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The Surface Pro kickstand

I purchased my first iPhone in 2008. This coincided with the release of the awful Windows Vista the previous year – bugs, performance problems and inconsistent interface elements. The superior iPhone UX convinced me I wanted the same experience on my computer so I went over to OS X.

One of Apple’s biggest competitive advantages is how they can design the software for the hardware, and the other way around. A fully integrated stack means features like Apple Pay can work seamlessly across Apple Watch, macOS and iPhone.

Microsoft has reinvented itself as a cloud platform company, of which Windows is just one component. Despite this change in focus, they are investing in high quality hardware products that can compete with Apple.

macOS is becoming horribly buggy with each new release and although Apple has finally fixed the Macbook butterfly keyboard problems I have reconsidered Apple products several times recently. This started with migrating my notes from Apple Notes to plain text Markdown format but 11 years after leaving Vista, I have been reconsidering Windows.

Surface devices #

I have been intrigued by the Microsoft Surface lineup for some time, primarily because they are making really nicely designed computers.

The Surface product range includes several devices with different form-factors, but the two key products are the Surface Laptop and the Surface Pro.

Surface Laptop #

The Surface Laptop is just as its name describes. The keyboard is above a large trackpad embedded in the body which is attached to a touchscreen. It’s a laptop designed by Microsoft to run Windows.

I tried the Surface Laptop 3 when I had to send in my Macbook Air (2018) for keyboard repair for the second time. Available in either metal – with a matte black or sandstone finish – or fabric, with a metal or silver finish – the black option was easily my favourite. I wish Apple offered the matte black option like they used to for the old Macbooks! It easily shows up fingerprints but that is a problem with matte surfaces in general, and is worth it for the cool black look.

The fabric option is nice to touch, but I wonder how easy it is to clean with inevitable splashes. I’ve seen people with older Surface Laptops that have worn through the fabric over time, which doesn’t look great.

Until you use a laptop with a touchscreen, you don’t realise how useful that input method really is. Scrolling documents is far more natural and swiping away notifications is much faster. Of course, keyboard shortcuts are still the best way to navigate.

One thing that annoyed me was the function options on the keyboard do not include a “skip track” button. I could pause the currently playing track, but not skip. Weird not to include that. I also found that the contrast buttons caused the screen brightness to change very suddenly whereas on a Macbook the brightness fades to the next level. These seem like small things, but show a level of attention to detail which Microsoft is missing.

Surface Laptop 3
Surface Laptop 3

Surface Pro X #

I also tried the Surface Pro X. This is a tablet in the Surface Pro group of tablet form computers. It’s one of the best looking computers I’ve seen in a long time – thin, all-black, with rounded edges. It has an optional attachable keyboard with a fabric coating, and you can also choose to buy the Surface Slim Pen.

Surface Pro X with keyboard and pen
Surface Pro X with keyboard and pen

This is in contrast to the Surface Pro 7, which is more bulky and square. It simply doesn’t look as good. Microsoft really got the design right with the Pro X.

Surface Pro 7
Surface Pro 7

macOS is a full operating system and although I have tried switching to the iPad as my primary computer every few years since it was first released, the limitations of iOS (now iPadOS) are too great. There are many people in the Apple community who have switched, but it seems like they have to go through so many contortions with so many hacks to get their workflows right that it isn’t worth the effort. This isn’t a problem on a Surface Pro because it runs a full Windows OS. When you detach the keyboard, the OS switches into a tablet UI mode where the touch areas are larger, but it is still full Windows.

What really shines on the Surface Pro X is the Slim Pen. It is flat and easy to hold, with magnets that allow it to slip into the charger slot if you purchase the Signature Keyboard. This is a much more robust storage solution compared to the iPad Pro, where the Apple Pencil has to clip onto the side and can easily be knocked off.

Surface Pro Slim Pen in charging slot
Surface Pro Slim Pen in charging slot

When you remove the pen from the slot, Windows will ask what you want to do. You can choose to trigger apps such as OneNote or Whiteboard which can also be activated by clicking the eraser on the end of the Slim Pen. Writing on the screen works in any of these apps due to the native Windows Ink support across the OS. This can be used to input handwriting-to-text and I found it to be 100% accurate. Windows Ink is well ahead of Apple’s handwriting recognition functionality.

The Surface Pro group all use Intel x86 processors except for the Surface Pro X, which uses a custom Microsoft-designed 3Ghz ARM chip. This means tablet-optimised performance, long battery life and an on-board 4G eSIM. The problem is that it requires applications to be compiled for ARM, otherwise they run in 32-bit emulation. Apps only available in 64-bit are not supported.

That said, I had very few compatibility problems. All of the Microsoft programs work fine, and most of them have ARM binaries. VS Code was one of the few that didn’t, but that is about to change. Unfortunately, whilst the notes app I used on Mac – iA Writer – does have a Windows release, it is not available as a 32-bit or ARM build, so it refuses to install. It was the only application that I couldn’t use from my normal workflow.

The Surface Pro kickstand #

We take the laptop display hinge for granted. Lift the lid on any Macbook and the only thing that moves is the display on its hinge. The laptop body doesn’t move. The body is much heavier than the thin screen, so it acts as a neat counter-weight to prop up the display.

On a tablet, the display is the body. It is designed to be held in the hand. If you attach a keyboard, you need some kind of prop to keep the display upright.

Apple has tried to solve this with their Smart Keyboard which uses a small, triangular stand. It isn’t very adjustable and can be quite unstable.

Apple Smart Keyboard
Apple Smart Keyboard

The Apple Magic Keyboard is a bit better. It uses a floating cantilever to hold onto the iPad using magnets.

Apple Magic Keyboard
Apple Magic Keyboard

The Surface Pro takes a very different approach. Instead, it has a kickstand that folds into the main body of the tablet. When you want to work on a desk, you pull out the kickstand and adjust it so the device is angled how you like. The kickstand angle goes a long way so you can have it lying down almost flat, great for writing with the pen.

Surface Pro X with kickstand deployed
Surface Pro X with kickstand deployed

The problem with the kickstand is that it significantly increases the total area. A laptop takes up only enough desk-space to contain the body. Although there is some “air space” consumed by the display overhang, other items can be on the desk behind it. When you have a Surface Pro fully deployed with an attached keyboard, it takes up a significant amount of space.

How big is the Macbook Air vs Surface Pro X? #

If we measure the Macbook Air alongside the Surface Pro X, the official measurements include the body only:

Macbook Air (2018) Surface Pro X (2019)
Width 30.05cm 28.7cm
Length 20.13cm 20.8cm
Area 604cm2 599cm2

However, if we include the Surface Pro X Signature Keyboard with the kickstand deployed to a reasonable viewing angle, the dimensions change significantly.

Surface Pro X reasonable viewing angle Surface Pro X maximum angle
Width 29.0cm 29.0cm
Length 30.9cm 39.1cm
Area 896cm2 1,133cm2

How much does the Surface Pro Keyboard weigh? #

Aside from increasing the area, the keyboard also adds weight but is still lighter than the Macbook Air.

Macbook Air Surface Pro X Surface Pro X + Keyboard Surface Pro X + Signature Keyboard with Slim Pen
1.25kg 774g 1.109kg 1.054kg

Design tradeoffs #

The result is that the official specs show the Surface Pro X being lighter and smaller than the Macbook Air. However, they are not equivalent devices. When you add the keyboard and deploy the kickstand to work on a desk, the Surface Pro is almost as heavy and uses double the area. The lighter device also has application limitations through it use of an ARM chip.

Design means making tradeoffs. You either like the kickstand or you don’t. The iPad sacrifices stability and flexibility for a reduced area. The Surface Pro offers better viewing angles and a more stable display but you need a larger desk.

Microsoft is trying to give you the best of a full featured OS in a device that is light, thin and mobile. Apple also uses ARM chips in the iPad but has developed an entirely different, mobile-only platform. Apps either exist, or they don’t. That is starting to blur with Mobile Safari now able to support desktop class websites as of iOS13, but iPadOS is still prohibitively restrictive.

Conclusions #

I ultimately decided to stay with my Mac, despite the buggy OS, because of the software. macOS feels minimalist. The core apps are lightweight in design, such as macOS Mail which I use as my primary mail client. I’ve never been a fan of how heavy Outlook is, and the design of Windows Mail is very cluttered. It also forces me to use HTML for my emails where I prefer plain text.

Windows has decades of UI layers which is advantage if you want to run old software that use old APIs. However, that means there are occasions where the UI drops you into something legacy from the Windows XP days. Apple forces you into the newest APIs which allows the UI to have a more consistent experience, even if some things break compatibility.

Windows 10 has come a long way since Vista. Security is now built in – all your really need is Windows Defender – and there are little touches that need extra apps on macOS, like clipboard history and a built in mini-calendar. I also like the ability to customise the taskbar and UI colours. Further, WSL means that the development experience is almost as good as being on a native Unix device, but macOS still beats WSL in performance.

Finally, Apple’s stance on privacy is a big differentiator. Windows has lots of built-in analytics and advertising which really shouldn’t be in your operating system.

Over the last year I have been working on a masters degree and anecdotally on campus the second most popular devices are Windows Surface products. Apple continues to be number one but I am glad that Microsoft is offering some real competition. That is the only way innovation happens.