The Chronicle

of a ColdFusion Expatriate

My Surface Pro Journey

January 21, 2020

To start, let me warn you that this journey is somewhat circular, as I venture into the world of the Microsoft Surface Pro 6 only to ultimately arrive back where I started, except more disappointed and with less money.

But if an exploration into the pros and cons of the Surface Pro (the previous generation at the time of this writing, I grant you) interests you, then please, do read on.

Why Surface Pro 6?

Every good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. At the beginning, I decided to buy a Microsoft Surface Pro 6. But why? That’s an extremely good question.

I haven’t written much about this yet, but I’m pretty big into photography. As I have perpetually chased the best Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop performance, I’ve purchased progressively more expensive Mac laptops, though the performance I’ve gotten out of them has never been what I expected for the price.

I still really like the Mac platform and its ecosystem, but I took the plunge a while back and build a custom desktop PC that blows away my Mac laptops in performance. I was a PC guy a long time ago (a long, long time ago) and now I’m a… Multi-platform guy, I suppose.

Anyway, that’s really only tangentially important, you just need to know that I am a Lightroom user and that I have a PC as my primary workstation at home.

Fast forward a little bit and I see someone at work using one of these e-ink tablets for note-taking. I immediately interrogate him about it, being a huge fan of the idea of digital pen and paper, and discover that it’s kind of a crap product for the price and he only uses it out of guilt for how much he spent on it (that’s a very loose interpretation, but I’m sticking with it).

He mentioned that if he did it over, he’d look at the Surface. Hm, Surface, you say? A Windows tablet with a stylus? Interesting.

It then occurred to me that I could probably run Lightroom on such a thing and it could do double-duty as a note-taking device for work and a light post-processing machine for photo trips. Two birds dead, only one stone thrown, and if there is anything that I love more than killing birds it’s efficiency.

That’s a joke, I don’t hate birds, but what does it matter, birds aren’t real anyway.

This is where the story hits a point where you’re either going to be with me or against me, so buckle up.

The purchase

I went to a physical Microsoft Store, which I am fortunate (?) enough to have right in the town I live in. Ironically it is in a shopping mall directly next door to an Apple store. This is hilarious because there used to be a store between them, but that store left and Apple soaked up their space to make their store even bigger, and also putting them directly next door to Microsoft. I’m sure that many chuckles were had at both companies about this.

I digress. I went there and I played with the Surface Go and the Surface Pro 6 and it was obvious that the Surface Go would be far too underpowered for, well, basically anything, it’s like an Amazon Fire tablet with an optional expensive stylus, I don’t think anyone should buy one of these.

The Surface Pro 6, with its optional magnetic keyboard cover and stylus seemed like such a nice little setup. One of the associates on the floor told me that it was not likely that it would run Lightroom very well, but that I could take 30 days to try it out and return it if it didn’t work out. That was enough for me.

There are two CPU tiers of the Surface Pro 6: one with an 8th generation Intel Core-i5 at 1.6 GHz (turbo to 3.4 GHz), and one with an 8th generation Intel Core-i7 at 1.9 GHz (turbo to 4.2 GHz).

I’ve had people tell me that I made a mistake not buying the i7, that Lightroom performance would have been significantly better. I suppose that is possible, though the difference in core speed is not significant and both CPUs have the same number of cores. What is significant is the difference in price: The Surface Pro 6 with the i5 was $900, while the i7 version was $1,500.

Now, part of that jump in price is due to the fact that Microsoft offered a 128 GB storage option on the i5 version and not on the i7; the minimum storage you could get with the i7 was 256 GB. Nevertheless, $1,500 was too much for me to stomach, especially after adding the $100 “Surface Pen” and the $140 “Type Cover” keyboard folio.

Let me be clear: I do not believe in my heart of hearts that an i7-equipped Surface Pro 6 is a laptop replacement. I think it’s a novelty. I simply did not want to spend laptop prices on a part-time use system.

Moreover, performance isn’t really the problem. It’s just one of the many problems.

Tell me about the problems!

I thought you’d never ask! First, let’s just state what the Surface Pro 6 is actually good at.

So, the i5 Surface Pro 6 doesn’t perform very well, but as a “Chromebook”-style casual use device, or even for OneNote and various Windows-native productivity apps, it works great. You can certainly load up some Office apps, Dropbox, your chat programs, Firefox, and so forth and get rolling.

The Surface Pen is excellent. The tip has a bit of rubber on it so that the feel is quite natural and smooth and not too slippery and the digitizer is made by Wacom so it’s accurate and quick and satisfying to use. In fact, the Surface Pen is probably the best thing about the Surface Pro. Palm rejection is perhaps just slightly less accurate than the iPad and Apple Pencil, but it is extremely usable.

The Microsoft “Type Cover” keyboard is nice, easy to type on, feels pretty good, although the trackpad is unmitigated garbage, like virtually every trackpad for Windows that has literally ever existed. But hey, you have a full touchscreen to help you feel less bad about that.

Other than the trackpad, the only other criticism I have of the Type Cover is that it does feel somewhat too flimsy if you use it on your lap or some surface other than a desktop or tabletop. It’s workable, you can type on your lap, and really the biggest problem with lap use is not the keyboard but rather the “friction stand,” but I won’t go too much into that.

I will say, I love the friction stand. If you set aside the “I can’t type on this on my lap” problem, the friction stand lets you have exactly the viewing angle you want, and everyone should think about implementing something like this, it is truly freeing.

But those are not the deal-breakers. The real deal-breakers for this device are:

  • Windows 10 “Tablet Mode” sucks, and
  • The Surface Pro 6 is a fragile, weak little plastic sandwich that is so portable you want to take it everywhere, and yet it cannot survive going anywhere.

OK, one thing at a time:

Windows 10 tablet mode sucks

Windows 10 is such a fascinating demonstration of a product management team trying desperately to paint enough lipstick on a pig that the enlightened consumer, who has been programmed by Microsoft’s competitors to desire and indeed expect a certain UI pedigree, will mistake the pig for a show-winning collie trained in CPR.

What that wide-eyed and naive consumer does not realize is that Windows 10 is just the next thin layer of paint over an aging system that, in each of its many iterations, has failed to jettison even a single crumb of technical debt in the name of backwards compatibility and is now a truly spectacular house of cards, a renewed facade on a building crumbling under its own weight.

They’re trying, I really think that they’re trying, but take for example the new Settings app, which presents a UI redesigned to appear modern and sleek and intuitive. You only have to click around for about two minutes before you see one of these “Additional XYZ options” links on the right, so you click it, and what in the holy hell is that?? Oh yes, it’s the original Control Panel application in all of its 1995 glory, which has not gone away, but is sitting right there, just out of view, and which I might add is also necessary for changing certain settings that still exist but are unreachable through the new UI.

That, in and of itself, is not a problem, but it’s an example of the real problem, which is that Microsoft does not have the buy-in, or the wherewithal, or perhaps simply the balls, to actually re-think anything. They hired some UI people and they said “make this shit not look like shit,” and those UI people said “great, let’s address the fundamental information architecture problems here” and Microsoft said, “no, you are not permitted to meddle with anything that might be used by one PowerShell script in one enterprise customer’s deployment of this software, so just fucking skin it, OK?”

And skin it they did.

And then tablets happened. More specifically, the iPad happened. And once again, Apple made a bold move toward a non-laptop tablet device, a move that is still being questioned and analyzed but absolutely cannot be criticized as not bold, and companies like Microsoft are struggling to follow in their own way, which is to say, in a milquetoast, half-assed, doing it because those guys are but betraying the actual spirit of it kind of way.

Because, as you most certainly are aware, the iPad is not a laptop. The iPad Pro gets as close as I think Apple is actually willing to get (topic for another post), but it is not a laptop. The Surface Pro 6 is absolutely a laptop, it runs full Windows 10, but full Windows 10 lacks any modicum of touchscreen usability, and so Microsoft in their deepest wisdom have created Tablet Mode.

Tablet Mode is an attempt to make Windows 10 usable with only a touchscreen input device. It’s not an altogether bad attempt, but it fails for a few reasons:

  1. Windows programs, by and large, were not designed to be usable with only a touchscreen input device.

  2. At times, and these times come more often than you’d like, it feels like Windows 10 itself was not designed to be usable with only a touchscreen input device.

The experience feels like what you probably would expect from a touchscreen Windows computer. You can launch and switch between programs with touches that all make sense and work great. Then you have to interact with a program that isn’t designed to be touched with a finger or stylus and it fails in hilarious ways, so you try to avoid doing those things, but people have to change Explorer’s view mode or insert a graph into a Word document eventually and so the circus continues.

Then you have to enter some text, and the keyboard pops up, and sometimes it overlaps something you need to see, such as the actual field you’re entering text into, but that’s OK because it’s dreadfully hard to move the keyboard around in any predictable way so you end up mashing your fingers all over the screen and finally throwing the entire Surface Pro 6 out the window because if you see it hit someone and knock them down at least that will relieve some of the schadenfreude that has been building up gradually in your entire body since you started using the thing and the tremors are starting to make it hard to perform simple tasks.

Ultimately, this is what it looks like when you try to glue a completely distinct and singularly nuanced input paradigm onto an operating system and its ecosystem of software that was entirely conceived of in an era when such an input paradigm could only be imagined by the big brains at Bell Labs or Xerox PARC. It feels like design by committee. It feels like being involved but not committed. It feels like ticking a box on a form for “user interface requirements in 2019.”

If you’re reading this, Microsoft, the lesson to take away here is that the sales of the iPad are not any indication that the public wants a tablet computer, it’s only an indication that they want an iPad. And that’s a completely different thing, isn’t it?

Anyway, a lot of these frustrations are muted by attaching some kind of keyboard to the thing, even though none of them have a halfway serviceable trackpad, but you can always do that thing that Windows laptop users have done since the dawn of this new age where every Windows laptop has a touchscreen for some reason, which is to scroll and tap and type and drag interchangeably.

In fact, when you connect the Type Cover, Windows will ask you if you want to turn off Tablet Mode automatically when that happens. Of course you accept, because it rescues you from the bizarre hell that is Tablet Mode.

The Surface Pro 6 is a fragile plastic sandwich

My first real test for the Surface Pro 6 was a family trip to Bermuda, on which I was prepared to take lots of photographs and videos, so I could exercise my Lightroom setup.

Getting ready to go, I packed up my photography backpack, which is a Peak Design Everyday Backpack 30L (I really like this bag and may review it somewhere eventually, but a lot has been said about it on the internet already so I’ll probably spare you those additional ramblings).

The Surface Pro 6 is so small, it easily fits into the generously padded laptop/tablet pouch within the Everyday Backpack. Off we went!

The trip was great, we had a grand time exploring the island, and I got to play with my newly acquired GoPro Hero 7 Black, which is a truly impressive little piece of kit.

That is, until one evening as I was waiting for a photo import to complete, which on the Surface Pro 6 usually takes about 45,000 years, and I noticed a hairline crack right across the whole screen!

Now, the thing had been sitting on the desk in the hotel room since the moment we got there, so it must have happened while in the backpack. And I know what you’re going to say: maybe the backpack isn’t suitable for this, maybe the tablet pouch was deformed across my back, maybe I wasn’t gentle enough with it while stowing or retrieving it on the plane, etc., etc.

To that I say, I did not do anything to this device that a reasonable person with broad experience in consumer electronics and even portable electronics wouldn’t do. I have traveled with laptops and tablets of other kinds and none of them ever had their screen crack straight across.

So that sucks, apparently you need to encase your Surface Pro 6 in some kind of rigid body case (I never even looked to see if such a thing exists) because the Type Cover provides no protection from the Surface Pro’s flimsy plastic body deforming, nor, apparently, does a padded, purpose-built tablet pouch in my high-end photography travel backpack.

I jumped online to see what I could do about it.

You’ll be relieved to know that Microsoft considers a broken screen to be excluded from their warranty, so you’re on your own to seek repair, which they will happily perform for you at the very reasonable cost of $400, which by itself is 44% of the cost of the whole device and would result in far less joy than literally smashing the thing on the pavement in 60 fps slow-motion and setting it to “Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangsta,” which I would do immediately if I wasn’t terrified of being hunted down and killed by the Geto Boys’ attorneys, or, “fixers,” or whatever they have.

Since that trip, my Surface Pro 6 has sat on a shelf in my office. Too broken to use, too expensive to fix.

So, should you buy one?

I mean, knee-jerk reaction here… Hell no.

But your mileage may vary. Perhaps you have enough cash to step up to a higher performance tier, or perhaps you only need to run lightweight native applications like OneNote, and perhaps you are going to use this thing strictly in a controlled work environment free from, like, backpacks.

I came down pretty hard on Microsoft here, which I think they need to hear, but I also see that they’re iterating and maybe they’ll catch up to themselves at some point and some revelatory thing will happen and Windows 10 tablet computing will suddenly be usable or, dare I suggest, even enjoyable. It isn’t that today, though.

The fundamental flaw in a Windows 10 tablet computer is that Windows 10 isn’t a tablet operating system, and as you’re using it it’s really hard to shake the constant nagging feeling that you’re trying to force a square peg into a round hole. This feeling is only magnified by even 30 seconds of experience with an iPad, which, I repeat, is not a laptop, but nevertheless feels not only natural but actually delightful in the way that an interface does when it is thoughtfully designed from the ground up to work exactly the way it does.

So yeah, those are my totally unfiltered thoughts about the Microsoft Surface Pro 6.

If you want to share your thoughts, there is a comment box down below. I read them all. I promise.