A digital nomad’s review of Microsoft Surface

Digital nomading comes with some pretty demanding requirements on computing hardware. A good laptop needs to be portable but powerful, versatile, robust and reliable. It should work effortlessly in a wide range of conditions. And if the worst were to happen, it should be easy and inexpensive to repair.

Unfortunately, I bought a Microsoft Surface Pro, which is none of those things. Reasonably portable, I suppose. But the rest, not so much.

Here are a few reasons why Surface is the wrong choice for digital nomads.

Not work-from-the-road friendly

Surface Workspace

The Surface Pro is most notable for its innovative design. It converts between a tablet and laptop, not with a complicated system of hinges but via a slender kickstand and detachable keyboard (sold separately). An impressive idea and execution. But unfortunately, the form factor is inherently flawed. The tablet part is too big and heavy for extended use, but too small and poorly-cooled for high-intensity desktop computing. The kickstand digs painfully into a user’s legs during laptop use. Even the tiny vent holes can be problematic – they’re just the right size for ants to get into, a serious concern in certain tropical destinations↗!

That said, it’s not all bad. Paired with a wireless keyboard and mouse, the 2-in-1 design makes it really easy to jury-rig a standing desk or reasonably ergonomic workspace, even in less-than-ideal conditions. It is lighter and more compact than almost any competing laptop on the market. And nobody accuses it of lacking in style.

(Lack of) international support

Lots of Labels to Return the Surface

Before leaving the United States, I had no idea how important the fine print of my warranty could be. I was dismayed to discover that Microsoft offers no worldwide warranty on their devices. Few companies do, in fact – Apple and HP being two notable exceptions. What are the implications of this? Well, if anything goes wrong and the computer needs to be repaired or replaced (even under warranty), it’s the customer’s responsibility to ship it back to the country of purchase. These costs can be significant for customers living and working in remote spots around the world.

In our case, mailing our computer from Chile to the United States and back for a “free” in-warranty repair cost well over $300. We also had to deal with the headaches of international customs; even though we didn’t owe tax or duty to ship our own goods around, neither government wanted to let our package through without some sort of surcharge.

This might be easier to work around if we could just get our Surface repaired locally. Unfortunately, Microsoft has no worldwide support ecosystem. Practically every country on Earth↗ has an Apple store↗ or authorized Apple repair center. Meanwhile, all the PC repair shops we went do just threw up their hands. They didn’t even know where to start with it. And I don’t blame them: Surface devices are some of the least repairable↗ computers available.

Nobody likes surprise shipping bills or going without critical hardware for weeks on end. But a challenging and expensive repair still might not be a deal breaker if it weren’t for Microsoft’s extensive…

Quality issues

Jittery Screen

Somehow, Microsoft Surface devices acquired an undeserved reputation as solid pieces of tech. Turns out they break down, a lot. We personally had ours fail on two separate occasions. First, the screen started jittering incessantly►, rendering it unusable right on the cusp of our 1-year warranty expiration. Microsoft Support insisted that it was a software issue and encouraged me to wait out my warranty for a patch. They assured me that I’d still be covered if I filed a claim within 30 days, but as soon as my warranty expired this happened, and worse, my free support evaporated.

Spoiler alert, it was a hardware problem. A pretty common one, judging by the thousands-response thread↗ on their official support forum or the scandal-driven website it spawned, flickergate.com↗. And yet Microsoft continued to ignore the problem or lie about failure rates (not for the first time↗) until a class-action lawsuit investigation↗ pushed them to create an extremely narrow recall program↗.

Microsoft did eventually agree to repair my device for free (minus the aforementioned international shipping costs). They replaced it with a refurbished device, which came with a much shorter 3 month warranty. It wasn’t long after that expired that the replacement started showing signs of a faulty battery. It stopped charging properly, and even lost charge when powered off.

The quality issues got so bad that Consumer Reports stopped recommending↗ Surface products in late 2017. Microsoft’s tone-deaf response↗ didn’t deny the failures, but countered that the true number of affected devices was lower than 1 in 4. Still a risky gamble for a nomad.

Poor value

Surface Pro is undoubtedly one of the most powerful devices in its weight class. But as a premium device it also comes with a premium price tag – over $2000 for my practically maxed-out Surface Pro 4 with keyboard. What did I get for that price? Surprisingly little. It runs graphically-modest indie games↗ or old GameCube titles↗ well enough; but many games are total slideshows↗ or even refuse to start↗. Unity runs acceptably for mobile development but feels hobbled on bigger projects. With that high a price of admission, it feels like I should be getting much more.

Indeed, the internet is awash with comparable devices at bargain prices. Few are as sleek and sexy as Surface, but weight isn’t the only deciding factor. And a little extra heft goes a long way! HP’s Spectre x360 15″ retails for around $1500, while Microsoft’s closest offering, the Surface Book 2 with Performance Base, starts at almost double that price.

Verdict

None of these points necessarily mean Surface PCs are bad computers. Most consumers don’t have the same unique needs as digital nomads. And some types of user (artists, for example) will find a lot to love about the best-in-class touch screen and stylus. But when I’m in the middle of nowhere, I need a workhorse computer I can rely on. Microsoft Surface is not it.

Take it from me, a digital nomad with a Surface: you don’t want to be a digital nomad with a Surface.

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