In the same week that I was named East Anglia’s Coolest Techie I get an invitation to a party in New York to celebrate the release of the brand new Surface 3. The trip gave me the opportunity to meet members of the Surface design team and reflect on my experience with the Surface Pro 3 over the past 8 months (text continues below video version).
I’ve certainly put it through its paces. I’ve demonstrated Pro Tools, Cubase, Sonar, Ableton, Reason, I’ve composed, I’ve multi-tracked, I’ve fiddled with synths and orchestras. I’ve performed live, jammed with it, looped with it and controlled whole video arrays. I’ve plugged in audio interfaces, synths, library drives and controllers – I’ve even run it with an ipad. At no time has the Surface moaned, whinged or complained, it’s lapped it up really without breaking a sweat.
Everything I’ve talked about up until now has been regular desktop software, not multi-touch enabled or designed for tablet use and yet with the combination of touch – pen – and touchpad I’ve found the hybrid nature of the Surface to be something of a revelation. I’ve sat with my hand on a mouse for most of my adult life and to break out of that paradigm is very releasing. My posture, my shoulders and rsi infested muscles have embraced this new way of working with a massive collective sigh. I am no longer frozen in place, I am animated, engaged and feeling creative. When I sit at a regular laptop now I feel immediately constrained. If you ever wanted to know what kind of drugs Microsoft were on when they dreamt up Windows 8 – well, this is it. I don’t mean to get all gooey about it but once you start using it day-to-day then the full screen metro apps start making sense. What initially felt odd and empty now feels clean and focused. My desktop machine is a cacophony of a gazillion open windows overlapping and vying for attention – my Surface is a temple of peace and sanity. A bit like an iPad I suppose? Yes, but without being really slow, having nowhere to put my files and no access to professional content creation software. A lot is made of the difference in numbers of apps between the Apple and Windows stores – but the one killer app that the Surface has, above and beyond anything else, is the freakin’ desktop – I can run whatever I like. And the digital pen means that I don’t have to revert to the old mouse/keyboard to use them – if I don’t want to.
So, where are the holes? Well the first thing that became glaringly obvious was the need for a customisable toolbar to accompany the pen. If you’re working in tablet mode and you’ve moved into the screen using the pen you lose all the keyboard shortcuts that us creative types use all the time. You can leave the keyboard attached but when using the pen you’re sort of working in the screen and it doesn’t flow well to pull back and use the keyboard. You can use the on screen keyboard but it takes up half the screen and messes with the windows layout and again interrupts the flow because it changes your working environment. Instead we need a toolbar, down one side, into which you can create a bunch of macros – so copy/paste, duplicate, loop, play/stop/record, add new track, switch views – mixer/editor – those sorts of commands. I can do this with a cool bit of software called ToolbarCreator which has been awesome but I believe it’s something that should be embedded in the OS – part of the on-screen keyboard functionality. Another thing I’d like to see is WordFlow – the cool swipey keyboard entry from the Windows Phone would make using the on-screen keyboard less clunky.
Secondly – CPU throttling. I’ve not talked about this is any great detail so far because it’s one of those things that some people get very upset about but most people never encounter and it can vary enormously depending on what you’re doing. The basic gist is that once a certain temperature threshold is hit inside the system the CPU will clock down until the temperature falls to acceptable levels. I’ve found that trying to find the sweet spot where it exactly happens is pretty difficult and I’m not entirely sure what I’m trying to achieve. If you’re a gamer and you’re playing intense games with high end graphics then you might find after a while the frame rate drops and the game stutters – that’s throttling. In pro audio terms if you are using a lot of plug-ins and adding more you’ll hit a point at which the audio will start to glitch because the system has got too hot and the CPU has clocked down to a slower speed. The CPU is now running at about half its original speed and so you’re going to have to unload a whole bunch of plug-ins before it’ll recover. With a desktop system when you hit the CPU limit and get glitching you just have to back off a plug-in or two and the system becomes stable again – with the Surface you have to lose a whole load before you regain stable playback. I talked to some of the designers of the Surface about these issues and they said that they designed the Surface to be as good as they could possibly make it within the constraints of size, noise, cooling and performance. The CPU is designed to throttle when the system gets too hot and in this form factor there’s not enough cooling to allow you to load up the CPU and get consistent power. The CPU is excellent at coping with bursts of needed power, but it’s not designed to be constantly maxed out. But before you start getting all upset about these things just consider that the MacBook Air has exactly the same processor and suffers from exactly the same problem, but they just seem to be getting on with things. I’ve only encountered throttling when running performance tests, not when actually making music or doing any other activity. If you’re a hardcore gamer then this is probably not the product for you but I’ve played many hours of Minecraft and TotalWar without any problems whatsoever. So, in summary, you can’t max out the CPU with plug-ins but you can still do a shed load of stuff before you get anywhere near the threshold.
Thirdly – connectivity. The single USB port is a bit of a bummer, however with a passive hub you can run two or three big devices like an audio interface and MIDI keyboard, and with a powered hub you can run a load more. The Surface Dock offers a bunch more USB2 and USB3 ports on separate busses which is awesome but you have to dock the Surface at a fixed angle which isn’t very work flow friendly. If they can produce a little cable to connect the Surface to the Dock and leave it free then that would be a fabulous thing. The new Surface 3 has a bonus USB port in that it’s power supply is via a mini USB socket and this can be converted into a regular USB port. What we’d like to see on the Surface Pro 4 would be a Thunderbolt port, opening it up to the increasing numbers of Thunderbolt devices and also older firewire ones. But something tells me that’s not very likely.
So, after 8 months of use the Surface Pro 3 is for me an almost perfect creative music making tool. It’s revolutionised my live performance, transformed the way I work and liberated me from the desktop/mouse/keyboard paradigm. I still use my desktop for big projects but I am increasingly turning to the Surface to begin the creative process and always end up back there in the live performance. And it’s starting to take over my day-to-day operations as well.
The new Surface 3, which I have here, is not the same deal – it’s got more of an entry level spec, but it’s still pretty cool and so I’m going to be running a load of music software on it and give it a full review in a week or two.
So where do we go from here? Well now I’m turning my interest to music software that’s designed for touch – these have been thin on the ground but that’s changing and some developers are starting to see the potential of the Surface’s hybrid nature. Since doing my back in a few weeks ago I’ve spent a lot of time playing with Open Labs StageLight – there’s a new version update due any day so I’m just waiting on that before I put the review together. There’s a new version of Usine Hollyhock which deserves some intense scrutiny. There’s Sonar Platinum of course – I’ve written a full review of that for Sound On Sound magazine which should be out in April/May. And I’ll leave you with a look at the beautiful StaffPad which perfectly demonstrates why the Surface should be your next mobile music platform.