The real-world Surface Pro

Microsoft just announced the successor to my own Surface Pro 4: the no-number “Surface Pro.” It looks like another good refinement of the line, improving things without messing up what was good in the first place.

I’m still quite happy with my Pro 4, so I won’t be rushing out to buy the new model any time soon. But the announcement has me thinking about what I like about the Surface so much. I’ve been using it in law practice for about a year and a half now, so I’ve had plenty of time to experience both the features and the flaws.

For any legal professionals out there wondering if the Surface might work for them, here are the primary concerns I had before buying my Surface Pro 4 and how it turned out.

Is it good as a laptop?

Yes, it is. Despite the headlining feature of being “a tablet that can replace your laptop,” the Surface is more laptop than tablet. Most people use their Surface as a laptop most of the time. It’s how we’re used to working, and I’ve found the same thing.

A lot of reviewers’ ink was spilled over “lapability” when the Pro 4 came out. To use the Surface like a laptop, you have to use its kickstand—unlike a normal laptop, where the screen has a sturdy keyboard base to support its weight. Many reviewers thought the kickstand made the Surface hard to use on your lap. I think it works fine. Maybe my legs are longer than the average tech journalist’s, but I’ve never had an issue with it.

I also had some concern before I bought the Surface about the keyboard typing experience. The Surface keyboard is a cover, so it is thinner and less sturdy than the usual laptop keyboard.

But the concern was unfounded; I’ve always enjoyed using the type cover, which is surprisingly solid (the word flimsy does not
apply here). The keys are clicky and have a good amount of travel. The trackpad is large and smooth and not frustrating.

Is it good as a tablet?

Yes—but. The Surface works as a tablet, but I haven’t found myself using it like an iPad. I rarely flip back the keyboard to browse the web, and I don’t watch Netflix or YouTube or play around in apps. I use it as a tablet mostly when I want to use the pen (which I do often).

The Surface’s screen has a 4:3 aspect ratio—taller than the usual widescreen, but not as tall or boxy as the iPad’s 3:2 ratio. Microsoft says it’s about the same as a legal pad. At first I thought I’d use it like that all the time, but most of the time it just doesn’t work for me. I think it’s because the Surface is thicker and heavier than a legal pad—holding it vertically is unwieldy. It might be a different story if the screen were smaller.

I still use the Surface to take handwritten notes; I just don’t hold it like a legal pad. I find it most natural to write in a landscape orientation with the kickstand all the way back so the screen is at a shallow angle. You can’t get that effect holding the device vertically. And really, when you think about it, there’s no need to have all that vertical space for writing when you just scroll the screen anyway. Writing in a landscape orientation also gives me nice, big margins for Cornell-method notetaking.

Windows 10 has a “tablet mode” made specifically for devices like the Surface. It can detect when you disconnect the keyboard and make the user interface more tablet-like—apps take up the full screen, buttons and menus get more touch-friendly, and you get a back button on the taskbar.

I’ve experimented with this, but I found I preferred to leave it off. Even without the keyboard, the Windows 10 interface is perfectly usable with touch (especially since you have a stylus handy). The automatic switching always took a couple seconds, annoyingly. Since the features of the tablet mode haven’t seemed necessary or useful to me, I found it a better experience to just leave it off.

Is the pen good enough to replace good old-fashioned ink and paper?

The pen was the biggest question mark for me when I bought the Surface Pro 4. Could it really replace writing on paper? Would it be close enough, or would I just get annoyed by small inaccuracies or lag and never end up using it? Would it fulfill all my paperless dreams?

I spent an embarrassing amount of time in Best Buy fiddling with the Surface display models trying to answer these questions.

Well, the pen is like writing on paper, but not the same. I’ve found that oil from my hands and fingers can make the screen slick, and cleaning it helps maintain that friction that all the reviewers said they liked. The pen does have a little bit of inaccuracy—where you place the tip on the screen is not quite where the ink shows up—but I adjusted to it. I’ve never experienced enough lag or latency to bother me, either—and I’m rather more persnickety about that than the average joe.

So it is good enough—I use the pen all the time. I mostly use it with OneNote, a program that really shines when you have a pen. I love being able to take handwritten notes and organize them alongside other bits of text and information. It’s when people see me writing in OneNote with my Surface Pen that they get intrigued and start asking questions.

Are the cheaper models with 4GB of RAM worthwhile?

Yes. After deciding to buy a Surface Pro 4, the biggest decision was whether to get the Core i5 model with 4GB or 8GB of RAM. The difference was $300. Every tech reviewer said something like, “4GB is okay for ‘office work,’ but you really need 8GB if you want performance to last.”

I am happy to report that most people can save $300. Nearly two years after the Surface Pro 4 launched, my 4GB model is as peppy as ever. I’ve never run into an issue with RAM. The computer doesn’t feel slow and the performance hasn’t suffered. As I said above, I’m much more persnickety about lag and performance on computers than most.

If you have an extra $300 to spend (or if you always have 30 browser tabs open), then by all means, more RAM = better. But don’t let the enthusiasts make you think you’d be unhappy with a less expensive model.

Does it have any annoying issues?

Like any computer, my Surface has had some issues.

Early on it had problems with sleep and draining the battery, but Microsoft has solved those with updates. It still sometimes has difficulty waking from sleep or hibernation, though—every once in a while I have to do a dance with the power button.

I’ve had a few instances of the pen just failing to work. Some were Bluetooth-related, some were battery-related; in every case, it got in the way of taking a note or doing work. These failings have been rare, but frustrating.

OneNote—an app you want to use if you use the Surface Pen—sometimes has weird issues. I’ve had problems with syncing multiple Microsoft accounts. I’ve had problems where a OneNote notebook gets corrupted (there’s always a backup and a way to fix it). Sometimes I’ll write a line on a OneNote page and it will “jump” to the left a bit after it syncs online.

Surface Pro 4 Pen attached to sideSince I use the Surface in a landscape orientation most of the time, the pen being stuck to the side of the device contributes to its unwieldiness. When the pen is on a side, I can’t grip that side securely with one hand. This is, admittedly, a minor annoyance—I could solve it with a pen loop if I had the gumption.

The Surface can log you in just by recognizing your face. Though this easy-login feature has been lauded by tech reviewers, I ended up turning it off. At first there was an issue where the infrared camera wouldn’t turn off and it would drain your battery in your bag. Then, I found that it wasn’t always reliable. It was mildly annoying to position my face every time the computer wakes up. And sometimes I want to see the login screen—if you’re switching to a different user, for instance, you have to hide your face so it won’t log you back in right away.

How is it to use as a professional with clients?

First of all, it’s quiet enough that you can use it in meetings without drawing the ire of coworkers and clients. The Surface Pro 3 had some notorious issues with fan noise, but those were solved with the Pro 4. The lowest model with a Core m3 processor doesn’t even have a fan, and my own i5 model stays almost silent unless I play a video game or movie.

So it is usable in meetings. Whether you want to do that is a judgment call.

For example, when I was practicing on my own fresh out of law school, I almost never used my Surface in court. In my county, even regular laptops don’t appear there much. I didn’t want to play into stereotypes of millennials or fall prey to a failure of technology. It was important to make a good impression on the judges and other lawyers. I played it safe.

During my brief stint working as an employee at my state bar, I used my Surface in meetings freely. That was a larger organization that was comfortable with technology. Many of the directors and supervisors still used Surface Pro 2 devices the bar had purchased years ago. My coworkers often asked about it.

When meeting with clients now, I try to judge how the client will perceive me using a shiny piece of tech. I would never want a piece of technology to get in the way of developing that relationship.

I also always have a plain legal pad and pen along, even if I have my Surface—just in case.

Conclusion

If you’re a legal professional unsure about the Surface Pro line, I can reassure you: it will work for you. Surfaces actually beat iPads for user satisfaction. There are some minor annoyances, as with any computer. But performance is great, the pen is useful, and the device is good to use as both a laptop and a tablet. I haven’t talked much about using it in court (perhaps a future post), but if you feel comfortable in your jurisdiction, its potential for hearings and trials is huge.

The hardest thing when deciding to buy something like a Surface Pro is seeing past all the hype. I’ve tried to get past the glossy-eyed reviews and give a more useful, realistic perspective.

Does the Surface Pro line work in the real world? Yes, it does.

How to make legal writing better, faster, and more fun

Writing is not an easy task. Even though all lawyers write a fair amount (and some do a lot of it), many avoid writing and dislike sitting down to the task. This is, perhaps, why so many briefs are written last-minute, or why motions eek in on the deadline. When I worked as an attorney-editor, our most persistent issue was just getting our attorney-authors to do their writing by the deadline.

How can we make the task of writing easier, faster, and more fun? We must start with seeing that to write is not a single task, though we usually think of it that way. Even a short article or blog post takes first an idea, then exploring that idea, then deciding how to present that idea in a logical structure, then writing the sentences and paragraphs, and finally revising it all into a polished whole.

The Flowers Paradigm is a process for writing.

What we need is a systematic approach to each writing project. Thankfully, we have it: the Flowers Paradigm. Devised by Dr. Betty S. Flowers (and promoted heavily by Bryan Garner himself), the Flowers Paradigm is a simple way to remember that every writing project benefits from engaging your brain in four very different ways:

  1. The Madman
  2. The Architect
  3. The Carpenter
  4. The Judge

The Madman furiously generates ideas.

At the beginning of a writing project, putting on the persona of the Madman is about brainstorming and generating as many ideas as possible. This is not the time for critical thinking, but creativity.

Don’t start writing sentences yet! Use pen and paper; draw a picture; connect single words or phrases with lines and arrows and circles and diagrams.

The Architect connects the ideas and forms a structure.

Once your inner Madman has generated the raw material for you to work with—both the gold and the dross—it’s time to put on your Architect hat. Most of us would call this stage “outlining,” but a list of roman numerals and headings may not be the best approach. The goal is to give your ideas a logical structure. Create a skeleton for your writing, whatever it is, to get your reader logically to your conclusion.

The Carpenter writes sentences to fill in the blanks.

Don’t start typing until your head is clear about what you want to say and how you’re going to say it. It doesn’t have to be perfect—you will make changes later—but you need to have some clarity, or you’ll produce a mishmash.

Once you have that clarity, writing the sentences and paragraphs becomes much easier and more pleasant. You just have to follow the guides. As Bryan Garner puts it, the Carpenter stage should feel like filling in the blanks.

The Judge critiques, edits, and refines.

Finally, after you have a completed draft, you can let your inner critic loose. The hardest part is making your Judge wait until this point. He must not interfere with the creative earlier stages.

Now you can review, proofread, edit, and refine. You’ll cringe a bit as you look at your raw work, but now you can toss the dross and keep that gold.

Conclusion

If you take away one idea from this post, it should be that “writing” is not a single thing—it’s a process. Recognize that good and efficient writing requires a sequence of very different tasks. When you have a process to follow, your writing will get better and take you less time. If you’re familiar with Getting Things Done, you’ll know this concept: 5 minutes spent planning a project will save 20 minutes of working on it.

The next time you have to write something—anything—consciously engage each step of the Flowers Paradigm. Even if it’s only for a few minutes each.

In my next post, I’ll talk about some particular problems lawyers face with writing that the Flowers Paradigm solves, and some of my own strategies to employ at each step.

Finally, a good writing app for Windows 10

Unlike most lawyer-tech enthusiasts, I use Windows and I enjoy it. But the OS has always lacked good writing apps. (I love Microsoft Word, but it’s meant for editing and publishing, not writing.)

Windows lacks writing apps like Ulysses. Apple’s ecosystem has spawned a plethora of apps meant to do one thing: get you to type words. Apps like Ulysses are free of distractions and pleasant to use. They make it easy to just type.

Windows has lacked this kind of app for a long time (probably because Apple users are more willing to pay $20 or $40 for it). The closest contenders are Writemonkey, which shows its age, or Draft, which is browser-only, or Write!, which lacks some features I’d want. These are good programs, but they never quite hit the sweet spot of features plus minimal design.

When it comes to writing, I want as little friction as possible. That means I want a program that does what I need and nothing else. There’s a Goldilocks zone the app must hit.

That zone has been so hard to hit for me that I confess to occasionally checking the website for Ulysses (and other Mac/iOS writing apps) just to see if, by some astronomical alignment, its developers are working on a Windows version. I am always disappointed.

That’s why I’ve been enjoying Appy Text. It has what I want from a minimal writing app:

  • Custom fonts—I’m picky about typefaces (blame Matthew Butterick for that), so the ability to pick any font installed on my computer is almost essential. The lack of this feature is largely what left me unsatisfied with Write!.
  • Good typography—Appy Text lets you control the size of the text and keeps line lengths short for optimal legibility.
  • No distractions—The program displays just a single column of text, a bar for basic functions like undo, and a couple of buttons. Because it only saves plain text and Markdown files, there’s little formatting to fiddle with.
  • A pleasant writing space—Appy Text has several color themes, and all of them look nice.
  • Markdown—Appy Text saves plain text files and supports Markdown, which is an easy way to add HTML formatting (like bold, italics, and bullet points) to a plain text document without needing a complicated formatting interface like Microsoft Word. It also has an easy button for previewing what your Markdown document will look like when published. Markdown is an ideal format for drafting content; it’s easy to convert to any publishing format needed (particularly HTML and PDF).
  • Automatic Save—A lifesaver for any writer.

Appy Text is a simple program, and that’s a good thing. It’s great for pounding out a blog post or an article. I hope more apps like it come to the Windows Store.

If you use Windows and find Microsoft Word distracting, give Appy Text a try.