Maybe Consumer Reports is right about the Microsoft Surface family

I’ve been watching all the uproar, and denial, from Consumer Reports (CR) dropping its recommendation of Microsoft’s Surface line, but I have to tell you I think CR might be on to something.  Sure there are plenty of power users who report they’ve never had a problem with the Surface.  Even when they have, which I’ll get to in a moment.  They, and the press, just seem to want to ignore that CR operates off broad survey responses rather than the experiences of a select few.  Of course CR’s data is backward looking, and won’t reflect improvements that Microsoft has made over the last 6-12 months.  And I’ve always believed that CR’s data is biased by who they attract as subscribers.  Nevertheless, it is a valid data set.

So why do I think that CR might be right about the Surface family?  Well let’s go with my last three experiences.  The first one was when I purchased a Surface 3 (not the pro) to use as a consumer tablet (i.e., alternative to an iPad).  Subjectively I’d say that the Surface 3 did not even perform as well as my original Surface RT.  It was sluggish and I thought kind of flakey.  Then several months in the touch screen stopped working reliably.  A few weeks later I happened to catch it in a funny light and found a hairline fracture in the screen.  I didn’t remember dropping it, though I likely bumped it at some point, so this was almost certainly my fault.  I looked at the cost of repair, and it was so close to replacement cost that I did replace it.  With an iPad Pro.  I’ve dropped that a few times, and it still is working just fine.  Now take an average consumer.  The Surface 3 never was a satisfying experience.  It was not a physically robust device.  It was not affordable to repair.  How would that consumer respond to CR’s survey?  Never mind an average consumer, how do you think I would have responded to CR’s survey?

Next let’s take the Surface Book.  Like just about all owners of more recent Surface devices, I had the experience of my Surface Book failing to Sleep or coming out of Sleep all on its own.  Even power users who have tweeted they don’t agree with CR admit they had that experience with Sleep in the past.  If we talk average consumer, don’t you think that experience might lead them to be a little negative on the device and respond to CR that they’d had problems?  Now my personal experience is even worse.  I twice had the experience of putting my Surface Book in my backpack, heading to the airport, and having it come out of Sleep on its own.  In both cases it cooked itself for hours.  How hot did it get?  Well, when I reached into the backpack I burned my fingers!  After the second time the Surface Book’s screen was permanently damaged, with brownish yellow streaks along the right side and bottom of the screen.

By the way, I didn’t blindly keep using the Sleep feature (although an average consumer probably would) after the first incident.  I switched to Hibernate for months.  Then after Microsoft claimed to have fixed the problem I went back to using Sleep.  And it happened the second time.  Microsoft issued more fixes and now it hasn’t happened in a long time, but how do you think I would have answered the CR survey?

Lest one think that this is all backward looking, I had another experience just this past week.  A friend bought his daughter a Surface Studio.  A month later she said something about having lost her drawings and being unable to re-install the drawing app she was using from the store.  In fact, they couldn’t install any app.  Or run any store app.  So he asked me to take a look.  The system was completely messed up.  Attempts to fix the store failed.  Pretty much nothing store-related would work, and a lot of things in Windows 10 have a connection to the store.  I had to advise them to use Windows 10 Reset to get the system back in a usable state.  How do you think they would answer the CR survey?

I’ll contrast this with my Surface Pro 2, which has worked flawlessly from day one.  Or my original Surface RT, which was fantastically reliable as well.  From my narrow perspective, if you’d surveyed me on early members of the Surface family I’d be able to say they were very reliable.  But I haven’t had that experience with a Surface device in the last 3 years.  Does that mean I’ll avoid Surface devices in the future?  No, I’m very likely to pick up a Surface Laptop.  But I’m going to be brutal on Microsoft if that experience isn’t near perfect.

So before dismissing the CR downgrade consider that the Surface devices have had problems, and personal experience suggests those are not completely behind them.  Microsoft, rather than being dismissive of Consumer Reports’ findings, needs to double down on the quality of Surface devices.  They might also want to take another look at how they collect reliability and customer satisfaction data, because they seem to have missed that the customer experience isn’t nearly as good as their own data shows.

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8 Responses to Maybe Consumer Reports is right about the Microsoft Surface family

  1. Gavin says:

    “They might also want to take another look at how they collect reliability and customer satisfaction data, because they seem to have missed that the customer experience isn’t nearly as good as their own data shows.”

    Here here.

  2. Bob - Former Decie says:

    My wife has never had any problems with her Surface Pro 3, but after reading about all the problems with the more recent Surface devices, I’m sure I would not buy a new Surface device until it was out for at least a year.
    Speaking of problems with Microsoft devices, I’m one of the last Microsoft Phone holdouts, but Windows Phone 10, or whatever they are calling it, has a bunch of bugs and I’m current on updates. It’s too bad because every smart phone I’ve had, has run a Microsoft phone O/S, going back to the Moto Q. Since they have exited the cell phone business, I started looking for alternatives, with security being my #1 priority. Despite their walled garden, I will be going with an iPhone when the new ones come out. I’m not going to spend a gazillion dollars for their new top of the line model, but I will get an iPhone 7S Plus. My wife got an iPhone 7 Plus a few months ago as Windows Phone 10 on her phone was driving her crazy. She’s made the adjustment without too much trouble and I expect to do the same.

    • halberenson says:

      I don’t know that I’ll wait a year, but I am giving things a few months. It should then be possible to search various forums and see if buyers are reporting problems.

      I reluctantly gave up on Windows Phone a long time ago, and am happily on the iPhone. Yes I did try to adopt Android, as something more power-user oriented. But that was a disaster (as documented elsewhere in my blog). Even if Microsoft does re-enter the mobile business with Windows at some point I am unlikely to switch back. Fool me once and all that. And in my case, I think it was fool me many many times (as I go back to the Pocket PC). And we know who that makes the fool 🙂 But realistically, if I were to buy a future Microsoft Windows Mobile phone it would be for play and not as my primary device. I’m not losing a rich application ecosystem again. I can often leave home without my wallet and keys, but not without my phone. That is a situation that is only going to get stronger over time, and make the gap between iOS/Android and any future Windows-based device another order of magnitude more difficult for Microsoft to close.

      • Bob - Former Decie says:

        I have the apps I need on my Windows Phone, but not the ones I want. But I’m not a power user on my phone in that sense. When I charge my phone at night, it usually has just under 50% charge left.

  3. Joe says:

    How long did you use your Pro 2 for? I had to give up on mine after ~3 years because the Type Cover would cause random device reboots when I moved the thing. Replacing the keyboard with a new Cover helped for a few months and then it started happening again. Add to that the terribly fragile charger that was getting harder and harder to find replacements for, and ditching it was a no-brainer. I definitely think there’s something to the Consumer Reports complaints.

    • halberenson says:

      My SP2 was still working just fine when I reset it last week so I could sell it. I’ve mostly used it as a desktop system the last 3 years, with it sitting in the docking station, so haven’t experienced cover or charger wear and tear issues. I do know other SP2 owners who had to replace the charger a few times over the life of their SP2. And with the SP/SP2 not being very popular, finding replacement parts and accessories is difficult. Even more popular devices have that problem. My wife asked me to go to an Apple store on Saturday to see about a new case for her iPad Air 2. As far as Apple is concerned that device never existed, with the store having carrying zero accessories for it. iPad contemporaries to the Surface Pro 2 (4th generation iPads and Air 1) are in various states of losing support. New iOS versions don’t run on the 4th generation (or earlier) iPad, whereas I was running the Windows 10 Creators Update on the SP2 (and I believe Microsoft still supports the original SP with Windows 10 as well). The 3rd generation iPad, which was announced just before the original Surface Pro, is in even worse shape since it has the old 30 pin connector. Fortunately there is a big 3rd party ecosystem for iPads, so you can still find accessories even if Apple wants to forget the earlier devices ever existed. The third-party support for the SP/SP2 was essentially non-existent, making it that much more difficult to keep them going.

      Tablets were created based on smartphone lifecycle assumptions, where devices are replaced after 2-3 years. One of Apple’s big problems is that people are keeping their iPads for much longer, making for a weak replacement business. Even so, a 4 year old device is ancient in this world. For Microsoft, the Surface RT/Surface Pro/Surface Pro 2 were the learning devices for getting into the hardware game. They did a surprisingly good job for a first attempt. But I would not expect them to have lasted for more than the same 2-3 year lifecycle that was the normal assumption in the tablet world of 2012-13. Mine only lasted because when I started a new job I began carrying an employer-issued laptop, and the SP2 stayed in its dock.

  4. I’ve had a couple of Surface Pros and they have been very reliable. My Surface Book has had issues though. I’m not sure how much of that is the hardware and how much from running early Windows builds. I have enough computer options that the problems have not been show stoppers for me. I’m not sure I would depend as much on the Surface Book when away from home though.

    • halberenson says:

      I would argue that with the Surface family, issues that are Surface-specific vs. Windows are indistinguishable to most owners. That’s the price of an integrated hardware/software offering. Of course, if you are using pre-release builds then you do accept an unreliable environment and should not hold it against the Surface Book. The systems I’ve enrolled in the Windows Insider program always get “a pass” on potential hardware/firmware problems as likely being Insider-build issues.

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