Monthly Archives: November 2013

My Experience with the Surface Pro 2 as a Software Developer

The recently released surface pro 2 has been on my mind for a while. It addresses the biggest issues with the original surface; most importantly, the battery life is now comparable to laptops in the same class – even if still poor. The type cover has also been slightly improved and I found that I can touch type on it just as fast as I do on my desktop.

I was hoping that I could replace my laptop with the surface for a super mobile setup that can move between work and home. The surface pro 2 certainly has enough horsepower and ram to get serious work done, and with a full size keyboard and dual screens at work and home, I shouldn’t have to deal with the tiny keyboard and onboard screen too much. In return I’d get a bonus tablet and a full fledged core i5 pc in a tiny form factor, a pretty sweet deal.

After spending a week with the surface, I have to say that it didn’t work as well as I hoped. The following are the highlights of my experience.

The type cover is not good enough
The increased key travel on the type cover 2 is a welcome improvement, but it comes with a step backwards on the track-pad which used to have physical clickable buttons and a rubbery surface. These have been replaced with capacitive buttons and a felt finish, which is starting to fade in high traffic areas after a mere week of use. The bottom line is that despite the improvements, it’s still just too small a keyboard to do serious work with. I got the full fledged pc experience I wanted at home and work, but without a keyboard attached the usefulness of the surface is severely crippled.

The biggest redeeming factor here is the active digitizer pen, which is amazing. While it doesn’t replace a mouse, its a great supplement and feels very natural to use. The touch screen is just no comparison to the fine control you get with the pen, and the active digitizer means you can do things equivalent to mouse movements without clicking by hovering the pen over the screen. I actually miss having the pen when using other computers now, I hope to see a laptop come with this feature in the future.

The pixel density on the screen is too high, kinda
The show-stopping problem to me stemmed from the small screen, but not for the obvious reason. I was quite aware that a 10″ screen isn’t much to do real work on, and prepared to supplement it with dual monitors. What I wasn’t prepared for is how terrible DPI scaling is on windows.

Here’s the problem: the screen is a full hd 1920×1080 panel packed into a mere 10 inches. Applications not specifically designed to deal with high dpi displays render tiny text and tiny buttons which are very difficult to read and impossible to click on with your finger. Windows alleviates this with a dpi scaling option which forces applications to increase the size of what they’re rendering. Unfortunately unless applications were written to deal with this, it looks like they just get upscaled with what looks to be a bilinear filter. The result is that everything is blurry! This affects just about every application I’ve used except for internet explorer and visual studio. Even chrome and firefox don’t support dpi scaling and can at best be hacked by being run in compatibility mode to prevent scaling, followed by increasing page zoom or default font size. This tends to mess up some site layouts and still leaves you with tiny unreadable tabs and other native UI components.

Here’s IE vs what you get with chrome out of the box:

IE and chrome with dpi scaling

IE and chrome with dpi scaling

And here’s opera hacked to work sort-of okay vs chrome out of the box. Note the tiny tabs and broken visuals on opera.

Opera with dpi scaling disabled + font tweaks vs chrome with dpi scaling

Opera with dpi scaling disabled + font tweaks vs chrome with dpi scaling

I was also surprised to find that .net winforms applications that I’m developing have the same scaling problems. I assumed that Microsoft would definitely make sure that apps built with visual studio are ready to run on the surface out of the box. As a developer, I had no idea about this being a problem until I was on the receiving end, and I suspect that that’s the case with a lot of applications out there.

The problem is made even worse by the fact that the dpi scaling setting is global across all monitors in a multi-monitor setup. This means that when I plug the surface in at work, I either get giant scaled graphics on the large screens, or tiny unreadable graphics on the surface. On top of that, the hacky application setups to prevent blurring that I described above, are also carried over to the large screens. This just doesn’t work at all.

It’s not a replacement for the iPad
After a week of use its pretty clear to me that the surface pro is not really a tablet. I own an iPad and I continued to prefer it as my tablet both hardware and software wise. The aspect ratio on the surface doesn’t lend itself very well to the tablet experience. The browser is worse than on the iPad, and IE is the only browser that works ok in a tablet fashion. I found that I actually preferred IE over chrome which is pretty depressing.

I also encountered a pretty serious issue where the surface would randomly refuse to wake from sleep sometimes and reboot instead. Basically every time I closed the lid, I risked losing all my unsaved work. Microsoft’s tech support walked me through all the scripts that covered anything related to this issue, including a full factory reset, but nothing helped. I do know that other users have reported the same problem and suspect it’s caused by some application that I installed. Sadly I only installed the bare basics for work such as visual studio, vmware, sublime text, and office, so it looks like another show stopping problem.

You can forget about using any desktop applications in portrait orientation or without the type cover, the experience is just painful. Also, every time you go to portrait mode, your desktop icons are rearranged to fit horizontally and don’t go back when you return to landscape.

Last but not least, its just too thick and heavy to comfortably hold as a tablet. This is excusable if you account for the fact that you’re actually holding a high end laptop worth of horsepower but doesn’t change the fact that it’s a poor tablet experience.

Wrapping it up
All in all, the surface pro is an incredible piece of hardware at a really good price point, and I really want to like it, but in the end it can’t replace my laptop and it can’t replace my iPad. I would love to own one in addition to a laptop+tablet, but I just can’t justify 1500 dollars on a device that doesn’t have a clear purpose. I might reconsider in the future when high dpi screens become prevalent and application developers are forced to support them.

Despite the issues I’ve had, I’m going to be sad to part with the surface. It looks and feels amazing and I imagine it’s a great device for lighter work. I was also surprised that despite my strong dislike for windows 8 based on previous experience, after a week I’m not only used to it but actually prefer it in many ways. I thought the first thing I’ll be doing is reverting the start menu back to 7, but you know what? The windows 8 start is actually really good if you give it a chance, and doubles as a solid replacement for Launchy.

After a few more days of taking it to work, I ended up returning my surface for a refund. My general experience was that the small screen and the type cover simply weren’t good enough for prolonged serious work. In particular, there wasn’t enough screen real-estate to have a decent Visual Studio workspace and I found myself constantly trying to find balance between making the text too small or not being able to see enough code at once.
This was compounded by the fact that the dual screen experience was terrible and, my original notion of coming to work/home and docking the surface for serious work was simply not viable due to the hidpi scaling issues mentioned above. This was the selling point of the surface for me, and it simply didn’t deliver.

Instead, I picked up the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro and couldn’t be happier
Despite being larger, I think this laptop is on equal footing in terms of mobility; I feel that it’s actually better because you can comfortably plop it in your lap – which is rather difficult with the surface + type cover, and you can stand it up on any angle rather than the surface’s 2 predefined kickstand modes.

In exchange for the higher price tag and larger form factor, you get a real keyboard, a good trackpad, 2 USB ports, and a screen that’s large enough to comfortably use busy tools like VS for extended periods of time. The dual screen experience is just as bad as with the surface, but at least the Yoga 2 is a perfectly usable development machine on its own.

Since the time of the original post, hidpi software adoption has also made great progress, and you can now expect a lot of tools to work out of the box. Two notable exceptions are Adobe Photoshop which is completely unusable, and Remote Desktop which doesn’t support scaling of the remote display. An alternative to the latter is Remote Desktop Connection Manager which is free and supports scaling.