Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Microsoft Surface Pro 3

Like Windows 8, the Surface Pro 3 is a device that innovates and compromises at the same time due to its split personality. At 12 inches across with a 3:2 aspect ratio, this is a large device for a tablet. The physical size is complimented by the display's screen resolution of 2160x1440. With these dimensions it's clear Microsoft is aiming for a device focused on productivity and content creation. Battery life is good for a laptop but mediocre for a tablet. For most people it should last a good portion of the day with moderate use. The powerful Intel Core processors found in the entire lineup are the most power efficient of their kind but still a far cry from the ARM based technology found in a traditional tablet. This was the correct choice by Microsoft for a device meant to replace a laptop. I look forward to future iterations of the Surface Pro which will undoubtedly include passively cooled, even greater battery sipping Core processors. Until then we will need to put up with a small amount of heat and fan noise.

I've found sleeping and waking the Surface Pro 3 is intermittently buggy. There have been times where it has gone unresponsive to input after sleeping and I've had to completely turn it off and back on. This could be due to the InstantGo power mode, I haven't tried disabling that to see if it improves this behavior. Hopefully Microsoft will address this with a patch, according to Google I'm not the only customer with this problem. Until then I'll be sure to save my work before locking my device.

The type cover is good but not without flaws. The keys have enough give and click to provide a convincing typing experience. Their back-lit nature is a nice touch and definitely expected at this price point. The track pad is supposedly better than the outgoing model however I still find it a weak point. Multi-touch gestures such as scrolling only register some of the time needing broad, sweeping motions to engage consistently. It seems Microsoft is banking on users fully utilizing the touch screen for anything but precise pointing needs. The pen input seems to work well as a pointer when I forget to pack as mouse however I prefer to take notes by keyboard. It's unfortunate Microsoft doesn't provide a permanent spot to park the stylus when not in use. 

If budget isn't a concern or you can get a deal on one (as I did) I'd recommend the Surface Pro 3 and type cover to anyone looking for an ultra portable PC right now. I wouldn't recommend it to those considering it along side an iPad or similar high-end Android tablet. For better or worse it's a PC in tablet clothing. Microsoft has been responding to customer feedback, refining Windows 8 and the Surface at a rapid pace. Neither are perfect but as the Surface is the reference device for Windows 8.1 it's the best way to experience Microsoft's vision. I think we'll see considerable improvement with the Surface Pro 4 and Windows 9. If you can wait for it, that might be your best bet.

Pros:

  • Ultralight and made of high quality material
  • Beautiful high-res 3:2 aspect ratio display is great for productivity
  • Good battery life (compared to a traditional laptop)
  • Might save you from carrying a tablet


Cons:

  • Obscenely expensive, the bottom two model tiers shouldn't exist. 4GB of RAM and 64gb of storage for a full PC operating system and apps is inexcusable in 2014
  • The type cover is not included and is not optional if you wish to use the Surface as a laptop replacement
  • A few bugs need to be worked out with the sleep/wake cycle
  • Only 1 USB port, mini displayport instead of HDMI and no full size SD card slot (bummer for photographers)

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Thoughts On The OnePlus One

There’s no question this is a beast of a phone in terms of spec and physical size. The textured “sandstone” back helps its slave, I mean user, keep its enormity firmly planted in the hand though I can see those with smaller meat hooks having a hard time wrangling it. Fortunately the volume and power buttons are well placed, about ⅔ of the way up the sides. I’m not a huge fan of the chrome trim around the screen, I had gotten used to the generic black slab that is the Nexus 5. At least it has some personality in the design which the Nexus does not.

Performance and Battery Life
The first thing to show up after it powered up was a force close screen. I got this with the latest Cyanogen nightly build on my N5 as well. It can only get better from there I thought... Fortunately the setup continued without a hitch and I moved on to installing and updating my apps. I opted not to restore my apps automatically as I find Google is horrible at remembering what was actually installed on my last device, installing apps from ages ago that were only on my old device for minutes. I find navigating the Play store and initiating app downloads is a pretty good non-scientific benchmark for overall phone performance. Lesser devices, even the Nexus 5 tend to choke a bit once you start searching for and queuing up app downloads. There was none of that with the One, it practically downloaded and installed every app as fast I could find them. I began the arduous task of opening each new app and inputting my credentials. This too was super duper quick with nary a sign of jank. I’ve only had the phone for a few days but I can say the battery life is superior to that of the Nexus. With normal to moderate usage I estimate I will able to make it about 1.5 days. With heavy screen usage I’ve found the battery does drain at mere mortal phone rates. I was hoping my battery experience to be analogous to that of my Galaxy Note 2, unfortunately it’s not but it’s still greater than the Nexus 5. The battery gets a pass in my book, hopefully it will become much better once Android L hits Cyanogenmod.

Usability
Cyanogenmod is more than just a way to get “stock” Android on old devices. After using it on my Nexus 5 for a while and now on the OnePlus One it’s disappointing to go back to truly stock Android. The various customizations and tweaks offered in CM embody the spirit of Android. It’s great that root access and tons of third party apps are not needed to get things as simple as a numerical battery percentage icon, a reboot option, and custom themes. The CM camera app is way better than those in Google and AOSP builds. It offers lots of control and useful options right at your fingertips, without needing to dig through menus. Speaking of the camera, its image quality seems to be somewhat better than the Nexus 5 but it won’t be winning any awards. Probably the biggest bonus of the OnePlus and CM over the Nexus 5 is the ability to eschew the on-screen, permanent navigation buttons. One would think this isn’t a big deal but it’s amazing how much bigger the overall real estate of the screen feels without those pixels needlessly wasted. I understand Google wants to control the Android experience from top to bottom, making navigation controls consistent from device to device is an important piece of that. I can deal with the back and menu buttons being in different places when I upgrade phones, at least give me the choice.

My biggest concern in the long run with the OnePlus One is how frequently it will be updated. You can’t just go out to CM and grab the latest nightly, nor would you want to. OnePlus needs to put in their drivers and tweaks to make it work well with the hardware. I know once Android L hits I’ll be jonesing something fierce for that increased battery life and swanky Material design. As a former Nexus owner it’s easy to get spoiled by getting updates straight from the source as they are announced. Fortunately Android (and all mobile OSes for that matter) is a mature platform, even major revisions come with marginal increases in stability and function. I just need to convince myself that newer isn’t always better. For $299 it’s easier to overlook some nice-to-haves other flagship phones sport such as wireless charging and a dust/water resistance rating. It feels very well-built and is a handsome device. It has also been rock solid other than the hiccup I experienced in the initial setup. It will be interesting to see what Google has in store for the next Nexus phone iteration though they’ve been quiet as usual on timing, specs or even the existence of the phone itself. I would recommend the OnePlus One to anyone looking for a top tier unlocked device at this particular moment. You can’t touch the performance to dollar ratio and native Cyanogenmod is the icing on the cake.