My first impressions of the Surface Pro 3

My jungle companion, still in the safety of my bedroom office. It'll be in wild surroundings soon enough.

It’s been months since I wrote anything for the blog, and I feel guilty about it. The truth of the matter is, I’ve not done much of interest for the the past months. I’ve been mostly working or writing emails, two activities which are not worth writing home about. But I expect my life will become significantly more interesting within the next month, as I gear up to leave for  Borneo. For the unaware, I’ll be studying wild orangutans in the rainforest of Gunung Palung National Park in Indonesia, as part of a National Geographic Young Explorer’s grant expedition.

In the meantime however, I wanted to share the latest news regarding the expedition: I was awarded a gear sponsorship by Microsoft! Stuart Pitts, product marketing manager for Microsoft, very generously donated a Surface Pro 3 to me and my project. This could not have come at a better time, as  I was in dire need of a replacement for my aging and battered laptop which already survived a year in the rainforest and was definitely not going to make it through another one. Hell, the rundown state of my laptop is half the reason I haven’t done any blogging lately: it’s missing quite a few letters on the keyboard, which made writing a huge pain. Having a reliable computer system in Borneo will be vital, as sharing updates, photos, and videos from the field through social media are a large part of my project. The Surface Pro 3 seems to fit my needs perfectly, and after messing around with it for a few weeks, I wanted to share my first impressions.

My jungle companion, still in the safety of my bedroom office. It’ll be in wild surroundings soon enough.

What a traveler-photographer-researcher looks for in a computer

Did I make up that demographic? Maybe. But for the purposes of my project, a traveler-photographer-researcher is exactly what I’ll be, and I’m sure many people’s jobs fall under a similar category. For my life in the rainforest, I need a computer system that has the following:

  • Portability: something that is easy to carry through airport security, and light enough to carry on hikes in and out of the rainforest.
  • Capability to edit photos: something that efficiently runs Adobe Lightroom, the main program I use for processing all of my images.
  • A high quality display: having a sharp display with accurate color reproduction is important to photographer.
  • Great build quality: something that won’t fall apart easily. Life in the jungle is rugged and tough.
  • Capability to organize: besides photos and videos, I’ll also be working with a lot of data and field notes from my research which I’ll need to keep organized.
  • Optimized for social media: sharing updates is an important aspect of my project, and the computer system should make it easy.

On paper, the Surface Pro 3 fits the bill for my life in the forest just right:

  • It weights 2.4 pounds (with the type cover attached!), and is the size of a standard paper notebook. Last year in the rainforest, it was never fun lugging my oversized laptop on the 4 hour hike in and out of the rainforest. This time around, with the SP3, I can see the hike being a lot more pleasant.
  • Lightroom runs well on it. The newest version, Lightroom 6, also has a new touch screen interface mode, which makes editing photos very pleasant with the Surface Pro 3. It seems like this new mode was designed with the Surface Pro 3 in mind.
Lightroom 6 running on the SP3. The new touch screen interface works very well with the SP3.
Lightroom 6 running on the SP3. The new touch screen interface works very well with the SP3.
  • The display is in a 3:2 ratio. This is excellent for photography, as that is just the ratio that Canon cameras output natively for images. In addition, the display has been praised for its excellent color accuracy, and it can be calibrated very precisely.
  • It is well designed, and the build quality is solid. Microsoft has always been a software-oriented company, but with this product, they have proven that they can do hardware just as well. The Surface Pro 3 is beautifully designed. But more importantly, it is designed with practicality in mind. There is a saying that goes: it is better to whole-ass one thing, than half-ass two things. With that in mind, I was worried that as a laptop-tablet hybrid, it would be okay at either role, but not great. That worry has been laid to rest. In my mind, the Surface Pro 3 absolutely lives up to its motto: “The tablet that can replace your laptop”.
  • The fact that the SP3 is a tablet means that there are a multitude of protective cases available. This is important to me, as life in the rainforest will add another dimension of abuse to the computer, and having a case is vital for protecting the system. MS and their partners are sending me some cases to try out with the SP3, and I’ll be able to comment on how they perform sometime in the future. One thing I’ll be interested in seeing is how the cases will perform in high-humidity. Hopefully, they’ll have a good seal that will prevent moisture from building up inside the computer. Of course, no case is a substitute for taking good care of the system yourself. Storing the computer in a dry spot (preferably with silica gel) when not in use is necessary to keep your electronics in good health in the rainforest.
  • For organizing, it is designed to optimize the use of OneNote. I haven’t had much experience using OneNote yet, but I’ve messed around with it a bit and can definitely see its potential. The touch-screen and the pen make it so easy to use, and I can see myself using this throughout the year to keep all of my research related notes and thoughts organized. I’ll have more to say about it in the future.
  • The Metro* mode Twitter and Facebook apps make it a breeze to check my feeds and share things quickly and easily. And when I need more fuctionality, I can use the desktop browser and open up the full sites (*Metro is the touch-screen UI for Windows 8. You can switch from Metro to the more traditional desktop mode very easily).

As I begin my expedition, I’ll be able to talk more about how it performs the role as my main piece of technology for organization, communication, and productivity in the rainforest. But so far, I’m confident the Surface Pro 3 will make a good forest buddy.

My first impressions, after a couple weeks of use

After messing around with it for some time, mostly from the comfort of my bedroom in my apartment here in Puerto Rico, I’ve got a few comments to make:

  • The keyboard is exceptional. Typing is a pleasure, and it does not at all feel like a substitute for a keyboard. In fact, it feels better than most full-fledged laptop keyboard out there.
Removable Type Cover for the SP3. Typing on it is really enjoyable.
Removable Type Cover for the SP3. Typing on it is really enjoyable.
  • The mouse-pad is not very precise. Sometimes I find myself struggling to position the pointer in the exact spot I want. This isn’t a big deal when in Metro mode where everything is better done with touch. But when in desktop mode, where I prefer to use the mouse, I found it a bit problematic. However, I found an easy solution: I invested in the Microsoft Arc Touch Bluetooth Mouse. It is the perfect accessory to the SP3. It is comfortable and precise. Best of all, it fold flat for storage and doesn’t have any charging cords, so it can be taken along with the rest of the SP3 without feeling like you are carrying any extra bulk.
Arc Touch Mouse. When in use, it curves to accommodate the hand comfortably.
Arc Touch Mouse. When in use, it curves to accommodate the hand comfortably.
When not in use, it folds flat so you can stow it away anywhere. Great for putting away in small zipper compartments.
When not in use, it folds flat so you can stow it away anywhere. Great for putting away in small zipper compartments.
  • I write in both Spanish and English, and find myself switching between both languages a lot when I write. In my old laptop (which used Windows 7). when I wanted to add tildes and accents to words in Spanish (á, ñ, ú, etc.), I had to switch keyboard layouts. When I commit myself to writing entirely in one language, then switching keyboard layouts is fine. But when I just want to insert just one spanish word when writing in english, switching layouts is a bit annoying and time consuming. On the SP3, adding accents with the on-screen keyboard is super easy, since I can just touch and hold the letter I want to accent, and choose accented versions of it. This means I can quickly add an accent or tilde with the tip of my finger without the added step of switching keyboard layouts. It’s something minor, but a huge convenience for people who write in more than one language.
Adding accents with the touch screen keyboard is so easy, and saves me a lot of time. I love this feature.
Adding accents with the touch screen keyboard is so easy, and saves me a lot of time. I love this feature.
  • The Metro IE is awesome. It’s so great for touch controls, and in this respect no other browser comes close. When I want to casually browse the web, this is my go-to. It is very satisfying to navigate the web using only your fingertips. The lack of extension support is its one flaw however, which is why for more serious web-browsing, I switch over to the desktop mode and use Google Chrome. I use Chrome because I still find desktop Internet Explorer 11 lacking. But I hear MS is going to release a new browser soon. It’s code-named “Spartan”, and I am excited to try it out as I think it will work well with the SP3.
  • In terms of Lightroom 6, I found the touch-screen interface very nice to use. I’ll figure out exactly what workflow I’ll be using the more I experiment with it, and figure out how the new version of lightroom works with the SP3. For now, it seems like doing the first batch of edits using the touch screen interface, then finishing up using the standard UI, is the way to go. I’ll do a more in-depth review of how LR6 works with the SP3 later on, as I familarize myself more and more with it.

So there you have it. I’ll get more experience with the SP3 the more I work with it, and I’ll really put it to the test once I  get to the rainforest. But so far, it’s been a solid piece of technology to work with. I have high hopes for it.

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