Category Archives: 13571

My first couple of weeks with Surface RT

I didn’t pre-order a Microsoft Surface, much to the surprise of many who know me. I wanted to know more information than was available at launch. About a week later I’d heard enough to place an order, and I’ve now been carrying it around with me for enough time to give an opinion…


OOBE & Setup


 


Let’s start at the beginning. The Surface has some nicely designed packaging, although nothing that I wouldn’t expect from a premium product. I especially like it when tape inside packaging has non-stick tabs at end, so you don’t have to start digging away at it with your finger nails.


 


Assuming you login with a Microsoft Account that you’ve already been using elsewhere, especially if you’ve linked it to services like Facebook, the Surface starts personalising to you straight away. It’s similar to the way Windows Phone works. In addition, if you’ve been using Windows 8 on another device, it’s a doddle to reinstall the same apps from the Windows Store (launch the Store, drag down from the tops of the screen, select Your Apps, choose the ones you want again from the list and hit Install).


 


One of the first things that I did was install updates as I wanted to get Office up to the final version. As the Office update was an optional update, it isn’t offered when you run Windows Update. You actually have to find “Install optional updates” in Settings; if you go to the metro-style Windows Update or “Check for updates” you aren’t going to see it. I expect that a lot of people are going to miss optional updates because of this. In fact, as I was typing that, I searched for optional updates on my Win8 desktop and found 2 driver updates that I knew nothing about.


 


On the subject of updates, it seems to take a lot longer to install updates on the Surface than on any other device I can recall. That’s not indicative of the overall performance of the device, which I’m generally happy with.


 


Touch Cover


 


I read somewhere that it will take you a couple of days to get used to typing on the Surface’s Touch Cover (if you choose that option, like me). It’s going to be a very subjective thing, because it matters a lot how you type. I can touch-type pretty quickly, although down to an arthritic condition I prefer keys that don’t have much travel. The keys on the Touch Cover have no travel at all, and I found that I was able to type at near-full-speed almost straight away. I haven’t had any problems with using the shift or ctrl key combinations at all. The only issue that I occasionally have is missing the space bar.


 


The fact that the dimensions of the Surface allow for a full-sized keyboard make it much better to use than the competition. The Surface’s keyboard covers, combined with the kick-stand (which does almost work as well on my lap as on a table and is nicely robust) mean that you get some of the advantages that a laptop normally has over a tablet, with the additional flexibility of being able to remove the keyboard or just fold it round the back.


 


Display


 


One of the reasons that I didn’t initially pre-order the Surface was because I was thinking that I’d prefer the higher resolution screen on the Surface Pro when it’s released. I needn’t have been concerned about that because the screen on this thing is beautiful. I’m not one of these people who’s going to dig into detail on that, but the colours are good, blacks look pretty black and text looks really nice, with smooth curves.


 


A funny thing has happened to me with the Windows Start screen over the time that I’ve been using the Surface. Initially I was disappointed at the number of tiles that are on the screen at any one time because of the resolution on the screen. Compared to my desktop with a mammoth widescreen, I was seeing so much less – up to 24 small tiles (although I have a mix of large and small), compared to a potential 78 small tiles! Now I like having live data on my tiles, and I like a reasonable amount of data density (I’m very happy with the new Windows Phone for that reason), but I now feel like there’s too much going on with the Start screen on my desktop and I’ve grown very accustomed to the density on the Surface.


 


The Surface RT has a micro-HDMI output, so you can connect to an external display (I bought a cheap cable from Amazon, not the expensive one that Microsoft will sell you). Here you have the option to duplicate or extend your screen (or just use the external display). I did initially wonder whether the extend option would be much use on Windows RT since (as with Windows 8) you can only display the modern UI and apps on one display at a time, with the second display just showing the desktop, and there aren’t many things you can use on the desktop on Windows RT. It would really be nicer if you could have a different Windows Store app running on each of the displays. Assuming that the desktop will eventually disappear, and knowing that multi-monitor support is going to be a feature in Windows going forward, I expect that there’s a team in Redmond already working on this.


 


Apps


 


I should say at this point that I don’t need a whole load of apps. I use Office (although it’s a shame Outlook is missing from the bundle that comes with RT), a decent browser and a Remote Desktop – I’ll come on to those last two later. Incidentally, the lack of Outlook is brought into sharper focus because the Mail app is so bad – I’ll be keeping an eye out for a better alternative but at the moment OWA/Outlook.com are better options!


 


I’m not going to talk about the availability of apps. There aren’t as many at present as there are for other platforms. The number is going to change daily and it’s only a matter of time before the Store gets fleshed out – this is Windows, after all!


 


HOWEVER, not every app that’s in the Store on Windows 8 is in the Store on Windows RT. I don’t know if the reverse is also the case, and I don’t know how big the difference is; I only noticed that some things like Microsoft’s Minesweeper and Mahjong games aren’t there when I search on my Surface (since I started writing this Minesweeper has arrived; not so Mahjong). I don’t know whether that fact has been published and I’ve just missed it, but it certainly wasn’t something that I was consciously aware of.


 


The ability to multi-task, with snapped apps, is one of the things that makes this a legitimate productivity device for me.


 


IE 10


 


I’ve already found several sites that aren’t whitelisted to use IE10’s built in Flash functionality. I expected that would happen, and I’m generally in favour of the approach that Microsoft have taken here, but it can be frustrating if there’s a specific Flash site you want to use that Microsoft hasn’t got whitelisted. Happily there’s currently a workaround, so you can whitelist something yourself – http://thenextweb.com/microsoft/2012/11/05/how-to-use-microsofts-own-whitelisting-feature-to-enable-flash-on-the-metro-version-of-ie10/ – your mileage may vary. I’ve also come up against a site that required Silverlight. There’s some confusion if you search online about this; allow me to clear that up – you can’t install Silverlight on Windows RT. Not on the metro IE 10; not on the desktop IE 10.


 


Digital Media


 


I don’t like the Music app. It seems to focused on the Xbox Music content and not the music that you have on the device. The Video app has a similar problem, but it’s not as much of a problem because I typically launch it to watch one video and I don’t need to worry about playlists or anything like that. I expect that I’ll be using a different media player app going forward. I’ve started using Multimedia8, which I consider a better alternative to Music and Video, but not perfect. At least it supports subtitle tracks for foreign movies.


 


Remote Desktop


 


Having the grown-up Microsoft RDP clients is what makes the Surface RT a viable device for work for people like Sys Admins (and PowerShell, of course). On Windows RT you get both mstsc.exe and the modern Remote Desktop app from the Store. The new app is actually fairly nice, letting you manage multiple RDP sessions the same way as you work with multiple tabs in IE 10. One area that I expected to have a better experience was that of Remote Apps. The new Remote Desktop client appears to be the same as the app in the store on Windows 8, but either it isn’t, or it doesn’t behave in the same way. If I try to connect the same way as I do from my Win8 desktop, it just doesn’t work.


 


And just so it could call me a liar, when I tried one last time to get Remote Apps to work just before I posted this, it worked fine. I don’t think that there was an update to the Remote Desktop app in the meantime, and I’m sure there wasn’t a change on the back-end server. I know I didn’t have any typos in the path. Now it just works. Which is nice, because I know that the recently released Citrix Receiver app doesn’t work with the version of XenApp that we’re running!


 


Charming


 


Printing via Devices charm feels unintuitive to me, but once you get your head around the idea, it makes sense – it’s only because I’m used to years of selecting Print from the File menu. The functionality of the Share and Search charms is good and it’s only going to improve as more apps add contracts. That said, you do have to be a bit careful when you’re using the Share charm – if you accidentally take focus away from the pane that it pops up, you’re going to have to start over again, so there’s no option to compile a tweet and quickly switch to IE to check the spelling of a name or hashtag before you send it. I would personally prefer to have the sharing app pop up in the snapped position properly, rather than just as an overlay, so that it multitasks properly.


 


Not relating to Charms, something else that I find a bit confused about the Windows RT experience is doing multiple selections by touch. On the Start screen, you drag tiles down a bit; in Mail you drag messages to the right a bit; in the Your Apps list in the Store, you just tap each item. There’s no consistency, although I can see why the different methods are necessary because of the context. It just means that each time you find a new place you want to do multiple selections, you’re going to have to work out how to do it in that instance. I found the different methods relatively easily, but I expect others may struggle more.


 


Extensibility


 


Having a normal USB port, and a load of device class drivers is a massive win for this device. I can plug in a USB hard drive or a thumb drive to transfer content to and from the device very easily (the presence of the full File Explorer, giving you control of the storage is important too). I can connect my camera without the use of an additional adapter. I can connect to a printer, via USB or wirelessly without any additional software. Heck, if I wasn’t perfectly happy with the Touch Cover for either mouse or keyboard, I’d just plug one in and use that – no need to waste battery on Bluetooth. Here’s an exciting prospect for gamers too – you can use an Xbox 360 controller with the Surface – Boom! Headshot!


 


I only went for the 32GB version of the Surface, because I was able to add a 64GB micro SD card to store all my files for not a lot of money. It’s worth noting that the metro-style apps usually expect files to be in your Libraries. If you’re going to store them on SD, you need to use this trick to include the removable content in the Libraries: http://winsupersite.com/article/windows8/surface-tip-microsd-content-libraries-metro-apps-144658


 


While the Surface comes with the internal drive encrypted with BitLocker, it doesn’t offer the option to BitLocker your SD card. That’s a bit annoying, but not too much of a problem if you can pop that SD card into a Windows 7/8 computer and do it there. There are some instructions to do that here: http://garfoot.com/blog/2012/11/securely-extending-surface-rt-with-an-sd-card-and-bitlocker/


 


Microsoft have published a site listing hardware compatibility with Windows RT: http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/compatibility/winrt/CompatCenter/Home. Sadly it doesn’t support a WD 1TB USB3 HDD that I use at work, although I’ve tried other USB3 devices and they work fine, so that’s just unfortunate for me. Hopefully there’ll be a driver update that will fix that before long (I’ve already upgraded the firmware on the drive to the latest version).


 


Summary


 


People need to be aware that Windows RT is not Windows 8, and that the Tegra3 chipset, as good as it is, is not as powerful as modern x64 chips. I can comfortably get by with what Windows RT offers for a portable device, but I couldn’t get away with it if I didn’t also have a powerful desktop running Windows 8. Incidentally, this stuff isn’t in Windows RT: http://windows.microsoft.com/en-CA/windows/rt-disclaimer


 


Overall, I think this is an excellent personal device (for me). The fact that you can have multiple user accounts on the device makes it suitable for sharing too; with family members, for example. I still wouldn’t buy dozens of them to hand out in an organization (I’d prefer to look at the Surface Pro for that, so that it can be domain-joined and managed with Group Policy), but I personally won’t be using a laptop anytime soon. I also won’t be using an iPad or Android tablet either. I actually think that the iPad is a great device for a lot of people, especially the people who I wouldn’t trust to use a computer without regularly needing help. Obviously the other tablet OS’s have more apps available, but the thing about those numbers is that after the apps that you want are there, it doesn’t matter how much other crap is available. To my mind, Apple need to start really innovating with iOS or their dominant position in the market is going to get eroded before long.


 


Incidentally, I drafted most of this post in OneNote on the Surface.

Review: PowerMobile Advanced Emergency Charger

My friends at MobileFun.co.uk have obviously heard my repeated cries of having run out of battery life on my phone, having forgotten to put it on change in the office, and they sent me the PowerMobile Advanced Emergency Charger to review.


Let me start by saying that with the current set of power-hungry smartphones, with no sign of fuel cell or some other technology coming along that will help them last more than a day, this type of product could well save your skin on a regular basis, especially if you own one of those snazzy phones with no removable battery, so no scope to carry a spare. There are a few product in this category, so how does the PowerMobile shape up?



Well, before we discuss the charging capabilities, I’ve got to say that this is a remarkably well designed bit of kit! Let’s break that down in terms of juice and connectivity…


It comes with a pair of 2000mAh AA batteries that fit snugly into the housing (and arrive with a charge ready to go), but that’s not to say you can’t use any normal AA batteries you have lying around if you find yourself in a position when you don’t have them charged. In fact you can also use the device to charge other rechargable AA batteries. I think that probably checks every box on the AA battery charge/discharge matrix, which is really pleasing – you see too many products that have a set of goals and block any use cases outside of that. With this device it’s like they’ve made it as useful as they can in terms of battery usage, so that’s a big plus.


You charge the PowerMobile using its flip-out USB plug, so that does mean that you need a computer of some description, or a mains/USB adapter. It may be that you already have one of those if handset changes over USB (I had a SonyEricsson one gathering dust in a drawer and one that I’d purchased a while back with a variety of worldwide plugs), but if you don’t have one they are pretty cheap if you don’t want to be tied to using the PowerMobile with a computer.


That’s the connectivity in one direction covered, on the other end you should have no complaints at all! You’re getting an retractable cable (good for portability), with a variety of tips (seven to be exact) covering the majority of phones from the biggest manufacturers. However, if your device manufacturer insists on producing a proprietory cable, such as the iPod/iPhone dock connector, you’re still good due to the fact that the PowerMobile gives you a USB socket into which you can just plug the cable that came with your device.


So that’s USB in and USB out. Elegant in its simplicity. If only everything was designed this way. In terms of hardware, that’s basically all there is to say, except for the indicator lights on the top which indicate whether the PowerMobile is charging or discharging its batteries, and when it’s doing neither you can press the button to see how much charge it’s currently holding, on a three LED scale.


All that would be moot if it didn’t breath new life into your flat devices when you need them. I did this multiple times (because my HTC Hero is forever eating its way through its battery at inconvenient times), and the PowerMobile did alright. From an empty battery on the Hero, I could get back up to 50% in about 80 minutes with the phone switched off. Charging with the phone on wasn’t so successful, but that’s because I have it running in “power hungry” mode (simply because I have so many background tasks refreshing over the data connections), so after adding about 30% to the charge the phone would tell me that the power source wasn’t providing enough current to charge the battery (or words to that effect). Is that disappointing? Well, only as much as it’s disappointing that a standard smartphone battery can barely get you through a working day! This is an *emergency* charger after all.


MobileFun are offering the PowerMobile Advanced Emergency Charger for a couple of bits of shrapnel shy of fifteen and a half pounds, so compared to a 2nd battery for your phone (if you have the option), it’s a good deal. Add to that the fact that this device can charge not just your phone, but potentially also a portable media player, portable gaming machine, Bluetooth headset, or anything else that you can think of that charges from USB, and it becomes all the more attractive.

Review: The World’s Smallest Bluetooth Headset

A couple of weeks back the postman came to my door with a small package, containing a small box, housing the world’s smallest Bluetooth headset, the SmallTalk Mini Bluetooth Headset. 



In the box:


  • Very small headset with ear hook attached
  • USB charging cable
  • In-car adapter for USB charging cable
  • Manual

Pairing the headset with my phone was incredibly simple, however it didn’t go exactly as the manual described on my Android 1.5 powered HTC Hero. While the phone found the headset just fine when I’d engaged the pairing mode, it didn’t then ask for the PIN to complete the pairing. That’s fine, and nothing to do with the headset, but I’d never thought of that step as optional and I guess it could be confusing to some people.


This headset obviously has an incredibly small battery, yet it clams to be good for 3 hours talk time and up to 100 hours on standby. I’m not sure how much charge is in the battery as shipped, but I hooked it up to my PC to fill the battery and it didn’t take long to tell me it was full (I know I should really time these things when I’m writing a review, but in this instance you can take “didn’t take long” to mean “less than the 2 hours that the manual suggests it can take to fully change the battery from flat”). I don’t make a lot of calls, so I managed my normal usage and a bunch of test calls over the course of a week without the battery showing any signs of running out.


My first set of test calls was made in my office with little ambient noise and the incoming audio quality was perfectly fine. I left some messages on my voicemail so I could listen back to the audio that I was sending out via the headset, and while it perhaps wasn’t “broadcast quality”, it was perfectly clear.


I like to do some call quality tests in noisy environments, so I stood next to a motorway and made some calls. I was able to make myself understood at the other end of the line, but it was sub-optimal. The next test was on a train, and while it wasn’t as good as in the quiet office, it wasn’t terrible – about what I’d expect from a headset with no noise cancellation in an environment with some noise. The worst experience was when walking down the street alongside a reasonable amount of traffic with a decent amount of wind blowing – it wasn’t really possible to have a conversation.


Personally I don’t tend to make calls on the train (aside from annoying other passengers, you are far too readily overheard), and I wouldn’t expect to make calls with a headset in a noisy environment where I wouldn’t expect to make calls without one, so the above call tests aren’t exactly damning. Where I do make most use of a headset is when I’m driving, and in all the test calls I made in the car I was very happy with the results. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the device had been designed for optimal operation in that situation; something which is further reinforced by there being no mains charger, only a car/USB charging cable.


When I was doing the call tests on the train, I did experience a few random disconnects, where the phone and headset would lose contact. It didn’t happen every time and I don’t know whether the fault was with the phone or the headset (or the train!). It’s not the first time that I’ve suffered Bluetooth connection failure on that train (using two completely different devices), so it may have been some kind of interference. I didn’t have the problem at any other time.


In some if the marketing photos and the illustration on the front of the manual, it shows the headset without the ear hook attached, obviously in an attempt to make it appear as small as possible. You can’t wear it without the ear loop though; you might be able to if you had exactly the right sized ear canal, but it doesn’t appear to have been designed that way. The speaker, which is surrounded by a rubber ring for comfort, just sits at the opening of your ear canal.


I wonder if it may have been possible to make an in-ear version of this, shipping with a selection of rubber ear buds, as many in-ear headphones do. Given the typical choice of 3 sizes, you may have been able to just pop this in your ear and have it stay there without the ear hook. That said, the ear hook, while it may just be a bit of stiff wire with a plastic coating, is perfectly comfortable and can be reversed to be worn on the right or left ear. It pops on very easily and you barely know it’s there – it’s just so light. It holds in place pretty firmly too, so while I didn’t actually try going jogging with the headset on, I’m pretty sure that you could – the only problems with that being that I don’t think that’s going to give you wonderful call quality as you run, and the fact that the multi-function button that makes up the majority of the face of the device does rattle a bit if you joggle it around.


While the headset can be worn on either ear, it comes out of the box ready for the right ear. That’s sensible because that’s how most people will likely wear it. I say that not out of any particular research that I’ve done myself (I haven’t), but when you see headsets that are specifically designed to only be worn on one ear, it’s invariably the right one. I don’t recall ever having seen a device that was designed solely for use with the left ear. They may exist; possibly on sale in one of those shops that sells items specifically designed for left-handed folks; I don’t know. I’m going to assume that the companies making devices specifically for right ears have done their research and know that’s what most people do. That’s fine, although it does bring me on to a gripe that I have…


I can’t understand the product designer who would decide, in the default right ear configuration, to have the volume up button on the bottom of the headset and the volume down button on the top! That’s just not intuitive and it bugs me just like the pairing functions being on the wrong buttons on the last headset I reviewed. It makes sense when you wear the headset on your left ear, so perhaps the designer is one of the few people who will be doing that. Either way, I don’t imagine they’ll be getting a job designing products for Apple any time soon.


Overall, I have to say that if you’re looking for a small, lightweight headset that you’re primarily going to use while you’re driving, then you can’t go wrong with this device, especially when I tell you that MobileFun.co.uk, who sent me the unit to review, have it priced at £15.47 – that’s a steal! If you’re looking for a headset that’s going to be used in more noisy environments, then you may want to look at something with active noise cancellation, but if not I would suggest you don’t pay more to get a headset that’s heavier and less discrete than this one.


I would like to make it clear that MobileFun didn’t pay me to write this review – I’m really interested in mobile technology and they supplied me with unit to review – I was certainly under no obligation to recommend that you shop with them, regardless of whether I liked this headset or not. That said, I do suggest that if you’re looking for a Bluetooth headset or Bluetooth headphones, you should check them out.