Trying to sum up the Surface book

July 18, 2017

So many thoughts spin around in my head as I try to wrap up my impressions of trying the Surface book. It is a fascinating machine. I have fun exploring it, I am exposed to ideas and tradeoffs I would not otherwise have. It is, in many ways a great machine. At the same time, it clearly is not the perfect computer for me, and I am not sure it is the perfect computer for anyone. It throws a lot into the mix - laptop, tablet, touch screen and pen - but the pieces do not yet meld into a greater whole. Edges of various roughness pop up everywhere. I can not decide whether the Surface book represents the first realization of a great vision, or a sort of failure of imagination.

The most important thing, I think, is this: we need the Surface book. We need more computers which try new thingss. I hope that Microsoft pushes the Surface book forward very aggressively, both in hardware and software. I want it to be a halo computer - a machine used create an image and to test new ideas and solutions which trickle down to more mass-market devices. Seen from that perspective, the only way the Surface book can really fail is if it does not push hard enough.

So, what exactly am I ranting about here? Let us dig into the pen to get more concrete.

Pen usage

It ticks all the technical boxes for pressure sensitivity, it has a nice weight and thoughtful buttons. It can stick to the side of the Surface book by means of satisfyingly strong magnets, and it offers smart shortcuts for getting a screenshot of the screen to draw on, open a sketch book or other useful apps. You can even get additional tips with different feels.

This is the great side of the Surface. We have a really nice screen, of course you can use a pen with it, and the pen has nice specs. Then, I start drawing and writing.

Using the pen with the Surface book is by far the second best computer-pen-use experience I have ever had. The Ipad pro with Apple's pencil is my clear winner, and the comparison is both meaningless and very important. Meaningless because these are (at least in present-day) devices in very different areas with very different audiences. Very important because the Surface book needs to motivate the effort and cost of including this technology.

While I can certainly have fun drawing and writing on the Surface book, it never lets me forget the technology is there. It is clear the actual tip of the pen has nothing to do with registering input, because the crosshair (which can be turned off) appears well before you touch the screen, and because my actual lines rarely appear exactly where the tip is. In this way, input feels very indirect. The software does a good job of giving me nice lines, smooth curves and eliminating jitter, but it also rounds off little details in a way which noticeably alters both my handwriting and my drawing. This feels like the very best drawing experience Microsoft could provide with the technology they had at hand. Over on the Ipad pro, it feels as if Apple started from wanting to provide a fantastic pen experience and figured out the technology to do it right. The pen can also work as a general input device, and while it is fun it too feels clunky, integrated the best way for the technology at hand instead of figuring out how it should work and bringing the technology there.

Again, why is the comparison important? Because someone who really wants to draw and write with a pen should get an Ipad pro, and the rest need a good reason to pay extra for a pen which works okay. At no point during my test period have I picked up a Mac laptop and felt disappointed it lacks a pen (or a touch screen for that matter). This is a place I want to see more vision, more pushing of the envelope. I should go back to other computers and feel I am missing features.

This same feeling comes through for use as a tablet as well. And for touch screen use in general. It all works, it all is nice technology, but the parts do not gel into a greater whole. Plus, they make the Surface book a slightly worse laptop, as without a detachable screen it could save a lot of technology and have an even lighter and slimmer design (or even more battery).

I am not saying Microsoft should do any of that. On the contrary, like I wrote above I want them to push all this even further. If there are things to be gained in this hybrid world, it is by taking it even further, cleaning up ideas, unifying and clarifying. I can not wait for that to happen.

Details I love

Using the camera to log in is delightful. It is fast, elegant, and the little animated eye makes it feel fun and a little whimsical in just the right way. I want this on all my computers.

Hitting the Windows key, typing what I want to run or open and hitting enter to do so. I often think in file names, and Windows finds the right files every time, in no time.

That click when the screen detaches from the base. Yum.

Windows 10 looks really nice as a tablet OS. I enjoy holding a screen of it in my hand. The Surface screen feels physically nice in the hand too, nicely textured, solid and with defined but not sharp edges.

Visual studio, and the whole way Microsoft is firing on all cylinders building great developer tools. When I wrote Python code, I could choose my version and install packages right from a panel within Visual studio. When I opened work's C++ codebase, it picked up our Cmake-based build scripts and just worked, failing only because of naturally missing libraries.

An enthusiast computer?

Finally, one more spinning thought is that the Surface book is a geat enthusiast's computer. It is for the Windows enthusiast who wants to experiment with the future and who does not mind a bit of fiddliness getting there. For me, a developer building web frontends backed by Linux servers, Windows also provided a sort of surface tension which my development ambitions bounced off of. The lock-in effect Windows has in many areas became a lock-out effect for me. I got so far that I know how I could get my whole environment running, so I could do all my work on a Windows machine if I wanted to. But it would be just that: work. But if I was a real Windows enthusiast, I could easily do it, keep it running, and have fun demonstrating my cool different computer to all the Mac users at work. That enthusiast is greatly rewarded with a really cool computer which can do a lot of things, but it is not for everyone.