Chemical biologists are versatile people. And one of the most important tools that we use is our computer. So why are most people still using the traditional laptop? Here I’ll show you why I use Microsoft’s Surface Pro and think it is currently the best computer for the chemical biologist and organic chemist.

First a disclaimer: I am not being paid by Microsoft to give this review or promote their products. I only review and recommend products that I personally see as beneficial to people in our field. Also, I will not be evaluating or comparing the technical specs of the Surface Pro. There are plenty of good videos and reviews out there. Instead I want to show you the benefits this computer offers to those who do or study organic chemistry.

I personally own Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 (256GB SSD, 8GB RAM) and have had it for 2 years.

1. Structure and reaction drawing on the Surface Pro

By far the most powerful feature of the Surface Pro is the ability to hand write chemical structures and reactions. Using Microsoft’s OneNote that is included in Microsoft Office gives the ability to create folders and sub-folders for taking notes in class, during a seminar, doing problem sets, or just planning out a reaction.

By using OneNote you can do away with paper note taking. Gone are the days of losing the paper that had that one mechanism on it you need to see again. Or digging through stacks of loose paper sitting on the desk only to realize you just wasted 5 minutes looking for something that you couldn’t even find.

Having your notes organized electronically is a powerful tool. Even better is being able to go back a few years to find a really cool idea or mechanism you drew out. But the Surface Pro goes even farther than this…

2. Note taking with OneNote and drawboard PDF

Besides having endless paper with the ability to insert charts, pictures, PDFs, text, hyperlinks, and reactions OneNote also lets you record audio and video. Additionally, you can search the audio for keywords or skip straight to what was said when you were writing or inserting a picture.

Perhaps my favorite application add-on is Drawboard PDF. This pdf is compatible with the Surface Pen and lets you annotate PDFs. This is an excellent tool for taking notes on papers, adding notes to lecture slides, and as a teaching tool for those of us who teach.

The main downside to the app is that it isn’t free. It is currently $9.99 from the Microsoft store.

3. Adaptability of the Surface Pro

With the Surface Pro I can read papers on the train in the morning, connect to my docking station at work for full desktop functionality, and grab it to go when I’m in a rush to make a meeting. Or I can just chill with it on the couch and watch Netflix.

The key to making the most out of the Surface Pro’s unique platform is in the accessories. I personally use the Pro 3 docking station, Pro 4 Pen (cheaper than the Pro platinum pen and the eraser actually erases unlike the Pro 3 pen), type cover (I have the Pro 3 type cover, however the Pro 4 keyboard is better and I recommend that type cover), and I have the Microsoft Sculpt ergonomic Bluetooth keyboard and mouse.

I swear Prof. Smith’s textbook has gotten more use than just as a monitor stand…

I have a slightly similar setup at home as I do in lab, which really allows me flexibility to write whenever I need.

Because I opted for the more expensive i7 processor I have no issue running programs like Photoshop and Gaussian 09 while watching a YouTube video on my second monitor.

4. Pricing of the new Surface Pro and who should buy what level

By now I hope you can see why the Surface Pro might be an excellent tool for those doing or studying organic chemistry. But what level Surface pro is right for you?

If you are a starting Undergrad or Graduate school and on a very tight budget I would recommend trying out the Surface Pro i5 256GB SSD 8GB RAM version. This should give you full capability to do everything you want with the exception of hardcore gaming at a reasonable price that still allows you to splurge on the accessories you need to make full use of the Surface Pro.

If your budget is slightly more open then I would suggest going with the i7 processor and/or maxing out your RAM at 16GB (though that is going to come at a hefty price and not something I could justify spending money on).

5. The downsides

The Surface Pro’s kickstand is still not as comfortable on your lap as a traditional laptop. And I’m not a huge fan of the type cover keyboard, but it does fine for how I use it. Which is only on the go.

Really. That is all the downsides I have about this computer.

I own 2 Macbook Pros and used to always lean towards the Mac OS for it’s usability and intuitive feel. However, when I got to grad school I need to change two things:

(1) I needed to reduce the weight of my computer. I like to read papers when I take the T and I use to bike during the summer. The heavy and powerful Macbook Pro was just too much computer for those requirements.

(2) I needed something with a powerful pen tool for drawing reactions and taking notes. Between presentations, mechanisms lunches, sub-group and group meetings, and seminars (not to mention day to day research) I needed something as versatile as myself. And Apple has chosen not to give this type of functionality to it’s customers. I tried a Lenovo Thinkpad 10 as a cheaper option, but it was not powerful enough to fully replace my Macbook. So, when I found the Surface Pro it was easy to make the switch.

If you’d like information on anything specific that pertains to the Surface Pro and how a chemist can get more use out of it please leave a comment below.



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