A Mac User’s reflections on Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3

Image source: Me

Image source: Me

I'm about to be issued with a Surface Pro 3. One of my most popular blog entries from 2014 was this one, which I originally posted on www.silverbug.it. It'll be interesting to see how I get on with this device on a long term basis, as opposed to a short review period.

The Lisa begat the Mac, OS9 gave way to OSX, Motorola chips were replaced by Intel, and Apple went in a new direction with the iPod which begat the iPhone which introduced a new version of OSX: iOS.

And so we arrived at the iPad, and it seems to me I can’t talk about the Surface Pro 3 without talking about the iPad first because of course if it wasn’t for the iPad there would be no Surface.

What can I say about the iPad? Given my history, you may be expecting unalloyed praise for this remarkable device, but you won’t get it. While I can’t deny its phenomenal success, I couldn’t make it work for me. I bought an iPad 2 with PAYG cellular connectivity and was full of expectation that this would be my new mobile computing device. Lightweight, slim and trim, with myriad applications, I’d finally be able to dispense with my faithful Moleskine notebooks and create digital meeting notes, and doodle diagrams on the fly.

And to be fair, to some extent this worked. My iPad did pay for itself as it was the only IT I had access to when staying in Paris for a week, during which time I secured and completed a small contract which more than covered the cost of the iPad.

But it was hard work creating the proposal, and this is my beef with the iPad.

It may be one of those myths about Steve Jobs, but I believe it was the case that he was so insistent that the mouse was the new and best input device available, that he didn’t want keyboard shortcuts for the original Mac. Of course the mouse is tremendously useful, but certain operations such as copy and paste for example are much quicker as keyboard commands than drop down sub-menus nested within drop down menus.

And so it seems to me to be the same thing with iPads. Steve Jobs’ dogma insisted that the finger was the best input device, mice (and styluses) aren’t welcome. While multi-touch screens are glorious things, in my opinion they not be the be all and end all for user interaction; my finger simply gets in the way, I can’t see through it. So it takes forever to create content that’s properly aligned for example – a diagram in Keynote, for example.

Irritatingly, the iPad has all the necessary hardware and software within it to support bluetooth mice but you have to jailbreak the iPad to make it work. If you do, usage is transformed! With a mouse and a wireless keyboard you have the same kind of usability as a laptop. A laptop with a touch screen. Now there’s a thought. But alas jailbreaking brings its own problems, so I didn’t do it.

I can understand why Apple decided to use iOS on the iPad instead of regular OSX. At the time of the iPad’s launch, the iPhone, powered by iOS, had been an unbelievable success and it made sense to ride that wave and produce a larger format iOS device. Also the hardware available then probably couldn’t quite deliver enough power to provide a “full fat” OSX tablet with enough ooomph to be useful. And, although all the battery issues learned from iPhones could be transplanted directly into the iPad, OSX wasn’t battery optimised in the way iOS was. Maybe they’ll think different with the much touted “iPad Pro” .

But now things are different and Microsoft could have had a huge advantage, but I think they fell into a trap.

I absolutely love the Surface Pro 3!

Microsoft have absolutely nailed the product. The packaging is as good as anything Apple has produced. You may not think packaging is important, but I think it is as it all adds to the product experience which ultimately impacts brand loyalty.

I enjoyed unwrapping my shiny new gizmo and my first impressions were that this was a beautifully made product. Superbly engineered and well designed. A different design language, naturally, from Apple’s consumer-led design aesthetics. The Surface Pro 3 is more industrial, more rugged – handsome as opposed to pretty. It feels solid, but not weighty. It feels like it means business.

It’s larger than the iPad, but not unusably so – it has presence, not inconvenience. The integrated kickstand is well made, not at all flimsy, and offers such a wide angle of adjustment that the Surface Pro 3 can be used upright, or laying on its back, slightly inclined towards you from the horizontal.

Image source: Me

Image source: Me

The clip-on magnetic keyboard is a real success. Its lightness means that it bounces around a bit when being used, but that’s really inconsequential. What’s really impressive is that it lights up in dark – a feature I’ve been used to for years on my MacBook Pros. Why is this important? Well, a truly portable device needs to be usable under any lighting conditions and sometimes there just isn’t enough ambient lighting to use, which sometimes made my previous unlit Lenovo ThinkPad unusable.

The trackpad on the clip-on keyboard isn’t that great, but that doesn’t matter because I have choice of other ways to navigate around the device. I can use a mouse! I can use my fingers on the multi-touch screen, or I can use the stylus that comes with the Surface Pro 3.

The high res touch screen works pretty well. It isn’t, in truth, as responsive to fingers as the iPad, but it is very good and certainly usable and liveable with. Just for the record, the Surface Pro 3 I have is the i3 processor version, the baby of the range.

But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself because setting up the Surface Pro 3 had some issues.

Setting up the Surface Pro 3

At first, the set up routine seemed well thought out and all was progressing nicely until I came across this screen:

Image source: Me

Image source: Me

Seems pretty straight forward. As I wanted the SP3 to be synced with my work email account, I assumed I could enter that email address and, rather like iOS does, the setup routine would find the email account, perform suitable magic, and all would be well.

But this didn’t happen. What did happen was this:

Image source: Me

Image source: Me

I checked my settings for my Microsoft Account, with a Microsoft representative on the phone at the time, and he confirmed there was no reason this shouldn’t work. But the fact is, it didn’t. Anyway, at this point in setting up the Surface Pro 3, I got stuck in a loop. The “system” wouldn’t accept my Silverbug email address but offered no obvious way forwards.

As you can see below, the error message clearly says “continue without a Microsoft account”, but no amount of clicking on that message made any difference, this screen just stared blankly at me:

Image source: Me

Image source: Me

The other options at the bottom of the screen didn’t help either – clicking on “Don’t have an account?” didn’t do anything, and there was no point in clicking on “Create a new account” as I didn’t want to create a new account as I thought I already had one.

At this point, I handed the Surface Pro 3 over to the IT team to continue the setup.

As it happens, my IT team informs me, the option to continue set up without a Microsoft account is in fact buried in the “Create a new account” option, which doesn’t seem to me to be the most logical place to put it.

Howsoever, IT did what IT does and set my Surface Pro 3 up so that it was completely integrated with our corporate Outlook and Lync accounts and now it’s a breeze to use the device just like a laptop.

Thank goodness for Windows 10! (I hope)

What can I say about Windows8? I find it’s a confusing place to be. The Start Screen and the Desktop. Two user interfaces in one device. You can start from Start, but you finish on the Desktop.

There are lots of applications listed in the Start Screen which can be pinned to either the Start Screen or the Task bar. Or both. Such as Word. I can pin Word to both. If I start Word from the Start Screen I would expect that, once I’ve finished with Word, I would drop back to the Start Screen so that I could start something else.

But instead I’m dropped back to the Desktop and have to take an additional action, a swipe, to get back to the Start Screen.

Which begs the obvious question, “What’s the point of the Start Screen?”

Having discussed this with Microsoft at some length, I’m still not sure. It seems that the user interface now known as Start Screen was developed as a response to the success of iOS, especially the iPad tablet. The desktop metaphor, I’ve been told, was seen as an anachronism and Microsoft felt like they were becoming an irrelevance in the tablet space.

I’ve also been told that Microsoft wants to take us on a journey to a new place, and has to carry all of us with them, with all our preferences and prejudices. And of course this is laudable. But the thing is, do we need to go to a new place, whatever that might be?

Is the Desktop really irrelevant? Especially for products in Microsoft’s traditional enterprise home ground? The Wikipedia entry for the Metro interface makes for interesting reading here.

Remember that iOS was, in my opinion, used on the iPad partly because hardware constraints meant that tablet form factors couldn’t support full-fat OSX (I say full-fat because iOS is OSX, but slimmed down somewhat with a different user interface grafted onto it).

But the Surface Pro 3 is proof positive that hardware has caught up with software, and a full-fat operating system, in this case Windows8, can be successfully run on a modern tablet design. In fact, the i3, i5 and i7 processors are exactly the same as used in Apple’s MacBook Pros and MacBook Air laptops that do run full-fat OSX.

I believe many of the frustrations I’ve experienced with Windows8 will be resolved next year in Windows10.

Sensitive to touch?

Some might argue that the reason the desktop metaphor is losing relevance is the multi-touch screen. A traditional desktop design doesn’t work well with multi-touch screens because the detail is too small. Icons, menu option, radio buttons and all the visual design cues that we are so used to don’t respond well to spatulate fingers such as mine.

And to a point I’d agree; occasionally multi-touch is too coarse, not refined enough, to be 100% accurate in the Windows8 Desktop on the Surface Pro 3. But this is the trap Microsoft fell into because, in Windows8 on the Surface Pro 3, you can still use the standard keyboard shortcuts that everyone using every version of Windows has become used to since the inception of Windows 3.11, or you could use the mouse to select or click, or even the stylus. With some applications, you can even zoom into dialog boxes by “pinching out” on the Surface’s screen surface and still use your finger, à la iOS.

There was simply no need to create a radical new Windows interface for an enterprise-oriented tablet.

One note about OneNote

I was really impressed with OneNote on Surface Pro 3. I think this is an absolute gem of a product and I was delighted to stumble across it. It has all the panache and innovation that I love to see. The design and development team deserve every plaudit going for the work they’ve done with it.

I’ve been a devoted user of Moleskine notepads for a decade or more and have a tidy pile of them full of my scrawly scribble and diagrams. I’m a visual thinker and like mind-mapping and diagramming to explain my ideas and capture what thoughts I have.

The stylus really comes into its own with OneNote. For once I felt I had a usable and useful digital notebook, writing with the stylus felt smooth and natural. The Surface Pro 3’s screen is pressure sensitive, so you really can emphasise free-form doodles, and there’s no lag between moving the stylus and tablet responding.

On top of this are some superbly executed context-sensitive radial menus that give you all the added features you need, without being intrusive. Changing the colour of the pen or thickness of the nib, for example, is very easy and feels natural; why wouldn’t you do it this way?

If you prod the screen with your finger, you get one menu, if you prod with the stylus a different menu is displayed and yet again if you select some text such as the note title, a third menu is displayed. And there are sub-menus within the main menu – precisely which shade of red do you want? User interface research shows that radial menus up to a maximum of 8 options are not only useful but increase productivity, although the downside is they can take up a lot of screen real estate. The design team behind OneNote have dealt with this problem in a beautifully elegant way.

The only problem with note taking in OneNote is nothing to do with the Surface Pro 3 as such – but with corporate security policies. At Silverbug, we have a strict adherence of security policies, understandably so. But this means that the Surface Pro 3 auto-locks after a few minutes of inactivity. This means that you need to log back in again, while listening to someone speak – and when you have a complex password, and are trying to use the multi-part soft keyboard that the Surface Pro 3 has, it takes several attempts to get logged back in, by which time you’ve missed the point of what’s being said. This is obviously incompatible with effective note taking.

Should the Emperor keep taking the tablets?

When it comes to tablets, I can’t help thinking – so what? Isn’t it all just a case of Emperor’s new clothes?

My experience of the iPad was hugely disappointing, so much so that, to the surprise of my Microsoft friends and colleagues, I recently sold it.

When using the Surface Pro 3 in upright mode with the magnetic keyboard attached, the form factor is no different from a standard laptop, so why not just use a regular laptop?

Although there’s plenty of power in a Surface Pro 3, as they use the i-series processors, and it could be a laptop replacement, there’s no overall compelling reason to do so. I can’t see myself replacing my laptop with any tablet anytime soon.

When not using the external keyboard, the Surface Pro 3 is a more usable tablet than the iPad, by virtue of still supporting wireless mice and stylus’s as well as the multi-touch screen with soft keyboard, which works as well as you’d expect. For note taking, OneNote with the stylus is excellent.

But the Surface Pro 3 when used as a tablet is less useful than a regular laptop, although I do concede that there are occasions when the tablet form factor might be more appropriate for some specific tasks. Are these limited occasions worth the money?

For me, the standout application on the Surface Pro 3 is OneNote, but I wouldn’t have a Surface Pro 3 just for electronic note taking. Not only is that expensive, but I’d be carrying both the Surface Pro 3 and my laptop.

Conclusion

If you want to get a tablet for business use, right now I’d recommend you give the Surface Pro 3 some serious consideration as it’s probably the best of the bunch.