Ask LH: What’s The Point Of The Surface Pro?

Ask LH: What’s The Point Of The Surface Pro?

Hey Lifehacker, I am keen on the idea of grabbing a Surface Pro (either the original or the new model), but I have a few questions that I can’t seem to find answers to anywhere on the internet. If I can install software just as I would on my PC from a network or USB location, wouldn’t that make the Windows Store useless? If the Surface comes with Windows 8, can it be upgraded to Windows 8.1? And can I hook up an external Bluetooth keyboard and mouse? Thanks, Rising To The Surface

Picture: Getty Images

Dear RTTS,

Your last two questions are very straightforward, so we’ll deal with them first. Yes, you can upgrade either model of Surface Pro from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1. It’s a free upgrade that you install via the Windows Store. And yes, you can use external Bluetooth devices — this support page details the pairing process.

Your first question is a little more complex. The ability to install any Windows app, not just those designed for the ‘Modern’ interface, is the key software feature which distinguishes the Surface Pro from the more basic Surface (which was known as the Surface RT in the first generation).

The fundamental argument is that this gives you more flexibility. When you’re using the device with a keyboard, you can run the full range of Windows apps, regardless of their interface. If you decide to move into ‘tablet only’ mode, chances are you’ll find the ‘Modern’ apps more useful, since those are designed with touch as the primary interface.

On a Surface/Surface RT, you don’t have this choice. The only ‘desktop’ apps you can run are supplied by Microsoft: the Office suite, Internet Explorer, Explorer and a handful of utilities (such as Paint and Calculator). Everything else has to be sourced via the Windows Store. That means no alternative browsers, to cite one obvious limitation. It has some upsides, especially in Windows 8.1, which offers automatic updating of apps.

I don’t think it’s logical to argue that the ability to install any kind of app makes the Windows Store “useless” for Surface Pro owners. I do think it means that many people using the Surface Pro will end up running far more apps in desktop mode. From a productivity point of view, that’s not unreasonable — while Microsoft constantly talks up how apps look “beautiful” in the new interface (a meme I personally find highly annoying), those apps don’t offer the range of features found in conventional desktop apps. From this point of view, it’s telling that the Office suite remains firmly in desktop mode — Microsoft has experimented

Tablet-centric apps having a limited range of features isn’t a Surface-only problem — the same applies to iPad and Android tablet apps. Touch apps are easy to use, but don’t replicate the depth of features we’ve learned to incorporate into desktop software over two decades.

The Surface Pro does a decent job of incorporating both modes, and as such represents a good choice if you imagine yourself using both work approaches. If all you ever want to use is desktop apps, then a laptop is probably a better choice. And if what you primarily want to use is tablet apps, then the basic Surface may be a better choice — it’s cheaper and offers much better battery life. Just don’t complain because you can’t run Chrome on it.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • Think of it this way:
    A Surfact (RT) is a tablet, similar to and ipad or andoird tablet.
    A Surface Pro is a ultrabook without a keyboard.

  • The only ‘desktop’ apps you can run are supplied by Microsoft: the Office suite, Internet Explorer, Explorer and a handful of utilities (such as Paint and Calculator). Everything else has to be sourced via the Windows Store. That means no alternative browsers, to cite one obvious limitation.

    You can’t run ANY ‘desktop’ apps on the Surface RT… And there’s no requirement in any way they are all written by Microsoft – though it may appear that way since the Windows RT store is somewhat empty currently.. Microsoft have written versions of most of their major apps for the platform if that’s what you mean (but in no way said).

    You’re also quite off track on WHY this means no other browsers for Windows RT, though this is a more common misconception:

    This post expresses a similar opinion:
    (Chrome won’t run in WinRT, i.e. Windows 8 on ARM processors, as Microsoft is not allowing browsers other than Internet Explorer on the platform.)

    Citing this link as their source:

    … Which. though clear where the Chrome people took their cues from, states:

    Given that IE can run in Windows on ARM, there is no technical reason to conclude other browsers can’t do the same.

    The rest of the article is utter PR bull crap. They are basically saying “We don’t want to write an ARM browser, and so the fault that you won’t be able to use our product is with Microsoft, because they should just keep blindly only using x86”.

    Not in any way a legitimate argument. If they wanted, they could have a version out already, but they simply don’t want to spend the money – and that’s what it comes down to, and also the reason Microsoft haven’t already been sued despite as these articles claim “potential anti-trust”.. It’s not anti-trust if it’s you essentially CHOOSING not to invest the money to perhaps write the browser from the ground up.

    This situation becomes even more evident when trying to use Chrome on my Surface Pro.. Which just suffers from so many touch related problems that I literally had to stop using it. While i’m sure at some level that’s the big bad man at Microsoft’s fault.. At some level I just have to say..

    “You aren’t powerless. Just fix this garbage. It’s only making yourself look bad.”

  • The way I view it. Surface if you’re after a tablet. Generally browsing web, emails etc. What a large portion of the population do on PC’s 90% of the time.

    Surface Pro if you want a laptop where you can use it for say, office work, but also want some touch functionality for general tablet stuff as outlined above.

    • FWIW I would take it further –

      Surface 2 if you want to do consumption and web-access stuff as well as basic productivity. Consumption = any watching/listening to media. Web-access stuff = anything you want to do in a browser (banking, Facebook, shopping, socialising). It also has specific apps for many of these things. Basic productivity = things that are best done in Office or otherwise on the Desktop. Most PC users don’t need more than the RT version of Office 2013 – keeping a budget, writing a resume, basic presentation stuff and of course Outlook in 8.1.

      Surface Pro (2) if you want all of the above, PLUS you want all the options of a full ultrabook. That’s it, really. If an ultrabook wouldn’t be powerful or flexible enough for you, then it’s not for you. But if you just need a Haswell CPU, decent amount of RAM and one USB 3.0 port, you’re set for power. Then it comes down to whether you need it to be as portable as an iPad (it’s 0.1mm thicker than the original iPad!).

  • I find what sells it for me is that there’s no tablet mode or laptop mode. It’s both of them all the time. I don’t find myself thinking “I wish I was doing this on desktop” or “I wish I was doing this on tablet” because it’s as far away as an Alt+Tab (or swipe if you want to be specific). I use it like a desktop PC at work probably 70% of the time. If I’m working on something on my lab bench I can snap it out of the dock I’ve setup and take it over there. When I get there I can use it like a laptop if I’m programming something, but I can still just open a PDF manual and read it like I would on a tablet. Going back and forth between the full screen PDF reader and desktop is remarkably slick.
    Being so portable also means I can take it with me everywhere while still using it as a desktop when I’m at work. You can do that with laptops, but even when they have dedicated docks it doesn’t feel quite as natural as it does with the Surface Pro.

    It’s not without it’s flaws though. As much as I think the Surface Pro proves Windows 8 is worthwhile there’s a lot of design flaws. For instance when an App gives you an alert, it pops up a little bar on the side of your screen with a picture and some text. Pretty much the same as a notification from MSN Messenger. The problem is there’s no button you can hit to see the history or know when there’s unread notifications. If you go grab a drink and while you’re AFK the calendar program tells you to remember to take out the garbage it’ll vanish before you get back (unless it has a Live tile, but even then you’ll only see it if you go to the Metro menu and happen to read the tile).
    What really makes it work so well with Windows 8 is swiping in from the sides on the touch screen. It seems stupid when you first start using it for a desktop because you’re putting your mouse in the corner and dragging it around, but on a Surface Pro it’s just swipe your thumb in from the side. You get used to doing it that way and suddenly it feels right doing the mouse stuff on a desktop. It really blows open Windows 8.
    I also think the Metro menu, in spite of how much people seem to hate it, is the best thing to happen to the desktop in decades. It essentially turns the Windows Key into a quick link to the desktop, but instead of having just icons with labels you can also have dynamic icons with status text. It makes it really easy to build your own tailored info page (something I wish they’d explored more on the lock screen). I press the Windows Key and get the weather, calendar updates, etc right there on what’s essentially the desktop mixed in with Steam, FireFox, etc. I can hit the weather app for details but 99% of the time I just want to see if it’s going to rain today. It’s not worth opening a desktop program, and desktop weather programs tend to be bloated, but if it’s right there without opening anything I use it.
    With e-mail I just want to know if I have new mail. It’ll give me a quick notification, but also a total of the unread e-mails right there on what used to be my Start menu (if I set it to I’m pretty sure it can scroll through who the e-mails are from and the subject line). It’s simple, and so minor I wouldn’t even bother going out of my way to do something similar on a Windows 7 machine, but on Windows 8 it just adds a tiny little thing that adds up to something.
    It sort of brings some of the nicer smartphone features to Windows by creating something that scales up or down from full desktop, to tablet, to smartphone. I use my iPhone now and it feels dumb that the icons only show a number in the corner.

    You can get all this from other hybrids but I’m finding the Surface Pro and Windows 8 combination takes it to the next level. They’re built for each other and it really shows.

    • Agree, I just hope MS doesn’t start backtracking like they seem to in some ways with 8.1.

      Seems strange to me in a time when the market is just getting used to the new style, to go ‘ahh actually we aren’t focusing on that anymore, now we’re going to boot you to a normal desktop.. As though that’s going to encourage people to write “metro style” apps to fill in the voids..

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