I have been using a Microsoft Surface 3 for about three months now. Its arrival comes on the heels of my disuse of two tablet devices I’ve owned for sometime now: Nexus 7 (first gen) and iPad 2. Both I barely use for other than the occasional surfing the web. I don’t even use them for reading ebooks.

My Nexus 7 was great for its portability but it had 2 flaws: a cold boot takes over 25 seconds to start (a mystery never resolved). What annoys me is that I have to hold the power button for nearly half a minute counting and praying my finger doesn’t slip else I would have to restart the process again. The other flaw is that operating system (OS) upgrades have resulted in deteriorating performance to the point where even just to key in the password is painfully slow as the device isn’t responsive at all. Imagine driving a Tesla at 5 km per hour. Granted I’ve not had a chance to drive a Tesla but I swear walking would be faster.

The other tablet I have is an iPad 2. Yes, it’s old but when you consider that the only applications I ever use it for are web browsing, Evernote and watching videos on YouTube – I don’t think these activities warrant a hardware upgrade. I am sure the folks at Apple will disagree. I don’t even sync it to my laptop anymore because if I did it would take me all night and part of the next day to update the photos (no video, no music, not even apps). Truth be told since upgrading to IOS 8, the feel-good experience just isn’t there. The one good news is the iPad 2 performs better than my Nexus 7 even after I’ve upgraded it to IOS 9, Apple’s latest IOS.

Anyway, on to the Microsoft Surface 3. Before this machine I was looking to upgrade from both Nexus 7 and iPad. But I was weary with the so called latest and greatest. The secret to Apple’s innovation is the experience. Apple made sure of this by keeping everything in-house: from product design, hardware and software. It didn’t license the hardware design to others. It opted to keep everything to itself. Yes it outsourced manufacturing, distribution and parts of retailing, but for the most part when you order an Apple product – it is all Apple. It kept a few apps in-house but third party apps and accessories were allowed to thrive in the Apple ecosystem.

As I said Apple’s winning formula is experience. So if you are into content consumption – music, video, reading digital books and surfing the web – then Apple is good enough for the job. More recently, the company made, what I think is, a wise decision not to tither its customers too tightly to iTunes when upgrading the device’s content so kudos to Apple for waking up to the reality that we can’t be all slaves to iTunes.

The one area that Apple failed to monopolize is productivity. For people like me, who just want our Microsoft office suites – mostly Word and Excel, with some PowerPoint – we still need a way to bring us back to a Windows environment. Hence Macbook users rely on Parallels Desktop to make this possible. A friend was asking me if I’d consider buying a Macbook Air/Pro. I declined reasoning I’d have to buy Parallels Desktop and Microsoft software to use on the Macbook. WTF?

I have a colleague at work who swears by Apple and I get a lot of flak from him for using Microsoft Windows and Office. I tend to just ignore his rants about Microsoft’s security vulnerability issues. Of course he is all tight lip about IOS and Mac OSX vulnerabilities.

Anyway I have digressed enough. The reason for this blog post is to give you my experience with the Microsoft Surface 3. Before I got this loaner from Microsoft, they had me try out the Surface Pro 3. I wasn’t too thrilled about the Surface Pro 3 because (1) it got hot relatively quickly; (2) it wasn’t significantly lighter than my Lenovo Thinkpad X250 work laptop; and (3) the much venerated Surface detachable keyboard isn’t a novelty to me. I had an old HP Tablet PC T1100 – which despite its heft was cutting edge at the time – circa 2003. It featured a detachable keyboard that turned heads every time I took it out to work. The website I help build – www.enterpriseinnovation.net – was partly built from my writings, research and postings using the TC1100. So I give credit to HP for a very good machine.

Anyway back to the Surface 3.

Learning curve

To be honest the Surface 3 is not the lightest tablet in the market today. It took getting used to opening the kickstand. The physical design is boxy with edges that make it standout in a market of tablets that follow the iPhone/iPad concept of rounded curves.

The power/sleep and the volume buttons sit in the same area – upper left corner in landscape mode. Because of this I often mistakenly press the power/sleep button when I want to press the volume rocker switch. This is more a nuisance than anything else.

I noticed that when the keyboard is magnetized to the bezel of the Surface, it is difficult to reach the Windows button on the lower left corner. But this should not be a problem as long as I remember that there is another Windows button on the center-right side of the bezel (landscape mode).

Takes getting used to

I flip between the Surface 3 and my work laptop – the X250. The problem with this is that I get used to the combination of touch screen with trackpad on the Surface, so much that I end up most times inadvertently touching the screen on the X250 when I need to reach a particular point in the screen.

Putting the screen on something akin to sleep is not a good idea as it still consumes power and you end up getting surprised with a low battery indicator. Always best to shut it down.

Other observations

The Surface 3 uses an Intel Atom processor which means that it is not advisable to use this machine to do video editing. Video playback and some not-so-graphics-intensive games should have no difficulty running on this machine. Yes, you can still multi-task unlike the iPad (and iPhone) where most applications are in suspend mode when you shift to another app. On the Surface 3, you can copy files, watch a video and read emails concurrently – really!

Biggest gripe

For a tablet the Surface has a short battery life of a little over 5 hours. For a tablet this is bordering heresy. The supplied charger is rated at 2.5A so charging via your phone’s charger will be a very slow experience.

When the keyboard is elevated (i.e., sticking to the side of the tablet), it makes a hollow clacking sound. So when I am on a flat surface I try to put the keyboard flat on the table. It makes for a better typing experience – just feels more solid.

I used to think that as I age I would prefer to use a computer with a bigger screen, and for the most part I do. But you lose out in portability as you get bigger. Sure it looks nice from the outside but imagine carrying a 12” (or bigger), 1.37 pound tablet around all day and it won’t be long before you begin to feel the weight of it in your wrist, your hand, your arm, and your back. To be fair this the same complain I have carrying my iPad 2 around. At some point reading a book on the iPad or watching a video while holding the slab starts to take toll on the wrist.

Overall experience

I’ve grown accustomed to the Surface 3 being my weekend computing companion because there is just so much you can do on your mobile phone – granted I am using a BlackBerry Passport with its 4 inch square display – I love reading emails on it. I rarely take out the X250 at home – mostly when I need a file or I need to edit a video. Just about everything else I can do on the Surface.

What I need now is a way to remotely access the X250 from the office using the Surface 3 and I am a happy commuter.

Is the Surface 3 worth the price? Microsoft sells it online for HK$3,888 for the basic unit with 128GB storage. Its half the price of the Apple iPad Air 2 albeit you sacrifice the so-called cool, mystique that Apple shrouds its devices with.

Microsoft chose the path of all around productivity with its Surface and this is what you need to remember when comparing the two brands.

The iPad Air is, hands down, the sexy device to show around. It’s great for content consumption and a little bit of content creation – just a little. The Surface is the everyday workhorse. It may be ugly compared to the iPad Air but it just gets the work that. For me that is what I need.

Apple recently released the Apple iPad Pro – what I refer to as the Surface Pro-clone. I think Apple is realizing that people really need to work and the MacBook Air is too under powered for serious work while the Macbook Pro is too heavy to carry around – seriously! As for the iPad Air? Really you have to ask?

My daughter heard this comment:

“Why don’t you buy the iPad Pro? Sure it’s useless and expensive. But its cool!”

Enough said!

Microsoft Surface 3

A common problem with product reviews is that the reviewer will often use a few days to evaluate the performance or usability of a device and give judgment based on that. While it is possible to write a reasonably accurate review of a product after a few days’ use, in reality some of the kinks of a device appear after a bit more time of using it.
I was handed the BlackBerry Torch 9800 over a month ago and since then I’ve learned to appreciate the capability of the device as well as its limitations, particularly when pitted against the Apple iPhone.
OBSERVATIONS
On the point of size (111mm x 62mm x 14.6mm) it is not a small phone but then again it’s not exceptionally large either. It’s actually a comfortable form factor if you compare this to the news HTC HD7 (122mm x 68mm x 11.2mm) with a monstrous size frame. Indeed I often keep it inside my pant pocket, and while you can notice the bulge, it doesn’t look outwardly bulky. It’s not lightweight either at 161.9 grams but it’s just heavy enough for me to remember it’s there when I leave it for long periods of disuse.
I noticed reviewers of the 9800 call the phone’s screen resolution a deplorable 3.2″ 480×360 pixel when compared to the iPhone 4’s 3.5″ 960×640 pixel or the HTC HD7’s 4.3″ 480×800 pixel resolution. To be honest the 480×360 resolution is just sufficient enough for me to comfortably watch my favorite TV programs without causing me to squirm at the thought of seeing pixilated images. And given that I don’t have a habit of zooming at photos (as the iPhone ad suggests) I think I can live with this. After all the purpose for my favoring the 9800 over an iPhone or a HTC phone is to send messages.
After weeks of using the 9800, I finally managed to buy a case designed specifically for the 9800’s slider design. This means I can finally protect the outer shell of the phone. The new case adds 1.5mm to 9800 making it feel bulky. While I could accept the bulk in favor of better protection for the phone, it makes typing on the physical keyboard a little annoying (see photo) because of the reduced space between the upper keys and the screen.
When Apple launched its first generation iPhone, there was much speculation about RIM’s implementation of a touchscreen for the BlackBerry. History tells us that RIM’s choice of the SurePress technology for its first ‘touch’ phone didn’t quite get the acceptance the company hoped for. So the choice of a capacitative touchscreen for the 9800 is welcome news, indeed I still wonder why some phone makers are opting to use resistive touch screens on their devices when it’s already proven that capacitative offers better user experience. Maybe they are just trying to keep the cost down.
When I got the 9800, one of the first things I looked at was the CPU. At the time, the Qualcomm snapdragon clocking in at 1GHz was setting the standard for the core processor of most smartphones. So I was dismayed to find out that the 9800 only had a 624MHz CPU. Certainly from a pure spec perspective, the 9800 quickly looked old and outdated. Today, I don’t even quibble about the CPU.
The 9800 is the first BlackBerry to sport the much anticipated new operating system – BlackBerry 6. It is, without doubt, the best implementation to date and one can only expect further refinement of this operating system in future Blackberry phones. The user interface is nice, clean and customizable (to a certain degree).
Multi-tasking is the ability to do two or more things at the same time. For those of us who own an iPhone or an iPad with IOS 4.2, we are condemned to suffer Apple’s interpretation of multi-tasking: only the application that is immediately visible to the user is running, all others are sitting in suspended animation ready to pounce back to life when picked from a roster of apps. Like other BlackBerry phones, the 9800 supports true multi-tasking, meaning all applications that have been picked to run will continue to run until ‘closed’. This means that with a 624MHz CPU and 512MB of internal flash memory, the 9800 may eventually run out of steam unless you close some of the applications you don’t really need to be running at that moment. (more…)

If there is ever any word that best describes Apple it’s showmanship. And Steve Jobs is master at this craft.  With the iPod, Apple re-defined an existing market and launched a product that created the illusion that it would alter the way we did things. In reality, the iPod (including iPod Touch) and all the MP3 and MP4 players that came before and after it, is a music/video player. What differentiated it was the user interface (or software) that made it easy (and sticky) to transfer music, videos and applications (the last two on the iPod Touch). Apple also made it easy to acquire music by creating the iTunes ecosystem – and this is where the real money for Apple comes in – through gut-wrenching profit-sharing agreements with content creators. What’s more, Apple also opened up iTunes for you and me to create content and allow us to be potential “stars” in the Internet. Youtube saw it too (but that’s another story).

Also, Apple didn’t really invent laptops. Its MacBook and MacBook Pros belong to the same family of computing devices that allow users to write, work on spreadsheets, create slide presentations (we call them PowerPoint slides), create home movies, watch movies, listen to music, and surf the Internet. If you have the computing power, you can play nerve-wracking games or designwork. As with the iPod, Apple created this very consumer-friendly user interface – the OS X operating system – that made it almost intuitive to use the device (I say almost because no matter how much she tries, my wife still can’t use the iMac we have at home to do her work. She is Windows-bound forever!).

Apple saw an opportunity when Amazon launched Kindle with some degree of success. This brings us to January 27 at 10am PST when Steve Jobs unveiled the newest offering from Apple – the iPad. In truth, it looks like a very large iPod Touch dressed like a MacBook Pro. What it dropped off from the Touch series is the camera. Instead we have this 9″ screen that allows you to do almost everything else the Touch can do – listen to music, surf the Internet, watch movies, and most importantly, read an electronic book in comfort (something the Touch tries to do miserably) although I have reservations about the reading issue as proponents of eInk say people can’t tolerate the current generation of LCD and OLED for long-term reading. A friend says he can read reasonably well on his iPhone. Personally I would find it hard moving left to right, up to down on my Touch – so I never really use it as a reading device. In fact I can’t watch movies with sub-titles on the Touch – so no original Japanese animae for me.

And as with the Touch and iPhone, Apple created an ecosystem it calls iBooks that allows iPad customers to consume hordes of electronic books offline by buying these online. This is Apple genius repeating itself. For sure, it will create tons of money for Apple from online book sales. If the newspaper content generators can do it right, it should also allow the millions of newspaper readers to consume their daily thirst for news online with the iPad. Sports Illustrated’s purported egazine is a very nice piece of software engineering if they can get it out the door.

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