By Dale Vile
Writing about two totally different machines in the same blog post might seem a little odd. After all, what’s the point in a comparison if it isn’t done on a like-for-like basis?
Well, let me say up front that the post isn’t so much about comparing two specific pieces of technology, although I will call out some likes and dislikes of the Surface Pro and the MacBook Air as we go. What I really want to discuss is form-factors and use cases based on thoughts that came to me while using each of the two devices as my primary machine in the field for about three weeks a piece.
The Microsoft Option
Let’s begin with the Surface Pro. The unit I was working with was loaned to me by Microsoft. I was the model with 4Gb of RAM and a 128Gb SSD. It came with both types of keyboard attachments (the ’Touch’ and ’Type’ variants) plus a couple of adapters to connect it up to an external monitor or TV.
The first comment I would make is that the Surface Pro and accessories are really well designed and engineered. The arrangement pretty much does what it says in the ads. You can use it as a tablet with the touch UI, and once you get the hang of the gestures, it’s much more comfortable and efficient to use than an iPad. In fact, going back to the iPad I had been using previously felt really awkward and primitive after spending time using Windows 8 in touch mode.
The great thing about the Surface Pro, however, is you can flip out the ’kick stand’, fold the keyboard forward, and you have what is to all intents and purposes a fully functional notebook. Using the machine in this mode for doing anything serious in terms of spreadsheet manipulation, presentation building, etc, however, becomes a bit tedious after a while unless you hook up an external mouse. The trackpad is perfectly functional, but it is really cramped and no good if you are doing a lot of repetitive or precision mouse work.
When it comes to the two keyboard types, the ’Type’ variant with the proper mechanical keys is much better for typing, but the ’Touch’ version feels a lot more comfortable when folded back out of the way for using the machine in tablet mode. If I were to have to choose just one, I’ll be honest and say I am not sure which I would go for. Advising someone else, I would say only opt for the Type keyboard if you anticipated doing a significant amount of text entry. If it’s just the odd longer email, I would suggest the Touch version instead.
Which brings me onto the topic of use cases and working patterns. If I were to sum up what the Surface Pro is great for, it’s keeping on top of things while you are travelling or roaming around your campus or office block. You know the kind of thing – checking and responding to emails between meetings, reviewing the odd document sent to you by a customer or colleague, and looking up information when you need it.
While that would describe the requirements of a big percentage of mobile workers, it unfortunately doesn’t apply to me. With the kind of job I do, and the kind of working patterns I have fallen into over the years, I do a lot more than simply ’keep on top of things’ while out and about.
To get into London for meetings from where I live, for example, is about a four hour round trip, and I use this time to write, analyse research data, build presentations in PowerPoint, and generally create a lot of content. I then use my PC actively in meetings for note taking, looking things up, and often presenting information. Beyond this, as an industry analyst, I frequently need to attend conferences and briefings, and again use my PC pretty much constantly. Lastly, I like to write in different settings, so often work in coffee shops, cafes, outdoors, and so on.
A reality I have come to terms with over the years is uncertainty about power. More often than not, there’s nowhere to plug in on the train, at conferences, in coffee shops, and even in many meeting rooms.
My historical solution has alternated between using a traditional notebook with spare batteries, or an iPad with a good quality Bluetooth keyboard. Back to the Surface Pro, I was caught out a few times on the power front. The fixed (non-swappable) battery delivered just four hours of runtime, which was simply not enough. During the trial, I therefore generally carried my iPad as a backup. In fact, if I were to name one thing that made the Surface Pro a non-starter as my main mobile productivity device (smartphone to one side), it would be battery life limitations.
But there was another way in which the Surface Pro didn’t suit me personally for routine work use. The device really needs to be sitting on a desk or other stable, flat surface to use comfortably in keyboard mode. It is possible to balance it on your lap, but I found it very awkward due to a combination of instability and the screen being at too steep an angle (the kick stand is not adjustable). Using the device on the fold-down seat-back tables on the train into London also proved impossible. The result was a pretty substantial productivity hit for an average of at least 8 hours a week.
To balance this, I should mention something very positive that might not occur to many people considering options. I am a long-time Dragon NaturallySpeaking user, and using the Surface Pro as a dictation device is very cool, provided you are in a relatively quiet and private environment. Leaning back and letting your thoughts flow verbally, while using the stylus to assist with on screen-navigation and correction, is something I would highly recommend for people who do a lot of writing. It’s totally different to the limited experience delivered by Apple on the Mac and iDevices based on server side-parsing, which is only good for short/discrete messages, as well as being dependent on a good network connection.
The Apple Option
By pure coincidence, three weeks into my Surface Pro trial, the new MacBook Air was announced with the latest Intel Haswell processor. By then I was hooked on the ’small and light, instant-on’ concept and experience that the Surface Pro delivered, but Apple was also promising that Holy Grail of all-day battery life. No touch screen, of course, but the more I got into using the Surface Pro, the less I was using it as a tablet. For quick information lookups, navigation, etc, I find a smartphone perfectly adequate.
So, after establishing that there was no Windows-based equivalent on the market (Haswell powered PCs are still pretty scarce), I ordered up a MacBook Air. I went for the i7 version with 8Gb of RAM because I had been using OS X and Office 2011 on another Mac for a while and knew the limitations. I therefore wanted the option of running Windows comfortably as virtual machine should it come to that.
So how did I get on with the Apple option?
Well the MacBook Air is a superb piece of kit from a hardware perspective. The 10-12 hour battery is real when using the machine for ’office’ type activities, which basically means once-a-day charging. Some have complained about the screen resolution being too low by today’s standards, but it suits me and my 50-something eyes very well. I particularly like being able to turn the brightness right up as I often work in bright daylight conditions.
The integration of the hardware with the OS X operating system is also very nice, especially the track-pad. It’s pretty much as close to a touch-screen experience as you can get without actually having a touch-screen, and much better than anything I have seen on a Windows machine from my try-outs on the high street. Power management is also superb, and while the Surface Pro was quick to come to life, the Air is literally instant on from sleep.
The problem for me, given the job I do, is that OS X itself represents a not insignificant productivity hit. It’s inferior to Windows 8 in pretty much every way from a UI and ergonomics perspective. Even though I am now routinely working on OS X, and have learned all of the shortcuts and workarounds I could dig up from the Web, when I switch to Windows everything becomes just that bit easier – fewer key presses, fewer mouse clicks, faster task switching, and so on.
The net of this is that I spend most of my time in OS X, which is fine for doing email, focusing on writing or reviewing a single document, and lots of other routine stuff, but when I have something ’heavy’ to do, I fire up the Windows 8 virtual machine in Parallels. My message to all Windows users out there considering switching to Mac is therefore not to believe all the nonsense you hear from Mac enthusiasts about OS X being intuitive, easier to use, etc – it simply isn’t true.
The other reason for keeping Windows 8 on hand is the huge difference between Office 2013 on the PC, and Office 2011 on the Mac. For me, Word on a Mac is fine, provided you are not doing a lot of heavily formatted stuff, then it becomes hard work. Outlook is just about usable, PowerPoint is horribly frustrating and Excel is a total non-starter for anything other than simple spreadsheets. Our analytical models will execute in Excel 2011, for example, but at about a tenth of the speed they do in Excel 2013 running on Windows 8 in a VM on the exact same machine.
I tried running Windows 8 in Bootcamp (dual boot) on the Air, but the performance was no better than the Parallels VM and the trackpad integration was inferior. The nice thing about Parallels, is that the Windows instance inherits the performance characteristics of the hardware from OS X. Having said this, I did find that directly connecting a USB mouse to the Windows VM (as opposed to indirectly via OS X, which is the default) provides a better experience for precision work such as manipulating graphics in PowerPoint.
All things considered, I am settling into a nice routine with the MacBook Air. The convenience of the hardware and experience it delivers given my requirements is well worth the messing about with dual operating systems. If the truth be told, it’s actually quite nice switching environments sometimes, e.g. using the smooth trackpad enabled experience for writing, Web browsing and social media, but knowing I can fire up Excel or PowerPoint under Windows to do more demanding number crunching and design work.
So what does all this mean?
Many of you reading this might be thinking that a lot of what I have been talking about here is irrelevant – but that’s exactly my point; it’s horses for courses. What matters to me may not matter to you, and vice versa.
I do, however, believe that a many Mac users gloss over the hassle of working with non-Windows device in what currently remains a Windows world from a mainstream business perspective. The reality is that most people would be much better off with a Surface Pro than with a MacBook Air because their need is more ’staying on top of things while out and about’ rather than hard core working from the road. The Surface Pro is much more versatile piece of kit, and provides that Windows/Office convenience factor natively.
And as for the battery life limitation, tor the vast majority people, including my colleague Tony Lock who uses a Surface Pro routinely, this is not a problem. Tony would also stress the benefits of pen-based input which I never really go into but he swears by.
Putting it all into perspective
Of course zooming out to the bigger picture, the truth is that the end-user hardware and software space is rapidly changing. There are already lots more options than the two I have discussed here. And who knows how things will change if Microsoft ultimately decides to properly divorce Office from Windows and deliver a good level of functionality and decent experience across Mac, iOS and Android. Then there are all the cloud-based options such as the Google services.
The bottom line message from all of this is to think about your own requirements objectively before spending your money or choosing an option offered by your employer. Put image, brand, religion and idealism to one side, and think about the practicalities. Otherwise you might end up something that looks good, but doesn’t deliver what you need.
Dale is a co-founder of Freeform Dynamics, and today runs the company. As part of this, he oversees the organisation’s industry coverage and research agenda, which tracks technology trends and developments, along with IT-related buying behaviour among mainstream enterprises, SMBs and public sector organisations.