Thursday, February 27 2014

Surface Pro 2

So, right after Christmas, I caught the brief window where the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 was back in stock in my preferred configuration (8GB RAM, 256GB SSD), and bought one, along with the only keyboard cover that was available in a non-hideous color, the first-generation Touch Cover. Since they still haven’t released the Power Cover that gives you real keys and an extra 50% battery life, I made do with that for a while, and then got a good price on the second-generation Type Cover at Amazon Japan.

[Note: for the last few releases, it’s been a lot less painful to switch keyboard types in Windows; you used to have to hack the registry when you had US Windows and a Japanese keyboard, now you can just add the correct layout and manually switch. It still can’t auto-detect different keyboards the way the Mac has been doing for a long time, but it’s progress.]

There are a few quirks that have been discussed in the many reviews of the Surface Pro, but it’s genuinely good hardware, marred only by the immaturity of Windows’ handling of high-resolution displays. Basically, every piece of software that isn’t rebuilt to use the (apparently-incomplete, at least that’s why Adobe says they’re having so much trouble) HiDPI APIs will be scaled to make the text readable, and this breaks all sorts of layouts. For many applications, your choices are “big and fuzzy”, “way too small”, and occasionally “missing most menus and dialog text” (yes, that means you, FontExplorer Pro). “Way too small” is particularly annoying with a touchscreen, but the pen and trackpad have the resolution to handle tiny targets. And the problem goes away if you connect an external HDMI display.

My only complaints about the keyboard covers have to do with the trackpad. First, there’s no way to shut off tapping. There’s an app that claims to offer this feature, but it simply doesn’t work on the Pro 2, and there’s no hint of an update. On any tap-enabled trackpad, I’m constantly mis-clicking while trying to move the pointer across the screen, and it drives me nuts. They’re just too damn sensitive about the amount of pressure required to “tap”.

The second problem with the trackpad is that it often doesn’t work if you plug a USB device in. Because Microsoft’s own USB/Ethernet adapter is a 10Mbit USB2 device, I bought a third-party USB3 gigabit adapter that also includes a 3-port hub. It works great, but if I plug in the adapter and then wake up the tablet, the keyboard cover doesn’t get enough power to run the trackpad. Reverse the order and all is well.

Typical battery life is 8+ hours, unless I’m playing Skyrim, in which case I get a bit over 4. It never gets uncomfortably warm, and the fans are nice and quiet. The two-position kickstand is a nice upgrade over the first-generation Pro, and makes it possible to play Skyrim in bed on a lap desk. The speakers are quite loud for a tablet, and better than most laptops I’ve used.

It’s fantastic for Illustrator since the last update, but until Adobe gets the resolution problems sorted out, Photoshop is annoying to use, both because you need a hack to make the icons visible, and because the 64-bit version has issues with the Pro 2’s graphics drivers. Lightroom is fine, and InDesign is reportedly working well, too. [all of these being the pay-to-play CC versions, which is a rant for another day. Let’s just say there are some cranky pros out there annoyed by a combination of incompatible changes and workflow-crippling bugs]

The “app” market is, as expected, filled with iPaddish crap. I’ve deleted most of the apps that I’ve tried, and I haven’t found a lot of good ones to try. If I had to choose between a standard Surface and an iPad, I’d buy the iPad and complain about it; instead, I get to enjoy the Pro 2.

How do I feel about Windows 8.1? It was designed for a tablet, works well on one, and sucks elsewhere. There are some compatibility issues compared to Windows 7 (VPN software, assorted third-party drivers, etc). On the little netbook I upgraded, I needed to hunt down a Start-menu replacement to make it tolerable; not good, just tolerable.

Oh, and how did I pay for it? A friend sold off a bunch of my old Magic: The Gathering cards on eBay. Just a handful of high-value cards paid for the tablet, keyboard, gigabit adapter, HDMI adapter, and a new Bluetooth mouse, with money left over. We still need to go through the rest of my cards and put them all up as a big batch. And then see if anyone wants to buy a big batch of INWO, black-border Jyhad, XXXenophile, etc…