Sunday, 1 May 2016

The Microsoft Surface Book. Hello, Verity!

And now, here is my 'first impressions' report on my new Microsoft Surface Book laptop. And yes, she has a name: Verity.

The machines that I physically interact with, that help me get out into the wider world, and stay aware of what's going on, and indeed travel about with me, all have a name. They are not alive, but they are companions who serve me, and in a sense faithful friends. Thus my car: Fiona. Thus my mobile phone: Demelza. And now my laptop: Verity.

She came more quickly than I expected. I ordered her online from the Microsoft Store before breakfast on Tuesday 26th April. By that afternoon an email from them told me that payment had been taken from my credit card account, and that my goods had been despatched. UPC (their carrier) would collect Verity from a depot in Tamworth (not far from Birmingham) and take her down overnight to Newhaven in Sussex for local delivery on Wednesday 27th April. I was able to track this with a link to UPC's website. The scheduled time for delivery was 'by noon', but it was almost 4.00pm when the smartly-uniformed UPC delivery man rang my doorbell. The few hours' delay were annoying, but it hardly mattered in the scheme of things now that I actually had the goods in my hands. I put the sealed package on the table in my study, and finished off what I was doing. I needed to quell the urge to tear the package open. I'd have to open the package very carefully, just in case they had sent the wrong laptop. These things are not unknown.

But it was all right. Inside the packaging was a substantial cardboard box, containing Verity and her bits and pieces. I opened it all up with extreme care.

The 'bits and pieces' were few: quick start guide, warranty information, charging brick with a mains connector. And the Surface Pen. I'd read - some reviewer had said so - that the mains/charging cables weren't very long. I stretched then out in my hall, to find out what this savant had been talking about:

Well, that's long enough! What a silly man the reviewer was. Next, Verity herself. A soft protective cushion lay betwixt screen and keyboard. I removed it and admired her appealing simplicity. She was mostly made of seamless silvery-grey magnesium alloy, apparently very tough, but presumably not immune from careless scratching:


Most of the electronics were in the upper screen part (which was in fact a detachable tablet), which meant that most of the heat generated with intensive use would dissipate into the air from the edges of the screen, through those circumferential holes. Thus I wouldn't get cooked knees! The on/off and volume buttons were on the top edge of the screen. You can see the famous articulated hinge, which uncurled as I opened the laptop up. This made the base deeper, and stopped the heavier-than-usual screen from tipping backwards. Very clever indeed. Ports in the keyboard base were minimal, but just right for my purposes. There were two cameras, one on the back of the screen for ordinary shots (presumably of people or events in front of where one was sitting), and one on the inside of the screen, top centre (and perfectly-placed to scan my face - more on that in a moment!).

The underside of the base was bare, except for two plastic strips that raised Verity off the tabletop by a couple of millimetres. Plastic, not rubber: she slid easily if pushed to and fro; but she was heavy enough to stay put when typing.

The Surface Pen - a battery-powered tool for on-screen pointing, selecting, moving and drawing - felt just like a normal pen in my hand. It fixed itself to a magnetic strip on the left edge of the screen when open. The magnetic grip was pretty strong: it would take quite a clout to dislodge the pen. The power cable also had a magnetic attachment, to a port on the right-hand edge of the base. If power was coming through, a white light lit up, as seen above. Unlike flashier machines, Verity was not festooned with in-your-face coloured lights on her keyboard or elsewhere. All lighting was white.

I compared her for size with my old 14-inch Asus W3V laptop, bought ten years ago:

Gosh, how slender Verity seemed! She felt lighter too. Here she was with Demelza, my Samsung Galaxy S5 phone:

As you can see, the Microsoft Windows logo on the lid was actually a mirror! Handy.

There was no case provided, but then I could use the rather nice fabric one that came with the Asus, which, despite being ten years old, was still in remarkably good condition, and was begging to be used for Verity as well. This was the case that had travelled with me to New Zealand and back in March/April/May 2007 - often stuffed into a backpack; the case that had been taken on nearly every caravan holiday since January 2006. Up close, you could see it wasn't by any means new, but nevertheless it wasn't by any means shabby, inside or out. I take care of my things.


Plenty of pockets and compartments, and a roomy fit for the slightly-smaller Verity. That Surface Pen wouldn't get yanked off, getting my laptop in and out of the case. Admittedly all the detailing on the case said 'Asus'. But that might not be a bad thing. An older case, one that didn't shout 'Thieves and bag-snatchers! Expensive Surface Book within!' might help when toting Verity around in public. Until I got her out, of course.

The study table was just the right height for using Verity. Here she is, just before I fired her up for the first time:

It was by now late in the afternoon on Wednesday 27th April. Setting her up might take some time, and I was prepared for a very long evening! (In fact it was much longer than I intended) Time to switch her on.

The webcam came to life, and one of the first things accomplished was to let Verity scan my face so that she would recognise me again. This was for the Hello method of logging on. In other words, once Verity had gone to sleep, she would (on waking again) look at the face in front of her and try to determine whether it was me or not. This would take only a second or two, and if she saw it was indeed my face, then I'd get instant access. If doubtful, she would ask for identity-confirmation by other means, such as keying in a secret passnumber. So that had to be set up as well.

Did Hello work? Absolutely. Verity has recognised me on all occasions but one, when I had my hair pulled back for washing, revealing my forehead, and (I suppose) changing the apparent biometrics of my face. 

I then spent hours getting to know Verity and Windows 10 Pro

As a device Verity had no great secrets, and I quickly developed the right touch for her touch-enabled screen, her spacious, very pleasant keyboard, and smooth, sensitive touchpad. I experimented with the pen too, discovering that it had several uses, and made a most convenient selection tool. The clarity of the gorgeous 3K screen was a revelation. Whites were truly white, blacks were truly black, and all colours looked spot-on. My photos looked fabulous. Text looked crisp and clean. And this was despite scaling the screen magnification up to 250%, so that everything was easy on my eyes. 

But Windows 10! That took some while. In the end though, after playing with it, I saw how to accomplish the things I'd been doing using Windows XP and Vista. There were of course some minor differences, but essentially this was the Windows I already knew, just rearranged somewhat and with a fresh look.

It was no surprise to find out that Microsoft Office 2007 - with the Word and Excel components that I used constantly - couldn't just be transferred from the PC. Nor would other programs transfer across - something to do with Verity being a '64-bit' machine, I think. Oh well. I bit the bullet and bought Microsoft Office Home & Student 2016 from the Microsoft Store for £120. I could have had it by monthly subscription, but although this might seem cheap in the short term - £7 a month - I worked out that after seventeen months it would have become less expensive paying that one-off £120. When you are considering many years of ownership, these things matter!

This was the only new software I had to buy just to get started. I downloaded Nikon View NX2, an adequately capable photo editor and viewer that I'd been using since 2008, for free. Hurrah for Nikon! I would in time need another program for advanced photowork, but that would have to wait. I inclined to either Nikon Capture NX2 - again, a program I'd been using on the PC from 2008 till now, which I knew well and liked - or possibly Paint Shop Pro. I'm not a big fan of Photoshop - it's massive overkill for what I want to do with my pictures, and strictly for those who can justify (and afford) the high cost of the month subscription to Adobe. I can't.

Well, gradually I got programs and files installed. Nothing confused or flummoxed me. It was all so straightforward, compared to with previous hardware. By midnight I was beginning to get Verity well-sorted and ready for action, although my exploration and experimentation went on until 2.00am (it was Thursday 28th April by now). Here are a few shots, with the evening light changing to darkness, taken during this long getting-to-know-her process: 

If you wanted to, you could have lit-up keys in poor light, or in the dark.

Google Earth, showing how my finger could move the display about, or centre a place, on the touch-enabled screen. Using a fingertip for scrolling was highly convenient! 

The BBC iPlayer came through strongly over my home Wi-Fi, and the sound was quite good. I'd be getting decent catch-up TV in the future, then, and without necessarily resorting to earphones (handy when eating).

Jumping forward from Windows Vista straight to Windows 10 - without any experience of Windows 7, 8 or 8.1 - I hadn't suffered from Microsoft's messing-about with the Start menu. I heard they had taken it away, then reinstated it again in Windows 10, apparently in a form I would recognise. So it was.

I tidied it up, though. I did not like those gimmicky tiles - I got rid of them all, except for tiles to give me quick access to such things as Bluetooth. You see, Verity was not going to be my News, Weather, and Communications Centre, nor my Organiser. My phone was already those things. My new laptop was going to be a solid, hard-working, processing machine, for getting serious things done. The Desktop needed to be a model of focussed efficiency, with just the most necessary app shortcuts and folders.

Nor did I take up the invitation to adopt Cortana as my search and how-to-get-things-done assistant. Her voice was too sharp for me. She sounded impatient, a right young madam. We would end up frustrated with each other, no matter how I might try to speak sweetly to her.    

I did however install an attractive and striking Desktop background. I'd taken a picture of a KitKat balanced on one of the straps of my red handbag - red on red, with deep shadows. Striking enough! So, to end, here is a screen print of Verity's Desktop as it presently is:

I've put this post together on my new laptop - my first attempt at blogging on her. It's been a pleasure.


  1. Must be an acronym.

    Versatile Electronic Route Into Technology Yippee?

    That is all I can come up with...

    Can it be opened with a glimpse of a photograph of the owner? Just wondering.

    With luck another ten years of use, what do you have to do to keep out the nasty side of the electronic age?

  2. Someone else asked whether Hello could be fooled by a photograph. I'll test that out, but I'm thinking it takes a 3D scan, and won't respond to a 2D object.


  3. I could never find acronyms helpful. My brain isn't made that way. But I CAN remember things by association with another word or notion. In this case, in the Poldark books of Winston Graham, Verity was Ross Poldark's cousin, a likeable lady who became firm friends with Ross's gypsy-like wife Demelza. You can see the mental connection I can make with the name of my phone!



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