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.

The Microsoft Surface as a Productivity Device

One of the things that intrigues me most about personal productivity is the idea of designing efficient and effective workflows. By this I mean developing common sets of processes to accomplish different tasks. For example, I often need to read and comment on my students’ writing. In the past, I relied on printing their work and marking it up with a pen. I would then pass these back the following week in class. This worked fairly well for me and my students, except for three issues:

  1. My writing is terrible – I even had trouble translating my own writing when students couldn’t read my chicken scratch
  2. This process delayed my getting comments back to students in a timely manner – particularly on rough drafts that they hoped to revise prior to submitting the work
  3. Unless I made photocopies of the commented work, I didn’t have a record of comments I’d given them at different stages of the process – a problem with a major piece of writing like a dissertation proposal that goes through many revisions

So, these issues were frustrating enough that I was determined to plan a better workflow.

To mitigate these concerns, I began to use the robust commenting features built in to Microsoft Word. Between highlighting snippets of text, tracking changes, and adding comments in the margins, I was able to replicate the same kind of process without some of the challenges inherent in working with paper/pen.

When the iPad was released several years ago, I began an experiment in trying to shift this workflow to a tablet device. I loved the lightweight form factor and ability to read the work more like a document on a table in front of me instead of reading on a vertical screen of my laptop or desktop. I was especially jazzed about the idea of being able to add hand drawn comments and scribbles via a capacitive stylus. Fortunately, a number of robust PDF editing apps were developed for the iPad. I so wanted to figure out and enjoy this workflow, but after two years of near constant exploration, I ran into some new (and old) workflow challenges.

  1. I had to convert every piece of student writing to a PDF file, then either email it to myself or save it to Dropbox in order to access it on the iPad
  2. It was often even more difficult to get the commented documents off the iPad and back to the students
  3. Using the capacitive stylus to leave handwritten comments made my poor handwriting even more difficult to read.

Essentially, with the iPad I introduced even more problems to my workflow than in either of the first two approaches.

When I began working with the Microsoft Technology Enriched Instruction (TEI) project, I had the opportunity to explore a range of Microsoft software, tools, and devices. About two months ago I received a Surface RT and began to explore this as an iPad alternative. It didn’t take me long to realize that the Surface is an entirely different device than an iPad. While the iPad is an excellent consumption and entertainment device (my kids love using it for all kinds of activities), trying to use it as a real productivity device was a constant headache for me.

Here’s what the workflow looks like on the Surface.

  1. I either save my students Word documents to a Dropbox or Skydrive folder (or set it up so that the students can upload files there directly)
  2. I open them up in the full version of Word (that’s included for free on the Surface RT) and use the full set of track changes, comment options, etc. to mark up the documents
  3. I can use the same capacitive stylus with the writing recognition tool built in to the device and it does an amazing job of translating my chicken scratch into crisp, clear typed text
  4. I simply save the file and send it back.

The addition of this one device has literally transformed the way I can provide students with feedback on their writing. The workflows I use with the Surface are not only way more robust and simpler than the iPad, I actually find that this 2 pound device has replaced my laptop and desktop for all but a few key functions. The best part is that not only can I develop these workflows easily, I actually look forward finding new opportunities to use this productivity tablet.