On the Cloud: Chromebooks and the Surface Pro

The following is a personal account and expresses my personal views.

The Surface
The Surface

A Passion for Personal Computers

As a software engineer and computer poweruser, my life revolves around the PC a bit more than most. It’s an interest I’ve had since I was 12, and I got my first chunky home computer with less power than a watch you can buy today at a fraction of the cost.

A passion for computers and what they can do drove my parents to distraction – newer faster better models came out each year, and I pestered them to take me to electronics stores, so I could try out some of the latest models. A series of desktops and laptops, used Macs and PC’s, installed and re-built computers with various linux flavors from SuSE to Debian to CentOS and Ubuntu followed over the course of the years.

Beyond the PC – The Chromebook and the Cloud

I got a chromebook last year – mainly for the fact that you can go from a cold start to working in about 12 seconds. No more waiting 10 minutes (yes, 10) for my laptop to boot up and get going because I wanted to…find out more about something I’d just seen on television.

Chromebooks - now with touch
Chromebooks – now with touch

The chromebook, with its promise of an 8 to 10 second boot seemed amazing. Google can be a bit rough around the edges sometimes – hence all the ‘betas’ I guess – but as a developer, I appreciate the skill and engineering that goes into what they do, and the chromebook brings together the vision for the different products and services Google offers like nothing I’ve yet seen. After researching their 2-factor authentication and security, I bought into that vision and signed up for the $4.99 monthly 100Gb of cloud space on their servers and then moved all the files I’d backed up onto local hard drives, CDs, and 3.5 inch floppies over the years onto it. It took about 36 hours to move all those files at my (rather fast) home internet connection speed. It felt phenomenally liberating to no longer have to solely rely on Windows, my home PC and back-up disks to keep my digital life safe and accessible.

What about iPads?

The chromebook was great, but it was still had a chunky laptop-like form factor and (at that time) no touch capability. I’d never owned an iPad, but I’d used them a lot, and they were great for checking email and surfing among other things. I loved it and wished it could do more for me, but it was never a compelling proposition.

iPad - great for standalone apps
iPad – great for standalone apps

All those apps were great, but only being able to do one thing at a time and not being able to save, browse and work with files out the box was limiting. I needed to be able to install java, servers, write and run my own programs and more. I’m pretty sure there’s no app for that.

And although Google and the cloud were great for browsing and working with general documents, working with very big files on Google wasn’t as efficient as working on them locally on my own desktop or laptop. It was really quite disconcerting to find that, for example, when I selected “all” on a spreadsheet with several thousand rows, I’d only get the few hundred rows that were on the browser.

Microsoft Strikes Back…Sort of…

Ballmer with the Surface
Ballmer with the Surface

My digital life was safe and secure in the cloud. Being able to securely access my digital life from anywhere was very liberating. As so much of what I do needs desktop scale computing, to truly be mobile what I needed was an iPad like device that could also do all those other things I could do on my desktop. The Surface held that promise and more.

I wasn’t very sure if it would deliver though, there was already a lot of bad press about Windows 8, and Steve Ballmer seemed to have made a bit of a hash of introducing the concept for the Surface leading up to the announcement of the device. Microsoft are many things to many people, however one thing I do know is that they invest a great deal in studying and developing their software user experience. I wanted to give it a fair go and try it out for myself.

Explore at the Microsoft Pop-up Stores

Enthusiastic employee at a Microsoft Store
Enthusiastic employee at a Microsoft Store

Microsoft had just put in a pop-up shop in the mall, and I made time to give it a fair go. I was lost at first – the lack of a start button was confusing. I’d start a program but couldn’t get out. The gestures I know from the iPad didn’t apply.

I asked one of the people at the store to help me familiarize myself with some of the gestures – dragging a finger down from the top of the screen to the bottom gets the application that’s running out the way.  If more than one program is open at the same time they can be seen and switched to with a little swipe in and out from the left of the screen. The tile menu at the start is conceptually the same as the start button/menu on windows 7 – getting my head around this fact helped me make sense of a lot of things.

Touching the windows logo on the device takes you to what is the new touch friendly ‘tile’ start menu. It’s easy to press and go to the tile menu by accident and takes a bit of getting used to. If your program isn’t on the tile start menu, a little swipe up from the bottom of the screen when on the tile start menu will allow you to see all the programs on the system, including the control panel, system tools and more. Tiles can also be added to the start screen and can be clustered into groups – a collorary to folders on the classic start menu.

Clicking is a little different – a tap is, and makes sense as a left click, but a lot of things are right-click centered on windows. The gesture for it is to keep your finger or stylus in one point for a couple seconds then release. Clicks are still a bit glitchy but with that and the included stylus on the pro, I get by quite well and have not needed to use a mouse at all.

It all gets intuitive quite quickly and overall, I think the bad press Windows 8 gets in some quarters is overdone. The lack of a start menu button has caused so much grief that it will be returned with the ‘Blue’ service pack, albeit in abbreviated form – for those users that need to see it on the screen to orient themselves, although it will do little more that take a user to the tile start screen.

Windows 8 Mode

Windows 8 mode was another thing to get my head around. In this mode, each application takes up the entire screen when it’s active – think of it as running an application in tablet mode if you like. Much of what I do is desktop centered, and I don’t use this mode much, preferring to move between lots of visible windows; but the advantage of Windows 8 mode is that things are generally sized to be much more touch friendly.

The PC and the Cloud

Microsoft software has largely been developed for PC computing, and they have a tight relationship with Intel, on whose sophisticated but power hungry chips their software runs. Microsoft recently beefed up their cloud offerings greatly and offer ‘Sky Drive’ to hold files, outlook.com to compete with gmail, online versions of office, and have also recently improved their two factor authentication. I was torn as to whether to go completely Microsoft or stay with Google on the cloud. I tested the two factor authentication of both and Google’s seems a bit more polished (I tried entering incorrect codes multiple times to see if it could be brute forced, and seeing what remote log out options were available for logging out of other devices I was logged in on.) I also have an Android phone and so staying with Google on the cloud made a lot of sense for me, but Microsoft’s online offerings are shaping up very well.

Surface RT vs Surface Pro

Microsoft currently has two models, the RT and the Pro. I tried the RT as soon as it came out – a few months before the Pro. The Surface RT is tightly controlled, so you can only install software from the Windows App Store, and I was disappointed in the extreme at this.  Although it did come with Office 2013 installed, I needed much more than that and the closed set of applications offered on their app store. The Surface Pro is truer to Microsoft traditions. It’s Intel based, but because their chips consume more power than the more efficient reduced instruction set processors (RISC) on the RT, the battery would not last nearly as long as the RT.  Being Intel based however, meant that all the programs that were built for windows could also run on the Pro tablet.  This sounded great, I didn’t mind the battery life so much, if it could do all it claimed; but would it?

The Surface
The Surface

Is it worth it?

I needed a new computer – my laptop was about 3 years old and cost about $1500. It did what I needed but was bulky, the hard drive was becoming glitchy and the battery was beginning to go. The Pro cost about the same, but it was a tablet, had windows 8 and was actually a little more powerful and had more memory than my laptop. A laptop like my previous one would sell for about $600 new today. It was a very hard decision to pay 2010 prices for what was effectively a replacement for my laptop. What swung it for me was the fact that this was a cross between an iPad and a fully-fledged Windows computer. It had touch. Although laptops are great they cannot beat a tablet for convenience and portability. Thanks to the fact that all my documents, music, photos and files were now cloud based I could access them anywhere, if I lost or dropped my device I wouldn’t lose everything. I’d just change my password and log out of authenticated cloud sessions remotely and still have everything.

The more I use the Surface, the more I appreciate it, and that is refreshingly different from most other products. Windows 8 is very much a touch-centered operating system and the Surface is a great way to work with it. If you’re interested in trying it out, I’d suggest going to the Microsoft store a couple times and have a couple different people run you through the basics.

Try at Microsoft Stores or Pop-up Shops at Best Buy
Try at Microsoft Stores or Pop-up Shops at Best Buy

And if you like it but can wait an indefinite amount of time, Intel is expected to announce a new generation of low power chips soon and these will make their way into the Surface eventually and boost the battery life to something more like what you can get on an RT.  Oh, and did I mention you can get up and running on it in about 15 seconds?

Recently on my honeymoon, on the underground on our way to the Science Museum in London, I pulled out my Note II phone to check something or other standing on a crowded train. A young boy and his mother were opposite, and the boy looked at my phone. I recognized the look. Someone else walked into the carriage at the next stop. She was carrying an iPad, and the boy tugged at his mom and pointed to the iPad totally into it. That’s how I feel about the Surface Pro, and wow, if only it were around 25 years ago! It’s a great time to be a kid into technology…I guess that’s what I still am at heart today.

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