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Posted 12 Nov 2012

Working Surface

, 12 Nov 2012
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Actually creating stuff with Surface RT (and Windows RT in general)


Most of people admit that Microsoft Surface is desirable. I haven’t met a single person who has seen it and doesn’t find it beautiful and isn’t impressed by the keyboard thinness. But is it useful? Should you wait for the Pro version or another competing tablet? Should you abandon Windows 8 altogether? I hope communicating my experiences will help you make an informed choice.

What it isn’t

1) A pure content-consumption device

Surface, with its kickstand, big screen, xbox music & video, smart glass integration with Xbox and microSD can be amazing for reading books, comics or watching films on the bed or in a train. You might need to do some hocus-pocus to set up your microSD, but it works great.

But you should remember it’s not a pure content consumption device. You have paid more and you get more than that – together with the added bulk. If you do a lot of reading or watching in the subway, you probably need a smaller device (as well?). It might be a 7incher, an ebook reader or just your phone – it depends on your preferred content.

I, for example, am doing a lot of manga reading. There’s no online manga store with a good catalog. You’ll have to manually find ugly zips of pirated material and load them on your tablet. Can Surface RT do that? Sure it can. Is it the best experience you can have? No, 10,6” are too much for this. The good news is that, waiting for an appropriate manga download market to emerge, I buy physical ones which I can share with my friends. It’s a funny little ritual which seals some of my best friendships.

2) A desktop replacement

I’ve been using a laptop instead of a desktop for years. Since 2000 you can easily find a good laptop being able to handle Visual Studio, Photoshop or whatever productivity suite you need, as well as manage to run some good games. What’s new is that you will be soon able to use a tablet for this task. A tablet with a detachable keyboard and an HDMI is all you need to get with you. You go to your work, branch a screen and a mouse and you’re set.

Surface Pro will be able to do that for less than 1 kg. Surface RT cannot, for two reasons:

  1. It’s not powerful enough (ARM CPUs will need a few years to approach i5 power).
  2. Most importantly, it cannot run traditional x86 or x64 applications. They will simply not install.

But I already had a laptop, so this is not what I needed my tablet for.

What I use it for

Tons of stuff

I’ve already used it for business and leisure trips. It’s gorgeous. It’s so light, so easy to use on a meeting table. The keyboard is a piece of magic – so thin you always have it with you, and yet so much more comfortable than an on screen keyboard. Switching apps is extremely fluid and fast. Windows 8 interface is so natural once you can actually touch it. The screen has enough real estate to have a second app (your mail or messaging app) snapped to the side while you’re working or playing.

Actually working on a Surface RT convinced me that this is the future of personal computers. There are plenty of good surprises (like using the share charm to share the map of the location of an appointment to the one-note book keeping notes on that appointment). There are plenty of things that need a bit more work (like being able from the calendar to click on the aforementioned appointment’s address and being sent to the maps app), but they are being currently worked on. Even the occasional need to use the desktop is more reassuring than actually annoying: if you feel lost you know you can always try the “old windows” way.

Of course, there are some unpolished edges, like the aforementioned black magic to make an SD card play along with your libraries. There are also bugs on the apps. The latter will be fixed soon in updates coming through the Store. The first need an update to the core OS, thus won’t be fixed before the end of 2013. But in non-Windows tablets you have other type of pains, such as lack of USB ports, missing printer drivers or limited file sharing.

The primary use case

I wouldn’t have easily spent that money to use my tablet only a few times per month. Apart from all the other uses for it I have found out during the last days, my original main plan was to use it to manage my RPG campaign.

Don’t laugh, this involves a lot of spreadsheets, document organising, diagram drawing and file syncing. The tools for the job are surprisingly close to what you might need for any personal or work project you have!

So I absolutely need :

  • Digital diagraming for the Characters’ Relations diagrams (my campaigns involve a lot of politics, which are almost impossible to track by heart). My paper diagrams are too fragile and too unreadable. It has even happened to lose one diagram with the relationships of about 50 characters. Not fun. Right now there are two apps out there for this purpose
    1. At about 4€, Idea Sketch, a very simple to use app which also exists on iOS While it’s very simple to use, it misses some of the features I need most (like annotating an arrow, to show for example that Erephite -searches for -> Zaynon).
    2. At 22,5€, Grapholite Diagrams. This is an app that enters the field of professionals, by having support for diagram types like UML. It’s expensive for a spontaneous purchase, but actually very cheap for an enterprise app (being 30 times cheaper than Visio). They have a huge palette of shapes, but, as they didn’t have a lot of experience with touch devices, they need some work to make everything workable with the fingers.
    • I suggest you try both – they have trial versions.
  • Note taking for campaign notes. These notes must absolutely be able to be synchronized between computers and the cloud – ideas come at weird places and moments. Of course, being able to Ctrl+F notes and notebooks would be a great plus compared to my current paper notebook. Here the king is clear:

For exactly 0€, OneNote (the Windows Store version). A great contextual menu provides for copying, moving and formatting. The on-screen split keyboard is very useful when I hold the tablet with both hands in the underground, and of course the type keyboard is a great boon when I find a seat and can open the kickstand to use the Surface as a laptop.

Search works great, and there’s built-in file syncing (even with notes on my phone). The only bad point is world auto-completion for Greek, which is mostly an OS problem. Let’s say that the auto-completion for my mother tongue is for the moment so bad that I am thinking of keeping all my notes in English. This is quite sad, because if they were in Greek I would be able to use them as a base for our campaign wiki (by simply copy-pasting).

  • Spreadsheets. Yes, I use spreadsheets for my campaign. The two most important things I use tables for are a list of monsters (with columns for their level, book references etc) and another (much bigger one) for hand-picked magic items I would like to see appear in the campaign. The latter I can filter by level and item slot (hands, feet etc). You won’t be surprised to find that the choice is…

Excel 2013 RT: Being built in the system and being able to work with 100% fidelity with my old documents, it was a clear win. Finding out that it keeps an offline cache of all skydrive files I have opened during the last 2 (configurable up to 4) weeks, and synchronizes changes when I’m back online is actually a definite win. Synchronization is not so strong as in Word – two people should avoid working on the same file at the same time – but my case is a single-user scenario. •

  • PDFs: Of course I need my RPG book collection with me. There’s not much to say here: of course I can copy all my collection to the hard drive or an SD card and I can open them with Windows Reader or any other pdf and xps reader. Windows Reader is actually very fast. Don’t forget how printing works in Windows 8: it’s in the Devices charm (yes, not very obvious, but once you learn it, it’s always in this predictable place).

But I would also love to have :

  • Folder synchronisation: Excel and OneNote synchronisation is all nice and well, but a campaign needs more than that. While PDFs don’t change that frequently, and I can manually sync them, my images folder changes way too fast. Every time I want to create a character portrait (by cropping an image and pasting it to the proper folder) I need the changes to get synced to my laptop and the cloud. This requires two things:
    1. That my diagraming app also uses the file system. Grapholite does it, while Idea Sketch uses the less versatile Share charm – you can always share to Skydrive, but this won’t replace your previous file. You see a pattern here… I have decided to give that 22,5 € to Grapholite.
    2. That I actually have an app that does folder syncing. The Skydrive Store app (the one that can run on Windows RT) cannot do that yet, but this functionality is actually being developed.
  • Access to the DnD character builder: Usually, when I have connectivity, I also have my laptop. In some cases, though, I don’t, and I would need to use the Surface to see the online applications of Wizards of the Coast (Character Build and Adventure Tools). Unfortunately, they are made in Silverlight which doesn’t work on Windows RT. Thankfully, I am developing a partial solution to this problem: an awesome Windows 8 character viewer.
  • A digital gaming table (and a pony): Practically all current RPG digital gaming tables are made on Java (yes, that cancer) or some other technology that doesn’t run on Windows RT. Even if they run, the experience on a touch screen would be abysmal (trust me, I have tried). Creating a Windows Store gaming table needs a lot of work, and pen and paper RPGs are a declining market. I still have hope, though, on the fact that RPG players are over-represented in the developer community! Unfortunately, I don’t have hope on our attitude towards User Interface :P.

Mission accomplished!

By having ticked all the essentials and expecting to have more within the following months, I am sure the next campaign (actually an Eberron campaign starting on January) will consume me a lot less time in preparation and managing – which means I can concentrate on the actual ideas, the story and caring for my players! Who said Windows 8 will be a disaster for gaming? Wink | ;)


This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)


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