Surface Pro 3: First Impressions

I received the brand-spanking-new Surface Pro 3 yesterday, and I have to say, I like the direction technology is headed. The Surface is this strange hybrid between netbook and tablet which, while hard to pin down with contemporary vocabulary, fits a certain device niche perfectly.

Surface vs iPad Surface vs Macbook Air
Dimensions compared to an iPad. Dimensions compared to the Macbook Air.

See, I needed a small netbook-style device to unobtrusively take notes on, etc. A tablet wouldn’t cut it because, even with a third-party physical keyboard peripheral, tablet OS’s lack the word processing and file management ease you get with desktop applications. However, netbooks lack the easy deployment and quick search capabilities of phones and tablets. Netbooks have a large vertical form factor, while phones and tablets are almost always laid flat or nearly-flat.

The Surface covers all of these capabilities: it can be a high power tablet or a small laptop. It can be either a largish tablet (although it is similar to an iPad, so not that large) in your lap or flat on the table, or a thin screen with a thinner keyboard, propped at any angle on a desk. With Windows 8 you can alternate between the tablet feel and the PC feel easily. However, it is almost impossible to effectively use any of PC functionality with only the touchscreen; you do need the keyboard and its trackpad. This may stem from the fact that the screen is a high enough resolution that fingers lack the requisite precision to really do anything.

On that note, I don’t know how I feel about Windows 8. This isn’t a specific complaint against the Surface, except to say that the execution of the OS is the worst part about the device. While the hardware pulls from the best qualities of tablets and laptops, Windows 8 pulls from the worst. It just seems confused as to whether its a finger-friendly, simple interface, or a mouse-based system with dumbed-down menus. It relies on a number of contextual gestures to access menus while in finger mode, and it seems to use a combination of hovering and right clicking to reach “advanced” menus with a mouse. This may partially just be a poor UI design paradigm the specific app developers are stuck on and not a fault of the OS, but even in the native Windows menus, I’ve noticed no clear conversion between left and right click, mouse hovering, and mouse dragging versus finger swiping, finger holding, and finger tapping. It makes some parts of the OS more “hand friendly” and others “mouse friendly”.

This only becomes more confused when you take into account the stylus that comes included. It has two buttons on the body and a button on the end, but again, none of the actions map cleanly to any of the other input methods. Nonetheless, the stylus means that the Surface could easily be used as a graphic design tablet, which is a use I hadn’t considered but am now eager to try out.

Lastly, some minutiae. The stand is a little difficult to open, and the fan can get somewhat loud (or at least audible). The speakers are mediocre, and the voice recognition is awful. The case gets hot occasionally, and the trackpad on the keyboard peripheral is annoying to use (the mouse buttons are not well delineated, and it is not possible to disable the overly sensitive tap-to-click feature).

On the other hand, I haven’t noticed battery life issues, and the screen is very high resolution. My version is the 8GB RAM/i5 processor and I have noticed no performance issues (obviously). The App store is a little sparse on touch-friendly programs, but fortunately the whole point is that the Surface functions as a fully capable laptop, so its going to run video editing software and even intensive high-def video games way better than your standard netbook.

At the end of the day, I give the Surface Pro 3 two thumbs up. Good job, Microsoft.


Mobile Computing

Many have predicted the fall of the PC in favor of large-scale mobile computing with smartphones and tablets. Most people don’t need the power of a high-end laptop or desktop computer to check email and play Facebook games. Indeed, most services are now provided over the Internet, with low client computational requirements. However, we may see an abrupt reversal in this trend.

There are two factors at play that could radically change the direction of the computing market. First, some experts are now predicting doom and gloom for the “free Internet”. The post-Snowden Internet is very likely going to fragment along national lines, with each country creating its own insulated network over security concerns. Not only does this mean the US will lose its disproportionate share of Internet business (and US tech companies will see significant declines in overseas sales), but it also means the era of cloud services may be coming to a premature close. As users see the extent of NSA data mining, they may become less willing to keep all of their data with a potentially unsecured third-party. If users wish to start doing more computing offline – or at least locally – in the name of security, then desktop computers and high-power tablets may see a boost in sales.

Second, the gulf between “PCs” and “tablets” is rapidly closing; the agony over PC-mobile market shifts will soon be moot. Seeing a dip in traditional PC sales, many manufacturers have branched out, and are now creating a range of hybrid devices. These are often large tabletop-scale tablets to replace desktops, or tablets like the Surface Pro to replace laptops. I suspect the PC market will fragment, with a majority of sales going towards these PC-mobile hybrids, and a smaller percentage going towards specialty desktops for high-power gaming and industry work (think CAD and coding).

I doubt desktop computers will disappear. In 10 years, the average household might have a large tablet set in a holder on a desk and connected to a mouse and keyboard, or laid flat on a coffee table. It would be used for playing intensive computer games, or the entire family could gather round and watch videos. In addition to this big tablet-computer, each person would have one or two “mobile” devices: a smallish smartphone, and a medium tablet with a keyboard attachment that could turn it into laptop-mode. Some people may opt for a large-screen phone and forgo the tablet.

It’s hard to tell whether or not the revelations about national spying will significantly impact the civilian net (the same goes for the fall of net neutrality). On the one hand, people are concerned about the security of their data. However, being able to access data from any device without physically carrying it around has proved to be a massive game-changer for business and society in general. We may be past the point-of-no-return when it comes to adopting a cloud computing framework. On the whole, transitioning from a dichotomy between “mobile devices” and “computers” to a spectrum of portability seems to be a very good thing.

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