- The 2017 Surface Pro is the latest entry in Microsoft’s lineup of two-in-one detachable devices. It has tablet-like hardware, but uses a built-in kickstand and peripherals like a mouse and keyboard to turn into a laptop-like computer. It features Windows 10, Microsoft’s operating system. With some work, it could become a category-defining laptop replacement.
Microsoft recently released the latest version of its two-in-one laptop and tablet, the 2017 Surface Pro.
Business Insider’s Matt Weinberger reviewed the device last month, and called it “a great, little, lightweight, touchscreen Windows 10 laptop” with just a few tradeoffs.
I had the chance to use the product myself and tried to answer a fundamental question: can this device replace my laptop?
My laptop is a 15-inch, late 2013, fully maxed out MacBook Pro with Retina display. It has been my everyday machine since the day I bought it, and for the most part, possibly the best consumer electronics device I have ever owned
As you can imagine, the bar for me was high, but the Surface delivered.
First of all, when it comes to fit and finish, the Surface Pro uses a high-quality magnesium alloy that gives a sense of stiffness and durability reminiscent of Apple devices. It doesn’t happen often that gadgets delight, especially if you are used to seeing (and using) dozens of them, but the Surface Pro strikes a fine balance between elegance, look, personality, and usability. But turning it on while sitting at your desk is one thing; putting it through its paces is another.
Before using the device, I was convinced that it would be hard for me to give up my personal MacBook Pro, or even the MacBook Air I work with at the office. However, the Surface Pro proved that not only can it replace my laptop, but it could actually be a better device in a number of situations. I don’t think it’s quite where it wants to be yet (i.e. a perfect hybrid device), but it may be the closest thing to a truly next-generation computer I have ever used.
When Microsoft first launched the original Surface products, it pitched an idea that seemed either weirdly unconvincing or just too ahead of its time, which eventually became the device’s very marketing tagline: “The tablet that can replace your laptop.” The firm suggested that its shape was reminiscent of a tablet – a black slate with all the electronics underneath the display – but the idea was to use it as a laptop replacement.
The Redmond company gave the Surface a kickstand to better resemble a traditional clamshell portable computer, and created a keyboard cover with a trackpad that essentially turned it into a “standard” Windows computer.
However, the main problem the first Surface had wasn’t hardware, but software: Windows RT, the operating system (OS) it shipped with, did not support all of Windows’ legacy apps, which alienated even those customers who may have been interested in the idea. It didn’t work.
Then, months later, the first Surface Pro launched with Windows 8; a system that many people deemed to be too different from its predecessor. Not unlike RT, Windows 8 had an interface primarily focused on touch input, whereas the bulk of the applications were still designed to be navigated with the traditional mouse and keyboard combination.
The first Surface and Surface Pro seemed like an enticing idea on paper, but their hardware limitations (like the single-angle kickstand) and the non-mature software (Windows RT and Windows 8) severely limited their success.
Microsoft didn’t budge, however, and continued to invest in the idea and the Surface brand in general with new iterations of both products. It refined them over the years, giving them new features such as a more adjustable kickstand, faster processors, better displays and weight distribution, and a stiffer keyboard. Most of all, Microsoft launched Windows 10, which is arguably one of the best releases of the operating system in years.
The 2017 Surface Pro is the culmination of this journey.
If the Surface Pro wants to replace a MacBook – or a traditional laptop in general – it has to be just as good as one to begin with. One of the hardest things to do when it comes to switching over to some new personal tech is trying to break the habit.
We use our smartphones, tablets, and computers every day to do all sorts of things, and we inevitably fall into patterns that make things simpler. When a new product swoops in, things change and that change can be hard; just think of keyboard shortcuts, trackpad gestures, and even the position where buttons to close and minimise windows are (top left on macOS, top right on Windows).
Moving to the Surface Pro meant I had to change many things: the shape of the device is different, the size is different, and of course the OS is different. For instance, Windows 10 has a lock screen, much like mobile devices, whereas macOS doesn’t. The way the two OSes handle multiple desktops is different, and the absence of a Spotlight-like feature out of the box was jarring (I eventually downloaded an app, Wox, that handles that task just fine). Even the fact that I couldn’t do a five-finger pinch on the trackpad to see all my apps was annoying at first.
But none of that mattered after some expected adjusting. I downloaded a few apps and did some muscle memory work to remind myself to, say, use the three-finger swipe gesture to switch between apps instead of dragging windows around. What did matter was that the device is fast, and can easily keep half a dozen apps open and still zip through pretty much any task. The high-resolution screen makes everything pop, and the keyboard and trackpad are good enough not to make me long for something more “traditional.”
The Surface Pro runs Windows 10, which (unlike Windows 8) is a full-blown desktop-first OS, and as such it works perfectly with peripherals like an external mouse and all of the legacy Windows apps many people use every day. The Surface Pro is a computer, and a very capable one: The maxed out version features an i7 processor coupled with 16GB of RAM, after all, like some of the best, top-of-the-line Windows machines out there (think Dell’s XPS 13 or the HP Spectre x360).
It won’t last the 13.5 hours Microsoft touts on the official product page, but I comfortably got around seven all the time, with five or six apps running and an unspeakable number of browser tabs open. The main (and, possibly, only major) issue I had was when trying to use the device on the tube. I had to keep the Surface on my lap, and it didn’t feel as secure as a standard laptop due to its top-heavy structure. However, it never got to a point where it became unusable, mostly because its low weight and contained dimensions made it easy to use in almost any position.
The Surface Pro acts like a computer, and has a full-fledged OS that supports it. But its strength actually shows when you remember that, at its structural heart, it is still fundamentally a tablet. Remove the magnetic keyboard, close the kickstand, and what you have in your hands is a 12.3-inch slate that sports a gorgeous touchscreen display.
When you are sitting on a desk or a chair with a device on your lap, the difference between a regular laptop and the Surface Pro is way less pronounced than one might think. That might depend on how and where you are sitting, but in my personal use I didn’t really miss the shape of my MacBook. I mostly rejoiced at the Surface’s low weight: If you’re lying on your sofa or in bed and just want to do some casual browsing – like reading, or watching Netflix – the Surface Pro is a godsend.
I found it particularly useful when I decided to cook something after having finished work; I took the keyboard away, laid the tablet down to its maximum aperture (the kickstand opens up to a 165-degree angle) and followed a recipe on a YouTube video, occasionally scrolling with my (still clean) fingers. I could never have done that with my MacBook, as the screen doesn’t fold down nearly as much, is not touch responsive, and most of all it occupies too much space.
Windows 10 also has a “Tablet Mode” which redesigns the taskbar at the bottom and makes tiles bigger. Not everything adjusts perfectly to a touch-first experience, but it is more than enough for the kind of lightweight stuff you would want to do while switching away from productivity apps and so-called “real work.”
This is where the Surface Pro left me wanting more. It’s such a powerful and capable device that I can’t help but wonder how much better it could be if it offered better tablet optimisation. It is the other side of the iPad Pro coin: Apple’s machine spawns from a strong tablet legacy, and it’s trying to work its way around being a proper laptop replacement by tweaking the software to accommodate the needs and demands of more power users (like iOS 11’s new iPad Pro-specific multitasking, and the introduction of a dock).
The Surface Pro, on the other hand, is a great computer that also happens to be a solid (if basic) tablet replacement, thanks to its versatile hardware structure and the presence of a touchscreen. And that is fine – if you are buying the Surface Pro to replace a laptop, you will lose some things (like a bigger screen) and gain others. In my experience, that is worth the tradeoff.
But the Surface Pro would benefit immensely from software tweaks similar to the ones Apple has done; namely, more and better apps designed with touch in mind. That is the biggest strength of the iPad Pro, and a very notable gap Microsoft is likely not going to close anytime soon, as most of the (still very few) apps in the Microsoft Store are designed to work on the primarily desktop-based Windows 10.
In an interview with Business Insider back in June, Microsoft’s General Manager for Products Ryan Gavin said that despite the fact that the Surface lineup is branching out with products such as traditional laptops and all-in-one computers, Surface Pro still represents the “heart and soul” of Microsoft’s devices.
This leads me to believe that Microsoft will keep pushing its hardware and software innovations with this machine more than any other. New features such as Windows Ink (Microsoft’s dedicated set of tools to take advantage of pen peripherals in various apps like Word and the Edge browser), the new Surface Pen itself, and, more recently, Surface Dial (the puck-shaped accessory that works with Windows to add UI elements to select applications) make me think that the Surface Pro has cracked the right formula, and its software will get better as a result.
The Surface’s hardware won’t stop progressing, either. If there’s one thing the Pro made me miss about my MacBook, it was the screen. 12.3″ is fine for a tablet display, but as the thing you literally look at the most on your primary machine it tends to be a little small. However, I can definitely see Microsoft cutting down the bezel (like Apple has done with the latest iPad Pros), stretching the front panel, and slimming the device, also accommodating a more spacious keyboard in the process. Even just an extra inch could make for a big difference.
The lesson I learned from using Surface Pro is not too different from the one the iPad Pro taught me: two-in-ones are not quite there yet, but they are the productivity devices of the future (“pro,” ultra-high-end computers notwithstanding, of course). Laptops have arguably peaked already: there’s only so much you can do with the rigid clamshell form factor beyond slimming down and powering internal components up.
At their heart, laptops have stayed essentially the same for quite some time. Hybrid devices like Surface Pro and iPad Pro, on the other hand, still need to iron out a number of things before becoming both great laptops and great tablets at the same time – and, also, potentially much more.
Just think about the fact that, unlike normal laptops, Surface Pro also has a back camera. That alone opens up a world of possibilities that the forthcoming augmented reality wave is poised to bring. Or perhaps you will appreciate the fact that Microsoft offers a LTE option now, so you can enjoy the device’s versatility while being online on the go.
Hybrids are on their way to becoming the true successor of laptops, and the 2017 edition of the Surface Pro (alongside the newer iPad Pros) are the most convincing efforts to make this kind of next generation dream a reality yet. I don’t know who will get there first – Google, too, seems to have something up its sleeve – but the race will be an interesting one to follow.
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