Confessions of a Traitor: A couple of months with a Surface Pro

August 31, 2016

Surface ProIn early June I decided that I would break with some 15 years of tradition and get a Windows machine. Most people who know my computing preferences were rather shocked by this turn (or betrayal as some called it), and a few were intrigued. For this latter group esepecially, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts on the experience so far.

First, my motivations for getting a Windows machine. I do very much like Macs, OS X and the wide array of great software available. In fact — spoiler alert — I’ve come to appreciate Mac-based software even more now that I’ve spent a couple of months using Windows (more about that later). But I think one of the major weaknesses of today’s Mac laptops is the lack of touch screen. We’ve had touch screens on iPhones (and other smartphones) for almost 10 years, iPads (and other tablets) have gotten us used to doing substantial work with touch screen devices (from word processing to annotation to movie editing). The ever-expanding and ever more powerful iPads recognize the potential for tactile interfaces (as evidenced by the most recent rash of iPad ads touting it as a computer), but iOS just isn’t viable for me as primary machine. The real show-stopper (beyond the frustrations of dysfuncional email searches) is the inability to do programming because iOS doesn’t really allow open-ended access to underlying interpreters and compilers on the device itself (and iOS and Java have had an especially fraught relationship, only slightly better than the one with Flash).

So now I “need” one (heftier and bulkier) machine for most of my work and, ideally, a (lighter and smaller) touch screen device to do things like annotate student work and journal articles and, um, watch Netflix. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone thought to combine a powerful but super portable laptop and a touchscreen tablet? Oh wait, that’s been available for Windows for years. Hello, Apple? In fact, in answering a question back in 2012 about a possible laptop/table hybdrid, Apple CEO Tim Cook answered that that would be like combining a fridge and a toaster and that wouldn’t please anyone (though Apple has said it wouldn’t do a stylus, mini tablet, or large phone either…).

I’ve been coveting a hybrid machine for over a year, but the real clincher was this spring when I was contemplating a tablet upgrade and Microsoft announced that Windows would include a full Unix subsystem. For some of the work I do, it’s incredibly useful to have a proper unix-based system where I can install and run a wide variety of tools (in fact, that’s what made be switch to Macs when Unix-based OS X was first released). There are other options of course, like Cygwin or VMs, but the full OS integration here is the key draw (just to be clear, Windows isn’t now unix-based like OS X, it’s only offering an Ubuntu-based subsystem, but still).

Once I’d decided to take the plunge it was then a question of deciding which brand and model of laptop/tablet to get (there are quite a few), and though I probably wasn’t as diligent about shopping and comparing as I could have been, there were various signals reinforcing my desire to try a Surface. I hesitated briefly between a Surface book and a Surface Pro, the main difference being that the book has a hinge for the display/tablet that makes it closer to a laptop (though the tablet can be detached). But I found the hinge too bulky both in appearance and in practice, I wanted a slim form factor, so I went with the Pro.

To help ensure that the new machine had a decent chance of succeeding (i.e. weaning me off my Mac addiction), I maxed the configuration (i7 chip, 16GB RAM, 1TB SSD drive), though of course the final price reflected that (poking up over $4k). I certainly recognize that that’s a huge investment to make on any machine, though it’s on par with a fully configured Macbook Pro (and given the amount of time I spend compiling and running computationally intenstive software, it’s a worthwhile investment for me). I should mention that the premium specs available for the Surface were one of the deciding factors for me compared to the alternative hybrids, though I should also say that I think a lot of users would be just as well served without maximizing the configuration, and therefore the price).

Fear not intrepid reader who’s made it this far, I won’t inflict on you an unboxing narrative complete with video. But it does seem relevant to say that my experience launched on a bit of a wobbly foot as I found the process of ordering and shipping from Microsoft not as smooth as I’m accumstomed to (I had to order online because of the advanced custom configuration). The online store was ok, but the notification of shipment and shipment tracking were wonky. It was one order but with three separate tracking streams and the shipment information available from Microsoft and FedEx was erroneous (I had the same experience very recently in ordering new nibs for the Pen). Moreover, Microsoft somehow held the funds for the purchase twice on my credit card, which triggered a credit card fraud alert and ensuing hassle. I suspect my experience was a bit unusual, but it did make be appreciate the logistical smoothness of ordering online from Apple.

My anticipation was rewarded when I received the machine, and when I configured and started playing with it. My first impressions of just about everything to do with the hardware were very favourable: the display is bright and crisp and big enough to work on but small enough to be very portable, the keyboard has nice sizing and satisfying travel of the keys, the fingerprint login on the keyboard works great and is very convenient, the hinge on the back of the display to prop it up works well even when perched on my lap, the stylus pen is fun especially since I hadn’t really used one in over a decade, etc.

And as I type this a couple of months later, I can say that I’m mostly still very happy with the hardware. There are some smaller details that I find rather unfortunate. For instance, the power cord is a bit short and I find it unplugs sometimes at the wall and at the mid-way adapter. There’s a tiny light where the cord plugs into the Surface that shines directly at me and that I find distracting (but nothing a strip of electric tape couldn’t mask). Little details that I can’t help think wouldn’t have made it through the rigorous (or manic) Apple design process. On the plus side, the mid-way adapter has an extra USB plug that I’ve found useful.

The Surface is on the minimalist side of available ports: there’s essentially power, a single USB and a DisplayPort; that’s it. But that actually hasn’t been a problem so far, especially since the (proprietary) power connection can also serve as a connection to an external hub with more ports (USB, ethernet, audio, etc.), which is how I use the machine in my office, connected to a 4k display (which works fine).

My biggiest complaint with the hardware is the battery life, it’s just not what it should be for a portable device (especially since this isn’t a first generation machine). I haven’t done systematic testing, but my sense is that I couldn’t get much more than a couple of hours from the machine with my typical usage (which again, may be a bit more intensive than the norm). As a result I’m almost always plugged in, but I sort of resent not knowing if I could make it through a longer work session at a café or a three-hour seminar or workshop on a single charge.

Despite some shortcomings, I still think the Surface is a great machine, particularly as a touch-screen laptop. I find myself tapping the screen in all kinds of situations, especially when I’m not sitting at some kind of desk where the (very good) trackpad is just as convenient. If anything I probably haven’t used the Surface as a tablet as much as I thought I would. I do watch entertainment on it, but I usually keep the keyboard connected. As a tablet it may actually be slightly on the big side for my taste, but there’s plenty of screen real-estate for reading and annotating. I did get experience an unreasonable jolt of pleasure ripping off the keyboard when the flight attendant asked passengers using laptops to stow them away while passengers using tablets could continue. I should also say before moving on from hardware that I’ve used the stylus less than I thought I would: there’s not much motivationg for me to do so in laptop mode and even in tablet mode I find the virtual keyboard faster for annotations than the decent handwriting recognition.

Now about the software… My first impressions of Windows 10 were actually very favourable as well (though it did take me a while to understand the Windows Insider program that would allow me advanced access to the Ubuntu Bash shell). The first level of Windows preferences and menus are very usable and consistent with a modern UI aesthetic of clean, flat, and relatively simple controls. But you also quickly realize that Windows 10 is like a layer on top of older, more cluttered and more confusing settings that are sometimes needed and displayed. It may be my own history with Windows, with a huge gap in the middle, but I cruise along happily with a modern operating system and then, oops, for some reason I get thrown back into a control panel seemingly from Windows 95.

Settings

Settings in Windows 10 that lead to Settings in… something earlier.

I can’t help but wonder how much of the operating system follows this pattern of a new sheen on top of accumulated crud. Apple is probably bolder in breaking backwards compatibilty in the name of a perceived higher good (e.g. MacOS 9 to OS X) but arguably Microsoft doesn’t have that same luxury given the nature of its user base.

As with any transition, it’s sometimes difficult to know if I’m just being ignorant about something or if that’s just the way it is. For instance, I’ve had several experiences of applications failing silently with no indication of a problem or what to do next. On other operating systems I know where to look for error logs (if the OS doesn’t already provide the information I need), and it represents a significant learning curve to figure all of that out with a new system, even with my distant experience with Windows. Similarly, I tend to use the OS in French, but Windows seems unwilling to make a full commitment about that, I still get a lot of English in the interface, even for what I would consider core components, like the welcome/login screen below.

Bilingual Desktop

I’m all for bilingualism, but I’m also for interface consistency.

I think Apple tends to be much more controlling of developers than Microsoft, and I’m sure at times that’s frustrating as a developer, but sometimes I recognize the benefit. Take for example the notification badge that appears in many applications (like how many unread messages in your email client’s inbox), on Macs it seems like most applications are consistent and use a common framework, on Windows it’s a mess.

Also, there have been instances where I’ve tried to set an option (like automatic timezones based on geolocation) and the option would just stubbornly and silently revert back to the previous setting. To be fair, I’ve been using preview versions of Windows and perhaps some things like localization (translation) clearly not fully baked, but I’m pretty sure that Apple’s never used that excuse.

There are other annoyances and inconsistencies. For instance, I usually like to use the keyboard rather than the mouse for things like launching applications. Usually hitting the Windows key and typing the first couple letters of an application name works fine as a launcher, but sometimes it doesn’t, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why not (it’s not toggling of tablet mode). Usually bluetooth devices connect very smoothly, but sometimes they don’t until a reboot. The file manager windows sometimes take strangely long to open, I experience that most often with my Downloads folder: I select it, and then it takes several seconds to load (there’s a progress bar, but it’s still frustrating).

Badges

Three email clients (two by Microsoft), three different badge styles.

In other cases I don’t know if it’s the OS or the application that’s to blame. Dropbox did a partial sync and then stopped and wouldn’t continue (for nearly two months), no matter what I tried. This could have eventually been a Windows show-stopper for me, but then magically it started working properly around the time of the final release of Windows 10 Anniversary. Conversely, my VPN software worked fine for a couple of months but recently it requires reinstallation each time I want to use it. I don’t fully understand the Windows 10 store either: I downloaded VLC for Windows Store and the stand-alone VLC and as far I as can tell the former looks nicer (built for Windows 10) and the latter is more full-featured. Is such messiness really necessary?

I anticipated that finding equivalent software for Windows would be somewhat of a challenge, but I underestimated the scale of the challenge. I don’t really understand how Windows can still be by far the world’s dominant operating system and yet there are so few options that combine expected functionality and decent interface design — that, or I don’t know where to look. In some cases it was easy because there was a Windows version of the Mac software that I was already using (Eclipse, Evernote, Chrome, 1Password, etc.). In most other cases I started by looking for applications designed for Windows 10 since that was shorthand for a relatively recent attempt to update the application and the UI. This may seem like a superficial bias, but a lot of options just made me think I was stepping into a time machine back to the 1990s, not the step forward that I was wanting in buying a hybrid laptop/tablet in the first place.

Finding a decent SFTP client is a good example: you seem to have to choose between ugly or expensive (and still not attractive), with various things in between. For transfers I actually sometimes use the SSH client Token2Shell/MD which looks good but is a bit slow, though just as often I simply use the command-line from the Bash shell.

Finding a decent text editor is similarly challenging. On OS X I tend to use TextMate and BBEdit, which both look good and work well, but on Windows I’ve opted for Notepad++ which… at least works well. BTW, I’m currently using Haroopad for editing Markdown.

My search for a decent email client could constitute its own post. I have a pretty good sense of what I want, but I find it remarkably hard to find it all in one package. Then again, I go through periods where I try different email clients on Macs too, though I usually end up returning to Apple’s Mail client. I’m probably forgetting some things, but here’s a shortlist of what I’d like:

  • good overall performance (many clients just seem slow)
  • powerful and fast search on full local archives
  • simple and intuitive keyboard shortcuts including for archiving
  • send and archive in one action
  • proper Exchange support
  • unified inbox for multiple accounts
  • good support for plain text mode and configurable reply format
  • swipe gestures (archive, delete) for touch screens
  • automatic event and task detection

Demanding, but not unreasonable, no? I tried several options on Windows, starting with the built-in Windows Mail client. It’s actually pretty good, one of the more pleasant ones to use, with a clean, flat design and some nice features like swipe gestures and good keyboard shortcuts. Unfortunately the search capabilities are sorely lacking and there are too few options (such as formatting for replies). Thunderbird seems promising in various ways, especially for search, but in the end I found it too sluggish (it would fall behind as I was typing and sending messages took a long time for some reason). Mailbird also looks promising and I especially like the send and archive button, but the search functionality is very limited (and there are some lingering questions about privacy). eMClient is another great contender that looks good, has a huge number of configurable options and has very good search. Unfortunately it’s quick archive function is only supported for GMail accounts and its keyboard shortcuts are limited to combinations with control keys.

My institution has licensing for Outlook, but I’d pretty much eliminated that option from the outset: it seemed bloated, cluttered, and overly prescriptive about usage (imposing the Microsoft style of reply formatting, for instance). My prejudice was probably fuelled by some experience with the Mac Outlook client, which in many ways is a very poor distant cousin of the Windows version, with far fewer options and much less functionality. But around the time of the Windows 10 Anniversary release there were a couple of smaller but decisive improvements that led me to have a second look, including archive folder functionality and better shortcuts for common actions.

Much to my surprise, it turns out that I’ve come to rather like Outlook. It’s fast (startup is a bit slow and there was a criticial settings tweak needed), it’s search is powerful and flexible, it supports the backspace key for archiving and the delete for deleting messages, its Exchange support is unbeatable (things like warnings about vacation to email recipients in my organization have been a pleasant surprise), it can be configured to use different reply formats, there’s some touch support, and it does some automatic event and task detection (though event detection is not as good as with Apple Mail). I really like the quick attachment button that shows recently modified files, that seems like a no-brainer. With some configuration you can get out of the overly cluttered world of MS applications to something resembling a fairly clean interface.

One strange weakness is the lack of a unified inbox (though keeping my accounts separate has some advantages). I’d also really like to see a send and archive button, it seems silly to have to send and then archive separately almost every time. But still, I use Outlook now, who would have thought?

In the column of things I miss and can’t get on Windows there’s very little beyond Messages, which of course allows me to exchange messages seamlessly with friends and family using Apple hardware. I’ve never gotten much into alternative chat clients or platforms because iMessage works well for my very small but active group of correspondents. It’s meant having to pull out a phone and thumb my way through a response, which isn’t the end of the world. I’ve also missed AirDrop at times, which allows me to transfer all kinds of content between Apple devices. I’ve been very happy using Infinit for my own transferring purposes, but of course that doesn’t necessarily help when I need to transfer files to someone else (and in my circles someone else almost always has Apple devices).

So what’s the final verdict? It’s complicated. I still love the laptop/tablet form of the Surface, and though I use the touch screen regularly, I don’t use the tablet format as much as I thought. The Surface is more than viable as a primary machine, despite a few annoyances (the power cord, underwhelming battery life, etc.). The real issue for me isn’t the hardware, it’s the software: Windows itself is somewhere between quirky and buggy (though apparently a vast improvement on recent versions of Windows), I’m having trouble finding some applications I like (though it could be deeply ingrained expectations from fifteen years of using Macs), and though it feels good to loosen the grip of the Apple ecosystem on my digital life, it still makes for some inconveniences (messaging, photos, music etc.).

I have no regrets in getting a Windows machine, it offers several advantages, but I’ll probably still keep a close and hopeful eye on announcements of new machines from Apple. I doubt very much that a touchscreen laptop is in the cards for the short-term, but I do hope that Apple regains some of its innovative mojo in the laptop market — beyond making things ever-slimmer, it seems to me things have stagnated in recent years.

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