Accessibility Review: Microsoft Surface Pro vs Surface Book

Tech reviews can be a bit dime-a-dozen online, with everyone and their mother writing blogs, recording vlogs, making podcasts and sending up smoke signals about their experiences with all the latest gadgets. Despite this copious swamp of opinions, there remains a relative dearth of tech reviews focused specifically on experiences of accessibility and adaptability (outside, of course, some of the wonderful work done by the AbleGamers Foundation).

Late last year, Microsoft Canada contacted me to see if I would be interested in partnering with them to fill this gap, testing out some of their devices and software to provide (public, and private) feedback on my experiences.

What follows are some thoughts on tech accessibility generated after spending a some time doing a head-to-head comparison of (relatively) new Microsoft Surface Pro and Surface Book!

Editors Note: this content was generated as a result of my partnership with Microsoft and should be viewed as such. Having said that, Microsoft has promised I would be able to provide my unfiltered opinions, good or bad, without fear of @MajorNelson annihilating me on Fortnite Battle Royale as retribution.

Windows 10 Accessibility Features

Whether it is 3rd party applications like Dragon Naturally Speaking or JAWS, it has always annoyed me that while companies would (almost) never sell a laptop without a monitor, keyboard and mouse as included peripheries, users with visual or dexterity impairments have to buy additional peripheries in order to use their new computers in an accessible format.

It appears that with the release of Windows 10, there has been a significant commitment by Microsoft to begin “baking in” significant accessibility features directly into their OS. This means that right off the bat, users of the Surface Pro or the Surface Book are already getting access to a more inclusive platform than past PC products, with the usual features (such as zoom, desktop magnifier, flexible contrast levels, sticky keys) and exciting new features (like voice-to-text and eye-controlled keyboard and mouse) built right into the OS.

Most interestingly, Microsoft has also grown the Accessibility Help Desk which provides custom, responsive support for users with disabilities who are struggling with Microsoft products and services.  I really appreciate the fact that accessibility feature support has been pulled out of the typical customer support, as it is all too common that typical help desk operators have little to no training on niche subjects, like accessibility, which can be pretty frustrating.

Looking under the hood

Red Surface Pro lined up with a Silver Surface Book
Commence side-by-side comparison.

Comparing the guts of the Surface Pro and the Surface Book is not exactly a fair fight. While both devices offer your standard offerings on processor (core i5 or i7, generally speaking) and memory (8/16gb RAM and SSDs of varying sizes), the Surface Book’s additional GPU (hidden within the detachable keyboard) makes it far more capable in my experience to handle graphical processing loads (like +30 slide PPTs with hi-res images, high definition video, or even popular Steam games) whereas the Surface Pro can have some hiccups when you start getting a lot of windows going at once along with using an external monitor.

Similarly, the Surface Book’s bigger battery is almost immediately noticeable. While the Surface Pro regularly gets me through a 9-to-5 day, I generally need to charge it during dinner or it won’t last me through an evening of social media-ing and responding to student emails while watching hockey. The double-battery system of the Surface Book can make it through the day without too much hassle and rarely requires a top-up during the day.

One frustrating thing about the Surface Pro is the lack of USB ports. Yes, I get it, it’s supposed to be a portable ‘work’ device dependent on blue tooth and not ‘sit down’ peripheries, it’s still a bit annoying needing a USB splitter to attach a wireless keyboard, mouse, and printer at the same time.  The Surface Book offers two USB plugs on the side of the keyboard and they seem to charge my phone faster than the one on the Surface Pro, but this might be totally my imagination.

verdict: Surface book, hands down

Thinking Portability

Now that I’ve (kind of?) shifted from the world of hardcore PC gaming to academia, portability is a significant factor in deciding what computer works best for me, as I’m rarely working in the same space for much longer than a few hours. At the same time, I have some significant limitations as I can only lift approximately 3 pounds using both arms, so I really need a device that I can lift, move and store without constantly asking others to help.

Weighing a little over 3.5 lbs (or the weight of two bottles of water), the Surface Book is just a bit too heavy for me to use on a day-to-day basis, taking all of my strength to lift it off a table and onto my lap or into a bag. Worse still, any additional weight added to my bag (papers, books, etc) pushes it well beyond what I can lift. I found myself actually getting a bit winded after lugging it around for a day, which is definitely not a great thing when your job is based on talking. The Surface Book is also a bit ‘chunkier’ with the GPU & battery in the keyboard, which takes up more space in my relatively small bag.

Conversely, the Surface Pro, with keyboard and pen attached, is under 2lbs (comparable to a bottle of water or so) and provides more flexibility for managing my own stuff without constant lifting assistance from others. Still heavier than a full-size iPad, the device is balanced pretty nicely which makes tipping & lifting fairly easy.

VERDICT: Surface Pro, although it’s close

To Detach or Not to Detach

Screen shot of Principal Skinner, from the Simpsons, asking "Am I out of touch? No, it's the children who are wrong."
TFW you’re +30-years-old and considering the tablet vs laptop debate

Full disclosure — I don’t get the tablet craze. iPads are fun, sure, but I just don’t really understand the laptop vs tablet debate. This is, perhaps, because I struggle to use pens and, therefore, removing the keyboard actually significantly impairs my ability to use the device. But also, I hate when my monitor gets all finger-printy, so I just feel like there is something fundamentally wrong about touching the monitor when a mouse/touch pad is readily available.

Having said that, I have found I am far more likely to detach the monitor from the Surface Pro than the Surface Book for two main reasons:

  1. Detaching the screen from the keyboard on the Surface Book is extremely awkward, requiring you to push a button (on the keyboard or on the screen by the clock) and then basically wrestle the monitor off a fairly rigid set of pins that secure it to the keyboard. I have found no easy way to do this with my hand and arm strength and have essentially given up trying because I’m fully expecting to accidentally throw the screen across the room while attempting to Hulk-smash off the keyboard. If you struggle to open water bottles or perform other fine-motor skills, you may find this difficult too.
  2. The Surface Book monitor does not have any video-out port (that I can find anyway…) which means I cannot just take the tablet with me to a podium to use as a speaking device (with notes on the tablet and the tablet powering the projector), which essentially means I either need to leave the keyboard attached (meaning you have a full laptop between you and the audience) or just use the tablet for speaking notes and require a second device to run your slides.

The Surface Pro has neither of these problems, with the keyboard detaching from it’s magnetic lock with a bit of a tug and the on-board video-out plug makes it the ideal “public speech” tablet. I’ve been using an iPad as my primary speaking notes device since 2010, but after buying a Surface Pro in September I haven’t touched my iPad for a presentation.

Verdict: Surface Pro, and it’s not even close

Comparing Keyboards

Using the Surface Pro and Surface Book as my go-to working device for the past few months means spending a lot of time clickity clacking away on the keyboard and, to be honest, I never thought I would care about this kind of thing until Mircosoft asked me about my experience using the device. Now it’s kind of all I can think about.

Animated gif of Kermit the Frog typing furiously
Live look at me typing on my Surface Pro

There’s just something really satisfying about typing on a responsive, clicky keyboard and both the Surface Pro and Surface Book offer an enjoyable tactile experience while typing. I find the Surface Book keyboard a bit stiffer, reminding me a bit of the old 2010ish MacBook Pros (might just be a subconscious connection because the Surface Book also looks remarkable like those old MBPs…) while the Surface Pro keyboard is a bit looser (reminding me a bit of the mid-2000s Macbook keyboards) and can get pretty loud when you really get flying. In fact, I think I’m going to give the edge here to the Surface Pro just because the keyboard makes me sound like I’m typing at furiously high speeds.

verdict: surface pro, because it makes me the vin diesel of typing #2Fast2Furious

Final Verdict — Microsoft Surface Pro 2 is the device for me

From the portability to the general functionality, the Surface Pro has become my preferred work device. I certainly didn’t dread the days I would use the Surface Book that Microsoft provided me to trial, but I felt the upgraded performance just didn’t make up for the additional weight and reduced flexibility with the tricky to detach tablet. Especially when that performance upgrade is only really noticeable in CPU-heavy operations that are not typical in the day-to-day laptop use of a professor/office worker.

The Surface Pro has effortlessly merged into my typical workflow and the speed and simplicity of Windows 10 has pulled me away from the OSX/Apple experience I have preferred for the past decade. What’s more, Microsoft’s (re)commitment to accessibility may mean this generation of disabled computer users finally start flocking back to PC over Mac.

Best of all, you can get a almost max-spec Surface Pro for around $3000 whereas a comparable Surface Book will run you close to $4000. What you’re losing in performance, you’re gaining in stone cold cash!