Category Archives: software

Will you buy a Surface Pro? Here is why and why not

Microsoft has announced pricing for Surface Pro, its own-brand tablet running Windows 8. Quick summary:

  • 64GB is $899
  • 128GB is $999

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UK pricing has not been announced, but if it follows the pattern of Surface RT we can expect around £720 and £799.

These prices include a free Surface pen, but not a Touch or Type keyboard cover. Since this is one of the best features of Surface, you can add around $120 or £100 (a little more for the Type cover) to the price.

Here’s why you don’t want a Surface Pro:

  • Unlike Surface RT, this tablet runs any Windows application, most of which do not work well with touch control. So you will need that keyboard and trackpad or mouse, making it an awkward thing versus an iPad or, in some ways, a traditional laptop.
  • The spec is a long way from cutting-edge. Screen is 1920×1080 pixels, versus 2048-by-1536  on a cheaper Apple iPad. Core i5 has been around a while. Storage spec is poor – even 128GB is small by current standards, my Samsung Slate from February had a 256GB SSD – and the cameras seem no better than the basic ones in Surface RT. 4GB RAM is also minimal for a new Windows machine.
  • This thing is not cheap. With the keyboard, it is nearly double the cost of a Surface RT, and you don’t get Office 2013 thrown in – Home and Student is around $100 or £85.
  • Microsoft is including a pen. Why? It does not clip into the Surface so you will lose it, and a pen, while fantastic for taking notes or sketching in tablet mode, is less good than a mouse or trackpad for most other operations.
  • Battery life half that of Surface RT: ouch.
  • Do not compare this with an iPad. It only makes sense if you want or need to run Windows. It is even less like an iPad than Surface RT.

A failure? Not necessarily. Here is why you do want a Surface Pro:

  • It is a little bigger than Surface RT, but much smaller than the average laptop, even with the keyboard cover, and it is all you need on your trip. I find laptops bulky and awkward now.
  • Performance will be much better than Surface RT. I presume it better my existing Samsung Slate, which has an older Core i5, and that is already a zippy performer.
  • The Surface is well made and designed. The only problem I am aware of with Surface RT is fraying keyboard seams, which I hope will be fixed in later production runs. The flip-out stand works well and the keyboard covers are excellent.
  • That USB 3.0 port is a big asset.  Of course Surface RT should have had this as well. You can attach as much storage as you need with great performance, or other devices.

The question is this: what other laptop or Windows 8 slate will be better than a Surface Pro, all things considered? You will easily find a better spec for the money, but when you evaluate the complete package Surface Pro may still be a winner.

That said, we have not yet seen Surface Pro and my judgment is based on combining what I know about Surface RT with my experience of the Samsung Core i5 slate.

The internal storage limitation is my biggest concern. 64GB is hopeless and 128GB still too small. There is a microSDXC card slot, and a sizeable card will be pretty much essential, again increasing the real-world price.

Uh-oh, here come the OEM improvements to Windows 8

Reports from a Samsung event today indicate that the company is implementing its own version of the Windows 7 Start menu, which it calls the S Launcher.

The all-in-one PCs Samsung unveiled this morning are the first Windows machines to sport the S Launcher, a simple widget that acts just like the old start button: Click, start typing (say “keyboard”) and it instantly shows you the settings and apps that relate to your term. There’s also a separate settings icon for quick access to the most commonly needed controls.

On the face of it that sounds like a good move. The general reaction to the removal of the Start button in Windows 8 has been mixed at best. Why not put something like it back?

It is hard for Microsoft to object to this. The official line is the Microsoft’s partners add value to Windows with customization and software unique to each vendor, enabling them to differentiate. There is also the matter of fees paid by third-parties such as browser or security software vendors, to pre-install their stuff and win lucrative traffic or subscriptions.

This is a big one though. Microsoft must care about its new Start menu, to have resisted all pleas from its customers to reinstate the old-style version as an option.

It is also obvious that this is not just about usability. The Start screen is the gateway to the new Windows: Modern UI, Windows Store, tie-in with Windows Phone, Windows Tablets and Xbox, and more.

Here it gets interesting. Although Microsoft and Samsung are both selling Windows, the objectives of the two companies are not altogether aligned. Samsung is a big Android vendor; and even within the Android world, it is promoting Galaxy as a brand and links to its televisions. Samsung also sells Windows Phone, but you would hardly know it.

You can think of it as two separate ecosystems, one based around Windows and Microsoft, the other based around Samsung, which happen to intersect in the area of desktop operating systems.

Samsung then does not care whether the Modern UI, Windows Store and Windows Phone are hits. In fact, when it comes to Windows Store and Windows Phone, it may prefer that they fail.

It is not even that simple. If the Microsoft and Windows ecosystem continues to decline, who can take on Apple? It is in Samsung’s interests as an OEM Windows vendor for Microsoft to succeed, as the same time as other parts of its business would prefer that it fails. Complex.

If nothing else, the S-launcher show how little Microsoft and its hardware partners are aligned when it comes to Windows marketing strategy.

What about the users though? Will they not benefit from having a more familiar way to launch their applications? Personally I doubt it. The problem I have with utilities like this is that they break the design work Microsoft puts into Windows, introducing inconsistency and often working less well than what is baked into the operating system.

I will add too that the Windows 8 Start screen is actually not the monster it is made out to be. It is richer than the old one, with its Live Tiles and large icons, and once you have learned how to organise it in the way you want, it is an effective launch manager. The fast incremental search in the Start screen works brilliantly.

It would benefit Samsung’s users more if the company focused on helping them learn how to get the best from Windows 8 and its new user interface, rather than encouraging them to avoid some of its key features.

Now you know why Microsoft is doing Surface and the Microsoft Store with its Signature PCs, tweaked (or untweaked) to run as designed.

Review: Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12. Stunning accuracy, a few annoyances

I am writing this review, or should I say dictating, in Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12, the latest version of what is in my experience the most accurate speech recognition system out there. Accuracy has got to the point where the great majority of words are recognised perfectly. There are a few intractable problems though. How is a dictation system meant to distinguish between nuances and Nuance’s, for example? The answer is generally that it cannot, but in mitigation Dragon has an excellent correction box. You speak a command to select the intransigent word, and either select the correct spelling from a list or in the worst case spell it out. After a bit of practice you can progress quickly and easily.

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First, a few quick facts about the system. Your first task after running setup is to set levels and check the quality of your microphone. Nuance supplies a microphone in the box, which is worth it because the average user is unlikely to have a suitable microphone of good enough quality. That said, I was unhappy with the quality of the microphone supplied this time around and will return to this issue later. There is a handy fold-out reference card supplied, a nice touch.

Once set up, Dragon walks you through a quick training exercise during which it sets up a profile with some knowledge about your particular voice. I remember spending ages training early voice recognition systems and it was a tedious procedure. This is no longer the case and Dragon can be set up effectively in just a few minutes.

Dragon runs by default with a menu bar across the top of the screen and a contextual sidebar which lists common commands for the particular application you are using. The sidebar also gives a quick reference to global commands such as those to wake or sleep the microphone, move the mouse, or even post to Twitter or Facebook. Once you have learned all the commands, you can close the sidebar to get your screen space back.

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Dragon works best in applications which are supported, which includes the obvious ones like Word and OpenOffice. In other applications you can use a dictation box which lets you dictate into a Dragon window and then transfer your text in either plain or Rich Text Format. Microsoft Office support depends on an add-In. Unfortunately I am currently running the Office 2013 preview and the add-in currently causes Word to crash. No doubt this will be fixed when the final version of Office is released. As an alternative I used OpenOffice which worked fine. I was also able to use Word 2013 with the dictation box.

While the accuracy is impressive, I did find that recognition slows down on occasion for no obvious reason, which is annoying and slows down your work.

Dragon is not limited to text input. You can run your entire Windows session with speech, using it to switch between windows, move and click the mouse. I found that Dragon works well in dialogs, using the Tab command to switch between fields, and Click … to click buttons and checkboxes.

If you have the Premium edition, you can also use Dragon to transcribe recordings and to read back editable text. Do not get your hopes up too much. If you create a recording of your own voice using a high quality recorder, you can get good results. I tried transcribing a telephone call though, and got gibberish.

So what is new in Dragon 12? It has to be said that version 11.5 was already very good. Accuracy is perhaps slightly improved, but not as much as 11.5 improved over 11. You do get the Dictation Box. You also get browser extensions for the Web-based Gmail and Hotmail provided you use a supported browser, which includes IE9, Firefox 12 or higher, and Google Chrome 16 or higher. I tested this with Gmail in Chrome and it does make a big difference to usability. Go to a Google Doc though, and it is back to the Dictation Box.

Also new in version 12 is the ability to disable voice commands that you do not use to boost performance. The full list of new features is available on the Nuance website.

Now about that microphone. The headset that came in my box is called the HS-GEN-C, and include an adaptor so it can be used with the combined earbud/microphone inputs now common, especially on tablets and laptops. However I had difficulty getting this to work well. It failed Dragon’s built in microphone test at first, though with some effort and speaking more loudly than usual I managed to get it reported as “acceptable. This could be because of a poor microphone preamp on the PC, though I got the same results with another machine. I did not want to test the software with doubtful microphone input, so I used a the Plantronics Bluetooth headset that came with Dragon 11.5 instead. This passed the microphone check first time.

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I also tried Dragon NaturallySpeaking with Windows 8. The news is mixed. On the plus side, Dragon worked fine in the Windows desktop and with applications like Google Chrome and OpenOffice Writer. When I switched to the Modern UI (formerly known as Metro) though, I could not get Dragon to work at all. This does not surprise me since the Windows Runtime environment is different from the desktop. I do not see how the Dragon sidebar will ever work, for example, since all apps run full-screen. Nor is the Dragon bar available in the Modern UI. Microsoft does claim an accessibility story for Windows 8, and I am asking Nuance what if anything  is planned for Dragon NaturallySpeaking in this respect.

Do not try to use Dragon with Microsoft’s Office 2013 preview; wait for the final version and proper support.

Conclusion

Dragon NaturallySpeaking combines a high standard of accuracy with strong correction tools. If you are wondering whether speech recognition is a viable and productive technique for text input, have no doubt that it is.

There is still scope for improvement. If I can make sense of my recorded telephone call, then in principle voice recognition should be able to do so as well. It will get there.

Is Dragon now more productive than keyboard and mouse, if you have the choice? It may be in some scenarios, but probably not for expert typists. If you are in the habit of frequently switching applications, for example to research an article you are typing, Dragon can get in the way.

Is Dragon 12 worth the upgrade? From 11.5, that is doubtful unless one of the new features matters a lot to you, perhaps because you use Gmail frequently, for example. From older versions, it probably is.

I am puzzled why Nuance supplies what in my experience was a poor headset for the purpose, though you may be luckier (and the box says “actual model may vary”). I preferred the Plantronics headsets that used to be bundled, but guess that the cost was higher. If you do serious amounts of dictation, do not skimp on the headset as it soon pays for itself.