Microsoft wasn’t in such a good state in 2012, and especially not their hardware division. While the Xbox line ended up becoming a success despite losing tons of money initially, the 360 was getting a bit old and the new Xbox One was yet to be announced despite rumors going around. Ever since the success of the Xbox line Microsoft had issues recreating its success, and numerous products had come and gone. The Zune was a good iPod competitor, released only one year before Apple effectively killed off that market segment with the iPhone’s launch. The iPhone’s launch also caused problems with Microsoft’s phone OS division, as they struggled to come up with a competing OS as Android won over device makers, with Microsoft partnering with a failing phone maker at the time in an attempt to get SOMEONE to sell their phones: Nokia (who Microsoft would later buy the phone division of). There was also the Kin, a cell phone that lasted only a few weeks on the market before being canned.
Microsoft’s operating system division was struggling too. See, in 2010 (between the launch of Windows 7 and 8), Apple blew a hole in the already struggling netbook (ultra-low end, small laptops) market segment with the iPad, an oversized iPhone minus the phone in a 10 inch form factor, and Android device makers quickly followed this up with Android based tablets, and the next year Google came out with a version of Android designed just for tablets. Microsoft didn’t want to be left with an outdated platform and OS again like they did with Windows Mobile, so they designed Windows 8 for tablets.
To launch Windows tablets, Microsoft decided to go into the hardware business, building computers for the very first time in something that felt like a mix between Apple and Google’s Nexus/Pixel line of phones and tablets, and in 2012 they announced 2 tablets: The Surface (aka Surface RT), and the Surface Pro. The Surface RT was an ARM based tablet, running Windows RT, a port of Windows to ARM CPUs. It was seen as a massive flop, offering even less software than Windows Phone had, no backwards compatibility, no desktop software outside what came with the OS, and you couldn’t even hack it to make it useful. It was a massive flop, and anyone who has one hates it.
On the other hand, for $900 Microsoft announced the Surface Pro tablet, and released it the next year. It was an expensive tablet, even when compared to the $500 price point the Microsoft Surface RT or iPad line went for, and the $900 model only had 64GB of storage space. You had to pay more if you wanted 128GB of storage space. However, Microsoft did something very clever, and this would turn out to be one of their best decisions at the time. See, while Apple’s philosophy for hardware design with tablets was “take the iPod Touch/iPhone and make it bigger”, Microsoft’s was “take a laptop and make it smaller.” This meant that the Surface Pro would end up being a success in the sense that not only did it continue the product line, but it also ended up creating a new market segment: The “detachable laptop” or “hybrid laptop” segment and specifically the high-end part of that segment.
The Surface Pro managed to cram in nice laptop specs, with specs on the level of the MacBook Air inside a tablet that had a keyboard attachment. It had a nice 1080p LCD, Wacom pen support, a USB port, a microSD slot and mini displayport connector, on a device that could also be a tablet. The idea was great, instead of being an oversized tablet designed to do nothing but watch movies on, it was a device that could have some power and be used for a lot, that is if you were a rich kid who could spend $900 on a tablet.
The Wacom pen support also helped make the Surface line a smash hit among modern day internet artists and the like. For the average tech-illiterate Deviantartist, the Surface was a dream come true. It was flashy, and it could draw, and it was such a part in the success of the Surface line among that crowd that not only do a lot of 2 in 1 devices now feature Windows Pen support (such as my HP X360 with Ryzen), but even Apple designed their own pen and added support for it on the iPad Pro and the newest iPad.
But of course, this being a product of Microsoft, they had to also make a few mistakes along the way, so let’s talk about the biggest and most glaring flaw: See, with the Surface line Microsoft decided to take the Apple copying to a new extreme. The Surface Pro feels like an Apple product and could target the same demographic even. While you get a MicroSD slot and USB port, there’s only one USB port. If you want to actually repair the device such as if the screen breaks or the mSATA drive fails, disassembly is a nightmare, and it’s even worse on the newer surface devices. The Surface Laptop for example is held together with glue, and designed to be disposable, but at least it looks flashy and feels “solid” so it’ll get a high score when a Verge or Gizmodo reviewer feels it’s “premium” build quality, like metal that easily slips out of your hand or cases sealed so tightly shut that when they break the fix from Microsoft is to replace the whole thing.
The Surface Pro 1 featured an i5-3317u CPU which meant that it could run your desktop programs, or Linux…provided they could fit onto the cramped 64 or 128GB solid state drive. I’m not a fan of this push to SSDs, mainly since they’re so small and hard to replace in devices like the Surface, but at least they’re fast so if you have your mom’s credit card you can max it out and get more storage, even if less than that of a hard drive. At the same time though, tech reverting in that area (with 1tb storage being more and more uncommon on higher end devices that aren’t “business” targeted) is somewhat fitting: Modern technology isn’t designed for content creation as much as it is content consumption. The storage is gimped, likely to encourage you to use Microsoft’s “cloud” service or to buy an expensive and small MicroSD card. This also is a deal breaker for anyone who intends on using a Surface Pro as a “laptop replacement”, as you can’t install games, too many programs on it, or store rendered videos.
Let’s talk about how the Surface works as a laptop. The kickstand + keyboard cover combo isn’t as easy to use on a lap compared with competitors that use a laptop with a dock instead, and this means it can be awkward to use. If you try using it on a lap the kickstand will push into your lap, and the keyboard is merely “acceptable”. It’s right up there with one of the worst laptop keyboards I’ve ever used and for a good reason: It feels like you’re typing on cardboard, even with the “type cover”.
What really makes the Surface stand out is the Wacom pen support. The Surface Pro 1 and 2 will work with the older style Wacom pens that can be found cheap and don’t need batteries to operate. I had a HP stylus lying around from that time some cable guy stole my TC4200 I had stored away at my grandparent’s house (that had issues of its own). The Surface Pro 3, 4, and Surface 3 use N-Trig (and later Windows Pen protocol) pens that require AAAA batteries. Both of them allow you to do the same thing though, which is draw art thanks to it’s pressure sensitivity.
If anything, on one hand the Microsoft Surface line sums up the ideal vision of the future of tech from one of the biggest tech companies in the world: A disposable, unrepairable, and in the case of the RT, locked down device designed for mostly consuming content. Despite this, Microsoft knows how to push the right buttons to get rave reviews from tech websites who worship gadgets, and rich people who will likely be upgrading their tech every few years and sending the old Surface to be made into a sardine can, or to some naïve person buying it for the image and not realizing it wasn’t designed to be fixed when it breaks. It’s not a line designed for powerusers, it’s for gadget worshippers, the same people who make up the Apple demographic. It’s for people who want to experience that specific brand image, who want mostly form over function, yet can’t give up every single feature like the typical iDevice owner does.
I know firsthand that Microsoft Surface products are pretty flimsy: The screens are massive, glued in failure points and the Surface Pro 3s are even worse with Wi-Fi failures and the Surface Pro 4 suffering from screen flickering issues. I’d also see a lot of junked ones coming in to be scrapped, and I’d put them right up there with Apple products when it comes to being junked. My Surface also has quite a few “battle scars” on it from last owners, a reminder that I should baby it as much as possible. But here’s the thing, you’re not buying a Surface product because you want a usable laptop. You want the brand image, the image of a nice and shiny product in commercials for it (that falls apart a year or two later).
And for that, I’ll give Microsoft credit. At least a Surface is much closer to a computer than an iPad is. It doesn’t get rid of that product image however, and with a Surface product you’ll get “that” specific image. The image of someone who brags about how much of a techie they are but will derail a tech chat with talking about their prescriptions or their personal issues. The image of someone who replies to people with pre-packaged soundbytes and XKCD comics, comics that tell them how to vote in between “epic geek humor xd”. The image of someone with more money than sense. The image of someone who feels like a badass consuming popular culture by putting on a crusty denim vest with patches and smoking some weed, in an attempt to stand out from the crowd while in reality blending in. The image of someone who draws trashy Tumblr styled fanart for commission money. The image of someone with a crippling computer addiction who sometimes obsessively roleplays on Garry’s Mod as it’s the only thing keeping them going besides the dopamine rushes from social media likes, but who has an entry level IT job and has to put on an image of more than just “sad degenerate working at Taco Bell”. The image of someone who gets into Twitter fights explaining how broke college students can actually afford $1000 iPhones when someone says “spend your money on food and rent instead retard”, while simultaneously retweeting something about how Jeff Bezos needs to give them their money.
So, what are my thoughts on the Surface Pro 1? Well the only thing it does well is be a drawing slate, and many other devices can be drawing slates in this day and age as well. I paid $172 at the local Cash America with no warranty (they charge money for these now instead of having return policies, way to go) and I ended up selling it off not long afterwards.
Would I even consider buying one new? No, but consider a situation where you’d want one. Your boss or the department buying computers for you is full of tech illiterate types who consume a diet of CNN, overhyped superhero movies, and Apple commercials. Either they’re gadget worshippers, or they’re boomers with a cargo cult like mentality with new shiny computers they saw ads for, and they’ve decided you need a new #hip and #trendy tablet instead of that outdated laptop. If you had to pick between an iPad or a Surface, the choice is obvious, especially when you realize the iPad can’t do anything. Then you go home, put your shitty work computer away, and whip out that nice Thinkpad or a trashy overpriced gaming laptop and you use it for things that aren’t job related.
The Review Summary:
Design: It’s the worst example of a product that looks nice in commercials, but is a joke once it has some wear, and then you realize you can’t fix it when you drop it after it slips out of your hand. The newer Surface products are even worse.
Usability: Unless the only reason you bought this was to draw, it doesn’t do well. Its keyboard covers are a joke, the kickstand is a dumb idea compared to a hinge, and did I mention it’s SSD?
Bang for the buck: At least you can resell it somewhere when you realize you wasted your money.
Final Verdict: If the new trend was to sterilize yourself, and you didn’t want to do it, but you also didn’t want to completely abandon your friend circles so you’d reluctantly do it, the Surface is right for you.