Why use a Macbook Pro as a Windows .NET Software Developer (Updated)

Update December 2016: Apple has released a new version of the MacBook Pro featuring the new Touch Bar feature. I do not recommend buying this model.

  • Worse battery life
  • Worse keyboard
  • Touch Bar feature is pretty useless for Bootcamp or virtualization – you will miss the usual function keys
  • USB-C only. Expect to spend 100s on adapters.
  • The original Bootcamp drivers actually physically blew the speakers when running Windows

Luckily Apple still sell the 2015 model without Touch Bar. I would recommend buying one of those.

Original post continues below…

I’ve been using OSX alongside Windows for almost 8 years now. In this post I will outline why a Mac is handsdown the best development laptop you can buy even if you are primarily a Windows or .NET developer. I use a Retina Macbook Pro 13 inch at home and for side projects, plus a Retina Macbook Pro 15 inch at work.

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Reason 1: You need access to OS X as a professional software developer

If you care about maximizing the value you can provide as a practitioner of building software, you need access to OS X. OS X is the only way to build native iOS applications – and as a .NET developer without access to OS X, you’ll never even be able to use Xamarin to run your C# code on iOS natively. You’ll also miss out on the wider community and the rest of the development world – Javascript, Ruby, Python and Scala developers all use Unix-based operating systems to do their work, not Windows, and most of the time their preferred platform is OS X. If you want to dabble in Ruby over the weekend, or even teach yourself a new skill, OS X on a Mac is the only way to get first class support as most non-.NET/Java developers run their stuff on Macs (a small minority use a Linux distribution to do their work). No laptop other than a Macbook Pro or Air will give you access to this world and you will find yourself increasingly isolated professionally if you can only use Windows.

Reason 2:  It’s the only laptop that lets you run OS X and Windows at the same time

Since Apple put Intel chips in their machines, you’ve always been able to run Windows natively on a Mac by creating a second partition using the built-in Bootcamp utility. Since the middle of 2014, this has gotten even better with the introduction of native UEFI support. Gone is the 80s-era BIOS emulation, and now Windows boots just as fast as OSX itself. The Windows 8 startup circle animation even starts rendering before the Mac bootup sound finishes playing.

You don’t have to reboot when you want to use Windows – you can attach that same native partition within a virtual machine using Parallels or VMWare Fusion. That means you can run both OSX and Windows side by side, rebooting into the native Windows partition when you need the full power of the machine. Plus, its really cool to be able to do this:

Swiping between OSX and Windows

(As a side note, I get much better performance out of Parallels Desktop 10 than VMWare Fusion when running Windows 8.1 or the Windows 10 Tech Preview – the Parallels virtual display driver is WDDM 1.2 compatible, rather than VMWare’s WDDM 1.0 compatible version. WDDM 1.0 is from the Vista era.)

Reason 3: Multiple monitor support is amazing

All the Retina Macbook Pros have two Thunderbolt ports, which double up as Mini DisplayPort ports, and an HDMI port. The Retina Macbook Pro 13 inch can support 2 external monitors under OSX, and three under Linux or native Windows. The 15 inch version can support 3 external monitors and the internal screen at the same time. Both these limits can be extended by using USB 3.0 “DisplayLink” adapters or docks at the cost of CPU power and graphics quality. With virtualisation, you can set Windows up to use any number of monitors.

Reason 4: You can test your work on multiple retina display implementations

Both the 13 inch and 15 Retina Macbook Pros have amazing high resolution screens. If you are building web applications, you need to be able to test your work on “retina” displays and this is the quickest way of doing it, without getting a 4K monitor. Most retina displays in the wild are on Apple devices too (iPad, iPhone etc). The ridiculous resolution of the 15 model (2880×1800!) even enables you to test your apps and sites in Windows at up to 200% DPI scaling without an external monitor.

Reason 5: The Apple Store retail support network

Say what you want about the “cult of Mac”, they have retail support available in almost every major city on earth through their Apple Store network. If you need a new charger or accessory, you can walk in and buy one from an actual shop. If you have a problem, you can go in and (sometimes pay for) a repair – not phone an offshore support line and get a box posted to you. Acer, Dell, Samsung etc do not have the meatspace reach of Apple (unless you like to shop at PC World). The thought of having to buy a replacement AC adaptor for a “Acer Aspire S3-392G” machine at short notice is quite scary. If you have a preference for the US keyboard layout, a Mac is the only laptop stocked in retail available with a selection of keyboard layouts – when in Tokyo, Apple were the only people in the whole city that stocked laptops with US keyboards.

Reason 6: The .NET Framework is becoming multiplatform

In case you missed the news, Microsoft have committed to making the core of the next .NET Framework version work on both Linux and OSX, instead of leaving it up to Mono to provide an implementation. This is a direct result of the leaders in the .NET space stretching C# out of it’s comfort zone of Windows and Visual Studio. ASP.NET vNext supports development using Sublime Text on a Mac. The OmniSharp project brings C# support to Sublime text, Emacs and Atom. Visual Studio is not required. From 2016 onwards, I expect ASP.NET vNext to start featuring in C# developer job ads, and they are going to expect you to be able to at least run applications without Visual Studio. Deployment of greenfield applications to Linux servers using Docker containers will start becoming the norm from next year.

In Summary

I haven’t even touched on the other reasons why this is now my preferred setup – the now native SMB 2.0 support in OSX, OneNote finally on Mac, the quality of the keyboards and trackpads – but using non-Apple laptops is painful sometimes. I was once issued the 2nd generation of the fabled Lenovo Thinkpad line of X1 Carbons that got rid of the function keys and replaced them with comedy touch “context sensitive media buttons” (the 3rd gen reversed this bonkers choice). My last two companies have eventually managed to sort out a top of the line 15 inch Retina Macbook Pro as my corporate machine and thanks to the proliferation of Macs in the corporate setting, IT departments are slowly warming up to the idea.

If you have any questions about how I use the above, drop me a line in the comments or send me an email and I’ll be happy to respond.


East Village London E20 – Get Living London Review

Update: I’ve posted an updated review after being here for 18 months.

The following is a review of my thoughts so far about living at East Village, the former Athlete’s Village at the 2012 Olympic Games. My landlord is Get Living London and this will be from the perspective of myself as someone I imagine typical of a renter here – a young professional working at a firm in Canary Wharf in the technology field. I have moved back to after spending half a decade in Japan, so my taste in living space might be a bit skewed towards modern city life.

The surroundings

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This really is now a gorgeous part of London. The Olympic Park is just next door and there are acres of parklands available for public use. There is even a wetlands area with ducks! The site has a security team in East Village fleeces looking after the place and gardeners (although I haven’t seen them).

Nice things nearby

The following is all available within walking distance of my flat:

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Sainsbury’s Local – 30 seconds walk

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The Neighborhood Pub that serves a mean rotisserie chicken and Asahi beer! – 35 seconds walk

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The Stratford City Westfield Shopping mall – one of the largest urban shopping centers in Europe (with a cinema, casino and an Apple Store!) – 4 minutes walk

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Stratford International stn entrance” by Sunil060902Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Stratford International Train station – you can get to Paris in 2.5 hours – plus a DLR station that gets me to work in 20 minutes – 3 minutes walk

I have not included the Olympic Park legacy facilities above – the swimming pool, cycling velodrome etc – simply because I haven’t had the chance to go yet! There is also an NHS doctor’s surgery and a school on the site.

Commuting to work

On a good day I can get to work door to door in 30 minutes on the DLR. This is in stark contrast to the hour long slog through the Tokyo rush hour that I used to endure. The DLR is amazing – daylight throughout, mobile phone signal all the way (unlike the Tube) and no drivers. I spend about 80 GBP a month on pay as you go tickets via my auto-top up Oyster card (1.50 each way) – this is cheaper than the Zone 3-2 travelcard, which is over 90 GBP per month. If you work from home even one day a week, the travelcard doesn’t make sense.

In Japan, commuting costs are paid for by your employer, not you, as quite rightly the cost of getting to work is a necessary, deductible business expense. Not so much luck in the UK. If you decide to buy or rent a house in Sussex, say Brighton, you will have to pay an eye watering 460 GBP per month out of your own pocket for the privilege of getting to work on the worst train in Britain that was late every day for a year. No thank you. For those that say renting is “throwing money away” – this annual 4,800 GBP is definitely tossing money down the drain, or could at least be put towards the rent or a mortgage of somewhere closer to work.

Renting through Get Living London

When I first made enquires into renting in London I was absolutely appalled by the state of the market – companies like Foxtons appear to be almost deliberately misleading in the fact there is no way of knowing up front how much it will cost to move into somewhere when you view an ad as the total rental cost does not include fees. Between “Admin Charges”, “Contract charges”, “Check in fees” and all sorts of other nonsense that of course vary between rental agencies, there is no way to actually properly compare the price of listings on places such as Zoopla and Rightmove. This is likely by design. Scotland has outlawed rental agency fees, and even airlines are forced to show all hidden costs upfront in the advertised price to protect consumers. 

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The Get Living London management office

Get Living London is not your standard landlord, but is part of the growing Private Rental Sector (another private rental company in other London locations is Fizzy Living). They own the buildings you are renting. There is no middleman taking a cut. And with Get Living London – there are NO FEES to move in. At all. No check in fees, no admin fees, no debit card fees, no inventory fees, nothing. You pay the rent and the deposit and that is it.

Lets compare how much this actually changes the effective cost over an example 12 month tenancy agreement, where someone moves in with you after six months and thus needs to get added to the tenancy agreement:

  Foxtons (source) Get Living London
Administration Fee for creating the tenancy agreement 420 GBP 0 GBP
Admin Fee for adding someone to the tenancy agreement 210 GBP 0 GBP
Checking out 150 GBP “Inventory Check Out Fee” 0 GBP
Total fees for the year 780 GBP 0 GBP
Cost per month spread over 12 months: 65 GBP 0 GBP

The fees alone at Foxtons would make your rent the equivalent of an extra 65 pounds a month in this example. Who knows what this value is for other rental agencies.

What are you getting for that 0 pounds a month at Get Living? Very good service from my experience so far – I emailed the dedicated property manager about our heating the other day and he phoned me back in about 3 minutes. Try getting that sort of service from your amateur Buy To Let landlord.

Lets look at the flat

I love the place. It is modern, with underfloor heating, an awesome “winter garden” balcony area and an en-suite even in two bedroom flats. Plus, Get Living London do not charge any extra for a furnished flat – the furnishings are pretty awesome and were very welcome after moving halfway around the world. My only gripe would be that its apparently not possible for them to take, say, a bed away, so you’ll have to find storage for the bits you don’t need yourself.

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An example of some of the furnishings – plus the friendly chap who showed us round.

There is no boiler and no gas mains (so no British Gas to deal with) – the heating and hot water is supplied via East London Energy who “constructed a centrally-managed energy centre that produces all of the areas heating and hot water requirements and distributes it to homes and businesses via a network of highly insulated pipes” (or so I’m told). The kitchen hobs are therefore induction. Electricity has been super cheap so far, at about 30 GBP per month. In Japan it cost three times as much because of the air conditioning we needed.

The technology

All the East Village flats are served by Hyperoptic broadband. This means:

  • 1 Gbps Fibre To The Premises – (not to a cabinet up the road and a dodgy bit of 1960s copper between you and the box like BT claim their “fibre rollout” is)
  • 1 Gbit Ethernet cabling throughout the flat
  • A router is provided but you can switch your own in  – there is a pure Ethernet jack in the wall that dishes out public IPv4 addresses
  • No landline (there is a VoIP service available)
  • No BT line rental required (saving you about 15 GBP a month!)

I thought my broadband in Japan was good at 100Mbps, but the 1Gbps that I get from Hyperoptic here is absolutely nuts (and this is going through a Thunderbolt Ethernet connector and a router. I’ve seen it faster but I think I am saturating the upstream on the test servers in London):

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Note that Get Living London residents get a free 20Mbps service from Hyperoptic, with the 100Mbps and 1Gbps costing 10 GBP and 20 GBP a month respectively. Even the free 20Mbps tier saves you at least 30 pounds a month that you’d otherwise need in a home wired by BT (ISP charge plus line rental).

Overall

Living here is awesome – the location is perfect for work, my family loves the area, the facilities are brilliant and the cost is very reasonable when you factor in how much I save in commuting charges; let alone rental fees, copper phone line rental fees and other nuisance costs that should just not exist today. Compared to the nightmares I had of moving back to the UK – old 60s terraced council “housing stock”, begging BT for 4Mbps ADSL, an expensive awful commute, being shafted by letting agents – it’s been a wonderful surprise. For anyone working in East London and looking to rent, I don’t think you can find somewhere better.

If you have any questions about living in East Village or renting through Get Living London, drop me an email and I’ll be happy to respond.


Sayonara Tokyo – returning to the UK

After almost six years living in Japan, I have made my way back to the UK. I am now based in London, working for one of the Big 4 Management Consulting firms as a Lead Developer.

I occasionally get emails from readers asking what it is like to be a software developer in Tokyo, some flat out asking me if I know of any jobs going. I tell them all the same thing – Tokyo is a hard place to be a non-native Japanese speaker doing software. I was very lucky to have a pretty sweet job working for a branch of a US company, but ultimately the job market there is not healthy. I very much needed a more senior role but there was nowhere to grow within the Japan R&D office – my boss was not going anywhere. Whilst foreign companies can pay pretty decently by Japan standards (expect anything from 5M for Junior to 9M JPY for a Senior development role, but this is only 50k-90k USD, not even US graduate level), Japanese companies take a very traditional view of compensation setting (think tying job ranks to age, salary to “seniority” rather than skill or value). Don’t expect to make anything like US or even UK salaries unless you are in senior management.

My primary skillset is the whole .NET stack – but .NET is not popular in Japan. The .NET community is so small in that at the time of writing this blog post I was at the top of Google for “ASP.NET MVC Tokyo”:

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If that isn’t a reason to move on, I don’t know what is.

Before the move to the UK, I flew over for a week to interview. A bit of planning beforehand lined me up with eight job interviews which resulted in five job offers, with the worst offer being 20% more than I was making in Tokyo. This blew my mind, but apparently it is normal in London for skilled developers. It is nice to be wanted. I also now have a family – my son was born this January and he deserves a successful father. Back in my homeland there are far more opportunities and I am not at a disadvantage in any way – there are no handicaps to being as successful as I can be.

This isn’t to say I don’t still love Japan. It is a lovely place to live, but a pretty crap place to work unless you are very senior or running your own business. The job market illiquidity (especially as a foreigner) means you will be paid far less, have to commute further and have less chance to grow than in the same level software development jobs overseas. Without the ability to instantly get job interviews (something you can do anywhere in the western world if you are good), you end up feeling completely trapped and at the mercy of your employer all the while knowing at the back of your mind that you could actually be having a career elsewhere. Not a good recipe for happiness. If and when I move back it will not be as a salaryman.

Relocating to the UK has been quite an adventure and I plan to blog some more about what it is like to come back after half a decade. Just the level of customer service in retail stores has made me miss my old home but I am sure the reverse culture shock will wear off in time.

To the next six years!


.NET Live Coding Talk in London UK at Medidata

On December 5th, I delivered a live coding demo at Medidata’s UK office, going over some of the newer stuff for .NET Web Developers. It’s 48 minutes long and covers MVC5, VS2013, EF6, SignalR 2 and some other bits while I build a rudimentary Twitter clone called “MediTwit”. Nuget blew up about half way through but we recovered. Full video below (visit the full post page to view): Continue reading…


Open Sourcing “Cognition”

One of the perks of working in R&D at Medidata is “Innovation Time”. Twice a year, engineers get to spend two weeks building whatever they want. Ideally some of the things we build will go back into direct product development but if not, we are encouraged to open source the work.

Fresh from attending Microsoft’s Build 2013 conference in San Francisco, I wanted an excuse to use all the latest Microsoft web stack tools. Namely:

  • Visual Studio 2013 Preview
  • ASP.NET MVC5 Beta
  • Entity Framework 6 Beta
  • SignalR 2.0 Beta

I also wanted to test out CouchDB, which was made infinitely easier with the awesome MyCouch library by Daniel Wertheim. The result of which is “Cognition” – a cross between a wiki and a CMS that can be used as a basic CRM, a job board or knowledge base. The result of two weeks work can be seen on the company repo at https://github.com/mdsol/cognition – a test site can be seen hosted on Azure at http://cognition-demo.cloudapp.net. There is quite a lot of rough code with scant test coverage, unfortunately necessary to get the experiment out the door in two weeks. It does however show what is possible with the .NET web stack.

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Here is a short video showing the current state of the app (no audio – visit the full post page to view): Continue reading…


Windows 8.1’s user-hostile backup story

Update 13th June 2015: It looks like Microsoft has reversed course and reinstated the Windows 7 Backup and Restore feature in Windows 10! Success!

Update 16th Sept 2013: What follows is a rant written after upgrading to 8.1 and seeing my automated backups just stop working and the backup restoration function also removed. An afternoon was wasted faffing about with the new File History feature which still refuses to backup files not on my system drive and deliberately ignores files in the SkyDrive folder, preventing you from having a local backup. I now use CrashPlan which behaves like Windows 7 and 8.0 used to be able to back up files.

Windows 8.1 is now released to manufacturing and those with MSDN or Technet Subs can download it now.

I have the RTM version now set up on home and work machines and have been running the Preview versions on both my Surface RT and Surface Pro. Windows 8.1 has some glaring errors.

SkyDrive integration now built in, removes features compared to the old Desktop client

You no longer have to install the SkyDrive app separately as it is now built into the OS. Windows 8.1 makes a concerted effort to force you to use SkyDrive.

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The above is a screenshot of a screen displayed during the upgrade process. Can you see the error?

“automatically backed up to the cloud”

This is nonsense – if you delete a file from your local machine, it will be deleted from the cloud. This is NOT a backup. Live mirroring is NOT a backup. If a sync goes wrong – your file disappears completely. There is no backup.

Edit: Turns out SkyDrive has a “Recycle Bin” for deleted files, but it removes files once it is full or after 30 days. So, you might randomly be able to get your file back. Version History also only works for Office documents.

imageimage

On the left is Windows 8’s SkyDrive integration after installing the SkyDrive Desktop app. On the right is Windows 8.1’s built-in SkyDrive integration. This is now a system-level folder and doesn’t even have the syncing icons available. This folder is now virtualized and you aren’t guaranteed that the actual file will be present. Opening the file will sometimes download it from SkyDrive.

The “Windows 7 File Recovery” backup system has been removed in 8.1

Windows 8.0 actually contained two backup systems, the new “File History” and the awesome old backup system from Windows 7, threateningly renamed “Windows 7 File Recovery” as a warning that this will be removed. Lets compare the systems:

Windows 8 File History Windows 7 File Recovery
Files in Libraries and desktop only All files in all locations supported
No system image support Full system image support
No progress bar Progress bar

File History is Microsoft’s attempt to copy OS X’s Time Machine, except Time Machine actually backs up all your files and lets your restore the entire OS partition, just like Windows 7 did! At least you had the choice in 8.0 to use the old system. In 8.1, Windows 7 File Recovery has been removed completely, you can’t even restore your old backups!

Edit: You can create a System Image in 8.1 (Click “System Image Backup” on the File History screen) but this doesn’t work on an automated schedule, so is not an automatic backup.

It gets worse. File History is even more useless in 8.1.

“File History” no longer backs up your SkyDrive folder in 8.1

Microsoft really don’t want you to have a local backup of your SkyDrive files. Take a look at this:

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Above: Windows 8 File History

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Above: Windows 8.1 File History

No problem you think? Just add your SkyDrive folder to a Library and it should back up? Nope – all the SkyDrive files are ignored completely, even if you manually add them to a Library.

The response from Microsoft on this is beyond tragic (from here):

image

Your files “are protected by the cloud in case user lose/damage their device”. What about protection from user error or viruses or badly written programs? If your files get corrupted the corrupted files will sync to the cloud and then sync to all your other devices.

Conclusions

It appears that Microsoft are desperate to push SkyDrive, even at the expense of the computing safety of their customers – customers you’d hope were being educated about safe computing. Now I am on 8.1 I am personally stuck with no built-in backup system. My experience with File History has been awful – it appears to even ignore an additional Library I’ve created to include non-library files. I literally cannot get it to back up files on my computer, it is useless. I am going to have to go with a third-party backup system like CrashPlan now.

Windows 8.1 was Microsoft’s chance to undo the wrongs of Windows 8. Users are now faced with the prospect of upgrading and being faced with no backup solution, or even worse their existing backups just stopping working with no warning.

Sort it out Microsoft.

Edit: Some excellent discussion on this over at Hacker News: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6388431


ASP.NET MVC Basics Part 2: ViewModel to Model Mapping and Editing

In Part 1, I walked through creating a simple form with a backing ViewModel and Validation. In Part 2, I’ll walk through creating a backing Model and Edit functionality.

To start off from here, load up the code from part1: https://github.com/edandersen/mvcformtutorial/tree/part1

The final code for Part 2 will be uploaded here: https://github.com/edandersen/mvcformtutorial/tree/part2

Model Mapping flow

viewmodel-model-mapping

When editing a ViewModel, we need to prepopulate the view with real data from a domain model. This can be a database table mapped to an object via an ORM or data from another source. In the diagram above, we can see the GET Edit action requesting Model with an ID of 123 from the Repository holding the model data, creating a ViewModel that represents the Model and passing it onto the View to render. POSTing the data back is similar to the Create POST method in Part 1, except we load the existing Model from the repository, update it with the validated data from the ViewModel and update the model in the Repository.

Continue reading…


ASP.NET MVC Basics Part 1: View Model binding

I’m going to walk through the basics of Form submission with ASP.NET MVC, showing some best practices. This set of tutorials will be useful for developers moving away from ASP.NET WebForms into ASP.NET MVC or even Rails developers curious about how we do things in .NET.

You can download the code for Part 1 at: https://github.com/edandersen/mvcformtutorial/tree/part1

Form submission flow

If you have come from WebForms, you’ll be used to being able to pull form values out in the code behind by simply referencing variables in your code behind. These magically map to elements on the page and most of the time you are blissfully unaware how the data gets there. With MVC, we don’t have the same abstraction. Whereas you can access POSTed variables directly with FormsCollection (or params in Rails) but with the ViewModel pattern, we can simulate the binding that ASP.NET provides and access our form variables in a strongly typed manner.

aspnet-form-submission-1

Continue reading…


Life with Surface RT – and why I’ve upgraded to a Surface Pro

I picked up my Surface RT on launch day last year as I happened to be in New York for work. The strong yen made it a bargain and I’ve been living with it since. Because it won’t run most desktop apps, it has seen limited use. It was an excellent video player during flights, but nothing an iPad could not have handled. Word made a passing replacement for Windows Live Writer with it’s built in blogging system, but it wasn’t perfect. Thanks to Microsoft locking down compilation for ARM-based apps, third parties have not been able to fill in the missing functionality gaps.

Read on for my views on living with the Surface RT for six months, and why I’ve picked up a Pro.

 

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Surface Pro on the left, Surface RT on the right. Note the difference in kickstand angles.

 

The Surface RT as a Remote Desktop machine

Where the Surface RT absolutely shined was a thin client, Remote Desktop machine. The latest version of the RDP Protocol that ships with Windows 8 is another leap forward from previous versions. Whilst we lose Aero remoting, we gain adaptive encoding that encodes different parts of the screen in the most appropriate fashion, changing algorithms for text, pictures and even video. Video now streams due to re-encoding on the host side – previous versions of RDP required Media Foundation compliant players which would attempt to bitstream the actual video file when being played. In reality, this only worked with Windows Media Player when playing MP4 or WMV video files. UDP support also improves connection reliability.

Remote Desktop is the reason I am not keen on using Macs when I have even one Windows machine in active use. The version of the Remote Desktop client for OS X runs a protocol somewhere between Windows XP and Windows Vista – it supports network-level authentication but the performance is that of an old Windows XP client, with almost a decade-old set of algorithms for streaming the session. It is unusable over cellular links and glitchy even over LAN. Surface RT of course has none of these problems due to an up to date client.

Surface RT for work

Because you cannot install binaries unless signed by Microsoft, you can kiss goodbye to the idea of doing any “real” work on the host OS of the Surface RT, beyond simple Office work in Word and Powerpoint. Outlook is not available, so you’ll be relegated to webmail (the Metro Mail app is so bad it is not worth talking about). You can of course Remote Desktop to a work machine, but be warned that if you require a non-standard VPN connection (such as Cisco AnyConnect), you won’t be able to install the software required to connect to your workplace.

I travel a bit for business, and the Surface RT has been great as a video player – the built in kickstand perfectly fitting on an economy airline table. The battery life will last even the majority of a 13 hour flight. Just remember you won’t be able to do real work on it (unless Powerpoint is your job) – so if you are flying business because your firm hopes you might get some work done (and be well rested), you’ll need to bring a real laptop with you. The Surface RT is small enough to slip in the same laptop sleeve as the MacBook I use for work, so carrying it is not a burden. However, MacBooks can play videos quite well and business class has power adapters so the Surface is a bit unwelcome if you have a “work laptop”.

Why buy a Surface Pro when I already have a Surface RT

So what made me get a Surface Pro? Ultimately it came down to it’s biggest failing – note-taking. Surface RT ships with it’s killer app, OneNote, but with a touch screen that won’t handle stylus input. I wanted to do some sketches in OneNote, so picked up the Adonit JotPlus capacitive stylus. Whilst it was somewhat accurate enough, the lack of palm detection made writing and drawing impossible. In OneNote – an application designed for handwriting and drawing. Palm Detection prevents your hand from interrupting your drawing, but with no stylus support, the Surface RT has no way of knowing what is a “pen” or your finger.

This was a bridge too far. I used to use OneNote back at university with the awesome, ahead of it’s time, HP TC1100.

hp_tablet_pc_tc1100_tastatur

The HP TC1100 discontinued in 2005 – look familiar?

The TC1100 had a Wacom stylus and digitizer (like the Surface Pro), a detachable keyboard (like the Surface Pro) and a 10.1 screen (like the Surface Pro, but 4:3 like the iPad, so actually useable in portrait orientation). Tablet PCs fell out of fashion around the time Windows Vista came on the scene – maybe because it wouldn’t run on any of them.

I remembered how OneNote basically got me through four years of note taking at University with this pen, before the battery completely died.

So, the Surface Pro can do everything the RT can do, except run for 9 hours on a single charge. However, it has a stylus, runs all Windows apps, supports unorthodox VPN software and even uses the same Touch Cover of the Surface RT? I was sold.

Buying a Surface Pro in Japan

After picking up the Adonis JotPlus pen from LOAX in Shibuya, trying it out in the pub and realizing that this isn’t the tablet experience I remember from 2004, I got on a train to Akihabara to see if I can find a Surface Pro.

Surface Pro has no scheduled date for Japan. Next month, Microsoft will release the Surface Pro in the UK, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. But not Japan.

The first place I went was IOSYS in Akihabara, opposite Donki Houtei – the same place I got my Nokia Lumia 800 last year. This is a great shop that sells imported (US) phones and tablets. They had the Surface Pro in stock (along with the RT), the 64GB model was 124,999 yen, the 128GB was 139,999 yen. Note that this does not include a Touch or Type Cover (I already have a Type Cover for the RT) and works out at about $1400 – a 40% markup on the US RRP of $999. This isn’t a bad deal considering sales tax, shipping and the possibility of being stung by customs on import taxes. Its still a significant markup, but they do provide a 6 month warranty. I picked up the 128GB model.

First Impressions

The Surface Pro is slightly thicker than the RT, but unless you compare the two side by side, you don’t notice after a while. The angle of the kickstand is a little lower (meaning that it points up a bit more). The screen is at 1920×1080 and Windows has the desktop scaled to 150% to compensate. Be ready for some blurry text in badly-written applications unless you drop it down to 100% scaling. The high resolution isn’t too unusable if you are sitting in front of the machine, but the same restrictions about using it in your lap apply. Not that you’d want to – both Surface models are notoriously hard to use with the keyboard attached on your lap on in bed.

Performance is that of an average Core i5 laptop with an SSD installed. Visual Studio and SQL Server both installed in 15 minutes, whereas Office was pre-installed. All my machines are SSDs now, so performance is very similar across devices – the slightly slower processor here might bite me later if I decide to do something like encode video on the Surface Pro, but I would probably farm that out to my desktop machines. The RAM is a paltry 4GB but Windows 8 is very economical with OS memory usage. Serious processing tasks will still be farmed out to a larger machine.

The pièce de résistance is the stylus. It attaches to the power charger magnets instead of sliding inside the device like older Tablet PCs. The magnets are strong though and I haven’t had it disconnect in my bag yet. I don’t think this will be as easy to lose as some reviews are claiming. The stylus in OneNote compared to the JotPlus “fake finger” stylus is like night and day – the pen supports multiple pressure levels and you can reverse it and erase with the opposite end of the pen – exactly like in 2004. The biggest downside is the widescreen ratio of the Surface and the fact that portrait mode looks so stupid – maybe we’ll get a 4:3 version someday.

For media playing, it does everything the RT does, but you can actually install VLC and WinAmp. No longer do I have to convert MKVs to MP4 like I had to on the RT.

Overall

Ultimately I feel I will still use the Surface RT as a “holiday” device and the Surface Pro as a “business trip” device. The RT does everything I need for recreational purposes, with the ability to Remote Desktop into a “real” machine if I need access to unavailable applications. The Pro however, whilst I have no intention of doing so myself, could easily be a desktop replacement. The stylus has already reawakened my almost decade old OneNote obsession.

I’ll probably write up my experiences with the Surface Pro in a couple of months time. Stay tuned.