly, until I told Xiaoqin about it, she didn't even notice it didn't have as much RAM as her old device. At least part of the reason is that Windows 8 Pro actually consumes fewer hardware resources that Windows 7 did. The other part of it is that in recent years, software developers just haven't been able to assume more than 4GB of RAM anyway, so as long as you're single tasking or running just one web browser and an application, you're generally OK.

As a tablet, the Surface Pro is quite hefty, though not as hefty as the X201. It makes up for that, however, with power. I'd already written about how much faster the Dell Venue 8 Pro is than my Nexus 7. Using the Surface Pro is instantaneous. The Type Cover is also a joy to use, giving you keyboarding performance akin to what I'm used to with the X201.

The real revelation, however, is the stylus. I'd never tried any of the previous PCs in tablet mode, other than my use of the Wacom Bamboo tablet for producing Independent Cycle Touring. But while I hadn't noticed, Windows' handwriting recognition has become nothing short of amazing. My handwriting can compete with any doctors' for sheer inscrutability, but the Surface Pro handled my cursive with aplomb, as long as I was writing common English words. Write something not in the dictionary, and just like any other machine translation program, and you end up with gibberish. There was no training period, however, and I could pick it up and use it. You could even turn on Chinese handwriting recognition, though Xiaoqin pointed out that Pinyin is faster and much easier to use with a real keyboard. Unfortunately, having multiple languages on the machine is problematic if you use a keyboard, since Microsoft used Windows-Space to switch between languages, and Xiaoqin found it far too easy to hit that combination by mistake. In past versions of windows we tried to change the language key bindings but to no avail, so we gave up and uninstalled the language pack instead.

All tablets are compromises. The Surface Pro does not have great battery life. 3-4 hours with Android Studio and that's it for the battery. When fully powering Android Studio, the device also gets hot enough to turn on its fan, which sounds like a low hissing noise. It's quieter than the X201, but still noticeable if the room is otherwise quiet. Next to my Core i7 920 box going full bore, of course, it might as well not make any noise. At no point would you burn your hand grabbing the Surface Pro, however, so there aren't any safety issues.

Long term, the biggest concern about the Surface Pro is the battery. With the machine running hot, and the battery fully charged most of the time in desktop mode, I would be surprised to see more than 3 hours of battery run time after the first year, and 2 after the second year. Most laptop batteries get abused this way as well, but the Surface Pro has a non user-serviceable battery, with the only option being the $200 power type cover. Fortunately, for the price (which is much less than what I paid for the X201 way back when), we can treat the Surface Pro as a disposable computing device. This is much more of a concern nowadays, however, than it would have been 10 years ago. 10 years ago, you'd expect to replace a machine every 3 years. Now, an adequate machine (which the Surface Pro most definitely is) could have a potential life time of 5-6 years. At the rate Intel is improving (or not improving) CPU performance, I'm likely to keep my desktop for another 2-3 years at least!

There are a few accessories that I would recommend for the Surface Pro. The first is a Type Cover. We tried both the Touch Cover and the Type Cover in the store, and the Type Cover was hands down the winner. Secondly, you need a USB 3.0 hub if you're going to attach a debugging phone as well as a wireless transmitter for wireless keyboard and mouse. The Surface Pro comes with bluetooth, but it was easier to just use the existing Logitech mouse and keyboard than to shop for new ones. USB hubs can be powered or unpowered, and we got an unpowered one for convenience when traveling. It'll make the device drain that much faster, but having one less power adapter to carry will be essential.

In any case, so far, I'm liking the Surface Pro far more than I expect, and Xiaoqin hasn't asked for the older X201 back. I'm expecting not to send this back to Microsoft after the 30 day return period.
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