Microsoft Surface: Learning what a tablet is for

Snap mode — the best feature in Windows RT no-one talks about, and why cheap tablets are like cut-price sewing machines.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

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.

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