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

    This is the third and final instalment in my Surface Pro 3 review. If you missed the first and second, Iíve linked them. The first part is a spoiler, Iíve dumped my iPad so if you were reading it to find out the result, Iíll save you reading the entire article. Thatís the thing with Mac users, weíre user friendly. If you want the long drawn out windows version of why, read on.

    Itís been two weeks since I switched to the dark side (albeit temporarily when I started) so Iíll give you an idea of where my head is at.

    On the hardware front, Iím sold. As I mentioned in the initial reviews, itís a phenomenal piece of work and Microsoft has done an incredible job with this device. If I saw this device at an Apple launch, Iíd be impressed and for that you have to give credit to Microsoft, because Apple sets the standard when it comes to hardware design and quality. Itís clean, high quality, robust and well thought out. Theyíve even gone as far as hiding the micro SD slot so itís not visible and the material looks less prone to scratching than the iPad.

    I cannot find much to fault other than the location of ports (DisplayPort at the top so the adapter hangs down), the lack of 4G and potentially the use of the MiniDisplayPort instead of Thunderbolt so Iíll be honest and say I am not sure if this was an option, but if it was and the missed it, itís a missed opportunity.

    The TypePad, despite its limitations, is still ingenious. If you get a Surface Pro 3 with an external keyboard, Iíd still advise getting one as I use mine often in environments where the external keyboard is not an option. Again, this is an innovation that Apple users would love itís a pity that Apple didnít think of first. No doubt Microsoft have patented this heavily (which probably wonít stop Samsung stealing it) but someone at Microsoft has to be patting themselves on the back for coming up with the idea first.

    On the OS front, Iím less sold. Windows 8 is a very poor OS which lacks usability out of the box. The integration with tablet functionality is somewhat lacklustre and spoils a really good experience. The tiles are great but thatís where the tablet stops. Itís almost like you need to tile everything because the moment you go beyond that, you are in trouble from a tablet perspective. As previous journalists have said, the Surface Pro in its current form is about compromise, but the sad part for me is it shouldnít have to be.

    Windows 8 also requires you to do a lot to make things work for you. You have to change configurations that should work out of the box on a device that is pre-packaged by Microsoft. Apple has done a great job putting together a complete package in the past and thatís really what Microsoft need to focus on for future Surface releases. Only a small portion of users want to tinker, the rest want it to work as is. You need to give them the working setup out of the box and let the geeks or corporate IT people tinker with things afterwards if they need to because they have the skills and knowledge to make changes. In many cases, Windows 8 in its ďout of the boxĒ format isnít unusable because itís a bad product, itís unusable because of the way itís setup and once youíve changed a few things, it becomes more usable and it becomes a more appealing solution to a wider audience.

    What Microsoft lose on the OS front, they do make up in some of the applications they have provided to make it work well. OneNote is great on so many levels that itís really hard to ignore as a productivity tool, but you really need to get the Office 365 version (OneNote 2013) to truly appreciate what they have done with this application. In this respect, if Apple want to target the Enterprise with the iPad they have something to learn from Microsoft. Apple really need to extend their offering on the iPad to incorporate more native apps in this space.

    When I completed my trial, I was pretty much 60% sold on the device. I havenít picked up my iPad Air since the device arrived and oddly enough, I havenít needed to, but it doesnít mean I havenít missed my iPad. My Surface Pro 3 became self-aware on the 12th November when I went away for business without taking my Macbook Air which was a major step for me to take. Itís also a somewhat welcome one with the lack of bag weight. It did require syncing my documents and a hack of my keychain with a script (despite using 1password, there are some items which I have found only in my keychain which I have needed to refer back to).

    What is becoming more apparent the longer I work with this device is how the iPad ball and chain is exposed when you work on other devices. With the iPhone, this is less of a limitation as it is not a productivity tool to the degree that the iPad can be. You make phone calls, you message people, you take photos. You may play the odd game but thatís as far as it goes. Perhaps I just expect more than the usual media consumers that Apple is targeting for the iPad but they do push it as a productivity device and itís really not that good unless you have an application build for purpose.

    If there is any reason to switch from the iPad to another device, its ITunes and Appleís horrific attempt at an application that is so poor, it mystifies me that it even comes from the same company as the iPad. One of the most common complaints I receive from Windows based iPhone users is iTunes and with iTunes 12, itís not only the Windows users that are unhappy. Given the importance of this application, it can only be described something that is so unusable, that even Microsoft would be embarrassed to call it one of their products. For a product that generates as much revenue for Apple as it does, I can only ask ďWhat were you thinking Apple?Ē

    From the iPad perspective in the market, I think itís now the immature teenager in the market and I think the iPad needs to grow up. The iPad doesnít need to become a full blown laptop, but it does need to at least allow for better file management at a minimum. With 128GB of space to use, itís hardly going to be just a music, games and movie repository and that is where itís left wanting.
    Since my first review, I know of two Apple fans at Mactalk who have switched to the Surface Pro 3. It would be optimistic to say thatís as a result of the review I wrote, so I wonít take credit. I think Apple needs to take credit with the fact that the market has grown beyond the iPad and theyíve stayed behind due to their ties to products like iTunes and not providing the right options for users to expand their use of the iPad. The market has moved past just media consumption and games and into the realms of business use and this alone should be a concern for Apple because if Apple fans are prepared to look elsewhere, it means that other companies are doing something right. If Microsoft get Windows 10 right, they will be a major threat to Apple because even with the poor OS that Windows 8 is, there are already users switching to the iPad. Obviously most of the things Microsoft are changing for Windows 10 is talk, but they are talking in the right direction and itíll be their final delivery that decides its (and Appleís) fate.

    Right now, Microsoft is the one taking some risks and they need to be commended for taking that step. Microsoft have stuck to their guns on the Surface approach, and in doing so, they are finding ways to make it work by engaging with corporates. Apple on the other hand is more focussed on entrenching people in their ecosystem and looking at new products categories, rather than extensive innovation on their existing ones. This can be seen by the iPhone which was behind the pack when it came to screen size and many people see the product has moved from innovation to evolution. The fact that Microsoft beat the Macbook Air to the retina game is also disappointing to say the least because I think a lot of Macbook Air owners have been waiting for that and the hardware capability is there to be used. The current Intel HD4400 is more than capable of running the Retina Display found in the Surface.

    I think Apple also needs to remember that the tablet and phone loyalty is remarkably lower than desktops so having to be at the top of your game requires more work or you can easily lose market share. Just speak to Nokia or Blackberry, Iím sure they would know all about that. I know plenty of OSX owners who using Android devices and Apple needs to keep on their toes to make sure that number doesnít grow. On the up side, competition is good for that exact reason. If Samsung hadnít seen the level of success they had with the larger smartphones, would we have seen larger iPhones? If Android wasnít around, would iOS have developed at the rate it has? I doubt it, competition is good for the market and the consumer.

    Iím hoping the Surface Pro is successful, even if it takes Microsoft and Windows 10 to make it work, not because I want to see Microsoft succeed, but because it may force Apple to reconsider its position. It might push Apple into doing bigger things with the iPad or at least producing a device that does both things. There are only a handful of companies in the world that can produce a UI to make a tablet/laptop work and Apple is probably the best of them. They are also the ones that consistently create interfaces which users want to work with and I would love to see what Apple could do with a device like thisÖI personally think the results would be mind-blowing (if they dump or redesign iTunes at the same time). Weíve seen hints of it in OSX but Apple is fairly closed with their developments so we donít know if something is coming in the six months, a year or never. Apple has also been fairly stubborn with wanting to keep the devices separate but it wouldnít be the first time they changed their mind. Iíd also like to see them reconsider the stylus. Apple didnít like the stylus when it came to user interaction on devices because they felt fingers were good enough, and with devices at the time, Iíd agree. The early stylus based phones were terrible and I canít think of a good reason to have a stylus on a phone, but when it comes to tablets, styluses still have their place in the market and it would provide limited risk for them to stylus enable a tablet or at least create a model which is stylus capable over their current offering, an iPad Air 2 stylus version with an additional cost or the stylus sold separately. Scale it low with only a hardware layer on the screen and see whether the market likes it.

    As for the big question of whether the Surface Pro is better than an iPad or a Macbook Air, the answer is ďit depends on who is using itĒ. For me, itís better than the iPad because I need it to be more than the iPad. It does most things the Macbook Air can do but not as well. Itís not as usable as the iPad but itís more powerful. Itís not as functional as the Macbook Air but itís a tablet. Itís not as stable as the iPad or OSX but itís also not as rigid or tied to iTunes. Right now, that works for me because the iPad just isnít enough for what I want and I donít want to carry two devices the whole time. Iím definitely not every consumer on the market but I am a business user and thatís a market that Apple wants to play in. I need my iPad for more than just consumption and the iPad fails when you get beyond that point. The Macbook Air is a better laptop and the iPad is a better tablet and Apple simply donít have something that plays across both.

    If you find the iPad isnít enough for what you need, then chances are the Surface Pro may work for you but it depends on whether you can live with the compromises. If you find the iPad is too rigid for your requirements, then the Surface Pro might also offer more flexibility. The Surface Pro fills the chinks in the iPad armour but in doing so, exposes you to Windows which comes with a whole heap of other problems.

    Itís not to say the iPad is a bad product when compared to the Surface, they are just different products. I would never give a Surface Pro to my mum in its current format or at least without a substantial software revamp from Microsoft. I think it would confuse her and I remember what happened when I used to get a phone call every week about how to resolve random issues on her Windows laptop. I havenít had those calls since she got the iPad and Iíd like to keep it that way. Her iPad works day in and day out and she knows how to use it with virtually no training so thatís the benchmark that Microsoft has on their hands with Windows 10. I never had to show her how to save photos to her iPad, send emails or anything else as she worked that out on her own and it has been the same with most of the things on her iPad. I set up the iPad, set up her email and that was the last I heard of her.

    I also wouldnít give the Surface Pro to my daughters who are 2 and 4. They can already use an iPad Mini (although we limit their time strictly on it), but if I gave them the Surface Pro, Iíd have to keep going back to fix up problems. Itís not a child friendly device unless your child has an IQ over 160 and wants to start programming at 4 years old. Having a device good enough for my toddler to use also doesnít make it perfect, because Iím willing to bet that Appleís target market isnít toddlers and my 60 year old mum, but itís a clear indication of how good Apple and the iPad actually are from a usability perspective and thatís where Microsoft have a lot to learn. I get the impression that Microsoftís idea of a usability specialist is a Windows network administrator and we are talking about a group of people who think a mass orgy is being in the same room as 12 servers. The Surface Pro simply isnít intuitive, unbreakable and user friendly as iOS so until Microsoft fix this with Windows 10, itíll always be about compromises between the tablet and desktop.

    As an example, there is no way to get the Surface Pro 3 to work naturally plugging in and out of external screens and switch between the tablet and external screen without incident. If you set full resolution on the Surface Pro and use the zoom to make the screen larger (the retina resolution is just too high without zoom Ė the icons are tiny), the zoom is also applied to an external screen and external is too large. Microsoft say they have an auto setting to adjust these automatically, but if you use their settings, the two devices donít scale correctly, more noticeably, the Surface Pro scales too small. If you set the zoom level down, the surface pro becomes too small for use so you have to adjust these settings every time you plug into an external and unplug again. To do that, Windows forces you to log off and on again. There are fixes by turning off zoom, switching to custom resolutions or switching to a lower supported resolution, but they are a major work around that require you to install unsupported drivers, use resolutions that are well below optimal or donít use the entire Surface Pro screen. For a company that makes a dock for their device and owns both the hardware and software, thatís a shocking oversight, and in short, something that simply would not happen with Apple. Fortunately mine is almost never plugged into an external but if it was, it would be the source of endless frustration for me and may be enough for me to switch to another device.

    For personal use, I will continue to use my Macbook Air and will probably upgrade to a Macbook Pro Retina in the near future because size and weight wonít be as much of a concern for me with carrying a Surface Pro 3. I love OSX, it feels light years ahead of Windows right now. There is a possibility I could move to a Retina iMac because the Surface Pro 3 may cover all my mobility requirements. If that happens, Iíd probably upgrade this model to an i7/512GB and try synchronise my Lightroom library (my photos are on an external) but for now itís not required, or at least not until I make that change.

    If you asked me what I miss about not having my Macbook Air/iPad combo, other than the generic OS look and feel, one of the main items is iMessage. I didnít use it much on the iPad but I miss having iMessage on my Macbook Air and itís only when you lose it that you realise how often you actually reply to messages on your laptop. Fortunately my keyboard has the ability to switch between my Surface and my iPhone but itís just not the same as replying the moment the popup window appears on OSX.

    For others users looking to fill the gap or asking yourself similar questions, I suggest you take advantage of Microsoftís two week money back guarantee that they offer for the users who Purchase from the Microsoft Store. Youíll either love it or hate it, but at least you have the answer to your question instead of wondering ďwhat if?Ē. It takes time to setup Windows 8 to make it work for you so you need to invest the time with the full two weeks to find out whether itís a device you need.

    So in conclusion, Iím sad to say that Apple has lost me, at least on the tablet front. The rigid ďwe know bestĒ approach doesnít work for my tablet requirements, but I will still remain a Mac and iPhone user. Every now and then when I miss my iPad, Iíll pick up my wifeís iPad and scroll through the clean interface with a sense of nostalgia like an ex-girlfriend that youíre still secretly in love with, missing the days where user friendliness and OS stability was a fact of life and twelve OS updates didnít arrive every day; and when Iím tempted to sell the Surface and buy another iPad, Iíll just open iTunes 12 and try to sync some data as a stark reminder of why I donít miss it.
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