Microsoft Surface Impressions

I had the chance to play with Microsoft’s new Surface RT yesterday so I thought I would give a few impressions. I will preface them by saying that I don’t currently have a horse in the tablet race. The iPad has done a fantastic job in popularizing the concept (as apple products tend to do) but I am not a huge fan of the iOS interface with its grid system. On mobile I prefer android and have a fondness for Asus’s Eeepad Transformer range of tablets. I was eager to see what Microsoft would bring to the table.

The tablet itself is a nice piece of kit. The hardware seems sturdy and the stand does not feel like it will snap off easily, I also love how easy it is to connect and disconnect the keyboard from the device. Surface is well featured with usb, microsd and a port that will allow you to connect it to monitors and televisions. There are two downers though, the first for me is that the device is too heavy. I disconnected it from its keyboard and played with it off the desk for a while and it was giving me a bit of an arm ache. It was noticeable that the device was heavier than an iPad and less comfortable to hold. The other downside comes from the keyboards. The first major issue is that to use the keyboard functionally you need the device on a table. If you place it on your lap the stand will not be stable and it will be a poor experience. The second issue is that the colourful surface touch covers are horrible to use. They are pretty much flat and there is no movement or feedback when you press a key. It makes it very difficult to discover if the keys you are pressing are actually registering and it was not enjoyable. Fortunately Microsoft also offer a black keyboard cover that has a much nicer keyboard and although the level of travel is still small you have a much better idea of what you are doing. I could get on with the black keyboard, I couldn’t with the coloured ones. Spend the extra money… The final thing I will say on hardware is that Apple have gotten me used to the dimensions of the iPad which made the RT feel very wide and thin, this made it feel strange in the hand. The advantage of this is that it means that video tends to fill the screen.

The tablet I played with did have some videos preloaded and they predictably worked well, the store on the device also seemed to be offering movie rentals at very decent prices as well. The music player didn’t seem overly well laid out and it was hard to hear the sound quality in the store, even with sound all the way up I could hear nothing. The supplied apps were generally pleasing, calendar, contacts and mail all have a nice clean feel and I would be happy using those. The image features were pretty standard and the inbuilt cameras seemed ok for what they are. The sample pictures and general colour display on the device did not seem as vibrant or enticing as on the iPad though. In terms of the general Windows 8 interface, it is starting to win me over as a tablet and phone layout. It has the ability to display information easily and once you get used to where things are I would rate it as better than the iOS grid. It took me a while but I also worked out some of the gesture controls that are not standard on other devices, for example swiping from off screen to bring up the open/recent apps on the left or the search/settings on the right. It took me a while to work out how to control IE but swiping from the top/bottom does the trick. These gestures work well once you know them and it made the experience easy to control. What was less impressive was the responsiveness of the tablet. Sure it runs apps and all of that fine, my problem was a more base issue of the device not picking up what I was tapping on. It occasionally took me two or three attempts to open an app, the worst was trying to play music which took me a while to get working. A delay and a lack of feedback to tell me if something was in the process of opening did not help.

So overall I enjoyed playing with the surface. Would I buy one? No, but the interface is up there with android as my favourite. I am sure that Microsoft will fix (or already has fixed) the responsiveness problems I faced but there is a more general issue of the device being too heavy and being impractical for lap usage. I guess that means that I am giving the interface and OS a plus mark for use on tablets, especially given the bonus of the integrated windows desktop experience and office suite, but I am not sold on the surface hardware. Time will tell on how the competition stacks up in the RT marketplace but if I had to buy a tablet today I would be going android.

Image from the Microsoft Surface website

A holiday in a holiday


The title for this post makes me think of inception. When I arrived in America Beth wanted to book a little get away for the two of us. For me this trip to America feels a little like an extended vacation mixed with learning so this trip seemed like taking a vacation within a vacation.

Anyway with a lack of sporting events last weekend due to the NHL lockout we decided to go to a ski town in north Colorado called Steamboat Springs. The downside of this decision was that it was about three hours drive away but it was heading through the mountains so it was to be an attractive drive.

It turned out that the drive was very pleasant and I drove us the whole way. I was also able to knock twenty minutes off the expected journey time provided by google maps. We stayed at the Steamboat Hotel because it was cheap and had breakfast. We could have gotten into the more expensive hotels as it was the offseason but the breakfast swung it for us.

On arrival we went for a walk around the town, working out our way around. We found the town ski jump in operation even without snow. I don’t think that is something I would ever have the balls to try – too many opportunities for broken bones – so I just admired the folks with the bravery for a while. We also walked past the town rodeo which unfortunately was closed and continued down the main street where pretty much of interest was situated.

For dinner that first night we went out to Big House Burger on the edge of town which served great

 homemade burgers, we both went for the buffalo option. On the way back we stopped at the hot springs in town for a little swim, it was great as the temperature outside the pools was very cold. On returning to the hotel I still didn’t feel like I was on holiday but that we had just travelled three hours for some reason.

The following morning we found out that the hotel no longer offers breakfast. When we complained they told us that, oh, we can go and get breakfast next door if we want to. So we did but felt mislead by their ad on and by their in room literature. In the adjoining ranch we found maps of the surrounding area and planned out our day.

We drove about five miles out of town to the top rated hike in the area called Fish Creek Falls. You basically start at a waterfall then walk two and a half miles (all of which is up a mountain) to a second bigger fall. It was a lovely if strenuous walk with great views of the surrounding area, we hung around at the second falls for about twenty minutes before starting our much faster descent. When we were finished we ate our packed lunch and headed to the out-of-town Strawberry hot springs. These were much bigger and better than the in town springs offering a more natural feel. We enjoyed our afternoon there.

In the evening we found Beth’s favourite pizza place Beaujos in town. I’m still not sold, I think their pizza needs more tomato sauce. I then fell asleep watching football (the real English football but starring subpar American teams).

Sunday we hiked the mountain to the West of the city, the walk was straight up the whole way but gave us views of the town below and the surrounding area, well worth it. In the afternoon we went to the small (largely dead) botanical gardens and ‘Johnny be goods’ diner in town. For dinner we went to a Thai restaurant serving great food and then went back to the town hot springs. The drive home the following day was much the same as the one there.

looking out over steamboat

I definitely grew into the holiday spirit as the weekend progressed. I suspect this was helped by not bringing my laptop along with me. We both had a lovely time even though Steamboat was clearly between its two seasons. There was not yet any snow on the ground but neither was there anything growing. This may have lowered the prices for us but it also meant there was no green around, just brown. The town and countryside were still pretty but you could tell we came at the wrong time of year to see them in all their glory. It was a nice getaway and we did some good walks and ate some great food. I also clocked up another three hundred miles of America driving. All in all a successful and enjoyable trip.