Microsoft in 2016: A review from a UNIX Geek

What happened?

I was using a wonderful 4th Generation X1 Carbon that ran Linux like a top. My only issue was that, in taking on a new role, I needed Windows or Mac support with a CUDA capable GPU. Moving to a 15” MacBook Pro wasn’t an option due to the size/weight and my general dismay of the direction of macOS.

The Surface Book and XPS15 were on my radar, but the availability of the XPS15 in the U.A.E. was not easy to come by. Surface Books were plentiful so I type this post from it.

I should note I bought the device prior to the latest Apple Announcement. I almost waited, but am glad I did not. I am writing this against the back drop of the impact of the new hardware and moves of macOS.

Hardware

IMG_20161026_151608The hardware is amazing. Seriously. We have all become accustom to crappy PC laptops and Macs being the harbinger of solid design. I must admit that race is not so lopsided anymore. The Lenovo X1 series was beautiful in the way only a mother could love. Industrial and rugged, but not so pleasant to the eye. The Surface Book (from this point forward being SB) changed all of this for me. It is a beautiful piece of hardware from the unboxing to the daily use.

The Hinge

The hinge is unique. Lots has already been said about it, but it is my main concern with the laptop’s ability to sustain my travel schedule and use. In a week of use it seems to be strong enough, but I wonder after a year what it will look like. As I am late to the SB party many others have already tested the theory and it has held up for them, but I will write again after I get some time on the system.

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Ports

I use a trackball so one of my two USB ports is consumed with a dongle. I really wish Elecom would make a Bluetooth version, but alas here I am. The SD card will be filled with a flush converter soon to give an extra 256GB of space via MicroSD. My hope is the next SB provides a USB-C Connector in addition to keeping a current USB 3.0.

Screen

Many people loved the transition from 4:3 to 16:9 screens with the IMG_20161028_154127advent of DVD movies. The lack of vertical pixels annoy me greatly when I am reading or programming. SB took it a step further and went with 3:2 and I could not be happier. In addition to a simply beautiful screen full of bright colours and contrast, it is a usable screen for my workflow. I didn’t really plan on it, but the screen in tablet mode is now my goto for HN and Reddit reading.

Juice

Mag Power

Normally I wouldn’t write about the magnetic power/dock connector, but in light of Apple ditching MagSafe for unknown reasons, I think it is important to talk about. MagSafe saved countless laptops for me and I am sad to see it go, but really happy Microsoft marches forward with this type of system.

Power Brick

Normally I wouldn’t devout a section to this, but I love the size/weight of davthe charger as well as the USB charging port on the brick. I know Dell and others have done this for a while, but I think it’s a small design note worthy of praise. All manufacturers, especially now Apple, need to include this. In an odd turn of events if my Wife happens to buy the iPhone 7 and new MacBook Pro she will need my power brick to charge her phone now.

Input Devices

Touchpad

I hate touchpads. Compared to the Mac trackpads it is good, but it is still a trackpad. Give me a TrackPoint and this would be perfect. It is usable, but meh. Still a touchpad.

Keyboard

The keyboard isn’t Thinkpad quality or maybe it just isn’t as familiar to me yet. Compared to the butterfly keys that Apple is migrating to though, it is amazing. I try typing on the MacBook every time I see one in the store and just walk away disgusted.

The Fn key and Function row take some getting used to. The Fn-lock does not work between reboots so I am attempting to force myself to get accustom to Alt+Fn+F4. It isn’t going well thus far, but maybe a few more weeks will ingrain it into my memory.

Last, but most important, it still retains an Esc key for us vim users. Unlike some laptops…

Pen

I find myself only using the Pen for OneNote. My memories of the stylus with various WinCE, PalmOS, and Qtopia Embedix still follow to this day, if you need a stylus to interact something went wrong. The SB Pen though is a perfect device in combination with OneNote for note taking and basic diagramming.

I find myself sketching OV/SV system diagrams and architecture designs first with the Pen and migrating the data into Visio/Dia instead of starting on a Moleskin as I usually would.

My Wife on the other hand is in love with the Pen interface for art. I saved a whole section at the end of this post about that.

Software

Windows 10. It isn’t Windows 8 seems to be its biggest call to fame at this point. It isn’t perfect, but it is an improvement. This is the first time I have spent some significant time with the OS and I will simply say it really doesn’t matter anymore. If I have a console, a browser, and a vim I am fine in life.

Windows 10 has some weird design decisions and there is still a ton of work to do in the tablet/touch transition (2 control panels? which start menu thingie do I use?), but I’d say it is on equal footing with KDE and Gnome in this regard.

The App Store

Microsoft, it is a mess and wasteland. Please clean it up. If you know what you are looking for it is fine, but compared to App Stores within iOS and macOS environments it is garbage for discovery. I would go as far to say the Gnome Software Centre is in better shape.

The “top software” is mostly Edge browser extensions and web apps wrapped into an icon for tablet mode. It is an unacceptable setup and forces people out of your ecosystem, not into it.

Bash on Windows

What a god send. Full Ubuntu 16.04 environment capable of running a majority of my tools and daily workflows. Microsoft out did Apple by giving us admins/developers a true GNU environment. Why use homebrew or MacPorts when you can simply apt-get what you need from the current repos? It isn’t perfect, but having now used it on the Insider builds I can tell you it is maturing quickly. Checkout the Github page if you need to see that progress in real-time.

My hopes are in the coming weeks and months that the Linux subsystem picks up the ability to use devfs and procfs for more low-level things. Being able to plugin a USB NIC for network penetration testing would be the 100% closure of my need for a Linux VM.

Insider Previews

I really like the rolling release schedule being embraced by all the major players. Microsoft really needs to sort out their update times though. Multiple meetings have almost been missed because I rebooted thinking that 20 minutes would be sufficient time to apply 3 hotfixes. My recommendation is that Microsoft provides an estimate of the Update+Shutdown length of time or figures out a way to make it quicker.

Security

Windows Defender and Windows Firewall are still very basic. At this point I simply work under the pretence that all software is inherently insecure. I minimise my attack vector, analyse risks, and mitigate through fixes.

Microsoft still has a uphill battle with their patching lifecycle and fixes to their provided security software, but it isn’t Windows 95 bad anymore. Of special note though, patching once a month is asinine.

Draw me like one of your French Girls

My Wife has taken over my Surface Book. If there is a few minutes here IMG_20161029_182430and there where I am not working, she has stolen the tablet and pen and is off to the races drawing. She is an artist at heart and we usually lug around a backpack full of pencils, paper, supplies, etc.

She has wanted an iPad Pro 13”, but was torn between the trade-off of carrying a tablet that was not enough for her work and school while wanting something she could sketch on. I was taken aback to hear her desire to look at a Surface 4 Pro (she doesn’t want a Book apparently due to cost) and begin evaluating what software she’d need to convert over to Windows.

Reminder – if it is Apple she has it. I look over at her stack of technology
consisting of Apple Watch, iPhone 6S+, 15” MacBook Pro, and iPad. She is seriously considering the move to cut this stack of tech. That in my mind speaks volumes.
Apple is loosing a few key segments it has depended on for ages. UNIX geeks needing a friendly UI/UX with terminal underpinnings and Pro users who create art. We are the groups that our families and friends come to for computer recommendations. For years we have preached to simply get an Apple and leave us alone. I think those times are changing. I can’t recommend my Wife dump a grand on an iPad Pro when she can get a Surface 4 Pro to replace two of her devices at once. She can’t either apparently.

The latest Apple “Hello” announcement did little to course correct for her. She is not excited about the new software or hardware from Apple. I have watched her replay the Surface Studio commercial about 10 times at least. That says something.

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Closing Thoughts

Microsoft and Satya Nadella are knocking it out of the ballpark as of late. I am genuinely excited about their hardware designs (looking at you Surface Studio) and think that there is at least a core team at Microsoft who understands the need for better Software UI/UX.

I think that most DevOps types and CLI loving UNIX grey beards could make do on a Surface Book.

Essential Windows Software

Chocolatey – For those items that are not within the Ubuntu repos, think of this as Homebrew or Pacman/Portage/Ports for Windows

AutoClipX – Highlight to copy is integral to my workflow

eM Client – Windows Mail is too limited and Outlook 2016 doesn’t handle Google Apps (errr. GSuite?) at all. Thunderbird is a good option also, but I have had issues with some of the last versions on Windows

Baconit – Excellent Reddit App for Windows 10 in Tablet Mode. Maybe even my favourite app overall for Reddit surfing

HackerNews – Clean, simple, and fast client

TinyRSS Reader – I live on RSS feeds still and this is really the only option for syncing with my server. Works well enough.

Poki – Pocket client for Windows that does offline syncing

Gnu On Windows –  Gow is Cygwin-like, but much lighter