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Oh no, I got a Surface Pro?!

August 12, 2017

After last year’s new MacBook Pro reveal, I was not terribly happy with the changes made to the hardware. Both the Touch Bar, which I have no interest in, and the problems reported online made me wary about buying this laptop, for now. I guess I could’ve picked a 13-inch MacBook Pro with only 2 USB-C ports, but I wasn’t sure if I was willing to compromise on USB ports on my personal laptop. After all, my current MacBook Air is mostly still fine; my only regret is that I didn’t buy a MacBook Pro then for the retina display.

In anticipation of further hardware changes in the next two years or so (which is when I intend to look at getting a new MacBook), I decided to take a gamble this year and buy myself a Surface Pro, Microsoft’s tablet/laptop hybrid. You see, I wanted to see how touch friendly Windows has gotten, and to have a companion device to my personal MacBook - maybe, I figured - I could go so far as to replace it. (Spoiler alert: I can’t.) I also do use a Windows PC during my spare time as well, so I figured it might be a good fit.

And for the most part, it is. But I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who is just looking for a laptop or a tablet (that’s not the market for this device anyway). I would recommend buying a MacBook or an iPad over this. There’s quite a few shortcomings here, and most of them stem from a software POV, even though the hardware could be considered slightly problematic as well, since the Surface does not sport any USB-C ports at all, nor Thunderbolt. But I consider that a minor issue (at the moment).

So, what has my experience been like?

Well, let’s go over the issues:

Fortunately, there seems to be only one hardware problem: there is slight light bleed at the bottom of the screen. It’s noticeable if there’s a single solid color being displayed all over the screen. Not a big issue, but I paid good money for this laptop and seeing light bleed did not make me very happy. It’s not big enough of an issue for me to return or exchange the device, however. (An extra note on the hardware: I do like the attachable keyboard and pencil. The Microsoft pencil/stylus is inferior to the Apple Pencil, however.)

Most of my issues with this device are software-related. Now, you can’t really start running a Linux distro on this machine since the keyboard drivers etc. are not openly available, so you’ll be running Windows exclusively. I guess you could virtualize a Linux setup, but that’s crazy, especially since Windows supports the Linux subsystem, which basically lets you install Linux packages and run bash.

So, what software issues did I encounter, and how did I fix them?

  • Windows DPI scaling absolutely sucks. Not much to be said here, but DPI scaling on apps is widely inconsistent. The only good scaling occurs in Windows Platform apps, the ones you get from the Windows Store. And who uses those? I don’t. Most apps will look ugly on your high resolution screen - which is sad. So, can this be fixed? Maybe. Depends on the application. When editing a shortcut to an application, you can choose what kind of DPI scaling Windows has to use. This has helped me with certain apps, but not with all.

  • Microsoft Office came preinstalled on the device, but that was a trial. Obviously, I wanted to uninstall the trial. It was hard to do so (the uninstall wizard did not complete successfully) and there seemed to be some remaining files so I had to run a fix tool from Microsoft to make sure Office was completely removed. Not exactly a big issue, but it made me groan a bit, seeing as I had this device for ten minutes and I was already running into uninstall issues. (I always clean up any new device by removing software I don’t need.)

  • Google Chrome froze my computer each time I used stylus input to navigate the web (tapping links, scrolling). Freezing up my entire system is, of course, not cool. This was resolved after installing the latest beta of Google Chrome. On the dev channel, it seems that most touch issues have been resolved as of version 61/62. I ended up using Firefox for a short period of time until I couldn’t stand using Firefox any longer.

  • Automatic brightness adjustments (DPST). Besides the software option to change the brightness of your screen, Intel’s built-in power saving features also dynamically change the color of the screen’s pixels slightly to save power (this is called Display Power Saving Technology (or DPST). That’s good! HOWEVER, it’s very annoying at lower brightness settings, especially since I want the brightness to look the same. (I thought something was wrong with my eyes!) There’s no GUI setting to change this. Pretty damn annoying! I had to use my Google-fu and find an obscure registry key to disable this behaviour. And from what I understand, when a new major Windows update hits, I’ll have the same issue again.

So in the end, I got most stuff fixed. I’m pretty happy with the Microsoft Surface.

But what about the actual hardware, huh? Well, for the most part, it’s fine. I think the actual hardware is okay. The construction of the body feels nice, and the built-in kickstand is great. As I’ve said before, I wish there was more than one USB port (there’s one in the charger which is okay I guess) and Thunderbolt would’ve been cool as well. The bezels around the screen are also fairly large. But those are not major complaints.

My verdict? If you specifically need a Windows tablet, this is an acceptable choice - maybe as you grab one of the more powerful configurations, perhaps the most powerful currently available. Otherwise? I’d recommend buying a Mac or an iPad over this, simply because software-wise, I think Windows has many problems. However… If you’re savvy enough, the Surface shouldn’t give you too much trouble. I think this would be a nice device for Windows developers who need a tablet that can run Visual Studio, for example.

Me? I’m keeping this. I think it’s a nice device - for me. After taking some time to fix the software annoyances I had with the device, it runs well at the moment.

I also like that there’s a Linux subsystem in Windows now, by the way. That way, this laptop can run actual Linux software packages and Windows apps without virtualization, which I would need on a Mac (or I’d need Bootcamp, which is also a pretty annoying solution!). You know, the more I think about it, the more I think that the Surface is actually a nice companion to a MacBook. Now both the Mac and Windows can run bash and their respective exclusive software.

So, in short: I like the hardware. I experienced some software issues but I like it. It’ll be a nice addition to my existing hardware.

Tagged as: Tech