Friday, September 4, 2020

Surface Pro X weakness — it's not just the ARM processor

I have had two technology crises this summer, one mid-summer, another this week.

Sprint no longer requires a phone plan to have a tablet data-only plan on your account, and it's only $15/month. It's well worth the savings compared to most other internet connections over the long term even if an up-front investment is necessary.

I used my iPad mini and its 10 GB at hotspot on that plan as my primary internet connection for more than a year. Using the connection as metered, I only used about 2 GB of hotspot per month, and the rest on the tablet itself. Later I was getting closer to using a full 10 GB per month.

Then everything went splat this summer. My Sprint iPad's reliability tanked, and I was on the phone with support a lot. I started looking for other options.

I heard the Surface Go 2 was out, but being mid-pandemic with lots of stores closed, inventory was not very available. Best Buy didn't carry the LTE version, but they had the Surface Pro X and all models of that device are LTE-capable.

Everyone talking about the Surface Pro X mentions the high price point and low app compatibility as being the downfall of the device. I'm neither editing media nor gaming, so I don't notice those limitations, and it has done much of what I needed. It's been nice to effectively have a home internet connection again for my other devices.

I've discovered another Surface Pro X limitation, however, much deeper under the hood (kickstand) that seriously undermines my reason for having this device at all.

My main reason for having this device is it's internet connection. That's what prompted the need. If Sprint had a plan for a MiFi device at the same price point as it has for tablets, I'd be almost as happy. The Surface Pro X has become more of my primary computer, but that's been a bonus. It has no micro SD card slot or standard (traditional) USB ports, so without a way to easily back up data on it, I don't store significant files on it.

My workplace has had some required training that I need to complete. As is the case with any kind of intranet site, it doesn't get as much use. Couple that with an employer also using a login vendor, and you've got several added layers of complexity where things could go wrong.

Yes, the Surface Pro X has an ARM processor, but it also has another key major limitation. The Surface Pro X modem only connects via IPv6.

This is the bleeding edge of internet technology. Most of the internet still uses IPv4, at least in combination with IPv6. We've heard for 20 years that the internet is running out of addresses and needs to switch over, but progress on that front has been very slow. Perhaps Microsoft and Qualcomm want to nudge that along.

Combine some obscure user-connecting technology with some obscure workplace IPv4-dependent user Web sites, and the situation has an extremely potent combination of factors that could potentially go wrong. That's exactly what has happened.

I've had a handful of mission-critical Web sites that I need to be able to use that simply will not load at all on the Surface Pro X's connection, with any browser, or with any device/browser that connects to and tries to use it's connection. The most prominent example of this is Yahoo.com.

The same Web sites load fine on the iPad and any computer using its connection instead, including even the Surface Pro X.

One key difference I noticed between how the two devices connect is with the IP addresses. When I would ping or trace the problem Web sites over the Surface Pro X connection, they had IPv6 addresses. When I did the same over the iPad's connection, they had IPv4 addresses.

The Surface Pro X can only connect to Sprint with IPv6 enabled. On the Surface Pro X IPv4 might as well not exist when using command-line troubleshooting. (It didn't seem to matter if the Web sites' URLs checked out on the IPv6 server checkers.)

It's been very challenging calling Microsoft and Sprint support because with the problem being located so close to the exact intersection of the two services—the mobile network adapter—it's very easy for each one to blame the problem on the other, leaving me stuck in the middle with a sometimes non-functional connection.

I thought it might also be an issue with the servers along the string of authentication redirects maybe not being properly configured to handle IPv6-based connections at each step. That theory is a possibility, and it would vindicate both Microsoft and Sprint, but it wouldn't solve the problem.

This could foreshadow larger challenges for the internet still to come. Y2K turned out not to be much of a threat in 2000, but if the rest of the transition from IPv4 to IPv6 is as haltingly nonfunctional as IPv4 is on the Surface Pro X, we may see the effects expected for Y2K merely delayed a few decades to when devices and networks transition to IPv6-only. Think: pandemic shutdown without the disease.

As for this Surface Pro X situation, who wants to watch a bunch of videos and listen to presentations on a metered connection? I spent half an afternoon today finishing the rest of them and used 15% of the iPad's hotspot allotment for the month.

One of the Web sites that won't load is absolutely central to some work I hope to have coming up. I am not confident it would be wise to run the risk of either hoping they work on the Surface Pro X or being forced to shift to a metered hotspot connection for several high-bandwidth-consuming hours. That's a thin thread with a lot of weight on it.

I still really like the idea of having a full Windows-based device with its own internet connection, especially if it's unlimited. The Surface Go 2 came out near the beginning of the summer (the device I really wanted mid-summer anyway), and I'm going to see if its LTE version can provide a more seamless browsing experience, including across intranet and training Web sites.

If Surface Go 2 does, and Sprint puts it on an affordable plan, it would be able to do several things I need that I currently have spread across several devices, some getting to be quite old with other faults of their own.

Keeping the Surface Pro X on its own connection would no longer be justifiable, especially after Microsoft finishes its troubleshooting on it. I expect I'd be inclined to sell it, though I don't think I'd get close to what I paid for it less than 2 months ago, and maybe not even what I'm paying for the Surface Go 2. However, if I also sell my old Surface Go (original), I may be able to keep at least this latest technology swap close to even.

I've written this whole post on my Surface Pro X on its own connection. I'd still just like everything simply to be able to work, but no one has been able to make that happen or give a convincing reason why not.

If you're interested in buying either the Surface Pro X or original Surface Go, feel free to leave a comment and we can figure out a way to get in touch. I've used the Surface Go for a couple years and still do my primary development work on it. The 2-month-old Surface Pro X works well for most public-facing Web sites.

9/8/2020 update: After having reported this issue in a Microsoft community forum, another user of an ARM-64 processor on the Sprint network has also had the same issue appear.

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