I’ve been using a Microsoft Surface 3 since the middle of May… the recently launched model, not the Pro, the smaller one with less CPU power but lighter and more portable. This is not a review, I don’t usually write product reviews. But since I’ve finally found a device that fits my needs perfectly and completes my traveling kit, I wanted to share my experience with you.
My (updated) traveling kit
If you’re a reader of this blog, then you’re probably aware that I often travel overseas, and have been doing so more and more in the last years. It’s something I really enjoy… but to do that in the proper way, I’ve learnt that there are some indispensable accessories that make life easier when on the move.
Nothing special indeed, if you spend a couple of hours in a big airport you can easily spot the frequent flyers and what most of them carry around… Sometimes they are just small details, but important details nonetheless!
My basic traveling kit is composed of a good sturdy Wenger SwissGear Backpack and a Samsonite exapndable trolley (which is on its last leg, unfortunately). I say that because one of the most important things I’ve learnt is to always fly only with carry on bags: no matter what goes wrong with your flight plans… wherever you end up, you’ll always have your stuff with you! 😉
My big phone
That said, this article is about my gadgets and the Surface. First of all I have a Huge phone (or Phablet if you like), a 5.5″ OnePlus One. One of the best phones I’ve ever had. Almost-vanilla Android, good user experience, 64GB of storage and a long lasting battery (most important feature to me!). This is the first phone in years for which I haven’t had the urge to change after just a few months… I love it, especially since I have an unlimited plan with H3G (well, not 100% unlimited because data is only 20GB/month… but it is valid in many European countries and it includes an option allowing me to have unlimited calls to/from EU/US at €7/month). I often use the phone as a hotspot and, on 4G, I can sometimes easily reach a downloading speed of 50+ MB/sec in major cities. A huge phone has always kind of looked foolish to me, until I actually tried it! In fact, a big screen is much better for everything ranging from composing emails to surfing the web or watching a movie. Yes, it’s weird when you bring it to your ear to receive a call, but I often use earphones and make skype video calls. And yes, it is harder to use with one hand, but I have to say that Google voice commands are pretty good and precise. So, at the end of the day, the pros surpass the cons. And I have to add that I will consider a 6″ phablet next time, as long as the overall size isn’t a lot bigger.
The Phone made my iPad redundant
All this prologue to say that my iPad has become too little for producing content… and too much for consuming it.
For example, every time you need it for basic tasks like emails, just pulling it out of the bag is a waste of time (especially if you also need to connect it to the WiFi)… and if you need to write something more complex than an email, you will probably end up with an external keyboard. This, associated with the limits of the operating system in terms of multi-window and multi tasking (addressed by Apple with next iOS iteration eventually!) limits the use of the device.
At the same time, traditional laptops are heavy and can be too much to perform most of the basic tasks we do every day (like emails, browsing the web or social media activities)… Modern PCs are very powerful but, again, in my particular case I don’t need all that power when I travel.
Up until now my problem was to carry on three devices (a laptop, a tablet and a phone) to get all I needed or trade one of them for lesser agility… and comfort. Either case the solution was suboptimal.
The Surface 3
I’ve always been skeptical about Microsoft and its OSes and, moreover, I have been a Mac fanboy for decades (since the Plus). But Microsoft has changed a lot in the last few years and I’ve also joined the Windows 10 preview program.
I saw the success of the Surface 3 Pro (not that many around, it ain’t that cheap… but anyone who owns one loves it!). And despite the fact that Windows 8.1 does not make me happy, Windows 10 is a beautiful and modern OS with a much improved GUI… and I thought that eventually I could give the Surface 3 a try. On paper it looked just perfect for me.
It’s a bit underpowered but it is a tablet and a PC… all in one device. With most of the advantages of the two worlds. The battery lasts from 8 to 10 hours (depending on type of use), Metro GUI (or whatever it’s called now) is good enough when you use it in tablet mode and a proper Desktop is good when you need to run a complex application.
You can’t run VMs or complex software here, but all the basic content creation (Document editing, Drawing, Audio editing and so on) is easy to manage.
The size is just perfect (somewhat bigger than an iPad), and even if using it in desktop mode is not the best user experience, screen quality and resolution are of help and make it acceptable.
The screen and the audio system are remarkable also when it comes to movies.
I found most of the applications I usually use in the Apple world and good replacements for others. My Mac advocacy is no longer that strong… Mac OS X is still a better OS but Win 8.1 is decent and Win 10 will be on par (and perfectly suited/suitable for the Surface!).
When you buy the surface you can’t avoid ordering the keyboard and the pen… They are the ultimate accessories for this device. (Total cost in my case, a 4GB/128GB, was around €750 including VAT). The retro-illuminated keyboard, with mechanical keys, is not the best of this world and the trackpad is mediocre but it does its job. I found myself very often using a combination of trackpad and touch, it’s not a bad compromise, but if you want a good pointing device an external mouse is essential.
The Pen makes the difference. I really love it. The integration with various apps (including OneNote) and the hand recognition make it very useful and natural. Signing and editing PDF documents is very easy as well as making notes over top of photos or webpages.
The Surface 3 pro can be charged through a USB power supply (the original one is 2,5 Amps but I tried it with a more common 2,1A, and it works).
What else? I don’t have a lot to add… this is a beautiful device and I’m happy with it, I would like to run a VM just to have an idea of the performance… but that’s not its job for sure!
A few more accessories
Just to finish up describing my traveling kit… I have a couple of battery packs (one is 5600mAh and the other is 3000mAh)… who doesn’t? I didn’t bother buying a bigger one because I can easily reach the 24h cycle without using them… I have them just to charge batteries on 10+ hour flights and to land with a fully charged battery.
When I travel I usually spend some of my free time running… I’m not a very good runner, but it is a way to keep me and my weight on track (especially in the US with all the junk food). Vibram Five Fingers are my favorite shoes, they are easy to stuff in your bag and are very comfortable (not only for running!!!).
Talking about music, I have recently tried the Plantronics BackBeat FIT. Bluetooth headphones made for fitness with a very long lasting battery (I used them for 6 hours in a row a few days ago and it was still at 30%). They come with an app for basic controls and firmware upgrades. BackBeat FIT are compatible both with my phone and iOS. The audio quality, considering my standard and their purpose, is very high… and I use them very often, not only for running.
Last but not least, Noise canceling headphones… Fundamental if you want some quiet in a noisy space (or airplane). I tried an Audio-Technica in-ear product recently, but it really sucks. The audio quality is not bad, but it doesn’t do its job very well and noise reduction sucks! I’m still weighing out the choice between QC20 or QC25 by Bose to complete my traveling kit. They both have pros and cons.
Closing the Circle
All this stuff doesn’t make me a better traveler, but it helps me to travel lighter and get some work done when flying or hanging around in a lounge or on a long layover…