Thursday, May 8, 2014
Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Most Common Phrases Spoken Playing Ticket to Ride

  1. "Sault Ste. Marie… Can someone Google how you pronounce that?"
  2. "In what universe does ‘ault’ have an ‘oooo’ sound?"
  4. "One ticket from Sault Ste. Marie to Nashville… said no-one ever"
  5. "They can’t even spell it right! The board doesn’t have the E on it"
  6. "Couldn’t they have picked a town that matters? Like Detroit or something?"
  7. "You went HALF THE GAME without knowing that rainbow cards are wild?"
  8. "No, you can’t just make a loop, claim infinite length and get the longest route bonus"
Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Yup, I Bought a Surface Pro: My Review

Reviews were not really kind to the Surface Pro. For quite good reasons: the battery was too short, it was heavy, it had a fan (so passé), the design was very unfriendly for lap-typing and Windows 8.0 was too touch-friendly (yet not enough too). Sales probably didn’t meet Microsoft’s expectations either, as the previous-generation Surface Pro is now available for $499 at its base configuration - nearly half off. The 128GB model is selling for $599, and I decided to buy one of those for myself.

Long story short, my experience with the Dell Venue 11 Pro showed that it wasn’t a good idea buying machines from any company without a good hardware reputation - basically leaving Apple, Microsoft and Lenovo. For 11-inch machines, Apple’s outside my budget, and has an outdated display. I didn’t see any Lenovo machines that didn’t seem overpriced. The 1st-gen Surface Pro was the only well-built, portable, high-res machine that I thought made sense to buy.

I expected a pleasant, but flawed, experience with the hardware. It was, however, somewhat better than I expected - it’s not very inconvenient at all. It’s heavy compared to an iPad, but it’s not so heavy that it’s useless as a tablet, nor tiring to carry. The hardware build quality and design are all top-notch. It’s unfortunate that it has a fan, but it’s really a non-issue in actual use - you can’t block a vent like that, and the fan is quiet. The 1080p screen is maybe 66% of the way to true Retina quality, but it still makes a huge difference. Overall, worse than other tablets in many areas, but not in ways that really matter to me.

The keyboards are pretty neat. I initially bought a Touch Cover, and I had no problems getting work done on it - my typing speed was nearly as quick as my “real” keyboard speed. However, I push keys quite hard, and when the keys have no give, my fingertips are mashing a hard surface, and ache after a while. I switched to a Type Cover to relieve that rather self-inflicted irritation, and I haven’t looked back. The new ones have backlighting, too. You can fold them behind the tablet to switch to touch-mode without misplacing the cover. It is also made of a pleasing soft-felt material; it feels quite good to hold when it’s closed.

Much has been made of how the kickstand makes it unusable on a lap; many see that as a dealbreaker. I thought it might be, but that only applies to times where you need the keyboard, and in my usage I rarely need it when I’m in a chair or on a couch. I use it more often as a tablet in those circumstances, and I have to admit that I get more use out of the machine this way than I would have if it was a laptop only. I’d like more viewing angles to use, but the Surface Pro 2 fixes that.

The battery life is only rated for four hours. If you fly, that’s not good enough, and you won’t be working all day in a coffee shop. For the rest of us, like me, I keep it charged during the work day and overnight at home, and that’s adequate for the vast majority of situations. However, I would have taken a slower Bay Trail processor to get longer battery life (and reduced cost). The Dell proved that those processors are more than adequate for the tasks I put it to.

Windows 8 is certainly usable - there are no frequent tasks that I would want to do through the touchscreen that I cannot comfortably do, and there’s nothing about a touch-optimized UI that is hard to use with a keyboard and mouse. It is, however, incomplete. All OS functionality should be touch-friendly, with the desktop being restricted to legacy, non-Microsoft applications. Unfortunately there are still features only configurable on the desktop, so very occasionally you have to abandon the finger and use the keyboard. It can be frustrating, though all the common tasks are not affected by this anymore.

I think Microsoft needs to put effort into giving WinRT apps feature parity with desktop apps - don’t block them from using things like the Entity Framework ORM, for instance. It needs to be entirely possible for the Desktop to be deprecated and eventually removed, for then Windows would be a single OS again - one that would be complete and awesome on both the tablet and the desktop. However, as it stands, many apps are difficult or impossible to convert. Resolving this would go a long way toward that goal.

Finally, the Surface Pro has an active stylus. I’ve said for years that the stylus is underrated; that it’s such a capable tool for certain applications that it shouldn’t be locked out just because it sucks for other applications. With the stylus, I can annotate PDF’s with the built-in PDF reader, do mediocre paintings in Fresh Paint, and draw up flowcharts much, much faster in OneNote than I could set them up in Visio. I’m glad it’s there; it’s a welcome addition.

At $730 with the type cover, it’s not cheap. However, the more expensive 11-inch machines are either outdated or overpriced, and the cheaper ones don’t work properly. I’m personally satisfied that I made the right decision in getting last year’s Surface Pro.

Friday, April 4, 2014
Here’s today’s episode of Things I Wish I Could Do In My Apartment But Can’t.

Here’s today’s episode of Things I Wish I Could Do In My Apartment But Can’t.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014
Thursday, March 20, 2014
Friday, February 14, 2014

The Dell Venue 11 Pro: An OK tablet, a Very Interesting Ultrabook

Update: I ended up returning the Dell. Further details at the bottom.

As a tablet, the Dell Venue 11 Pro that I’ve bought is not exactly an iPad killer. The Atom-powered version does come with 64GB of space (about 43GB usable) at the same price as the 16GB iPad Air, and it has nice features here and there like MicroSD expandability, a USB 3 port and a micro HDMI port. The battery is also user replaceable, if you find that an important feature. However, your battery life is a little weak, the screen is “only” 207ppi, and it runs Windows 8 rather than iOS. The latter will undoubtedly be what stands out to people when they compare it to an iPad. Nobody likes Windows! Certainly not on a tablet… ewwww, right?

Now I’m not so sure about that; for light-duty tablet work, I’m of the opinion that Windows 8 works fairly well. However, that’s not why I bought it. I bought it because of the $160 keyboard dock that turns it into an ultrabook - one that truly provides impressive value for not too much money.

If you’re not familiar with the new Intel Bay Trail Atom processors, you’re probably thinking that I’m crazy. Atoms are used in netbooks, and netbooks are slower than a dead turtle! Nope. These new Atoms put the old ones to shame. Web browsing, document editing, media playback - none of these things are painful in any way anymore. Heavier apps like Photoshop aren’t going to run fast, but they’ll run, make no mistake.

Performance wise, the closest analog to this machine is the 2010 11” Macbook Air. That wasn’t a fast machine by any means, but the experience was still quite “snappy and bug-free” as Joshua Topolsky put it in his review. This Atom-powered machine is a little faster than that. The Macbook Air’s Geekbench scores are roughly 800 for single-threaded and 1400 for multi-threaded, while this Dell’s scores are around 1000 and 3000.

What does this $660 ultrabooktablet get you that a used $450 Macbook Air doesn’t? First is a way better screen - the 1080p IPS display is sharp, colorful and close enough to Retina sharpness that you won’t want to go back to any other display. Second is much improved battery life. With the keyboard and its additional battery attached, it’s rated for 16 hours. That would put even the new Macbook Airs to shame, but I think that number’s slightly exaggerated as per usual among PC manufacturers. Expect 12 or more hours, which is still impressive.

Also, and unlike new Airs, the Atom-powered machine requires no cooling fan. A laptop with no moving parts - it’s almost like we’re in the 21st century or something! Steve Jobs would have been all over this stuff - and that’s what makes me wonder if the next Macbook Air generation might have an Atom-powered option.

The exterior build quality is really good. The outsides are mostly a mix of hard and soft-touch plastics, but nothing that feels cheap. I prefer this just as I prefer the iPhone 5C case over the 5S’s, because it’s far more durable than aluminum and glass. The keyboard and screen are done with aluminum and glass, though, but it’s a great thing here - those aren’t exposed to the elements like the backsides are, and they feel quite nice to use. There also aren’t any stickers, and all the annoying FCC label stuff is inside the removable battery cover. The keyboard’s key travel is shallow, but it’s still really nice to use.

I do have a few complaints, though. The device’s weight with the keyboard attached is a good deal heavier than the Macbook Air. It’s the difference between 2 pounds and 3 pounds, though, and I’m not annoyed by it. More annoying is the lack of a cut in the keyboard base for lifting the screen. I assume they did this to make the trackpad bigger, but opening the laptop is always a little annoying because there’s no easy way to lift the screen.

What is much worse, however, are the glaring quality issues elsewhere - though they can all be worked around if you’re careful. First, Dell makes versions of this tablet with Haswell processors for a bit more cash. Don’t buy those - aside from being heavier and having fans, the Amazon reviews are terrible. Dell also had an active stylus for sale, but it was so problematic they pulled it off the shelves, so also don’t buy those. My current machine is a replacement for the first one that was shipped to me, which had some very bad speaker problems. Make sure to buy through Amazon or maybe the Microsoft Store, because Dell’s customer service is still terrible. You don’t want to struggle to return a defective device. Also, the ambient light sensor is way too aggressive at dimming the screen. There’s a simple switch to disable it in the PC settings.

Dell, being Dell, has let its tablet down when it comes to software & component quality. That makes it difficult for me to recommend it to others, as I’d be afraid they would get a broken machine and then be stuck with it. It’s truly a shame, because I’m very happy with my Venue 11. I could spend $340 more to get a new Macbook Air, but I wouldn’t make that choice today. The Air is a more expensive laptop with a better OS and much better performance, but with a significantly worse screen and spinning fans. The Venue 11 also just happens to be a tablet too. Since I don’t need the performance and I don’t squirm with revulsion when living with Windows as my daily OS, the Venue 11 makes great sense for me.

Update: After nearly 30 days (but not quite… thank goodness!) the keyboard started having an issue where it would be completely unresponsive a minute or so after the tablet was woken up. I was not able to get it working even after a reboot - but putting it to sleep and turning it back on would re-enable it for about a minute. I’ve returned the tablet & laptop, thus ending my experience with the Venue 11.

This laptop should’ve been great. It’s disappointing to see how poor execution has ruined it like this.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Friday, November 8, 2013