The Paperless Interpreter

The Paperless Interpreter Experiment Part III: Microsoft Surface Pro 4

Since my successful experiment in using the Galaxy Note Tab 2 for interpreting notes, more than two years ago, I have happily used my tablet for consecutive note taking. My initial hesitations about push-back from judges or court security officers turned out to be unfounded—I haven’t had a single issue in being questioned on my use of a tablet, other than out of curiosity (“Does that thing translate everything for you and tell you what to say?”).

I now feel confident arriving to work with my tablet as just another tool of the trade, and would feel comfortable defending my use of it if necessary. (There is, undoubtedly, a protocol to bringing technology into the courtroom, but that is the subject of another post).

Today I’m excited to share my experience with what is truly the next generation in digital note taking: the just-released Microsoft Surface Pro 4.

My beloved Samsung tablet, though it’s now a little older and moves a little slower, still works perfectly for note taking. So I had no justification for upgrading. Until now.

What intrigued me enough to try out the Surface Pro 4 is that, in addition to being a tablet designed to accommodate handwriting, it is the first true laptop-replacing tablet. Rather than a mobile OS, it runs a full Windows operating system and, by extension, regular programs.

If you’ve ever used a tablet to edit a document with advanced formatting such as cross references or numbered outlines, you know that the formatting will likely be broken somewhere between the mobile and desktop applications. So, a few months back, to lighten my load compared to the tablet + Macbook Pro combination I’ve been toting from job to job, I purchased a MacBook Air.

Size comparison: Surface Pro 4 vs. 13" Macbook Air

Size comparison: Surface Pro 4 vs. 13″ Macbook Air (will update with size comparison to 10″ Galaxy Note Tab)


But would the Surface Pro 4 really be the tablet to make my separate laptop obsolete?

After a week of use, I can say that it is, and it does it beautifully. Read on for the details—for ease of comparison, I apply the exact same criteria I used for my previous experiments.



Here’s my rubric, along with the current solution I’m hoping to improve. My grading system is simply pass/fail, because the device only passes if it can truly replace my current solution.

1. Interpreting notes

  • Interpreting notes, unlike lecture notes, are minimalist guides to jog my memory two seconds later. So I am mostly looking to note the relationships between the main ideas and important details that my brain might gloss over, like numbers. This involves abbreviations, symbols, and a lot of arrow-drawing.
  • Current solution: S-Note application on Samsung Galaxy Note Tab. I love my Tab because it’s light, stores the stylus inside the tablet itself, and interacts intuitively with the stylus. The included S-Note application is stable and has worked great for handwritten notes.

2. Reference materials

  • I like to bring case documents, glossaries, dictionaries, and any scripts or speaker’s notes to each interpreting job.
  • Current solution: All of my proprietary references are in the cloud, which I typically end up accessing on my phone. I sometimes bring specialized dictionaries when I am facing a particularly difficult assignment.

3. Work during downtime

  • Interpreting involves being out of the office a lot, and I often have breaks of several hours between jobs. I like to take advantage of this time to work on translation and editing jobs, or administrative tasks like invoicing.
  • Current solution: Tote MacBook Air around whenever I anticipate downtime. I use my Wi-Fi hotspot to securely send invoices and work on translations. The Parallels program allows me to run my translation software on Windows from within my Apple OS.

4. Entertainment

  • I’m behind the times here, but I still consume very little video content. I’m just looking to easily read my favorite news sites and access social media.
  • Current solution: I typically access news sites and social media on my phone.


The Experiment

  • Hardware
    • Surface Note Pro 4 128 GB Core i5 (includes Surface Pen) USD $ 1000
    • Type cover (removeable keyboard/screen cover) – USD $150
  • Software
    • Drawboard PDF (free – standard issue)
    • Microsoft Office 365 (word processing, spreadsheets, email) (free 1-month trial with purchase of Surface Note Pro 4; pricing varies)
    • MemoQ 2015 (translation) (second license included in my original purchase)
Ah, that new computer smell...

Ah, that new gadget smell…


  1. Interpreting Notes: PASS
  • Digital notebook

DrawBoard PDF: While intended more for manual annotation of PDF documents, this application actually meets a lot of the items on my digital note-taking wishlist. For example, with S-Note I have to hit a + button each time I want to add a new page, and I navigate between pages with forward and back buttons. This has worked fine, but I do try to keep each segment on the same page to avoid a lag time in moving from one page to the next. By contrast, DrawBoard allows me to select how many pages I want when opening a new note, with continuous scrolling between them. I give myself 100 pages and scroll with abandon.

OneNote: I gave it a try but found OneNote to be as clunky and un-intuitive as I remember it always being. Does anyone actually use OneNote for anything?

  • Handwriting experience

The Surface Pen is larger than my Galaxy stylus and feels more like a regular pen in the hand. From discussions with techie interpreters around the world, a pen-like experience is the holy grail. The tip is pressure-sensitive so it is possible to vary stroke weight just like with a real pen—not useful to me for handwriting, but interesting for artistic applications.



Comparison to a notepad. My handwriting is terrible, but the Surface Pro 4 captures it faithfully.

The pen has at least two buttons, which I assume are programmable. However, I haven’t explored their functions yet.

Storage: There is no nest for the pen; instead, it attaches to the Surface Pro 4 with a strong magnet. I have had the pen come loose during transport, so I will have to be conscientious about keeping track of it. I may purchase a second pen to carry as a backup.


  1. Reference: PASS

While my Galaxy Tab allows split screen viewing with certain applications, the Surface Pro 4 outshines it. I can stack and size all of my windows to my liking, and the additional real estate on the larger display makes it easier to put a reference on one side of the screen and continue taking notes on another section of the screen.

  1. Work: PASS

As I mentioned above, this is what makes the Surface Pro 4 so compelling. I can run my translation software and full versions of all my common applications. The optional keyboard turns the Surface Pro 4 into a regular laptop with only a minimal weight increase. I like that I can switch between the external keyboard (which attaches itself using magnets), onscreen keyboard, and handwriting recognition depending on the situation (working on my lap or at a table, for example) and vary my body positioning from time to time.

Further, when I get to the office, the USB port and a mini display port (same as my MacBooks) allow me to dock the Surface Pro 4 at my desk and use my full monitor/keyboard setup.

A note on email: To my surprise, the current version of Outlook is actually better at managing multiple Gmail accounts than Apple’s native Mail client or Postbox, the paid application I use on my MacBook Air. It also integrates seamlessly with my Google calendars, which are critical to my daily business functions.

I composed this post entirely on the Surface Pro 4. Note the Surface Pen stuck to the side.

I composed this post entirely on the Surface Pro 4. Note the Surface Pen stuck to the side.

  1. Entertainment: PASS

I can’t think of anything I’d like to do that I can’t do on the Surface Pro 4.



I’ve spent the week setting up the Surface Pro 4 and putting it through its paces in my real-world work. And the device has risen to the occasion. The battery has lasted through every day, even with heavy use, and I have yet to hit a wall with a task I’ve wanted to perform. It is a beautiful device, with a brilliant display (even in bright sunlight) and sleek design.  The value proposition is interesting because it’s not just an expensive tablet; at the USD $1000 price point, it’s a lightweight, next-generation replacement for both my $350 Samsung tablet and my $1000 Macbook Air.

To date, any complaints I have with the Surface Pro 4 relate to Windows itself (for example, slow boot time compared to my Mac and an unnecessarily complicated process to opt out of logging into the device with a Microsoft account). I have been able to resolve most of my issues with settings adjustments, which has been a slow process for me since I haven’t made any heavy use of Windows in so long (as in, since Windows Vista).

What about the iPad Pro?

I know many will be curious about how the Surface Pro 4 stacks up against Apple’s iPad Pro. The iPad Pro is marketed for business use, and like the Surface Pro 4, has a large (for a tablet) display and available stylus (sold separately for USD $100). As much as I like Apple for computing products, though, the iPad Pro is not in the same category as the Surface Pro 4. The iPad Pro runs a mobile OS rather than a full OS, with the associated limitations. It may be a better tablet, but as far as I can tell it could not fully replace my MacBook Air.

What do you think? Could the Surface Pro 4 be a good addition to your toolbox?

If this review left you with unanswered questions, leave a comment below.



Content Copyright © 2015, Preciso Language Services

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“Information courtesy of Preciso Language Services and,where Certified Translator and Master Licensed Court Interpreter Holly Behl blogs on language, technology, and justice from Dallas, Texas.”

4 thoughts on “The Paperless Interpreter Experiment Part III: Microsoft Surface Pro 4

  1. Irene

    Great article Holly and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve also been looking into dual purpose tablet/laptops that run like a traditional PC. It hadn’t even occurred to me to use the note taking apps for interpreter note taking. Great tip! I’m going to test it out myself

  2. Jared Carrizales

    Yup, I’m in the same boat. I’ve been thinking about a more robust tablet solution to help when I’m running around to meetings.

    Do you think that this is the best tablet you’re used so far? Price point aside, if I could replace my computer for a fair amount of time it would be more than worth it.

    1. Holly Behl Post author

      This is definitely the best tablet I’ve used, but I also skipped a couple generations (last purchase was ’12/13). As long as you’re okay with the kickstand (slightly awkward when actually working on your lap with the keyboard) and the keyboard (same size and feel as my Macbook Air), it’s definitely a full-fledged laptop replacement in a lightweight tablet disguise.