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18 August 2017

Consumer Reports is wrong about Microsoft’s Surface products

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Yes, I’m that guy. I’m the one who sits on the train using a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and who takes it to the front row of exclusive Apple press events while balancing its unconventional kickstand on my lap.

I’ve been this guy for three years, and it’s not because someone dared me to use a Microsoft laptop. Nope. I chose this life. I chose this product.

Now, following Consumer Reports controversial downgrade last week, I feel like I’m supposed to be the guy who defends the entire Microsoft Surface product line. After all, I still love these products.

But it’s hard to ignore that the respected non-profit Consumer Reports pulled its highly coveted “recommended” badge from all Microsoft Surface products after a reader survey showed an unusually high likelihood of product failure (25% of the devices) after two years of ownership.

The thing is, I’ve run enough surveys over the years to know that it can be hard to speak to, let alone, criticize the results without access to all the raw data. Within survey results are terrifying things like means and t-tests, and terms like “significantly above the mean.” The nearest statistician will take your head off if you ever utter the words “above average.”

Consumer Reports public news story doesn’t fully explain the decision, but notes:

“A number of survey respondents said they experienced problems with their devices during startup. A few commented that their machines froze or shut down unexpectedly, and several others told Consumer Reports that the touch screens weren’t responsive enough.”

Hard to tell from the report how consistent any of these problems are, but I get it, Consumer Reports sees more than a hint of unreliability.

So instead of arguing against Consumer Report’s results, I’ll tell you what I know about Microsoft’s Surface products and why I still recommend them.

I started with the very first Surface, a somewhat under-sized (10.6 inches), strange hybrid device that had an almost unusable keyboard (they keys were basically printed on) and an ARM chip that let it run a sort of bastardized version of Windows (Windows RT). There was also a fatter, heavier, Intel CPU-based Surface capable of running full Windows 8.

While I hated the Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde nature of the Windows RT “skin,” the hidden Desktop Mode, and how some apps were completely unaware of one or the other mode, I loved the product design. With its responsive screen, kickstand, lightweight (1.5 lbs.), detachable keyboard and excellent battery life, I began to wonder if, someday, (with some critical adjustments) such a device could be my only laptop.

There’s been nothing in my Surface Pro experience that would stop me from recommending one of Microsoft’s Surface products.

It wasn’t until 2014’s Surface Pro 3 that I traded in my Lenovo T440p for a Surface device.

The Surface Pro 3 fixed virtually everything that was wrong with the first Surface, and Surface Pro 2. The Pro 3 offered a bigger screen (12-inches), a near full-size keyboard that not only snapped onto the bottom of the tablet, but folded up to hug the screen and, with the adjustable kickstand, making the Surface Pro 3 one of the most lap-ready laptops on the market.

What I’ve always loved about the Surface line and, especially, Surface Pros, is that, despite their portability and flexibility, they are no-compromises Windows computers. As soon as I realized I could run Adobe Creative Suite on the Surface Pro 3 (and multiple tabs of Chrome and Microsoft Word and more), I was hooked.

Soon, I traded in my work laptop for the Pro 3 and started using it everywhere. I loved throwing it into my backpack and taking it home and on the road. 

It was never a perfect system. I noted how it didn’t always sleep when I wanted it to sleep and, after some very heavy use, one of the keys on the Type Cover keyboard did fail. Plus, Intel’s integrated graphics drivers were, back then, still a hot mess, and the chief cause of most problems I had with the device.

A year later, Microsoft unveiled its Surface Book.  Capable of running discreet graphics, this more traditional laptop device is heartier, heavier and more powerful than the Surface Pro line. It also has a thoroughly unique hinge and screen attachment system.

When I reviewed the Surface Book, these fresh technologies didn’t cause me any trouble. I did not, though, adopt the Surface Book as a primary device because, quite honestly, it’s, at more than 3 lbs., too heavy for me.

I’ve never been easy on any of my Surface devices.

When Microsoft introduced the Surface Pro 4 a couple of years ago, I could not wait to switch up. It’s mostly just a polish of the Surface Pro 3, but the upgraded Type Cover keyboard and higher resolutions screen were both draws.

I’ve been using it for more than two years and it’s still running strong. As with other Surface devices, there are still hiccups, like malfunctioning Bluetooth connections that won’t resolve unless you update Windows and apps like Chrome that don’t always play nice with the swap from Type Cover Keyboard to dock.

These are minor problems and, having used Windows laptops for virtually every major manufacturer, I know that my issues could be far, far worse. 

I’ve never been easy on any of my Surface devices. I squeeze them into my backpack and luggage, secure in the knowledge that the Surface Po magnesium chassis won’t bend and the thin PIxelSense touch-screen won’t break. I even once stood on a Surface Book and didn’t break it.

What Consumer Reports discovered in its survey may be cause for concern about portions of the Surface line, but the publication’s decision to cease recommendation of all Surface devices, including the new Surface Laptop, new Surface Pro, and new Surface Book, products that aren’t even a year old, doesn’t make sense.

Put simply, there’s been nothing in my Surface Pro experience that would stop me from recommending one of Microsoft’s Surface products. Could they be cheaper? Yes, but if you want a more affordable convertible or laptop, there are any excellent Windows 10 choices from Dell, HP, ASUS, Acer and others.

None of them have spotless device track records and I can’t recall an ultraportable that didn’t develop some quirk after two or three years of use, but, for me at least, the Surface Pro has been my most trouble-free device.

Don’t believe me? Just look for me at the next Apple event. I’ll be the guy with a Surface Pro on my lap.

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