The real-world Surface Pro

Surface Pro Picture

Microsoft just announced the successor to my own Surface Pro 4: the no-number “Surface Pro.” It looks like another good refinement of the line, improving things without messing up what was good in the first place.

I’m still quite happy with my Pro 4, so I won’t be rushing out to buy the new model any time soon. But the announcement has me thinking about what I like about the Surface so much. I’ve been using it in law practice for about a year and a half now, so I’ve had plenty of time to experience both the features and the flaws.

For any legal professionals out there wondering if the Surface might work for them, here are the primary concerns I had before buying my Surface Pro 4 and how it turned out.

Is it good as a laptop?

Yes, it is. Despite the headlining feature of being “a tablet that can replace your laptop,” the Surface is more laptop than tablet. Most people use their Surface as a laptop most of the time. It’s how we’re used to working, and I’ve found the same thing.

A lot of reviewers’ ink was spilled over “lapability” when the Pro 4 came out. To use the Surface like a laptop, you have to use its kickstand—unlike a normal laptop, where the screen has a sturdy keyboard base to support its weight. Many reviewers thought the kickstand made the Surface hard to use on your lap. I think it works fine. Maybe my legs are longer than the average tech journalist’s, but I’ve never had an issue with it.

I also had some concern before I bought the Surface about the keyboard typing experience. The Surface keyboard is a cover, so it is thinner and less sturdy than the usual laptop keyboard.

But the concern was unfounded; I’ve always enjoyed using the type cover, which is surprisingly solid (the word flimsy does not
apply here). The keys are clicky and have a good amount of travel. The trackpad is large and smooth and not frustrating.

Is it good as a tablet?

Yes—but. The Surface works as a tablet, but I haven’t found myself using it like an iPad. I rarely flip back the keyboard to browse the web, and I don’t watch Netflix or YouTube or play around in apps. I use it as a tablet mostly when I want to use the pen (which I do often).

The Surface’s screen has a 4:3 aspect ratio—taller than the usual widescreen, but not as tall or boxy as the iPad’s 3:2 ratio. Microsoft says it’s about the same as a legal pad. At first I thought I’d use it like that all the time, but most of the time it just doesn’t work for me. I think it’s because the Surface is thicker and heavier than a legal pad—holding it vertically is unwieldy. It might be a different story if the screen were smaller.

I still use the Surface to take handwritten notes; I just don’t hold it like a legal pad. I find it most natural to write in a landscape orientation with the kickstand all the way back so the screen is at a shallow angle. You can’t get that effect holding the device vertically. And really, when you think about it, there’s no need to have all that vertical space for writing when you just scroll the screen anyway. Writing in a landscape orientation also gives me nice, big margins for Cornell-method notetaking.

Windows 10 has a “tablet mode” made specifically for devices like the Surface. It can detect when you disconnect the keyboard and make the user interface more tablet-like—apps take up the full screen, buttons and menus get more touch-friendly, and you get a back button on the taskbar.

I’ve experimented with this, but I found I preferred to leave it off. Even without the keyboard, the Windows 10 interface is perfectly usable with touch (especially since you have a stylus handy). The automatic switching always took a couple seconds, annoyingly. Since the features of the tablet mode haven’t seemed necessary or useful to me, I found it a better experience to just leave it off.

Is the pen good enough to replace good old-fashioned ink and paper?

The pen was the biggest question mark for me when I bought the Surface Pro 4. Could it really replace writing on paper? Would it be close enough, or would I just get annoyed by small inaccuracies or lag and never end up using it? Would it fulfill all my paperless dreams?

I spent an embarrassing amount of time in Best Buy fiddling with the Surface display models trying to answer these questions.

Well, the pen is like writing on paper, but not the same. I’ve found that oil from my hands and fingers can make the screen slick, and cleaning it helps maintain that friction that all the reviewers said they liked. The pen does have a little bit of inaccuracy—where you place the tip on the screen is not quite where the ink shows up—but I adjusted to it. I’ve never experienced enough lag or latency to bother me, either—and I’m rather more persnickety about that than the average joe.

So it is good enough—I use the pen all the time. I mostly use it with OneNote, a program that really shines when you have a pen. I love being able to take handwritten notes and organize them alongside other bits of text and information. It’s when people see me writing in OneNote with my Surface Pen that they get intrigued and start asking questions.

Are the cheaper models with 4GB of RAM worthwhile?

Yes. After deciding to buy a Surface Pro 4, the biggest decision was whether to get the Core i5 model with 4GB or 8GB of RAM. The difference was $300. Every tech reviewer said something like, “4GB is okay for ‘office work,’ but you really need 8GB if you want performance to last.”

I am happy to report that most people can save $300. Nearly two years after the Surface Pro 4 launched, my 4GB model is as peppy as ever. I’ve never run into an issue with RAM. The computer doesn’t feel slow and the performance hasn’t suffered. As I said above, I’m much more persnickety about lag and performance on computers than most.

If you have an extra $300 to spend (or if you always have 30 browser tabs open), then by all means, more RAM = better. But don’t let the enthusiasts make you think you’d be unhappy with a less expensive model.

Does it have any annoying issues?

Like any computer, my Surface has had some issues.

Early on it had problems with sleep and draining the battery, but Microsoft has solved those with updates. It still sometimes has difficulty waking from sleep or hibernation, though—every once in a while I have to do a dance with the power button.

I’ve had a few instances of the pen just failing to work. Some were Bluetooth-related, some were battery-related; in every case, it got in the way of taking a note or doing work. These failings have been rare, but frustrating.

OneNote—an app you want to use if you use the Surface Pen—sometimes has weird issues. I’ve had problems with syncing multiple Microsoft accounts. I’ve had problems where a OneNote notebook gets corrupted (there’s always a backup and a way to fix it). Sometimes I’ll write a line on a OneNote page and it will “jump” to the left a bit after it syncs online.

Surface Pro 4 Pen attached to sideSince I use the Surface in a landscape orientation most of the time, the pen being stuck to the side of the device contributes to its unwieldiness. When the pen is on a side, I can’t grip that side securely with one hand. This is, admittedly, a minor annoyance—I could solve it with a pen loop if I had the gumption.

The Surface can log you in just by recognizing your face. Though this easy-login feature has been lauded by tech reviewers, I ended up turning it off. At first there was an issue where the infrared camera wouldn’t turn off and it would drain your battery in your bag. Then, I found that it wasn’t always reliable. It was mildly annoying to position my face every time the computer wakes up. And sometimes I want to see the login screen—if you’re switching to a different user, for instance, you have to hide your face so it won’t log you back in right away.

How is it to use as a professional with clients?

First of all, it’s quiet enough that you can use it in meetings without drawing the ire of coworkers and clients. The Surface Pro 3 had some notorious issues with fan noise, but those were solved with the Pro 4. The lowest model with a Core m3 processor doesn’t even have a fan, and my own i5 model stays almost silent unless I play a video game or movie.

So it is usable in meetings. Whether you want to do that is a judgment call.

For example, when I was practicing on my own fresh out of law school, I almost never used my Surface in court. In my county, even regular laptops don’t appear there much. I didn’t want to play into stereotypes of millennials or fall prey to a failure of technology. It was important to make a good impression on the judges and other lawyers. I played it safe.

During my brief stint working as an employee at my state bar, I used my Surface in meetings freely. That was a larger organization that was comfortable with technology. Many of the directors and supervisors still used Surface Pro 2 devices the bar had purchased years ago. My coworkers often asked about it.

When meeting with clients now, I try to judge how the client will perceive me using a shiny piece of tech. I would never want a piece of technology to get in the way of developing that relationship.

I also always have a plain legal pad and pen along, even if I have my Surface—just in case.

Conclusion

If you’re a legal professional unsure about the Surface Pro line, I can reassure you: it will work for you. Surfaces actually beat iPads for user satisfaction. There are some minor annoyances, as with any computer. But performance is great, the pen is useful, and the device is good to use as both a laptop and a tablet. I haven’t talked much about using it in court (perhaps a future post), but if you feel comfortable in your jurisdiction, its potential for hearings and trials is huge.

The hardest thing when deciding to buy something like a Surface Pro is seeing past all the hype. I’ve tried to get past the glossy-eyed reviews and give a more useful, realistic perspective.

Does the Surface Pro line work in the real world? Yes, it does.

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