My Surface Pro 2

A while back, the Surface Pro 2 finally went on clearance with an included Type Cover, so I finally jumped on the opportunity to own one of these amazing devices. It definitely feels like it’s a modern (post-iPad) version of the Microsoft Tablet PCs which I remember selling way back when I was working at a computer store.

My device came with Windows 8.1 pre-installed, which I’m very familiar with as I use it daily at work as well as on my gaming desktop. A lot of choices made in Windows 8 make a lot more sense on the Surface than they do anywhere else – being able to do gestures and having much larger touch targets in the Start menu.

I’m just going to mention a few niggling problems I had. One of them was that there wasn’t a default Explorer for tablet mode – this is a pretty big deal as that meant managing files involved going into desktop mode and dealing with the small fiddly touch targets with your fingers.

The Windows Store offerings are lacking and you will notice the difference coming from iOS. The good news is that you can supplement these by using desktop versions of a lot of apps. It being a fully fledged laptop also helps tons – it can run games and it runs them well. I was able to play Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls comfortably and load quite a number of Steam games without worrying too much about stuttering. (It does get hot though – whether it's apps or games, and if you’ve never had a metal case laptop before, you may be in for a rather toasty surprise.)

The Surface Pro 2 has a 1080p screen, which is set to 150% scaling by default (if I’m not mistaken.) This is usually not an issue with apps; Windows 8.1 automatic scaling is pretty decent if you don’t mind the blur on the apps that don’t support scaling as well. However, I ran into a few issues running some games where they would behave oddly if you tried to run it at a lower resolution than native like Prison Architect and Civilization V.

The Surface Pro 2 comes with a pen, which behaves much like a graphics tablet stylus or the old Tablet PC stylus if you’ve ever had one. Hovering over the screen moves the cursor, touching it clicks it, or you can press the buttons on the stylus. You can use handwriting recognition on it and while I’m sure some people might have trouble, someone like me who has used Windows Mobile devices for years and demoing Tablet PCs will run into few headaches here.

I have the usual grips about the Type Cover. It is backlighted which is nice, but it doesn’t seem to be the case that the sleep and wake is particularly reliable. The sleep is more reliable than the wake. You don’t get the Apple level of speed from wake here – I’m not sure about the ARM models, but my Surface Pro 2 behaved much closer to a Windows laptop with an SSD than my iPad does. The trackpad buttons are terrible – it’s difficult to tell when they will register (if at all) which leads you to resorting to some rather awkward touch screen interactions sometimes.

As I knew I was going to want more RAM, I bought the 256GB capacity version of it which comes with 8GB of RAM. The internal storage can be boosted with a microSD card. I bought a 64GB microSD card which worked perfectly with Windows Store apps, so I have yet to run into storage issues – but I’m sure people with only 128GB of storage will find themselves running out of storage much quicker.

Battery life is probably not amazing for a tablet, but pretty decent for a laptop. My own use which usually includes some comic reading, video watching and a little bit of a text processing generally has the Surface Pro 2 last a bit over 6 hours. I’m looking into getting a Power Cover which should give me “all-day” battery life. They seem to be very difficult to get a hold of outside of the USA – but I’m sure I’ll figure something out. The charger is some sort of magnetic connector which works both ways. My only real complaint about is that it seems to be rather abrasive on the finish of the Surface Pro 2, so I’m seeing scratches and removal of some of the finish around the charging port.

Of course, now the Surface Pro 3 is out and it’s better in pretty much every respect – bigger screen, better battery life, improved kickstand. The Surface Pro 2 is still amazing in its own right – I hope that the Surface Pro 3 does well enough that Microsoft continues to make these great devices.

4 Weeks With The Moto G

I recently bought a dual SIM 2nd generation Moto G to use while I was in Malaysia so I could keep both an Australian number and a Malaysian number active at the same time.

Since I’m in a bit of a ranting mood, here goes nothing.

The Device

Amusingly enough, this Moto G is the cheapest Android device I’ve ever bought, and I think it’s actually the best experience I’ve had with Android so far too. No weird Chrome crashing, no crashing my wireless router and decent battery life, even with two SIMs in it!

The device does have a few flaws. It only has 1GB RAM which unlike on iOS makes itself known very quickly – almost every time you switch apps, you are looking at a reload time. The camera is so-so, but probably decent given the price. 8GB of storage was something I thought was enough for Android devices 4 years ago, but in this day and age, it’s not enough. It does have a microSD slot, but given that KitKat got stupidly strict with SD card permissions, it’s not necessarily predictable what you can use it with.

It’s a got a plastic back which definitely doesn’t feel as good as the metal or glass you can sometimes get nowadays, but it does the job – battery isn’t replaceable unfortunately, but it gives you access to the 2 SIM card slots and microSD slot. I found the headphone jack less than ideal, being slightly angled which made it less secure for my headphones – not everyone will have this problem.

The Software

It’s been slightly over a year since my last rant on an Android device – things have changed since then. Gmail now supports non-Google e-mail accounts, which solves my issue with the Email app being generations behind the Gmail app. Bluetooth behaviour is unfortunately still not great. The Moto G doesn’t crash my headset – but pressing play on the remote is still a dice roll if you don’t actively kill your audio players.

While my Moto G is still on KitKat, it still benefits from the Material Design revamp – the most useful of which I’d say is the swipe-from-left gesture to bring up the sidebar menu. It’s still a ways off from the huge library of accepted gestures on iOS, but anything that saves me reaching for the top-left of any screen larger than 3.5” is a win. The back button behaviour feels more random – this might be the fault of developers using Material Design incorrectly, but it’s gotten slightly more difficult to correctly predict if the back button will send me to the right place.

The Play Store CDN is still slow. Don’t know why, don’t know how, still a mystery to me how this is like the one odd department Apple is better at than Google. I’ve been looking and I still haven’t found a great Android substitute for some of the software I use:

  • Alien Blue: Flow Reader was a glimmer of hope which has died now. I’m using Reddit Sync Pro now (maybe Sync for Reddit by the time you read this.)
  • Downcast: Doggcatcher has improved significantly for the higher DPI screens now. I’ve actually replaced Downcast with Overcast now, and considering how difficult it can be to replicate Overcast’s headline features on Android with acceptable performance, I don’t think I’m finding an equivalent podcast player on Android anytime soon.
  • Reeder: Press is still in about the same place as last time, good, but not great. I’ve actually considered using Unread to replace Reeder since it’s full of more comfortable gestures.
  • Tweetbot: I’m still using Plume, which seems to have gotten worse – not sure how, but it’s still the only one which seems to have sane list support. Unfortunately there isn’t one I like now, chances are there won’t be one I like in the future, thanks to Twitter’s API user limits.

In general, I’m finding Android software quality still a notch below what’s available for iOS – while I’ve found candidates for replacing my iOS regulars without shopping for them, I’ve yet to find great Android candidates with shopping for them.

They’ve locked down the media scanning in KitKat which I think is generally a good move. Unfortunately, they haven’t gotten their rules for media scanning up to scratch to compensate, which can lead to a lot of frustration trying to get files to show up in MTP or in your music player if you don’t have root. I’ve wasted hours trying to get images and music off the thing.

Conclusion

I think the Moto G is an excellent Android device if you can live with the constant app reloading, slightly slow to appear share menu and doing a bit of juggling with the microSD card. Otherwise, you might want to get a higher-end phone with a little bit more RAM and more internal storage.

The Pebble Watch: A Pleasant Surprise

This is an old draft I had lying around – Pebble has updated the watch software recently, and much functionality is improved. However, my opinion is similar – I like it best as a watch with a few added features.

I've had my Pebble watch for a while now – and I think what surprises me the most is the fact that I am still using it. Why is this a big deal? Since somewhere around 2010, I stopped wearing watches. The main reason was that I got a new age smartphone (being the Samsung Galaxy S) and that sort of replaced the need for a watch. I was taking out my phone all the time to check for messages and e-mail anyway, so I was getting the time from there – who needs a watch?

The Pebble is one of the bigger Kickstarter success stories – blowing their own expectations and then proceeded to have to delay deliveries just because they had to scale up production to match their pre-orders alone. It's now available for USD150 at their site.

One of the more fascinating things is that I'm not wearing them for the notifications or the apps, I'm actually wearing it as a plain old watch. I tried having notifications for nearly everything at first, which led to my wrist being shaken a lot – so that experiment ended quickly. Granted, it's not like I don't use the notifications at all, but now I've limited them to SMS and the more obscure notifications like Twitter mentions or retweets (oh the woe of not being popular.) We get way too many e-mails nowadays for e-mail notifications to be useful, really.

So far, the only possibly useful app I've had for it is weather. The problem is that I don't think I've ever gotten this is work reliably. An even bigger problem is how wrong and outdated the weather data tends to get in Australia – so really, it's not a great solution if you want weather on your watch. I'm really not sure what else you'd use it for, really. You could get stopwatches and games, but if you have your smartphone, these are probably things you don't need to do on your wearable all that often.

Let's get back to what I think it is. I think it's an excellent watch with the great feature of being able to get notifications as well. I think the best part is that if you get bored of the current watch face, you can change it – I think this is why I'm still using the watch, but I can't say for sure.

The fact is: USD150 is still a lot for a watch – and it is a cool watch, but don't buy it based on the promises that it will be more than a watch. You should buy it as a watch first and then be pleasantly surprised if it exceeds that simple expectation.

The Movie Ticket Benchmark

Whenever people try to compare the differences in costs between types of entertainment, the most pervasive benchmark appears to be to compare the cost to going to a movie. I'm not entirely sure what the reason for this is, but I'm guessing it is probably the de facto “most expensive” type of entertainment that most people can relate to and have access to on a regular basis. Going to a movie near where I live costs around AUD9.50 per person. Considering a movie typically provides around 2 hours of entertainment, going to a movie is a cost of roughly AUD4.75 per hour per person – this gives us our benchmark number. So, how does it compare to other forms of entertainment? (It'll become apparent why I'm going into per hour as well as per person soon enough.)

One common source of entertainment is reading. So let's say, a typical book like The Da Vinci Code is about AUD9 on Amazon. Measuring reading time is a little tricky, especially since everyone has different reading speeds, but I'd say, typically, you'd probably be able to finish a book in 6-8 hours. I'm going to assume you're not going to read it again, but maybe someone else might read your copy – but let's just keep things simple – most people read their own books; so that puts a book at roughly AUD1.50 per hour per person.

What other pieces of entertainment might you have? What about public television? Youtube? Those things are free to the user, discounting the fact that you might buy things from the ads. However, you might buy DVDs of your favourite television show. In Australia, this tends to come up to around AUD1 per episode. This comes up to around AUD3 per hour per person for a 20 minute show.

There's also video games. I'd say the typical game probably provides anywhere between 6 to 60 hours of single player content. Since it's easier to talk about single player games in terms of cost, perhaps a typical game like Bioshock would suffice. Bioshock is about 20 hours, and would probably cost you AUD60 new. That comes up to around AUD3 per hour too.

Then we have board games. Board games get extremely complicated because there's a very good chance you are playing the game multiple times and with multiple people. As a result, this usually ends up being retrospective analysis after you've played the game. For example, I bought Arkham Horror for AUD80. I've spent 12 hours playing it solo, and probably around 6 hours playing it with two players – so this puts me at around AUD3.33 per hour per person, which sounds pretty decent still.

However, the benchmark is really only useful when you are comparing to make a decision – this is usually a purchase decision, which means weighing up a lot of uncertain options. A movie is usually a fixed amount of entertainment, which may or may not be good, but chances are, you are going to be sitting there the whole two hours. You did after all fork out AUD4.75 per hour already – making it AUD9 per half hour doesn't sound like a great proposition. You might think this line of reasoning doesn't make sense, but you probably do it too, although it's a sunk cost.

Since the time investment isn't as great, it is quite likely that you will just sit out the additional hour or so it costs you. To say the same thing about books, entire seasons of TV shows, video games and board games isn't quite so simple. I don't anyone fancies struggling through 5-20 hours of entertainment they dislike, even if they feel like they need to make up for their sunk costs. It feels like this can be a viable explanation for why $0.99 apps sell so well on the App Store. The sunk cost is only a dollar – slightly over a tenth of the cost of a movie ticket for me – for me to match the movie ticket value for money, I only need to play the game for 12 minutes. For most games, that could be the entire tutorial and set of first stages. There's also the fact that throwing apps away (i.e. deleting them) doesn't produce any visible waste, so you don't feel guilty for buying extras just to try them out.

For the most part, it feels like just some massive rationalisation so that you don't feel bad about making a bad decision; just staving off the feeling of buyer's remorse. It's still going to feel like a shame when you buy Arkham Horror only to play it once. Can you really justify spending AUD80 on 4 hours of poor entertainment for 4 people over spending it to have a home movie marathon with food?

Overanalyzing some of the things. Maybe.