Thursday, 19 February 2015

Surface impressions

Almost six months after first using my Surface Pro 3, I'm still not a huge fan. I have held off writing this post for quite some time so that I could be sure I have given it a fair try. Please be clear that I think the Surface Pro 3 might be useful for some people and I don't think I am their target market. If you sit at a desk all day with a PowerPoint next to you, it might be the device for you. If you are a teacher considering this device for your classroom, there might be different things you are looking for in a device.
For the last few years I have been looking forward to the opportunity to work in a 1:1 classroom so that I can explore new possibilities without some of the hassles and inconveniences that come with sharing devices.
Given that my most recent experiences have been within the Apple ecosystem and I have spent many thousands of hours working with iPads and MacBooks, developing a deep understanding of how the amazing possibilities that are opened up when using Apple software and apps, I had sincerely hoped that I might have the opportunity to apply this knowledge and tap into the great connections I have made with other Apple educators over the past few years.
I was thrown a curve ball when somehow I accidentally found myself thrust into an environment that decided to go with Microsoft instead.
I was given a new Microsoft Surface Pro 3 to "get to know" in September of 2014.
I tried very hard to grow to like this device which Microsoft would have consumers believe was somehow better than both the MacBook and the iPad combined. I even sewed a pretty floral bag to carry it around in and decorated the type cover with pretty washi tape to try to make it look a little less harsh and unfriendly, but the more I use this device the more I yearn for something else.
I have waited almost six months to write my first blog post on this topic as I thought that maybe with a bit of time I would get used to Windows 8.1 and come to like the Surface Pro's hybrid nature.
It still hasn't happened.
The countless early reviews I read that raised concerns about battery life and overheating have proven to be correct. This "tablet that can replace your laptop" is not very useful as a tablet. For starters, it doesn't fit in your handbag and it has sharp edges and no easy to purchase protective case. I bought a protective case for it online but the case made some of the features inaccessible so I ended up removing it.
Given that it has a touch screen, a removable keyboard (to be more accurate, it doesn't actually come with a keyboard but you have to buy the overpriced type cover if you are going to try to use it as a laptop) and a front and rear facing camera, you would expect that you can use it as a tablet. Unfortunately, the touch screen is active to the very edge so it is difficult to hold securely while walking around without inadvertently touching something that causes the program to change or a menu to pop up. If people think an iPad is a bit large to use as a camera, then this thing is even bigger and you can't hold it comfortably and if you dropped it without a protective case it has straight edges and sharp corners that would damage easily. As a camera, it is not comfortable to use at all and there are too many gestures required to do things such as focus that the iPad or iPhone seem to do so intuitively.
Having been a heavy iPad user and being used to a great smorgasbord of apps from which to choose, the Windows app store has proven very disappointing. To make this even more disappointing, the students don't have Microsoft accounts because they are under 13 years old so they can't load apps anyway. The techies who visit the school one morning a week are able to organise sideloading of apps for us but as the process of letting them know that there is an app we want and then them installing it would take over a week, it is not nearly as convenient as the processes in place for deploying iPad apps.
I am also very disappointed that it is left to me to go searching through the hundreds of rubbish apps to find the few hidden gems when I could list the iPad apps I want off the top of my head. Checking apps and test driving them takes time and money. I am resentful that I am effectively starting from scratch again here. It would be so much simpler if the students could load the apps themselves and do this work for me.
Without apps, the Surface Pro 3 is nothing compared to an iPad.
For the first few weeks of working with the Surface Pro 3, I tried to use it as a tablet because I really like my iPad and this has become my primary device over the past few years. Trying to use it in tablet mode was not making me warm to the Surface at all. Other people who were more positive were using it as a laptop alternative instead so I decided to change my mindset, write off the "tablet" and embrace it as a laptop.
As a laptop, it is clunky and uncomfortable. If it is the "tablet that you can't put in your handbag" then it is also the "laptop you can't use on your lap".
Surface Pro 3 would be an ideal machine for someone who sits in an office at a large desk with easy access to a powerpoint and wants something they can put into a briefcase to take home at night.
It doesn't meet my needs or expectations.
As a laptop user, I like to use my laptop on my lap, or at a coffee table or on the couch, or on my bed or on the floor and I like to be able to carry it from one room to the other without the keyboard falling off. In the classroom, I don't always sit at a desk. I use my laptop while sitting on a chair in front of the group or while walking around the room working with students. The floppy keyboard and sharp kickstand make both of these tasks very uncomfortable. Coupled with the screen being a touch screen, it is way too easy to accidentally bump the screen and muck things up if you aren't sitting at a desk.
For the students, the flexibility of using the device in different ways around the room is also compromised by the design of the Surface Pro 3.
I'm not going to even start on my opinion of Windows 8.1. There is no point because anyone who has used this operating system will know exactly how pointless and confusing it is and anyone who hasn't been forced to work with it should run to the hills if someone suggests you should.
So how is it working in a 1:1 environment? This bit I love. I am so excited to be able to work with the students and even though it is "early days", we have started blogging and they have made their first Thinglink to show their learning so far in Science. Being able to share files and set activities via the website I created has meant that we can cut down on paper use and the students are very engaged in the computer based tasks.
I'm yet to work out what I can do on the Surface Pro 3 that I couldn't do on an iPad or a MacBook Air, particularly to the level that would justify the extra expense. So far, since I have had to overcome so many hurdles in trying to come to terms with a lack of suitable software and dealing with a different operating system, it has felt like I am working with one arm tied behind my back.
Maybe in a few more months I will have discovered something to like about the Surface Pro 3, but unfortunately nearly six months of use hasn't converted me.TRying


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