I recently acquired a Surface Pro 3 during a Black Friday sale from a local Microsoft Store. I knew I was in for a challenge but I was up for it. I’m from the generation that witnessed the rise of personal computing in the late 20th century from clunky calculator-like boxes with tiny displays and obscure software commands to modern sleek slates of glass and metal that are all display and responsive to touch and voice. It’s been a fun ride and part of the thrill was trying to figure out how to get anything useful out of the ever evolving personal computer. Quite frankly I’ve been a bit bored with modern iOS and Android devices. Well designed and rapidly becoming indistinguishable, my iPad, iPhone, and Android phone pretty much work as expected and do no more and no less then their makers intend.
I’m also a little worried about the future of the general purpose personal computer. The biggest game changer in my life has not been the ability to play games, write blog posts, or edit movies on an affordable computer. It’s the ability to write computer programs that create games, blogging systems, and multimedia editors that has given me a community, confidence, and a livelihood.
PC sales have been and continue to be in decline. To fight this decline Apple and Microsoft are making their PCs more like tablets with keyboard: sealed boxes with safety belts and airbags that keep users from getting into trouble–like installing botnets or mining bitcoin.
In another five or ten years the general personal computer that can compile and link C code into a tool or application might be a thing of the past. Computer engineering might require expensive development systems and a University education. That’s were we started in the 1960s. The web, the apps, and the games that we use everyday have only been possible because kids, with little money or training, have been able to purchase a general purpose personal computer and start hacking around. For me, and millions like me, exploring the capabilities of a personal computer is like going on a hike. It’s fun and there is no other purpose then to do it. Software like Facebook, Flappy Bird, and FileMaker are just side effects.
So I bought a Surface Pro 3, which is a real PC that looks like a tablet, and put my MacBook Air aside. I’ve spent the last few weeks figuring it out. I’m not quite there but I’m having a blast as I try to relearn basic computer skills, discover its limits, and find workarounds for it’s bugs and so-called features!
Below are some of my field notes:
- The Surface Pro 3 is a real computer and a tablet combined. It’s light enough to use as an ereader but powerful enough to code with. It’s also powerful enough to play serious games, edit images, and do anything a modern laptop can do. It’s not a desktop replacement but it’s close enough for me.
- The Surface Pro 3 is still a work in progress. There are many good ideas but either they aren’t implemented well or they should be reworked. Let’s look at a few examples:
- The Type Cover, which is a full keyboard and cover combined, is an awesome idea but feels flimsy on my lap, makes too much noise while typing, has to be physically connected, and is awkward when you don’t need it but want to keep it handy. The little track pad on the Type Cover is terrible, not needed, and makes the text cursor bounce all over the screen. Luckily you can turn it off! You won’t miss it!
- The Windows 8.1 user interface works pretty well with a finger or a pen, but there are a few major problems when editing text with Google Chrome as the web browser. With the Type Cover connected a finger tap brings up the touch keyboard and obscures the lower third of the screen. The touch keyboard goes away on its own when you type on the Type Cover but it breaks your concentration.
- Your finger is all you need if you are not drawing except when it comes to small icons and so-called left mouse clicks. I’ve got enough motor control that only the smallest of icons and buttons are inaccessible to my index finger but I can’t execute some left mouse clicks without a pen (or mouse) on the Surface Pro 3 with Google Chrome. Windows 8.1 maps a long-press to the left click but it doesn’t work for spell checking. As a terrible speller I need that popup menu of spelling corrections!
- Windows 8.1 is a work in progress as well! It poorly combines the the user experience of Windows 7 with a touch interface. The results are confusing and inconsistent:
- There are two system control panels and it’s not always clear where a setting will show up.
- If you are not connected to a wireless network the Windows 7 part of the interface tells you that “no networking hard is detected”. But all you have to do is touch the little signal bars icon on the task bar and a list of wireless networks appear.
- The Windows 8.1 start screen wants to replace the Windows 7 start menu. But the start screen feels like a disordered Mondrian painting. My advice to Microsoft: go back to the usability lab. Nobody uses Apple’s app launcher either. We use the task bar and the Finder.
- The best feature of the Surface Pro 3 for the practicing coder is that you can install and run real development software like Node.js, Ruby, Git, Sublime, Vim, Emacs, C, and other UNIX-based tools. Many of these tools have Windows equivalents and others run well via Cygwin and Msys. Cloud 9, the web-based IDE for web apps also works fine with the Surface Pro 3 via Google Chrome. The HipChat client really needs a UI update but does it’s job so you can chat with your fellow engineers.
- In my spare time I like to draw and paint with my computer and I’ve found that the Surface Pro 3 runs Abode Photoshop and Clip Studio Paint (Manga Studio) very well. It has a few minor problems distinguishing a resting palm from a touch but the pressure sensitive pen is as good as a Wacom tablet.
- If you need to use the Microsoft Office, the Surface Pro 3 and Windows 8.1 is excellent at it. I know this isn’t cool but my favorite word processor is Microsoft Word. The Office apps simply don’t run well on a Mac and are missing important features. The one aspect of my MacBook Air that I don’t miss is struggling with Microsoft Word 2011!
So there you have it. If you enjoy a challenge and being different and have the patience to put up with some annoying bugs then the Surface Pro 3 might be for you. It’s more realistically usable than a ChromeBook but far from the antiseptic polish of a Macbook.