Category Archives: Technology

Thoughts on the Microsoft Surface Pro 3

Surface Pro 3

Surface Pro 3


Recently, I had the chance to decide on my next work machine and the options were narrowed down to 2 for me. A more powerful typical touch screen ultrabook with more ram or a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (SP3). As the machines provisioned for us are meant to be used for the next few years, I wanted to make sure that I made the correct decision on this next machine that I will get to know (painfully or otherwise) over the coming years. A normal ultrabook is what we have been using and year over year, they just get faster and faster with the frequent release cycles of the Intel chips, that’s just the norm. Knowing that the ultrabook option is more of the same, I set out to give the SP3 a try to see if it will live up to the day-to-day. Moreover, as a gadget enthusiast, the gear head in me was extremely intrigued by the new offering from Microsoft.

A little bit more information on what I do for a living, I am a consultant that does a variety of things throughout the software development cycle, my job ranges from business analysis, system design and architecture, project management, actual development work, QA testing, sales, and training. Throughout those functions, I generate a lot of notes and documentation, and the occasional proof of concept on Virtual Machines. I have traveled to client sites all over North America and had also traveled overseas before Evelyn came into our lives.

For me, what I look for in a work computer are the 3 ‘P’s: Performance, Professionalism, and Portability. I think that it boils down to those three things. Now, you can cram a lot of considerations into those three categories, but here is my breakdown:

Performance

  • Snappiness – The “snappiness” of a machine is mostly determined by three things: The Processor, The Memory, and The Hard Drive. The processor and memory has been steadily increasing so there hasn’t really been a revolutionary change for the past few years. What has changed a lot recently is the hard drives. With the recent price drops for Solid State Drives, it is becoming more affordable to get, I would say, the most effective change to a computer’s overall snappiness in the recent years. By changing from a physical hard drive to an SSD, your boot time goes from minutes to seconds.
  • Battery Life – As a consultant, you travel a lot to the client sites and sometimes you even do work on the road. Having a computer that can last you a flight without looking for a plug is extremely helpful. This requirement however, directly contradicts with the other performance requirements as a more powerful computer means that you have to use more juice. A balance must be struck between raw power and the battery.
  • Ability to run VMs – For me, due to the nature of my work, I sometimes have to run VMs, which basically means that I need to run another virtual computer within the physical computer. As you are running one within the other, your physical computer has to have enough resource to provide both computers to function properly and efficiently. You don’t want a super fast computer, only to have to wait 10/20 minutes to do any one action within the virtual computer. This generally equates to more Cores, more RAM, and more space.

Professionalism

  • Look – The look of a machine, while sometimes trivial, matters to me. You have to consider how it looks to be using a machine. Just as you consider how you look in the suit you are wearing when you go to a client site, you should also consider your machine as an extension of your image.
  • Clumsiness – Further to the look, you shouldn’t be fumbling with your machine and having trouble with using it because that is your work tool, and your proficiency at handling it is as important as your proficiency at handling yourself at a client site.

Portability

  • Flight Test – Being in flights and travelling a lot, the computer must be able to sit properly and with enough room on the tray table. If a computer doesn’t fit, all you are doing on the flight is either, sleeping, talking, and writing notes/thoughts that you will be transcribing to the computer after anyways. This is not a terribly efficient use of your time. If you are bound to the chair anyways, you might as well get some proper work done.
  • Weight/Size – The weight and size of a machine is actually very important. You don’t want to be lugging around an unwieldy brick while you are moving/travelling around. Not only does it kill your back carrying it, it’s actually kind of difficult to find a bag that will hold it and your other essentials when travelling.

With those things in mind, overall the SP3 in the configuration that I got (i5 with 8GB of RAM) works pretty well. However, for my purposes, it is just a little lacking. Not by much though, and I could have lived with some of the design compromises that Microsoft made. But the failing points for me all kind of chained together into an interesting situation that made me decide against it.

The option available to me (due to cost and availability) would have failed at the ability to run multiple VMs at once. Internal guidelines state that I should at least have 16 GBs of ram due to the nature of my work, and if I go with an SP3, I could only get 8 GB. This lack of ram normally wouldn’t be a problem, because I could have used my server farm back home or on Azure to run these instances of VMs and just remote into the system through there.

I had thought that it would have been a good compromise for portability and professionalism to use the SP3, but I found that some of the conveniences of having a touchscreen and a stylus on the SP3 did not transfer well when remoting into other machines. Which means that I would have fallen back on controlling everything with the keyboard and track pad. While much better than the previous generation’s Type Covers, this iteration comes up a little short. I have no problems typing on it (I have been typing this post just fine on the new Type Cover), the track pad is a little quirky and sometimes hard to control. Again, it’s worlds better than the previous track pads because of the feel and the extra room, but it’s still just not good enough. The stylus is useful, especially during meetings for taking notes, or mind mapping solutions, but the lack of a proper way of storing it will ensure that I have to buy stylus replacements repeatedly while using this as the primary work horse.

Similar to the other SP3 problems, I could have worked around the type cover with a mouse, but then I run into another limitation with the SP3. There is only one USB port. If I have the mouse connected, it basically means that I have to pull it out every time that I needed to plug something else in. The Dock may solve the problem, but only at home as it is not portable (and currently unavailable).

Furthermore, I generally try to follow a hardware refresh cycle of approximately 3 years. With iterations of the Surface coming out seemingly ever 6 months to a year, it would mean that by the tail end of my use, it would be at least 4-5 generations old. While it’s easier to stomach with a traditional ultrabook, it is extremely difficult to imagine working on a 3 year old tablet given the pace of new products being released. While the SP3 may be the first to successfully merge and compromise features in the 2-in-1 sector, it is likely that other manufacturers will catch up and take away the competitive edge unless you keep buying the newest version.

Along with this consideration of release cycles is the concept of support. Microsoft only supports you shipping your SP3 back to them to repair. There is very little DIY opportunity as shown by the iFixit teardown. I would be out of a machine to use for a week or so while it gets shipped around the country and back. The support model just doesn’t quite cut it in the enterprise. I simply cannot be out of a machine for 1-2 weeks.

Now that I have mentioned all the things that don’t fit my bill, I feel will have to say I did really like it for the following reasons:

  • Portability – wow, is it thin! I LOVE the fact that it frees up so much space in my bag. It’s like running around with an iPad, but with full Office and other Windows’ software.
  • Stylus – The bluetooth button to start up OneNote from sleep is a great idea. Even with the change in tech, I feel that the pen is sensitive enough to draw with. I did a couple of WiredFatherhood doodles and looked pretty good
  • Snappiness – While it was not enough for my work use, it is more than enough for the day-to-day. If I didn’t have to do VMs or other CPU/RAM intensive tasks, I feel that the SP3 would have been fine at running the Office 2013 Suite with Visio and Project.
  • The Kickstand – having the total range of motion for tilt is amazing. I really wish that they came out with this design from the beginning. Only time will tell to see if the new kickstand will be durable enough for every day use.

While I did not end up picking the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 for my daily workhorse machine, I feel that it would be a good supplement machine for day-to-day use. I might just pick one up to add to my fleet of computer systems. ;-)

What do you guys think?

E

Google Glass: Thoughts So Far

Over the last little while, I have been asked to do a surveys from Google about using Glass for the last few months. Since I was writing that up, I figure that I’d post some of my thoughts and questions on Google Glass so far here on this site as well.

What do you like best about Glass?

  • It is not an intrusive device for the wearer.
  • The ability to take pictures hands free (with a wink or voice).
  • The ability to command functions with voice.
  • The ability to share the world as you see it.
  • Hanging out with Family while on road trips.
  • Being notified of events as they happen
  • The Community – #GlassFamily

What do you find frustrating about Glass?

  • The battery life is not very good.
  • The device itself is not very rugged.
  • The lock/unlock/power button is on the inside of the frame.
  • The inside of the frame doesn’t seem very sweat proof.
  • XE16 caused a lot of problems, from random reboots, shutdowns, to overheating.

What new features would you like to see for Glass?

  • The ability to find other Glass Explorers in the area through the glass interface and display callouts about the explorer. (And of course, the ability not to be displayed).

What do you think it means to be part of the Glass Explorer Program?

  • It means to be able to take a beta technology, explore it’s real life uses and find interesting applications of this technology.
  • It means that you are an ambassador for Google Glass to everyone else and their notions of appropriateness/laws/rules.
  • It means that you are a Glass Evangelist, Champion, and Defender.

E

What’s a Cron Job?

Cron Job

Cron Job…

What the heck is a Cron Job?!

According to Wikipedia,

The software utility cron is a time-based job scheduler in Unix-like computer operating systems. People who set up and maintain software environments use cron to schedule jobs (commands or shell scripts) to run periodically at fixed times, dates, or intervals. It typically automates system maintenance or administration—though its general-purpose nature makes it useful for things like connecting to the Internet and downloading email at regular intervals. The name cron comes from the Greek word for time, χρόνος chronos.

To me, it’s something that I can use to make sure that my scheduled posts by WordPress aren’t missed! Because of the backlog from the last month or so, I didn’t want to put up 5 posts all at once. So I decided to go ahead and use the scheduling feature of WordPress. However, on my train ride home, I found that the post did not get put up by the scheduler and it said “Missed Schedule” in the status of the post.

Looking online yielded threads of WordPress users having similar issues. While Automattic provides fixes every now and then, it seems to be a little spotty in terms of coverage and I found that generally, every one gravitates to swapping the WP Cron to the real Linux Cron job.

WP Cron
From my readings, it seems that WP Cron is only triggered if there is a read to your site, in which case, when it loads a page for a viewer, it checks whether or not there are jobs queued up and executes them if there are. The problem with this approach is that sites that don’t get visited often (like mine), sometimes have problems triggering the delayed posting to be on time. If no one visits the site, then the post doesn’t get triggered and it is filed under “Missed Schedule”. In my case, since most of my traffic comes from WordPress’ publicize feature, which puts my post on the various social media sites (Twitter, Facebook, Google+, tumblr, App.net), it becomes a chicken and the egg problem. Without these links driving traffic, the WP Cron won’t fire and if it doesn’t fire, no one comes to the site. So alas, it was time for me to switch to using the real Linux Cron job.

Turning On the Cron Job
Now most of the guides on the internet for setting up a Cron job involves cPanel, a custom control panel from your hosting provider’s utility box that allow you to manage your site. But for those who have the ability to access the command line from their servers, you can edit your crontab directly.

sudo crontab -e

Add the line and replace your.site.com with your site address:

*/15 * * * * wget -O /dev/null http://your.site.com/wp-cron.php?doing_wp_cron

What the above setting does is set up your cron job to hit your wp-cron.php every 15 minutes to trigger the WordPress queue of things it needs to do. Once that’s set up, you won’t need WordPress to trigger it’s fake cron on page load, so you’ll need to disable it in wp-config.php by adding the following line:

DEFINE('DISABLE_WP_CRON', true);

Once that’s done, your WordPress Cron will be disabled and your site should be able to schedule posts using the real Linux Cron and have them published in a timely manner.

Hope that helps.
E

Useful Resources
How to set up your cron in Ubuntu:
https://help.ubuntu.com/community/CronHowto

How the WordPress Cron Works:
http://wp.smashingmagazine.com/2013/10/16/schedule-events-using-wordpress-cron/
http://code.tutsplus.com/articles/insights-into-wp-cron-an-introduction-to-scheduling-tasks-in-wordpress–wp-23119

Sites I looked at to figure out how to do this:
http://wpdailybits.com/blog/replace-wordpress-cron-with-real-cron-job/74
http://stevengliebe.com/2013/11/18/using-real-wordpress-cron-job-increased-reliability/

Glass Invites!

Google Glass

Google Glass

So… I have some Glass invites available!

Just a reminder that all Glass Explorers must:
-Be US residents
-Be at least 18 years old
-Be able to purchase Glass
-Provide a US shipping address or pick up their Glass in New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles

Let me know in the comments below if you are interested and what you would use it for!
E