Editied completely on the new Microsoft Surface.
It’s Sunday Night and I’m sitting on the couch with my family watching the Oscars Ceremony. Sitting lightly on my lap is my new Surface Pro, the tablet\laptop\Windows 8 Super-machine from Microsoft. While the opinions on the Surface Pro as a general purpose machine have been mostly positive, I’m reviewing this device primarily as a photography tool. Though it is certainly true that I will use the Surface for more than just photo-editing, the main appeal for me is the idea of “tablet that runs Photoshop”
So let me get all of my pesky biases out of the way before we go on (don’t you wish every reviewer did that?). I don’t use a Mac anymore. Had one, appreciate the appeal – didn’t like it enough to stay with it. I’m a Windows guy and always have been. However I’m also a gadget freak and have owned an iPad 1, iPad 3, iPhone, Samsung Galaxy S2, Galaxy Nexus, Amazon Kindle Fire, Asus Transformer TF101 and most recently an Asus Transformer Infinity – a tablet I love, love, love. I am very familiar with the pluses and minuses of the various platforms and have tried to use each and every one of these devices to help take\edit\store photos in the field. They have all worked to some degree but I’ve never been able to leave my laptop at home. My hope with the Surface Pro is that I would finally have the one device to rule them all.
Was it successful? After a week away from home floating around the Caribbean I can say without reservation (or at least very few of them) that yes it does. Does it work perfectly? No, not exactly. You have to know what you are getting. The Surface Pro isn’t a tablet even though it looks like one. It’s not really an ultrabook either. It’s something new – taking the best ideas of both worlds and marrying them together in a single package. If you look at it simply as a tablet, you’ll wonder why anyone would want the extra weight and lower battery life. If you look at it as a laptop you’ll wonder why someone would want to spend that kind when money you can get a laptop with better specs at a similar price. All that is true but misses the point. It’s the Mercedes-Benz GLK of computer world. A crossover device if you will.
First the good stuff about the Surface Pro if you are a photographer. It’s Windows not some mobile OS. Sneer if you want and make jokes. That’s OK. While you do, I’ll be enjoying the largest software base in the world. The Surface can run virtually ANY Windows application and that means the full Creative Suite from Adobe. No need for an App store (though the Windows App store is growing daily). No need for special versions or new versions or watered down versions of software I want. It’s Windows, Baby.
I was able to install CS6, Lightroom 4.3, In-Design and Adobe Premiere on the machine with no hassles. Same goes for Photomatix Pro, Nik Color Efex 4 and Siver Efex 2 – though there was a small hassle with the last two related, I believe, to the Intel 4000 HD graphics chip the machine uses. I had to turn off GPU rendering inside of Color Efex and Silver Efex. I’ve had this issue in the past on other machines with an Intel graphics card so this isn’t a Surface issue.
All the software ran smoothly once installed and the Surface Pro’s I5 processor and 4 Gigs of RAM were able to keep up with multiple programs being opened at once. Performance in Photoshop or Photomatix was what you would expect from a notebook computer such as a MacBook Air or I5 based Windows machine. It’s not as fast as my maxed out desktop machine – but then my maxed out desktop machine wouldn’t fit nearly as well on my lap while drinking a Mojito either. I can afford a slight slowdown for portability any time.
Of course all the non-photography related software ran fine too. It’s a JOY to have a real version of Outlook running on a tablet and not some watered-down mail client. Thanks to Steam, I had an assortment of PC video games loaded up and ready to go and they played surprisingly well. I finally made it through The Walking Dead game and wasted more than a few hours in Civ V again (damn you just one more turn syndrome).
As nice as it was not to have to settle for Photoshop Touch or Snapseed to do photo-editing on my “tablet” that’s not the best reason to consider the Surface Pro as the device of choice if you are a photographer. There are a few more features that make this a no brainer for me compared to my iPad or Android tablets. First is the full sized USB 3.0 port on the tablet itself. My Asus Infinity has a full size USB port on the keyboard dock, and my iPad of course has the easy to lose, easy to forget, only works with a limited number of items “camera connecter” dongle – but having a full, high-speed integrated USB port on the body itself means I can now do one thing I’ve been longing to do for years – shoot tethered on my tablet.
Before anyone sends me a long email about how they were able to shoot tethered on their tablet just by downloading this software, getting this adapter, etc etc, I already know it CAN be done. It’s just not done particularly well most of the time and never as easy as just plugging the cable into the port on my tablet and firing up Lightroom or even better Helicon Remote by Heliconsoft (I love this product). Now I can walk around with the device in one hand, really compose the photo properly and fire off a shot and check the results easily. It’s the best solution I’ve found so far, and I’ve looked at a dozen.
The other “killer” feature, the one that truly sets it above the pack, is the included stylus and built in digitizer. This thing rocks. Editing photos directly on the gorgeous HD screen in Photoshop is pure heaven. Cloning, healing, selecting etc all nearly as easy as on my Wacom Intuos 4 at home – only with the advantage of working directly on the screen like a poor-man’s Cintiq. The screen is capable of 1024 pressure sensitivity levels, though at the moment the pressure sensitivity does not work in Adobe products due to Adobes use of a non-standard driver. Adobe and Microsoft are working on resolving this I’m told. I quickly found myself zooming in on my photos on the screen with one hand, using the pen with the other to make a correction and sliding around to look at other areas of the photo that needs work. On a portable machine this is a true winner if you are a photographer.
One last feature I just thought of that really sets the Surface Pro apart from other non-Windows 8 tablets – printing and networking. Even if you can edit a photo decently on an iPad or Android tablet, printing is just not a lot of fun. No such issues on the Surface. I installed my Epson print drivers, downloaded my ICC profiles and was able to print from my machine from Lightroom with no issues. Same joy with networking – accessing the other machines in my house was straightforward. I joined the Surface Pro to my home network and I had access to all my photos, music, videos and the other printer that sits upstairs. Again I’ll say it, it’s Windows, Baby.
Before I finish the positive features I should quickly note that the Surface Pro is also a fantastic bit of design aesthetically. It’s a bit heavier than an iPad for sure, but it’s solid and sleek so the extra weight doesn’t feel awkward when I hold it. It’s made even better when paired with the Type Keyboard (the ones you see on all the Surface commercials Snap Snap Snapping all over the screen). Now the tablet becomes a true laptop all while weighing less than 2.5 lbs. It’s easy to type on, looks great and carries well. I’m actually a little amazed MS did such a nice job on the design.
Now none of this is to say the device is perfect. Far from it. Like any Generation 1 device there are issues that early adopters should be aware of. First and by FAR the biggest issue is battery life. Any review of the Surface Pro has already brought this up so you may already know but the battery just isn’t the same as your Apple or Android tablets. It’s maybe ½ that. If I was using it as a consumption device (ie normal tablet stuff) I could get about 4 ½ to just under 5 hours of life in battery saver mode. If I was playing games or doing heavy editing? Maybe 3. This is on par with many laptops including the 11″ Mac Book Air – but it does mean you can’t just run and gun with it all day without a little batter top-off time. This was not a problem for me – but if you need to work all day with no access to an outlet at all this is not the tablet\laptop for you.
Second negative issue is the screen, while gorgeous and plenty big for a tablet, is kind of small for a Windows OS desktop. It’s not that it doesn’t look good – it does, it’s just that the interfaces for most programs like CS6 and Lightroom, are not designed for tiny screens or touch enabled screens. The menus can be a bit small to work with. This isn’t a big problem (no pun intended) but it can get a bit frustrating when you are hitting a menu item and it keeps bringing up the wrong choice. We are in a mobile\touch world now people – let me scale my interface PLEASE.
Some people have complained that the amount of free storage is an issue, but I disagree. As a photographer I never expect my laptop to be my main storage so maybe I’m jaded, but the 128GB Surface Pro has nearly 90 Gigs free. After installing the programs listed above plus Office 13, Audacity, and a few Windows Apps from the App store I still had more than 50Gb free. That’s generally enough to hold my shots temporarily. If it’s not, you can add another 64 Gigs of memory via a micro-SD card. If that isn’t enough just plug in a portable hard drive to the super-fast USB 3.0 port. Voila – all the storage you want.
So do you need a Surface Pro if you are a photographer? No of course not. If you are heavily wedded to the Apple platform then you may hesitate to make the switch. If you don’t mind carrying a laptop AND a tablet when you travel you can get more mileage from each by buying a separate device. However if you are like me and you don’t want to carry multiple chargers, multiple device, extra dongles etc etc when you travel then the Surface Pro may be the perfect device for you. It exceeded my expectations and I’m constantly amazed at how this little beast of a machine works. Well worth the investment if you ask me.