Gadling Gear Review: Microsoft Surface Pro

Microsoft Surface Pro
Microsoft

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you’ve no doubt seen the ubiquitous advertisements for Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet computer. You know the commercials I’m talking about. The ones that feature a good looking group of young people dancing around the boardroom while snapping the device’s removable keyboard into place with a distinctive “click.” Those advertisements would lead you to believe that the Surface is a device capable of handling the full workload of a laptop while still offering the convenience and simplicity of a tablet — which if true would make it the Holy Grail of travel devices. I recently had the opportunity to put a Surface Pro model to the test on two very different road trips and I can tell you that it (mostly) lives up to its billing. The device really is unlike any other I’ve ever used and it has the potential to make many road warriors very happy.

Before I dive too far into the performance of the Surface Pro it is important to point out that Microsoft has released two versions of the tablet. In addition to the Pro model there is also the Surface RT, which runs a stripped down version of Windows 8, which comes with a few compromises. For instance, it can only run apps specifically made for Windows RT, while the Pro model can run any Windows software that you care to install. The RT also has a less powerful processor as well, but it makes up for it with longer battery life, a thinner and lighter design and a smaller price tag. Since I haven’t had the opportunity to use a Surface RT for any length of time, this review is based off the Surface Pro, which is a considerably more powerful device. In simplified terms the RT is a tablet with laptop aspirations while the Pro is a laptop wrapped in tablet form.The Surface Pro comes in two configurations, one with 64GB of storage and the other with 128GB. It features an Intel Core i5 processor and a beautiful 10.6″ full-HD, multi-touch screen capable of generating resolutions up to 1920×1080. It also has 4GB of on board RAM, front and rear-facing cameras and an array of ports including USB and a microSD card reader. A built-in kickstand allows you to prop the device up on any flat surface while a set of internal gyroscopes and accelerometers orient the screen from portrait and landscape modes. The entire system weighs in at about two pounds, which is a bit on the heavy side for a tablet, but fairly light for a laptop.

One of the things that struck me when I first took the Surface out of its box was just how solid and durable it felt. Its case is built from VaporMg, a special type of liquid metal that Microsoft created specifically for the device. The material is lightweight, rugged and looks great too. I recently took the Surface Pro on a backpacking trip to Australia and the device held up very well to the abuse of travel. In fact, I never once felt that the tablet was in danger and it returned home without so much of a scratch on it thanks in large part to its VaporMg casing. If you often find yourself carrying your laptop into some demanding and difficult environments, the Surface may be the alternative you are looking for. Chances are it is both tougher and lighter than what you travel with today.

Microsoft Surface Pro
Microsoft

In terms of performance, the Surface Pro is fast and smooth, running Windows 8 exceptionally well. In fact, it feels like the touch-focused OS was made specifically for the tablet incorporating gestures, swipes and taps to accomplish all kinds of different tasks. Windows 8 apps extend the functionality of the device even further but the real strength of the Surface is its ability to run any other piece of Windows software as well. While the iPad and Android tablets are restricted to running only the software available in their respective app stores, the Surface Pro is capable of running off the shelf software that you find anywhere, including a full version of Microsoft Office. This is a huge advantage over other similar devices and one that should not be ignored by those who need to be productive while on the road but still want to carry a compact device.

One of the distinguishing traits of the Surface tablet is its keyboard, of which there are two versions available, both of which also serve as protective covers. The Touch Cover is lightweight, flexible and features soft keys, while the Type Cover is a little thicker and heavier, but has keys that are much closer to what you’d find on a notebook. Both versions lock into place by connecting to a special magnetic port on the bottom of the tablet and when used in conjunction with the Surface’s kickstand, the transformation to a laptop is complete. Both keyboards take a bit of practice to get accustomed to, but after spending a little time with them, I was able to type surprisingly well. My personal preference leaned toward the Type keyboard, which was so easy to adapt to that I almost forgot that I was using a tablet and not a true notebook. Inexplicably, the less expensive Surface RT includes a Touch Cover out of the box but it is an additional purchase with the Surface Pro, raising the price by $120. The Type Cover will set you back $10 more but is well worth it if you intend to do any serious typing on the tablet.

The Surface Pro has a few more tricks up its sleeve to help separate it from both the RT model and the competition as well. For instance, it has a built-in Wacom digitizer that works with an included pressure sensitive stylus pen that allows the device to actually recognize the user’s handwriting and convert it to text. It takes a little practice to learn how to use this feature but it can be great for taking notes in meetings or classes. Handwriting recognition has been a part of Microsoft’s tablet operating systems for years and it shows. The feature is robust, mature and surprisingly useful once you actually become accustomed to using it.

My one complaint has to do with the hardware rather than the software. The Surface has a port along its right side that serves the dual purpose of both charging the tablet via the AC adapter and holding the pen in place when it is not being used. Unfortunately that means you can’t have the stylus there at the same time as the device is being charged. I also lost the pen at the bottom of my bag on more than one occasion when it became dislodged from its cradle as I put the Surface away. Fortunately, I haven’t lost the pen altogether, although it seems like it would be easy to do. I would have much preferred a dedicated slot for holding the pen that is more secure.

One of the key features of any decent tablet is great battery life. The iPad is capable of 10+ hours of use out of a single charge and many Android tablets are in the 8-10 hour category as well. The Surface Pro doesn’t come anywhere near that, averaging about 5.5 hours of use in my testing. That isn’t great when you view it simply as a tablet, but if you instead consider it a laptop with some tablet capabilities it puts it more in line with many ultrabooks that are currently on the market. Still, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed that the Surface didn’t perform better in real world battery use. Another 1.5-2 hours would have really made this a killer device on long distance flights. The Surface RT is rated for 8 hours of battery life although I can’t comment on whether or not it actually delivers on that promise.

So, is the Surface Pro the ultimate travel device? I’d say the answer to that is both yes and no. This is a device that straddles the line between being a laptop and a tablet and as such it needs to be evaluated a bit differently. For instance, it is heavier and thicker than an iPad, but smaller and more lightweight than most laptops. It doesn’t simply run apps either, but instead has access to the full Windows software library, which puts it in a category unlike any other. Add in handwriting recognition, the ability to connect all kinds of peripherals via the USB port and a rugged case that is designed to stand up to abuse and you end up with a product that has a lot to offer frequent travelers. On the other hand, the lack of a long battery life really limits its use when away from a power outlet and that is a shame. If there is one thing that Microsoft can do to improve this product with the next version it is to improve battery life.

The Surface Pro carries a price tag of $899 for the 64GB version and $999 for the 128GB model, although MS is currently offering a $100 discount on both. That’s actually a solid value for a device that is as versatile as this one, after all you’re actually getting both a full blown tablet and a laptop in a single package. If you’re in the market for a new travel computer and you want a system that is compact, yet powerful, that you can take with you anywhere, the Surface Pro is a great option. Just set your expectations for battery life appropriately and you’ll be quite happy with the experience.

La Paz’s Urban Rush Introduces Rap Jumping To South America

urban rushAustralia and New Zealand are generally accepted as having cornered the market on bizarre adventure activities, especially in urban areas. Unsurprising, then, that Alistair Matthew, the Kiwi founder of La Paz’s ginormously successful, groundbreaking Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, has brought a bit of the Antipodes to Bolivia’s capital city.

A year ago, inspired by a similar enterprise in Melbourne, Matthew launched Urban Rush. The sport, also known as rap jumping, entails rappelling – preferably face-first – down the side of a 17-story building in central La Paz (the view, FYI, is spectacular; it’s across the street from the colonial stunner that is the San Francisco Church), and provides views of the tenaciously perched brick houses of El Alto. The kicker, however, is that the final six stories are in free fall (that’s me, above, about five stories before taking the plunge).

It’s not as sketchy as it sounds. In addition to your own power (meaning you have a brake and a guide hand), there’s an experienced guide belaying you from below, and another controlling you from the top. So even if you were to let go completely, you’ve got two ropes as backup.

The aforementioned building is the Hotel Presidente, La Paz’s finest. That only makes for more fun, as costume-clad, thrill-seeking, dirtbag backpackers traipse through the stylish 15th floor restaurant and bar in order to access the small penthouse space where suiting up and training take place.

Costumes? Si. In addition to the standard bright orange jumpsuits, you can leap out of the hotel dressed as Spiderman, Captain America, Santa Claus or Cat Woman, masks included. Why? Who cares?la pazI serendipitously found myself watching a Spiderman launch himself out of the penthouse yesterday afternoon, while out with Gravity’s office manager, Jill Benton. She had a hunch this would be right up my alley, and sure enough, I soon found myself zipping up a jumpsuit (no heroic attire; I just wanted to survive the experience; the view from the top, at right).

In all seriousness, Gravity’s guide/instructors are experienced employees and the equipment is all top-of-the-line. I’ve done a bit of climbing and abseiling, but never have I contemplated a face-first rappel, let alone in the middle of a bustling city. In fact, I have a deathly fear of jumping off of or out of things in urban areas (because, you know, death hurts less when you’re out in nature).

After strapping on my helmet and having my harnesses fitted, instructor Andrea didurban rush some practice maneuvers, first on the ground and then on a six-foot wall (right). When I felt ready to bail out that window, it was at first tentatively, and not very gracefully. Having hundreds of spectators on the ground didn’t do much to increase my performance anxiety.

While my technique may have been a Fail (I weigh just under 100 pounds, and that made it difficult for me to hop my way down, rather than roll), it was a total blast. The free fall was definitely one of my adventure activity lifetime highlights: few things can beat plummeting at warp speed upon the Easter shoppers of La Paz.

A half-hour later, still trembling with adrenalin (which is why my photo of the hotel, below, is crooked), I was headed back to my hostel across Plaza San hotel presidenteFrancisco, an uncontrollable smile on my face. Bolivia certainly has no shortage of outdoor adventure sports, but should you find yourself with a little afternoon downtime in La Paz, you’d be simply crazy not to take a flying leap out of the Hotel Presidente.

Urban Rush, 1-5 p.m., daily; book in advance or just drop by the hotel, at Potosí St., 920. It’s just $20 for one drop, $30 for two (note that due to fluctuating exchange rates these prices may change).

[Photo credits: Jill Benton/Laurel Miller]

The Allure Of Ancient Tangier

Tangier
The whole Mediterranean rim has a rich history. The Minoans, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and many others explored and settled these rocky coasts and islands. Tangier, just outside the Strait of Gibraltar and looking out onto the Atlantic Ocean, was considered the furthest point west by many civilizations. To the north, ancient travelers could see the Iberian Peninsula. South lay the coast of Africa, explored by some civilizations and unknown to others, and to the west stretched the seemingly endless expanse of the ocean.

Tangier became an important port early on. The Phoenicians built a trading post here in the middle of the first millennium B.C. and it was later taken over by the Carthaginians. At that time it was called Tingis, after a Berber goddess. Little is left from those days as the ancient city has been buried under many layers of later occupation.

The Casbah Museum in Tangier has a few artifacts from that time, and an easy walk to the western outskirts will take you to the plateau of Mershan and the necropolis of Al Hafa. Here, on an exposed rock with a sweeping view of the strait and the port, the Carthaginians, and later the Romans, buried their dead. You can see a couple of the lead caskets in the Casbah Museum.

All that’s left here are the graves cut into the rock, many of them now filled with rainwater and reflecting the blue sky above. Even those uninterested in archaeology will enjoy the walk through the quiet, prosperous suburb and the fine vista from the plateau. The dead got the best seafront view in Tangier.

%Gallery-175701%The value of traveling to another famous ancient landmark, the Grotto of Hercules, is more debatable. It was here that Hercules was said to have rested after his labors. This cave opens onto the Atlantic Ocean and the waves splash on the rock, swirling in and out and spraying the large number of foreign and Moroccan tourists who come here. Niches carved into the cave’s interior at some unrecorded time are now used by salesmen to hawk trinkets. Yes, this place is one big tourist trap, although an attractive one.

We had been told that the nearby Roman ruins of Cotta were open to the public but when we got there two soldiers and a cop told us politely yet firmly that this land was owned by the king and we couldn’t enter. They were very apologetic and somewhat confused as to why we thought the ruins were open. They’d been closed for five years.

A longer day trip can take you to the Roman city of Volubilis, five hours away between Fez and Rabat. One of its prized possessions, however, is housed in the Casbah Museum. A sumptuous mosaic from the town house of some wealthy Roman is now the centerpiece of the museum. Called “The Voyage of Venus,” it shows the sexy goddess sailing through the salty spray with her nymphs.

If you’re pressed for time I’d say hit the Casbah Museum first, try to go to Al Hafa if the weather is good, and skip the Grotto of Hercules.

Don’t miss our other posts on Tangier! Coming up next: St. Andrew’s in Tangier: A Church With Muslim Art!

[Top image by Almudena Alonso-Herrero. Bottom image by Sean McLachlan]

Tangier

Hotel Employees Dish Industry Dirt In Reddit Discussion

maidReddit, the popular social news website, has been hosting a lively discussion amongst (alleged) current and former hotel employees across the globe, in which they serve up tantalizing tales of misdeeds, mishaps, scams and shocking industry policies.

Note that there is no verification if any of these anecdotes are real, but they still make for some mighty entertaining reading. If there’s any truth to even half of these stories, just bear them in mind next time you’re tempted to treat a hotel employee like crap. And remember, never sit on the bedspreads.

Some of our picks are below. And yes, they most definitely have the potential to be offensive to some readers. You’ve been warned.

“Check the seals on the things in the minibar. I once had a guest who had drunk the whiskey and then peed in the bottle, closed it, and put it back.”

“Use a towel or sheet on the chairs or sofa, a LOT of people sit on them naked. It’s nasty but there is often a brown streak on the desk chair that no one think about.”

“Your breakfast food is likely always been handled in an unsanitary manner during set up. (typically desk clerk in lower end hotels).”

“During my training, I once found an obvious [semen] crust on the coverlet. I told the woman I was working with that it needed to be cleaned and she responded ‘Just wipe it with a damp cloth until you can’t see it any more,’ like it was no big deal.

“Bedbugs often travel around on luggage. Most guests don’t seem to notice that. Guests who stay at higher-end hotels often spend more time traveling, and thus have a higher chance of taking bedbugs from hotel to hotel.”

toilet“I’ve worked as a chambermaid and the job itself I don’t mind (although I’ve seen some disgusting things) but you have a time limit for each room. I hated leaving a room not fully cleaned but there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. I tried explaining this to the manager there and he basically said if I needed X amount of time on a room I had two options: work through my break to spend longer on each room, or be replaced by someone else. So I stopped bothering to check under the beds or mattresses and only cleaned what you could see. I didn’t stay there very long…”


“As an ex-housekeeper we used to wash the glasses in the bathroom sink and dry them with a clean pillow case. If they looked unused they wouldn’t get washed.”

“Currently a night auditor for a large hotel chain. Recently a lady had a miscarriage in one of our bath tubs. She didn’t say anything and left us to find it on our own.”

“The front desk will NOT call you at an ungodly late hour, if our “computer crashes” and ask for your credit card information. We will not give you a 50% discount for your cooperation, and no, I would not be calling you if “there is a line at the front desk, so giving me the information over the phone will be quicker.”

“I’ve seen a couple deaths, an alcoholic coma, attempted suicide and a dead maintenance man.”

“The guests shouldn’t be the ones scared in a hotel room (at least not in the hotel where I work). We have to hold our breath every time we enter a room that needs thorough cleaning. You can’t believe the shit we have to deal with sometimes. Most guests are friendly and thankful, but some people truly are animals.”
cowboy
“There’s a pet fee at our hotel. There’s also a ‘dogs and cats only’ policy. During rodeo season a man actually tried to smuggle his horse into his room because he thought it would get lonely outside. The horse clearly did not want to come inside, given the amount of noise it was making. We also do not charge by the hour. We do not set the prices, some suit on the East Coast does. If you need help, please ask as the staff actually might know something. Do not hit on the staff, we will not sleep with you. Do not try to convince the staff to marry your grandson, even if he is a doctor, we will not. We cannot control the weather/road conditions, so don’t bitch at us like we can do anything about a blizzard.

“There is a fine line between haggling and being an asshole. Pro tip for hagglers, do not try to haggle a lower rate in front of other guests. If I agree to give you a lower rate in front of 10 other people, I’m going to have to give 10 more discounts. Pick your moment and negotiate when nobody else is around.”

“Don’t book your hotel room online! The reservations are a pain in the ass to deal with. They were almost always impossible to cancel/refund. They also charge MORE than the actual rate and pay us LESS. (You pay $80 online, we charge $70, we get $50.) I always found it really frustrating that we could be booking the rooms ourselves and making an extra $20 while saving you $10-plus.”

“Just one more piece of advice…be nice to people. If you have a valid complaint bring it to our attention and give us the opportunity to recover. Don’t keep it inside and then blast us on the surveys for something we could’ve fixed. In that same regard don’t come down to the front desk screaming and demanding free nights. The is a compensation matrix that 99% of hotels use, so just because you found one stray hair on your carpet does not mean you will get a free night. However we are more inclined to give a shit if you aren’t a complete asshat.”

[Photo credits: maid, Flickr user Saptarshi Biswas; toilet, Flickr user Ugg Boy; cowboy, Flickr user chefranden]

Microsoft and Southwest Airlines team up for picture perfect holiday

Microsoft and Southwest Airlines want to make it a picture perfect holidayFor the second year in a row, Microsoft and Southwest Airlines have joined forces to offer free holiday themed photos and giveaway some great prizes as well. Between now and December 24th, you’ll be able to score a Windows 7 laptop each day and be entered to win free travel for a year on Southwest.

The two companies have set up photo booths in 21 airports and 3 malls across the U.S. Visitor to these locations will be able get free photos with Santa, which they can then share with friends and family. The booths are located in major airports that Southwest flies in and out of, such as Logan International in Boston, Dallas Love Field, and Denver International. Additionally, the malls that are hosting the photo experience are located in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. For a complete listing of the locations click here.

Microsoft and Southwest haven’t forgotten about those of us who won’t be visiting any of those locations this holiday season either. We can still enter their online sweepstakes, where they are giving away a Windows PC every day through Christmas Eve, ten Epson printers, and the grand prize of free flights for a year. What traveler wouldn’t want that prize? To enter, simply click here and fill out the online form.