Monthly Archives: November 2012

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.

Review: Edifier Spinnaker e30 Multimedia Speakers

Now these are smart. A pair of three-way active speakers shaped like spinnakers, with Bluetooth 2.1 support so you can use them without wires. I think wireless is the future of home audio, so high quality devices like this catch my interest. You come home, pull out your smartphone, press play and sweet music fills the living room.

The e30s have a wireless controller too, a bulbous device which gives out an other-worldly red glow from its base. Twist to set the volume, tap the top to turn on or switch input. Is this all you need?

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Here is a closer look. Each speaker stands around just over 400mm high. At the base they are about the size of a CD (remember them?), tapering to a point at the top. The speaker units are of plastic construction, mostly covered with acoustically transparent cloth, and with an aluminium protrusion at the base to give additional stability and a way of tidying the cables.

The right-hand speaker is the master, and has four connections:

  • Power in
  • Combined analogue/digital input
  • Subwoofer out
  • Connector for left-hand speaker

Internally, there are three drivers in each speaker, comprising a silk-dome tweeter, a 70mm mid-range unit, and a 116mm woofer. There appear to be six channels of amplification, one for each driver, rated at 10w RMS for the tweeter, 10w for the mid-range, and 25w for the bass, quoted per channel. Frequency response is quoted at 68Hz-20KHz +/- 3dB; good for speakers of this size, though for faithful low-frequency reproduction you will need to use that subwoofer connection.

Modes of operation

The Spinnakers are pretty flexible when it comes to connections. The analogue input is a standard 3.5mm jack which you can connect to any external player, such as a computer, an iPod, an Airport Express, or a CD player. This input doubles as an optical digital input, which I tested at 16/44 (standard CD resolution) without any issues. Alternatively you can use Bluetooth, with support for A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile), which means that most modern tablets or smartphones will be able to play audio to the speakers. No worries about dock connector types or Apple’s proprietary AirPlay wireless system.

A possible scenario then is to have the speakers permanently wired to a computer or another source such as a Squeezebox or Sonos unit. Then you can use Bluetooth for convenience, and the wired source for best quality.

An obvious position for the speakers is either side of a desktop computer, but they are good enough to sit in the living room too, particularly when boosted with a subwoofer.

Setup

After unpacking the speakers, the first task is to charge the wireless controller using the supplied USB cable. Next, connect the power, connect the speakers to each other, and optionally connect to a wired source.

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This task is more awkward than it should be, since there is limited space in the base of the speaker and you have the bend the cable back firmly in order to align each plug with its socket. Next, you have to feed the cables through channels in the base of the unit in order to stand the speaker up without it rocking.

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I found the cable tended to come away from the channels easily if you move the speaker so it is all a bit fiddly.

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Next, find the controller and turn the speakers on by holding down its central button. The controller works as follows:

  • Press and hold top button to turn on, cycle between inputs, or turn off.
  • Tap top button to mute/unmute audio
  • Rotate controller to change volume
  • Hold down button and rotate controller to skip track back or next

The current status is shown by a light at the top of the right-hand speaker, which shows off for off, blue for Bluetooth, green for analogue wired input, and red for optical digital input.

Bluetooth pairing is rather simple. Switch to the Bluetooth input, then search for a Bluetooth device on the unit you want to connect. Select the Edifier and you are done. To connect a different device, repeat.

Sound quality

The sound is impressive, especially if you listen in the sweet spot in the centre with the speakers in front of you. The quality is rich and refined, especially with a wired connection, but also enjoyable via Bluetooth. They also go loud, not enough for parties or to annoy the neighbours perhaps, but plenty loud enough for most listening. To put some numbers on that, I measured over 85 dB without any obvious distortion. Bass is a little lightweight, but not so much as to spoil enjoyment.

I tried attaching a subwoofer which rounded out the sound nicely. The subwoofer output covers the range 20Hz – 100Hz and is pre-filtered. One note of caution is that the the output socket has a narrow entrance and I had to try a couple of different cables before finding one that fitted properly; the ill-fitting cable rewarded me with a horrible noise.

If I put on an audiophile hat I can find fault with the sound. It is slightly sibilant, especially via Bluetooth. There is some smearing of detail compared to a high-end system, and a slight boxiness to the sound. Vocals are not quite as natural. But here I am comparing to a system that is many times the size and price. In context, the e30’s sound fine and I doubt any purchaser will be unhappy with the sound.

Annoyances

There are a few issues with the Spinnakers. The worst flaw is the way the cabling is handled, awkward to fit, and tricky to press firmly enough into the holders to prevent a slight rockiness in the right-hand speaker which cannot be good for the sound.

Next, I don’t much like the way the status light works. It is not that easy to see from a distance. A status light on the controller rather than on the speaker would be welcome.

Another factor, not an annoyance exactly, is that the speakers are on the large side for a desktop – and the manual recommends having them 1 meter away from a monitor or TV set – but they are on the small side when placed on the floor.

Conclusion

Despite a few nits, I like these speakers for their stylish appearance, high sound quality, and flexible connections. The price may seem high, but bear in mind that you are getting amplification as well as loudspeakers, and sound that is well beyond most powered speakers. Set these up on a table, place a tablet in between, and you have a rich audio and video experience. I also like the idea of using these for a living room system, if they suit your decor.

A subwoofer is not essential but takes the sound to another level, provided of course that the sub is of equal or better quality than the Spinnakers.

Recommended.

 

Information density in Metro apps on Windows 8

A common complaint about apps written for the Windows Runtime, also known as Metro by those outside Microsoft, is that they tend to show only a small amount of data per screen. The most information-dense Metro app I have found is a game, Wordament, which shows a fair amount of data in its results screen.

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The word lists scroll, and so does the list of players. Which proves that you can create an information-dense screen in a Metro app; though it is all custom-drawn.

How bad is the Surface RT?

I have just read this piece on Slate entitled Why is the Surface so bad? after using the device for most of yesterday, on a train and at a technical event.

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Oddly, I like the Surface RT increasingly, though I too am puzzled by some of its shortcomings.

Here are some of the issues I am aware of:

  • The apps. This is the biggest issue. Where are the delightful apps? For example, the mail client is barely adequate. The music app is annoying, though there is plenty to stream if you have an Xbox Music Pass. It cannot play FLAC files, which I use for my Squeezebox-based system at home.

    How hard is it for a company the size of Microsoft to write a superb mail app and a superb music app for its critical new product? I would guess that a small fraction of the advertising budget would have been enough. Why was there no one at Microsoft with the guts to throw them back at the team that developed them and say, “Not good enough, we do not have a product.”

  • Performance is so-so. It is not terrible in my experience, but at times makes you wonder if Windows 8 is too much on a Tegra 3; or whether it needs a whole lot more optimisation. Battery life is also OK but could be better. I got 7 hours or so yesterday, with wi-fi on constantly, and some of the time powering a phone being used as a wi-fi hotspot.
  • I got errors updating Microsoft Office. Mostly fixed by exiting the Office Upload Center. There’s no excuse for that. This is the appliance model. Microsoft knows exactly what hardware I have and what software I have, and has locked it down so I can only install sandboxed apps from the Store. Testing various update scenarios is easy.
  • For that matter, why is there an Office Upload Center? It is dreadful error-prone software. Dropbox has no Upload Center. Is it so hard to sync documents with SkyDrive or SharePoint – how long has Microsoft been batting at this problem?
  • I am concerned by reports of early keyboard disintegration, though mine is still OK

Enough griping though. Here is why I like this device.

First, I have no problem with the weight and I like the solid feel of the unit. The Surface is compact. The Surface with its keyboard is about 350g lighter and 4mm slimmer than my Samsung Slate without a keyboard; I am including the cover because I would never travel with a slate without a cover.

Second, unlike the Slate (magazine) reviewer, I do think the keyboard cover is a breakthrough. The Touch keyboard provides a usable full keyboard and trackpad while not adding any significant bulk; it forms a useful cover when closed, and when folded back it does not get in the way while you use Surface as a slate. I find myself using it in Slate mode frequently. Do not believe those who say you need keyboard and mouse to operate a Surface; there is only an argument for this if you never venture out of the desktop.

I can do more than occasional typing on the Touch keyboard; it is fine for longer documents as well.

Third, I can do real work with the Surface. Yesterday I sat with Surface on my lap, typing notes into Word, with Mail docked to the left, and Twitter open in desktop IE alongside Word. For all its faults, I found that the Surface worked well in this context.

Fourth, if you know Windows, there are things you can do that are difficult with other tablets. VPN to my office and remote desktop to a Windows 7 machine there is built in and works well. SharePoint via WebDAV is a shortcut in the Windows File Explorer.

Of course you could do all this with a laptop. So why not have a laptop, which you can buy for less money than a Surface? It is certainly an option; but as I have adapted first to the Samsung Slate running Windows 8, and now to the Surface, I find laptops bulky and inconvenient. I think of a laptop more as I used to perceive a desktop PC, something which is best suited to permanent siting on a desk rather than being carted around.

Further, the Surface really is a tablet. Imagine you want to show some photos to a friend or colleague. On a laptop that is awkward. The keyboard gets in the way. On a tablet like the Surface it is easy; just open the folder in the full-screen photo app and swipe through the images, with the keyboard cover folded back. Pretty much any tablet will do that equally well – or better if you have a Retina iPad – but it shows that Surface is not just a laptop in disguise.

There are reasons why I get better results from the Surface than some. One is that I know Windows 8 well, having used it intensively for many months. Another is that I am familiar with Windows foibles, so when these appear in the Surface I am likely to know what to do. Of course they should not appear at all; see above.

Microsoft seems to have created a device with many flaws, but one that is useful and sometimes delightful even despite those flaws.