Life, Tech/Gadget

Surface Pro 4: The worst best PC ever made and why you should avoid Surface Studio for now

Yesterday Microsoft introduced the latest member of their Surface family; Surface Studio. It’s an all in one desktop computer featuring many new technological and design innovations as they are known to do with their other Surface products. It was a very exciting and clever presentation and it is such a gorgeous piece of technology. Panos Panay, Microsoft’s VP of devices, knows how to work the crowd and it reminded me of his Surface Pro 4 presentation that made me filled with excitement for the device. This time however, I know better! Despite all the light and smoke, I have no trust in Microsoft’s ability to deliver a seamless and hassle free experience and have a feeling even that Surface Studio will be riddled with issues, at least for advanced users. I was going to keep this story to panos-panay-surface-studio-2016-2-100689626-largemyself but after seeing the presentation and knowing how much I actually want to have a device like that one day, yet I won’t trust Microsoft so easily again, I thought I should share my experience with others,to the best of my aging memory’s ability! So buckle up as this is going to be a long ride!

I used to be an avid desktop fan. I never thought a laptop or a tablet can replace it and become my only and main device. The best setup I had over the years was a high end PC I assembled together with the reliable Window 7, and an iPad as an in between and on the go device.  That all changed when Microsoft released Surface Pro.

Surface Pro was the first device in years to get me excited about the computers again and make me wonder whether I can rely on this device that’s claiming to offer performance, portability and variety of input options. After some consideration, I decided to risk it all! I sold my PC and iPad and got the Surface Pro. It wasn’t without it’s shortcomings but for most parts it delivered and became my one and only device. When Surface Pro 2 came out, I wasn’t tempted and my Pro was still perfectly adequate and I didn’t want to touch my near perfect setup. It was powering my Acer LCD display and connected to an array of peripherals. Surface Pro 3 was very appealing with a thinner and lighter form factor and a bigger display but it was the first generation of a new design and seemed to have a list of running issues with it so I decided to stick with my now old yet trusty Pro.

When Surface Pro 4 was released, I saw a device that had addressed most of my concerns with the original Pro, and was a showcase of design, performance and craftsmanship. My mind was made up! It was time to upgrade I told myself with a big grin on my face. I watched Microsoft’s presentation and Panos Panay’s showmanship over and over and was filled with exhilaration. I decided to control my urge however, and wait a little until Microsoft irons out the expected issues that will be clouding a newly released product.

After waiting for four months and closely following the news surrounding Surface Pro 4, I became a little concerned as the reported issues only seemed to be growing despite Microsoft continuously releasing firmware updates and patches. Sadly I made a mistake! I rather naively trusted Microsoft and it’s vision of a device that will be all you need, after all they gave me Pro 1 that I loved and I convinced myself surely not all the devices are plagued with issues! I went all in! An i7, 16GB with 256GB of SSD and to a sum of £1,449.00. Add to that the must have Microsoft Surface Pro Type Cover for  £109.95, that Microsoft refuses to include with the device.

It all started off nicely. The sleek and capable Pro 4 quickly became one of the best computing devices I have ever owned. Sadly the honeymoon didn’t last long.

After setting up everything and connecting Surface Pro 4 to my USB3 hub that was housing a number of hard drives and other devices, and to a Dell monitor, random issues started to happen.

WIFI signal suddenly would drop, starting with showing limited connectivity first followed by disappearing completely. You could spend hours trying to fix it with hundreds of other people facing similar issues offering possible solutions to no end. Hours of your time, your time, to spend on fixing issues with a brand new device. It took me about a week until I finally figured it out! After days of searching the world wide web for a solution, I came across one post mentioning the USB3.0 frequency interference with 2.5 Ghz WIF routers as a possible cause for this. I disconnected my USB 3.0 hub and voila! The WIFI was back. I tried connecting my USB 3.0 hard drive directly and the WIFI signal was gone again. Next step I tried the monitor, and no surprises, same thing happened! WTF!? So I can’t use my SP4 with my monitor and hard drives? Surface Pro didn’t have any of these issues with the same setup! And why do I need to spend more to get a 5Ghz router? And who knows if that will fix the problem!

Reading more online, someone was suggesting to wrap your hard drive into an aluminum foil to reduce the frequency interference… great! just great! I decided to contact Surface support. They provide you with online chat and phone call options. They chat icon doesn’t always appear and you need to wait as long as it takes, but the phone option is relatively quick. I always prefer the chat as it allows me to continue working at the office while seeking support. After a few times trying I was able to chat online with the support. Little did I know this will be just the beginning of 1001 things to do to get your device fixed, except it won’t!

I was asked to refresh my PC first and then install the latest updates. That was supposed to take about an hour. While resetting, SP4 (Surface Pro 4) got stuck around 40% and no matter what I did, it wouldn’t proceed any further. Of course I should have created a recovery drive first before doing this! Not having had the need to look after my device as such for a couple of years with my Surface Pro, I had lost touch with the realities of the PC world! So now computerless and stuck with a SP4 that constantly reboots itself when turned on, I contacted the support on my phone. They told me to download the recovery image. My internet is not the fastest, and this download link wouldn’t provide a resume support, so it took a good few hours to download this 5.6 GB file and thanks to my flatmate! This is now 1.5 days later when I was finally able to bring back SP4 to life but the recovery and installing the latest updates again didn’t help the issues with WIFI connectivity when using USB 3 devices and connecting to my monitor. I contacted support and they advised me to send it to be exchanged.

DSCF8446

Going through the exchange process, I was only offered a standard service that could take up to two weeks. I contacted the support again and was told it will take shorter than two weeks but when I explained I need my computer everyday (seriously! Nowadays who can live without one even for a week?!), and they offered an advanced exchange option that means I will get the replacement first with a hold placed on my credit card to be removed once they’ve received the original device. This sounded a better option so I opted in. While I was resetting my device to prepare it for return the same thing happen and it got stuck entering a reset cycle. I thought oh well, I will get the new one soon and all will be well!

The exchange process went rather smoothly and 4 days later I had received the new one. Not getting too excited too soon, I started testing it. First I connected it back to my display and the WIFI signal remain intact. Next I connected a USB3 hard drive and it seemed to work fine. Lastly I connected it back to my USB3 hub and the luck ran out! I decided to compromise! If that’s the only problem, I can live with it to avoid the hassle of sending it back. I switched to USB 2 and everything was ok. I took a deep breath and settled in to enjoy this amazing gadget, sadly, this was not the end.

The next evening when I was doing some reading online and in my darkroom, I set the display brightness to the lowest setting (0%). I had done this to my previous unit as well as I do a lot of reading in fairly dimmed environments specially at work. This time however there was a little surprise waiting for me. After a few seconds the display started to flicker. It went on for a minute and then it stopped. I didn’t think much of it. It happened again a few minutes later and for longer. I increased the brightness and it was gone. Setting it back to the lowest brightness would trigger the random appearances of the flicker. Also the WIFI signal started to randomly drop again and the only solution seemed to be disconnecting it from the Dell display. I tried connecting to my old Acer monitor and for some reason the WIFI never dropped with that.

I couldn’t believe my luck! I started researching online about it and discovered there are all sort of issues. Those experiencing similar scenarios to mine with the flickering, suggested disabling the auto brightness feature or installing beta graphics drivers and not those released by Microsoft. Neither helped.

In the meantime, Microsoft was releasing new updates to Surface Pro 4 and I read somewhere that sometimes you need to install these updates on a fresh Windows for them to take effect so I gave that a go as well with no luck. Having spent days already I wondered whether I should give up and just accept this, was I being a perfectionist? But when the flickering happened again the same night I decided I can’t. I don’t know what Microsoft thinks but £1,449.00 is a lot of money for many people to settle with a device with a flickering display! (only in the lowest brightness setting so far)

I was back at square one! Waiting for a support staff to become available. They ran me through the same deal; refresh, recovery, running a few scans and installing some msi files. Before I knew it, all my Saturday was spent on this and guess what, the problem remained.

Given up now on having it fixed I had to try for another exchange. I could only see the standard service again so I contacted support to get the advanced exchange option but I was told I don’t have this option! I asked why and the support said they don’t know, I just don’t have it anymore. Not having my computer for a week or more was not an option so I decided to wait and tried again a few days later. I was faced with the same response after explaining the whole story from the very beginning, the staff support member tried very hard to help and even created a new hardware profile. Unfortunately that didn’t bring back the advanced exchange option and they didn’t know what to do. There was nothing I could do so I gave up.

Two weeks later and after putting up with the flickering issue on a daily basis I decided to contact support again and found out that suddenly the advanced exchange option is available! So I went for it very hopeful that the dark times will be over soon and the next unit will put an end to the countless hours, days and weeks I have spent on sorting out the issues that should not have been there, and there it was, four days later! Delivered to me; the box of hope.

Despite everything so far, I was positive this time and felt this unit will be “it”. Microsoft can’t possibly be sending me another device with issues. I took the exchange unit very carefully out of the box and turned it holding my breath. It took only a few seconds for me to discover one very important thing; Microsoft doesn’t give a s*** about their customers. Maybe not intentionally and I might have been too harsh, but it’s how I felt given the history with the device so far. As the device was booting up, there it was; a bright white patch, about 50x50px just under the Surface logo. It looked like a pressure mark or a screen bleed, but on the middle of the screen. I was speechless.

When the device was on, and in Windows environment, the mark was practically invisible but it would pop up during the boot or when the screen was very bright and showing something very dark. I called the support and was told to run screen calibration! When I explained that this looks like a display hardware defect as it’s most noticeable at the booting time, I was told to do it anyway and call back! This has been one of the running themes with the support to treat you like a very beginner & clueless user and get you to run all sort of things that in my case turned out to be useless. I guess they’ve got to cover the basics but it gets increasingly frustrating when you know something won’t work and have to do it anyway. Of course I appreciate they can’t just believe what you say, but it made me wonder what if I was someone without a fairly good grasp of working with computers and some experience? They will first need to get their head around how to do these stuff and then spend even more time following all these steps! Anyways, I tried the calibration and as expected it was ridiculous to think that will solve such problem. Back in the box it was, back in the box the was supposed to free me from my grievances, yet 3 devices down I was left exhausted and regretting having bought Surface Pro 4 very deeply.

If I could sell it I would, but I can’t even sell a device that I know has issues! I wonder if Microsoft offers a refund, how many customers will send their devices back instantly!

After I sent my third Pro 4 back, the waiting game began. Now I had to wait for them to receive the last one sent, close my current order, and then I try again for the exchange and I might get lucky so the advanced exchange option shows itself! It’s hard to digest the amount of time I have spent on this device so far! The local UPS drop off already knew me by name at that point.

10 days later and after finally my case was closed I contacted the support again explaining what happened and requesting another exchange. Chatting with “Marek S” (who I have talked with before and has always been helpful. He is the same guy who tried to help me gain access to advanced exchange by resetting my hardware profile. I don’t think he remembered me though) this time the advanced exchange was available without any hiccups so I requested it with the hope of putting an end to this drama. The order was made on the morning Friday 20th of May & the exchange unit arrived on the morning on 24th. I fired it up pretty much convinced I’m gonna face the same problem. After the initial setup and loging in, when I tried to change the display brightness it appeared to be grayed out and locked! After a bit of digging around I noticed the correct driver was not installed! (hmm! what?) So I updated the driver which fixed the issue.

Now it was time to check the screen flicker and you guessed it, still there.

I decided to keep the unit and test it further and shipped back my other one. At least this one didn’t have an area of white pixels on the screen!

Hours after getting the device I got an email from Microsoft support asking me if the problem is resolved. This was of course nice and is the second time actually with the first being after my second unit to which I replied back but heard nothing. So this time I was not very optimistic neither, but of course I replied and included a video of the problem. I got a reply that basically said you have to try for another exchange as the only option.

Later that night when I was restoring my backups and it was failing and another evening was spent on Surface Pro 4 admin, I couldn’t help but to feel insulted! Microsoft clearly doesn’t care for my time and money and I can’t keep exchanging devices with a service that doesn’t do the minimum QC before shipping a replacement unit out. Giving up is not a solution but at some point maybe you need to cut your loses! Why won’t Microsoft admits this defect/issue is irresponsible and amateurish. Many people are experiencing this so they can’t keep hiding their heads in the sand, although they did.

So another week goes by and I just about gather enough energy to try one last exchange! Talking to a staff support name “Hakon” on the first day of June, I explained what has happened.

He said “Ah okay, so i have some news in this regard. This is actually a software issue with the Pro 4, and so an exchange will indeed not fix it. We are tracking this usse and working hard to get this resolved as soon as possible. Please keep checking Windows Update for the eventual fix.”

I supposed MS(Microsoft) finally acknowledging this issue that many users have been reporting is a step forward, but if they haven’t managed to fix it after the device being out for more than half a year already, how much longer one needs to wait?

I had no choice but to wait. I continued following online to see what the other users say. Sometimes what I couldn’t understand was how it is that it’s working for some users if it’s a software issue. It made me wonder if what the support said was actually a change in policy as how they react to this problem being reported or something else. Has Microsoft really acknowledged this issue and working on a fix? Is there a fix or is this a hardware defect?

I called the support this time and explained the problem I’m experiencing. I also reported the occasional WIFI signal drop when connecting to my Dell external monitor and the complete loss of WIFI with USB 3. The friendly staff support called “Gavin” didn’t have any respond to screen flickering. I told him it happens randomly when screen is set to the lowest brightness and he didn’t tell me what the support said last time labeling this a known software issue. As for the external monitor problem he suggested using a 5Ghz wifi router which was interesting, so they do know about this one. Anyway at the end I requested another exchange with a little hesitation as I knew this is gonna take away a few more days of my time. But will the new unit have the same screen flickering issue?

The new unit arrived very quickly and in just 3 days. I turned it on and had a quick check and I was welcomed with a giant light leak! It’s funny about the light leak and how nowadays the users are just supposed to accept it. Usually It’s not a huge deal but it’s just ironic to keep sending a user who has problems with display another one with even more issues. Anyways the flickering issue remained and I could not bring myself to deal with another exchange and go through the whole process again so even though I could often see the light leak while watching media! It is what it is.

I shipped my old Surface back to Microsoft with thank you note for the support team. I believed they genuinely did their best to help me. I exchanged the device for 5 times which is by any measure crazy! And they’ve done their best to assist me through this period. But when something is not fully tested and ready for market you shouldn’t ship it or you will end up spending a lot of money in exchanging devices for customers and they’ll remain unsatisfied because there are no problem free devices.

As life goes, just when you think you’ve seen the worse, you can’t be more wrong. When I turned on the device the other day, the top right corner had gone dark! How on earth was this possible? It was like a little crack slowly getting bigger, but how? It was never dropped! Practically brand new! No damage on the screen but the LCD panel was somehow damaged. I feared the worst. After all these time dealing with support in the hope of getting a problem free display, at the end I may have to pay to have it fixed and still get a flickering one! I just didn’t see how I can explain this to support and convince them I did nothing. I took a couple of pictures and tried the online support to see what they advice. In the UK, the chat option had mysteriously become unavailable and calling was the only option which was posing a problem for me being at work most day. I wanted to chat to be able to show the pictures and provide evidence easier should they ask for more but after a couple of hours no chat option was available despite the 1 minute waiting time for a call back. I started searching online to see if anyone else had the same experience and I ended up on Surface’s twitter page. From there I followed a link again to support and try my luck and to my surprise the chat option was enabled! After getting connected with the support, it turned out the link had directed me to the American support hence why the chat option was turned on! Huh?!

A very friendly & helpful support staff called “Ian” tried to help me but since I had used advance exchange, the last order was still open. After seeing the pictures and asking some questions, he told me he will get in touch with me when the order was closed which I found helpful.

I also got a follow up email from the support asking if my issue was resolved with my last unit. I replied and explained the situation but didn’t hear back from them.

Days later and when I received no email from Ian, I tried to contact support again but the chat option was still unavailable. I was at work so that could have been very helpful. I tried the American support website and well, it was available there. I have to say the American support people are much more friendly and polite! They were more energetic and chatty. I talked to a staff named “Valein” who again was very helpful and after explaining the situation, he asked for my SP4 serial number and turned out the previous staff, Ian, had kept a record of our earlier conversation and created a case for me. That never happened with the UK support and every time I had to start from scratch, although they were still helpful nevertheless.

So the 5th advanced exchange took place. It arrived three days later. Needless to say screen flicker was still there, an annoying light leak on the bottom and load of scratches on all corners of the device and some small dents here and there.

A few days later as I was sitting at work with, in the usual dark setup we have, my SP4 on the side showing Czech Replublic vs Croatia match in Euros 2016, and it started to flicker again, I just increased the brightness. It was a little uncomfortable, and annoyed the person sitting next me a little, but I told myself at least I didn’t need to pay for a display repair. I didn’t smile or was I satisfied, but I was done.

Or was I?

I never actually fully tested this device after it was delivered. I thought as long as everything is functional and there is no smoke coming out from the back, as we know now that is also a possibility, I can put up with the flickering and random bugs. I just mounted it back on my display stand and everything was working. A couple of weeks later I had to use my SP4 on the go so I took it off and when I wanted to use the on screen keyboard I realized some of the keys aren’t working. Further investigation showed there’s an area on the screen that’s not responding to the touch, I tried the pen and it was working.

Here we go again! I told myself! How many hours do I need to spend to troubleshoot this now? I tried calibrating the screen, reinstalling display drivers and eventually with hesitation recovering from the latest image. So 3-4 hours later the problem was still there. I contacted the support. The chat option for UK seemed to be back although I waited for two hours to get connected. Poor support staffs must have been having another busy day with SP4!

I talked with “Victor” and explained to him my problem and also the history of troubles with SP4 to which he shared his sympathy with. He advised yet another exchange. How many now?! Exactly! It’s hard to keep count.

That was Saturday. I was surprised not to have received any confirmation email while a hold was placed on my credit card. So I contacted support on Monday and was told this request doesn’t exist!  After I managed to find some reference number in my billing history the support staff consulted his supervisor and they said:

“We had a couple of small issues with the sending of the emails, but you don’t need to worry, your request is processed and all is okay. You just have to wait for the device to arrive”

I admit this didn’t give me much comfort to seat in the dark and hope a replacement will arrive. In the past usually you receive an email when the order is created and a follow up when it’s shipped. This all happened within 4-5 working days.

The next day I checked the order status and it had gone from “in progress” to “payment pending”. What is going on? I contacted support again. This time they told me there’s an issue from the bank! And said I should just wait again until the payment is cleared! I made a case for this whole thing being a little strange and unlike all the other exchanges I’ve done in the past and asked for it to be canceled but “George”, the staff member suffering my case this time!,  insisted I have to wait a few more days. After ending the chat, on the feedback message box I begged Microsoft to take my SP4 back and refund me! This was Tuesday. I had become paranoid but after what I’ve been through I can hardly be blamed can I?  Sadly my fears only turned worse when I got this email from Victor who I had spoken with on Saturday and when the advanced exchange was created:

“Hello, this is Victor from Surface and Band support, I just want to know if you had your device shipped to our service and if everything is fine. Just let me know by replying to this email. Thank you and have a nice day.”

So they don’t even know it’s an advanced exchange and placed a hold on my credit card? What’s going on. The support has been the only light in this whole experience and even that’s now falling apart. I replied and expressed my concern as to what’s happening. The day after I finally got the confirmation email. Interestingly there was an new warning message in the generic confirmation email :

Attention!  If your Surface has a raised, lifted, separated or bulging screen,STOP and contact support before you ship your device to us.

A couple of days later I got an email that the replacement is shipped. I hoped the replacement unit I will get won’t be one of those having the bulging screen! At this point of course I’m extra sensitive to the situation. It seems even giving up was not enough to free me from this maze and the screen not responding to touch forced me contacting Microsoft again.

The replacement finally arrived on Friday. It was a later production model (08XXX) which gave me hope. There was significantly less light leak on it and in almost perfect cosmetic condition apart from a scratch on the kickstand. I decided not restore my backup and go through installing everything from scratch.

I also noticed the hold was removed on my card before I had my surface returned, something definitely went wrong with this last order. I shipped the device back and started using the latest replacement.

Does the screen still flickers randomly? Yes. Do I lose WIFI when I’m working outside or at home and need to connect my USB3 hard drive to copy some files? Yes. Does the WIGI signal randomly drops when connected to my Dell external display forcing me never to use it? Yes. Do I have some random issues from time to time? Yes. Do I have any energy or will left in me to contact Microsoft again or scan hundreds of online websites and forums to seek solutions? No way! I am done with it and learned my lesson.

What made this whole experience even more frustrating is the SP4 is still an amazing piece of technology, the battery life aside! There’s nothing else like it, but why can’t a giant company like Microsoft produce a device that’s functioning without any issues? Why would they send a replacement unit that still has a problems? Why would then send me a second, third, fourth, fifth exchange unit with a display problems when the reason I’m asking for one is the display issue?

I thought a lot about whether I’ve been too demanding, maybe an average consumer would not have cared nor noticed some of the issues I did. Yet I don’t think I could have compromised getting anything but a 100% device after paying a premium for it (yes I eventually had to give up). “Why should I compromise?” I always though. If there’s a white spot on the screen, if the screen flickers , if the wifi drops when connected to an external monitor.. Why should I just accept it? I don’t care if the white spot is not a big deal, or if I use a 5Ghz router the wifi problem might be fixed or the flickering happens only when set to the lowest brightness… get your act together and sort it out Microsoft! I also think they should compensate you for what you go through, all the lost hours! But they can’t even send you a working device.

So when Surface Studio was unveiled yesterday, as much as an amazing feat of technology it is, the dazzling presentation and the promise of a complete package for creatives, one must be very careful with them. If I could afford it, I would buy something else even now, but I can’t sell my Surface Pro 4 knowing the problems and for now I’m stuck!

The real heroes at Microsoft are the support staff who have to be the face of a problematic device and they truly are amazingly patient and friendly and do their best to help you out, if only the hardware quality was matched to that, Microsoft would be a much better and respected company, for me at least.

That is why you shouldn’t trust Microsoft so easily and be very cautious when purchasing their products. I would avoid Surface Studio until it’s been out for at least 6-7 months and if there are no reported issues you may invest your hard earn cash on it. It’s a shame because the Surface brand has the best concepts on the PCs landscape, but may not be worth the hassles you face! Trust the reported issues online.

I am a creator but Surface Pro 4 did not infuse me with the urge to create by giving me all the tools I need, but made me spend countless days with issues that should not have been there in the first place.

 

Appendix:

All the  units I went through; the partial serial numbers:

00329XXXXXXX

08902XXXXXXX

05965XXXXXXX

04351XXXXXXX

04756XXXXXXX

04803XXXXXXX

08442XXXXXXX

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