A Playwright’s Thoughts on the Surface Pro

February 6, 2013 by Sam Graber

If you’re like me, you’re wondering how the latest evolutionary step in personal computing can affect your playwrighting.

The Surface Pro is just released and I went to the Microsoft store at the Mall of America to try out an advance display model. I bring to you not only a review of the new Surface Pro but also some thoughts on the broader impact of mobile computing on playwrighting.

For those unaware, the emergence of the new hybrid or convertible line of PCs attempts to meld the laptop and the tablet into a single computer. The convertible tries to consolidate the push-forward productivity of the PC and the laid-back consumption of the tablet.

Most playwrights I know don’t have the interest or money to be carrying around both a laptop and tablet. Having a laptop and tablet seems a first-world burden shouldered by business people. Playwrights I know have a cell (mandatory) and then either a laptop or a tablet. But not both.

Do you consider a tablet to be a personal computer? That’s the question we’ve been asking since the iPad first came onto the scene. As writers, we probably agree that the tablet is a fun and exciting device for consuming media. But is it truly a worker’s tool?

Check out the latest data showcasing the shift in computing. The computer industry estimates that shipments of tablets are now more than half of PCs. Wow! In less than three years the new tablet category has gobbled up the venerable PC. Compared to the PC, the tablet is priced lower, more portable, and is offering a much longer battery life. But the tablet doesn’t handle more complex computing tasks. Especially as it relates to playwrighting.

I try to think of computers in the broad view, the historical view, instead of the reactionary victims-of-marketing view. I try to think of computers in light of the car. The car as we know it is now over a century old. And the car is a highly reliable and durable machine. And we only need one of them. I don’t have three cars. I have one car. And most of us wish we didn’t even own a car, we’d all rather take public transit.

But the point is, why do I need to have three devices for computing? I’d rather just have one device. So given that the tablet has demonstrated just how powerful a simplified media experience can be, and how bulky and outdated the PC interface has become, I’m down with getting the best of both worlds.

But is there a hardware and software solution that delivers on both? The gains in the car world were incremental, over time. Computers are the same way. Every year, it’s always how the new line of computers are a little bit faster, or a little bit lighter, or a little bit cheaper.

But the Surface Pro represents a golden ticket for playwrights. That’s because I’m stuck having to do all my writing inside, sitting in a chair, at a table, with a screen two feet from my face, and my computer plugged into a wall. I hate writing this way. Or to be more accurate, I hate being forced to write this way.

I saw the Surface Pro and gripped it in my hands and thought…I can write standing up!…I can write leaning against a wall, walking the wings, lounging in the green room, lying across the aisle…basking in the backstage bathroom! I can sling this thing around my back and hike the city streets with a microphone extended to my mouth and dictate thoughts direct to the computer. This will free me from physio-ergonomic jail! I can stop sitting down!

Alas, fellow playwrights, we don’t have a golden ticket.

First, and most important, the Surface Pro battery life is pathetic. We’re looking at five hours of battery life (if that) max. I expect a mobile that can go eight hours without charging. The low battery life is an instant disqualifier for me. Second, the price. It’s expensive. Albeit, it’s a tablet and computer in one but it’s still more than you’d pay for either a tablet or computer. Third, the heft and weight will be detriments for playwrights, particularly because the Surface Pro is too bulky to use comfortably in your lap for long periods of time. Furthermore, I consider the lack of apps in the Windows8 catalog a minor but notable downside.

A hardware configuration that is more laptop than tablet could be a turnoff for playwrights. It isn’t for me but it could be for you. I appreciate that the Surface Pro is more laptop than tablet. This is because I have many programs running simultaneously and I cruise through them all. Firefox (many tabs open), Outlook, OneNote, Adobe, Excel, and KeePass are all up and running. I’m flipping back and forth in fractions of seconds with the power alt-tab move.

I couldn’t do what I do as a playwright cycling between apps in a tablet environment. The definition of a personal computer hasn’t changed for me. Computer means computing, not consuming.

Of course, there are positives to report. There’s the beauty of the Surface Pro design and the brightness of the screen and my programs running in laptop mode without flaw. But relating to the auto world, this is like getting in a new car model and oohing-and-aahing over the brake pedal slowing the car. We should assume that a computer will execute basic functions by now. All that stuff about improvements to display and interface aren’t important to playwrights. Here’s what’s important – the external keyboard, an additional $130 purchase – is clunky and doesn’t keep up with my fingers. Yes, I type fast, but a keyboard shouldn’t slow playwrights down.

Sorry, was this supposed to be about positives?

A couple days ago I went over to a good friend’s house and checked out his Yoga convertible (two words that otherwise would make me think Volkswagen has gone batty!). It’s not any better or worse than the Surface Pro. It’s the same set of issues.

Overall, the Surface Pro is certainly movement forward towards the freeing up from sitting down. In talking with comrades and in watching news releases, I offer that more significant movement forward will come later this year, when Intel releases its newest line of processor chips. If the new line of Intel chips truly lowers the wattage requirement and affords increased rate power, then computer manufacturers will be able to deliver convertibles with longer battery power and lighter weight.

And we could see true laptop-style computing in a tablet-consuming frame.

Until then, I’ll be sitting here, in the corner, plugged into the wall, working on a new Act II.