Microsoft Surface Pro 3 my thoughts as a photographer

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Surface Pro 3 sporting purple type cover and “Decalgirl” vinyl sticker kit.

Back in late August 2014,a new hybrid device, the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 was released in the UK. I had played with a previous Surface pro 2 model and been impressed with it’s responsiveness, but didn’t really think of buying one because the thickness of it, the screensize/aspect ratio were all wrong for what I wanted, it was a good small computer with 10:9 screen but not a very good tablet replacement. I heard the new Surface pro 3 that was on it’s way (it was released earlier in the USA) and also about the many hardware improvements that Microsoft had made to it, not least in the screen resolution and aspect ratio as well as a better functioning kickstand and much thinner size (~9mm) –  my interest was piqued.

I found the idea of being able to have a tablet that could also function as a full laptop very interesting and it’s inclusion of a good stylus that Microsoft liked to call a pen was interesting too. I decided to take the plunge and pre-ordered an i7 model with 8GB RAM and 256GB HDD plus a type cover. I thought that it would be an excellent replacement for an ageing, noisy, and huge Dell laptop and be good for on-the-go photographic assignments especially with the pen for editing. It was an expensive purchase, but as there was nothing else out there quite like it that ticked so many boxes for things I wanted to do with it, so I managed to justify it to myself!

I got the device on launch day, Aug 28th  2014 and fell in love with it virtually straight away. I couldn’t believe that such a thin and light device was capable of holding a i7 processor and running full Windows 8.1 Pro with all the power of a high end ultrabook, decent laptop and even an average desktop computer! It was also my first introduction to windows  8.1, which although I had avoided up until that point, actually makes a lot of sense on the touchscreen hybrid device and it didn’t take me long to get my head round it. Even when I use the Surface in laptop mode with keyboard I still like interacting with it via pen or finger rather than using the trackpad or a separate mouse – not having this responsive touch interaction seems archaic to me now when using a standard laptop.

As a test I had a photoshoot with a model while staying with my parents who live about 3 hours drive from me, I  took the Surface Pro 3 down with me. During the photoshoot I took 268 images on my D800 (36mp DSLR). The lossless-compressed RAW files from the D800 are approximately 40MB each in size. I decided to give the my Surface pro 3 (i7 with 8GB RAM 256GB HDD) a very difficult task to do.

I started up Lightroom 5, and started an import from the SD card, via a USB 3 hub, but I used a standard card reader which is probably USB 2.0. I decided to keyword each of the entries on import, copy them to the SSD, and also asked Lightroom to render both 1:1 preview AND smart previews for each of the files. This is a task which is VERY intensive and even takes quite a long time for my desktop PC to run.

Surface pro 3 on the dining table while importing RAW files from SD card via USB 3.0 hub.

 

I ran the Surface on battery for the whole test. The Surface had been charged overnight, used for a few minutes in the morning, and then left on “connected standby” all day until I turned it on to do a small amount of surfing and then start the import. At this point in time the Surface was showing 83% battery life. I also plugged my Colormunki in to the hub and asked the Surface to measure the ambient light and rebuild the display profile based on it. One problem that can cause issues on the Surface pro 3 is that the high resolution screen can mean that standard windows desktop software such as the Colormunki software appears very small on the screen. In this case the guide outline for placing the munki on the screen was smaller than the device itself however the colour block was just big enough during the actual calibration.

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Size of the Colormunki Display software window compared to the Colormunki device

 

The colour calibration was done at the same time as the device was copying the files onto the drive. The import was started at 6:30pm.

After the import had finished at about 6:40pm, Lightroom showed two progress bars for “Rendering Smart Previews” and “Rendering 1:1 previews”. The CPU activity ramped straight up to 100% and stayed there. A minute or two later the fan started spinning fast and the speed dropped from about 2.7Ghz to a stable 2.3Ghz at least as some thermal throttling probably kicked in.

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At 6:55 the rendering of the smart preview finished and the processor activity dropped to around 50% but the speed appeared to increase back to a max of about 2.83Ghz, though the activity varied from that point on in a cyclical fashion as each 1:1 preview was completed.

smart preview finish

 

At 7:29pm the Surface completed the task, soon after the fan switched off (or at least became inaudible). At this stage the battery was now as 39% after 40 minutes of intensive processor and fan activity. During which the screen was on ( I needed to keep interacting with it to prevent it turning off, which also stopped the program running). All this time Task Manager was running and I was regularly using the Surface pen to clip the task manager screen and write notes in One Note. I did reduce the display brightness right down to the lowest setting while it was running the task in Lightroom.

So it took my Surface Pro 3 i7 with 8GB RAM 1 hour to import and render 1:1 and Smart Previews for 268 D800 RAW files (lossless compressed), during which time it used 4GB RAM consistently throughout the process and stayed at a stable CPU speed of at least 2.3Ghz and used approximately 44% of the battery. The back of the device did get hot, but as soon as the task was finished, quickly cooled down and the fan went off. Despite the hype on the net about i7 Surface pro 3’s overheating mine has never had this problem – and if anything would have made it shut down through heat I’m sure this process would have done.

I am very impressed with the performance, it probably would not be necessary to render both smart previews AND  1:1 previews for everything on import, and possibly it might be better to separate the tasks, however the Surface has proved it is up to it even with very high resolution and large files. In fact, as Lightroom does not take advantage of a GPU it takes my desktop PC, which is an Intel Core i5 3570 @ 3.40GHz about the same amount of time to render previews for  the same number of files. I find this surprising as it is almost takes exactly the same amount of time despite the faster processor clock speed, the only thing is on my desktop I’d feel more comfortable to run other tasks while the rendering was going on in the background.

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Apart from it’s now proven ability for this kind of heavy processing, the Surface has easily replaced my laptop and also my tablet (Nexus 7). It is SO easy to carry and the screen is lovely, it makes a good tablet device, despite the Windows App store being quite behind the likes of iOS and Android, it’s got all the main things I wanted and the ability to run desktop software helps too. In fact I use it so much as a tablet that I ended up selling my Nexus 7 as it just wasn’t getting used any more. I didn’t expect that to happen as the Nexus is such a handy little size, but when your laptop can be carried in such a small space and has most of the convenience of your tablet then I guess it just doesn’t make sense to have both any more! At least for me it didn’t anyway.

Although it’s relatively big it’s not too unwieldy in tablet mode, Microsoft have done an excellent job with the hardware design, it feels well balanced in the hand, very well made and the multi-position kickstand is just a brilliant invention and should be available on all larger tablets (though perhaps the next generation should have a softer edge to make it more comfy on the lap). As for “lapability” in laptop mode I find it fine, I have enough lap space to set the Surface up and use it on my lap without any problems though admittedly it’s a bit more wobbly than a traditional laptop if you sit with legs crossed.

There are some software quirks, but to be honest I’ve had very little trouble with mine, and overall the experience is responsive and very fluid in touch/tablet mode. Desktop/traditional windows experience slightly less fluid, but mainly due to scaling issues and non-touch compatibility of the standard software. There is now an experimental touch friendly version of full Photoshop available in CC, Adobe have worked closely with Microsoft to develop the touch interface for their software.

Tablet modeI found Lightroom 5, although it’s not yet designed for the touch environment, actually worked quite well as I could scale the fonts sizes etc. to suit so the interface didn’t grate too much with tiny buttons to click like the non-touch version of PS does. Also the 3:2 aspect ratio of the screen is great for this, more room for portrait orientation pictures than a traditional 16:9 screen and the screen set up, even without calibration is good for true colours, though it is a bit reflective which may be an issue in some circumstances.

One thing that has been a complete revelation is One Note. I never used it before. I had dabbled with Evernote but not really got into it, however Microsoft’s One Note, while probably not as full featured as Evernote, is very well integrated on the Surface pro 3 and is one area where the excellent pen device really comes into it’s own. Of course Evernote can be used instead but at present I don’t think it’s possible to remap the pen buttons to open Evernote instead of One Note.

One Note changed the way I work for the better. I can use the Surface in tablet/portrait mode with the keyboard wrapped all the way around the back (or removed completely) and scribble meeting notes/diagrams on the screen. The pen is excellent and the accuracy of pick up and size of the device with it’s 3:2 aspect ratio makes it feel much like writing on A4 paper which is how it was designed to feel.

I import PDF’s such as the information sheets I give customers and annotate them directly in One Note. I never lose notes any more, they now sync on all my devices via the cloud,  and as the desktop version of One Note can distinguish handwriting (depending on how badly written it is it does a pretty good job) I can actually search my  written notes easily. No more lost scraps of paper etc.  I now import information documents there, links to YouTube videos, tutorials, manuals all manner of stuff. Absolutely BRILLIANT. Even without the hardware the purchase of the Surface has been worth it for completely changing the way I work and making me so much more efficient.

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Example notes from a meeting with a bride and groom annotated in One Note on the Surface pro 3 with the Surface pen.

 

At the end of the hectic day I can kick back with the Surface in Tablet mode and watch Netflix or play Windows store games or even doodle little pictures in the Freshpaint app, it’s just so versatile. It’s that versatility that I love about it more than anything, nothing else is this good at all these things at once from serious processing on many, high megapixel RAW files in full versions of Adobe software, through note taking and simple drawings in a tablet style app to playing games like Angry birds.

This device was easily good enough for me to ditch my laptop and tablet and it’s actually added something I never used before, as I never got on with stylus devices before and didn’t use them except on a Palm PDA device in the early 2000’s when you really had to,  but the pen on the Surface is great, it works and feels like a real pen so it feels natural to use it.  Also if I wasn’t a slightly higher-end user of my desktop I could readily use the Surface with the specially designed dock as a desktop PC too for general office documents and surfing etc. as it easily copes with the needs of the average user. So potentially it could replace all three devices for some users, and therefore perhaps the price isn’t so bad after all.

None of the foibles are bad enough for me to say that, in my experience, this is anything other than a fantastic device.

I’ll leave you with a couple of doodles I did using the Surface and Pen in the Freshpaint app, hope you enjoy them.

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surface-drawing

 

 

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