Should Photographers and Videographers Buy The New Surface Pro?

Microsoft just released an updated version of their Surface Pro laptop/tablet hybrid. It's not a total redesign but it's still a pretty unique product. Yes, there are other tablets on the market, but nothing that works quite like this. 

What is it? 

The Microsoft Surface Pro is a touchscreen tablet with a kickstand that has full blown laptop components and runs Windows 10. It's a tablet when you want it to be and it's a laptop when you add on the optional Surface Pro Type Cover. What really makes the Surface Pro unique is it's ability to be paired with the Surface Pen, which happens to be all new and better than ever. 

What's new?

The new Surface Pro looks almost identical to the last one. It's got upgraded internals including the all new i7 7660U processor and a larger battery. The pen is all new and it reduces lag, has four times more pressure sensitivity, and is now a separate $100 purchase. The Surface Pro Signature type cover is also an optional accessory (that you will definitely need) that has a better typing experience and an alcantara fabric finish for another $160. 

To Touch, or Not To Touch

I'm a Windows user all the way but I'm the first to admit that I love my iPhone and my iPad. IOS was designed with touch in mind and therefore, anyone can pick up an IOS device and know how to use it. Windows 10 is getting better for touch but it still isn't totally optimized. Surfing the web works fairly well with touch and you can turn your desktop into "tablet mode" which makes the icons and the start menu larger, but there is still so much more that you can do with the Surface Pro that isn't touch optimized. Because of this, I find myself using the Surface Pro most as a standard laptop, using the keyboard and mouse, rather than using my finger or the pen to touch the screen. 

I tried to get into using the Wacom tablet years ago and I never could make it work for me. For that reason I'm probably not the best person to review the pens ability to edit images on the Surface Pro. I will say that the pen is better than ever and I do know many photographers who enjoy using the Surface Pro and pen for their retouching. If you already use a tablet, you will probably love it, if you don't, it'll take some getting used to. 

How Powerful Is It? 

The new top of the line Surface Pro has an I7 7660U dual core processor which is capable of editing 4k video footage smoothly in Adobe Premiere. If you try to play the footage back at double speed, frames will begin to drop and you'll have to start and stop playback to get caught up. This is not a deal breaker, but it does not perform as well has quad core processors found in larger laptops. Last week I did a Premiere render test on five different laptops. The older Dell XPS 15 was able to render the project out in around 3:30, The new Apple Macbook Pro 15 was able to export the project in 6:04, and the new Surface Pro could export this same project in 8:30. This proves to me that the Surface Pro is an incredible mobile option but it certainly isn't the most power laptop for rendering. 

What I Love About It

The Surface Pro is the most convenient laptop/tablet that I've ever traveled with. If I'm surfing the web, I can just leave the keyboard in my bag and use the Surface Pro like an iPad. But, when it's time to actually get some work done, I can snap the keyboard back on, attach my wireless mouse, and use it like a normal laptop. The screen is a bit small to be used as my main editing laptop, but I still find myself doing everything on my Surface Pro that I can do on my larger laptops or my desktop. I haven't had the Surface Pro long enough to fully test out the battery life, but it does seem like a significant improvement. It seems silly but I love the kickstand. It's awesome being able to stand a tablet up without having to use an extra accessory. This kickstand is better than ever as it allows for even more angles. 

What I Don't Love

As I mentioned above, I want a better touch experience in Windows and in the programs that I use on a regular basis. This may be too much to ask though. It's almost impossible to create a UI that works for both a mouse and touch and this is obviously the reason that Apple still hasn't released a touch screen mac. 

In a perfect world I'd like to have a thinner Surface Pro with a larger screen and thinner bezel. Right now, the Surface Pro is the perfect size for a tablet but it's a little small to be my mobile work station. If they could incorporate some sort of external GPU in the future, this really could become my only laptop. 

I also wish that the Surface Pro had a few more ports on it. One USB jack doesn't really cut it for me and I've had issues with USB hubs not working reliably. Luckily Microsoft makes the best dock/hub I've ever used. 

The Ultimate Accessory Nobody Talks About

My favorite part about both the Surface Book and Surface Pro is the optional Surface Dock. This optional $200 accessory is an absolute must for me. This dock sits on your table and with a single magnetic connector it will power your Surface Pro plus give you four USB 3.0 ports, two mini display ports, an audio port, and an ethernet port. This dock makes using the Surface Pro as your main, and potentially only computer very possible because when you get home you can plug your Surface into the dock with a single cable and instantly dual monitors and all of your accessories will come to life. When my desktop at home died last year I used this setup with my Surface Pro for months. The only reason I purchased another desktop was because the Surface Pro doesn't have a GPU that can play video games. If you don't game, you may not need a dedicated GPU at all. 

The Price

The Surface Pro starts at $799 and quickly jumps up to $2699 for the top of the line version (that I've been testing). If this is going to be your main computer, go crazy, buy the expensive one. For me though, the Surface Pro has become the laptop that I travel with when I'm not working on a video project. Because of that, I personally would purchase the $1599 version that has the i7 processor, 256gb SSD, and 8gb of RAM. It's powerful enough to run all of my Adobe software and is $1100 cheaper than the top of the line version. Keep in mind that you will definitely want to buy the premium keyboard for $160, the Surface Dock for $200, and you may want to buy the new pen for $100. It's not cheap, but you're paying a premium for a very niche product. 

Conclusion

The new Surface Pro isn't a game changer but it is a nice upgrade from the previous version. If you're reading this I assume that you are a photographer or videographer and I can't honestly say that this is the best choice if you only have the money for a single computer. But if you're anything like me, your main machine is probably a desktop computer and you're looking for something like the Surface Pro to travel with. If you prefer to use a mouse the Surface Pro is not the ultimate mobile workstation, it's a tablet that can also be a workstation when you need it to be. However, if you're a retoucher or digital artist who uses a stylus, the Surface Pro may actually be the most valuable tool you own. 

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22 Comments

Anonymous's picture

Interesting article but you only touched on video and said nothing about photo editing. I would have liked some real-world discussion on its use for photography, being my sole purpose for such a machine.

I bought the surface pro 4 over a year ago for the purpose of shooting tethered and retouching on the go, and to tell you the truth, its somewhat of a challenge. If its being used for fun or personal work, then i suppose its fine. But the issues I have had with mine are the following;

1. I use ALOT of keyboard shortcuts when i retouch, so I cant really hold on to the surface like a tablet like Blair did. I did find a workaround to this, I bought a wacom express key remote to have a few of my most used keyboard shortcuts but I had issues with connecting the bluetooth dongle as its usb 3 and the surface pro 4 has usb 2 ports. Maybe this was fixed in the new surface, but I had to get a usb hub to connect the dongle. If you were to use the keyboard attached, it is waaay awkward to use the one hand on the keyboard and use the surface pen on the screen.

2. The battery life is terrible when running photoshop. I get about a little over an hr at best.

3. There are a few issues when using the pen tool and in photoshop, but that may be more of a photoshop issue.

That's pretty much it. I do like the screen though, its super sharp and once calibrated, the color is spot on. Also, due to the resolution on the screen, some programs don't scale well and you end up with reeeeaaallly small text. When it comes to post production, don't expect to be any faster on this than with a regular desktop/laptop and wacom tablet set up, but i guess its not really meant for that. This is meant more for on the go, but only for about an hr or so.

Matt Rennells's picture

Having used a Pro 3 (with his recommended setup, i7, 8GB, 256 SSD) for many years, I can say that it works just fine for photography, with one caveat. No dedicated GPU, so things that are GPU intensive can cause it to bog down. The main things that I notice that take some time are filters in Photoshop and rendering/exporting in Lightroom. It does get a little warm when running it hard, but nothing unreasonable. While I can edit on a desktop or my Surface, I find that I do a lot more editing on the Surface because it is handy. It can sometimes take one and a half times longer on the Surface to get things done, convenience is something that can't be matched. Also, have a pen/tablet setup on the desktop and the Surface is way better. My only complaint is that the tap and hold for right click on the Surface can cause some issues in Photoshop when I'm trying to do things where I need to drag and move (like say liquify). I use dropbox pro to sync lightroom and files locally between the computers and it is a very handy way to work on things.

Leigh Miller's picture

Nope...and that comes from the owner of the previous gen model which was good but has issues...this new model is an incremental improvement at best. Stick with the old one, save some money and wait for the next iteration.

Andrea Re Depaolini's picture

I'm an owner of the Pro 4 and I'm really curious about the issues you are talking about. I don't use it as my main machine so I don't stress it too much. The only thing I noticed is that with some software the fan starts to spin at full speed. Even just browsing the internet (only with many pages open in Chrome, with Edge it works just fine)

Leigh Miller's picture

It's loud (when the fan kicks in) and hot under heavy load and locks up at the oddest times. It works perfectly well 90% of the time.

I should have also mentioned that the i7 version is the only version with a fan. The i5 versions are totally silent

Andrea Re Depaolini's picture

How do you judge the display quality? Are the colors represented faithfully?

I should have mentioned this. The screen is fantastic and it is one of the only laptops in the world where each individual screen is calibrated at the factory as it comes off the line.

Andrea Re Depaolini's picture

I knew this also about previous models so it seemed strange that you didn't mentioned :)

Leigh Miller's picture

If you intend to run any Adobe applications the i7 is the only choice. Their software are badly coded and slow as it is...brute force is often required.

Mine makes a great location platform for tethered shooting and on-the-go editing. The newer version just doesn't have enough of an improvement...certainly not performance wise. They did improve the pen though...if your a hardcore retoucher or digital artist.

It covers most of the sRGB gamut (about 96% I think) and a wide swathe of the Adobe RGB (76% I think), you have two display modes like the Surface Studio which you can switch between. Also like the Studio all Surface Pro's will come calibrated from the factory. The Surface Laptop has better gamuts than the new Pro mostly down to how the display has lower latency for better response times for the pen input on the Pro.

The Pro can also take advantage of the Surface Dial.

John Lawson's picture

Lee, I'm looking for a laptop for on-site photo editing and tethering. I use a wacom for editing with my desktop, so being able to use a pen is must for me. As you can get the SP4 with i7, 16gb ram and 256gb SSD for 1500 at moment, do you think it would be a good option. I do very little videos, mostly Nikon d810 raw files and different digital backs. An other option would be something like the new HP Spectre 15inch, with more horse power and a bigger screen. It also has support for Windows n-trig pens.

cameramanDop Shanghai Hong Kong's picture

I have the later version and found quite dangerous the link to the extension dock.
The plug which is providing power is magnetic. So it tend to attract everything in metal and so any conductive materiel. I found it's very dangerous and a better design may be in order.

Did something happen? I would imagine it doesn't produce power until it knows it's connected to a computer

Andrea Re Depaolini's picture

What you are saying can't happen because it has a short circuit protection built in

It's never happened to me, and yes I've had coins/paperclips fall onto the connectors. It's got short protection built in.

william mitchell's picture

Still expensive for a 2 core computer.

No doubt. You're paying for the form factor

Eric Pare's picture

Just got mine! #unboxing time :)

william mitchell's picture

To expand on my first post to buy a top line surface pro you are in the price range of a mac book pro or an iMac. With an iMac you give up portability. But if a person is going to spend $2000 to $ 3000 on a computer should anyone let a software company (Adobe) tell you what hardware to buy? Now for video editing on a mac you would add $ 300 to the cost for FCPX, but with FCPX you can use PROres a proxie format. Smaller files on the computer but larger files on an external hard drive. Is Premiere the limiting factor for you Lee ? Microsoft does the same thing as Apple make very stylish hardware and sell it for a pretty penny.

Can anyone post specific Lightroom-related benchmarks for the new Surface? For instance, I'd really like to see how long it takes to export 100 images on an i5 version vs an i7 version, and how much difference 8 GB vs 16 GB makes. I'm really curious to determine how productive a photographer can be on the road with the new Surface Pro versus the iPad Pro 12.9 (which has been a disappointment) -- and whether it's worth paying the outrageous premium for the i7 + more memory.