Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Microsoft Surface Pro for the Photographer


It’s been a long, long wait, but it’s finally here.  The Microsoft Surface Pro is on the market and I’m lucky enough to have spent the last week setting mine up and using it for my photography tasks.  That’s right.  A tablet form factor running Lightroom and Photoshop!

For 7 months I got to read editorials saying things like: “It’s too heavy. It’s too expensive.  There’s not enough available storage.  The battery life is horrible. The wide screen is awkward. The kickstand isn’t adjustable. Who uses a pen anymore?” Blah, blah, blah, blah!

Now that I finally have it in my hands, here’s my response: “WHO CARES!”.  Yes it’s a tablet and if that were all it was the naysayers may have valid points.  What they were all overlooking, however, is that this is also a fully functional Intel powered laptop!  I’m running Adobe Lightroom 4, Adobe Photoshop CS 6, Microsoft Office 2013, Windows Media Center, no compromise web browsers and on and on and on.  In short, I am PRODUCING content and not just consuming it all on a device slim enough and lite enough to slide into my messenger bag with my Nikon D300s and my work HP EliteBook laptop.

With all of that being said, here are a few of my personal observations for those of you who may be considering your own Surface Pro now that stock is beginning to be replenished.

  • Windows 8 –  I’ve been using the new OS on my work computer for a while, but on a touch-based device it really comes to life.  Forget about the Start menu and embrace the efficiencies of the new design.
  • Tablet Experience – The screen is incredible. A visual treat with a very responsive feel to your touch.  While there is definitely still “app discrimination” when compared to the iPad and Android markets, things are coming around and I’m confident that the Surface will help accelerate the pace. One area that did catch me off-guard was the fact that so many magazine publishers only allow Amazon to cater to iOS and Android.  For example, Outdoor Photographer is available via Zinio, but you won’t find it on Amazon.
  • Desktop Experience – Having used Windows 8 for awhile now, the only challenges to using the full desktop environment on the Surface have been 1) Getting accustom to the Type Cover and, 2) text scaling.  I have purposely limited myself to he Type Cover so that I’d become more efficient. I’ll be honest, I won’t win any typing contests, but it’s still better than being limited to an on-screen version (new wireless keyboard and mouse arrive for my desk today).  The text scaling comes into play when connected to an external display.  Out of the box, the Surface Pro is set to scale your text to 150%.  That’s a good size when you’re packing 1920x1080 pixels into a 10” space, but not so great on a 24” external display.  It’s a shame text scaling isn’t display independent, but I’ve found what works best for me is to default back to 100% as most of my desktop experience happens on the external display.  On the occasions where I only have the 10” display, a few keystrokes (namely Ctrl + ‘+’) allow me to zoom in at the application level.
  • WiFi Only – I tend to be where the WiFi is so the lack of a cellular radio doesn’t impact me all that much.  If I must, must, connect, there’s always the option to tether to my phone.
  • Storage – I’ve done a few proactive tasks here to help make my 128GB go as far as possible:
    • New Lightroom Catalog – I’ve backed up my old (and somewhat bloated) Lightroom catalog to my external drive and started over.  Well, I imported my keyword hierarchy, a few other preferences and of course my “best of the best” photos, but otherwise it was time for a clean start.
    • “My Documents” on “D:” – I popped in my 64GB microSXDC card, formatted it with NTFS and changed the default location for the “Documents” library to point to this new drive.  From what I’ve read, you cannot install applications on external devices so reserving space on the C: drive for apps is something to consider up front.
    • Available Space – I’m still at 66GB free with Lightroom, Photoshop CS 6, Photomatix, Topaz Adjust, Word, Excel, OneNote, Chrome, Kindle, Live Writer, Movie Maker, Media Center, Total Theater, etc……  I am not loading my music library as I already have it on my phone and any movies (which look awesome on this display, btw) or other large files go to the external drive.  This leaves me with ample room for the photos I’ve yet to take and process.
    • Backups – I have a few OneNote docs on my SkyDrive for convenience, but limited to satellite internet at home prevents me from overusing cloud-based services.  I do, however, backup EVERYTHING to my Windows Home Server each night.

Oh, and that pen thing…. It ROCKS! While I’ve used it occasionally in OneNote, its value to me is inside Lightroom and Photoshop.  Yeah, editing photos on a 10” display isn’t something you’ll want to do everyday, but when you have detail work to do with that pen, it blows away my old Wacom tablet.

For now, that’s all.  Is the Surface Pro the holy grail of all computing devices? Probably not.  If you asked me what I’d change, however, I’m not sure I’d have much in the way of answers.  It’s the form factor I’ve been waiting for to provide the ultimate in portability which, in itself, asks for compromises.  The selling point for me was the fact that I can be productive wherever and whenever and in that space, I have not been disappointed in the least.

Update: This morning I had the opportunity to test drive the Type Cover.  As I was never a very good touch typist and with productivity being my aim, I’ve made the switch.  For a few bucks more and a couple of extra millimeters in thickness, I can now proclaim that I’ve relinquished the “Backspace” key as my favorite key.


Unknown said...

Thank you for an honest appraisal. I'm using my Surface Pro for various things, but editing in Lightroom was a key reason I purchased it. Even though I'm still learning the ropes, I'm very happy with my decision. It's a great option over having 2 appliances...laptop or desktop and a Wacom tablet.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the comment, Scomom. Two plus weeks into it I can honestly say that with the type cover it easily replaces my laptop. For full on photo processing, having a larger external monitor certainly is helpful, however.

Steve Skinner said...

Great read! I was looking for a Surface Pro review specifically relating to Lightroom and photography. I would have liked to hear a little bit more about how performance is with Lightroom and other Adobe apps, but overall a great article!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the comment, Steve. The only PS/LR glitch I've seen has been with transparent layers in Photoshop. A couple of times when using the text tool, transparent layers turned black on an external display for a few seconds indicating the video is having a little difficulty keeping up. Other than that my only "version 1.0" issue is the unit will sometimes fail to come out of sleep mode and requires a long power-press shut down. I've seen others reporting this issue and an acknowledgement from Microsoft that it's an issue. No published fix yet. Feel free to send me any additional questions you might have.

Anonymous said...

I get that PS glitch on my regular laptop with Win 8 too. So it's not anything to do with your hardware

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