bjoreman.com

January 22, 2018

Surface studio - sparker of joy

Surface studio Surface studio

Microsoft's Surface studio is my favorite computer of 2017. I do not recall any computer since the sunflower iMac sparking this much joy in me. There is nothing else quite like it, and where other Surfaces have felt like great ideas were it not for a thousand little things, the Studio is great right now and will only get better as little things are polished. I wish I had a reason to buy this machine, I want to use it for pretty much everything, and I will miss it when I send it back to Microsoft.

The rest is details. Here they come.

Background

When Microsoft offered to send me the Surface studio for testing I was excited but had rather muted expectations. The Surface book felt like an amazing machine in many ways, but it just never gelled into a whole. I felt like I could never use it to its potential, and I did not miss it after sending it back. I was hoping for more with the Studio, but I was expecting a similar experience. I had watched their presentation unveiling the Studio, and my memory was that it gave a good impression but one that was a lot to live up to.

The main draw for me was to have such a large canvas to draw on. I have always dreamed of larger digital drawing surfaces so I expected to have quite a bit of fun there even though I also recalled drawing on the Surface book as feeling notably less good than on my Ipad pro. I was also, as always, looking forward to playing some games even though I had no real idea what to expect in the way of gaming performance.

The machine

This is the Surface studio:

The Surface studio The Surface studio

It is what the categorizers of the world call an all-in-one desktop PC, but never mind that. Let me put it in a more relatable way: the first impression is that 13.5 million gorgeous pixels are floating in the air in front of your eyes. The Studio draws eyes and impressed comments from everyone, regardless of technical knowledge or interest.

But what really sets it apart is that this is also the Surface studio:

The Surface studio The Surface studio

Grab the bottom edge of the screen and pull it toward you, and it all smoothly lowers and tilts into a drawing table. A huge, inviting drawing table. When I was talking to a friend, I guesstimated the screen to be about A3 sized. In reality, it is very close to A2. The canvas feels huge, super inviting, and of course it supports both finger and stylus input.

One thing I was more surprised than perhaps I should to hear was the fan. The fan is always running, sucking air in on the left side and blowing it out on the right. It is by no means loud, and I have never heard it need to really spin up, but it is always there, always reminding me how rarely I hear the same sound from the various types of Macbooks and tablets I mainly spend my days with.

Hello

The Studio, just like the Surface book, supports face-based login. It was pretty nice on the Book, but on the Studio it is so good I want every other computer to have it right now. I press the power button to start it, it boots really quickly to the login screen, and before I have finished sitting down it has recognized my face and logged me in. I have trained it wearing glasses, so it tends to fail when I am not wearing them (which is extremely rare), and that is the only failure case I have had. Apple, what is taking so long bringing Face ID to computers?

Peripherals

The Studio comes with Bluetooth keyboard, mouse, and the Surface pen. Microsoft also sent the sold-separately Dial along for the ride. It is basically a programmable knob along the lines of Griffin's Powermate. Developers can add support for it both sitting on the screen and when it is used on the table next to the Studio.

Microsoft also gave it some smart functionality right out of the box: you can use it to adjust volyme, scroll, zoom, undo and adjust screen brightness. And you can switch between these functions by simply pressing and holding the Dial for a second or two, so you can easily adjust its function depending on the app you are currently in.

Living on the Surface

Life on the Surface is a life on that fantastic screen. Because it is meant to be touched and drawn on, it is natural to keep it closer than you otherwise might. All the talk in the launch presentation about sucking you in an things like that was completely serious. The interface is set to 200% scaling by default, giving that retina-type beauty to everything and providing comfortably sized targets for both devices and fingers most of the time. I really enjoy tapping the screen, in particular scrolling using my fingers when the screen is tilted down feels great.

100% scale gives plenty of room 100% scale gives plenty of room

Setting the scale to 100%, while super-fun for the shock value, is not really useful.

Drawing on the Studio Drawing on the Studio

Drawing is of course a natural first thing to try. Drawing is great on the Studio. As far as I can tell, the technology is the same as in other Surface products but polished another notch or two. I still feel Apple's Ipad and pencil technology are ahead in feel and responsiveness. But that is almost beside the point, because drawing on the Studio is like nothing else I have ever drawn on. I grab the pen, pull down the screen, and launch a drawing app (I have mostly used Bamboo paper). Then I have this 28-inch bright paper to get lost in. It is so huge and stable I can rest my arm on it while I draw in one corner. And I can make notes on half the screen while I watch a Youtube video on the other, still having plenty of space to scribble on. (I do miss picture-in-picture-mode from Macos though, can we put that on the wishlist?) I wish I had a Studio as my work computer, so that I could make mental notes, mind maps and other scribbles over in a corner while working through the day. I also want to be able to draw quicker and more flexibly just about everywhere.

Watching Dunkirk Watching Dunkirk

Watching movies gave another illustration of just how nice the screen is. I started watching Dunkirk on the Studio. The movie looks fantastic on any screen, but watching on the Studio looked so good that I tolerated my wifi causing periodic pauses for almost half the movie, and watching the rest on another screen felt just a little bit dull and muted.

Atom running on the Studio Atom running on the Studio

Such good-looking code …

When it comes to productivity, Atom and Hindenburg are the two main applications I have used. Atom is Atom, a highly capable editor with all the plugins, plus the strange and bug reported quirk of not being able to scroll text by touch.

Hindenburg running on the Studio Hindenburg running on the Studio

Hindenburg is my podcast editor of choice. It works just the same as on the Macs I am more used to, and it is again wonderful to be able to work with all this space on a single screen. However, the interface has some slight visual rough edges making it feel a bit more polished on the Mac (even though the interface as a whole is a very odd duck there too). More importantly, the audio engine seems to run smoother on my 12 inch Macbook than it does on the Surface studio. I get some more clicks and pops and even the odd stutter while editing. Something clearly feels as if it is having trouble keeping up, but I know way too little about audio software to even begin to make an educated guess. Editing definitely works, I get my job done without interruptions, but the feel is just that little bit less smooth.

On the side of more fun than useful, the Studio fully supports Windows tablet mode. So yes, you can use it without any peripherals all day with the screen tilted down.

Surface software and hardware keyboards side by side Surface software and hardware keyboards side by side

The on-screen keyboard … could actually be the same size and layout as the hardware one if it wanted to. It works more than well enough if the hardware keyboard is too far away or something, but I would never use it for longer than necessary.

Gaming

Brütal legend Brütal legend

I am completely out of date when it comes to PC gaming, but I was happy to discover the Studio more than capable enough of running Brütal legend buttery smooth with all the visual goodies. The builtin speakers are of course underpowered for such a metal game (they are more than enough for the odd Youtube video though), but I am a headphone person anyway. So yeah, gaming on those 28 inches right in front of your nose: it looks awesome.

Also: Cuphead.

Cuphead Cuphead

I am woefully untrained, but man does it look, move and sound great. I wish all my games and media lived on a screen like this.

Trying these two games led me to a nice discovery: how to get a Playstation 4 controller to work with Windows. There is a free driver and configuration application combination called DS4Windows and while it can be a little fiddly to get going (I think it crashed on me sometimes when launching a game) everything works great once there. Then, all you need to do is mentally re-map the Xbox buttons shown on-screen to the Playstation symbols. It came surprisingly easy to me. (Proof, I think, of just how much I played on my original Xbox back in the day.)

Wrapping up

I was, perhaps, expecting the Surface to be Microsoft's first stab at making an Imac. What I actually got is more like the first true pro tablet, an amazing surface for work and play which should make the Ipad pro ashamed for that "pro" part of the name. This tablet is so pro that it is used stationary, connected to wall power. It is so pro it runs full Windows software and can do every business-type task you throw at it. And it is a dream to draw on.

Just like the other Surface machines I have tried, the Studio has a lot of details left to polish. There are so many things which can gel into an even greater whole with some iteration, and adding beefier hardware will be awesome. I want to jump ahead to where we can try a Studio with Imac pro-type power inside.

But the thing is, the Studio is great today. It sparks joy and it does things in a way no other computer I have seen does. I am reminded of the Ipod. There were thousands of other mp3 players out there, many of which were cheaper, had more storage or otherwise beat it along some axis of measurement. But it did not matter, because no other mp3 player did the whole thing the Ipod did. If you realized you wanted an Ipod, other mp3 players became meaningless. That is how I feel about the Studio too, and it excites me a lot that Microsoft is building a truly unique machine which is so much fun to use. It does not need another revision to be great, it is great now and can only get better.

It is great to feel excited about a computer again, especially a stationary one. More, please!

Hindenburg, once more Hindenburg, once more

January 18, 2018

Bikeist

Because of Reasons, my bike ride to and from work has been significantly longer recently. A few hairs over 8,5 kilometers to be specific, and I enjoy it quite a bit more than you might expect (especially considering the time of year in this the city of sideways rain).

I have always considered myself a biker, but the fact is the last time I regularly biked more than, say, five kilometers in either direction was … perhaps fifteen years ago.

Yikes.

Anyway, biking a somewhat longer distance is a surprisingly different activity. Gone is the annoying feeling of becoming just a bit too warm right at the end of the ride. With a longer trip, there is time to get to a balanced temperature and stay in the flow of moving for a while.

(Ask me again about that balance in June or so, but I can always shower when I arrive at work.)

I feel myself picking up a better pace as well, going faster for longer and enjoying it more. Finally, and perhaps most fun, is the feeling that various sections of the distance are their own little events, set sections to get through in efficient ways.

I feel like a biker again, and it feels great.

(Also, it is awfully nice to have the daily commute fill up the rings pretty much all by itself.)

January 04, 2018

A hundred days off

100 days of activity 100 days of activity

I have now used my Apple watch and filled my rings for 100 days. I was curious from the start how it might affect my way of exercising, and so this feels like a good point to look back and reflect a bit.

Before the watch, my goal was to exercise every other day, anything more being a bonus I tried really hard to not turn into an expectation. Exercise meant cardio machines at the gym or, the vast majority of the time, running.

Excercise and tracking

The watch has given me much more even exercise. It has also made me appreciate the exercise value in longer bike rides much more. On the possible downside, it might be evening things out too much. I am not giving myself any days of complete rest for as long as I keep the streak going. And that in turn probably works agains any extremer excursions. Both of these things can probably be seen as positive. The "everything counts as exercise" aspect is definitely all good. I used to feel only running or gym activities really counted, but now I get the same satisfying numbers from any time I move and bring up the pulse. I run less as well, and feel no need to squeeze a run in if I am getting enough activity otherwise.

One downside of my simplified activity logging: I now have no natural place to write a little thought or comment about my exercise. Before, it was always part of my workflow to transfer my activity from my Garmin watch to Funbeat, in the process always seeing their comment field, often being reminded of and noting some thought or feeling I had during the run. Now, I sync with no service, have nothing, and thus remember less of each exercise session. A little sad in a way, because I still come up with thoughts and feelings I would like to write down. Little opportunities to write things down are often good, but not to the point of me wanting extra hoops just for that. I should tell Siri to take a note as soon as I get home, or something. (Paper and pen? The horror!)

But what next? The natural next step ought to be removing the training wheels: breaking the streak and see how my daily exercise sorts itself out. It would probably feel good in several ways, but it is darn hard to break a chain which has taken 100 days to build up …

One weird trick

Because I am such a streak-worrier, I was wondering what would happen if I fell ill before reaching the 100 line. Less than a week ago, I ended up eating some bad food and had to spend 36 hours as vertical and still as possible. My pulse was relatively high though, and the "indoor walking" exercise clearly uses pulse above accelerometers to judge activity level. A couple of hours of mostly slow-motion tossing and turning in bed filled the activity ring right up, and I am still trying to decide whether I feel happy about finding a hack and tricking the system, or ashamed to have cheated.

About those goals …

I remain as deeply split about the goal setting of the watch as I was in the beginning. I have deliberately and firmly kept my goals the same. Every week, the watch gives me the weekly summary and suggests raising the activity goal by ten percent. The goal is reachable, sure, but why? If I began following the suggestions, would it know when to stop? I want to do something which is sustainable, something which keeps me going for the long term. Letting the watch increase the pressure until I fail is not working toward that goal. Also, the whole thing of increasing goals works against the streaks concept. One is about pushing limits (and inevitably failing eventually), the other is about keeping a balanced thing going. I do not want my life to be all about exercise.

The watch as an accessory

Watch bands, perhaps too many … Watch bands, perhaps too many …

I am surprised at how much I enjoy the watch as an object and a piece of personal jewellry. I picked up an extra band with my purchase and looked forward to getting more bands later, but in no way did I foresee ending up with six different bands within the first 90 days. I switch between them regularly too, which is a bit of a surprise in itself. Being a regular wearer of nothing but glasses and practical clothes I could just as easily have imagined myself using a single band all the time (and a second one for exercise), but I often switch bands as I get dressed each day, picking what looks best with whatever I amd wearing or best suits my mood. I expect my next band purchase to be quite a bit farther off into the future, but it is definitely out there.

Other uses

I do not use a single third-party app, nor do I wish for any. The watch went into silent mode on day one and has remained there. I sometimes check the weather or tickets in Wallet, but mainly I track my health data and the few notifications I let through (mostly text messages). I talk to Siri on rare occasions, mainly to turn the lights off as I go to bed, and I do emoji responses to messages more often than I expected to. That is about it.

Sum of parts < whole

In all, here I am 100 days later, a completely happy Apple watch user. A stylish-looking exercise watch with evolving software and good phone integration was apparently something for which I had space in my life, the exercise part being the most critical, but it needed a significant amount of the other parts too to make it all the way to all-day, every day carry.

Good work, I guess.

December 17, 2017

Doing less

I am not a person of new year's promises, but I do like to think about what I am doing, how, and what I might like to change.

As always, I have a well-kept list of things I would like to do more of and get better at.

Looking at that list last night, I was hit with unusual clarity by the fact that picking something off of that list is not the real problem. These are all things I would like to do.

No, the real problem is picking substantial things to do less of.

At the moment, I do not want to do less of any of the substantial things I fill my time with. There is always the thought of magically being able to have more energy and focus within the available downtime - the time spent on random browsing, being upset by social networks and so on - but I bet there always will be downtime of some sort. Even if I got off Twitter and Facebook, I would still spend time doing things more relaxed than those "do more" projects.

Another interesting thought was that as long as I like the major things I do, life changes will mainly affect the activity within and the amount of downtime I have. If the amount of time to myself changes, I will still make time for the major things and be happy when new activities take huge bites out of the time spent on aimless browsing.

So far so good. I take this whole train of thought as I sign things are pretty good.

(Still, it would be exciting to come up with a big activity to truly do less of.)

November 26, 2017

Comfortably adrift

I have spent the weekend in the kitchen. Or as much of it as I could.

I have not been eating (or doing the dishes) constantly, I am testing a borrowed computer, and it needed somewhere to be. It is a lovely machine too, but more on it later.

It has been a strange work week in some ways. Toward the end, I felt as if I had wasted entire days getting nothing at all done. That is not a good feeling to end the week on for me, but a bit of weekend hacking on work stuff made me feel better. More importantly, my now regular reading of the week's notes on Sundays reminded me I had actually got some stuff done.

Still, motivation, drive, focus and all those other words remain as hard to grasp and control as ever.

Or perhaps my bar is constantly rising?

Hahahah.

I keep forgetting and then re-realizing what a short work week the coming week will be for me. I also refuse to accept that December begins on Friday. That is in no way correct, I will just sit back and patiently wait for the patches to land.

Anyway, good week coming up. Big week. I have ... uh, prepared? ... by watching a surprising amount of Fun fun function. Plus running 21 kilometers and eating a lot of ice cream.

I also went and looked at an apartment, mainly for the fun of checking out the view and an area I rarely spend time in otherwise. In a system without bidding wars and where initial asking prices actually meant something I might have considered it, but in this world I know it will land pretty far outside of the price range I am interested in.

Nevertheless, it is fun to just walk around an apartment and area and think about what it might be like to live there. How would I get to work? Where would I go for a run? Where would I go grocery shopping, and which sounds would make their way through the open window on the average afternoon?