Now for something a bit different. Every once in a while I like to work outside of the office. I find it makes certain kinds of tedious work (proposals, documentation, bug-fixing, etc) somewhat less unpleasant, and it’s just nice to get out and feel like a real person for a change. The problem I usually have with this is one of ergonomics. Within a half-hour of using any non-split keyboard (or worse, a laptop keyboard), my wrists are on fire. Fifteen minutes after that, and I can no longer feel my fingers. Repetitive stress injuries are very serious, and if you’re a programmer like me, you live or die by your ability to make things happen with your fingers. After some thought, I decided it should be possible to ergonomically work with a laptop on a small table like the ones you find at Starbucks. It needs 3 things:
- A laptop that allows its keyboard to be moved out of the way to make room for a keyboard that is less an instrument of the devil. This is important – if the laptop keyboard is in front of the screen, the screen is going to be too far away from you when you add another keyboard. Oh, and the machine needs have decent enough specs to run Visual Studio and a development VM (i.e., 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD), a bright enough display to deal with sunlight coming through windows, and enough battery life to get through most of the day.
- A proper, split keyboard (and mouse) that’s small enough to comfortably fit inside a backpack.
- Some way of raising the display, allowing for a more comfortable viewing angle and reducing neck strain.
I only found a few appealing options for this:
- Microsoft Surface Pro 3. It has almost the perfect form factor for this task, since it doesn’t need any integrated keyboard.
- Lenovo Yoga 2. Laptops with an interesting hinge design that allows a few different ways of achieving the goal: the keyboard can flip behind the display (with its keyboard facing down, acting as a stand), or in what they call ‘tent’ mode with the hinge facing upwards.
This was a tough one. Both are excellent machines that met all of my main requirements. In the end, I had to make a pro/con table that looked something like this:
|Microsoft Surface Pro 3
||Lenovo Yoga 2
+ Amazingly compact and light. Overall, very impressive industrial design with high quality materials and finish.
+ Somewhat better battery life (if you believe the specs).
+ Includes Windows 8.1 Pro, allowing Hyper-V and Bitlocker.
+ Mini DisplayPort is much more sensible than Micro HDMI, both physically in that it’s less fiddly and prone to breakage, and that it can drive multiple external displays if required.
+ Includes a TPM allowing Bitlocker with much less hassle.
+ Includes a real pen device with pressure sensitivity.
+ Much more appealing in its tablet form.
+ Has a dock option.
+ The same hardware configuration is several hundreds of dollars cheaper (at least in Canada).
+ The screen hinge design allows for increased angles, more than what’s technically possible with the Surface Pro 3’s kickstand.
+ The ‘Pro’ version technically has a higher resolution display, though I would have chosen the normal 1920×1080 display for the better brightness and fewer scaling issues.
+ Looking through the service manual, it seems there’s a better chance to replace components, but it’s still a bit iffy.
+ The integrated keyboard is much better than the Surface Pro 3’s Type Cover (though still pretty bad, in the absolute sense).
In the end, the Surface Pro 3 won out, and since both machines are outrageously expensive, the price difference seemed like a drop in the bucket. Wait, I know what you’re thinking – Lenovo makes a Thinkpad version of the Lenovo that equalizes most of the Surface Pro 3’s advantages, but man, Lenovo charges a fortune once you start increasing specs in their business line, and I didn’t want to spend another $500 for something that’s arguably less desirable.
I’ve been using the Surface Pro 3 for over a month now, and I feel that I’m qualified enough to review it. Most of what I could say has already been said on thousands of review sites, but there are some things you may not have heard yet:
- The quality of the Type Cover is really bad. I’m currently on my third one. The first seemed to have corrupted firmware and the drivers wouldn’t load properly. At first, I didn’t know what was going on – it would never work after waking up, and the trackpad was screwy in a few ways, e.x., the cursor would continue to move after/while clicking and so whenever I would try to click anything I would end up missing. It wasn’t until I looked in Device Manager that I noticed the device was unrecognized, and there was nothing I could do to get it working again including manually installing drivers from the driver pack, and Microsoft’s usual scorched-earth advice of doing a system refresh/re-install (which has probably never worked, ever). Anyway, the replacement worked fine and was immediately recognized. Unfortunately, after a few days of using it, adhesive started to fail and the trackpad became unglued. The next replacement is doing ok so far, but my recommendation is to skip the Type Cover altogether. It’s expensive, it sucks, and if you’re doing things properly it will only serve to protect the Surface, which you can do in many other ways.
- Things are pretty glitchy. Microsoft is scrambling to fix the problems with seemingly new firmware and driver updates every week, but so far I still seem to have all the same problems:
- Getting the Surface Pro 3 to wake from sleep feels like Russian Roulette. Honestly, once every few days it won’t wake at all, and there’s a secret sequence of power and volume button pushes required to force a restart. Actually, this seems to happen most often while you’re trying to show off your new Surface to a friend or colleague. I swear it knows. It’s usually met with a feces-eating grin while your colleague thumbs his iPad and declares “hmm, my iPad seems to work fine”.
- The login screen sometimes hangs after I enter my password, requiring a restart. I’m not entirely sure, but I think this happens when the Surface wakes from ‘connected standby’ and you’re out of range of the last connected access point.
- For some reason, if you can miraculously get the Surface to wake, wi-fi is most likely in a bad state and requires you to manually reconnect.
- I once had my Windows install corrupt itself after login, where it decided it wanted to repeat the initial setup, which ultimately failed and dumped me to a totally broken desktop with errors everywhere.
- Enabling Hyper-V silently disables ‘connected standby’. That’s not really a glitch, it’s just stupid, and detracts from the always on feeling you expect from the device. There’s a way to disable the Hyper-visor when you don’t need it, but it requires a restart.
- Battery life pretty much lives up to expectations. You should be able to get about 9 hours, depending on what you’re doing and what software you’re using. The first thing you’ll want to do is uninstall Google Drive and Skype, as these seem to significantly hit the battery for reasons unknown. The next thing you’ll want to do (well, ‘want’ is probably the wrong word) is use Internet Explorer instead of Firefox. Internet Explorer claims to use less battery due to GPU acceleration, and looking at it side by side, it renders text better than Firefox. Chrome is a non-starter since Google has so inexplicably dropped the ball on high-resolution scaling.
- The display is excellent. Very bright, high resolution, and a pleasing aspect ratio that gives the 12″ display about the same vertical size as the 13.3″ 16:9 display on the Yoga 2. I don’t think it’s too small for occasional programming, and if you’re doing things properly you’ll be able to get pretty close to the display while you’re working.
- The pen is ok. It’s quite useful to mark up documents with the pen and take notes in OneNote – it all works as advertised, but it’s far from a pleasurable experience. Maybe that’s not quite fair – I’ve been spoiled recently by fountain pens which gives a truly luxurious writing experience, and for whatever reason I find it much more productive to write creative content on paper (such as the first version of this post) than on anything digital.
Overall I’m pretty happy with the Surface, and as soon as Microsoft fixes the various software/firmware issues, it’s going to be awesome.
There’s only one real option for this one, the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop. The keyboard itself is excellent, probably the most comfortable I’ve ever used, and the wrist support is made of the most glorious cushy material known to man. The numeric keypad is broken off into a separate unit (which I leave at home), making the keyboard small enough to easily fit in my backpack, and to leave enough room for a mouse on the small table. Everything is great with the package except 2 unforgivable flaws:
- There’s no Bluetooth option (WTF?). I don’t know why Bluetooth keyboards have become so rare lately (if you know, please leave a comment below) but I’m guessing it’s cost-related (either royalty costs, or having a different SKU for computers that don’t have Bluetooth). Either way, it’s pretty bad. The Surface Pro 3 has only a single USB slot, and that’s now being filled by the keyboard’s wireless receiver (which I suppose won’t be a problem after I lose the dongle one of these days).
- There’s no ‘off’ switch for the keyboard. Chances are, if the keyboard is in your backpack, some buttons are going to be pushed which drains your batteries in no time (which happened on my first outing). Now, I make sure that I remove the batteries while I’m transporting the keyboard 🙁
The mouse is pretty comfortable despite the odd shape. If I have to say one bad thing about it, it’s that it’s pretty tall, and while reaching for your coffee it’s only a matter of time before you hit the top and launch your mouse off the table. For this, you can either put your coffee to your left, or rig some kind of safety harness for your mouse. I promise it will happen to you at least a few times.
If you’ve made it this far, you may be wondering why not just use a standard laptop riser? While writing this post I started wondering the same thing, but then remembered that while they work well at home, they are pretty big to carry around and would look weird in public. Instead, I’m just standing the Surface on one of those faux-leather executive binders (this one was a gift from our friends over at Intelligent Plant UK). The Surface is so thin that it fits into one of these binders easily, for added protection when you’re throwing your backpack around the car. This is about the minimum height I would consider for a riser, and to be honest, another few inches would be a lot better.
I’ve been working this way for about a month now and it’s been great. It’s easy to carry around and get real work done, and so far nobody has looked at me funny (or at least, no more than usual). I’ll have to leave it at that, as Doug anxious for me to get back to work and make us some money. Oh by the way, did you know you can save about 20% on your WCB premiums with the right safety program? There Doug, I hope you’re happy.