Microsoft pitches the Surface Pro as an uber-productivity device but just how well does it perform in a corporate setting? Can the Surface find a place alongside desktops and laptops and how do those more used to iPads & Windows 7 receive it?
Here I will be sharing some of my experiences with evaluating Windows 8 Tablets and deploying Surface Pro. A journey that starts with Windows 8 on Atom devices and ends at the Surface Pro 2 in use with a select group of highly mobile users.
The road to choosing a new type of device
For mobile users, the size, weight and battery life of a device are everything. When looking at these requirements, at the extreme end, we discovered that choices were surprisingly limited.
Ultrabooks and ultra-portables, while fantastic for consumers, can end up feeling quite large for business users to cart around all day. Many of these machines still come with a hefty power pack that adds further to the weight. What was needed was a device that could be carried easily from meeting to meeting or thrown in a bag with little penalty.
Many highly mobile users put expectations of size and performance of a new device in line with that of the iPad. Currently the iPad just can’t replace a PC for standard requirements such as network drives, LAN connectivity, network printing and access to traditional business applications. Strapping a keyboard to an iPad does not turn it into a fully-featured laptop. The arrival of Windows 8, finally gave rise to some interesting choices for tablets and convertible PCs so it was time to look at those.
As will be the case for most businesses, historic applications, manageability, security and integration with our existing infrastructure were highly important.
Evaluating Windows tablets
When looking at the initial range of Windows 8 tablets, on paper the Atom-based devices from HP (ElitePad) and Lenovo (ThinkPad Tablet 2) offered a compelling set of features in iPad-sized packages. They're small and light, with all-day battery life and optional add-on docks can turn them into a desktop solutions. The dock proves key to productivity, as the simple act of plugging in a screen, mouse, and keyboard changes the device usability drastically. A nice aspect to these machines was that both had a 3G modem baked in. These machines really provided a "tablet first" experience but were then transformed when docked.
Unfortunately, despite high hopes, these machines had problems with slow internal storage compounded by a paltry 2GB memory. For light use they were fine, but they couldn’t keep up when doing heavy lifting. There would be times where the machines would simply grind to a halt. These performance snarl-ups happened under normal conditions and sometimes when seemingly nothing was open or running.
HP ElitePad in various configurations
Whilst these machines were the perfect size, it quickly became apparent that the keyboard options were problematic. The ElitePad has no kickstand and required a separate Bluetooth keyboard for use on the go. We tested the Microsoft Wedge keyboard as it has a nifty cover that doubles as an adjustable tablet stand. The ThinkPad was as problematic, but for different reasons. Whilst it did have a keyboard/stand option it was small, lacked a trackpad or trackpoint and its viewing angle was fixed too upright. Ugh, both devices were a world of compromises and workarounds, and ultimately just extra stuff to carry around.
Performance proved a little precarious for a professional machine and the low internal storage (64GB) was a concern for the long run. With all this in mind, focus turned to the Surface Pro 2.
Surface Pro 2 evaluation begins..
Evaluating the Surface Pro 2
Whilst not as svelte as the other Windows tablets, the Surface Pro 2 does offer up a serious mix of performance and features in a compact package. The Surface ticked many of our boxes: an adjustable kickstand, clip-on keyboard and pen input. Laptop class performance is packed in too, with healthy amounts of RAM and speedy, high capacity SSD options. This was more a tablet-size Ultrabook than netbook packed into a tablet form factor. Boxes were also ticked for “bagable” and "dockable" with a good range of accessories and add-ons to boot.
Unlike the under performing Atom machines we looked at, the Surface Pro could churn through serious workloads. Without ever needing to kick in the internal fan, it can handle almost anything you'll throw at it. So much so that performance has often been better than some Ultrabooks that we tested alongside. Pen input from the Wacom digitizer is excellent and outperforms the dreadful options that were provided with the Lenovo and HP tablets.
The thickness of the Surface Pro 2 is unfortunate as it feels a tad chunky and dense. It lacks a 3g/4g option, but tethering is the savior for mobile users. If you have a Windows Phone you can set up on demand tethering which is quite useful.
At launch, Microsoft announced a dock and focused on the device providing a real desktop working experience. The dock gives the Surface the ability to drive multiple monitors - along with a decent range of USB ports, and of course networking - in a nice neat package.
How well does the Surface Pro 2 play in the workplace?
For the most part, it behaves just as a Windows 7 machine will, happily accepting and applying key group policies and working well with network printers. Very little needed to change to plug in and get going. From an applications compatibility perspective, we were already in the midst of rolling out Office 365 which works beautifully with Windows 8. Anti-virus needed to be updated to a version that was Windows 8 compliant and our VPN solution needed a backend update for Windows 8 connections.
The machine is of course fully TPM compliant, so if you have Group Policy in place for BitLocker Drive Encryption it will work in the same way as Windows 7. Bitlocker encryption on Windows 8 combined with an SSD is a far more pleasant experience. Trust me.
Windows 8 isn’t without its own set of new complexities though. The operating system remains architecturally split between desktop and WinRT. With that comes oddities when using the device on a corporate LAN. The Modern/Metro apps have problems with authenticated proxy servers so unless you’re willing to whitelist a long list of websites, many, if not all metro apps won’t work properly.
In testing, that meant the core apps like Mail and Calendar do not work reliably. Creating a blanket policy for common Microsoft services so Modern apps can work through an authenticated proxy was not desirable. Windows 8.1 did seem to improve things a little but it still does not work as you’d expect - often apps show up warnings about no internet connection or just stop working.
While actually getting on with real work normally involves the desktop, this isn’t catastrophic but it does introduce a scenario where thinking is required about which apps to use depending on whether you’re connected to the LAN or working on open connections.
A common complaint that affects Windows in general is that switching between a work connection and an open Internet connection is tedious. Simply, when on the LAN you’ll generally have to route your traffic through a proxy server; when off the network you’ll need to switch that proxy connection off.
It’s now 2014 and still Windows does not provide decent options for handling this automatically, even if the network stack is fully aware when it is connected to a trusted work network via LAN or not. With so many connection options available these days, it’s time Microsoft addressed the complexity.
Reception to hybrid computing on the Surface with Windows 8
With Windows 8.1, Microsoft has done much to improve the user experience to make it more intuitive. In deploying Windows 8 on the Surface to users, careful thought should be given to initial setup. Thought will need to be given to how Windows Store apps will be purchased - will you advise users to connect their personal Microsoft account to the machine or set up a new one?
Due to the new way of working with a Windows 8 machine, initial delivery and setup of a machine does require some form of introduction. Microsoft has gone some way towards providing a few hints, but a bit of hands-on time with a user is essential unless you want to leave them to stumble through gesture discovery and general navigation.
Provided this initial introduction is completed, reception to Windows 8 and the Surface Pro 2 has been overwhelmingly positive. Where it was not possible, for various reasons, to coach users through those initial steps, the reaction was overall far more negative. The tendency for Microsoft to hide menus and rely on gestures for actions means there remains an extended learning curve, which some do not have the time or the patience for, especially on a work machine.
Before the arrival of Windows 8.1 the amount of work needed to induct someone into using the Surface was more time consuming. Those early adopters have been delighted to see common sense UI items now rolled into Windows 8.1. The promise of finally getting the desktop Start menu back genuinely has folks excited.
Surface hardware and accessories: Microsoft as a device supplier
In creating the Surface line of machines Microsoft, finally, became involved in the whole process of creating and supplying a PC. With that comes hardware development, support, customer communication and more. Make no mistake: Microsoft is still learning how to do this and ramping up their efforts.
The engineers have done amazing work with the Surface Pro 2, managing to pry every little bit of performance out of the hardware. This has meant that everything from the UEFI firmware to drivers and patches was modified in the quest for perfecting the machine. Seeing just how far Microsoft was willing to go with formulating a new device type is impressive.
Due to the deep-level tweaking, this has meant that at times the Surface has appeared to be a little... shall we say, temperamental in everyday use (especially in the early days). Worthy of note is the Surface Pro’s tendency to drop into a coma rather than sleeping, meaning it just won’t wake up. This problem certainly migrated to the 'sometimes' category but it’s still there from time to time.
Issues around the docking station remain, including times when external screens will not be recognized and the LAN connection simply disappears. Sometimes, removal of drivers is required as well as unplugging the dock from power. Over time these issues have mostly subsided and credit to the Surface team for providing a constant stream of hardware related fixes, but they need to keep them coming. Some issues have simply taken too long to solve; some issues with hardware simply don’t exist on other devices from traditional PC makers.
That the Surface Pro 2 has had these problems from day one, and required constant updates to improve reliability is perhaps more surprising considering the device is made by Microsoft to showcase its hardware and software. I cannot help but think that too much low level tinkering was done at the expense of reliability for the Surface Pro devices.
If you are thinking of deploying Surface then you’ll be pleased to hear that Microsoft does provide regular driver and firmware updates into packs for the creation of images for larger scale projects.
Concerning Microsoft’s ability to supply and support their hardware, experiences have been patchy. Despite the announcement for docking stations, in the UK they never materialized into units being available to order. The UK Microsoft site had them listed for months but then quietly removed the entry without any explanation. Our main supplier was repeatedly told differing dates until no date could be given. Communication around availability with customers was both misleading and frustrating, creating a situation where we needed to order some via a US office.
Range of accessories in US store
Microsoft still seems to struggle with properly delivering and supporting their devices outside of the US. The range of accessories available from the Microsoft Store in the US was at least double than that in the UK. Better attention to detail needs to be given to consistent delivery of announced products and clear messaging on product timelines and end-of-life warnings.
Range of accessories in UK store
With the arrival of the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft is effectively winding down hardware inventory for Surface Pro 2 devices and accessories. Many of the accessories for the Surface Pro 2 are now missing from Microsoft’s online store or drying up at other suppliers. This is a very short life cycle for a professional product and we’d have liked to see MS support Surface Pro 2 with improved keyboard options and accessories over time rather than simply ditching development.
Hardware consistency is of paramount importance when deploying machines - especially for businesses. As such, it’s worth noting that the change to the design of the power connector renders previous chargers incompatible with newer devices. From a consumer standpoint, this is not such a big deal, but for business users these power adaptors provide a never-ending source of problems from being lost or just needing a spare. Looking at pro machines from HP, Lenovo and Apple power connectors hardly ever change; the same approach would be appreciated from Microsoft.
The overall experience of the users
Running a small test deployment always presents challenges, and with Surface Pro 2 and Windows 8 this has been somewhat of an epic. With a constantly evolving software base combined with a regular set of driver and firmware changes, this meant that a great deal of intervention was required.
What I can report is that - despite a few gripes about the chunky nature of the Surface Pro 2 and its lack of built-in mobile data option for 3G/4G connectivity - the reaction has been great. The machines do provide a small form factor, which fits into a small bag or can be carried from meeting to meeting with ease. Also of note is that many have embraced the device for its mixing of work and home functionality, appreciating the content consumption apps interwoven with a full-blown work experience.
The TypeCover II keyboard is one area that almost everyone agreed on as being the weakest part of the Surface experience. From the limited travel of the keys to the material textured trackpad it’s just not the best it could be. When looking at the Surface Pro 2, the touch cover option wasn’t considered suitable for evaluation due to the lack of physical feedback. Despite much talk of the keyboard being less than suitable for lap use, this has not proved to be a major complaint.
The choice of materials for the Surface keyboards also seem too cosmetic with worn out keys and grubby marks appearing very quickly. More could have been done (and can still be done, MS!) to usher in a replacement for this accessory. Pointing to the Surface Pro 3 is not the solution we’re looking for.
The first batch of our Surface Pro 2 machines were deployed using HP USB 3.0 port replicators. These proved quite messy from a cabling perspective, and for the most part a bit temperamental. These port replicators have improved over time with the maturation of the DisplayLink drivers for Windows 8. From a user perspective, they were messy and had a tendency to be delicate with USB cable placement making it very sensitive to movements.
With the arrival of the official Surface dock, things changed radically. As well as being a slick docking experience, the desk could be cleared of cables. It’s just much easier to clasp the unit into place around the device rather than search about for power and USB connectors each time. The Surface dock also provides a more reliable experience when using external displays.
Feedback on performance of the Surface Pro 2 has been excellent. The machine has a good CPU and a fast SSD meaning it boots almost instantly and chews through heavy office work - no complaints there. Battery life is also superb and for many it can put out a good work day's worth of on-the-go use without needing a recharge.
Interestingly, the ability to ink using the stylus has been somewhat ignored by most. This could be due to requiring some training on scenarios or simply that the Surface Pro 2 is too big and heavy for it to be used in the hands with the pen (Surface Mini anyone?).
Out of the small group, a few machines were returned outright, mostly due to the complexity of tackling the interface. Almost certainly, Windows 8 (pre 8.1) was to blame, along with some all-too-brief training at early stages. The very nature of the separation of the two environments remains problematic for many. The outright failures with the small group perhaps shine light onto the issues more around Windows 8 rather than the Surface Pro as a device.
On the other extreme end, a self-proclaimed skeptic of Microsoft and its products admitted to being completely won over by the Surface Pro 2, so much so that they would buy one personally.
The Surface Pro 2 has eventually matured into a software and hardware solution that almost nobody else can match. The road to this point though, has been long and rather too turbulent for a second-generation device designed to highlight the best of Microsoft. Whilst noble to tinker with every aspect of the hardware, I cannot help think that they skirted too close to the edge of the performance/reliability envelope.
The Surface Pro 3 is now here and soon it (and the dock!) will be available in the UK. Some clear and upfront messaging from Microsoft on the future roadmap of Surface, and some solidifying of certain hardware aspects, are essential if the company wishes to become more widely adopted in the workplace. In particular, I’d like to see standard connector positioning which will allow for a stable hardware platform to begin being adopted for accessories.
Like the Surface Pro 2, the newer Pro 3 has already seen some rapid updates to its firmware and core drivers. It is a concern to hear that reliability is still not where it should be on this third-generation machine, which is a shame, as the Surface Pro 2 is now stable. More concerning were the seemingly final frantic updates deployed hours ahead of the release just to correct some glaring issues.
Microsoft has made some puzzling decisions around Surface development. Instead of a larger Surface I’d have welcomed just a slimmer Surface and, yes, one that can use the same dock, keyboards and power supplies. Odd too that even the third-gen device does not have a mobile data option either and it’s still based on the same CPU as the previous model. The Surface Pro 3 appears technically premature whilst we're on the cusp of the fanless next-gen Intel launch - why not wait?
As it stands, the Surface line-up is excellent and I believe it can make some serious inroads into certain segments of the business market. Unfortunately, releases have been slightly hampered by poor communication, patchy availability and an overall sense that Microsoft treats this product as more of a hobby than a serious endeavor. In order to be taken more seriously, there is work still to be done to improve distribution, messaging and hardware consistency.
The Surface Pro range does occupy a unique niche as an Ultrabook/tablet replacement, especially where size, power and flexibility are major concerns. I’ll certainly be evaluating the latest model, but will be looking to see more positive performance and signaling from the Surface team before taking the plunge on stage two rollouts.
If you've had experience of deploying Windows 8 tablets in your workplace, we’d like to hear from you.