Microsoft Surface Pro 7 for Photographers - First Impressions

I mentioned before that I was interested in the Microsoft Surface, in the possibilities for a more mobile photography workflow and as an alternative to the iPad and relying in Adobe Lightroom.

Well, kind of conveniently, I noticed not long ago that my old MacBook had got rather chubby in the belly. (Do laptops start to look like their owners or is that just dogs?). It wouldn't sit flat on a desk and wouldn’t fully close. Diagnosed as a swollen battery in need of expensive replacement, it wasn’t a difficult choice to resign it to early retirement instead especially with the Black Friday deals just starting to appear.

Much as I like the design of the new Surface Pro X, there still seem to be questions over it’s performance and there it certainly has more limited software compatibility, which would mostly negate my reasons for choosing a Surface in the first place. (It runs a bespoke ARM chip instead of the usual Intel processors in most PC's). I checked with Exposure Software and Exposure X5 is 64-bit only, so in theory wouldn’t work on the Surface Pro X.

There were excellent deals on the base model Surface Pro 7, with the i3 processor, but I’ve assumed the spec would be frustrating sometimes for image editing. 128Gb would be used up fairly quickly especially with Windows 10 taking a chunk of it, so I opted for the Surface Pro 7 i5 with 8Gb and 256Gb of storage, bundled with the type cover and pen. In black. For $999. An i7 processor and 16Gb would have been great but also a significant extra outlay.

I ordered online in order to use some Microsoft points that I’d collected, which turned out to be a quite painful shopping experience. Whenever I put an item in my ‘cart’ to purchase, it promptly vanished. I decided to pick it up from the Microsoft Store in Manhattan too, mostly through impatience. It’s a nice store, although Microsoft (and Google) don’t do the whole store experience as well as Apple yet. It’s not that the process at Apple is necessarily easier or better, but they somehow make you feel like it is, like everything is there to help you (and lighten your wallet at the same time of course).

Finally getting it home, there’s an immediate sense of quality (after the more immediate ‘how the heck does this box open?’). It’s not light, not really thin, but not big either. Solid. Chunky in today’s world. The screen is excellent, the setup process is easy, Windows Hello (facial recognition to unlock) is ok. Fast when it works but I’d prefer a good old fingerprint reader personally. I've already resorted to a pin code a few times.

It also works better as a tablet than I expected. Slightly more heavy than would be ideal, but Windows 10 works very well, even just using fingers rather than a stylus. If anything, it’s just some of the apps that could have a better touch interface. Windows Explorer for example, is very obviously designed for a mouse and could benefit hugely from a tablet version, with larger icons and probably less options. But the notifications and start menu tiles and even integration with an Android phone are all slick and useful.

Android already feels a bit more geeky than iOS, that you can tweet and customize and configure it how you like. If you’re comparing Surface to iPad then Windows feels hugely more geeky and more powerful. You do need to be willing to change a few things, customize a few settings to get the most from it.

Nobody ever posts YouTube videos about using only a Surface Pro to replace their laptop. Because it obviously can, easily. People are attempting to use an iPad in the same way and you can do it. But by adapting, compromising, maybe spending more money so you can manage with just the one USB-C port.

A friend asked recently how it is that Apple just makes better, more reliable, software, on phones and laptops. The thing is, I don’t think they do any more. MacOS is generally very stable, but only recently I was trying, and failing, to force-exit a frozen app. And this morning, my iPad decided to freeze the dock to the side of the screen. I haven’t had any recent glitches like that on my Pixel 3 or, so far, on the Surface. It’s very early days though.

So far then, here’s what I’ve enjoyed most:

  • Screen quality

  • Running full desktop software - Exposure X5 runs perfectly. I've downloaded Photoshop too but haven't tried it out yet.

  • Storage - not just USB-C and USB-A but the micro-sd card slot too meaning I can use that for images and documents and keep the main storage for software

There's definitely a novelty factor too that it's hard to assess. The novelty of going back to Windows, of adapting to new software choices (Microsoft ToDo is particularly excellent) and having so much power in a tablet.

And a few minor gripes:

  • Screen size. It’s only slightly smaller than my 13-inch MacBook but I do notice the difference for photo editing and feel the need to make sure the image is as large as possible. I'm realizing though that this is partly the aspect ratio, so rotating the Surface 90 degrees for editing portrait images helps significantly.

  • Battery life. Not terrible but worse than iPad, and the battery seems to drain gradually when it’s not in use but on standby.

It’s plenty fast enough for me so far, quicker than my MacBook, although I haven’t tried running Forza Motorsport on it yet...

Recommended? So far, yes. Easily a laptop replacement. Not quite as good as easy and convenient as an iPad for watching or reading, but pretty close. I'll also be able to assess it more fully when I've used Photoshop more, tried it with an external monitor and particularly used it with the Surface Pen.


Headshot, portrait, street and documentary photographer in NYC and Jersey City

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