The Surface Pro 2 and Windows 8.1 Made Me Go Metro

Trouble on the desktop leads to a drastic change in workflow--and it turned out okay.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Jared Newman for TIME

Although Microsoft believes Windows 8.1 is equally at home on a tablet, laptop or desktop, nothing’s more fitting for the hybrid operating system than a device that blurs the lines. The Surface Pro 2, with its ability to transform from a tablet to a laptop, seems like it was tailor-made for Windows 8.1.

I’m still debating what to do about the Surface Pro 2 that I bought last week, though the experience has been good enough for me to lean toward keeping it. In the meantime, using Windows 8.1 has been an eye-opening experience. This isn’t meant to be a thorough review, just some thoughts on what’s come up for me so far:

Surrendering to Metro

Going in, I assumed that working with the Surface Pro 2 wouldn’t be drastically different from my Windows 7 desktop workflow. One of the first things I did with the Surface Pro 2 was install Google Chrome, my go-to desktop browser, expecting to lean on my favorite Chrome apps for writing and research.

Things didn’t go as planned. By default, Chrome isn’t optimized for small, high-resolution displays, so text looks blurry and tabs get unnecessarily squished together. Chrome has a hidden setting to toggle high-DPI display support, but flipping the switch caused another problem: Chrome apps such as Google Keep and Write Space wouldn’t display properly (hence the setting being hidden, I suppose). Jerky pinch-to-zoom behavior and inconsistent two-finger scrolling on the Type Cover 2 didn’t help. A lot of desktop apps still have blurry text, but the other problems in Chrome were getting in the way of work.

chromeappwin81

Jared Newman for TIME

Chrome App in high-DPI mode. Not good.

So instead of using Chrome and its web apps, I surrendered myself to the “Metro” interface of Windows 8.1, whenever possible. I ditched Gmail’s website for the built-in Mail app, Google Keep for Code Writer and Pixlr for Fotor. For research and writing in WordPress, I used the modern-style Internet Explorer 11. I’m still using the desktop for certain things, like Hipchat and Office, but it’s been more of a fallback, even in laptop mode.

The experience has been better than I expected. I disagree with the sentiment that Windows’ new full-screen apps are useless in laptop settings. When it’s time to concentrate on writing, they help tune out distractions like e-mail and Twitter. But when I want to, I can use Snap view to run two apps side-by-side. It’s useful for referencing a web page while composing a document, or for keeping a close eye on Twitter while news breaks.

Snap View, in many ways, is a better windowing system than the traditional Windows one. It’s smart enough to fill all available screen space without making you fiddle with individual borders, and you can swap apps in and out with just a couple flicks. Most modern-style apps will automatically resize their content to make the best possible use of the screen, which isn’t always true for windowed desktop apps. My only complaint: The Surface Pro 2 only supports two Snapped apps at the same time, presumably due to screen size, but I think there’s room for three.

Singing SkyDrive’s Praises

win81skydrive

Microsoft

When the first wave of Windows 8.1 reviews hit, there was a lot of hubbub about SkyDrive integration, which can automatically save your documents to Microsoft’s online storage service. I didn’t get why this was a big deal at first, because Microsoft Office 2013 already does the exact same thing.

What I realized with Windows 8.1 is that SkyDrive saves don’t merely apply to one kind of file or app, but to every single piece of software you have. Whether it’s a photo editing app you got from the Windows Store or an alternative document editor like OpenOffice, SkyDrive becomes the default save location for documents, text files, photos and videos. Having your files backed up provides peace of mind, but it also becomes useful if you’re moving between multiple devices. I can edit a text file on the Surface, and it’s automatically waiting on my desktop.

The Continued Need for “Legacy” Software

After I wrote some similarly nice things about Windows 8.1 during the preview period, my colleague Harry McCracken asked me if I’d consider a Windows RT device such as the Surface 2, which can only install Windows Store apps, not legacy Windows software. My answer is still no, and not just because of gaps in the app catalog.

I like the modern side of Windows, but I bought a Surface Pro 2 to run specific programs that probably won’t show up in the Windows Store and aren’t available as web apps. I’ve already spent hours playing games through Valve’s Steam service, and sending episodes of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to my television using Chromecast. You can’t do either of those things on a Windows RT tablet. My wife also relies heavily on Microsoft Publisher, which is not part of the free Office suite for Windows RT devices, and not available for purchase.

While I’m not highly dependent on legacy apps, enough important ones remain to prevent me from becoming an RT convert, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Metro apps are just another tool in the toolkit.

The Dreaded Learning Curve

I’m okay with complexity and I don’t mind digging into settings to fine-tune things, which might explain why my Windows 8.1 experience has been positive. The out-of-box experience, however, could be so much better. Microsoft has added tutorials and a tips app for new users, but those don’t make up for defaults that desperately need tweaking.

win81multitasking

Microsoft

Multitasking is the perfect example. By default, swiping in from the left edge switches to the last app you were using. It’s too easy to trigger this by accident during tablet use, and if you’re not comfortable with Windows 8, you could be completely confused by what just happened. Even for experienced users, it’s hard to remember which app you were using last. Fortunately, there’s a built-in fix: Instead of switching apps automatically by swiping, you can set Windows to show a list of recent apps. But novice users won’t figure that out, because the setting is buried under four nested menus. (Settings > Change PC Settings > PC and devices > Corners and edges, then toggle “When I swipe in…”) I shake my head every time I remember this isn’t the default.

There are other examples. You can and should disable “upper-right corner” navigation from that same menu, unless you enjoy a redundant shortcut that actively prevents you from closing other windows. Also, unless you dig into account settings, you must enter your entire Microsoft account password every time you wake the computer, which is overkill for casual users. Even Snap view, one of my favorite features, can’t be invoked right when you launch the second app.

Just a wild guess here, but maybe there wouldn’t be such animosity toward Windows 8 if Microsoft didn’t throw so many hurdles in front of what’s actually a delightful operating system.

Stay tuned for more thoughts on the Surface Pro 2 and Windows 8.1.

12 comments
slate2
slate2

Tip: To show the list of recent apps using a 'swipe,' try swiping in from the left and then back out, i.e. a backwards letter 'c.'

FabrizioSilveri
FabrizioSilveri

I've not used Win8 with a touch interface, but I really enjoyed the Metro UI when I used it on my old laptop (I'm maybe the only one to do so, I know).
Win8 is a superfast OS, and you can appreciate that on old, slow laptops much more than on brand-new tablets, as well as you can find Snap View extremely useful on 1366*768 big screens (mine was 15.6"), because the low resolution prevents you to use two apps at a time in desktop mode, while the big screen takes great advantages from the auto-scaling features of Snap View....
....I really have Win8 as a great OS, but Microsoft gave its worst making it difficult and gravely unintuitive to use... I'm all but an Apple fan, but MS really has something to learn from them!

toraji40
toraji40

Jared,

Thanks for writing a fair article about the pro and windows 8.1. Although I agree with a lot you say there is one thing I clearly disagree with you and that is about the Surface 2. You might be speaking about your personal preference but that is not an all go for everybody. I own the RT from day on, I own the PRO from day 1, I own the surface 2 from day 1 and I own the pro 2 from day one. The second version is of course better then their older brothers/sisters that is pretty clear.

The RT is actually an awesome machine and a very good travel companion (light and very good battery live). I agree that doing the more heavy stuff on legacy software is not gonna happen on the RT but not everybody needs that so for many people this device is a perfect match so I always feel the need to point that out when reviewers misplace the RT.

The surface 2 is a very speedy machine with great image quality and comes with office (word, outlook, PowerPoint, excel) included.

A no brainer for the people that do not need legacy software (its like a cheap iPad with way more to offer if you don't need fart apps ;-))

PS,


The list of recent apps you also get when you swipe to the right (from the black edge) on left side and push back (to the left) off the app you pull out and poof the list of recent apps is there  :-)


Regards

Ron

pissantz34
pissantz34

I've been using the Pro 2 for a week now. I was ready to throw the thing out the window on night #1 with some of Windows 8.1's quirks - mostly the same list described in this article. Day 2 I realized Microsoft might be onto something with this device. A week later, I'm using it for everything. For a professional (hence the "pro" title) who travels quite a bit, this machine is a dream. I've been using OneNote in Office 365 to completely reorganize my clients and workload. Don't even bring a pen and paper to meetings anymore. SkyDrive is excellent. Hook it up to my extra monitor at home for serious work, and fly through IE11 and Metro apps on the couch in front of TV and in bed. Gave my brother my 2-year-old ultrabook because it would have just gathered dust and it's still a solid laptop. Even my smartphone I basically just use to text because carrying the Pro around is like carrying a small notebook, so it goes almost everywhere with me and is much more functional. Can't recommend it enough.

surfaceprouser
surfaceprouser

Thank you for an interesting piece. For those who haven't really taken the Surface plunge (and a dive into Windows 8), the easiest position is to just sit back, watch and be skeptical. That's why we keep hearing from the chorus of the misinformed who insist that the Surface Pro must be an inferior tablet choice to the iPad. But for someone like you who has taken the plunge, there a vested interest in making things work, and the efforts reap rewards that casual observers cannot truly appreciate. I was a XP user. Had such a horrible experience with Vista that when Windows 7 came out I switched to a MacBook Pro with OSX. The OSX plunge was such a shockingly pleasant experience it converted me to a full-time Apple fan (iPad, iPhone). But earlier this year I decided to take the Surface Pro plunge. I was skeptical about Microsoft but the allure of the one device that could do it all was radical enough to be worth the effort. Now 8 months later, I have come to appreciate Metro (and Win 8.1 is a definitively positive move) and all its goodness. At the same time I get to keep all the desktop applications my work absolutely depends on (Adobe CS, Mathematica, MS Office, Vbox). The new Intel platforms have made crossing between MacOS and Windows very easy, and the huge divide that used to exist between them have largely melted away.

EricPellegrini
EricPellegrini

Hi, I wanted to let you know there is a very simple way to get the full use of the 1080p screen, including snapping 3 or 4 apps to the surface pro 2. Well this works for any 1080p screen.

Start Menu -> Type "Display Settings"  and select "Display Settings"-> Toward the bottom you will see an option that "Change the size of apps, text and items on the screen" For a small, high dpi screen you can tell windows to make things smaller. On a large monitor you can tell it to make things bigger. So, select the opnly option for the Surface Pro, make things smaller.

Now everything gets a little tighter, you can put more tiles on your start screen and you have all the real-estate of a full size 1080p screen.

freddygains
freddygains

I am a huge fan of Windows 8.1 and own a Surface Pro 2. I couldn't agree more with this article. In addition to the default settings recommendations, I would add changes to the default apps and layouts. I think it would go a long way to default the Start Page with basic groups and some of the popular apps. The stock look is a little boring

nocomck
nocomck

The Windows 8.1 experience is quite a bit better than most reviewers make it seem.  Sometimes I think I'm on a different planet because I own iOS, Android, and recently went from a Pro 1 to a Surface 2 32GB.  With everything in the cloud today and the 200GB Skydrive things are just fine.  Metro has come a long way and there are quality apps that just don't have name brand appeal yet, but this doesn't worsen their enrichment capabilities.  There's nothing better than typing up a doc sitting in bed, then flipping the keyboard under the kickstand for some quick consumption via touchscreen before I call it a night.  Thanks for the writeup!

DavidW.Goodale
DavidW.Goodale

@FabrizioSilveri  MS should have included the tutorials and tips with Windows 8.  I agree that it is a well-designed OS that innovates its own path and does not just try to emulate Apple like Google.

newmanjb
newmanjb moderator

@toraji40 Yeah, I know you can bring up the recent apps that way, but it's pretty counter-intuitive in my opinion. And if you don't know exactly which recent app you're trying to pull up, it ends up adding another step to the process.