Two weeks with the Surface Pro

As a Microsoft junkie I have been looking forward to the Windows 8-led product wave for quite a while now. Reading about Windows 8, Windows Phone 8, Surface, and everything else Microsoft is doing lately has been interesting (now that those things are out, we’re reading about “Blue”). Microsoft may be the underdog right now, but don’t count them out! Their game plan is coming together a bit more each day, and it’s exciting.

Surface Pro & HTC Windows Phone 8X

I installed Windows 8 on my desktop and laptop the day it was available – it’s a solid, worthwhile upgrade from Windows 7 (on a desktop, I highly recommend adding the Logitech T650 Wireless Touchpad). I got my HTC Windows Phone 8X in early December – I’m still loving it. The only thing missing was a tablet, and I had my heart set on the Surface Pro.

I was very excited for launch day – February 9 – to arrive, basically counting down the days that week. I didn’t think I would need to line up, so I got to the Microsoft Store at West Edmonton Mall an hour or so after it opened. Turns out that was the wrong decision! All they had left was a couple 64 GB models. I decided to pass, knowing I wanted the 128 GB model. I starting looking online to see if Best Buy or Staples might have it, but I quickly learned that the launch did not go so well. Either Microsoft purposefully restricted the number of devices available or they severely underestimated the demand. I pouted for a bit and then ordered a Surface Pro and Touch Cover from the Microsoft Store online. I knew I’d have to wait a couple days, but I figured that was better than driving from store to store hoping to be lucky. Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long – it arrived around 5pm on the 12th.

I’ve had my Surface Pro for a little over two weeks now, and I wanted to share some initial thoughts and impressions. I’ll do a more complete review later.

  • The build quality is just as fantastic as you’ve heard it is. The Surface Pro feels solid, and the attention paid to details like the kickstand are really worth it once you start using it. I find the VaporMg case shows fingerprints a lot more than I anticipated, but it’s great otherwise.
  • It does feel heavier in your hands than most other tablets, but not uncomfortably so. You can hold it up with one hand, but probably not for very long – it’s a two-handed tablet.
  • One of the differences between the Surface RT and the Surface Pro is the thin ventilation strip (because it has a couple of fans inside). Aside from making the Pro slightly thicker than the RT, it hasn’t been an issue at all for me. I have only heard the fan come on once (during an hour long video Lync call) and it is never noticeable in my hands.
  • The screen is beautiful. It has an excellent resolution, it’s vibrant, and it feels as though it is right under the glass. A complaint some have had is that the kickstand isn’t configurable, it opens at one angle only. Because the viewing angles on the screen are so amazing, this isn’t as much of an issue as you might think (I constantly adjust my laptop screen, but that’s because it’s a pretty crappy screen that you basically need to be looking at straight on).
  • Depending on what I am doing, the battery life is OK. Definitely not great, but not as bad as I anticipated either. We’re talking about 4 hours or so for normal usage. It means I’ve always got my power adapter in my bag.
  • The Touch Cover definitely takes some getting used to, but it has really grown on me. I love how thin it is, and once you get a feel for it you can type pretty quickly. I’ve written a few of my previous blog posts using it, for instance.
  • The killer feature as far as I am concerned is the pen. I’ve had a Tablet PC for a number of years, but it’s heavy, slow, and awkward, so I haven’t used it much lately. When I did use it though, I was always so impressed with OneNote and I was hoping the Surface Pro would be just as delightful to write on. I can safely say it is (and it’s probably better actually). The ability to jot down notes in meetings or draw out ideas is huge for me, especially as I’m trying to go paperless.
  • The other nice thing about the pen is that it makes navigating the desktop much easier. Because the resolution is so high but the screen size is just 10.6 inches, stuff appears fairly small on the screen so it’s hard to tap with a finger. In “laptop mode” the mouse solves that problem, and I find myself using the pen when in “tablet mode” (ie. sitting on the couch).
  • I have only used the front-facing camera, and while it isn’t the best quality, it’s more than good enough for video calls. I have heard from others that there’s a bit of audio static when I first join a call, but otherwise the audio hasn’t been problematic either.
  • Disk space has not been an issue, despite what you might have heard. I did get rid of the recovery partition, but that’s the only change I made. Windows currently tells me I have 64.8 GB of free space, and that’s after installing Office and all the stuff I normally install on a new computer, plus a bunch of Metro apps, and having synced my Skydrive and Dropbox folders.
  • I’m really impressed with the performance of the Surface Pro. It resumes from sleep in seconds, and even a cold boot takes just a couple seconds extra. Everything opens quickly and Metro apps are very responsive – noticeably faster than on the RT. Wi-fi performance is also great.

There are still a bunch of things I haven’t tried yet, like hooking the Surface up to an external display. I haven’t tested the Micro SD slot either, though I have used the USB port a few times. I turned Bluetooth off right away, and haven’t tried connecting any of those devices yet either.

I can see how an updated version of the Surface using a Haswell chip would address the battery issues, and I briefly considered holding out when news first broke about the poorer-than-expected battery life. I’m glad I didn’t wait though. For me, the Surface Pro has been great!

I’ll write more in a future post or two, but for now I’d encourage you to get out to the Microsoft Store to see a Surface in action. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

Idea Zone Edmonton

Idea Zone is the City of Edmonton’s new system for open innovation. It’s one of their first attempts at leveraging a crowdsourcing model, and it represents a shift in the way the City tackles large problems. Perhaps more importantly, I think Idea Zone is another small step toward becoming an Open City.

I was first introduced to the system a few months ago, but at that time it wasn’t ready for a test drive. The first people outside the City to see it in action were the ICLEI World Congress 2009 attendees last week. You’ll notice that Idea Zone is currently described as an opportunity to “connect with your colleagues who share your interest in local sustainability.” The plan was to have ICLEI attendees seed the system with ideas before opening the doors to citizens. Unfortunately, only about 30 users signed up, far less than the goal of 100. There are currently 34 users signed up on the site, and a total of 34 ideas have been submitted.

Idea Zone is very similar to Dell’s IdeaStorm or My Starbucks Idea – you create an account, submit your own ideas, and vote and collaborate on others’ ideas. Submitting an idea is straightforward – you choose a category (current categories include “Climate” and “Energy”, for example), enter a title and summary, and optionally attach files that further define the idea. Other users can then vote on your idea, leave comments, and make additions. You can also make a collaboration request to other users, essentially inviting them to help you flesh out the idea. Anyone can choose to “Champion” an idea, which means they become responsible for seeing it through to completion. Finally, the City can issue “Challenges” which are like requests-for-ideas.

The specific software the City of Edmonton is using is called Idealink Open, by Quebec-based BrainBank Inc. There are actually a few instances running. Idea Zone is the simplified, public instance meant for citizens. There are also a couple of internal instances for use by City of Edmonton employees. The internal instances feature a more involved and detailed workflow, designed to carry ideas through to implementation.

The most interesting thing about Idea Zone to me isn’t the software itself, but the opportunities the system will enable. In the long term, Idea Zone could dramatically impact the way City employees collaborate to solve problems. Sounds very pie-in-the-sky, I know, but I have proof. Check this out:

That’s a photo of what is almost certainly the first Microsoft Surface shipped to Alberta. The City of Edmonton is working with local consulting firm Quercus Solutions to explore how the Surface can be used with Idea Zone for collaboration. The Surface is certainly a more inviting and natural interface than the web browser! Thanks to Quercus for the above photo.

I hope the City’s willingness to experiment with new and innovative technologies like Idea Zone and Surface is a sign of things to come. Feel free to sign up for an Idea Zone account and let me know what you think. I’ll be keeping an eye on the system to see how it evolves. It definitely has potential!