Spending Time with the Surface Pro 3

About a week ago I put my back out through the ridiculously ambitious action of picking up a small piece of wood. Since then I’ve been more or less incapacitated, unable to walk very far, to stand for any period of time or to sit at a desk or table for more a couple of minutes before being overwhelmed with pain and the need to lie down. My studio and usual work computer have been completely out of bounds and I have been forced to conduct my daily business alternating between lying flat on the sofa or the floor. This has given me the opportunity to put the Surface Pro 3 through its paces as a day-to-day machine. Up until now I’ve only really used it as a music tool, for performance and for testing out various bits of music software. So I thought I’d blog about how I got with it in more general use.

The first thing that strikes you is how immensely versatile it is ergonomically. I’m lying pretty horizontal with my knees raised and so a laptop would sit on my stomach, where I can’t see the keyboard but could rest my hands, and the screen would be pretty far away. With the Surface and the kick stand I could pretty much balance it wherever I wanted and the keyboard would hang below it. I could have the Surface almost flat on my raised thighs with the keyboard hanging below and it’s light enough not to slip down. If I didn’t need to type very much I could remove the keyboard and then balance it on my tummy with the kick stand at whatever angle worked. From there I could move from balancing to holding it in one hand, or two hands or whatever. It didn’t get in the way, could easily be put to one side and adapted to whatever position I had to take to keep comfortable.

It wasn’t that easy to use the trackpad or keyboard in this position and so I relied more on the touch elements of the Surface than I usually do. This encouraged me to use more modern apps and actually there’s a lot to be said for having one thing on screen at a time. I’ve kept the start screen pretty tidy and so it’s a breeze to hit the Windows button and tap the next thing I want to look at, and then swipe between open apps. Far less fussy than trying to fiddle around on the desktop or with browser tabs. Here’s a quick round up of what I used:

Email – the inbuilt modern app is a complete revelation. It has none of the bells or whistles of Windows Live Mail that I normally use but was clear, easy to use and navigate and the column layout has me thinking I might have to re-arranged the layout of Live Mail when I get back to my work PC. It doesn’t have all the management features I need to use but it is really very good.

Facebook – this was a bit more hit and miss. The general layout and integration was good but I wasn’t convinced that it was updating as well as the desktop browser version. I also couldn’t edit events or see notifications and messages on pages I manage. So good for checking but not so good for managing the details of your presence. One thing I did like was that when you hit a link the screen would split in two and run the modern UI Explorer alongside Facebook so you could carry on browsing while that was loading up etc – very cool.

Twitter – yep, that works fine, particularly now that there’s a lot more images and video present in Twitter feeds.

Modern UI Explorer – I usually avoid this because the controls for tabs, favourites and other bits are a bit unintuitive, but having it full screen and the ease of scrolling with your finger, zooming in and stuff makes it much easier to read. Using Word Press to write this blog was very touch friendly.

OneNote – this has been very frustrating. I tried to get into it because it looked really useful but all the documentation refers to the desktop version, not the modern UI version which had me fooled for ages. So I’ve ditched the modern version and Microsoft need to be a lot more specific in their documentation so not as to confuse idiots like myself.

Kindle – I don’t fully understand the mechanisms at play. I seemed to tap to move a page on ok but if I swiped then there was no knowing where I’d end up. Couldn’t see any page numbers which would have been helpful. With graphic novels you could zoom each panel but not the page as a whole. So looking at the page the text was too small but when zoomed the panels lost resolution. I just wanted to zoom a little bit and could not work that one out. There is a Comixology app that I have but it’s not very reliable on Windows – the iPad app is far superior.

TeamViewer Touch – oh dear, what a disaster. Could not work out how to move the mouse around – much better on desktop or iPad for that matter.

When I did need to type for an extended period of time I found I could combine it with lying face down on the floor, up on my elbows, giving my back a nice extended stretch. The kick stand again allowing you to adjust to the perfect angle. After a while I found the strain too much on my elbows so I ended up lying propped up on a pouffe under my chest which allowed my arms to dangle a bit – good tip!

All in all I’ve found the Surface to be completely up to the task. The hybrid nature of touch and desktop, fingers and trackpad, make it really natural to use – you don’t feel stuck in one paradigm you feel free to poke, mouse and swipe whenever it’s most appropriate. The only down side is the keyboard – I find it really easy to make typos, like the slightest glance of a neighbouring key tends to stick that letter in accidentally, so I’m often having to go back and make corrections. It’s certainly not horrible to use but is not as forgiving as I’d like. Something I’d love to see is the Word Flow system of swipe typing like you find on my Windows 8 phone – that is simply amazing and it needs to work on a scaled down Windows 8 keyboard. Also Cortana on my phone has been a god send. When I get a text she reads it to me and allows me to dictate an answer, all behind the lock screen without me having to reach for the phone – genius. The pen has been less useful. I’m in constant danger of losing it down the sofa and actually I it’s not as helpful when you are balancing the Surface on your lap. When using two hands and at a desk I love the pen, it’s a vital way of navigating the desktop and using desktop software, but out of that environment then not so much – it really needs someway of attaching it to the Surface when not in use, and I don’t mean the rubbish little tag.

So yeah, even when you’re not making music the Surface Pro 3 is cool bucket of chips, it’s helped me out no end.