Microsoft Surface Pro First Impressions

Friday just gone was my wife’s (@NickyCGreen) birthday. Being a student, she uses her laptop for typing up notes, writing essays and the like, but using a laptop in lectures was proving a little more challenging. On a few occasions, she has used the Acer Iconia W500 tablet I have and thanks to our Windows Server 2012 Essentials setup with folder redirection and roaming profiles, she can logon and get a seamless cross-device experience. She really enjoyed the form factor, but it went without saying that it was imperfect due to the fact that the W500 is pretty under powered and under resourced in terms of CPU and memory.

With the UK being far from the frontline in technological releases, the choices in tablets here are more limited than the US due to slipping release dates, so I made the decision to call in a favour from a previous employer and import a Surface Pro from the US for her birthday.

I opted for the slightly more expensive 128GB model purely because I didn’t want her to run out of space on the 64GB version. There’s no point having a roaming profile and folder redirection to offer her a huge capacity backend if she could then only make some of the work she has available offline.

I did some setup on the device before wrapping it and giving it to her which is what this review is based on.

The device itself is beautiful, with the VaporMag case giving it an amazing look and finish. The weight and dimensions are more than an iPad or the Surface RT, but that’s because you get a full Windows PC for your money. The Surface RT on the other hand is slightly thinner than the iPad but does weigh a fraction more. Neither of these facts make it unwieldy though; it’s still feels perfectly functional. The kick stand works really nicely and combined with a touch or type cover for the Surface, I can see it actually being useful, but I would personally like it to lean into the stand a little more; it’s quite upright and would worry me with the fear of toppling.

Powering the Pro on for the first time, I thought it must have been hibernated or sleeping in the box because it came straight up to the GUI within two seconds. I shut it down and powered it up from cold with the same effect. It boots so fast, it reduces the need for Sleep or Hibernate to null. I think the UEFI BIOS probably helps a lot here. I’d be interested to know how quickly the Surface RT boots being that it’s running a low-fat version of Windows?

The pre-installed Windows 8 Pro operating system has no bloatware, adware, freeware or anything horrid installed; It is the perfect OEM installation and was a real surprise and treat compared to normal OEM hardware releases. I only actually did three things to customize the installation aside from checking for and installing updates:

  1. Domain joined it using the Windows Server 2012 Essentials connector software.
  2. Used the Create Recovery Drive wizard to backup and delete the recovery partition, releasing 8GB of disk as available storage. You even need to play with Disk Management as the wizard extends the existing partitions if you elect to delete the partition afterwards which is a nice touch.
  3. Removed the pre-installed version of Office 2013 to allow me to install my TechNet licensed version of Office 2013 Professional Plus.

The touch screen is super responsive and you can touch type with as many fingers as you like using the on-screen keyboard and every touch is detected without fault. The screen size doesn’t make it the largest of tablets, but I think the size is ideal for portability. Small enough to carry around and use effectively, but not so small that you have to squint out of one eye and close the other, something which I think the smaller 8 inch tablets would suffer from with prolonged used. The 16:9 aspect ratio makes it less tall than it is wide compared to a number of standard aspect tablets also.

The MagSafe-esque power connector works well, connects easily and feels secure. I would personally like the indicator LED to be a little brighter to make it a bit more obvious it is charging, but that’s a minor complaint in the scheme of things.

The only actual complaint I have about the Surface Pro is the wireless adapter. It doesn’t seem to acknowledge 802.11d which is the standard for detecting Access Point deployment country to allow the adapter to use additional channels as available. In the USA, 802.11bgn can use channels 1 through to 11. In the EU, we can use channels 1 to 13. With most hardware being US based, the tendency is for hardware like routers to ship on channels 1,6 or 11, so I historically have used 13 at home to avoid some of the congestion, but the Surface just wouldn’t detect the SSID even with all of the User and System locales change d to UK. This may be a by-product of the fact it is a US import and that UK models shipping later this year will supports channels 12 and 13, but I’ve just changed channels to 11 to workaround this – My neighbour uses 6, so it’s hardly an issue.

All in all, it’s an amazing device and I am super jealous that my wife has one and I don’t. Fingers crossed she won’t break it and double fingers crossed she’ll let me use it from time to time because I don’t exactly have the spare dollars to buy another one any time soon.

The Things You Don’t Normally Hear

In a somewhat random post from me, I’m going to make a comment on my Sennheiser HD215 headphones.

I bought these recently to replace my failed Creative I-Trigue 2.1 speakers I use at home on my desktop PC. More and more of late I have been turning to headphones over speakers, largely due to wanting to be able to listen movies, YouTube or good old fashioned music at a sensible volume and with my study being fairly close to the kids bedroom, the speakers weren’t the best option for volume in the evenings while the kids are asleep.

I’ve been using a pair of Sennheiser HD201 headphones at work in the office for around the last year, I like them for the £30 price tag and they are more than good enough for the office. Being a shared office with moderate background noise and the fact that I am at work and can’t rationally expect to pump out 100dB of music without disrupting others and possibly my own productivity, I’ve never really had the greatest of chances to explore them fully. That is coupled to the fact that I find them uncomfortable after more than about an hour of listening although I rarely get a chance to listen to them for that length of time in a solid block so it’s a non-issue: The pad and can size means that they sit on the ear not around it and the padding isn’t that thick so the plastic construction of the cans slowly presses into your outer ear giving you that warm ear discomfort sensation.

Giving the new HD215 cans a try at home this evening, I instantly felt the difference as due to the size of the cans, they sit around the ear, resting instead on your head leaving the ear free to move. Listening to a range of tracks from Dance and Dubstep to Vocal and Acoustic, it’s amazing some of the tones and notes you detect with decent headphones at decent volumes that you just otherwise don’t. My case example is the album Radio 1 Established 1967 which is a 2 CD album of tracks taken from the Radio 1 Live Lounge to celebrate one of Radio 1’s anniversaries and the song’s on it sound completely different. I’ve listened to the album at work before on the HD201 headphones and I remember it sounding a decent amount better that how I previously had heard it, but that is because I had only ever previously used my Sennheiser CX-300 II in ear headphones, but these HD215’s seem to take it up another level.

Let’s be straight. I’m no music expert, nor am I am audiophile with an exceptional ear for quality in headphones or music or the ability to detect the difference between a 20,000Hz tone and a 22,000Hz tone, I just like music. I’m sure that someone with deeper pockets than me could easily comment to this and say that their £500 super-duper headphones with their all singing and dancing digital music optimized listening environment and equipment will sound factors greater than these will and perhaps you are correct, but for £55, they sound incredible.

My only criticism of them is that they are supplied with a coiled lead and not a straight lead. I’m not a fan of the coiled lead as you just end up pulling against it trying to reach the length you want and not the length the cable inherently wants and I think that just adds a level of unnecessary discomfort. Luckily, QED have the answer in the form of a Jack-to-Jack 3.5mm lead, available in 1,2 or 3 metre lengths that I can replace the lead with as at least Sennheiser are nice enough to make this model of headphones with a totally detachable lead using 3.5mm standard jacks at either end.

TP-Link TL-WA801ND Wireless Access Point Review

In my continuing quest to upgrade our home network to 802.11n wireless and gigabit throughout, I purchased the TP-Link TL-WA801ND wireless access point.

My reason for selecting this device was three fold:

  1. Easily affordable and I could write off the price of it if it turned out to be a turkey.
  2. Single manufacturer of networking infrastructure in my home once all the upgrades are complete, making interoperability more likely.

The third reason requires a little more explanation. TP-Link sell two models of AP that I was interested in. The TL-WA801ND and that TL-WA901ND. Upon first inspection the difference is clear in that the 901 has three antenna for greater wireless client antenna diversity, however upon receiving the specifications, you can see that the extra £9 on the 901 isn’t worth it. Both devices feature a 100Mbps LAN connection RJ-45 port. This means that even if your wireless device is connected using a 40MHz channel width at 300Mbps, the most the AP can push out onto the wired network is 100Mbps, so why am I concerned therefore about antenna diversity? I’m quite happy if the wireless speed drops to 130Mbps because I enforce a 20MHz channel width as that is still faster that the wired interface. Had the 901 features a gigabit Ethernet port then the choice would be obviously the 901. An oversight on TP-Links device design teams in my opinion but that’s just me of course.

The first thing I will say about this device is that I was sceptical. The access point, brand new and boxed from Dabs Online via eBay was only £33. I personally couldn’t understand how someone could make a 300Mbps N rated access point for this price so quite frankly, I was expecting a Meccano set to arrive but not to include any of the tools required and that it would be a DIY access point. Oh how wrong I was.

First impressions are that the device looks a bit cheap and plasticy and doesn’t look as solid and robust as some other products available, but I figure that for £33 it’s almost disposable. It’s supplied with a passive PoE (Power over Ethernet) adapter allowing you to use the AP somewhere in your house without a nearby power socket, up to 30 metres away from the source of the power injection. This is a nice touch as Cisco for example, will charge you extra for a separate line item to include a power injector for PoE. The AP is wall mountable by means of two slot on, slot off screw positions on the underside and the wireless antenna are screw on type allowing you to select different antenna types such as uni-directional our outdoor if you require. The supplied antenna can be rotated and angled at any direction you like for optimal positioning if you wall or ceiling mount it.

Configuration is simple using the web interface and once I have resolved my issues, performance is also good. Transferring a file from a 300Mbps wireless client to my Home Server was done at 10MB/s (Megabytes), effectively maxing out the 100Mbps LAN connection. Some of the features include support for multiple AP modes (AP, Client, Multi-SSID and WDS Bridge). I am using it in Multi-SSID mode, connected to a trunk port on the wired side and it works great. There is also support to use the AP as a DHCP server, configure firewall rules up to Layer 4 and also a builtin traffic analyser to allow you to monitor throughput and performance of the access point.

I did have one issue which TP-Link support helped me to resolve, but other than that, the experience has been perfect. My issue was that when transferring files or streaming media content, it would drop the transfer speed to about 10 bytes/sec and would struggle to exceed 2MB/s. This turned out to be because the access point has a problem with LAN switch ports hard set to a specific speed and duplex configuration. My Cisco 2950 which it was connected to at the time was set to 100/Full. Setting the switch port back to Auto/Auto caused the port to stop generating FCS input errors and allowed the AP to negotiate it’s own speed (100/Full as it happens but never mind) and the performance instantly went ‘through the roof’.

Conclusion?

Great product for a great price. I may be looking to buy another in the future to extend my range/signal at the top level of my multi-story town house home.