Surface Laptop

Is the Surface Laptop and Windows 10 S any good for music production?

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This is the question I’m going to get asked a lot over the next few days, weeks and months. Or at least until the Surface Pro 5 comes along and the question migrates to the newest version of the platform.

 Although my stock answer is always “I don’t know until I’ve tried it” here’s my immediate thoughts following the big Microsoft launch event.

 Surface Laptop

 What a lovely thing. I thought Panos was going to burst into a stream of rainbow bubbles in the pure pleasure of showing us this…. laptop. It was pitched perfectly. It’s a beautifully thin, touchable Surface laptop with a decent spec, great battery life and not a terrible price. For a similar spec, what I would call my sweet-spot mid-range spec of i5/8GB/256GB it’s $400 cheaper than the Surface Book and only $100 more than the Surface Pro 4 – although, of course, the Surface Laptop has the next (7th) Generation Kaby Lake processor.

From a music making point of view the hardware suffers from the very same problems as the rest of the Surface range in terms of a lack of ports. There’s a single UBS3.0 port – not USB3.1 or Thunderbolt – just USB3.0 which is actually fine because we can get a hub, or the Surface Dock and run a number of keyboards or controllers and an audio interface through it – probably. So assuming that all installs ok and your dongle is not too fat for the body of the laptop, then there’s every reason to believe that the Surface Laptop will perform in a similar way to the SP4 and SB. Be aware though, that battery saving technology is usually detrimental to our musical need of keeping the power on, all the time.

It is a lovely thing – masses of potential here, I wonder how well it gets the power to the road?

Did you notice the touch and pen wobble in the demos? Panos always put his hand firmly on the base whenever he was about the use touch or the pen. And the medical demo lady held onto the screen with the other hand. That’s why I still love the Surface Pro 4 – you can pen and touch all you like and that kick stand keeps it firmly wobble free.




Windows 10 S

The hardware looks capable and has great potential but it may all come down to the OS. Windows 10 S is built on the solid, sensible and worthy idea that if you have a walled garden approach to an OS and a device, then you can control the stability and make for a much better computing experience. Windows 10 S only lets you install and use software from the Windows Store. It’s always been a great idea, great concept and works brilliantly on iOS devices. Microsoft tried it before with Windows 8 and Windows RT and it failed then and it’ll fail now simply because the quality of apps available in the Windows 10 Store is too poor. There doesn’t have to be a gazillion Windows Store Apps there just has to be enough good, high quality, designed for purpose versions that cover the things people like me actually use.

As a creative person and a generator of content there are things I use every day that the Windows Store (as far as I know) cannot provide. I need proper Photoshop, with Lightroom, with Bridge. I need Vegas Pro video editing software, Magic Looks image filters, Artisteer and Themeler website software and FTP hosting. I need Chrome for my YouTube and Analytics account access, for Hootsuite integration, Grammarly, shared Google documents and bank login which doesn’t work in Edge. And this is all the easy, graphics type stuff that Microsoft loves – what about the music side?

If I can’t run Win32 apps then I can’t install my audio interface, I can’t install the control panel or mixing software for it. I can’t install the low latency ASIO drivers, I can’t install my DAW software, virtual instruments or effects plug-ins. The entire eco-system for music production disappears into a couple of Garage Band level Windows Store music apps – and of course StaffPad (Panos’ favourite). Absolutely I am into the idea of an easier, simpler, more secure and always working operating system. But if I can’t then run my complex, interconnected, software and hardware combinations then it’s no more use to me than a phone. So, very useful, but not for what I actually want it for.

Office, at least, is coming to Windows Store so I can write stuff and I won’t have to use the just-a-little-too-lightweight Mail app.

I would suggest that the students that this is aimed at, if they are interested in creativity, are going to be hitting the walls all the time. So yeah, does the S stand for “sucks”? Unfortunately, in my working environment, yes – for the same reasons that an iPad Pro fails in being a workable computer solution. Great for little things, watching, surfing, tinkering with music but not serious, creative work.

So then you idiot, stop moaning and upgrade to Windows 10 Pro?

The answer then is to install Windows 10 Pro – yes it is and that’s precisely why Windows 10 S will fail outside of primary schools. Everyone will upgrade and most of them will really need to do so. And then we’re back to the sensible, hybrid world of Windows where we’re all happy with our software choices, we ignore all the Windows Store apps and put up with the instabilities because we like those crappy bits of software that help us steal YouTube videos and rip DVDs. Or, more legitimately you need proper accounting software or CAD or programming languages or like playing games on Steam.

So, will the Surface Laptop with Windows 10 Pro work for music production? I won’t know until I get the opportunity to try it. Looks fabulous though.




Availability

If I may just say what really pisses me off is the inconsistency of international availability of Microsoft hardware. In the UK we’ve only just got the Surface Book Performance Bases – over a year after release in the USA. We still haven’t seen the awesome Surface Studio which was released at the same time. You can’t even buy the Surface Dial over here. When Apple released the new cheaper iPad back in March I could preorder it on the day of release and pick it up about 5 days later, from an Apple store in my local town of Norwich, in the UK – and I was annoyed that I had to wait that long. The Surface Laptop is actually on the UK Microsoft website, which is a miracle since the Surface Studio is not, and is billed as “Coming soon” and in only one colour. Microsoft you have got to sort this out. You believe yourself to be an international company, but it’s crap being a Windows technology enthusiast outside of America – we won’t see it for months, if not years. That’s rubbish.

Summary

So, to summarise:

Surface Laptop – another awesomely fabulous, gorgeous Surface machine that we won’t be seeing anytime soon in the UK.

Windows 10 S – completely unsuitable for audio and music production. Even if Microsoft get around to releasing their Groove Music Maker app you still won’t be able to install ASIO drivers for your interface or plug-ins and virtual instruments.

The Surface Laptop and Windows 10 Pro – could be a killer combination but I can’t say until I can run performance tests on it. Can anyone send me one?




2 thoughts on “Is the Surface Laptop and Windows 10 S any good for music production?

  1. Wanted to share my personal experience with the SP4. My experience hasn’t been great to be honest, which is a real shame as I too am a big fan of the concept… I run a number of different audio applications including DAWs and the DJ based software Traktor. The fundamental issue I had linked to somewhat random but consistent processor performance peaks that during continuous playback of audio over 15 minutes + resulted in very noticable glitches and eventual crashing. After ensuring audio drivers and software were up to date I then had to turn to other means to enhance performance to better handle these peaks. This included, re-enabling High Performance Mode (Hidden), background processes dedication, Disable cut power to unused USB devices plus several other recommendations thankfully provided by one of your videos, but it still wasn’t enough! I then turned to buffer size adjustments using tools such as Native Instruments diagnostics to test for issue. Still not enough! Eventually, I used other broad spectrum diagnostic tools including LatencyMon, which demonstrated to me the drivers that were causing performance issues in my case. In combination with all of the adjustments above, I found I also needed to TEMPORARILY disable the (ACPI Battery Control Method), the Network Card as well as my Antivirus to achieve a system performance that whilst still being warned by diagnostics that ‘my system might not be suitable for audio playback processes’ due to a few more complex driver routines, was able to perform pretty much perfectly and consistently for 2 hours + continuous audio playback whist using a MIDI controller/audio Interface. So…. An eventual success story you might think. I mean the process was annoying to say the least when switching between this ‘Audio Setup’ and say internet browsing for instance, but at least I had a setup I could use and be confident using to play out with. That was until 2 weeks ago when upon starting up my computer I discovered 2 thirds of my screen started to flicker uncontrollably. After discovering it is not an application based issue, and that a windows reinstallation failed to resolve what was in turn a system based issue, I am now waiting for a replacement. Maybe running at high performance and various tweaks are linked or maybe to be fair it’s an entirely different issue. Hopefully I can upgrade, and the performance peaks issue might disappear with the new chip set of the SP 2017, as it would be great to run my applications without over optimisation the system. It seems that forums and yt videos state that the SP3 worked fine, which is incredibly frustrating. Maybe it’s a combination of chip set limitations in the sp4 and Windows 10 operating system trying to be too clever for general usablity and compromising audio playback requirements. To be honest though, I am becoming more and more doubtful this is the right system for DJs at least. For DAW based production, in my experience, it did hold its own reasonably well with not too much system optimisation. But for DJing, it has definitely presented a real concern. It could of course just be my setup and combination of applications, could be a faulty sp4 that affected more than just the graphics card, it could just be me (hopefully not though). This all happened within 8 months, which at least means warranty is still valid on the plus side, but I’m sure like the rest of you, re-starting to install and configure your entire system, is something you’d rather not have to deal with. When you do manage to get hold of one, maybe run LatencyMon to see if the performance spikes are still an issue?

    1. Hi John,
      It’s been a tricky and difficult road with the Surface Pro 4. I encountered most of those problems until very recently. And yes, frustratingly, the SP3 worked fine out of the box and it was more about keeping temperatures under control because it would throttle something awful when you pushed it. I’ve also heard from a few people with Tracktor problems – I’ve never used it myself. I can see how a 2 hour set could highlight underlying issues better than working with a DAW that you don’t notice the odd glitch on. Will the new Surface Pro do the business? I will be finding out very soon.

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