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.

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.

How to search Wis. Stats. from your Chrome address bar

One of the things we can be proud of as Wisconsin attorneys is our legislature’s website. The statutes and administrative code are easy to access and free. People in other states aren’t always so lucky.

If you’re like me, you probably only go to the state legislature website to search for a statute or regulation. You probably have the site bookmarked, and every time you click that bookmark you immediately put a search in the box at the top of the site. Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead, you could put your search right in your browser’s address bar—without navigating to the legislature website first?

Of course, you can. Here’s how to do it in Chrome.

1. On your computer, open Chrome.

2. At the top right, click the three-dot menu button; select “Settings”.

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3. In the “Search” section, click “Manage search engines”.

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4. Under “Other search engines”:

Look at the bottom for an entry called “WisLeg.” This should appear if you’ve ever used the search on the legislature’s website while using Chrome. If it’s not there, try going to the legislature’s website and entering a search, then check again. You can also copy and paste this url into the third box on the “Add a new search engine” line: http://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/search/results?q=%s&start={startIndex?}&rows={count?}

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Click on the middle column for the “WisLeg” entry. This is the keyword you’ll use to perform a search from Chrome’s address bar. Right now it should be “legis.wisconsin.gov”; if you typed that into the address bar and then pressed tab, you would search the legislature’s website. But that’s a bit long, so rename it to something you’ll remember and can type quickly, like “legis” or “stats”.

If you want, you can also rename the search engine from “WisLeg” to something else—but this won’t affect the search.

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5. That’s it!

Try opening a new tab and typing the keyword you chose into the address bar. You should see a message on the right end of the bar telling you that if you press tab, you’ll search the legislature’s website. Go ahead and press tab, then enter a search and press enter. You’ll be taken directly to the legislature website’s search results page.

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Now that you’ve set up this nice shortcut for searching the legislature’s website, you can do the same thing for almost any website that has search.

Overkill for lawyers

There’s a bit of a trope when it comes to lawyers and technology: whenever Apple or Microsoft or Google has a big event, a hundred posts appear explaining what it means “for lawyers.” How might lawyers use the Apple Watch? What about Google Glass in the courtroom? Most of these posts don’t say anything unique, because in reality lawyers are affected by gadgets exactly the same as everyone else. That is, lawyers get the same lust in their eyes for the shiny new tech and like to write about it.

I say unabashedly: This is one of those posts. It’s a not-so-serious look at Microsoft’s recent event. I write it not because I think the event had anything special for lawyers (quite the contrary), but because it’s fun. If you want the best “for lawyers” advice, go read Sam Glover’s advice to just buy anything that’s new and not cheap. Lawyers aren’t engineers, architects, or digital artists—the professional creatives targeted by the event—so the stuff announced is extreme overkill for a law practice.

Still, you might like nice things, and you might be curious about where Microsoft and Windows 10 are heading. In that case, read on!

Windows 10

Microsoft has dubbed the next major update to Windows 10 “The Creators Update.” The October 26 event accordingly focused on creative types.

Non-creative people have only a couple quality-of-life improvements to look forward to. I like the idea of having contacts on the taskbar, making it easier to communicate and share. OneDrive file placeholders are coming back, and the action center may get mildly more useful. That’s about it.

New surface computers

The very shiniest gadget is the new Surface Studio. It’s a desktop all-in-one PC with a 28″ 5k screen, fast internals, a pen, a new Surface Dial accessory, and a $3000-4000 price tag. No, your law office doesn’t need one—but you wouldn’t complain. Microsoft also announced a higher-end Surface Book laptop, with a little more oomph and a lot more battery.

One thing I do like, as someone who edits a lot of legal writing, is the pen combined with real-life scale on the Surface Studio. Microsoft designed the computer to display documents at true scale—so, for example, if you open an 8.5″ x 11″ memo in Word, it will take up 8.5″ x 11″ of your screen. That should obliterate any desire to print a document, which is still sometimes necessary when you need a broader view.

Working with words

I’m also somewhat excited that pen editing gestures are coming to Microsoft Office. There’s something about editing with a pen—it’s more active, engaged, brings out more of the art with words. Using a mouse, keyboard, and Track Changes feels cold and distanced by comparison, and sometimes I can tell it hampers creativity.

I’m also curious about the new Surface Dial accessory. It looks more useful for drawing than word processing, but I could see it being used in a number of ways. It seems to serve the function of a mouse wheel, just better and with more flexibility. Using it to flip pages in a Word document or finely control the zoom could make a generally laborious computer task—browsing through multiple screens of information—more intuitive, nimble, and ergonomic. The Dial will work with other Surface computers, too, so I might get a chance to see for myself (I own a Surface Pro 4).

A tablet with handwriting you might actually use

I like technology and gadgets. I particularly enjoy devices that try to bring productivity and creativity together. I own a Surface Pro 4, which is a good example of that; it’s all about getting work done and freeing you to do the work your way.

At least, that’s the idea. The Surface Pen is a big part of that freedom, but devices like the Surface have never quite solved a problem with their stylus input: writing on a touchscreen is still a far cry from putting pen to actual paper. It’s just not as accurate, quick, natural, or pleasant. Even though it comes close in some cases, most people (myself included) don’t end up using the stylus as much as they thought they would.

The latest addition to this device genre, the intriguing Lenovo Yoga Book, tries to solve that problem. It lets you write with real ink on real paper while it captures your writing digitally.

It does this by replacing the usual keyboard with a flat touch surface. This surface lights up with keys for touch typing, but it also takes input from a combination stylus/pen. You can even put real paper on top of the surface and write on it—the Yoga Book will detect the strokes and record them in an app.

We’ll have to wait to see if this tactic proves successful. The Yoga Book was only just announced; reviewers will get their mitts on it in a few weeks. Until then, a few thoughts:

  • I wonder if the physical size and aspect ratio will hinder the writing experience. It’s definitely on the small side, designed more like a tablet than a laptop.
  • I wonder if you’ll need special paper, or if you’ll have to use the included stylus/pen. These types of limitations can turn a great feature into something few people will actually use. How many people would give up their favorite pen?
  • I think the accuracy of the digital transcription needs to be spot-on. Small glitches could cause the whole project to go awry.
  • Reservations aside, I’m glad to see a new approach to tablets with handwriting. This could be useful thing to many people.