The Right Tablet

I’m not sure I would call myself a technophile.  While I try to make sure that my current tech setup is just a little bit better than what I currently need (I tend to buy a new laptop about every four or five years, and I make sure that it has more than enough memory and storage for my audio and graphics needs), I don’t usually jump out and buy the newest “toy”–um, tool–when it comes out.  Case in point: the tablet.  The iPad has been out for over three years now.  There are now PC tablets that match or out-perform it.  Many of my colleagues put them to good use.  I simply haven’t been able to justify the expense until now.

MacBook Pro

Because, frankly, I didn’t need it.  My sturdy MacBook Pro provided everything I needed and more.  I downloaded videos from Youtube and Vimeo, and ripped scenes that I needed for teaching from DVDs (fair use!), all from the comfortable user-friendly environment of Macintosh’s iOS. I used iMovie to make polished clips for use in class, a necessary tool as a teacher of music and media.  To fill my PC gaming needs (a side interest that allows me to participate more fully in small screen academic conversations, since I’m a TV music scholar), I purchased a desktop tower that should last me at least another six years before upgrade is necessary.  I had Microsoft and Mac (almost) right where I needed them.

And then my needs changed.

This summer, I decided that I was going to flip the course I’m teaching in the fall, a first-year undergraduate writing course that’s focusing on popular music as its general subject.  I’m not just going to be teaching writing–I’ll be teaching about music, culture, and consumerism as well.  And at the core of this class is the fact that students should be gaining life-long skills: the ability to question society and media, the ability to research and critique these things, and the ability to write about them clearly and effectively.  I decided that I wanted to send as much time in class practicing skills instead of imparting information. Because, in the end, it’s about my students these skills.

This requires something that my current laptop and desktop setup simply couldn’t provide: the ability to video record the screen as I write on it, by hand.  I could have done this with my current set up, but not nearly as well or as convincingly–using a mouse for handwriting is difficult.  The hunt for a tablet was on.

Now, here I had several choices to make.  Did I go with a tablet? Or with a laptop/tablet convertable?  Did I choose Mac or PC?  What programs did I want to use?  What OS?  What hardware did I need it to work with?

Ultimately, I decided that if I was going to buy a new tool, then I wanted it to replace my current laptop.  (This is a plus for me personally, because my MacBook gets passed on to my parents, who are currently trying to run their household on one of the oldest PC laptops I’ve ever seen.  I can’t believe my mother hasn’t “accidentally” spilled coffee on it.)   I needed to be able to take whatever I bought to a library or coffee shop to research and write, since I don’t do all of my work at home.  So, the new tablet needed to be a workable laptop/tablet mix.  I also decided that I was going to forsake Mac (egads) for PC, since I have a PC desktop at home and it’s simply easier if both stations use the same OS.  The decision was made: a PC Windows convertible.

I chose the Windows Surface Pro (SP).  After much research (and a very painful stint with the Surface RT–don’t do it), I decided that the SP had the right mix of tablet functions while retaining a laptop-like OS system.  This means that, while I can use tablet apps, I can also download any software needed for more advanced work–including the Microsoft Office Suite (I still prefer PowerPoint), Ableton Live, and, if I ever decide I need to install it on the SP, Adobe Premiere.

Microsoft Surface Pro

So far, it’s worked wonderfully.  In fact, I find the touchscreen function so useful that I forget I’m doing it.  Every time I return to my desktop, I accidentally touch the screen to highlight something before I remember that, hey, only my tablet lets me do that.  It’s also small enough to fit in my mid-sized purse, and so light that I sometimes forget I’m carrying it.  The included stylus is entirely bug free.  More importantly, I’ve been able to record video lectures on the SP–my initial reason for needing the tablet–and I couldn’t be happier.

Well, actually, I could.  Up to this point, this post has taken the tone of an advert for the Surface Pro. (You’re welcome, Microsoft.)  The fact is, I’m very pleased with it.  But the experience could definitely be better.

The SP has some serious drawbacks, ones that should be considered before purchase–and that could possibly lead you to buy an iPad instead.


First of all, when I dropped the Mac system I lost a lot of great software.  I used iMovie quite a bit, and had been dependent on Mainstage 2 for live keyboard performance.  Final Cut Pro is no longer an option for when I need something more robust than iMovie.   Now I use Adobe Premiere on my desktop (because, let’s be honest, Windows Movie Maker just doesn’t cut it) and I’m going to be trying Ableton Live for performance. I still haven’t figured out the best way to rip scenes from DVDs for use in my (fully legal) lecture slides, while this was very easy to do on my MacBook. In addition, Mac has a lot of other great A/V and educational apps that are simply not an option for me anymore.  Many of the really useful teaching apps and lecture tools are Mac-based.  I’m not happy about losing all of this, but it’s what I traded in for the other benefits of the SP.

Secondly, there are some hardware issues; namely, the SP only has one USB port.  Usually this isn’t a problem, but since I use my portable computer for live performance, it helps to have two ports.  Now I have to purchase a new audio interface so that I can run both midi in and midi out.  This is really just a personal loss, given my own technological needs. Frankly, the SP has RAM and storage to spare, so that’s not an issue at all.

What I gained:

  • Touch-screen capability 
  • A high-functioning, light laptop/tablet convertible
  • The ability to easily share files between both of my computers
  • The ability to use PowerPoint (instead of Keynote) when lecturing
  • The ability to make screen capture video recordings of document mark-ups

What I lost:

  • Some really effective and easy-to-use Apple software
  • My live performance setup (i.e., Mainstage 2 and two USB ports)

This is the short of it. Basically, my SP is not perfect, but considering what I had to give up and what I’m getting, I’m happy with the decision.  Others will probably prefer the iPad.  Still others, one of the many PC tablets that runs on Android. It all comes down to your own personal and academic needs.

I’m sure I’ll write a post soon on useful software and apps for teaching with the SP, and probably for Apple and Android tablets as well, since we’re all in it together.  If others have thoughts about their tablet usage and the software they prefer, throw in a comment.