Why the Surface Pro 3 has become my favorite digital tool

I own a 15″ MacBook Pro, an 11″ MacBook Air, an iPad, an iPad Mini, an iPhone, and an iMac. Perhaps rather surprisingly, my new Microsoft Surface Pro 3 has become my favorite digital tool. Here’s why…

Form Factor and Build Quality

I really enjoyed my Surface RT and Surface Pro 2, but the Pro 3 is in a whole other class. While in both prior instances the build quality was excellent, the Pro 3 feels just right. Its 12 inch, 4:3 screen is perfect for reading PDFs and other documents. While the prior Surface models felt a little cramped and too wide-screen for my liking, this tablet really does work like a laptop (with a much better detachable keyboard than the prior versions as well). The screen is amazing and responsive. It’s also weirdly light. I was carrying it in a messenger bag the other day and I thought I had left it on my desk. I literally thought the bag was empty. It actually makes my 11″ MacBook Air feel a little heavy. And did I mention how perfect the screen is for reading? Hands down, this is the right form factor for my day-to-day work.

Surface Pro 3

Stylus and Handwriting

I’m not sure what Microsoft has done with the stylus experience, but it is almost as natural as writing on paper. I didn’t find this to be true with the Surface Pro 2’s Wacom stylus. The new NTRIG device is fantastic. Add to that the push button to launch OneNote (either the modern UI app or the full desktop version) and the note-taking experience is fantastic. Compared with the quality of capacitive stylii available for most other touchscreen devices, the stylus and handwriting experience on the SP3 is in a class all by itself. And for someone who prefers to take handwritten notes at meetings as well as in marking up PDF documents with circles, squiggles and notes, it is a godsend. Whether I’m using the PDF annotation tools built into OneNote or PDF Touch, this feature alone makes the SP3 worth the price of admission to me.

Microsoft Software

In terms of productivity, having full versions of Office available on your laptop/tablet combo is critical. I chuckle when I think back to how hard I tried to make the iPad a real productivity device. With the SP3, it’s completely seamless. I realize that Windows 8 gets a bad rap from a lot of folks. I honestly don’t get it. I actually strongly prefer the 8.1 UI to both Mac OS and iOS. I think that most operations are more intuitive and more flexible from the user’s perspective. Add to that the fact that the one operating system supports both full Windows desktop apps and the modern UI apps available in the Microsoft Store, you have a lot of great flexibility. Now, if we could just get some more apps in the Store, I’d be a really happy camper.

All in all, I think Microsoft nailed it with the Surface Pro 3. I think that the more users see this device in stores, conference rooms or classrooms, more folks may find that this may be their favorite digital device too.

Online Storage and Access

With all the digital content in our lives (documents, images, presentations, pdf files, etc.), it’s critical to develop a robust storage solution that allows you to access what you need, when you need it, from where you need it. In this quick post, I’ll share two online file storage and access solutions that will literally make your life better – in a geeky sort of way.

Option 1 – Dropbox

I started using Dropbox probably 3-4 years ago with the free 2GB storage account. At first, I really only used the Web interface that allows you to upload documents into folders you create through the Web site. Once uploaded, you can access your files in Dropbox from any Web browser or through apps on your phone or tablet. Stop there, and this is already pretty amazing. 2 gigabytes of free storage that you can access from anywhere. Add to that, though, the ability to share a folder or single file with anyone via an email address or link, and you’re really cookin’ with gas. I’ve saved the best for last, though… Install the desktop client, and Dropbox creates a local folder on your computer’s hard drive. From this point on, any time that you save a file into this folder it is uploaded to your online file storage automatically in the background. Access and change a file on your smartphone? It’s automatically uploaded to your online storage and downloaded to any computer with the client installed. I literally have Dropbox installed on probably four computers or tablets and the service magically keeps the files synced across all devices. Really amazing. Seriously.

Option 2 – SkyDrive

Just when I thought nothing could trump my love for Dropbox, I discovered Microsoft’s SkyDrive through my work on the Technology Enriched Instruction project. SkyDrive does everything exactly like Dropbox, except it includes 7 GB of free storage (both services offer multiple upgrade options to get more storage space). This just where SkyDrive gets warmed up, though. The huge added benefit of SkyDrive is the built-in, free Web apps that allows you to work with your files via any Web browser on a computer or tablet. These Web apps are essentially slimmed down versions of all the Office applications. So, if you save a Word document in your SkyDrive folder, you can access the file through the Web browser, then click on the Edit tab and you can edit the file in your Word browser or, if installed, on your desktop application. Either way, as soon as you save changes to the document, it’s automatically uploaded to your online storage space (and all your computers or other devices with the desktop application installed). There are free Web apps for Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote, my personal favorite notetaking utility. It really is an incredible tool… for free. 

I’m sure there are other options available, but these are two outstanding, free ways to store and access files online from anywhere. If you don’t already use one of these services, what are you waiting for? Get to it.

Digital commenting and grading

Over the last several years, I’ve tried to go as paperless as possible. For the most part I’ve been fairly successful. One area that has always been a challenge for me though is in devising an effective and efficient workflow for providing student comments on their work. There are certainly a number of options – comments and track changes in Microsoft Word, converting to PDF and inking up either on a desktop computer or via a stylus on a tablet. Even with one of these solutions, though, there’s still the extra effort in passing files back and forth, entering grades somewhere, etc. Essentially, no matter what I’ve tried, I feel like I have about 5 steps too many to be really productive.

Screenshot of BlackBoard Inline Grading via Gene Roche

Enter BlackBoard’s Inline Grading tool. While I still haven’t used it in my courses yet, it seems really promising – kind of a one-stop shop for file exchange, commenting, and grading all in one. My good friend Gene Roche, the Director of Academic Information Services at William & Mary did a great post where he outlines the features. I’ll follow up with some screencasts once I get my hands dirty. In the meantime, read through Gene’s great post to see how it might work for you.

How do you start your day?

Seems like a simple question, no? In terms of being productive and working on what’s most important, the question of how to start your day is actually pretty important. Take, for example, beginning in email. If you’re like me (and I’d guess you’d not be reading this if we didn’t have some things in common), I could spend most of the morning in my email without realizing how much time I’d spent. Because it’s not just browsing through and answering a few messages. Many emails include lengthy to-do’s, things to consider, or a series of steps. One email can snowball into 30 minutes. And don’t get me started on beginning the day on Twitter or Facebook!

For most people, the morning is a precious space. Your head is still clear and you’ve probably yet to experience the inevitable curve balls life is likely to throw at you. This is the time that can be great for doing some course planning, thinking through vexing problems, reading, or writing the results section on your latest manuscript. If we aren’t deliberate with how we spend this time (or gift), it’s easy to slide down a rabbit hole. A horde of productivity gurus will offer this same advice about avoiding email first thing in the morning. The trick is, what do you do instead?

One of my favorite podcasts related to productivity is the Home Work podcast by Aaron Mahnke and Dave Caolo. They offer substantive, helpful ideas to be mindful and deliberate about work life. On Episode Six Dave introduced me to David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner.

David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner

This simple tool helps me to determine my priorities for the day and block time for these most important actions during the day. If you take a look, you’ll notice that you’re prompted to first jot down just three major tasks. David is kind enough to provide three more spaces, but the point is that you realistically can’t complete 12 major tasks in a single day. Identifying the three most important tasks is really helpful for me in terms of making sure I have the time and space during the day to get these done. There’s a great area on the planner to block time during the day in 15 minute increments so that you can ink in the meetings you already have scheduled, with a not so subtle reminder that you also need to make time for your most important tasks.

While I still spend some mornings in my email inbox (like when I recently returned from two weeks away from the Internet), I always start by completing my task planner first. This helps me to make deliberate choices about how I spend my time. I’ve found that it helps me to be more realistic about what I can accomplish in a given day and keeps me focused on what’s most important rather than on what’s right in front of me.

In future posts, I’ll get into how I keep all my projects and tasks organized as well as my approach to using David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach. I’ll also do a round-up of helpful blogs and podcasts. For now, though, download a copy of the Emergent Task Planner (or buy the pre-printed pads on Amazon) and start your day off productively.