So a little a week ago I got myself a Surface Pro and I decided that I’d share my experience with it thus far (because that’s what you do with a new device right? :P).
For the record my current Windows machine is a Sony Vaio Z which is about 2.5 years old and I have an iPad 2, so these were the two devices that my Surface Pro was looking to replace.
First off let’s talk about the screen, it’s the first thing you’ll see after all, and I must say it’s a very nice screen to work with indeed. The Surface Pro is a 1920 x 1080 resolution on a 10.6" panel so it’s a pretty high pixel density packed in there. Sure it’s no retina display but it’s pretty well up there.
When in Metro-mode things fit nicely, IE looks really good on it and the few apps that I have installed/used (mail, calendar, twitter, facebook, etc) do fit in with the design theme nicely. Most importantly they look sharp under the display.
Desktop-mode is a little different. By default the Surface Pro has the font size turned up to 150% meaning that many windows look just plain odd, toolbars don’t fit in properly, consoles look weird, etc. One of the first tasks I undertook on Desktop was to flick it down to 125%. This seems to make everything scale to a much better size while still keeping things large enough to be touch friendly.
The only big worry people have with a touch-enabled screen is fingerprints. Currently I’m looking at the screen while typing the post out and I can honestly say I don’t notice any. When the screen is off and I’m in direct sunlight I’ll notice them but in that regard I’m not really using my screen anyway.
Interacting with it
When I bought the Surface Pro I wanted to get a keyboard. Having had an iPad for 18 months now one thing that annoys me about it is that I don’t have a keyboard with it. Sure I could grab my Bluetooth keyboard or get one of the many cases that have one built in but really they don’t seem to fit the ascetics of the device.
So you’ve got two choices for the Surface series, a Touch Cover or a Type Cover. I strongly recommend that before you choose one you do some typing with both and see what you feel most comfortable with. When I was getting the device I went to test both keyboards by firing up Word and having a type around. To me the Type Cover just felt a lot nicer to work with, the Touch Cover lacked the tactile sensation that many years on a computer have trained me to want and I found that the low-profile that the keyboard runs meant I missed keys too often as I didn’t judge the spacing.
The Type Cover reminds me of my Vaio keyboard, it’s got a good tactile response, a good key size and most importantly a good sound as you press the keys!
What I have found about the keyboard is that it can miss keys; I’m not sure if this is something with my device or not but every now and then I seem to have it miss a few keystrokes that I make, meaning you have to go back over what you’re doing. I’d expect this is some driver-level issue that hopefully will clear up as the device matures but since it’s hard to reproduce I can imagine it’ll be a slow fix.
One of the main reasons I wanted a Pro over a RT was the pen support. The Pro comes with a pen and I must say it’s really fantastic to use. So far I haven’t been in enough meetings that I’ve actually had to crack it out but I’ve done some doodling in various apps and it just works as you’d expect it to work. I’ll often find myself using the pen in Desktop mode instead of the trackpad or my finger because of its precision.
And that leads me onto the trackpad in the cover, or more generally, mouse based input. I can probably count the number of times on one hand that I’ve used the trackpad that comes in the cover, simply put I find it redundant (for the record I primarily use the trackpad on my laptop over an external mouse so it’s not an anti-trackpad stance or anything). With the screen as close as it is it’s very easy, and natural, to just reach out and touch it to move around. Even writing this I’ve been touching around the screen to move the cursor back/forth because it’s quicker than the trackpad or arrow keys.
I’ve been really surprised at how quickly I’ve adapted to having a touch-enabled device in front of me and how quickly I got use to being about to touch the screen to perform my actions. This has gotten to the point where I now expect all my screens to be touch enabled which has made me feel rather silly when I’ve poked the screens on my work machine or when I spent a good 30 seconds poking my Vaio screen and getting angry that the window wasn’t exiting.
Desktop mode is really the only place that is let down by touch, particularly Visual Studio.
Since I’m a coder it was natural that Visual Studio was going to wind up on here at some point. So far I haven’t done anything really intensive in the form of development using the Surface Pro, more just opening projects and browsing around the source. But Visual Studio really isn’t designed for touch. I’d like to be able to “flick up” and have the source code scroll but alas it’s not to be, instead I find myself fighting with the small scrollbars and often reverting to the pen as it’s much better a finer point interaction.
As I said I haven’t done much in the way of coding on the device so I can’t really comment on the overall performance of it, but I think it’s safe to say that I don’t see this as a replacement for a high-end developer laptop, instead I see this as something I can grab out on the train for a quick bit of coding, especially if I’m focusing on something non-Visual Studio based.
Metro or Desktop
I’ve been trying to keep my usage of this device very much in the Metro word, I have my mail setup using the Mail app, calendars are available through Calendar, etc. Generally speaking this is working well for me.
Mail is a bit up-and-down with it’s interactions. I’ve come from an Outlook background and as someone who tries to maintain a “zero inbox” but ultimately found this was something that fell by the wayside with the Mail client. Part of the reason was it is a bit of a hassle to move mail around into folders and part of it is because it seems less valuable to do so, since the entire mailbox isn’t down it’s easier to have one folder to search rather than rummaging around (but this is more of a general mail organization shift than specific to Windows 8 Mail).
That said I do have Outlook installed as well and generally speaking I have both running. I like Outlook for its familiar but the UI isn’t really touch optimized so it can be a bit clunky. Mail is nicer for touch but the integration with the GAL is really terrible and I can’t for the life of me work out how to add someone as a contact, even if they emailed me first (again where Outlook is much more useful).
IE works fantastically in Metro, the new shell is really slick and the interactions are really nicely designed. So far I haven’t even installed another browser, I’ve found no need (maybe once I start doing some more web dev I’ll switch since I’ve got some opinions on the dev tools). The only real frustrating thing is there’s no plugin support so I can’t get my password manager integrated which makes the workflow of hitting somewhere I need to log into a pain.
For twitter I’ve been trying a variety of clients. Currently I’m using MetroTwit for Win8, I tried Rowi but I really didn’t like it (no replies in snapped, full screen has a really strange use of space and a few other issues).
I’ve been trying out a few different RSS readers, found a paid one called Feed Reader that has a trial version that seems pretty good.
So mostly I find myself in Metro mode as there’s been very little that I need in common usage to go to desktop. That said if it wasn’t for Snapped mode then it might be a different story. I’ve pretty much always got twitter snapped, ticking away. The screen resolution is more than enough to visible space to have a good browser window/email window/etc and having twitter running there too.
I’ve been using Win8 on my laptop for over 12 months now and had always enjoyed it but now having a touch-enabled device to use it on I’ve really seen it in a whole new light. The Metro UI makes a lot more sense in a touch environment, the platform integration (sharing, search, etc) is so smooth.
The Surface Pro is great device, if you’re looking for something reasonably portable I’d recommend looking at it. It’s a little bit on the heavy side for me to consider it a direct iPad replacement, but compared to even my Vaio Z (which is really light) it’s a much more portable device.
One thing’s for sure, my next developer laptop is going to be touch-enabled, I’m finding it surprisingly advantageous.