An ode to Surface 3

It is increasingly looking like the Surface 3 is going to be discontinued. Microsoft is running out of stock on the 128GB / 4GB RAM model. Third party vendors are heavily discounting it, suggesting a clearance. The biggest sign of its demise is that Intel are simply going to stop making the quad-core Cherry Trail Atom processors that power the Surface 3 and other tablets like it.

This is a crying shame. The Surface 3 (not to be confused with the larger, laptop-class Surface Pro 3) is simply a fantastic tablet device.

The history

Surface 3 was the successor to the Surface 2, which followed on from the Surface RT. Both Surface RT and Surface 2 were powered by ARM chips and a limited, cut down version of Windows, Windows 8.1 RT. They were never eligible for an upgrade to Windows 10 (although the work done to enable Windows-on-ARM lives on in Windows 10 IoT). The market also shunned them and customers were confused by them. I was in New York for the launch of Surface RT, picked one up and loved it. I however personally witnessed customers, after queuing for an hour to get into the pop-up Microsoft Store in Times Square, decide to leave empty handed when they found out that the Surface RT wouldn’t run iTunes. Strangely the Surface Pro, which would have run iTunes, had its release staggered to a few days after the RT launch. I believe this caused significant confusion and prevented the Microsoft Store staff from successfully upselling.

Surface RT was a fantastic device for its time, albeit with serious flaws. I loved the fact it was a perfect Remote Desktop machine, but aspects like the custom charger and stupid 16:9 aspect ratio took until the Surface 3 to resolve.

The hardware

The Surface 3 is a real PC, well crafted for the price point. Some of my favourite features of the hardware are:

  • Mini USB charging port – you can charge this thing with almost any cable or charger you already have lying around, including USB charging battery packs. This makes it extremely easy to travel with. The Surface 3 is the only Surface (including RTs and Pros) ever made with a standard, universal charging connector.
  • Stylus support – one of the USPs of the Surface Pro VS the Surface RT was the fact the Pro had a Wacom stylus and digitizer. It took until the Surface 3 for the non-Pro line to get a stylus to match the Pro line. Although you do need to buy the pen separately, the pens are the same across Surface 3 and Pro (which has a pen bundled). I have a feeling this might have cannibalized sales of the Surface Pro 3 and 4.
  • USB 3 port – Pretty much peripheral ever made for a PC works with the Surface 3.
  • DisplayPort connector – you can plug directly into a large monitor with dual screen support.
  • Kickstand – this is unbelievably useful on airplanes and something that Apple is too proud to add to the iPad without resorting to flappy, folding cases. Without the keyboard attached this enables hands-free viewing in a really small footprint.
  • Expandable storage – you can bung a micro SD card in the slot in the back to expand the storage.

None of the above features are available on non-Pro iPads without accessories and dongles. Stylus support is limited to the iPad Pro.

The software

Whilst it shipped with Windows 8.1, the Surface 3 now runs Windows 10 like a charm. Some of the best bits:

  • Battery Saver mode – this really works. It shuts down background processes (even Windows Updates!) and underclocks the CPU. I have seen the Surface 3 stretch to around 10 hours of use when browsing with Battery Saver turned on.
  • InstantGo/Connected Standby – Surface 3 picks up emails and Skype calls when in standby mode. It does actually work.
  • Real Chrome – because this is a real PC, you can run full Chrome with extensions. Hilariously, Chrome had better support for tablets than Microsoft Edge until the Anniversary Update – Chrome supported swipe left/right for back/forward when Edge did not. iPads are limited to a fake Chrome (Safari in a wrapper) with no extension support.
  • Legacy software – Microsoft Money still works on this, a program Microsoft stopped supporting in 2008.
  • Native support for FLAC and MKV – one of my favourite features of Windows 10 is built in support for FLAC, the most popular lossless audio encoding format, and MKV, the most popular HD video format container. Apple still does not have native support for these in macOS or iOS.
  • Multiple user accounts – unlike an iPad, you can actually have multiple user accounts with separate settings etc. You can create user accounts for your spouse and children without the ability to administer the device. I believe Apple’s solution to shared devices is to, er, buy another one.

The only real downside is because of the slow eMMC disk speed, Windows 10 baseline version updates can take over 2 hours to install.

Pricing and comparisons to iPads

Surface 3 in the UK comes in two main models:

  • 64GB Storage, 2GB RAM – 419.99 GBP
  • 128GB storage, 4GB RAM – 499.99 GBP

I own the second model, purchased at the Hawaii Microsoft Store for 599 USD, along with a US layout type cover at 129 USD and a stylus at 49 USD. This was a total of 540 GBP at the time, so thanks to the exchange rate I essentially got the type cover for free.

If you want to buy an iPad with 128GB storage, this will cost you 619 GBP for the 9.7 inch iPad Pro. The iPad Air only goes up to 64GB for 429 GBP. You still don’t get a kickstand, expandable storage or even a USB port. iOS doesn’t even support a mouse, Bluetooth or not, forcing you to get gorilla arm when using it with a keyboard attached.

At under 500 quid, this is a feasible device to travel with and not have your holiday ruined if you lose it. I cannot find any justification to get a Surface Pro 4 at double the price for the mid-range i5 / 8 GB RAM / 256 GB storage model. After using a 13 inch MacBook Pro as my main machine for three years, I’ve now offloaded the Mac and returned to the state of having a beefy desktop and cheap, portable companion tablet PC. I was sorely tempted by the Surface Book, but for the two thirds of the price you can build a beast desktop and get a Surface 3 or other companion device for portability, just using Remote Desktop if you need to connect back to base.

For those who don’t mind Windows and want a companion device, I really recommend getting a Surface 3 whilst you still can. They were/are truly revolutionary at their price point.


Shameless plug: This post was written with Net Writer – a little app I wrote to help blogging on Windows 10. If you have Windows 10, download it for free.

Get Living London E20 East Village – 18 months on Review

This is a follow up to my initial thoughts on the rental properties by Get Living London at East Village E20, approximately 18 months after moving back to the UK and settling down here.

Get Living London are simply the best landlords in London. Period. If you have to rent and live in London, ideally it should be from them. They are now Private Landlord of the Year for two years in a row and it not hard to see why.

After my first year’s tenancy, I started the process to extend it by another two years. There were no fees whatsoever and the rent was only hiked by RPI – in my case about 20 quid. There is still only a tenant break clause, not a landlord break clause.

Living here for a while has meant I have had to interact with the management office on numerous occasions – lost keys, things that needed fixing, meter readings etc. On every occasion the response has been prompt, often on the same day, and completely professional. This is because they are professionals – not amateur Buy to Let “investors” farming you for their pension. The management office is also just down the street and open extended hours if you need anything.

For young people, the rental sticker price of the apartments might be a bit of a shock. They are premium priced, but remember there are no fees, which last time I calculated to work out at about 60 pounds a month if you went through Foxtons. For young professionals they offer the ability to split the rent for flat sharing completely with separate direct debits. This is a vast contrast from the student days of renting when one “lucky” tenant had to round up everyone else’s contributions and pay every month.

A special shoutout goes to Hyperoptic, the Fibre To The Premises broadband provider. Get Living London residents can get 20MBit free, with special rates for the 100MBit and 1Gbit packages. This is still the finest consumer internet connection I have ever used in the entire world. Frankly, it will now be hard to live in a non-Hyperoptic area of the UK.

Warning! Do not get conned into paying for Sky, TalkTalk, BT or other ADSL/VDSL based internet providers (even if its “free with Sky TV”). You are effectively being missold when you have an Ethernet jack in the cupboard with real internet that just needs turning on. You also do not need to pay for “line rental”.

Bills vary through the year. The heating and hot water bill for our two bed apartment ranges from 40-80 pounds a month, depending on usage. Bearing in mind we tend to run a full bath every day, this is quite reasonable. There are no gas bills since there is no gas. Electricity can be had from your choice of provider – mine is around 30 a month from GB Energy Supply who have charges that are the closest to the wholesale rate that you can find on the market.

Stratford International, the local DLR station 1 minute from our flat, has now become Zone 2 – this means commuting into London is even cheaper. And still certainly much better than paying over 400 quid a month to commute from Sussex into London on Britain’s most delayed train service (and people say renting is throwing money away, how about three hours of your life a day?).

If living next to the Westfield Stratford mall isn’t enough, shops have started to open in East Village itself. There is now an amazing Fish and Chip shop, Ice Cream parlour, two bars/pubs, coffee shops, a pizza place, dry cleaning and other awesome independent stores. The Fish and Chips from Fish House are out of this world.

It is worth mentioning the construction work that has started in the village. Two large towers are currently being built on an area of the green space in the center. Despite the disruption and a bit of an eyesore while the towers are going up, this is a good thing for London. London needs more quality homes from reputable, professional landlords and not just tower blocks designed to park Chinese money, which is the case for the majority of new builds going up in the city (marketed off plan for a week in Hong Kong before the locals can get a look in).

So all in all, still a great place to live and remains highly recommended. Drop me an email if you have any questions about E20 or Get Living London.

 

 

 

 

 

Net Writer: porting Open Live Writer to Windows 10

A few months ago I started to write a replacement for Windows Live Writer for Windows 10 using the new Universal Windows Platform, calling it Net Writer and putting it on the Windows Store in Preview.

A few weeks later Scott Hanselman announces that Windows Live Writer has finally been open sourced as Open Live Writer licensed under MIT. It was time to throw away my code and use that!

Scott was not joking when he said:

IMPORTANT HISTORICAL NOTE: Much of the code in Open Live Writer is nearly 10 years old. The coding conventions, styles, and idioms are circa .NET 1.0 and .NET 1.1. You may find the code unusual or unfamiliar, so keep that in mind when commenting and discussing the code. Before we start adding a bunch of async and await and new .NET 4.6isms, we want to focus on stability and regular updates.

Windows 10 apps use a subset of .NET called Windows Runtime (or WinRT for short) – vast swathes of .NET are missing. Some of the stuff I had to change includes:

  • Ripping out everything apart from the connectivity code. This was not easy as there were UI dependencies everywhere.
  • Removing System.Net.HttpWebResponse and replacing it with the much better HttpClient. It almost looked like I wasn’t going to have to do this until I realised that the backwards compatible System.Net interface was not handling gzip responses correctly. HttpClient however is async only, therefore;
  • All methods need to be async and non-blocking. Windows Live Writer used some classic .NET 2.0 era background threading tricks that are unnecessary today and Windows 10 apps are expected to be async all the way through.
  • The XML API has changed quite a bit and now wraps around what I assume is a C++ implementation underneath. System.Xml has been replaced with Windows.Data.Xml.Dom. There is a bizarre new way of querying with XML Namespaces that StackOverflow saved my bacon on. 

It took days of staring at 1000+ compiler errors but I managed to get a subset of Open Live Writer working. Net Writer currently only supports WordPress blogs (like this one) but I will be gradually turning on the other supported blog engines as I test them out. This also means that Open Live Writer code now works on Mobile – however the user interface is a bit of a hack job at the moment.

You can try Net Writer out for free from the Windows Store. I update the Preview when time allows and love getting feedback.