Updated: Jan 31, 2020
In December I talked about my first impressions of the Microsoft Surface Pro as a potential solution for selecting and editing (and basically performing a full workflow) on the go. Or on the couch. And now that I've had chance to use it for longer, with the Surface Pen, with and without the keyboard, I can see how it's best suited and how I could use it regularly in my workflow.
Primarily, it's a laptop. Sort of. A very portable laptop. It's a PC with full Windows 10 and the latest Intel Ice Lake 10th gen processors (core i5 in my case) so it can do virtually anything that any Windows PC can do. I say virtually because it doesn't have a dedicated GPU, so might struggle on extensive 4k video editing or high-end gaming, but I haven't tried it for either. For my needs though, for Photoshop and InDesign and Exposure X5 with 26Mp RAW files from my X-T3, it's plenty powerful enough.
It’s no surprise that the Surface performs as a laptop much more comfortably than the iPad does. Or, at least, it operates as a traditional laptop. My hesitation here is that sometimes I default to using the Surface because I know how to perform a task, or I’m more familiar with performing that task on a laptop so it feels more straightforward. It feels more reliable, somehow, to use a mouse or trackpad rather than tapping the screen. That’s not to say the iPad can’t do it, and maybe do it just as easily with a little familiarization.
The Surface has impressed me at how well it works as a tablet, but also made me realize just how good the iPad is. Windows 10, in general, works pretty well, regardless of whether it’s in tablet or desktop mode (not really a big difference). There’s a little lag if you switch between portrait and landscape orientation but that doesn’t bother me at all. I like the tiles and the notifications and especially the ability to run full software. I love the kickstand for viewing at any angle and the Surface Pen is nearly as good as the Apple Pencil (nicer size and design, not quite so accurate).
But two things make me want to pick up the iPad instead and make it a better tablet experience. Firstly the weight. More so than the size, the extra weight of the Surface (over a 10.5 or 11-inch iPad Pro) makes it just that bit more cumbersome and somehow feel a little less robust. Maybe it’s the simplicity, but the iPad just feels more ‘chuckable’ - just throw it in a bag and it’ll be fine (except my daughter has managed to scratch the screen of two of them). Secondly, it’s the consistent touch interface. Apps are all designed for touch. Working with the stylus on the iPad, everything (mostly) works as you would intuitively expect it to. Windows apps usually expect a mouse, not a pen. In Lightroom Mobile you can flick through the images, in Exposure X5 you have to click on next image to select it. Not a big deal, but you get used to being able to perform certain actions on a touch screen and expect them to work. Icons are smaller, scrolling performed with a side bar rather than a swipe. Windows Explorer is maybe the best example compared to Apple Files. It’s powerful and capable, but fiddly as a touch interface.
Connectivity and storage are significant advantages on the Surface. USB-A, USB-C, micro-sd card slot plus the separate power port. Not that all are necessary, but it’s so convenient to have the options. Imagine an sd-card slot on an iPad, either for additional storage or loading images from a camera. It won’t happen, as Apple continue their drive to simplify design (while at the same time adding cameras that add complication and visual details).
As a quick aside, the Surface strangely offers the best Instagram experience, I think of any platform. Whereas the iPad has to be content with the iPhone app, the Windows store offers a dedicated Instagram app that allows you to post images despite it being a full desktop OS. Full functionality and the images look large and detailed, although I can’t imagine the resolution or compression algorithm is any different.
It’s all preferences of course. Maybe you prefer the discipline of editing at a desk. Maybe you like the laptop form better than working on a tablet. Maybe you prefer the power and flexibility of Windows and iPadOS is a constant frustration.
Me? After much debate and with a little sadness, I took the Surface back. Sadness because it really is a great machine. But I found myself still using the iPad far more. And, with some experimentation, realizing just how much the iPad can do. Surface can and will be better still - especially with the design of the Surface X. But, for now, the iPad seems the best fit for me.
(I’ll go into more details on the hardware and software I’m using in future posts. I know there are plenty of ‘iPad as my main computer!!’ posts around, but not so many from dedicated photographers).