Skip to main content

A personal Surface retrospective: past, present and future

Surface Book

Before I joined Windows Central, I worked as an I.T. coordinator for an umbrella organization, providing tech support and deployment to various types of businesses. I've been through a ton of computing hardware during my time there, on the budget side, to the mid-range, all the way up to high-end. I keep coming back to Surface.

The benefits of Surface, for me, extend beyond their versatility. Microsoft created Surface to give OEMs a bit of direction in an age where Apple laptops are considered the pinnacle of premium. It took a long time to get to this point, but in 2016, I think that Surface finally represents how the best Windows hardware experiences should feel.

Surface RT

The ill-fated Surface RT failed to light the world on fire, but in my book, it offered the promise of a future where Windows would be truly device agnostic. And now, it feels very much like we're nearly there.

The Surface RT ran an ARM-based version of Windows 8, making it virtually impossible to run traditional, Win32 .exe programs. My old gaming PC had died on me and at least in the interim, all I needed was a browser, some apps and perhaps word processing, having moved my gaming to Xbox.

Windows 8 was controversial for its touch-based leanings, but on a device like the Surface RT, it was damn near-perfect. Even Apple is attempting to emulate some of RT's most intuitive aspects in their suspiciously familiar iPad Pro.

The Surface RT was lightweight and had decent battery life, solid build quality, and incredible value. My company was purchasing them from Microsoft at £99 ($142) through an educational discount. They even included the intriguing, but cumbersome fabric-based touch cover – which lacked physical keys.

It's pretty standard now, but we ran one of the first schools in my town that were able to turn any classroom into a computer suite, utilizing a portable cabinet of Surface RTs. Ironically, that school now uses Chromebooks for the same purpose. Microsoft stopped offering the cheap first-generation Surface RT, and the RT-based Surface 2 was far more expensive than an equivalent Chromebooks. Still, students and faculty lamented the Windows RT, finding it to be more familiar – even in its unpopular Windows 8 incarnation.

The Surface RT struggled with its identity as an "iPad with a keyboard", lacking quality apps. Microsoft paid for it with a near billion-dollar write-down of unsold Surface RT inventory. Even though the Surface RT failed to ignite the brand, one of my previous company's subsidiary bosses still runs his entire business from one, using an external display and Office 365. It still works as new. Perhaps more companies would have picked up Surface RT were it not for some of its confusing and ill-advised marketing…

Windows on ARM processors lives on as Windows 10 Mobile, delivering unique experiences like Continuum on devices up to nine inches. Hardware like the upcoming HP Elite X3 phone, with its Continuum dock, would likely be an incredible Surface RT replacement for my former colleague. It remains to be seen whether businesses will be deterred by the price, however.

As much as I liked my RT, I had decided it was time to buy something to replace my desktop PC. Thankfully, Microsoft had just released the Surface Pro 2.

Surface Pro 2

Surface Pro 2

All Surface Pro devices run the full version of Windows on Intel processors, which is a fact I still find myself explaining to people. I skipped the first Surface Pro, sticking it out with the Surface RT. When the Pro 2 was announced I found myself unable to resist as it improved heavily on the Pro 1's notoriously poor battery life.

The Surface Pro 2 was chunky, far more than the RT, and far more than you'd want from a tablet experience. Overall, the Pro 2 was still tidier than many laptops of similar specs. I rarely used the Pro 2 in tablet mode in a recreational setting, but found the form factor, coupled with the pen inputs and OneNote, really enhanced my workflow productivity. I was now able to follow teachers around one of the school's I provided support to, writing out their I.T. problems into OneNote while standing, rather than trying to remember every detail, every serial number, etcetera. Of course, it was entirely possible to do this with my Lumia 920 as well, but being able to take photographs of faulty hardware and annotate them felt a little more natural on the larger tablet screen. Windows Phone 8 didn't even have Word Flow swipe typing back then either.

Surface - Inking

It was around this time I began producing content as a blogger. Thanks to the Surface Pro 2 running full Windows, I was able to design and build a site using Adobe Suite, something that proved difficult on the Windows 8 Store-bound RT. The Pro 2 was even capable of running older games fairly competently, such as World of Warcraft and The Witcher 1, making it a decent gaming travel companion (or procrastination tool while at work, ahem).

I found myself eagerly working around the Pro 2's problems, simply because its versatility and uniqueness was just so fun.

As great as the Pro 2 was, it was still a little too clunky. The "tablet that can replace your laptop" tagline didn't hold up. Using the tablet on the sofa or in bed wasn't a particularly pleasant experience due to its weight, and the flat type cover and kickstand made it hard to use in your lap. These issues were compounded by the Windows 8.1 app store. At the time, Windows Phone had a much better app experience for leisurely computing.

Even if I was desk-bound, I found myself eagerly working around the Pro 2's problems, simply because its versatility and uniqueness was just so fun. It was an excellent device for productivity, albeit inelegant. It was fast, intuitive with touch, and I found myself using the pen inputs far more often than expected. I'm not much of an artist, but it inspired me to try and learn.

The Surface Pro line laid bare Microsoft's ambitions for an adaptable Windows, with apps capable of conforming to multiple types of displays simply by examining the screen dimensions and available input methods. I expected Windows 10 on a Surface Pro 3 to nail the proposition of power and mobility, but after a year of heavy use, I think it slightly missed the mark.

Surface Pro 3

Surface Pro 3, next to Surface Pro 2

How to transfer your data from an old PC to a new PC (Image credit: Windows Central)

I traded up my Pro 2 with an Intel Core i5 processor to a Surface Pro 3 packing a Core i7, and initially, I was thoroughly blown away.

The Surface Pro 3 tablet portion was thinner and lighter, making it far more usable away from the desk. The kickstand ditched the fixed positions of its predecessors and was now omni-positional — never faltering after a year of pretty serious abuse. My favorite addition was the new screen size. The Pro 2 featured a 10.6-inch display, which was not particularly comfortable on the eyes. The Pro 3 bumped it all the way up to 12.1 inches, with a higher resolution for good measure.

On the face of it, the Surface Pro 3 made a compelling argument for the 2-in-1, and saw the brand begin to hit some serious traction. More and more apps were utilizing some of Windows' and Windows Phone's unique features as well, such as cloud-based authentication and settings migration, making the ecosystem experience even better.

After the initial buzz had worn off, it became apparent that the Surface Pro 3 still wasn't capable of fully replacing a similarly-priced laptop for tasks that utilize the full capacity of its hardware. Many Surface Pro 3 owners are likely aware of the system's dreaded throttling, which sees the CPU pull back the speed to prevent overheating. Even basic tasks like browsing the web often induced processor throttling on my Pro 3. While the problem got better over time with updates, overheating seemed to be a physical consequence of squeezing so much powerful hardware into such a small device.

(opens in new tab)

A photo posted by on

I tried to circumvent this issue by using an external fan; it helped to a degree, particularly when attempting to game or use Adobe Premier for video editing, but it was quite clear that I'd pushed the Pro 3 to its limits.

Still, I have to praise the Pro 3. I used it all day, every day, from the point of purchase until the day I got my Surface Book. It didn't crash on me once, never blue screened, and it survived some serious blows in the course of my worldly travels. If it weren't for the processor overheating issues, I'd probably still be using it today.

I had the choice of upgrading to a Surface Pro 4, with its superior cooling, or something even more powerful. As I was using my Surface Pro 3 more and more intensively, I eventually decided to upgrade to something with a dedicated GPU.

Surface Book

After reading about some of the troubles some reviewers had with the launch Surface Book, I was initially dissuaded. I had read horror stories about the Surface Book's unique mechanical locking mechanism for its detachable keyboard base getting stuck. I had seen accounts of numerous BSOD errors, issues with Microsoft's biometric authentication – Windows Hello – and various other problems. For a £2200 device, that seemed a little too much of a risk.

Initially, I purchased a Dell XPS 15, which is not only significantly cheaper but also packs more powerful internals. The Dell XPS 15 is an incredible machine, with its futuristically slim bezel, gorgeous 4K display, and pervasively impressive craftsmanship. As great as the XPS 15 was overall, I'd become accustomed to polished software. My unit suffered from a bunch of minor software and driver issues that I was unable to fix, despite spending days trawling forums, support pages and the Dell subreddit. While the bugs I had were by no means universal (as Windows Central XPS owners like Daniel Rubino, Richard Devine and Matt Brown will attest), it wasn't the software problems that highlighted what I missed about Surface.

(opens in new tab)

A photo posted by on

I missed the physical versatility, I missed the polished experience, I missed the fun. In an age of PC market saturation, I just find the idea of a standard clamshell laptop to be a little dull.

My edition of XPS 15 had a touch screen – but why? You can't detach the screen, and it's far easier to defer to your trackpad rather than reach across the keyboard and get fingerprints all over that gorgeous display.

After a couple of months of heavy use, I'm pretty convinced that the Surface Book is the best device I've ever owned.

There's no bloatware or third-party solutions out of the box on Surface either. Just pure, uncontaminated Windows. Even if I didn't use tablet mode on a daily basis, it was something I sorely missed in the XPS 15. Even if I'd only used my Pro 3 Surface pen twice a week, it was an excellent, powerful and fun addition to the overall package, especially when coupled with drawing apps like Sketchable, and note taking apps like OneNote.

My Surface Book experience hasn't been without blips, and many of those early reviews for the Surface Book told a similar story. The first unit I purchased had a faulty battery and wouldn't charge. Thankfully, the Microsoft Store was swift in replacing it (thanks Ellen Z). The unit I'm using now is not only completely flawless, but after a couple of months of heavy use, I'm pretty convinced that the Surface Book is the best device I've ever owned.

With the pen magnetically attached to the Surface Book screen, I find myself reaching to use it far more often than I did previously. No longer do I have to keep track of the pen's whereabouts, or rely on flimsy adhesive pen loops. The tablet portion is incredibly light as well, despite its larger screen, aligning it closely with the way I used my undocked Pro 2 and 3 in a productivity context. I haven't had any issues detaching it from the base either, which you trigger by holding down a dedicated key, resulting in a reassuring click.

(opens in new tab)

A photo posted by on

The Surface Book's design and build quality are on another level. The base is so thin that it almost fades into the desk. The display, while not as vivid as the XPS 15, doesn't seem to suffer as badly from ghosting (which, again, might've been the result of a faulty unit). The Surface Book's unique fulcrum hinge is surprisingly resistant and strangely satisfying as it curls. I would've liked to have seen the hinge be a little more generous with its available angles, but the current implementation hasn't caused me any major gripes.

Thanks to that hinge, you can detach the screen, flip it backwards, and reattach and close the whole unit, giving you a slightly angled drawing tablet or note taking station. The upcoming Windows Ink feature will enhance the Surface Book's digital inking even more.

Microsoft has pretty much proven Surface to be a leading computing solution.

Perhaps, most crucially for me, it doesn't overheat. Editing 4K video and even running optimized modern PC games (albeit on low-to-medium settings) is entirely viable on the Surface Book's modified 940M-range Nvidia GPU, and it doesn't get too noisy with the fans get going. Unlike my Pro 3, I couldn't extend the Surface Book's versatility to frying an egg.

For £2200, I would've liked to have seen a more powerful GPU perhaps at the very least, though. I also find myself missing the kickstand sometimes on the tablet portion. It's a pretty nifty feature if you just wanted to watch a movie while traveling or when cooking in the kitchen. Sometimes you just don't need the keyboard, but still need to prop up the screen.

I'm still getting to grips with the Surface Book's full capabilities, but at this point, Microsoft has pretty much proven Surface to be a leading computing solution. The Surface line has shifted existing paradigms, taking leadership from companies that have been doing PC and tablet hardware for decades. You have to wonder if the Surface team can extend that success to mobile.

Surface Phone

Panos Panay

The Surface line has always been about challenging existing form factors. Rather than go head to head with the iPad, Microsoft asked the question "is this all that a tablet should be?"

Microsoft's Surface division is another billion-dollar business in the company's portfolio, and the team kick-started a wave of Windows hardware excitement. They did this by deconstructing what a PC should be, in addition to shining a spotlight on quality and detail. I find the biggest endorsement of Surface to be the iPad Pro, which does little to hide its inspirations.

It's all about personal preference, but I always found it humorous when I saw clients carrying tablets, laptops and phones around with them to business meetings. Microsoft will most likely try to further streamline those paradigm dilemmas with its Surface Phone, expected to land sometime next year. It's long been rumored, and it simply cannot be a standard rectangular phone with a touch screen.

Until then, what is it you lovely people would like to see in a Surface Phone? Are you a Surface user? Let us know in the comments or say hi to me on Twitter!

See at the Microsoft Store (opens in new tab)

Jez Corden is a Senior Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

79 Comments
  • Who ever thought Microsoft will be leading the future of tablets? Did asinine notice that Android OEMs no longer produce flagship tablets? This shows that surface phone can raise a standard ahead of others. Surface came when Android tablets and iPads were the gadgets in talk of the town, but gradually trump them all to set a standard. Surface pros have made Android users look like sh**t in tablet world. Thus making her OEMs such as Samsung to stop producing her flagship tablet in favour of Windows'. With the recent plummets in smartphone sales and quest for more power and functionality in phones, surface phone might replicate surface tablets' success in smartphone world.
    If Microsoft could unveil an x-86 phone with AAA games capabilities, Android phones and iphones could be history
  • While that may be true, I don't think Microsoft is going to do that :)
  • AAA games. Man now you are combing a phone, a tablet and a Xbox one in a phablet form factor.
    This thing will not only Rock the world but the whole universe.
    But MS will not Rock this device any more. Not after Hololens. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Imma say this. My recent purchase of the Galaxy S7 Edge, makes me wish/hope that Microsoft brings it with their Surface phone invention. It's a beautifully fast responsive phone! And another thing...I love having access to all the apps on the Google Play store. Several instances where I've said to myself, wow I wish WM10 had that feature or that POP to its performance, notifications integration etc. But on the other side I also wanted Android to have a lot of want I have/had on my Lumia Icon. Groove music for example...it's WAYYY better on WM10 than on the Google Play store. It's so watered down, it makes you want to switch back with the quickness! the IU is meh...no fast forward, no rewind capabilities. its laughable. Microsoft and Google have to find a way to play nice. I love/d my Lumia 929/Icon and the design language of the Windows UWA but if we could have it all (apps + design)....then I believe MS would have it wrapped up! I want to find a proper launcher for the Windows 10 mobile look so bad, but nothing compares like having an authentic WM10 device. I dream of rooting my Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge with WM10 =) Yeah, that's right...
  • I thought it was awesome that he worked for Umbrella Corp! 
  • Lovely article and I agree that the Surface line is incredible. Pretty much everyone in my immediate family has one from the Surface 3, Pro 3, original Pro, and the Book. They universally love the devices and the nice thing is that MS is pretty on the ball about getting things fixed when the occasional issues arise. None of them could go back to any tablet running another OS as the versatility is incredible.
  • Thank you for the kind comments. :) I agree with you entirely.
  • I'm a former surface RT and Surface Pro 3 owner. I now sport the Surface Book i7. I do get my blue screens from time to time but I absolutely love the SB. Given that it is not rampant in the wild, I constantly get positive comments when folks realize that it isn't a mac book pro. I don't use the pen as often as I did with my pro 3 but that's because I'm not much of a mtg hound. I recommend it to all of my business colleagues. I eagerly await the surface phone and I cannot fathom a scenario where I will not own one on Day 1.
  • "I do get my blue screens from time to time" If I spent $2K on a laptop, re-occuring blue screens would be unacceptable. 
  • just happens rarely. Posted via Surface Pro 4 or Microsoft Halo Phone
  • First gen problems.  Still better than the original iPad Air and some of the older iPhones which would catch on fire.
  • I derive a great deal of satisfaction from my SB to the degree that the occasional blue screen is but a blip in an otherwise fantastic user experience. I however understand your position but I'm really digging my choice :)
  • I still haven't had a blue screen (finger's crossed). What sorts of things trigger it?
  • I honestly haven't seen much of a pattern because it is not that often. I can't recall what I was doing but I want to say that the timing was likely shortly after it woke for sleeping. Once it blue screened while watching a movie with friends. Again, I'm really not complaining because I love it. How long have you had yours?
  • I've had mine for about ... two months now? The first unit I received wouldn't charge, battery was totally flat. I complained to MS and asked if I could have one from a more recent batch... maybe that's why I haven't seen BSOD yet? Not sure. It has been absolutely flawless for me. Fingers crossed. Maybe you could do the same? I'm not sure if the earlier models had problems. Lots of those early reviews reported similar things. I could not depend on a computer that got BSODs in case it caused me to lose work, etc.
  • I remote into office computers to do my work so nothing essential is stored on my actual SB. Frankly, all my hard drive space is taken up with apps/programs and the occasional test data files. All personal docs are on OneDrive so my SB is uncluttered so the fear of a BSOD isn't impactful unless I'm consuming media etc. I've owned it since Jan but I will inquire to see if MSFT will offer a refreshed one. It is in perfect condition. When not in use, it is in a case. When in use, it is resting of a soft pad lol!!
  • Let me know how you get on!
  • LOL!!! And I thought I molly-coddle my devices!!!
  • My MacBook Pro Retina (before switching to SP3) used to hang from time to time, something you wouldn't expect from $2.4K top of the line, creme de la creme magical machine. Or would you? These are computers; freezing is what they do once in a while. Thankfully not too often.
  • I upgrade from SP3 to SB and I am agree with everything You are stating here. Good article. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • Surface Book with a GTX 1070 would be awesome. Surface Book 2 maybe.
  • Take my money please 
  • Sounds too good to be true though, but it would be indeed awesome if they manage to do it, or any laptop/hybrids will do. If Nvidia ever release lower-end like say 1060 or something that can fit well on slim form factor without throttling issues, that would be great. But yeah, I can't wait these 1070 to come on laptops and tablets.
  • I'd like to see a phone that has 2 screens, a normal one on the front then open the phone clamshell style to reveal a foldable double width touch screen i.e. a mini tablet screen runner Windows 10 ideally but Windows 10 Mobile would still make for a stunning phone. Surface Phone "a phone that can replace your tablet". :-)
  • Nothing like a phone in the $2500 range.
  • Someone had better tell Samsung that as I looks like they are getting closer to a solution https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=samsung+foldable+smartphone&adlt=strict&view=detail&mid=83F457477FBC6DB40C0B83F457477FBC6DB40C0B&FORM=VRDGAR. Bet they manage it for less than $2500, think more like $800.
  • I just emailed them...they have no idea what you are talking about.
  • Are basics like sleep still broken on Surface Book?
  • That was fixed forever ago and was partially an Intel problem.
  • Apparently not for all. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2016/05/27/sleep_of_death_windows_10/
  • Eh, so it's like any hardware/software problem where some people might experience it and some people might not.  I can't speak for anyone else, I just know it isn't really happening to anyone I know personally with a Surface Book/Pro 4 and that it specifically happens to some computers with the Skylake chip.
  • I love those products but they are too expensive for me regarding my needs on a computer.
  • I have a surface 3 and couldn't be happier. Cheaper and cooler (literally) than the pro line, and isn't prone to the system under clocking. It always surprises me with what it can handle, that X7 atom with 4 GB RAM is great. I think atom got a bad reputation, rightfully so, but cherry trail with al decent amount of memory changed things to a point you can have a real computer, in a tablet form, on budget. Too bad the surface 3 takes a back seat in the public eye, so under appreciated.
  • Surface 3 owner here as well. Mine is my primary PC, and use it in all its different form factors. Tablet on the sofa, laptop on the desk. While more power is always nice, I love Surface for the great display more than anything.
  • I'm another Surface 3 owner.  Great machine.  I love everything about it (considering what it is) with one major exception - inking.  Writing in OneNote is a pretty bad experience.  If I write at my normal size and speed I can't read my own writing, and neither can OneNote's text recognition.  I have to write everything two if not three times larger than normal, and SLOW, or it looks like unintelligible chicken scratches. The pen is now stuffed in a drawer. Other than that the machine is wonderful.  Excel, Word, web browsing, reading, and movie watching are all really nice experiences.
  • I bought my first Surface device (Pro 3) 6 or 7 months ago, an i7/8 Go/512 SSD model. At first, it was great, really. The device responded well, it was fast and completely satisfying. But then, problems started to pop. The fan became loud, Surface started to overheat and performances decreased, a lot. My Pro 3 became slow even when was just using Edge or Office. I tried to convince myself it was the fault of Windows 10. Anyway, I sent it to Microsoft this morning for an exchange, because I can't work with it anymore. I'm using my old Asus T300 right now and I'm facing less problems than with my SP3, which is the saddest thing I have ever said in my whole life. Even worst than "Too Human 2 will never be released". Hope Microsoft teams will be able to fix my problem because I freakin' love this device !
  • Hmm my Pro 3 was never unusable as a result of the throttling, but I definitely felt it. Do you live in a warm climate? Maybe living in freezing cold Britain helps me a bit haha.
  • I'm living in the north of France soooooo...not a warm climate AT ALL. But that means that my performance problems come from my Surface in particular, which is kind of reassuring.
  • You described my SP3 issues to a "T". Microsoft replaced mine also thinking it was a hardware problem, although it never had issues when running 8.1, but the replacement had the same behavior. Both when reverted to 8.1 ran normally with little fan noise or over heating. I'm convinced it is an issue with Windows 10, my experience is that W10 behaves differently on not only different hardware but even the same hardware. You see the same with W10M.
  • I have similar issues. I have tried 3 times to install windows 10, but each time I have had to roll back to 8 due to performance hiccups and overheating. I am aware that a fresh install may alleviate these issues, but I have found I prefer 8 on my sp3 anyway.
  • Damn, that's not reassuring at all. Not everybody encounters that kind of problems, so I guess it can be fixed by getting a new SP3 (I hope so). If not, I'll go back to Windows 8.1, which I really hate now that 10 is out :(
  • I remember standing in line on launch day to buy the Surface RT, thought it was ARM based I loved it! It was a game changer. I used it consistently until I upgraded to the Surface Pro 3, which I enjoy even more. I use the Lumia 950xl right now, and what I'd like to see from the surface phone is a true surface design... I like the material that the surface is made of, they need to use that on the phone, with a larger mirrored Microsoft logo inlay on the back. At least 20mp pureview camera with triple flash, iris scanner, etc. Back to design, I'd like to see that cool vent all the way around the top and sides of the device, like the SP3. would also like to see a kick stand, and available touch or type cover. Essentially, I want a 6" surface pro 3, Lumia 950xl hybrid.
  • The Surface Book looks like a nice machine but I'm actually happy with the SP3. I have faced none of the issues you reported ALTHOUGH to be fair, I don't use the Surface as my primary PC (I still prefer my custom built tower-PC).   The Surface Book to me only has some minor problems (apart from the price which I don't think is justified). They are mostly aesthetic, sure but, that hinge with the gap is just too unsettling for me. The idea of sand or dirt enteri