In the past few weeks I’ve had the time to put the Surface Pro through its paces and decided I would write about this user experience in depth. I’ve already shared my overwhelmingly positive views of the Surface in previous write ups covering both the retail experience / packaging and the hardware design. Now it’s time to get into the nitty gritty of using the Surface Pro.
Before we start a little background is probably in order. First off I am a professional software architect so I spend a lot of time with computers and use some heave hitting tools like Visual Studio and SQL Server (oh and yea, I’m a BizTalk MVP). I also work for a consulting firm which means that in addition to my ample keyboard time programming I spend a considerable amount of time in PowerPoint, Excel, Word, and Outlook – and Lync. I also speak frequently at conferences and travel extensively adding to both my presentation and portability demands. More often than not over the last ten years I have carried two laptops with me at most times. Today my work rig is a Lenovo W530 with an extended battery. This is a pretty heavy hitting machine with an i7 quad core, 16 GB RAM, and a large SSD. Oh it also has a Kepler GPU in it, which I actually use for GPU coding – not gaming. I even spoke at GPU Technology Conference recently in San Jose. It is definitely a workhorse, but it weighs in excess of ten pounds with the charger (which is so large it has rubber feet on it, really). In the past I have normally purchased my own hardware relying on Fujitsu for very small, but very powerful laptops. Today we might call these ultrabooks, but the Japanese have been making these for more than a decade and they probably still make the best hardware in this space. As a result I’m used to 10-12” displays on small and powerful machines with excellent battery life.
So getting the Surface Pro going was quite easy. The instruction card is a fold out pamphlet of a few pages and less than about 300 words total. Almost all directions were just pictures. Turning on the device walks you through a setup process that could not be simpler: select language, accept license, personalize the look and feel. Then enter a username & password or Microsoft account of some sort (and an internet connection if you have it). I was impressed by the fact that despite not having an internet connection working when I initially configured the machine it was easy to later tell it my Microsoft account and it just worked without any new Windows login or different library settings. This is a challenge I’ve had before with Windows tablets (my old Q550) – changing user accounts can mean all new libraries and settings and is generally something I try to avoid. Thankfully this was not an issue.
Windows 8 & Surface Pro
The user interface of Windows 8 really comes alive with the Surface Pro. It has the power in both CPU and graphics to keep up with fast and fluid touch motions and provides a very natural experience. Even some of the same apps like the PDF reader that got complaints in the Surface RT are fast and responsive on the Surface Pro. I particularly like the deep use of context based gestures and zooming that happen in Windows 8 apps. This seems to go much farther than any other touch enabled platform at this time.
Admittedly the gesture stuff can take some getting used. I don’t think this is the fault of the OS or device, but really of the user (in this case me). The technology we live with really begins to program us over time and I’ve certainly been programmed quite a bit over the years. Despite heavily using touch devices for a decade it’s been in a point and click world. Even phone UIs, which are touch centric, are still within a small touch box and generally made for single handed operation. Windows 8 apps bring new paradigms with them that expand beyond what is being used in any other platform at this time and sometimes you just need to experiment to find what they are or how they work in a specific app. It’s not always apparent what gestures will do what in a Windows 8 app.
I actually had this happen while writing this piece. I was using the Maps app which is a full Windows 8 app not a legacy desktop app. I was zooming in and out of areas in Japan that I will soon be visiting and wanted to change the perspective. Using the same two fingers I had zoomed with I simply rotated the map and my perspective changed from the North-up orientation that is typical of all maps into whatever direction I wanted to see it from. A small compass shows which direction is north giving me a clear visual cue as to what I was looking at. This was really a unique experience for me as I never would have thought to do this if I hadn’t accidentally turned my hand while zooming. The result was a smooth fluid transition with a bounce forward visual cue to alert me that I could keep moving in this gesture. I was impressed. Especially when I took this out in the field – where I’ll would imagine the maps app will be frequently used from a table.
I think someone who had never seen any computing device before, like a child, would probably have a lesser learning curve because they don’t have the contextual box they’ve been living in. I still find myself thinking inside the non-touch box that most of us live in. I am impressed, however, with at least how some of the apps are taking advantage of the immense capabilities of Windows 8 to leverage new touch paradigms.
There is really nothing new here. Being a true Windows 8 laptop all current desktop applications run as you would expect in the Surface Pro. For me this mostly means Office. I have installed Office 2013 and must say I like the new interface a lot – though again I did have some learning curves with this as well. That said it is quick to settle into a much more productive flow and I definitely like the new Office experience a lot.
I have chosen not to install Visual Studio on this machine despite having the ability to do so. Like I mentioned before, I still carry a full featured desktop replacement with me (though currently in my roll aboard now – yes, I’m on a flight writing this). I like the fact that this machine boots in less than ten seconds and want to keep it that way. Also I’m increasingly using Azure Virtual Machines to host my development environments which I just RDP into and everything works fine. Since most of my domestic flights even have internet that tends to work well for me.
I will say that the pen works pretty well in Desktop mode and Office fully supports inking in all applications. I still use the mouse quite a bit though, which is why I purchased the wedge mouse with the Surface Pro. My desktop interaction is now basically multimodal in that I often touch (which is supported fairly well) and use the touchpad, pen, or mouse depending what I’m doing and what is closest at hand at the time. This is actually the first serious indicator of how different this device is from other computing experiences. The pen, magnetically affixed to the right side of the device is easy to grab and use – so is the touch screen. I’ve stopped using the zoom bar in Office as I can simply touch the screen and accomplish the same thing (which I just did to make this font larger for reviewing).
I will agree with some previous reviews that the amazing resolution of this device can make some programs hard to read or use. The place I see it most is in Remote Desktop where the increased font size settings don’t translate over to the remote machine. This can make fonts quite small, but is a small price to pay for such a crisp and amazing display. Since few people really use RDP (I think mostly IT types) I don’t consider this a major issue.
Charming Indeed – Search & Share Contracts
Perhaps the features of Windows 8 that get the least media coverage, but stood out to me when I first learned of them, are the charms in Windows 8. By this I mean the deeply integrated extensibility features of the Windows 8 operating system in the RT / non-desktop mode. Windows 8 allows something significant that other touch focused operating systems (and yes, I am talking about iOS) do not: namely the ability of apps to share data and actions with each other. The Search and Share charms allow any app developer to build these capabilities into their app. The result is that in the Windows 8 IE app I can share a page with Email or People (or Twitter in my case). If you’re on a page that doesn’t have Tweet icon you can still share it just as easily thanks to IShareable.
Unless you have a good imagination this may not seem like a big deal at first, but it really is. In the iOS world only Siri can share information between apps and that’s not really sharing or searching between them, it is just Siri being able to access them. In Windows 8 any app can announce itself as Shareable or Searchable – doing so is extremely easy as well. As the Windows app ecosystem grows (which is certainly happening already) this will only become more significant. It becomes easy to search inside of application data, not just inside files, which really changes search at a fundamental level that is still in its infancy. This will eventually make for a profound change in our computing experience.
Again, this is an opt-in approach meaning that if you don’t want your app (perhaps a banking or personal finance app) to share or be searchable, it will not be by default.
If nothing else OneNote makes this entire SurfacePro package worthwhile – seriously. People may think they can ink on their iPads and other passive digitizer devices, but they’re wrong. They are basically using markers or crayons on a two state canvas: their ink can be on or off. The active digitizer of the SurfacePro is truly amazing. I have used other active digitizer tablets before, notably the Fujitsu Q550, but they’ve lacked the horsepower to really use InfoPath well. This is most definitely not the case with the Surface Pro.
For instance I take nearly all of my meeting notes in OneNote and also have been using it to plan my presentations (in the style of Presentation Zen – Garr you rock!). I find that the Surface Pro makes both of these activities even more natural than before. Not only is the inking experience fluid and easy to use the zoom experience is amazing as well with zero lag.
Digital Ink on Surface Pro
The right click feature I have come to love on the pen makes highlighting and moving content in OneNote very easy and natural. Again this is really improving the usability of InfoPath – a tool that is good with a keyboard, but outstanding with digital ink. I have completely stopped carrying notebooks – which is something I have done consistently since university. Not clear in the screenshot above is that I also uses color extensively in my notes and InfoPath does this well. Interestingly it is this ability of OneNote to use screen shots, web pasting’s, and digital ink that really makes it feel like my old notebook. The palm block technology works very well and this is by far the best digitizer I’ve ever seen on a tablet.
As a general computing device the Surface Pro is really a capable device. For a person who lives in the Microsoft ecosystem it has a lot more to offer than the Surface RT or any other tablet on the market at any price. In fact, it is a totally unique form factor and computing experience. It is a quality hardware platform with an exquisite user experience. This device really makes Windows 8 shine and has taken over almost all of my daily computing responsibilities (including writing all of my Surface blog posts and PowerPoint presentations). This is the best technology purchase I have probably ever made. In the month since I bought the Surface Pro I have had few issues and am even considering putting Visual Studio on the device.