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Stenoweb Home Page > Cory's Blog > Posts > Surface Pro (5) Miscellany
May 29
Surface Pro (5) Miscellany

I posted last week about the Surface Laptop and the current calculus for the Microsoft Surface family, mainly because I wanted to be correct for at least one day, should something have come up.

The Surface Pro was refreshed on Tuesday. Perhaps the most important thing to say up front is that I don't think it's life changing from a product perspective. The same configurations are available, and the new processor was never going to be a particularly big jump in performance. The physical size of the device is the same, it fits in the same docking stations and uses the same power adapters and has the same other ports as well.

Perhaps the big noteworthy change is that Microsoft now rates the Surface Pro for around 13.5 hours of battery life, which is like the rating on the Surface Laptop. If either of these estimates is as accurate as previous estimates have been (which is to say, I'm estimating real usage will get close to 75% of the stated life) then it's a huge thing.

Battery life is a funny thing. I don't think most people are explicitly interested in, say, a computer that'll run for twenty hours uninterrupted. However, I think most people would view that as a benefit, because it means they can either expect to be able to use it through a work day or on a long flight with no trouble. Another scenario I've seen (and used myself) is that a computer that lasts a long time on battery when you're hypermiling it will also last a fair while when you explicitly do not save energy. In particular, I'm thinking about situations where somebody might do some light gaming on a computer running on battery, or do traditionally "heavy" work such as graphic design or development, perhaps even virtual machines.

In that way, it's sort of interesting to side-step the Surface Pro and go directly to thinking about the possibilities for a new Surface Book with Performance Base, updated to the Kaby Lake architecture. The Surface Book with Performance Base is already rated for about 13.5 hours, so if the improvement from switching to Kaby Lake alone is that much, then it's possible we'll see some huge boosts on something with that much battery.

I like the idea of the Surface Pro a lot, but nothing here is going to make me go get one. For the past several years, I've always had low end surfaces, so I don't feel like I'm missing out, and I feel like the advantages of the Surface Laptop's form factor will outweigh the flexibility I lose from the Surface Pro form factor.

This is all especially true and relevant for me, as I know now after having used the Surface RT and the Surface 3 (with its broken screen that doesn't accept pen or touch input) that I don't use them as tablets too often, so the laptop form factor of the Surface Laptop isn't a detriment to me.

One of the things apparently mentioned at the event, although I haven't watched the video myself, was a USB Type C adapter. There isn't images of it yet, but we know that it's going to connect to the SurfaceConnect port. What we don't know is why. Panos Panay and Microsoft in general pretty clearly don't think USB Type C is ready. It's to the point where when talking about the adapter, Panos framed it as being for people who like dongles, a reference to the fact that to work with existing devices that have built-in cables, computers with USB Type C ports (and nothing else) need to use adapters. The adapters you can generally get aren't too offensive. Google, Apple, as well as numerous third parties all sell reasonable adapters. So, the adapters aren't offensive anyway.

To me, this just looks bad, both because Microsoft is willfully digging in its heels on the issue of using this modern connector and they're framing it as an issue of needing adapters. However, the Surface family of portable computers is already in a bad place on that front, because Mini DisplayPort is by its very nature a port of adapters. The difference, and the trade-off Microsoft appears to be making, is that mostly everybody already has Mini DisplayPort adapters and cables. They've been on Macs long enough, and Macs are common enough in education and corporate environments now that such an adapter is now a common sight on those machines.

From my perspective, the Surfaces need adapters to do many of the same things anyway, and I think Microsoft over-estimates the importance of handing people a USB flash drive, in education particularly, but also any other environment I've seen. When people do use USB ports, there's often a need for more than one, which would make the presence of a Type C port in addition to what Surfaces already have or type C ports instead of Type A and Mini DisplayPort welcome. Just generally I also think it's bad messaging to disparage your customers who "love dongles" so much. Microsoft is building good hardware, but sometimes there are just weird little things you wish they would do differently.

The thing I fear is that in two, perhaps four years from now when people are using notebooks Microsoft claimed loudly would be good for four years, the USB Type C tides will have shifted a lot more and we will feel like our platform-leading systems should have come with ports that were starting to appear on Dells and HPs of all descriptions. You can already buy Type C chargers for phones and computers commonly at retail, and there are already peripherals like external hard disks using USB Type C.

This complaint isn't new, either. The Surface Studio, when new, drew lots of criticism for (among other things) not including USB Type C or ThunderBolt 3, on systems where it would arguably have been very easy to do. I've said this several times, but my other concern remains the future availability of power adapters for the systems, and the fact that SurfaceConnect power supplies are apparel a confusing thing. Surface Pro 3 power supplies floating out in the wild might not charge systems with higher demand, but on the other end of things, the high-watt Surface Book power adapter will only charge one model of the Surfe Thace Book. It (supposedly) won't even charge other Surface Books, you must know and remember which one you have.

I'll probably still buy one. I'll like it a lot and when the issue of Type C really forces itself, I'll be unhappy and then I'll buy the attendant adapters or I'll buy a new machine. The port issue and Microsoft's bad messaging about it is really my only anxiety about Surfaces specifically. I have other anxieties, but those are mainly related to the direction of computing overall. In particular, I worry about what it will be like to use a machine with limited and fixed resources if software continues moving in the direction programs like Slack and Spotify have established. Slack and Spotify run well if you have enough horsepower, but they need that horsepower, even though they perform trivial functions that computers have done well (even at the same time) for over twenty years.

Those apps, and heavy web browsing loads, do better relative to the amount of memory and processor horsepower a system has. Today, I do fine on relatively low end hardware, such as the Surface 3 and some old laptops, but performance today doesn't necessarily mean performance tomorrow, especially in a situation where both my habits and the environment can change.

The fifth generation Surface Pro has meaningful change, but the visible changes feel minor. Even claims related to particular types of performance (I'm thinking about battery life in particular) can be meaningful, but only if the old model didn't meet your needs. The display is supposedly better, the keyboards have more Alcantara, the edges are rounded a little bit, and oh, by the way, the interior of the machine has been completely redesigned.

With the precedent set by the Surface Laptop and the Surface Pro (5), I'm excited for the Surface Book ("2") but I'm not going to wait for it. I think Microsoft is going to introduce it with Kaby Lake, perhaps even if the next Lake is available by the time it's announced, and I think the thing we're waiting for right now is an excuse to have an event and perhaps some new graphics silicon from nVidia, who recently announced a new "low end" discrete graphics chip for laptops, which might or might not be right for a second generation of Surface Book. Surface Studio will be the next thing after that to look for. I expect Kaby Lake, Pascal graphics (in keeping with tradition: Perhaps after Volta is available) and a continued resistance to integrating USB Type C connectors, USB 3.1 ports, or a ThunderBolt 3 controller with the attendant Type C port.

In all, unless the Surface Book or Studio is massively different, I don't think that the calculus has changed all that much.


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