Living with a Surface Pro 4

After nearly two years at Microsoft, I gave up on carrying the Lenovo Carbon X1 I was so impressed with and got myself a Surface Pro 4 as a daily driver, for two reasons:

  • It was becoming impossible to lug around the ThinkPad and its power supply every day (my neck and upper back have been aching for a few months now, and carrying a backpack in Summer weather is downright insane).
  • Regardless of how I feel about the kind of work I do these days (spoiler: I don’t find it challenging enough from a technical perspective), if I’m stepping up to be the face of the company then I’d better be using something that embodies the ethos of how we work, and the Surface is the most tangible example of that.

I got a loaner unit with an i5, 4GB of RAM and 128GB SSD, which in terms of specs is enough to take on the road except for RAM (i.e., I can’t do much in terms of “traditional” development work on it, although Visual Studio Code and the Linux Subsystem work fine – and are often all I need locally).

This wasn’t my first foray into the Surface range (I used a Surface Pro 3 for a brief stint a while back, and had tried out the Pro 4 a couple of afternoons), but it was the first time I used one as my daily driver for an extended period of time, and it was enough to make me pick a more standard configuration as an official replacement for the ThinkPad come September.

It’s been nearly two months now, so it’s a good time to take advantage of the slight lull due to Summer break and summarize my thoughts on the hardware.  

Screen

To put it bluntly, even though DPI and resolution are roughly in the same ballpark, the Surface’s panel wipes the floor with the Lenovo’s. Sharpness, contrast, maximum brightness and (most importantly) the fact that it isn’t a fingerprint magnet like the blurry, poorly color graded panel that ships with my Lenovo Carbon X1 is a huge difference.   I can’t compare it to my MacBook’s (for starters, the gamma and color ranges are different), but this is the best screen I ever used on a Windows machine, and I quite like the aspect ratio.

Being actually able to read what is on the screen compensates for the smaller physical size as far as I’m concerned, and after only a week of carrying it around, I found that it makes for less of a visual nuisance/barrier during meetings.

Trackpad

It would be unfair to say that the Lenovo’s trackpad even had a chance (it’s lousy when compared to the Mac’s, which is still my golden standard), so I’ll just say that the Surface has a trackpad I can actually use, in the sense that it makes it feasible for me to use the computer without an external mouse (which was how I was forced to work with the Lenovo).

Palm rejection and multi-finger gestures work nearly as well as on my MacBook, and I suspect it would be fully on par if the trackpad were just a little bit larger.

And unlike the Mac, I can use the touchscreen for quick random taps, which still feels… liberating.  

Keyboard

Another win in direct comparison with the Lenovo’s annoyingly squishy key caps, which i grew to dislike over time (their initial softness and curved insets quickly started getting in the way as I found myself using it more and more). The Surface keyboard cover has a feel that is is actually fairly reminiscent of the MacBook Pro’s, but with a lighter touch and slightly ness noisier keys.

There is a little added bounce due to the way the keyboard cover flexes, but it is not noticeable when you touch type at speed – I can only reproduce it reliably when I hit the Return key a little more emphatically, but the keyboard can also lie perfectly flat if you prefer.   Other than that, the feel is great, backlighting works very well, and my only real complaint is the placement of the left-hand block of modifier keys, which is exactly the opposite of the Mac’s (most notably the Fn and Ctrl keys, which aggravate me tremendously during terminal sessions).

The Surface next to my 2016 MacBook Pro. The smart cover has seen better days, but is actually quite nice to the touch.

Form Factor

This was the biggest change for me – I switched from a backpack to a lightweight messenger bag, and besides being able to walk around with it without hurting my shoulders and getting all sweaty, I can finally pack and unpack single-handedly, as well as move about the office with much less crap in tow.

In more informal surroundings, I can attest to the Surface’s “lapability”, although to be fair it can be a little awkward. I’ve taken it with me on weekend breaks and used it as both a laptop and a (somewhat unwieldy) tablet, and it feels still a little too large and heavy for my taste, but much, much nicer and easier to handle than the Lenovo X1 Carbon in just about any circumstance.

The hinge and flap arrangement works well enough once you’re used to it, and the overall layout has an interesting advantage in summertime: it doesn’t get warm on your lap, since the CPU and fan are behind the (upright) screen. It is also a lot easier to move the Surface around on a table (to reorient it towards someone, for instance) since there’s a lot less drag involved.

Finally, the tiny charger (which has a MagSafe-like connector for the Surface itself and an USB port for power) is just icing on the cake, since by comparison the Lenovo’s is around 200 grams heavier and useless when your phone starts running low on battery.

Battery Life

The loaner device I’m using is around a year old and has seen a fair amount of action, so I’m not holding it to any commitments here. Suffice it to say that I can use it for around a day’s work (running Outlook, a shell and a browser, plus an extra app now and then), charging it at lunchtime, and making it to the end of the day without issues.

In comparison my Lenovo would drain the battery in just a couple of hours when running the stock corporate image, and last only a little longer when running a custom, stripped down install. But there are too many factors at play, and the Surface does encourage a different usage pattern – including ditching Outlook in favor of the built-in Mail client which saves me a bunch of RAM and CPU usage and still works fine with Office 365 for 90% of what I do.

I expect that moving to a new machine with more RAM will considerably help here, but I quite like being frugal with resources and power (and I was never one for having too many distractions open at once).

Surface Pen

I hardly used it, really, except for some exploratory web page annotations, and it’s nothing to write home about. In fact, the touchscreen is far more useful to me than the pen, and although I can see myself drawing some quick diagrams with it, I haven’t had the need for that yet (nor have I had the time or inspiration to draw or do any form of artwork, which in my latter years has mostly been about retouching pictures – and that I will keep doing on the Mac, at least for now).

The one time I actually wanted it to work was when I was trying to annotate a PDF, but that is unsupported in Edge’s built in viewer, so I never bothered again.

Overall

Come September, I’ll be sticking to a Surface Pro as my “work” machine, without any regrets.

If, like me, you spend most of your work days moving about, it is a very nice, polished machine. It could probably do with a couple of USB-C ports (it only has a single USB-A plus DisplayPort), but I don’t need to use any wired peripherals with it on the go, and it’s enough for me to keep an Ethernet to USB dongle at home – where I can use my Mac mini to access it via Remote Desktop and work using my twin 22” displays.