A week with the Surface Pro 3

Robert unexpectedly (gotta love him!) gave me a surprise present in the form of a Microsoft Surface Pro 3. I’ve now been using it for a week and I thought it was time to put my thoughts into words.

You’ll pry it out of my cold, dead hands

Overall, this is a fantastic bit of kit and it’s the device I have used most at home, for meetings and even sometimes at my desk. The only reason it hasn’t replaced my stalwart ThinkPad X220T is that it has neither the memory nor the storage to run the virtual machines I still need. It’s light, comfortable to hold, has great battery life and the screen is gorgeous.

Specs – good enough?

The model I have is the core i5 with 8Gb of RAM and a 256Gb SSD. It’s quick. It also has ample storage for my needs once I remove VMs from the equation. It’s true – Visual Studio hasn’t been installed yet, but I know from conversations with Robert that I am not space-poor.

It’s quick to boot up – quick enough that I rarely bother with the connected standby and usually shut down fully. It has handled all of my Office-centric tasks without pause, from Word through PowerPoint to the ever-present OneNote. The screen is a pin sharp 2160×1440 which is easy to read when typing (although there are a few apps that appear a little blurry from the display scaling), although as with many other devices, the glossy glass screen can suffer from reflections in very bright sunlight.

I’m also very happy with the keyboard. I’m typing this post in my front room, sat on the sofa with the Pro on my lap. The revised ‘any-position’ kickstand makes it much more comfortable than the Surface and Surface Pro – neither of which I would have endured this process with. The new ‘double fold’ design of the type cover makes it less sit at a better angle than its predecessors. Yes, it still flexes on a single hinge when on my lap, but it does feel more stable than before.

The track pad is also much improved. I now have a collection of covers – touch, type and power, along with the new type cover. The power cover is great fgor battery life but the track pad was an abomination. This one is just fine – it feels good to touch, with enough resistance to the surface texture, and the buttons have a responsive click to them.

Shape and size

The first thing you notice about the Pro 3 is the size of it. It’s no thicker than my original RT and half the thickness of the original Pro. It’s also a different shape, and I think it’s that which makes all the difference. No longer 16:9, the device is very comfortable to use in portrait mode – much better than the Pro, although I tended to use that in portrait too. When you aren’t wanting to type, you naturally stand it on the short edge. Microsoft obviously expects that – the Windows button is on the right hand edge as you look at the tablet when using the type cover.

It’s also really light. Much lighter than the Pro, and it even feels lighter than the RT. I suspect the thickness of the glass helps a great deal, but it’s pretty impressive when you think that they’ve packed the same power as the Pro in to half the weight, half the thickness and managed to increase the battery life at the same time.

Battery Life

I’ve not run exhaustive battery tests, but I can report that I have charged the surface about three times during the week. It lasts all night when reading web pages, using the twitter app and other Windows Store applications; it quite happily ran through a four hour meeting with a copy of Word open (try doing that on a generation 1 Pro) so, thus far I’m impressed. I haven’t yet tried to last a full working day on a charge, though.

The Stylus

I was concerned when Microsoft switched from the Wacom technology used by the older Surface Pro to the new Ntrig active pen. I have been very pleasantly surprised, however. The inking experience is wonderful. The pen has a very soft feel to it – very unlike the Dell Venue 8 Pro and better even than the Wacom. I do miss being able to erase by flipping the pen, but having used the two-button Dell pen for six months now the switch wasn’t an issue. The accuracy of writing is great. Supposedly the distance between the LCD display and the surface of the glass has been reduced and I must say that the feel of writing is good – the lines I draw feel closer to the pen tip than the Dell, certainly.

My one little niggle

I only have one problem, and to be fair it’s pretty minor. One of the things I use the original Pro for is pulling photos off the SD card from my Canon EOS 450D. The new Pro, with it’s better screen would be great for that task. Except I can’t, because the SD card slot present on the Pro has gone, replaced by a MicroSD slot in the same place as on the RT. It makes sense for space, but it’s a bit of a pain. Time to try using a MicroSD card with adapter in my camera, I guess – I don’t really want to carry a USB adapter.

You’d think that I’d miss a physical ethernet port (I don’t – I can use a USB one if I need to ) or bemoan the single USB 3 port (if I’m stuck, my USB 3 ethernet dongle is also a hub, and how often do I need to use more than one USB device, since this thing has a keyboard and track pad!), but it’s the SD card which is the only thing I’ve wished had been present.

A panoply of devices

I’ll admit to being a device fiend. I now have an original Surface RT, a generation one Surface Pro and a Dell Venue 8 Pro. Of those, the RT has been used rarely since I got the Dell, although the Pro was something I would turn to regularly at home to work on, being larger than the Dell and lighter than the X220T (although with the Power Cover on, we could debate that).

Since I got the Pro 3, I haven’t touched anything else. As I said, I still use the X220T, because I have no alternative. Yes, I could run VMs in Azure or on our Hyper-V server, but the neither work without an internet connection and it’s quick and easy to roll forwards and backwards between checkpoints when VMs are on your own machine.

The fact that I haven’t touched the Dell is perhaps the saddest part of this. I find myself reaching for the Pro 3 every time. I am still using OneNote rather than typing or using paper, but the Pro 3 is nicer to write on than the Dell. Whether I will still use the Dell for customer meetings, where the size means I can leave my usual rucksack of equipment behind I have yet to find out, but it’s a telling change.

Dig a little deeper – enterprise ready?

Pretty much the first thing I did with the new device was wipe it clean. We have a Windows 8.1 image at Black Marble that we usually push out with SCCM. I grabbed that image, downloaded the Surface Pro driver pack from Microsoft and used dism to install the drivers into the image. I then deployed that image onto the Pro via USB.

Installation was completely painless, even including the automated installation of some firmware updates that were included in the driver pack. All devices were detected just fine and the end result is a Surface Pro 3 with our Enterprise image, domain-joined and hooked up to our DirectAccess service so I can work anywhere.

I have installed Office, but I will admit to not having used Outlook on this yet. Much of my usage has been in tablet mode and I prefer the Windows 8.1 Mail app over Outlook without the keyboard and trackpad. Office 2013 is not yet fully touch-friendly, whatever they try to tell you.

You know what would make it perfect?

You can see this coming, can’t you? Sure, I could get more storage and horsepower with the top-of-the-line model, but there is no point. The only reason I would need those is if I could have my one wish – 16Gb of RAM.

It’s s terrible thing – no Ultrabooks come with 16Gb of RAM. I don’t need a workstation replacement (like the W530s our consultants use) as I don’t run the number or size of VMs they do. But I, like Richard, do run VMs for demos and working on projects. 8Gb doesn’t cut it. 16Gb would be fine. I firmly believe that there is a market for a 16Gb ultrabook. Or a 16Gb Pro 3. In all honesty, I think I’d be happy with this as my one device, if I could solve the RAM problem. I think that says it all, really.

Using the Dell Venue 8 Pro Stylus

You will recall from my earlier post how much I like my Dell Venue 8 Pro and how disappointed I was that the stylus was on back-order until March.

Imagine my surprise, then, when a package arrived at the beginning of this week with a shiny new stylus in it!

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As you can see from the picture, it works just great with OneNote (and it’s desktop big brother).

The only niggle I feel obliged to point out right at the start is that the stylus requires a battery, which is an extremely obscure AAAA type. I can pick them up on Amazon, certainly, but I’ve never seen them anywhere else! I shall be ordering a pack ASAP as I have no idea yet how long I can expect the battery to last.

The stylus itself is comfortable to hold, perhaps actually helped by the battery as it is held at the nib-end. There is a button on the stylus that allows for left- and right-button clicks. Pressure sensitivity works well, although without the variation of the Wacom stylus that both my Surface Pro and X220T have. Palm rejection also works well enough for me to comfortable rest my hand on the tablet whilst writing.

I have been testing the tablet for taking handwritten notes in OneNote and then converting to text in OneNote desktop and it works better than I’d hoped. Ink-to-text is almost totally accurate, providing I remember to write in cursive rather than my usual block-capital scrawl.I really do believe that this was the purpose 8 inch Windows tablets fit best and nothing else really comes close to giving me a seamless workflow from note to document, coupled with the light weight, small size and flexibility to run desktop apps if I need to.

In addition to OneNote I have played with a marvellous app called Drawboard which allows you to create and annotate PDF files. It’s a really great Windows Store app that does what it sets out to do really well. Between those two I can both create content and review other people’s content very easily.

I said in my earlier post that there is nothing currently available that offers the functionality of the Venue 8 Pro and using it with a stylus really underlines that for me. I would look at the Asus VivoTab Note 8 as a possible alternative, but for serious business users I would not consider any competition that did not offer a ‘proper’ active stylus rather than the soft and saggy capacitive ones.

My only conundrum now is whether or not to get the folio case…

Living with the Dell Venue 8 Pro

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Some time ago I wrote about how disappointed I was with the Acer W3 tablet. I really wanted that small form factor device, but the Acer fell short in pretty much every regard. Late last year Dell launched the Venue 8 Pro – the first of the new generation of 8” Windows tablets out of the gate. I sat on the fence for a while, looking at community comments on the the device, then finally ordered one after speaking to Simon May about his impressions of it.

Overall, I think it’s great. In this post I will go through the good and the bad, but overall I’d still be happy recommending it to others, with a perhaps couple of caveats. Competitors are now starting to appear, but the Dell still holds its own, I think. I’ll also mention a few tips that I have found along the way that will help you get the most from your own Venue 8.

Size and shape

The Dell is smaller than the Acer W3 in every axis, and lighter. I find it comfortable to hold in one hand, fingers on one edge and thumb on another. I don’t have huge hands, by any stretch. The back is covered with a lightly ribbed, rubberised material which makes the device easy to grip and comfortable to hold.

There is no Windows button/key on the front of the device. Dell has placed a hardware button on the top right of the device as you hold it in portrait mode, with the power and volume buttons down the right hand edge. In theory this sounds off, but in practice I find it works well. Placing a button on the front suggests which way you should hold the device – I’ve commented before on how Surface compares to iPad in the way the button placement indicates preferred orientation. The Dell is a device you naturally want to use in portrait mode for tasks like browsing,email and twitter. Watch a video, though and you will probably switch to landscape. The Windows button on the Venue 8 works just fine in either orientation and you don’t accidentally catch it with a finger (as I do with my Surface and Surface Pro when in portrait sometimes).

Ports, Connectivity and Charging

This is another area where the Dell might polarise views. There is no external display connector. That’s a little frustrating, as in all other ways the Dell would make a great device to carry and present from if needed. It does support Miracast, and I have tested it with my trusty Netgear Push2TV so you can output to a TV or projector, as long as that device has HDMI input for the Miracast adapter. In practice, however, Miracast and portrait fails horribly. Don’t try to mirror your display because it just doesn’t work. Extend is OK, but that really limits use to presenting.

Is this really a problem, though? Most places I present only offer a VGA connector, even in this day and age. The number of expensive adapters I carry around for Surface, Surface 2 and my trusted X220T is too numerous to consider. That actually means that I don’t try to present form anything but the X220T, which has both displayport and vga output. Until the world catches up with digital inputs a tiny tablet is not going to be a viable ‘only device I carry’.

I previously lambasted the Acer for needing a separate charger rather than using USB. Here the Venue 8 Pro wins, sort of… The Dell comes with a small charger and USB to micro-usb cable to charge the device. Fantastic! I thought, and immediately tried plugging into a USB port on my X220T. No dice.

It turns out that this is not uncommon. The Dell charger has shorted to pins of the USB connector. Unless the tablet detects that when a cable is connected, it won’t charge. The solution, then, turned out to be a simple three-quid cable from Amazon, originally intended for a Samsung tablet, that allows you to switch between ‘data’ and ‘charge’ mode and when connected in line with a standard cable enables charging from a standard USB port. Also useful to know is that the Surface Pro adapter, with it’s built-in USB charging, has the pins shorted and will charge the Dell.

Don’t think about plugging in USB peripherals and charging at the same time, however. I also picked up a USB OTG hub, which I can happily connect to the Dell, attach a USB device such as keyboard or thumbdrive and also plug in the charging cable. The Dell refuses to switch to charging mode, however, and I have not found any existing cable/hub on sale that might address this problem.

Last but not least is a Micro-SD slot. I bought the 32Gb version of the Venue 8 Pro (the 64Gb one weren’t shipping pre-christmas) and am quite happy with it, but have added an SD card to hold stuff like music for long train journeys.

Screen

The display is lovely. No buts. A crisp, clear 800×1280 IPS panel that’s easy to read in ways that the W3 never was. It’s an interesting talking point in the current ‘higher is better’ resolution war – I’m really not sure that I’d notice much improvement if it were, say, full HD or even higher.

I must point out, however, that the as-shipped Venue 8 Pro suffers from a fairly annoying auto-brightness behaviour due to a too-aggressive setting in software. Dell have an update that fixes this. I’ll come back to that…

I use the Venue 8 for web browsing, reading on the Kindle app and doing light work such as email and reading documents. For that, it’s great. The screen is sharp and clear and text is readable without being too small. It does well in daylight, although the glass is quite reflective so it suffers in direct or very bright light

Performance

A quad-core Atom Z3740D powers the Venue 8 pro. It’s a zippy little thing – more than enough for everyday use of store apps and Office. It also makes a reasonable fist of games – Project Spark runs ok (although the back gets a bit hot!), although Halo: Spartan Assault is unplayable due to it not understanding the screen resolution. 2Gb of RAM isn’t enough for running VMs and heavy photoshop work but it’s more than enough for Store apps and Office.

What I hadn’t realised until checking up whilst writing this post, is that the CPU is a 64-bit-capable one that also supports virtualisation. Having recently installed Windows 8.1 Enterprise x86 on mine (see later), I may now have to try again with Windows 8.1 Enterprise x64…

Networking

No physical network (you expected that, right?) But both 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz wireless for great flexibility between range and speed. Plug a USB ethernet adapter in and it will happily use that, if you need to.

Touch and Stylus

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Now comes the rub. One of the biggest reasons I bought the Venue 8 pro was because it offered an active stylus rather than the largely useless capacitive ones most tablets are stuck with. The Dell does not use the largely ubiquitous Wacom digitiser, however. This is new technology from Synaptics.

The stylus, and the debate surrounding it, was why I held off from buying the tablet in the first place. Early users posted scathing reviews of the stylus performance when inking in OneNote (my primary use case). Dell quickly issues firmware updates for the digitiser that improved things and this gave me the confidence to move forward. However, as I write this post my stylus, originally due the first week in December, is now not due until late March. I understand that Dell suspended shipment whilst they addressed design issues.

I find this all very disappointing. Dell stole a march on the competition when they were first out of the gate with the Venue 8 Pro, but it’s clear that the new technology they adopted was not necessarily ready for prime-time. I like the Venue 8 Pro enough even without the stylus that I have no intention of ditching it, but it is currently unable to fulfill my primary use case.

Battery Life

It lasts all day. For my actual use, which is intermittent and currently tends to be consuming information via web/email/etc I charge it every three days or so. I’m very happy with that. The datasheet says something like 9 hours and I have to say I think that’s pretty accurate.

The Competition

I have been very surprised that in the months since launch, only one vendor has announced anything that comes close to the Venue 8 Pro. Acer now has the W4 – aiming to right the wrongs of the W3; Lenovo announced a business-focused 8 inch tablet with a full HD scree resolution. Neither, however, has a usable stylus. Only the Asus Vivotab Note 8 offers the same size, performance and an active digitizer (a wacom, this time) and it’s not expected to ship until March. Providing they can sort their stylus issues I think the Venue 8 Pro is still the one I’d recommend to users like me.

The Use Case

Simon May posted an interesting article the other day where he compared choosing the size of device to choosing the size of notepad. I want to be able to use the Dell in meetings to take notes. In all-day workshops where I’m taking lots of notes I will use my Surface Pro and it’s great. For sales meetings, however, I want something smaller and lighter and the Dell fits the bill. I’d love to reach the point where my everyday back is small and light because I only have the 8 inch tablet in it, along with a small charger. If I’m presenting then I’ll take my X220T and for workshops I’ll take the Surface Pro. The Dell is perfect for conference trips, too. I’m hoping that once I get my stylus the Dell will prove a reliable workhorse that may finally replace my trusty moleskin notebooks.

Enterprise Use

The Venue 8 Pro ships with Windows 8.1 (or 9.1 Pro if you go for the fully tricked out 64Gb with SIM slot version). With Workplace Join, new in Windows 8.1 and Server 2012 R2, I could get some of the enterprise access I want, but to get things like Direct Access I need to reinstall with Windows 8.1 Enterprise. Rather than blog on the process for that, I will simply point you at a great set of instructions to do this ‘the right way’. As you can guess, I now have 8.1 Enterprise on my Dell, with full secure access to all the systems I need.

Summary: Great Device, Rushed to Market

Everything about the design of the Venue 8 Pro reflects well on Dell. Lots of things about the implementation, however, do not. Since launch, Dell has released a number of updates to fix problems with the auto-brightness of the screen and the sensitivity of the touch screen and stylus. Whilst most of the specs are in line with the other 8” tablets – memory, storage, CPU – the choice of Synaptics’ technology for the screen and stylus is one where I think more testing was needed. Almost certainly the choice was made because of cost – I’ll bet Synaptics did Dell a great deal to be first adopter compared to the cost of the Wacom digitiser. However, the customer does seem to be paying the price for lack of testing, as shown by the suspension of stylus shipments.

If you don’t want or need a stylus, I can recommend the Dell Venue 8 Pro without hesitation. If, like me, you are a OneNote user looking for that perfect size of device to take notes then you need to sit on the fence until March. At that point, hopefully Dell will have sorted it’s problems with the stylus and a careful comparison with the Asus device can be made.

Generation 2 Virtual Machines on Windows 8.1 and Server 2012 R2 plus other nice new features

DDD North 2013 was a fantastic community conference but sadly I didn’t get chance to deliver my grok talk on Generation 2 virtual machines. A few people came up to me beforehand to say they were interested in the topic, and a few more spoke to me afterwards to ask if I would blog. I had planned to write a post anyway, but when you know it’s something people want to read you get a bit more of a push.

This post will cover two areas of Hyper-V in Windows 8.1 and Server 2012: Generation 2 virtual machines which are completely new and a number of changes that should apply to all VMs, be they gen 1 or gen 2. What I not going to cover, as it’s a post all of it’s own, is the new and improved software-defined-networking in hyper-v.

Generation Next

As you can see in the screenshot below, when creating a virtual machine in the Windows 8.1 and Server 2012 you are asked which generation of VM you want. The screen gives a brief and reasonable summary of what the differences are… to a point.

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Generation 1 virtual machines are a mix of synthetic and emulated hardware. This goes all the way back to previous virtualisation solutions where the virtual machine was usually a software emulation of the good old faithful Intel 440BX motherboard.

  • The emulated hardware delivered a high level of compatibility across a range of operating systems. Old versions of DOS, Windows NT, Netware etc would all fairly happily boot and run on the 440BX hardware. You didn’t get all the cleverness of a guest that knew it was inside a VM but it worked.
  • PXE (network) boot was not possible on the implementation of the synthetic network adapter in Hyper-V. That meant that you had to use the emulated NIC if you wanted to do this.
  • Virtual hard disks could be added to the virtual SCSI adapter whilst the machine was running, but not the IDE adapter. You couldn’t boot from a SCSI device, however, so many machines had to have drives on both devices.
  • Emulated keyboard controllers and other system devices were also implemented for compatibility.

Generation 2 virtual machines get rid of all that legacy, emulated hardware. From what I’ve read and heard, all the devices in a generation 2 VM are synthetic, software generated. This makes the VM leaner and more efficient in how it uses resources, and potentially faster as gen 2 VMs are much closer to the kind of hardware found in a modern PC.

There are three key changes in Gen as far as most users are concerned:

  • SCSI disks are not bootable. There is no IDE channel at all; all drives (VHD or virtual optical drive) are now on the SCSI channel. This is far simpler than before.
  • Synthetic network adapters support PXE boot. Gone is the old legacy network adapter.
  • The system uses UEFI rather than BIOS. That means you can implement secure boot on a VM. Whilst this might sound unnecessary it could be of great interest to organisations where security is key.

The drawback of gen 2 is that, right now, only Windows 8, Server 2012 and their respective new updated versions can be run as a guest in a gen 2 VM. I’m not sure that this will change in terms of Microsoft operating systems, but I do expect a number of Linux systems to be able to join the club eventually. I have done a good deal of experimentation here, with a large range of Linux distributions. Pretty much across the board I could get the installation media to boot but install failed because the hardware was unknown. What this means is that when Microsoft release new versions of the hyper-v kernel additions for Linux we should see support expand in this regard.

The screenshot below shows the new hardware configuration screen for a generation 2 virtual machine. Note the much shorted list of devices in the left hand column:

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Useful changes across generations

There have been some other changes that, in theory, span generations. More on that in a bit.

Drives

When Server 2012/Windows 8 arrived, Microsoft added bandwidth management for VMs. That useful for IT pros who want to manage what resources servers can consume but it’s also jolly handy for developers who would like to try low bandwidth connections during testing. We can’t do anything about latency with this approach, but it’s nice to be able to dial a connection down to 1Mb to see what the impact is.

Server 2012 R2/Windows 8.1 add a similar option for the virtual hard drive. We can now specify QoS for the virtual hard disks, in IoPs. The system allows you to set a minimum and maximum. It’s important to remember here that this does depend on the physical tin beneath your VM. I run two SSDs in my laptops now, but before that my VMs ran on a 5400rpm drive. Trying to set a high value for minimum IoPs wouldn’t get me very far here. What is more useful, however, is being able to set the maximum value so we can start to simulate slow drives for testing.

As with network bandwidth management, I think this is also a great feature for IT pros who need to manage contention between VMs and focus resource on key machines.

The screenshot below shows the disk options screen with QoS and more.

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Also new is the ability to resize a VHD that is attached to a running machine. This is only possible with disks attached to SCSI channels, so gen 2 VMs may get more benefit here. Additionally, VHDs can now be shared between VMS. Again, this is SCSI only but this is a really useful change because it means we can build clusters with shared storage hosted on VHDs rather than direct attached iSCSI or fibrechannel. The end result is to make more options available to the little guys who don’t have the resources for expensive tin. It’s also great for building test environments that need to mirror those of a customer – we do that all the time and it’s going to give us lots of options.

Networks

I already said that I’m not going to dive into the new software-defined-networking here. If terms like NVGRE get you excited then there are people with more knowledge of comms than I have writing on the subject. Suffice to say it looks really useful for IT pros but not really for developers, I don’t think.

Also not much use for developers but incredibly useful for developers is the new Protected Network functionality. The concept of this is really simple and so, so useful:

Imagine you have a two node cluster. Each node has a network connection for VMs, not shared by the host OS, and one for the OS itself that the cluster uses. Node 1 suddenly loses connectivity on the VM connection. What happens? Absolutely nothing with Server 2012 because the VMs are still running and nothing knows that the VMs no longer have connectivity. With Server 2012 R2/Windows 8.1 you can enable protect network for the virtual adapter. Now, the systems are checking connectivity to the VM and in our scenario all the VMs on node 1 will fail merrily over to node 2, which still has a connection.

I know we will find this new feature useful on our clustered, production VM hosts. Again, this really helps smaller organisations get better resilience from simpler hardware solutions.

The screenshot below shows the advanced options for a network adapter with network protection enabled.

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Enhanced session mode

I said that, in theory, many of the new changes are pan-generation (and pan-guest OS). According to the documentation, enhanced session mode should work on more than just Windows 8.1 or Server 2012 FR2 guest operating systems. In practice, I have not found this to be the case, even after updating the VM additions on my machines to the latest version.

It is useful, however. When you enable enhanced session mode then, providing you have enabled remote desktop on the guest, this will be used to connect to the VM. Even if the guest has no network connection to the host OS, or even a network adapter!).

The screenshot below shows the option for enhanced session mode. This is enabled by default in Windows 8.1 and disabled by default in Server 2012 R2.

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When you have the option enabled you will see a new button on the right of the toolbar, as shown in the image below.

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That little PC with a plus symbol toggles the VM connection between old-style and the new, RDP-based connection. The end result is that you get more screen resolution choices, you can copy and paste properly between your host and the VM (no more paste keystrokes and you can copy files and documents!) and all the USB device pass-through from the host works too.

For developers working inside a VM this is is great – no more needing network connections to be able to RDP into a box. That means that you can run sensitive VMs, or multiple copies of a VM on multiple machines much more easily than before. If you enable the new connection mode on a VM, and restart it, when the VM begins to boot it connects in the old way, but as soon as it detects the RDP service on the guest you get a dialog asking you for the new resolution and it swtiches to the RDP style connection. It’s great.

I’m hoping that there will either be updates for older Microsoft OS versions, or updated VM additions that will give a consistent result that I have no so far experienced. In theory, updates to the Linux kernel additions could also add this new connection type, but again, so far my experience is that it doesn’t work right now.

Summary

To sum up then:

  • Generation 2 VMs – leaner, meaner and simpler all round but limited to the latest Microsoft desktop and server OS’. I can’t see a reason not to use them for the latest OS version.
  • Disk QoS – should be really useful for dev/test when you need to simulate a slow drive. Great for IT pros to manage environments with a mix of critical and non-critical VMs.
  • Online VHD resizing. There are so many times I’ve needed this on dev/test in the last few months alone. Shame it’s SCSI only so you can’t grow the OS disk on a gen 1 VM but you can’t have everything.
  • Shared VHD. Another useful new option that will help building dev/test environments and will also be useful for smaller organisations who want to build things like virtualised clustered file servers using a cluster shared volume (CSV).
  • Network protection. Great for IT pros running host clusters. Can’t see a use for devs.
  • Enhanced session mode. Useful all round, especially for devs who want to easily work on a VM. Useful for IT pros who need to copy stuff on to running VMs, but so far my experience is mixed as it only works on Windows 8.1 and Server 2012 guests.

Windows 8.1 is already on MSDN and TechNet so if you’re a dev or IT Pro with the right subscriptions, why aren’t you trying this stuff already? For everybody else, the 18th of this month sees general availability and I expect evaluation media will be available for you to play with.

I wouldn’t be where I am today… How encouraging kids in computing is important

I’ve been mulling this blog post for a while. Those of you who know Black Marble will have seen that we all believe very strongly in encouraging young people to take up computing and put time into sharing our knowledge and expertise. I thought it was worth sharing how I got to where I am today, which would not have been possible without the help and encouragement of three key people who worked with technology. There’s a message in the story though, about how we need to help the next generation of computing professionals in the same way.

To an extent this post is as a result of an event that Steve, Richard and I took part in shortly after I returned from the Build conference. One of our local schools ran a STEM event and invited Black Marble to join in. If, like me, STEM means nothing to you, it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths and you can find more at the National STEM Centre website. At that event, Steve took our Gadgeteer kits and led a series of hands-on sessions that combined hardware and software to build quick but cool projects. Richard and I decided to run the Agile Hour activity with a number of groups of children across a range of ages. The end result, hopefully, was that those kids went away with a mixture of enthusiasm for the craft courtesy of Steve, and an understanding that it isn’t all sitting in front of a keyboard all day – teamwork and communication are key skills – thanks to Richard and myself and an exercise about mining cheese on the moon…

Anyway, I’ll come back to encouraging others in a little while. Back to how I got started…

Key influence one: My upper school form tutor

I am of that age where computing grew around me. When Sinclair launched the ZX81 I was nine. A friend of mine had one and I remember writing programs with him. As I got older I was lucky enough that my middle school had a BBC model B that I could use, and I got an Amstrad CPC 6128 which I loved and tinkered with. None of those, however, bore much resemblance to the modern PC.

When I started at upper school, my form tutor was a maths teacher. He was also the computer studies teacher, and the one who rand all the school’s computer systems – staff (what there was of it) and student. In our classroom, down one side, was a line of Commodore PETs which we used in our classes. They didn’t last long though, because soon after I arrived they PETs were replaced by Research Machines Nimbus RM186s, running a hacked-around version of Windows (the 80186 CPU wasn’t fully compatible with the 8086).

My tutor knew how enthusiastic I was and encouraged me. Myself and Andrew started to help him with those computers. He allowed us to install software with him and explained how they worked. As those RM186 PCs were replaced with 286 and 386 and then (wow!) 486 machines he let us configure them, rebuild them and learn how they worked. We weren’t allowed to touch the Netware server that appeared in the corner, but we were allowed to store our file son it. We were even allowed, on occasion, to use the modem and connect to some of the dial-up bulletin boards that were around at the time.

All of this meant that by the time I left school to go to University I could build a PC from scratch, install DOS and Windows (I go all the way back to Windows 1!) and other apps and configure the system to get the most RAM and install and configure the drivers needed for networking. I could program in BASIC and write DOS batch files and I had a healthy respect both for the technology and the people that ran it. PCs weren’t things you played games on, they were tools that I used to word process, publish school magazines, draw artwork and crunch numbers.

The important point here is that most of my computing experience was gained outside of lessons – before school started, during breaks and lunchtimes and after school. All of that was because my form tutor was prepared to encourage me in what was effectively his own time and I am grateful for that.

He also had a fantastic stereo system in our classroom and got me into prog rock played loud, but that’s another story.

Key influence number two: The University server guy

In truth, the number of people in the Computer Centre at the University of Bradford who I owe much to is too long to list – from the coms guy that introduced me to everyone, to the Director that gave me first a summer job and then my first full time job on graduation. However, the one that deserves the medal was the chap who was responsible for the Netware servers and student computer clusters.

It was an opportunity that would be hard to give anyone now, as networks store more sensitive information and the risk of abuse is so high that it’s hard to gain trust. In my first few weeks of University, however, there were very few desktop PCs in service and staff computing was in its infancy.

I was incredibly fortunate that my enthusiasm allowed me to drop into the offices of the staff and talk to them about computers. We talked about what they were doing, and what I was doing. I listened to their problems and would try to solve them – on my equipment and in my time. I was invited to accompany the network guys as they strung Thin Ethernet cables and learned how all that worked, with T-pieces and terminators, network segments and bridges. I learned about the new twisted pair cables and data sockets and hubs and routers. I even learned how to install servers – Netware 3.11 at the time – and got involved in building the new infrastructure.

My mentor was a patient man who had little time to experiment. He would get into work early to avoid traffic and hoped to use the quiet time to catch up on work and plan and prepare. He was certainly not prepared for the enthusiastic young man who would bound into his office at 8 in the morning jabbering about how he’d managed to get Microsoft NetBeui drivers installed over the top of Novell’s driver stack and get Windows 3.11 talking both workgroup protocols and server protocols and wasn’t it just so fantastic and could show him if he could just move this kit over here and rewire this bit of the office over here…

But again, I was encouraged. I was most certainly tolerated and over time my enthusiasm was channelled into creating and managing services. I worked in the Computer Centre during my holidays – sometimes paid; sometimes not. It gave me incredible opportunities to learn and experience desktop computing on a large scale. It gave me an understanding of what providing a service meant, and how systems had to be resilient and supportable and documented. It also gave me a huge amount of incredibly valuable experience for when I would finally hit the job market.

It was such a wonderful place to be that, on graduation, I managed to get a job at the University. I left to Join Black Marble, where the experience I had learned running services of hundreds of desktop PCs and dozens of servers of varying flavours (Netware, Solaris, Linux, Windows desktop and server) has been invaluable.

Key influence number three: Robert

Which brings me to the third big player in getting me where I am today: Robert Hogg. I’ve not named my other two mentors simply because I can’t ask their permission and I respect them too much too simply throw their names around. As MD of Black Marble, Robert’s my manager. It’s hard not to name him, and I’m sure he won’t mind.

Most people who know Robert, and certainly those who have know him a long time, know him as Boss. I first met him when I was a student. Boss had built the first few Netware servers at the uni, and had then moved into management of the new Sun Solaris servers and workstations when they were installed, during the summer of the year I joined the university as an undergrad. The poor man I tormented every morning took over the role Boss had previously occupied, so in a way it’s all his fault.

It was Boss, along with the server guy, who persuaded me not to ditch my management degree at the end of the first year and switch to computing. They could teach me the computing bit, they said, but the management stuff would be really useful to my career.

Boss is like me – he likes to play and experiment with computers. Unlike me, he’s a developer. I’d argue that he’s probably the reason I don’t try to code. He patiently explained stacks and pointers to me many years ago, and through him I learned that whilst I’m a solid infrastructure guy, and I understand development, I am not a ninja coder and will never be. Boss has always encouraged my experimentation with technology and it’s that which brings the variety that keeps me so engaged with what I do.

You have much to learn, grasshopper

I believe that it’s important to stress the differences in my three mentors as much as their similarities. I think that each of their qualities is important in how I was encouraged and how we now need to encourage others:

  • My maths teacher was supportive of my interest in something new. He allowed me to play, but set boundaries that gave me respect for what might happen if I broke stuff. He showed me computers as wonderful tools, not playthings and inspired me to discover what they could do.
  • My university mentor gave me focus. He forced me to understand the implications and repercussions of my actions. He praised my innovations that helped and stopped those that would cause problems before they moved near to production systems. He taught me how different systems could and should be integrated to deliver IT as a supporting service to others.
  • Boss constantly reminds me how computing should be fun. That we should always be experimenting and learning because that’s what makes life interesting and because that’s how we continue to develop computing for other people.

Sadly, it’s hard to offer today’s young people the same kind of opportunity that I had. IT systems are now all-pervasive and store sensitive data and are critical for the functioning of our schools, universities and companies. Whilst you can still buy components and build your own computer, it’s not like the old days where we fiddled with switches and jumpers and needed to know about interrupts and memory address ranges when plugging things together.

I think that has taken some of the magic away, and that makes it more difficult to show how interesting computing can be. That said, wonderful new technology like gesture-based computing shows how things are still cool; it’s just that things are less accessible than they used to be.

Sensei <your name here>

That’s where we come in. As IT professionals and developers it is our responsibility to help those interested in our field. By taking part in STEM events at schools, attending and speaking at user groups, getting involved with the Imagine Cup or just helping our own children, nieces, nephews and friends children we can give the next generation the same encouragement that we got.

Hopefully reading about how much I was helped by my mentors will inspire you to help someone else. Go on – you know you want to!

The Acer Iconia W3: An object lesson in how NOT to design a tablet

As you may have seen from my recent tweets, I was fortunate enough to attend //Build again this year in lovely San Francisco. In what appears to be an emerging tradition, conference attendees received not one, but two Windows 8 tablets: A 128Gb Microsoft Surface Pro with Type Cover, and an Acer Iconia W3 with keyboard dock.

Many column inches have been dedicated to the Microsoft device, which I won’t bother repeating. The Acer, however, is a different story.

I will run through my thoughts in detail. For those in a hurry I will say this: I would never pay for money for the Acer. I agree with Paul Thurrott’s sentiment when he said “The W3 is disappointing enough that I’m probably not going to review it.”

Size and Weight

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It was the size of the Acer that initially got me excited when Steve Ballmer announced that we’d receive the tablet. My Surface RT has been a regular fixture in my rucksack since I got it, but it’s bit big when all I want to do is browse the web or review some documents in a cramped railway carriage or aeroplane. We acquired an iPad Mini for testing work in the office and I was hoping for something similar, but running Windows.

In this regard, I have to say the Acer delivers. It’s about the same size as one of my trusty Moleskine notebooks. It’s definitely portable. Technically, it fits in a cargo pocket of my jeans, but I’d never be mad enough to walk around like that! It’s too big for the inside pocket of my jacket, though.

It’s a bit thick for my liking, compared to the iPad. It’s no thinner than my Surface RT. It’s not that much lighter, either, which I’m less enthused about, but not so heavy that I’d worry about carrying it around.

Overall: Positive

Power Connection

Failure number one: What idiot at Acer decided that this tablet should have a separate charging brick rather than use USB? It’s a small tablet. I’m travelling light and I want to use the tiny charger from my phone, or plug in to my laptop to charge. I don’t want to carry another charging brick around. Points in Acer’s favour for making it a very small brick – no bigger than the Surface RT charger – but many points lost for it being there at all.

Overall: Negative

Build Quality

It’s cheap and plasticky. No VaporMg or machined aluminium here. Honestly, I could live with that. What I can’t live with is the way the screen bubbles around my fingers when I hold the tablet in my hand (and I’m not squeezing hard, either).

Overall: Negative

Camera

Front and back shooters are very poor quality two megapixel shooters. Why bother?

Overall: Negative

Wifi

Wireless is incredibly frustrating. I can understand that Acer were aiming at a price point with the W3 but seriously, 2.4Ghz only – no 5Ghz? more importantly the antenna appears to be shockingly awful. I struggle at home where my old iPhone 3G works fine, my trusty Dell Mini 9 works fine and all my new kit (Surface, Surface RT, Thinkpad X220T etc) work just fine. For most of //Build the Acer failed to access the internet whilst at the conference and struggled in my hotel room.

Overall: Negative

Screen

I could forgive just about everything if the W3 had a good screen. On a small device it is imperative that the display is clear and crisp. Oh dear.

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The resolution is 1280×800. That makes the pixels quite small. It would be OK if the screen was clear but it has a coating that scatters the light coming from the screen, giving a mottled appearance. The photo above looks like it’s poor quality – that mottling is the screen, not the camera! It’s pretty much unreadable for any period of time, and it’s not possible to increase the scaling of the screen other than in desktop mode. I was looking forward to using this with Kindle to read books and documentation. Ah well…

Overall: Shockingly negative

Spec

The W3 is an Intel SOC device so it has an Atom CPU with 2Gb of RAM and a 5-point touch screen. I like that it can run 32-bit Windows desktop apps. I would like it better if I felt it was as quick as the Surface RT. In fairness, it’s quick enough for what I’d use it for. The fact that I can put Windows 8 Enterprise on it and domain join it if I so desire is a big plus. Note that it has no TPM chip, however, so I can’t bitlocker it.

Overall: Positive

Ports

Actually, for a small device there’s a good selection of ports on this thing: Micro-USB (which I thought was for charging until I found the charger), micro-hdmi, headphone jack and a micro-SD card slot.

However (you didn’t think this would end well, did you?) the headphone socket is on the bottom of the tablet, if you are in portrait mode. That’s a pain if you want to watch video or, like me, be foolish enough to want to read an eBook whilst listening to music and rest the tablet on my leg, or somewhere comfortable.

Not only that, but the speakers are on that edge too. If I’m holding the tablet comfortably, I am invariably blocking the speakers. They’re not great anyway, but I’d like to hear something!

Keyboard Dock

I took the keyboard out of the dock. I tried the keys – they’re not bad. I look at the battery compartment (AAA batteries, if I recall correctly. I stopped caring after I noted it needed batteries and wasn’t rechargable), noted the lack of physical connectors to secure the tablet in place or charge it, noted the strange compartment at the back into which the tablet clips and then put the keyboard back in the box.

In fairness, you don’t buy an eight inch tablet for it’s keyboard. I’m sure there are elegant solutions to the small tablet keyboard question. This isn’t it.

Overall: Negative

Summary

If we were looking for an anti-pattern for tablet design, this would be it. If this is the vanguard of the Windows 8.1 small tablet charge then I hope the next wave are better. There’s nothing here that would make me choose it over an iPad Mini or a Nexus 7.

It’s a crying shame that a device handed out to showcase the new small-device experience with Windows 8.1 should be so awful as to potentially discourage me from ever using a small device with Windows 8.1! The new OS has some great features. The Acer W3 should be allowed to die quietly where it can do no harm.

Hopefully Lenovo will deliver a decent eight inch tablet soon. Or Microsoft will launch a Surface Mini… Please…?

Overall: Avoid. I couldn’t honestly recommend this to anybody. Ever.

Living with the Nokia Lumia 800

If you call in at Black Marble you’ll see Nokia’s everywhere. They’re talking over the place. It takes me back… I remember when almost everybody I knew had some kind of Nokia or another. I started with the 5.1 on Orange, followed by a sequence of progressively smaller phones. Then came Series 60 and I walked away – I never liked the interface. I swapped to Sony Ericsson and the P800, P900 and P910. I moved to Windows Mobile for time, until I could stand it no more and swapped to an iPhone (much to the grumbling of folk round here!).

I liked my iPhone – it was reliable, flexible and did what I wanted, when I wanted it to (until the last IOS revision, sadly). Windows Phone was tempting – the interface looked great and felt great, but the handsets just weren’t there. I tried an LG and hated it, and the HTCs are just too darned big.

When the Lumia was announced I signed up on the Orange site well before release and I picked mine up on day 1. Now the iPhone is gathering dust (I thought I’d still use it for TomTom but even that has been usurped) and I can’t say I miss it.

Overall I can heartily recommend the Lumia. There’s lots to like. There are some niggles but none that drive me crazy. Over the past two months it’s been reliable, usable and flexible – just like my iPhone was.

The Good

  • Size. Just right, actually. Marginally smaller than my iPhone 3GS, although perhaps a little fatter. Nicely contoured and fits well in the hand.
  • Screen. Great. The AMOLED display is really crisp and clear. Sure, the iPhone 4 has a higher resolution but the standard 800×480 Windows Phone resolution is just fine thanks.
  • Construction. The polycarbonate body feels nice in the hand. The phone is well put together – nothing rattles or wiggles where it shouldn’t and the curved gorilla glass front looks and feels the business.
  • Camera. The Lumia takes better pics than my 3GS did. The LED flash is staggeringly bright when it goes off. I like the various modes that are available, such as night and sunset, and they have been useful more than once. I’d like to be able to use the camera app directly to take Hipstamatic-type pics without needing to post process in an app, though.
  • Speed. It’s a pokey little thing. Apps run smoothly and quickly.

The Bad

  • Charging. Battery life is on a par with the iPhone, so no complaints there, but if the battery runs completely flat I can only use the Nokia charger to revive it, and even then once or twice I’ve had to use the 10-second power button press reset to force the thing to charge. No issue with battery life though – the much discussed problem has never materialised for me.
  • Touch. For the most part it’s great, but every now and then the touch screen can be a little over sensitive, or not sensitive enough – take your pick. This could be a calibration issue or something to do with the gorilla glass thickness, I don’t know. It doesn’t stop me using the phone but occasionally it niggles me when in a game.
  • USB Port Cover. This is another one that’s been debated elsewhere. I like the overall design and that the port is protected, but frankly, it makes plugging the thing in a fiddly process. For somebody that has grown used to simply plonking his iPhone onto the dock connector of a raft of household electrical appliances it’s a bit irritating.

The Apps

  • Nokia Drive. I like this, although in it’s current incarnation it’s no TomTom. I miss the lane guidance and I particularly miss the traffic updates. Supposedly the latter will arrive in an update, and it’s hard to complain when it’s free. Overall it works well and gets me where I need to go.
  • XBOX Live. This is becoming a bit addictive. I have an XBOX (two, thanks to Orange and the Lumia offer) but I never used to pay so much attention to Achievements as I do now. XBOX Companion is funky; Halo Reach is handy and being able to see my gamer friends is great. There are some really good games available, and many of the most addictive I’ve found are free! I didn’t use the iPhone for gaming half as much as I do on the Nokia.
  • Bing Get Me There. I had a number of London Underground and similar apps on the iPhone but they pale in comparison to Bing Get Me There. It’s fabulous, fully featured and free! I go to London regularly, but not regularly enough to be an old lag when it comes to navigating the tube. This is a great app!
  • Missing in action… I had a raft of apps on the iPhone that I used regularly. Some have an equivalent on Windows Phone, but not all. I really miss Hipstamatic, and there are no apps that are its equal for Windows Phone. Others have third party apps but not first party, such as TripIt, which I find really helpful (Trip Hub steps up there). It’s getting better all the time, but it’s not yet at a point where I can match the variety of small but useful apps that I had on the iPhone.

Fujitsu Stylistic Q550: A Tablet for the Enterprise

Every now and again, whilst I’m away from the office, the gadget pixies visit my desk and leave something interesting for me to play with. It’s a bit like Bagpuss, except stuff works when it arrives and I can never get the guys to wake up when I need them too.

The last time this happened there was a tablet sitting on my desk. I like it enough to write about it.

The Stylistic is never going to win a beauty pageant. Which is a shame, because it has all the features that I usually bemoan the lack of in Windows Tablets. Most of them are designed for the consumer. That’s great, but I get involved in lots of projects these days where the end user wants the convenience of a tablet device but the demands of their IT department make them unusable.

For example, I once visited a site where the IT department had imaged the tablet we were to use and applied their standard group policies. They required a smart card for authentication and forced CTRL-ALT-DEL to logon. You can probably see the problem with that.

It wouldn’t phase the Stylistic.

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Stuff I like about it

  • Removable battery. I’ve played with this for a while now, and I can report that battery life is on a par with the other tablets I’ve played with – four to five hours. That’s good, but not a working day. Being able to carry a spare battery if I need it means that I can be away from a power outlet all day and not worry.
  • Smart card reader. Two factor authentication on a tablet – fantastic! It’s just what enterprises need in order to support these kind of devices. As an IT manager I want to be able to apply group policies to these devices. They are extremely portable so I have to be sure that the data on them is secure.
  • TPM Chip. I can bitlocker the drive on this thing properly. Shame the one I have to play with came with Windows 7 Professional on it. Be careful with this, though: I checked the product information and the TPM chip is an option on the device. I think that’s a mistake on Fujitsu’s part – most organisations won’t check and will probably order the wrong variant.
  • Fingerprint Reader. Personally, I don’t like or trust fingerprint readers for authentication, but I like that I have the option.
  • Matte screen. This is great! Virtually every windows tablet I have seen has a glossy screen. That’s great in the shop window and a real pain in the real world as I can’t see the screen for the reflections. The Stylistic has a matte screen and it’s incredibly easy to read and use.
  • Stylus. It’s much easier to write notes using OneNote than type on a software keyboard. The digitiser on the Stylistic is a dual mode one that works with fingers and a stylus and I like it.
  • Multi-touch. The touch digitiser on the Stylistic can handle four points. It may be able to handle more but I haven’t found any detailed information. Four is better than most windows tablets, however, which tend to deal with only two touch points.

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Stuff I don’t like about it

  • Stylus. Don’t get me wrong – the stylus is great. The fact that there is nowhere to put is is very annoying. It’s a nice stylus, but there’s no clip on it so I can’t treat it like a pen and keep it in my pocket, and there’s nowhere on the tablet to stow it away.
  • Styling. From the front the Stylistic doesn’t look too bad. However, flip it over and it’s been hit with the ugly stick. I realise that Enterprise purchasing teams don’t care about looks but users do. Why can’t it be sleeker. Heck, I’d settle for it simply being all one colour!
  • Fiddly buttons. There are lots of buttons down the side of the Stylistic. One brings up a software keyboard, but it’s not the standard Windows 7 one – it’s a nasty one from N-Trig that crashes a lot. One makes the screen rotate which I view as a bit surplus to requirements – why can’t I simply have a lock rotation button like every other tablet. With the stylistic I must fiddle with a tray app to turn auto-rotate on and off, then poke at the little button to rotate the screen if I have disabled the auto-rotate in an outstanding failure of ergonomic design. There’s also an ‘Alt’ button that I admit to not having figured out.
  • Crazy Gestures. Why do all these tablet manufacturers insist on ‘improving’ Windows 7 with complex multi-touch gestures that nobody can remember and really aren’t useful. I don’t want crazy three- and four-finger gestures. Fortunately this is all software and I can turn it off.
  • 32-bit Only. Why would you release a piece of kit these days that isn’t 64-bit capable? I appreciate that the tablet only has 2Gb of memory (which is enough for most people’s needs) but operating systems are moving steadily to 64-bit and I’d rather not be left behind.

Overall: A Win

Most of the things I find annoying are implemented by software and I can turn them off. The fact that it’s a sexy as a house brick is of little importance to the enterprise market at which it is aimed. Overall the Stylistic has a raft of features that enterprise IT demands but doesn’t sacrifice the key elements of tablet design to deliver them. The Stylistic is not too heavy to hold, is a nice size and has good battery life for a Windows machine. As an enterprise tablet I think it’s a solid choice that supports all the security functionality I would want to enable for such a mobile device.

Fundaments of planning your beautiful SharePoint web site

This article is all about preparation. It’s about the thinking and planning you need to do if you’re going to successfully build your wonderful, unique and striking website on the SharePoint platform.

I’ve been helping customers implement SharePoint solutions for quite a while. Life gets interesting when those customers want to use SharePoint to host their public website or an intranet of published content. SharePoint is a great platform with a host of powerful features that make it a solid choice for large or complex websites, sites that have to deal with large volumes of traffic or simply sites that need real business processes wrapped around the publishing model. Much of my time in these scenarios is spent helping the customer prepare and plan, and I’d like to share some of my experience.

We’ve planned the site…

site plan

How many times do you visit the customer and they greet you with an enthusiastic ‘We’ve planned the site and documented it for you’? I get twitchy when I hear that, because it usually involves me being handed a piece of paper that looks like the picture above. That would be great if it was a starting point, but many times the customer genuinely believes that’s all they need to tell me and the creative agency, and from that tiny post-it note our creative minds will issue forth the next great site on the web.

SharePoint rewards attention to detail

You can’t treat SharePoint like an old web server and expect to get away with it. Treat a web site as a vague collection of folders with pages in that present content of some kind to the reader and you will quickly find yourself in a pit of despair. There are four areas that demand your attention – attend to these with diligence and the technical solutions will be much easier to determine.

Before you start, read Don’t make me think by Steve Krug and The Elements of Content Strategy by Erin Kissane. Both are quick reads that will help you immeasurably.

Content Strategy

Content Strategy is all about identifying what content you have, describing it, identifying who owns it and what its lifecycle is. It’s about discerning the difference between a product datasheet, press release, case study and staff biography. In SharePoint terms, it’s all about content types. What information do we store and how? What columns constitute a press release, and is it based on an article page or an item?

I find that full-service creative agencies that are used to writing copy, be it for print or the web will understand this already. Creative agencies that are more focused on visual design, be it for the web or otherwise tend to struggle with the concepts of content strategy. Once you’ve got them on board, however, their lives are much easier as well: Now we know that we have those four kinds of content then the creative agency can choose to design unique ways to display them.

Design

Knowing what the different kinds of content are will invariably help the creative guys. Now they know that they have to design ways to present each of the different kinds of content – a product page will look very different from the Chief Exec’s Blog. This will help you to answer SharePoint questions like how many masterpages and page layouts and will start to guide your thinking in terms of site structure.

User Experience

Not only do we want to know what the site looks like, we need to think about how users will interact with it. Do we want to use clever icons for navigation? Do we need to present content based on what we know about the user – age, gender, role, etc? We will almost certainly need to build something bespoke to deliver the user experience which means we need requirements so put plenty of detail into describing how things will be expected to work.

Information Architecture

There are some great books on IA out there. SharePoint places additional constraints on projects though: Perhaps our security needs mean that we must create separate site collections for content. Maybe we want radically different design for certain content which means different masterpages and separate sites. Certainly we should avoid simply pouring all our content into one large pot, but if we need to aggregate items on our homepage what implications does that have on our structure?

Measure twice, cut once

If all the steps above sound like a lot of planning then you’d be correct. However, convincing the customer to pay for a planning phase up front will save everyone time and money later. It’s important to make sure that the creative agency understands that the planning phase is critical to them as well – why rush off and design something beautiful when any of those four elements above may throw the whole design into disarray?

The SharePoint Solution

Each of the four areas influences one another and each in turn influences your SharePoint solution design. Technical and budgetary constraints in this area will undoubtedly cause you to revise your plans, but without the information gathered in those four areas of planning you won’t have enough detail to accurately specify and estimate the project, let alone deliver it successfully. In order to deliver, we as practitioners need to understand those four key areas, especially if our customers don’t.

Useful Reading

Books you may find useful when tackling those four planning areas:

Living with the Acer Aspire 1420P

This blog has been a very quiet place for a long time now, reflecting somewhat how busy I have been elsewhere. During this period of heavy work I have found a new friend in my Aspire 1420Tp In some ways it’s sad – my trusty and reliable Dell Mini 9 has been neglected in favour of a younger, sexier model.

tablet mode

The 1420P is the production model Acer convertible tablet, a variant of which was given to all Microsoft PDC conference attendees last year. We have quite a few in the office; sadly I am the only person to have paid for theirs. However, I benefit greatly from the fact that mine has a UK keyboard with all the right keys in their correct and proper places.

Personally, I think you get quite a lot for your money. For about £400 I have a lightweight, highly portable machine with ample power to perform the daily chores I give to it. I will admit that the first thing I did upon taking it from its box was to add a further 2Gb or RAM to its shipping quota of 2Gb, but many will not find the need to do so.

I thought long and hard before purchasing the 1420. I already have my workhorse laptop – the excellent TravelMate 6593 – which runs the things I need for the more technical aspects of my working life. However, it’s 15.4” frame weighs heavy when doing light work on the sofa in an evening, and it’s not great for casual web browsing.

I was finding myself more and more using my iPhone for casual web browsing, email reading and research. It was far easier than having a laptop on my knee, browsing with the touchpad and keyboard. I was seriously considering an iPad – the slate form factor and extreme usability were attractive. I had an eye on the HP Slate so loudly trumpeted b Steve Ballmer before it vanished frustratingly from view.

There were two problems with the iPad approach: Firstly, being a Yorkshireman, I found the price a little steep for an iPhone on steroids; secondly, and not unrelated to my opinion of the price, it was not as functional and flexible as I wanted.

The 1420P meets my needs ably. For casual web browsing, research and email it spends most of its life in tablet form, running portrait mode as I browse the web using nothing but the touch screen. When I use it for document writing or bits of sysadmin work it turns easily back to a traditional notebook form factor.

slate mode

It’s not perfect. The techy in me wishes that the touch screen was more than a mere 2-point variety; it would be nice if the display was a higher resolution than the now ubiquitous 1366×768, but that’s possibly because I am spoiled by the magnificent 1650×1080 of my TravelMate; the lack of a docking station connector makes it less convenient for use as a workhorse office computer; and it suffers in comparison with the iPad in terms of user interface for touch alone (this isn’t really the fault of the hardware, I suppose).

It’s qualities far outweigh the shortfalls, however. It weights almost nothing, and I can comfortably get eight hours from a full charge which means that the charger (itself small and lightweight) becomes an optional extra for short trips. The glossy screen is bright and clear (although like all glossy screens it suffers in bright light) and does not suffer like the Dell Mini when browsing the web; the keyboard is comfortable and responsive to use and causes me no trouble when working on long documents; finally, and my favourite part, when in tablet mode it is comfortable to hold and natural to use.

Which brings me to something I find really significant about convertibles. When I’m in a meeting I hate using a laptop. I find that the screen immediately forms a barrier between participants and I hate thinking that behind that barrier the person could be doing something other than concentrating on the x7686meeting. I prefer to use a pen and paper as a result, but that means I need to transcribe notes later. The convertible 1420 allows me to switch to tablet mode and use OneNote and the stylus. I have all the benefits of a computer in front of me so I can access documents, email and other resources on demand, but the computer does not come between me and the other attendees. OneNote also allows me to quickly generate notes, tasks, actions and more without leaving the application.

Specification:

Size 285 x 208.9 x 28.5 mm
Weight 1.72kg
Screen Resolution 1366×768
Multi-touch 2-point
Processor Intel Celeron U2300
Memory 2Gb (upgraded to 4Gb)
Hard drive 160Gb
Price approx. £400