I’ve owned a Surface Pro 3 for just under six months now (actually longer, but I bought it in the Black Friday sale, and my wife wouldn’t let me use it until Christmas!). So it’s about time that I got round to reviewing it, and revealing my wishes for Surface Pro 4.
Making the Purchase
I tend to buy all my computers second hand, so it was not an easy decision to splash out more than double I was used to spending. However, the Black Friday sale discounted the i5 256GB model quite heavily, and to be honest, that was the one I had my eye on anyway. The i7 I had heard rumours of overheating, and I would only need 512GB if I was planning to make it my main recording workstation in which case I would be installing NI KOMPLETE which is a bit of a disk space hog.
I didn’t have too much of a hard time justifying the purchase to myself – I was doing a lot of Pluralsight course planning and recording, and I wanted to be able to do at least some of the work outside my bedroom office. I also liked the thought of a laptop portable enough to take on the train, or use for my notes when public speaking.
First off, I was pleased to see that it came with Windows 8.1 Pro, which meant Hyper-V was available (however, read on for some issues I ran into with this). The initial setup was smooth, and after a few rounds of updates it was up and running. The keyboard took a bit of getting used to. Having to share the function keys with other keys is not ideal when programming, and I still haven’t quite got used to the small cursor keys. Having a backlight on the keyboard is useful when working late at night. Given the space constraints, they’ve done a pretty good job with this keyboard, even if it is frightfully expensive.
The touchpad has a number of useful gestures which are well worth learning, two finger tap for right-click, double tap to drag, and two finger swipe to scroll. On the whole, these work well, although dragging things can be a real pain if you have to move something a long way. Probably I should train myself to do that with the touchscreen – I tend to forget I can touch the screen as well! You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
I played around with the pen a bit, but to be honest it feels like a bit of a gimmick to me. I’ve only sketched a few diagrams in OneNote with it in all the time I’ve had it. And I still prefer to type my notes in even though OneNote makes a valiant effort at interpreting my indecipherable handwriting. Maybe I would use the pen a bit more if there was a convenient way to dock it onto the device.
Battery life was decent, in that it beat the paltry one hour that most other laptops I’ve used can manage, but it’s still not quite enough to make you feel like you could use it all day without carrying the charger round with you just in case. I reckon I could get 4-5 hours out of it.
It’s got cameras on front and back. I’m a rubbish photographer so I don’t really use the back one, and I don’t like the look of selfies so the the front one doesn’t get much use either. But they seem fairly decent quality.
It only has the one USB port, which felt like a big limitation, but I’ve turned out not really to need one very often. I have got a USB microphone which works well with it.
The screen output is Mini DisplayPort – you can get a cheap adapter off eBay to convert it to HDMI / VGA, which is what I usually need when doing presentations with old projectors.
Lots of people have complained that the headphone socket is implemented as a separate sound-card, that you switch to when you plug it in. It is a slightly odd decision, but it hasn’t really caused me any problems.
The power charger has a cool magnetic proprietary connector, but the downside of this is that you can’t top up it’s battery without a mains outlet. This has meant I haven’t bothered to take it on camping holidays, as I can’t use my portable rechargable batteries to recharge the Surface Pro.
It hasn’t been all plain sailing. First of all, I realised that having Hyper-V enabled was causing all kinds of weird problems with the WiFi not reconnecting properly on wake, and it not being able to sleep properly. I had hoped that a recent firmware upgrade would sort out the Hyper-V issues, but it seems the best thing to do is to leave it disabled unfortunately.
I’ve had a few issues the the keyboard as well. Sometimes the touchpad forgets its gestures. You can sometimes get it working again by disconnecting and reconnecting the keyboard but sometimes you need a reboot. It also occasionally gets stuck thinking the shift key is pressed, which can cause consternation when you are trying to log in.
Another problem I’ve run into a few times, and I’ve heard other people complain of, is that sometimes when you shut the lid it doesn’t go into sleep mode. This can result in you coming back the next day to a completely flat battery.
And finally, super high-res screen is great, but it does highlight that a number of apps in Windows are not quite ready for it yet. The Powershell prompt is microscopically small by default for example. And if I’m taking screenshots to put into my blog posts, it’s easy to forget that the images are far too big to put into web-pages without resizing (please Microsoft hurry up and open source Windows Live Writer so we can fix this ourselves).
Is it a Desktop Replacement?
So the big question is, is it ready to be a desktop replacement? Personally, I think it’s not yet, but we’re not too far off. For a main development PC, I would want a 16GB RAM option, and though the i5 is powerful enough for most tasks, if I was to do music production I’d probably want something a bit faster. Finally, I would want at least 512GB for my main development PC, and possibly even 1TB. It would be nice to see that option in Surface Pro vNext.
The only other thing I’d like to see in Surface Pro 4 above those upgrades to memory, disk and CPU is for Microsoft to embrace USB 3. This would make more sense to me than the Display Port socket, and would hopefully also open the way for charging through USB, to remove the reliance on the proprietary charger.
So I’m looking forward to seeing where Microsoft take this product line. With the right improvements, I could see myself buying a docking station, and truly being able to use it as my main computer both in the office and on the move.