Microsoft unveiled the first Surface computer on October 26 2012 and ever since, has aggressively made a play for premium creative computer hardware to rival Apple’s Mac lineup. Unlike the general computer market, the Mac has a long history of being the platform of choice for creatives, which many people in the marketing world (particularly video production marketers) like us identify as. Because of this, Microsoft has been trying to capture businesses like McNair Media to start using their hardware, and their recent attempts in the last year have worked. We have made our 2018 computer purchases in the Surface line. After three months of usage within our company, we have some interesting thoughts.
Why did we start to look at the Surface in the first place?
Microsoft’s play into hardware was very strategic and timely, with the Mac having a rough start with Final Cut Pro X in 2011, which resulted in a defecting of sorts by video editors over to Adobe’s Premiere Pro software, and the lack of focus on Pro Mac hardware (the Mac Pro is the most egregious example). The most pressing issue for us was new laptops. We had a 2013 MacBook Air but the battery has been starting to not last like it once did.
Cost is the biggest issue with the Mac lineup. The only replacement is another MacBook Air with the same basic specs as in 2013. That seems foolish to buy the same hardware that is almost 5 years old with no real performance gain. Many tech writers have commented on the lack of a solid $1000 Mac laptop option that is relatively up to date. Due to a markdown effort to move older inventory, good Surface hardware is now relatively cheap (under $700), which pushed us to try out Surfaces without much fear.
THAT KEYBOARD MACBOOK PROBLEM
Another topic that is lighting up the tech community is the keyboard issues with the latest line of MacBook Pro laptops. Apple has since commented on this situation by providing keyboard fixes at no cost for 4 years from the original date of purchase, but there’s still concern for a small business owner like myself that this situation isn’t actually fixed. This means that the computer will have to be sent off to Apple for repairs, and will put its user in a situation of having to get work done in other ways while that computer is being repaired.
There are a lot of workflows that we use (AirDrop being one of them) that makes us want to stay within the Apple ecosystem. Earlier in 2018 we set out to see if an iPad would be a viable replacement for a content writer or a social media manager. We purchased an iPad and while the iPad is fantastic for a lot of things (I wrote this entire article on an iPad), there are situations where not having a mouse or a desktop class browser makes an iPad unusable.
When the Surface line was first released, I was extremely critical of them in regards to its software. While the hardware is definitely interesting, Windows has always been lacking compared to macOS. Remember, the first Surface released with an ARM architecture of Windows 8 called RT. The RT version could not run standard or “legacy” Windows applications like Photoshop. Microsoft later released the Surface Pro, which supported the Intel architecture and ran any standard Windows application. The RT version of the operating system was later discontinued, but there are still attempts to make a simpler variant of Windows.
Looking at Windows More Closely
This inconsistent and confusing software story has always been the biggest problem with Microsoft’s hardware. Smaller companies like ours have to manage our own IT, which historically makes Windows frustrating. Parsing through all of the software starts and restarts in recent years, it’s become clear how companies like ours need to approach a Windows machine from a software standpoint.
WINDOWS 10 PRO
Windows 10 Pro has some key features that make it necessary for any purchase. One of our favorite features is the option to defer updates, which turned out to be great for us when the most recent upgrade caused file deletion.
Since the start of McNair Media, we have always been on Office 365 for our email and cloud storage. Office 365 has enabled us a very simple device management solution as well, something that is sorely lacking on the macOS front. Office 365 is one of those things that is severely under appreciated until you start using it in a situation like device management.
Now, onto the Hardware
The Surface hardware story is fantastic, with a lot of different form factors to choose from. Below is a rundown on each of the available products in the Surface lineup, along with our recommendations.
SURFACE PRO TABLET
This is the original form factor of the Surface lineup. The computer is a tablet first, with a keyboard cover add-on. In our testing, we were initially very disappointed with it. Originally, we compared the touchscreen experience to that of an iPad, which was a mistake. To be clear, the Surface Pro Tablet is far inferior to an overall finger touch experience that you would get on an iPad. None of the applications available are made with a finger first approach (and the ones that have been designed for touch support perform poorly and run slow) and the on-screen keyboard is useless. Because of that, a Surface Type Cover keyboard is essential for daily use.
Even with that harsh criticism of the finger touch experience on the Surface Pro Tablet, the touchscreen is extremely beneficial when it comes to pen support. Taking notes with a pen and marking up documents are two clear examples of where the Surface Pro Tablet excels. The pen is also great for sketching up designs and even doing fine tuning on final design work. As someone that has used the Apple Pencil on an iPad Pro, I find the surface pen to be far more usable and beneficial. Microsoft has a solid set of first party and third-party app support with their stylus (including the Adobe suite). If you are a designer that has historically used a Wacom tablet, coupled with a computer, you seriously need to try out a Surface Pro Tablet. It provides a great lean back in a chair experience, while also providing external monitors to keep a similar workflow. We ended up buying one of these for writing and design and have no regrets.
The Studio intrigues me quite a bit and looks to be a solid iMac competitor. We seriously considered purchasing one, but opted for the portable benefit that the rest of the line offers. The software story also seems confusing as well. It really feels like more of a companion device than a dedicated machine. In our testing, we found it to be a great overall concept, but the pen experience was not as cohesive and optimized as we would have liked. The only app we tried that really seemed to work was OneNote. Photoshop, InDesign, and Premiere Pro feel rather pointless on the big screen and the ergonomics seem off (even when you move the Studio 28 inch screen into the canvas mode). The new Surface Studio 2 has upgraded internals, but with a steeper price tag. In our opinion, the iMac 5K and the iMac Pro are still better computers at a much better value than the lone Surface desktop device.
The Surface Book is another intriguing piece of hardware that is better in theory than in practice. We were able to borrow and test a Surface Book internally for quite some time, but were very disappointed with it. There are two major problems with the Surface Book, the first being that it is very heavy. It felt like going back into the early 2000‘s with the huge 15 inch computer. The other problem is that the Surface Book suffers from the same problems as the Surface Tablet, which doesn’t give a clear benefit to detach the keyboard from the rest of the tablet screen. The battery is also very poor when you detach the tablet from the base, making you less likely to detach for long periods of time. The tablet top is very bulky and unwieldy, making the 12.9 inch Surface Pro line more enticing.
SURFACE GO TABLET
This is the most recent of Microsoft’s low cost/entry level Surface computer. The price, starting at $399, isn’t entirely true because you will miss out if you don’t buy a Type Cover and/or a stylus to accompany it. The computer isn’t a high performer due to its relatively weak processor. With upgrades and add-ons, expect to spend $600-700 to get something truly usable. At that price point, you can easily get a far more capable previous generation Surface Pro with a Type Cover for the same price.
The Surface Laptop is somewhat frustrating, but ultimately mesmerizing product in my opinion. This is my current laptop. After seriously testing three other Surface line products, this is the one that I finally fell in love with for a few reasons. First, it has all of the same pen support features, but without the compromise of a detachable keyboard. I absolutely love this keyboard, which is reason alone to get this computer. The cloth material covering the top of the keyboard (made of Kandahar fabric) gives a lot of comfort to your palms while they rest below the keyboard for long periods of typing. I also like that the fabric makes it to where the keyboard is never too hot or too cold for my palms.
I have always been a fan of the older Mac laptop keyboards and the Surface Laptop doesn’t disappoint. Even without the MacBook Pro keyboard reliability issues, the travel of the current butterfly Mac keyboards is not very satisfying. This feels more like a MacBook Air keyboard, and I also get a great set of back-lit keys as well (which is a must in my opinion). The other major complaint that I’ve had about Windows computers is the location and functionality of the track-pad, which is something that the entire Surface line succeeds in. The scrolling, tapping and clicking are very satisfying, and the overall size is just right. It’s clear that the multi-touch track-pads are much more capable on modern Mac laptops, but the Surface Laptop track-pad is just fine.
One Caveat about the Surface Laptop…
The initial story about the Surface Laptop was really confusing, which makes me hesitate in recommending it for people. Microsoft initially positioned the Surface Laptop as an education-focused machine and shipped the Laptop with Windows 10 S. Windows 10 S is a parred down version of the Windows operating system, which prohibits you from installing any non-Windows Store applications. You have to use Microsoft Edge, instead of Chrome or Firefox. There are other apps like Ditto and the Google Adwords Editor that I use constantly, meaning that 10 S is not going to work for me. When I bought my Surface Laptop, they offered a free upgrade to Windows 10 Pro with the purchase.
This is a high level take on the Surface line and doesn’t go deep into the several variants within each Surface product. That coupled with the various versions of operation system versions, pay close attention to each Surface computer you look at and make sure that you get Windows 10 Pro. I tried to figure out what the exact cost an upgrade from Home to Pro was, but found conflicting information. My advice is to buy the machine with the proper OS version installed. Also, do your shopping at Best Buy. They have a lot of options available, with package deals that include type covers and Windows 10 Pro. Don’t be afraid of buying a previous generation Surface computer. The Surface Pro 4 is still a solid machine with competitive specs, and there are sales that will allow you to get a great machine at a great price.