Surface

Microsoft Surface is a family of computers designed to complement the Windows operating system.

How I like to Study

stargazing

After taking a 4 year break from studying, I decided to ease myself in gently by studying a subject with which I was already fairly familiar. I opted to go for Galaxies, Stars and Planets, a short course with the Open University that has helped me formalise many of the concepts I have learned through being a member of The York Astronomical Society.

Location

My location of choice is the JB Morrell Library at the University of York. I’ve frequented the library since I worked at the Science Park in 2008. Back then, I was studying mathematics and I loved how studious the atmosphere was. Since then, the library has been refurbished making it even easier to get access to things like power sockets.

uni-library

I do actually have a favourite spot on the second floor which has a nice view and isn’t very far away from the toilets and recycling facilities. There is also a chilled water fountain nearby – but if water isn’t strong enough the Café is just downstairs. (Which is great for my Fitbit floors goal!)

The Morrell Library is located on the Heslington West campus. It is only a short walk to get to the largest plastic bottomed lake in Europe (fans of QI will understand the reference). I have found that it is a lovely place to walk around, and it gives me some exercise and fresh air when taking a break from studying.

bridge

Equipment

The course I’m currently studying centres around one key text book, which is supplied to me as part of the material sent by The Open University. It’s also available online in PDF and epub formats. The latter of which can be used (via conversion) with the Kindle.

large-scale-universe

My Kindle has been the main way I have read the study material while working on the course, and it’s obviously a lot easier to carry than the larger study book. I also keep a copy of the PDF versions on my Surface Pro 2 just in case I need to look at the diagrams in colour.

The Surface Pro is also great for the online elements, including watching videos provided by the Open University, which accompany the course.

einstein

I decided to use a Moleskine notebook to work through the activities and make notes. It actually ended up being larger than I needed, so I think the type of notebook I use will be something I look into changing, for the next course.

Because all the equipment I use is so small, everything fits in my Knomo bag without any problems. In previous years I had been carrying around a large backpack which contained more books, a larger computer and a calculator or two. Keeping things light and simple means I have less to carry with me when I study, helping make the whole experience more enjoyable.

dark-matter

Software and Services

When I started the course back in May, I set about doing a lot of the meta-work up front. This meant that I could just rely on these things moving forward.

  1. I downloaded all the images, videos, and other materials from the OU website and put them on my OneDrive, setting them to always be available offline on my Surface Pro
  2. I made a list of all the work that would be required in the study plan and put it all into OneNote as a task list
  3. I put the milestones and study dates for the whole course into my Outlook calendar
  4. I set up the Aladdin Sky Atlas software using IKVM.NET on my Surface, so that I didn’t need Java
  5. I converted the study book from epub into the Kindle format, and stored PDF versions for the Surface

When actually working on the activities and reading the material, I’ve also used Windows Calculator, Bing Wikipedia, Periodic Table and Star Chart. These applications have helped me do mathematics, look up further reading, and – very importantly – visualise the solar system using 3D graphics.

sun-diameter

hydrogen

The extra programs that the Surface Pro provided where not required for the course, but certainly helped.

Mindset

I decided that I only wanted to study at my study location, which means I go there once a week, every week and make no compromises about that. If a friend suggests doing something on one of these days, I’ve just had to be firm and say no.

surface-library

But doing it this way has really suited me, as it gets me away from a home full of distractions and into a productive environment with other people wanting to get things done. The motivation of wanting to progress my work has been enough to keep me going.

I may have found it a lot easier on this course because it’s a subject I already understand more than the average person, so I’ll be really interested to see how well I fare when I pick a new subject next year.

While I’m not ruling out taking time off again, I’m certainly planning to continue my mindset of life-long learning for the foreseeable future. I’m sure the way I like to study will only improve over time.

Watching Gravity on Xbox Video

I don’t own any movies on DVD or Blu-ray. None at all. I gave up on DVD at the same time I stopped buying CDs, and I have never been interested in getting myself a Blu-ray player for movies either.

Most of the movies I watch are on Netflix, but once in a while a new movie comes along that I want to watch as soon as I can. In previous years there weren’t any decent (legal) ways to do this, but these days there are a number of options for getting movies online.

As a happy user of Xbox Music, I thought I’d give Xbox Video a try.

Xbox Video

Xbox Video is a streaming video service that lets you either rent or purchase movies, and watch them directly on your Xbox, Windows device or in a web browser.

The only video I’ve purchased on Xbox Video previously was Mean Girls – but that’s a 10 year old movie and didn’t include any of the fancy extras you get with SmartGlass.

When Gravity became available I purchased the HD version for £14.99. Because it’s purchased, rather than rented, I can watch it as many times as I want, including the SmartGlass extras.

Gravity

In Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone is a mission specialist on a Space Shuttle mission to Hubble, when an accident causes the rest of the crew to perish.

In a slightly unrealistic-but-more-realistic-than-most-movies turn of events she finds herself at the International Space Station, then to a Chinese Space Station in an attempt to get back home.

SmartGlass on Windows Phone

Through Xbox SmartGlass you get access to special content – which I believe is also included on the Blu-ray release. I have the option of accessing the extras through either my Windows Phone, or my Surface tablet. There are also apps available for both iOS and Android too, but I don’t have either of those devices.

My favourite part of the extra content was actually the video short, however I couldn’t get it to play full screen for some reason. Bit of a shame.

Xbox SmartGlass

In “Aningaaq”, we see the other end of the radio conversation that Stone has while in the Russian space craft. Aninqaaq, a fisherman in Greenland, is also dealing with death in his own way. This time we are provided with a translation for his side of the conversation, which is a great little extra to the movie.

Overall the Xbox SmartGlass experience was good, and more interesting when I watched the movie for the second time. I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a movie specifically for the extras before, and I’m not going to start – but it’s a good little bonus.

Gravity

Wacom Bamboo Stylus for Surface Pro

Wacom Bamboo

I have enjoyed using pen input for Windows since my first Tablet PC. Using a pen allows you to draw and make notes using ink, as well as be more precise with the cursor when required. Personally I find the pen that comes with the Surface Pro 2 to be quite agreeable… but I do know that people generally complain about a couple of points.

The first is that you clip the pen on the side where the charging port is – this is a bit like an after thought, but when space is a premium – it’s not a surprise.

The second is that it’s a bit light and plasticky for a £25 pen.

There’s not much you can do about the first one complaint, but the Bamboo Stylus Feel is a good alternative if you want to have a premium pen-like feel.

Wacom Bamboo

As the price of the Bamboo Stylus feel had come down to less than £10, so I thought I’d try it out. If didn’t like it, at least I’d have a spare!

I haven’t had a chance to use it very long yet, but already I can tell that it is well worth the money. The build quality is very high, and it feels a lot more premium than the Surface Pen. The weight is good, and the length is slightly longer than the Surface Pen when you place the cap on the end, or shorter when you put it away.

Wacom Bamboo

It feels great on the screen – slightly softer and less slippery than the Surface Pen. The accuracy is also really good – I had no issues using it right away with the default calibration on the Surface Pro 2, without installing any extra software.

The button on the side (which lets you right-click) is totally flush with the barrel, so it’s a little hard to find by touch alone. There also isn’t an eraser on the other end, a feature which I really enjoy on the Surface Pen.

It’s worth noting that the packaging stated that it was for the Samsung Galaxy 10.1, but it worked on the Surface Pro 2 without any problems. Be sure to check that the one you get includes the ‘Wacom feel IT‘ technology. There’s also a Carbon version – if you’re interested.

This is going to be the stylus I carry around in my bag with me, but when I’m doing art work, I’ll have both handy.

Pros

  • Cheaper than the Surface Pen
  • Higher quality than the Surface Pen
  • Feels great when writing on the screen

Cons

  • No eraser on the end
  • Button is flush with the barrel

Using LEDs for Monitor Back Lighting

Dell Ultrawide monitor with LED Backlight

I recently set up a new development workstation for my Surface Pro 2 to plug into when I’m at home. The desk is a lot more comfortable to use for long periods when when compared to using my old MacBook on my lap. The biggest part of my desk setup is the 29 inch Ultrawide (21:9) Dell monitor, which is significantly larger than the 10.6 inch screen on the Surface Pro 2, and much nicer to use when writing software.

I have to say it has been really fantastic to have such a big, bright screen – but eye strain is a very real problem when working with computers for a long time. In my flat it’s especially problematic at night, and just about any time of the day in the darker winter months. Unsurprisingly, I’m more likely likely to be sitting in front of the computer at these times of the day, so something has to be done.

In the past I have used software solutions to try and reduce the potential for eye strain; I highly recommend that people try using F.lux to change the colour temperature of the display. Changing the colour of the screen to a warmer glow is certainly easier on the eyes, but it comes at a cost of changing the colour temperature of everything the screen is displaying. I don’t mind the colours being warmer in certain circumstances, so I use F.lux all the time on my work laptop.

I didn’t want to set it up on my Surface Pro 2, simply because the colour reproduction is really gorgeous on the tablet’s screen. So this time I thought I’d try a new approach to solving the eye strain problem.

Dell Ultrawide monitor with LED Backlight

I’ve attached LEDs to the back of the monitor to give the screen some back lighting. There are two strips of white LEDs which are powered by the two USB ports on the underside of the monitor. I tried a few different arrangements of the strips, and I found that having the strips quite high up ended up with the best result, while the distribution is obviously greater at the top – it looks absolutely fine when you’re sat in front of the screen.

The white LED back lighting is certainly on the blue-end of the spectrum when compared to the warm ambient light of the room, but it matches the cooler glow of my Ultrawide Dell monitor really well. Coincidently, the power LEDs on the monitor and sound bar also match the white back lighting. It’s a small detail, but it certainly helps the overall look of the setup.

Less than a month in, and I’m already thinking that this will factor into my plans for all my future workstations. I feel like having good lighting around the computer really helps with concentration and reducing eye strain.

Knomo Kilkenny bag for Microsoft Surface

Knomo Kilkenny

I spent a lot of time looking around for a bag that will suit my current computing habits – I found myself taking my Surface with me when I went to see friends and family quite often. I used a bag I already owned which was not really designed to hold a computer – and I worried about it. I knew I needed something that would keep my computer safe.

First I thought about what I wanted to be able to carry and came up with a list of must-haves and optional extras that would all need to be able to fit – though not at the same time.

  • Surface Pro (10.6 inch screen)
  • Surface Mini (when they make one!)
  • Arc Touch Mouse (Surface Edition)
  • Mechanical Pencil and Surface Pen
  • USB sticks & USB cables
  • Moleskine Notebook
  • Amazon Kindle
  • Nintendo 3DS XL
  • Surface Charger

I decided I wanted it to go one of two ways:

  • Backpack
  • Cross-Body Messenger Bag

Eventually, after whittling it down to two* very different options, I decided to go for the Knomo Kilkenny cross body messenger bag, designed for laptops and tablets with screens up to around 11 inches. While it is not designed to be used with the Surface as such, it fits really well without being so tight that I wouldn’t be able to switch the computer out to something of a similar in the future. It’s also leather, which means it will hopefully last even longer than the technology it will hold.

Here’s how I’m using it…

The padded back compartment is specifically designed to hold a laptop or tablet, there’s no extra pockets in here and my Surface Pro 2 fits really nicely. This will be the only purpose for this back section to ensure I never accidentally scratch or damage the computer.

Knomo Kilkenny

The middle compartment is probably going to be the most changeable, and there is plenty of room for a second Surface tablet, Amazon Kindle, or Nintendo 3DS XL. There are two pockets a nice amount of padding as well as a zipped compartment providing a number of options for storing cables, devices or chargers depending on what I need.

Knomo Kilkenny

The front compartment is protected by a zip, and has a couple of small pockets as well as two loops for pens. I must admit the space for the pens is a little shorter than my other backpack, making both my Surface Pen and my Koru Toga fit tightly – but they do fit.

There’s also a back pocket and while I wouldn’t use it normally, it is ideal for picking up mail or storing documents for quick access. Very pleased to have it.

Knomo Kilkenny

I’m really happy with this bag. The quality is high, and it contains just the right mixture of storage verses size that I wanted. Especially when compared to the bag I was using, I’m sure that the Knomo Kilkenny will protect my most important electronic devices.

* the alternative was the Grid-It backpack. It is super cool, but a little big for what I needed.

Windows 8.1 – Ultrawide Multitasking

When I recently decided to set up a new workstation at home, I had a look at the available monitors. Without really thinking about it I assumed I’d just get a standard 16:9 monitor, but then I stumbled upon an article about an LG all in one PC with a crazy wide 21:9 screen. This really sparked my interest. Not in the PC itself – but how these ultra wide screens work with Windows 8.1.

Being a fan of Dell monitors, I decided to invest in a 29 inch Dell Ultrawide – so far it has done everything I’ve wanted, and I’ve been very happy with it.

Dell Ultrawide

Windows 8.1’s snap feature allows you to use up to four different applications at the same time with one of these Ultrawide screens. This extra horizontal space has drastically changed how I use Windows at home.

All of these screenshots are real examples of how I use Windows, and were taken over a few weeks of actual use. Basic tasks like email and note taking aren’t included, as I didn’t want to have to censor the content.


Writing a Blog Post

Writing a Blog Post

  1. Xbox Music
  2. Internet Explorer
  3. Internet Explorer

Arranging Tasks & Calendar Appointments

Arranging Tasks & Calendar Appointments

  1. Mail
  2. Calendar
  3. OneNote
  4. Xbox Music

Finding New Music

Finding New Music

  1. Internet Explorer
  2. Xbox Music

Looking for a Computer New Bag

Looking for Computer Bag Ideas

  1. Flipboard
  2. OneNote

Watching Windows Weekly

Watching Windows Weekly

  1. Twitter
  2. Twit.tv

ultrawide-10

Exploring the World

  1. Bing Maps
  2. Star Chart

Surface Pro 2: Development Workstation

Surface Pro 2

After five years of faithful service, I have finally replaced my old MacBook with a new computer. I got myself the Surface Pro 2 with 256 gigabytes of storage, and 8 gigabytes of memory.

Frankly this small computer is the fastest one I have ever owned, and performs better than my higher spec work laptop. This is especially noticeable when using Visual Studio and other development tools, but it’s also faster doing every day things like Mail and OneNote.

Development Workstation

The purpose of this computer is to be my development workstation, and to run all my x86 applications. Due to the tiny size of the tablet it will probably spend a good deal of its time attached to external devices. A full size monitor, keyboard and mouse combination will allow me to be as productive as possible at home, while still being able to take everything to other locations in even the smallest of bags.

While thicker than my original Surface RT, the Surface Pro 2 shares the same design language, and I find that it looks almost indistinguishable when I’m facing the screen itself. Picking it up it certainly feels thicker, heavier, and warmer. But it’s still a Surface, and feels extremely well made and very sturdy.

So far, I’m very impressed. I’ll be writing up some of my experiences of using the Surface Pro 2 as a development workstation as I spend more time with it.

Surface

So if this device is meant to replace my MacBook, what does it mean for my Surface RT?

Having two 10.6 inch tablets is not ideal, I know. But I’m going to continue to use the Surface RT for things like Skype, Netflix and general carrying around in my backpack until there’s a 7 or 8 inch Windows RT based tablet that catches my eye.

Windows RT devices tend to have much better battery life, and the operating system itself certainly better suited to mobile devices. For example, Connected Standby allows Windows RT to collect email and other notifications over Wi-Fi even when ‘off’. A feature that is sorely missed on Windows 8.1 Pro x64.

I’m also not convinced that the 10.6 inch screen size of the Surface RT is what I want from a Windows RT tablet anyway. The relatively large screen is great for using with the Type Cover and being productive – but I’d rather have something smaller for using mostly with touch.

Surface 2 & Surface Pro 2

As expected, Microsoft recently showed off two new Surface tablets, both next generation replacements for their existing offerings. The Surface 2 offers updated specifications and thinner body aiming at personal productivity with Windows RT 8.1 and the Nvidia ARM platform, while the Surface Pro 2 caters more for the professional with Windows 8 Pro and the low power Haswell based Intel Core i5. Both offer a new two position kickstand, which apparently makes it more stable to use on your lap.

Personally, I find the Surface Pro 2 very compelling, and I’m certainly considering it as a possible successor of my old MacBook as my personal software development machine. Though even with the updated lapability, I’m not sure if I would be productive on one as a laptop – when not using a desk.

Surface Pro 2 offers the portability and simplicity of a tablet when you want it…

Surface Pro 2

…and the power and flexibility of a laptop when you need it.

Regardless of if I decide to buy or not, both products look like good solid updates to the line. The real new stuff is a little more subtle though – the updated accessories really fill out the Surface experience, and a clearly the differentiator that puts Microsoft’s tablet into a league of its own. A few worthy of mention are as follows…

Docking Station

This was going to happen, and I’m glad it did. Personally, I’d love to have a setup with a Surface Pro 2 and one of these fancy new Docking Stations – my biggest problem with that is that I don’t currently have the space – though that’s something I’m thinking about changing in the near future. I’m glad they have finally made this accessory, and it would certainly factor into my plans if I decided to get one of these devices.

Power Cover

As well as updates to both the Touch and Type covers – that include backlights, thinner designs and better performance – the Power Cover also includes a large battery that’s meant to increase the life of the new tablets. Personally, I think I’d really have to need one of these before I got it. Maybe even being caught powerless a few times before investing.

Arc Touch Mouse

The Surface Edition of the Arc Touch Mouse interests me quite a lot. I still have mine and I still use it regularly. But the single thing that interests me the most – is the fact that this thing is Bluetooth now. Why wasn’t it already? I don’t know. Also, I find the design way cooler than the Surface Edition of the Wedge Touch Mouse which they previously released.

Surface Music Kit

Surface Music Kit

Finally, this is the cover that interests me the most. It’s a sign of change, a real differentiator on Microsoft’s part – they’re designing a pressure sensitive touch surface that’s tailor made for music tasks. Specifically around their Surface Remix Project. I see a bright future in these kinds of accessories, and I’m looking forward to see what comes next.

Extending the Surface Power Supply

The power supply that comes with the Microsoft Surface for Windows RT is a little short. I’m unsure if it is comparable with other tablets – as it is my first – however I find it a pain to plug in to the wall and use on the other side of the sofa.

Thankfully, it is no major issue as the Surface PSU takes a standard figure 8 cable, which can easily be added to extend it out.

This is very similar to the cable I got with my Apple MacBook from 2008. Though it has to be said, Apple have done a better job overall, because they included both the shorter and longer cables in the box with the machine. Microsoft do not.

Two Weeks with Microsoft Surface

Two weeks ago I finally got my Microsoft Surface for Windows RT. On the run up to the launch of the first Surface device, I started to think about if I’d actually be able to use the Surface for Windows Pro as my only computer as I had planned.

The trouble is that the form factor is not a laptop replacement, it’s a tablet which has a ‘ready to work’ mode which can be used easily on a desk. A laptop has a stable base and a screen which can be tilted to any angle – so getting real work done is still doable on your lap. I don’t have a desk at home, just a coffee table, so when I want to write some code or a long blog post – I tend to sit cross-legged on the sofa and type away. This is quite tricky to do with the form-factor that Microsoft has chosen for the first two Surface devices.

As a first time tablet owner there are a huge amount of benefits which are more related to the form-factor rather than the individual device, but for me having the Microsoft Surface has been a really fantastic and new experience.

Being able to surf the web and use application while laying down or standing up are pretty obvious, but there are more subtle benefits like being able to take it to work every day without my bag getting really heavy. Plus it’s always nice to have all your personal stuff available to use at lunch time, including emails and OneNote notebooks.

In the first two weeks have found a few suggestions for improvements to the design of the hardware:

  • The keyboard case should really have a magnetic grasp
  • Power Cable is a little short (though it can be extended)
  • Windows Phone earphones don’t work as expected (see below)

These improvements aside, the Surface has already proven to be a fantastic companion device, and due to the nature of the keyboard and kickstand design it has become my go-to device for email and instant messaging. In the last two weeks my MacBook has spent most of its time in a draw while the Surface has been my primary machine for personal use.

As someone who is a Windows developer and lives in a Microsoft ecosystem (Office 365, SkyDrive, Xbox etc.) it’s the ideal tablet for me, and I’m really pleased I got it.

Now if only I could find a Windows 8 laptop to replace my ageing MacBook and I’ll be sorted.

Update

I’m not sure if it was a firmware update, or just me not being able to test properly – but it seems like the Surface RT now supports Windows Phone earphones as expected. The microphone now works!