Journey to the Surface (Pro) and Back – A Surface Pro 4 Review

My wife would be the first today that I am a “geek.” New hardware, new devices, new technology trends – I’m there, working in IT for many years technology is both my work life and home life and I love it.

So, when Microsoft announced the original Surface series I was thrilled at the idea of a what looked to be a “useful” iPad. I appreciate my definition of useful will be different to your definition, so take that statement with a little salt.

My definition of useful;

  • Small, lightweight and thus travel friendly
  • Sharp, bright screen
  • Battery life of ~5+ hours (ideally 8+)
  • Able to run Microsoft Office (not then as universally available as it is today)
  • Connect a mouse for remote support/work and, if necessary, a keyboard/external monitor for extended use

The challenge that MS couldn’t get away from, and still cannot today, is the “competition” – the iPad. I say “competition” as this is, in my opinion, an unfair comparison. A Intel-based, PC capable device, vs a mobile OS, ARM-based device.

In 2012, when the original Surface was lunched I’ll be honest, I’d drunk the cool-aid. I went to TechEd that year and was able to pick-up a heavily discounted Surface RT. The excitement soon waivered, namely because

The device had limited use, it was neither a tablet or a PC and as a result it was not good at being either

  • The “Touch” keyboard was hopeless – even after really trying to get used to it
  • The app ecosystem was terrible
  • The proprietary power connector (why?!) and supplied charger had a very short cable – I always wondered why MS introduced a proprietary connector for charging, and why they continue to use one today
  • There was no LTE/3G connectivity

I loved the concept though, and really thought MS could drive a serious makeover of what was a relatively dull PC market at the time. Windows 8 wasn’t helping the PC market, however this new OS actually made “sense” on these Surface devices.

Fast forwards a few months and 2013 saw the release of the Surface Pro, an Intel-based x86_64 device, capable of running office and other applications I had been used to over the years. Of course, it wasn’t without it’s compromises

  • Battery life was terrible – in my experience, much worse than advertised
  • The Type Keyboard, whilst much better than the Touch Keyboard would often disconnect
  • The device itself was bulky, heavy in comparison to the competition. I often remember my colleagues at the time mocking the devices girth and weight
  • No LTE/3G connectivity

Most of the above were big problems. The device let me down on several occasions due to the short battery life, charging during meetings or conferences was painful due to the short power lead and it was not much lighter than some of the better laptops at the time.

Cue… the Surface Pro 2 and the Surface 2. I owned the Surface Pro 2, opting to bypass the Surface 2 as this was still an ARM-based device – in a limited App environment it just didn’t seem like a “useful” device. The Surface Pro 2 on the other hand was  a new device… therefore I had to have it. Consumerism at its finest.

The device was still bulky, its battery life was still mixed and, when coupled with the proprietary charger/short cable, was becoming a growing concern with the increased amount of travel I was doing with work. I continued to experience keyboard connectivity issues and for whatever reason MS still refused to offer an Intel-based product with LTE/3G connectivity.

It still felt as if MS didn’t quite know how to respond to the struggling PC market. It had its fingers in the so many pies – new PC hardware, mobile Operating systems and devices, the a new “touch friendly” PC operating system market, new “modern” apps.. The list went on. The issue for me here isn’t the variation, or the development, but the incoherency of how this stuff didn’t quite come together. It all felt a little rough around the edges.

With the obvious limitations, especially in terms of LTE/3G, I often found myself asking who these devices were being built for – were they simply an example of the possible, or were they customer-focused, designed to work for business? Still, I was a stalwart defender of the product line and it’s best bits – even now I genuinely feel that MS has helped to push the OEMs into producing more and more innovative devices.

May 2015 saw the release of the Surface Pro 3; this was exciting (of course it was, it was a new device!). It was thinner, lighter, faster and had better battery life. The screen was (a lot) better, and the aspect ratio made “sense.” It felt as if Microsoft had started to listen.

LTE/3G, for some reason, connectivity was still off the cards – ironically this was a big show-stopper for my then current employer moving to this form factor/device.

Windows 8.1 continued to, in my opinion, work well on these devices, despite the frequent keyboard disconnects.

Whilst battery life was better, it still wasn’t great – a full work day was a big ask. I’d find myself with the equivalent of electric vehicle “range anxiety.” The charger was still proprietary, and short, ergo not useful when in meetings/conferences.

The Windows 10 release, and eventual upgrade led to issues that weren’t there with 8.1.I started to receive video driver issues, the Surface Pen had problems. Ironically, the look and feel was fantastic, it just felt like a thin veneer where, below the surface (pun not intended), I felt like I was running something that was par-baked/pre-release.  Still, it would be better with the next release right?

Just 6 months later, in October 2015, the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book were released. I opted for the Surface Pro over the Book – it was smaller, lighter and suited my bike-based commute and travel requirements.

This was the device that finally pushed me away from the Surface series.

I had “wake” issues, where the device refused to power on from a sleep state having simply closed the Type cover. Windows Hello would frequently stop working – the red indicator light on the camera would get stuck, effectively indicating the camera had locked up.

The display driver would crash frequent and often, but most infuriating of all, the keyboard disconnects were now prolific.  I’d often sit down for a meeting and find myself disconnecting and reconnecting the keyboard two or even three times before it would start to respond – even the backlight wouldn’t function. Of course all of this assumes the device actually woke up.

My once stalwart defence was becoming embarrassing, despite persistence across four generations of what I had hoped to be a game-changing device.

Coupled with the now ever increasing “Continuous Delivery” model which is driving Windows 10 updates at a much faster release cadence – at times I would arrive at the office on a Monday morning, power the device up only to find after a couple of minutes it was performing a firmware update, at 0900, on a Monday.

The wake issue is better now than it was, but it’s still not 100%. The display driver is better than it was, but it is far from 100%. Again, the whole experience just doesn’t feel quite finished.

What’s really sad for me, as a defender of this device and form-factor,  had the hardware issues been worked out, and the software been reliable on launch, this was the game changer the stagnant PC market has been waiting for. It’s innovative, its desirable, it just needs to work…

No doubt I’ll be back at some point, but for now I’m back using a Folio 1020 laptop – grateful that it wakes up and the keyboard works, every time.