I recently got the Microsoft Surface Pro (64 GB), and I’ve been using it heavily for the last couple weeks. Here are my thoughts on Windows 8, the Surface Pro hardware, and the accompanying Type Cover.
You’ll hear a bunch of people deriding Windows 8 because it’s cool to do so, or because they’re using a desktop system (more the latter than the former, hopefully). I can see how the new start menu would be really weird without a touch interface, but if you have that then it’s nice.
I came from a netbook, so I have no idea if what I’m experiencing is an improvement in hardware or the operating system (or both), but everything is amazingly fluid. I catch myself in a moment of mild disappointment each time I see dropped frames or a second of stutteryness, because the rest of the time it’s nearly flawless.
As for change: What you think of the new system depends on how you used the old one. When I hit my Windows key (and I’d rarely use the button with my mouse), it was for a few reasons:
- -I’m browsing full-screen, and I want to see the taskbar to check my battery level or the time
- -I want to get back to the desktop
- -I want to open another app.
- -I want to open My Computer or a Documents file
What I’ve done is put my pinned apps at the beginning of the new Start screen, which takes care of the third and fourth item.
The only reason the other two apply to me is that I’m a heavy keyboard user, so I don’t just have a bunch of windows everywhere. I sort my screen into sections, and I’ve got a program which will resize any window to fit into one of those sections (sometimes with disastrous results), and if I can’t see the desktop I’ll just look for some kind of commmand.
I found that command in the form of some new Windows 8 combos. Pressing Win+D returns you to the desktop. Win+T takes you to the taskbar, and Win+B takes you to the notification area. Win+X opens a menu with a bunch of options for administering your computer, Win+C is the charms, while Win+I goes right to the Settings charm. Win+Q searches apps, Win+W searches settings, and Win+F searches files. Win+E opens a new Explorer window, and Win+O toggles orientation lock. Nice.
The options are a bit sparse. For example, opening a program from the Start menu used to open a new instance of that program. Now it looks to see if the program is already open and takes you there. You can right-click or use the app-menu button to choose to “Open New Window”, though. I’d like to be able to change these kinds of settings to make my experience more like it was before. The whole ‘single instance’ thing is the entire reason Android failed for me as a productivity machine. There is never a single time I want a document I open to close the document I was looking at before.
State data will be a bit weird with this. I guess when you open the program you want to see what you were just using it for, because the OS should be unloading unused apps from RAM and keeping a static state on everything.
They’re pretty smart, though, so they’ll figure it out. What they’ve done with the click/scroll touch paradigm is interesting. On Android or iOS, a single finger will tap, pan (or scroll), or hold. That’s about all you can do on those devices, despite needing to do many things, like text selection.
Microsoft gets around that a bit by using context. If you swipe downward with a finger (or, on the home screen, side-to-side), you probably want to scroll. But what if you swipe sideways, when you can’t? Well, you probably did that for a reason, so Windows has been programmed to interpret that as a selection. You can drag items or select text by starting your drag in the non-scrolling direction, and then continue wherever you wanted. If you can scroll in both directions, like in a browser page with large images, you just start the swipe in the usual scroll direction and then curve around to the direction you want. Because of this, there’s no double-tapping or holding and then setting weird bounding touch-sliders. You literally just select the text with your finger one way, and scroll the other way. Of course, you can double-tap-and-swipe to select text, too.
Windows 8 uses this contextual movement in some other places. On the start screen and wherever you’re selecting items in the metro UI, you usually scroll sideways and then select items by pulling them downward a bit. Or you can rearrange your icons by pulling them down a bit more and then moving left or right. Compare to iOS or Android, where you usually need to enter some kind of multi-select mode, first.
Just the fact that I’m comparing most closely with systems like Android or iOS says something. I don’t think OS X or any Linux distros have a mature touch platform, so it’s not something I’d even talk about. The mobile OSes, though, were born on touchscreens, and usually use them as the primary interface, so you’d hope they would’ve gotten the UI right. All the same, I’ve used both quite a bit and both feel kludgey when it comes to all the different touch contexts.
While we’re talking about touch, I might as well mention how Windows 8 does on touch-only. If you were using your system like that, you’d probably double your DPI scaling, so don’t complain too much about the relative sizes of things on the desktop. The rest of it tends to work well, except in the cases where you need some hover action. Besides that, though, there is a bit of conceptual weirdness in quickly switching from one input to another. If I’m using the keyboard, I’ll make good use of things like F11 or Alt+Enter to go fullscreen, and then I might remove the keyboard. Luckily, I can always swipe from the edges to get to the Settings charm, where a link to the virtual keyboard is easily accessible.
It’s really nice being able to swipe from the edge and get those menus anywhere I am.
They’ve got a bunch of different virtual keyboards (and of course the one I’ve got set is the one with all the Ctrl and Alt buttons), but one I’d like is a tiny little control keyboard. Just something I can use to tab between things or change fullscreen settings when I’m browsing without my type cover. I’d have to be able to set which keys are on it, I guess, which means it’s not very likely. If they could give us the tools to create our own layouts, that would be nice. Instead they’ve got a list of a hundreds or so different keyboard localizations. There were other instructions on what to do if you want a Dvorak layout.
I’ve often said about iOS or Android that they’re taking away the power-user functionality. Windows 8 isn’t bad about that, because I’ve still got access to the registry, and the Windows Desktop portion of it still works the way it did, but its RT section is going in the same direction.
Of course it’s wrong to make users learn how to use the complicated depths of a computer just to get some basic processing done, but I’d say it’s also wrong to take away the power you’ve given to the people who’ve learned how to really use a computer. I don’t want to have to live with whatever interface is chosen as the lowest common denominator.
I really hope they put some kind of developer switch in there in the future, which would give us extra access to things. I suppose the registry works like that to some extent.
When you touch the screen the mouse is invisible, but it’s still there. If it ends up over hoverable content, a tooltip will appear.
Touch is always weird, because there’s no such thing as hover. Unless they start working with camera-based finger detection or something, I guess!
Different programs, like games, handle touch differently. On some, like Minecraft, you can tap to click wherever, which means it’s easy to click on things but it’s impossible to move your cursor without clicking. On others, you’ve got to double-tap to click. This makes it easy to position your mouse, but harder to actually click. The latter is probably the most useful, in lieu of true multi-touch support. I could also just use my stylus, but it’s proven kind of weird playing Minecraft with a pen hovering in front of my face. For these kinds of games, I’ll probably just use a mouse.
On that note! I’ve looked around for bluetooth mice, and it seems impossible. Bluetooth keyboards are everywhere, but mice all use 2.4 GHz wireless technology that relies on a dongle that would take up my single USB port.
Surface Pro hardware
Microsoft gave up upgradeability with the design of Surface Pro, but the engineering is done very well. It’s got a high-quality magnesium chassis, with tiny vents all around. The front display glass feels nice.
The bottom half of the back flips out as a kickstand, which lets you prop it up on tables or your lap. The balance is pretty good, so it doesn’t flop backward too easily. You shouldn’t have any trouble with it falling forward, either. The kickstand is a bit long, or doesn’t open enough, which means the device is tilted downward a bit too much. Honestly, putting a half-inch bar of foam under the surface is enough to face the screen toward you and improve the brightness. The keyboard cover adds a little extra to the bottom, which puts it just within the minimum acceptable angle.
The kickstand doesn’t open very easily, and closes too easily, but that’s not something that matters too much in the long run. I’ve just been practicing some way to quickly flip out the kickstand, prop it up, and flip out the keyboard in one motion, to impress friends and family.
Now, some of you have probably read some bad reviews online about how this doesn’t stand up to the tabletness of, say, an iPad. Well, you know what? This isn’t a tablet. It’s an ultrabook. And a tablet.
If you want an iPad, it’s because you want something small you can hold easily and view content on. Heck, if you want that I’d recommend the iPad Mini instead of the big heavy version.
When you choose a computer, you need to look at everything. The Surface Pro is a powerful machine, matching or exceeding most of the other ultrabooks out today. It’s also thinner and lighter. If you want a tablet experience, get a real tablet. If it has to run old Windows programs, just wait until the Fall for good Haswell devices to come out. If you want a personal work computer that can slim down on a whim and be used with fingers sideways on the couch, then these laptop-tablet things are a great option. The choice is really yours.
It’s weird that they went with Mini DisplayPort, but I think maybe they’re planning to switch to Thunderbolt in the next iteration. It would certainly make sense, because then you could have all your peripherals attached to your monitor and just plug the monitor in.
It’s also a bit odd that they put a microSD card reader in instead of a a full SD. It wouldn’t have taken up much more room, and there’s really no point to it. If you need to use a microSD, there are always adapters, and full-size SD cards have more space and better speed. The only reason I could see for this is if they honestly didn’t think they could spare the extra size. Is this chassis that tight?
The battery is a nice one, and is a good-sized 42 Wh. It can easily serve you at 7.5 minutes per watt-hour, which rivals the efficiency of other ultrabooks. I’m impressed by how low Intel’s gone with their newer chips. It was only a few years ago that Atom CPUs used something in the range of 8-12 W, but the Surface Pro can idle down to 6 W of total platform power, just like the ASUS netbook I bought last year.
I don’t know how many people were netbook users for power-efficiency reasons, but I was one of them. The simple truth is that there’s no reason for us to buy netbooks for any reason other than price, now. As I type this, with my screen on kinda-low brightness, wi-fi on, browser open, type cover plugged in, and torrents downloading, I’m running at 8 watts.
Given the efficiency and the size, this computer will last you at least five hours, though of course that depends on what you do with it. I’m impressed that Microsoft managed to fit a full-sized battery into this thing.
If you put all the settings on their lowest, you can run this for six hours.
For the sake of battery health (this battery really isn’t replaceable), I’ve set ‘low battery’ to 30% and ‘critical battery’ to 25% or so. Frankly, you don’t ever want your lithium ion batteries to fall below 20%. In this case, I guess I’d get something like four hours.
Next is the temperature, because that also ties in with the batteries. I’ve noticed that the entire back of the device becomes very warm, which isn’t good for lithium ions. They don’t really have a battery memory like NiCads or NiMHs do, but if you treat them wrong they permanently lose a portion of their total life. Draining it to 0% will do various amounts of damage, depending on just how deeply you drained it, and overcharging it will also cause damage. There’s a reason your chargers will slow the charge rate after 85% or so.
Modern lithium ion batteries can last for many years, but they will incur some loss throughout time. Assuming you always charge it properly and never completely drain it, it’s mostly a function of temperature and energy level. A battery kept at 100% charge all the time (like in a laptop that’s being run on a desk constantly) will lose a far larger amount of charge than a battery kept below 80%. A battery kept at 30 degrees Celsius will lose a tremendous amount compared to one kept at 23 degrees, and even that will lose a lot compared to one kept at 16 degrees. A battery stored at 60% at 16 degrees should last many years.
With the full-body warmth of the Surface Pro, you wouldn’t want it to run constantly. Turn it off at night, or find a good cooling solution.
Actually, due to the nature of Intel’s newer cores, a good cooling solution would be great for performance. These CPUs automatically overclock themselves until a certain thermal envelope is reached, so if you’re doing anything heavy-duty the first minute is usually faster than the rest. If you can keep the machine cool the CPU will continue to run at high speeds. Intel intended for Ultrabooks to be low-power devices that run much faster on a cooling dock.
The USB port on the Surface Pro is USB 3.0, which is really nice. I got a 32GB Kingston “DataTraveler Ultimate”, which can get speeds up to 100 MB/s. I’ve also got a USB 3.0 2TB external HDD.
I’ve had the problem, though, where I want to transfer something from a flash drive to a disk, or from one disk to another. I do backups and such, now and then. There’s no easy way to do that on this, unless you use something like an active hub, but then you also aren’t getting USB 3.0 speeds (unless the hub is also USB 3.0).
I’d say two ports is really the bare minimum.
I got the 64 GB drive, because the extra 64 GB shouldn’t ever cost $100. They’ve also gone with a pretty cheap supplier, though I hear some random models are shipping with a much faster Samsung SSD.
When I got the computer, it had 29 GB or so. I deleted a couple apps, like Sports and Travel, which were each a couple hundred megabytes. I also removed Office, which is apparently pre-loaded but deactivated.
I have a 32 GB MicroSD, on which I put all my more portable installations. An old copy of Paint Shop Pro 6 that I’ve been using for the last ten years, a bunch of PortableApps, and a couple other small utilities. I’ve moved my Music and Videos libraries over, as well as some extra work stuff. I’m fully rolled out, and I’ve got 20 GB free on my main drive and 17.5 GB free on my microSD. That’s good enough for me.
I’d like to see phones made with some kind of short-range gigabit wireless solution. Transferring things to and from my phone at 100 MB/s would cut out the need for an external flash drive that would take up a USB port, the same as bluetooth cut out the need for USB keyboards and mice.
As I found with my Note II, having a cover on your device seems almost to take away a little bit of thickness, even though it’s adding more. When you handle touch-screen devices, you usually have to hold it around the edges, and probably lift it with a hand on either side (or fingers on either side, in the case of a phone). You could grip the very top, but then you’ve still got a chance to brush the active area of the screen and activate something.
With the cover on, you just pick it up and go. You can grasp it firmly in one hand, with your fingers halfway across the front, and not have to worry about touching anything. It’s really a completely different feeling, and I’d recommend getting some kind of flip cover if you can find it. I was going giddy over them ever since I saw the iPad 2 debut the idea, and after feeling it on my Note II and now Surface Pro I’ll definitely recommend the experience to everyone.
The type cover is a bit flimsy, but I haven’t had any issues with that yet.
The edging is strange and interesting, but not bad.
The material on the backing is wonderful, and the whole thing really fits with the Surface Pro. The material on the open face is nice, though the keys themselves feel a bit cheap.
The keyboard snaps in all on its own, which is much easier than what I’m used to with the Surface’s charging connector.
The feel of the keypresses are really nice, and I think I’d rate this as one of the better typing experiences for a while. I’m going at my full speed.
Well, up to a point. The cover has a built-in accelerometer and gyroscope, so it knows how it’s facing. When it’s closed or wrapped ’round the back, it disables itself. When you’re typing on your lap, though, the relative jumpiness of the cover (especially if you’re pounding away) can cause the keyboard to disable for a second or two. Most users would experience this as input just not happening, and I’ve seen some reviews where they wonder about the performance of the Surface itself in accepting input. You know what, putting sensors in the tips that detect when the cover is closed or folded back would solve this issue and also let the screen turn off when closed, so that’s definitely something they should look into. The alternative would be to perhaps have some kind of angle-testing measurement in the hinge, so they can keep the keyboard enabled even if it’s in weird gravitational situations.
I’m not a fan of full-height left and right arrow keys with half-height up and down keys. I’d like them all to be half height, which leaves gaps in the keyboard I can use to orient my fingers. What some well-designed keyboards do is shift the arrow keys just a bit below the rest of the keyboard, so that the arrow keys can each be a little taller while still linking their heights.
This keyboard doesn’t have right-ctrl, and it has a Fn key on the right instead of on the left. I constantly use right-ctrl to zoom in web pages, but that’s about it and I found an extension for Chrome (everything else can probably pinch-zoom).
I could never stand keyboards with media keys as default, so that Fn is required to press F1-F12. I constantly use the function keys to go full-screen, refresh pages, close pages or programs, or other things like that. For the rare times I’m setting some volume, I’m fine pressing another button.
On regular laptops, I have very little use for Fn. On something like this, with the swapped function keys, I need to use it all the time, for keys across the whole keyboard, with either hand. The almost-useless key suddenly has a bunch of requirements.
All that’s needed is a way to switch the function keys back to the fore.
Pressing Windows+C brings up the charms list, so I’d never use the Fn key to access those, anyway.
Even the things I’d normally use Fn for, like changing brightness or volume, can by done by pressing Win+I and swiping over the corresponding icon. (And there is no brightness control on this keyboard.)
There’s no application menu, which is absolutely needed when you’re navigating by keyboard.
Fn + Left, Right, Down, and Up is
Home, End, PgDown, PgUp, respectively, which is awesome, and a hard requirement for any keyboard I buy (I’ll turn down a specific laptop or bluetooth keyboard because of this).However, this keyboard also takes up valuable space with actual Home, End, PgDown, and PgUp keys, which nobody ever uses, when they could have put Application and PrintScr and maybe brightness.
Using scan-key settings in the registry, I was able to fix a lot of the keyboard; but the four Charms keys and the four media keys have unrecognisable scan codes, so I just wasn’t able to fix my function keys.
I got around it by mapping F4 to CapsLock, so that I can use Ctrl+CapsLock to close web pages or Alt+CapsLock to close programs.
F5 and F6 are within reasonable distance to the sole Fn key to the right of the spacebar.
Key summary: There must be an option to swap the function keys with the charms and media keys, the four navigation keys are encoded into the arrow buttons and so shouldn’t be duplicated up top, and those four liberated keys should include keys like print-screen and the application menu. I also like half-height left and right arrows with gaps above to help orient my fingers.
Adding right-ctrl would be nice.
And now for the trackpad.
It does its job, but it takes a 2mm swipe to get started. The tracking is actually pretty good when you’re moving your fingers across most of the pad to navigate across the screen, but stop-and-start precision work is maddening. If there’s a little link I’m trying to hit, I’ve got to go slowly until the cursor starts moving and then stop before I overshoot. If I let my cursor idle at all, I have that 2mm delay again.
The whole surface is touch-sensitive, including the spots where the left and right mouse buttons would be, so the delay is there to stop the mouse from moving around when you’re trying to click. I’ve had that happen, somehow, and I can see why they wanted to fix that.
The material is kind of rubbery and sticky fresh from the factory, so your finger doesn’t really glide. If you’re already going, it’s not bad, but if you’re stopping and starting your finger vibrates. It gets better after several days, but it’s really icky and should be conditioned a bit before shipping.
You can scroll with two fingers, and Microsoft has released a tool to let you choose which direction.
Each time I scroll like that, my cursor jumps in that direction a little. If I have a particularly stubborn program that needs several swipes to scroll all the way, especially if I’m working in a small window, I’ll need to reposition my cursor every few scrolls. It seems Microsoft’s drivers aren’t especially good at discerning when you’re trying to scroll with two fingers, so you need a certain speed.
The clicking uses a clickpad, one of those things where the hinge is at the top, so if you’re pressing too hard and you hit the left-click area in the bottom left it might not unclick. It’s still a lot better than some clickpads I’ve used. It’s a bit weird; you can press down hard anywhere on the pad to execute a click, if you want to, but you can’t slide from there to perform a drag. You’ll need two fingers.
If the seating isn’t right, the clicking might be hard. This is a pretty flimsy cover, so you’re really relying on the spacing and pressures being right. If you flex the cover too much, that’ll actually click the trackpad.
When you get right down to it, mousing around and then clicking is a multitouch action. I’ve had times where the click sent my mouse to the opposite side of the screen. The buttons are actually part of the trackpad itself, which is why they have that 2mm drag distance. Just disabling that portion of the trackpad and removing the delay would drastically improve the usability of the trackpad.
As it stands, trying to scroll somewhere and right-click is a nightmare. Trying to hit an icon and right-click on it can take upwards of ten seconds.
There needs to be some kind of software update or something to get rid of the driver issues.
On the whole, the cover is a bunch of kludges to fix tiny issues that in practice end up ruining the usability of the keyboard and trackpad. Because of the accelerometer used to tell if the keyboard is being opened or closed, typing on an unstable surface causes the cover to jump around enough to disable it. Because the touchpad surface covers the entire touchpad including the keys, they had to add that insanity-inducing 2mm delay so that the cursor doesn’t move when you try clicking a button. Because the buttons are part of the multi-touch touchpad, and there’s only a single button, it relies on data from your finger position to cause a right-click, and will execute a left-click if you end up clicking with your fingernail or something.
My old HP Mini has a touchpad about that size, but with physical mouse buttons on the left and the right. This could really use something like that, or at least two buttons underneath the clickpad, because relying on capacitive touch data to drive the right click is just weird.
Honestly, I could accept all the flaws of the touchpad if they could just get rid of that 2mm delay for all touches originating above the button zones.
So, overall, the type cover is really good, but needs software adjustments. The only real hardware changes that need to be made is to change the Home/End/PgUp/PgDn keys to other ones and maybe add another button under the touchpad for right clicks. Oh, and fix up the positons of the arrow keys.
The software, though, is really a killer, and the current drivers will cause a lot of people grief—especially if they don’t know what’s going on in the background, and so can’t adjust their environment accordingly.
I’ve done some things to make Windows 8 work for me. First, I’ve got a touch screen and pen input and all that jazz, so I don’t have to worry about using the Metro interface with a mouse. All I’ve got to do is work around some of the design constraints of the system.
I’ve changed the taskbar items to be regular non-stacked labels instead of tiles, because that’s how I roll.
I’ve added the QuickLaunch toolbar back: C:\User\[You]\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\Quick Launch
I raise my taskbar to be two levels high, which shows me additional date stuff and lets me unhide all the notifications without cramming up my space.
I added a toolbar for C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs
I left the title there, but shrank the bar so that no icons are visible. When I click the double arrow, I get the full Progams list that you’d get on the normal start menu. There’s a bit of weirdness, because that doesn’t include the stuff in the user folder. Windows usually combines the two in the start menu. I created a bat file with the following command:
robocopy “C:\Users\[Your name here]\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs” “C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs” /E
I opened the Task Scheduler and made that run every day.
You may need to go to C:\Windows\System32\Tasks and set the RunLevel: (Just replace the one that’s there)
If you want to put your Pictures or Music libraries on an external card, just go to C:\Users\[You]\ and Cut-and-Paste. You can’t create a library on external media for some reason, but you can still create it in the normal spots and then copy it over.
This is a full computer, so there’s no connected standby like you’d get on an ARM tablet. Intel is going to release that feature this summer, so expect that kind of tablet computer next year.
For now, pressing the power button on the top of the device will send the computer to sleep mode. Sometimes I don’t want to wait a few seconds for it to wake and then re-input my password, so I’ve downloaded a utility called nircmd and put it in my Windows folder. Then I just created a shorcut on my desktop like so:
C:\Windows\nircmd.exe monitor off
By default, the Surface Pro ships with 125% DPI scaling. That means all the UI elements are just that bit bigger and you can click things far easier. This is better than just setting resolution because things like the text should still be crisp.
I decided I wanted everything at 100%, and just set the individual text sizes bigger. You can do that through the same panel used to set DPI scaling. That doesn’t change things like icon width, though. In order to better see the text below icons, I went into the registry and changed some things in
I’ve got it at 200, but 140 would be quicker.
You can also create entries for DoubleClickWidth and DoubleClickHeight to set the size of the invisible box that you double-click into. This can be handy for drawing with pens, because you can set it to just a couple pixels.
And inside Desktop\WindowMetrics
Those space out the desktop icons a bit to give the text more room.
Also, in Control Panel\Accessibility\Keyboard Response I set some of the Filter Keys setting. The UI limits you to choosing things like 1 or 2 or 3 seconds for key repeat, so it’s obviously for people with disabilities, but I like to think the accessibility panel should also cater to my special needs. I set AutoRepeatDelay to 190, AutoRepeatRate to 16, BounceTime to 0, DelayBeforeAcceptance to 0, and Flags to 27. Basically, when I hold down a key, it takes 180 milliseconds to start repeating, and repeats that key every 15 milliseconds. When I’m using the arrow keys or backspace key to traverse large amounts of text, the extra speed comes in handy.
I mentioned remapping my keyboard a bit:
Create a binary key called Scancode Map and use these values:
F11 becomes PrintScreen
F12 becomes Application Menu
Caps Lock becomes F4
Page Down becomes F12
Page Up becomes F11
You could also search for a program called SharpKeys at RandyRants.com.
I use a program called Winsplit Revolution to move my windows around. First, go to the Control Panel and find the Ease of Access Center. Go to the mouse options and click that last checkbox to disable Aero Snap. Install WinSplit, then set the keyboard shortcuts to be things like Ctrl+Shift+1 instead of Ctrl+Shift+NumPad1. The default locations are actually really good for this screen, with thirds and halves easily accessible.
I also downloaded something called Battery Bar, which tells me the health of the battery, exactly how many milliwatt-hours I have left, and keeps score on how many hours of actual use I’ve historically gotten on average. By comparison, the Windows battery icon just tries to predict how many hours you’ll get based on current usage, which fluctuates wildly.