Thoughts on Surface 3 and Windows 10

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After a month of use, I have sold my Surface 3. Some thoughts on that device, and Windows 10 which was running on it.

Hardware

  • Great build quality, thin and light
  • The Type Cover was quite enjoyable and functional as far as the keyboard goes. The key travel is pleasantly deep considering the thinness of the Cover. Surface and Windows 10 also detects not only when the Type Cover is disconnected but also when it is folded back to convert Windows into Tablet mode, which I thought was quite nifty.
  • The trackpad, however, is poor. It feels jumpy, loose, and imprecise. I understand that since Surface 3 is smaller than the Surface Pro line it accordingly has smaller trackpad, but it’s not just a question of pad area – its overall quality feels substantially lower than what it should be.
  • The Surface Pen is pretty nice. I’m very far from any regular user of styluses, but the Pen felt accurate and convenient to use. I liked that if you press the button on top of the Pen it launches into OneNote and pulls up an empty note window for you to write or draw immediately. I experienced a similar function when I used to use Samsung Galaxy Note 3, but OneNote is infinitely nicer to use than S-Note (or whatever it was called).

Software

  • Windows 10 is the next step in Microsoft’s attempt at operating software convergence. Unlike Windows 8/8.1, Windows 10 doesn’t try to fudge the laptop/tablet divide. A fairly shallow dig into the menus allows the user to change to Tablet Mode, in which the task bar disappears and all apps are shown full screen one at a time unless split screen is invoked. The Tablet Mode is also activated when the Type Cover is disconnected or swung backwards behind the device. The general application of this idea is fairly well done, and I firmly believe this is one of the futures of personal computing. There are two issues: one, Surface 3 is not powerful enough to pull off the Tablet Mode transition with any pleasing fluidity; two, Tablet Mode currently feels like a half-way measure designed to fill the tablet app gap Microsoft suffers from. Surface 3’s CPU is Intel Atom x7-Z8700, which is an improvement on your usual Atoms in the likes of HP Stream 11 and ASUS T100, but not by any substantial extent. The result is that transitioning into and out of Tablet Mode is regularly accompanied by a significant delay in animation. Once in Tablet Mode, all the desktop apps are in fullscreen mode. It simplifies app management and multitasking, but it naturally doesn’t make the desktop apps any more usable with touch controls. This is why I think the Tablet Mode currently is a meritless and ineffective shortcut in the attempt to make Windows 10 a viable contender on the tablet market, and will continue to be one until Microsoft can sort out the tablet app situation on a more fundamental level. These two issues combine to make Surface 3 a less than satisfying experience when used as a tablet.
  • Some more thoughts on Windows 10: the universal search window on the bottom left is a great feature in both Desktop and Tablet modes, as is the dedicated app switcher button. But I am sad to see the Charms bar function hasn’t made it to Windows 10 – I thought it was a terrific little addition to touchscreen interface.
  • Windows 10 overall doesn’t feel quite ready. It’s too slow, and slightly buggy, particularly when compared to Windows 8.1 which right now is as fast, responsive and full-featured as Windows has ever felt.

Surface 3 is on the right track on many fronts. It’s thin, light, feels extremely good in the hands and quiet with its fanless design. The concept of a full desktop OS in such a svelte and sleek tablet form factor remains extremely attractive. Microsoft is onto a winner with the kickstand, which is the best way for a convertible to be used as both a tablet and a desk-bound portable computer. Windows 10’s Tablet Mode is surprisingly painless and with the right level of hardware power is likely to make for a compelling proposition. The big IF is whether there will ever be enough Tablet-specific apps to take advantage, or whether at least desktop apps can go through sufficient metamorphosis to perform dual roles adequately. The ideal Surface scenario would be a CPU a lot more powerful than the current Atom chip to run Windows 10 and support fanless design, and maintain the current physical footprint. Perhaps the Core M version of Surface Pro 4 is that device.

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