Chasing with the Microsoft Surface Pro

Intro

When the Surface Pro was announced last June it piqued my interest. Would we get a decently powered laptop crunched down into a tablet form factor? This was a very alluring possibility for me. In 2010 I chased with a Dell Mini 9 netbook and while it ran GR well, its Atom processor wasn’t the most robust thing out there. The 9-inch screen was also just a hair too small. So, in 2011 I upgraded to a full blown laptop. By the end of 2012, I had grown tired of using a full screen laptop on the chase and dragging it into the hotel or pre-initiation hangout. Not to mention the fact the mount basically excluded passengers from my car. While the increase in power and screen real-estate was welcomed, I yearned to chase with something a bit more compact, something like a cross between a netbook, laptop and tablet.

So, after chase season was basically over in 2012, I picked up an iPad3 (or, the New iPad. whatever it was called). Brilliant, I thought. Here was a tablet with a kick ass screen, was very quick and had some quality applications like RadarScope that presented an easy to use touch interface. But, what was I to do if I got video I wanted to get to my broker? Carry a laptop in the trunk dedicated to that purpose? What if I wanted to stream my chase to the internet? I’d have to have a second machine, with USB, for that. I am a data junkie and I enjoy using GPSGate to distribute my GPS serial data as well as log it to a NMEA file for mapping later. There are apps in the App Store that handle this now, but at the time I wasn’t really pleased with most of them. I had my GPS logs synced to DropBox so they were automatically ready for perusal on my desktop as soon as I got home. So, I chased with the iPad on a couple of busts and decided it didn’t quite cut it. It was almost there, it is almost the complete package, but not just yet. Maybe within the next gen or two.

Enter Surface Pro. The specs on this thing are pretty good. For the couple weeks I’ve had it, it is very quick and responsive. But, is this thing going to replace my laptop on the chase? Well, we’re about to find out.

GRLevel 3

This is the big thing. Probably the most important piece of software you use on the chase. If this doesn’t work on the touch screen, then that’s kind of a dealbreaker. Fortunately, the GR3 experience on the Surface Pro is pretty good. When I fired it up for the first time, I instinctively tried to pinch to zoom in on the map. It zoomed in, which surprised me. I had played with Google Earth before this and pinch to zoom does not work in there, so I wasn’t sure if this had to be supported by the application or not. After I tried that, my next instinct was to drag the map around with my finger. Yep, that works, too. Awesome. Next, I attempted to switch radar stations. So I hit Site up in the menu bar, and missed once before I got it, went to Select and picked one from the list. Then I remembered you can click on the radar sites on the map to switch between them. That works with your finger, too, as to be expected.

The downside to the touchscreen interface, in this instance, is it makes it very easy to hit the wrong menu or toolbar icon. After a few days with the tablet you start to figure out how to hit those small targets and be precise and now I hit the one I want far more than I miss. I didn’t show in the video, above, but you can right-click with your finger by touching and holding for a second. Windows 8 will draw a box around your finger and when you let go the context menu will popup. So, this will allow you to set your markers in GR3 for use with the range rings and distance status bar.  Overall, even though GR3 is not a touch application, it performs surprisingly well in this arena and now that we know GR3 works pretty well on the touchscreen, we’re one step closer to mounting this in our chase vehicle.

Streaming Video

Many storm chasers participate in live streaming of their video, usually a dash cam, to relay live video of their chase. Depending on your streaming service of choice, at minimum you’re going to need a camera and a GPS device. Since the Surface Pro only has one USB 3.0 port, I am not sure how well using a USB hub will work with a camera and a GPS, or even if it does work at all. In my demonstration, I am using a bluetooth GPS that is connected to GPSGate, which then sends the data to iMapTracker. That leaves my USB port free for a dedicated USB streaming camera.

All of the software you need to stream on a laptop works with Windows 8: Adobe Flash Media Encoder 3.2 and iMapTracker. I did not test ManyCam with Windows 8, but their site says it works, so if you’re using that to split your video streams, it should still be fine.

GPS

The Surface Pro does not come with a built-in GPS chip, so you will have to use an external device for this purpose. Since the Surface only has one USB port you’ll need to sacrifice it for GPS or use a USB hub if you need to. The other option is to pickup a bluetooth GPS device. For the purposes of this review I used both the Globalsat BU-353 USB puck and the TomTom Wireless GPS MkII, which is a bluetooth device. Both of these devices work fine with and without using GPSGate.

Note: If your BU-353 puck is using older PL-2303HXA or PL-2303X chips the latest drivers (1.7) will not work on Windows 8. You will need to downgrade it to version 1.5. You can grab the older drivers here: http://repo.centrafuse.com/centrafuse/x86/redist/PL2303_Prolific_DriverInstaller_v1.5.0.exe

The Pen

Hey, this thing has a pen! It also has a Wacom digitizer, which is pretty top notch. The pen keeps itself charged as it travels through the magnetic field of the digitizer so there’s no batteries or remembering to dock it at night. Aside from that magic, the pen has many uses across the Surface and I find using the pen to be more enjoyable, and more precise, than using your finger at times. This is especially true when interacting with desktop applications. When you’re using the “metro” apps, they’re built for touch, specifically, so the pen is usually not necessary.

When I started playing around with the tablet, I thought it would be cool to be able to draw on the screen at anytime, perhaps to illustrate something on the screen to an observer; a telestrator, if you will. Unfortunately, this is not a feature of the Surface. While that was a disappointment, there is the possibility an application will be developed by Microsoft or a third party in the future to do just that so we can all pretend we’re John Madden. Until that day comes, there are some workarounds.

Microsoft OneNote, which is part of the Office suite, has a built in snipping tool that lives in your taskbar on the desktop. When you want to grab an image off your screen, just tap the snip tool (or press Win+S) and your screen will wash out. Now you can take the pen (or your finger!) and draw a box around the area you want to clip. After you let go, the image ends up in your OneNote notebook ready for work. Now you can switch to OneNote and use the draw tab and use the multitude of brushes and colors to annotate your image.

You can also use the regular snipping tool that is a holdover from Windows 7. This works the same way as the OneNote snip tool, just draw a box around the portion of the screen you want to grab. The nice thing about this, is the tool has a pen tool so you can markup your screenshot from within the snipping tool, but your pen is limited to 16 colors and some other basic settings. There is also a highlighter, which could come in handy for capturing text.

There is a free app in the store called Skitch Touch. It allows you to draw on many things, rather than just screenshots. In the app you can take a photo with the Surface camera, grab a map, a photo from the photos app, start with a blank canvas or paste your clipboard. You are then able to draw arrows, text, shapes, freestyle and more.

The added benefit of Skitch Touch and the regular Snipping tool, is that your work is able to be shared using the share charm when you swipe in from the right edge of the screen. In OneNote, you can share notebooks, but not individual images within, and it is limited to a SkyDrive link for sharing. With Skitch Touch you can share directly to social media or email with any compatible metro app, and with the Snipping Tool you can grab your photo from the photos app and share it that way.

You can also markup PDFs without any special programs, drawing is automatically enabled when you write on a PDF document with the pen. This is handy for doing hand analysis of the PDF surface maps available from the SPC.

Video Editing

Chasers need to handle video in the field or at the hotel at the end of the day and in that regard, the Surface Pro performs just like any other laptop. The big advantage it brings to the table is the ability to run the full blown editing software you’d use at home like Adobe Premiere, Sony Vegas, etc.  Most people are familiar with at least one of the main video editing titles, and not being limited to a mobile or stripped down version is a huge plus. There isn’t much in the app store for metro style video editing, most of the offerings in there are full blown desktop applications. Although, video editing in the field may be an infrequent occurrence, I think the fact that you can import video from USB sources as well as use desktop editors elevates the Surface Pro above iPad in this regard. As far as my situation goes, I just didn’t want to have to have another device to bring with me to handle things my tablet couldn’t.

I tested out both Sony Movie Studio 12 and Cineform Studio, and their operation is pretty straightforward as one might expect. Some of the basic operations can be performed with touch easily, but when you need more fine grained control over UI elements or timeline arrangement, the pen really is the optimal solution for this. As in the video above, I needed to use the pen to time compress a clip on the Movie Studio timeline because it’s just nearly impossible to get your finger right on the edge of the element. Hitting toolbar buttons is fine, but for elements a pixel or two wide, there’s just no way to do it without the pen or picking up a wireless mouse.

Photoshop

Since the Surface Pro comes with a pen, many people wonder how well it works with Photoshop. It does work pretty well for drawing and painting and navigating the toolbars is pretty straightforward and smooth. The tricky part comes when you need to adjust sliders as those are pretty small, but I’ve found I usually don’t have a problem with them. You just need to concentrate a bit more on them. Currently, Photoshop does not support pressure sensitivity tracking from the Surface Pro Pen. More specifically, Adobe relies on the WinTab API to get pressure data and the Surface Pen does not implement the WinTab API…yet. Apparently, Microsoft and Wacom are working together on a solution, so hopefully this will be remedied soon. The pressure sensitivity does work in Microsoft apps like OneNote, but hopefully implementing the WinTab API will allow it to work in a more universal fashion.

Conclusion

In the end, I think the Surface Pro stacks up very well against the other options available for a chase tablet/laptop. I find the screen is at about the lower limit of what I would deem acceptable in the car for a screen, while at the same time believe that a 15″ or 17″ laptop is too large, so somewhere between 9 and 14 inches is probably the sweet spot. After using it for a couple of weeks I’ve actually grown fond of using the pen, and sometimes I use it even when I don’t need to. I really wish there was a silo storage slot for the pen. As it stands, the pen will magnetically attach to the charging port, so that means when you’re charging your Surface, your pen is loose just asking to be lost.

I purchased the touch keyboard cover for my tablet because I wanted the thinnest profile. This keyboard is very weird to use at first because there is no tactile feedback while you are typing, but the tablet makes a tapping noise. As long as your fingers are in the right spot I find this to be nice to type on once you get used to it, and now I can type just as fast on it as I do on a regular desktop keyboard. It’s also nice to be able to fold the keyboard back, which deactivates the keys, if you just want to hold the tablet and do work using the touchscreen.

As far as battery life goes, it is not going to compete with a tablet. The iPad will blow Surface out of the water for length of time away from an outlet. I managed to get just over 5 hours out of it connected to Verizon using a USB 3G stick and ran GR3 in animation mode the entire time. I expect, if you’re doing video editing or watching netflix or playing games, you won’t make it to the five hour mark.  This was a concern of mine when looking at the Surface Pro, but when I sat down and thought about where it would be throughout the day, I decided 4-5 hours of battery life is fine. When I’m on the chase, it’ll be docked and powered by the inverter in my car. It can be plugged in at the hotel. I just didn’t think I would ever encounter a situation where I would be away from a plug for more than a couple of hours. We’ll find out for sure this year.

All in all, my quest to replace my laptop with something smaller, but more powerful that can do all the things I made my laptop do appears to have been a moderate success. The Surface Pro wasn’t the only device I looked at. I had also considered picking up the latest iPad, but the deficiencies I listed in the introduction mostly left it out of the hunt…this time. I also checked out the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 and the Dell XPS 12 convertible. Both of those devices are worthy of the goals I set forth and are decent machines in their own right, but I opted for the more portable, smaller device.

TL;DR

Surface Pro is fast and a good looking device. The display if freaking awesome with great colors, resolution and viewing angles. The battery life isn’t good. It’s too heavy to hold in just one hand, but just barely.  It stacks up well with similarly priced ultrabooks and convertibles. It handles all the basic chase applications with ease and even adds some pleasant experiences with the touchscreen, digitizer and pen.

Netflix

For managing to stick out this review to the end, I thought I’d also mention that there are metro apps for Netflix and Hulu and the HD video looks awesome on this screen. Extremely handy for watching some of the best tornado documentaries out there