Why I Replaced My Chromebook with the New Entry-Level Surface Pro 7

A few months ago I read an article about how Chromebooks are only guaranteed to receive updates for five years from the release date (not the date of purchase), a fact that I don’t think I was previously aware of. Since Chromebooks are cloud machines that require those updates to be effective and secure, the device is more or less useless (although there are options).

I looked up my Toshiba Chromebook 2 and sure enough the updates will cease in June of 2021. My first instinct was “looks like I’ll be in the market for a new Chromebook”, but then I thought “is a Chromebook really the right solution for me”?

Why I Love the Idea of a Backup Laptop

My Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon cost $2,160, but the truth is that it’s worth so much more than that. It has everything on it – all of my work and school and personal files dating back 20+ years. If I were to lose it, I’d have to assume that whomever found it accessed everything, even if I were able to remote wipe the device. Which would mean changing hundreds of passwords immediately and restoring all of those files from a backup. In reality, that ThinkPad is probably worth more like $10k or $20k to me at this point in my personal and professional life, so it stands to reason that I should be protective of it. That value is reflected in the fact that I purchased their 3-year next-day onsite service. If it breaks, I need it fixed.

I’ve become more and more conservative, typically only using the ThinkPad at work and at home and in a few other unique scenarios. Instead, I’d grab the Chromebook if I’m going to the coffee shop, working out on my porch where it’s dirty, heading on vacation, or really anywhere else. The Chromebook was so great because it was cheap ($279.99), secure, and, because I was able to log in with my Google Apps / G Suite account, I had access to all of my work email, docs, spreadsheets, and wikis, along with web access to our sites and our servers. If I lost it, I could just change my Google password and be relatively confident that nothing was compromised. If I broke it…well, it would stink but it’s not the end of the world and it certainly wouldn’t slow down my productivity.

For anyone in a similar situation, I 100% still think a backup laptop is a necessity. What I wasn’t so sure of was weather a Chromebook was still my best option.

Why Chromebooks Limit Me Too Much

Here’s what has changed since I purchased my last Chromebook in 2014:

  • I became aware of the aforementioned five-year update policy, which seems very short these days (my 2013 Zenbook is still going strong six years later as a Plex server and testing device)
  • I am capable of doing way more on my phone. My phone is now almost every bit as capable as the Chromebook (in some cases more). The only advantage of the Chromebook was screen size and a physical keyboard.
  • Chromebooks got pricier – the new Pixelbook Go starts at $649 and The Wirecutter’s pick for best Chromebook is a $550 Asus
  • Much of the Windows software I rely on is cloud-synced, making a secondary device more feasible (more on this below)

Ultimately I decided that I wanted something closer to my Windows environment. If I’m out, I want to be able to do real work. If I’m on vacation and there’s a technical emergency, I want the software that I’m familiar with at my fingertips.

For example, we use MySQL Workbench to query our databases. We have a library of commonly used .SQL files in Google Drive File Stream for easy access. With the Chromebook, I could still access those files from the web and then run the queries in phpMyAdmin or a terminal, but the experience wouldn’t be as good, nor would it be familiar. Or, every time I’d try to use our VPN it would give me problems on Chrome OS when it worked flawlessly on Windows. There were several more examples like that.

Enter the Microsoft Surface

I think it’s important to set a reasonable budget for this purchase. It is, after all, a somewhat disposable device that won’t be used daily. Spending $1,500 is a waste. In my case, I decided that a $600 cap was about right. I thought that I’d have no shortage of good Windows options at that price, but very quickly I realized that the low-end Windows market is a mess. You can get reasonable specs, but your laptop will weigh 5 lbs and look like it’s from 2005. Or you can get something small and light running an underpowered processor that you’ve never heard of and 2-4 GB of RAM.

I turned my attention to the Microsoft Surface Go. The version with 8 GB of RAM is $549 but can be found for $599 with the keyboard. The reviews are surprisingly stellar, but I had a few reservations: would the Intel 4415Y processor be fast enough? Was the screen size too small to do real work on? Would it be a pain to switch Windows out of S mode?

I had convinced myself that it was worth a shot, and decided to wait for Black Friday to see if there were any deals. And then I saw Best Buy offering the brand-new Surface Pro 7 for $599:

For the first weekend of the announcement, you were able to purchase that deal now in advance. A $960 bundle marked down to $599 is a shockingly good deal, especially for a product that’s only a few weeks old (I suspect that this was part of Microsoft’s marketing plan upon release, as they have the same deal for $649 in the Microsoft Store). My only real reservation was the 4 GB of RAM. That’s not much in this day and age. Then again, I don’t do anything graphically intensive, and none of the software I use has anything more than 4 GB in the recommended specs.

So, on Sunday 11/10 I decided to pull the trigger. I figured if it was super slow, I’d just return it. Thankfully, it was not. I had convinced myself that Microsoft wouldn’t lend their name to a brand new product that they were going to promote heavily if it was a dog, and I was right. It is quite an impressive device.

Setting Up a Cloud-First Windows

The more I looked into it, the more I became excited about setting up a cloud-first Windows environment. With a few hours of work, I was able to get a setup that almost identically mimics my ThinkPad. It’s probably 90 – 95% of the way there with 10% of the effort.

I first created a new Microsoft account specifically for this device. I set up two-factor authentication for log in and enabled find my device so that I could easily locate or wipe the device.

I then installed the ten or so programs that make up the majority of my work. The browsers, Chrome and Firefox, already sync, so no work there. And Google Drive File Stream is particularly amazing for this application because it functions like a local drive but the files aren’t stored locally (and for this reason it’s vastly superior to Dropbox for my needs).

I copied over a few files, like my personal text expansion and my desktop background, but that was all I needed.

This was surprisingly easy and will be effortless to maintain. I made a list of passwords that I would need to change just to be safe if someone got access to or stole the machine, and it was eleven. No files are stored locally, so really that would be it. I was willing to make that slight compromise as compared to the Chromebook for the huge benefit of having a much more usable machine.

And, on the off chance that the ThinkPad ever does get lost or need service, this machine is much better for me to work on for a week than a Chromebook ever could be.

Initial Thoughts on the i3 Surface Pro 7

The Surface Pro 7 has pretty impressive specs overall for the price, aside from the RAM of course:

  • Very compact: 11.5” x 7.9” x 0.33
  • Relatively light: 1.7 lbs for the Surface, around 2.4 lbs with the type cover
  • 12.3″ PixelSense display with a 2736 x 1824 resolution (267 PPI)
  • 10th Gen Intel Core i3 processor
  • 128 GB SSD hard drive
  • 4 GB RAM
  • Solid port selection: 1 x USB-C, 1 x USB-A, 3.5 mm headphone jack, card reader
  • USB-C charging

Why couldn’t Microsoft just include 6 GB of RAM instead of 4 GB? That would have made me a lot more confident in my purchase, and I’m sure many other prospective buyers feel the same way.

I suppose that shouldn’t matter though, because the machine is fast. Very fast. Almost indistinguishable from my i7 + 16 GB of RAM ThinkPad most of the time. It’s a good reminder not to over-index on any one spec. The SSD, the newer processor, and Microsoft controlling the entire experience all probably contribute to this machine feeling snappy.

With that said, 4 GB of RAM runs out rather quickly sometimes, although Windows does a pretty good job of managing it. I opened everything that I conceivably could, and it did a good job managing it. Chrome is a memory hog like no other, so just shutting that alone speeds things up. If you have dozens of tabs open while running a lot of other software, the Chrome tabs will do that memory-saving thing where they refresh each time you switch to them. If you’ve used a Chromebook this has probably happened to you. Otherwise, the slowdown switching back and forth between programs was very minimal, and only occurs with a bunch of stuff open.

I had read good things about the keyboard cover, but it still blew away my expectations. It’s on-par with the ThinkPad, which is to say it’s as good as any laptop keyboard and trackpad that I’ve ever used. The way that it effortlessly disconnects from the Surface is a joy.

The display is also stunning. The 2736 x 1824 resolution at 150% scale (200% is the default) gives me an 1824 x 1216 effective resolution. The 3:2 ratio is odd at first glance, but I really appreciate the extra vertical space for coding.

The ability to charge via USB-C is huge too. When traveling I don’t need to bring an additional charger since my phone charges on USB-C. Even if I had to do a lot of work, I could run the Surface off of power during the day and then charge the phone at night.

I set up a separate personal Windows login and made that more of a touch-first environment by keeping the text scaling at 200%. I was shocked at how well Windows 10 works as a touch OS. I installed Netflix and could see myself using this on a train or plane to watch a movie or do some light gaming. If nothing else, it eliminates the need to ever consider traveling with a tablet (something I’d occasionally do along with the Chromebook).

Aside from the RAM, there are a few things I don’t like. I wish it were lighter. I’d happily sacrifice some of the build quality to shave off some of the weight, although I might be in the minority here. I prefer the feel of light devices in general, even if it means more plastic. I’m also torn on the kickstand. On one hand, it’s great while working on a flat solid tabletop. But it’s almost impossible to work on your lap comfortably. And the tablet is heavy to hold if you detach it from the keyboard. So you do give up some use cases compared to a laptop, but you gain some others obviously.

In general, I can’t speak highly enough of the Surface Pro line. In retrospect, I probably should have given the top-end model a little more consideration when purchasing my laptop. If you’re on the go frequently and need to do heavy work, you’d be hard pressed to find a better device.

I picked up a $20 carrying case and the Microsoft Surface Mobile Mouse on Amazon for $30, put some headphones in the carrying case, and called it a day. If I really wanted to, I could pack up my portable monitor and bring a ton of screen space with me. The flexibility and functionality with this setup is unmatched for the price.

The Future of Secondary Devices

This is a really exciting space right now (likely because we’ve hit peak phone). I hope in 2023 I’m back here writing a post about my next device from a category that doesn’t exist right now. Foldable is where the future is in my mind, whether it’s a foldable screen like the Samsung Galaxy Fold or just a multi-screen foldable like the Surface Neo. I suppose a Microsoft-made Android phone with a foldable screen and the ability to run Windows apps somehow would be the ultimate solution. Unfold it, attach a bluetooth keyboard, and get to work. That sounds a lot more feasible than it did a few months ago. Now with Microsoft back in the phone game, anything is possible.

In the meantime, I’m thrilled to have the Surface Pro.

Update 3/30/2020: Surface Pro Update: My First Real Test and Improving “Lappability”