Working Without A Keyboard On The Surface Pro 4


I recently attended the Microsoft Cloud Conference in Los Angeles and was taken slightly aback to discover that the seating was basically lecture style, which meant no tables or surfaces for typing. Since I like to take notes it meant that I was finally going to get an extended experience with my relatively new Surface Pro 4…in tablet mode.

Lecture style seating (stock photo – not the actual conference)

Taking Notes

The Surface Pro 4 provides two handy ways for taking notes without the keyboard cover attached. Ink and the onscreen keyboard. Spending 6+ hours a day in these rooms gave me lots of chances to try both.

Ink

The ink experience with the Surface Pro 4 is the best I’ve seen yet. Most importantly to me it’s responsive. With some devices you stroke the pen across the screen and there’s a delay, even a small one, that is disconcerting. With the Surface Pro 4 the ink response is immediate, like writing on paper with a pen.

I didn’t make extensive use of the pressure sensitivity, though I was aware of it. For the most part I found that the pen just let me write the way I wanted to write – it’s the closest thing to digital pen & paper I’ve used so far.

With OneNote it’s pretty easy to change pen colors too, though if you’re changing them extremely often you’ll probably want to add the pens to the Quick Access Toolbar or just get in the habit of staying on the Draw tab.

The other feature of the Surface Pro 4 pen that I found delightful was that if I wanted to erase a bit of ink I’d made I could simply flip the pen over, like a pencil, and it would erase. Easy as that.

You can also Ink to Text with the Surface Pro 4. If you want to “type” an email for example you can pop up the on-screen keyboard (there’s a button for that right on the system tray, next to the clock) and switch to ink mode. The keyboard is replaced with a flat line for writing on. You ink the characters you want and Windows almost immediately converts them to text and shows that text to you for approval before it inserts the text. This tool also includes a pretty good predictive text tool that tries to guess what word you’re writing (just like auto-complete) before you finish it. That way you don’t have to ink all the way to the end of “Ingenious” if you don’t want to. That speeds up entry and can help with spelling too.

On Screen Keyboard

For a slightly more traditional experience Windows 10 offers a couple of on-screen keyboards that you can use. First there’s just a standard Qwerty keyboard that will pop up at the bottom of the screen and let you do pretty much anything you can do with the physical keyboard.

When I’m holding the device and taking notes, however, I find that I prefer the split screen keyboard. You can easily switch the onscreen keyboard into a split screen that divides the keyboard into two parts and moves them over into the bottom corners of the screen…for easy access to your thumbs. I found it a little challenging to use the full qwerty on screen keyboard in those seats; it required me to put the Surface flat on my lap and my lap isn’t entirely flat. Holding the Surface in both hands, however, the split keyboard was actually pretty nice to use. I wouldn’t want to write a novel on it, but for taking notes or quick email responses it worked quite nicely.

Heft

The Surface Pro 4 is a good size for a note-taking device, though it is slightly heavier than you might expect looking at it. While I never really found that a problem I suppose it could be fatigue inducing after a while. I did appreciate that between sessions I could set the Surface down on the temporarily empty seat next to me or stick it in my bag.

One thing you do want to keep in mind if you’re holding your Surface Pro in your hands…if you ever happen to drop it (and I have) there is what seems like long minutes of sheer terror as you watch your $1200 tablet tumble in slow motion towards the floor. I’ve dropped mine twice and so far it only has a slight scuff above the camera to show for it…fortunately. I’m now extra paranoid about how I handle the Surface Pro 4 because I’m worried on the next drop the screen will just spider-web and that will be the end of that.

In fact, I’ve just ordered one of these cases in hopes of better protecting the device. BONUS: The protective case includes a pen loop for storing the easy-to-lose Surface Pro pen.

Battery Life

My conference days with the Surface Pro 4 weren’t all Skittles and sunshine though. Battery life is a known issue with the current firmware and I got to experience that too. Even though I started the day fully charged, by early afternoon I found myself seeking out a power outlet to charge and by the last session of the day I often had to move to a seat near a power outlet (if I could find one). I’d guess I got maybe 6 hours of battery in pretty steady use (mostly OneNote and Outlook).

As I understand it that’s an issue Microsoft is working on and may be able to improve with future firmware updates. 6 hours isn’t terrible, but it’s not really the 8-10 hours people tend to expect from a tablet either.

I’ve also stumbled over the Surface’s sleep issues rather frequently too. Though the instinct with the Surface is to just close the cover when you’re done using it doing that puts the Surface into a sleep mode from which it often refuses to wake up. The workaround is to hold the power button down long enough to force it off…then push power again to start it.

Tip: Not sure how long to hold the power button down? Press the Fn key so that the little light comes on…hold the power button down until that light goes off, plus a couple of seconds. Then release the power button, give it a moment and press power again. Surface should boot normally at that point.

My solution to the sleep issue is to just try not to put the Surface to sleep. When I’m done using it I Start > Power > Shutdown. It shuts down pretty quickly and boots quickly as well, so it’s not TOO inconvenient to shut down and start…I just have to remember to do it.

Summary

All in all I was pretty pleased with the “keyboard-less” experience on the Surface Pro 4. Navigating by touch and taking notes either with ink or an on-screen keyboard actually worked fairly well for that particular event. I wouldn’t want to have to do my daily work that way…but as a note-taking mobile platform I found it surprisingly good.

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