Last updated: April 19, 2023, 9:43 p.m.
Just less than a year ago I decided it would be interesting to try out a Microsoft Surface as an alternative to an Android tablet and maybe more portable than my venerable ThinkPad T430. I got a cheap unit from eBay to try it out, it's a Surface Pro 5 so pretty old now. Of course I didn't want to use Windows on it and I was thrilled with how easy getting a nice Linux install was on this very Microsoft hardware. I didn't do anything particularly special to get it running, just followed the instructions on GitHub.
For the most part my experience with the platform was good. Performance was pretty good. The pen and touch screen worked pretty well. I used it for coding, PCB layout, lots of FreeCAD work and even a bit of gaming via Steam. I only had 8GB of RAM which would probably have been okay but the ultra high definition display meant that apps were taking a lot more RAM than I'd expected and it very easily ran out of memory.
The camera was pretty disappointing. I don't do a lot of video calls so it wasn't a massive issue but after hours of hacking around with gstreamer I got a fairly fuzzy image out of it. Not exactly what you expect from premium grade hardware these days.
In the end it was the battery that was the killer. The battery health had been slowly descending from only about 60% when I got it. One day it just shutdown after only a few minutes and the battery health had reached 8%. This is when I realised the worst features of the Surface is it's lack of repairability. I know a tablet form factor reduces the amount of user serviceable parts in the machine, but I've changed phone and tablet screens and cameras, but they're nothing compared to the steps described in the iFixit guide for the Surface Pro. In the end that was what made me decide not to get another. I hate throwing away things that should be still usable and I've picked the Fairphone for this reason. Getting another Surface was guaranteed to end in disappointment.
What I did like about the Surface
At this point I knew I didn't like the Surface range due to their monolithic and unrepairable design. But what did I like about it? It was my first non-ThinkPad for a few years, I'd mostly had 14" ThinkPads because I prefer a compact machine.
- Size, the Surface Pro is a 12.3" screen, so a fair bit smaller even than the ThinkPads I'd been using. The small size made it very convenient for traveling or just using in the car while waiting for the kids.
- The screen resolution, the Surface Pro 5 has a 2736 x 1824 pixel display. I really like high DPI screens, often picking the high-resolution option on the ThinkPads but I'd never yet had bigger than 1080p on my own machine. For text this display is overkill, but for CAD work it has been absolutely brilliant. Using Wayland and KDE gave a very comfortable GUI scaling which made the most of the high resolution without straining my eyes.
I wasn't really bothered with the tablet features, I did undock the keyboard a few times and was generally impressed with how KDE did on-screen keyboard integration and screen rotation but I nearly always used the keyboard and mouse especially when doing anything productive like CAD work. In fact the screen stand mechanism was annoying in a lot of situations. I also rarely used the pen. Mostly just using the touchpad to get around.
In the end I returned to eBay and did some research, ending on an older model Dell XPS 13 with 4K UHD display, 16GB RAM and a recently replaced battery (although it looks like battery replacement should be quite straight forward on this one). Hopefully this one will last more than a year, but again second hand laptops with KDE make a very budget friendly way to test out new hardware options.
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