Archive for On Technology

On the Surface

Last Friday, I took a trip to the Microsoft Store at the Domain here in Austin to pick up a new toy: The Surface RT from Microsoft. After having spent the weekend and a few work days with it, I’m finally ready to type out a few impressions.

First off, let me preface this by saying that I’m bought into the Microsoft ecosystem so getting a Surface over an iPad or an Android tablet was a no-brainer. I’ve had an Xbox for ages, and do the bulk of my gaming on my 360. I’ve owned both a Zune 30 and a Zune HD (Still use it almost every day!), and have had a Zune Pass for several years. And of course, I’ve been a Windows Phone user since WP7 launched in the tail end of 2010. So when I started looking into getting a tablet, neither an iPad nor an Android tablet made sense. That said, I jumped on the Surface RT as soon as I could.

Hardware wise, the Surface is incredible. I think its a bit heavier than other tablets, but it has a good “heft” to it. It feels really solid, and I’ll take solid over light every day. The VaporMg case gives it a very premium feel. The display is nice and crisp, though not as high-res as the newest iPads. So far, that hasn’t been an issue, and I doubt it will be. It’s a 16:9 display, so movies aren’t distorted or letterboxed in any way. Also, Surface works well in both landscape or portrait mode (minus a few odd apps). I find myself using portrait mode quite a bit for reading websites and such.

Unfortunately there does seem to be some kind of defect (Or maybe its intentional?) in the glass on a few (Maybe all?) Surfaces. They appear to have some kind of warping near the bottom, in two spots right next to the capacitive Start button, and right above the magnets that connect the Touch/TypeCover. I posted more about this issue over on The Verge, and the verdict so far seems to be that it isn’t that common.

Surface has a built in USB 2.0 port, a mini-HDMI port, and a microSD card slot. That means you can plug in a flash drive/keyboard/mouse/whatever (As long as it’s listed as “compatible” here), connect to an external monitor, and add up to 64GB of SD storage. The USB port alone takes it a long way towards replacing a “traditional” computer like a laptop. Also, Surface is WiFi only. You won’t be able to pop a SIM card in to jump on a cellular network, though you could connect to a cell-based WiFi hotspot if you have one.

I can’t comment on the innovative TouchCover or TypeCover, since I didn’t purchase either. I did use each of them briefly while in the store, and they’re perfectly capable keyboards. If you want to use the Surface as a laptop replacement or plan to regularly use it for serious typing, get one.

Personally, I’m using my Surface as a tablet, and if I need a keyboard I’ll use a USB or Bluetooth one. No need for a keyboard to follow me everywhere. However, I do hope that we see more “click in” accessories in the future.

Battery life on the Surface is excellent. In fact, I’ve currently clocked about 36 hours of “normal” (Not constant, but a bit of music here, video there, note taking, web browsing, etc.) use and I’ve still got about 5% battery life. Not too shabby!

The last relevant bit about the hardware of the Surface is the kickstand, which I find myself using more often than I though I would. It is locked to the “ideal” angle as determined by Microsoft, so you won’t be adjusting it based on how you’re sitting. So far though, I haven’t felt the need to try and adjust the angle, even though I’d like to have the freedom to.

Software wise, the Surface is… interesting. It runs Windows RT, which is effectively Windows 8 but without the ability to install “old” applications. That means you won’t be able to install Steam, Photoshop, iTunes, Firefox, etc, on your desktop like you used to. You can ONLY get apps via the Windows Store, and those run in the new “Metro” interface. The desktop mode is essentially just for the File Explorer, and a few pre-installed programs.

The only issue I could see this causing for most people is when it comes to buying Surface RT as a laptop replacement and trying to manage your iPhone. Since you can’t install iTunes, you’re out of luck, because I’m 99.9% sure that Apple won’t write a Windows Store iTunes app. Those people would need to wait for the Surface Pro, which has full Windows 8 and the ability to install other “old” programs.

Surface RT DOES come pre-loaded with a version of Microsoft Office 2013 that includes Word, Powerpoint, Excel (No macros), and OneNote. These have also been optimized for touch, so you can navigate just fine without a keyboard and mouse.

So far, the apps I’ve downloaded from the Windows Store are very well designed. I can’t really complain about anything, except for the fact that an odd one here or there doesn’t work in portrait mode. Unless there was recently an update, the Windows Store app itself doesn’t work in portrait, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. I assume that portrait capability isn’t a certification requirement, so kudos to the devs that are putting it in there.

The only drawback to the Windows Store is the selection. Yes, the big hitters like Netflix, Hulu, Angry Birds, Kindle, etc, are there. However, it remains to be seen if apps will be released in a timely manner. For example, when Rovio comes out with a new game, will it hit Windows 8/RT at the same time it does the iPad? We’ll just have to wait and see. In theory, RT should draw developers because they can cross-develop for Win8 and RT and reach that many more people. But much like Windows Phone, the app story remains “wait and see”

All in all, I love my Surface, but you might not. It isn’t for everyone. I would seriously recommend looking into Surface if you fit into one of about three different groups.

1: You’re bought into the Microsoft ecosystem (Xbox, Zune, Windows Phone, etc) and want a tablet. This is a no-brainer.

2: You want a tablet but need something that can get more work done than an iPad. With full Office and the ability to use a “traditional” Windows environment, you’ll be able to use Surface RT like a laptop.

3: You want to replace an aging desktop/laptop but don’t want to spend a ton of money, and you’re okay with not being able to install some programs.

Are those very specific categories? Yes. But that’s who the Surface is for right now.

It isn’t a better premium tablet than an iPad, but its better than many of the Android offerings out there and more flexible than the iPad.

It isn’t a better budget tablet than a Kindle Fire, but it is more capable.

It isn’t a better computer than a laptop, but it is more portable and cheaper.

Surface fits into an odd niche that I just happen to be sitting squarely in. For me, it couldn’t be more perfect. For others, it really depends.

I’ll be interested to see what happens with Surface down the line. In a few months, Microsoft will release the Surface Pro, which is a slightly beefier Surface that runs an Intel Core i7 chip, full Windows 8 (With a fully functional “old” desktop), has pen input, and has more storage. They say they’re going to price it competitively with Ultrabooks (Around $1000) instead of competitive with the iPad (Like Surface RT). I’d be much more likely to recommend that to people than I would RT, simply because it’ll be a true laptop replacement. As for the future of Surface, I assume we’ll see a “Surface 2” with cellular connections and maybe even an Intel CloverTrail (Intel’s low-power x86 SoC that should compete with ARM chips) version.

To sum up, as Microsoft’s first real foray into making premium hardware, the Surface is a winner. As a tablet competing against the iPad, the Surface is a contender but not an outright winner. If the app ecosystem evolves as it should, then Surface (And other Windows 8/RT tablets) have a real chance to go toe to toe with the iPad, and outright kill Android tablets. Only time will tell!

Saturday Shenanigans

As much as I’d like to (and should) write a recap of PAX last weekend, I’m going to skip it. There was just too much awesome to condense into a blog post. Instead, I’ll just recap THIS weekend.

This weekend was my first run of Command Central 2012. I started cleaning and building in preparation for Saturday when I got home from work Friday evening. It was no trivial task, as my living room hadn’t been cleaned in two weeks or so. Not only did I have to get things cleaned up, I also had to make sure everything was set up and wired for Saturday morning…

State of my Living Room – 9/7/2012 5:30PM CST

The task seemed pretty daunting, but I love a challenge. I also love football, and what could motivate me more than that?

SomLR – 9/7/2012 7:30PM CST

Before long, things began to take shape. With most of the clutter moved away, I was able to configure the left side of my setup. The cabling, at this point, is pretty messy, and I actually figured out ways to improve it last night during tear-down. I also had to make some minor adjustments in the placement of some screens, to ensure that all were visible from every seat in the room.

SomLR – 9/7/2012 8:00PM CST

Finally, after only two and a half hours, I’m ready. Computers a

re all in place, monitors and TVs are wired up, and I’m all set for Saturday. I settled in for the rest of Utah-Utah State, played a bit of Rock Band Blitz, double-checked the schedule and all my tech, and then headed off to bed.

Saturday was coming.

 

7:50AM 

My phone alarm begins playing a familiar tune, signaling that Saturday has begun. I’m out of bed, dressed in early game-day attire, and in position just in time to see/hear “Coming to Your City”.

8:00AM

Good Morning Game Day!

At this point, I’ve got three hours to double-check my fantasy/pick’em selections, get/make something for breakfast (Settled on breakfast tacos because, well, who wouldn’t?), and then power everything up for the 11am block of games.

I have to hand it to the Aggies, they put on a pretty good show for Game Day. It was a good crowd, though not the best I’ve seen. Corso’s antics were hilarious as always. I took the opportunity during Game Day to tidy up a bit more and make a quick run to HEB for some supplies for the day. Upon my return, it was time to start the show.

10:35AM

Beep Bop Boop Beep

“…why did all the lights just dim a little bit?” – Everyone else in my apartment complex

10:55AM

Football on 7 screens. The day’s schedule on the 8th.

Ready for kickoff! Six of the seven main screens are set to show a single game. The seventh screen is split for 3 games and ESPN Goal Line. The eighth screen serves as my schedule, tweet machine, and fantasy/pick’em tracker.

The early games were relatively uneventful. I kept a close eye on Kansas State as they mudholed Miami, but Ohio State and South Carolina didn’t go unnoticed. The only other interesting game was Penn State and Virginia, but that didn’t become entertaining until the very end, and then it was just a really sad spectacle.

During the early games, my cousin, aunt, and a few friends arrived (bearing gifts of homemade pizza rolls(!!!), avocado fries (!!!), queso, chips, and some dessert bars (!!!!!)) to join in the fun. We also learned that my uncle would soon be on his way with some deliciousness from Franklin Barbecue.

1:15PM

Family, friends, food, and football. Fantastic!

As the early games began to wind down, the barbecue arrived and we had lunch. Not too shabby, though I’ll admit I’m a bit biased.

Covering the Spread

Everything was incredible. I hope every Saturday this season tastes as good!

2:30PM

Time for the afternoon games! This slate was headlined by Florida and Texas A&M entertaining us with all manner of shenanigans. Laughter abounds. USC was impressive after they got going, Notre Dame played a decent game, and the Fightin’ Greg Davises played Iowa State in the most Big Ten game imaginable. Oh, and we finally found a food that could defeat Charlie Weis (Rice!).

6:00PM

I’ll never be able to explain the difference between the walk to the stadium and the walk to work I make every single day. They’re physically identical for the first half, but feel completely different. The excitement of game day is directly opposite my unenthusiastic approach to work each morning. And sure, it may take a bit more work and the seat may be more uncomfortable, but if I could sit here every day instead of in my office I’d do it in a heartbeat.

Feels like home

I could try to describe how much I love sitting in that stadium, but I’d never do it justice. So instead I’ll just insert two more pictures and smile.

10:30PM

It’s only logical to follow a great day and night of football with more games, right? That’s exactly what we did! After the Texas game wrapped up, I hosted game night for some friends (With the late-night football of Oklahoma State-Arizona, Duke-Stanford, and Illinois-Arizona State on in the background, of course). We played Cards Against Humanity (a lot of first-timers!) with the new expansion, which meant we were either thinking or laughing the entire night (oh, or eating. We had even MORE delicious food!). I wish I could remember some of the awesome card combinations, but unfortunately they just didn’t stick in my head. As expected when I first bought the game, CAH has become a group favorite, and will be featured at many game nights to come.

After a while of CAH, a good chunk of the group had to head home, but those that stayed were treated with the first game of “We Didn’t Playtest This At All” for our group. That game is… interesting. Looking back, it was a lot of fun, but it didn’t feel fun at the time. The game is supposed to feel very chaotic and unpredictable, and that isn’t my style at all. Hopefully I’ll enjoy it more after playing a few more times.

3:30AM

Power off. Shower. Bed. Zzzzzz…

 

And that’s that! Next week will be more of the same, minus actually attending the Texas game, since they’ll be at Ole Miss. And maybe minus the game night, but I’m undecided. But if you’re in Austin and want to join in the football watching, just let me know!

What I Want: Microsoft’s Mystery Announcement

So my “What I Want” series continues, long after E3 has ended (and of course without me commenting on Nintendo’s announcements. Le sigh.). Today Microsoft is announcing something, but apparently no one has any idea what it is. This is how things have (officially, I’m dismissing “leaks” of potentially fake documents) gone down so far…

1. Microsoft invites tech press to a mystery event at 3:30PM PST in LA (Windows Phone and most gaming press are not included)
2. Nokia announces an event for Monday as well
3. Nokia says that their event is not related
4. Speculation begins that this is a Kindle Fire-type tablet announcement, perhaps related to Microsoft’s recent partnership with Barnes and Noble
5. Barnes and Noble says they are not part of this announcement
6. Microsoft says the announcement will take place at Milk Studios (a design studio of some sort)

So, what is being announced? I don’t have any inside knowledge, but here’s my line of thinking:

Microsoft apparently didn’t invite gaming outlets to the event, which seems to rule out an Xbox-centric announcement. Plus, E3 just came and went. Why wouldn’t they announce an Xbox thing there? Maybe it’ll have some ties to Xbox (Video and music) but not an Xbox branded product. Same goes for Windows Phone.

The invitations to this went out not long after Nokia announced yet another disappointing quarter. Perhaps this is a play by Microsoft to generate excitement around future Nokia Windows 8/WinRT tablets and boost their stock? Friends help friends.

Barnes and Noble speculation came and went. Not happening.

Unfortunately, I have a feeling that what I want and what I think will happen are two different things.

What I WANT to see is a Nokia manufactured tablet running WinRT that can compete with the iPad on specs. Microsoft has kept the lid on WinRT, so much so that we’ve only seen one manufacturer show off even a prototype device. What if that’s because Nokia has first dibs? I’d guess that Nokia wanted to have a big reveal at Nokia World, but their financial situation has become increasingly dire and they need to generate some buzz after a somewhat lackluster Lumia launch. Instead, they accelerated their plans and are launching their first tablet ASAP. This situation probably wouldn’t allow for a “available now” shock that I think Microsoft needs for a tablet, but it’d probably give Nokia’s stock a nice bump.

Sadly, I don’t think that’s what we’re going to get. I think Nokia is hoping they can generate some excitement by launching the PureView 808 in the US and ride it to Nokia World where they’ll show off new Windows Phones and a Windows RT/8 tablet or two and make a big push back into the limelight.

What I think we’ll see is… I really don’t know. As I’ve been typing this my mind has changed a bit. I thought the Kindle Fire-like tablet made sense, but there are so many questions around it. What OS would it run? Giant Windows Phone? WinRT? Or (shudder) something new? Is Microsoft manufacturing it? Why isn’t Barnes and Noble involved? How does it fit into the new shared Microsoft ecosystem? Why announce it today?

Another thought is that this isn’t hardware at all, and simply a partnership of some kind or a purchase of something like Hulu. But why invite people to come to an event for that when you can just put out a press release? No, they want people to take pictures of something.

I could also be totally wrong about it not being Xbox related, and this could be the long rumored set-top Xbox with some kind of fancy tablet controller/remote (Think Wii U). Did Microsoft just want to see what Nintendo was going to do before making their play? But why didn’t they invite the gaming press?

WHAT IS HAPPENING?

We’ll find out in a few hours!