Some Looks at the Surface Pro

Microsoft Surface Pro We purchased Microsoft Surface Pro tablets at work to replace our clunky, aging Dell laptops. Along with the tablets, we got Type Cover keyboards, display-port-to-VGA adapters, and Office 2013. To mine, I'll add a few of the Windows8-native applications I installed on my little Acer AspireOne netbook. From time to time, I'll give reports on how the Surfaces are working out for us here in actual day-to-day use.

As you know from my previous posts, I do like Windows8, and aside from the aesthetics, Office 2013 in general is a bit more friendly than the previous versions I had gotten [sort of] used to. My initial impressions of the hardware are, so far, positive. The touch screen is responsive, and aside from my fat fingers, touching things generally delivers the expected result. The Type Cover keyboard requires some getting used to -- the keys feel a little smaller and more closely spaced than my Acer laptop -- but is a much more comfortable option than the Touch Cover for people used to touch-typing on standard keyboards.

As I mentioned, there will be more as I use the new machine more.

The image here shows my Surface with Outlook running. I took the snapshot with my iPhone and edited it slightly using Adobe Photoshop Touch. I then published it to my Adobe Cloud storage which nearly immediately synced the image to my personal laptop (just visible in the background of the picture) for inclusion in this post.

 

 

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Content is King

As you may know, I've been looking at a couple of options for tablet computing, specifically Windows8-based systems (the Microsoft Surface caught my eye) and Apple's iPad. I discussed some of the hardware differences in the first installment in this series, so I won't spend much time on them here. The gist of it is that most, if not all, of the Windows8 tablets offer various expansion and connectivity options, where the iPad does not.

I've also briefly discussed some of the applications available for the Windows8 and RT platforms, and even had some serious fun with some of them, and touched on Microsoft's latest iteration of Office.

I think that from an application standpoint, I would be perfectly happy with either an iPad or a Windows8 tablet. While Windows8 has the advantage that my existing home inspection software would run, my current home inspection workflow -- hand-written notes and photographs on site, and then building the report later at the office -- is acceptable.

So, what's left?

In a word, content. There are a number of electronic publications that I'm interested in that are only available on the iPad. Most photographers content apps are written for iPad, as are many excellent photography magazines. Additionally, some of my favorite model railroad "magazines" is on the iPad (and also on Windows), and there are one or two music magazines that I would be able to read electronically. Like the photographic content, the music magazines are not available on the Windows platform.

The content availability is great, but would quickly eat at the fixed storage capacity. Fortunately, Apple figured that problem out long ago, allowing easy management through iTunes. As with a book reader like the Nook, purchased content can be moved on and off the device as desired.

Note: It is possible to attach an SD card to an iPad using the Camera Connection Kit. There's also a device that can add 750GB to an iPad using a similar connection arrangement. The drawback is that it's only possible to move iPhoto compatible files (images and videos) from an external device onto the iPad. There's no way to move anything from the iPad to an external device, except by connecting it to a computer.

So, is there a verdict? Years ago, when I was involved in computer sales and support, we told our clients to choose their applications, and let that choice drive the decision about the hardware. Since the software playing field is pretty level, it mostly comes down to the content. Were I selecting a table for that reason alone, I think that the iPad wins out -- at least for me. But, I'm not.

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Adventures with Windows8

Acer AspireOne SysInfo Screen Grab As an aid in evaluating the suitability of a Surface tablet for my use instead of an iPad, I've loaded Windows 8 onto my Netbook, an Acer AspireOne (mine's the 0722 model) with a AMD C60 dual core processor (at an amazing 1.0GHz!), 4GB RAM and a 320GB hard disk. It's certainly no powerhouse.

Yet, performance is surprisingly good, especially when running apps that are specifically designed for Windows8's UI. Even most of the "legacy" applications I've tried are at least as snappy as they ever were on this machine, which has always impressed me. Of course, this was almost the lowest-priced name-brand netbook on the market at the time I bought it about 9 months ago, so my expecations have never been particularly high. Yet, the AspireOne has almost always exceeded my expectations.

I have also tried to install Windows8 on my bigger "desktop replacement" Acer, but have not been successful. That's a battle for later, though.

It should be noted that Windows8 and WindowsRT are slightly different animals. While both share the same user interface, and both are really designed for use with a touch screen, WindowsRT is a "little brother" to Windows8, and is specifically written to work on the ARM processors used in the current model, low-priced Microsoft Surface hardware. Therefore, not all applications will run. Because of that, I've been careful to choose Windows8 apps that will run on ARM, so I can be as true to the Surface experience as possible, considering I'm using a computer with no touch screen. A more expensive Intel-based Surface is expected soon, which will run the full version of Windows8.

Windows8 Metro User Interface

One the Surface, there are all kinds of nifty pokes and gestures used to navigate the system, many of which are well translated to the track pad and mouse interface on the netbook. A couple, however, do take a bit of getting used to. For instance, we've all become accustomed to Alt+Tab to quickly switch between open applications, which still works under Windows8. However, the gestural way to do the same thing is to swipe inward from the left edge of the screen (or trackpad on a laptop). If you're not careful, move the pointer around the screen on a trackpad can result in an unexpected trip to the previously used app.

Windows Mail

Windows8 native apps are generally very clean in appearance. Windows8 ships with new versions of Windows Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Picture Viewer, etc. Microsoft now has an application store, much like Apple's App Store or Google's Play.

Windows Store

And, already there are thousands of apps, some of which seem to be really nice. I've found and loaded several really nice, free ones, including a couple of decent fun photo editors (nothing like a full Photoshop yet).

Windows Store Details Page

Like the App Store or Play, you can browse apps, read about them and see user reviews, and quickly and painlessly buy and install apps. The Details page for the app shows which processor(s) the app is compiled for -- x86, x64 or ARM. You can also find out whether an app is written for Metro or is a legacy Desktop App.

Windows Messenger

Microsoft has taken some pains to make Windows8 Apps play nice with others. For instance, the new Windows Messenger seamlessly integrates with Facebook and Google+ chats. Last night, for instance, I was logged into Windows Messenger using my new Hotmail account, and I had a chat with my friend Karl, who was logged into Facebook. Karl's in my contacts list, and Messenger automatically pulled in his Facebook profile picture, and on my end, it used my Hotmail profile picture.

One thing that I did have to do that was a little bit of a pain was to reinstall the drivers for my wireless mouse and all my printers. I say it was a pain, but once I learned where to do it, it was actually easier in some cases than under WindowsXP or Windows7. In particular, the network installation for my Brother laser printer was previously a chore, the printer installed automatically in a matter of minutes. Reconnecting a Bluetooth mouse and printer was nearly as painless, once I figured out that I had to (and how to) remove them from the system first.

IMG_1912

Connecting smart phones and cameras is a snap. Windows8 even recognized my horrid HTC Thunderbolt Android phone, and was ready to make it work any way I wanted, something I have yet to accomplish on Windows7 or on a Mac. Connecting my old Canon Powershot SX110is and importing photos was even easier. Taking, connecting and importing this picture took about 15 seconds, even with the camera having never been connected to the computer before (I usually import pictures from the SD card). I set the phone up for charge only by default, as I'm planning on getting a different phone in August or September, and the new phone will not be an Android device.

The current Surface devices ship with a version of Office that runs on ARM processors. I don't generally use Word or Excel for my personal work, relying instead on Google's Drive apps. But, they're only available to me when I have a WiFi or wired internet connection and the native Google app is a little clunky. I'll be anxious to see a Windows8 native Office suite -- there's not one currently available. Office 2010 is a "desktop application" that runs in legacy mode. Office 2013 will be a real Windows8 application, and I can get the upgrade at no additional cost if I buy Office 2010 now, but I'm not sure I'm up for a $150 gamble on that...

The Google app web browsing experience is a little strange, so I'm temporarily using Internet Explorer again, and I'm finding that the new version of IE is pretty nice, except for the obvious fact that it is, after all, Internet Explorer.

Windows8 Desktop

Of course, not all apps out there are using Metro yet. For those apps, or for those times when you really need to be able to poke around to find things, Windows8 still has ... Windows. Go figure, it looks pretty much like the Windows we've grown to know and ... well ... know. The one thing that is noticeably absent is the "Start" menu. For that, you hit the Windows key and go back to Metro.

Obviously, I'll keep updating this series as I try more new things with Windows8. I continue to be very impressed. I've signed up for a preview version of the Office 2013 applications, and they're installing in the background. I'll have some initial impressions on that soon.

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I'm Suffering From an Identity Crisis

We ventured out to The Mall in Columbia this afternoon (and into the evening). As we always do when we visit the Mall, we stopped into the Apple store to look (drool) on the iPads and new iPhones and other lovely products they sell. We do, after all, love Apple. From there, we carried on with the actual mission -- Donna needed some makeup and a purse and some other ... things. She didn't find a purse she liked. She did find a large quantity of makeup and the other ... things.

Now, here's where the whole identity crisis comes into play. No, it has nothing to do with the large quantity of makeup and the other ... things, although I suppose I will enjoy them in my own way.

No, this is what has shaken me to my hyperbolic core:

surfaceThis is a Windows Surface RT tablet device (with optional tactile keyboard). And the user experience is mighty good. Better than all of the Android devices I've looked at. Better in some ways even than Apple's iPad.

Although different from the iOS and Android devices I've become accustomed to, I found it to be largely intuitive and responsive. And, adding the keyboard (it's snaps into place, held firmly by magnets like Apple's MagSafe power supply cables) turns the surface into a full-fledged notebook of sorts. Damn, that's sexy.

Unlike the iPad, the Surface allows the user to add storage by either a microSD card or a USB device. The Surface has a full-sized USB port, as well as a micro HDMI port, allowing the surface to connect to an HDTV or projector for viewing presentations or video, or playing some variant of Xbox games or content (I'm not clear on how the Xbox functionality works, but I have seen that you can even use an Xbox controller with with Surface). And, of course, WiFi and Bluetooth are in there, too. Also included are a full version of Microsoft Office Home and Student edition, so the device is actually ready to do real work when it comes out of the box.

Starting price for a Surface is the same as the base price for a current-model iPad: $499.

Of course, like the iPad, the Surface has its drawbacks, largest being that it can't run regular Windows apps. That's not significantly different than the iPad, which can't run MacOS apps, I suppose. So, perhaps it's not really a drawback.

There are some real questions:

  • What apps are or will be available for the Surface. It's a little hard to tell, because you need a Windows8 or WindowsRT device to access the Windows Store. That's a little bit of a pain in the ass. Apple allow access to their App Store through iTunes, which runs on Windows, so you don't need a Mac to load apps onto an iPad or iPhone.
  • How long will Microsoft support RT? Will it grow like iOS does alongside MacOS? Or will it be treated like Microsoft's previous attempts at an OS for portable devices, WindowsCE and Windows Mobile?
  • What happens when Intel is finally able to offer a processor that can compete with the ARM processors currently favored by tablet and phone manufactures? Will Microsoft abandon the ARM architecture in favor of an Intel chip, obsoleting WindowsRT?
  • Can Windows8 be made to run apps compiled for WindowsRT?
  • How will Microsoft's cloud, which promises to seamlessly link desktops, tablets and phones, fare against competition from Apple and Google?

Despite these drawbacks, I just plain like the Surface -- in some ways more than the coveted iPad I'm surprised to say, and definitely more than the Androids I've encountered.

Microsoft are set to release a "pro" version, which will be running the full Windows8. It will, of course, cost a good bit more (about a $900 starting price), and it appears it will not include Office.

 

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