Microsoft Surface with Windows 8 ProFor the past year I’ve been searching for a replacement for my laptop, a Dell Inspiron 1501, which is a serviceable but aging laptop that came with Windows Vista 32-bit installed. I upgraded it without too much trouble to Windows 7, and then again to the Windows 8 beta, but truth be told, it’s been getting a little slow.

And bulky. Especially in airport lines. Ugh.

For a long time I was considering purchasing an iPad to replace it. But Microsoft has won me over with their Type Cover keyboard and 10-inch screen, and a bevy of features that really make this laptop/tablet hybrid a wonderful complement for just about any writer. In fact, it really has become the one-stop shop for my entire writing workflow.

For starters, it runs Scrivener. The iPad does not, at least not until the publishers of Scrivener release the planned iPad version. Scrivener is a word processing program that many novelists use because it comes with a slew of other tools that writers find useful that more conventional word processors simply lack, making it well worth the $40 price tag. Strike Number One for the iPad, as well as the Surface with Windows 8 Pro’s cousin the Surface with Windows RT, was their inability to run this program.

One of the issues with using a program like Scrivener is that it currently only exists as what Microsoft is calling a “Windows 7 app”, meaning it’s the version that exists on any previous version of Windows–it opens on the Desktop. This means that some of the interface items are small, but what it has going for it is that it works with the touchscreen just fine. The scroll bars and drop-down menus are large enough to manipulate with your finger, though tapping on specific documents or images in the Binder may be somewhat hit or miss, even though the Desktop has been sized to 150% of what you’re used to–a must for the Surface Pro’s 10-inch 1080p screen. The only app that I’ve found that doesn’t work with the touch screen is Chrome in Desktop mode. You’ll definitely need the Touch Cover or Type Cover’s touchpad or a bluetooth mouse to use that program.

The capacitive pen also comes in handy for jotting down quick notes as well as maps and sketches. When I’m previsualizing my novels, this tool has been surprisingly useful. I didn’t really consider it when I was looking for my laptop replacement, but it is very useful. Whenever I need to draw a map or brainstorm, I can open up a paint program and just start drawing.

But moreover, the Surface Pro packs portability into a usable form factor that helps me write without sacrificing the typing speed I’m used to on a full-sized laptop like the Inspiron. I purchased my Surface Pro with the Type Cover and the two together fold nicely into a folio form factor, making it easy to carry, and the kickstand allows you to set up in your favorite Starbucks or Panera Bread.

The Type Cover features real, depressible keys that feel like a real laptop keyboard and doesn’t feel cramped to boot. But then again, I don’t have thick man-fingers, so your mileage may vary. And if you have long fingernails, the texture of the Type Cover may be off-putting, as it’s something akin to a chalk board. So if you hate the feeling of fingernails on a chalk board (it doesn’t make the sound), you may not like the Type Cover. The feeling of my fingernails against this type of plastic was weird for me at first, but I was able to get used to it.

Using the Surface Pro in its kickstand mode on your lap–basically like a laptop–comes with a few caveats. For one thing, its small size may require some people to do a bit of a balancing act with it, although I didn’t have much of an issue with it myself. What I did have a problem with was that the Surface Pro Type Cover does disconnect and then reconnect often enough when using it in my lap to be annoying, so I purchased a lap desk and those problems disappeared. I think that particular issue may be because while the Type Cover is still solid enough to type on, it’s still flexible enough to trigger the Surface Pro’s built-in sensor that detects when the keyboard is folded behind the screen. It does this so that when you use the Surface Pro in tablet mode, your fingers’ inputs on the keyboard won’t be registered and mess up whatever you’re doing with the touch screen.

When you plug the Surface Pro in, you just snap the plug onto the lower right side of the Surface Pro, and it clicks in easily enough. You still have to fumble with it, but not nearly as much as you would with the Surface RT. And not once did I experience a time where I plugged in my Surface Pro and the charging indicator on the plug did not light. It works every time. The power brick is nice and small and also  comes with a USB charging port on the side, so if you’re using an external hard drive on the Surface Pro’s only USB 3.0 port, you can at least still charge your cell phone on the power brick. As a side note, since the Surface Pro only has one USB 3.0 port, I purchased a USB hub, although I haven’t had to use it yet.

If you are planning on being out and about for more than four and a half to five hours, you will need an outlet to recharge. My Surface Pro lasts about five hours before needing recharging, but if I’m using Dropbox with Scrivener, I do always make sure to disable syncing while I’m writing. The automatic syncing combined with Scrivener’s always-on auto-save feature drains the battery even faster, about as fast as streaming video, which means you’ll only get about two to two and a half hours of battery life if you don’t turn off Dropbox’s syncing.

Microsoft recommends you plug the Surface in whenever possible to maintain battery health, as long as you discharge the battery completely about once per month. Since replacing the battery will require sending it in to Microsoft, do be sure to follow this advice if you end up picking one of these up.

But there’s more than writing that you can do on this thing. Another hidden feature of the Surface Pro for writers is that if you’re heading to any book signings or convention appearances, you can set up the Surface Pro on your table to display your book covers using Windows 8’s built-in slideshow screensaver. The Surface looks sleek and stylish and it will draw people to your table.

And even though it’s primarily intended for content creation and business, it’s a brilliant consumption device as well. Using the Surface Pro’s built-in Mini DisplayPort and a third party Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI adapter, I’ve been enjoying all sorts of content on my 1080p flatscreen television that I’ve previously only been able to watch on my desktop computer; streaming video of Once Upon a Time, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Star Wars: The Clone Wars. This device combined with the streaming service of your choice pretty much allows you to cut the cable once and for all, assuming you don’t watch sports. And when I don’t want to sit out in the living room, I can disconnect it from the TV and take it to bed as well.

Keeping up with Facebook and Twitter is also a breeze. I use the official Facebook app along with the MetroTwit app for Twitter, both available for free through the Store app on your Start Screen. And if you want to read an eBook, or even proof your own (which is another use for the Surface Pro), there is the free official Kindle app for that as well.

If you’re a gamer, the Surface Pro comes with an onboard Intel HD Graphics 4000 chip, which I’m told will run a few older games and newer ones that are not as graphically demanding. Civilization V runs great. Skyrim not so much. It runs Minecraft at about 25 fps in a city-like area that my friends and I have built, which is enough to be functional on the go. When you only have undeveloped land in view, the frames-per-second does pick up a bit. Just don’t try capturing video. Since I’m a huge Minecraft fanatic, I can’t say that Minecraft performance wasn’t a factor in choosing the Surface Pro over an iPad.

Other Surface Pro reviews have talked extensively on the machine’s ability to keep cool, so I won’t waste words here. Unless you’re gaming, you likely won’t hear the fan sound. This machine has been designed from the ground up to be as quiet as possible.

The other thing to keep in mind is that you’ll probably want to purchase the 128GB version. Much sturm und drang has been made regarding the amount of onboard file storage, or rather the lack of it. But it’s only so much noise. 128GB is more than enough space for me right now, since I deal mainly in text files. You won’t be storing years and years of photos on this machine, but that kind of thing probably belongs on your desktop and in the cloud. And speaking of the cloud, I use Dropbox to sync my writing between my desktop and work computers and the Surface Pro. I can also use Microsoft’s cloud solution called SkyDrive, and probably will to hold other data I want to take with me. With my programs installed and files from Dropbox, I still have 76GB left over to do with what I please. This will be excellent for digitizing some DVDs or Blu-Rays for my upcoming trip to Kansas in a few months. 

And to be honest, I can’t wait to head back to Kansas with this thing. One of the reasons I sought a hybrid PC/tablet was to avoid going through airport security with a full-sized laptop. I don’t know about you, but I hate having to take out my laptop from my bag and set it in its own bin. It takes up unnecessary space and is, quite frankly, a chore that benefits no one. Since the Surface Pro is a tablet as well as a PC, I don’t necessarily have to do so anymore, and that will be nice. I can leave it in my bag and nobody will care.

When it comes down to it, I haven’t been able to think of a single need that writers would typically have that the Surface Pro can’t fulfill. The Surface Pro really is the writer’s perfect companion. I can write, edit, make eBooks, publish, watch movies, play games, and do it all on the go. It looks sleek and stylish and can serve as a great display of my novel covers for book signings and convention appearances. Hopefully later models improve on the battery life and find some way to solidify the keyboard so that I can use it as a laptop without needing a lap desk. But aside from these two issues, I can’t really think of anything I would change.

If you’re a content creator, find a Microsoft store and test drive it and see if it works for you. And then if it does, get it. It’s well worth the price of admission.

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  • pelumini

    You make me wanna go buy one right now!

  • Christopher Walker

    I definitely consider the tradeoffs worth it (lap desk, no Chrome touch support, small storage). Also you may or may not like Windows 8. The gestures to manipulate that OS are touch-based and feel natural to me, but I know at least one writer who was having trouble with it and didn’t like the learning curve or the “HUD”-like feel of the Start Screen, which I really like as well.

  • Patrick Burdine

    I’m considering getting a Surface 2 to use primarily as a writing device. I am curious if you are still as happy with the Surface pro as you were. Also, I am curious with the upgrade to 8.1 RT for the Surface 2 (not pro) version if scrivener will work. Thanks!

  • Christopher Walker

    Hi Patrick,

    I am still as happy as I am with it. As long as I have my writing desk it works very well. I do think that with the second option to tilt your screen that you will find it a lot easier to write on, as the thing I most have trouble with on my Version 1 is the inability to tilt the screen back a bit more.

    Scrivener will NOT be compatible with Windows 8.1 RT however, since Scrivener is a desktop program, and Windows RT does not support desktop programs.

    Hope that helps!

  • Patrick Burdine

    Thanks for that follow up. I don’t use Scrivener currently – I generally work with Evernote and Word so the option to split the screen with them is super appealing. I get that these aren’t for everyone, but so far my research is showing that they are pretty much exactly what I am looking for. Glad to hear that after the honeymoon it is still as sexy.