Tech Highs and Lows of a Middle-Aged Man: Surface Pro 3

My Surface Pro 3 experience

So I am one of those guys who is considered pretty smart, technical even in my social circles and typically a fairly early adopter of new tech, IF it’s good. I am in fact a senior member of a technology based company, MCFTech (www.mcftech.com), so most of the technology I use is within a business user context. However, I am a “middle aged” man, with a full time career, have 4 kids with my amazing wife Wendy, a dog, a guinea pig, two lizards, a fish tank, frogs…. well you get the picture. In short, I am a really busy person, and I just do not have a lot of “extra” time to research things deeply. So, if it is going to work for me, and the millions like me, things need to work well, pretty quickly, or the frustration level rises in a hurry.

I realize that I am not alone, that there are others like me, who don’t have the luxury of being able to just “figure it out” like we used to. Back in the day, we could geek out for hours at night on something interesting, instead of eating a meal. Well, nachos aren’t really THAT bad for you, are they? I have decided to start sharing my experiences with the technology that is supposed to make our lives better. For my first installment I have a doozie: The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet. Yes, the one that they are spending millions on to convince us that this baby can replace our laptops; for real this time.

Technology Highs and Lows

The Business End

There are really two basic aspects of the Surface Pro 3; the hardware and the software. As I have been using the Surface now for 3-4 weeks, I think I will simply follow my own journey and see where it takes me. My intent is to make this interesting, but to hopefully help others, like me, figure these things out more quickly. I have also included at the end a summary of TIPS, so you can skip right to that if you want.

The Sell

The larger screen size, the fact that it came with some good Intel processors like the i5 and the i7 (which I waited for from Best Buy), the new digital pen which is very cool, and a decent Solid State Drive (SSD) are the reasons I decided to take the leap. I also travel a lot and my awesome Lenovo laptop was just getting too heavy and too big to use in coach. So after picking up my jaw at the total cost of my shopping cart, I dove in and purchased the top of the line Surface Pro 3 with the i7-4650U CPU and about a 500GB SSD and 8 Gigs of RAM.

Here I hit my first Con. I still needed to buy a lot more, even though I just plunked down a healthy chunk of change that would have purchased a nice Gaming laptop for high performance fans. So I bought the cover/keyboard. I went ahead and paid extra for the one with real keys vs the membrane type, I need that feedback and feel. Then, I bought an extra micro SD card to add 64 GB of memory. First Pro: this was awesome, even though on the Surface Pro 3, I have a nice SSD, just being able to use the SD card, and write to the card from my tablet (Apple iPad fans cannot do this, and Apple should be ashamed to have never supported that for photos, music, etc.). I also bought an inexpensive softie case to protect my shiny new tablet, and a special adapter for the mini-display port to run my other monitor, and lastly I spent even more for the docking station, as I really want to replace my laptop, which I use at my desk almost every day. Whew… with my wallet dry, I was ready to convert.

The First Date

Ok, that first date was rocky at best and I was pretty disappointed after only a short time. Sure she was beautiful with that big sexy screen and the heavy aluminum back, it felt really good as we sat down at my favorite restaurant (our kitchen table) for that first blind date. But then I started hitting nasty little speed bumps and potholes that quickly took away the giddy excitement of opening the box.

It has Windows 8.1, of course, and in typical Windows fashion, you really needed the second release to have a decently solid experience. So, after about 24 updates and reloads, I was ready to roll and BAM! It got worse. OK, I get the concept of 8.1, the very ambitious and cool idea of unifying all of our devices into a common OS experience. Heck, I drank that Kool-Aid right away, but my mobile phone was an Android and I loved my Windows 7 at work, so switching everything over was just not practical, much less something I really needed.

Now, to qualify things before I start getting too negative, I had used Windows 8 on my home PC for a while (to my entire family’s frustration and disdain). The Metro apps were soooooo confusing and I really didn’t use that PC very often. It didn’t have touchscreen so I never did learn any of the new Gesture interface tricks, but I had figured out a few things; like where they moved the control panel, the search, the power off and shutdown, etc. So back to the Surface Pro 3. I quickly learned that she had a very different interface in 8.1 that assumed an IQ of 1000, and that touchscreen gesturing would just magically come to me… Did I miss something? They just had to move EVERYTHING?!

The Second Date

So after my frustrating first date, I determined that I would lick this thing. After all, I had spent a ton of money on it, and my partner was a few weeks ahead of me and seemed to have figured it out, so it was time to get serious.

Frustration #1 – You can’t close an app, and all the menus, etc. are just not obvious or even there!

There are no familiar little controls in the upper right to size and close apps…and pretty much every menu on my most used apps had been moved, deprecated, changed…. hmmm. So before I just tossed this thing and went out to get a Mac, I decided to use my “phone a friend” and learned three key things:

  1. The apps that come with Windows 8.1 are not the normal desktop apps, so friends like Outlook, Skype and OneNote (which I love BTW, future entry for sure) did not look, smell, feel like themselves, as they are kind of “mobile” tablet versions of the app. If I really wanted all the features, menus and controls I was already good at, especially to use with a mouse, I had to go get them. Fortunately for me, I had a Microsoft Office 365 E3 license and only had to find, download, and install them. Finding was nowhere near as easy as it should have been, but I got there eventually. I instantly started to fall back in love, and could feel the frustration level melt down a bit.
  2. You can close a Windows 8.1 “metro” app by swiping quickly from the very top of the screen to the very bottom. WOW! That works well but is in no way easier than clicking an X. so again, she was complicated but I don’t like boring dates, so this date was looking up.
  3. OH, this is true for all my Office apps too…. so I went out and downloaded the desktop versions of Excel, Word, OneNote, PowerPoint, etc. The Online versions of those apps are OK but are still not 100% yet…again that will be another blog entry in the future.

Frustration #2 – The keyboard

OK, like I said before, I did buy the expensive one, and the keys, while a bit tighter than my full sized laptop, they ain’t too shabby. I really do like that they are backlit, worth the extra money right there. BUT, then there is the trackpad. I wish I knew how to make an Angry Face emoticon. It’s just way too sensitive, and like all the modern trackpads there are no extra left and right click buttons, in other words you have to click the pad. It does provide a feedback “CLICK” feel so it’s doable, but it also allows the tap and double tap functions without actually depressing the pad and that is where it goes wrong IMHO. As I tried to type emails or documents, it constantly jumped around as my palm brushed the trackpad. Often, it will select a big chunk of text and as I keep typing it replaces it… ARGH! The worst is when you accidentally do some menu shortcut and it takes you somewhere you just don’t want to be. Again, I am no quitter, so I diligently looked for somewhere to lower the sensitivity. I could not find it intuitively anywhere, not in control panel, PC setup… crap… so I just turned the darn thing off for now. Problem solved, and with a touchscreen interface I really don’t need the trackpad anyway. When using it at my desk as a laptop, I use a mouse too, so I have not really missed the trackpad. Although, one day last week it mysteriously turned itself on again, seems like certain software still activates it or something, but today back in MS Word on a flight to Los Angeles it is not on, which is just fine by me.

Frustration #3 – Why did they do away with the start menu on the desktop?

Ok I get the new interface with Windows 8.1 and the live tiles are kind of fun once you figure out how to use them well. Just hold them down to rearrange things and size them, pretty intuitive so not much problem there. One of the tiles takes you to your Desktop, which feels good with its familiar Windows 7 like feel… BUT they left off the start menu, which gives you nice compact access to so many things, what the heck? Luckily I asked the Audience of other users and heard overwhelming response… use Classic Shell. It’s free and awesome. A quick Google search away and there it was as a free download, installed and voila! I was back in business with my start menu. YEAH! (I think I actually cheered out loud in my office and people might be thinking I have mental issues, but man this relationship was looking up!)

Some Good News

There are a couple of key bright spots, to be fair.

  1. The new “pen” stylus by the way, is a serious bright spot in this adventure. It is especially awesome in OneNote and I look forward to using its advanced features and seeing more software developed to take advantage of its capabilities.
  2. The High Resolution screen is also awesome, although I have had some issues with Web conferencing solutions like GoTo, Webex, and Fuze, where it will not render correctly on a screen share, the bleeding edge strikes again. I found that as long as I used another monitor (after making another purchase for the adaptor cable) and show that monitor in the correct resolution, I can get a decent screen share, but sometimes with older lower resolution secondary monitors, it shows a small slice of the tablet screen on the web conference as well, which is weird and annoying.

TIP Summary

As promised here are the tips in a quick reference form:

  • Get the good keyboard
  • Turn off the trackpad until you can adjust the sensitivity
  • If you want the normal Windows apps, you have to go download them, then either uninstall or remove the new “metro” apps from the home screen, the good old ones have different tiles.
  • Download and install “Classic Shell” to get your nice desktop start menu back http://www.classicshell.net/
  • Get the mini-display port adaptor and connect your second, larger screen for ease of viewing and to help display correctly on web conferencing.