Making The Switch: Laptop & iPad to Surface Pro 3
- Smartphone: Apple iPhone 5S (32GB)
- Tablet: Apple iPad 4th Gen (Retina, 3G + WiFi, 128GB)
- Laptop: Lenovo X1 Carbon (i7, 160GB)
- Desktop: Custom (giant case, 7 hard drives, 5 fans, etc.)
Though this combo has served me well, I took notice when Microsoft released the Surface Pro 3. It’s really the first time that I thought a single device could replace both my laptop and tablet, so I decided to buy one to test the theory. I went with the top spec Surface Pro 3 because I was already running an Intel Core i7 device with 8GB of RAM and didn’t want to take a step back. If I could have purchased one with 16GB of RAM I would have done so, but sadly that isn’t an option. So how does the Surface compare with my old devices on specifications?
Microsoft Surface Pro 3
Lenovo X1 Carbon
Apple iPad Gen 4
Intel Core i7 4650U
Intel Core i7 3667U
1.4 GHz dual-core Apple Swift
Turbo Clock Speed
Intel Integrated HD
Intel Integrated HD
2160 x 1440
1600 x 900
2048 × 1536
Camera MP (front/back)
5 / 5
1.3 / X
1.2 / 5
Though the clock speed is lower on the Surface Pro CPU, it benchmarks higher in both single-core and multi-core tests. Also, the updated GPU in the Surface Pro tests better than my Lenovo X1. I suspect that newer models of the X1 have better specifications, but for me it’s an upgrade over my existing hardware.
Surface Pro 3
Lenovo X1 Carbon
iPad Gen 4
11.5” x 7.93” x 0.36”
13.03″ x 8.92″ x 0.53″
9.5″ × 7.31″ × 0.37″
Combined weight of the X1 and iPad are 4.3 lbs, which is more than double of the Surface Pro 3. The weight was one of the things that struck me when I first picked up the device, it was lighter than I expected. Granted, you need to add some weight and thickness when you attach the keyboard cover, but it’s not that much. I’m saving a lot of weight by replacing two devices with one.
When you compare the devices side by side, you realize how small the Surface actually is. A lot of tech is packed into a small case.
- Much lighter than I expected. It’s not a small device, but MS did a great job putting this thing on a diet. Nicely done.
- The keyboard (more below).
- The kickstand is great, you can adjust the angle to suit any position and it’s integrated so you don’t need to add a case (like you do with the iPad).
- The Surface Pro 3 docking station is easy to use, and has the ports necessary for a full office setup (3 x USB 3.0, 2 x USB 2.0, ethernet, audio, and mini display port).
- The power brick has a USB port that I can use to charge other devices (iPhone, headset, etc.). Brilliant, why didn’t anyone do this sooner. When travelling I can leave my Apple charger at home (just bring the cable). I realize I could have just plugged it into the Surface USB to charge, but it only has one (see below) and I’m not even sure it’s powered when the device is off.
- I can only review the writing experience with the pen, so far I have been unable to pair it with my Surface to make the button work with OneNote. This is likely because I have to run Windows 8.1 Enterprise (not Professional that comes with the device). I worked with MS and they even shipped me a new pen. So far, no luck. In general, the writing experience is great. It is more natural, precise, and fast than other devices I have used. A bit more on this below.
- Only a single USB port on the device? Seriously Microsoft, this is an oversight. Everything connects or charges with USB these days, would adding a second port really be that hard? Two should be a minimum these days.
- The keyboard (more below).
- No fingerprint login, I love this feature on my X1. So easy to access my computer, now that I don’t have it I miss it. if Apple can put one on an iPhone this doesn’t seem like an impossible thing to add to a Surface.
- No 3G/4G/LTE option. Both my iPad and X1 have the option to add a SIM card for data access while on the go. Less of an issue now that I can set up my iPhone as a wireless hot spot. However, for those that travel it’s nice to have the option. I use a SIM in my iPad to spread my data roaming charges while travelling. Others use a different carrier to have a better chance of connecting in a foreign country. The Surface doesn’t have that option.
- The fan is loud at times, and the device can get quite hot. I never noticed this with my X1 and the iPad does’t have a fan so totally quiet :)
- The pen has been a problem. Not only does it not pair with my Surface (tried two different pens), but the first one went through two sets of coin cell batteries in a few days. More troubleshooting needed, but so far not a great experience.
- There is no mute button for audio like there is on my X1 (and many other laptops). When I need to mute the device (for an incoming call for example), it’s a slower process.
- No SD card reader. It has microSD, which isn’t helpful for most unless you just want to add some storage. For me, I used it to download photos from my camera while travelling, which means now I need to bring a card reader.
This is my first Windows 8x device. I have tried the OS in the past but didn’t switch to it on my previous computers. On the Surface, or any touchscreen device, Win8 is a must. There is a minor learning curve, but in general you can use the desktop in much the same way as Win7 or previous versions of Windows. Having said that, I have run into some problems and have wasted many hours trying to solve them (the issues persist). First, I’m not running the version of Windows that came with the Surface. It shipped with 8.1 Professional, however for work I need MS DirectAccess technology which is only available in 8.1 Enterprise. That meant a complete wipe and reinstall, and since then I have two driver issues.
- I’m unable to pair the Surface with the Pen. I have tried multiple drivers, including the one from N-trig, nothing works. Two phone calls to MS and a replacement pen, still no luck. It would be nice to try the OneNote integration but this will have to wait. Not a show stopper.
- The ethernet port on my dock is recognized but the driver doesn’t load. As with the pen, I have tried many ways to try and get it working. Running on WiFi only right now, which isn’t a big problem as I don’t really do anything bandwidth intensive and if needed I have a Lenovo USB to ethernet dongle which does work.
One would expect MS hardware and MS software to play well together, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I have been on the phone with MS three times so far, most recently with their Enterprise Support department. The technician had remote control of my Surface device for almost two hours and was unable to get it working. They collected some logs and are now investigating. I’ll update this post when I get it working.
As A Laptop Replacement
- As you can see from the spec, I’m not losing anything in terms of performance (CPU, RAM, hard drive). In fact, though the clock speed of the CPU is lower than what I have in my X1 laptop the processor benchmarks better in both single core and multi-core tests. For me, I would say that the overall performance was a lateral move from the Lenovo X1.
- The screen is give and take. The overall size is smaller on the Surface (I liked the 14″ screen on my X1), but resolution and general screen quality is much better. It’s a beautiful display, and despite the smaller size it’s an upgrade over the laptop. I’ll note that the latest X1 notebook has a new 2560×1440 touchscreen though I haven’t tested it. In fact, Lenovo have updated the spec across the board but I’m comparing it to the model I have so don’t freak out that this test is invalid.
- The Surface Type Pad keyboard and trackpad is another story though. I have long been a fan of ThinkPad laptops (well before they were Lenovo). I consider them to have some of the best ergonomics in the game and the X1 is no exception. The overall feel of the X1 keyboard is fantastic, and the dual mouse input (trackpad and the trackpoint) work well. The tiny trackpad on the Surface Type Cover and cramped keys are a big step down. I know they have design constraints but as a laptop keyboard it’s average at best. The trackpad issue is partly mitigated because it’s a touch screen device.
- I log into my laptop many times per day, locking it every time I step away from my desk (Win-L FTW). Logins used to be just a swipe of my finger, but the Surface doesn’t have a fingerprint scanner so I have to revert to the Triassic-era method of keyboard input.
- Dock works well, I have the same general setup as I did with my laptop. Two big screens plus the screen on my Surface. Full size keyboard, mouse, speakers, headset, LAN, etc. For general use at my desk almost no change in my workflow.
- The Surface is light and very thin, not much different than a full size notebook. I have yet to travel with it, but that will be definitely better. Does anyone know if you have to pull the Surface out at airport security? You need to pull out your laptop, but not your ipad, what type of device is this?
- InstantGo is nice, boot time is obviously better than my X1 but this is not a big deal as I don’t usually shut down my laptop during the day.
The keyboard on the Lenovo X1, the best I have used on any laptop.
The Surface Type Cover is decent, but not nearly as good as the Lenovo.
As AN iPad Replacement
- There are a few apps only on my iPad that I wasn’t sure if I could replace.
- Zinio: I have used this for a few years to manage magazine subscriptions. Much easier to use a device I travel with anyway rather than carry extra weight. This app is also available from the Microsoft Store so easy switch.
- Games: I don’t play games much at all these days but I had a few I enjoyed on the iPad (Angry Birds, Osmos, Plague Inc., maybe a few others). They can be good on long haul flights. There are games in the MS Store, but right now nothing has really caught my eye. More to come…
- Keynote and Keynote Remote: A nice way to give presentations. Keynote on the iPad and the Remote app on my iPhone to view and switch slides. Slick. I have PowerPoint 2013 on the Surface, but no slick remote. A minor loss.
- Movies: I use the iPad a lot for watching movies on flights (paired with my favourite travel accessory, the Bose noise cancelling headphones). I don’t see any issue with watching movies on the Surface, in fact it should be even better. The screen is bigger and the great kickstand means I can adjust the angle far easier than on the iPad.
- iAnnotate: I used this to edit PDF files along with a Jot Script pen/stylus. It worked well, but the stylus was just ok. It was by far the best stylus I used for an iPad, but it disconnected often and just never felt natural. The pen on the Surface is night and day better. Much more responsive and useful. I have only tested the writing portion, the button on top doesn’t work as I’m unable to pair it (see Software section above). I’m using OneNote to annotate PDF files, so far so good.
- Adobe Lightroom Mobile: This is one tool I miss already. Sure, I have a full version of Lightroom on the Surface but Lightroom Mobile is a great companion to Lightroom and they can work well in parallel. When I shoot a large number of images, I just import into Lightroom on my desktop and sync with Lightroom Mobile. I then use the iPad to pick and cull my images from the comfort of my sofa. The swipe gestures make it very easy, and all changes immediately sync back to my desktop. When done, I use the desktop to delete all my bad shots (most of them :) and then just work on the picks. It’s a nice workflow that is missing if I’m not using the iPad. Maybe Adobe will develop this functionality for touch screen devices in the full version of Lightroom.
- The on-screen keyboard on the Surface is about the same as on the iPad, not better and not worse. Both generally suck for anything longer than a quick email. However, the Surface has the Type Pad which is a must-have accessory. As I stated above, it doesn’t best a good laptop keyboard but it’s infinitely better than the on-screen keyboard of the iPad. It’s also better than any of the third party keyboards available that never work and have separate batteries and chargers. The Type Pad attaches to the Surface with magnets and draws power from it’s battery. The physical connection just works.
- The Surface is really not that much heavier than an iPad, you can barely tell if you hold one in each hand. Impressive considering it has a bigger screen.
- Battery life is good, about the same as the iPad in the limited use I have had so far.
With the covers, they are about the same, though the Surface cover is infinitely more useful.
The iPad on-screen keyboard
And on the Surface
As A Desktop Replacement
Not even close. Anyone who claims that the Surface is a desktop replacement does not have any significant computing needs. If you are surfing the web and sending email then it’s a great desktop replacement. If you need some horsepower, it definitely isn’t.
This is a photography blog, and I use my desktop for editing photos. When I purchased my Nikon D800 a couple of years ago, I quickly realized that my old desktop would not handle the huge 36 megapixel raw files. I decided to build a desktop, and with several upgrades over the years I’m running a Intel Core i7 2600K, native is 3.4GHz but I have it overclocked to 4.5GHz and it’s very stable with just air cooling. 32 GB of RAM, 2 SSD drives (one OS/apps and one for swap, scratch, temp, etc), 5 hard drives in RAID-5 for data storage, and a GeForce GPU with 2GB RAM. This desktop doesn’t have any issues with photo editing, and is miles ahead of the Surface in terms of performance.
By the time a Surface model is released with this type of performance I’m sure my camera will be shooting 100+mp. For some applications, there is no replacement for a fast desktop computer.
So far, the Surface as proved to be a device capable of replacing both my laptop and my iPad. I’m still in the honeymoon phase and haven’t used it in every scenario but I don’t see it causing me any major problems. When travelling, I will be able to replace two devices with one, and that is always a good thing.