Once upon a time, a secret, unfinished Microsoft concept called Courier leaked out onto the internet, promising a folding, dual-touchscreen device that would behave like a creative’s superpowered sketchbook. Most attractively, the idea was that users could run a pair of apps side-by-side while freely passing various bits of data -- photos, links, sketches -- back and forth between the two. It would combine the focused and intuitive feeling of the smartphone/tablet experience, with the dynamic multitasking of the desktop environment.
The project died before it was anywhere close to becoming real, and in general, the idea of a tablet as a digital sketchbook has largely been abandoned by most tablet makers because none to date has figured out how to make the experience more convenient than paper itself. Now, almost five years later, we’re getting the strongest sense of what Microsoft’s abandoned concept could have been with the new Surface Pro 3. Microsoft has started to tackle what makes the experience of analog writing so great.
Plenty will be written about how the larger screen and vastly improved trackpad on its Type Cover help elevate this to Microsoft’s platonic ideal for the Surface Pro -- a device that is both laptop and tablet, but skews more toward laptop. And while that is all true, the Surface Pro 3’s potential as a tablet is not to be overlooked.
The Surface Pro 3 takes a stylus, a multi-app user interface, and a screen larger than 10 inches -- all typically bad ideas that cause clunky performance, cramped UIs and bad ergonomics in other tablets --and turns them into something oddly practical: a tablet for people who actually make shit.
Evolution In Action
It’s not that this type of stuff wasn’t technically possible with previous Surfaces, some of which also came with a stylus and multitasking capabilities, but the hardware and software refinements found in the Surface 3 just weren't present.
Since the arrival of the iPad, tablets have been designed primarily as consumption devices that let you browse the web, watch videos, listen to music, capture video and audio, and do some light text and photo editing.
But attempts to make those devices into media creation and editing devices have been middling. Most tablet hardware isn't designed for using a stylus, and even the ones that are tend to offer an imprecise experience. Other platforms, like iOS and Android aren't designed to run multiple apps side-by-side, and attempts from the likes of Samsung to pile that on top have resulted in a wonky experience that is only supported by a handful of apps. And even a 10-inch screen, while plenty big for internet and gaming purposes, starts to feel a bit small when trying to use an iPad app like Paper in a serious way.
This mostly holds true for the previous Surfaces, too. The multitasking capabilities of Windows 8 -- which is still a work in progress -- were far less developed a year ago than they are now. The Surface Pros were too fat and heavy for this sort of thing, and the touchscreen/pen technology of those models was noticeably inferior to what the Surface Pro 3 has now.
The physical dimensions of the Surface Pro 3 are what really set it apart. The 16:9 aspect ratio of the old Surface displays, was clearly optimized for watching video, but made it awkward to use in portrait orientation, which is how most people hold notepads in real life. Changing the aspect ratio of the Surface Pro 3 to 3:2, was, according to Surface lead designer Ralf Groene, vital to delivering that notepad feel. "It was about finding the right balance between landscape and portrait," he explained. "We tried a bunch of different things, but settled on the 3:2 aspect ratio because it is almost exactly the same as a sheet of A4 paper."
And while a 12-inch screen seems absurd compared to the 7- or 10-inch tablets people can use on the go just as easily as at home -- trying to use the Surface Pro 3 in the same exact way as the iPad feels unwieldy -- the benefits of the extra real estate become apparent in creative contexts. You can place your hand down on the screen and not block half of what you’re trying to look at. When you have two apps running side-by-side, Such as OneNote and Internet explorer, things feel less cramped than on the 10.6-inch screen of the older Surfaces. And when working with large visuals, you can simply see more of them.
Little Things Considered
But it’s really the minor usability refinements -- things which have doomed Microsoft in the past -- that have opened up the potential for this thing as a true digital notebook. The pen hardware, which admittedly has a nice feel, was obsessed over by Groene and his team, to the point that he lauds highly technical details like a 10-mm diameter barrel and the extra weighting down by tip of the pen. The screen, which is literally easy on the eyes with its sharp resolution, interacts with the pen to provide handwriting precision that most tablets can’t match.
The coup d’grace, however, is the simplest, most basic thing found on the entire device. When the Surface is in sleep mode and you click the button on top of the pen, the tablet will launch straight into a blank screen for jotting down notes by hand. It may seem dumb, but it takes a formerly involved process (unlock tablet, find app, launch app, write), and turns it into a thoughtless, frictionless process that takes all of a half-second. It’s the little things like this that Apple built its name on. "We wanted to design it so people always know what to do with it," said Groene.
Swaying The Masses
The Surface Pro 3 isn’t perfect, and its success isn’t guaranteed. Yes, it’s impressively thin, and lighter than it has any business being, but if speaking in absolute terms, it's not that light when you pick it up. WIndows 8 still needs to make some specific refinements around this digital notepad idea before the Surface can reach its potential, especially when it comes to letting two apps better interact with one another when working side-by-side. And most importantly, the makers of professional software and services will have to fully embrace the idea as well. Having Adobe and Final Draft on board is a good first step since they're two big time apps that the best creative professionals use, but there needs to be an entire ecosystem of companies, which not only support this notepad style of interaction, but have thoughtfully designed it into their product.
If that can happen, then maybe Microsoft will have found a silver lining in its cloud: It wasn’t able to topple the iPad, or even put a dent in it really. But it may be on the cusp of creating a different type of tablet for a different type of user, along the way upending the maxim that tablets only work for media consumption.