Computing Reviews

The past few years have seen a massive leap in mobile technology with devices getting smaller, more powerful and lasting longer on a single charge. But when considering a mobile device for photography out in the field there is one niggling question; how small is too small?

Surface Pro 2I have been taken with the idea of a Windows Tablet for quite some time but finding a device that is well spec’ed, sturdily made and has a decent battery life has proved a challenge. In early 2013 this all changed with the release of the first Microsoft Surface Pro. At the time money did not permit, especially considering it was around the price of an Ultrabook. Shortly after, the Surface Pro 2 was announced so we began saving our cash and took the plunge over the 2013 Christmas holidays. Microsoft offer four versions of the device, we chose the higher end model packing a 256GB SDD, 8GB Ram and of course Intel’s new super-efficient 2.4GHz Quad-Core i5 Haswell processor.

After being spoiled by Apple’s beautiful aesthetics and solid build quality we were keen to see how the tablet would compare. The body of the Surface is made out of magnesium alloy marketed as VapourMG and painted a dark titanium colour. Names aside, when handling the device it feels solid but tactile maintaining that lovely cold metal feel. The screen and bezel is well protected by tough and scratch resistant safety glass, adding a lot to the Surface’s durability. I have only two concerns with the Surface’s construction; my first is the paint job. After just a week’s use the paint has worn away around the charging port. Something tells me I am going to need a case if I plan to take it out in the field. My second concern is the somewhat flimsy kickstand that, although is made out of VapourMG, is thin and does not feel particularly durable. That said, when collapsed it does not stick out and lies flush with the back of the tablet. I guess it’s a trade-off between aesthetics and construction.

After booting the tablet it wasn’t long before I installed Adobe Lightroom 5 and Photoshop CS6. A cold but sunny photo walk around Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire gave us the perfect opportunity to process some pictures on our new toy! I was eager to preview my pics to see how the screen quality compared to that of our Thunderbolt Display or iPad retina. Using Lightroom I imported my pictures and decided to preview them instantly and they look fantastic. The 1920x1080 screen resolution really shines offering strong competition to Apple’s Retina technology. Colours appear vibrant and accurate without calibration; that said when comparing images against our Thunderbolt display we found the Gamma needed a little tweaking.

I was a little disappointed to only find the one USB port. Like most people I have my camera plugged in, and also something like a memory stick to take an instant backup. Sure, there are easy ways around this but if you are using a USB keyboard it gets very annoying very quickly. If you find yourself in this position it may be worth purchasing a USB hub to give you an additional 3 ports. Furthermore it is a shame that Microsoft removed the SD card reader for the Surface Pro and replaced it with a microSD slot. Considering most cameras use the standard SD format, this seems like a bit of a dumb move. Maybe it’s just me, eh?

Surface Pro 2Processing pictures on the Surface is an interesting experience. It gives you the ultimate freedom to sit in any position you like, anywhere you like and do all the things you would on a PC. When I came to processing my first batch of pictures I did have my reservations about the screen size. But once I had processed a few I soon got into the swing of things, stepping down from the 27” Thunderbolt display can take a little time to adjust to! One problem I did notice pretty quickly was non-touch optimised programs like Lightroom and Photoshop suffered from scaling problems meaning buttons and menus appear very small. Tapping them with your finger is out of the question; luckily the Surface Pro comes with a stylus for that exact reason. When the pen is just a couple of cm away from the screen a dot is displayed indicating exactly where you are about to tap. This allows you to be very precise when tapping on buttons, tick boxes, etc. That said using sliders is still very difficult; often, we find it easier to use either the on-screen keyboard or the touch cover to adjust the numerical values.

In terms of performance, the Surface Pro performs excellently. We have tested the device quite extensively and have not found a situation where resources are lacking. The device easily handles RAW file processing or image manipulation tasks. In an attempt to find the devices limit we started a sizeable export in Lightroom while running a Photomerge on 6 large images to create a panorama in Photoshop. Task Manager revealed we were only using about 50% of the devices resources, meaning you can work on other things without noticing any performance dips. Impressively during our little exercise there was no noise from the internal fans, even my Mac Mini’s fan becomes noticeable while processing pictures or stitching panoramas. During our tests we have been running the device off battery power to see how close we get to Microsoft’s advertised ‘8 Hours’. We found that viewing and processing pictures in Lightroom on medium screen brightness gave us about 5-6 hours, similar to the MacBook Pro. Using Photoshop induces similar battery life. But when we are not processing pictures and instead, relaxing by surfing the web, checking emails, writing blogs, reading up on the news and watching videos of cats on YouTube we easily achieve 8 Hours battery life…if not 9. That places the Surface Pro 2 up there with the new Apple Mac’s and most new Ultrabooks, pretty impressive considering the devices size.

Surface Pro 2After using the Surface Pro for a few weeks we were keen to give it a proper field test, so we decided to take it with us to The Gambia. The tablet fits quite nicely into my Tamrac Aero Speedpack 75 camera bag, even when loaded up with all my Pentax camera gear. Usually I would pack an iPad into my hand luggage and with that, I could just scrape through the 5kg limit. The Surface on the other hand weights in at just short of a kilo pushing me well over that limit - time to secrete lenses in pockets! During the 6 hour flight I watched a couple of feature length movies on the Surface, and took the time to have a play with Windows 8.1. I know a lot of people do not like Microsoft’s new tile interface and I agree that it is a little clunky without a touch enabled monitor. That said, I do prefer it to Windows 7 now I have used it more and using it on the Surface highlights how good the new OS is. It’s just as easy and as fluent to use as Apple’s iPad but achieves it without reducing functionality. After a couple of days in The Gambia I had already taken just over a 1GB of pictures, eager to play with the Surface I connected my Pentax K-5 via USB and copied all my pictures onto the internal SSD. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of using a SSD yet, they are fast, really, really fast. After a couple of minutes the transfer had finished and all my DNG’s were ready to be imported into Lightroom. So, I sat on the balcony in the sun surrounded by monkeys and vultures and previewed my pictures!

Going full circle, a 10 inch screen is certainly not too small. The super high resolution of 1980x1080 gives an illusion of space allowing enough room to run programs like Lightroom and preview pictures comfortably. The quality of the screen itself is on par with Apple’s retina technology so for those of you looking for an alternative to a MacBook Air, this may just be the device. Despite its small appearance it packs more than enough processing power and RAM for the average photographer. You can easily run the entire Adobe creative suite without any performance problems or lag. As a travel companion the Surface is near perfect. Although slightly on the heavy side it allows you to do everything you would on a pc and do it for 8 hours before needing to recharge. The casing feels sturdy and although the paint chips easily the device will certainly take a beating before any real damage is done. Looking to the future I would like to see an extra USB port added in to the next incarnation of the Surface. A full SD card slot would be great as well.

Oh, and don’t bother with the Touch Cover 2…its sounds a great idea but unless used on a flat surface the keys are not very responsive…not ideal for a photographer on the move. Also, it does not facilitate touch-typing as there are no defining edges to the keys which means that you cannot tell where your fingers are without looking. I would recommend taking a look at the Type Cover 2 if you require an external keyboard.