About four months ago I bought a Microsoft Surface Pro, my first Windows computer in over ten years. The Surface Pro is a kind of hybrid between a tablet and a laptop. My old Macbook Pro just didn't cut it anymore and I needed a replacement. I knew it was a long shot but I was hoping that the Surface Pro couldn't just replace my Macbook Pro but also my iMac, my Wacom Tablet and my iPad. I was wiling to sacrifice some power for portability and working with a touch interface but would it be a workable solution? For those who don't like reading a long article, the short answer is YES (for me).
WHICH VERSION DID I GET?
As I would be asking a lot of this machine, it would make sense to buy the top version with an i7 processer, better graphics, 16GB of RAM and 1TB SSD. But instead I went for what you could consider the middle version: i5 processor, 8 gigs of ram and a 256GB SSD (2017 version). The main reason I went with the middle version was cost. With computers there's always this point where you start paying a lot of money for small upgrades. I feel the i5 version is the sweet spot but too be frankly honest I don't know how much better the i7 is. But I was not willing to fork out an extra 1000 EUR for a device that I wasn't sure of would work for me. The idea was also that this would be a computer that would go pretty much anywhere with me and that has the inherent higher risk of damage and theft. A cheaper computer is easier to replace.
I've been using Apple products exclusively for a long time like a lot of my fellow creatives. But like many I feel that Apple has forgotten about us and I wasn't impressed with the new MacBook Pro. It seems like Microsoft and Apple have switched roles. Apple is now the big corporation that's all about milking its customers while Microsoft seems to be more willing to innovate.
The design of the Surface Pro looks at least as sleek as the better Apple products and I must admit that Windows 10 has made giant leaps in stability and user experience since the last Windows that I had used (XP). Still, I feel that the Apple OS still has the edge and I would still highly recommend it to people who don't care much about computers and just want it to work. When setting up the Surface and installing the software that I needed, I ran into some minor issues. Luckily I'm pretty good with computers and I have a girlfriend who works in IT.
It took me a week or two to get completely comfortable with Windows again. But mostly it was about getting rid of some old habits and getting used to some new ones.
I love the design, the look and the compact nature of the Surface Pro. I was a bit worried about the screen being only 12" but the image on the screen and the resolution makes up for the smaller size. With applications like Photoshop and Lightroom, the text and buttons are very small but as I usually use the Surface as a tablet when editing, my eyes are much closer to the screen and I find it to be perfectly workable.
The touch interface has completely convinced me that touch is the future for computers. I was pretty sure that I would like the touch interface for Photoshop and Lightroom but I find myself using it all the time in other applications too. There's still room for improvement in the touch department but it's mainly in the support for it by third party applications.
The keyboard is surprisingly comfortable to type even for long texts but in order to use it you need a table or another flat surface. The trackpad is decent but not as responsive as the one on a MacBook. Because there is no hinge between the keyboard and the screen, it's not very practical to use the Surface on your lap. That said the hinge on the back of the screen is a nice piece of design. You can put the screen at pretty much any angle you want.
As a pure tablet, the Surface might be a bit big and heavy (and expensive) but it's great for watching a movie in bed or browsing the web in the sofa. The i5 version doesn't have any fans so it's always perfectly quiet. It can get a bit warm when doing intensive tasks but it never gets uncomfortably hot. The battery life has improved in the 2017 version and it's pretty good for such a slim device as long as you don't expect it too handle 4 hours of heavy photo editing on a single charge. The charger connects magnetically to the charge port which is something that Apple sadly took away from the MacBook.
I don't think there are computers on the market these days who can't handle general internet and office tasks. So it's no surprise the Surface does great in this aspect. Most apps that I used previously are also available for Windows and I had to find alternatives for a few. The app that I miss the most is Keynote although Powerpoint has gotten a lot easier to use since I've last used it.
OneNote is a Windows app that I've been using every day since I got the Surface Pro. I use it to draft blog posts, jot down ideas and plan shoots. I feel a pen is so much more creative than a keyboard when I'm playing with ideas. I also like to doodle on screenshots when I'm giving feedback on pictures by my students.
Lightroom isn't exactly a speed demon, in fact it's terribly slow, even on a fast computer. So it's no surprise that it's not very fast on a dual core machine either. I believe this has more to do with Lightroom than with the Surface Pro. I've briefly played with some other raw converter software and although most apps are considerably faster than Lightroom, they don't have much support for the touch interface. So for now, I'm sticking to Lightroom as it is the software that I know best, has decent touch support and works reasonably well. I hear that Adobe is making it a priority to speed up LR and so they should. Photoshop on the other hand works without a glitch, even with the big GFX files. Mind you, I'm not doing composites with dozens of layers. So while it works fine for me, it may not for you.
I do most of my editing with the Surface Pro as a tablet (without the keyboard). I usually put the device almost flat on the table while I edit with the pen. I find this to be a very organic way of working on pictures. Not having access to keyboard shortcuts, can usually be solved by activating the on-screen keyboard and program some keyboard shortcuts in an app called Tablet Pro. I'm considering to buy a tiny bluetooth keyboard to have quick access to shortcuts.
Editing video in Adobe Premiere works reasonably fine in HD but a complicated project in 4K might be a bit of a stretch. Although Premiere is one of the best video editors on the market, I sometimes miss the less powerful but way faster Final Cut Pro X.
While editing the battery goes pretty fast, but I can still get 2 to 3 hours of hard editing out of a single charge. All in all the Surface is fast enough for my editing. Sometimes it can slow down a bit but it also makes me take my time with my images which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The biggest speed drawback is when rendering or exporting files. This definitely takes a lot longer than on my iMac. I find myself planning exports moments during coffee breaks or at night.
MY ONLY COMPUTER
I had little doubt that the Surface Pro would be perfectly capable of doing a quick edit on the road but my goal was to see if I could use it as my only computer. I wasn't so sure this would work out, so I kept my iMac for safety. Almost four months in, I must say that I've hardly touched the iMac. In fact, my office has become nothing but a glorified gear closet. Mission accomplished because I wanted to see if I could have an" officeless office".
A fair bit of travel is involved in my job but it's not that I travel the world all the time. But I do have a rather mobile lifestyle. My girlfriend and don't live together, so there's a lot of going back and forth between our two houses. Whenever the weather allows it, I do this trip on my mountain bike so a computer that fits in my small backpack allows me to take my work with me. I also spend a lot of time driving the kids to soccer and basketball. This used to force me to work a lot of late nights in order to get a full day's of work in. But now I can easily squeeze a couple of hours in while they are at practice. I've also noticed that I work better in short bursts in different environments. The Surface Pro can't compete with a desktop, nor a powerful laptop when it comes to power. But because it's so light and compact it goes with me everywhere. When I'm doing computer work, it might be a bit slower but I now often work at times that I couldn't before. So in total, I still get more done in a week.
The 256GB SSD drive has been a blessing in disguise. With all my software installed, I have about half of it available for pictures. That isn't a lot but it's enough for pretty much any job I do. I'm a chaotic person and I used to struggle with keeping an overview of what I had to do. Now, I force myself to finish a job before I start a new one. So far, this has proven to be a very effective strategy for me.
You may have noticed that I've been applying some minimalism principals in everything that I do. I only want to own what I really need (I admit that I still have a long way to go). The Surface Pro has replaced my laptop, desktop, Wacom tablet and my iPad. In case a project or job requires a more powerful machine there are still options to rent, borrow or buy.
The Surface Pro is sold as a tablet only. In order to make it work, I got some accessories. Here's what I use and why:
- Surface Keyboard: If I'm correct, there are two versions. I bought the cheaper one since I think it's already overpriced.
- Surface Pen: At the time that I bought my Surface the new one wasn't available yet, so I got the older version. It works really well but the new version is supposed to be even better.
- UAG Surface Pro Case: It's a bit on the heavy side but it feels like high quality protection and has excellent grip. It is also rather heavy, bulky and doesn't exactly complements the Surface's design so I only use the case when I take the Surface with me on my bike or when I use it on location. (btw, the Surface Pro 4 case, will fit the 2017 Surface Pro)
- Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter 2: I use this mainly to connect a screen or projector for presentations and workshops.
- Card Reader: I just use one that I got for free with an SD-card. There are probably faster ones around.
- Samsung 500GB SSD: For extra storage (just in case), backup or transferring files
- X-Rite i1 Display Pro: To calibrate my screen
- At some point, I will probably add an extra screen and maybe the dock. A tiny bluetooth keyboard for shortcuts is also on my list.
The Surface Pro definitely works for me but that doesn't mean it's perfect. I wouldn't mind if it was a bit more powerful (if only the i7 version wasn't that much more expensive). It would also be interesting if they were more configuration options available. I'm pretty sure that more software companies will bring more touch functionality in the near future, right now it's still a bit limited.
The Surface has only one USB 3.0 port, a second one would be handy at times. Make it USB-C and allow charging the Surface through it, for when you forget your magnetic charger. I would also prefer an SD-card slot over the micro SD-card slot. For the price of the keyboard, it would be nice if it had a small battery and bluetooth connectivity so you could also use it without being physically connected to the surface. And while we are talking about the accessories, they could be a lot cheaper.
Moving platforms and downscaling considerably was a big step in the unknown for me. I've always heard the AND AND AND story from the industry. But at the same time, I've been taking cues from a younger generation that is mobile with a smaller footprint. Working with the Surface Pro as my only computer wouldn't have been possible without the business redesign that I've been going through in the last year. I know now, what it is that I do and don't do. If you are working with big batches, lots of data or huge Photoshop composites, a Surface Pro probably won't cut it as your main machine. But for what I do, it's perfectly fine. I may lose a bit of speed while editing but my overall productivity went up while the touch interface has made retouching more enjoyable.