A Photographers Perfect Mobile Solution?

I’ve been relying heavily on a little laptop as my on the road solution, but, keeping it small and light had trade offs: poorer quality display, restricted editing facilities (without carrying other devices with me, but I’ll get into that in a bit), not quite desktop performance, but performance enough for lighter duty editing requirements to name a few.

Like many other working photographers out there, I ended up choosing a 2014 model 11.6″ MacBook Air, with  an i5 1.4GHz CPU, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD and Intel HD 5000 series graphics. It is a fantastic little machine. Gorgeous to look at and use, but, it wasn’t an ideal solution, but it worked, well sort of. . .

My very first blog post back in August 2014, was an Apple users look at the Microsoft Surface 2 Windows 8.1 (RT) Tablet. Nobody read it because nobody was interested in Microsoft’s much malinged tablet offering, but in summary, I actually quite liked it, but, after a few months use, I sold it on as it did have severe limitations. I looked at the prices of Surface Pro 2/ 3 models but they were a but much for a device which was going to be my daily workhorse while on the road, so, after much and I mean a huge amount of hard and laborious thinking (yeah, ok, I had made my mind up in seconds) I went and bought my MacBook Air 11.6″ and have loved every second of using it. . . except when it came to image editing.

The scaled down trackpad on the 11″ model was restricting for ‘accurate’ edits, so, my desktop Wacom Intuos Pro (Large) tablet joined my on the road bag as well as my pocket sized USB 3.0 external SSD drive. Whilst not perhaps the ideal light weight mobile studio, I get on better with larger ‘working area’ graphics tablets, so a smaller option was quickly ruled out and I got on with things fairly well.

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Microsoft Surface Pro 2 with Type Cover 2

That’s basically been my out and about editing solution since 2014.

I’ve written several posts on smaller, more commonly called Mirrorless cameras, since many years of carrying heavy pro level gear around has resulted in very painful tennis elbow (boo-hoo sob, sob. Grow up and get on with it!) in both elbows. I won’t bore you with the details, enough said that they were so painful, I could barely raise a DSLR and lens to my eye and hold it there to take a shot. So resting up for a few weeks they got better, but getting back on the out and about train, they quickly deteriorated again, so I needed a lighter weight option for my gear to.

Recently, I found my perfect camera solution in the form of the Panasonic Lumix GX8. I did write a first look piece a week or so ago (a full real use review will be following soon) and it is perfect (for me at least) weather sealed, light enough not to cause my elbows any trouble and the lenses produce absolutely gorgeous results. The GX8 and 3 or 4 lenses weighs about half that of  the Nikon D800 and one lens. It is a dream come true :).

But, having scaled down on gear size, there was an elephant on the room. My mobile editing studio and that huge Wacom Intuos Graphics Tablet. Something had to give, but then, I heard a rumour that Apple were going to announce something of a game changer. Could that be the all in one solution I was dreaming for?

When Apple announced the iPad Pro, I thought ‘oh hello, this could be it’ but it ran iOS, which wouldn’t allow me my Lightroom Library (without an expensive cloud option from Adobe) or my desktop Photoshop CC to run (yeah I know Adobe had mobile variants but relearning new ways to do things that have become second nature is, in my mind, counter productive to my workflow (I sort of go into auto-pilot). What I needed was a tablet that could run my full version Adobe software, that had a large(ish) built in graphics tablet solution, preferably with a Wacom pen type offering. But no such thing existed.

Or so I thought. . .

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Microsoft Surface Pro 2 with Type Cover 2 Lock Screen

Now, I have been a dedicated Apple user for almost 15 years (the Surface 2 was a curiosity project, nothing more), but just recently, browsing online reviews (too many to mention), something caught my eye. There in my search results was an eBay listing for a Surface Pro 2. I didn’t click on it because I had no interest in the Surface, ‘been there done that’ I thought to myself, then  carried on looking through my search results for a lighter weight solution that meets my requirements. If one actually existed.

A few days later, I still hadn’t found anything, so I decided it was pointless wasting any more time on trying to find something that clearly didn’t exist. I resigned myself to continueing with my current arrangement of MacBook Air and Wacom Tablet.

It was while browsing ebay one day, it was a slow day and I was very bored, I remembered the Surface Pro 2 listing from a few days previously, so I did what everybody else would do, I typed it into the search field and waited for the results.

To my surprise, there were quite a few listed, and even more surprisingly, they weren’t exactly expensive, especially compared to their retail price when launched, Yes they were all used, and of course the Pro 2 had been superceeded twice since my Surface 2 experience, with the Pro 3 and now the Pro 4, so I did some searching to find out more.

Full HD 10.8″  high definition display with excellent colour gammut, check. Intel 4th Gen i5 CPU, check. Minimum 4GB RAM, check, 128GB, 256GB and 512GB SSD options, check. Full operating system, check. Intel HD 4400 graphics with the ability to run Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop CC, check. Large 10.8″ Touchscreen, with Pen support, check. Great battery life, check. I couldn’t belive what I was reading. The Surface Pro 2 was exactly what I was looking for. I was stunned.

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Surface Type Cover 2 Backlight OFF

I scanned the listings and found a well used one, complete with two type covers and two official Microsoft chargers (spares are always a handy thing to have) with a Buy it Now price and a Best Offer option.

I contacted the seller with my offer, which was almost immediately responded to with a counter offer. It was a fair counter offer, so I accepted it and paid instantly. Two days later, my Surface Pro 2 arrived.

Being super conscientious, I connected a Type Cover 2 and powered the Surface Pro 2 up. Within seconds, I was facing the start up screen asking for my time zone. Once set, I continued the setup process and in under a minute was looking at my Windows 10 desktop. The Type Cover 2 backlit keyboard glowing at me, begging to be used.

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Surface Type Cover 2 Backlight ON

The first thing I did was to wipe the system and install a fresh copy of Windows 10 onto it, just to make sure nothing nasty was lurking in the background waiting to mine my data. Expecting a typical Windows ‘this’ll take all day’ experience, I was pleasantly surprised when around 15 – 20 minutes later, my Surface Pro 2 was once again on the set up screen asking me to complete the process.

Once done, I was good to go.

Having not used Windows for 15 years, my last experience was Windows XP, the Windows 10 desktop was familiar, yet very fresh. Very modern. I had absolutely no difficulty finding my way around and in no time had downloaded, installed configured and updated my anti virus software.

Next Adobe. I quickly downloaded the Creative Cloud installer file and within a minute of installing, had signed in and was downloading Lightroom 6 and Photoshop CC (2015). While that was busy downloading, I grabbed one of my external USB 3.0 SSD drives I use as my on the road library, connected a USB 3.0 hub to the single port on the Surafce Pro 2, then connected my SSD and Lumix GX8 to the hub. Both were identified instantly by the Surface Pro 2 and within seconds, I had transferred files from the Lumix GX8 to the SSD, ready for Lightroom.

Once downloaded, Lightroom launched very quickly from the onboard SSD drive inside the Surface Pro 2 and I had added the files form the external SSD to the new Lightroom Library. Everything worked quickly and with absolutely no issues.

Next Photoshop CC. I edited a file from Lightroom into Photoshop CC, which again launched very quickly. Using the included Surface Pro 2 Pen, I was soon carrying out corrections with minimal fuss. Depending on task and amount of processes, the Surface Pro 2 did brilliantly. It was much quicker than my MacBook Air and using it without the keyboard attatched as a mini Wacom Cintique like device was brilliant.

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Surface Pen Pro (it’s a Wacom pen)

Things only slowed due to the limited 4GB RAM my Surface Pro 2 has installed. Obviously being a tablet, you can’t add more RAM, but in reality, it wasn’t a problem because of the built in SSD drive hosting the Page Swap Space. It was a minimal slow down and to be honest wasn’t that noticeable. It is after all a very compact tablet.

So, all in all I was delighted. I had a very capable device, more capable than my MacBook Air solution (or argueably any laptop based solution), more compact, yet a fully functional computer for under £250. This has got to be the bargain of the year. Why aren’t more people using these for their on the road requirements?

The two position kick stand is fantastic for positioning the Surface Pro 2 in just the right position for different tasks, fold it flat in Tablet mode then edit, draw, paint away to your hearts content. For more traditional navigation, the built in track pad with multi gesture support is accurate and easy to use.

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Microsoft Surface Pro 2 Rear Kick Stand

My Surface Pro 2 does have obvious signs of use, but this was part of the attraction for choosing it. I liked that it looked worn in. It had a history before it came to me and I really liked that. Unlike my Macs, which I am almost obcessive about keeping in pristine condition, I am actually relaxed using the Surface Pro 2. I know I won’t care if another scratch marks it’s paint or paint flakes off.

These are it’s scars of life. It’s been somebody’s reliable little workhorse for years before me. I won’t abuse it. I take care of all my gear, but this time around, if the Surface Pro 2 is marked, it all adds to it’s uniquness.

So, in short, if you are looking for a cheap mobile workhorse for your image or video editing needs, I’d suggest you take a look at the Surface Pro 2. At current second hand prices, these are the best bang for the buck you can get.

To get similar capabilities in tablet form from Apple, you’d need to fork out for an iPad Pro 128GB which starts @£619 for the 9.7″, plus £79 for the Pencil, for image editing, on top of which, you’d need to fork out another @£120 for the Smart Keyboard cover. Over £800 for something that doesn’t give me the same capabilities as a two year old Surface Pro 2. You could almsot buy 4 Surface Pro 2’s for the same money and get 4 times more done.

It’s strange that you can find the solution to a problem in the funniest places. As a confirmed Apple user of 15 years, the solution to my on the go image editing solution was of all places, found in a Microsoft Surface Pro 2 from eBay.

 

 

 

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