Note: I originally wrote this past last November, but for some reason never published it. As we’re so close to Surface Pro 3 launch time, I thought it worthwhile to publish this now and reminisce.

Disclaimer: I work for Microsoft, but did not and do not work directly on any of the Surface projects. My opinions are my own, but obviously shaped by my experiences at the company.

When the first generation Surface Pro was launched, you could see the vision laid out before the device pretty clearly. It was supposed to be the most performance one could reasonably pack into an ultra-mobile form factor, for on-the-go power users. Unfortunately, those on-the-go power users also needed the ability to actually be on-the-go. The approximately 4 (maybe 5) hours of productive battery life from that device were too few to be able to take full advantage of the mobility factor.

Fast forward not quite a year and we saw the potential of Haswell, not in pushing the performance envelope, but rather the power consumption one. Packing that update into what was otherwise a great device would make Surface Pro 2 a more complete realization of the original vision. At launch, the Surface Pro 2 was touted to have 75% better battery life than v1. Compared to the 4-5 hours of real world battery life in v1, you’d expect somewhere in the 7-8.5 hour range with v2.

Early reviews came close to that range, CNET and The Verge hitting 7-7.5 hours, but Engadget and AnandTech were down closer to the 6.5 hour range. While not bad, it certainly wasn’t up to par (battery life/wh capacity) to some of the better Ultrabook-class machines. Shortly after launch, a firmware update was released to address some power consumption bugs. Anand’s since run some additional testing, showing web browsing is now up to 8.3 hours. My daily use also bears the improved battery life out. In a domain-joined, heavily saturated wireless environment at work, battery report (cmd: powercfg /batteryreport on Windows 8+) shows that I’ve been getting on average 7.5 hours out of a full charge. That’s just about all-(working)-day battery life.

At one point, I questioned the choice of the Haswell-U (15W TDP) processor line for this type of form factor. After all, the higher power consumption part would require more cooling, a bigger battery and thus make the device thicker and heavier than if it were otherwise equipped with, say, a Haswell-Y part. However, with the story all told and the support of the accessory line up, it’s clear the goal was to create a unique device, capable of being your main productivity machine in the smallest reasonable form factor. Compared with something like the Sony Tap 11, which uses a Haswell-Y processor, the Surface is 0.3lbs heavier and 3.5mm thicker, but it lasts much longer on battery and performs significantly better, even when comparing the ~$1000-1100 SKUs. This is intended to be mobile enough to do everything you need to on the go, but then dock seamlessly into a desktop environment.

I’ve been using the Surface Pro 2 for long enough at both work and home to have a good read of where it shines and scenarios where it needs improvement. The short of it is that I’ve been sufficiently impressed that I’m considering buying myself one as a Christmas present. 🙂

All the basics and critical bases are covered. The display is a nice, crisp, and color-accurate 1080p 10.6″ one. Battery life, as previously mentioned is in the 7.5 hour-range, sufficient for a day of meetings or an intercontinental flight without a charger. Performance is always snappy, little to no hiccups. Wifi connectivity is up to good laptop class, with a 2x2n dual band solution. The new two-stage kickstand is welcomed for both in-lap usage and while standing at the kitchen counter. Type Cover 2’s backlit keys are useful in dim settings and the key actions are a bit nicer, a bit quieter than Type Cover v1. Lastly, while I’ve always felt styli are a bit gimmicky when it comes to interfaces, I’m loving the pen+OneNote. I’m not using even 10% of the pen and digitizer’s capabilities; however, diagrams while note taking and OCR for pen-to-character conversion with OneNote is a “wow” scenario. I really wish I had this thing while I was in university. Oh, and I almost forgot, the thing has a fan, but it’s so quiet, I’ve not heard it spin up. It’s one of those things that’s best not noticed.

Okay, but there are areas for improvement.

My first piece of feedback not so much a feasible “improvement”, but rather a fundamental change to the device: the screen size. The 10.6″ form factor makes a near full-sized keyboard a possibility, which is great, but with so much horsepower and potential, I want to use it as my only productivity machine, on the go. The screen size is cramped, especially when you’re trying to write a document while referencing a source in a web browser, for example. It’s a natural trade-off for an ultra mobile device, but nevertheless, limiting when it comes to serious productivity on the move. With the docking station and external monitors at a desk, it can really stretch its legs.

My second concern is pricing, or rather the configurations available for sale. The $999 SKU comes with 4GB RAM and 128GB of storage. I don’t particularly care to upgrade to more storage (plus, it comes with 200GB of SkyDrive for two years!); however, I would like more than 4GB memory. Unfortunately, you cannot have one without the other and the associated $300 adder. That said, after including a Type Cover, the Surface Pro 2 ends up being approximately $100 more than an equivalently spec’d MacBook Air 11, but adds a higher resolution touchscreen and is more versatile (tablet mode, pen).

Lastly, while the Type Cover 2 is generally an improvement over v1, I do miss the first gen’s touchpad, which had both a slicker surface and a depressible click mechanism. In both cases, I wish there was more space for a larger touchpad. Especially given the small display compared to more laptops, precision tasks (e.g. placing the cursor in Word) are challenging with the touchscreen and made only marginally better by the small touchpad. Alas, next gen.

So, the thing is certainly not perfect, and in particular, the small and relatively stubby form factor makes it look and feel like an oddly dense tablet, that isn’t quite large enough to replace most folks’ laptops, with keyboard attached. However, it’s getting mighty close with the battery life and stand angle issues solved. For me and my use cases, I find the combination pretty ideal as a program manager, at work, and I’ve been using it as my primary machine there.

XBOX One

Disclaimer: I work for Microsoft, but I don’t work on the XBOX team. All opinions here are my own, and I have no advance knowledge of the team’s plans nor does anything you read here indicate a different depth of knowledge of the features than what you can read online, publicly.

It’s one thing Microsoft has done a reasonable job of late: keeping key features of device projects secret. There were numerous rumours of features sets and names of the XBOX One, launched earlier today, but I thought enough unknowns were maintained that the announcement had snap and excitement to it. I could see the barely controlled smile on Don Mattrick’s face as he announced the name for the first time -“XBOX One“.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a hardcore gamer (at one point I was… many years ago). In fact, even when I do play games, it’s primarily strategy games on my PC, with a keyboard and mouse. The drive towards greater graphics power and visual fidelity is great, and I’m looking forward to the visual feasts that surely await, but I was more excited about many other announcements today.

Input

When Kinect first came out, I was more interested in it for the potential NUI experiences than any jumping around in front of it for a game. As it turns out, jumping around with friends is actually a pretty fun and engaging way to play games, but it also didn’t diminish the potential of a great leap in user experiences in the living room. With the hardware constraints, of both the console itself and the first generation imaging solution, things like hand gesture controls and speech recognition weren’t as quick or accurate to make it complete natural. Furthermore, there were still screens and menus that required turning on the controller to bypass. It was a foreshadowing of things to come, but wasn’t quite there.

In steps the One, with its much more advanced vision and greatly improved speech recognition. Always-listening mode is wonderful, no more picking up the controller or talking over to the console itself to turn it on. I’m very interested in testing things out in a less controlled environment than a scripted demonstration, but it sure appeared to work well, and quickly too. Additionally, with much more granular imaging, I hope hand motions and manipulations will be accurately and precisely perceived.

Then, with all the talk of SmartGlass being designed into the experience from the ground up gives me hope that it’ll turn out to be a faster, more fully featured (and less confusing) experience than it is today.

Responsiveness

While I gripe about the responsiveness of it, I have to keep in mind that the XBOX 360 is nearly 8 year old hardware. Do you know what else is 8 year old hardware?

  • BlackBerry 8700
  • My ASUS Z71V barebones laptop with a 1.6GHz Dothan (Pentium M)
  • Canon SD400 digital camera, with a 5MP sensor and 640×480 video recording

It’s ancient in the rapidly changing technology hardware landscape, and the sheer fact that the XBOX 360 has been continuously software upgraded to support new streaming web content, ever-better looking games, and a vision-based input medium is pretty impressive.

All that said, it doesn’t change the fact that it is one of the slowest examples of computing experience I have in the home. The time between turning on the console to being able to view Top Gear on Netflix is on the order of many minutes.

What was shown today shaved that scenario down to mere seconds, with voice activation from across the room. That gets me excited.

Kinect FoV

This one’s pretty simple. I live in an apartment. The short width of my living room is approximately 13.5 ft. The couch takes up just over 3 ft. The TV stand and setup takes up just under 3 feet. That leaves me just about 7 ft to work with. It’s not enough with the current Kinect to do everything without at least in the back of my mind telling myself to be careful not to land part-way on my couch or otherwise.

The new Kinect FoV is wider, much wider. A 6’2″ person demoed standing about 3 feet away, and in full view of the new Kinect. Problem solved, and I don’t even need to buy a new, larger home.

Windows

As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m not a hardcore gamer, but I do enjoy games, particularly the causal, non-serious type on consoles, where the gaming experience is typically more interactive. While called out as the operating system that powers the web experiences on the XBOX One, I hope that it also ushers in some cross-compatibility to open up the world of Windows Store games to the living room. I’ve always thought that the interaction parallels between visual gesture-recognition 10 feet away from a big display and touch gestures directly onto a smaller screen are very high. Apps designed for touchscreens on Windows 8 should have a high degree of mobility to the big screen and hand gestures.

And of course, those web experiences are pretty interesting as well. Tailoring those experiences to the big TV on modern hardware hopefully replaces some of the urge to whip out a laptop or smartphone to check on IMDB reviews, when determining whether watching a particular movie is worthwhile or not.

Wrap

If it’s not yet clear, I am very excited for the XBOX One, and largely for reasons other than pushing forward gaming fidelity. I’ve always been enamoured with the idea of having a smarter television and big screen entertainment experience, but shoehorning HTPC after HTPC together, it never amounted to much more than a regular old PC with one different theme or another. Vision and voice bring the largest advances to that experience since the remote control, and have me salivating over the idea of finally being able to control that experience without intermediaries getting in the way.

Lumia 900 (mini) Review

On the eve of Nokia’s expected launch of Windows Phone 8 devices, I thought it’d be fitting to briefly review my past several months with a Lumia 900.

Chassis

The Nokia N9 ushered in a new design direction for Nokia’s smartphones, with its unibody, polycarbonate design. The Lumia 800 took that design, nearly as-is, and applied the Windows Phone treatment. Then, before bringing it to North America, Nokia expanded the display to 4.3″, to cater to this demographic. The design is unique, especially in the two less frequently seen colours on other phones, magenta and cyan, and feels extraordinarily solid and high quality in-hand. The chassis wraps around the internals and display in an elongated oval shape, pinched off squarely at the top and bottom. Taking the most conservative route, I chose a black copy.

The combined large sheet of glass and relatively thick polycarbonate shell makes the Lumia 900 relatively heavy. Compared to a Samsung Galaxy S II, also a 4.3″ display smartphone, the Lumia 900 is nearly 40% heavier (albeit also including a larger battery). The battery is not removable, and there’s no back cover at all. Buttons protrude from the right side of the device and headphone, micro-USB, and micro-SIM adorn the top. FCC and other certification notices dot the bottom, leaving the back a smooth landscape, aside from the camera surround brightwork.

It’s not perfect (but nearly is). The bezels (both top/bottom and sides) are wide, so the footprint of the device is larger than it could otherwise be. I’ve become accustomed to it, but picking up the Samsung Focus (4.0″) recently was surprisingly positive, for both size and weight. Furthermore, unlike the Lumia 800’s absolutely stunning curved display, which flows effortlessly from the curved chassis, the display on the 900 is flat, and furthermore, it’s bordered by a raised, plastic edge, which appears to be needed to help hold the display in place, within the chassis. For the side-to-side flicking that’s a significant part of Windows Phone (the panoramic apps), it makes itself painfully apparent.

Here’s to hoping the future phones trim the bezels and, at the very least, remove the protrusions around the display.

Display

The Lumia 900 has a 4.3″ ClearBlack AMOLED display. It’s a WVGA (800×480) panel, with a standard RGB subpixel structure. Compared to the multitude of high end phones with 1280×720 displays recently, it’s not as sharp, but the regular subpixel matrix helps sharpness, and I prefer it over the same resolution, but Pentile 4.0″ AMOLED display of my Samsung Focus. Perhaps once we have 720p displays, it’ll be a case of trying to go back to an iPad 2 from the new iPad’s display (i.e. you cannot), but for now, I’m content with the display quality.

The polarizer that plays a part in the “ClearBlack” naming makes outdoor use more than tolerable. However, as a result, it appears to impact how close the panel itself is to the surface of the glass. Especially since I have a Lumia 800 to compare against, the 900 doesn’t showcase the same effect of the picture nearly “floating” on the surface of the glass. Thankfully, it has some resistance to fingerprints and only requires a quick wipe (or some time riding in a pocket) to be cleaned.

Overall, the display is pretty nice, colours are oversaturated, but, as a result, make the Windows Phone tiles pop, and the AMOLED nature makes the blacks meld into the bezels, creating a nice, seamless display effect.

Camera

I’m a photo junkie, so I’m always interested in the photography capabilities of the cameras in these smartphones. The rear one in the Lumia 900 isn’t so impressive.

Part of that has to do with the sensor itself. While I haven’t been able to dig up the actual part number to take a look at its exact characteristics, empirical evidence shows that it’s likely a fairly small one, replete with poor high-ISO performance (and even noisy shadows at low ISO). It’s apparently not backside-illuminated, like the iPhone 4S’s, for example, and despite the Carl Zeiss branding, the lens (no matter how good) can’t elevate the sensor’s performance to above average.

With the recent 8779 Windows Phone update and the associated Nokia update, two issues are fixed. 1. exposure is now weighted around the focus point, during touch-to-focus. 2. white balance seems to be significantly improved.

However, several issues remain. Autofocus accuracy tends to be poor in difficult lighting conditions. For example, when photographing a peach on a tree, with a shadow across it, I could not get a single in-focus shot, after trying perhaps 5 or 6 times, instead, focusing on the leaves well behind it (both normal and macro modes attempted). Dynamic range is limited, so taking photos in bright conditions usually results in blown-out skies or very dark foregrounds. If you’re careful with the direction of the photo (versus the sun) and now that exposure can be weighted around the focus point, it’s possible to get some pretty good shots.

This is one area I’d love to see improved on future iterations of Nokia’s WP lineup. If the PureView rumours have any grounding in reality, I will be extremely excited.

Performance

Windows Phone isn’t setting any benchmark records, and its hardware is now a couple generations behind leading edge. That said, Windows Phone has a penchant for making good use of the hardware at its disposal, producing fluid animations, little delay in action-reaction, and enables a good experience on reasonably-priced hardware.

The Windows Phone soft keyboard consistently remains one of the best typing experiences I’ve ever had on a touchscreen. Autocorrect is active, but not overwhelming, unintentionally “correcting” words. The IE web browser is good, but sometimes get tripped up by headers, paragraph styling. You can sometimes see this in odd-looking font sizes, for example.

Compared to my Samsung Focus, which uses a Qualcomm QSD8250 1GHz SoC, the Lumia’s QC MSM8255 at 1.4GHz (and not to mention a GPU nearly twice as quick) is noticeably faster, especially when it comes to loading applications and scrolling through lists in some applications (e.g. Facebook).

While the day to day operations of phone are rarely hampered by the quick single core SoC, the generational leap to something quite a bit more powerful with this first generation of Windows Phone 8 devices will unblock the few remaining obstacles to a completely fast and fluid experience.

Wrap Up

No, the Lumia 900 (nor any current generation Windows Phone) will not get an upgrade to Windows Phone 8. It’ll be stuck on WP7.8 for the foreseeable future. However, at its current $49 price on contract, it simply represents a solid phone with a unique design and quality. Windows Phone’s guidelines and closer software-hardware integration means you’re getting a high quality smartphone experience.

Next for Nokia, whatever they launch on September 5 (looks to be a Lumia 820 and Lumia 920), I’m hoping they add a bit of polish to a solid product. The unibody design is fantastic to hold, lends durability, and looks great (not to mention, can be made into all sorts of wacky colours). Simply by the capabilities enabled by Windows Phone 8, a number of hardware features will reach at least parity with other operating system (multi-core SoC’s, high resolution displays). Hopefully the PureView rumours pan out and the smartphone camera reaches new heights of photography.

Not much longer now.

IFA 2012

A major wave of computing products launching with Windows 8 was announced this week, at IFA. It’s exciting, not only because the PC ecosystem is demonstrating its belief in a renewed selling cycle, but also that, for perhaps the first time, we’re seeing hardware designed from the get-go to be tailored to the operating system at its heart. Touch-first devices are everywhere, but so is the emphasis on content creation and productivity, in addition to content consumption.

The focus on making SoC systems work great in Windows 8 has manifested itself in the various Windows RT and Windows 8  PCs, based on Intel’s latest SoC product. Traditional clamshells are taking advantage of the resolution scaling work as well, and then adding touch. And perhaps best of all, PC makers are starting to build brands and awareness around their suite of products. Samsung ATIV, ASUS Vivo. It’ll certainly be easier to remember and associate than (ASUS) Tablet 810.

We also saw the very first commercial Windows Phone 8 device, the ATIV S from Samsung. It seems to have taken the Galaxy S III’s components, for the most part, and slipped them into a nicer, more premium shell. I’m looking forward to more Windows Phone announcements next week, with Nokia’s Wednesday event.