First Blush Review: Microsoft Surface Pro 3

I had a few end-of-years dollars to spend. After taking care of everyone else, I opted to spend my allowance on a Microsoft Surface Pro 3. For the last 4 years or so I have been using a 2007 13.7-inch Macbook for all of my remote work. I bought the Macbook used for $300, almost a literal steal, really. I double the RAM, updated to the last version of MacOX the laptop will ever support, and bought a copy of Microsoft Office for Mac. The little Macbook has really performed flawlessly and is a true testament to the prowess, craftsmanship, and attention to detail which has made Apple famous. TunnelBlick and Microsoft Remote Desktop for Mac truly extended the power of my Macbook and allowed me to work from all over town and all over the country over the last few years. If Apple could have found some way to support my Macbook within the MacOS ecosystem, I may not have purchased the Surface Pro 3.

Being a technology adviser, support, and resource staff person for my university I don’t like to spend money for my own use. I concentrate on making sure the computer labs are functional, software is functional, look for technology to improve the communication of content, and look for technology to assist faculty in communicating their content, and advise on technology associated with their research interests. Thus, I tend to use hand-me-downs because I can coax hand-me-downs into working. Like my 2007 Macbook; I bought using my own money, upgraded with my own money, but use predominantly for my online teaching, research, and server administration. I’m only providing this background simply to demonstrate how I roll, not for any accolades, etc.

I have many interests associated with teaching, research, and content delivery. I have a YouTube Channel, Constant Geography, I maintain, albeit not very well, for supporting my online courses, and for the promotion of education, in general. This summer, one goal of mine is to update many of my videos. I bought a new digital camcorder, a chromakey greenscreen, and this Surface Pro 3 to help with video editing. I’m going to borrow some lighting from another department and create a small studio in a work area to produce what I hope are some nice videos to augment my online world geography courses.

I also have two, or maybe three departmental web sites to update and manage, plus the associated Facebook and Twitter accounts I use to promote good content; @MurrayStateMARC and @MurrayStateGSC for those of you interested. My personal experience is my unique content seems to help some students, though not as many as I would hope. I have linked the Twitter accounts to Facebook so the updates I push out also go out to the appropriate Facebook page. I don’t like Facebook; I don’t want to see the content of our department Facebook followers, or any of the secondary or tertiary content. Thus, I simply just post to Twitter and check Facebook on occasion to ensure content is posting correctly.

I dabbled in graphic arts and design frequently. I design t-shirts, posters, flyers, brochures, coffee cups, and handbooks for departments needing some in-house design work.

And then there are the activities truly associated with my job description, managing geospatial resources and software licenses necessary to support the teaching of GIS and remote sensing at my university. We are subscribers to the ESRI/Commonwealth of Kentucky higher education license agreement. I am the local contract administrator for the commonwealth license agreement and am responsible for software distribution, training, license management, virtual campus course enrollment, and acting as a general consultant for campus faculty and staff for GIS and remote sensing applications.

I have a fun job, actually.

Friday, May 22, 2015 my Surface Pro 3 arrived much to my delight. I’m pretty sure no one heard my squeals of joy because I snuck into the office while everyone was away at lunch. But, I couldn’t unpack and check out right away. One of my supervisors was awaiting a RAM upgrade to his Dell Precision Workstation. My department chair needed for me to backup his Dell XPS desktop in preparation for an OS upgrade from Vista to Windows 7. Yes, I know Windows 8.1 is available; currently the only recommended OS for my university is Windows 7. I’ve been told to skip Windows 8.1. With these chores on the docket and had to wait until I got home Friday night to check out this new “lablet” (laptop + tablet). Maybe “tabtop.” I also I had a podcast to do, dogs to exercise and feed, and my ChromeCast to fire-up to watch a new stand-up special by Jen Kirkman.

surface 3 pro

My Surface Pro 3 setup, Surface Pro, Surface Type cover, Surface pen. Bongo Java Coffee (not included.)

Here is what I ordered:

Microsoft Surface Pro 3
w/4th Gen Intel i7-4650U 1.7Ghz
w/ Intel HD Graphics 5000
w/ 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD
w/ Windows 8.1 Pro and a two-button stylus
w/ microSD and USB 3.0 and a mini-display port
w/ a Surface Pen
w/ a Blue Surface Type cover

Due to the influence of Apple, from the Macbook to the iPhone and iPad, evaluating new tablet technology seems to always be framed by comparing to Apple. The only real comparison I can make here is in product design, really. No Apple tablet product exists which matches the capability of the Surface 3 Pro. The nearest comparison I think I can make is one to the 11″ or 13″ Apple Macbook Air.

Now, I might have bought a Macbook Air if not for one impossible obstacle to overcome. One of the larger bits of my workload is mapping and cartography. For my mapping and cartography and teaching I use a software application from ESRI, “ArcGIS for Desktop.” ArcGIS for Desktop, or simply “ArcGIS,” is only available for Windows. ESRI does not offer a version for MacOS. So, there it is. Otherwise, I might have requested a laptop upgrade to a Macbook Air. The price point is about the same for both the Surface and the Air. And most of the other software apps I use for graphics, and Microsoft Office, have MacOS options.

“The Surface and the Air.” Sounds like a Mieville or Gaiman novel.

This is a “first blush” evaluation. This blog post is actually the first real substantive activity I’ve accomplished on my Surface. As I use the Surface more I’ll add more posts as I learn about the Surface’s strengths and weaknesses.

I don’t mean to give up on the Microsoft vs Apple comparison. Steve Jobs not only left an indelible imprint upon the entire technology industry but also on ancillary design and production industries. At the risk of being too pedantic I’m going to criticize the packaging. The Surface arrived in a white cardboard box taped to a grey cardboard sleeve which covered about 90% of the box. I’m guessing the pale box bit poking out one end is to assist the ecstatic new Surface owner in removing the Surface from the sleeve. Could have been a simple boxtop, like an old Milton Bradley board game, but no.

Instruction manuals were replaced by “Quick Start” guides, and those were replaced by “Quick Start” posters, and those have been replaced by “Quick Start” hieroglyphics. I feel like the state of writing in our human society is now coming back around full-circle; glyphs and pictures to simple glyphs representing sounds, glyphs combined to form words and so on to the point we have instruction manuals. And now we have replaced manuals with unremarkable and somewhat esoterically mind-boggling drawings meant to be illustrative of some process, like inserting batteries. I feel at times like I’m being given an IQ test and being asked to complete the sequence when I have to interpret one on these instructional hieroglyphic pamphlets. The reason I bring this up is the Surface Pen, the stylus, requires not one, not two, but three batteries. One battery, an AAAA (this is not a typo; a quadruple A battery is required and provided) must be installed into the barrel by the user. When the barrel is separated to install the AAAA battery the smaller portion contains two tiny hearing-aid batteries. These, too, are user-serviceable if one has a Kebler Elf-sized Philips-type screwdriver.

The Surface Pen is attached using the Surface Loop. Fancy name for a $5 piece of polyester adhered to the Surface Type due to deliberate absence of any integrated socket to jab the Pen into for convenient storage. Deliberate as designers obviously made conscious effort not to create a hidey-hole for the pen in order to appease the National Polyester Council and related Polyester Lobby. That is only my hypothesis. A $0.01 piece of polyester with a modest amount of glue to adhere to the Surface Type didn’t seem to hold my Pen for longer than a couple minutes before falling off the first time. I reattached the Loop and inserted the Pen. The Loop is very resistant to doing its job but once coerced into changing its mind, the Loop doesn’t cooperate well in relinquishing its grasp of the Pen. This Loop notion seems like massively well-contrived plan to instill a sense of irritation in the Pen user and ensure the Loop being ripped off during some random tantrum event.

Again, these are just first blush impressions.

These are minor annoyances, though, like those associated with having to readjust your car seat after your car has been at the mechanic for a day or nine, and mechanic not remembering to reset the seat to the proper position, or not caring to rest the seat. A minor annoyance creating a grumbling at the base of the brain, quickly replaced by the irritation of having to reset the mirrors, then replaced by major ass pains when Human Resources and Accounting appear to have conspired to develop some weird Brownian-inspired bureaucracy to manage paperwork.

The Surface 3 Pro is startlingly fast. The Surface boots up almost instantaneously. Have your coffee ready; there won’t be much time between hitting the power button and the login screen to dodge out for tea or a quick vape/smoke. The keyboard is necessary, really, if productivity is desired. I have yet to use the tablet keyboard. Like I tell my students, “Use the real estate on your monitor. Maximize your windows.” The keyboard provides total access to the complete real estate on the 12″ Surface screen. The resolution is outstanding; 2160 x 1440 creates a brilliant, easy-on-the-eyes display. The Pen creates chillingly cool lines, almost as if I’m drawing with a true graphite pencil. The fast start-up coupled with the nice Pen and the wonderful display reduce the annoyances to vague memories.

The Surface Type is available is several eye-catching colors, like this Plum version.

The Surface Type is a nice keyboard. I like the backlit keys. The keys are square, nicely-spaced, and big enough to accurately strike. The keys depress slightly providing good feedback. For smaller hands the keyboard might be seen as a benefit. I don’t like big keys that require effort to depress. I spend time every day at a keyboard. I don’t like having to work a keyboard with keys requiring effort to press them. I probably have some arthritis developing in a few knuckles; the pinkie finger on my right hand has knuckling swelling and pain. Both hands have general tightness when I have to use a standard Dell keyboard. The Surface Type cover seems like a nice option for typing even above and beyond the keyboard for my old Macbook. The Macbook keyboard was superior, in my opinion, to any standard keyboard and even some of the other keyboards I’ve bought to compensate for hand discomfort.

The Pen is interesting. I haven’t done much but scribble but the lines are nice and tight. I have a Wacom Intuos Manga tablet and pen I have really enjoyed. The Surface Pen is substantial, not a light, hollow-feeling pen. Of course, the Pen holds 3 batteries. The pen I use with my Wacom tablet is un-powered and essentially a nib-only pen for use with the tablet. I have another stylus I use with my iPad, a simple rubber-tipped metal tube, in essence. I researched Wacom for a nice drawing stylus to use with the Surface Pro 3. They technically offered no alternative stylus specifically for the Surface Pro 3 but did offer a few Bamboo stylus options for the Surface Pro 1 or Pro 2. I bought a Bamboo stylus based on “Feel” technology with good intentions of drafting some decent images. Going to have to send it back.

Microsoft and Wacom perhaps had some form of gentlemen’s agreement for sharing or using stylus technology. Apparently, the agreement ended with the Surface Pro 3 and the Bamboo Stylus works only with the Pro 1 and Pro 2 but not the Pro 3. I did what I thought was thorough research and made a decision to consider the new technology might be compatible with tech with older Surface options. Nope. The Surface Pro 3 tech won’t be compatible with Wacom Feel tech. Microsoft has forged a new path with a new Pen.

The Surface Pro 3 weights less than 3lbs. A light-weight tablet with an optional keyboard is a nice option for a person requiring a means to remain productive on the road, or on a plane, or on a boat, or in a coffee shop. One thing to keep in mind for reviewing technology is how the technology might apply to people with certain traits. The nice, convenient and easy-to-use keyboard, bright screen, and light weight might be some Surface Pro 3 characteristics to consider if a potential user has arthritis or other health concerns associated with repetitive motion, joint or weight-bearing maladies. I have a good friend with rheumatoid arthritis. The Surface Pro 3 would be a viable option for someone with RA and who needed a serviceable laptop able to run any necessary application without having to lug around a heavy-duty laptop. Of course, the Macbook Air would also qualify as a candidate, but with one important caveat. Make sure important software is available for MacOS. As I mentioned earlier, my mapping software is available only for Windows. No MacOS alternative.

I work in the geospatial field. ESRI software is nice software and an important provider of educational geospatial software products. Their flagship GIS product runs only on Windows. One of the obstacles my students face is buying a Macbook for school only to discover they can’t run the GIS or remote sensing software my university supports. Why don’t we just pick another GIS software product? Well, we could; about 30 alternatives exist. Some are available on MacOS and others not so much. ESRI happens to be the industry leader in GIS software, with maybe 40-50% of the geospatial software market share. Many 3rd party providers build apps based on ESRI’s APIs and SDKs. Makes the available market share a little larger. Furthermore, the remaining 50% or so of the market share is split among the various other 29 providers of GIS software slicing the other half of the pie into many tiny slivers.

When buying new technology think about your needs, the available software, and your primary uses. Also, think about the health of the user, your health if you are the new user, as the technology could mean a substantial improvement over previous laptops.


Don’t do this.

05-24-2015: The Pen fell off, again. I didn’t even realize the $30 pen fell off. I found it laying on my kitchen counter after I returned from my morning coffee, a coffee I drank while using the Surface. What a dumb option for such an expensive accessory. A used Pen runs about $30; a new Pen from the Microsoft Store is $50. “Here’s a penny’s worth of fabric with a dollop of glue to keep track of your $50 electronic pen.” What nonsense.

05-25-2015: After the Pen fell off yet again, I decided to NOT use the images I found on the Internet for advice on attaching the Pen Loop to the Surface. If you google “Surface Pro 3 Pen Loop” a number of images – in fact, a preponderance of images – will demonstrate the Loop clearly adhered to the Surface Type, the keyboard accessory to the Surface Pro 3. This choice of surface for attaching the Surface’s Pen is a poor choice. What I blame is the fabric-like quality of the Surface Type coating which diminishes the adherence of the Loop to the point of the Loop being pointless. So, don’t be like me and use mindless propaganda images for advice on attaching the $50 pen to the Surface. You’ll lose your $50 pen and then need a new Loop ($5-$7). Attach the Loop to the back of the Surface, to the left or right of the front-facing camera. This position places the Pen at the top of the Surface and probably away from most things bumping and knocking.

01-12-2016: To be clear, I like the Surface. I use it almost exclusively. A few things I don’t do, like burn DVDs. At work, I use Remote Desktop and connect to other desktops and servers to admin. In July  2015 I did discover on crazy drawback. The Surface is really awkward to use on the seat-back tray-tables found on most airlines. The Surface’s stand slips right in the gap between the tray table and the seatback rendering the Surface almost impossible to stand upright and type. I found this super-annoying, so much so I didn’t even use the Surface. Well, this and the really large fellow jammed into his seat and a good portion of mine made being productive a flight of fantasy, really. There ought to be a 3rd party solution to this issue, like a case that folds back part way, both to protect the Surface and provide a means of support.

3 thoughts on “First Blush Review: Microsoft Surface Pro 3

    • To be perfectly honest, since getting the Surface 3 and installing ArcGIS, I have been pulled away from ArcGIS to work on some graphics. But, all of the graphic work I’ve committed to recently was all performed on the Surface.

      We recently created a Certificate in GIS program and provided a few dollars to get the program going. Our department needed some new signage so I designed nine 34in x 86in vinyl banners. My design software included Corel X6, GIMP, and For graphics I downloaded 3 complete Landsat 8 scenes plus I used a variety of hi-res images from Earth Observatory.

      Layout and banner design I used Corel X6. Image manipulation, contrast adjustment, stitching, etc., I used Gimp and

      Oftentimes, I had Corel, Gimp, and open simultaneously, plus Chrome and/or Firefox. For about 9 straight days I created these banner (and 2 t-shirt designs). What I noticed was this.

      About the 7th day, graphics began to disappear, began to sputter, and flicker in and out. The fan ran often and was noticeably loud. I gave the Surface the night off and turned the tablet completely off. On the 8th day, the tablet was good as new.

      Another notable event was generating a PDF. OK – so, these banner are essentially 3ft x 7ft and Corel generated a PDF almost instantaneously. Typically, I’m used to seeing a progress bar, sitting there, watching status bar message crawl by, especially for a bigger map. When I generated my first PDF, I sat there waiting for something to happen. And waited. Waited for a progress bar, Corel status message about doing something. But, nothing. I got tired of waiting and checked the output folder. There was the PDF. Surely, the PDF is messed-up. Nothing generates a PDF this fast. The PDF was fine, no errors, and looked just like the banner. I was really stunned. I’ve been doing stuff like this since 1991-ish and never have I seen a really large PDF built so fast. I deleted the file and re-created the PDF. Boom. There is was, in full color.

      The Surface handled Landsat 8 imagery like a champ. Gimp had no problems loading five bands of Landsat 8 imagery, each band is about 120MB. Then subset the false-color composite and push into Corel. Thus, with GIMP open holding 5 Landsat 8 bands, a subset image, plus Corel open with all of its baggage, the Surface really didn’t blink until about the 7th day of what I think of is hard use.

      Now, none of this is geoprocessing, per se. But, having experience in using Imagine and ArcGIS for GIS and image processing, I feel fairly confident in thinking the Surface might be a pretty amazing device for doing a plethora of GIS related work.

      Hope this helps.

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