• Surface Pro 3 - My two weeks with the dark side (Part 1)

    Forgive me father for I have sinned. Iím a Mac fan and Iíve been using the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 for the last couple of days and I intend doing so for at least at 2 weeks as well. It was never my intention to worship false idols, but it was shiny, metal and almost looked like a Mac.

    Itís probably difficult for some Mac fans to understand why I would endure this type of ďtortureĒ but sometimes itís good to look around. This is also as a result of my disillusionment with the current iPad release which I donít believe meets my criteria. Iíve always wanted stylus use on the iPad and Appleís failure to deliver is disappointing and has resulted in secoacnd rate experiences with third party styluses. Whilst what I really wanted is an iPad with decent stylus integration, the tablet alternatives are also disappointing. My tests with the Samsungís Galaxy Note showed a delay on writing and Iíve never been a big fan of Samsungís copytition business approach. Aside from Samsung, there arenít many pure tablets that offer stylises as the majority seem to be windows based.

    Over the coming weeks my intention is to cover my experiences with using the Surface Pro 3 over as I trial the Surface Pro 3 (256GB, i5, 8GB) to see whether it really is as good as Microsoft say it is. Some of these articles may be lengthy as I will try to cover some of the areas in as much detail as I can.

    I would have said compare to the iPad but I think a comparison with the iPad is a little unfair to both parties. They both have pros and cons and itís not a case of whether one is better, itís a case of whether one is better for you. The Surface Pro 3 is a mix between a tablet and laptop, the iPad is a tablet and this difference will always result in advantages and disadvantages for both parties.

    In doing this, Iíve tried to get rid of my iPad for the duration so I am not tempted to pick it up and Iíll see whether this becomes a frustration or not. In some cases, this may result in unfortunate inconvenience (like not having access to Virginís inflight entertainment as they have no application) but I think itís the only fair way to approach this. I will not be foregoing my MacBook Air completely as I do rely on this for business and I cannot take some risks with work but it is there as backup rather than a permanent addition and if there is no business critical reason for me to have it with me, Iíll be foregoing it for the day. Iíve transferred most of my data to the surface as there is no point in buying something and looking at my Mac because Iím missing information. As you will see later, this has also forced me to look at configuring some of the windows settings to make it more usable because some of the default settings can offer as less than usable working experience.

    Purchasing process

    Iíve added this in here as a direct comparison between Apple and Microsoft on the purchasing front. Itís worth comparing the approaches and understand what limitations they impose. Iíve been eyeing out the Surface Pro 3 as an iPad substitute for the last while due to the stylus integration which forms a large part of my time. Iíve tried the iPad styluses but the lack of hardware integration means they are really not up to par. I was hoping the iPad Air 2 would incorporate something but as we have seen, that is not the case.

    Microsoft were offering a 2 weeks no questions asked guarantee on the Surface so I decided to bite the bullet and trial it for 2 weeks to see whether it would become a permanent acquisition. The purchase process was somewhat flawed however. As someone who spends a large portion of my time between customers, the option to use a retail store is a preferable particularly when I need something quickly and unfortunately Microsoft donít offer that option. Shipping takes 2-5 days which makes it difficult for me to have it shipped anywhere and the retail stores (Harvey Norman and JB Hifi donít offer comparable money back deals). After speaking to Microsoft a couple of times, I gave up. I chatted to Harvey Norman and had no luck with them but JB Hifi came to the party and offered to take it back if I wasnít happy. I bought one on the spot and thatís where we are now. Itís interesting to note that Microsoft deleted my negative comments about the buying experience from their online storeÖ really Microsoft? Iíd have to say that is pretty dismal. Aside from that, it shows Microsoft is trying to challenge Apple but their retail arm clearly isnít up to scratch and I think they need to work on their options if they want to match Apple in the market place. What was interesting from the discussion with the JB Hifi rep was that he said they are selling 5:1 Surface Proís to laptops, which if true is an interesting perspective on the marketís thought on the product, although this could be attributed to the recent release of the product, or perhaps an overly optimistic salesmen twisting the truth.

    Unboxing and Hardware

    The surface pro comes in a fairly long narrow grey and white box. Itís slightly odd in that a portion of the box sticks out and seems like it didnít fit it, but at least it makes it easy to open it. Itís probably about the same thickness as an iPad air box, but substantially longer.
    The power cable is nice and small and includes a similar magnetic latch to the Apple laptops. Itís seems their own attempt to copy the successful Apple design while still being different. Itís a good design that ensures the device remains permanently connected although not as easy to find the power point when the Surface Pro 3 is in its stand. The power adapter is smaller than the one you would find on the Macbook Air, but not as small as the iPad chargers. It has a short cable on the front which makes it easy to plug it in virtually anywhere whereas the MacBook Air cable can provide some challenges depending on plug location if youíre not carrying the long annoying extension plug that everyone leaves at home. I hate carrying around the extension cable adapter for the MacBook Air due to its size and this has previously provided me with problems with plug placements found within the desks in boardrooms or those less than an inch about the desk in offices.

    One of the things I really like on the power cable is the addition of a USB port which is very helpful and ensures you donít have to lug around a separate power adapter. It adds the benefit of charging two devices if you use the on board USB port on the Surface or the ability to charge the device without using the Surface Pro 3 itself. The USB port on the adapter is a 5W adapter which is the same as the default adapter that comes with the iPhone, not the iPad. If youíre connecting the Surface to your iPhone for internet access, itís likely your battery will be depleted quickly and having a dedicated USB slot on the charger is a nice add on given the limited number of USB ports on the surface. I wonít knock the number of USB ports on the Surface because I think one is adequate and still one more than the iPad. Iíd really like to see Apple add this extra USB charger to their power adapter as itís fairly inconspicuous and doesnít impact the overall design aesthetics.

    Other than that, it comes with the Surface Pro 3, the power cable and the usual assortment of manuals that normally get put back in the box because you donít bother to read them anyway.

    From a quality perspective, the Surface Pro is well made, uses premium quality materials and it is on a par with Apple. Itís clear that Microsoft are targeting the premium end of the market, or essentially Appleís target market. The aluminium casing has a slightly rough texture to it that will probably hide scratches a little better than the Macbook Air.

    The outside of the surface is pretty clean. There are not many ports or holes to worry about which means the design looks good and fortunately with a distinct lack of those annoying stickers that most of the hardware vendors stick on their laptops. It has volume buttons on the left hand side (in landscape mode) which are perfectly positioned for holding the SP3 for a movie.

    On the right side of the device, youíll find the power adapter along with a micro SD card slot, a single USB port and a Mini Display Port adapter which is great from a personal perspective and saves me worrying about buying a new VGA adapter as my Macbook Air adapter should work with this (some users have already confirmed this on the internet). The is a long air vent along the length of the device although itís well designed and fits in with the lines.

    On the hardware front, with the 256GB i5 and 8GB of ram, the performance seems more than adequate for my requirements and doesnít seem to suffer from any noticeable lag. I think if I was going to replace my laptop permanently and get rid of the Macbook Air (unlikely), Iíd probably max it out with the i7 and 512GB but I think for the majority of business users, my current spec will be more than adequate.
    The screen is really nice, 2160 x 1440 is well beyond the 1440x900 found on the Macbook Air and must be pretty close in pixel density to the Macbook Pro Retina. The only annoyance with the screen is the Windows button on the right side which you sometimes find yourself accidentally pushing with your hand or finger while watching movies but perhaps this will improve as I get used to it.

    The kickstand on this is a stand out feature. It is really one of the best kick stand designs Iíve seen on any device or cover. It covers virtually every conceivable angle you may find yourself in and is very sturdy. Itís one of the design concepts that simply falls into the design genius category.

    If was going to knock anything from a hardware perspective, itís the lack of 4G (what were you thinking Microsoft?) and the position of the Display Port adapter which is right at the top of the screen when itís in typing mode. When you attach an adapter, it hangs down which is really poor design. I think Microsoft are hoping that users buy the dock but the reality is some users may simply plug in using a Mini DisplayPort VGA adapter and this setup is pretty clunky with the current design.

    Starting it up.

    Aside from the slight glitch of mine not wanting to start up when I first unboxed it (resolved by putting the power cable in), the actual start up process was really quick. The initial start-up from off is about 5 seconds which is fairly reasonable for a full version of windows and well beyond the usual 20 seconds I was accustomed to. I would say it doesnít seem longer than an iPad so Iíll give credit to Microsoft with what they have done with the start-up process on this device given itís a full start up and starting from sleep. The start from sleep is instant.

    The process of setting it up does seem fairly lengthy, but it may also be because I have existing Apple accounts so setting up an iPad is a quick and simple affair because the process of start-up is optimised by simply adding your existing iCloud account details and the device is setup. It would be unfair to say itís more lengthy or cumbersome than Apple without going through the process of setting up new a brand new iPad with a new iCloud account which I am just too lazy to do so Iíll call it even on this. If someone can point me to an accurate comparison, Iím happy to add it here.

    The stylus

    I have to say, I really like this stylus. Itís taken a little while to get used to it and Iíd recommend using One Note 2013 if you have an Office 365 subscription which is far more functional. It comes with a standard version of One Note but the 2013 version (which is a desktop version) seems more polished. There are some options not enabled by default that I can recommend like the ability to scratch to rub out (which I am used to from Notes Plus) but itís a very good setup overall. The notes are then synchronised to your laptop (Mac) or any other device support for one note. You have the capability to search handwriting if required.

    When you click the back of the pen, the One Notes application automatically opens works really well.

    I had some challenges initially when I changed the default to One Note 2013 and it kept activated the Metro version with the click on the pen. I subsequently discovered that the Surface has a number of different locations for updates so you check for updates in one area and nothing appears, but if you go somewhere else, there are plenty of them waiting. I had 56 updates which sadly went across my 4G connection depleting most of my mobile phone data. It did however fix the pen problem which was appreciated and now stylus now enables the right Application. Unfortunately, I canít remember all of the locations I found the different updates but there are a couple of articles on the web which list where to find them. Mine was in the firmware update area.

    One of the added features of the stylus is the ability to double click the back of the pen which allows you to select a portion of the screen to cut out for paste to an application. This is similar to the CMD OPT SPACE F4 option found on Macs, but works with the stylus. Itís a nice touch and seems to work very well although this could be accomplished with a mouse on a Mac and doesnít necessary require a stylus to achieve it.


    Whilst the Surface Pro 3 is a tablet, itís also not the best one and the whole purpose of having the Surface Pro 3 is the ability to take advantage of the full desktop operating system and that means compromises. That means a keyboard (Microsoft Type Cover or otherwise) is a mandatory requirement for the Surface Pro 3. The majority of reviews have slammed Microsoft for not including the type cover and Iíd agree with them. If you are going to compare the surface with the Macbook Air, you really need to include a keyboard because without the keyboard, itís a poor comparison that the Surface Pro 3 will always lose. Sorry, Microsoft, if you are going to throw out comparisons between the Surface Pro 3 and the MBA, itís a bad comparison with the way you sell the product. If Apple used the same marketing slant, they could claim their MBA has a 24Ē screen because for the cost of the Type Pad, you could buy a cheap 24Ē external display.

    Aside from my comments on Microsoft not including the Type Cover, it is actually a really clever concept and in practice, it works well as a part-time keyboard. One of the key reasons why itís better than similar products for the iPad is that it has a direct connection to the SP3 where the magnets connect which negates the requirement to have a battery imbedded in the product or use a Bluetooth connection. This mean itís thinner than similar products from competitors without the headache of Bluetooth connections and the delayed responses that come with it. It includes a small mouse cover pad which is usable but not for full time use. Realistically, itís not worth comparing the touch cover mouse pad with the Air, the Air is simply streets ahead.

    If you intend using the SP3 for your permanent machine (i.e. carrying it around as a laptop replacement), Iíd recommend you get proper keyboard, whether to remain on your desk or to carry in your bag. Whilst I did purchase the Type Cover, I also purchased a Logitech T810 for the SP3 so I could do a true comparison and to make it easier to use it. I am still carrying a MacBook Air with me, as I cannot take the risk of trialling a laptop permanent for business but the T810 would at least allow me to compare Appleís with Appleís. I also have a Logitech T631 Mouse which is switchable between two devices so that saves me carrying around a permanent mouse for the SP3. The T631 is designed for the Mac but the touch scrolling works perfectly with Windows so Iíd recommend it if youíre looking for something for both.

    Aside from the keyboard and type cover, I also purchased a fluffed lined cover to protect it as I would prefer to avoid scratching something on the odd chance I have to return it. Itís a fairly nice design from Incipio that allows you to store the Surface Pro 3 with the type cover attached and has a pouch on it large enough for the power adapter.


    As I have my Macbook Air as my primary laptop, I decided to look at synchronising data and utilise some synchronisation tools between my Surface Pro 3 and my Macbook Air. This would hopefully prevent me needing to pull out the MacBook Air where possible as all of my documents and data should be in sync between the devices and I canít use data as an excuse. It also gives me an opportunity to compare some of the search functionality between the Surface and Macbook Air.

    After some initial trials, I realised the sync via wifi was just going to be too slow for my requirements so I purchased something called the workhole by a company called j5create. Itís a pretty clever tool, a cable essentially that plugs between your Mac and PC. The UI is really clever in that it allows you to slide your mouse off the side of one screen and only the other so you have two laptops in front of you, it shares the mouse between both and you drag the files from Finder on one screen to File Explorer on the other. In practice it works really well with the exception that some of the file naming conventions donít work in Windows and that can cause some errors in the transfers that need to be manually resolved.

    I canít comment on the synchronisation tools as yet. Iím currently testing a couple and Iíll give more feedback later.

    Windows 8 on the Surface Pro 3

    Once setup, the tiles are a little confusing if youíre not accustomed to Windows 8 as they donít directly tell you what they are for. Some are obvious (the office icons) but the app store was a little less obvious for me (it appears as an app review in the tiles rather than the store). The process of adding tiles is a little annoying and cumbersome but I think itís part of the process of coming from a desktop application rather than a pure tablet. If you want to add an app, you have to go to the app section, find the app, hold down on the icon and then pin it. Then it adds it right to the end so you have to position it in the right location. To me, it would have made more sense to hold down your thumb where you wanted to add the app, select add and then select the app from a list.

    Iím going to be honest and say that if anything was going to hold me back from buying this, itís Windows 8. From an OS perspective with touch screen computers it just seems really badly thought out. When I am working in tablet mode, I want it to be a tablet, when I am working in desktop mode, I want it to be a desktop. Itís really not a hard concept go work with. If someone has a type cover attached, they shouldnít have to touch the screen and I find myself being forced to touch the screen fairly often. Itís only once you work with Windows 8 that you truly appreciate how much Apple puts into their UI.

    As am example, when you start the device you get a login pad as you would for full windows. There is an option to switch it to picture login or 4 character key like the iPad but it isnít turned on by default. Why would they give you the most unusable as the default option is a mystery to me. This is frustrated further by not having number keys on the onscreen keyboard so if you have a combination password setup like M@cta1k44, the number keys are over letters so you either have to switch to the number keypad for those characters or hold down a letter key until a number appears. If you donít have a keyboard attached, itís extremely annoying and turns a 2 second process on an iPad into a 10 second process on the SP3.

    I wonít comment much more on Windows 8 yet as I want to give myself time to get used to it, but my first impressions are dismal.

    In summary

    So, after a couple of days on this, Iím going to be honest and say I am still undecided. I donít hate it but I donít love it. I think part of me wants to love it because it is a beautiful piece of hardware. There are some aspects of it that seem to be really well thought out and itís as if Microsoft has a couple of really smart people throwing in ideas, but if they canít find the right idea, they seem to be prepared to accept second best or in some cases, third of fourth best. Itís something we donít often see with Apple but we often see when companies allow developers to design UIís which is generally a bad thing.

    When I look at this from a hardware perspective, it is bloody impressive. The kick stand is one of the most functional designs Iíve seen on a tablet and negates the requirement for any accessory to do the same. Iíve tested it on planes at the office and it allows you to find the perfect angle for your individual requirements at the time, something which most of the third party cover/stands fail at with the iPad. The type cover is also genius and something that Apple could definitely learn from. The stylus is a work of art, itís everything I wanted in the iPad and never got. Some of the smaller items are definitely an advantage. Before boarding my flight, I was able to copy a couple of movies across onto the device with a USB key (I actually copied them to the USB and then uploaded them on the flight) which is something I would have had a harder time with my iPad. The iPad would have involved connecting to iTunes, hoping the movies were in the right file format, waiting for the synchronisation to take place, if the movies were even on the right machine. There are cases where USB is simply the preferred option.

    In short, if Apple released something like this, I know Iíd buy it tomorrow, largely because Apple would have found the right way to make the UI work which is probably the biggest thing against it. Unfortunately, either they havenít found the right way to make it work, or they are fairly stubborn and have just decided itís not a direction they want to go. If itís the latter, I think itís a mistake. I think there is a big market for these types of devices.

    I may have been a little negative on my first impressions and part of that is the frustration that comes out of changing the way you interact with a device. The iPad is very easy to interact with and the SP3 just doesnít quite match that, maybe as a result of being a fully functional desktop OS. The Surface Pro 3 requires a lot of change and I suspect thatís why Apple gave them to all the journalists at the release because I suspect itís a device that will grow on you over time.

    I still cannot fathom how Microsoft (or anyone else) can release a tablet without 4G imbedded, particularly when youíre marketing it as a tablet. I donít like the idea of connecting my phone every time I want to connect to the internet. Iíd be surprised if they didnít add it in future. I understand itís a tablet trying to play as a laptop, but itís still a tablet and most tablets need 4G.

    I personally think that Microsoft is on to a winner here and it would not surprise me if Apple seeís this take a small chunk out of their iPad sales. It may not be large initially, but if Microsoft gets the OS right on Windows 10, this is going to be a phenomenal competitor. I know a lot of people think users want the tablet and laptop separated, but I think the right user interface will force a portion of the market to rethink their requirements and if Microsoft get the software right, Apple better watch out.

    Over the next two weeks, Iíll continue to provide further feedback on my experiences with it. Iíll be installing Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom as I do a lot of photography to see how the devices handles some heavier use as well.
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