Screen Time Is Time Well-Spent

Girl Reading - Charles Edward Peruigini - 1870

Girl Reading – Charles Edward Peruigini – 1870 (Source: Tumblr)

I’ve placed a bibliography on the value of computer games at the end of this article. I will continue to update it past the date of publication.

Yet another fear-mongering article about the brain-damaging effects of computer games is making the rounds of the Internet. The absurdity of its claims reminds me of the Victorian hand-wringing about masturbation – but that at least got us Graham Crackers.

Computer games – like other fun, engaging activities (including sports, sex, and solving jigsaw puzzles) – ping the pleasure centers of the brain, often in ways we do not fully understand. Consequently, most people keep engaging in those activities. Some people find those little dopamine hits addictive, so they cannot self-regulate their exposure to them.  This can be particularly true for some young people, regardless of what they obsess about (be it baseball stats or Torment: Numenera). Regardless of the pleasurable activity, good parenting is teaching your children how to recognize healthy and unhealthy behaviors, regardless of their preferred source of a dopamine fix.

The single fact that a particular activity provides that fix does not make it any more inherently dangerous than other, otherwise-safe activities. Why should throwing a baseball or reading a book be privileged over playing a computer game? I would bet that nearly all of my friends have, on more than one occasion, stayed up hours later than they should have because they wanted to finish a book. Yet we do not talk about the “dangerously addictive” nature of books.

The argument could be made that the substance and quality of books is, on average, better than that of computer games. Since, as I will note below, the caliber of art, storytelling and interactive experiences available through the best of interactive media is exceptional, arguments based on the content of computer games carry little weight. Nonetheless, even if that were not the case and all of the games out there were mindless brain candy, the issue would still be the poor choices consumers of the media make, not the inherent dangers of the medium itself.

For this reason, in our household, we did not limit our son’s “screen time” any more than we censored his books; which is to say, we did not regulate either activity. I did play the games he played, and engaged him in long, thoughtful discussions about their contents. I also read the books he read, and engaged with him in the same kinds of discussions. Many of the things he learned from games would not have come as easily through a different medium. In fact, I cannot imagine a better method than “screen time” for him to have explored many of the things he learned about the larger, adult world when he was a child.

As parents, we did not regulate those “screens” because we saw them as no more dangerous than books. We ignored the panic around the medium because it seemed, and still seems, no more justified than the expert admonitions from previous eras against letting young women read novels. The danger with novels, as with good books and good games of all kinds, is that your child’s curiosity will lead them to dangerous or disagreeable or unfamiliar ideas. Knowing your child’s strengths and limitations, and participating with them in, rather than banning them from, whatever media form they find the most engaging, allows a parent to work with their child to equip them with the skills to navigate those perilous waters.

Whether the topic is the content of the media, or the “addictive” nature of the medium itself, good parenting means knowing what a child needs and working with them within those limitations to help that child achieve the goals that they have set. That may mean teaching them to learn to regulate the pleasure they take in certain pastimes. It may mean recognizing the value of those pastimes, even if they may hold no interest for the parent. It almost certainly means sharing in the child’s own engagement, helping them to place it into a larger context, and helping them make the most of the experience.

Now that we are on the other side of that parenting stage, not only do I think that “screens” are no more “dangerously addictive” than books, I would go so far as to say that – in their potential to stimulate the brain, educate, and convey information – “screens” (PC’s and slates in particular) are better than print books. The issue is not the medium, or the activity; the issue is what content is consumed through that medium, and the degree to which involved parents discuss, analyze, and share in that content with their children.

Using a “screen” a young person can read a book above their reading level, or in another language, thanks to hyperlinked dictionaries. Using a “screen” a young person can learn about economics, politics, history, and military strategy by painstakingly shepherding their society through hours of Civilization (see it in action here). Using a “screen” a child can build a working aqueduct in Minecraft. Using a “screen” a young person can directly engage complex themes of bigotry, religious demagoguery, and political isolationism in the Bioshock series. Using a “screen” a young person can interact with one of the best novels I have ever read or played, Planescape: Torment. Using a “screen” a young person can adventure with their friends through a vast world of rich storytelling in Elder Scrolls Online, or they can travel alone through similarly artful and complex storytelling in the world of Dragon Age.

I’m young enough that – as a child – I engaged in earlier incarnations of all of these activities on a Commodore 64 for thousands of hours, so this generation is certainly not the first to have this opportunity. Nor was I any more adversely affected by those pursuits than my friends who spent hundreds of hours designing D&D campaigns or working on their fastball. I would argue that, to the contrary, the games I played on my PC and online through BBS’s enriched my knowledge base as well as the rigor of my thinking.

Until we have chips in our heads, screens are going to be how we share information and engage with interactive media. Parents would do well to quit obsessing about the perceived evils of the medium and instead learn to take full advantage of it.

 

For Further Reading

(This Penny Arcade comic is a handy glimpse of what happens when I bring up this topic at dinner parties. )

What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (James Paul Gee – Amazon.com)

Good Video Games and Good Learning (James Paul Gee – Amazon.com)

Video Games and Learning (Kurt Squire – Amazon.com)

Reality is Broken (Jane McGonigal – Amazon.com)

Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning (Marc Prensky – Amazon.com)

Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology (Collins & Halverson – Amazon.com)

The Multiplayer Classroom (Lee Sheldon – Amazon.com)

Video Games and Learning: Teaching Particaptory Culture and the Digital Age (Kurt Squire – Amazon)

How to Do Things with Videogames (Ian Bogost – Amazon.com)

Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (Ian Bogost – Amazon.com)

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (Tom Bissell – Amazon.com)

Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (NEA)

To Read or Not To Read (NEA)

Orality and the Work of Walter Ong (Wikipedia)

Oral Tradition – Online Academic Journal

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My Thoughts On An Award I Shall Never Win

Hugo Award

(SRC: hugoawards.org)

Currently my Facebook timeline is almost exclusively comprised of discussions of the controversy surrounding the 2015 Hugo awards. Many of my friends are professional writers of speculative fiction, and the criteria for Hugo nomination and balloting significantly affects various aspects of the marketability of their work. “Hugo-nominated” or “Hugo Winner” on the cover of a book does, at least according to anecdotal data, improve sales. At a minimum, it is an indicator of having earned the approval of fans and peers, and can keep future works out of the slush pile. For a number of reasons, ranging from personal pride to professional and financial success, the Hugos matter to a number of my friends.

I don’t have the same visceral connection to the Hugos. My work as a fiction editor is purely avocational. To say that I am bit player would be to vastly over-state my significance in the world of speculative fiction. My connections in that world have allowed me to make friendships that I cherish, and, simply through virtue of those friendships, I get to contribute to the genre in small ways, but I am not in danger of doing work worthy of a Hugo nomination any time in the near future, the far future, or in an alternate one.

Consequently, I have been loathe to weigh in on the debate, letting my friends who actually have Hugo nominations or awards carry their respective banners.  I’ve watched much of the debate unfold on social media, as my friends rapidly balkanized into increasingly hostile camps. Although (as anyone who has read my writings on progressive issues here would likely know) my sympathies instinctively lie with the priorities of those termed “Social Justice Warriors” by their opponents, one of the leaders of the “Sad Puppies,” is someone whom I consider both a friend and a brother-in-arms. Consequently, I have tried my best to give a fair hearing to the Puppies’ concerns.

As I understand those concerns, and stating them in the most charitable fashion I can, they are essentially threefold and interrelated:

  • The Hugos in particular, and the SF publishing industry in general (with the exception of Baen) privilege literary criteria over popularity in a way that increasingly isolates awards and publicity away from works that are widely appreciated by fans but are neither esoteric, nor sophisticated, nor avant garde.
  • The Hugos in particular, and the SF publishing industry in general, have established a litmus test of progressive ideals. Works that advocate views contrary to those ideals (or even works that are simply written by self-described social conservatives) are excluded from awards and general approbation by the elites who control the nominations and the public discourse.
  • The Hugos in particular, and the SF publishing industry in general, have become so enamored with pushing the boundaries in areas of sex, gender, sexuality, social structure, economics, and morality that works of inferior literary quality gain awards and accolades over skillfully-crafted works that maintain a more traditional or conservative worldview.

I do not want to invalidate any of these concerns. They are all questions worth asking. How should we weigh popularity versus literary merit? Should there be a litmus test regarding worldview, and if so, what should it be? Is there any value in novelty, and to what degree should it compensate for a lack of skill or craft?

Unfortunately, the conversation rapidly moved away from these specific concerns to ad hominem attacks and strawman arguments on both sides. Some folks have gone out of their way to try and be even-handed, and I think Jim C. Hines is an example. Nonetheless, the rhetoric has become extraordinarily strong. My personal bias is that the rhetoric from the Puppies (even ignoring the justifiably-ignored language from Vox Day and the Rabid Puppies) has been disproportionately vitriolic, particularly when it has mocked an overall emphasis on inclusiveness by many leading writers. On the other hand, those with whom I am genuinely sympathetic have made a number of ad hominem attacks on the Puppies, and those have included direct or indirect accusations of racism, sexism, Nazi-like or even neo-Nazi fascism, and homophobia.

Ultimately, the conflict became one of personality rather than literary merit. The Puppies proposed a slate that, while not uniformly “conservative” or reactionary, represented their desire to have their voice clearly heard after years of feeling marginalized by those whom they considered to be out-of-touch elites. That slate was categorically and overwhelmingly rejected by the voters – not because of the strengths or weaknesses of the individual works – but because of the personality and politics of the people who had proposed it. The 2015 Hugos essentially became a contest to determine whose public rhetoric was more popular, at least among those who paid their $40 to Worldcon.

Frankly, the Sad Puppies should not have been surprised by the outcome. People who buy and read books, in any genre, are more educated than the general public, and – right or wrong – the progressive social values that many of the Sad Puppies publicly reject on their blogs and in their writings are in the ascendant, especially among college-educated folks in the English-speaking world. Not unreasonably, the Sad Puppies feel like a vilified and mocked minority for the same reason social conservatives in the general public feel like one – because, in many settings, they are. No matter how successful their books, a group of authors who toss around words like “sodomy” and “Marxist” as if they are testifying for the prosecution at a McCarthy hearing is unlikely to hold much sway in any broad group of educated Westerners, much less in speculative fiction fandom. In fact, to the contrary, if they aggressively push a particular agenda (or slate), it is likely to be overwhelmingly defeated – not on its merits – but because of the beliefs of the people pushing it.

That is exactly what happened. The responses from both sides were predictable. Those who opposed the Sad Puppies slate were thrilled to have an unambiguous, categorical rejection of the values and priorities the Sad Puppies are reputed to represent (or, at the very least, how they represented them). Those who had put forth the slate saw it as a clear demonstration that the tolerance and inclusiveness of the progressive intelligentsia does not encompass social conservatives, and that progressives are willing to punish women if they are in any way associated with a socially conservative agenda. The Sad Puppies think that the bias, myopia, and elitism of the speculative fiction field has been revealed, and that the fans will consequently revolt. Their opponents think that the inclusive and progressive character of twenty-first century SF has been made clear, and that the fans will be relieved.

I suspect that both camps are in parts right and wrong. Some fans, and some writers, will be aggrieved and feel marginalized. Others will feel validated. The Sad Puppies showed that, no matter what they say, their political views (and, admittedly, the vitriol with which they present them) make it unlikely that they will be treated impartially. Their opponents demonstrated incontrovertibly that, right now, the heart of fandom is progressive and inclusive.

I’m not sure how any of this helps the industry or the genre. Just because my side “won” doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the value of thoughtfully-articulated voices presenting a loyal dissent. If, no matter what the other side says, we cannot listen to what they have to say because of all of the ways in which they are “obviously” wrong, how will we ever hear the things that they have to say that are right? How can we move forward in a way that makes speculative fiction fandom, and SF publishing, as broadly representative of the interests of readers and the politics of writers as possible?

Step one, I think, is moving away from slates and treating the Hugos as a battleground. Perhaps this is easy for me to say, since I know I will never win one, but I think it is abundantly clear that this conflict did not change anyone’s mind, did not broaden the tent of SF at all, and did not establish a framework for dialogue. The agenda of the Sad Puppies is a minority one. The more actively and forcefully they push it, the more aggressively their peers and the genre’s fans will push back. The slate-stacking strategy failed everyone.

What might help is establishing open and honest conversations – with clear rules against strawmen and ad hominem attacks – around the three Puppy concerns I placed in bullets, above. The conversation around popular pulp versus literary art has a long history in speculative fiction, and it is no more likely to be resolved in SF than it is in cinema or television or general literature. That doesn’t mean we should stop talking about it. Should we give equal weight to David Gemmell, Jack McDevitt, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Gene Wolfe? I dearly love them all, but is the writing of one inherently superior to the others because of popularity, or accessibility, or literary sophistication?

We should also look at the books we read and tell others to read.  Are there litmus tests? I know I have several. I don’t recommend books, even by authors I love, even by ones who are friends, if they contain graphic rape. Lev Grossman is a kind man with a style that makes me weep with envy, but I won’t go near The Magician King. On the other hand, despite my socialist politics, I still recommend Modesitt’s Recluce books, even though I think he’s trying to subtly convert me to capitalism. Surely most of us have litmus tests of one kind or another. Let’s be honest about them, and let our colleagues tell us what we’re missing out on as a result.

Let’s also put some thought into the value, and peril, of novelty. Speculative fiction thrives on pushing, challenging, and redrawing boundaries. It is the genre of limitless horizons, of finding new questions, of challenging old answers. Consequently, I think we should recognize that sometimes it is worth celebrating when someone does something new, and does it well. Ann Leckie’s treatment of gender drove me nuts in Ancillary Justice, but I loved the questions it raised for me when I thought about why it drove me nuts. In addition, she told a darn fine story, and told it well. There is enormous value in introducing a new idea in a way that gets people talking and asking questions. We should not lose site of that. But writing is also a discipline that is inherently conscious of history and tradition, and doubly so in a genre that explicitly builds on ancient, mythic structures. There are people reading speculative fiction who lead deeply conventional lives, and who love how those old stories reinforce their conventionality. Do they deserve a voice as well? At what point does our love of ingenuity silence them? Is it better to innovate, or to excel in craft? Are they mutually exclusive goals?

My admittedly biased answers to these questions are obvious throughout, but I genuinely do not want those to be the only answers out there. The 2015 Hugos are done. We have all hurled every conceivable insult at each other, and no one’s mind has been changed. If we are to reach the full potential of this wonderfully complex and thought-provoking genre, we should put mechanisms in place to have clear, thoughtful, honest dialogue about these and other related questions. Moderated panels, moderated online discussions, festschrifts, point-counterpoint editorials from those willing to eschew ad hominem rhetoric – surely these and other media can help us find ways to hear each other, understand each other, and continue the unending process of redefining the genre in ways that will keep it relevant, challenging, and just beyond the horizon for generations to come.

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Let Students Use Their Laptops

Students and teacher using Microsoft Surface Pro

Surface Pro in the Classroom Source: Surface Blog

Dear Colleagues, Friends, and Fellow Teachers:

Please do not take arguments like this one too seriously.  They remind me of the classical Greek arguments against the dangers of literacy, that teaching people to read and write would impair their ability to memorize things.

Forcing students to take notes in a way that does not work for them does no one any favors. A better practice is to encourage students to be aware of the benefits of different methods for different learning styles, and try to accommodate as many different learning styles as possible. I let students record me if they are auditory, and I write bullet points on the whiteboard for students who are taking bulleted notes. I draw diagrams for the very visual.  I also talk about note-taking strategies with all of my lecture-heavy, survey-level classes, and recognize that part of my role is to teach them how to use the various tools that are available to them.  If I’m concerned that the presence of technology will inhibit discussion, I talk with students about strategies for using their preferred tech in ways that will aid rather than limit their ability to participate.

Just because studies show that on average people retain more by handwriting their notes, that does not mean that the technology of typing is flawed. It just means that the way some people use it may be ineffective.  A computer (or, even better, a tablet with keyboard and stylus) is vastly superior to pen and paper as a tool for organizing written information.  Students can quickly group ideas, correct content errors, flesh out earlier points, and correct for errors in their own (or the professor’s) organization and taxonomy.  They can bold things or color code them, and they can also hyperlink key points to web content.  They can easily back their notes up to the cloud, and review them on multiple devices.  Simply put, notes on a laptop are better-organized, cleaner, and more versatile.

Yes, some students will blindly transcribe your lecture without critically analyzing or organizing it, just as some students with pen and paper will write down random points without understanding the structure of your lecture.  Similarly, some students will instead surf Facebook, just as some students will doodle on a piece of paper instead of taking notes.  None of this is the fault of the tool.  The laptop (or full-featured tablet) is, plain-and-simple, as much of an improvement over paper as paper was over clay tablets.

Good students spend their whole academic careers learning the study and note-taking techniques that work best for them.  Do not handicap them because you don’t trust them to be able to make these kinds of decisions for themselves.

If someone asked me to handwrite notes for an hour, I doubt I could do it. I’m not sure the last time I hand-wrote a complete sentence.  Also, since I keep all my notes typed up and on a tablet, I think it would be a bit hypocritical to then deny my students access to technology because I don’t trust them to function as members of the twenty-first century.

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The Perfect Gadget Bag

Like most technology nerds, I have been on a lifelong quest to find the perfect messenger/gadget bag.  For me, it needs the following features:

  • large enough for everything I want to carry, but no larger
  • high durability
  • lots of pockets and organizers
  • convenient access to everything I use often
  • no Velcro (it’s loud, and it wears out)
  • a large water bottle holder
  • an aesthetic that doesn’t look like a purse (even if I use it as one)

I’ve tried bags from Maxpedition, Tom Binh, REI, and several other manufacturers.  Many of them have come close – but none of them have checked off every single box, until now.  After some research I found the Tablet Messenger V.3 by Skooba Design.  Combined with my Surface Pro (reviewed here) as my primary mobile computer, it is the perfect bag!

Here’s the photo from the Skooba website that persuaded me to by the bag:

Skooba Tablet Messenger v.3 - Stock Photo

source: skoobadesign.com

 

I like the classic, messenger look of the bag, and the one that arrived look exactly like the picture on the Skooba website.  At 14″L x 11″H x 3″D (manufacturer’s measurements), it’s smaller than it appears in the photos, but that’s exactly what I wanted.

I liked the bag from the moment I opened the box.  It’s surprisingly light (25 oz according to the website), yet the ballistic nylon feels extremely durable.  The stitching feels strong, and the build quality is excellent.  The strap is replaceable, but I can’t think of a reason why I would.  It’s durable, no-slip, and very comfortable.   Overall the Tablet Messenger V.3 has the feel of solid, reliable craftsmanship that I expect from a bag I will carry – and abuse – on a daily basis.

I liked the bag so much that I immediately glued on my favorite Firefly patches so that I’d be able to spot it as mine from a distance and, well, because I’m a nerd and I think they look cool.  My map bag that I carried in the Army had unit and rank patches on it, but I don’t think they would have looked right on the Skooba bag.  The patches from Wash’s jacket seemed just right.

I then crammed all of my everyday stuff into the bag, pleasantly surprised to find that there really were enough pouches and organizational pockets for everything I wanted to carry.  I was even more pleasantly surprised to see that – even with everything I could think of in the bag – its slim profile did not change.  One of my chief complaints with small messengers is that they get distended and bulky when I put all my gadgets in them.

Here’s my bag completely full.   Note that I still haven’t removed the excess glue from the patches.  If only Skooba provided “patch application” as a service!

Skooba Tablet Messenger v.3 - with Firefly Patches

My Bag, Firefly Patches Optional

The water bottle in the photo above is a 500 mL / .5 L Camelbak.  I think a 750 would fit equally well, but my 1000 mL / 1L was just a bit too large.  I wouldn’t mind if they made this pocket just a hair larger, but I think it will already accommodate a more narrow 1L bottle.

One quick note about the closure.  As I mentioned above, I don’t like Velcro.  It’s noisy and inconvenient, and often hard to line up properly.  The Skooba bag uses an innovative magnetic closure that automatically locks when the flap drops down.  To open it, simply give it a twist.

Skooba Tablet Messenger v.3 - Magnetic Closure

Magnetic Closure – closed

Skooba Tablet Messenger v.3 - Closure

Magnetic Closure – open

If you’re in a hurry, there’s also a partially-hidden zipper across the top that will give you quick access to your ultrabook or tablet.

Here are some more views of the fully-loaded bag.  In keeping with the theme of the patches, I put the Firefly: A Celebration coffee table book next to it.  The book is 8.5″ x 10.8″ x 1.6″.  Here’s what the full bag looks like:

Skooba Tablet Messenger v.3 - Full and Closed

Fully Packed

Skooba Tablet Messenger v.3 - Full, Side View

Full – from the side (no water bottle)

Skooba Tablet Messenger v.3 - Full, from the Top

Full – from the top (no water bottle)

I can’t reiterate enough how much I love the profile of this bag.  It’s full of everything I need on a daily basis, but it’s not over-stuffed.  Nor is it too large and cavernous.  It’s just right.

One of the reasons for the slim profile is how well-organized everything is.  Here’s the computer compartment:

Bag Open - Top

The Main Compartment

The Surface Pro is on the left, inserted vertically.  To its side is the power supply (a small but laptop-sized power brick), which stays perfectly contained in its net pouch.  The netbook/tablet compartment fits the Surface Pro quite well.  It has plenty of padding, and holds the computer snugly.  The only Velcro in the bag is the small tab over the top that secures the slate in place.  That suits me just fine.

The interior of the bag is a bright blue that provides plenty of contrast if you’re looking for small items you may have dropped in there.  In the picture above I have a large, hardbound book and a 7″ Kindle Fire HD.

The gadget compartment on the front shows the same level of clean design and attention to detail as the main section:

Skooba Tablet Messenger v.3 - Organizer Compartment

Organizer Compartment

I’m not sure how to describe this, other than to simply say “it’s perfect!”  Too often, the pouches and pockets in the organizer section of a bag are just randomly sewn, with no attention to the actual purposes they might serve.  This bag, however, was either made by fellow nerds or in consultation with a focus group full of my tribe.  There are three mesh pockets – small, medium, and large – each of which perfectly accommodates gizmos of varying sizes.  Likewise the nylon pouches are large enough to actually hold things in a usable fashion.  The thumb drive compartment is a bit tight, but that’s my only quibble.

Here’s a zoomed-out view of the entire bag, fully loaded:

Skooba Tablet Messenger v.3 - Open view (full)

Everything in its place

So just how much stuff did I cram into this slim, highly portable, 14″-wide messenger bag?  Here’s the full inventory:

Skooba Tablet Messenger v.3 - Contents

Here’s what I mean by “full”

The bag contains:

  • Microsoft Surface Pro with Type Cover
  • 7″ Kindle Fire HD in a Verso case (that looks like a composition book)
  • An over-sized (10.1 x 6.9 x 1) hardcover book
  • An iPhone 4 (a Samsung S4 should fit here as well)
  • A 1TB external drive
  • Two USB thumb drives
  • A Surface Pro digitizer pen
  • Two writing pens
  • A Flatlight (probably to be replaced with a Larrylight)
  • A micro multi-tool
  • Earbuds
  • An Advil bottle (thanks Achilles tendonitis)
  • An iPhone charger (I’ll be glad to get rid of this – when does the S4 ship?)
  • A micro-USB charger
  • An HDMI connector
  • A Microsoft Wedge mouse
  • A Surface Pro power brick
  • A micro-fiber cleaning cloth

There was also a forty-page document in the file-folder sized compartment in the back of the bag (you can see it in some of the earlier shots – I forgot to put it on the pile for the picture).  Also, I sometimes put keys or business cards or other incidentals in the pocket on the front flap.  Keep in mind, what you see here is not with the bag stuffed – you could cram a lot more in if you needed to.  This is with a well-organized, easily-accessible working load in the bag.

 

Conclusion

I don’t say this lightly:  I think the Skooba Tablet Messenger V.3 is the perfect everyday use bag for someone who wants to travel light and is using a Surface Pro, Ultrabook, or similar device as there commuting computer.  It has room for everything you’re likely to need on a day-to-day basis, and it keeps everything exceptionally well-organized.  The materials and build quality are outstanding, and it’s a bag I plan to use for years to come.

________________________________________________________________

Here’s a gallery of all of the photos included in this article:

 

 

 

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Why You Want a Surface Pro

Surface Pro Image

Image Courtesy Microsoft.com

I was an early adopter of the TabletPC platform.  I was using a slate made by Motion Computing over seven years ago when I taught undergraduate classes.  I used it for my lecture notes, my PowerPoint presentations, and for grading.  The digitizer pen meant I could grade and comment on student papers without ever printing them out – I was able to go completely paperless.  I proclaimed it the “future of computing” – but the rest of the market never caught on.

When the iPad came out, I was thrilled that slate computing might actually come into its own, but that obviously wasn’t going to happen on the iOS platform – the device has far too many limitations.  But Apple did their part, convincing people that they might want real computers they could hold in their hands – even if Apple wasn’t going to be the one to provide them.

Which takes us to Spring, 2013 – a wonderful time when multiple Windows 8 tablets and hybrids are on the market.  I chose the Surface Pro because of the build quality, form factor, gorgeous screen, and digitizer pen.  I would have liked a larger hard drive, more battery life, and a discrete GPU – but I wasn’t going to not get the device that did everything I needed because I was pouting over it not doing everything I wanted.

I’ve used it nearly constantly for three weeks (including one travel week), and had a series of epiphanies as I did so:

I Can Expand the Storage?

The first thing I did when I bought the Surface Pro was put a 64GB SD card in it ($55 at Amazon).  It’s ridiculous to me that this seemed like an amazing luxury, but several generations of iPads had conditioned me to expect to pay an obscene premium for extra storage – and then be stuck with what I had until I bought entirely new hardware.  But the Surface Pro is a real computer.  You need more storage?  Put in a larger SD card.

It’s a Real Operating System?

When I booted it up, I logged on using my Microsoft Windows 8 account (I already used Windows 8 on my home computer), and was pleased to see that a significant number of my settings and preferences were already stored by Microsoft in the cloud.  I then immediately went into Control Panel and tweaked the additional settings specific to the Surface Pro to make them run just the way I like.  After years of dealing with the locked-down architecture of iOS, it felt like coming home to my favorite furniture, after staying in a long series of generic hotels.

I was also able to organize my thousands of files in my familiar folder/directory hierarchy.  I installed Dropbox, pulled everything down (actually, I cheated – I moved them over using the USB 3.0 port (!!!!!) and an external drive, then let Dropbox verify the download), and Voila! – there was everything I had ever written, created, or archived since I was fifteen.  And it was all organized logically and readily accessible.  I could move it, rename it, or drag-and-drop it onto external media connected by – let me say it again – a real, honest-to-goodness, USB 3.0 port.

I could also listen to my music, without having to route it through iTunes.  I have thousands of DRM-free songs purchased legitimately through Amazon.  Moving them, and then listening to them, was as simple as dragging-and-dropping.  I then had my choice of media players (I still use WinAmp), since the Surface Pro runs the full version of Windows 8.

I Can Run Office and Adobe?

Consequently, WinAmp isn’t the only thing the Surface Pro will run.  I immediately installed Office 2013, Adobe CS6, and GIMP (it’s faster than PhotoShop for basic tasks, in my experience).  I use all these programs daily, and there’s nothing on iOS that comes close to their functionality.  They all run BEAUTIFULLY on the Surface, although I highly recommend using the digitizer pen (which is wicked fun, by-the-way) or an external mouse if you want to create images.

The first thing I tried was to bring up one of the standard Excel spreadsheets that I use constantly.  It makes over 50,000 computations and makes extensive use of conditional formatting.  It has never opened correctly (or even in a usable fashion) in any iOS product I have ever used.  Not only did it open more quickly on my Surface Pro than on my laptop, the spreadsheet looked gorgeous and worked perfectly More importantly, I wasn’t just viewing it.  I could edit it just like I could on any other PC.

I Can Run Anything?

Ultimately, that’s the amazing thing about the Surface Pro.  All tablets are excellent for media consumption – and when using the Metro-style, “Windows Store” apps the Surface Pro is every bit as slick as the iPad for this purpose.  But with a single tap, the Surface Pro gives you the option of having all of the functionality of a full computer at your disposal.  The small screen and touch/pen input can sometimes make using the older, legacy PC programs feel a little kludgy – but the fact that you can do it at all on a device the size of a legal pad is a miracle.  Attach a keyboard cover and connect a bluetooth mouse, and the experience becomes just like using any other touch-enabled, fast PC.  The difference is that when you’re done it becomes a slate again.

I put all of my old, familiar utilities and applications on the Surface Pro, and they all run brilliantly.  To give it a fair shake, though, I also purchased a few of the Metro equivalents and did my best to get proficient with the Metro UI.  It took a couple of days, but for many tasks I eventually concluded that the Metro interface is superior, although I still spend nearly all my time on the Desktop view.

“Anything” Includes Games?

I don’t expect a slate to be a gaming powerhouse – yet (but it better be in the next few years or I will be very disappointed), but the integrated Intel HD 4000 chip is actually surprisingly nimble, even on the 1920×1080 Surface Pro screen.  Civilization V (which is now touch-enabled) is unquestionably the killer app for making all of your gamer friends want to go out and buy a Surface Pro yesterday.  It’s one of the greatest games ever made, and playing it – the full version, not “Revolution” (a great game in its own right) – on a slate feels like stepping into an episode of Star Trek.  Minecraft also played brilliantly, albeit with the mouse and keyboard attached.

But, just to reiterate, that is the beauty of the Surface Pro.  Attach the mouse and keyboard, and it becomes a full computer.  Yes, it has a smaller hard drive and a weaker GPU than I would want in an ideal world, but those are small prices to pay considering all of the amazing utility it provides.

I Can Write On It?

No discussion of that utility is complete without mentioning the digitizer pen.  Combined with One Note, the digitizer pen means I can finally stop carrying a legal pad to meetings.  Digital paper is much better than the real thing – it’s automatically backed up, and you can change it to unlined or graph paper with a touch.  Plus, when I played around with it, Windows 8 has surprisingly good and intuitive handwriting recognition.  I would love to see Microsoft replace every textbook and sheet of paper in a high school somewhere with Surface Pros (and train the teachers and students in the full range of their capabilities), just so everyone can see how versatile and convenient the technology is.

In addition, not only can you “write” on the tablet with the digitizer pen, you can also comfortably compose on it with the type cover.  While travelling, I wrote over eight thousand words – using the familiar, comfortable Word interface – in three days.  I was not even a tiny bit slower than I would have been on my computer at home, and I think the touch interface may have meant that I worked perhaps a little bit more quickly.

When I was done working, I closed up the tablet and slid it into its tiny Skooba Tablet Messenger v.3 bag (which I review here – it’s the perfect to go with the Surface Pro), and carted the Surface Pro to my next meeting.  It took up less space and only slightly more weight than the legal pad I would normally have brought – and had nothing approaching the footprint of the laptop I would have needed to create 8,000 words.

In Conclusion

Throughout my trip I just kept staring at my Surface Pro, in awe that something so tiny could do so much.  Most of the reviews I had read prior to my purchase had complained about the things that the Surface Pro can’t do (run for 10 hours on the battery, play Crysis 3 at max settings, float in your hand like a feather, etc.); but I don’t buy technology for what it can’t do.  I buy technology for what it can – and the Surface Pro’s list of things it can do is astonishing.  It runs every Windows productivity app I could throw at it, along with a number of very good games, all in a solid, beautifully engineered, slate form-factor that can be used as a laptop as necessary.  Oh, and you can add any USB-enabled peripheral without any headaches whatsoever, and the HDMI port is in no way proprietary.  That’s enough of a technology miracle for me, at least until next year.

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