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Every Other Update

I’m not much of an early adopter anymore. Too many times I have been burned by “not ready for prime-time” products and updates. Now, I usually wait for the second or third iterations before making any technology changes. I made an exception this time, for Windows 10. I have found that Microsoft gets updates right about half of the time; usually on every other version. Time will tell if I chose wisely or not, but I have been playing with it long enough to form some initial impressions.

My Surface Pro 2 came with Windows 8.1 Pro installed and it took a couple of weeks for me to adapt to the new touch-designed interface, which has been called Metro, Touch and Tile World at various times since its launch. Microsoft figured that all personal computing was going to the tablet/touch interfaces commanded by iOS and Android, and they wanted to gain a piece of that market. They banked on that idea so much that they completely lost the traditional Windows desktop that has commanded computing since 1994. Public outcry was such that Microsoft quickly brought the desktop back to Windows 8 as a patch, which effectively split the user experience in two, leaving many to complain that 8.1 suffered from dual personality syndrome. Even so, I had a grasp of the nuances and managed to get my Surface to work for what I need it to do, though I was still missing the simplified user experience of Windows 7.

Microsoft, evidently wishing to distance itself from its Metro mistake, completely skipped Windows 9 and redesigned the entire OS for its newest update. The biggest news about the upgrade, however, was not the return to the desktop—a welcome piece of news for windows users, to be sure—but that the upgrade would be free. Free, that is, for those who are upgrading from 7 or 8 and do so within a one-year time limit from the release. Those who are still running XP or Vista (why would anyone be?) are out of luck.

This also means that all future upgrades are also free. Microsoft announced that there will be no more “Versions” of Windows, merely updates and patches. This is similar to Apple’s Macintosh OS stopping with OS X, even though there are constant updates for that system. Microsoft will not be losing money, to be sure. They have figured out a way to monetize OS usage by collecting user data. More on that later.

So, I upgraded my tablet the day after the release. The update process was simple and painless for me, although some Norton users complained that they lost their antivirus and had to go through some hoops to get it back. I had no such problem. My Norton immediately updated itself upon completion of the initial Windows 10 setup process.

Most of my configurations remained, such as my desktop image and icons. Users boot right onto the desktop just like previous versions, with the tiled Metro start screen now popping up as the start menu from the Windows button. Gone is the 2-App limitation on multitasking that Metro imposed on us; back is the multiple windows on the task bar. Now some of the touch-specific niceties of the Metro interface are also gone, such as the charms and the swipe to close/minimize feature. Closing is back to clicking the X in the upper right corner where it has always been. I had gotten so used to swiping down to close windows, that I kept dragging windows below the task bar and having to work to get them up and closed. I’m almost over that now.

Swiping in from the right used to bring up the charms, but that feature has been replaced by what I think is one of the biggest improvements in Windows: the notifications panel. In Windows 8, metro social apps like Facebook and Twitter kept a process running in the background to update their live tiles on the start screen. They still do this, but now they also show up in the notifications panel, and they remain there until the user clears them. This functionality is not new to mobile users—phones have had this for years—but Windows has never embraced it for computer users until now.

Windows also has included a built in mail app that can be configured for any POP3 or iMAP4 service. Yahoo, Gmail, and Hotmail can appear right beside ISP/work email in the same streamlined client, which alerts the user of new mail in the notifications panel. For those who use a web-based calendar like Google or hotmail, reminders for appointments and tasks also appear in the notification panel alongside any alarms the user might set.

Even with those updates, the biggest improvement for Windows might have to be Cortana. Apple launched Siri several years ago to the amazement of the mobile world. Google followed suit a few years later and there have even been some independent personal assistants like S-voice on Samsung phones. Windows developed Cortana to compete in that market, and rather than program a life-like computer-generated speech synthesizer, Microsoft employed an actual human actress to record her voice for the digital assistant.

Cortana is actually the name of a character in Microsoft’s game series Halo. In the game, a computer AI is named Cortana and is one of the antagonists for the hero. The voice became so popular that Microsoft decided to make Cortana real. Now Windows users can talk to their computers by simply addressing them with “Hey, Cortana.” Doing so will open a voice search window where a user can speak search terms, ask about the weather, inquire as to the day’s schedule, check email or even ask Cortana to tell a joke.

Again, Siri users will say “Been there, done that,” and they would be correct. In fact, Siri is still a bit more intuitive than Cortana, who opens web browsers to Bing for simple questions way too often for my taste. I can only expect that Microsoft will improve the service as time goes on.

Now for the concerns. In order for Cortana to work, the computer’s microphone has to be on all the time, and the network connection must also be active all the time. While this is a drain on the battery, it also means everything that is audible in the vicinity can be picked up and transmitted to Microsoft’s servers. Again, this is no different from Siri or Google, so many people won’t mind. But with all these voice recognition programs and devices, more personal data is being transmitted, collected and used by tech companies to gather information on users for marketing purposes. Some privacy advocates may be bothered by this.

Since Windows 10 is “free,” Microsoft has put a lot of data gathering tools embedded deep in the system. There are several places to find the settings for them and they are not easy to find and they are not together in the same place. Concerned users can opt out of all the data collection if they so choose, but Cortana will stop working if they do.

So, overall, Windows 10 is a step up, continuing the trend of good upgrades skipping a version. 95 good, 98 bad, 98 second edition good, ME bad, XP good, Vista bad, 7 good, 8 bad, 10… well, we’ll see if it ends up being as good as the first two weeks seem to indicate. One of my friends posted that her newly upgraded desktop locked up on Windows 10, which may be more of a problem with the fact that it is a cobbled system, rather than an out of the box computer. I am on a Microsoft-built device, so it may be that my good experience is owing to tight development between Microsoft hardware and software. So far, so good.

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The Best of Both Worlds

I once wrote a blog about how the tablet was the replacement of the netbook, and for the most part, I nailed it. Many computer makers now make small computers called ultra books with as much or more power than notebooks and desktops. Most feature touch screen displays similar to tablets, albeit a tad larger, which brings me to my point: The tablet is NOT the replacement for the net book. But then again, neither is the ultra book. No, the replacement is actually a little bit of both. Microsoft introduced the Surface last year and despite a mega marketing campaign and obvious product placement in shows like Arrow (or just about every other show on TV) the Surface has not beaten the iPad or Android tablet in sales. It should. It is the replacement for the net book and brings the best of mobile computing and traditional computing together.

I traded my Acer One net book for an Asus Transformer Prime tablet (with attached keyboard) running Android’s Jelly Bean OS. I used this setup for a couple of years, trying different software to get some semblance of functionality for writing. Unfortunately, Android is still in sore need of a serious word processing solution. After Asus abandoned the prime, software updates made the tablet so slow as to be worthless to me. There was no update to Jelly Bean or Kit Kat for the Prime. It was time for a new device.

I first tried a Galaxy Note, but it was too much like my phone, also a Note, and I thought it wouldn’t be a good tool for writing, as Android still lacks a good word processor. I briefly considered the iPad, since it comes with Pages, which I hear is not a bad app for writing, but when I tried it I was underwhelmed. No, I needed to get back to a windows machine, it seemed, especially since I have been dying to try Scrivener, a professional writing app for Windows and Macs. Of course, that meant getting into Windows 8.

The Windows 8 operating system has a split personality that occasionally battles with itself. Tablets like the Galaxy Tab and the iPad feature operating systems and applications tailored for the ultra mobile consumer platform. Users of tablets do not spend a lot of time creating content, rather, they view and interact with content. For this reason, most tablets do not offer all the bells and whistles of a full version of Windows or Mac OS. Apple realizes this and has a separate OS for their mobile devices. Microsoft, on the other hand, seems to be struggling with drawing a line between functions. For Windows 8, Microsoft jumped head first into the mobile platform pool, and took the desktop with it. Long time users of Windows moaned and groaned and clung to their copies of Windows 7 like a life preserver. Some even refused to leave XP. Microsoft listened and revamped 8.1 to include the ability to keep the traditional desktop interface, albeit with some modifications. Once a user gets used to the changes in the full version of 8.1 and not the RT version, the changes are not too bad. There is a learning curve, to be sure, but so far, I have found all the settings and functions I have gotten used to with earlier versions.

The Surface Pro 2 is zippy fast boasting an i5 CPU running at 2.5 GHz, though if one wishes to optimize battery life, it will slow down the CPU when on battery. When it does this it is not appreciably slower to the average user. During my testing, I did notice the slow down on the legacy apps, which are more resource hungry. It also comes with a stylus.

Good keyboard action on the Power Type cover. This has the same chicklet-style keys that the Type cover has, but is on a thicker platform, which for me make it feel more stable. The touch style keyboard is the thinnest and cheapest keyboard, but it has a fabric skin on it and there is no tactile response to the keystroke. For me, as a writer, I must have that tactile response. These keys on my type cover are actually better than many of the ultra books I have tested. The downside of these covers is that the other parts of the keyboard are wrapped in a flimsy covering that feels like paper and I suspect will start to split and peel eventually.

The stylus works well and has an eraser feature which is pretty neat. One simply flips the stylus over and rubs the other end over the tablet to erase, just like a pencil, when used in an app that supports it. It does not default to mouse function in desktop mode, though. It does a very good job of selecting and Windows has altered the file explorer to provide check boxes when selecting, which is easy to do with the stylus. Another stylus-related feature is the Windows journal app, which allows for handwritten note taking using the stylus, including doodles and sketches. The handwriting can be converted into text very effectively by the journal. No easy feat considering the state of my chicken scratch.

Microsoft boasts the Surface has 10-point touch capabilities in the screen. I understand the benefit of multi touch, which allows pinch to zoom and rotation and a host of other features, but why call out the number ten? How could one put all 10 fingers on the screen at the same time? Little Hands? Who’s holding the tablet then?

The Surface Pro 2 is quite heavy, especially when you add on a keyboard. This is a fact that is not necessarily a bad thing if it is used as a notebook, but can be hard to hold for reading. Add in the fact that the battery in the Power Type cover also adds 20 percent more weight as well and it gets quite heavy; about 20 percent heavier than my old Asus Transformer Prime.

The reason I bought it was because it has a 10-inch screen. Most people would balk at the small size, as laptops usually run 13-17 inches with some models running as large as 21 inches, but I like being as portable as possible and I really primarily use it as a writing tool. I looked at several ultra books, since they were cheaper (less expensive) but they were cheaper (flimsy). The Yoga came in a close second, but I didn’t like holding the keyboard flipped backwards.

Now for a tablet, the Surface is quite pricey. The 128 gig SSD Pro 2 version runs a grand by itself plus 120 to 200 dollars for the keyboard depending on which keyboard you get. I got the one with the extra battery to help the tablet last longer. My Asus had that feature, which in that case doubled the battery life, but in the case of the Surface, only provide 50 percent more battery life. Is it worth the extra 60 bucks for the battery? I dunno, but with both batteries fully charged, the surface lasted 12 hours of constant word processor use with some internet and video thrown in. The battery control panel doesn’t accurately report the status in either control panel. This is confusing and frustrating as I never know exactly how much battery life I have left at any given time.

Now, the biggest issue with the Surface is none of the things I have yet mentioned. No, the biggest hurdle is the interface; the surface uses Windows 8—an operating system I have spent the past year decrying as terrible. One might wonder if I have changed my viewpoint on this subject since I did spend more than a thousand dollars on a device running this pariah of an OS. The caveat I claim here is that I have always said, and I still maintain, that Windows 8 was designed for touch screen devices like tablets and cell phones and the surface is one such device. As it has a very responsive touch screen, Windows 8.1 is functional using the metro interface. With the latest updates to 8.1, the legacy desktop interface is still there, one simply has to look for it and with the new version, it is only a touch away. Most of the features of traditional windows are still there and if one still uses a mouse and keyboard, one might forget for a moment that it is on a tablet.

With the pro version, legacy windows apps such as Word 2007 and Photoshop CS4 run like they always have, in desktop mode. Microsoft is busy trying to build a library of metro interface apps so the users will have an iPad-like experience with an app store that runs in the touch metro interface. There are two versions of Internet Explorer, one that runs windowed like IE has for years, but also a touch-optimized version, which puts the address bar in auto hide, drops it to the bottom of the screen and changes up the UI entirely. Instead of clicking a back button, or even hitting the backspace key, one simply swipes from the left to go back.

The other version of the Surface was initially called the Surface RT, but Microsoft dropped the RT from the name. It has an atom processor and runs a stripped down version of windows that supposedly drops support for legacy apps. I cannot verify that as I have the Pro, but that was the main reason I got the pro. I need to use the apps I have already paid for. I see no reason to pay Microsoft a monthly fee to use Office, which is the current model for Office 360. Adobe has followed suit with a monthly charge of $40 to use Creative Suite.

It occurs to me though, that even as much as the Surface does, it probably should not be the only computer in anyone’s network. It has a SSD running from 32 to 512 gigs, depending on how much one wishes to shell out. Microsoft is graciously throwing in a year’s worth of Sky drive for cloud backup, but unless one has some money, either an external USB drive or some network storage solution would be best in addition to the Surface.

So far, after a week of using it, I am loving the Surface. I am mad at myself for waiting this long. This device has my whole hearted recommendation. Even Windows 8 gets a nod, given that it is on a touch screen and has 8.1. Just be prepared for a bit of a workout lugging it around.

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