Microsoft Surface Pro

As some folks know (probably the same 8 people who have read this blog), I picked up a Microsoft Surface Pro (128GB) yesterday. After my Nexus shattered (it would cost as much to buy a new one as it would to have Asus repair it), I was tablet-less, adrift in a sea of potential situations where my phone is out of reach, and when I knew something was happening somewhere…but what?

Joking aside, here’s a run-down.

What’s in the Box?

I didn’t take pictures, but there’s a power cable in two parts (power connector is proprietary, which blows), the tablet, the stylus, and a manual.

Physical Presence

The Surface is pretty hefty. I haven’t weighed it, but I’d say it’s about as hefty as Game of Thrones in hardcover. It’s also not svelt. I’d say it’s more akin to the first generation iPad than the current generation iPad. I realize that there’s a contingent out there for whom this will be a problem, but we’ll get to that.

The “VaporMg” case is…OK? I guess? The built-in kickstand is great, but it doesn’t make that cool sucking-sound that it did on stage in presentations. I was kind of disappointed by that. Normally, these devices aren’t very “user-maintenance friendly”, but I think this one takes the cake. Along the edge there’s a series of vents that allow the innards to expel heat, which isn’t something you think about a lot on a tablet, but we’ll get to that also.

There are a few ports and buttons around the edge. The top has a power button and a mic. The right side has headphones, volume rocker, and USB port. The left side has a MicroSD slot, power connector, and a port for external video connections. The power port is elongated, and has a series of magnetic connectors. The power doesn’t snap in physically; it’s just magnetically held there, but it’s a powerful hold. When not charging, the stylus’s rocker buttons (if you know Wacom stylus design) serve as a magnetic male to the female port. I wouldn’t trust the stylus to remain connected during a vigorous trip in a backpack, but it sure beats having the stylus loose on a messy desk. The bottom is given over to the keyboard connector. Again, another really powerful magnet keeps it in place. This time, it DOES make that satisfying sound when connected.

Turn It On

If you’ve used Windows 8 on a desktop system, then there is no difference in presentation between what you get here and what you get on the desk. Except you can smear fingerprints on this screen and have something to show for it. I showed it to a co-worker, and he made one swipe of the Modern UI before professing that he could already see that Windows 8 really does best on a touch device. Beyond that, I won’t review Windows 8. Short answer: I’ve used it with real effort, and I like it.

The screen is pretty bright. The glass was ultra-shiny when I unboxed it, and I debated whether or not to touch it (hint: I did) and foul the fine finish with my human-grease. The sound was just OK; Better than what you’d get out of most tablets, I think, but it’s not very loud. I watched a video last night, and I had to crank the both the Windows and the player’s volumes up to max to hear it. It does have Bluetooth, so I can connect my headset to it.

The resolution is 1900 X 1280, which is what is “standard” for PC’s these days. But I installed a game (Prison Architect) and it couldn’t handle the screen. I was unable to get it to fit properly. But I switched to a 1900×1280 wallpaper, and it fit perfectly.

Performance

It’s fast. There was a lot of talk about Surface RT being sluggish and all that, but I can’t speak to that. Swiping on the Pro is instant and gratifying. Sometimes a bit too instant. I’ve occasionally had to chase tiles around as the screen moved under my timid finger. Be direct. Be forceful. Stab that icon like you mean it!

The big sell for me was the stylus (no matter what St. Jobs claims). I’ve always wanted to get rid of paper: it’s transient, and uncategorizable without additional filing systems. Electronic note taking is great, but adding the layer of handwritten notes and drawings, and it’s basically all you could ask for. I still mourn the  assassination of the Courier (moment of silence…), but so far, the stylus is awesome. The digitizer was designed by Wacom, so it’s got pedigree, and while there’s still a delay between stroke and cursor, the fine tip of the stylus puts those marshmallow stylus poseurs on other tablets to shame. I can take a page of notes in OneNote, sync it to my SkyDrive, and review it on my PC. It’s my organizational Nirvana.

GAMES!

I actually haven’t gotten this far, would you believe? I did install Steam (Suck it, Newell!), though. As mentioned above, I tried Prison Architect with disastrous results, but it’s an indie game in alpha, so I didn’t expect much. This morning, I installed Civilization V because I was reminded that it had touch-screen controls. I fired it up and (after downloading the .NET framework) it had an option to run win Windows 8 mode with touch controls. The game seemed to run well; I was at work, and didn’t get to really PLAY the game, but I’ll check in with it later.

Aside from that, there’s whatever is on the Marketplace, which is to say “almost nothing”. But I have hope: Unity just released update 4.2 the other day, which has FREE support for porting to Windows 8 devices. Assuming it’s not too much work, I hope developers will flip that switch in their existing Unity games to get a piece of the Marketplace before it becomes a dumping ground like those other app stores.

Keyboard

I picked up the Typing keyboard, not the membrane-style Touch keyboard. It’s not tiny, and it’s not full-sized, so the placement of the hands is off. But it’s really nice. It comes with a built-in trackpad because, yes, despite being a touch-centric device, you can use a mouse pointer. The underside of the keyboard is a non-slip felt. No logo, no leatherette material. It’s pretty weak as a fashionable cover, but it’s a keyboard. Cut it some slack! And it protects the screen when not in use.

Problems?

I need to use it more to say for certain, but these come to mind.

Battery! At full charge, the meter says about 3 hours. That was in “performance mode”. Turning off the wifi, setting the power saver mode to something more conservative, remembering to put it to sleep instead of letting it time out…those measures should help, but this is not a marathon-use device on battery.

Proprietary power! EVERYTHING in my house uses micro USB connectors, except for the 3DS and this. That means I have to buy more power cables to have them where I need them, and to avoid having to pack up the power everywhere I go.

Survivability! I’ve never really been a “screen protector” kind of guy, but I’m deathly afraid for this device, mainly because it’s nature demands that it move about a lot, and also because of it’s price.

Fairy Fingers! I actually had it easier on the desktop than with touch when it came to organizing the Modern UI. Deleting and moving tiles is an exercise in patience, as you have to move the tile just a little bit before you can unsnap or delete it. And I still ca’t figure out how to delete pages in OneNote without resorting to the trackpad. You need some very small and nimble fingers to do most of this, I assume.

Windows 8! Nah, not really. Just hater-baiting, because this is really where Windows 8 feels right. Sadly, due to the price and entrenched perception, normally open-minded folks who claim to hate Windows 8 will never get to see it in it’s native environment like this.

Here’s the “More On That Later” Section

I was at Best Buy, standing around waiting to catch the eye of a sales person (you’d have a better time finding Bigfoot with your eyes closed in pitch dark in the middle of a forest) and I was checking out other options. I saw the Galaxy…something tablet. It has a stylus as well, and was 1/2 the price of the Surface Pro. There were also laptops, again at a fraction of the price of the Surface Pro. I caught myself thinking “why not just get one of those and save money?”

The reason is because both of those options only did half of what I wanted. The tablet did tablet stuff, but not desktop stuff. The laptops had a physical keyboard attached at all times, which makes touch-screen use difficult. Both were portable, but neither did everything. That was my main criteria, and my reason for going with the Pro.

But wait! The Internet cries. A laptop is more powerful! A tablet doesn’t have that shitty Windows 8 Modern UI! Well, you’re both right. Had I wanted horsepower, I would have gone with a laptop, but I have a desktop already. I couldn’t take notes or draw on a laptop, and it wouldn’t be easy to stand up, walk around, and still use the thing on the go. If I had wanted a consumption device, I would have gone with a tablet. But I’ve owned an iPad and a Nexus. I have owned an iPhone, a few Android phones, and a few Windows phones. I have enough consumption devices in my life right now that I needed a productivity device instead. Trading the full power of each to have both in one package is what I expected, and what I wanted. So I don’t mind that it’s an “underpowered” laptop or a “Windows 8” tablet.

One thing I’ve noticed over the months since Windows 8 and Surface have been released, any criticism of Surface as a brand have been solely focused on RT, with none of the praise that Pro deserves. I can’t speak to RT, but whenever a blogger on a tech site wanted a punch-line, it was always Surface RT. It would have been really easy for those kinds of people to have their contacts get them a Pro so they could have something worth talking about, but…nothing. It was like a conscious effort to ignore the positive side of the product line.

Pro is a solid piece of hardware that makes a decent home for a solid piece of software. Yes, the price is daunting, putting it out of reach of many who consider price over form and function, which is sad on all counts. Reduce this in price by $300-$500 and I bet you’d be hard pressed to find one on shelves. You can get cheaper laptops; you can get cheaper tablets; you can’t get both in one package for cheap, though. That’s kind of sad, because I think the Pro is “the” device that actually promises a potential death of desktop computing at the hands of mobility, not because it dumbs it down or because it’s portable, but because it’ll do what desktops do, and it’s portable with far less compromise than you get from other devices.

Community

Being an MMO fan, playing with others seems like it should be a no-brainer. Popular wisdom dictates that people play MMOs because they want to play withpeople, right? Personally, I don’t subscribe to this: I play MMOs because they’re expansive, always available (except during patching windows), and updated frequently. I do like that there are other people in the world, though, because it makes the world more alive than it would be if it were just NPCs standing around, being helpless until you happen along to run their menial tasks for them. Thing is, I don’t like to play with random people.

I’ll jump ahead and say simply that I blame the game design mentality that puts loot and it’s inherent selfishness ahead of anything that requires people to actually work together for reasons beyond sheer brute force. I have no issues playing with people I know because I’m confident that we’re all nice people. If we want to take content slow, we’re all OK with that. If we don’t have the best gear, we’re also OK with that. We like the experience of the game, and aren’t in it for the loot or prestige.

One driving force that I’ve come to appreciate is honest-to-goodness community. This transcends in-game grouping, and isn’t even centered on MMOs. Finding a decent group of human beings who’s opinions you trust and who value the same things as you do when it comes to games is a much better motivator for me than any mechanical feature that a game offers. Sure, this is nothing new: tight-knit guilds or groups of friends have always been the tethers that keep people playing a particular game, or when severed, cause people to drift away.

The thing is, I’ve found I don’t even need that strong of an attraction: just a bunch of nice people being passionate about what they’re doing, so long as they’re all doing something in the same game. That’s important because a lot of people I interact with are gamers. Not all of us are playing the same games. It’s great to be able to talk about “gaming” with them, but if I’m not playing a game that someone else is, and vice versa, we can’t commiserate on anything specific. We can’t keep each other interested in the game itself like we can when we’re playing the same game, having similar experiences, discovering new things about the game, and even sometimes getting together in-game as well.

I realize now that after years of solo trekking across the MMO landscape, the reason why I’ve never been able to commit to a single game has been because of my lack of involvement in a really passionate community. I’ll take my share of the blame — I don’t find it easy to just drop myself into someone else’s life and feel comfortable — but I also wish there were more communities out there who organized along the same sentiments of “games as enjoyment” and not “games as ego-boosters”.

Zen And The Art Of Blogging

Blogging is a weird sport. Many people do it, and many people wouldn’t be caught dead doing it. Of those who do, some treat it like a religion or a workout, while others only bother to post something when they remember that they have a blog. The reasons are varied, and the results are even more varied still. It’s very easy to set up a blog, but it’s very difficult to write something worthwhile.

But everything we write as bloggers is worthwhile! If it weren’t, we wouldn’t bother, right? So why is it that we can write a great post one week and get mediocre traffic, only to see someone else blog something remarkably similar the next week to great acclaim? It’s frustrating, but the old saw is “write for yourself”, and damn the reviews. We write not because we want to be famous, but because we really like to write, and that’s the most important thing.

Well, yes and no. Yes, we write because we love it. Writing will never go away, and thanks to the Internet, we no longer have to write in the vacuum of our own notebooks, which means that no, we don’t blog for ourselves entirely. If we didn’t care about getting feedback, we would just stick with our own notebooks. Despite what any blogger says, there’s some level of need to be read, and it’s very disappointing when that doesn’t happen.

In some ways, blogs are people’s attempts to connect with others. There are blogs about really personal things, about ephemeral things, about hobby things, but we all write about what we know and what we like, and we want to connect with people who know and like the same things. Blogs are our way of opening conversations with a much wider audience.

I sometimes wonder about people who don’t have blogs, or use social networks or anything like that: what do they do with their thoughts and ideas? Yeah, that’s a horrible “Internet Age” perspective, because people got on with their lives before the Internet and all. The short answer is that “they talk to real people”, meaning people around them: friends, family, co-workers. I wonder if my “online-ness” supersedes my ability or desire to deal with people.

Sourcebooks For Lore

On occasion, I’ll pick up an RPG sourcebook for no reason other than to have it. Back in high school, I had a lot of RPG books for games I never got to play, like Mechwarrior or Paranoia, or Cyberpunk or Aliens. Although I had wanted to play them, my primary interest was in reading up on the settings and the mechanics that designers had added to the franchises that I loved.

I really hope they come out with a Defiance RPG. I think there’s a lot of potential background information in there that would be really interesting to have. I picked up the Battlestar Galactica sourcebook for the same reason, although I’ve tried to envision exactly how one could set a game in the confines of the Galactica and it’s fleet without it resulting in a lot of petty scenarios; I’d be interested to hear from anyone who might have played it. I think Defiance could offer a whole wealth of opportunities, however, since we’ve only heard about Defiance and San Francisco (and Las Vegas Prison). There’s still a whole lot of potential settings out there for players to create within the lore of the IP.

Defiance Season One

DefianceLogoThis week marked the end of the first season of Defiance on SyFy. Although SyFy ends up as the butt of a lot of jokes about low-budget movies like Sharktopus, their original series are usually pretty good (EurekaBattlestar Galactica, Warehouse 13).

The Background

If you’re not a Defiance watcher, here’s the short setup: A bunch of aliens show up on Earth’s doorstep, having fled their own planets after their shared sun blew up. Attempts to co-exist were made, but eventually a huge war broke out between the humans and the Votans (the collective name for the refugee races) until one battle where both humans and Votans ended up defying orders to fight, and instead worked together to save civilians. This was called the “Battle of Defiance”, and is how the remains of St Louis (featured in the show) got it’s name.

At some point in all of this, the Votan ships — called arks in a very human-centric coincidence — were destroyed in orbit around Earth. The debris still encircles the planet, with occasional pieces crashing down in what’s called an arkfall. It was because of these arkfalls that alien flora mixed with native flora to re-terraform Earth, resulting in a planet populated by strange plants and animals.

The show focuses on the town of Defiance, which is played as 19th century frontier town, cut off from other civilization due to no railroads, no highways, and no air travel (apparently the arkfalls and terraforming have rendered anything over a mile high extremely radioactive and hazardous to flying machines).

More information about the show, it’s settings, and characters, can be found on one of the Defiance wikis.

The Show (With Spoilers)

I’ve seen a lot of people say that getting started with the show was rather difficult. One of the problems was that they didn’t actually explain who the aliens were, or why they were living in St. Louis. During the first few episodes, new races were sent out on stage, and we were introduced to them through their weird rituals. It felt like we were being force-fed someone’s world-building, but Defiance has the potential to be a large IP. The Votanis Collective is made up of several races, and while only a few are mentioned and shown (Castithan, Irathient, Indogene, Sensoth, Liberata, and Volge), there were hints of several others. There’s really just a lot of info to set up that was needed in order to power the rest of the season, and I think the first few episodes not only had to do this introduction quickly, but also be entertaining enough to get people to return next week.

Once the viewer becomes comfortable with the cast, their races, and their situations, the show was free to move ahead.

[SPOILERS – Highlight to read!]

There are two weekly plots ongoing throughout the season, and one overarching plot.

One of the two weekly plots involve Nolan and Irisa, a human arkhunter and his “adopted” Irathi daughter. Nolan was a solider who fought in the Pale Wars against the Votan, and is considered one of the “Defiant Few”, the soldiers who worked with the Votans at the Battle of Defiance. He rescued Irisa from what we’re initially lead to believe was an Irathiant cult (which included her parents), and the two have survived in the Badlands — the terraformed frontiers between towns — collecting valuable technological debris that rains down in arkfalls. The two end up in Defiance after a run-in with the Spirit Riders, an Irathiant band of thugs, steal all of their posessions. Despite their nomadic nature, Nolan helps Defiance repel an attack from the war-like Volge, and then accepts the job of Lawkeeper for the town. Irisa isn’t too happy about that. She dislikes being in constant proximity to other people, and the town bothers the hell out of her. 

The second plot involves the current acting-mayor, Amanda Rosewater, and her primary foil, Datak Tarr, a Castithan “businessman” (in the way Al Capone was a “businessman”). Tarr, who was born into a low-ranking liro (social caste) is looking to gain respect for himself and his family in Defiance, but his shadowy dealings usually put him at odds with Amanda, who wants Defiance to be a lawful, peaceful town where Votans and humans can live together. Mixed into this plot is Rafe McCawley, owner and operator of the town’s gulanite mine, and staunch supporter of Amanda and direct opponent of Tarr and his schemes. McCawley’s daughter Christie and Tarr’s son Alak are actually involved in a Romeo and Juliet level romance, and eventually marry near the end of the season (neither dies).

The overarching plot involves a mysterious piece of Votan technology that McCawley’s oldest son Luke finds in the mines, and for which he is killed by Ben, Amanda’s Indogene assistant. It’s revealed throughout the course of the season that Ben, the town’s Indogene Doctor Meh Yewll, and the former Mayor Nicolette Riordon (an Indogen altered to look like a human), are working together to find this technology, which they believe is buried beneath Defiance in the gulanite mines. The Earth Republic (E-Rep), a global defense force-slash-government is also searching for this technology, which they believe is a Votan weapon that had crashed into Earth and was buried. E-Rep is constantly attempting to cut a deal with Defiance to bring railway service to the town, but Amanda refuses to cut a deal with them, citing that other towns that have ended up suffering for the privilege.

The end of the season resulted in a Mayoral run-off between Amanda and Tarr, in which the E-Rep backed Tarr won by a narrow margin. As a result of a Tarr scheme to discredit Amanda by exposing Nolan’s xenophobic past, Nolan and Irisa plan to leave Defiance, except that Irisa is integral to the retrieval of the strange Votan technology that the Indogene and E-Rep are searching for. Through a fast-paced conclusion, Tarr and his wife Stahma are presumed to be under arrest for killing an E-Rep commander, Nolan is dead, Amanda’s sister Kenya (the madam of the NeedWant, a bar-slash-brothel) is presumed dead for threatening Stahma over their illicit relationship, and Irisa must face her destiny as the potential weapon that could end the world. The last scene of the last episode was of an E-Rep force marching on Defiance, blaring through their loudspeakers that the town was now under E-Rep’s martial law.

[END SPOILERS]

Whew! So, with that out of the way….

Is It Any Good? (With Minor Spoilers)

Really, like anything else, your mileage may vary, but overall I think it’s a good start to a potentially deep IP.

One of the things that I liked about the show is that Nolan wasn’t what you’d normally get out of a “lawkeeper”, but he wasn’t portrayed as a mercenary either. He seemed to be focused on taking Irisa to Antactica (which they believed was a paradise thanks to the terraforming), but wanted to also stay in Defiance where they “could make a difference”. But in one episode, when he and a former friend-turned-bounty hunter were arguing over who would retain custody of a wanted criminal, Nolan killed the criminal rather than allow the bounty-hunter to turn the captive (a scientist with a history of creating WMDs) over to E-Rep [Edited]. Despite it’s undercurrents, I also liked the recording that Datak had of Nolan’s testimony from his days as a soldier which painted him as an unhinged xenophobe. We’re constantly asked to accept this guy as a peacekeeper, but we’re also shown that he might not actually believe in peace, but that he’s also personally conflicted with that sentiment in Defiance.

When it comes to sci-fi, it’s a difficult line to walk. If you go too far, you end up with a show about technobabble, a la Star Trek. If you go too far in the opposite direction, the technology barely matters in the face of human drama, a la Battlestar Galactica. I think that Defiance straddled the line pretty well. First, it’s about the people. Second, it’s about the fact that some of those people are aliens. Third, it’s about the mixing of the two, and the re-formatting of a familiar Earth recreated into something different. There’s a lot of familiarity still around that we can use as touchstones: The McCawleys live in a house that, from the inside, looks exactly like there was never an alien invasion. The miners who work in the gulanite mine could very well be coal miners anywhere in the U.S. at this exact moment. There’s very little alien technology floating around. We frequently see the Castithan energy blade wielded by Datak, and in the pilot episode, the Volge appear as “laser-gun packing monsters”, complete with giant mechs.

One of the things that seems a bit too pretentious, however, is the town itself. Built on top of a buried St. Louis, Defiance is a mining town full of Votan and Human refugees. To that end, it seems that it’s trying very, very hard to prove that it’s a melting pot, with it’s ramshackle buildings that make it look like everyone is some kind of street vendor. Such a chaotic implementation assures the viewer that there a nearly infinite number of stories going on at any given time, but after a while, wouldn’t it make sense that people would be working to improve on the town by building buildings and things? The Indogene were smart enough to create the arks to carry the Votans to Earth, but people are consigned to living in corrugated metal shanties?

One of the things I can’t figure out: Who thought it was a good idea to let the Volge tag along on the arks? We learn that the Indogene were spearheading a covert investigation into humanity which involved altering volunteers to look human, and apparently also involved Nazi-level experiments on captured humans. I suppose the Volge were the Votan’s invasion force, should it turn out that humans didn’t care to have new roommates.

And then, of course, we still haven’t found out exactly what happened to the arks. Who destroyed them, and why?

The Future of The Future

Defiance has already been renewed for a second season, although the life-expectancy on SyFy is 4 seasons (Eureka, Warehouse 13, and Battlestar Galactica all lasted about 4 seasons), so if Defiance can make it to season three, it has a good shot of making it to four.

One thing I’m not going to go into here is the “transmedia” aspect. If you’re not aware, Defiance has an accompanying online shooter game available for the PC, Xbox, and PS3. It takes place in San Francisco, but there’s tie-ins with the show. In one example, an Irathi named Rynn left Defiance (the town in the show), and showed up as a character in the Bay Area (in the video game). Currently, Trion (developers of the game) are holding a contest where one lucky player will actually have his or her character given a back-story, and will appear in the TV show, as that character. Pretty interesting stuff. I may write up something about it from the game site over at Levelcapped.com

Considering I don’t watch too much TV, I’d be sad if Defiance was shut down prematurely. There’s an insane glut of “sci-fi-esque” shows on these days, but most are on network stations. Like I said above, it’s difficult to really pull off good sci-fi, and I don’t think the networks have the skills to pull it off. Defiance has an excellent pedigree in it’s creative staff, like Rockne S. O’Bannon (Farscape, Alien Nation), Michael Taylor (Battlestar Galactica, The Dead Zone), and Scott Stewart (Iron Man, Sin City, Superman Returns), which forms a pretty solid sci-fi wall right there.

[Thanks to @Xgeistatwork for setting me straight on the “Nolan killing the criminal” scene]

What Do You Want To Do With Your Life?

I want a clean slate with this blog. As clean as I can get in the age of Google and timelines, anyway. I have control over this blog, it’s content, and it’s purpose, and so I’ve decided to go all tabula rasa on it: a clean slate.

This blog was being used for nothing in particular. Originally it was for my thoughts and opinions on gaming, but then I opened (and am currently closing) Levelcapped.com for that purpose. Then this blog became a dumping ground for tech-centric news, but that bored me as it wasn’t reallfocused on technology — it was mostly just ranting about stuff in a pseudo-psychological bent that has (unfortunately) become my self-realized trademark. But now that I’m less interested in writing about video games, and have become more interested in writing about other things, I’ve decided to deep-six my previous content here and start over.

I don’t know if many bloggers do this. I know several, and they’ve occasionally talked about going back to posts that they wrote years ago. My first blog was a home-brew affair, and then there were a few Blogger blogs, then Cedarstreet, then Levelcapped. I apparently have no sentimentality for my own thoughts, or I just can’t make up my mind on the theme for my writing outlets. Sometimes I don’t want to be associated with what I’ve written when I get it in my head that I want to write about something else, so it’s easier to export the content (I’m not crazy!), delete it all, and start over.

So then, the why. Like any good writer (which I am not), the details on the why aren’t handed out on the first page like candy from a van. I’m not going to really spell it out for you in plain, tortured English, but will require that if you really care to know, then you’ll have to return on a semi-regular interval, and then piece a theme together. This being the Internet, though, I’m sure that everyone’s interpretation will be different. I’m a fan of directness, although my hands often get ahead of my brain and I end up saying in 20 words what I could have said in three, but I’ll try and keep that under control when I remember to do so (he said, 4 paragraphs later).

Hopefully this will be the last time I have to scorch the blogging earth because the spirit moved me. I’m sure I said that the last time. And the time before that. And before that as well. We never know what our future holds for us, so I’m not making any promises.