Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Tech Column: I Bought a Surface Pro, Am I Crazy?

by Bill Adler

Is there a perfect car? Is there a perfect restaurant meal? A perfect outfit for going to a party? Probably not, and it's the same with computers. There's no perfect desktop, laptop or tablet computer. Even if there was, there would be a more-perfect one tomorrow.

It's with that reassuring notion that I bought a Microsoft Surface Pro, a Windows 8 tablet computer built by Microsoft.

In my next column, I'll review the Surface Pro in more depth, but now I want to discuss the Surface Pro a little (a very little because I've only been using it for 3 hours), and talk about how to actually find the perfect laptop, even though one doesn't exist.

First, the Surface Pro. Microsoft pushes the Surface Pro as a tablet computer that can also be a laptop. It is not a tablet. I mean, yes, sure, it's got a touch screen and a tablet form, but at two pounds the Surface Pro is about as comfortable on your lap as an Algebra I textbook.

So why get the Surface Pro? I bought it because I was in the market for a light laptop. As light as possible. I travel often and abide by the backpacking mantra, "Take care of the ounces and the pounds will take care of themselves." There are any number of lightweight ultrabooks on the market, but what attracted me to the Surface Pro is that it's very light, weighing in at under 2.5 pounds with the optional --or mandatory, depending on your perspective-- keyboard. It weighs almost exactly what my occasional travel companion, the Chromebook, weighs.

As an ultrabook, the category of super-light PCs, the Surface Pro is as good as I hoped. You can get it with two keyboards, a membrane keyboard that feels like you're typing on toilet paper, or a Surface Pro Type Cover that's responsive and accurate for touch typists. Because the Surface Pro strives for thin and light, the type keyboard keys don't travel far, but I adapted to it quickly.

The screen is bright and crisp, but small. If you aren't crazy about small screens, this machine isn't for you. But if you're looking for something that can fit onto an airplane tray and leave room for a dangerously close cup of coffee, then the Surface Pro works well.

There are a few downsides to the Surface Pro. First the battery life sucks compared to other traveling PCs. Figure 3 to 3 1/2 hours during normal use. It has a kickstand support, which means that you have only one viewing angle, and you can't use the Surface Pro on your lap as you would a regular latptop. It's because of these two considerations that more than with most laptops, it's imperative that you try out a Surface Pro before buying it. If you're too tall, too short, need to be close to the screen, or something else, the Surface Pro's kickstand solution may be a disaster for you.

Then there's Windows 8, which can either be a downside or a plus. I won't regurgitate the litany of complaints made against Windows 8, but there's been a lot of undeserved fuss. Windows 8 takes time to get used to, and it is different from Windows 7 (though you can invoke Windows 7's interface if you want), but transitioning from Windows 7 to Windows 8 involves a lot less change and acquiring new skills than it does to go from Windows to a Mac environment.

The Surface Pro's power brick isn't bulky or heavy and it has a clever twist: There's a USB power port in the power adapter so you don't have to also carry a power plug for your cell phone. The brick uses a two-prong, not three-prong plug, too. Yay for that.

When buying a laptop it's important to decide what your most important needs are because you're not going to get everything in a single package. Make a list and stick with it. My top priorities were weight, a machine than can run Evernote, my essential note-taking program, and instant-on. Instant power on is a taste I acquired from having an iPad. It's great to be able to turn on and shut down a device without seconds bleeding into minutes. Another consideration for me was size: smaller is better. I don't need a large screen while traveling. Smaller devices are easier to manipulate in the claustrophobic seats on airplanes and trains.

Because you'll never find everything you want in a single PC, prioritizing your needs is helpful. That list might lead you to the Surface Pro, but if it doesn't, you'll be happy with whatever you get.


Bill Adler is the co-publisher of the Cleveland Park Listserv, www.cleveland-park.com. He is the author of "Boys and Their Toys: Understanding Men by Understanding Their Relationship with Gadgets," http://amzn.to/rspOft. He tweets at @billadler.

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