The Microsoft Surface Pro - Is it Just Another Tablet, or Could This Machine Replace Your Workstation?
Kyle Maxey posted on March 07, 2018 | | 3911 views
The Microsoft Surface Pro. This machine truly blurs the lines between tablet and workstation.

The Microsoft Surface Pro. This machine truly blurs the lines between tablet and workstation.

I think its fair to start this review by saying that ever since I saw Microsoft’s Surface line on a convention floor, I’ve wanted to take one home for a test drive. Though I’ve been a dedicated Mac user since I was a little kid—grandpa had a II GS and middle school was propelled by the Macintosh—I’m no cultist and willing to switch hardware platforms if one outperforms another. So, when Microsoft reached out to get my impression of the Surface Pro as an engineering tool, I was happy to oblige.

But before we get to my impression of the machine, lets first look at the hardware that I’ve got in my lap.

The Microsoft Surface Pro – Hardware and Price

The Surface Pro model shipped my way (base price $2,699) came equipped with an Intel Core i7-7660U CPU and 16GB of RAM. Not a bad start. Because the Surface runs on an i7 processor, the machine’s Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640 GPU is embedded on the CPU, meaning the graphics performance for intensive rendering won’t be as robust as it could be with a dedicated graphics card. As for storage, my Surface Pro came loaded with a lighting fast 1TB SSD drive. So much for firing up the machine and having enough time for a cup of coffee while it boots.

To match the internal hardware specs of the Surface Pro, Microsoft’s designers have equipped the machine with a 12.3-in PixelSense Display that carries a resolution of 2736 x 1824 (267 PPI), more than ample for my desire to test the limits of my eyesight by making icons and text display as minute as possible on screen. Oh, and videos, both streaming and running off the disk look wonderful too.

Overall, the Surface Pro is 11.50 x 7.93 x 0.33 in and weighs 1.73lbs, making it effortless to tote around and a perfect size for doing most any work, especially typing. And that brings me to the keyboard.

While I was shipped a Surface type cover, the Surface doesn’t come with this utility standard—it’ll run you $159.99. Though most people are comfortable using on-screen keyboards, for most of my purposes I found using the type cover indispensable and wouldn’t have been able to work effectively without its well-laid-out and responsive keyboard and trackpad. My only concern with the type cover was that I found the click of the trackpad loud and annoying, but that might not be a concern for everyone.

One other thing to note is that Microsoft didn’t include a Surface Pen ($99) or Surface Arc Mouse ($79.99) in the model shipped my way. Both of these peripherals would have made the Surface Pro much easier to work with, especially when modeling, but I’ll get to that in just a moment. That being said, I would recommend that anyone looking to use a Surface Pro as a workstation should include these products in their purchase.

Oh, and lest I forget, the battery performance for my Surface Pro should also be mentioned. Under the most strenuous use—using Fusion 360, multiple Microsoft Edge browser windows open and a few Word docs fired up—the battery held its own putting in well over four-and-a-half hours of work while toggled to the machine’s “best performance” mode in the battery dialogue box. For me, that much timewith a workstation is good enough—anything more and my brain begins to ache. The Surface Pro’s battery did get a knock when I turned to rendering out images of my modeling project, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Now, with the spec run down out of the way its time to turn to the nuts and bolts of this review: modeling.

Moving to Modeling – Can a Tablet Handle a Design Project?

The model that I made using Fusion360 on Microsoft's Surface Pro

The model that I made using Fusion360 on Microsoft's Surface Pro

For many engineers the most important question surrounding a potential workstation concerns the machine’s ability to handle modeling tasks. Depending on what software you use, the performance of a machine in question may fluctuate, but to get rid of that factor I decided a while back that Autodesk’s Fusion 360 would be my go-to tool.

Having spent 10 days warming up to the Surface Pro I felt like I was ready to get to work modeling. One thing should be said at the outset, which may just be a problem of mine and not one that’s generally noticed among other users, is that the Surface Pro’s trackpad is a bit wonky. If you click on the left-hand side of the pad you get a regular click, and a touch on the right-hand side drops down a right click menu. Given that I move around a bit erratically when I work, I was constantly making right-click commands when I just wanted a regular right-click. Maybe, with a bit more patience, I’d learn to put this problem behind me.

Two views created using cloud rendering via Fusion 360. These renders took about 10 minutes total on the cloud.
Two views created using cloud rendering via Fusion 360. These renders took about 10 minutes total on the cloud.
As far as the process of modeling is concerned, everything with the Surface Pro worked exactly as it should. For this modeling test I built a test rig that an artist friend of mine wanted for a project. The device itself is simple, but one aspect of the design I thought might gum up the Surface’s work was the addition of dozens of imported LED components. Fortunately, that never happened. The Surface Pro was able to handle the entire assembly without a hiccup.

The other aspect of modeling on the Surface Pro that I was curious to test was whether the machine could handle high-quality rendering locally. Put simply, it didn’t. To get a good render on local hardware the Surface was going to take upwards of an hour, and its battery would drain. But, the more I thought about it the more I concluded that local rendering isn’t really an issue that designers should be worried about these days.

Today, we have the cloud. With packages like Fusion 360, the cloud can be called down to make any rendering quickly, inexpensively and, more importantly, not something that has to take up any of your local resources. The same is true for any computer-aided engineering (CAE) simulations you’d want to have done on the Surface Pro.

The Pros and Cons of the Surface Pro 

No computer review is worth its salt without a quick list of a reviewer’s pros and cons. So, without further ado, or unnecessary reading, here are mine:




Not enough peripheral input

Ample hardware for modeling

The price is steep

Excellent screen resolution

The trackpad had a steep learning curve for me

Great keyboard layout

With both the pros and cons addressed only one question remains…

Will I Make the Surface Pro My Everyday Machine?

In the end, I have to say that I like the Surface Pro enough to make one my own. My main reservation about the machine is its price, though $500 can be slashed off the base price by simply downgrading the storage capacity from 1TB to 512GB. In my opinion, $500 is way too much to be spending on storage.

Beyond my discontent about the Surface Pro’s price, and its trackpad, I was very happy with the machine’s performance. Modeling was fast, graphics were crisp, and the machine worked exactly as I wanted it to when I wanted it to do something. So, if you’re in the market for a tablet-cum-workstation, the Surface Pro is a machine you should strongly consider.

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