Surface Pro 2017: Work in Progress Validation of Microsoft’s Vision

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The last laptop I bought was in 2011. It was a mid-2011 13″ MacBook Air, something I bought after years of being a vocal non-believer in OS X (my first true use of OS X was Tiger on a Hackintosh). The Air was an upgrade from a back breaking, heavy, overheating, but spectacularly gorgeous screened Dell XPS 16. The decision to switch to Mac came after walking around Manhattan attending TechCrunch Disrupt with a 10 ton bag on my back. During the 6 years since my last laptop, life happened. I was spending most of my time with a work laptop; my need for a personal laptop started to fall drastically, coupled with my iPhone, I hardly used my personal laptop. But I still needed one, and that led to me getting a Surface. My use case for a personal laptop switched from a machine that I used for gaming, reading, writing, movies, Photoshop, video editing, podcast editing etc., to browsing, reading, and writing a book on my dating life; primarily, having a device more versatile and more like a laptop than my iPhone, not necessarily as powerful as my work laptop.

The device fits right into my day, from my bed time reading to social network browsing and book writing

Having had the MacBook Air for a few years, I was bored. It was a laptop that ran OS X. The iPad is still a bigger iPhone and I already have an iPhone. Cue in the Surface. The fanless i5 had my attention. A light device that I can use as a complete laptop and operates without a keyboard – I’m all for it. I remember when the first set of Surface devices launched, I was there at the Times Sq launch. As an enthusiast, I wanted one; couldn’t afford it. The reviews weren’t kind to Windows 8, Surface just wasn’t there yet. It was still a prototype device finding itself a market and use case. The 3 years Microsoft took refining Windows 8 to the Surface form factor is now paying off. Windows and Windows PCs have come a long way since then. I’ve had my Surface for almost a month and I like it. I loved it for the first 10 days but I’ve downgraded my rating to a “like” since then. The device fits right into my day, from my bed time reading to social network browsing and book writing. I’m not sold on Cortana yet, and neither do I believe Windows 10 has figured out its tablet UI/UX, it’s still wonky and awkward at times. For example, snap Instagram to the left, Facebook to the right, works great. Now I like to have Mail in full screen but if I do that, when I go back to my snapped apps they’ll switch to full screen mode. This is not how Windows behaves in the desktop mode. This disparity in how the fundamental UI behaves is irritating. UI is not meant to irritate. On the topic of UI, my first boot of the device showed a shrunk wallpaper. This is amateur hour. Having the end user go into settings to change the wallpaper fitting is a terrible first impression.

And then there’s this:

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The idea behind these is ridiculous. This is how Apple makes Microsoft’s products look cheap. Throwing these blurbs of texts on the lock screen serves 0 purpose for user experience. If it doesn’t serve a purpose, it shouldn’t be there. The text is nothing more than clutter. It’s akin to a 5 year old scribbling on a photo. This shouldn’t have passed internal design reviews to even come up to an Insider Build.

As far as the device goes, it is beautiful. Curved enough at the corners but not too much, shiny silver Microsoft logo at the back (the new Microsoft logo looks the same however you place the device which is subtle but amazing). The keyboard snapping is really really fun, from the click sound to the instantaneous snapping, it’s well designed. The USB and mini-display port seems out of place, there’s just something about them that disturbs the elegance of the device. While talking about ports, Microsoft’s hardware design team does get credit for placing the charging port high enough that the connector and cable fall straight and doesn’t curve awkwardly. (It’s the little things.) However, each time I put the Surface Pro with the keyboard on my lap to use it for something, it reminds me that this isn’t a laptop. On my lap, the screen needs to be tilted back but since the weight of the device is on the screen, chances of it tipping over and snapping from the keyboard are very high; when I’m on the bed, I want the screen tilted inwards, but the weight of the screen makes it tip over again. Unlike a laptop where the screen stays at the angle you set it to, since the Surface Pro’s screen has the weight, it doesn’t; it keeps tripping one or the other. Or the fear of it tripping makes sure that you sit in discomfort to your neck/back/eyes. This is an issue not limited to the Surface Pro, it plagues the iPad too.

I am using these apps because they are there, not because I want to use them.

Moving to the OS, Windows 10 feels familiar so there’s n0 learning curve there. Snap the keyboard, slide out the stand, and with the trackpad you’re using a normal laptop; take it off and Windows switches to the tablet mode. It works well. For the most part. Till you realize you’re now using Microsoft’s “mobile” OS. In this mode, you don’t have the trackpad. You expect a device that responds and feels like the iPhone, there is no other comparison to touch-based mobile device. Unfortunately, here’s where Windows is still finding its way. Some strides have been made in way of a gorgeously engrossing Instagram app while a sluggish Twitter and Facebook app still leave you with a feeling that these apps exist, I can use them but I don’t want to use these apps. I use these apps because the alternative is the browser (I prefer that when I’m in the laptop mode). This feeling in a nutshell explains how it is to use all Windows’ mobile apps. I am using them because they are there, not because I want to use them. This is a very different sentiment to what I feel when I use the iPhone, apps on the iPhone feel native apps; if you click on a link it opens within the app, not switching to a different app, Facebook works differently and has its own quirks. Every app does its own thing, behaves however it wants to, Windows handles them differently. The experience is not defined. On the mobile, it needs to be. Also, the keyboard. IT IS ANNOYING. It pops up when it shouldn’t, it stays around when it shouldn’t, it doesn’t when it doesn’t. IT IS ANNOYING.

It’s time I have to unlearn the notion that there needs to be an app for everything I do

The one other thing I realized very quickly with the Surface Pro 2017 is that it still isn’t ready for 1 handed use. It’s a heavy device to hold in one hand and tap with the other for longer than a few minutes. The split keyboard is usable, however, it isn’t something I’d like to type more than 140 characters on. There’s no convenient way to type my book using the touch screen, the keyboard-less touch-only form isn’t something I will write my book on. And the fact that there is only 1 focused writing app on Windows, it only makes matters worse. This was the second time I missed my MacBook Air. Byword was my go-to app for writing, I can’t really choose between 1 app on Windows. As I write this on Microsoft’s Edge browser, I don’t miss Chrome anymore. The few things I want in my browser include: keep my favorites bar consistent and remember some of my passwords. Since I no longer have devices running Linux or macOS, Chrome’s cross-platform presence and synchronization is not a feature I rely on. Moving from Chrome to Edge wasn’t frictionless though; while Edge did in fact import the settings, the favorite bar doesn’t support dragging pages from the drop down list. This might seem like an insignificant issue but when you favorite a page and add it to an already populated list, your new addition will go to the end of a drop down and you can’t drag the link to be the first, second, third or fourth position. It is a frustrating element of UI. So as I get exposed to more websites and I favorite them, I can’t just drag a site from the drop down list to the always-visible list. Other than that, Edge is a browser that has not made me miss Chrome at all, perhaps the outlier being that I can’t have Amazon Prime Videos over Chromecast on the TV; I’ll wait for the Apple TV app. Windows 10 doesn’t have an app for Amazon Video, I have to use a browser, and it works surprisingly well so perhaps there is no need for an app and it’s time I have to unlearn the notion that there needs to be an app for everything I do. (Side note: Microsoft-owned LinkedIn doesn’t have an app either, browser is what I have to use. When I started writing this article, Microsoft hadn’t even announced their plans to make one.) Internet Explorer was meant to be the window to the web and Edge very well exposes you to the outside limit of internet on the Surface. That’s my best attempt at making sense of the name “Edge.”

Microsoft was unprepared for the launch, they were not ready with the accessories

Talking about Internet on the Surface, this device is made to be used on the move. When I was reading the device pre-release articles, I misread that all Surface devices will come with LTE. Why won’t they? I thought these are meant to be mobile devices for creating and consuming content on the go. Why are we still making them without mobile Internet? I was expecting too much. I mistook the microSD card to be a SIM slot. Needless to say, I felt a bit slighted when I learned that not only did my Surface not come with LTE support, Microsoft didn’t release the LTE version and hasn’t even said when they’ll come with one. I thought about turning this Surface in and wait for the LTE version, I chose not to. I’ll survive. However, as I started looking for Surface accessories, I realized that Microsoft was unprepared for the launch, they were not ready with the accessories. I loved the Burgundy color of the Signature keyboard but didn’t like the keyboard. So I returned it and ordered the regular Type cover. Only to realize that it had the old keyboard layout, and not the new one, so I went got the Burgundy Signature cover. Again, majority of the blogs don’t focus on this. They don’t tell you what you as a customer need to know about your options or call out a company when they force you into buying an expensive option even though it offers nothing worth the extra $. To recap, at launch, Microsoft only made available:

  • Non-LTE versions of the Surface with LTE version release unknown
  • Signature Type Covers in 3 colors with Type Covers “coming soon”
  • Surface Pen in 1 color with all other colors “coming soon”

I’ve seen the hybrid tablet+PC Windows devices proliferate into the daily use of the corporate world

I will get the Surface pen when the Burgundy pen is available. I still don’t know why I’d need the pen, this isn’t my primary device, I am not writing any meeting notes in OneNote on this, neither am I a sketch artist. My friend whose work laptop (primary use device) is the HP Elite, which is basically HP’s variation of the Surface on a budget has a very different take on this though. He uses the pen a lot for most tablet mode interactions. He feels it’s easier to work with Windows with a pen. I’ve seen one boss-man in my firm use OneNote on a Surface with the pen to take meeting notes religiously (yes, boss-men who actually work instead of delegating do exist). The point being, I’ve seen the hybrid tablet+PC Windows devices proliferate into the daily use of the corporate world, and once that happens, Microsoft has hit critical mass. These hybrid devices are now as common as the iPhones. And this explains how Satya Nadella sees Microsoft’s products being used for productivity. An iPhone and a Windows device for everyone tied by cross-platform services and products. Universal clipboard with the Swift keyboard, Skype for Business, ContinueonPC, and OneDrive Enterprise are all examples of how of the current Microsoft sees this playing out. And it doesn’t seem much different to how Ballmer+Sinofsky’s Microsoft saw it with the exception of Windows Phone. The Surface takes whatever good could be salvaged from Windows Phone and marries it with the familiar Windows OS, and for the most part it works. Does the Windows team need to spend more time refining and defining the fundamental behaviors of their two OSs, definitely. But with the Surface Pro lineup, Microsoft has a fantastic product that is pushing Apple to make their iPad work more like a laptop. It explains why Microsoft is seen as making incremental updates over Surface Pro 3 while Apple’s iPad Pro with iOS 11 is a significant upgrade in how the device will be used. It is a validation of Microsoft’s vision with the tablet form factor.

The tl;dr version of my experience with Surface:

  • Polished hardware
  • Beautiful screen
  • Edge can replace Chrome
  • It’s a fully functioning laptop and works well in the tablet mode for content consumption
  • Use as a laptop requires hard-surface
  • Useful as a tablet, minus the awkwardness of Windows
  • Windows 10 continues to be a buggy OS when dealing with hybrid mode
  • Windows still lacks touch-screen apps but with Edge, you’ll find your way
  • Not all accessories are available yet
  • $160 Alancantra keyboard isn’t worth the price
  • Expensive with accessories

PS: I’ve been sharing my experiences with the Surface since day 1 in a long thread on Twitter.