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

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The gift-giving holiday wisked past me with my wife asking what I wanted for Christmas. I threw in the usual I want a new laptop. My current home computer,  Tabby, is six years old. For a laptop this is old! But Tabby still works ok. In fact I partitioned its 80GB hard drive and installed Windows XP Professional Tablet edition on the C Drive and Windows 7 Ultimate on Drive D. Both worked very well (side note: Win7 boots much faster than XP on this Celeron 800Mhz machine). Bear in mind that Tabby has a 1.2GB RAM (256MB base memory and 1GB on the expansion slot).

I do envy people using the iPhone not so much because of its sleek, cool design but because of what it represents – the opportunity to have a single device to make phone calls and also to do some light computing work – like micro-blogging. But for the type of work (video editing, writing, surfing like help – all at the same time) I do, the iPhone ain’t the slavehorse for me.

I thought about a Netbook. These devices are becoming more gorgeous the longer you hold on from buying one. The new Asus EeePC T91 for example is almost everything I want in a slavehorse except it is uses the Intel Atom processor – which for the uninitiated is not designed for anything beyond surfing the net, writing on a word processor, or watching a video – one at a time. The minute you load a game on a Netbook, it stops being a thing of beauty.

Mind you laptop prices are coming down faster than underwear. Today the cheapest laptop can be had for as low as HK$4,500 (US$576 ) – or about the price of a Sony Vaio P series (a slick Netbook but a Netbook nonetheless). But I am veering of course from this discussion.

What I want is something similar to what Sports Illustrated claims will be the new digital magazine of the future (read 2010 if you believe their advertisement). If you haven’t seen it, click here. I promise its going to knock your socks off.

Of course it probably needs a digitizer (pen and mouse) and a keyboard, plus a stand so I can look at it like a normal laptop while typing or editing videos.

Will this device really come out in 2010? Who knows? A lot of people are throwing their weight on the rumored Apple tablet due out in early 2010 (I say early because the months keep getting pushed back). But I don’t trust Apple to come up with a device that has everything you ever wanted plus more. Sure they could come up with a sleek new design that is generations ahead of everyone else is. But Apple also has a tendency to deliver just enough to wet your appetite and then force you to wait for the next generation for some of those features you wanted in the device at launch (Just look at the iPhone 3GS and its built-in camera -most smartphones come with 5 megapixels).

Apple also has a tendency to not include everything on the device on day one and built-in. Instead the vendor creates an ecosystem of add-on suppliers to give you the special digitizer, the superduper speakers, the pouch to carry your new toy, etc. So much new must-buy add-ons are tied to owning an Apple device purchase. Plus on top of that you are locked in to Apple technology the minute you get sucked in to buying one of its devices. Its just the way Apple works (Can you update your iPod music using software other than iTunes? I don’t think so).

I would love to see Microsoft Surface installed on a portable device. I think it has everything anyone would ever want in a computing device.

If only they could bring it down to a truly portable formfactor.

For now, I will hold off any new purchase and patiently wait for things to come. I just hope Armageddon doesn’t arrive until after I’ve tried my hands on the next best thing.

Happy New Year everyone!