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.

The OneNote app is fantastic

I’ve written before on this blog about the utility of Microsoft OneNote for notetaking and organization. What I was writing about was the full-featured desktop app version on the Surface. Recently, however, I’ve (re)discovered metro-style app available for Windows tablets (including the Surface) and iOS devices for free through the respective app stores. This is a “lite” version of the full-featured app available for Windows PCs and tablets. The layout is simpler and the user has far fewer options. Typically, I don’t prefer “lite” versions of apps, because I guess I consider myself more of a power user. In this case, though, I’ve actually unpinned the full version of OneNote on my Surface and exclusively use the new Web app. Why? Two reasons…

The interface is clean and efficient

As you can see the interface on the Web app is much more clean. It doesn’t offer all the features of the desktop version, but it has all I usually need, with one major advantage for a person like me who likes to add handwritten notes to my pages – the new “tool wheel thingy” – that’s a technical term.

This wheel becomes visible when you tap any blank area of the screen. From here you can choose from a set of default tools or you can even “pin” your own favorite tools to the wheel for easy access. This is great for me, because I like to customize the different inking pens I use frequently. Simply put, this feature is just killer for simple, fast, and effective notetaking.

The Web app works great across all my devices

While the full version of the app is available only on Windows PCs and tablets (both Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 RT), the Web app is available via a Web browser or on iOS or Android devices. This is great for those of us who have a full stable of devices. I love the flexibility of know that whatever device I have with me, I can access, add to, and sync my OneNote notes. While the iOS app isn’t nearly as good as its Windows RT brethren, it will work in a pinch.

So, if you haven’t tried the OneNote app recently, I encourage you to give it a shot. I think you’ll like it.

Paper vs. Digital

When considering how to be the most productive, digital vs. paper is a key decision. We have lists to make and review, ideas to sketch out, notes to take, and information to keep track of – all of which can be done through digital, paper, or some combination of means. This is something I’ve continued to struggle with over the years, but I feel like I’ve finally hit on what works for me.

First, it’s important to point out that there advantages and disadvantages for choosing one approach over the other. Paper equals simplicity. Nothing is quicker or less obtrusive than jotting down a quick note in a notebook.  You can select from a range of different size notebooks, writing tools, and products. Paper is great for quickly capturing ideas, sketching, and processing information in a number of ways. This format also has a number of limitations. When you have a number of different projects and meetings, it can be very difficult to keep things organized. It’s also very tedious trying to find a particular note among a number of different notebooks, pages, and sections. 



You can also use a range of digital tools to capture and process ideas. From robust, full-featured note-taking and data processing/organization applications like OneNote and Evernote that work on multiple platforms (Windows, Mac OS, IOS, Android) to more single purpose tools like OmniOutliner, Padlet, or MindMeister, one can easily find a digital processing tool to fit a particular need. Digital tools provide a number of advantages. First, it can be easy to lose a notebook. I know I’ve lost several. When this happens, you are completely out of luck. With digital tools, they are often automatically backed up to the cloud. So, not only can you recover them, you can access many of them from any Internet-connected device. Searching for specific notes or information is also much easier with digital capture tools. You can incorporate any type of digital content and also share your ideas much more easily than with paper.



The trick, I think, is to find the right balance for you between the “naturalness” of pen and paper with the utility of digital tools. After much searching, I believe I’ve found what works for me. For quick notes (e.g., when someone shares a Web address with me over lunch, I jot it down in my David Allen Notetaker Wallet) or to plan out specific tasks for a day (see the post on the Emergent Task Planner) I prefer paper. This is the quickest, and least obtrusive way for me to capture this info. For all my note-taking, I’ve migrated to OneNote. This is the easiest way for me to gather everything in one place, access it on all my devices, and easily search across all my notebooks. For a discussion of how I use OneNote, check this post. It’s not a flawless or totally consistent system, but it seems to help me get things done.

This is what’s working for me. It may not work for you in the same way. I think the key is to choose deliberately, based on the tool’s affordances and constraints. What are the key tools in your workflow in managing all the stuff in your daily life?


Digital Notetaking with OneNote

For the last two years, I’ve been working on the advisory board for the Microsoft Technology Enriched Instruction (TEI) project. The goal of the project is to help university faculty find ways to integrate technology in meaningful ways to support student learning and help their students develop 21st century skills. It’s been a great experience for me and challenged me to more clearly think through how and why I use technology in my own teaching and scholarly pursuits. I have long been a proponent of digital notetaking tools. The ability to capture and organize ideas and access them on all my devices has provided a huge boost to my productivity and organization. For years I’ve been a happy Evernote user. It has been a great tool, and I’ve enjoyed using it. In the TEI project, however, we’ve been exploring some of Microsoft’s tools for education and I ran across OneNote. In many ways, OneNote has a lot in common with Evernote. I’d heard of it, of course, but because I’ve been primarily a Mac user (there is currently no desktop app for Mac OS), I hadn’t explored it in any depth.

In building this tool into our TEI workshops, I’ve begun to understand some distinct advantages that OneNote provides – particularly with a touch-enabled Windows device, like the Microsoft Surface. There are three primary features of OneNote that have led me to convert 5 years with of Evernote notes into my OneNote notebooks. I’ll touch briefly on each of these features below coupled with some quick screencast videos of me demonstrating how they work. Even if you’re a Mac user, you may want to consider these features – all of which are available for free to Mac users through Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud service.

The Metaphor

In Evernote, the primary metaphor is what they call an “everything bucket.” Essentially, you can add notes, documents, Web pages, etc. into your account. You can then add tags to describe the contents of the items. One can then search using tags or with keywords. More recently, they’ve added the ability to create collections or notebooks of related content.

In OneNote, the whole application is designed around the metaphor of three year binder notebooks. In each notebook, you can create tabbed sections with any number of pages within each section. This type of metaphor just really appeals to me and connects with the way I think about organizing my life. Watch the video below for an overview.

OneNote – Overview of the App

Embedding Media and Web Materials

This feature set applies to both Evernote and OneNote. In either service you can embed any type of digital media into your notebooks. They also both offer a button that you can add in your Web browser to clip Web content right into your notebooks. This video will demonstrate how to add different files and Web content into your notebook.

Embedding Media and Web Clippings into OneNote


The killer feature of OneNote for me is the appeal to add handwritten notes and diagrams in your notes (this of course requires a touch enabled tablet or laptop). You can add handwritten text into a note and just leave it at that. You can also convert handwritten text to typed text. You can also use a combination of typed and handwritten notes. For me, this is what really encouraged me to make the move to OneNote as my notetaking app of choice. In this video, I demonstrating some of these features.

Handwriting and OneNote

There are oodles of notetaking apps available for both Windows and Mac, as well as mobile devices. OneNote has been a wonderful addition to my productivity arsenal. The key, I think, is to find the tool that best resonates with how and where you like to work.