On the Surface of a new experience: the Tablet PC platform

14 years ago in 2002, I was introduced to Microsoft’s first taste of it’s venture into the tablet PC platform. I was working in IT at the time, for a large health care agency out of the then (and forever!) Sears Tower, where Microsoft had setup a Windows Tablet PC kiosk in the lobby. The excitement in my eyes never got to the level that Mr. Gates displays here in this glorious, very non-photo-shopped, promo shot; in fact, they never so quickly dimmed.

In short, it was terrible.

Imagine two first generation iPads face to face. That was roughly the mass and breadth of the poorly lit, very low resolution “windows tablet” (running Windows XP, no less). The stylus had the same touch capacity of a PalmPilot.  The operating system wasn’t ready, the hardware was not ready, and most importantly, the corporate/government contract/consumer markets were definitely not ready for it. At least, not in that iteration.

Even though Bill Gates was 8 years ahead of his time, he still would later bow to Steve Jobs’ iPad in 2010.  Gates, to this day, still praises Jobs for better handling the way the platform  was introduced, and the research/development that went into it.  Classy guy that Bill is, he never mentioned once how Jobs was able to incorporate magic into the device, giving the grandfather of Apple an obvious market advantage to kick off a now healthy and thriving industry of mobile computing.

A decade and a half later, those days are long gone, and Microsoft has churned out several versions of their sleek and smexy (that’s right, I said smexy!) line of tablet PCs.

 

 

Enter Surface Pro 13061981_1354828054543343_1104847376684270394_n4

When I got my SP4, I was HEARTBROKEN when I realized my beloved Black Theme in Office 2016 was pulled. It, however, made a speedy return, as it pairs very smexy with the Dark Theme. I highly suggest both of them.  The Black Theme for Office was reinstated in February, and the operating system’s Dark Theme is slated to be officially released in the Anniversary update later in the year.  You can do it manually though, if you’d like. For something that I’m potentially spending a lot of time staring at, the dark backgrounds with high contrast foregrounds/text personally ease eye-strain. I’ve not yet started using F.lux,  as I have yellow-tint scripts for when necessary, and much prefer true color for devices with such a high PPI display.

Overall, to say the least, my expectations were modest and realistic. Having been a desktop jockey for so long, most of my mobile computing was done via android or iPad tablet, and even less on phone-size factor screens.  So I knew I needed a device that could handle office applications, email/browsing, desktop publishing, and some design work aside from the stylus-enabled Adobe Photoshop sketch sessions.  In turn, I thought this would translate well to what needs are reflected by a casual consumer market using the device for an everyday means of portable computing… with a little bit of engine revving just to see what it can do!

 

 

The Hardware

My decision, hands down, was the m3 core series of the Surface Pro4 lineup. If not for the lowest price, than for:

  1. Small AC adapter – as opposed to the brick the other SP4 pros ship with
  2. Eco-friendly low wattage (4.5 watts)
  3. Lighter in weight due to less cooling hardware
  4. No annoying fan to listen to every time I hit the Start button, or sneeze too hard.

For this, I get a fan-less dual-core tablet PC running Windows 10 Pro with a 128gb SSD hard drive, being driven by a modest and efficiently managed 4gb of RAM. 1 Display port, 1 MicroSD slot, and 1 USB 3.0 port.

13064594_1354631347896347_308017375903600449_oThat is Microsoft’s lowest offering; and I have to admit, I was already impressed at this point.  I knew I wouldn’t be editing raw high definition video, but outside of that, there’s not much I can throw at it that it cant handle at face value. What I couldn’t do on the SP4 would have to be done on the local beast machine, which I planned to leave to heftier tasks like rendering/compiling/streaming

Many benchmark tests show the m3 model and the lower end of the i5 models have essentially the same horsepower when it comes to personal computing.  And unless you were looking to spend $1,500+ out the gate, the m3 should satisfy most of the needs the average consumer’s demands.  Having used it now for over 3 months, it’s easy to say, if you need specs outside what I detailed here, you’re either looking for the higher spec Surface Pro 4s, the behemoth Surface Book , or you just aren’t ready to go mobile.

And that’s ok!  This is a new world, even for most people who have already dove into the telepresence scene.  And to be just as efficient as you are at your home battlestation, it takes a bit of timing, know how, and finesse!

I did not see the need for the expensive case/keyboard and went the route of just using my existing and very capable/slim  Bluetooth keyboard. Seriously, unless you don’t already own a bluetooth keyboard, don’t waste your money. For $50, you can get a much more sturdy, protective and professional looking leather portfolio that has 2 spaces for a stylus, holds the surface securely with plenty of room for minor drops in worst case scenarios, a kick stand, and loop straps to lock in a pad of archaic writing material… paper *shudder*. It’s a tablet for a reason.

The keyboard/cover, personally, is an unneeded novelty. The problem is in a false sense of security, as the screen is covered. In reality, if you drop the surface (bareback or keyboard cover), and it falls anywhere, the force will be put on the frame holding the glass. That will inevitably crack it, as I’ve seen happen to several of my friends’, along with various gore shots of dead surface pros with spider-webbed screens all over the internet. The displays of the entire SP4 line are of the most sturdy generation of Gorilla glass; you’re not going to scratch, nick or ding it, but you absolutely need something other than the keyboard to protect it.

Aside from the Surface itself and leather portfolio case, I wanted a few more accessories to complete the setup to fill in some gaps.

  1. $20 low profile USB 3.0 hub
  2. $20 mini display port to multi adapter
  3. $40 128gb Class10 MicroSD
  4. $30 128gb low profile USB thumb drive

 

The [Touch Interface/Stylus] User Experience

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Ever since Windows 8 was a twinkle in Microsoft’s eye, they knew they wanted an interface people touched.  They overhauled everything, and not without backlash, but it gave them something better, collective community feedback.  Microsoft began using their community’s opinion more by releasing various tech versions and beta builds.  Start menus were lost, start menus were brought back to life again.  But they accomplished what they set out to do, and that was the biggest change the PC platform has seen in some time.  The touch interface is here.  Tactile user interfaces aren’t the type you’d see in Minority Report yet (Looking at you Hololens!), but from the tablet mode that can be toggled, to swiping from the edges of the screen to activate particular operating system functions, Microsoft has gone out of its way to reinvent what it means to interface with a computer. And rightfully so; they put all that hard work spent perfecting their stylus input to good use and boy, is it near perfect.

tip W10I’ve have been writing by hand now for as long as I can remember. Even more so, when I was 11 years old, my mother signed me up for my first art class; to this day it’s my most favorite expressive medium. However, journal entries are what my most frequent usage would boil down to; musings about my day to day, or prose and verse to inform/entertain. Taking electronic notes has been a record keeping game changer for me personally/professionally since being introduced to the stylus on the SP4 and Evernote.  I’m able to jot words, set bullet points, and add checkmark boxes for later, in no more or less time or action spent than if I were to have done it with pencil and paper.  But now, I have the added benefit of it being electronic; tagged and filed, editable and legible, spell-checked and search-indexed.

In Windows 10, you are given the ability to make annotations while still retaining the advantages of spell checking. Personally, I know the difference in feeling/flow between typing and writing by hand. The process is different because the medium is set at different speeds. Electronic note taking seems to even out the speed and flow, leaving a very natural feel to your penmanship or sketches. The biggest switch I’ve felt was in being able to rest my arm on the device when note taking, or when the edge of my pinky and ring finger need to slightly balance themselves off the glass while I pen a drawing. The device knows to cancel those touch events out and leave only the tip of the stylus itself to register.

This is THE most important factor in immersive electronic writing.

This single function must be flawless in order for a writer or an artist to be productive in any form, and the Surface stylus just is, in every way I could possibly imagine. My handwriting has even gotten better since I’ve been using it predominantly as my means of writing/sketching. Even without training the operating system further to your particular handwriting, the Windows 10 annotation tool is so powerful that it will spell-check you not only as you write forwards, but if you annotate an I before that E, Windows 10 (or maybe that’s Cortana at this point) will auto correct the output on the fly, correcting your own handwriting’s backtracking.

 

 

My Running Image

My basic install is as follows, all run beautifully, and fully.  I can push Photoshop and Bryce respectively and realistically with results posted below of some pieces I’ve worked on solely with the SP4:

 

Word Processing
  • Evernote
  • Microsoft Office 2016
    • Word
    • Excel
    • Outlook
    • OneNote
Utilities
  • Intel Extreme Tuning Utility
  • Roccat PowerGrid
  • Teamviewer
  • Webroot
  • ArtKey
  • RadialMenu
  • Kindle App
  • OneDrive
Design
     (3D)
  •           Blender 2.77
  •           DAZ Bryce 7 Pro
IDE 

  • Visual Studio 2015
  • Unreal Engine 4.0
  • Andruino SDK 1.6.7
  • Android SDK
  • Blend4Web 16.3
Communications 
  •     MyRadar
  •      CoreFTP
  •      Skype
  •      Chrome
  •      Firefox
  •      Putty
Design
       (2D)
  •  Adobe Creative Cloud
    • Photoshop
    • Lightroom

 

 

 

In closing

Capture

All of this, I have to assume, is a productive success because I have no overhead to worry about, no background processes or security measures other then run-of-the-mill VPN/firewall/AV.  Acceptable performance for various other industry usages will vary due to overhead of network/desktop administration and security tools that can come along with the environment.  Do not misunderstand though, while under the hood and in the background things appear to be as a normal PC would, the hardware is different and needs to be tended to.  My installation is slim, and getting smaller as I find nooks and crannies (part 2).  Everything is offloaded to its particular cloud service (Evernote, OneDrive, et al.), or my home storage, at one point or another.

In my opinion, having a clean computing session and not overly multitasking to help with Windows 10 memory management goes a very long way in pushing performance and maintaining a consistent production environment. It’s been pretty much everything Bill looked like he hoped it would be back in 2002. Super Cool!

….but, this time, with some well-learned lessons put into practice, research, patience, and flawless execution.