Rob Carney presents a mostly positive review of the new Surface Pro making special mention of the devices new kick stand, improved pen and extra battery life. Regardless of his positivity his article put me off from the beginning as he poses the question whether the new Surface can rival the iPad Pro for creatives. This one statement suggests a limited understand of the needs of serious creative professionals as the Surface Pro allows for the use of the full Adobe suite compared to iOS apps, this is a point Carney makes but he does not take it to the logical conclusion that creatives who use an iPad Pro would likely need a second device compared to Surface owners. In addition, the implication that the Surface Pro needs to rival the iPad Pro seems to suggest that the iPad is the leader in this convertible category rather than the imitation. Since it was Apple which copied Microsoft in developing a larger tablet with a fold out keyboard and pen input to revitalize its declining tablet sales. In fact, the two devices in some ways shouldn’t even be considered in the same category as the Surface is a true 2 in 1, laptop replacement compared to the iPad which is still a tablet courtesy of iOS.
Regardless of this I may have been able to overlook this ridiculous statement if it had not been later followed by another serious of simplified and flawed comparison. His assertion when you look at it on face value has merit hat for the price of a Surface $2699 USD + another $159 USD for the keyboard and $99 USD for the pen you could buy both the $1899 USD touch bar 13-inch Macbook pro and the 12-inch iPad Pro at $799 + another $99 pencil and $169 for the keyboard stand. However, once you look deeper it is quickly clear that you are getting more for the price with a Surface Pro as it firstly comes with a four core i7 processor with significant advantages in clock speed and cache memory before even considering hyper threading when compare to the MacBook’s duel core i5. In addition, the Surface comes with 16Gb of RAM, 1TB SSD hard drive and a screen with 267 pixels per inch compared to the Macbook’s 8GB of RAM, 512 GB SSD hard drive and a Retina display with a pixel density of 227 per inch but this isn’t even the whole story as Apple does allow uses to customise the top end 13-inch Mac to bring it in line with the Surface specs of course this option increase the cost to $2709 USD which means your no longer getting that iPad. Considering that the fact that the Surface still has the clear advantage over the Mac through form factor it represents better value for money even with the $250 for accessories. On the other side if we wanted to bring the Surface Specs down to match the Mac for an i5 processor with 8GB of RAM and sacrificing a little on the hard drive at 256 GB it only costs $1299, a good $600 less than the Mac. My point in giving all these numbers is to emphasis that price is relative and isn’t the clean comparison that Carney suggests simply you get what you pay for.
My final criticism of Carney’s review is he states that the Surface Pro “doesn’t have enough flexibility in its ports (there’s only one USB, a MicroSD slot and a Mini DisplayPort” in comparison to top of the range Macbook Pro which is a bit ridiculous considering the Macbook doesn’t have any flexibility. The newest Macbook Pro famously only comes with 3 Thunder bolt USB C ports which granted are the newest technology but it means that users need dongles for everything, even connecting you iPhone to your Laptop. In addition, it is unwise for people to play down the importance of a SD card slots since as it is the primary method of data storage for photographers and I believe it has been a gross oversite of Macs for some time to fail to include one. Still using my own Surface Pro 1 at home I have found the use of MicroSD’s has replaced my use of USB storage devices as I can easily transfer data from my desktop PC which has memory card slot to my Surface and then using an adapter which normally comes with the SD card insert it back into my Nikon D3200 but I guess I can always spend another $49 dollars on an adapter I only need if I brought a Mac which is more expensive than a USB hub for $30 that I could easily add to my surface if I needed more than one port. Granted the newest surface should have included a USB C connection since it is the future but it is hardly the deal breaker that Carney suggests it is since as at least for now nearly all accessories still require a normal USB port, even devices that have adapted USB C like my Galaxy 8 still use the old connection on the other end of the cord. This isn’t even considering an iPad which does not give consumers any form of USB connections to remain thin regardless of the fact that it has hampered its ability to become a Laptop replacement or an SD card slot since it would provide an option for people to expand the memory without paying more on the purchase price. Either Apple device Carney wants to compare the Surface to it is clearly a bad joke to suggest that they offer more port flexibility for the price.
Perhaps what is off putting is that from the opening it seems like another Apple fan is trying to seem un biased by writing a mostly positive review of a competitor’s product but ultimately it falls flat through his laughable attempts to dodge simple facts.
It’s been nearly 3 years since Microsoft first released the Surface Pro to champion it’s new look OS Windows 8 and it was meet by ridicule, scepticism and projected failure, who can forget Apple’s fridge and toaster analogy. The tech media was a bit more reserved with most pleased at the overall performance but critical of the poor battery life, weight and extra cost for the type/touch cover. Then came the $900 million write down for the Surface RT and many were ready to forget about the potential of its more powerful younger brother. Not one to follow trends I was never really a fan of early tablets due to their inability to run any of the software I used on a daily basis so I jumped on board once Microsoft changed their strategy in Australian and released it through retail stores. Ever since then I have never regretted a second as for the last few years it has been my major computing device alongside my desktop, I even convinced my Dad, Girlfriend and some random at Harvey Norman to buy one. Sure the battery life still sucks but the pen input was a revelation for teaching whether taking notes or modelling annotation skills while it also allowed me to keep my excel student planner close at hand. This is all ancient history but it’s worth remembering the humble beginnings of the Surface Line as the idea has always remains the same, a tablet that could replace your laptop, we just needed technology to catch up before it became a reality with the Surface Pro 3. The new design increased the screen size but made the tablet lighter and more streamed line with improved battery life yet still a significant power boost. Finally, people started taking notice from students to enterprise Surface Pro become the ultimate hybrid device and turns into a neat $1b profit making machine. That’s enough for the industry to take notice and even Apple was quick to try and copy this new formula in the iPad Pro but without the silver bullet, a desktop experience. So this brings us to today and the 4th generation.
Surface Pro 4
As it was expected the latest version of Microsoft’s innovative hybrid was all about refinement. The slate boasts a slightly larger 12.3″ screen with an impressive 267 ppi and Microsoft’s new PixelSense technology to take advantage of o.4mm thick cover screen to bring improved contrast. For the most part the SP4 keeps the same dimensions as the SP3 to maintain backwards compatibility with existing accessorises. Even so the tablet is a little bit thinner and lighter while still maintaining all the necessary ports. The main improvement is under the hood with Intel’s 6th generation Skylake processors giving a significant power boost that really put the spring in Panos Panay’s step as he could brag about a 30% increase and a 50% advantage over the MacBook Air. It was hard to remove the smile from his face as he joked about the fridge and toaster analogy or alluded to competitors making tablets with larger screens.
To read an in depth comparison between the SP3 and 4 click here.
It wasn’t just the tablet itself that got an upgrade as the new Type Cover offers an improved typing experience with an island style layout and increased depth similar to what is found on most laptops. A new glass trackpad offers five touch points and should provide a smooth experience while an optional finger print scanner will give SP3 users with access to Windows Hello. Likewise, the Pen has been given the once over as well increasing to 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity to further push the boundaries between computer experience and writing on paper. In addition, the top of the pen acts as an eraser something normally, associated with a pencil, which adapts to applications while still providing a quick launch button for OneNote and Cortana. If that wasn’t enough Microsoft have also introduced a range of colours and interchangeable tips so uses can adapt their experience. Finally, Microsoft has gone back to the original design of the Surface Pen by providing a magnet dock on the side of the tablet, at least this time it doesn’t cover the charging port.
Overall the SP4 is a noticeable improvement and gives fans what they wanted faster performance and a more elegant user experience. It has definitely been worth holding off upgrading if only for the boost from the 6th generation Skylake processor. In terms of the competition the iPad Pro can’t measure up as it still lacks the proper experience to replace your Laptop and for the price is an expensive secondary device. Meanwhile the MacBook Air which Panay admits is a great product has an outdated processor and lacks the same convertible experience. However, Apple is not the only copycat trying to capitalise on the Surface design with other PC makers implementing kickstands, removable keyboards and pen input in an effort to keep up but the SP4 which just raised the bar again. It will be interesting to see in the next few weeks with Microsoft’s major OEM’S also hosting device announcements if they can follow the standard that’s just been set.
Microsoft’s big surprise came with only the slightest gossip in the lead up to the event with rumours of a Laptop or a larger Surface but no specs, renders or patients. The Laptop is elegantly designed with a unique look due to the visible gap between the keyboard and screen. The way this comes together reminds me of an empty folder and fits well with the name. The soon to be iconic hinge is where the Surface Book’s design really captures everyone’s attention. It runs out like a carpet to extend the base and give the device balance while the contrast between the magnesium and aluminium gives it a distinct shine that catches the eye. You might think that it’s a bit sad that the tech world has gone into overload over a fulcrum hinge but it truly is a master stroke of engineering. It solves the ever present weight distribution problem with this type of device and allows the two parts to meet perfectly to give the unique shape.
Check out Mashable’s inside with Panay and design chief Ralf Groene about the development of Microsoft’s first Laptop.
Beyond the design the Surface Book boost a 3000 x 2000 13.5″ PixelSense display which means it shares the same 267ppi as the SP4, more than the retina display found on the MacBook Pro. At the entry level the laptop packs a 6th generation i5 processor and 8GB of RAM but at the top end it is a beast which is why Microsoft has labelled it the ultimate laptop. The addition of a dedicated NVidia GPU makes it easily beat out the competition available in comparable form factors and will allow professionals and gamers to render complex 3D imaging more familiar to desktop PC’s and larger laptops. In addition, the ability to upgrade to an i7 and 16GB of RAM makes the top end configuration an expensive yet enticing proposition. Like the Surface Pro’s new type cover the keyboard has been carefully engineered to provide the best typing experience possible. Running Windows 10 the Surface Book performs as you would expect any high powered PC being able to easily run demanding applications like the Adobe suite with no troubles.
It wasn’t all specs however as Microsoft engaged in its own brand of theatre with Panay directing his audience to re-watch the opening promo in order to give us one more thing …
The screen detaches and it becomes a full Surface tablet, surprise. Just at that moment Panay must have been on cloud nine as the crowed whooped and gave a standing ovation. After all he says this is Surface, this is innovation. Now some people might be thinking what’s the big deal there have been 2 in 1 devices that have a detachable keyboard since Windows 8. If you watch the demo its clear Surface Book is different as it is first and for most a laptop and the muscle wire mechanism is nearly as well conceived as the hinge. Relying on a metal that contracts when placed under current it secures the two sections so that Panay is confident waving the laptop around by the screen. Personally the other similar form factors I have played with in stores seem flimsy and didn’t inspire me with a lot of confidence so this is a big change.
Practically the Surface Book provides three possible uses the laptop, tablet or “clipboard” and the canvas. All provide uses with different possibilities to be productive. The “clipboard” is not marketed as a standalone tablet but a portable extension that could be removed when you need to show something to a few colleagues to pass around or take a work through the factory. In addition thanks to the hinge (Simpsons moment of the rod) the screen is able to reverse and lay down over the keyboard to provide a tilted experience for writing and drawing which has access to the GPU and 8 hours of battery life stored in the base. This flexibility alone regardless of any power advantage provides a clear source of difference from the competition which shouldn’t be ignored.
By the end of Microsoft’s event it was clear that they have stopped following with HoloLens, Surface Pro and Surface Book their ready to return to the lead. The company not only has built serious momentum this year through a series of announcements including backwards compatibility for the Xbox One but they now have a confident swagger brought about by a clear vision thanks to Satya Nadella. Unfortunately, this has left me with an annoying problem, which do I purchase they Pro 4 or the Surface Book. Price might have a lot to do with it as here in Australia it seems that the major tech companies feel like we should pay more meaning the top end Surface Book comes in at $4100 while the i7 SP4 is a bit more affordable at $2700. If only money grew on trees and I could get both.
Check out the full Surface announcement here.