Is the new generation of Windows tablets ready for specialized commercial applications such as Deltek Cobra and Primavera P6 Professional?
Anyone who travels by air frequently will probably agree that every ounce of weight and every inch of bulk one can save in the already over-stuffed carry-on is a big bonus. Lugging a laptop around is ok, but they are still fairly bulky when you’re attempting to travel without checking your bag and need to pack three or four days of clothing and other essentials in there as well. “What a shame I can’t run all my business applications on my iPad” I’ve often wished – that would be awesome.
So for a while now I’ve been looking out for a Windows based tablet powerful enough to run such business tools as Deltek Cobra and Primavera P6 Professional; both of which I teach as part of my job and must have with me wherever I go. And after years of waiting, finally it appears that these tablet thingies may just have fulfilled my dream of lighter and easier travel.
With its 64GB storage, 4GB of DDR3 SDRAM and Intel Core i5 processor, the Microsoft Surface Pro more or less delivers on the promise of replacing your laptop; and with surprising performance too. For well under $500, I can now assure you that you can install and run most reasonably sized business applications just as you can on a regular laptop – something that still eludes many of the popular tablets out there right now.
In the interests of full disclosure, I’m not getting paid for this apparently promotional review. I’m just sharing a new and exciting discovery that I’m sure many folks would like to understand before taking the plunge into this fairly new and uncertain world of Windows tablets.
The minimum criteria I had when researching the possibility of switching to a tablet for business applications were as follows:
- It must be windows based with similar processing power to my current laptop.
- It must have a USB port to allow for installation of commercial applications beyond those offered in the Microsoft store.
- It must have the capability to hook up to a projector or external monitor.
- It must allow for an external keyboard and mouse.
After researching various possibilities and reading a bunch of customer reviews, I was fairly confident that the Microsoft Surface Pro would deliver on all these criteria. The only thing left to do was order it and see for myself.
My biggest concern was not so much that Deltek Cobra or Primavera P6 wouldn’t install or run, but that the underlying database requirement might put the kibosh on this project before it got off the ground. To run Deltek Cobra and Primavera P6 as stand-alone applications, I use a Microsoft SQL Server Express database.
So the first thing I did after ripping it out of the box and getting all the Windows 8 setup stuff out of the way, was to install SQL Server Express 2008 R2. During the SQL install it did warn about compatibility issues with Windows 8, which was a slightly scary moment. However, it installed OK in the end so that was a good start. I probably should have gone with SQL Server Express 2012, and saved myself that particular skipped heartbeat. Anyway, with a database instance successfully installed, I then installed Deltek Cobra 5.1.3 and P6 Professional 15.1 with no issues.
It was a little weird installing familiar tools like Microsoft SQL Server, Primavera P6 and Deltek Cobra on a tablet. My previous experience with tablets has been mostly iPads and Androids, all of which can only run proprietary or specially ported applications. To see these commercial programs loading up and running on a device that looks more like a jewelry tray than a computer was both fascinating and slightly unbelievable. No whirring fans or chattering disks drives, just a small 10” screen and a stylus pen. Can this really work? Although the interaction felt different, everything worked the same as it does on my laptop. Marvelous.
So what about the ‘must have’ criteria then? Well it certainly has sufficient processing power to handle the commercial applications I was interested in. It also has a USB 3.0 port and a Mini DisplayPort which allows for a small adapter to be plugged in for external VGA monitors and projectors. This worked as advertised too. And there is also Bluetooth capability for plugging in your keyboard and mouse.
There’s a keyboard available called a Type Case, which has the dual role of protecting the device’s screen when transporting it, and when opened works as a keyboard. It is also detachable if you want to just work with the touch screen or stylus. I’d recomend acquiring one of these. The Surface’s on-screen keyboard masks a good 50% of the already fairly small screen area when you’re using it, preventing you from seeing what you’re typing into many standard windows dialogs. Presumably this is because such applications as Cobra and Primavera P6 predate these new touch-screen devices by nearly two decades, so the dialogs don’t rearrange themselves for typing like native tablet apps do. I bought the Microsoft Type Case 2 for this device. It works well and solves this masking problem. It attaches easily with a magnet that snaps it enthusiastically to the base edge of the tablet. It connects to a set of pins at the tablet’s bottom edge so it doesn’t require any batteries, blue tooth connections or hog your one and only USB port.
Because I like to use a real mouse, not the mouse pad on the Type Case, I would like to have seen two USB ports on this device. I commonly use a jump drive to move files on and off, which means pulling the mouse out every time. Therefore you might want to invest in a small USB hub to mitigate this issue.
Now for a look-see, and please excuse the fuzzy picture below; you wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to take a decent picture of a black, shiny object that has a bright screen. However I wanted to show the device and the software running on it. Screen shots wouldn’t have really shown true context. In the first picture you are seeing Deltek Cobra 5.1.3 installed and running on the Microsoft Surface Pro. There are no tricks with photo shop here either, that is the real deal – you saw it here first peeps. And Cobra’s performance, as with everything else I’ve run on this thing, is actually better than on my Core i7 laptop. I suspect this has much to do with the solid state drive, and a little credit also to Windows 8, which I detest using on regular laptops, but have found to be actually very usable and responsive on this tablet – as I suspected might be the case.
The same goes for the installation of Primavera P6 Professional shown below. Again this is using SQL Express for its stand-alone database, and also required Java to be installed for some of its components and features. Just like Deltek Cobra, it installed without a hitch and works faster and with better response times than on my laptop. I can easily take this out on a construction site or into a project meeting and have my schedule data right at my fingertips. This is a very compelling idea and I’m sure as time goes on, I’ll find many ways to exploit the power of this amazing little device.
In short, this tablet has performed exactly like my laptop and in many cases better. Now all this may seem a little old-hat to some of you early adopters out there. But, for a laggard like me, it does seem that only recently have the specs been convincing enough to risk taking the plunge to find out if a tablet can truly replace the good old laptop; at least for my on-the-road requirements.
Many of the Windows based tablets out there are using Windows RT, which my research uncovered would not allow for commercial application installs – only Apps from the Microsoft store. Until I saw this Surface Pro model running Windows 8 Professional, I had almost given up on the Microsoft Surface machines completely.
As a traveling trainer and educator of all things Cobra and Primavera, I’ve finally been allowed to enter this new world of highly portable, lightweight devices. If you are looking for business machine power and iPad-like portability, this could well be one of the first usable solutions. It’s only limit for some might be the 64GB storage capacity on this particular model. However my storage needs while on the road are not great.
The business applications I’m running are very thin too, so after installing everything I needed, I still had well over 27GB of free space. If you need more storage, the Surface Pro 2 has a 128 GB capacity and is running Windows 8.1 Pro. I’ve also seen 264 GB models appearing that may be a better option for those with greater storage needs.
As for these devices truly replacing your laptop, all I can say is I’m not ready to part with my at-the-office machine just yet. Until I see 512 GB versions of this unit, I’ll just be using this one on the road. I’m writing this update to the summary from a hotel room having just flown half way across the US for a Cobra engagement. I managed to pack everything I needed for 4 days into one backpack thanks to this tablet. Two bags was previously necessary. And that long hike from one end of Denver airport to the other was noticeably less painful sans the 8lb slab I’m usually lugging back there.