From Surface to OneDrive and Windows Phone: My year in tech, and what I want next

What are the devices, apps and services I rely on now and how has that changed this year? Perhaps not as much as I expected.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

It's easy to get used to how we use technology and think we've done things that way for a long time.

But one of my most visible technology opinions this year - my dependence on OneDrive placeholders - must be a recent development, since they only arrived in July 2013 as part of the Windows 8.1 preview. And sure, 18 months is certainly long enough for something to become indispensable, but what about 12 months? Am I still relying on technology I've known and loved for years or have new things in 2014 really made an impact for me?

I thought this would be the year I switched from Xbox 360 to Xbox One: I was looking forward to the better Kinect and family sharing finally letting me use SmartGlass on my phone without paying for a second Gold account.

But a lot of what I use Xbox for is TV, and where I get my TV is Sky - and Sky is still saying it won't port the Sky Go app from Xbox 360 onto Xbox One because the platform isn't big enough. I'm hoping the Christmas sales might change their mind, but without the app I need, Xbox One ends up as just another box next to the TV.

I'm still happy with Windows Phone because I haven't found any apps that I need to be missing: I don't use Snapchat or Instagram. I love Appy Weather for giving me a really accurate forecast right on my lock screen and I'm using Blue Skies to get the same 'should I take an umbrella?' guidance that iPhone users get from the Dark Sky app.

I do miss the integrated People view, Me tile notifications and sharing and the endless agenda in the calendar in 8.1 - although third-party apps like UniShare and Agenda View give me most of what I need (if only Agenda View had a live tile, it would be perfect).

I think IE on Windows Phone is the best mobile browser because it's so close to the functionality of desktop IE - everything from my banking site to the CMS works like a desktop site. I only wish it used the same Tracking Protection Lists to cut down on intrusive trackers, but the reading view makes the most overloaded web pages readable.

Tab sync to my other Windows devices is hugely useful; if a web page is handy, I can take it straight from the phone to a bigger screen. Tweetium on Windows Phone is new to me this year; it has a strong claim to being the best Twitter client on any device and it means I don't suffer the promoted tweets, friend of friend favourites and other messing around with the tweet stream that Twitter keeps doing to chase the big bucks.

The clean Windows Phone user interface is a big part of why I'm not looking at other phones for daily use, but the Lumia camera is a huge draw. The only thing that beats my Lumia 1020 for photos is a dSLR (and my back wouldn't cope with dragging one of those around with me). The pictures for our annual Christmas card montage came from my 1020 or Simon's 1020, with just three or four taken on his dSLR. But increasingly I save the 1020 for photographs and use the 1520 I got in January as my main phone.

More phablet, less tablet

Yes, the 1520 launched in 2013 but at the beginning of this year it was still a breath of fresh air. And at the end of 2014 I still love it enough to use it as my main phone. Even though I haven't managed to get AT&T to unlock it so I can put a UK SIM in, I just hook it up to a personal hotspot and use Skype. It's the huge and beautiful screen I love - perfect for the word flow swipe keyboard in Windows Phone 8.1 and for looking at photos and watching videos and writing in OneNote.

Those are all things I thought I'd do on a tiny tablet and I was so impressed by the 8-inch Dell Windows tablet with a pen that I saw at CES last year that I went straight out to the Microsoft Store in the Fashion Show Mall in Las Vegas and bought one.

But it took months to get a pen and I hardly ever took it out of its case, preferring to take notes on my phone - or to go the whole hog and pull out the Surface 2.

The Surface 2 was a 2013 device that changed the way I worked in 2014. I had been using it since launch because I got everything I liked in the original Surface - lightweight, long battery life, and a real copy of Office on the desktop with Explorer and Paint for handling files and screengrabs - but with the oomph to be my primary machine. I used it every day at CES last year and never worried about running out of power, or lugging the extra weight of a laptop and charger. I was sold.

I had all my files on OneDrive but placeholders meant I could fit dozens of gigabytes into my tablet. The server in our office has slowly faded out of my awareness over the last two years; my working files have moved onto OneDrive and my photos go there automatically, instead of waiting until I copy them from an SD card to the server (and I've almost abandoned Flickr along the way, because the less I need it the more difficult it gets to use). But I could still work with the server in Explorer when I needed to. I could even remote in and manage it. Until I picked up the Surface Pro 3 in July, the Surface 2 was almost all I used.

Every few weeks there would be something I needed full Windows for - usually the keyboard shortcuts I use to pause and rewind audio files in Windows Media Player when I'm transcribing an interview, or sometimes Windows software I had to review - and I'd pull out a Surface Pro. But the rest of the time I was using a tablet all the time. Except I was using it like any other PC because it has enough of Windows to work that way, so I'm not sure if I count as a tablet user or not.

Surface Pro 3 meant I could bring back two old favourites; Paint.NET and the ClipMate clipboard manager are software I've relied on for a decade. But it didn't mean I dropped my new habits either.

This year I finally finished up some fiction I'd been writing for years and published it on Kindle. I'd started it on a MacBook (because I had so little software on there beyond Office that nothing distracted me from working). When I actually wanted to finish it, I moved it into OneNote on my Surface 2 because I didn't care about word counts or formatting; I just wanted to have the words with me everywhere. I drew the cover picture with my fingers in Fresh Paint and then procrastinated for a few more months before uploading the final Word file from the Surface Pro 3.

But having finished the first story about Cassidy Smith, my mystery-solving sarcastic geek hero, even before I published it I was suddenly free to work on all the other ideas I'd had about her over the years.

I'd jotted down notes and clipped inspirations into OneNote over the years and one day I pulled out my Lumia 1520 and found myself swiping away on the keyboard, writing the introduction to a second story. I finished that one much more quickly, entirely in OneNote, until I copied the story across to Word to upload to Amazon.

I wrote most of it on one Surface or another, but if inspiration struck when I was on a Tube train or a plane or in the car passenger seat, I could do more than jot it down -- I could add it straight into the story. Now I've got two stories published, another almost finished, and ideas for another two sitting in OneNote.

OneNote also has all the photos I snapped of projects in craft magazine that I want to tackle, along with notes for projects I've started - and I've finished more of those this year than for quite some time. It has new recipes I've tried that I've liked enough to keep and the photos of possible ways to make our dishwasher work better - and it was certainly more convenient to have those on a phone in my hand when a friend helped me pull the dishwasher to pieces in the middle of the kitchen.

This year I've tried new printers (having gone back to an inkjet, I miss the speed of the Ricoh Geljet) and new trackers. The TrackR fob that lets me locate my handbag if I've left it behind is in, but after a few years I've abandoned my Fitbit because my 1520 does almost as well - and having to charge it every week meant most of the time I was carrying a tracker that was out of power.

Unusually, I haven't switched to the latest possible version of Windows. I like Windows 8.1 and touch too much. I love the Start screen and the live tiles, the charms bar and the swipes to switch and resize windows. I love having Metro apps in a separate window rather than on the desktop. There are some great new features in Windows 10 but they don't make up for the great old features I'll have to give up.

I'll give up power for convenience sometimes. I get a much better recording of an interview on my ancient Samsung MP3 recorder than on my phone in OneNote (despite the quad microphones on my 1520). But I have to carry a special cable, copy my recordings off and name them something recognisable, and manage the recorder as another device that needs charging and emptying so it has more recording space. OneNote gives me lower quality recordings but they sync from my phone to my Surface through OneDrive in a couple of minutes. Like a camera, the best recording device is the one you have with you ready to use.

The more things change...

But the changes in the technology I use this year have been incremental; experiments that have become habits that have become just the way I work in a slow natural progression, so that 2014 hasn't felt that different to 2012.

Ten years ago I was always changing devices, switching from a Toshiba Portégé to a succession of HP Tablet PCs, and alternating between Windows Mobile and BlackBerry handsets, because I was always looking for something better that did more of what I need. These days I still try out new devices and services but what I'm used to is powerful technology that hardly needs replacing (and often keeps getting new features because it's tied to a cloud service). So the next great thing has to have to some real advantages to make me switch - or you have to break the technology I rely on so that I look elsewhere.

2014 has taught me how much I've come to rely on OneDrive, but that's not because of anything in the cloud side of OneDrive (beyond security and reliability, which isn't as close to table stakes as you might think). What I love about OneDrive is the integration with the ways I need to work, in Windows and on my phone. If the successor to placeholders doesn't give me the integration I need, there's no reason for me to stay on OneDrive. So maybe I'll end up on a different storage cloud that has a different way of making my life easier, if Microsoft can't rescue its differentiating feature.

In 2015, I'm hoping for a phone that will replace both my 1520 and my 1020. I'm expecting another Surface that woos me away from a machine I'm still delighted with, along with cloud services that let me run Photoshop in the cloud for computational photography because that's where it makes sense to put those power-hungry graphics cards. I'd like bigger SSDs to drop in price because I'd rather have one device with lots of storage than lots of cheap devices with tiny amounts of space. I'm praying for Lync, Skype, and Outlook to finally remember they come from the same company so that I never again have to type in another conference call code that's right there in the calendar invitation.

Maybe there will be some disruptive new device or service that totally changes the way I work. Or maybe I'll keep tweaking what I do on the next version of the tools I already use, with the help of services increasingly driven by machine learning based on what I already do.

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