• Surface Pro 3 - My two weeks with the dark side (Part 2)

    This is the second part of in my installment/review of the Surface Pro 3. If you missed the first, you can find it here.

    Iíve worked with the Surface Pro 3 for nearly two weeks now and Iím starting to get accustomed to the changes. Part 2 of my review is largely focussed on the operating system and usability, as hardware is only one small part of the complete solution.

    On the OS side, Windows 8 on the Surface Pro 3 is a mixed bag. There are things to like and hate. A number of these are likely to be rectified with Windows 10 but the question is whether users can live with these problems in the interim.



    Iíve tried to cover the good and bad of working with the Surface Pro 3. The reality is Microsoft havenít found the right way to do everything. This is different to Appleís approach where they would rather not provide a device or functionality that is unusable or sub-par. In some respects, Apple and Microsoft have a lot to learn from each other. Microsoft can learn from Apple on the usability front, but Apple also has the opportunity to learn from the way Microsoft is doing things, because with most aspects of Windows 8, theyíve chosen not to copy iOS and that is a good thing. Itís not just making another iOS copy like Android and that kind of approach forces thinking outside the box with some good ideas coming out.

    The Good


    OneNote


    The Surface Pro 3 is a productivity device and productivity is where it excels. If youíre looking at purely media consumption like watching movies, email and web, there are cleaner solutions. If youíre looking at productivity, it really is one of the best tools on the market. When you combine the Surface Pro 3 with OneNote, it really starts to show its potential. Without OneNote, I donít know if I would appreciate the Surface Pro 3 completely. Microsoft have put a lot of work into the app, its integration into MS Office and it really is quite far ahead of anything you get on the iOS, OSX or Android at present. Ignoring the stylus hardware integration, Apple have the tools to do this, but they chose to stop with the hardware and OS when really this needs to extend to the application layer which Apple needs to own to get it to work.

    Whilst you can use OneNote on OSX and the iOS, Microsoft havenít provided the same functionality and it lacks the full integration to make it complete. You could argue that itís Microsoftís fault for providing an incomplete solution, but the reality is Apple do the same with their offering. iPhone users donít get full iCloud functionality on Windows, like iMessage.



    There are options to share notes between devices like the iPad and OSX, but nothing is close to as complete as Microsoftís offering because the Surface relies on a combination of hardware (Surface Pro 3 with Stylus), OS (Windows), Application (OneNote and Office integration), and infrastructure (OneDrive/Office365) to make it work, and with everything developed by Microsoft it does work very well.

    To put this into perspective, I can collaborate real time with someone in OneNote, drawing process flows and having them collaborate real time, both using styluses if they devices are stylus capable on Windows. I can export design word documents to OneNote and have them inserted in a project where I can annotate on them. You can share a Notebook in OneNote and during the process, you could even see this happening real time on a Mac or iPad. To do the same on iOS, I need a combination of apps from different companies (like NotesPlus combined with Evernote) and even then, itís not as close to the complete solution that OneNote offers due to the integration with Office 2013.

    Handwriting recognition with OneNote is fairly good as one would expect with a hardware integrated solution as you can see from these results.



    What my experiences with OneNote has exposed is why Apple cannot compete on an enterprise level with its current offering. Itís great for personal use, but when you start to look at the combination of integration between desktop application like Office, Infrastructure like Office 365, OneDrive and SharePoint, Apple doesnít really have a complete solution to offer enterprise and with business moving more into the cloud, Apple might their work cut out for them if they intend playing in this space.

    Android on the Surface

    Initially I complained about my Virgin Entertainment, or lack thereof on a flight because Virgin doesnít have a Windows app for their systems yet. The advantage of using a device for two weeks is that you are actually forced to do more discovery than picking up a device in a store or reading a review in a magazine. In my case, it forced me to work a little with Windows, find out how to make it more user friendly and in doing so, I found an Android emulator called Andy (Andy the Android Emulator). Andy is not the only emulator, but the alternative (Bluestack) works on a subscription model basis. This has provided me with the Virgin Entertainment App which Iíve installed the app and it works perfectly on Virgin flights. (WARNING - it does heat the device up a bit so the landings can be a little less comfortable without the benefit of a table to put it on)
    For me as a user, that means I have the Windows app store, but I also have access to the Android market which is one of the largest app markets available.



    The Apple Limitations

    Ignoring the availability of apps on the Android store, whilst the selection of apps in the Microsoft app store isnít quite as large as Apple or Google, you do have access to apps that would never see the time of day on the iPad. I am not saying this because the developers arenít there, but because Apple wouldnít let them anywhere near their store. As an example, when I looked through the list of popular apps, I saw torrenting apps. Rightly or wrongly, Apple is heavily tied to the media companies so itís unlikely they will ever give that level of freedom to their users. Ironically an OSX user can download a torrenting app to their computer so the limitation doesnít make complete sense. I.e. you canít torrent media on your iPad but weíre okay with you downloading torrents on your Mac and copying them to an app on your iPad. A lot of people will ask whether itís Appleís job to play the ďInternet policeĒ when it comes to their iPad platform and I tend to agree.



    In conjunction to this, youíre not stuck behind the limitations of iTunes for connectivity or file transfer. Iím sorry to say that iTunes is steadily becoming more annoying than an S.T.D and weíre forced to use it for iOS integration. The latest version of iTunes looks like it was designedÖwell, no, it looks like it was never designed, and thatís part of the problem. Sadly enough, Microsoftís media and music store and players look better and cleaner than Apple and Microsoft have never been known for usability.



    Aside from my iTunes hatred, if I want to load something onto the Surface, I can do it without the need for any third party software. I donít need to worry about whether the file format needs to be converted, whether it has to be loaded via iTunes, or using a specific app. Iím not tied to iPhoto (I use Lightroom) to download photos. I can simply download it and save it to the device or copy from USB. Apple has made it extremely difficult to do this, and in doing so, theyíve stunted the capability of the iPad for all users, including those with legitimate or legal requirements. Why should I have to load iTunes to put a video of my daughter blowing bubbles on my iPad because they have agreements with media companies that can be bypassed by virtually any users?



    Split screen

    Windows 8 hasnít been readily adopted by business so my exposure prior to this device has been limited. Most customers are still running Windows 7. I havenít used the split screen setup of Windows 8 (called Snap) but it is pretty good and I really like the setup. You can do similar things on OSX but it requires manual resizing although there are third party applications on OSX to do it. To put it into perspective, you can split the screen in two and some of the apps do it automatically. This offers you two potential scenarios:

    If you open a link in twitter, it automatically splits the screen in two and opens the link side by side with the main screen in Internet Explorer.



    If you want to watch a movie and do some work at the same time, you can drag another app across and keep both apps open in the foreground on the screen. This is handy if

    The only limitation Iíve found with this is that it doesnít work with all apps. If I set Chrome as my default browser, it opens Chrome in a new screen so I am stuck keeping Internet Explorer as my default browser. Iím not 100% sure if this is Googleís or Microsoftís fault but from what I understand, itís largely Google.

    Social Media Integration

    This is not unique to Windows, Apple have some of the best social media integration on the market but I thought I would raise it because itís a little hidden if youíre not used to Windows 8 and there are two aspects to it. What they have done however is incorporate the social media integration in a different way with good results. To get to the social media integration, you have to use charm (CTRL C) or a swipe from the right side of the screen. This may seem illogical compared to Appleís approach (of having the icon in safari) but it does make sense when you consider the added functionality. I.e. if youíre in an App like word, you can share a screenshot to the Twitter or Facebook without having to copy the screen and paste it into twitter so itís compatible, at least at screenshot level with everything. It also gives you a wider variety of options of applications you can share to so you can use it to share a screenshot to Skitch (yes, itís also available for Windows) or any other application you have available. What doesnít make complete sense is how the sharing reacts after that. I.e. if I share to twitter, it does things the right way by opening twitter with the URL, allowing you to complete the tweet and closing it; however, if I share to Skitch, it shares it to Skitch but leaves the app closed. What is the point in sharing to an app if it stays closed? You then have to open Skitch and do whatever you want to, but itís a manual process to open the app. Google loses more points for me by offering a browser but not bothering to integrate it properly into Windows 8, so if you attempt to share a webpage from Chrome, it only allows for a screenshot. This is not the first time I have encountered issues with Google, they havenít enabled snap mode and they havenít given a decent tablet version of their browser so itís becoming more apparent that Android isnít the only area they offer half-baked solutions.



    Contacts

    Microsoft have done a surprising good job on their contacts. I almost missed it because I have Outlook 2013 so the focus was always on that but once you play around with it you realise that it looks a lot better than Address Book on the iPad and Desktop. Itís focussed largely around the tablet interface so it doesnít work that well in a desktop environment. It requires touch input and doesnít offer desktop alternatives to do some components which is typical of the frustrations in Windows 8, its good but not quite there.
    What makes it good? Integration with social media in a different way. It connects to the various social media accounts and links the contacts. That may sound similar to Apple but it extends this quite considerably by providing a single interface that gives you updates on all accounts, the ability to view all social media for a single contact and all activity for a single contact, along with combining the photo thatís available from the relevant account.



    USB

    Like it or hate it, having USB available is a definite advantage. Having the ability to navigate folders is an advantage. The iPad doesnít have that capability and there is no reason why it shouldnít. Whilst Microsoft doesnít offer you a tablet File Explorer by dafult, there are plenty of third party ones and they are relatively easy to navigate.

    USB is also a charging device when you need it and thatís something the iPad canít offer. Typical example would be a flight where I suddenly find my Bose QC20iís have a flat battery. I can charge them for 10 minutes (or charge them while I am watching a movie so I can take advantage of the noise cancelling) and then use them for the balance of the flight. Without that, Iím having to carry a portable battery charger to achieve the same thing and thatís one more accessory for my bag I donít want.

    If youíre comparing the Surface Pro 3 to the Macbook Air, sure it can do the same, but Airlines still donít like you using laptops on take-off so you are stuck waiting for the seatbelts to be turned off or switching off your laptop when you land.

    Tiles

    I mentioned earlier that I like how Microsoft was thinking out of the box and tiles is one of them. I think it offers more flexibility than iOS and Android on the home screen front. I can download tiles to show weather, upcoming appointments Facebook along with virtually anything else I want and they look better than the iPad or iPhone because I can adjust size, position or anything else I want. As opposed to limiting the number of entries, by resizing the tile we can see more information in a format that you like.
    This is where Microsoft went the right direction. Theyíve created a tablet OS that could never be mistaken for iOS and doesnít look like itís a copy of iOS. Android looks like the ugly sister of iOS who is sitting with an inferiority complex so she feels the need to rush functionality in to beat iOS to the game. The Windows 8 tablet OS looks like a friend from school. I.e. clearly the same generation but completely different. The challenge with copying someone elseís design is youíre tied to the legacy of their decisions and itís hard to think outside the box. All of the major innovations came from rethinking from the ground up or trying to do things differently.

    On the tile front, getting used to it does take a little work, but that comes down to the OS. They could probably do things better, but thatís generation thing so as the OS progresses, it will get better and easier to work with.

    For the Surface Pro 3, working with tiles becomes more powerful when you add an app called Pin More. Pin More allows you to create tiles out of anything. Folders, Web Pages, Documents, etc. You can add an icon of choice. I.e. create a folder for a customer and attach their logo so it looks like an app for the customer and then navigate documents.



    File Explorer

    This may or may not annoy some Apple fans, but File Explorer has always been my favourite in comparison to Finder which is frankly disappointing. While Pathfinder is on OSX as a third party app, itís slower than finder and not as usable as File Explorer. Most of my Mac loving friends hate Finder or believe it doesnít make the grade compared to File Explorer so as much as this has been in Windows since the beginning, itís a good reminder of the value in some of the things that Microsoft do.



    It is a full blown PC when you need it

    As much as Microsoft may seem like they are pushing the PC thing, it has certain advantages although it would depend on what your intended purpose for your tablet is.

    Firstly, Iíll be open and say that Microsoft are right when they say the Surface Pro 3 is completely the range Macbook Air so there is no reason why you couldnít be running everything from email to Photoshop. That does however come with caveats.

    The TypePad is not a full time replacement for a keyboard and if you intend using this as a laptop replacement, Iíd recommend buying an external keyboard. Itís not to say itís a bad product, itís just not a perfect product or the best product. The TypePad is better than anything Apple can offer but if I had a choice between a TypePad and an external keyboard, Iíd take the external unless I was sitting on a plane or trying to use it on my lap. If itís a part time laptop replacement, you could get away with the TypePad.

    It all depends on how you use your laptop. If you like to sit on the couch and type, the Surface Pro probably wonít work that well for you. If you sit at a desk the majority of time, itíll work perfectly (if you can live with Windows 8 obviously). The Surface Pro 3 isnít that well setup to sit on your lap. It can do it, but itís not as good as a fixed laptop setup because itís a little less stable. That said, it has some advantages. Airlines still wonít allow you to run your laptop on your lap on a plane but they donít second guess you if youíre sitting with the tablet on your lap using the Surface Pro 3 onscreen keyboard.

    In my case, it works because my primary purpose for my laptop is to have mobility at customers. I almost always have a device provided by a customer when working on projects so when Iím onsite, but it doesn't negate my requirement to access my own documents or to use VPNís to access other customers if required at the time. This eliminates the option for an iPad only solution. The Surface offers me the advantage of not having to carry my Macbook Air and an iPad because I have a combination of tablet usage and a laptop that is capable of doing what I need it to do. I also use the stylus a lot which may or may not be important for people.

    If I am sitting in my office doing documentation, my first preference for a full time working environment is using my Mac because and I will always go back to OSX if the preference allows for it. OSX is better, cleaner and more stable.

    Using the combination of Macbook Air and Surface Pro means I have to have the majority of my data synced to between my Air and my Surface Pro 3. This obviously means the added requirement of software. Microsoft give you a certain amount of storage free (6GB if I remember correctly) or 1TB if you have Office 365 (like I do), but in the absence of that, you may have to consider synchronisation products like Sugarsync or Dropbox to make it work. Dropbox offers 1TB of storage at around $10/month which may be enough to backup the bulk of your data although upload speeds for Dropbox are slower than a parliamentary sitting.

    I can also run full versions of Photoshop and Lightroom so as a travel device, itís probably a smaller and better solution for me because Adobe allow for multiple (2) current activations of their software with no additional cost. On my surface and only an i5, Photoshop isn't going to be lightning fast, but itíll still be better and faster than an iPad which obviously canít run a full version of Photoshop.

    The Bad

    Search


    After working on Windows 8 for a little while, itís only now that I appreciate how good spotlight is in comparison to Windows search. Apparently Windows 7 search was better but this is dismal. The Windows search just seems clunky and slow, it doesn't structure by groups (apps vs files) and it has no email integration. For a company that produces an enterprise search tool, it dismal. There are some tricks to optimise it, but these things really should just work out of the box and they really need to incorporate a basic structure to their search like Apple has. The CMD space spotlight search is quick to initiative with a small windows over your popup over your current window, having a new screen open doesn't make sense. Again, Microsoft just hasn't focused on the usability, they seem to have tech developers designing things and doing it really badly.



    Resolution and scaling

    It took me a while to find the optimum resolution and scaling for my purposes. Apple seems to have done a better job of getting the scaling right on the retina displays for desktop use and although Microsoft give you the tools to do the job, it takes a fair amount of experimentation to get it right. Theyíve also provide multiple options and places to do it which donít make that much sense. This has been one of my largest annoyances because theyíve given flexibility in the wrong areas (text size) but havenít give you the option to scale up things like the task bar which are common complaints.



    As an example, the default resolution on the screen 2160x1440. But you cannot select another resolution that uses the whole screen. You can enable the zooms which have a similar effect but trying to find the balance is difficult.

    Heat

    If you lie it flat on your lap and type on the onscreen keyboard like an iPad, or youíre watching movies (as you would in the plane on take-off when you canít put your tray table down), it gets a little heated on your lap. If youíre planning on using it on your lap, itís going to be better with the type pad attached and the screen upright but obviously you canít always do this in some situations. I havenít found it reached a point where I couldnít use it, but it was certainly a little more uncomfortable than I would have liked. It is dependent on applications and tends to be more prevalent with the apps that make your device work harder like media players or the android emulator.

    Outlook 2013 and iCloud

    Outlook works really well when it comes to Exchange but really horribly on iCloud. I donít know whether itís Apple or Microsoft, but Iím inclined to think Microsoft because of the way things are setup in the default mail which seems to work a lot better.
    On the address book front, as the premium email product, it really should be searching across all contacts when you type in a name, but it doesnít by default. It searches only one account. Again, a good example how badly it comes setup out of the box for something that really should be setup as standard to make it more user friendly. The Tablet mail app does do this, but Outlook 2013 not. It may seem small, but it points to a lack of work on the usability aspect of the solution.

    The logon screen

    The surface pro 3 defaults to a full Windows login screen which is ludicrous. I can understand the need for heavy authentication on corporate networks, but on a tablet, itís cumbersome and doesnít work unless you have the keypad attached which you wonít in tablet mode.



    To put this into perspective, you pull out the tablet, click the back of the pen and suddenly you find yourself with a full windows login screen where you may have a complex password like M@cTa1k!. This is cumbersome on the onscreen keyboard where you need to switch between letters and numbers.

    You can enable the 4 digit keypad (like the iPad) or a picture login option that may appeal to some users, but these are not defaulted. Both of these options work really well. So, to put this into perspective, Microsoft picked the most cumbersome way of doing something out of the box. Microsoft seriously should have put this in as the default option. I understand the need for network security, but most network people would have no problem enabling it as part of their preparation process and most users who buy the tablet themselves would have a harder time figuring out how to change it.



    Inconsistency in apps

    Apple may be rigid (overly rigid as far as I am concerned) but you need to have some form of app consistency. As an example, I open the Facebook app and the reverse scrolling is enabled in message but normal scrolling is enabled in the news area.
    There are other app oddities that Microsoft really need to look at. Some of these are addressed by apps in the app store, but they should be. As an example, Microsoft have neglected to provide a decent File Explorer app for tablet use. Yes, there are alternatives in the app store that can be purchased cheaply, but itís one of those things that Microsoft should just have put there.

    Lack of stability

    Windows 8 is surprisingly unstable for an OS that has been around for a little while. Every now and then everything becomes completely unresponsive, the mouse moves really slowly on the screen and I have to restart the machine. Fortunately the restart doesnít take as long as Windows OSís of yesteryear but I am trialling using only Chrome as most of the time this has happened has been with Internet Explorer and so far the Chrome option seems to have resolved issues.

    Inconsistent Application install and update locations

    With Apple, you have one folder for all your apps. With Windows 8, I was surprised to find the uninstall option was not available for apps installed via the store. You have to go to your application area, then right click and say uninstall and then they appear. It seems like an really cumbersome way of doing things with no consistency.

    Software updates

    I have to admit I forgot how often Microsoft gets patched and how many downloads you can receive on a daily basis. Iím not 100% sure what Microsoft is doing wrong, but tonight I received a notification that about 20 updates were waiting when I updated my software the day before and it came with over 100MB of updates. I wonít say anything more about it, itís just plain ludicrous. Every day I seem to have updates.



    What can Microsoft do to fix it?

    A lot of the issues I see with the Surface Pro 3 are fixed in Windows 10 and thatís good news for Surface Owners and bad news for Apple. Good news because Microsoft might just have working solution to combine the tablet and laptop; bad news for Apple because if Microsoft get this right, there could be a number of buyers moving away from the iPad or Macbook Air, or not switching.

    Microsoft have already talked about Continuum mode which allows the device to switch between desktop and tablet versions of applications. I.e. if you have a document open in Word and you remove the keyboard, it will switch to Word in tablet mode. This seems to be a competitor to Appleís idea of allowing users to switch from one device to the other and it would be easy to get into an argument on which is better solution. This is exactly whatís missing from the Surface in its current format and I think Microsoft may have a better solution on their hands because the ability to switch between devices is reliant on controlling the software on those devices. That may work in theory for the browser, or email, but Microsoft control office which is where a lot of the work happens and that means they probably have the ability to make it work where Apple would be reliant on developers producing cross platform software, and thatís if Apple allow them to. It may work with pages and numbers, but thatís not where the bulk of the market is.

    I donít think this would be difficult to achieve if Microsoft gives the developers the right tools and guidelines to keep the interfaces consistent, but I am hoping they give you the flexibility to manage which app opens. I.e. I still prefer OneNote 2013 in tablet mode so if they are smart about this, there should be a configuration option to allow you to select which mode should be used for tablet and desktop mode, or potentially switching apps. I.e. Chrome for desktop internet browsing with the tablet version of Internet Explorer for tablet browsing.

    That’s all Iíll cover at this point in part 2. Iíll deal with the final conclusion in part 3.
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