Bullet-point 2015 MacBook quick review

The list below reflects the 1.2 GHz/512GB SSD model of the 2015 MacBook.  I mostly use it for web browsing, taking notes, research, and writing, so keep my use case in mind.

  • Performance is great on El Capitan.  Scrolling through photo-heavy sites in Safari suffered a bit in Yosemite.  That was resolved in El Cap.  The Core M CPU was really the only tradeoff on this computer that I wasn’t sure would be a non-issue, and so far, so good.  Future OS X updates will tell if this holds true.
  • It’s so thin and light that sometimes it’s hard to believe there’s a fully-functioning computer in there.
  • Battery life is amazing. 9-10 hours and can be recharged from a battery pack and a USB-A to USB-C cable if you need more absolute portability for some reason.
  • The keyboard is a love it or hate it thing.  I love it, despite the lack of travel.  If you don’t like it immediately, I’d say give it a day or so of casual use.  It’s very satisfyingly clicky.
    • Note: Of the ~60,000 words into the novel I’m currently writing, I’d estimate a third or so was written on the MacBook.  So, I have used it substantially.
  • If you try to run a game on it, it’s going to get pretty hot.  I don’t know why you’d buy an ultraportable laptop to game on, but Steam in-home streaming actually works amazingly well if you have a decent PC to stream from.  I played Fallout 4 for a few hours like this on ultra-high settings.
  • The trackpad is incredible.  Apple has always had the best trackpads in the business and they keep making them better.  Easily the best trackpad I’ve ever used, twice as good as the one on my 2010 MacBook Pro.
    • Note: Force touch is neat, but kind of gimmicky other than to allow the laptop to be so thin.
  • The display is gorgeous, exactly what I’d expect out of a pixel-dense Apple display.  I usually keep it around 60% brightness just because it’s so bright.
  • I’ve used the USB-C port with an adapter only one time in a month and a half (to install Windows).  Having one port is a non-issue for me.
    • Note: USB-C is awesome.
  • I haven’t even used the webcam, so the 480p resolution is a non-issue for me.  No other comments there.
  • The hinge and magnets are so utterly perfect.  The machine opens and closes with exactly the right amount of resistance.  Apple’s attention to detail really shines in these kinds of things.
  • This machine is kind of stupidly expensive.  I only bought it because of some great promos on my Discover card that allowed me to save about $500 off of the retail price of $1599.
    • Note: The less expensive/cheapest model is $1299, which is honestly still a bit much, even for the model I got.  But, you know…Apple.
  • Filed under most surprising feature: the speakers are phenomenal, especially given the amount of space they’re in.  Seriously, they sound better than the speakers on my 2010 MBP by a long shot.
  • I got Space Gray, and it’s a super cool color for a MacBook.  The Gold (which is actually more “champagne”) is surprisingly nice and much more subtle than you’d expect in person (this would’ve been my second choice in color).

Random thoughts on Android, iOS, and Windows Phone

  • There is a lot to be said about how open a platform is.  There are many positives, but also negatives. In Android’s case, I think the positives do outweigh the negatives.
  • Apps are better on iOS.  Period.  Many Android apps feel like an afterthought.
  • Even though you can swipe from the left to go back in most iOS apps, having a dedicated back button is still better since it technically does more than just go back.
  • Windows Phone still destroys Android and iOS in usability.
  • For how much people complain and poke fun at Apple when an iOS update is a bit buggy, Android 5.0 sure is full of bugs…
  • Overall, I think the App Store on iOS is a “better experience,” but Google Play wins hands down on functionality. It’s really nice to be able to tell an app to install on a different device.
  • The ads you get in Android apps remind me a lot of ads targeted to Windows users.  “Computer slow? Download Android phone sweeper!” “Clear your phone of viruses!” So dumb, but one of those negatives of a more open platform.
  • The Bluetooth stack on Android definitely seems to be not quite as good as it is on iOS, but I also have more Bluetooth devices paired to my phone than ever. When/if Google releases Android Wear on iOS, I’d really like to put this to the test.
  • Live tiles on Windows Phone are still the best home screen experience I’ve used to date.
  • Not being able to put icons where you want on the iOS home screen is just stupid.
  • The updating situation on Android is spectacularly broken.  It’s really annoying, and Google/handset manufacturers need to fix this somehow.
  • The approach that Google takes to Google apps and Microsoft takes to Microsoft apps is way better than the approach Apple takes to Apple apps.  I don’t want crap taking up space on my phone that I’ll never use. Let me delete it.
  • I will never understand putting core UI functionality at the top edge/corners of the screen.  Every developer on every platform, first and third party, stop this crap.
  • Google needs to do something about Android’s battery life, which is no doubt linked to memory usage, which is another negative of a more open platform. I get that Android has real multitasking, but needing double/triple the RAM of an iPhone for an Android handset to perform similarly is kind of ridiculous.  Maybe this is unrealistic, but I wish there was a “best of both worlds” solution.

HTC One M8 for Windows and Windows Phone 8.1 review

HTC box

My first smartphone was an HTC Excalibur that ran Windows Mobile 5.  If you missed out on that whole generation of smartphones – the ones with physical keyboards that predated the first iPhone – you didn’t miss much.  The phone hardware wasn’t stellar, and Windows Mobile was a huge pile of garbage – and that’s putting it nicely.

But that was a long time ago.  Back when you could have a smartphone without a data plan on AT&T, and back before Steve Jobs prank called that employee at Starbucks.  The reigning kings in those days were Windows Mobile, Palm OS, and Blackberry.  Ah, how the times have changed.  Now Android is the best-selling mobile OS, and Windows holds somewhere in the ~3.5% marketshare range.  Yikes.

Judging from that number, you can probably tell that Microsoft missed the ball on mobile.  However, the case here is interesting; it’s not that their foray into the space is awful, it’s just that they were late to the game.  Whereas Windows Mobile was more aimed toward enterprise, Windows Phone is more aimed toward consumers, which means Microsoft didn’t even have a hand in the game until their Windows Phone 7 operating system launched in October of 2010, slightly more than 3 years after the first iPhone, and 2 years after the HTC Dream – the first Android smartphone – hit the market.

To put that in perspective, the general consensus on the HTC Dream – also known as the T-Mobile G1 – was that it sucked.  In fact, that was the consensus on Android for a while.  So even if you were of the opinion that Android wasn’t a real competitor to iOS until 2009, Windows Phone still missed the boat by a whole year.  But hey, Microsoft isn’t exactly known for their foresight.  Who were they to be able to predict the rise of mobile?  Or that desktop OS users without a touchscreen wouldn’t like being forced to use a touchscreen interface?

That’s your tech history lesson for today.  But the story doesn’t stop there, of course, otherwise this would be a pretty terrible review of the HTC One M8 for Windows.

Yep, it's pretty.

Yep, it’s pretty.

The hardware for the HTC One M8 was originally released as an Android phone, and for whatever, reason, they decided to port Windows Phone 8.1 to it and release it with a longer name about 4 months later (or 7 months later if you didn’t have Verizon).  Most reviews have been positive about the hardware, and I’d generally agree with those.  The phone is easier to hold than the iPhone 6 due to the flat sides and the curved back, but it is also slightly more difficult to remove from some pockets (and I mean slightly).  Build quality seems absolutely exceptional.

One of the most important things to many people looking to buy a smartphone is the camera, or more importantly, the quality of pictures the camera takes.  I know image quality is an issue with many Android phones, but not with iPhones and most Windows Phones, by which I mean Lumias.  But the M8 isn’t a Lumia.

HTC back

Two cameras, double LED flash, and one nicely etched “Windows Phone” logo.

I am the wrong person to ask about cameras, so I’ll only say that the duo lens camera system seems to work pretty well, despite the low 4 MP spec on the rear cameras (the front camera is 5 MP).  That said, I understand that there are far more important things than Megapixels past a certain point, but I don’t take enough pictures with my M8 since I always have my iPhone 6 on me, and the iPhone is widely considered to be the best way to capture pictures with a phone (by many even better than the Lumia 1020) due to some kind of fancy image processing that I won’t pretend to understand.

 

 

 

 

So, rather than typing more about it, I’ll let you decide.  The following pictures were taken at the same time, at the same place – one with my iPhone 6, and the other with the M8 – with the phones held side-by-side.

iPhone 6

iPhone 6

HTC One M8 for Windows

HTC One M8 for Windows

Looking at those pictures side-by-side on their respective phones, I thought the iPhone was the clear winner.  Looking at them side-by-side on the same display, I think it’s interesting to note that the iPhone 6 photo looks better overall, but truth be told, the color of the paint on the wall is more accurate in the M8 picture.  The clarity appears the same to me, it’s just that the HTC’s lighting feels off.

I am of the (probably unpopular) opinion that speakers on phones (and also on tablets) should go wherever they need to go to make the device as thin as possible or some other functional reason, so HTC’s BoomSound speakers are kind of lost on me.  Do people really sit around watching movies or listening to music on phone/tablet speakers?  It’s almost a given you’re going to use headphones for that, and it doesn’t really matter where the speakers are if you’re just watching a 2 minute clip on YouTube.  Maybe it helps if you use speakerphone a lot, but I use that on my iPhone with no issues, and I can hear my Nexus 7 just fine.

M8 bottom

The headphone jack is weirdly close to the edge.

The bottom of the phone has the microUSB port for charging and syncing, as well as the headphone jack.  As much as I love and am willing to pay for the iPhone’s lightning cable simply because it’s reversible, microUSB isn’t particularly bad.  Of course, the best thing it’s got going for it is that it isn’t proprietary and I can use my Nexus 7 charger on my M8, or vice versa.

One of my favorite features about the HTC hardware besides the all metal body is the tap-to-wake feature.  Hold the phone, double tap the screen, and the phone wakes up.  On the flip side, that feature doesn’t work too well if the phone is lying on a desk.  I kind of feel like HTC is screwing with us by putting the sleep/wake button on the top, where every other manufacturer with a phone over 4″ has moved the button to the side, which is where the M8’s volume rocker button is.  I have frustratingly hit the volume and sleep buttons at the same time far too many times, and on Windows Phone, that just so happens to take a screenshot.  So I take a lot of accidental screenshots.

M8 top

Sleep/wake button and the IR port.

The M8 has a microSD slot on the side, which I’ll never need since this thing has 32 GB of internal storage, and I don’t keep music on it.  So, it’s there if you need it; however, if I could have more battery life, or if they could’ve slimmed down the phone a bit by not including it, I’d rather it not be there.  That’s kind of also how I feel about the IR port at the top, but I think I’d feel differently if Windows Phone had a bigger marketplace.  I kind of almost have to use the included HTC Sense TV app, and it doesn’t appear to have support for changing inputs on a TV, which is really the #2 thing I need a TV remote for, right after power, and right before volume control.  But on the other hand, even if it’s convenient to have, if you’re sitting next to a remote control, why would you pick up your phone, unlock it, open an app, swipe over to the proper control screen, and then finally have access to what you need?  That’s as opposed to picking up the remote control and pressing a button.  Heck, it’s probably easier to use the remote even if you have to walk across the room to get it.

Finally, before I touch on the software, I wanted to touch on the 5″ screen.  The M8 has 441 pixels per inch.  If you’re more familiar with the iPhone side of things, the 4.7″ iPhone 6 has 326 ppi, and the 5.5″ iPhone 6 Plus has 401 ppi.  Holding the M8 side by side with my iPhone 6 and looking at the same content, or just casually browsing different content on each phone, I cannot tell that there’s a difference in ppi.  In fact, the only difference I can see is that the iPhone 6 is brighter with both phones set to maximum screen brightness.  I won’t touch on color accuracy, because to be quite honest, colors have to be way off for me to notice that sort of thing.  The M8 screen appears to accurately display colors, and overall it presents a pleasant viewing experience.

And a final note on resolution and ppi that is less about the M8 and more about this new wave of Quad HD Android phones:  at a certain ppi, you literally cannot tell the difference.  As long as a screen maintains a ppi above the level that the human eye can distinguish pixels from each other, there’s really no reason to go higher unless you’re just looking for a good way to decrease battery life.  720p/1080p is cool, but I’m not seeing a good reason for QHD to exist on phones.  If battery life wasn’t such an issue to most people, sure, why not?  But battery life is an issue, and adding useless pixels to a display provides an overall net loss to usability.  And on that note of battery life, my M8, which is synced with Exchange, seems about on par with my iPhone 5 that was also synced with Exchange.  I only mention Exchange because that seems to decrease battery life a good bit from my experience.

And that brings me to the Windows Phone 8.1 portion of this review.

iOS grid

The relatively boring iOS 8 grid of icons.

One of my least favorite things about iOS is the “grid of icons” paradigm: a fixed grid with static icons that you can’t even leave space between.  It’s like Apple has the mentality of a school assembly, making kids fill in all the chairs, as if it would be so terrible to be able to place an icon wherever you want, rather than having to put it after whatever the last icon is.  But really, that’s the least important of the reasons that I dislike Apple’s approach to the home screen.  The problem there is that it is completely static and treats every app that isn’t in the dock as an equal.

I can’t glean any information from the home screen.  Any useful information is in the notification area, which I have to swipe down to see.  It’s also just incredibly boring.  Android solves this problem by allowing widgets right on the desktop.

The tile paradigm is simply beautiful.

The tile paradigm is simply beautiful.

Windows Phone, on the other hand, tackles this issue with Live Tiles.  The tiles are icons that launch an app, and you can resize them from small to large.  If the developer has enabled a live tile for that app, the tile will display some relevant information to you.  For example, the email tile will display part of an email message.  The weather tile will display the weather.  Better yet, these tiles aren’t bound to single, static grid.  They’re still on a grid, but it’s customizable.  You can skip spaces, you can skip half-spaces, you can make groups of small tiles together next to a medium tile, you can surround a large tile with small tiles…really, it’s the best implementation of a home screen that I’ve seen.  For more important apps like email, you give it a large tile so you can see more information in the live tile or access it more easily, and for less important apps, you give it a small tile so it won’t take up as much screen real estate.  Also, you can set a nice wallpaper and make your icons transparent, which can make for a really aesthetically pleasing home screen.

iOS and Android both group settings by commonality.  Windows Phone also does this, but the difference is that iOS delimits the sections with spaces and Android delimits the sections with headings.  Windows Phone is just one massive list of settings, which makes it more difficult than it should be to find whatever it is that you’re looking for.

Windows Phone 8, Android Kit Kat, iOS 8 settings menus side-by-side

Windows Phone 8.1, Android Kit Kat, iOS 8 settings menus side-by-side

Strangely enough, Android is probably the winner here because the sections are labeled.

I don't understand the design decision here at all.

I don’t understand the design decision here at all.

Windows Phone has three screen brightness settings: low, medium, and high.  There is no in between, no granularity.  This is…puzzling.  On my iPhone, I usually leave my screen brightness as high as it’ll go and manually turn it down as necessary, so while it’s bothersome, it’s not a huge deal.

The design language that Windows Phone encourages makes for a lot of wasted space.  I like the larger headings strewn throughout the OS, but this language has translated over to developers using it in ways that takes up screen real estate in unnecessary ways.  I am totally unfamiliar with Microsoft documentation/APIs or how/if they encourage third party developers to follow this design language, but to make an app that looks like it belongs on Windows Phone, it’s kind of what you’d have to do, so that’s why I say that Windows Phone encourages it.

Windows Phone has a navigation bar like Android on the bottom of the screen, but Windows Phone lets you hide it by default.  Also, instead of a multitasking button (or whatever your fragmented or skinned version of Android has for the third button in the bar), Windows Phone has a search button that you can use to type or speak questions to Cortana, which is Microsoft’s virtual assistant, like Siri or Google Now.  Cortana is, of course, the AI from Halo, which is pretty cool if you ask me.  I haven’t used Cortana much, but I also don’t use Siri or Google Now much.

To activate multitasking, you hold down the back button in the navigation bar.  This is how you can close apps, but apparently if you press the back button after you open an app, that’ll also close it.  I’m not sure that all apps behave like that from my experience, but that’s what I read when I first got the phone.

And speaking of apps, I guess that brings me to what is the most disappointing thing about Windows Phone – not only the lack of apps, but the lack of love that the apps get.  It’s not solely Microsoft’s fault, but it is a part of the platform that is hard to ignore.  The big names are there – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Hulu Plus, Netflix – but the Instagram app is still in beta, Microsoft makes the Facebook app, and neither Hulu Plus nor Netflix support Chromecast – a feature that iOS and Android have had on their respective Hulu and Netflix apps since Chromecast launched.  Google won’t make apps for Windows Phone because they don’t want to legitimize the platform, and when Microsoft created a really stellar YouTube app, Google flat out broke the app on their end for what amounts to bullcrap reasons (“Don’t be evil,” right Google?).  So Windows Phone doesn’t have an official YouTube app.  Microsoft did the best they could and released an app that is essentially a launcher for the YouTube mobile site, and there are many third party YouTube apps (and that’s also the case for Instagram and Snapchat apps), but many of these third party apps are lacking and just aren’t as good as the official apps are on other platforms.

It’s really sad, because despite what Google would have you think, Windows Phone is is a truly legitimate platform.  Google is playing the game though, and so is Microsoft, which is why nearly everything Microsoft is releasing these days is cross-platform.  I have OneDrive installed on literally every device that I own and use: my desktop that runs Windows 8.1, my Surface Pro 3, my MacBook Pro, my iPhone 6, my Nexus 7, and of course, my HTC One M8 for Windows.

I’ve always thought of phone operating systems like this: people that want the cheapest thing available or that love to tinker with their gadgets buy Android phones, people that want something that just works buy an iPhone.  This is also how Microsoft apparently sees the market, as almost all of their Windows Phone marketing targets the iPhone and touts how great Cortana is and how it “just works.”  And, honestly, I’d agree.  If I were buying a smartphone for my parents (who do not currently and have never used smartphones), I certainly wouldn’t buy them an Android phone.  They both have iPad experience, so I know they could easily learn to use an iPhone, but with a Windows Phone, I could make 2 giant tiles – Phone and Messaging – and there would be nothing to confuse them, nothing unnecessary on the screen.  It’s the perfect phone OS for simplicity, while maintaining its ability to satisfy the needs of a power user (but probably not a tinkerer).

So at the end of the day, if you asked me to switch to Windows Phone and completely give up my iPhone, I couldn’t do it.  Not because of some shortcoming of the Windows Phone OS, but simply because the app ecosystem is just so utterly lacking.  Truly, if Windows Phone had an app ecosystem as big as Apple’s or Google’s, the matter of switching to Windows Phone would be a much more difficult one to make, but as is, I just couldn’t – and man, is that a disappointing thing to have to admit.  Microsoft has done a really excellent job at crafting a fantastic consumer phone operating system, but they just can’t seem to get proper acknowledgement from third party developers.  And who can blame those developers, with Microsoft’s tiny marketshare?  Small marketshare > less reason to develop apps > consumers don’t buy Windows Phone because of poor app marketplace > repeat.  It’s an unfortunate cycle.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Review

Microsoft has never been particularly good at marketing.  I actually can’t recall any good commercials for anything Windows-related.  Maybe there’s been some good Xbox commercials, but as far as Windows or Microsoft in general goes, all I can think of is that commercial with Jerry Seinfeld and the churros.  Or the Windows Mojave one where they tricked people into saying good things about Vista.

Honestly, I hate the commercials that Microsoft has been airing for the Surface Pro 3, I hate the way they introduced it, and I hate their website for it.  “Hey world, here’s a 13″ MacBook Air, and here’s the 12″ Surface Pro 3.  These two machines are nothing alike and not even in the same product category, so you should buy a Surface!”  If I want a computer with a touchscreen, I’m not even considering a MacBook Air, so why compare the two?  And vice versa, if I’m wanting an actual laptop, I’m not considering a computer that’s slightly awkward to use in your lap.

My SP3That said, Microsoft may be terrible at marketing, but in the hardware/software space, they’ve actually been up to some interesting things lately.  I really like some of their new applications (they may just be the most cross compatible on the market), and well, to get to the point, I bought a Surface Pro 3.  Not to replace my laptop, but because it’s a cool device.  So let’s get into that.

The Surface Pro 3, which I will refer to mostly as the SP3 from here on out, is not a laptop.  It’s also not a tablet.  It’s a hybrid, convertible device that does a little bit of both.  It’s not the best laptop, nor is it the best tablet, but as a hybrid device, it is really the best of both worlds in a very neat little package.  So what use case does it have?  Well, I have two tablets – an original iPad and a 2013 LTE Nexus 7.  I really don’t use the iPad any more, partially because it’s old, but also because I never really found a place for it in my life.  It is too big to comfortably hold for a long period of time, and in the end, I just found it more productive to use my laptop.  My Nexus 7 is a different story, mostly because I can hold it with one hand easily.  It’s light, powerful, and allows me to be just productive enough to where my laptop usually isn’t necessary unless I need to do serious typing (like writing this article) or use software that just isn’t available on Android.

Kickstand

Kickstand deployed with Type Cover magnetically attached to lower part of screen for angled typing mode

With that in mind, where does the SP3 fit in, being even larger and slightly heavier than my original iPad?  I can answer that question with a simple statement: the kickstand is killer.  Yes, you can probably buy a case for whatever tablet you own that’ll prop it up, but it won’t be as good as the SP3’s kickstand.  Because of kickstand, I can use the SP3 in my lap hands free.  I can’t even do that with my tiny little Nexus 7.  And not only does that mean no fatigue from holding the device, it also means I have two hands free to interact with the SP3’s big, beautiful display.  So, if anything, the SP3 is really – in my life, at least – a killer tablet replacement… that just so happens to be a pretty decent laptop also.

Type Cover flat

Type cover flat on the table, kickstand just a tad farther back

Now, let’s get this part out of the way: how easy is it to use the SP3 in your lap like a laptop?  Simple answer is… it’s a little awkward.  If you pop in the Type Cover and snap the magnetic part to the screen (as seen in the picture above), it’s not really that bad, but the keyboard still flexes around, and with the cover right there, you really can’t swipe up from the bottom of the SP3’s screen anymore to perform any touch gestures, which is frustrating.  I really do like the flexibility of the new Type Cover for allowing that angled keyboard mode, but I actually prefer typing with the cover flat down.  It honestly feels better to me, especially when the SP3 is on a desk.

Type CoverThe Type Cover, aside from the above, is kind of remarkable.  The keys have very little throw in them, which is a little disturbing at first, but I got used to it pretty quickly.  The touch pad is great, which isn’t something I could say about previous Surface Type Covers.  Really, if the touch pad were a bit bigger, it would probably be the best touch pad I’ve ever used on a PC, but here, size is really the limiting factor.  Sorry Microsoft, if you’re going to compare, Apple is still king of touch pads.  One thing I wish I’d have done differently here is to go with a blue Type Cover rather than the cyan.  Cyan is really probably the best looking one, but it’s also the lightest one, and light colors show dirt more easily.  Didn’t really think that one through.  You can clean these things, apparently, but that sounds a bit frightening, what with how water and expensive electronics typically don’t mix too well.

Yes I took a picture of my screen instead of a screenshot, and you can DEAL WITH IT

Yes I took a picture of my screen instead of a screenshot, and you can DEAL WITH IT

The pen is really nice, but it’s kind of a gimmick.  If you’re an artist or a student, I’m sure it’s amazing for drawing or note taking.  I can recall many times in college where just typing notes in Word on my laptop was insufficient, and being able to draw in a quick little diagram or figure would’ve come in handy.  But usefulness aside, it’s really a quality accessory.  There is barely any lag while writing with it, and when all is said and done, it almost looks like my handwriting does on paper.  Plus, when you use the pen, the SP3 is smart enough to know to ignore input from your palm, so you can rest your hand on the screen while writing or drawing.  For storage, the pen either goes in this flimsy little loop that comes with the Type Cover and attaches to it via some adhesive, or you can stick it upside down to the side of the SP3 where the magnetic charger plugs in, but of course, that only works when the charger isn’t plugged in.  Oh, also, push that little purple bottom on the top no matter if the SP3 is asleep or awake and bam, it launches OneNote.  Nifty.

Attached magnetically to the charging port

Attached magnetically to the charging port

Speaking of the charger, the power brick for this thing has a USB port on it.  That… is… amazing.  It’s so simple, yet so obvious.  Every device, regardless of the number of USB ports, should have this.  Yes, the SP3 is limited to one USB port and having that extra one for charging is great, but it also charges faster than a computer’s USB port.  One or two USB ports is pretty standard these days on non-enterprise targeted laptops, with how thin things are getting.

SP3 charger (left), 2010 MBP charger (right)

SP3 charger (left), 2010 MBP charger (right)

As far as the actual charger plug goes, it’s kind of like Apple’s Magsafe adapter (again, Microsoft, you’ve invited all of these comparisons), except it’s… deeper?  Like, the part that snaps into the computer is longer and has more depth than a Magsafe adapter.  I don’t really give a shit if it looks, feels, and acts exactly like a Magsafe adapter as long as it works, because Magsafe is a good product.  I feel like because of the depth, it might not come out as easily as Magsafe, which means more potential to pull the cord at just the wrong angle and fling the Surface off of the table, but that’s really just speculation.  Either way, I like the design, because like I said, Magsafe is great.  Everything should have these types of power adapters.

The speakers are kind of bleh, but really, what can you expect?  At least they’re front-facing.  And here’s a neat example of Microsoft’s attention to detail: when you press the Windows logo on the side of the screen, the device gives a little tactile feedback.  I think – but am not sure – that maybe they’re sending a very low, inaudible frequency to the speakers to vibrate the device, but I’m not sure.  Either way, it’s a satisfying feature.

The front and rear facing cameras are both 5 MP, and they’re both pretty underwhelming.  Not that I really care though, as I don’t use the camera on my laptop or my tablets often, so I doubt I’ll use it on the SP3 that much, especially when I have an iPhone 6 and an HTC One M8 For Windows (review on that coming soon) to take pictures with.

The display on the SP3 doesn’t have the same high PPI count as most newer tablets and phones, and is just a smidgen lower than the retina MacBook Pros, but it is gorgeous.  When I go from the SP3 to my 2010 MacBook Pro, the difference is so strikingly apparent that it kind of hurts (in that oh so first-world-problems way).  I like the 12″ form factor; I think it’s a good size… for a tablet.  For a laptop, yes, still a good size, as long as you have an external display (which the SP3 can easily do) or a desktop to accompany it.

Build quality on the SP3 (Type Cover aside) seems very solid.  I really can’t get over how sturdy the kickstand feels, though I feel like either that or the charger fraying will be the first thing to go, but hey, that’s why I bought Microsoft Complete!  And speaking of Complete, which is the extended and accidental damage warranty for the Surface, it’s $150 for 2 total years, and covers two accidents with a $49 deductible each time.  If you are the type that actually makes accidental damage claims, that works out better than AppleCare for an iPad.

microSD slot (left), kinetic hinge (right)

microSD slot (left), kinetic hinge (right)

Performance has been great so far, but I haven’t really pushed it.  I got the Core i5 128 GB model, which comes with 4 GB of RAM.  These days, I wouldn’t buy a laptop with less than 8 GB of RAM, especially if the RAM isn’t user-replaceable, but the way Microsoft has spec’d out the SP3 line is very… limiting (I’ll get to that in a minute).  If you start hitting high CPU or RAM, the SP3’s fan will kick on, and the device will get hot, especially around the top.  You can feel it more on the back, but the heat is actually very noticeable through the screen.  It cools off surprisingly fast, though, once you stop pegging out the CPU/RAM.  The fan is noticeable, but it’s pretty quiet (if you’re comparing it to a laptop).  I haven’t really felt limited by the specs of the SP3 I bought.  Honestly, I could’ve been very happy with 64 GB of storage since the SP3 has a microSD slot under the kickstand for easy and basically invisible storage expansion (albeit, much slower to read and write to/from), but the upgrade to 128 GB and a Core i5 processor was worth the extra $200.

Which brings me to what is really my biggest gripe about the Surface, and that is its pricing.  The Core i3 64 GB model is $799, Type Cover not included.  I think it’s dumb to bash Microsoft for not including the Type Cover, so I won’t.  Choice is good, some people might not want the Type Cover, so why pay more for them to include it?  So at $799, you’re looking at a 64 GB tablet.  A 64 GB iPad Air 2 is going to run you $600, if you’re going to compare tablets, but there are such huge differences between the two that it’s hard to compare, just like there are huge differences between the SP3 and the MacBook Air – the comparison that Microsoft would have you make.  It’s very difficult to say what I think the SP3 should cost, but… it feels too expensive.  When I said that Microsoft had really limited the configurations available for the SP3, I said so because model to model, the differences are storage and processor-based.  You can’t get a Core i5 model with 128 GB of storage and 8 GB of RAM.  If you want 8 GB of RAM, you have to get the Core i5 256 GB model, which costs $300 more.  Now, maybe I’m alone here, I can and did pay $200 more for a CPU upgrade and double the storage, but $300 for the same CPU, double the RAM, and double the storage?  Yeah, that’s a bit much, especially when – for what the SP3 is – 256 GB of storage seems pretty unnecessary.  I have a microSD card, One Drive, Google Drive, Drop Box, external hard drives…I really don’t need 256 GB of storage on a tablet.  Oh, but Microsoft says this is a laptop, so I guess that’s why.  And, if this was a laptop, I’d probably want 256 GB of storage, but it’s not.

Extra room required by kickstand not a problem in my lap, but I'm 6'1"

Extra room required by kickstand not a problem in my lap, but I’m 6’1″

So let’s get into that, just so we’re clear on why the SP3 is not a laptop.  If you are short, you have a short lap.  If you are in school and are in a lecture hall, you may have used those “desks” with the writing areas that are just big enough for a small Scantron sheet and just about nothing else.  If you’ve flown, you’ve seen how small tray tables are.  All of these are places you could use a laptop (even on those crappy lecture hall desks), but not a Surface Pro 3.  With the kickstand, the SP3 needs extra room to be able to stand up.  There is no hinge, so no friction.  Without being at an obtuse angle to the Type Cover, the SP3 will collapse onto the Type Cover.  I wouldn’t have much of an issue will calling the SP3 a “notebook” computer, because it actually kind of feels more like a notebook than a laptop does, and I was never really a big fan of calling laptops “notebooks.” Names should reflect characteristics, right?

By the way, the SP3 maxes out at $1,949 for a Core i7 and 512 GB of storage.  That is really, truly premium laptop pricing for a device that I can’t consider a laptop.  Generally speaking, I feel like each configuration of the SP3 should be about $200 less than they retail for.  That said, I don’t regret spending the money I spent on mine, it’s just an observation on pricing.  I feel nearly identical about MacBook Pros (finally, a commonality!), but the reason people still buy both of these devices is simple: they stand nearly alone in what they do.  No matter how close the hardware competition is for MacBook Pros, those competitors don’t run OS X, and that’s one of the key selling points.  Similarly, there’s just not another device out there that does what the SP3 does as gracefully as Microsoft’s own device.  Lenovo’s Yoga Pro 3 may come close, but whereas the Surface is more of a tablet than a laptop, the Yoga is more of a laptop than a tablet.  Similar, but different.

Windows is not so good at text scaling, sometimes (left) and pretty good at it other times (right)

Windows is not so good at text scaling, sometimes (left) and pretty good at it other times (right)

Now, here’s the surprise for this review: Windows 8.1 is brilliant on this thing.  I know, this should be obvious, but really, wow.  Windows 8.1 shines on touchscreen devices, way more than you’d think.  I love running “modern” (previously called “metro”) applications on this thing.  I love the live tiles and I love playing with arranging them just right.  If Microsoft had released Windows 8 for touchscreens and only included the new start screen there, leaving the old style start menu on a separate version of Windows 8 for non-touch devices, Windows 8 would’ve been a smash hit.  Like, wow.  It’s so freaking good I can’t even believe it.  It’s not perfect (get your text scaling game on point in desktop mode, Microsoft!), but man, is it good!  The Windows app store is kind of barren, but the big names like Facebook and Twitter both have truly remarkable apps there that are worth using over just visiting in a browser.  Now if only Google would stop pretending like Microsoft doesn’t exist…

Have I mentioned how freaking cool this kickstand is?

Have I mentioned how freaking cool this kickstand is?

I don’t want to give the Surface Pro 3 a __ out of 10-style rating.  Not now, at least.  I want to use this thing much more extensively and get a feel for how this device will continue to integrate in my life, especially since I don’t plan on giving up my laptop any time soon.  I was planning on buying a new MacBook Pro or Air next year, but now I’m sort of putting that on the backburner – not because the SP3 has taken its place, but because I don’t want to spend that much money on computers in such a short amount of time.  For right now, I will just say that the Surface Pro 3 is a very solid device that really brings “cool” back to Microsoft, so to speak.  This odd “convertible” category is in such infancy at this point that I can’t say the SP3 is a slam dunk purchase for anyone looking for a tablet or a laptop, but if you understand the caveats of this category and you’re on the edge, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.  Truly, the Surface is closer to being what I wanted out of the original iPad than anything else on the market; an awesome tablet that also runs a full-fledged operating system.

Nexus 7/Android initial review

I’ve been considering a Nexus 7 install in my car for multiple reasons: as I’ve mentioned, the standard nav unit in the BRZ is terrible for basically everything, and to be able to put an updateable and clean replacement in there would be sweet.  Most head units have resistive touchscreens, and they’re just terrible.  That, plus the lure of a tech challenge, drew me into wanting to try the car install.  Then, T-Mobile went and announced 200 MB of free data per month to any tablet owner, so I bit the bullet and bought a 2nd generation Nexus 7 with LTE.  I am still planning on putting it in my car, but I did end up liking it a lot for it’s intended purpose as a non-car device.

This is my first Android device, so I will be comparing it a lot to iOS.  I’ve never had an Android device because I never had a desire for one, and the car install was really the perfect application of Android, as iOS is simply not as customizable as I would need it to be.

First, the hardware is really solid.  It feels like a good device when you hold it, and that’s important to me.  It’s light and thin, and it’s easy to hold with one hand or easy to type on with two hands the same way I’d type on my phone.  My first generation iPad is not easy to hold with one hand, nor is it easy to type on in that orientation.  The 7″ form factor may be a little small for some people, but it is honestly the perfect size to hold.  In comparison, I went to the Apple store today and held an iPad mini, and it felt just a little too wide.  Not a big deal for two-handed typing, but it is harder to hold with one hand unless you have huge hands.

The Nexus 7 does not have any physical buttons other than the sleep/wake button and the volume button.  This makes the face of the device harder to orient if you’re picking it up when the screen is off, and it is also pretty inconvenient to have to press the sleep/wake button on the side to wake the screen.  I think the device could benefit from a front button to give the user some orientation of top and bottom, and also to wake the screen with less effort.

As far as the operating system goes, I’m still getting used to it and I’m constantly picking out little details that I like or don’t like.  For example, to select a space between characters in iOS, you have to place your finger over the space and a little magnifying glass pops up under your finger so you can see what you’re selecting.  Oftentimes, this turns out to be highly inaccurate, and right as I find the space I want to select, I let go and the selection changes at the last second.  On Android, you begin the same way, but an arrow is placed under the space.  You simply let go and drag the arrow to the space you want to select.  This is, in my opinion, a vastly superior way to handle this task.

The touch screen is very accurate on the Nexus 7, and the device is very speedy, but yet, scrolling seems jumpy, and zooming oftentimes is not very smooth.  On iOS, scrolling and zooming are booth fluid.  It may seem like a little thing, but this honestly needs refinement on Android.

The Google Play store is…interesting.  The first app I tried to download turned out to be a trial app, and I didn’t even realize it until I opened the app.  This is my fault for not completely reading the description, but it took me by surprise.  Some of the apps are ridiculously sketchy, too.  I downloaded a live wallpaper that – when I opened it – would’ve made me scared if it was a website and I was on a PC using Internet Explorer.  It looked and felt like malware.  This is just not an experience you get on iOS, which, of course, has its ups and downs.  Apple’s “walled garden” is nice for feeling safe, even if you know that some things can still slip by Apple.  You also know you’re not getting a shitty app, for the most part.  It may not be a good app, but it won’t look and feel like malware.  This, of course, also means Apple can say no to a lot of really good apps for whatever reason they want, which is bad.  On Android, you don’t have to even use the Google Play store to install apps.

Many apps instantly pop up a changelog when you open them on Android.  In iOS, the changelog is available in the app update screen.  The more user-friendly and less intrusive approach here is Apple’s, hands down, but I feel like a lot of techies probably would prefer Android’s method.  I personally only sometimes look at changelogs and much prefer Apple’s method – the option to look only if I choose to look.

I’m torn on whether or not widgets are awesome or awful.  They’re essentially the entire reason I am using an Android device, since they make a “car interface” possible without a dedicated app or programming skills.  On the other hand, some of them are just…bad.  They don’t seem to stretch like you’d expect them to when you resize them, and the ones that do pixelate badly.  I feel like this may be due to some widgets being developed for smaller screens (phones), so this is probably an example of Android’s fragmentation causing a poor user experience.  On the flip side, I’d rather be able to use the pixelated widgets than be told I can’t because they’re not “compatible” with my device.  I feel like there must be some kind of middle ground here, but I don’t see either Google or Apple moving toward it since both of their models are working for them.

There are certain things about Android that you can change that you can’t even begin to affect on iOS without jailbreaking your device.  You can root your Android device, but I don’t plan on doing this.  I did replace the stock launcher app, though, which gives me the ability to add gestures and hide the dock, which you can’t do on iOS.  I’ve done the whole jailbreaking thing back in the 3GS days, and though you gain functionality, you lose the refinement and stability of the device.  While I may not lose refinement that doesn’t really exist on such a pedestal on Android, I am concerned about stability – especially since the Nexus will be mounted behind my dash panel, as long as I go through with the car install.

All in all, it’s a great device.  And if you’re buying the 16 GB Nexus 7 without LTE capability, unless there’s some reason you need iOS, I can’t see any reason to pay almost double for an iPad Mini ($229 vs $399).  That said, I’m still of the opinion that iOS provides a better user experience.