In my original review of the Surface, I mentioned it suits my needs very well when it comes to portability and writing. The Type Cover keyboard is exceptionally comfortable and the whole package fits very neatly into the tablet compartment of my Think Tank Retrospective bag. However, I did not yet have the time to thoroughly test the Surface’s performance with Lightroom and Photoshop, the two most popular editing programs among photographers. Since so many of you asked, I decided not to wait for the next time I was shooting out in the city to process new photographs “in the field” (not the best weather for street photography), but to turn off my PC at home for a while and instead work on images I’ve taken during my trip to NYC on the Surface. In this article, I will talk you through my experience from importing the RAW files to the Surface in Lightroom, to exporting them, all (hopefully) on a single charge of battery. Let’s see if it will manage.
All The Important Details
Because this sort of testing is not something we usually do, there’s no specific procedure to follow other than the usual steps that I take when working with Lightroom. Perhaps for the better as it will accurately reflect the conditions under which I use my equipment. I will try to list all the important details so that you can judge for yourself whether the performance and battery life of the Surface is sufficient for your needs.
First of all, let me run you through the Surface parameters and settings:
- Microsoft Surface Pro 3 – Intel i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD
- Full battery, unplugged
- Screen brightness at around 50%
- “Balanced” power plan
- Connected to WiFi, Type Cover keyboard and Arc Touch Surface mouse
The test starts with the import of 358 Fujifilm X-E2 RAW files into a newly created and otherwise clean Lightroom 5.7 Catalog. Each RAW file weighs approximately 32 MB with a bit over 11.2 GB in total. As the images have already been copied to the SSD, import time will not include the time it takes to copy the files from an SD card and thus will show the performance of Lightroom in isolation. However, rendering full-sized previews upon import is something I always do, and it does take some time.
Keep in mind that a freshly installed copy of Lightroom with no custom develop presets and a clean Catalog is going to run a bit more swiftly than if it had tens of thousands of images slowing it down. It is also important for me to note that, whilst working with Lightroom, I will be writing this article simultaneously. Not a major task, running Chrome, but still has an effect on battery life and is worth mentioning.
Import to Export. Step-By-Step in Lightroom 5.7
1) Importing the RAW Files
As soon as the Surface is fully charged, I put away the charger and check if the screen brightness is at around 50%. Touching the back panel reveals that, from all the preparation (installing Lightroom update and the like), the tablet is already warm, but not nearly enough to start the fans. Good.
Launching Lightroom does not take more than five seconds. Not blindingly quick, but it’s pretty much the same on my PC, too. Next up – the Import and the usual routine of finding the location of the files and entering keywords to speed up searching within the Catalog should such a need ever arise. As Lightroom begins rendering thumbnails within the Import dialogue and I write these lines, fans come up and start whooshing the heat away from the i5 processor hiding in that slim magnesium shell. Not a good start, you’d think, but after less than a minute their speed reduces so much, I can hardly hear them. Not for long, mind. Hitting Import starts them up again as the load on processor increases significantly. I, meanwhile, start my timer.
40% is done in a smidge under two minutes, but that’s Import only, at least according to the progress bar in Lightroom. 70% is reached in 3:45. The back of the tablet is now very warm and fans are spinning at full speed. Even before the resource-heavy task is complete I understand my previous conclusions were quite accurate – MacBook Pro at a similar price ought to offer much better performance, at the cost of portability. This is not a full-fledged laptop. It had a compromise to make.
100% and the timer shows 5:25. Not too bad, actually – my PC would take far less time to Import the images, but I can’t fit it into my shoulder bag. As Lightroom starts to work on those huge full-size previews, though, fans are spinning even faster, something I thought would not happen. As eight minutes (in total) pass, the device is bordering on what some might call “almost hot”. Battery meter is reading 91% of charge left.
Eleven gigs of photographs. Is that too much to ask for, I wonder? Of course, rendering full-sized previews is not exactly a smart decision, especially once you consider that at the very least half of those images will be thrown out, resulting in quite a bit of time wasted. On the other hand, rendering 1:1 images speeds up the process of selection. Still, if I were being reasonable (and I should have been), I’d set up Lightroom to render previews at around 2048 px (long edge), close to Surface’s native resolution. That would help the selection process and allow me to view the images in full-screen mode without quality degradation, yet save precious time and resources during import. Need to remember to do this after the test!
With 88% of battery left and roughly 15% of previews rendered, the timer is at 14 minutes. I am starting to think the Surface won’t last long enough to allow me to both go through all the images and select a couple of dozen for immediate post-processing. After all, the battery is depleting almost as fast as Lightroom is rendering the previews. I am curious, though. Something tells me the preview rendering is among the most resource-heavy and demanding tasks for Lightroom and the hardware. With the RAW converter stating 20% done and battery meter clinging on to 86%, I decide there is no point in me just staring at the screen. Better go make myself a cup of tea.
As I come back, I notice the situation improved slightly. It is no longer one percent of progress for one percent of battery charge – as Lightroom finishes to render 192 images (54%), battery is at 71%. Obviously, the fact that the screened turned itself off after a while helped a lot. It’s still not what I’d call a good result, mind you. As Lightroom’s progress touches 55%, 40 minutes have passed. On the face of it, that is a lot. For such a compact computer? Hard to say, but I’d go as far as suggest it’s bordering on “not good enough”. As Lightroom reaches 60% (battery is at 68%), I decide a look at Microsoft’s website is needed. There, I find Redmond’s classification of all three processor options (quote):
- Intel i3 – A solid Surface Pro 3 that’s ideal for:
- Browsing the web
- Taking notes
- Light office work
- Intel i5 – Premium performance that’s great for:
- Using the full power of Microsoft Office – Word, Excel, and PowerPoint
- Intensive multi-tasking
- Casual gaming
- Streaming video
- Intel i7 – The most powerful Surface ever built that’s perfect for:
- HD Video editing
- Professional grade applications
- Design and 3D modelling
Would I consider Lightroom a “professional grade application”? Certainly. And according to Microsoft, my version of the device is not quite enough to pull it off. As Lightroom is brushing 74% (battery is at 62% and timer is showing 51 minutes), I can’t help but agree with the general overview. On the other hand, I am unsure if any version is all that suitable for what I am doing now with those heavy RAW files. Most of the battery is drained by the fans as there is so much heat coming from the processor, and heat is an issue with any version of the tablet – it’s made to be slim, it stands to reason that heat removal infrastructure will suffer. And so will the battery performance.
So, 80% for Lightroom, 60% for battery and 55 minutes on the clock. I now realize my expectations were a little high, or perhaps I am a little spoiled by the performance of my PC (which, by the by, is very much average in its specification). Still, even with the fans doing their thing almost constantly, the battery is just about holding up. I am now fairly certain I will manage to both select, process and export the images I want (at this point it remains to be seen just how many will pass my review), as well as write this article. But this is not what I’d call a “walk in the park” for the Surface. It’s a real task. I definitely expected too much, and reality hits me hard. This is a tiny little thing, the Surface. And I am asking it to render over 350 full-sized previews for the same amount of 16 megapixel Fujifilm RAW files. Would I like it not to struggle? Of course. And the top of the range version would handle the task more briskly. Still, got to be realistic – this is not a full-sized laptop. Different sort of strengths in Surface’s favor, but also a few noticeable weaknesses.
As the timer hits one hour (55% battery, 90% percent Lightroom progress), I can already see what sort of conclusions I will have to draw here. But drawing them now would be unprofessional and I’d risk making myself look somewhat silly, so let’s give the Surface the benefit of the doubt as it finishes the last dozen of previews. The task is finished with the timer reaching 1:05 and the battery catching its breath at exactly half the capacity. Fans are already slowing down, the back of the device (surprisingly) never reached the “definitely hot” level. Hit the power button once and the Surface goes to sleep. I, in the mean time, need some more tea in me and a minute or two to think.
2) Sorting Through the Files, Post-Processing and Export
So the next step is to sort through all 358 images. There is a good chance I’ll end up removing half of them or so, and out of the remaining half only a few will need to be processed for the gallery. My selection process is quite simple and I plan to stick to it. As I start working, the timer is showing 1:12, battery life is at 45% – that cup of tea might have taken me a while, to be fair, and that resulted in a few percent of battery drained with no work done, but I am not going to give Surface an easy time. Not a very scientific approach, I admit, but only more accurate because of it.
A bit over 20 minutes later (the timer is at 1:35), I’ve 41% left and one fourth of the images sorted through. Twenty more minutes later, I was done. With the batter showing 35% and with almost two hours on the clock, I marked 43 images with the Pick flag. Another quick look through resulted in 33 images left – close enough to the number I was hoping for. All in, the Surface had lasted around two and a half hours up to this point and promised enough juice to let me finish the task at hand.
All the necessary corrections are quite basic, to be fair. The first step is selecting Fujifilm camera profile (Pro Neg. Std) from the Camera Calibration Tab – enable Auto Sync and all the images are immediately closer to the final result that I want. Further corrections involve some adjustments in the Basic Tab, along with Tone Curve and sharpness adjustments. At this point I suddenly think how just how unfortunate it is that there are no Fujinon lens profiles in Lightroom, but a quick glance at the battery meter (31%) reminds me I am not yet done. Back to work, as going through every single one of the images, one by one, takes a while. Another twenty minutes later, fans came on again – not a good sign as this will definitely have an impact on battery life.
It did – three hours all in all, the meter is showing 20%, but I’ve made good progress without even rushing it. With ten images left and fans whisper quiet, I already know the Surface managed it. But only just. Had the WiFi connection not been as stellar, for example, it would have been a lot closer. And the 12% that remained after I was completely done (images exported to SSD) is already very close in my book – just two percent before the very first warning message letting you know the battery is about to run flat. So very, very close. And now, after plugging in the charger (almost 3:30 of on-battery time) and allowing the Surface to breathe a little more easily, I can finally draw conclusions (something you might have done already).
It is 01:03 AM now and truly quite a bit later than I thought I’d finish. The Surface managed to import the heavy and numerous RAW files quite briskly – the five-and-a-half minutes of waiting were in no way irritating and quite close to what I expected from such a computer. The 1:1 preview rendering, on the other hand, took an additional hour. An hour. That was quite a bit below my (perhaps ever so slightly high) expectations – I was hoping to see merely half as much on the clock. Alas, 358 full-sized previews for 32 megabyte RAW files and the i5 Surface don’t seem to mix all that well. Lesson learned.
Actually, that’s exactly it. Lesson learned. You see, after I was finished working with Lightroom, I went ahead to check just how much space the generated previews took up. And you know what? The Previews.lrdata folder weighed a total of 849 MB. Correct me if I am wrong, but that’s quite a lot. The task that took the most out of the Surface – in terms of performance and battery life – was just too much to ask for in the first place. As soon as I got to post-processing, Surface was as snappy as ever with absolutely no lag when using, say, the radial filter tool or switching between images. So the answer was to change the size of Standard previews to 2048 on the long edge and keep it that way. Rendering 1:1 previews for when the sorting is over just makes more sense – it will save you time, space on the hard drive and battery life.
When I wrote the original review, I said the Surface was a compromise, but a different one than products from Apple at similar price. I stand by those words even after this rather long test. If you need performance while working in the field – both in terms of speed and battery life – the MacBook Pro 13.3″ with Retina screen is the better bet. It will be swifter, most likely will not run as warm and potentially give better battery life (a risky thing to say since I’ve never actually tried a similar test on that computer before). It will do what you ask and take less time, too. I am pretty sure the i7 version of the Surface packs more punch, but at that price the MacBook is even more competent, too.
That said, the very impressive baby laptop from Apple is nowhere near as compact or lightweight as the Surface – it’s thicker, heavier and a bit larger. More than that, there is no way you can take that keyboard off and use it as a tablet without breaking it. Mostly because the keyboard is none-removable and the screen does not respond to touches, however gentle. So the MacBook is also a compromise, but a different sort. And that is a good thing. Why? Simple. It makes the choice easier (if it was ever hard given that the two computers have different operating systems, a big factor). You need performance, go with the MacBook. You need a tablet/laptop hybrid for lighter tasks and that occasional post-processing, Surface is well up to the task.
Am I disappointed? Not really. Redmond’s product delivered exactly what I was looking for when purchasing and did as good when it came to battery life as I could have expected. Granted, it did not surprise me too much with its performance overall, but nor did it shock me in a negative way. And in case you are wondering why I did not compare Microsoft’s tablet to Apple’s compact MacBook Air, the reason is simple. The Surface was built to beat the Air at just about everything. And it mostly does just that.
In the end, this is a reasonably fast computer so long as your expectations are reasonable. At the very least it makes the choice easy, not the opposite of that.