If someone told me 5 years ago I’d be typing this on a PC running Windows, I would have punched them in the face. But, here we are.
A couple weekends ago someone lent me a spare Surface Pro 4 they had. It was new, in the box, and the Core i5/8GB of RAM model. Within 4 hours it crashed so hard it required a complete re-installation of Windows. It was like 1999 all over again.
But I’ve done my research and I know things take some time sometimes. I used that Surface, Microsoft’s take on the tablet that shrinks a lot of laptop into a smaller space, with some success afterwards and went on to pick up my own Core M (fanless) version that I’m using right now. And I think I want to keep it.
The iPad, iPad Pro, and iOS
I have to get this out of the way first. At home I have an iPad Pro sitting on the coffee table. I use it to read tweets, send email and text messages, and sometimes move some files around with Dropbox. For all of Apple’s work in making great hardware, my workflow is not iOS friendly. And I wish it were. But it’s not.
I need to move files around like the dickens. And I need Adobe’s suite of products. Their iOS counterparts are borderline useless. I know people can create stunning art on an iPad. But I make business cards and websites and brochures and logos that need bundled up as format-friendly .eps files and printer-friendly CMYK InDesign and PDF packages. iOS has no mechanism for handling these files at all. Believe me, I’ve tried. Before you say Pixelmator, nope, I’ve confirmed with their support that it doesn’t do CMYK on iOS (it does on the Mac).
I also play some games. Namely, SimCity. To me “gaming” is just SimCity. I don’t really do much else. SimCity, like a ton of games on iOS, is one of those shitty nickel-and-dime In App Purchase games that basically wants you to pay a bunch of money constantly. SimCity on iOS is not designed to play like I want to play, where I sit down and say, “Ok, I have a few hours to relax. I want to play a game.” SimCity BuildIt, as it’s called on iOS, is all about producing little virtual products like seeds and lawn chairs and drills and wood. It’s designed to play for a few minutes at a time. iOS has a bunch of great casual games. But when you want a game, you want a game.
Every time I sit down to use my iPad for “real work”, I’m disappointed. And I’ve read all the think pieces. I know a lot of people can do “real work” on iOS. I’m just not one of them yet.
Which doesn’t change the fact that as a Frugal Hoosier, I am not excited about having $3,000 worth of hardware just to go through my day. I want one device that can do work and play in a variety of environments.
Enter the Surface Pro 4
I know Tim Cook has routinely called a Surface a “toaster fridge”, explaining that you can’t possibly put the two together and expect either to be good. But I kinda think he might be wrong.
Microsoft has built their Surface line like a mix of Microsoft and Apple. They’re building the hardware and software, like Apple. But they’ve also taken a few years to get it to be pretty good, a classic Microsoft move.
The hardware on the Surface Pro is great. I can’t find any reviews that poo-poo it. It’s as thin as the USB port will allow, and light enough to compete with the MacBook Air. My other daily-driver, a 12″ Retina MacBook, is what I’ve been using recently. The similarities are interesting.
They both have high resolution screens. Some compare the Surface screens to be better than some iPad models in color correctness and display of blacks. It is a great screen.
The speakers on the Surface Pro 4 are nicer. Not necessarily better, but nicer. The iPad Pro has more bass, but the Surface Pro speakers are embedded in the bezel of the screen, so they’re facing at you instead of the side. So they sound louder and clearer, and certainly better than the MacBook. To be honest, I didn’t even know where they had placed the speakers until I started really looking for the tiny slits. Jony Ive would never let this out of Apple’s design lab because it makes the screen untrue to itself, but any rational person who just wants to hear clearly will appreciate it.
The power jack is magnetic, unlike the iPad and MacBook.
The USB port is kinda nice to have. When I had that initial Surface, the i5 model, it let me restore it without a trip to the store. And about that i5 model: it was fast, but noisy. The fan kicked on a lot, and the battery life was dismal at just a few hours. Some have reported that this is fixed now through software and better manufacturing. The Microsoft Store rep I spoke to seemed to be surprised by it. But if you unplug one of the i5 or i7 models in the store, you’ll see the battery meter quickly show 2-4 hours of battery life left. That’s not good enough for me. I’d be worried sick if I had to go give a presentation with that.
The one I’m using now, however, is the Core M model. It can almost be considered a special Core i3 Processor, but it sips power more efficiently. I can easily get 6 hours of usage, maybe longer. Sometimes the battery meter shows 10-12 hours of life on it when I’m just writing or browsing the web. Microsoft claims 9 hours on the i5 model, but I can’t imagine how.
The TypeCover (which comes in colors, like this shade of red I love), is Microsoft’s way of making this laptop/tablet hybrid work well. The TypeCover is light, easy to remove, fits snugly with magnets, and has generous keys and key strokes. Plus, the trackpad is much improved. It’s just as responsive and smooth as my Macbook. The clickiness is about on par with a MacBook Air’s “chicklet” style keyboard.
One qualm with the hardware: the Core i5 and i7 models have a larger power brick, and that comes with a longer cord. The brick also has a USB plug on it, which is interesting (the charging port is like Apple’s Lightning plugs — capable of transmitting data and electricity). The Core M, however, comes with a smaller plug that goes directly in the wall. It’s also about a foot or 18″ shorter. I wish it was a little longer. Also, the charging light on the Surface charger is useless. It’s lit when it’s plugged in and stays white. It doesn’t change or show a charging vs charged status.
The Surface Pro also has a MiniDisplay port and MicroSD card slot. The MiniDisplay port is being used right now with Apple’s own, and it works fine on my Dell monitor.
The MicroSD slot makes up for the 128GB of disk space that comes in the Core M model. I bought a 128GB card for $50 on Amazon and within 24 hours had everything from my MacBook placed on my Surface Pro. For a whole lot less, too.
Get smart about cloud storage through OneDrive or Dropbox and you can really go places.
Really, Microsoft may be new to making PC hardware, but they’ve been making hardware like mouses and keyboards for decades and they’ve got a lineup of some great input devices over the years. Unlike Apple.
I used Windows growing up. XP was the last version I owned myself, and 7 was the last I used with any regularity since it was at the office I was working at. Since 2009, though, I’ve been OS X-only.
My biggest fear, and I’m sure the largest of any Mac user who looks at the cost of Apple’s “Own a Mac and an iPad, why don’t you? Oh, and an iPhone…” is, “But doesn’t Windows suck?” “Can I find good software there?”
The answer is largely no, it doesn’t, and yes, you can.
Windows 10 is snappy and stable. It even feels snappy and stable. Any concern that it doesn’t manage resources or memory or power or stability as well as OS X are out of date. Any notion that Windows is likely to get a virus and die at the wiff of an email is also unfounded.
Windows Defender is a built-in security mechanism, kinda like Apple’s own firewall and app-signing protocols, that keeps things safe without the need for a bloated antivirus and malware scanner. Like on a Mac, don’t be dumb and don’t click on stupid crap and you’ll be fine. But you’re more secure than ever.
Windows 10 boots quickly, encrypts data through BitLocker (like FileVault), scrolls smoothly, and launches and closes programs easily. I have no complaints.
In some ways, it’s faster. I can play the same game (SimCity, Cities of Tomorrow Expansion) on this Surface and my MacBook. This Surface does better.
Neither device has a fan inside (the i5 and i7 do), but my Surface runs cooler when maxed on games. The Surface’s 2.2 GHz processor is twice as fast as the 1.1 in the MacBook and it shows, even if OS X is efficient at making it feel otherwise.
Installing fonts is a lot easier today than ever before. It’s just like OS X: double click and install. Done. Still no Helvetica, though.
I was even worried about screenshotting, since I do that constantly with Cmd+Shift+4 on OS X. I’ve found that the OneNote Clipping tool works great for this. Maybe even better since it can be set to copy to the clipboard for use later, as opposed to junking up my desktop with screen shots.
Windows Explorer is almost exactly the same as always. Mac users perennially complain about Finder’s dated behavior, too, so this is clearly a cross-platform complaint. Explorer lacks tabbed windows, but it shows previews and details just as the Finder does. I have no complaints there.
In many ways, Microsoft has closed the gap with Apple on the OS that I think Windows 10 and OS X are on-par in ease of use, stability, security, and features. At this point they’re just volleying and stealing ideas from each other. Windows had split screen first, before El Capitan late last year. I find it works better and easier on Windows than on OS X. So it’s 6 of one and half a dozen of another. Skype and Facetime. Expose vs App Switcher. It goes on.
Also of note: it’s not ugly! In fact, Microsoft has been doing what Apple users have wanted which is to stop pushing updates with new features once a year and just roll them out like a service. Just last week a Windows update came in that lets you check a box to “match Windows to your background image”. Here it is making my Rolling Stones concert photo even cooler:
Things get interesting when you pull the TypeCover off (and you should really buy it with the TypeCover). Windows has a “Tablet Mode” that is borderline useless. It just makes windows big. I never use it.
Instead, I just tap on the screen. Touch targets are small, but I don’t struggle with it. I can imagine older eyes, or really really fat fingers might struggle. But I appreciate that Microsoft is making inroads on that. Where they’re moving from the top down, Apple is moving from the bottom up. They’re both striving to get to the same spot in the middle.
Long term, I think Apple will come out ahead here. I think. I think Apple’s playing a very, very, long game. I know people complain that the Surface and iPad Pro should be treated like two different things, but I don’t. I think Apple’s working to make iOS desktop-class, while Microsoft is working to make Windows tablet-friendly. It’s already desktop-class.
Strikingly to me, Adobe has touch-friendly controls in Photoshop and Illustrator. The claim they can’t make their apps on iOS seems more like, “We don’t want to” or “That’s a reallllly big job, maybe someday…”.
And as high-performing as the A9X chip is in the iPad Pro, it’s still a long way from Intel’s line. Apple will get there, eventually, but I’m here today and I need something that can work today.
This is where most people say, “Well just use a Mac”. That’s Apple’s line. And that’s not wrong. But dang it, I can’t justify $3,000 in hardware lying around so I can read on this and write on that and play on this and work on that.This is 2016 and I’m not made of money.
The “just use the Mac” trope is fine, except, I spend a large part of these cold winter nights and frosty winter weekends sitting on the couch. I have a cat that wants to sit on my lap and all I really want to do is read Kindle books or browse the web. I’m in consumption mode.
The iPad is great here, but so, too, is the Surface Pro. I pop that keyboard off and it’s exactly what I need, *exactly* where I left off. It pops the keyboard up when I need it, if a little inconsistently in some apps that haven’t been updated, but it works nicely.
And I can read without having to shoo the cat off the keys or sit more upright to make the track pad accessible.
Microsoft is where Apple wants to be on this. But Apple’s taking more time to get touch-friendly software in place and shedding the 30+ years of desktop cruft.
For me, today, the Surface Pro handles this better. I mostly work, sometimes play. I suppose if I were any number of other people who has a laptop or desktop at work, like a banker or something, the iPad would be great. Because the iPad does feel more fun, but this does work nicely. And the battery life and chassis heat isn’t any worse than my 12″ MacBook.
Microsoft is likely to make more headway here, and I think faster than Apple can move the other direction. There are gestures, for example, but only when activated by the trackpad. Without one attached, you can swipe left and right from the screen to get notifications and switch apps, just like iOS, but that’s it. You can’t close apps with a 5 finger pinch, for instance. And you sometimes have to “call” for the on-screen keyboard which sits by the clock in the task tray. But I almost prefer that vs. iOS where it guesses I want the keyboard correctly about half the time anyway.
Moving from or between iOS, Mac OS X, and Windows
Barring some keyboard shortcuts you’ll have to get used to, they’re all there.
I’ve found the following list of adequate replacements to apps I’ve grown attached to:
- Tweetium instead of Tweetbot or Twitteriffic. Sync with TweetMarker instead of iCloud and you can move between all devices seamlessly. I still use Tweetbot on my iPhone.
- Chrome instead of Safari. Chrome is showing age, but Microsoft’s new Edge browser (which is all-new and not IE in the least), is really new. There are no extensions yet. So Chrome with uBlock, The Great Suspender, and Flashcontrol keeps everything in check resource-wise and I have no complaints. Bookmarks and everything else sync nicely back and forth between everything. Microsoft has said extensions are coming almost any day now.
- Cyberduck instead of Transmit. One downside here is that Transmit Favorites, of which I have about 60, are encrypted. Transmit won’t export to anything to let you move your logins.
- NextGen Reader instead of Reeder or other RSS reader.
- Windows Mail is fine. I don’t love it, but I didn’t love Apple Mail, either.
- As an Adobe subscriber, I can use Premier and Audition instead of Garage Band and iMovie. Apple gives you more free consumer-grade software out of the box.
- Office on Windows is better, no surprise there. But Microsoft’s Office iOS apps are great. And Outlook on iOS is better than anything anywhere (really!). No one got excited about spreadsheets, but they work nicely.
- Slack is available.
- 1Password is available, albeit with a pretty ugly app. I was most surprised by this, though they are working on a new version. Like apps on iOS that get upscaled to work on the iPad Pro, some Windows apps haven’t caught up to PixelSense (“Retina”, or high-quality) screens on PCs.
- Reader from Microsoft, available in the Windows Store, is a pleasure to use and replaces Preview nicely.
- Drawboard PDF is a great third-party Windows app that even comes pre-installed on some machines. It makes use of the included Surface Pen to let you markup PDFs. Reader lets you mark up images. Edge’s one notable feature here is that it lets you markup and share webpages. For a web designer, that’s amazing.
- OneDrive for Business is buggy as heck on OS X, though recent updates have helped. It’s better but not perfect on Windows, but also noticeably better in just the couple weeks I’ve been using it. It came with 1TB when I bought an Office license and frankly, if I’m paying that already it’s silly to keep paying $10 a month to Dropbox. Here’s to the quirks there getting figured out very soon. Because that can save some money, too.
- iCloud photos and other bookmark, mail, and contacts data can sync nicely.
- iTunes is here. I haven’t used it much on Windows, but honestly it looks just as dated and archaic as it does on OS X.
- One huge omission here: no iMessage. You’re going to just have to tap out messages on your phone like an animal. Or, be like me and enjoy getting more work done.
The Windows Store
The Windows Store is full of crap. But the really good games you like on iOS, like Lara Croft, are there. The Windows Store is much more of an iOS App Store competitor than a Mac App Store competitor. You can’t find a ton of “heavy duty” applications in there, but all the usual suspects are in there. Except Google apps, funny enough. You’d think Google would hate both equally, but I guess where there’s marketshare, Google will go.
I was using the Kindle App to read a library book last weekend just like on my iPad. Cat in the lap and all.
Developers have the ability for trials, too. I know a lot of people poo-poo this idea, but dangit I tried out several Twitter apps and did buy Tweetium for $2.99. I probably would have avoided it otherwise.
NextGen Reader, my RSS reader, is running a 30 day trial. When it’s done they just stop working and ask you to pay. And you can either pay or not. Apple’s stubborn attitude on this is bad for developers. Microsoft is ahead here and seem to be working to make it easier for developers than Apple is. Apple can do this presumably from a position of power in market share. But it’s killing the iPad Pro and can’t last forever.
It’s great that Microsoft includes the Pen in the box. It makes Apple look ever more Apple-y. The Pen, despite being called a Pen, has an eraser, a right-click button, and a tapable top button that can summon an app of your choice and Cortana.
My only concern with the Pen is that when you press down sometimes you wonder if you’re pressing too hard. You get that little “oil slick” of color squiggles if you press too hard.
Also neat: it snaps on snuggly with magnets. I really do like that and it seems an oversight on Apple’s part.
You can even “hover” with the pen, just by placing it above the screen. And Photoshop and Illustrator both take nice use of the pen. I used it early to actually erase the background of a complicated background in an image for a customer.
And speaking of Cortana, I’ve not really used it much, but maybe I’ll get to a point that I can work that into my workflow. For now, she’s there, sitting down next to the Start menu. I did use her to track a package the other day which was neat.
I still say Google Now is kicking ass in the virtual assistant space. Cortana is bringing up second place and Siri is eating glue in the back of the room. I still only ever use Siri to set timers and alarms and, recently, sometimes, to turn on my Hue lights. Which she does…sometimes.
Worth a switch
I think a lot of level-headed Mac users toting around iPads are likely to think highly of the Surface.
I don’t at all consider it a toaster-fridge. All the platforms are racing to the middle on these devices, but Microsoft’s Core M Surface Pro 4 model, which ably runs everything despite what seems a paltry 4GB of RAM, is a real winner to me.
Microsoft seems to care, too. A lot. They even have a built-in app that lets you submit your feedback. Call it business-y metric-driven-drivel if you want, but they’re clearly trying to measure everything they can straight from the source.
The other side isn’t an enemy anymore. We’re lucky to have a bunch of competition in this space. It’s exciting, and divergent, and plain interesting and fun to watch.
For me, maybe the Surface is the way to go. Microsoft allows a 30 day trial period with free returns online, and in the store. I have about 3 weeks left with this on my return window where I’ll keep playing with it and using it as my daily-driver.