Thursday, October 13, 2022

Surface Pro 9

Andrew Cunningham:

Microsoft is introducing a pair of typical, iterative updates to its Surface Pro convertible tablet PCs today. One is a modest upgrade to the Surface Pro 8, with 12th-generation Intel processors that promise much-improved performance for things that benefit from lots of CPU cores. The other is a refresh of the Surface Pro X, with a new Microsoft SQ3 Arm processor provided by Qualcomm.


Microsoft has taken pains to make the CPU the only difference you can notice between these two computers. While the Surface Pro 8 took a lot of cues from the Surface Pro X design, the Surface Pro 9 models have fully converged, with the exact same dimensions and weight (just a shade under two pounds) and the same 13-inch, 120 Hz, 2880×1920 touchscreen. The two machines support the same Type Cover and Surface Pen accessories and have user-replaceable M.2 storage drives.


Surface Pro began as the first of its category – A tablet that can replace your laptop, offering touch, ink, a full-size precision touchpad, and a productive keyboard finely crafted and satisfying to touch. Over the years it’s been refined, tuned and perfected. In that same time, we’ve seen the category take off. Today, you don’t have to go far to see competing interpretations. We take great pride in our ability to inspire and push the industry forward. Still, there’s a reason why Surface Pro remains the 2-in-1 to beat, and it comes back to the original vision the team shared a decade ago that merged the benefits of a powerful laptop, versatile tablet and ink-ready studio.

10 years later, I don’t think Tim Cook’s toaster fridge comment has aged well. In the Windows world, you can get a single piece of hardware that works as a laptop and a tablet and runs full Windows apps. Maybe it just looks like the grass is greener, but from what I’ve heard people like them. In the Apple world, you have to buy two pieces of hardware, and you end up with iPadOS apps that are limited and have limited multitasking, and then Mac apps that increasingly feel like they are designed for and limited by what an iPad can do, anyway.


Update (2022-10-18): Matt Birchler:

I think iPadOS has a place, and I do still use it daily for more casual things, but I’m not convinced it’s going to achieve what I dreamed of it achieving for me for years.

The cherry on top is that I can’t remember the last time a new iPad app really impressed me with how it could improve my work. Meanwhile, tons of apps have hit the Mac (see my YouTube channel for an idea of what I’m excited about), and web apps are thriving…which is a shame for the iPad because web apps suck on it.


Four whole years ago I reviewed the Surface Pro and I really enjoyed the hardware, it just wasn’t running the operating system I preferred. I love the MacBook Pro, but I’d also love a Mac running on something like a Surface Pro in my life.

Steve Troughton-Smith:

Not once in 12 years have I wanted macOS on an iPad, but even I’m starting to want macOS on iPad after all this 🫤 They wouldn’t have to do much at all to provide an IPSW of macOS for M-series iPads that advanced users might flash if they want it — a pressure valve for iPadOS

13 Comments RSS · Twitter

I noticed since the original M1 Macs were released that iPad users of my productivity app more or less halved, while the Mac and iPhone have remained strong.

My guess is the kinds of people who were once super enthusiastic about using an iPad Pro and Magic Keyboard combo as a hybrid tablet / laptop instead found a lot of what they were looking for in those Macs, with their instant wake, more powerful software / OS, excellent performance, and superb battery life, but would’ve been very happy if Apple released a Surface-like device.

If so, it wouldn’t just mean Apple’s hardware strategy is wrong, but their software focus of the last few years too, given the effort expended on trying to make iPad more like the Mac, rather than making the Mac usable with touch.

@Steve Yeah, I think a lot of people assumed that the main attraction of iPad was the software, when maybe it was more the hardware. I don’t understand what the vision is for the software. After all this time, it doesn’t seem like they’ve yet nailed the file system or multitasking for iPadOS. Making it more like the Mac seems like an admission that they don’t actually have a fundamentally different/better plan. So they’re going to keep adding ideas from the Mac but implemented differently, two parallel systems that never meet? As the hardware continues to improve, it will be more and more clear that there could be Mac form factors with touch and (at least certain) apps running in a tablet-like environment.

Christina Warren

I’m someone who went from never wanting a touch screen Mac to now actively being frustrated that it doesn’t exist, or at least frustrated that we don’t have real convergence. The freaking macOS icons and UI elements keep getting bigger and bigger. Just give me a freaking touch screen, even if it is somewhat limited or whatever. That way I can at least use iOS apps on a Mac in a way that makes sense.

I’m a Mac user and always will be, but when I objectively compare the experiences of using an iPad with a Magic Keyboard and the pitiful attempts at multitasking and doing “real” work with the experience of using a Surface, there isn’t one. The Surface is a really likable and flexible product. It has a thin size, good battery life, is very portable, has very good pen input, and you do feel like you can get a lot of stuff done in a lot of scenarios. It’s a real computer, but in a much more malleable form factor. You can browse the web, do actual video and audio editing in the actual programs (and not cut down versions for iOS), have real file system access, access the command line, do real coding without using a middle man, and still take handwritten notes. It’s not my favorite operating system (though Windows 11 is very Mac like), but it’s a great form factor for something that is a real computer. Whereas all the hardware power of an iPad Pro can’t make up for the fact that I don’t have real file system access, I can’t use the full versions of my favorite tools, multitasking is kind of a joke, and I always feel like I’m on the training-wheels version of a computer.

Where the Surface falls apart are in the same ways the iPad still succeeds. At watching video content, at playing casual games, with the responsiveness of touch in every aspect and with a wide-variety of apps that were built specifically to take advantage of all of the hardware features. With a Surface, yeah, you can watch most videos the same way through the web or whatever, but you don’t have optimized apps like YouTube or for every single streaming service. Same with games. Some have been ported and you can play some Android games now on Windows 11, but the causal game experience, particularly for touch screen, isn’t the same. And of course, while there is an endless number of Windows apps, the apps that have been well-optimized for both touch and for pen support are smaller than what you get on the iPad.

But here’s the thing, if you want a really good tablet device to use as a tablet, buying an iPad or even an iPad Air makes a ton of sense. A Surface Go 3 (which is a delightful, but underpowered device) offers a subpar tablet experience compared to a standard iPad and just isn’t powerful enough to make it as a regular computer, especially for its price. If you want a tablet, the iPad is what you want.

But the iPad Pro, which costs as much as a MacBook Air and still requires $300 or $350 for the keyboard, is a lot harder to justify, especially if you want to also use it as a computer. I can get a lot more real work done without compromises on a Surface Pro than I can an iPad Pro (and I love my iPad Pro, but I certainly can’t replace my Mac with it), with the added benefit of it being extremely portable, having very good pen support, and still letting me browse the web or watch Netflix in bed in a way I can’t with a regular MacBook.

If I could run macOS on my iPad Pro — but also run my iPad apps “natively,” maybe even in a specific mode, that would be the best of all worlds. But comparing actual productivity of a Surface to an iPad Pro, just doesn’t compare, much as it pains me to say. Tim Cook was absolutely wrong and having unfettered access to Mac apps or even macOS on the more flexible form factor is really a missed-opportunity.

I haven’t used any Surface devices (only Windows 10 on a desktop PC) so I can’t really judge whether the Surface has become a legitimately good tablet or simply a good laptop that also has a touch screen and stylus. But Microsoft’s approach since the Tablet PC has been a single platform for multiple form-factors.

Conversely, Apple bet on separate platforms playing to each form-factor’s strengths. But Apple Silicon, SwiftUI, Catalyst, and iPad mouse support have stripped away a number of meaningful platform distinctions, and what remains feels increasingly arbitrary. Perhaps Apple feels that even with a unified API, mouse-first versus touch-first design is still important enough to keep the platforms separate. (The state of System Settings on Ventura leaves me skeptical.) Or maybe they’ve wanted to ditch the Mac all along, but remain unwilling to sacrifice their stranglehold on iPadOS to make this happen.

Curious how well it would perform.

The really significant issue is that an Intel Surface can be plugged into a Thunderbolt eGPU (there's some nice docks that attach next to displays), which can have multiple displays, storage etc connected to it. So it's capable of being a lighter-duty portable device AND a proper desktop computer.

On top of that - you can run desktop software, so whereas if you're a photographer in the Capture One ecosystem you have to subscribe (subscription only) to a separate stripped-down iPad version of Capture One, on Surface you can just use your existing desktop licence, which may be a purchased licence. You have iTunes for Windows, which is arguably a better audio player & podcast client, that Apple's Music, Podcasts & Books. From Affinity, you can use Publisher etc...

Microsoft's vision was a single device that morphs its hardware and UI based on your use case. Apple's vision was buy a different specialised device for every use case, and shift your user session between them. But then with Catalyst & Swift they started making everything confirm to the lowest common denominator - now I have janky iOS-alike "Mac" apps that make cross-platform Java Apps look like paragons of platform integration, and the Mac is becoming more iOS-like, and not in a good way.

On top of that, notches on laptop screens, just so a hardware decorator could have equal top and side bezels *facepalm*.

"With a Surface, (...) you don’t have optimized apps like YouTube or for every single streaming service"

This used to be quite frustrating, but for me at least, WSA has completely solved this problem. I'm running the normal Google Play Store on my Windows convertible (an HP Envy, haven't used a Surface in a while), and all the Android apps that I use regularly, and that don't have a good alternative on Windows already, work perfectly fine.

I'm still using the web client for Netflix, though. I saved it as a standalone web app, and to me at least, it feels like a native app.

Well, I use Surface devices on a daily basis. The Laptop was the first PC on par with a MacBook, and the Pro was my go-to for years (I carried it around everywhere). I remain invested in the Apple ecosystem (just got an M1 iPad recently), but it is abundantly clear to me that Apple dropped the ball as far as having a “spectrum” of computing devices is concerned.

I can code on my iPad, but remotely. I can use productivity apps on my iPad, but it’s just faster to use it as a Remote Desktop client. I have a shell prompt, but it’s a third party. I cannot emulate anything (well, iSH does a decent job, but I would kill for an ARM VM on my iPad). Handling any significant volume of mail is still easier on the Mac. Using it with an external display is ridiculously bad. The list goes on and on and on, and as soon as I can get my hands on a new Surface Pro, I just know I will be able to take it anywhere, plug it into my massive 5K2K display, and still have a Linux shell prompt at my beck and call to go alongside handwritten notes. If I feel lucky, I might even run a crummy Android app or two.

_That_ is why Tim’s quip was, in a word, dumb. Apple has made no significant core changes to macOS or iOS to cater to power users, whereas I’m actually starting to enjoy Windows 11.

Full disclosure: I joined Microsoft seven years ago to work on Azure and Open Source. I spend most of my time using a browser, Linux, and Teams, so I could theoretically work on any machine (and sometimes do).

Three of my colleagues bought iPads PRO with the super expensive keyboard. They all sold them on within 6 months because they never used them beyond the first couple of weeks.

I honestly think that it's a great device for people who like to draw, but other than that the only use case I can think of is as a babysitter.

@Kristoffer "I honestly think that it's a great device for people who like to draw"

Exactly - that's the thing, you have to buy the Pro to get the 120hz screen, and if you like drawing, you NEED the 120hz screen, but then you have a very expansive drawing surface, that can't do a lot of the productivity that you'd want to do with your drawing afterwards - not because he hardware isn't up to the task, but because it's hobbled by a janky inflated cellphone operating system.

Any day of the week, I would rather drive standard macOS on a tablet with a pen, and the touch abilities of the current magic trackpads, provides, than try and do work in i(Pad)OS.

While I'm digging all the shade being thrown at Apple's self-inflicted myopia, I do feel I have to remind everyone that the difference between a Mac and an iPad is big enough for some people to matter. My mother loves her iPad Pro in a way that she could never love her MacBook Air. I'm sure you've heard the story already. I don't think it's an insurmountable problem to solve such that the tablet OS can emphasise typical consumption use cases and straightforward window management and app shoeboxes and automatic updates whilst still supporting power use-cases, but I don't think it would be a walk in the park either. Point is, it's something Apple has to actually think about, and execute, if its convergence strategy is to have any hope of succeeding without causing even more devastation to both platforms and their users.

Well what do you know, an actual real world professional use case for the iPad pro.

Agree with Steve Harris here - M1/M2 Air is everything 'iPad for work' wanted to be, at least for me. Lighter, more powerful, more customizable, and less clunkier setup.

As for the windows on tablet, I got my wife an X1 Yoga recently, and I have been really really positively surprised how well Windows 11 work as a tablet OS. The autorotation, software keyboard popping up when it should, windows going out of its way the way I'd want them to, built-in precision stylus for sketching, palm rejection when using it - everything works way better than I expected based on my experience with Windows 8.1 tablets. While it still has a linux subsystem and a proper terminal for us developers.

I found out I'm inadvertently touching my Macbook's screen every time after using the X1, turns out the touchscreen really has its place on a laptop. For quick 'just tap this button' it's much faster than using the trackpad.

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