Surface Pro: how I use it – a review

Surface Pro 3I first used the Surface Pro 3 on my trip to Boston to take notes at ReWorkDL rather than scribbling on bits of paper or taking a full laptop and found it to be a great replacement for an A4 notebook, but didn’t really use it to its full potential.  At the start of November, I joined a new company and I’ve been using the Surface exclusively for all my note taking, as well as for studying for my OU Maths modules.

With the recent release of the Surface 4, there may be people wondering if they’re worth it, and what use they’d get out of it.  There are plenty of technical reviews around so I’d suggest using those as a starting point, and if you’re headed out to the sales, you might find my experiences helpful.  

My Surface Pro has the keyboard and stylus and I’ve upgraded from 8.1 to Windows 10, with Office and very little else 1.  This is primarily a work machine so my life revolves around OneNote and various websites.  I’m set up with OneDrive so I can share my documents between devices, and I’m pretty happy using Edge for website access for everything I need.

I don’t have any desire to use the Surface as a reading device (my kindle is book sized, lighter, and has access to all the books I want to read), nor do I use it for games.  I did briefly play Hearthstone several months ago, but if you’ve been reading between the lines (or posts) you’ve probably realised that I have enough to keep me busy without adding in any sort of game that involves a lot of time.  I also don’t want anything that connects into my phones – I have an android personal phone and an iPhone for work, and these are where I install the apps I use to make life run more smoothly, so some of the app store criticisms for surfaces really didn’t worry me (if indeed they’re still relevant).  I do use it for entertainment when I’m travelling, but only for small amounts from the BBC as I just don’t have time.  Skype video calling is also a necessity while travelling so the video, microphone and speakers are well used and I’ve found them to be more than adequate.

I tend to leave the surface on charge overnight and while I don’t think I need the charger at work, I take it out of habit just-in-case.  My day generally starts with an hour travelling to work – 30 mins by commuter train, 15 mins on the tube and the remainder walking.  This is my study time.  The train and tube are always very busy – getting a seat is like gold dust and there have been times where it’s been a struggle to even read my kindle.  However, with the free WiFi on GreatWestern, I can bring up the PDFs of the OU text books on the Surface and annotate them within edge, or use my OU OneNote notebook for solving the problems.  The stylus is invaluable here as I can scribble maths just like a pen, rather than typesetting, and if it’s a bit messy (because my elbows are being jostled) then it doesn’t matter too much.  If space is really tight and I can’t write I can plug in headphones and watch some of the pre-recorded tutorials, videos or audio tracks.  I used to use my old Nexus 7 for the PDFs, videos and audio and a small notebook, but this was just too many extra items to take in and out of London every day.  I generally do the same on the return journey in the evenings 2.

At work, I leave the surface plugged in when I’m at my desk, but take it with me to every single meeting.  During my PhD I got into the habit of taking a new page in my notebook every day for observations, reminders and also what I needed to do.  I’ve kept this habit throughout my professional career but consolidated slightly: I have an “actions” tab in OneNote with a page for each month so I can ensure tasks don’t get missed, and then each major section of work has its own tab.  The surface makes this easy as I can change tabs and pages easily with the stylus and then write my notes freehand3.  The stylus also makes it easy to draw quick diagrams for my own recall and to demonstrate ideas to others in the meeting.  I quite often use the web during meetings for extra information and need to refer to spreadsheets or documents, so having this all on the same device is very useful to me, making me far more efficient than if I just had a notepad.

If I need to respond to anything, I can use the keyboard to type quickly.  I love the surface keyboard – with the Pro 3, the keyboard is thin, yet the keys have some travel so you can feel the response as you type and it also acts as a screen protector. The track pad is sensitive enough but with the touchscreen I generally find myself using the stylus or alt-tab to move between windows rather than the touch pad.

Being a slim line device, the surface is also pretty good for longer distance travel than a short commute into the city.  I’m regularly on the Eurostar or flights, and having something light and easy I can use when there’s not huge amounts of space and limited opportunities to recharge batteries.  Having something that fits neatly into the seat pocket is very useful as well!

The surface is not much different in weight or size from carrying a large notebook, and gives may more advantages.  If I was heading to university I would take a Surface rather than a traditional laptop, and I wouldn’t take any other tablet device4.  It’s not for everyone – if you want an educational/work device with a decent screen for video then I’d recommend the surface every time.  But if you don’t want/need the office side, then you should seriously consider the iPad, Amazon Fire, Nexus or any other depending on what’s important to you.

  1.  iPlayer downloads being the only exception I can think of!
  2.  Assuming I’m not on work calls or otherwise catching up with emails.
  3.  As an aside, my handwriting varies from copperplate to spider-scrawl depending on how quickly I’m taking notes and OneNote cannot always convert what I’ve written, but this isn’t a big problem for me to keep everything handwritten
  4.  Unless I was on a degree that required coding and/or unless I wanted to play PC games in which case I’d want something with a but more beef to it…

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Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. I’m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University. During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.