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.

Forgetting To Turn Your Phone Off While Flying Is Pretty Common

Have you ever reached for your phone at the end of a flight to switch it back on and check your messages only to realize you never turned it off in the first place? If so, you’re in good company. Accidentally leaving your digital devices turned on while flying is quite common, according to a new study.

The Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) and the Consumer Electronics Association released a survey showing that close to 30 percent of travelers have forgotten to turn off their phone, ipad, laptop or other device before taking off.When they do actually remember to power down, many passengers don’t actually turn their electronics all the way off. Around 21 percent of fliers put their phones and tablets into “airplane mode” and five percent sometimes shut down their devices, while 59 percent of travelers did as the airlines asked and turned their electronics completely off.

APEX says that 99 percent of adult fliers travel with some sort of portable electronic device and many want to be able to use it during the whole flying process, including takeoff and landing. The group hopes the results of the survey will help persuade the Federal Aviation Administration to loosen the rules regarding use of electronics while flying.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Global X]

Gadling Gear Review: Lenovo Twist Windows 8 Laptop

Lenovo Thinkpad TwistThe advances in touch screen technology over the past few years have had an undeniable impact on how we interact with our gadgets. Touch screens have made our smartphones more responsive and have allowed tablets to become a part of our daily lives. It seems only natural that they would also be integrated into laptops and desktops, something that has become more viable thanks to the release of Windows 8 last fall. One of the first laptops to use a touchscreen in conjunction with Microsoft’s new operating system is the Lenovo Twist, a product that does an excellent job demonstrating just how this technology can change the way interact with our computers.

At its core, the Twist is an Ultrabook class laptop, tipping the scales at 3.5 pounds and just .8 inches thick. Those measurement make the Twist very portable and will likely make it a hit with travelers who want to shed some weight when hitting the road. The Twist features a 12.1″ screen driven by a competent graphics chipset that is more geared for business applications rather than 3D games. It is available with your choice of three Intel processors, up to 8GB of RAM and standard hard drives of either 320GB or 500GB. The laptop also includes a 128GB SSD drive option, which is much faster and more reliable than a traditional mechanical drive. Two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port and a 4-in-1 card reader slot round out the list of helpful features.

My test model was powered by an Intel i5 processor running at 2.6GHz and 4GB of RAM. This was more than enough horsepower to smoothly run Windows 8 and for accomplishing most day-to-day tasks. Checking email, surfing the web, writing blog posts and watching videos all went off without a hitch with the Twist barely missing a beat. Editing photos worked well too, although larger images put enough of a strain on the laptop to kick in the system fans, which is a bit jarring considering how quiet the Twist is most of the time. I wouldn’t recommend editing video on the Twist, however, as that isn’t a particular strong point for Ultrabooks in general.Those tech specs alone don’t distinguish the Twist, however, as they are pretty standard amongst thin and light Windows notebooks these days. What does separate Lenovo’s laptop from the crowd, however, is the unique touch screen display and its ability to pivot (Or twist! Get it?) on an axis point connected to the main body just above the keyboard. This gives the computer the unique ability of transforming into four different modes: Laptop, Stand, Tent and Tablet. Laptop mode functions in the traditional nature of all notebooks while Stand mode flips the screen around and away from the keyboard, allowing access to just the display itself. Tent mode rotates the contents of the display so that the Twist can stand-up on its edges, while Tablet mode folds the screen over the keyboard, making it into a large tablet. Personally, I found myself mostly using just the laptop and tablet modes, although the others will find their niche needs I’m sure.

Lenovo Thinkpad Twist in Tent ModeThe Twist’s touch screen is bright, clear and responsive, which is just what you would expect in any notebook from Lenovo. But more than that, the screen is simply fun to use, particularly in Window 8’s new interface which integrates apps with a traditional desktop interface. Anyone who has used an iOS or Android device will feel right at home here, tapping, sliding and pinching their way through any manner of apps from Angry Birds to Netflix to Skype. While the Windows 8 app store isn’t nearly as full as those two other operating systems, it still has nearly everything you could ask for and then some. Win 8’s live tiles also makes it easy to organize those apps as needed and automatically give you all kinds of information, such as Facebook status updates, news headlines and stock reports, at a glance.

When using the Twist in the traditional Windows desktop mode, the touch screen is still active and allows you to tap to open documents, launch applications and so on. But since the desktop was never designed for touch, I found it easier to revert to using the laptop’s built-in touchpad, which was functional although not as responsive as I would have liked. Lenovo has also included a touch stick integrated into the keyboard, but I’ve personally never been a fan of the nub as a way to move the cursor. If that is your favorite way to interact with a laptop, however, you’re likely to find this one to be responsive and easy to use.

Lenovo has built the Twist to be durable enough to take with us on our travels, adding in some nice features to help keep it safe. For instance, the laptop includes an active protection system that will automatically park the hard drive heads if the laptop should fall or be jostled violently. This helps prevent accidental damage to the drive, keeping our data safe and sound. Beyond that, the case is molded out of a tough magnesium alloy, which is very resistant to wear and the screen is shielded by Gorilla Glass, which does an excellent job of resisting scratches and breaking.

Battery life seems to be a bit of an Achilles heel for the Twist. Lenovo says it is capable of running for up to six hours between charges, which is about average for an Ultrabook of this type. But while testing my Twist I found that I was getting an average of just a shade over 4 hours of run-time on standard settings. Reducing the brightness of the screen and turning off Wi-Fi helped of course, but those are compromises that are tough to make. If you’re on a cross-country flight, it can help to extend your ability to use the computer, but you’ll still be looking for an outlet as soon as you land.

As with all touch screen devices, the Twist’s display can also quickly become filled with fingerprints, which is not something we’re traditionally use to from our laptops. You’ll probably want to carry a soft cleaning cloth in your laptop bag at all times to help wipe it clean. These are fairly common for smartphones and tablets these days, but you’ll find yourself needing one for this, or any other, touch screen notebook too.

If you’re in the market for a new laptop and you’re looking to harness the full potential of Windows 8, the Lenovo Twist is a fantastic choice. I found that once I started using a touch screen notebook it was incredibly difficult to go back to a standard model. Touch just seems like a natural way to interact with our devices now and anything less seems archaic in comparison. Aside from sub-par battery life, I found the Twist to be a great laptop for the average traveler’s needs, providing the ability to communicate with friends and family, while staying productive on the road. It’s lightweight and thin body make it highly portable and the touch screen simply makes it fun to use. When was the last time you could say that about your laptop?

The Twist also happens to be very competitively priced. It starts out at just $765, which is very affordable for a laptop with so many features built in.

Galley Gossip: Can Passengers View Pornography on the Airplane?

From time to time I get questions from readers who want to know what the rules are regarding viewing pornography in flight now that Wi-Fi is available on board most airplanes. Thankfully, it hasn’t been much of an issue (knock on wood). But planes are crowded, personal space barely exits, and when passengers do things they shouldn’t, well, they usually get caught.

Last week on a flight from New York to Fort Lauderdale, a coworker had to ask a 10-year-old boy to turn off the erotica and to fasten his seatbelt. On either side of him sat his younger brother and sister. Across the aisle were his parents who had no idea what was going on until we informed them why he may have been holding the computer screen so close to his face. On a different flight another passenger was caught reading a Playboy Magazine. Next to him sat his young son. What gave this man away was the opened centerfold he was eyeing up and down. When a flight attendant politely asked him to put it away, he yelled at her for embarrassing him.

How common is it to see someone watching something rather risqué on a laptop, iPad, tablet or even the in-flight entertainment system in the air? I can only think of a few instances I’ve seen something that might raise a few eyebrows. When this happens, I’ll gently inform the passenger that there are children on board and remind them that other passengers seated nearby might find what they’re viewing distasteful. Nine times out of ten they’ll either fast forward through the scene or turn it off – end of story.Do passengers ever complain about the content of something that a different passenger is watching? I’ve never had anyone rat someone out for watching pornography in flight. But I do get a lot of complaints about kids watching movies or playing video games that are too loud. Most parents forget to bring headphones for their little ones. I always hate having to tell a nice family to turn it down, but rules are rules and they apply to everyone, even those under 2 feet tall.

Is there a firm policy on how to handle passengers who are watching adult content openly? Pornography is not allowed on the airplane. If a flight attendant does come across it, we’ll discreetly ask the passenger to put it away. If that doesn’t work, we might issue a written warning. The warning informs the passenger what will happen if they choose not to comply. Refusing to obey crew instruction is a federal offense.

[Photo courtesy: Bekathwia
]

Gadling Gear Review: HP EliteBook 2570p Laptop

HP EliteBook 2570p laptopOver the past few years the trend in laptops has been to get thinner and lighter, often at the expense of power and features. The result has been a host of ultra-portable notebook computers that are sleek and stylish but don’t necessarily meet the needs of travelers who require a full-featured option when hitting the road. Fortunately, HP hasn’t abandoned those road warriors who require more from their laptops than just a pretty exterior. Their new EliteBook 2570p provides a great combination of performance and functionality in a package that still manages to remain relatively thin and lightweight.

While the EliteBook 2570p doesn’t fall into the category of an ultrabook, I was still very impressed with how thin and lightweight it is for such a full-featured laptop. Most ultrabooks achieve their diminutive stature by making compromises to the internal chipset and by omitting an optical drive altogether. HP hasn’t made those same compromises with this computer, however, delivering a system that includes a DVD drive, 12.5″ widescreen display, 500 GB of internal storage, 4 GB of RAM and an Intel Core i5 processor (i7 available as an upgrade) while still managing to keep the weight and bulk to a minimum. The EliteBook tips the scale at just 3.6 pounds and is a little more than an inch thick, which are pretty impressive dimensions for a computer that includes this much hardware.

Of course, all of that internal technology doesn’t mean much if you don’t have the battery power to keep it up and running for very long. But HP has managed to deliver in that department as well, giving the laptop plenty of juice. Out of the box, the EliteBook 2570p comes with a standard 6-cell battery that delivers more than nine hours of life. The unit I tested came with an extended 9-cell battery, which brought that time up to an astounding 15 hours. That’s enough to keep travelers productive and entertained for an entire trans-Pacific flight without needing a recharge, something that isn’t possible on most ultrabooks.
HP EliteBook 2570p laptopBuilt from the ground up to withstand the rigors of the road, the EliteBook 2570p is rugged and durable. It isn’t in the same class as something like the Panasonic Toughbook series of laptops, but then again HP’s offering isn’t nearly as big or as bulky as those machines either. This is a computer that will hold up well to the challenges of travel and you’ll never have to worry that it is too fragile to accompany you on a trip to just about anywhere.

This laptop implements a nice mix of legacy technology and new features. In addition to the aforementioned DVD drive and a fingerprint scanner, it also includes gigabit Ethernet, USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports, an SD card reader and Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity. It even has an option for a 56k modem, something that is seldom found on any computer these days. Business users will appreciate the ability to dock the computer while seated at their desks and everyone will enjoy the SRS premium sound package, which provides clear audio for watching videos, listening to music or chatting via Skype.

Since this laptop is aimed primarily at business-oriented travelers, HP has added some impressive levels of security to protect the contents on the hard drive. In addition to the usual password protection that comes standard on any Windows PC, the EliteBook 2570p’s included fingerprint scanner provides a slick way to authenticate as well. But this system also has a third option that combines Bluetooth technology and facial recognition to provide unprecedented protection for those that need it. When the laptop is paired with a mobile phone via Bluetooth it then takes a snapshot of the users face through the built-in webcam. When the computer’s owner attempts to log in using this system, the EliteBook first checks to see if the user’s phone is within range and then activates the camera to compare his or her face with the image on file. If they match, the system grants entry. This security option sounds complicated, but once it is configured, it works flawlessly and provides a measure of protection that goes well beyond what is found on most notebooks.

While overall I found the EliteBook 2570p to be an excellent full-featured laptop for travelers, there were a few areas that I wouldn’t mind seeing improved. For instance, I wasn’t overly impressed with the touch pad, which was smaller, and sometimes less responsive, then I would have liked. The laptop does come with a track stick, however, which helps to mitigate this issue for those that prefer that option. The integrated Intel graphics chip will be a bit disappointing for some as well, although if you don’t play 3D games or edit video, you’ll probably find it adequate for your day to day needs.

HP offers the EliteBook with your choice of either Windows 7 or Windows 8, and my test model came preloaded with the latest version of Microsoft’s iconic operating system. After putting it through its paces for several weeks, I’d have to say that if I were ordering one of these laptops for myself, I would probably prefer Windows 7. That isn’t to say that Windows 8 doesn’t bring some new and interesting things to the table, but its interface seems to work better on a touchscreen device, something that this laptop most assuredly is not. Windows 8 runs flawlessly on the 2570p, but I found it a bit awkward to use at times, especially with the smaller touch pad.

If you’re the kind of traveler that needs to carry a laptop that doesn’t compromise features and performance in favor of a slim design, then the EliteBook 2570p is a great option for you. The computer provides everything that business travelers need to stay connected and productive while on the road, while still managing to remain relatively lightweight and thin. Yes, HP could have pulled out the DVD drive and a few other features to cut weight and bulk, but that would be completely missing the point. Some of us still need those options while on the road, and those are the types of travelers who are going to appreciate what this laptop brings to the table. Those same users are also likely to appreciate the EliteBook’s price tag, which starts at just $949. That’s an excellent price for a computer that delivers this much versatility and performance in such a small package.

[Photo Credit: HP]