In my continuing quest to find the perfect device, I bought a Surface 3 Pro (I5, 128 GB) today at Best Buy, along with the Type keyboard and a sleeve.
My venerable XPS Dell laptop from January 2008 has been a sweet machine, but its limited resolution makes the screen too small for some modern applications. Also since I upgraded it to Windows 8 (from Windows 7, upgraded from Vista), it’s been running hotter and the fan is making noise. Since the primary use for this machine now is audio recording, noise is a problem. The Surface 2 RT I have won’t run the recording application, Audacity, nor my own LVTool, so EBay is the destination for the Surface 2; I don’t know what I’ll do with the laptop yet.
The Surface 3 Pro is marketed as both a tablet and a laptop replacement. Reducing the number of devices is always a win, so what I am hoping to accomplish is to get a laptop replacement and a killer tablet in one device.
I had a license for Office 2010 and I put that on. (The laptop had Office 2007.) This Surface (unlike the RT models) does not come with Office. Deleting the preinstalled but unlicensed copy of Office 2013 freed up 2.1 GB of storage. I also installed a 64 GB Micro SD card where I’m putting the file history. I have it encrypted. The Surface 3 comes with a Bluetooth stylus.
The tablet has a little less storage than the laptop (128 GB vs. 160) but the laptop wasn’t full, and it had stuff on it I never used. Also the 64 GB Micro SD card brings the tablet ahead of the laptop, and that’s where my file history and media go. The tablet screen is a little smaller (12” vs. 13”) but the resolution is much higher with the tablet at 2160 x 1440, where the laptop was only 1280 x 800. (My huge desktop monitor is only 1920 x 1080!)
I don’t like track pads, and the Surface 3 is no exception. Things happening that I didn’t intend gets old very fast. Put bluntly, I don’t like the Surface 3 track pad. I rarely used the track pad on my laptop either (although it’s better), opting for a mouse, so the track pad won’t make any difference to me. I think I’m going to like the Surface 3 keyboard apart from the track pad. It always takes a while to get comfortable with a new keyboard. About the only thing I cannot do with the Surface is mount a DVD. That is somewhat offset by the ability of Windows 8 to mount ISO files. I think that the tablet is going to work as a laptop replacement, using the Surface 3 keyboard and a Bluetooth mouse.
The tablet role is different. What I like about the Surface 3 Pro as a tablet is the excellent Bluetooth stylus. Handwriting is excellent, and the ability to navigate the Windows desktop with it takes care of the problems in doing that with your finger, which is too big for the user interface. Scroll bars now work. A special button starts the One Note application, which unlike the rest of Office, is bundled with the tablet.1
The photo above shows the Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet up next to the Surface 3 Pro. The Venue is right at one half the weight and one half the footprint area of the Surface, and therein lies the quandary. The Dell, the size of a paperback book, is too small to do much useful work, and the Surface is too big to just grab and go. Coincidentally, the Dell Venue 8 Pro has exactly the same screen resolution as my old laptop, 1280 x 800.
My Dell came with a fold over Dell case that doubles as a stand; the Surface has an integrated kickstand, and its keyboard provides the cover, with an added weight penalty. I bought a sleeve for the Surface just for added protection. I rarely used the sleeve I got for the Surface 2 and that may prove the case here.
It is ironic that the Dell Venue 8 Pro that I would consider unusable without a stylus, comes without a stylus, while the Surface billed as a laptop replacement comes with a stylus, but without a keyboard.
Two other criteria for choosing which tablet to carry are the lack of a standard USB port and HDMI output on the Dell (both functions require accessories—in the case of USB you need an “On the Go” cable, available at Staples or online). Both are standard on the Surface. (To be fair, you do need a special mini HDMI cable for the Surface, but they are not all that expensive and easily found.) Note that the micro HDMI cable for the Surface and Surface 2 is incompatible with the mini HDMI port on the Surface Pro series. Belkin makes a 6′ mini cable that can be purchased from the Microsoft Store for $14.99, or you can pay $39.99 (why?) for an adapter to use a standard HDMI cable.
I am currently thinking that while I can do without a laptop, I can’t work well with only one tablet. The Dell will be the thing I will just grab when I go somewhere, where I won’t need heroic battery life, and where the most input I will ever do is type a URL or a password. The Surface will go when I know I have some productivity task to accomplish, or when I need it to run all day without recharging the battery.
I had my first laptop replacement session with the Surface 3 Pro, recording an audiobook chapter. Overall it worked well, although there were two snags.
A USB hub was required to use my wireless USB mouse, and my Blue Yeti USB microphone at the same time. That worked OK, but when I plugged in a USB flash drive as the third device on the hub, it became unstable. That flash drive must draw a lot of power because it’s always hot after I use it. So it appears that the amount of power available at the USB 3.0 port is not limitless (or it could be the hub). I got a powered hub and that solved this special problem. I could also have just used a Bluetooth mouse to reduce the number of devices on the hub and that might have worked. The microphone could be a power hog too.
The other thing that came up has to do with the display: The mouse cursor is really tiny in the Audacity application.
The infinitely variable kickstand is a real winner. The Type keyboard can be folded around as a stand for your lap, and then the kickstand at a low angle makes a virtually perfect angle for lap use. It is extremely stable and sets both hands free. This is a really nice feature. I tried to accomplish the same thing with the Dell Venue 8 Pro and the Dell flip cover, but it was totally unstable.
Before I got the Surface, I did my audio recording on a laptop upstairs where things are quiet. After recording, I would move the audio files to my desktop computer for editing and uploading. This week, I tried doing everything on the Surface, and that worked superbly. Audacity exported the MP3 files at about the same speed as the quad core desktop, and not having to copy the large audio files either to a USB drive or across the Wi-Fi network is a definite time saver. I have massive amounts of “stuff” on my desktop computer, but the Surface continues to get used more and more.
It’s been 4 months now, and I don’t turn on my laptop anymore. The Dell tablet gets very little use. Things have settled down between the desktop system where all the heavy lifting gets done, and the Surface Pro that handles everything portable. I’ve said that the Surface Pro is too big to grab and go, but I find myself doing just that. I rarely use the sleeve I bought, using just the type cover to protect the display.
1I found out that the version of OneNote that comes with the Surface is not the full version that is a part of Office. The big missing item is that it doesn’t do character recognition when you write with the stylus. While you can start Office OneNote with the stylus button when installing Office 2013, it won’t work with earlier versions of Office, like the 2010 I installed. The pre-installed OneNote thing proved mostly a disappointment.