A week with the Surface Pro 3

Robert unexpectedly (gotta love him!) gave me a surprise present in the form of a Microsoft Surface Pro 3. I’ve now been using it for a week and I thought it was time to put my thoughts into words.

You’ll pry it out of my cold, dead hands

Overall, this is a fantastic bit of kit and it’s the device I have used most at home, for meetings and even sometimes at my desk. The only reason it hasn’t replaced my stalwart ThinkPad X220T is that it has neither the memory nor the storage to run the virtual machines I still need. It’s light, comfortable to hold, has great battery life and the screen is gorgeous.

Specs – good enough?

The model I have is the core i5 with 8Gb of RAM and a 256Gb SSD. It’s quick. It also has ample storage for my needs once I remove VMs from the equation. It’s true – Visual Studio hasn’t been installed yet, but I know from conversations with Robert that I am not space-poor.

It’s quick to boot up – quick enough that I rarely bother with the connected standby and usually shut down fully. It has handled all of my Office-centric tasks without pause, from Word through PowerPoint to the ever-present OneNote. The screen is a pin sharp 2160×1440 which is easy to read when typing (although there are a few apps that appear a little blurry from the display scaling), although as with many other devices, the glossy glass screen can suffer from reflections in very bright sunlight.

I’m also very happy with the keyboard. I’m typing this post in my front room, sat on the sofa with the Pro on my lap. The revised ‘any-position’ kickstand makes it much more comfortable than the Surface and Surface Pro – neither of which I would have endured this process with. The new ‘double fold’ design of the type cover makes it less sit at a better angle than its predecessors. Yes, it still flexes on a single hinge when on my lap, but it does feel more stable than before.

The track pad is also much improved. I now have a collection of covers – touch, type and power, along with the new type cover. The power cover is great fgor battery life but the track pad was an abomination. This one is just fine – it feels good to touch, with enough resistance to the surface texture, and the buttons have a responsive click to them.

Shape and size

The first thing you notice about the Pro 3 is the size of it. It’s no thicker than my original RT and half the thickness of the original Pro. It’s also a different shape, and I think it’s that which makes all the difference. No longer 16:9, the device is very comfortable to use in portrait mode – much better than the Pro, although I tended to use that in portrait too. When you aren’t wanting to type, you naturally stand it on the short edge. Microsoft obviously expects that – the Windows button is on the right hand edge as you look at the tablet when using the type cover.

It’s also really light. Much lighter than the Pro, and it even feels lighter than the RT. I suspect the thickness of the glass helps a great deal, but it’s pretty impressive when you think that they’ve packed the same power as the Pro in to half the weight, half the thickness and managed to increase the battery life at the same time.

Battery Life

I’ve not run exhaustive battery tests, but I can report that I have charged the surface about three times during the week. It lasts all night when reading web pages, using the twitter app and other Windows Store applications; it quite happily ran through a four hour meeting with a copy of Word open (try doing that on a generation 1 Pro) so, thus far I’m impressed. I haven’t yet tried to last a full working day on a charge, though.

The Stylus

I was concerned when Microsoft switched from the Wacom technology used by the older Surface Pro to the new Ntrig active pen. I have been very pleasantly surprised, however. The inking experience is wonderful. The pen has a very soft feel to it – very unlike the Dell Venue 8 Pro and better even than the Wacom. I do miss being able to erase by flipping the pen, but having used the two-button Dell pen for six months now the switch wasn’t an issue. The accuracy of writing is great. Supposedly the distance between the LCD display and the surface of the glass has been reduced and I must say that the feel of writing is good – the lines I draw feel closer to the pen tip than the Dell, certainly.

My one little niggle

I only have one problem, and to be fair it’s pretty minor. One of the things I use the original Pro for is pulling photos off the SD card from my Canon EOS 450D. The new Pro, with it’s better screen would be great for that task. Except I can’t, because the SD card slot present on the Pro has gone, replaced by a MicroSD slot in the same place as on the RT. It makes sense for space, but it’s a bit of a pain. Time to try using a MicroSD card with adapter in my camera, I guess – I don’t really want to carry a USB adapter.

You’d think that I’d miss a physical ethernet port (I don’t – I can use a USB one if I need to ) or bemoan the single USB 3 port (if I’m stuck, my USB 3 ethernet dongle is also a hub, and how often do I need to use more than one USB device, since this thing has a keyboard and track pad!), but it’s the SD card which is the only thing I’ve wished had been present.

A panoply of devices

I’ll admit to being a device fiend. I now have an original Surface RT, a generation one Surface Pro and a Dell Venue 8 Pro. Of those, the RT has been used rarely since I got the Dell, although the Pro was something I would turn to regularly at home to work on, being larger than the Dell and lighter than the X220T (although with the Power Cover on, we could debate that).

Since I got the Pro 3, I haven’t touched anything else. As I said, I still use the X220T, because I have no alternative. Yes, I could run VMs in Azure or on our Hyper-V server, but the neither work without an internet connection and it’s quick and easy to roll forwards and backwards between checkpoints when VMs are on your own machine.

The fact that I haven’t touched the Dell is perhaps the saddest part of this. I find myself reaching for the Pro 3 every time. I am still using OneNote rather than typing or using paper, but the Pro 3 is nicer to write on than the Dell. Whether I will still use the Dell for customer meetings, where the size means I can leave my usual rucksack of equipment behind I have yet to find out, but it’s a telling change.

Dig a little deeper – enterprise ready?

Pretty much the first thing I did with the new device was wipe it clean. We have a Windows 8.1 image at Black Marble that we usually push out with SCCM. I grabbed that image, downloaded the Surface Pro driver pack from Microsoft and used dism to install the drivers into the image. I then deployed that image onto the Pro via USB.

Installation was completely painless, even including the automated installation of some firmware updates that were included in the driver pack. All devices were detected just fine and the end result is a Surface Pro 3 with our Enterprise image, domain-joined and hooked up to our DirectAccess service so I can work anywhere.

I have installed Office, but I will admit to not having used Outlook on this yet. Much of my usage has been in tablet mode and I prefer the Windows 8.1 Mail app over Outlook without the keyboard and trackpad. Office 2013 is not yet fully touch-friendly, whatever they try to tell you.

You know what would make it perfect?

You can see this coming, can’t you? Sure, I could get more storage and horsepower with the top-of-the-line model, but there is no point. The only reason I would need those is if I could have my one wish – 16Gb of RAM.

It’s s terrible thing – no Ultrabooks come with 16Gb of RAM. I don’t need a workstation replacement (like the W530s our consultants use) as I don’t run the number or size of VMs they do. But I, like Richard, do run VMs for demos and working on projects. 8Gb doesn’t cut it. 16Gb would be fine. I firmly believe that there is a market for a 16Gb ultrabook. Or a 16Gb Pro 3. In all honesty, I think I’d be happy with this as my one device, if I could solve the RAM problem. I think that says it all, really.

Miracast with Surface Pro, Windows 8.1 release and Netgear Push2TV

One of the most useful features of Windows 8.1 for me is the native support for Miracast (which is compatible with Intel Widi) for connecting to a wireless projector or display. Being able to wander around with my tablet whilst speaking is really handy.

Sadly, whilst this worked for a little while during the preview, everything stopped with no reason. Searching the internet hive mind suggested that a Windows Defender update during the preview release had borked it, but nobody could confirm.

When the release media arrived on MSDN I upgraded my Surface Pro. Sadly, no joy with the Miracast feature. However, a new firmware update has been release by Microsoft (see  Mr Thurrott for details) and that has fixed the issue. I suspect it’s actually a set of updated display drivers, as a connection could always be be made to the device but nothing would show on screen.

The Push2TV is a great little device – it’s tiny (a couple of inches long, about an inch wide and less than half an inch deep) and will draw power from a USB port on the TV or projector. I got it for testing but I’d really like to be able to use it at our events. The universality of Miracast support in Windows 8.1 might just let me do that.

This isn’t our first rodeo, however. Thanks to a recommendation from Messrs May and Fryer I also have a Belkin Screencast. I couldn’t get that working during the preview of Windows 8.1 at all. I will test that when I get some time. I personally prefer the Netgear, but the Belkin isn’t a bad device. It’s bigger and has a separate PSU, but the big difference for me is that the Belkin insists on fiddling with firmware updates via the Widi connection and it’s a bit of a pain, frankly. The Netgear is a much friendlier, manual update over normal wifi.

Take care installing firmware updates on your Surface Pro if it’s bitlocker encrypted

A quick tip, this one. I downloaded the latest firmware update to my Surface Pro this evening. It rebooted and promptly requested my bitlocker unlock code. I don’t keep those to hand – they’re stored in our Active Directory. Fortunately I had another laptop with DirectAccess so I could find the key. Be ready with your recovery key if you too have enabled bitlocker and perform firmware updates.

Installing Windows 8.1 Enterprise on Surface Pro

Windows 8.1 Enterprise preview was released a week or two ago. Being on holiday prevented me trying it out until I returned to the office. Everyone has different methods for installing Windows 8/8.1 on a Surface Pro. It’s actually pretty simple. Windows 8 can be done in the same way as I list here. However, you will need to download the Surface Pro Driver pack from Microsoft – Windows 8 doesn’t automatically find all the hardware; Windows 8.1 does.

The first thing you need is a set of USB installation media that the Surface can read. Sadly, the Windows 7 ISO utility form Microsoft doesn’t create UEFI-bootable media. Enter stage left Rufus – a magnificent tool!

Grab your downloaded ISO file, find a nice fast USB3 drive that’s at least 4Gb in size and start the tool. Use the settings as in the screenshot, below. Select your ISO and hit go.

image

Once you’ve got your media you need to boot your Surface Pro from it. There are different notes on the internet about this. Some tell you to boot the machine whilst holding down the volume up button to enter the BIOS and change the secure boot options.

You don’t need to do this.

Instead, with your Pro switched off, plug in your USB drive. Hold down the volume down button and press the power button. keep the volume down button held down until you see the Surface start to boot from your USB setup volume. That’s all there is to it.

Once your Surface Pro has started setup you should be on familiar ground. Choose to do a full install, not an upgrade. However, when setup shows you a long list of partitions and asks where to install Windows, pause.

You can scrub the drive and install clean. If you do that, you lose all the nice original install of Windows 8 that you can fall back to when you stuff your machine. If you just install to the OS partition, you can use Windows’ really nice refresh my PC function to restore the original factory image.

If you want to install clean, go ahead. If, like me, you want to be more gentle, select Drive 0 partition 4. On my Surface Pro it was around 110.2Gb. Select the option to format the partition and then choose that for your installation.

After that, setup will chug for a few minutes, your Surface Pro will reboot and presto! A new Windows 8.1 install.

It too a reboot or two for all the devices to populate on my Pro, but at no point did I need to hunt down drivers. It all just works! Lovely.

Next stop, domain join to my domain and then bitlocker the hard drive and check out DirectAccess!