Microsoft Looks to 2020

There’s nothing like a pre-announcement, right?

Take, for example, Microsoft’s forthcoming Surface Neo. Announced today for release in time for Christmas. That’s Christmas 2020.

Still, it sounds like a cool device. Aimed right at my small computer fetish. Two nine-inch screens, a detached keyboard, weight under a pound and a half. With even a half-decent CPU–which it sounds like it will have–the Neo could kill off my current favorite small machine, the Surface Go.

Of course, who knows what else will be on the market a year from now when the Neo becomes available for reals?

Interestingly, Microsoft is trying the same idea in a phone. Yep, getting back into the phone game. Only this time, they’re not trying to cram the full Windows experience into a handheld device.

The Surface Duo–also scheduled for the end of next year–is an Android phone.

Stop laughing. Microsoft Word for Android is actually solid, as is their remote desktop app. I haven’t tried the Android Excel, but the reports are good. And Android Outlook is no worse than Windows Outlook. (Yes, I know that’s a low bar to jump. So?) The point is that Microsoft has a decent track record with Android, and with a year to refine their apps for a dual-screen life, they just might score a serious win.

There’s a fair to middling chance I might be looking for a new phone around the end of next year or beginning of 2021; if the Duo reaches its full potential, it just might be enough to lure me away from the Pixel 5 (or whatever Google is pushing by then.)

Long-range planning aside, Microsoft has also announced a bunch of new gadgets that are coming out this year.

A new Surface Laptop. Two actually. One with the standard 13.5-inch screen and Intel CPU, and one with a 15-inch screen and an AMD CPU.

A new Surface Pro*. Very similar to last year’s model, but this one finally adds the USB-C port Surface fans have been screaming for. (The Surface Go has a USB-C port and it’s been great. I only wish there were two of ’em.)

* The main difference between the “Laptop” line and the “Pro” line is that the former have a built-in keyboard, while the latter use a sold-separately, magnetically attached keyboard.

Earbuds. Really? Yeah, I know Microsoft’s Surface Earphones have gotten some good reviews, but did we really need earbuds? Apparently so. Anyway, if you need earbuds that take dictation, you might give these a try.

Then there’s the Pro X. A thin-and-light laptop; it’s distinguishing feature is that it uses an ARM CPU. It should be fast, but if you need programs from companies not named Microsoft, I’d suggest holding off until we get more solid data about compatibility with existing Windows software.

Anything sound interesting to you?

Go On

I’ve been using the new computer setup long enough to have some thoughts. Since I know at least some of you share my fascination with small computers, I’ll post the thoughts here, rather than just keeping them in my head.

Let’s go back to June. In talking about my search for a USB-C hub or docking station that would support two external monitors, I said my previous computer setup just wasn’t cutting it for travel.

The biggest reason was that my laptop was too large. Too big to fit conveniently on my desk. Way too big to use on an airplane.

The adhesive holding the screen in the case was going bad, as well. I’m fairly sure it’s fixable, but until I can get that done, the “do I dare pick this up?” factor made using it even less convenient.

So, yes, I bought a new laptop. Sort of.

Remember my Windows tablet? I still love the thing. It’s a great size for an ebook reader, and having something that can run Word while still being small and light enough to carry was wonderful.

But, while I’ve more than gotten my money’s worth of use out of the tablet–$89 more than two years ago–it is showing it’s age. The storage is small enough to make Windows updates a pain the rear, the lack of RAM makes Windows 10 slower than it needs to be on that CPU, and most importantly, the power button is starting to fail. It doesn’t always turn on or off when I push the button.

So, yes, I bought a new tablet. Sort of.

To be precise, I got a Microsoft Surface Go. With the keyboard.

It’s bigger than the tablet, but when I disconnect the keyboard, it’s not noticeably heavier*, so it works well as a tablet-slash-ebook-reader. The larger screen makes it more suitable for video. I can actually watch ballgames on this thing without squinting. The keyboard is surprisingly comfortable to work with. I wouldn’t want to write a whole book on it, but a chapter or three while traveling wouldn’t be a problem. Heck, I’ve written two blog posts on it, and nobody’s complained about a surge in typos.

* It is heavier. Just not enough so that I notice in daily use.

The computer is far more capable than I expected. Just as a test, I’m currently playing a 4K video on one monitor while I write this post. The video is being scaled down to fit on the 1080p screen, and playback is still smooth, even though it’s being pulled down over the network. Nor is there any lag in the word processor. I type–on a keyboard connected to the same USB hub as the network adapter–and the characters appear on the screen.

It’s got enough muscle to run GIMP for the small amount of image editing I do, which is mostly preparing the pictures for Friday posts. It can handle WSL (Windows System for Linux), so I’m not cut off from the few Linux programs I need. I’ve even had GIMP, Word, a music player, and my email program running at the same time without a significant slow down.

Now, admittedly, I splurged a bit on the Go. I shelled out for the more powerful model–same CPU, but twice as much storage and memory–and then shelled out again for the LTE model. Not only can I write on the go, but I can get online anywhere I can get a cellphone signal without having to tether the computer to my phone. I’ve used the ability twice so far. Yes, to publish the two blog posts. Turns out I can’t get to my website with the Wi-Fi at work.

Dropbox keeps my writing projects synchronized between the Go and the multiple backups on my home computers*, so I can just pick it up and go, knowing I’ll have the latest version of everything I’m likely to work on already on the machine.

* Yes, I know I could do the same thing with OneDrive. But OneDrive’s cross-platform support lags behind Dropbox. And I’ve been using Dropbox long enough to have fine-tuned my configuration to fit my workflow. Not worth the effort to switch.

The Go isn’t perfect. Music playback does sometimes stutter when I open another program. But that seems to be more a Windows problem than something specific to the Go. I had the same problem on the old laptop.

I do a little video editing*. There’s no way I’m going to try that on the Go. But I’ve still got my desktop Linux machine. I can just use that for video edits. I can even do it remotely, so I can sit downstairs (where the temperature is more comfortable) on the Go while the Linux box stays upstairs and does the work.

* Which reminds me: I wanted to share a video from the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival. Look for that sometime next week.

There’s no optical drive. I could buy a USB drive for ripping CDs, but that same Linux box has a DVD drive. More than sufficient for my needs.

The cameras…well, I haven’t actually tried the cameras. The one that faces me works well enough for logging me in. That’s all I really need. If I want to take pictures, I’ll use my phone. Or a real camera (to the extent that a point-and-shoot can be considered “real”). That said, the facial recognition is neat, in a slightly creepy way. Maybe if it didn’t insist on greeting me by name. “Good evening, Casey” does drive home the point that nobody really knows how much detail Microsoft gets in tracking usage. But that’s another day’s post.

All in all, the pros outweigh the cons. I’m quite happy with my new little computer.

The bottom line: If you’re looking for a highly portable computer and don’t need to do serious number crunching, the Surface Go is quite an attractive option.

Two Bits on Seven Gigs

Time to put in my two bits* on a technology story that’s been making the rounds. Sure, I’m late to the party, but I’m going to jump in anyway because it gives me a chance to exercise my contrarian side.

* Yes, I know the expression is “two cents worth”. I could claim it’s inflation, but the truth is, I like to think my opinion–however belated–is worth more than a couple of pennies. Either way, though, you’re getting it for free, so take it for what it’s worth to you.

Word on the street is that Microsoft is again tweaking the way Windows upgrades itself. This time it’s got nothing to do with forced reboots while you’re trying to get work done. Microsoft has noticed–and, gosh, it only took them three and a half years–that Windows 10 often runs out of disk space during upgrades.

There are all kinds of ways to avoid this problem. Making updates smaller springs to mind immediately. Upgrade files in use–a technique Linux has been using for years. Hardcore geeks will undoubtedly have other ideas.

Microsoft’s idea is to set aside a chunk of the hard drive for its own use. About seven gigabytes.

It has the advantage of simplicity.

To be fair, I’m making it sound worse than it is. On any reasonably sized drive, either 7GB is so small as to be unnoticeable or the drive is so full that sacrificing 7GB to the Deities of Richmond isn’t going to make any difference.

Where this will be a problem is on computers with small drives. Like, say, tablets, which often have no more than 32GB drives. (If the rumors are true that Google is going to allow Chromebooks to dual-boot Windows, the same will be true there.)

Much as I love my Windows tablet, space is tight. As I said in that original post, once the initial Windows updates were installed, it was down to a mere 1.5GB. After two years of use, installing just a few programs, and putting as much data on an SD card as I can, I usually have around 5GB free. If Windows sets aside 7GB for its own use, I’m going to be in negative numbers.

It may not be quite that bad, actually. Supposedly, certain temporary files will be stored in that reserved area, freeing up space elsewhere. But while zero is better than negative, it’s an awfully slim margin.

On the other hand, I have gotten rather tired of the semi-annual reclamation of disk space.

Bottom line–and this is where the contrarian bit comes in–I think this news is completely irrelevant to ninety percent of Windows 10 users.

If your hard drive is 256GB or larger, ignore the fuss. You’ll never notice those seven gigabytes.

Same goes for those of you with 128GB, unless you’re in the habit of carrying around your entire library of cat videos. If you’re in that group, embrace the cloud. Put the videos in OneDrive or Dropbox and enjoy the digital elbow room.

If you’ve only got 64GB, you’re in an odd spot. Space is likely to be tight enough that seven gigabytes will hurt, but you’ve probably got enough accumulated junk that you can free up that much space after Microsoft claims its share, and be right back where you are now. Cloud storage will definitely be your friend.

Case in point: my Windows laptop is currently using 57GB. That’s a bit tight, but quite usable. But I’d better clear out some deadwood before the spring Windows update. I note that I’ve got about eight gigabytes of photos and videos on there–a few Ragtime Festival movies and pretty much every picture of the cats I’ve ever taken. Maybe I’ll move those out to OneDrive.

As for those of us with itty-bitty teeny-weenie 32GB drives. Find that space is going to hurt. But on the bright side, once it’s done, we shouldn’t have to do it again. No more trying to scrounge those last few megabytes every six months. No more installing updates manually from USB drives and hoping the tablet’s battery doesn’t run down halfway through the upgrade. I’m inclined to think that right there is worth the initial pain.

So, yeah. Thank you, Microsoft, for trying to solve the problem. You may not have the most elegant solution possible, but if it works, don’t listen to the hip crowd. Take my seven gigs. Please!

Microsoft Hardware 2018

With Apple’s 2018 hardware announcements behind us, most of the tech industry’s attention has turned to October 9, when Google is scheduled to announce their own new goodies. Meanwhile, Microsoft almost escaped notice with their release party.

That’s at least partly because what they announced is, well, let’s say “underwhelming”.

The October Windows 10 release will officially start rolling out on Tuesday–though you can get it now by doing a manual check for updates. But why would you want to? The big feature is a cloud-based copy/paste function so you can copy files and data from one Windows machine to another. Which sounds nice, but how much value is it going to add over Microsoft’s existing cloud service, OneDrive? Then there are also enhancements to the Timeline feature that syncs app history across devices. It’s nice that Microsoft is opening the functionality up to non-Microsoft browsers, but–aside from the fact that Firefox and Chrome already have history syncing. Are there enough people who want to sync browser tabs between, say Edge at work and Firefox at home, to make this worth Microsoft’s time and energy?

Then there’s the big enhancement to the “Your Phone” app. Controlling your phone from the desktop sounds useful. But that’s a future feature. All the app offers now is syncing photos and sending and receiving text messages. If you have an Android phone; iOS is also a future feature.

Nor are their hardware announcements any more exciting.

The biggest plus most commentators can find for the Surface Laptop and Surface Pro updates is that they now comes in black. The speed and capacity updates are minimal, and Microsoft’s continuing refusal to adopt USB-C is baffling and vexing.

The hardware upgrades in the new Surface Studio 2 are somewhat more impressive, but despite the Studio’s cool form factor, it hasn’t taken the world by storm. It’s very much a niche product, aimed at digital artists, and the improved graphics and faster hard drive won’t change that.

Oh, yes. Microsoft also announced a pair of noise-canceling headphones. The specs look nice, and I like the idea of user-controlled noise reduction. But Microsoft is a late entrant into the headphone space, and I don’t think these phones offer enough to make a serious dent.

Bottom line: if you want cool new toys, hang loose and see what Google has for you next week. Sure, most of it has leaked already, but the odds are good there will be at least one surprise.

Falling Into an Update

I decided to try something different this time around.

Microsoft released the Fall Creators Update, the latest and greatest version of Windows 10, a few days ago. You probably haven’t gotten it yet, because they roll it out in batches.

The first batch goes to computers they’re absolutely sure it’ll install cleanly on. After that, they start pushing it out to machines they’re progressively less confident about. It’s a reasonable approach. When problems arise, as they inevitably will, they can include the fixes with the next batch.

But it means some users may have to wait a long time for the update, as I found out with the previous update. Counting the little Windows tablet, I’ve got three computers running Windows 10. I upgraded the tablet manually in April when the “Creators Update” was released–I had to do it by hand because it doesn’t have enough disk space to install it automatically. One of the desktops got the update in July. The other didn’t get it until September.

It’s not that having two different versions of Windows 10 running caused me any technical problems. Frankly, the two versions behaved a heck of a lot alike. But it tweaked that part of my brain that gets compulsive about numbers.

So I decided that for the Fall Creators Update, I’d do all three machines manually. Not simultaneously. I’m not that compulsive. But in sequence.

I don’t actually need any of the features in this update. I’m curious about Microsoft’s Augmented Reality implementation, but I don’t think any of my machines have enough muscle to actually run AR software. Goddess knows I haven’t been looking forward to the ability to pin a contact to the task bar. So really, I could have waited until one got the update and then done the other two, but I got impatient.

As I write this, Computer One is running the upgrade. It’s been going for about half an hour and it says it’s 80% complete. Of course, this is a Microsoft progress indicator, and they’re well-known for making optimistic estimates. But in any case, I’ll wait until Computer One finishes the update before I start Computer Two. And I’ll make sure that one is done and functional before I start the tablet.

Barring the unexpected–and with an OS upgrade, one should always expect the Spanish Inquisitionunexpected–I should be running the Fall Creators Update on all three computers before bedtime tonight.

And come February, when the rest of you are finally getting the update, I’ll just laugh, because I’ll have been not using the ability to pin contacts to the task bar for months.

Seriously, though, if you can’t wait to dip a toe into the Fall Creators Update, the Windows 10 Download page is here. Click “Update Now” and follow the prompts. Eventually–I’m now up to 86% on Computer One–you can experience the thrill of being on the cutting edge of Microsoft technology.

(You do realize I wrote this whole post as an excuse to watch that Monty Python clip, right?)

Sorry About That

My newsfeed is full of doom and gloom. I’m not going to list the subjects; I’m sure you know them as well as I do. All I’m going to say is “Thank the gods for Bill Gates.”

Yeah, really. In the middle of all those depressing stories, I’m seeing a bunch of stories reporting that Bill Gates regrets using Control-Alt-Delete to log on.

I’m serious here. We’ve got to find a chuckle now and then, after all.

If I have any complaint about this story, it’s that it’s old news. Bill made the same comment as far back as 2013. But that’s a minor quibble.

Bill’s done a lot of good since he turned his attention to philanthropy, IMNSHO, more than enough to make up for “640K RAM is plenty” and all of the other geeky complaints we could offer.

Enough to make up for Microsoft Bob? Maybe. Yeah, probably. It’s not like Microsoft was the only company to come up with a laughable attempt at a user friendly GUI.

The worst thing about Ctrl-Alt-Del as far as I’m concerned isn’t that it requires two hands (or three fingers if you prefer to look at it that way). If anything, that’s a bonus. Makes it very difficult to hit it by accident.

My objection–and I’m well aware I’m far from the first to point this out–is that it violated years of user expectations.

Remember, back in those innocent days when DOS ruled the world, the three-fingered salute was your last ditch resort to regain control of your computer when something went awry. The idea was to give you a way to kill off a program that was frozen, deleting last month’s data, or just refusing to listen to you.

People being people, that quickly got generalized to “shut down”. Okay, so people are idiots, but never the less, the association was set. And suddenly Bill was telling us to shut down to start.

Bad vibes, dude.

But, hey. Here we are in 2017, and we’re so desperate to hear someone apologize for a mistake that we’ll take a four-year-old apology.

Works for me. Apologies, like Twinkies, never get stale.

Listen Up!

I love the Internet’s response to new forms of advertising.

Specifically, I’m talking about Burger King’s recent attempt to hijack TV viewers’ cell phones and Google Home devices.

In case you missed it, BK ran–and is still running–an ad that deliberately uses the “OK Google” activation phrase to trigger any gadget in earshot to start reading the Wikipedia page about their Whopper burger.

The response? The page in question was almost immediately edited to describe the burger as “cancer-causing” and to list cyanide in its ingredients.

Allegedly, a senior BK executive tried to change the page to something more complimentary, only to have his edits removed.

So, yeah, I think that’s the perfect response. Google, who apparently were not warned about the ad in advance, modified their software’s response to ignore the ad. While I’m sure many people appreciate that, it does raise a few questions.

Let’s not forget that most of Google’s billions of dollars come from advertising. Suppose BK had come to Google and said, “Hey, we want to tie a TV ad to your devices. Here’s a stack of money.” Does anyone think Google’s response would have been “Buzz off”? I’m guessing it would have been more along the lines of “How big is the stack?”

And then there’s the privacy aspect. This contretemps should serve as a reminder that “OK Google” does not use any kind of voice recognition to limit requests to the device’s owner. Nor can the phrase be changed. I’ve complained about that before: not only does it lead to multiple devices trying to respond to a single request, but it also makes it simple for outright malicious actions.

Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft are equally guilty here–Alexa, Siri, and Cortana have fixed, unchangeable triggers too.

And now, perhaps, we’re seeing why none of the manufacturers want to let users personalize their devices’ voice interaction. If we could change the trigger phrase, or limit the device to taking instructions from specific people, then the manufacturers wouldn’t be able to sell broadcast advertising like this.

If the only way you can prevent random strangers from using your phone is to turn off the voice feature, then you don’t own your phone.

Microsoft is making it harder and harder to turn Cortana off. Microsoft is also putting more and more ads in Windows. Do you sense a connection?

How long will it be before you can’t turn Siri and Google off?

And editing Wikipedia pages will only get us so far in defending ourselves.

Google was able to turn off the response to BK’s ad-spam. But they could just as easily have changed the response to read from an internally-hosted page or one housed on BK’s own servers. Either way, Internet users wouldn’t be able to touch it, at least not without opening themselves up to legal liability for hacking.

The most annoying part of this whole debacle is that now I’m craving a hamburger. I won’t be getting one at Burger King, though.

MS’ Tablet Experience

Last week, I introduced “Tim,” a tablet running Windows 10. I’d like to talk about him more.

Specifically, I wanted to talk about a couple of areas where Microsoft’s concept of what we might call the “tablet experience” falls short.

Apple, Google, and Amazon have promoted the tablet as an “always on, always ready for you” device. Pick it up, unlock it, and you’re right back where you were when you last set it down. Even more, until recently all three didn’t require you to set a password in the initial setup. Even now, you’re not required to set any kind of lock, although you may have to dig a little to figure out how to go passwordless.

But Microsoft has gone in a different direction. Because the initial setup is identical to setting up a desktop system, you must set a password. Not a PIN, not a gesture. A password. Using an on-screen keyboard.

Once you complete the initial setup, you can add a PIN or a gesture*, but it’s an addition, not a replacement, and Windows will occasionally require the password instead of your preferred alternative.

* Microsoft has given us the “Picture password,” in which you draw on top of a picture you select. There’s an interesting, and very readable, article about the security of the technology at Sophos, but the gist is that they’re arguably more secure than a four digit PIN, but less secure than a six digit PIN or an Android-style gesture unlock. From a strictly practical perspective, I have to wonder how well a picture password set up in portrait mode will work in landscape mode or visa versa.

If you’re willing to accept the security risk, you can also set your device to log you in without a password and to not require a password to unlock. But a tablet is certainly more accessible to potential evildoers than a desktop system, and possibly more so than a laptop. That might tip the decision against auto-login. But even if you choose to take the risk, Windows will still occasionally request your PIN or password when you turn on the tablet.

I think that’s a bug. It’s too random for me to think Microsoft has designed Windows that way–it’ll sometimes go for days without requiring the PIN, then demand it on three successive unlocks–and frequently one of those three will ask for the password instead of the PIN. But whether it’s a bug or a feature, it still betrays a desktop-oriented focus: entering a password isn’t particularly onerous on a physical keyboard, so falling back to the more secure option regardless of the user’s preference isn’t a big deal.

And that, right there, is where Microsoft’s version of the tablet experience runs head-on into user expectations: in Windows 10, Microsoft has given us a much more “father knows best” design than ever before. Consider how upgrades are installed.

As I said earlier, users are conditioned to expect their tablets to give them an “always on” experience. When Google and Apple release updates, the user is in charge of installing them. Don’t want to go from iOS 15.6.1 to 15.6.2? Don’t install it. Don’t want the August Android patches? Don’t install ’em. But if you don’t want next Tuesday’s Windows updates, you’re out of luck. You may be able to delay installing them for a couple of days, but Windows will give them to you eventually. It’ll try to do the installation at a time when you’re not using the machine, but that’s not guaranteed*. Amazon also forces updates, but there’s a critical difference between Android and Windows.

* You can set a range of times during which Windows won’t install updates, but the range can’t be any longer than twelve hours. OK for desktops, where, even with the expansion of work hours you’re probably not sitting there for much more than twelve or thirteen hours at a stretch. Less good for laptops, where you’re likely to bring work home. Not good at all for tablets where you might pick it up for a couple of minutes almost any time.

Android was designed with the preservation of state in mind. Reboot your phone or tablet, and you’ll not only find the same apps running, but in most cases they’ll be in the same place: a web browser will be displaying the same page, for example. (iOS behaves similarly, though to my mind, not as thoroughly.) And Amazon’s Fire OS inherits that state preservation from Android.

Windows doesn’t worry about state; the onus is on individual developers to save state in their own software. Reboot and none of your programs are running. Launch them manually, and, unless the programmer has implemented state preservation on their own, you’re at a default screen.

So consider the experience: you pick up your Windows tablet to, say, check what time a movie is showing. In the worst case, you’re greeted with “Windows is preparing to install updates.” You wait while the updates are installed–a process that can take fifteen or twenty minutes, or more if it’s a Windows version upgrade–and then get your login screen. Enter your password and wait for the programs that run at login to load. Launch your browser and check the movie time–you did bookmark the theater’s page, so you don’t have to type the URL again, right? By the time you get through all of that, it’s probably too late to make the show.

To be clear, this isn’t a wrong design. But it prioritizes security over user expectations, and subordinates the user’s desires to Microsoft’s vision of how people will use their computer.

That may be acceptable in a desktop or laptop–as is so often the case, Your Mileage May Vary–but it’s not going to fly in the tablet space. Unless Microsoft loosens up a little and gives tablet users the always on experience the form factor demands, they’re never going to be more than a tiny niche player in that space.

New Toy

Will anyone out there be surprised to hear that I have a new gadget? I didn’t think so.

What you might not have expected is that it’s not an Android or iOS device; it’s a Windows tablet. Not a Surface. Microsoft is positioning those as more of a laptop with a detached keyboard, or at most, a two-in-one.

This is an honest-to-gosh tablet running Windows 10. To be precise, it’s a “NuVision TM800W610L*”.

* Quite a mouthful, that, and a real loser when it comes to advertising. Who’s going to walk into a store and say “Lemme see one a them TM800W610L tablet thingies”? It’s not much fun to type, either. For the sake of my fingers, I’ll call it “Tim”.

When they’re available–and it’s currently not in stock at the Microsoft Store–they normally sell for $149, but shortly before Christmas, Microsoft dropped that to $59. At that price, I couldn’t resist the chance to see what the Windows tablet experience is like.

To be blunt, the reviews of the first generation of Windows tablets were lousy. The hardware was generally underpowered and they were further crippled by being saddled with Windows 8. But Tim’s specs are more or less in line with low-end computers, and Windows 10 is much more usable than Windows 8.

Tim did not have the Windows 10 Anniversary edition installed when he arrived. So the first order of business after connecting him to the Wi-Fi was to wait through several Windows updates. That was the first stumbling point: Tim’s hard drive is only 32GB. By the time all of the updates were installed, he was down to a mere 1.5GB of free space. If you didn’t know, when major Windows updates are installed, the old version is kept around in case there are problems and you need to revert. Windows noticed the lack of space and helpfully suggested deleting the backup. I gave it the go-ahead, and wound up with a much more usable 10GB of free space.

Of course, after installing some software–Microsoft Office, LibreOffice, Firefox, a couple of games, an ebook reader,…–I’m back down to about 7GB. It’s tight. I picked up an SD card for my data files, and that smoothed out the experience significantly.

By default, Tim will run in Windows 10’s “Tablet Mode”. That means you get the Start Screen instead of the traditional desktop/start menu interface, and all programs will be forced to run maximized. It’s a sensible approach, mirroring the iOS and Android “one app at a time” UI, but there’s a bit of a catch.

I’m going to have to digress a little here.

It’s a truism bordering on clich√© (and I won’t address which side of the border it’s on) that the current generation of phones and tablets have as much computing power as a desktop computer from [insert date here, chosen to make your rhetorical point]. But part of the reason so many people feel compelled to make that point over and over is that because the portable gadgets use different UIs than desktops, we don’t really feel how powerful they are.

Holding Tim–0.6 pounds of computer–and seeing that familiar Windows interface on an eight inch screen, without a keyboard or mouse around, the truth hits you like a crowbar to the kneecaps. “This is a computer. Not a toy, not a single-purpose gadget, but a full-fledged computer.”

Which brings us back to that catch: it’s a computer. Running Windows. On an Intel CPU. That means you can install any of the zillions of Windows programs that have been written since, oh, 1995 or so. To some extent, that’s a good thing. The Windows App Store has a very limited selection of software compared to the Apple and Google stores. But the downside is that not all programs written before “programs” became “apps” play nicely with Tablet Mode.

Some don’t like running full-screen, and you wind up with a tiny window floating in the middle of a vast expanse of blank pixels. Some don’t recognize when they’re in the background and constantly demand attention with pop-ups.

The problem is compounded by NuVision’s decision to design the tablet with portrait mode in mind. Note the pictures in the link at the top of the post–they’re all vertically-oriented. The cameras are on one of the short edges. And the controls are on one of the long edges, where they’re most convenient when holding Tim with the cameras at the top.

Programs written with desktop–or laptop–computers in mind are designed on the assumption that the screen will be wider than it is tall. Maximizing them in portrait mode can make for an unusably skinny interface, with menus half-hidden behind “More” buttons and dialog boxes too wide to fit on the screen.

There’s also the matter of scaling.

NuVision has equipped Tim with an excellent 1200×1920 pixel screen. Squeezed into eight inches, that makes for very tiny pixels, which in turn makes for nigh-microscopic text and controls.

Microsoft’s solution–and, to be fair, it’s the same solution everyone else uses–is to combine multiple pixels into one, thus zooming in on the display. That makes text readable and buttons tappable, but it comes at the price of lowering the effective resolution.

By default, Tim comes set to display UI elements at 200%. That’s great for visibility, but in portrait mode it means the screen is effectively only 600 pixels wide. When was the last time you visited a website that was usable on a 600 pixel screen? No, mobile-optimized sites don’t count. Servers see Tim as a desktop computer and serve up the desktop site, not the mobile version. Nor is the problem limited to the web. Even the oldest of Windows programs assume a screen width of at least 640 pixels. Remember the days when a VGA 640×480 screen was awesome? I do–but it ain’t so spectacular nowadays.

Dial back the magnification to 150%. That makes the functional width 900 pixels, which is much more usable, but still large enough to read. (Your mileage may vary, of course.)

That’s a lot of negatives.

But honestly, now that I’ve used Tim for a month and gotten used to his quirks, I like him much more than I expected I would. I’ve been using him as my fulltime ebook reader, and it’s a pleasure to be able to open a book in an ebook editor and fix a broken tag that turns three paragraphs into italics.

I love being able to carry my current project along in my pocket, open it in the same program I’m using at home–not a web app, not a stripped down “mobile version,” but the very same software–and make changes while I wait. Sure, I could almost do that with a laptop, but none of my jackets have a pocket large enough for my laptop.

I wouldn’t want to write a novel on Tim, or even a short story. But the onscreen keyboard is good enough for adding a paragraph when I’ve got ten minutes, and with an external keyboard, I probably could manage a whole chapter in an emergency.

I’m not going to recommend everyone get a Windows tablet instead of an iPad or Samsung/Nexus/Whoever Android tablet. The current state of the art makes it a niche choice. But it’s a damn sight better than it used to be, and that niche is getting larger.

Brace Yourselves

A couple of times a year, I sneer at the new hardware and software announcements coming out of Apple and Google. Microsoft may not be on the same regular announcement schedule, but that shouldn’t exempt them from scorn. I’m an equal-opportunity sneerer, so, without further ado, here’s my take on yesterday’s announcements.

To nobody’s surprise, the Surface Book is getting an upgrade. Faster CPU, faster graphics, larger battery. All the usual tweaks when a device gets an upgrade. Oh, and a price upgrade as well: $2399. If I paid that much for a laptop or two-in-one, I’d be afraid to take it out of the house. But maybe that’s just me.

Then there’s the Surface Studio. That’s Microsoft’s first attempt at an all-in-one computer. It’s aimed squarely at graphics professionals: the 4500×3000 pixel, 28-inch touchscreen is large enough to do 4K video editing with both the video display and the editor interface on the same screen. Imagine what you could do in Photoshop with that much uninterrupted screen real estate. And, I’ll admit, the sheer flexibility of the monitor stand is astounding.

For what you get, the $2999 price tag on the low-end model seems almost reasonable, but if you want the full-blown, top-of-the-line experience, be prepared to come up with $4199. At that price, you might want to consider picking up the Surface Book i7 instead and pairing it with a third-party external monitor. You could probably manage three-quarters as much performance for half the price.

Given its target market, it’s not surprising that the Surface Studio comes with a Studio Stylus. But it doesn’t come with the new Surface Hockey PuckDial. I blame Apple for this Microsoft innovation. The gang from Cupertino made such a big deal about the interface on the Apple Watch, with all that crown twisting, that Microsoft felt compelled to bring a twist interface to the desktop. Because who wouldn’t want to replace that horrible Alt-Tab combination to switch among running apps with a simple twist of the wrist? How about scrolling pages, changing volume, or undoing commands without touching your mouse? It’s cute; I’ll grant them that much. But I’m not seeing the usability gain here. How is moving your hands from keyboard to puck any better than moving them from keyboard to mouse or keyboard to stylus? Artistically-inclined folks, your thoughts?

Finally, there’s the upcoming “Creator’s Update” to Windows 10. This is the Spring successor to this past July’s “Anniversary Update” and the big enhancements are in exactly the areas you would expect: 3D, VR, and people.

Wait, what?

The 3D and VR enhancements are completely understandable. Apple and Google are putting heavy emphasis on them, so Microsoft has to keep up. But people? According to Microsoft, the idea is to make sharing and communicating more central. For example, they’re working from the idea that when you see something neat, you don’t think, “Hey, I should share that with Lisa.” In reality, they say you think “Hey, Lisa would love that. I should send it to her.”

So, Lisa is going to get her own space on your taskbar. Well, Lisa and all of your other “important contacts.” The idea is that you’ll drag the document you want to share to the contact, instead of finding a “share” link in your program and then hunting through that program’s address list to find the person you want.

Interesting idea, but the implementation seems fraught with peril. I suspect that Cortana is going to decide which of your contacts are important; Microsoft’s track record suggests that overruling her may not be simple. Be prepared to argue with her over whether the prime real estate should go to “Mom,” “Boss,” or “Sweetie”.

Oh, and there’s also going to be a new popup window to show all of the messages from a contact in one place. Any bets on whether this will make it easier to uninstall Skype? I didn’t think so. Hopefully this will be a “right-click and select” popup, not a “move the mouse over” popup. Do you really want every e-mail, text message, and phone call you’ve had with Mom appearing onscreen while you’re making a presentation to the rest of your team?

Creator’s Update builds will start showing up in the beta channels this week. Brace yourselves.