After I’d been using the Surface Pro 3 for two weeks I wrote a brief but positive post about the experience – so am I as positive now that I’ve been using it for two months?
Quite simply, no. Why I feel that way is perhaps less simple.
I do like the Surface Pro 3 as a device, and I really like the hybrid form factor and the pen (I’ve been a Mac user since 2006 and when the iPad was launched I was disappointed that it was an iOS tablet not a Mac one). When Microsoft launched the original Surface it seemed like the ideal form factor, but it was far from perfect and the big problem for me was that it was running Windows.
However, with the Surface Pro 3 Microsoft seemed to have ironed out most of the issues and it was a much more appealing option.
So what’s wrong with it? Well for me there are four things:
1. Windows being Windows
In one of the earlier posts I expressed a concern that the friction of moving from one operating system to another would be a distraction that I was too busy to deal with. In fact that didn’t really happen – although I’m willing to concede that there may have been some confirmation bias going on here.
Unfortunately, that lack of friction didn’t last. Twice in the space of a week I went to switch on the Surface only to be faced with the ‘Windows is applying updates’ screen. The first time it happened it was quite annoying, because (a) I was busy and (b) once the update had finished it then rebooted and started applying further updates.
The second time was very annoying, because I had a client on the phone and I was trying to find some information she needed urgently.
The final straw was a horrible flashback to ten years ago, and my original decision to quit Windows and move to the Mac. Back in 2005 I had been working on a document for most of the day, and when I was done I dragged the file from one folder to another only for it to leave the source folder and never appear in the destination folder. I wasted a further half a day trying to recover it before giving up.
Last week I had the same experience with a disappearing file. This time it wasn’t such a big deal – the file was less important, and it was backed up anyway – but the experience was enough to undermine my trust.
2. The software sucks
If I think about this objectively – was I able to do everything I usually do with the Mac without additional effort? – the answer would be yes, pretty much. Certainly, in the past two months I haven’t come across anything that I couldn’t do.
If I think about it subjectively – was the experience of doing everything as good on the Surface as it is on the Mac? – then the answer is no.
This is less about Windows vs OS X as operating systems and more about the software that is developed for them. Some software, particularly the large software suites, is good on either platform. Adobe’s Creative Cloud apps are pretty much indistinguishable between Mac and Windows, and Microsoft Office (unsurprisingly) is better on Windows than on the Mac.
What’s missing from Windows is the vibrant third party developer community and the really great apps they produce. I found myself missing the kind of really great apps that Mac developers produce.
For example, if you consider Sketch, Omnifocus, Ulysses and Alfred then sure you can find apps on Windows that do the same job but the user experience just isn’t as good.
3. The general niggles
Although I have said I like the device and that it improves on previous versions, it still isn’t perfect. There were some things that I forgave at first, but which really niggled me after a while.
One of the device’s best features is a beautiful high definition screen. Unfortunately it’s marred by the number of apps that haven’t been optimised for higher resolutions and which look fuzzy. Although Apple devices suffered similar problems when they first introduced retina displays, I can’t remember the last time I saw an app that hadn’t been suitably optimised.
A related problem is the inability of the Surface to handle multiple resolutions. I have a MacBook Pro with a retina screen, and if I plug it into an external monitor it has no problem using a different resolution on each screen. On the Surface you can only have one resolution at a time, so either the external monitor or the Surface’s own screen will run at a less than optimal resolution.
Even when you are using one screen, the experience still isn’t great. If I plug the Surface into my external display (which isn’t high definition) it will recognise this and scale icons, text and other screen elements accordingly. The trouble is that if I then unplug it from the external display and just use the built in screen the Surface doesn’t adjust the scaling, leaving some elements too small to use and others large and odd looking. The only solution is to sign out of Windows and back in again.
If you only occasionally swap from docked to an external display to using the internal screen, you may not find this annoying – but then why are you using a hybrid device? I chose a hybrid device because in theory it could replace the MacBook/iPad combination that I had previously been using. Which leads me to…
4. The form factor doesn’t work (for me)
For a long time I was sure that this hybrid form factor was what I needed, but in practice it didn’t work so well for me.
Way back at the end of 2011, Jon Gruber suggested that the key distinction between Microsoft and Apple with regard to UI was that Apple had embraced compromise, whereas Microsoft were clear that there should be no compromise – your desktop and tablet operating systems should be one and the same.
That idea of a universal operating system (which Microsoft are pursuing even more strongly with Windows 10) still appeals to me. I just think it’s incredibly difficult to do well, not least because you need to engage your developer community to produce apps that work well in all formats.
Over the past few weeks a few people have asked me if they should buy one. With the caveat that perhaps they should wait until the Surface Pro 4 is announced, my answer has been yes.
Despite everything I’ve said above, I do think it is a great device in the right circumstances. If you are a Windows user and happy to remain one, it’s a good choice of device.
I think it could work well as the sole device in a non-techie household, where it would be as at home in tablet mode on the sofa as it would in laptop mode when needed. I think it’s those situations where you only want one device and you’re only occasionally swapping between those modes where the hybrid format can work well. Where you are regularly shifting from one to the other it works less well.
For me, it just doesn’t work well enough and I’m back to my MacBook Pro and iPad combination. Although carrying two devices is in itself a compromise, it’s one that gives me the best laptop experience and the best tablet experience.