Four months after reviewing the Surface Pro 3, our tech editor Michael Rundle looks back on the moment he lost - and found - the tablet that really can replace your laptop.
Someone once sang 'you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone'. And in the case of the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, as I discovered one week ago when I smashed it to pieces on the floor of Costa Coffee, it turns out it's true.
Looking back, it was always going to happen this way. Writing a novel is an essentially indefensible act of creative confidence, and one for which I was due to be justly punished. But I didn't know it at the time. And as the thing toppled backwards, onto the sunrise-lit floor, and cracked from corner to corner I did not have the perspective of time and wisdom to accept it with grace. Instead I merely yelped, held back the tears, and feverishly tried to remember when I last backed the thing up to the stormy Clouds above.
Fortunately, it was to my - and the literary world's eventual? - relief that my titanic work of prose itself was safely squirrelled away on Dropbox and/or OneDrive.
But the machine was totalled. The cracks extended right across the face and the touchscreen was completely broken. After a moment's self loathing I paid a reasonable amount for an exchange, and packed it off to Microsoft's Germany service centre.
In the week that has followed I have had time to consider why this machine has found such a central place in my life - and why, when all is said and done, it's my gadget of the year.
(First, some disclosure and housekeeping. Microsoft is currently sponsoring a 'Create' section on HuffPost Tech, involving lots of advertising running all over the site. This article was planned in advance of that deal being signed, but has been tagged 'Create' to make it easier to find. This, though, is not sponsored content. Microsoft has not seen this before publication, will not be able to suggest edits, and did not know in advance what I would write. Also, it goes without saying that they did not provide me with a Surface Pro 3. I bought my 128GB i5 SP3 with my own money, from a shop, like an actual human. A previous review of the SP3 I wrote was completed with a review unit sent by Microsoft, but we sent it back after a week.)
The Surface Pro 3 was pitched as the tablet that can replace your laptop. And for me it did, but only in as much as I hated my laptop (a 2012 Macbook Air) because of its crappy battery life, and never took it anywhere anyway. So that didn't really apply.
For me, the Surface Pro 3 appealed not as the one-for-one replacement of an existing gadget, but instead for two main 'groups' of reasons - reasons of practicality, and reasons comprising an aspirational desire to escape the horror of my inevitable death.
To take the first group first, I liked the idea of the SP3 because it had the power to run programs like Civilization 5 and Clip Studio Pro, but also just about enough chops as a tablet to watch Adventure Time in bed and play Manifest Destiny. It is a powerful, tactile computer, but also a simple, passive screen to watch from the corner of your eye while eating biscuits. I also think it looks good, has a good kickstand and a handy MicroSD card reader.
But those are boring reasons. Really, I wanted a Surface Pro 3 because I believed it would make me a better human. I believed that it was the computer on which I could finally write my novel, paint my masterpiece and build my million-selling indie game. The combination of a handy but removable keyboard, an excellent pen and full Windows gives me the actual tools I need to get this stuff done. A Mac, by contrast, gives me the sensation that I am being creative, but without the actual ability to do those things in the specific way that I as an artist want to do them.
That's why I wanted an SP3. But what's amazing to me, is that it worked.
I have written my novel. Why? Because the SP3 is light enough to carry everywhere, runs Scrivener, has great full-screen writing apps in tablet mode and a good keyboard.
I have painted pictures, with more to come. Why? Because the pen input is amazing, it runs this incredible drawing app, and is fast enough to cope.
I have also done my job - largely by running Chrome in fullscreen tablet mode, turning the SP3 into an expensive Chromebook. And played an awful lot of strategy games.
The point is that I came to the SP3 with great hopes, but a sneaking suspicion I wouldn't use it to do those things. In reality, I found it such a joy to use that I did do them, and am a more creative person for it. And in the instant when it toppled backwards - I'm still not sure why, or whether to blame myself or Satya Nadella - I knew it.
This is not to say there have not been problems, however. There have.
Some of these I covered in my previous review: Windows 8.1 is an imperfect mess. There are not enough good tablet apps. Etc.
But there is a depth of angst in using Windows that you only experience fully once you've actually bought something and bathed in its flaws. That subtle, exquisite pain is found in the endless automatic, forced-restart updates. It's in the fact my SP3 can't work out the time on its own and has to be manually updated when I switch time zones. It's in the fact I had to totally Factory Reset the machine twice in one week to get OneNote working properly.
There are also a few gaping holes in terms of software that are just hard to reconcile with the machine's promise - and its competition. There is no Garageband equivalent built-in, so I still have to use my Mac for making music and podcasts. I don't use Office because I don't want to pay for it - but on an iPad, it's free. There is no cheap day-to-day image editor as good as Pixelmator or pop-in note tool as good as Swifttext.
And in hardware too, it's not perfect. I wish I'd bought the i7 with more RAM, but I couldn't face the cost. It gets hot, and the kickstand still feels an inch away from glory. Oh, and it smashed to pieces when I dropped it.But when I look back on 2014, I honestly can't think of a gadget which has surprised me, intrigued me, frustrated me and yet changed my life anywhere near as much as a Surface Pro 3. It's an imperfect, sometimes infuriating box of contradictions. But it's also the most creative technical tool I own. And as I sit here now - a week post-smash, fresh refurb unit in my hands, running through seemingly endless updates just as the Microsoft Gods intended - I think I might just love it.