Surface Pro 3, Part 2

Part One can be found here. I recommend reading it first.

Part Two focuses on the aspects less specifically useful for students.

Size:

The 12-inch screen size is a well thought out compromise between the needs of a device in laptop mode and the needs of a device as a tablet. It is really close to the size of a notebook with standard letter size paper, and in terms of weight it probably isn’t much more. While using it as a laptop, the size is large enough that two windows can be comfortably placed side by side. Windows 8 also has a handy feature that allows up to 3 apps or the desktop to be placed side by side (in fact I wrote this part on about 1/3rd of the screen while using the rest to watch a video). In comparison to my much older 13 inch Macbook Air I would say the reduced screen size is negligible and the higher resolution actually makes the Surface have more useful space.

I would have thought that 12 inches is far too big for a tablet, but the Surface has completely changed my mind. I have never previously owned a tablet but I have used both the 10 inch iPad and 7 inch Nexus enough that I can say that the larger size works a lot better for most uses of a tablet. Web browsing gives you a full experience. Apps that do a good job scaling up like Facebook, OneNote, the Weather app and many others look great. But like I mentioned above, the ability to split screen apps, and generally have them intelligently adjust to different sizes adds a lot of value to a tablet.

Windows:

I can’t say I love Windows 8. Some elements of it are growing on me though. You can tell that the designers certainly had something like the Surface in mind when designing the metro part and it makes a lot more sense with a touchscreen and in tablet form then with simply a keyboard and mouse. Elements like being able to really quickly swipe from the left side of the screen to either replace what I am currently doing with a previously opened app or to split screen my current app with a previously opened one make working with the Surface really smooth. If I am working on a project for class and messaging back and forth with my group, I can put Facebook messenger on the side, only taking up about an 1/8th of the screen and easily message while still working on the project.

I’m still a *NIX guy and I don’t see the Surface changing that. For basic media consumption, note-taking and other things, I am happy with Windows 8 so far. For any kind of development though, I am hating the experience. For some things, it probably wouldn’t be so bad, but I am used to unix command line tools and the general tools and experience of a unix command line. I’m still waiting for Ubuntu to work properly with the Surface and I will definitely put Linux on a microSD card when it does.

Metro style apps are generally decent, but the selection is still mediocre. A lot of the big apps have excellent metro versions such as Facebook, Google Search, Reddit, Netflix and others. These apps are good, with clean and usually minimal interfaces. The metro design language leaves something to be desired at times though. It can be difficult to find the way to do what you want in many apps. For instance in a Reddit app it can be difficult to figure out search and other functions. Unlike iOS and Android you can’t always be certain that if you need an app to do something, it will exist. Major categories like fitness, maps, PDF readers and others will all have at least a few selections, but the quality will not usually be on par with the choices on other platforms.

Normal Windows apps all work but many have no idea how to properly handle the high pixel density. Many will have tiny fonts and buttons that make them really hard to use. Other applications will scale to reasonable sizes but end up looking really fuzzy. Even more bizarre is some apps that will alternate between fuzzy and sharp text (mostly Google Chrome). If you are far-sighted this may be an issue as text is small. Some applications, like the Office suite handle the high density fine and look really good. As high resolution laptops continue to become more common this issue will likely be fixed in more applications but at the moment it can be jarring to constantly switch from crisp well designed applications to fuzzy ugly applications all the time.

Hardware Design:

The Surface feels solid and sturdy. It is weighty enough at 1.75 pounds that it feels solid but light enough that you can handle it as a tablet. Both the body and the screen seem scratch resistant and while you definitely don’t want to drop it, It feels like it can handle basic bumps and scratches.

Microsoft invented a word, “lapability”, to describe how well the design of a laptop allows for its use on one’s lap. I think the fact that no one else thought of a name for this tells you that most laptops all handle this pretty well. The Surface works well on a lap. The adjustable kickstand makes it work. In some ways it is better than a regular laptop. Because only a small portion of the Surface actually touches your legs, heat is never an issue. However, the kickstand digs into bare legs and I wouldn’t want to use it for hours at a time. It does work quite well to balance on knees which allows the Surface to be useable in all sorts of positions that laptops don’t work well in like in leaned back seating positions.

The kickstand is completely adjustable from a slight inclination all the way down to almost flat. This feature, more than anything, really helps make the Surface a completely versatile machine. I am constantly using different levels depending on whether I am typing, writing with the stylus, reading a textbook, or using a touch focused app. Unlike most tablets without a stand, it can easily be placed on a desk or a table and propped towards you. Even for things like cooking, it is easy to put the Surface on the corner of a counter to show you a recipe.

Performance:

The Surface Pro 3 is snappy and responsive. My version, with the Intel Core i5 processor and 4gb of ram easily handles every general computing task I throw at it. Applications open almost instantly, swipe gestures that switch between apps happen as fast as I can swipe my finger. I haven’t done any photo or video editing, and I probably won’t, but it should handle that about as well as any slim laptop.

Gaming on the Surface works surprisingly well. I’ve only played Civilization 5 and SWTOR but they both run fine at the full resolution of the screen and at low graphics settings. This is impressive given that the resolution is so high. Some games, like CIV 5 are tablet optimized so they can be played with touch only, and for that game at least it works well. There have been reports of heavy throttling when the device heats up however that hasn’t been much of an issue for me. I generally have a fan pointed at my desk though so that may help. If gaming is hugely important to you, maybe look for a different device, but if you just want to be able to play some games occasionally, this will work for you.

Summary:

While I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the Surface Pro 3 to most people, I can say that Microsoft is really close to making the best all-round device there is. If you need to get lots of work done in places where you can’t connect a mouse (and maybe a keyboard for lots of typing) then this probably isn’t for you. If you mostly want a Facebook/email/internet machine than an iPad or Android tablet might be a better choice. If you want something that is excellent for media consumption, great for note-taking and reading textbooks, and still decent for getting work done then the Surface will do a lot more for you than anything else out there.

Surface Pro 3 Review, Part 1

For the month that I have had the Surface Pro 3 I have been thinking a lot about how I would review it. Amongst friends and people in my program there is considerable interest in it, but also a lot of concern about how well it would work overall. Before purchasing the Surface I read countless reviews and thoughts from early owners but most reviews stuck to the facts, which aren’t that illuminating when determining how well a device will work, or they reviewed the device from the perspective of a professional tech writer/reviewer often without making this bias clear. As someone who isn’t a tech writer, I often felt that the reviews weren’t very informative.

The Surface Pro 3 with red typecover. The screen on the tablet is 12 inches which is roughly the size of a standard letter size paper.

The Surface Pro 3 with red typecover. The screen on the tablet is 12 inches which is roughly the size of a standard letter size paper.

My review will be biased towards what I need, and how I use this but I will do my best to make it clear what those biases are so that anyone reading this can get an idea of whether the Surface might be a good choice for them.

Ultimately I bought the Surface Pro 3 because I was having trouble taking useful notes, studying, and generally effectively learning in my courses. For context I am a Computer Science undergraduate student taking mostly math and CS courses. Most of the CS courses are “mathy” rather than programming heavy. In many of these courses the instructors will give large pdf lecture slides, and then supplement them with lots of discussion or writing extra things on the board. Printing off hundreds of pages of notes a week in order to have them to annotate on was looking costly and not particularly environmentally friendly. Simply taking notes in a notebook was difficult because there was no time to copy slides and then annotate them. Using my old laptop was useless because too often I needed to draw, annotate, or write lots of mathematical symbols.

Surface Pro 3

From the side you can see how thin it is. The stand is at its most upright position and bends until the tablet lies close to flat.

The main thing I wanted was a tablet that excelled at solving this issue, all while being a good computer when I needed it. There are definitely better pure laptops at the price of the Surface, but for my needs they are mostly rubbish at helping me study. There are also much cheaper tablets that excel at running basic apps and surfing the web but are not built around using a pen. I’m going to write two posts, this one about my thoughts on the Surface as a study machine, and a second one soon after about how it works as a laptop/tablet outside of class.

The Surface, combined with the excellent n-trig pen technology, and Microsoft’s note-taking software OneNote make for a powerful note-taking and studying package. Since receiving the Surface, all my notes have been written in OneNote, mostly by pasting slides in (which is quick and easy to do) and then annotating over them and writing extended notes to the side. To prepare for tests it is easy to make a study sheet by pasting in important bits from my notes, from electronic versions of textbooks, and any other internet resources and making connections and extensions to any of them using the pen. This is really powerful for studying and the combination of Surface and OneNote make it simple. The high resolution screen also makes it easy to put a textbook or some other resource on the side and still have enough room to write notes.

Taking notes “live” in a lecture also works well. The pen feels just as good as writing on paper, possibly even better in some ways. My writing is not very good on paper, and while the Surface doesn’t improve it, it doesn’t make it much worse. I probably write just a bit slower, but the increased versatility of being able to quickly erase things, select and move around parts of sentences and quickly select other colours makes the experience better. The almost completely adjustable stand also helps put the device in whatever angle is best for whatever you are doing, although I wish it was a bit firmer as sometimes as I write it sinks to a lower position. And with all this I get my entire notebook in one device that is smaller than and weighs less than a physical notebook. Unlike a real notebook where I need to worry about bringing it with me, and not losing it, my OneNote notes get synced to the cloud and can then be viewed on any other device including my phone.

The Surface is also an excellent e-reader for textbooks, although the default app isn’t very good. After downloading Drawboard PDF though, the Surface becomes a smooth textbook reader that is easy to write notes in, highlight or copy parts to OneNote. It works really well to copy questions from a textbook or a course website to OneNote and then you can easily add space to actually answer the questions. The 12-inch high resolution screen is about the perfect size to read a textbook, and the resolution makes reading it as good of an experience as an actual book. Trying to read a textbook on my old laptop, with a slightly larger but lower resolution screen just didn’t work well.

The other main use people have for a school laptop is writing assignments and papers. While I haven’t written a paper with it, and probably won’t any time soon because Computer Science is not a paper heavy degree, I will talk a bit about how well the keyboard works. Despite the fairly compressed size the keyboard is excellent. The keys have a satisfying give and produce a fairly nice, although somewhat loud click. Typing is accurate and fast. OneNote seems like it would work well for tracking sources, annotating researching, and generally organizing thoughts and creating a draft.

Purely as a study machine, the Surface is excellent. Considerably better than any laptop I have had, and better than any tablet I have used for taking notes or reading textbooks. If it was less than $500 it would easily be worth it for a student to save money on textbooks, notebooks, paper, and ink all while improving their studying. But the Surface Pro 3 in any reasonable combination of model and accessories is over $1000. Very few people can afford that just for school, so it also has to work well as a general purpose laptop and tablet. Part 2 of this review will talk about how well it does that.

Part Two can be found here.

Basis Band B1 Fitness Tracker Review

The Basis Band is a watch that is full of sensors designed to give you a continuous read-out of your activity throughout the day. An accelerometer tracks steps, a heart-rate sensor tracks heart-rate and there are sensors that record perspiration and skin temperature. This gives the device the most comprehensive array of sensors of any activity monitor. It also combines input from all the sensors to estimate calories and to track sleep.

I bought the Basis hoping that it would give me the information to make quantitative health and fitness goals. Instead of telling myself to “be more active” I could quantify it by number of hours, estimated calories or number of steps.

If I had to sum up my thoughts on the Basis Band, I would say that it is a bit disappointing. Disappointing because it shows a lot of promise, but a number of little things combine to make the experience not what it should be.

The Good:

There are a lot of great things about the Basis. It tracks steps accurately giving you the number of steps and the time spent walking and running each day. It is very accurate at separating walking from running. When I did interval running where I alternated between running and walking, the basis was only a few seconds off the total time spent running, which was impressively accurate. Moves, which I reviewed a few months back, was completely confused and randomly marked some of it as running and some as walking.

The Basis tracks heart-rate quite well when I am inactive. When I am in the range of 50 – 80 bpm and my arms aren’t actively moving I get accurate and frequently updated heart-rate readings. With the data I can see some interesting things, like my heart-rate increasing about 10 bpm a little before writing an exam and then decreasing back to its normal rate over the first 30 or so minutes as I focus and relax. However, it falters as the heart-rate rises above this range which I’ll cover in “the bad” section.

Sleep tracking showing the various stages of sleep

Sleep tracking showing the various stages of sleep

The sleep-tracking feature is probably the best part of the Basis, although mediocre software hampers how useful it is. Using the array of sensors the Basis fairly accurately determines when you fall asleep, not simply when you get into bed or when you press a sleep button like most alternatives, and when you wake up. You can check the web or mobile app to see a graph of how your sleep breaks up into the various stages and they give you a percentage score based on total time sleeping as well as the percentage of time in each stage. Basis says that they calibrated this with sleep researchers at a number of universities and sleep centres, but it is difficult for me to comment on accuracy other than to say that it somewhat matches with my subjective feelings of how well I slept. It is at the very least good for tracking total hours of sleep.

The Mediocre:

The Basis Band on my wrist. It is a little clunky, but at most angles people will see it it looks decent.

The Basis Band on my wrist. It is a little clunky, but at most angles it looks decent.

Given that the device is a watch, which is more noticeable than other forms of activity trackers, aesthetics are important. The good news is that the chrome version is inconspicuous. The bad news is that it doesn’t look great. Personally for me, I am not looking for a fashion statement, but I don’t want something that is ugly. In the few months I have worn it only one person has asked about it, and I’ve never seen anyone stare at it. That is good enough for me, but if you are someone who is fashionable and cares more about their appearance this may not be for you.

Since getting the Basis I have worn it almost 24/7 and I have found it mostly comfortable. If I tighten up the band in an attempt to improve accuracy while I workout it can start to feel like it is digging in, but normally I barely feel it.

The Basis was unable to get heart-rate measurements while I cycled, and categorized me as cycling for only about half of the time I was actually cycling

The Basis was unable to get heart-rate measurements while I cycled, and categorized me as cycling for only about half of the time I was actually cycling

The band is supposed to also be able to track cycling but my experience with that is quite mixed. It completely missed a 20 minute bike-ride one time, and another time it considerably under-counted my time biking. Given my limited data points for cycling though I am not quite ready to say it is bad yet, although it is so far disappointing.

A few of my habits at the end of the week

A few of my habits at the end of the week

Basis uses a system of “habits” which allows you to set goals for a variety of metrics and then have your completion of those habits automatically tracked. Options are metrics like number of steps, sleep and wake times, length of sleep, minutes of activity, and some interesting options like getting up and moving at least once an hour between 9 and 5. There are quite a few of them and Basis makes you unlock them over time by completing your current ones. Most of the habits work well, and habits like the step count certainly help motivate me to walk more frequently, but a slow and poorly designed app makes checking on your progress painful, so ultimately I usually end the day not really knowing how I did on any of them. This severely limits how motivational they are.

The Bad:

I was working out almost the entire time between the  two greyed out walking sections and Basis managed only a few sporadic heart-rate measurements at low points, didn't classify me as active, and barely raised my calories burnt above baseline. At least it measured higher perspiration

I was working out almost the entire time between the two grayed out walking sections and Basis managed only a few sporadic heart-rate measurements at low points, didn’t classify me as active, and barely raised my calories burnt above baseline. At least it measured higher perspiration

The heart-rate sensor is terrible during any kind of activity. In Basis’ defense, they don’t advertise the band as a fitness monitor, but instead sell it as a device for the “rest of your day”. However, when Basis completely misses my hour sweating at the gym and doesn’t count it as active time or raises my estimated calories burnt, you lose a lot of the motivational benefit of a product like this. The majority of the time I workout, regardless of what I am doing, I get at most one or maybe two heart-rate readings when I am resting and my heart-rate is at the low-end of where it will be for my workout.

Because of this, many habits are close to useless for actually tracking what I am doing. A day where I walk a little extra compared to one where I go to the gym for 2 hours is going to show up as both higher in calories burnt, and more active despite that being completely rubbish.

The battery life could also be improved. You get maybe 4 or 5 days, from full charge to dead, or you can charge it for roughly 20 minutes a day to keep the battery steady. The biggest issue is that if you wake up with the notification that you have less than 20% battery left and you don’t have time to charge it before you leave for the morning, there is a good chance it will die on you before you get back home to charge. I lost a day worth of data once because of this and came close a few other times.

 

Conclusion:

The Basis Band is probably the best activity tracker there is, but by having so many more sensors than its competition it makes you want a lot more out of it. For simply tracking steps, both walking and running, as well as sleep it is a great device. If you workout any other way though, it no longer provides consistent or accurate readings and quickly becomes frustrating. Given that  I have it, it is worth keeping on and charging, but I would definitely not buy it again. Basis was just bought by Intel, so with the financial and engineering backing of Intel, a new version with significantly improved heart-rate monitoring and battery life could be a really great device for fitness/health geeks like me.

App Review: Moves

Over the last few years I have slowly been getting into the “quantified self” space. For those who have yet to hear of the term, it basically refers to any app or gadget that tracks data about you for the explicit purpose of giving you access to the data or an interpreted form of the data to motivate or simply inform you. Most of the time the data is fitness or health related, although it could in theory be about anything.

One of the latest “quantified self” apps I now use is called Moves, and it is a free app available on iPhone and Android. The core of the app is an activity recognizing algorithm the developers call TRACE (for TRajectory and Activity Classification Engine). It is basically a more advanced pedometer which uses your phone’s accelerometer along with location data to accurately determine distance and type of activity. Because it is using more than just an accelerometer, it can tell the difference between running, walking, cycling, and motorized transport with a fair degree of accuracy. The only accuracy issues I have experienced so far is occasionally classifying cycling as motorized transport, but the app allows you to easily correct that.

To the left you can see the apps default view, which is a daily storyboard that shows you where you were, how you travelled between those places, and a summary of distance travelled at the top. If I had cycled or ran that day you would also separately see totals for those activities at the top. On iPhone, but not yet Android, you can also have it display estimated daily calories as well. You can also click into an activity or place to see a map view of your day.

And that is pretty much what the app does. What I really like about this app is the simplicity. It does very little but it does it well. Unlike standalone solutions for tracking activity, this works without having to wear a new device and never requires you to turn it on, or tell it that you are about to start a run. It simply runs in the background and determines your activity and you can completely ignore it most of the time.

Moves has quickly become one of my favourite apps. Even without the app actively pushing me to be more active, just the simple act of tracking activity motivates me to move a little more. A few times now I decided to bike to the grocery store instead of taking the bus simply because I wanted to see the blue biking activity on Moves. It sounds a little silly, but it definitely motivates me. I would highly recommend this app to figure out just how much you are actually moving each day. Then watch this video and try to up your activity a bit every day.

Moves isn’t without a small downside. It definitely has an effect on battery life. If you currently struggle with getting through the day on one charge, this app is probably not for you. If you generally don’t have much of an issue, then you probably will be fine with this app. On my phone, Moves tends to use about 10% of the battery over a day. For most people, that is probably not too bad. You also can put Moves into a battery saving mode if you know you will be away from a charger longer than usual.