Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What is Surface Pro?

Microsoft has come out with two new computers, the Surface RT and the Surface Pro. The RT was released last fall and in terms of price and functionality it seems intended to compete with Apple's iPad. The Surface Pro, released in February, is quite a different animal. While they look nearly identical from the outside (the Surface Pro is thicker and is heavier—2 pounds) they are very different inside. The rest of this post concerns the Surface Pro. First, the physical specs:
It has a 10.6 inch screen with a 16:9 form factor—as though designed to show panoramic movies. The screen resolution is very good (1920 X 1080); text looks clear and sharp. Inside, it has 4 Gb of ram (no options), and either 64 or 128 Gb of permanent storage in the form of flash memory, although the operating system and various odds and ends take up more than half of this space. It has an Intel i5 processor, about as fast as it gets in this genre (about four times faster than the iPad). It has a battery life of about 5 hours. It uses Wi-Fi connectivity, and it also has Bluetooth, but it does not yet have cellular.
There are two available keyboards which double as snap on screen covers, one is a kind of a thin key touch pad and the other somewhat thicker one has real keys with a certain amount of throw to them. It also comes with several interesting varieties of onscreen keyboards with different arrangements and even keys for different languages. It has a cool little kick stand so that you can prop it up on a table or desk (but probably not on your lap). Oh, and one thing more, everything responds to your touch, and it comes with a stylus too so that you can write in certain apps and draw pictures too—if you are able.
It is in the operating system software that the Surface Pro is quite different than the RT, and this can at first be confusing to old time Windows users. There are really two distinct parts to this operating system. The first part, one could call it the Start part, is nearly identical to the RT: it has colorful tiles with which to execute certain functions of the computer. These tiles are invariably what one sees in advertisements for the Surface computers and that is certainly because it makes a pretty montage, one so different from the classical Windows operating system that one begins to think they've changed everything around. But now we will see the difference between the Surface Pro and the Surface RT: one of these tiles is labeled "Desktop", and tapping this tile whisks you away to the classical Windows where you will feel quite at home—it will seem as though you had never left; what's with this? Well here is the secret:
When you get to the desktop and you want to do something, you will notice that there's no Start Button! What has happened here is that the so-called Start Screen, that cute set of tiles, is the equivalent of the Start Button though with considerably more versatility and good looks. At least that is the way that I think of it. That "light bulb" thought cleared up something fundamental in my head, and if you are an old Windows guy, as am I, this thought model will probably work for you too.
After several days of reading reviews, written just as it was being released, I bought one of the 64 GB versions because 1) I could get it—they were sold out of the 128 GB ones—and 2) most of my data will be kept in the cloud anyway so I won't need a lot of space in the computer itself.
The main reason I like the Surface Pro is that I've been using tablets for years, even after our IT people thought I was a little nuts. And the reason they thought that is because I've never had a keyboard, onscreen or off; I just use speech recognition and a stylus. Now, in my old age I've become an amateur writer. I've written hundreds of thousands of words while never touching a keyboard. I was a little nonplused when several years ago Microsoft moved speech recognition into the "Ease of Use" section of Control Panel; I'm not handicapped, I thought to myself, but then I talked to my wife…
Whether you will like it or not is much harder to answer because it all depends upon just what you plan to be doing with it. Of all the reviews I've read, the majority simply assumed you would be using a keyboard. Many commented "Why not just buy a laptop?" Indeed, if you do a lot of keying that makes sense. But most of the reviewers were discombobulated because the machine seems to be neither fish nor fowl. It's a tablet with which you can run all your Windows programs.
I like to think that in a subtle way Microsoft is moving us along toward a future of touch and speech. It ought to be said that speech recognition still has some way to go. I find it acceptable because I've taken the trouble to learn its idiosyncrasies—and it has taken the trouble to learn mine. There are commands that must be used, and one has to memorize them to be efficient, and to some extent these commands change as one moves between apps. At first this can be frustrating. But as you go on it learns things about you as well. It's a two way street.
First off, you read to it and it learns how you pronounce things (are you from New England or from Jamaica). This will take 10 minutes or more depending on how much time you wish to invest in it—the longer the better. Then it asks you very politely whether or not it can look at the text that you dictate, such as your emails and your Word documents, and if you agree it checks them out to see the words that you use frequently. It took some time for it to understand how to spell my last name, Goetsch, but now after nosing around a bit it understands it gets it easily.
I have dictated this blog post using only the microphone embedded in the edge of the computer. This surprised me considerably since I couldn't do that reliably with my previous computer. I have though ordered a small speech dictation microphone that plugs directly into the microphone/speaker connection in the edge of the computer. That cuts down on the corrections.

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