Recently, I had the chance to decide on my next work machine and the options were narrowed down to 2 for me. A more powerful typical touch screen ultrabook with more ram or a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (SP3). As the machines provisioned for us are meant to be used for the next few years, I wanted to make sure that I made the correct decision on this next machine that I will get to know (painfully or otherwise) over the coming years. A normal ultrabook is what we have been using and year over year, they just get faster and faster with the frequent release cycles of the Intel chips, that's just the norm. Knowing that the ultrabook option is more of the same, I set out to give the SP3 a try to see if it will live up to the day-to-day. Moreover, as a gadget enthusiast, the gear head in me was extremely intrigued by the new offering from Microsoft.
A little bit more information on what I do for a living, I am a consultant that does a variety of things throughout the software development cycle, my job ranges from business analysis, system design and architecture, project management, actual development work, QA testing, sales, and training. Throughout those functions, I generate a lot of notes and documentation, and the occasional proof of concept on Virtual Machines. I have traveled to client sites all over North America and had also traveled overseas before Evelyn came into our lives.
For me, what I look for in a work computer are the 3 'P's: Performance, Professionalism, and Portability. I think that it boils down to those three things. Now, you can cram a lot of considerations into those three categories, but here is my breakdown:
- Snappiness - The "snappiness" of a machine is mostly determined by three things: The Processor, The Memory, and The Hard Drive. The processor and memory has been steadily increasing so there hasn't really been a revolutionary change for the past few years. What has changed a lot recently is the hard drives. With the recent price drops for Solid State Drives, it is becoming more affordable to get, I would say, the most effective change to a computer's overall snappiness in the recent years. By changing from a physical hard drive to an SSD, your boot time goes from minutes to seconds.
- Battery Life - As a consultant, you travel a lot to the client sites and sometimes you even do work on the road. Having a computer that can last you a flight without looking for a plug is extremely helpful. This requirement however, directly contradicts with the other performance requirements as a more powerful computer means that you have to use more juice. A balance must be struck between raw power and the battery.
- Ability to run VMs - For me, due to the nature of my work, I sometimes have to run VMs, which basically means that I need to run another virtual computer within the physical computer. As you are running one within the other, your physical computer has to have enough resource to provide both computers to function properly and efficiently. You don't want a super fast computer, only to have to wait 10/20 minutes to do any one action within the virtual computer. This generally equates to more Cores, more RAM, and more space.
- Look - The look of a machine, while sometimes trivial, matters to me. You have to consider how it looks to be using a machine. Just as you consider how you look in the suit you are wearing when you go to a client site, you should also consider your machine as an extension of your image.
- Clumsiness - Further to the look, you shouldn't be fumbling with your machine and having trouble with using it because that is your work tool, and your proficiency at handling it is as important as your proficiency at handling yourself at a client site.
- Flight Test - Being in flights and travelling a lot, the computer must be able to sit properly and with enough room on the tray table. If a computer doesn't fit, all you are doing on the flight is either, sleeping, talking, and writing notes/thoughts that you will be transcribing to the computer after anyways. This is not a terribly efficient use of your time. If you are bound to the chair anyways, you might as well get some proper work done.
- Weight/Size - The weight and size of a machine is actually very important. You don't want to be lugging around an unwieldy brick while you are moving/travelling around. Not only does it kill your back carrying it, it's actually kind of difficult to find a bag that will hold it and your other essentials when travelling.
With those things in mind, overall the SP3 in the configuration that I got (i5 with 8GB of RAM) works pretty well. However, for my purposes, it is just a little lacking. Not by much though, and I could have lived with some of the design compromises that Microsoft made. But the failing points for me all kind of chained together into an interesting situation that made me decide against it.
The option available to me (due to cost and availability) would have failed at the ability to run multiple VMs at once. Internal guidelines state that I should at least have 16 GBs of ram due to the nature of my work, and if I go with an SP3, I could only get 8 GB. This lack of ram normally wouldn't be a problem, because I could have used my server farm back home or on Azure to run these instances of VMs and just remote into the system through there.
I had thought that it would have been a good compromise for portability and professionalism to use the SP3, but I found that some of the conveniences of having a touchscreen and a stylus on the SP3 did not transfer well when remoting into other machines. Which means that I would have fallen back on controlling everything with the keyboard and track pad. While much better than the previous generation's Type Covers, this iteration comes up a little short. I have no problems typing on it (I have been typing this post just fine on the new Type Cover), the track pad is a little quirky and sometimes hard to control. Again, it's worlds better than the previous track pads because of the feel and the extra room, but it's still just not good enough. The stylus is useful, especially during meetings for taking notes, or mind mapping solutions, but the lack of a proper way of storing it will ensure that I have to buy stylus replacements repeatedly while using this as the primary work horse.
Similar to the other SP3 problems, I could have worked around the type cover with a mouse, but then I run into another limitation with the SP3. There is only one USB port. If I have the mouse connected, it basically means that I have to pull it out every time that I needed to plug something else in. The Dock may solve the problem, but only at home as it is not portable (and currently unavailable).
Furthermore, I generally try to follow a hardware refresh cycle of approximately 3 years. With iterations of the Surface coming out seemingly ever 6 months to a year, it would mean that by the tail end of my use, it would be at least 4-5 generations old. While it's easier to stomach with a traditional ultrabook, it is extremely difficult to imagine working on a 3 year old tablet given the pace of new products being released. While the SP3 may be the first to successfully merge and compromise features in the 2-in-1 sector, it is likely that other manufacturers will catch up and take away the competitive edge unless you keep buying the newest version.
Along with this consideration of release cycles is the concept of support. Microsoft only supports you shipping your SP3 back to them to repair. There is very little DIY opportunity as shown by the iFixit teardown. I would be out of a machine to use for a week or so while it gets shipped around the country and back. The support model just doesn't quite cut it in the enterprise. I simply cannot be out of a machine for 1-2 weeks.
Now that I have mentioned all the things that don't fit my bill, I feel will have to say I did really like it for the following reasons:
- Portability - wow, is it thin! I LOVE the fact that it frees up so much space in my bag. It's like running around with an iPad, but with full Office and other Windows' software.
- Stylus - The bluetooth button to start up OneNote from sleep is a great idea. Even with the change in tech, I feel that the pen is sensitive enough to draw with. I did a couple of WiredFatherhood doodles and looked pretty good
- Snappiness - While it was not enough for my work use, it is more than enough for the day-to-day. If I didn't have to do VMs or other CPU/RAM intensive tasks, I feel that the SP3 would have been fine at running the Office 2013 Suite with Visio and Project.
- The Kickstand - having the total range of motion for tilt is amazing. I really wish that they came out with this design from the beginning. Only time will tell to see if the new kickstand will be durable enough for every day use.
While I did not end up picking the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 for my daily workhorse machine, I feel that it would be a good supplement machine for day-to-day use. I might just pick one up to add to my fleet of computer systems. ;-)
What do you guys think?