Microsoft Surface: Learning what a tablet is for

Microsoft Surface: Learning what a tablet is for

Summary: Snap mode — the best feature in Windows RT no-one talks about, and why cheap tablets are like cut-price sewing machines.

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Recently, we spent quite a few evenings emptying our storage unit and rearranging our large book and comic collection on the shelves that cover many of our walls.

As we went along, I wanted to add more of the books to the catalogue we keep on Librarything. (I've bought the same book twice rather too often.)

There are lots of ways to put books into Librarything, including mobile apps for scanning ISBN barcodes, but many of our books are too old for barcodes. That cuts out using the barcode scanner that plugs into a PC by USB, as well. The person stacking the shelf can read out the book titles and the other person can sit on the sofa and add the books to Librarything, but it's a lot faster to shelve books than to drive the Librarything website. In the end, it proved fastest to fill a shelf with correctly alphabetised books, take a snap on my Lumia 920, stack the next shelf, and wait until we took a tea break.

Then I'd snap the SkyDrive app (where I could see the synced photos from my phone without having to plug anything in) beside the browser on my Surface and zoom in to see the book titles and enter them in Librarything.

I did that on my Surface rather than pulling out a Windows 8 slate, because even the Samsung PC Pro slate I take to meetings is a little too heavy to hold in my hands for that long, and because the modern IE browser is nice and fast, so I don't need anything else.

I can thumb type on the Windows 8/RT split touchscreen keyboard almost as fast and accurately as I can type on the Windows Phone keyboard (and I frequently write 500- to 600-word articles on the Windows Phone keyboard, so that's a high bar to meet; my years with a BlackBerry have left me with nimble thumbs and the Word Flow predictive text means I only have to type a fraction of the actual words).

Having the photo and browser side by side on-screen is more convenient than going back and forth on the phone screen, which is how I did this before I got a Surface.

I can zoom in to the photo to see titles in a photo of 20 books stacked on a shelf even in the small snapped window. I can stack up multiple tabs by opening new links for all the books from a specific author I need to enter, and then swipe down to close a tab after I've added the book. And I can swipe back in the browser quickly to see the author page I started from, if I want to double check the list of books on a touchscreen. I miss that gesture badly in desktop Windows 8.

Sure, there are dozens of other ways to do this, but I found a fast and simple workflow using SkyDrive — and the combination of the big screen and light weight made me really appreciate doing this on a tablet. But it turned out to be snapping the photo and website side-by-side that made the most difference. Plus, I never had to worry about whether the Surface would be charged; I can use it for three or four days without needing to think about plugging it in.

If you're an iPad fan, this might sound pretty familiar (although you don't have the snapped applications, and I find one app at a time just too limiting on anything larger than a phone).

But as a pen user since 2003, finding useful things to do on a touch-only tablet has been a bit of a struggle for me. (As an aside, J Gownder from Forrester is spot on when he talks about how many different kinds of tablets there are; I do wonder how soon the analysts will start measuring what we do and calling it "personal computing".

Because from where I sit, the "death of the PC" looks more like the Cambrian explosion of form factors. Yes, we'll get the Edicarian mass extinction event, but some of those dinosaurs will survive as chameleons and parakeets and fluttering London pigeons...)

I use touch all the time on Windows 8 — to select windows, to select words inside a document, to select buttons and tools, to drag windows around on-screen, and to do everything else I used to do with the trackpad. But I do that on a tablet docked into a keyboard that turns it into a laptop sitting on my lap, currently the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro.

Since I bought it, my Surface has been my lightweight Word writing machine, my lightweight Excel machine, my lightweight OneNote typing machine, my stay-in-touch TweetDeck machine, and my "earn a bronze medal in Solitaire Collection challenges in just four days" machine — but that's all about the Surface being both light and almost a PC.

For the things I'm used to doing on a tablet, I turn to Windows 8 so I can use the digital pen to take notes over lunch — or hand it to the engineer I'm talking to, who wants to draw me an architecture diagram. For working out what shelving we could fit into the spare room, I measured the walls with a tape measure, jotted the figures down in OneNote on my phone, grabbed my Windows 8 tablet to draw a room plan with measurements — and took that to Ikea on my phone, where we measured the various Billy and Benno shelving units to see what would fit best where. (Again, OneNote syncs over SkyDrive, so it's just there.)

This is the multi-device world we live in these days. I want to pick up the device that best suits what I'm doing and where, and be able to have all the information from any other devices I use — instead of having to use a particular device to get the service or document I want. When a touch tablet is a better choice than a pen tablet or a phone, and the services mean it just works, that's perfect. I guess that's what Microsoft means by "devices and services". And for me, Windows tablets have a definite place in that.

There will have to be some cheaper, smaller tablets, because those are what people are buying right now, but we won't be able to do as much on them as on a more powerful, more expensive tablet. Sometimes, cheap is too cheap because of how many compromises it means.

I was reminded of that by the next thing I did around the house after we finished shelving the books — I bought a new sewing machine.

If my old sewing machine is a PC and hand sewing is my smartphone, the sewing machine equivalent of the cheap Android tablet should be about right. Except it wasn't.

The old machine took up more space, but it also had a more powerful motor, a more accurate stitching foot, more settings for the stitches I use (as well as many that I don't), pressure-sensitive speeds, a built-in light and thread cutter, more room for folding up the rest of what I'm sewing next to the needle instead of cramming it through a tiny gap, and more space for smoothing out the fabric I'm about to stitch through. There were good reasons for it being bigger, more complex, and more expensive.

It turns out that I used a lot more of the power of my big old sewing machine than I realised, and I relied on features I had forgotten were there. And all the little extras that just made my life easier turned out to be a lot more important than I thought.

It's very like Windows, where I use clipboard utilities and command line scripts and the auto-adjust facility in Photo Gallery almost every day, and I don't miss them until I try to do everything on a cheap tablet with a tiny screen and not enough horsepower for OneNote's handwriting recognition.

I might not need everything on my PC for everything I do, but when I do need them, simple and basic feels more like limiting and underpowered, and cheap turns out to mean compromises.

Topics: Tablets, Android, Cloud, Windows 8

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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62 comments
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  • Exactly Mary, you got it.

    SnapView is the best thing. I've found it is very useful when you are taking notes and doing research on your topic and add citations if you are bringing in some content from sources. One view browser and the other word, One Note or you name it. Also the integration Share and Search through Charms into these notes taking capable apps is so awesome. I use it pretty much everyday on my Surface Pro and Surface RT.
    Ram U
    • Snap?

      Dinosaurus, I suppose.
      Took me reading about half-way through until I figured out that "snap" is not some new-fangled app, but shortcut for "taking a picture".
      I doubt many retail customers will get a Surface RT so they can take pictures of - oops - Snap book shelves and SkyDrive.
      No matter how powerful and versatile the tablet is.
      radu.m
      • Snap for Windows

        Snap is the utility in Windows 8 that allows you to quickly dock two windows on the screen. Windows 7 has a similar feature where you can quickly dock a screen to the left or right and have another window docked to the opposite side, effectively viewing two screens at once.

        The article is talking about how this feature is on a tablet (Surface RT) and it allows her to have multiple apps open and viewable at the same time.
        Ebsan
        • Why would this simple and accurate explanation have FIVE FLAGS!!!!

          Come on ZDNet, check the flagging.
          The ABM crowd here is radical and will do most anything to put down anything Microsoft related. Is that acceptable for a "Professional" website?
          xuniL_z
      • Snap isn't about taking pictures

        As Ebsan explained, the 'snap' that the author mentions isn't the photo (snapshot), but the ability to 'snap' one app to the side of the screen while working on another app with the rest of the screen. This is a feature of Windows 8 which allows one to have more than one app open at once, and eliminates having to switch back and forth between them, as one would have to do with a smart phone or non-Windows tablet.

        The author was able to 'snap' the photo to the side of the screen and leave it open and visible while working with the cataloging app.
        eksimba
        • desktop..

          and while i think this is good functionality for a tablet it really makes no sense on a phone or on the desktop.

          For the phone - the screen is too small to have this working, though the PiP type view that's available on the Samsung Androids is a good idea.
          For the desktop - the screen is large enough that 1 or 2 windows taking up all the space is a waste most of the time, the old overlapped window system is much better.

          So, we have an OS that's got a good feature for a tablet... and has forced it on other form factors. No wonder no-one likes Windows 8.
          gbjbaanb2
          • you can snap next to the desktop

            so you have both snap and as many windows as you want.
            mary.branscombe
      • Blue

        With Windows Blue (8.1) you will be able to snap 1/2 and 1/2. Currently you can only do 1/3 and 2/3. Toolbox is an OK app but a bit limited in what it can do and for web pages it places these really large ribbions at the top of the panel.

        You can do this same kinda function on a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 10.1 with certain apps. That nice device also has a build in pen. Surface RT has a USB and HDMI port, which are nice. Both have a microSD slot and you can use a mouse if you wish (which is important for RDP/VPN).
        Rann Xeroxx
      • radu.m, how do you prefer your crow?

        xuniL_z
    • agreed

      I'm looking forward to the new snap features in blue. MS truly has a goal in mind where unification of device form factors can make our lives and technology easier. Cheap tablets are pretty much useless beyond the small things they do well such as reading or consuming media. Windows 8 does this but it also does a lot more.
      Rob.sharp
  • A rose by any other name

    Personal computing devices will evolve just as dinosaurs evolved (presumably) into 'fluttering London pigeons'.

    True enough but we don't call pigeons dinosaurs. We call them pigeons in the post dinosaur age.
    kenosha77a
    • Turkey will feed a large dinner gathering

      To continue with the great analogy, pigeons might make good eating (boney parts) but if you want to feed a large gathering, a turkey (PC or server) would be a better bird.

      Stuff (PC's) isn't going away, it's changing, evolving.
      Schoolboy Bob
  • How about an app that converts image to text?

    It seems to me with all of this technology available, doing all that typing -- thumb-typing, no less -- would be the top thing you'd want to avoid.
    DittoHeadStL
    • more than just the title

      the average book cover has tag lines and blurbs and quotes; by the time I've marked which text to recognise, I could have typed it ;-)
      mary.branscombe
  • Such use cases still smell of the big lumbering monolithic dinosaurs

    There will always be a place for such, but increasingly, computing will move to much smaller and more targeted form factors. Though your workflow you described is fine given today's technology, don't you think in a few years you'll be able to snap that same photo with your, ahem, Glass or equivalent, hand-wave to box off titles and let character recognition dump them into a database?

    A reality is that that coming age of ubiquitous, wearable, etc. computing isn't something welcomed by the MSes of the world - because it's unclear what business models will work, it's unclear how to make a profit, etc. So the behemoths of the past will, in this evolutionary cycle, do everything they consciously can to maintain a connection to the old ecology where so much of their profit came, and not sacrifice their cash cows.

    But it'll happen anyway - just may take longer, with conservative current IT oligarchs resisting.
    daboochmeister
  • Majority don't use tablets or computer devices in general, like that

    It's not true that a cheap android tablet can do less than an expensive one. It's the same between a $500 traditional PC and a $1500 one.
    Yes the display will not be as nice, probably with less resolutions, the battery doesn't last for the same amount of time, materials are cheaper and design is not as good, it's also heavier.
    There are things that people can do a lot better in a cheap tablet than on any traditional PC at any price.
    Just think of casual mail check, taking pics, social networking, warehouse inventories, couch browsing, reading e-books, browsing family pics, replying to short emails, me posting this text, ... and many more.
    It's more about the form factor than the software, but cheap tablets seem to be in android camp... for now.

    If all I want to sew, are buttons to thin fabric, a cheap light, portable, responsive and always available sewing machine is the best.
    Wealthy people still have the "industrial" sewing machine resting on the desk, it will be used when required and updated every 6 or 8 years when necessary.
    AleMartin
    • no buttonhole mode on the cheap sewing machine

      the missing buttonhole stitching was actually what prompted this whole metaphor ;-)
      mary.branscombe
      • Mine have :P

        It's a special model
        AleMartin
        • But still cheap

          I got the point of the article, but sales don't lie and also how people prefer using tablets having a full featured PC resting on the desk.
          AleMartin
          • Common sense doesn't lie either,

            People bring up sales, yet never ask the question as to "why someone who bought a 500 dollar iPad doesn't rush out and buy a 500 Surface, if the Surface is a better tablet?

            I see it's really that nobody's looking for a full featured PC in tablet form.

            I get it, now. ;)
            William Farrel