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Category: hardware

Microsoft Surface RT, my first month

By , February 1, 2013 6:16 pm

Introduction

On the 1st January 2013 I purchased a Microsoft Surface RT. I purchased the 64GB version that comes with the touch cover. I didn’t purchase the expensive type cover. For those of you that are familiar with my experience with and comments regarding Windows 8 this should come as something of a surprise.

On the Windows 8 blog, on this blog and on the @softwareverify twitter feed I’ve been very critical of Windows 8, the lack of the start menu and how appalling the Metro user interface is on a desktop machine.

Ok, so given that I think Windows 8 desktop is a huge step backwards and I don’t like Metro on the desktop why would I spend money purchasing a Microsoft Surface RT tablet?

The reason I purchased a Surface RT is because I’d seen an early Microsoft tablet just after the Microsoft developer conference where they announced the Metro direction. I liked the tablet but I doubted they could make it work on the desktop. I was an early adopter of the Asus Transformer (a tablet that has a keyboard dock) and I thought it would be daft to miss the Surface experience. I don’t have an iPad, but I’ve seen plenty. My partner also has an iPad.

This won’t be an exhaustive review because that isn’t what I set out to do. I wanted to see if the Surface works for me. Many things that other people want from a tablet I probably don’t care about and I probably care about things that others don’t.

If you want a more in-depth review, try this another I’ve had a Surface for a month review. All of which I pretty much agree with.

Hardware

The build quality is superb. I much prefer it to my partner’s iPad (4th generation). The case is tough, light and not flimsy at all. The 22′ tilt provided by the kick stand works well. It’s not going to be perfect for all uses, but works well on a desk, which it was probably intended for.

The USB port is great for plugging peripherals in. I tried a USB powered DVD drive which I normally use with my x86 netbook. The Surface recognised it instantly and allowed me to read the DVD with no problems at all, from both Metro and the Desktop.

The screen is fantastic. Yes, I know it doesn’t have the resolution of the latest iPad. Frankly, if you’re looking at it you can’t tell. The screen construction techniques mean the screen is better than the iPad screen and combine that with Microsoft’s font rendering technology and you’ve got an excellent experience. Couple that with viewing angles to die for and you’ve got a really nice experience. You can watch video from really oblique angles and still see the action with no colour distortion, unlike any other computer (any OS, any vendor) I’ve seen.

The keyboard attaches to the Surface via single magnetic connector. The magnetic keyboard attachment is solid and clunks into place with a firm snap, first time, every time. Fold the keyboard under the Surface and the screen keyboard takes over. The keyboard, although thin and part of the cover works just fine. I prefer it to the keyboard on my Asus Transformer.

When you type, either on the keyboard or the screen keyboard each key has it’s own audio sound played via the speakers. The keys are divided into groups, so letters have one sound, navigation keys another, delete and return another etc. This is very useful and adds to the UX. You very quickly get useful feedback for how your typing is going. The sounds are not unique though so someone can’t audibly eavesdrop on your typing.

The built in mousepad works well enough. Surprisingly good considering the size of it and the form factor.

Battery

Battery life is excellent. On standby it seems to last forever, unlike my Asus Transformer. In use I seem to get a day or more out of it between charges. Can’t fault it. Does what it says on the tin.

Power adapter

I don’t like the power adapter. Microsoft have been too clever here. It’s a magnetic power adapter. It can be attached either way around. It would have been good if the manual had said that. The first time I went to charge the Surface I had to search the web to check it was safe to plug in either way around. The last thing you want to do is throw £559 away just because you plugged it in the wrong way around.

Plugging it in can be awkward. Most times it just attaches and starts charging but occasionally it can be finicky and just won’t connect. And no matter how hard you push it won’t connect. You have to disconnect and then try again. Doesn’t happen often but when it does it can be very annoying and waste a bit of time. I’m not fat fingered. I play mandolin and bagpipe. I am dextrous. This isn’t a problem of a clumsy user. It’s a problem of a not quite right power adapter.

And once you have it plugged in how do you tell if it’s charging? Well the obvious place would be a charging led on the Surface itself. This is standard convention on mobile phones, all other tablets, laptops, netbooks, etc. Typically two or three colours (low, medium, full charge). The Surface? Not a chance. No leds on the Surface. The charging led is on the end of the power adapter next to the magnetic attachment. Which means until you notice it you won’t see it, especially if you’ve oriented the power adapter to face down (if you have it on the kickstand when you are charging). In my case, I again resorted to the web to check if there was a charging led, finally found it. Multi-colour? Nope. Just white.

I also don’t like that the charging led is not on the Surface because what if there is a problem with the attachment such that the led illuminates but it doesn’t charge the Surface? If the led was on the Surface you’d know for sure that power was getting through. As it is you just have to trust that the cable is OK and that the Surface is charging.

Summary: Fiddly attachment. Led in wrong place. Led should be bi-colour or tri-colour. Far too clever for their own good.

User Experience, Metro

The Metro user experience is superb. Metro with a touch screen just works. The various slide in from the side operations and left-right-left to reveal the running tasks is so easy to learn. It seems very natural when you do it with touch. I much prefer this to Android or iOS. You can also kill any running Metro application by simply sliding from the top to the bottom of the screen. Simple, easy, efficient.

I also like that when you swipe from the right it displays the charms bar on the right (search, settings, etc) and also the time and battery life on the left. Any running application keeps running. So you can do this in the middle of a live streaming broadcast to get a quick idea of the time then swipe to the right to dismiss it. Two swipes with a minor pause between and you’ve just seen the time. Really simple and easy.

When you drop out of a Metro app it effectively stops running. Go back to it and it’s running. This works brilliantly with applications such as Netflix which instantly restart. Even if you put it into standby then bring it out of standby, it restarts, which in the case of Netflix is a brilliant user experience.

Internet explorer is a great user experience with Metro, the various swipes/slides working together really well. I particularly like the ability to pin a web page to the Start Screen. I’ve pinned BBC iPlayer, The Times, The Guardian, The Economist, various technology blogs, Business of Software video page, etc to the Start Screen and then moved all the pinned tiles into logical groups. Very, very nice touch.

I didn’t even bother using the Desktop version of Internet Explorer. Why would I bother when the Metro experience is so good?

I think putting the “go forward” navigation button on the right handside of the display is a blunder. I always look to the left to locate this. It should be on the left of the navigation bar, to the right of the “go backward” button. Just like in every other browser. The fact it’s a tablet doesn’t change this. I lose more time looking for the button that I would possibly save by having it under my right thumb. Yeah, people navigate by thinking which thumb a button is under? Really?

Flash

Flash support is better than for say the iPad but not as good as the Asus Transformer (an Android tablet), in that some websites can display Flash content (for example WordPress and YouTube), but others cannot (Channel Five television – a UK channel). Why not? Who knows. This is just sheer stupidity on Microsoft’s part. There is no value to be gained and much to be lost by banning support Flash from arbitrary websites. So if I want to catch up with something Channel 5 show I have to use my PC or my Android tablet. How daft is that? I’m going to watch it anyway, so let me watch it on my Surface.

Mail, People, Skydrive

I haven’t really had a need for these, so can’t comment on them.

I found the Maps application to be useful. It seems to match Google Maps for the tasks I need.

Store

The app store works. People complain that there are only 25,000 applications in the store. Do you really have time to choose from that many applications? The fact that iOS/Android have more is simply an I’m bigger than you contest. It’s meaningless. What matters is are there apps you can use and are they of good enough quality? So far I’ve been able to find apps to do what I want and yes they’ve been OK, some have been excellent. This can only get better over time.

I downloaded apps from Amazon, Kindle, Ebay, Netflix, TeamViewer, RemoteDesktop, MetroTwit, The Economist, etc. No problem with these.

When downloading an application rather than having an “it’s working” indicator it would be useful and sensible to have a progress bar so you can see how long it is taking to download the software. Both Android and iOS have this. Surface doesn’t.

I also found that the Store would often fail to download an application, or would say it had lost it’s connection to the Internet far too easily (when you checked the ‘net was always there). This marred the store experience on occasion.

Killing Apps

Occasionally you’ll find an application is misbehaving. This is easy to solve. Simply swipe from top of screen to bottom. The app is killed. Simply restart from the start screen.

On two occasions, once after configuring the WiFi and once after some software updates I found the networking would not work. Simply rebooting (or powering down then back on) resolved the problem. Interestingly you find the power button is under settings. In Windows 8 on a desktop this seems (and is) nonsensical. However for a tablet this works nicely – keeping a dangerous action like this hidden away from accidental triggering.

User Experience, Desktop

The desktop experience, as with Windows 8, is still appalling. It doesn’t work well with touch. And without a Start Menu you are lost as you can’t find anything with a mouse. So then you are stuck with the Start Screen, which for working with the desktop is a waste of space. You lose your context when you switch to the start screen from the desktop. Search results are gone when you go back to it from the desktop. It’s broken.

And worse than that because you can’t load your own ARM compiled applications you are stuck to doing whatever you can do with the version of Microsoft Office that comes pre-installed. I don’t have a use for office. For me I’d like to install a couple of my own applications compiled for ARM and possibly a non-Metro email client (Thunderbird, again compiled for ARM).

Frankly without a start menu to get quick and easy access to the programs I want it’s too hard to use. The Start Screen is just a hopeless way to work with the desktop:


  • Go to search, then find Apps, then scroll right, then hunt around until you find the icon, if you are lucky enough to have that program listed.

  • Type the name of the program, assuming you know the proper name of the program.


The first method is painfully slow. The second method requires me to remember the names of lots of programs I don’t know the names of. I just know the human readable name and the desktop icon. Trivially easy from the desktop and start menu. Slow, tedious, error prone or impossible using Metro.

The good folks over at XDA-Developers have worked out a hack that will allow you to load and run ARM compiled binaries on the Surface RT.

The main problem is I don’t want (or need) to learn a new desktop working behaviour when I already have one that is very efficient. The Windows 8 method is really slow, labourious and actively gets in my way. This will never work. Microsoft would do better to realise that the Desktop and Metro are two separate ways of working and they should modify things to allow Desktop users to work in ways that are effective for the desktop without imposing Metro on them. And vice-versa for Metro users.

Do I like the Surface RT?

Yes. Very much. Despite my criticisms this is an excellent tablet. Microsoft have made some stupid decisions, mainly for ill advised market segmentation reasons, to do with the desktop. But I didn’t buy it for the desktop. I expected the desktop to be unusable without the start menu and I was right. I bought it for the tablet experience, which is excellent.

I’ve had my Asus Transformer since it was launched. I use it occasionally, but the not so good standby time and the dreadfully short charging cable meant that I pretty much left it in one place in the house. My Surface RT however gets carried all over the place, it’s thinner, lighter, better screen, better UX.

Should I have purchased an iPad 4th gen? No, I don’t think so. My partner has one of those and she is happy with it. But I prefer the UX on the Surface RT (if we put the desktop abomination to one side, seeing as the iPad doesn’t have that anyway).

Conclusion

So there you have it. I still hate the Windows 8 Desktop experience that forces me fight Metro. But when using the Surface as tablet I love Metro. Metro just does not and never will work well with a mouse. Just don’t even waste your time trying.

This is a wasted opportunity for Microsoft. Great hardware marred by stupid software decisions.

People want a full day battery life tablet. The Surface RT is that.

Microsoft should stop with the stupid marketing tricks and allow side loading of ARM compiled Desktop applications on the Surface RT. Then business customers could have a full day tablet that can do their work. The Surface Pro doesn’t provide this.

Microsoft need to sort out their marketing. So far it’s been so bad it’s been invisible.

If my experience with the Surface RT is anything to go by the Surface Pro will be a hit. Shame about the battery life.

Things to fix:


  • Start menu on the desktop.

  • Allow ARM compiled applications on the desktop.

  • Flash support for all websites.

  • Power led.

  • Power adapter.

  • Stop trying to shoehorn desktop users into the same paradigm as Metro (for any version of Windows 8, Surface or PC). It doesn’t work.

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Tablets vs PCs, is this the correct way to compare them?

By , October 21, 2011 11:54 am

A brief history

Since the dawn of electronic computing we’ve had valves disrupted by transistors, mainframes disrupted by minicomputers, mincomputers disrupted by workstations, workstations disrupted by PCs and PCs disrupted by notebooks and netbooks. The latest entrant is the tablet computer.

Tablets were initially a failure, mainly due to desktop operating systems being forced to do a job they were ill suited to do. However the Apple iPad changed all that. A new way of considering how to use a tablet. This has spawned a lot of imitators, mainly based on Android. Microsoft will also be entering the fray with Windows 8 and the Metro UI. Microsoft is making the reverse mistake though – forcing its tablet UI on its desktop users. So it may succeed in the tablet space and then fail in the desktop space. We shall see.

Disruptive or Complementary?

Having set the scene the next question is are tablets going to be disruptive to PCs or complementary? Some people seem to think its a straight fight between PCs and tablets – that tablets are going to disrupt PCs and ultimately replace them. Even Professor Clayton Christensen, author of many books on industrial disruption thinks this is going to happen. His latest tweet on the subject “The value of theory: you know that iPads will cannibalize PCs long before the data tells you it’s happening http://bit.ly/nlSq2l #disruption”.

I’ve read most of Professor Christensen’s books on disruptive innovation theory. I think the case is well argued and I find the books fascinating and engaging. I think I do understand the theory correctly. There is always room to improve my understanding.

But I don’t agree that just because iPad shipments exceed PC shipments its the end for the PC. Not even a long way into the future. When I say PC I’m talking not just Windows, but Macs and Linux boxes etc. Anything that sits on your desktop, under the desk, or a portable computer like a laptop, notebook or netbook.

I think tablets are in the main, complementary to PCs. By complementary I mean that they are providing opportunities in places where a PC is not practical or appropriate. I do think tablets will erode some consumer use of PCs. I do not think tablets will replace PCs in the business world.

Tablets

Tablets are great for passive consumption of data. For example, viewing movies, reading email and writing occasional replies, viewing websites, playing games, viewing 2D and 3D models. Touch screen UIs excel at the consumption of content.

Tablets will almost certainly gain traction in areas where you want to view business data. RedGate software’s SQLMonitor is a great example of this.

Tablets will almost certainly gain traction in areas where you need to update the status of items but do not need to type extensive reports. A scenario for this would be in hospitals. Keyboards are a haven for bugs as they are hard to clean effectively. Tablets are smooth and easy to clean. Tablet touch screens are perfect for this type of work – well designed user interfaces will minimise the need to type and make a tablet usable in this situation.

The above two scenarios are not really tablet vs PC scenarios. They are complementary. The tablet is enabling a business activity that the PC either did badly, or could not do at all. For the SQLMonitor example, the tablet is doing the job better than the PC, is is more convenient. But this is a data consumption task (as opposed to content creation). In the hospital example, no one carries a laptop to the bed of the person they are seeing and then checks off their health and medication as they do their rounds. But I can easily see that happening with a tablet. That is, the tablet is serving an underserved or nonserved market.

But all that said, tablets are not good for any large scale content creation activity. Examples are word processing, accounting, creative work, video editing, audio editing, 3D CAD creation, writing software. All these activities are typically done by professionals with two or more large screen monitors with multiple windows open at once, referencing data in one window, cutting and pasting into another, sometimes having specialised external interaction devices (drawing tablets, styluses, trackballs, joysticks etc). For businesses that need computers the above describes the majority of those computing activities.

The 3D CAD creation item is an interesting one. I know some folks at SolidWorks Corporation. When the iPad came out they created a viewer for it. Have they moved to put SolidWorks on the iPad? No. Its a $4000/seat software product. People use it on powerful workstations with multiple screens with large resolutions. You just cannot replicate this experience on a tablet.

The other interesting point is software creation. When Apple introduced the Macbook, Macbook Pro and Macbook Air computers web developers and creatives very quickly switched to these computers to do their work. Have these people moved to the iPad or any other tablet to do their creative work? If a tablet was suitable for content creation these people would have switched already and be trying to prove it can be done.

PCs

However when it comes to content creation the PC is the place where that will continue to happen.

There are several reasons why PCs will continue to dominate in this area:

  • PCs are designed to be used for content creation. The ability to have multiple windows open, multi-task, source data from one application easily into another application, these are key to being efficient at the job in hand. Tablets just can’t do this. I can’t see this being fixed on a tablet.
  • Multiple screens, with physical screen sizes up to 30″ and pixel counts exceeding 2500 across. Even if you could get a 30″ tablet with 2560×1600 resolution, you wouldn’t be able to lift it and it would be too heavy and too unweildy to rest in your lap when you sit on the sofa.
  • Egonomics. The ergonomics of using a tablet are such that for occasional use sitting on the sofa, lying in bed, etc, they do you no harm. I can speak from my own painful experience with RSI that for extended periods of working a tablet will give rise to all manner of unpleasant ailments. I can see all the problems with poor posture and static loading that did so much damage to me, those problems are all there with the tablet. And those problems will always be there because that is a function of the form factor of a tablet.

In summary at large screen sizes, where tablets could in theory start to compete against a PC, the tablet becomes unweildy, impractical and in ergonomic terms, bad for you. If with advances in materials science – let us say if carbon fibre manufacture became cost effective and e-ink is the future – then the weight element of a large tablet would go away. But you’re still left with the physical size limits of a tablet that is 23″ (or more!) to deal with. I’m writing this on a 23″ screen and I could not imagine trying to sit with this on my lap.

You can improve the touch screen typing of a tablet, but the on screen keyboard will always obscure your work. At present there appears to be no solution to the multi-window aspect of computing that has been so successful on workstations and desktop computers for the last 30 years. Tablets have one window (or with Windows 8 Metro, possibly two) at a time. As you can see in the comments sections of the 4 blogs posts dedicated to the Metro UI and Search on the MSDN blogs, people that work with multiple large screens and many windows absolutely hate being forced to work with one window at a time. I confess that I am one of the many detractors of Microsoft’s new user interface work – it seriously degrades what they are doing.

Conclusion

It is inevitable that for some tasks PCs have been used for (mainly consuming information) tablets may well replace them as the best item “hired to do the job”. But I think there is quite a large section of jobs for which the tablet can never successfully compete against the PC – jobs which require multiple screens, large screens, overlapping windows/displays and specialised data entry devices.

Simply making the tablet larger is not a solution due to physical size constraints. Adding lots of external devices to the tablet (using say bluetooth) kind of defeats the point because then you can only use the tablet in one place – it no longer has the very attribute that makes it attractive (its single object portability) – you may as well use a desktop PC in that situation, it would be better suited to the task.

I think tablets are complementary to PCs. I think tablets are doing a job PCs have never been able to do well. I think PCs do a job that tablets will never be able to do well.

I think this quote from I-DotNET written in the MSDN blog comments Windows 8 Search best describes a tablet.

Touch-screen UIs are not the next generation of UI the way that GUIs and the mouse replaced the command line. Instead, what we’re seeing here is the creation of a brand new category of device, a device that is used differently for different purposes and often by different people. The touch screen UI is simply the UI best suited for this category. No more. No less.

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To SSD or not SSD? That is the question

By , September 14, 2011 11:56 am

SSDs, or Solid State Disks are fast becoming the thing to have.

With no moving parts they should, in theory, be more reliable than the spinning disks most of us use now. They should also use less power and be faster as well. And in many cases this is the case. But not always. With SSDs you have to be aware of wear levelling – the memory can only be written to a finite number of times before it wears out. Also SSDs are in their infancy compared to the lifetime of the spinning disk industry. As such the reliability issues are not completely resolved.

Operating System

I’ve been interested in SSDs for a while. My first hurdle was that I wanted to use SSDs with Windows XP, but XP doesn’t know about SSDs and thus could potentially wear an SSD out quite quickly with its paging mechanism. Vista and Windows 7 know about SSDs and treat them differently to normal spinning disks so this is not a problem.

SSD user experience

When I went to MicroConf (see the many posts on this blog about that event) I met quite a few owners of MacBook Air computers. These all ship with SSDs. All of them said the same thing – the SSD is the single biggest win for them. To quote one them (sorry, I didn’t get his name) “I had a MacBook with a faster processor but this MacBook Air with a slower processor is a faster computer”. The difference was the SSD. That is quite a statement coming from a developer. He had downgraded his processor but the net result was a better, faster experience due to the SSD.

Talking with other delegates during the conference it was clear that there was quite a bit of interest in SSDs. A bit of research shows that in most circumstances SSD reads will outperform spinning disks greatly and SSD writes will outperform spinning disks greatly. But there are a few circumstances where SSD writes can be very slow and get outperformed by spinning disks. So depending on your usage, SSDs may not be for you. My guess is that for laptop/desktop users SSDs are going to a big win, but server farms with databases writing lots of data may be a problem.

Problems

Despite the wonderful comments from the MacBook Air users I was still concerned about reliability and wear levelling. After some research it turns out that you are more likely to replace your entire computer before wear levelling becomes a serious issue than you are to actually hit wear levelling problems.

That just leaves reliability. This is a problem. When spinning disks die, the controller or an actuator or some other circuitry often dies, leaving the disk completely intact or with minor damage. You can take this to a specialist, pay them some cash and they’ll pull all your data off the broken disk and put it on a new one. Inconvenient, but a result.

With SSDs the notion of cylinder, sectors etc typical of spinning disks goes away. Due to compatibility with SATA and the drop in replacement nature of SSDs these concepts may be used to address the data even though they no longer actually represent a physical location on the disk. The SSD controller maps these values to a virtual location in the SSD memory. That location may change over time to improve the SSD’s performance or to handle wear levelling. With SSDs the controller is typically the failure point and given that the data is spread all over the disk to handle wear levelling and whatever other concerns the controller has you can’t easily identify which SSD locations constitute a file, making it very hard or even impossible to pull data off a dead SSD.

A few weeks ago my father called me to ask if I could help his neighbour with an SSD problem. I could not help. His SSD had died and he had no way to pull many years of family photos from the SSD. And he hadn’t made a backup! Ouch! He’d replaced his spinning disk with an SSD three months earlier. Was really pleased with the performance until one day it just did not work. I’ve found similar tales on the net of server farms taking delivery of cases of SSDs and finding up to 50% dead on arrival!

So with that I’m going to postpone switching to SSDs. I sure could use the speed boost, but just one lost day restoring my data is not worth the effort.

So what else is there?

Turns out there is a solution which has much of the SSD benefits and retains the ability to easily pull data of a dead drive. That solution is the Hybrid SSD. I’ve replaced the spinning disk on this computer with a Hybrid SSD from Seagate. It has a 4GB SSD style data area to read from for all frequently requested data (it learns what apps you use and stores them in the SSD area) but all writes go straight to disk, not into the SSD area. The result is that writes happen at typical spinning disk speeds and reads for random data also happen at typical spinning disk speeds. But programs you frequently run are typically in the 4GB area and start very much quicker.

Also, because it isn’t an SSD you can just use it as a drop in replacement for any SATA drive on any OS – the OS can treat it just like an spinning disk and not be concerned about wear levelling. So you can use it with Windows XP quite happily.

I’ve simplified how it operates greatly, but the end result if I’ve got a snappy feeling machine just by changing my drive to a Hybrid SSD.

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