The greatest computing device I have owned to date: the Microsoft Surface RT.

Technology Upgrade

“I think I’m becoming something of a Microsoft fanboy,” I confessed to various people over the last few months.

A fan of Microshaft, Winblows, Windoze? For a person who grew up with Apple computers used in elementary and high school, Macs and Unix machines at Stanford, and attended college with Larry Page and Sergei Brin (founders of Google), this may seem as treasonous as a U.S. congressman defecting over to Russia. But just as Dmitri Medvedev’s country is much farther from taking over the world than the old U.S.S.R. was, Bill Gates’ company has all of a sudden went from virtual monopoly to a company that is struggling to get a foothold in the tablet and cell phone marketplace.

The good thing about Microsoft’s weak position is that it has been forced to innovate. No longer is it spewing out blue screen-flashing crap that people had to buy like it was doing pre-Windows 7 (the first truly excellent version of Windows in my opinion). So it caught my attention, and just in time too—when I was about to make a clean sweep of all the antiquated technologies in my life.

The tech upgrades in my life have included:

  1. Upgraded DSL service. This was definitely the biggest improvement since my DSL plan (unchanged since I moved to Colorado) was a measly 1.5 Mbps. That was a pretty good speed circa 2005, but in 2012 almost like dial-up for those who remember 55 Kbps phone modems and AOL in the 1990s. So I went to the fastest DSL plan available in my area—12 Mbps—or almost 10 times faster for downloading. This was my best and most important upgrade as it allows for quicker web page loading, no-stuttering streaming videos, and quicker downloading of CAD models when I am doing engineering work. Cost: $49/month, or just $5/month more than my old plan, surprisingly. (September 2012)
  2. Replaced a feature phone with a Windows Phone (Nokia Lumia 900). I liked my Kyocera X-TC feature phone, which had a tactile sliding keyboard, was very compact, had great battery life, and had a (poor) camera, play MP3s, and could post to Facebook and browse website very slowly in an emergency. But getting a smart phone was like going from a Pontiac Fiero to a Ferrari Italia. The Nokia Lumia 900 is super snappy, ├╝ber userful and fun to use with Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 OS (ultimately upgraded to 7.8) and its live tiles, its tight integration with Facebook, Google products, Skydrive, etc. I love it and can’t imagine living without it. Cost: $190 on ebay refurbished (no contract and hence unsubsidized). (October 2012)
  3. Changed phone service: Was currently using Virgin Mobile with a $43/month (with taxes) for 1200 minutes of voice and unlimited text and data. It was a good value with the Kyocera phone, but it operated on Sprint’s “nationwide” network with no roaming. I put “nationwide” in parenthesis because Sprint has no coverage in South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and much of Wyoming—all states I went through when I did the Bismarck and Montana back-to-back marathons back in September. So switching over to Smart Talk‘s Bring Your Own Phone plan was great since it’s on AT&T’s network which has much better coverage and 4G speeds. Smart Talk is also no-contract and is $49.70/month including taxes for unlimited voice, data and text. (October 2012)
  4. Interfaced smart phone with Audi TT. I wrote an article about how I did this already. It is so great being able to play any song from my music library, Pimsleur language courses, and use the excellent Nokia Maps app with audible turn-by-turn directions in the car. Cost: $10 for the belt-clip mount. (October 2012)
  5. Upgraded to Windows 8 Professional on my HP workstation. I did this on the very first day it was available. This turned out to be a great enhancement as I love the new Windows Start Screen (inspired by Windows Phone and its live tiles) and the Modern UI. Windows 8 is even faster than Windows 7 (Microsoft’s first truly excellent OS, in my opinion) and is similarly super stable. It’s also more secure with Windows Defender (anti-virus) built in. Everything looks more gorgeous in the Modern UI. I love how not only is Windows 8 optimized for touch, but works great with mouse gestures too. It took me a few days to get used to the gestures and the new paradigm shift, but I would not go back. Cost: $40 per Microsoft’s early upgrade-by-download offer. (October 26, 2012)
    My Windows 8 PC (HP workstation) and Windows Phone (Nokia Lumia 900).
    My Windows 8 PC (HP workstation) and Windows Phone (Nokia Lumia 900).
  6. Skydrive: Now storing all my documents, photos, and multimedia in the cloud as automatic backup and instant access from anywhere. Microsoft’s Skydrive offers only 7 GB free so I am paying $25/year for an additional 50 GB (for a total of 57 GB online storage). One reason I am going with Skydrive is that it integrates perfectly with Windows 8 and Windows Phone devices. To offset the extra cost, I’m selling one of the external hard drives I was previously using to backup documents. No longer do I have to do manual backups, and even if my house burns down, my data is safe. (December 17, 2012)
  7. Got a Roku. This effectively turned my TV into a smart TV. I can watch Amazon Instant Videos and YouTube (via the free VideoBuzz app) on it. It’s so much more convenient than hooking up a netbook to the TV, which is what I did previously. Cost: $44 used for the 720p version. (December 2012)
  8. Turned my Windows 8 workstation into a multimedia server using Plex. It was difficult to install since Plex‘s documentation is quite confusing and verbose, but after doing so I can serve up music, photos, videos, and queued videos from websites to the TV through the Roku. Cost: Free! (December 2012)
  9. Ported my cell phone number into Google Voice. This allowed me to retain my old phone number but use Google Voice‘s services. One great benefit of doing so is being able to receive and send texts from all my devices. I can text quicker using a real computer keyboard than using the on-screen one on my phone.

    Other advantages include having all text messages saved and searchable online, voicemail transcription, the ability to block specific phone numbers, call screening, and custom greetings for different callers. The automatic saving of all texts onto the cloud was particularly important to me because Windows Phone 7 (unlike iOS and Android) does not have the capability to backup your text messages and transfer them to a new phone when you upgrade it. Cost: $20 to port-in phone number; free afterward. (December 2012)
  10. Replaced my netbook with a Microsoft Surface RT (a gift from my dad; thanks!) I love the Surface; it is the most amazing computing device I’ve ever had. I have the red touch cover, which is only 3mm thick, easy to clean, and feels great—both while typing and when it is folded back behind the Surface when used in tablet mode. I am glad I got this instead of the type cover, which would feel much more weird when folded behind the tablet since you would be able to feel and press the keys while holding the Surface. The cover allows one to do real work on the tablet, and the touch screen makes computer a more engaging experience.

    I also love the kickstand, the build quality, the VaporMag coating, quick charging, 8 hour battery life, and even the maligned magnetic power connector (for the record, I find it very easy to securely attach and even easier to unplug). Remote Desktop is amazing; I can connect to either of my two work computers from the comfort of my bed and use their high-powered applications. Because of Remote Desktop I am not missing the inability to run legacy x86 software.

    Windows RT also comes with Microsoft Office and runs on a power-saving ARM processor that requires no fans. It multi-tasks very well, much better than iOS and Android. The Surface is much faster than my old Dell Mini 9, a netbook I loved for the 4 years I had it but have recently sold (along with my Nook Color) a couple months after getting this. (January 2013)

    Since the Surface can easily connect via Remote Desktop to my higher-powered Windows PCs, I can even run Solidworks on it. Even Tiger was impressed.
    Since the Surface can easily connect via Remote Desktop to my higher-powered Windows PCs, I can even run Solidworks on it. Even Tiger was impressed.

  11. Got some Motorola S10-HD Bluetooth Stereo Headphones. I now can talk on the phone while cooking or cleaning, or listen to Pimsleur language lessons while running, completely wire-free while freeing up both hands. The range of this bluetooth headset is phenomenal, and while audio quality is not great for listening to music, it is very good for voice. $40. (January 2013)
  12. Upgraded Windows Phone 7.5 to Windows Phone 7.8. Now my cell has a home and lock screen like a Windows Phone 8 device. Free download, although I had to manually force the update. (February 2013)
  13. Website update. After getting the Windows Phone and Surface, I realized I had to make the design of my website a bit more mobile friendly. I have done so by making the theme width 950 pixels instead of 772px. Also, I made it compatible with Internet Explorer 10’s (on Windows 8 in Modern UI Mode) “Flip Ahead” feature, where you can just swipe to the left on any page to go to the next page, photo, slideshow, etc. (March 2013)

There you have it: lots of upgraded technology, none of which incurred great expense. Yet I feel they all have improved the quality of my life even though all the “old tech” worked well and got the job done for most part.

One thing I haven’t upgraded so far is my 120-pound, 32″ widescreen “tube” TV. I recently read an article about how TVs are so inexpensive now that the author doesn’t know a single person who owned a TV older than 7 years. He obviously hadn’t met me because mine is already 8 years old.

Eventually (a year or two?) I will get around to replacing it. A 40″ or larger flat-panel TV would be nice, but it hasn’t been a high priority considering how little TV I watch, even after getting the Roku. A part of me does think I should be watching more television, especially in Spanish and French to practice those languages. In any case, an upgrade is next on my list and then I should be done for at least a little while.

Maybe by then Microsoft will have come out with its own TV. Or at least an xBox module that is closer in size and power consumption to the Roku and allows wireless desktop streaming from the Surface. When that happens, sign up this fanboy.

The greatest computing device I have owned to date: the Microsoft Surface RT.
The greatest computing device I have owned to date: the Microsoft Surface RT.