Sunday, June 15, 2014

Scratching The Surface

Shortly after I bought my Surface Pro 2, Microsoft announced that they were having a “small” event during which there would be some type of announcement relating to the Surface line.
The immediate speculation was that they were going to announce an 8” Surface Min, and a lot of user-generated renders of what such a device might look like began to, er, surface.
Though I don’t have any particular need for such a device, I was somewhat interested, and decided that, if it hit the right price point, I might consider picking one up as a companion device.
Coincidentally, the day of the event fell on a day that I had taken off from work, so, while I sat drawing (or more to the point, failing to draw) on Odin, my desktop PC, I fired up the webcast of the event on my Surface.
The rumored Surface Mini was nowhere to be seen, however, and it turned out that MS was actually announcing the launch of the Surface Pro 3.

Despite the rumors, I had considered this possibility beforehand and had already worked through my annoyance at the launch of a new and improved Surface Pro so soon after my purchase of the 2, but even so, the announcement did cause me to sigh and shake my head.
While many of the specs represent only incremental improvements, there were some significant changes that I found appealing, such as a higher resolution and a different aspect ratio, which makes the device like a traditional piece of paper in terms of overall size and shape, and an overall decrease in thickness and weight.
They also demonstrated some cool new features of the pen, particularly with regards to One Note.
As an aside, I use One Note a lot, but I feel like there’s more I should be doing with it given its capabilities, but I just can’t seem to find the appropriate use case.
Of particular interest to me was that they managed to all but eliminate the parallax when using the pen.  That is to say that there is virtually no offset between the physical tip of the pen and where it appears on the screen.
However, there was one thing in the announcement that struck me as odd:  a reference to the pen having 256 levels of pressure sensitivity.
Why did this strike me as odd?  Well, my older-model Cintiq has 1,025 levels.  Current-model Cintiqs – including Wacom’s own Cintiq-branded Tablet PC – have 2.048.
My Surface Pro has 1,024 levels, just like the Surface Pro 1.
So why the downgrade?
In reading some of the more in-depth coverage, particularly around the new pen, I found the answer, and even more than the reduction in pressure sensitivity, it gave me pause.
Unlike the previous generations, the SP3 does not come with a Wacom active digitizer, opting instead for a product from N-Trig.

Some of you may recall my experiences with an N-Trig device.
Suffice to say that they were not positive experiences.
Many people online expressed concern about the drop down to 256 levels.  While I did find that troubling, I know from experience that 256 levels still works pretty well – on a Wacom device.
Gabe from Penny Arcade did a post addressing the 256 levels issue (TL; DR is it’s not really an issue).
However, I still have little or no confidence in N-Trig.
A lot of Microsoft-related sites – run mostly by non-artists, for what it’s worth – bundled the concerns about the pressure sensitivity reduction and the shift away from Wacom together and simply dismissed the misgivings expressed by the commentariat as the ravings of neckbeards who are resistant to change.
That’s not it.  At all.  Again, I’m not terribly concerned about the 256 levels thing, though I will say that perception counts, and regardless of how well it works, this looks like a step backwards, and while more knowledgeable users might recognize that it’s not a dealbreaker, the average consumer – regardless of whether or not he or she even understands what it means – might see that change in specs and immediately assume that it’s bad.
But the real issue, for me, is that name:  N-Trig.  And this isn’t because I’m a Wacom fanboy; I would very much like to see Wacom forced to square off against some real competition, as they pretty much own that space (and their prices reflect that fact).
I have no doubt that N-Trig has improved since I last used one of their devices.  That would pretty much have to be the case, otherwise I don’t see how they could still be in business.  I also have no doubt that MS has made absolutely certain that their new flagship device works properly.  Well, I have some doubt, given that hey released the first generation of the Surface Pro without a driver that supported pressure sensitivity in Photoshop, so it’s not like it’s unheard of for them to drop the ball on something like this.
(Speaking of Photoshop, the one piece of good news for me during that event came when a representative from Adobe came out to show off an upcoming update to Photoshop that is more touch-centric.  That is, of course, great for the SP3, but the update will also find its way to everyone with a Creative Cloud subscription, so at some point I’ll benefit from that as well.)
In any case, despite my misgivings about N-Trig, I do understand the reasons for selecting them as a vendor, particularly given that their digitizers are slightly thinner and lighter than Wacom’s, and I do hope that N-Trig can prove to be the competitive force that’s so desperately needed in that market.
But I’m still rather wary.
That said, it’s still not a dealbreaker for me; the fact that I just bought the Surface Pro 2 is what’s keeping me from shelling out the cash to pick up the SP3.
If I were in a position to shell out the money for a Surface Pro 3, I would most likely do so happily, despite my misgivings, as it does provide a lot of compelling advantages over its older sibling.  Still, while considerable progress has been made, MS hasn’t quite nailed the formula yet and it’s not quite perfect.  The typing experience, by most accounts, still needs some improvements, particularly if you are one of those people who takes – or has to take – the term “laptop” literally (I personally tend not to be one, as an extended period of typing with a keyboard, any keyboard, placed in my lap is unworkable), and even setting aside the physical issues of typing via the Touch or Type Cover, there’s the issue of the cost; Type Covers need to be included in the base purchase price.  Period.  No debate.
I understand the position MS has taken; people like being able to choose different colors for their Type Covers, so they don’t want to bundle them with the Surface.
I also think that position is bullshit.  They’re no reason that they can’t bundle them together and still have different color choices. 
But even if they can’t, they still need to drop that cost down to $0.  You have money to spare, Microsoft…eat the cost.
Because what you don’t have is mindshare, and as long as the keyboard is a pricey add-on, you’re not going to get it.
Yes, I know; iPads and Android tablets don’t include keyboards, but, per your own marketing, that’s not the segment of the market you’re trying to compete with.  The Macbook Air got mentioned a lot in the Surface event.  And guess what?  The keyboard for that isn’t optional.
Again, eat the cost.  There are plenty of avenues for making up the cost via accessories, such as replacement pens, docking stations, power covers, and so on.  Whatever happened to that whole Blades concept?
You also need to figure out a better method for storing the pen.  The loop included for it on the – optional – keyboard cover isn’t a solution, nor is the simple magnetism that holds it in place in various locations on the Surface itself.
Start addressing these concerns – and develop a good marketing strategy – and you’ll definitely have a winner on your hands, one that has the potential to redefine computing for years to come.
And you’ll also have a basis for expanding the Surface family of products.  What about a Surface All-In-One?  How about a Surface-branded Windows Phone?
In fact, if you were to say to me that you would be releasing a 5” Surface Phone with a high-resolution screen, active digitizer with pen (with integrated storage), and VaporMg casing, I would say to you, “Yes, please.”
With all of that said, while I won’t be picking up a Surface Pro 3, I hope it does well enough for me to have the option of picking up a Surface Pro 4 when the time comes.
And, you know, if some wealthy reader were feeling generous, or if Microsoft said, “Here, Jon, have a Surface Pro 3 on us,” I certainly wouldn’t object…

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