Surface Laptop 3: A new chapter

It was almost eight years ago to the day that I walked into the Microsoft Store in Toronto to purchase the very first Microsoft Surface Pro sold in the world. There was a huge midnight event planned so that on the day of the release – February 9, 2013 – anyone lined up at the Microsoft Store in New York City could buy it at one minute after midnight. A blizzard closed New York City, and while Toronto was also hit by a terrible snowstorm, it was not enough to close the city down. The unboxing videos on my blog (here) are cute to see – I am sitting in the theatre at the store wearing a Microsoft Canada shirt.

Over the next few years I would trade in and trade up that Surface Pro several times – I have had a Surface Pro 2, Surface Pro 3, and I still have my Surface Pro 4 which I purchased on December 9, 2015… making it the longest I have kept a computer in use in many years. I retired it today, February 2, 2021… a little over five years since I unboxed it.

IMG_4379

One of the reasons I kept upgrading the Surface was that I had friends who worked at the Microsoft Store who were willing, when something went wrong with the device, to replace it for me with the newer device. Yes, I had to pay any cost differences, and yes, I had to purchase a new Complete Care warranty for each new device, but it worked, and I was happy to spend the money.

When my friends at the Microsoft Store were no longer able to help me with that (which likely coincided with my no longer being a contractor with Microsoft Canada) I decided to stick with what I had. I did not need to spend the money for new laptops every year.

There is a known defect common with the Surface Pro 4 in that the battery starts to expand (which is likely not safe anyways), warping and then pushing the screen out from the device. While it still works (and very well!) as a docked device, it could no longer be considered a portable computer. It was time, especially with my travels about to start up again.

I gave a lot of thought to what to replace it with. I am no longer affiliated with Microsoft, and I am a little miffed that Microsoft would not do anything about the warped battery issue (which is a very well known issue with the Surface Pro 4). On the other hand, I have all of the accessories for the Surface, including extra power cables, docking stations, and more. I considered buying a competing product, but I kept coming back to the positives – my Surface Pro had a lot of miles on it, both literally and figuratively. In truth, it owed me nothing.

IMG_4378Of course, a lot has changed in eight years. When Microsoft released the Surface Pro, you had the choice of memory and hard drive size. A few years later they released the Surface Book, and I thought long and hard before opting to stick with the Surface Pro. Since then, Microsoft released the Surface Laptop line, and it was a difficult choice. I ultimately chose the Laptop because I almost never used the Surface Pro as a tablet, and the (slightly) larger screen of the laptop was appealing.

  • February 9, 2013: Surface Pro
  • February 13, 2014: Surface Pro 2
  • July 3, 2014: Surface Pro 3
  • December 9, 2015: Surface Pro 4
  • February 2, 2021: Surface Laptop 3

Friday evening I placed the order on Microsoftstore.com. Had I placed the order a couple of hours earlier, I likely would have gotten the computer yesterday. As it was, the UPS delivery came at 4:15pm, and I was excited. I opened the box on camera (as I have done now with each of my Surface devices), and have now been working on it for the last couple of hours. Here are my initial impressions:

  1. This is a gorgeous laptop. I opted for the Cobalt Blue package with 8gb of RAM and a 256gb hard drive. It is a sleek design for sure – I remember envying Mac users for the design that went into their laptops but no more. The is an impressive device to look at, and having a choice of five colours (Black, Sandstone, Cobalt Blue (Alcantara©), Platinum, and Platinum (Alcantara©)) is a nice touch.
  2. There is a Business Bundle that is more expensive that would come with the Windows 10 Professional build of the operating system, but as I own licenses for the more expensive OS I opted to save the money. What did surprise me somewhat was that the version of Windows is 1909. I would have expected at least 2004, if not 20H2. It would take an hour to perform that upgrade, but I was able to work on the device in the background, so I was not really concerned.
  3. I love the keyboard. While I liked the Surface Pro keyboard, I always felt it was a bit flimsy. Not needing to be able to pull off the keyboard as we could on the Surface Pro means they could make this more solid indeed. At the same time, the wrist rest has a material feel to it which I like.
  4. The 13.5” screen may not sound like much, but the extra 1.2” over the Surface Pro makes a real difference. The device also comes in a 15” model, but I opted to stay smaller, lighter (by .6lbs), and yes… cheaper. I opted to save the $200 and spend it on a nice box of cigars.

One advancement of the newer models over my Surface Pro 4 is the USB-C port. The newer Surface Pros have them too, so that was not a factor in my decision.

For reasons I cannot figure out, WordPress is not allowing me to embed my unboxing video, so I uploaded it to YouTube and you can watch it here.

I have had my new laptop for only a few hours so I should be happy with it. As I have told so many people of late, even the lowest end laptop on the market today will be sufficient for most users, so the Intel i5 CPU with 8gb of RAM will likely be enough for my day to day needs. If I need more power then I still have my HP EliteBook with an Intel i7 and 32gb of RAM. I suspect this machine will be sufficient for most everything I do. Next week I will be traveling to deliver a course in Florida, and I will only take this machine. I suspect that traveling lighter will suit me just fine… if I do need more power, I will have Azure VMs to fall back on.

I spent more on this laptop than I needed to, but I earn my living on my laptop so I need the power and reliability. The four year Complete Care warranty cost a little extra, but the peace of mind is priceless… If my laptop dies (or falls off a cliff) in the next few years I will not be out of pocket.

I will report back as I go… Based on the reviews and feedback I heard before making my decision, I do not expect to have anything bad to say anytime soon!

Goodbye Microsoft Store.

In 2009 Microsoft started opening retail locations, hoping to compete with the Apple Store.  Over the past eleven years, and especially while I was still a Microsoft MVP and living in the Greater Toronto Area, I did a lot of work with the stores in Toronto and Mississauga, and wrote many articles about experiences at the other stores.  I was one of the hosts and subject matter experts at the grand opening of both of those GTA locations, and made a lot of lasting friendships while helping out there.  I cannot count how many lectures I delivered in their audience experience rooms.

Microsoft Store

While the launch parties were hugely successful and well-attended, the truth was that I have never visited a store that I considered to be overly busy.  While the Apple Store in the same mall (and often just a few doors down) would be jammed with customers, the Microsoft Stores were never cursed with such problems.  Sure, there were often people waiting for help with a service tech (who were always extremely competent), there was never a time when people had to wait in line to purchase products.

It is hard to believe that it has been more than seven years since I purchased the first commercially available Surface Pro at the Microsoft Store in Yorkdale… there had been a midnight launch event planned for the night before at the store in New York City, but that was cancelled due to a blizzard, and so as a Technical Evangelist with Microsoft Canada, when I walked into the store at 7:30am the morning they went on sale, I had the distinction of purchasing the first one in the world… partly thanks to a very friendly store manager (Alison), and my buddy CF who made it happen.  Of course, part of the deal was recording an unboxing video in the store for my blog and YouTube channel.

Thanks to a number of Microsoft Store managers and employees, over the years I have upgraded from the Surface Pro to the SP2, SP3, and finally the Surface Pro 4 (my current device).  I have purchased devices for my sons, (now ex-)wife, mother-in-law, friends, clients, and more.  All from the Microsoft Store.  Sometimes in Toronto or Mississauga, sometimes other locations (Redmond, Washington and Chicago, Illinois stick out, but there were others).  While I am no longer affiliated in any way with Microsoft (save for myriad certifications and my MCT), it was a great relationship while it lasted.

Friday afternoon Microsoft announced that they have decided to exit the retail space.  My understanding is that this was in the works for next year anyways, but was moved forward because of the Covid-19 pandemic.  They will keep four stores open (Redmond Campus, New York City (Fifth Avenue), London (Oxford Circus), and Sydney, Australia (Westfield Sydney).  However, they have also announced that these locations will be converted to ‘Experience Centres,’ and will not sell products.

While this is terribly disappointing to those of us who were always fond of the stores despite their ineffectiveness, it is not at all surprising.  It is nice to know that Microsoft will not be laying off any of the retail employees, who have been working diligently to provide support to customers remotely during this pandemic. 

“We deliberately built teams with unique backgrounds and skills that could serve customers from anywhere. The evolution of our workforce ensured we could continue to serve customers of all sizes when they needed us most, working remotely these last months.  Speaking over 120 languages, their diversity reflects the many communities we serve. Our commitment to growing and developing careers from this talent pool is stronger than ever.”

– David Porter, Microsoft Corporate Vice President

For years I have known that Microsoft has never had one single business unit or product that it relied on entirely, so this will likely not affect the company.  Knowing that the employees’ jobs are safe, I feel better about this decision.  Still and all, it is somewhat sad.

Surface Pro Battery Woe

PINCFriday afternoon I had a Skype meeting, and as I was settling into the board room at my office for quiet, I realized the battery on my Surface Pro 4 was at 0%.  I plugged it in, and got the feedback: “Plugged in, Not charging.”  Okay, I would be careful to not yank the power cord for the duration of the meeting.

I spent the weekend with friends in Montreal.  Rick lamented, as he often does, that he hates the preponderance of devices with no serviceable parts; for example: he uses an old smartphone because he wants to be able to replace the battery.  I poo-pooed his unwillingness to accept progress.  He isn’t wrong, of course.  Planned obsolescence is a terrible thing, and the fact that the Apple Corporation expects me to replace my phone every two years is infuriating.  What’s worse, is that I do.

DB1Karma came calling Saturday evening, when I plugged my Surface in to charge overnight.  It is now about three and a half years old, beyond the warranty.  I have not looked into replacing the battery, but I would not expect it is a easy process.  It is not something I had ever given a lot of thought to… until Sunday morning, when the device (which had been plugged in overnight) still had a dead battery.  I packed it up and decided I would look at it when I got home… I was not looking forward to thinking about it.

As I sat comfortably in front of the TV later that evening, I decided that before anything else, I would try to plug the device in to a different charger.  A defective charger would have been the best outcome, if the problem was to be defective hardware.  I have three chargers, and even if I only had the one, it would be a lot less expensive to replace one of those than the device itself.  Unfortunately, I got the same “Not charging” message as I had with my main charger.

DB2I went online and looked to Microsoft for support.  The first recommendation is to apply the latest patches, drivers, and firmware.  Okay.  An hour later, and I am facing the same results.  Crap.

There is a Microsoft Surface Diagnostic Toolkit that they recommend trying next.  I downloaded it and installed it, and it went through a number of tests before asking me to reboot.  I rebooted, and once I authenticated the Toolkit continued to run automatically.  After a few minutes it asked me to reboot again.  I did, and when the system came back up, it no longer gave me the same notice.  It told me that my battery was at 0%, and it was 3h02m from a full charge.  I wasn’t sure if this was true or not, but I was happy to see progress.  I left the device to charge and went to sleep.

This morning I packed up the device and brought it to the office, where it is currently sitting at 91% charged.  Seeing as it has only been turned on for about half an hour, and I have not been working on it, I am not hopeful that the battery life will now be what it once was… but at least it is not dead.  I am going to drain the battery and recharge it overnight a couple of times, and hopefully that will get it back to sorts.

Unfortunately I understand that battery life diminishes (often greatly) over time.  It is not unusual, and it is one of the reasons I agree with Rick… I wish I could go out and simply buy a new battery for my device, and replace it at will.  Or, better yet, have two batteries that I could interchange, doubling the device life.  I used to do that with my smartphones.  Those days are gone… at least, when it comes to higher end tablet and hybrid devices, where every microgram is conserved, and where the term user-serviceable is laughable.

I am wracking my brain trying to think when the last time I had a primary device that lasted this long.  Certainly not in the last decade, and possibly not since the days when my primary device was a desktop tower.  My Surface Pro 4 has certainly given me everything I could have expected; that does not mean that I am ready to trash it just yet.  It is a good device that still does absolutely everything I need… not to mention that to replace it with a nearly identical configuration (modernized for today, so a Surface Pro 6 with an i7 CPU, 16GB RAM, and 512GB storage) would cost CDN$2,400 plus tax to replace… if (and that’s a big if) I was to replace it with another Microsoft Surface device.

My current crisis was averted.  With the battery working again, I am no longer faced with the immediate threat of having to replace my device (or even pay to have it fixed).  While I am thrilled by that, I am reminded that it is something that I will eventually have to think about.  I suppose it is the computer industry’s equivalent of an aging parent having a health scare; it was only a scare, but it reminds you that you will, at some point (and likely sooner than you would like) have to deal with the unpleasant reality.

Now excuse me, while I call my aging father.

Juiced Again!

About 2.5 years ago, I wrote an article called I’m Juiced… Because my Surface Pro 3 Got Juiced!  It was a play on words because I had won an adapter for my Surface Pro from Juiced Systems that was a 4-in-1 adapter custom-fitted to the Surface Pro 3, with two USB 3.0 ports, an SD Card reader, and a Micro-SD Card reader. I loved it, and was disappointed that when I upgraded to my Surface Pro 4 it did not fit (see article).

Fast-forward a couple of years, I started working at Cistel Technologies in Ottawa with one of the hosts of the show on which I won the adapter (The Universal Windows Podcast, previously known as SurfaceSmiths).  Colin and I were taking one day, and I lamented that it was too bad that I could no longer use the 4-in-1.  He told me that the company had started making them for the Surface Pro 4… and more than that, there were now several versions of it.  I got on that right away, because I seem to go overboard on these things… especially when the devices are so useful!

Surface Pro 4 4 in 1 Adapter

According to the company website, this adapter is “…a beautifully constructed adapter designed specifically for your Surface Pro 4. The adapter will not block or impair any ports or charging inputs. Extend your Surface Pro 4 capabilities with a low profile, travel ready, USB 3.0 hub.”  It has two USB 3.0 ports, one Micro SD input, and one Micro USB input to provide power to the adapter.  It measures 63×32.5×9.8mm, making it small enough to travel in whatever sleeve you carry your Surface Pro in, and yes… it also works with the Surface Pro 3.

Juiced 4in1This device works for me in a pinch, when I just need an extra USB slot, or I need to read from (or write to) a Micro SD card.  The Micro USB input allows me to boost the power to the adapter, so I can quickly and confidently charge two smart phones simultaneously.  It actually provides enough power to run a USB 2.0 docking station… but that dock would make the adapter redundant.

As you can see, just like with the previous iteration, it is angled properly to meld perfectly to the device.  Definitely a worthwhile investment.

Surface Pro 4 Multifunction Adapter

Juiced MFAIf you work in wired environments where you need an RJ-45 connection, this is the perfect adapter for you.

The Juiced Systems Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Multifunction adapter gives you two USB 3.0 ports, as well as an Ethernet input so you can connect to a wired network.  I do not spend a lot of time on wired networks, but there are a few places where I need to connect, and WiFi is not an option.  This device stays in my sleeve for that very reason.

Universal USB 3.0 Media Adapter

Juiced MediaThe USB 3.0 Media adapter is not contoured to specifically fit to the Surface Pro, rather it will work with any device with a USB port.  Its body is aluminum, unlike most such adapters which are usually cheap plastic.  You can feel this device is stronger and more durable than most.  According to the product page: “The adapter is designed for on the go productivity for all of your laptops media needs.”  I don’t know about that, but with two USB 3.0 ports, an SD Memory Card reader, a Micro SD Memory Card reader, and a Micro USB input to add power, it certainly does extend the functionality of my Surface.  This one includes a Micro USB cable to plug in so you can boost the ports.  While this device is not designed specifically for the Surface Pro 4 like the other ones, I definitely look to this one as my go-to adapter.  If I have to choose between the three that I am reviewing, this is the one I go to.  No, it does not have the Ethernet port… but I usually don’t need it, and the multiple USB ports plus the full-size and Micro-SD card readers make my life as a photographer much simpler.

Juiced Media 2

All three of these adapters – along with dozens more – are available online from Juiced Systems, and are definitely worth the investment.  In this day and age where our devices – and especially our tablets – are offering fewer and fewer ports, and we have more and more devices, then having the ability to add the ports we need this easily can make our lives easier.

All three devices retail for $29.99, and ship pretty quickly.  I strongly recommend you try them out.  You will not be disappointed!

Expensive Pieces of Plastic

Once again, I find myself sitting at the Microsoft Store in Yorkdale Mall, Toronto.  Frankly, if it were not for the snow and traffic, I likely would have dealt with this online, once I got around to it… but Highway 401 through Toronto has a tendency of being congested, so here I sit.

Over the last few years I have bought a lot of different products at the Microsoft Store, and even more products that are branded Microsoft, but which were purchase elsewhere.  Some of them have been great, others have been duds.  Most have been pretty good, and especially the ones branded Microsoft Surface are usually really good.

The problem is not when they are working… the question is, what happens when they break?  This does not usually mean physical damage, like the woman who until a few moments ago was sitting next to me and trying to argue that her Xbox headset, which obviously had physical damage (the left ear was completely disconnected, save for the wires).  I mean they just stop working the way they were meant to… connectivity issues and the like.

Recently I had a Surface Arc Mouse that stopped working.  I called the online support, as prescribed by the website, and they told me that I could either send it back to them, then wait for them to receive it, and ship me the new mouse… or I could save the time and go to the nearest Microsoft Store.  Problem: The nearest Microsoft Store to where I live (in Ottawa) is in Toronto, some 450km away.  I opted for the shipping option.

Later (Read: Now), as I actually was visiting in Toronto, I had another issue… this time with my Surface Pro Type Cover.  It just stopped working.  What do you do when an expensive piece of plastic stops working?  You go back to the point of purchase, and hope that the company has a good exchange policy.

Windows-Store-to-Microsoft-Store-740x405In my experience, Microsoft Store does a pretty good job of taking care of you.  They stand behind their products, and when something goes wrong, as long as you are within a reasonably warranty period, they will replace it.  So when someone asks me ‘Why would I spend $100 on a stupid piece of plastic, when I can just as easily buy a mouse for less than half that?’ The answer is twofold: 1) I appreciate having quality devices that will always work when I want them to, the way I want them to.  2) Yes, when the cheaper device breaks, I can buy a new one, and still be ahead of the game.  But when my higher quality mouse breaks (as mine have, on occasion), I know that the company stands behind them, and will replace it for me at no cost, and with minimal hassle.

Also… yes, I still enjoy coming to the Microsoft Store in Yorkdale.  No, none of the staff who worked there when I emceed the grand opening event so many years ago still work here… although I am still friends with some of them.  I like seeing what is new in the Microsoft hardware ecosystem, I like seeing the shiny, happy faces that work here.  I like speaking with them, and frankly, now that they don’t know who I am, they treat me just as well as they used to… they just don’t add the ‘By the way Mitch, while you are here…’ questions that used to always take up extra time Smile

The thing I don’t love? You walk in, you still have to make an appointment to speak to someone.  The good news?  It is usually pretty quick.  Today, for example, I came in, made my appointment for 20 minutes later, and by the time the third sentence of this article was written, Kevin was helping me.  Not for nothing, but the last time I went to the Apple Store, I had to wait well over an hour.  Great for Apple’s market share, lousy for me having to wait patiently.

Hello? Nice… but is it worth the money

imageMicrosoft has, over the last few versions of the client, made it much easier to log on to Windows.  By introducing PINs, Picture Passwords, integrating logons with Microsoft Accounts they have given us a lot more freedom, while taking security quite seriously.  I honestly think it is harder to hack into someone’s personal computer today than it was five years ago – at least, when users use the new options and do not store their passwords and PINs on sticky-notes.

When Microsoft introduced Windows Hello in Windows 10 I paid very little attention to it.  Firstly, I am no longer with the company; secondly, I am no longer a Microsoft MVP, and so am not invited to share in the information ahead of time; and lastly, I was just too busy with other things… and frankly I think all of the years of living on the bleeding edge had gotten to me.  I did install Windows 10 as an early adopter… but not as a very early adopter.

Even when I did move to Windows 10, back in the summer of 2015, Windows Hello was not a feature I was going to pay much attention to.  My Surface Pro 3 was a spectacular device, and I was not planning on trading it in, or buying an external camera just so that I could be logged in by facial recognition.

What is it?

Okay, so let’s back up a little.  Windows Hello is a new feature of Windows 10 that allows you to log on to your computer simply by being in front of it… but there is enough security that it has to be you sitting in front of it.  It cannot be someone who looks a bit like you, and it cannot be someone who has a picture of you.  In order to ensure this, the feature works only with Depth Cameras.  According to Windows IT Pro Magazine:

A regular webcam will not work with Windows Hello. Windows 10 features Windows Hello, which provides new ways to authentication using biometrics including facial recognition.  Since this is essentially 3-d detection,  a camera with a specialized illuminated infrared camera is required.

These cameras are not available in most devices… in fact, according to PC Magazine, most of these cameras are simply too expensive to include in lower end laptops. (See article).

So when, several months after the release of Windows 10, I traded up to a new Surface Pro 4, I did not even remember that the feature was called Windows Hello (in the article I refer to it as “the new high-res camera logon”).  It would be another month before I actually did get around to trying it.

So what do I think?  I like it… It is easier than ever to log on.  I sit down, my computer sees me, and it says “Welcome Mitch Garvis!”

Now here’s the issue… Yes, it is cool, and yes it is easier; but I have never in my life complained about having to type in a password.  I have never complained about password complexity.  I know that when I sit down at a computer I have to type in my password.  Is that gone now that I have Windows Hello?  NO! I use several computers, and most of them do not have Depth Cameras.  I am going to have to type passwords on most of the computers I work with for the foreseeable future.

Still and all, it is a great feature.  Would I have spent the money for it?  No.  However it is a ‘nice to have’ feature of Windows 10 with the Surface Pro 4.

If you do have a compatible camera, all you have to do is open the Accounts – Sign-In Options in your settings, and click on Configure Windows Hello.  Nothing too technical about it.  Good luck!

Why I chose the Pro.

I walked into the Microsoft Store in Yorkdale on a Wednesday evening with money to spend, and I was going to walk out with a new device.  The question was… which one?

A couple of months ago Microsoft announced two new devices: The Surface Pro 4 and the Surface Book.  The Pro4 looks a lot like its predecessor the Surface Pro 3, and while it has the next generation Intel CPU and the higher resolution camera, the truth is it was not significantly different from the 3.  Yes, it is a slightly nicer machine, but nobody who does not work in marketing at Microsoft would call the SP4 a revolutionary change, something monumentally different and better than the SP4.

The Surface Book, on the other hand… that was something new.  Unlike the Surface Pro (which is a tablet hybrid), the Surface Book is a true laptop… that can convert seamlessly into a tablet.  Batteries on both sides, a cool hinge, and when you press the button and the light goes green, you can pull the screen away from the keyboard and use it like a tablet.

Very nice.

When I walked into the store I had not quite made up my mind… but then I did not really have a lot of experience with either device.  So I asked the very helpful staff to show me the new devices.

I liked the Surface Pro 4 for many reasons, not the least of which was comfort.  I had gotten used to the Pro 3 over the last eighteen months, and the 4 was just an improvement on that platform.

We went over to look at the Surface Book, and a couple of things bothered me about it.  Yes, it has the SD Card slot to expand your storage… but that slot is in the keyboard, which means that once you disconnect, you have to stick to your hard disk.  The USB slots were the same… okay, I suppose it makes sense – when in Tablet Mode you shouldn’t really need the vast storage and expansion devices… except, when I download movies and music and books to my device they go on the SD Card because that is how I like to keep things organized.

In truth, that wasn’t that big a hit against the device… even with that knowledge I was still thinking about it.  And then…

Sticker Shock.

My Surface Pro 4, with the Intel Core i7 CPU and the 256GB of storage (with 8GB of RAM) runs about $2,099 (Canadian Dollars).  That is a lot of money, and if I did not need the horsepower I would never have spent it.  The base model of the Surface Book (with the Core i5 CPU and 128GB of storage) starts at $1,949… $150 less.  Of course, when you consider you have to add another $179 for the keyboard for the Surface Pro, it is actually $329 less than the Surface Pro 4.

But that is the base model.  The comparable model Surface Book (with the Core i7 and the 256 GB storage) costs $2,799 – a little over $500 more than what I spent (including the keyboard).  Now, I am sure there are benefits to the more expensive machine… but the costs for me would not stop there.  I would have to replace my docking station ($250 or so), and all of my accessories (chargers, etc… that I have from the Pro 3 that I can use with the Pro 4).  It just wasn’t worth the cost to me.

Let me be clear: I am not writing a review of the Surface Book; I have not spent enough time using it to do that.  I am just enumerating the reasons why I made the decision that I did – the Surface Pro 4 is a great device, and while I would have liked to have more memory (the 16GB version with the same storage and CPU is only $400 more than mine, but I did not want to spend the money), what I have is enough… for me.  For now. 

Now, if my next contract requires that I have the larger memory and storage capacity, then who am I to refuse?  For what I do today and for what I envision needing the system for going forward, I envision being quite content with this device for at least the next eighteen months (which, if you look at my history, is how long I should expect to be using it).

What are your thoughts?  I would love to hear them!

Surface Pro 4: First impressions

I must be mellowing as I get older.

When I got my Surface Pro (was it really only February of 2013 that they came out?) I was still working with Microsoft, and a colleague at the Microsoft Store in Toronto (back then there was only the one) arranged for me to get in early so that I could open the first device sold in Canada, and of course I recorded it.

When I upgraded to the Surface Pro 2 a year later (February 13, 2014) I was heading out of town from Ttve igioronto to to Quebec; there was no way I would get all the way to Chateau Frontenac with the new device in the car, so I stopped off for lunch and recorded my unboxing video at a rest area off Highway 401.  That video did not turn out well, but it was recorded.

It was only five months later (July 3, 2014) that I traded in the Pro 2 for my first Surface Pro 3… This would be the first Surface that would be my primary PC.  My family was out of town (visiting Grandma for the Fourth of July no doubt) so I was able to rush right home, set up my video camera and tripod, and record the unboxing video from my dining room table.  While I would go through a slew of them (there were several flaws in the original Surface Pro 3 so I had to return it a few times to get a good one) it (and they) would be my primary PC for over a year.  I say they because when I went back to work for Rakuten in January, 2015 they provided me a corporate laptop which was also a Surface Pro 3.  Once they got it right, they were pretty rugged machines.  Unfortunately shortly before my recent trip to Japan I well and truly Claused the device, when my Rakuten Surface was knocked out of my hands and made its way to the bottom of Lake Ontario.  We will give the device a pass though… that was slightly abnormal use, and it was the one thing that I found could not be recovered from.

And then, on December 9, 2015, nearly a year and a half after the Surface Pro 3 came into my life, I traded up again.  I picked up my Surface Pro 4 (this time with an Intel Core i7 CPU and 256 GB of storage) from the Microsoft Store.  However rather than running home to open it, I called my girlfriend and went over to spend some time with her.  The conversation did not revolve around how excited I was to have my new device; in fact it didn’t revolve around computers at all.  We had a nice evening, and after a few hours I took my leave.

Microsoft_Surface_Pro_4_Teal

…and THEN I went home to record the unboxing video!

Watch the Unboxing Video here…

I have now recorded five unboxing videos (two were not good enough quality to share).  I don’t think I did too bad this time, but you can be the judge.

While recording the video I had the two devices side by each, and was able to make a couple of comparisons between the 3 and the 4.  However it was only after I shut off the camera that I started to see some of the great differences.  On camera I mention that the keyboard magnet seems to be stronger than the old one; I had forgotten that the stylus now connects to the side of the device magnetically as well, and my first impression is that the magnet there is quite strong as well.  I never used the magnetic corner of the SP3 because I did not want to have to replace my lost stylus; I am not at all worried that this one will be lost… although time will tell.

I was disappointed that my Juiced Systems 4-in-1 adapter does not fit while the power supply is connected.  While I was not prepared for that, I consider it a minor nuisance, especially because of the better battery life we have been promised.  I already knew that my new device would not fit into my old docking station – I have to decide now whether to pick up a new dock, or just order the compatibility shim that Microsoft has created.  We’ll see.

Isn’t that one of the bigger issues we have when we replace laptops and tablets… we have to start our collection of toys from scratch?  Fortunately this is not entirely the case with this device.  The leather folio folder that I picked up last year for the Pro 3 fits my Pro 4 perfectly… That was a relief, as I really like the folder.  I am also thrilled that I don’t have to throw out my extra chargers – those are the same too, a relief knowing what I paid for them.

I spent an hour installing software before heading off to bed.  No, I have not tried the new high-res camera logon yet but I will, don’t worry.  I have written this article on the Pro 4 on the train into the office, and I cannot say enough about the improved keyboard design.  It is a much easier typing experience.  I know there is also a keyboard with a fingerprint reader, but one thing at a time.

No real complaints yet, although I am sure there will be a pet peeve or two.  Stay tuned to find out what.  In my next article, find out why I opted for the Surface Pro 4 over the Surface Book!

I’m Juiced… Because My Surface Pro 3 Got Juiced!

Ok, the title might sound a little bit cryptic… let me explain.

A few weeks ago I was listening to a podcast that I enjoy called Surface Smiths (www.surfacesmiths.com).  It was Episode 11, and the product they were reviewing was called the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 – 4 In 1 USB 3.0 Adapter from Juiced Systems.  They had a contest, and all you needed to do to enter was retweet something.  I did, and I found out a few days later that I won.  I was happy, but I forgot about it… life just gets in the way sometimes.

Life can be rather amusing sometimes… Just Friday I was lamenting that I was going away for a few days, and I would only have my Surface Pro 3 with its single USB port because I was not bringing a docking station with me.  And then when I got home, what was in my mailbox, but a package containing the prize – a 4-in-1 adapter that is custom fitted to the Surface Pro 3.  It has two USB 3.0 ports, an SD Card reader (Great because I take a lot of pictures), and a Micro-SD Card reader (Great to transfer files to and from my HP Pro Tablet 408 which I use for videos).

The best part of it all is that it does not interfere with any of the other ports on my device.  This was something I was worried about, because the USB port and the Mini-Display Port are so close to each other.  While that means nothing to me on a short trip like this one, when I go to Japan later in the month it will be crucial.

So I got to my hotel room in Ottawa Monday afternoon, and I was really excited about the new add-on to my Laptop Kit.  However the excitement had little to do with the USB ports… Seldom do I travel with a bunch of USB devices when I am only gone for a few days.  But not only did I spend the weekend in Montreal taking pictures, but Sunday night was the Super Moon Eclipse.  So I got some great pictures, and I was thrilled that rather than having to transfer them onto a USB key from another computer, I could just plug my SanDisk SD Card into my Surface directly using the new Juiced Systems adapter!

The device retails for $29.50, so it was not a major prize… but it was one worth having for sure!

Just so that you can all see what gets me so excited, here are a few of my pictures from Sunday.  If you think getting close up to butterflies is easy, or that shooting a Lunar Eclipse is simple, I challenge you to show me what you can do! Smile

Blue Butterfly 10

Butterflies on Mount Royal

Yellow Butterfly 14

Butterflies on Mount Royal

Ducks 45

Ducks on the Pond in Beaver Lake, Mount Royal

DSC_0086

St. Joseph’s Oratory, from Beaver Lake, Mount Royal

Eclipse Minute 28

Minute 28 of the Lunar Eclipse (9:43pm) from Westmount LookoutEclipse Minute 62

Minute 62 of the Lunar Eclipse (10:23pm) from Westmount Lookout

(Note: All pictures taken with a Nikon D5200 camera with a 70-300mm VR lens. Night time pictures also used a Nikon SpeedLight SB-700 flash)

Apple Dongles… Dangling functionality in front of you!

“Just remember Mitch… you are coming into an environment where people love their Macs and their Linux.  As long as you don’t come in and try to convert them, you will do well here.”

Yes, when I had my initial conversation with the leadership at Kobo I was told something very much like that.  Obviously with my history as a Microsoft Evangelist that could be a concern, and I was glad to reassure him that I was not coming in to change anyone… at least, not on the desktop side.

Funny enough, the only reason I was excited that head office had assigned me a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 was because I would be able to carry it in my messenger bag, and would not need to start carrying a larger bag.  Yay.

Apple DongleOn my first day in the office we realized I was missing a couple of things, all of which might be easily resolved.  For one, I needed a USB Ethernet dongle to connect to the corporate network.  The only problem: they were out of Windows-compatible dongles… all they had left were a few white ones with Apple logos on it.  We tried it out, and sure enough… nothing.  Windows did not even detect it.

There was a time when that would have been the end of it; however as hardware becomes more and more compatible between the two platforms, I decided to see if there was a solution to be found.

It didn’t take long to realize I was not the first person to encounter this issue, and there was a known solution: Boot Camp.

Five years ago I bought a MacBook Pro, and I wrote a series of articles on installing Windows 7 on the device.  The best solution at the time was a piece of software called Boot Camp, which allowed you to create a dual-boot partition, and then install Windows. 

The relevant part of the discussion is that the Boot Camp Support Software (a free download at http://support.apple.com/kb/DL1638) includes all of the drivers necessary to run Apple hardware from within Windows (because it is obviously not included in the default Windows 8 installation).

It was different five years ago, but with today’s smaller computers (including the MacBook Air) dongles are a big part of day to day functionality.  While the Boot Camp support software assumes you will be running Windows on Mac hardware, all it really knows is that you are running Windows and need a driver for the dongles.

So we downloaded the support files (currently version 5.0.5033), and then followed the following steps:

  1. We extracted the Boot Camp package on the Surface Pro 3;
  2. We navigated to the directory <root>\BootCamp5.0.5033\BootCamp\Drivers\Asix
  3. We executed the package AsixSetup64.exe.

It took less than a minute, and it worked! 

image

When I first got my Surface Pro 3 (mine, not the corporate device) I was told that I needed to buy all of the Surface branded dongles.  Before I spent the money I tried out a few of my own dongles (some Lenovo branded, others generic) and was delighted to see that they worked.  It was not a stretch to assume that the Apple dongle would work too, but since Apple very often uses their own proprietary hardware, it stands to reason that you would have to download a driver.  I am glad that the two platforms work, and I can use the dongle as hoped… and who cares if it is white? Smile

Surface Pro 3: Two weeks later

Are there problems with it?  Yes.

Do I absolutely love it? I love my kids and my dogs… but I suppose I do like it as much as I have ever liked a laptop or tablet… and I have had quite a few of them over the years!

What are the problems? There is really only one that you should be aware of if you are thinking of going out to buy one.  It’s the patches and the battery.

How, you may ask, do patches and batteries wind their way into a single problem?  Simple… as you probably know, everything in computers is managed by software drivers… and that includes the battery to some extent.  When you buy the device (or any device) you are prompted to apply patches, and at this point a couple of them for the Surface Pro 3 are firmware updates.  You apply the first one, and then you have a problem…

…Windows tells you there is no battery detected.  Worse, if you unplug the device it shuts off immediately.  The firmware update actually tells the computer that there is no battery installed.

BUT THERE IS! Wait a minute!  I was using it unplugged just a few minutes ago!  Where did it go?  Oh… I get it!  The pesky firmware is what screwed me up.  Let’s check to see if there is ANOTHER firmware update.  Plug it in, connect to the Internet, run Windows Update… By Jove, there it is!  Install it, and presto changeo, there’s my battery!

…and what a battery it is!  My original Surface Pro probably gave me 3 hours of battery (with Hyper-V and a bunch of other things draining it).  The Surface Pro 2 was probably closer to 5.  The Pro 3? I haven’t had it run dry on me yet… for the first time in my laptop-owning life I am not afraid to leave the house in the morning without the charger.

THE SCREEN BOSS, THE SCREEN!
(Imagine the voice of Hervé Villechaize if you would…)

Yes, there are a lot of improvements over the Surface Pro 2, but wow I never would have imaginged that the 1.4″ difference in screen size (12″ over 10.6″) would make that much of a difference.  As I told you recently I have an external 16″ screen that I keep in the trunk of my car so that I can have the dual screen experience on the go.  I don’t know that I have pulled it out once since I got the Pro 3… the combination of the slightly bigger screen and the much improved screen resolution make the extra screen redundant… at least when I am on the go.

Don’t get me wrong… the day the Pro 3 docking station is available I am buying it – I have pre-ordered it from the Microsoft Store, and I have the voucher for it (from something else I returned).  All I need is the e-mail saying it is in… and I expect that to be around the same time the remaining Surface Pro 3 models (with the Intel i3 and i7 CPUs) are released, sometime in August.  When I am at home (or an office) I will still want the multi-screen experience.  On the go?  Not necessary anymore.

A lot of people are saying I should have waited for the Intel i7 version, but the reality is I have not found myself lacking.  The Surface Pro 3 runs everything I need it to with 8GB of RAM and the Intel Core i5 CPU, and frankly I don’t want to spend the extra money (the i7 version will come in two models – 256GB storage for $1,599, and the 512GB model for $1,999.  Too rich for my blood, but thanks!

Conclusion

I am asked pretty often (including 3 minutes ago, as I sit at the Microsoft Store in Square One Mall blogging) whether the Surface Pro 3 is really a laptop replacement.  The answer, as with everything, is that it depends.  I would think that for the vast majority of people the answer is yes.  If you are a true hard-core gamer? Maybe not; there are some gamers who need more than 8gb of RAM.  If you are a coder? I have a friend who is a programmer who needs to run virtual machines running more than 8gb of RAM at all times.  (Did I mention that I LOVE the fact that it runs Hyper-V?  Well I do…). Aside from them?  I don’t know too many users – even power users – who need more than 8gb of RAM ever, not even occasionally.  For them (like myself) I would say that this is the device for you.

If you are in the Greater Toronto Area come down to the Microsoft Store at Square One or Yorkdale Malls to check it out! 🙂

Surface Pro 3 and Windows 8: Not everybody’s cup of tea

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… I do like my Surface Pro 3.  With that being said, I know everyone has different tastes, and some people are not going to like it.  A couple of months ago my sister, a long time Mac user (and Apple Fanboi) told me that her new job would be giving her a Pro 3, and asked what I thought of it.  I told her – it predated my realizing the extent of the network issues – that I loved it, and expected she would too.

Last week she e-mailed me to tell me that she really hated it.  It crashed a number of times in the first week, and she does not have the patience for these errors – she said her Macs (all of them) just work, and don’t have blue screens of death or other issues.

Now to be fair to the Surface team, a lot of the issues she outlined had to do with Windows 8.1, Microsoft Office, OneDrive, and the Microsoft Account.  I understand her frustration – if you take the device out of the equation, those are four different products from four different teams that are all supposed to work together seamlessly… but don’t.  I respect that Microsoft has a lot of different products, but if you are going to stop talking about products and start talking about solutions then you should make sure your teams work together a lot closer to make sure that seamless really is seamless.

I probably know Windows better than 99.5% of the population, and work very fluently across these four products… but one of the reasons for that is because I have come to understand that sometimes the seams between them are going to show, and like a Quebec driver I have learned better than most to navigate the potholes.  However if Microsoft really wants to stay at the top in an era where customers do want things to just work, they had better get off their butts, come down off their high horses, and start making sure that seamless really is just that.

I want to be clear… I am not trading in my devices for Macs (or Linux).  While I do have an iPhone (See article) I would just as soon have an Android or a Windows phone.  I love Windows 8.1, and even now at my office I cringe at having to work with Windows 7 (Ok, cringe is a strong word… I just wish it was Windows 8.1!).  However I have worked with iPads, Androids, Macs, and more, and I know that those solutions do make for a better experience with regard to some features than the Microsoft ecosystem.  I hope that under Satya things get better… but nearly a year into his tenure and I don’t see much progress.

In the meantime I am strongly considering going to open an account at one of the banks that is currently offering free iPad Minis to new account holders!

Should I return the Surface Pro 3?

I have been having an issue with the device… it’s a networking issue that is absolutely not normal behaviour.  The Microsoft Store replaced it for me once, but I am still having the issues. I requested a call-back from Surface Support this week; I was assured by the site that I would receive a call within 34 minutes.  However 30 minutes later (after counting down the whole while) they changed the status to ‘Sorry, our support desk is closed, so call-backs are not available.  Please try again during normal business hours.’  Crap.

The next day I opted for on-line chat (during normal business hours).  I waited for an hour plus (the expected wait time was 22 minutes).  Finally Kaylee came onto the chat; after I explained the problem to her she reset the chat… in other words, the problem was over her head so she decided to waste my time and let me go back into the queue… for another hour long wait.

I am pissed now, and am ready to take the device back to the Microsoft Store and get my money back so that I can go elsewhere and buy a device that doesn’t have these issues.

What do you think?

What’s in My … Messenger Bag?

As I have written previously I recently picked up a Microsoft Surface Pro 3, and despite a couple of minor annoyances it truly is a wonderful device.  Because I have not been traveling as much as I did over the past few years, I have taken the opportunity to downsize my carry-load. 

My sister called me a couple of weeks ago with the news that her new company device would be a Surface Pro 3, and asked me what accessories she should make sure she picks up.  We had a conversation about the keyboard, battery life, and so on.  Jennifer and I don’t speak all that often, and it was a nice excuse to talk.

Last week a friend and fellow MVP told me that his device was being delivered shortly.  He knew that I had downsized my carry load, and with that knowledge, and knowing that we have the same device, he hoped that I would take the opportunity to write a new article in my ‘What’s in Your Laptop Bag’ series. 

The first article I wrote on the subject does back to 2009, when I wrote ‘What’s In Your Laptop Bag?’  It is amazing the difference a few years made… as my priorities changed so did what I carried with me.  Back in 2009 I was carrying a full sized laptop in addition to a netbook, which at the time I thought was a good idea, and to an extent it was.  I had to carry two power supplies, mice, a power bar, external hard drives, a travel router, a headest, a digital camera… and a pack of lozenges.  Twenty-five pounds or so is the estimate I put down in that article; if truth be told it was probably a bit more than that.

A few years later – when I had a Surface Pro – I wrote the article ‘How Surface changed my thinking… and helped my shoulder.’  In it I discuss how I realized that downsizing my load could really do wonders for me… and it did.  Of course, when I went to Japan last year for nearly four months I upsized again, but only because I would be setting up a permanent system in my hotel room, and brought things like docking stations, speakers, and more.

I now find myself in August of 2014, nearly eighteen months later, and I am living a more sedentary life than I was.  As I am not traveling as much, my basic requirements are probably a lot more in line with what others need. 

We should actually start with what the bag actually is… In July of 2013 I wrote and article called ‘What IS your Laptop Bag?’  I am no longer in the business of shilling for other companies, so rather than use the branded freebies I had so many of I invested in a couple of proper cases… for the time being I am exclusively using a Briggs and Riley Messenger bag (black) that they refer to as a ‘Small Slim Vertical Brief’.  It is not exactly the one shown, but is quite similar.  It is made of a ballistic nylon fabric and has a lifetime guarantee. 

I downsized my bag for a couple of reasons, but the main one is simple… the smaller the bag, the less likely you are to pack useless crap (that will weigh you down).  As I sit as the pub with the contents of the bag emptied before me I would not go so far as to say there is nothing useless in there… but it’s still better than it was.

Device: Obviously (based on the opening of the article) I am carrying a Surface Pro 3.  I was a little worried when I bought it… the Surface Pro 2 fit perfectly, and I was worried that the larger form factor (12” instead of 10.6”) would not fit.  Fortunately it does – but barely.  Otherwise I would have to have changed out my bag, and I didn’t want to do that.

In case you are curious, yes I carry the keyboard and stylus with me, and no, it does not increase the weight noticeably when I carry the bag.

Additional Device: It’s not what you think… I said the Pro 3 was a great laptop replacement, and it is.  The additional device that I usually carry with me is a Kobo Glo e-book reader, including the magnetic case.  Of course I could read my e-books on the Surface Pro 3, but I see value in having both devices.

Cables: I carry a few different cables with me, primarily in the front pocket:

  • Micro USB cable to charge my Kobo, as well as my Nokia Lumia 920 when I am in the USA.
  • iPhone 5 cable to charge… well… yeah.
  • Mini USB cable, which is a legacy but I still carry it.  It is to connect the external USB screen that I use occasionally and which lives in the trunk of my car.
  • FitBit One Cable which charges that device.

Dongles: The downside of a smaller device is fewer ports built in, and an entire new industry – the industry of dongles – was created.

  • HDMI dongle
  • VGA dongle
  • Ethernet dongle

Logitech Wireless Presenter R400.  It’s not the newest, but it still works and is very comfortable in my hand.  If you spend any time presenting PowerPoint from your computer you will want one of these.  The newer ones all seem to be too light or two small.  I wish the R400 were Bluetooth instead of USB, but I’ll survive.

USB Keys: I currently have four of them in the bag – three for storage and when I need to transfer data, and one Windows to Go key (Windows To Go: This is going to be a game changer!).  If you wonder why I have four, I can’t answer… and in my defence, one of them is a bottle opener too 🙂

Mouse: The only problem that I had with the Microsoft Arc Mouse Touch was that it had a dongle, and took up the only USB port on the Surface.  Solution: Microsoft Arc Mouse Touch Surface Edition… Bluetooth connection, and it still folds flat for easy storage!

Ear buds: A couple of years ago I found myself in an airport without ear buds, and I picked (blind) a pair called a-JAYS Four.  I had never heard of the company and I am not quite sure why I picked them, but boy am I glad that I did.  They are comfortable, and more importantly the plug is flat (look at the picture and you’ll understand) so when I am on an airplane plugged in and stand up without paying attention I don’t wreck them.  They sound great too!

Pens: Yes, I carry pens… and use them all the time.  The nicer of the two is made of (or made to look like) a printed circuit board, and was a gift from my friends Rick and Isolina.

…and that’s it.  I have a few papers, I usually have some guest passes for Taekwondo to give out, and maybe a cigar… but there’s nothing else.  It makes for a much lighter load than I used to schlep… I remember dragging my Lenovo Carbon X1 behind me when I was in Japan… it was not that much bigger (14” instead of 12”) but because I had the bigger bag I always stuffed more into it than I needed, hence the shoulder pain.

But what’s missing?  You may have noticed (or not) that I did not list a power supply on the list… I don’t carry it with me.  I charge it overnight, but I have only run out of juice once in the last month.  Now it is worth mentioning that I am have been between contracts since I picked it up, and have been able to work at either Starbucks or the Niblick Pub for six to seven hours before having to go home.  I am starting a new contract next week, and if I end up using my own device then I will bring the power supply with me… or more likely the docking station which is coming out in the next couple of weeks (yes, I have pre-ordered one… first time ever).  I do have a power supply in the car, but it is still sealed in the box, and I might just return it because I never use it.  We’ll see!

What does it weigh? Honestly I don’t know… but probably around 6lbs… or roughly equivalent to the weight of the primary device I carried when I wrote the first ‘What’s in Your Laptop Bag’ article.  One thing is certain, I don’t worry about it hurting my shoulder as I used to, and I never worry about airlines making me gate-check it 🙂

Conclusion

The truth is that I need very little with this device… the dongles are important, and the USB keys, cables, mouse, and ear buds are really all I need.  Everything else that I might need in a hotel room – external speaker, VGA cable, and so on – can go in my suitcase when I travel.  What do you need?  I don’t know… but I hope this article will help you with the bare essentials!

Surface Docked

Earlier this week I posted an article about the versatility of my Surface Pro 2.  Actually it was a combination of an article (Battery Up- Windows 8.1 on the Surface Pro 2) and a Facebook status update (See here).  I bragged not only about the battery life, but also how cool it is that I can take a single device from tablet – to laptop (just add keyboard) – to complete workstation (plug the Surface Pro 2 into the docking station in my office, and it instantly extends to take advantage of the two large screen monitors, full sized keyboard, and regular mouse).

A Twitter follower named @Deskcovery asked if I had any pictures of the setup, because he wanted to see it in action.  Great idea!

Here’s the problem… my desk is usually a bloody mess.  I call it my secure, well-managed disaster zone.  It wasn’t always like that, but I don’t spend a lot of time there, so I don’t maintain it the way I used to.

Having said that, I try to do what I can for my readers… so your wish is my command.  Mr. @Deskcovery, here it is… I walk into the office and drop the device into the dock.  After a few beeps and blips, this is what I see:

Surface Docked

Over the next few weeks you can expect better pictures (and possibly even a video) of the area and the versatility of the device, but from this picture it is hard to see anything except the finished product.  As such, here are the components:

  1. A Surface Pro 2 256 with 8GB of RAM
  2. A Surface Docking Station
  3. Two LG 21” monitors
  4. One Microsoft Sidewinder X6 gaming keyboard (not once has it ever been used to play a game)
  5. One Logitech MX Revolution wireless rechargeable mouse

Now here’s the problem that I found… I have far too many devices to settle for four USB ports.  Rather than mussing about trying to plug and unplug devices as I needed them, I decided to leverage the USB 3.0 port on the Surface dock to connect… another docking station!  Actually that’s not entirely accurate… I connected the Lenovo port replicator that I bought with my X1 Carbon… seeing as that device is now listed for sale on eBay it won’t miss its port replicator.

surface-pro-docking-station-04

Thinkpad

Now, instead of simply having three USB 2.0 ports and a USB 3.0 port, I have:

  • 4x USB 3.0 ports
  • 3x USB 2.0 ports
  • 2x (mostly unused) Ethernet ports
  • DVI port
  • Mini-DV port
  • Audio out jacks

In other words… everything I need.

Don’t get me wrong… all of the USB ports are already accounted for, so if I do want to plug in another device I will have to unplug something… but the USB speakers and extra hiigh definition webcam are extraneous… I can unplug them any time I want…

I swear, I am NOT addicted!