The Surface Pro: A good idea wrongly executed
By now I bet we all know of the original Surface tablet, more properly called the Surface RT which costs $500 for 32GB of storage. The main difference with the recently announced Surface Pro is the flavor of Windows they run. The RT (which stands for Runtime) is basically a tablet running Windows Phone 8 with a different interface. The Pro on the other hand is a full-fledged PC running Windows 8, powered by a mainstream Intel Core i5 processor, capable of running traditional Windows desktop apps. This is something the RT cannot do because its processor, the Nvidia Tegra3, is not x86 compatible. This has many obvious advantages, chief among which is the ability to install normal PC software on it just like you would on a laptop or desktop; something Apple OS X users cannot do on an iPad. However, if the tablet is truly running ‘vanilla’ Windows 8 with no modifications, I can think of a few problems that will prevent this tablet from being a huge success.
The main problems are the user interface (UI) of Windows 8 and the structure of Windows itself. I’ll keep the UI issue very brief because I know the shortcomings of the UI in Windows 8 have been extensively written on. Windows 8 is being pegged as a touch-friendly desktop OS; this should mean that absolutely every feature and function of Windows 8 is accessible by touch. But this is very far from the truth as beneath the touch friendly start screen, Windows 8 is still the normal Windows of old. Microsoft knows this, hence the reason why they included traditional desktop mode. Try to run device manager or group policy editor and you’ll see what I mean.
Behind the scenes, Windows 8 still relies on the WIMP model of interface design. WIMP being Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointers. You will still need a mouse to access the deeper parts of the OS. While it is not impossible to design as full desktop OS with touch as the only mode of interaction, (sans game pads and joysticks for games and mice for pixel perfect design work), the truth is you will need a mouse to get the most out of Windows 8. And this is why I’m surprised that the Pro doesn’t come bundled with a keyboard like the RT does. It should in fact be the other way around. Surface RT can be used without a hardware keyboard.
“Windows 8 is still the normal Windows of old. Microsoft knows this, hence the reason why they included traditional desktop mode.”
Still on the issue of the structure of Windows 8 is that underneath, it’s mostly Windows 7. This presents a problem on the 64GB Surface Pro. 64GB is just not going to cut it when you consider the space used up by a standard Windows 8 installation coupled with the likes of System Restore. As the Pro has 4GB of RAM, the hibernation file, Hiberfil.sys, is going to take up a commensurate 4GB of space. The paging file, Pagefile.sys is going to use up just as much. And then we begin with the apps. Development kits and games of today use at least 1GB of space. And bear in mind that you simply can’t use all the free space. The filing system needs a little free space for itself for the purpose of moving things around. The 128GB Surface Pro is beginning to look like the only “real” option. At this juncture, I must disclose that I do not know the specs of the graphics chip that lies in the Surface Pro, but being a Core i5 and the little space afforded by the tablet form factor, it’s safe to assume that it will be the Intel HD 3000 or some variant of it. And while this chip is quite good, it is not going to deliver high frame rates in games. This brings the question of just who the Surface Pro is for. Considering that what you are getting for $1000 is non-upgradeable, 128GB local storage, with 4GB RAM, an HD screen, a single USB port, a not-so-powerful graphics card, and a stylus, it doesn’t scream value to the hardcore PC gamer. You will get a much better specced laptop for that price. I envisage that the Surface Pro will offer great utility to graphics designers and AutoCAD users who have always had to carry a laptop around. For business executives who won’t mind shelling out a thousand dollars, I suspect most of them will have their needs met on the cheaper Surface RT simply because it runs Microsoft Office with the exception of Outlook. Microsoft’s decision not to offer Outlook for the Surface RT now looks very strategic. So it seems that business users who wish to use Outlook would have no choice but to buy the Surface Pro instead of the capable and cheaper RT.
The Windows way of doing things is beginning to look old school
A rather unexpected outcome of writing this piece is me having an epiphany of sorts: I prefer Android tablets to the Surface Pro despite the fact that I have long wished for Windows in tablet form. The Windows way of doing things is beginning to look old school. Many things need to change. On the whole, the Surface Pro gives me a feeling of too little, too late, for so much. The Pro would be a bit better if it cost a bit less. $700 perhaps. So who is the Surface Pro for? Business execs, graphics designers and AUTOCAD users. Hardcore gamers and power users should stay away. You have been warned.