Microsoft Surface Pro 128 gb w/ Windows 8 and SolidWorks
I finally got my hands on a Microsoft Surface. I tried to get one on release day, and no dice. I tried again the next week, still no love. Finally, my local Best Buy claimed to have one in stock, and I snatched it up. I got a Type Cover with it, as someone who will probably do a fair amount of actual typing with it. I’m typing this blog post on it. The keys are a little loud, and the action isn’t great, and it’s not illuminated, but as long as I’m not typing a 1200 page book on it, it will suffice for what it’s meant to do. The Touch Cover just didn’t seem utilitarian enough for what I will probably wind up doing with it. Part of the reason for buying one was just curiosity, and part was because all my laptops are fairly out of date, and Kim would like a tablet type device for “couch computing”, Facebook, and blogging. Out the door for a little over $1100.
This was my first experience with Windows 8. I did just happen to get an HTC 8X Windows Phone 8 this week for review too, and the software on the phone has a lot in common with the software on the Surface Pro, but unlike the phone, and even the Surface RT that has been available for some months at this point, the Surface Pro is a “real” computer. By that I mean that it has an Intel i5 processor, and can run “real” Windows applications. So while all of these mobile toys are fun to play with, and an interesting but foggy look into the future, they can’t run heavy duty software for CAD, FEA, CNC, and so on. But the Surface Pro can.
The first part of this review will be just an overview of the hardware, the physical device, and its capabilities. Then I will go into the Windows 8 interface – what makes it better or worse or just plain different from Windows 7. And finally I’ll look into the software that can be coaxed to run on this hybrid device. I’m anxious to see what this can do.
First Look at the Hardware
First, the device on its own weighs about 2 pounds. It seems heavy for a tablet. Compared to something like an iPad, its definitely heavy. Kim observed that using the Surface Pro casually like a tablet might be a little difficult. Especially because the corners are much sharper than what you find on a typical hand-held tablet device. If you hold on to the Surface Pro for any length of time, it may tend to hurt your fingers, although a case or cover might alleviate some of this problem. The plastic is hard, slick plastic, and seems that the creators didn’t really intend for you to hold on to it. In fact, the sides are all beveled at the angle at which it would sit against a table top. And the device has a nice kickstand on the back, but it’s clearly not meant for sitting in your lap. All the hard plastic, sharp corners, and straight lines say this is something that is meant to be used on a table top. A desk. A hard surface, if you will.
Add to the main device the Type Cover, which just snaps on magnetically, and it looks uncannily like an ultrabook, a netbook, or some minimalist laptop. The Type Cover folds over the display protectively to resemble a folio folder, with hard plastic on one side and traction-y felt on the other side. The lower half of the rear cover kicks out to form a kickstand, holding the display in place while resting on a table, with or without the keyboard.
There are some things missing on the keyboard. While it does have a track pad, a stylus, and the screen itself has touch input, it is missing mouse button equivalents, and a way to scroll, aside from using the arrow keys. I find I really miss the mouse buttons. You can hook a mouse up to it, but aside from things like the need for RMB menus, you should never need to. Windows 8 is really intended to be used as a touch OS. The stylus has a right click button, and RMB menu items are also available from long-clicks (from the desktop) and by swiping up from the bottom of the display. It’s like camping in an RV. Not quite home, but a far cry from a tent.
Going around the device on the sides, the upper right corner has the power button. The right has a MicroSD slot, magnetic power coupler, and the HD/VGA video connection. By the way, the power coupler doubles as a holder for the stylus, holding it magnetically. The bottom has the connection for the keyboard. The left side has a 1/8″ earphone jack, volume rocker, and a single full size USB port. Wifi is of course built in. No LTE or NFC, as far as I can see.
Magnetic power cords are nice. This is my first experience with it, and I must say I’m envious retroactively of all those Apple laptop users that have had this for years by now. Very nice feature. Although its hard to hook it up in the dark. Maybe the power coupler would benefit from a little glowy lightpipe or something.
Connectivity wise, this isn’t bad. With the extreme portability, real computing power, and all these options, it’s looking pretty good so far. I would prefer to have a couple more USB connectors, but I have a multiport extension I can use when I need to. It also has Bluetooth 4, which significantly expands the connection possibilities.
One thing that fits into the “close but no cigar” category is that you can use the device with the kickstand or without in portrait mode. Unfortunately, you can’t use it in portrait with the keyboard. I find portrait much better when a lot of text is on the screen. Also, I don’t think the kickstand was really intended to be used in portrait mode. The device stands just a little too upright for comfort. You’d need to take only a little off of the corner of the kickstand to make it tilt back slightly more and sit securely upright in portrait mode. Allowing the keyboard and power connections to be interchangeable would significantly improve the portrait orientation usability of this device.
It has front and back cameras with a microphone (so its webcam capable). I’m not sure what kind of pictures I would take with the rear camera, but it’s available and works. I got the 128 gb version, so it’s got some internal storage. It comes with Microsoft Skydrive installed (and aggressively pushed), as well as USB capacity for a thumb drive. You might not use this as your main machine, but it will certainly fill the gap if you use it as a portable alternative.
Much has been made of the battery life of the Surface Pro in the tech and mobile press. It’s about 5 hours worth of charge. For some people, that’s not enough. That’s the kind of person that needs to be using the Surface RT, the ARM-based little brother of the Pro. The power brick is relatively small, about the size of 1.5 standard pack of cards. If you’re traveling and this thing runs out of juice, your layover was too long. If you’re using it at the office or the hotel, you should plug in. I don’t know, I’m the kind of guy who thinks a little common sense goes a long way when dealing with hardware or software with limitations, and everything has limitations.
Windows 8 Operating System
In order to love the Microsoft Surface Pro, you’re going to need to love Windows 8. Windows 8 retains some of the things you are used to from Windows 7, but they are behind a couple layers of new UI. You can still get to the Control Panel, but you can also uninstall programs right from the Start screen (very phone like).
To me, the basic idea behind the Windows 8 is to integrate mobile-like interface (touch, gestures), and also to make your data (content) more the focus, rather than focusing on the software. This is done by expanding the Start menu into an entire screen, and the tiles are just tiny summary windows showing live data from weather, photos, messages, email, anything that you want to pin there. Like Pinterest, Flipboard, or Netvibes, (aggregators).
Just to get the discussion started, here is a list of the major new components of the new OS from MS:
- Start Screen (replaces start menu)
- Desktop (same as old desktop, except there is no Start button)
- Charms (swipe in from right, this is basically a set of shortcuts to commonly used stuff)
- Options Menu, essentially RMB menu (swipe up from bottom)
- Previous apps (swipe in from left)
- Close or move window (swipe down or right from center top)
Armed with these concepts, you can probably be as dangerous as you need to be with Windows 8, provided you know Windows 7. Once you get past the Start screen, and understand how to use gestures for input, the desktop is familiar territory. Understand that Windows 8 on a desktop is a mouse-based OS, but on a Surface Pro, the lack of things like click-and-drag, or right mouse buttons, are going to make things different. My take on it is that right mouse button menus can sometimes be accessed by long-clicking, sometimes by the stylus button, and at other times by swiping up from the bottom.
And I have to say this, as irrelevant as it is. The graphics in Windows 8, including Windows Phone 8, remind me of the graphics in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy movie. If you like the graphics from the movie, and in particular the way they move, there will be some visual appeal for you with Windows 8. Just something about the vast expanses of rectangular primary colors, block text, and 3D waggling text. Just an impression.
I think the whole idea with Windows 8, at least with the tiled interface, is to try to get the software out of the way of your data, especially for the little things, or stuff you use frequently. You can just see a lot of it at a glance, a big pile of it, all customizable.
The problem with that is that there seems to be a big barrier to entry. You can’t just pick up Win8 after years of Win7. The good news is that most of your programs that you run on Windows 7 will be compatible with Windows 8. This is a big part of the reason for me buying one of these devices. It gives you ability to have something “tablet-ish”, but still not give up your productivity tools. The “enhancements” in Windows 8 are clearly aimed at consuming content. While I’m not a Facebook user myself, Kim loaded her Facebook into it, and to me, it seemed like Facebook was far more compelling on Windows 8.
Thoughts on Windows 8 For Business/Technical Computing
I think all of this social and data feed probably gets in the way for the purposes of most businesses. I can’t see business flocking to Windows 8 any time soon, because the front page is all about all those things that employers don’t want you to do on their dime: Facebook, Skype, Twitter, weather, news, email, friends. I can see this working out well for salesmen, or people who work with social data, but not for engineers. I just don’t see the Start screen being useful in an engineering setting. I’m not sure if it’s even possible to disable the Start screen, but if you’re going to eliminate it, there’s not much reason to move to Windows 8 other than the touch and gesture interface.
This is part of the reason why I see social computing and business computing diverging again. In the 1990s, personal computing and business computing became the same thing. And that worked out great, because you used the same hardware for both. But now, social computing is going mobile, and a lot of business computing is going to remain on the desktop. I hope this doesn’t send us back to an era of specialized hardware for CAD. Windows XP really merged the technical computing power of Windows NT and the personal computing intent of say Windows 98. That thinking seemed to continue and even grow into Windows 7. But Windows 8 is clearly taking a social bent. So where does technical computing go from here? Will there be a new Windows OS for technical, or are we going to have to fall back on Linux? I don’t know the answers to any of this, it just seems that Windows 8 is going to alienate some businesses and technical users.
Windows Store and Microsoft Login
The one thing that I found highly annoying was the constant insistence on Microsoft login. Even to sign into Skype, I had to first sign in with a Microsoft login, then link my Microsoft login to my Skype login (hold it, doesn’t Microsoft own Skype?!?) This was really annoying. Everybody has their own branded crap, and they aren’t going to make it easy to use anybody elses branded crap. My calendar is on google. I could go to the google site and run the calendar from there, but not as an app. In google, you almost can’t avoid search. On Windows 8 it took some time to figure out how to search the Microsoft Store.
So I had to make a new Microsoft login, having forgotten my contact info from my 1990s hotmail account. But then on the Windows Phone 8 device that I have for trial, the keyboard doesn’t have one of the symbols in my password, even though they clearly encourage you to use non-alphabetical symbols. I know the password experience should be over as soon as you make a new Microsoft login, and trying to avoid it just doesn’t get you anywhere on Windows 8.
I do very much like the idea that you can have multiple users on the Surface Pro. Unfortunately I made an account for Kim first, and the first user becomes the grand poobah administrator. I’m sure I can change that if I delve into the UAC, but that’s what happened right out of the gate.
Installing and Using SolidWorks 2013 on the Surface Pro
Installing SolidWorks on the Surface Pro was easy enough. SolidWorks 2013 is Windows 8 ready. They have been adding touch and gesture controls to the software before there was much support for it.
While we’re waiting for the download and install, let’s talk about how this machine is set up to run SolidWorks. First, the display looks nice, but it’s small – a 10″ wide aspect 1,920 x 1,080. That resolution is over 200 dpi, but no where near the 440+ that we are seeing on some smart phones like the upcoming HTC One. Granted, with a 10″ display, you’re not going to sit as close to the Surface as you would to a smart phone. Next, SolidWorks wise, this thing is only packing an i5 (1.7 ghz) processor. There’s not even a fan. So you can’t really expect much performance out of this thing. It certainly won’t be an all-day CAD box. The ability to have something is nice.
The Windows Experience Index is only 5.6, which matches a real laptop I’ve got from about 4 years ago. You can’t expect huge power from something this portable. But as you can see from the score, it’s really the graphics and memory that are holding it back. The SSD is disproportionately blazing.
Blazing maybe, but also tiny. Especially if you’re going to have any SolidWorks data on it. The drive isn’t partitioned into multiple drives, and Windows and the backup data take an awfully big chunk of the available space. Installing full-boat SolidWorks will take up several gig more.
During the installation of SolidWorks, I had a reboot, and after the reboot, only some of the components seemed to be installed (Check for Updates and Background Downloader). The installation didn’t restart automatically when it rebooted, so I restarted it manually. The installation seemed to really slow down about the 60% mark of the Standard version install. But it did eventually fully install.
I do have to say it’s surprisingly fast. It doesn’t seem to even try to do ambient occlusion, but that’s not what this thing is for. While in my mind, CAD would work great using fingers or a stylus, it may not be that great in practice. At least not on a screen this small.
In an ideal world, I’d love to use this hardware with Instant 3D, given that Instant 3D was usable. I’ll have to install some direct edit software and use the touch interface with that.
I downloaded and ran Anna’s Punchholder on the Surface Pro, and it got a score of 94 seconds. Not great. But it beats lugging a 9 pound laptop around with you just to do CAD, if you only need it for a couple of simple things.
If I were to use this machine for SolidWorks at all, I’d make sure to program the hell out of the S key menus, the hotkeys, and the gestures shortcuts. Anything I could to to avoid using commands that involve mouse buttons would seem to be a time saver. I’ve always contended that I wanted the mouse interface to die. I didn’t want it to happen because it just ended, I always assumed that something better would be used to replace it. Again, be careful what you wish for.
The Surface Pro is a great little device. It’s flexible, it’s powerful, it’s compatible, it’s a social whiz, and if you buy into the whole Windows 8 thing, you can get a Windows Phone 8 to go with it (that review is coming shortly). People use Android like a computer. Windows 8 is trying to make the jump to a data-centric access point. It’s as if they had a portion of a great new idea, and they just took off the front end of Windows, bolted this nouveau front end onto it, and called it a new OS. For some people, they will never get past the new front end.
For people who combine business and personal, and don’t have super high technical computing needs, this is a great little device that will travel well.
In general, while I’m a big believer in touch interface, I don’t really like gestures. Introducing motion into the interface just causes too many problems with interpretation. Even on phones, I see people revving up their phones with their finger because it didn’t understand the motion. I think a static interface is cleaner, easier to understand, and overall much less problematic. All of the gesture stuff introduced here in Windows 8 is completely gratuitous. I see no reason for it whatsoever. It’s not intuitive at all. Conceptually, there isn’t even a metaphor for it. It’s just there to use gestures.
So overall, I really like the hardware, although there are a few things they could have done to make it more “lap friendly”. If I had been a designer on the project I would have made sure portrait mode looked intentional. It’s a shame that the only way to get a keyboard in portrait is to use a Bluetooth keyboard, especially after you just paid $130 for this one.
There are some things about Windows 8 that seem fun, but nothing that’s highly compelling, unless you’re a social butterfly. There even seem to be a few steps backwards in terms of how you interact with the software, and things just seem much more disjointed. How are you going to reconcile touch, stylus, gesture, touch pad, and optional mouse? I guess it’s a tall order, but what they delivered is not 100% convincing.
Kim took all of the pictures except the last one. She takes mug shots of animals at the local SPCA to put them up on the web so people can come adopt them. Product photography, she tells me, is a completely different “animal”. I’d almost rather model it and render it than try to take a photograph. There are just some things I can’t do, and thanks to Kim for helping me out, I think she does a great job.