Sheryl Canter

Surface Pro with Windows 8: My Take

I’m a technophile, and I particularly love tablets. I bought the iPad within weeks of its initial release. I have a really nice Android tablet – Google’s Nexus 10. And now I have a Microsoft Surface Pro with Windows 8. I’ve used all three extensively. What do I think of the Surface Pro? It’s not perfect, but it’s very good.

Windows 8 is the only tablet OS that solidly implements a form of “multitasking”. [[Correction: As discussed in the comments below, I don’t really mean “multitasking” here. All the tablet OSs can run tasks in the background. I mean the number of programs that can be displayed and used at once.]] It’s a little primitive – it’s just two apps (unless you use the “workshop” app, and then you can cram a few more in there), and you’re limited to 1/3 and 2/3 of the screen, but it’s way ahead of the competition. Android 4 has the ability to pop up windows and there are some developers writing to that. Also, Samsung has a customization of Android that lets you put certain special Samsung apps on the screen at the same time. But Microsoft’s implementation works with any “modern” tablet app – much more general.

Plus there is the blessed pressure sensitivity of the stylus. Android also has this potential and Samsung has implemented it on one of their tablets as a customization, but it’s not a standard part of the OS yet. You can’t write with a pen for real on any other tablet – it’s just not realistic. I’ve tried. Nor can you do serious art work on a tablet without the exactitude of a digital stylus and pressure sensitivity.

And then, of course, there is the fact that the Surface Pro is an actual, full-powered work computer that connects to your printers and can run all your legacy software. The other tablets have all kinds of kludgy workarounds to enable you to print, and certainly can’t run your legacy Windows software – those programs that are critical for your work.

The Surface Pro is powerful, and the new UI interface is very nice. I suspect a lot of the complaints about it arise for two reasons: (1) Microsoft could not have rolled it out more badly if they tried, between putting Admin apps on the Start screen and taking away the Start button, and (2) The UI is completely new – there is a learning curve to the completely innovative gestures, keystrokes, new menu placements, and basics for how to do stuff. People will be lost at first, and Microsoft did nothing to make this transition easier.

Don’t give up too soon…

With study, I find the touch portion of Windows 8 quite usable – perhaps better than any other tablet. But it’s so unlike anything else that it does require study. You can’t guess at the new gestures and methods. You don’t benefit from transfer of learning, as with other tablet OSs. Perhaps this was a mistake on Microsoft’s part, but perhaps not – it’s very intruitive and easy to use, once you get used to it.

The only serious mistake Microsoft made was in trying to pretend that Windows 8 is one operating system. It’s really two operating systems rolled into one, almost like a dual boot system, but much more seamless. The old desktop OS has to stay for now because of the need for backward compatibility, but that’s no reason to pretend it’s part of the “real” Windows 8.

I think that the Start page should initially contain only modern apps, or that the desktop apps should be very clearly marked as such – perhaps by a special background color for the tiles. The idea that the Start page should substitute for the Start menu in the old desktop was very misguided – mongo, giant, error. Both are needed. As more apps migrate to a modern interface, Microsoft will probably be able to drop the old desktop eventually, but until then, they should present it as the legacy beast it is.

It was also a big mistake to clutter up the Start page with a huge number of desktop system and administrative apps. The touch interface is supposed to be easy and accessible. People will launch these programs just to see what they are and recoil in horror. Really dumb call. Who’s in charge over there??

My take after playing with the Surface Pro all weekend is that there’s a lot of potential here, though there are still some bugs and there’s a big deficit in available apps – especially compared to what’s available for iOS and Android. The Surface Pro is a bit heavy for a tablet and the battery life is a lot shorter than my Nexus 10, but it does way more. It’s sort of an amalgamation of engineering brilliance and management incompetence. There are clearly still some very smart people at Microsoft, but they don’t seem to be the ones in charge.

Bottom line, I like it! I hope that Microsoft fixes the design errors and bugs, and that developers create more apps for it so Windows 8 and the Surface Pro (or its successors) can reach its potential.


  1. Greg Lee says:

    So Windows 8 is way ahead in its implementation of multitasking? With a whole two tasks? I don’t know enough about Android to be sure this is wrong, but it certainly sounds peculiar. I thought Android was based on Linux, which has a very general implementation of multitasking (and multiuser), and it has had from the very beginning. So what you say here makes me wonder.

  2. I’m talking about multitasking on a tablet. I guess you have to have one to know what I mean. Or maybe that is lazy of me – I should have done a better job of explaining. Either way, there is an issue with having multiple apps visible simultaneously on a tablet. Android (generic) can do it through popups, but the app has to be specifically engineered to be a popup. Samsung has tweaked one of their Android tablets so that a handful of specially engineered Samsung apps can appear on the screen at the same time as other apps – but again, it’s only these specifically engineered apps, not just any app.

    Windows 8 can simultaneously display ANY two apps written to their tablet interface (i.e., any “modern” app). There doesn’t have to be anything special about it. Yes, it can only do two at a time, but how many apps do you think you can look at on a 10″ screen? Also, with the workshop app, you can have more than two. (I know I’m not explaining what that is, but I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night and I’m too tired to do it right now.)

    My bigger criticism of the Windows 8 capability is that the apps are always taking up 1/3 and 2/3 of the screen. I’d like to be able to resize them to take up any proportion (1/2 and 1/2, or whatever).

  3. Greg Lee says:

    I guess you’re talking about how many active windows the window system can display simultaneously, rather than multitasking. (Actually, I have 3 tablets, but none with Windows 8.)

  4. Yes, that’s what I meant – how many programs can be displayed and used simultaneously. “Multitasking” was the wrong term, since all of them have tasks running in the background. I’ll fix it. Thanks for pointing out the error.

  5. Dean Silver says:

    I’m glad to see you changed the title again. When you changed it to “a lot to love”, I thought Microsoft had gotten to you and paid you off! 🙂

  6. Ha! The journalist in me said “who cares about YOUR TAKE – summarize your take”. So I changed it. But I wasn’t comfortable with it so I changed it back.

  7. Sal says:

    Hi Sheryl
    How does the Surface Pro compare to your Asus Transformer? Am thinking of getting a hybrid tablet/pc & can’t decide between the 2. Am used to the old keyboard & also pref at least one USB 3.0 port. Surface Pro hasn’t arrived in Australia yet and the extra charges they chuck on for us Aussies is criminal. I appreciate your kindle hints too. Have just got mine out of mothballs.
    Thanks, Sal

  8. Hi Sal,

    I returned the Asus Transformer. Definitely do not buy ANYTHING from Asus. I’ve got clients soon so I don’t have time to detail all the problems, but the short version is that Asus hardware is crap. The specs are lovely, but they mix in some really nice features with really cheap, crappy components that quickly fail, and their customer service and warranty support is beyond bad. There are horror stories of people waiting months to get back tablets from warranty repair, and then when they get them back they are still broken. Asus has a negative BBB rating. Even the Google Nexus 7, made by Asus, has problems (weird slowdowns over time).

    My current Android tablet is a Nexus 10, which I love. It’s the latest version of pure Android running on awesome hardware. Which do I love more – the Surface Pro or the Nexus 10? I love them both in different ways, for different reasons. Which should YOU get? It depends on what you need the tablet for. They have very different strengths.

    The Surface Pro is thicker and heavier, but then again it’s a full-power laptop. It may be on the heavy side for a tablet, but it’s feather-weight for a full-powered laptop. The Surface Pro can run all your business apps, with 4MB of RAM the browser never crashes (and I really like the touch version of IE – nice interface!). The Nexus 10 has 2GB of memory and the latest version of Android, and the browser STILL crashes periodically, which drives me crazy. This happens with all browsers – doesn’t matter which you use. The Surface Pro has that lovely, pressure-sensitive pen. I like drawing, so that’s a big plus for me.

    But there are relatively few “modern” apps for the Surface Pro, apps written to take advantage of its touch interface. Android must have 1000x more apps – much greater range, variety, and quality. Some of the apps that are available on both platforms suck on the Surface Pro – Pulse comes to mind. Also, I really like the Android’s widget-supporting interface (another reason I can’t understand why anyone prefers an iPad – or if they buy one, why they don’t jailbreak it). Of the three touch operating systems, I think Android has the best launcher by a mile. Widgets rock!

    So to summarize… Nexus 10 has lots of fun, useful, and innovative apps, the delightful Android interface, and is very lightweight and easy to carry around. Surface Pro is kind of boring compared to the Nexus 10 – relatively few modern apps, and those available are generally not that good. The Windows 8 launcher is marginally better than iOS (the squares can have active content), but it’s still dull compared to Android, and the configuration options are limited. It’s also heavy for a tablet. But unlike the Nexus 10, the Surface Pro is a full-power computer that can run all your regular business software, and it has that awesome pressure-sensitive pen.

    – Sheryl

  9. Pete says:

    I bought an Asus S200e 10″ish 8.1 touchscreen laptop awhile back. My business is online based and I was traveling out of the country and bought it for a backup for my 15″ laptop. Just in case my main one failed and I couldn’t get a one where I was at.
    I really liked it even though it only had an I3 cpu and non-expandable 4 gigs of ram. I used it very little and put it away for a few months. One day I decided to fire it up and make sure all the updates were current. When I opened it, it was distorted. After opening up the case I discovered the battery had swollen. So I replaced the battery with a new one and no luck it won’t charge. Asus is absolutely no help and repair shops just say “get a new laptop.”
    The form factor is great but, the laptop is junk. It probably didn’t have 10 hours of use.
    The laptop I’m typing this on is 4 years old averaging 10+ hours a day with no problems and I have older ones while outdated, they still work.
    In my line of work I get asked for recommendations often and I would never suggest an Asus product to anyone.


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