Monthly Archives: November 2015

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 First Glance – a heart breaker and a deal breaker

As those that know me will know, I’m a big fan of Apple products. Some call me a fanboy – but my view is that I like them because they work. I’ve owned my Mid-2012 MacBook Pro 15″ since… Mid-2012, and have barely lost a day of productivity. The last time the MBP was out of action was when I dropped it on the corner onto granite, and dented it. Apple took it in and replaced nearly everything, a process which took a few days.

That said, 3 years is a long time in technology, and the MBP has seen better days. It’s out of warranty and some of the connectors have stopped working, and it’s getting a bit slow. It’s time for a replacement and the rumors are that Apple will have a new machine in Q1 of 2016.

And here it is that I find myself browsing the world of computers.

Why not the iPad Pro or MacBook?

I love the new MacBook, it looks great. But, for me it is underpowered and the keyboard is a little cramped, and I’m certain that it’s not well built enough to survive the pounding that anything I own will go through. I went through 3 MacBook Airs before I was smart enough to move to the Pro, and those light machines can’t handle it.

As for the iPad Pro… it’s just a big iPad. That will suit some people, and the screen and battery life are glorious, but I can’t download 20GB of email from Office 365 locally, or curate complex documents. A few of the reviews have said the same – the iPad Pro is an awesome consumer device, but it’s no laptop replacement.

A Mid-2015 MacBook Pro isn’t an option – it’s way too incremental an improvement over what I’ve already got. So Apple… you’re out!

Then it must be the Microsoft Surface Book?

The next logical device is the Microsoft Surface Book. On paper, it looks like it’s the ultimate laptop convertible. There seems to be no downside to this thing! It’s a laptop… it’s a tablet… with 12h battery life and no downside.

My take on the Surface Book is that it’s very much a first generation device. Is it the future of computing? Hard to tell. Certainly, it appears to offer the best of both worlds, but the battery as a tablet is very limited, for example, and it can’t charge from base station to tablet – you have to be plugged in. I also heard various problems with docking and undocking the base.

I walked into Best Buy and they admitted that whilst they did have Surface Books in stock, I couldn’t see one because their demo device didn’t power on any more and they were awaiting a replacement from Microsoft. That sealed the deal.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

And so it is that I find myself writing this on a Microsoft Surface Pro 4. I’m sat on the sofa, tapping away on the keyboard on my lap, with the kick stand propping up the screen. The keyboard case is remarkably stiff and I find myself typing remarkably quickly, though I’m still not quite used to the offset keyboard, so accuracy is off.

For the last week I’ve been traveling with both my SP4 and my trusty MacBook Pro, so I can be sure not to lose productivity. I’m not ready to make a final conclusion yet but I think you’ll find the initial findings interesting.

It is conceptually amazing

The concept of the SP4 is amazing. It’s light, it’s a tablet, and it has a detachable keyboard. It claims a 9 hour battery life and Windows 10 is convertible-friendly, so you can switch in between use cases on a dime.

The screen is fantastic – detailed and crisp with great colors, and the kick stand means you can get comfortable on any surface. Microsoft Edge is a good browser and is quite effective in tablet mode, which is very nice browsing on the sofa, where you can detach the keyboard and save all that weight.

I’ve got the i5 version so it’s not got the raw power of a MacBook Pro, but I find it responsive and speedy enough for my needs. I figured the i5 version would have better battery life, and it’s far less expensive. Office 2016 is also awesome, and can be downloaded via your Office 365 subscription.

It excels at some things

The SP4 absolutely excels at some things. For example I just ran an off-site, and I used OneNote with the pen to take notes, taking pictures of white boards with the camera, and it was awesome.

Same with being used for email in a café or train station – you can pull it out, and the keyboard is remarkably good to get out content quickly. I used the iPad Pro keyboard and was much less impressed. It can’t match a full size keyboard like the MacBook Pro, but it’s not far off.

It misses the mark in the real world

I’ve been trying to work with the SP4, but so far it’s not met my expectations. See, there are deal breakers.

First, the Wi-Fi is flakey. This is well documented on the web, and running all the updates in (which takes 4 reboots and over an hour) helps. But I still can’t access my iPhone hotspot, which means I get no internet on the go.

Second, the claimed 9 hour battery life is simply not true. In very modest use, it’s 3-4 hours of browsing and email. I don’t understand how a consumer product company is allowed to make statements like this. I guess you might be able to get 9 hours of video playback with the screen turned off.

Third, the usability is off. I put the SP4 down and then pick it up some while later and open the keyboard flap. It doesn’t turn on, you have to press the button for this. And depending on how deep it has gone to sleep, you have to wait several minutes for it to come to life. Or sometimes it doesn’t come to life at all and you have to hard reset.

I’ve taken a hard line – I must try to use the SP4 first, and use the MBP as a backup device, but too many times I’ve got frustrated with the SP4 because I had actual work to do, and pulled out the MacBook Pro.

Fourth, the tablet mode isn’t quite right. I had a Lenovo Yoga, and that converted automatically between tablet and PC mode when you flipped the keyboard. Not so with the SP4, you have to manually switch, which is frustrating. What’s more, many apps (Slack, for instance) aren’t tablet-enabled, so they aren’t responsive and the on-screen keyboard gets in the way. Slack is my primary messaging tool, so that’s another deal breaker.

And last, the so-called lapability factor of the SP4 is off. The kick stand means that the keyboard is 3″ closer to you than in the MacBook Pro, which means that the SP4 is horribly uncomfortable on an airplane or train, and because it doesn’t have a hinge, the keyboard and screen don’t support each other. On a flat surface, it’s awesome, but elsewhere, it’s really unpleasant.

Final Words

I’ll be traveling with the MBP and SP4 over the next few weeks and I’m hoping I come to like the SP4 more. Perhaps it will come into its own in situations I haven’t encountered yet.

But for a fourth generation device, the SP4 has too many deal breakers.

What bag to carry on a Regional Jet

As a part of my job, I get to do a good bit of travel. I suspect that some people who don’t fly a lot imagine this is glamorous like Jennifer Aniston’s A380 Emirates advertisement!

In reality, a good amount of it is being crammed into a 50-seater Regional Jet, especially when doing short 90-120 minute hops in the USA. In fact, American Airlines uses American Eagle as its regional carrier, and has 290 small jets which were acquired in a spree of consolidation over the last 20 years.

Many passengers hate them, but I’ve come to quite like them. However, they don’t have any WiFi and they can’t take a full size 22″x14″x9″ (2772 cubic inches) carry-on bag in the cabin.

The Gate Check

If you’ve been in Zone 5 in an American Airlines flight, you will have experienced the loathed Gate Check, where they take your bag off you at the plane entrance, and you pick it up at the baggage carousel at your destination. For frequent flyers this is highly frustrating, because we hate waiting for anything. This is one of the major reasons that keeps flyers loyal to an airline: if you fly more than 50,000 miles a year with that airline, you start to get perks like priority boarding, so that does’t happen so much.

The Regional Jet

The Regional Jet, or RJ, is a set of planes with 50-60 seats, usually, like the Bombardier CRJ-200, configured in a 2+2, or like the Embraer ERJ-145, a 2+1 seat config. Some, like the Bombardier CRJ-700 and CRJ-900 (formerly Canadair) and Embraer ERJ-175, have a 1+1 first class at the front, but most are all economy. The bin sizes vary on all these jets, and if you want to get really specific, there is a nice thread here which discusses the varied overhead cabin sizes… but the short version is that 19″x14″x8″ (2128 cubic inches) is the largest bag that will fit in these jets – and that is tight.

Also note that they will almost always valet check any rollaboard bag, regardless of size (unless it’s really small, see later on). That’s dependent on the cabin crew, who have final say.

The Valet Check

The valet check first appears similar to the gate check, but instead of a full luggage tag, you get a valet-like cardboard receipt when you give the bag to the luggage handler when boarding your flight.

 

When you get off the flight, you line up on the jetway and wait for your bag to be returned to you. This typically takes 5 minutes or less and is pretty convenient. But for some reason I don’t like to valet check. When I get to my destination, I want to get out the airport and on with the day.

So what do you do if you don’t want to valet check? You find a bag which works for you! Here are my top suggestions.

Tom Bihn TriStar

These two bags from Tom Bihn are designed for the 1-3 night flyer. The TriStar is a really tight fit on a CRJ-200 at 1976cuin and they have the Western Flyer (1812 cuin), which will fit easily.

The TriStar is not inexpensive at $315, but frequent flyers seem to love it.

Tom Bihn TriStar

The TriStar has 3 fold-out pockets and can take a spare set of shoes and gym kit on one side, shirts on the other, and a laptop in the middle. Don’t believe it? Check out this video. It also converts into a backpack. Tom Bihn bags are made in the USA and only available on their website.

Red Oxx Air Boss

I was in JFK airport a few months back and saw a guy carrying two of Red Oxx’s signature bag, the Air Boss. Honestly, he looked like he was going to collapse under the weight, because these things overpack to be huge! At 21″x8″x13″ it is on the high-end of being able to fit in a CRJ-200, and if you overpack it then it just won’t fit.

But if you want a full-size carry-on that can carry anything, this bag might be a good fit. At $255, it’s a little less expensive than the Tom Bihn option, and also made in the USA.

Air Boss Carry-on Bag Designed for 1 Bag Business Travelers by R

Gate8 Trifold Cabin Bag

I don’t know that I love the design of the Gate8 bag, but it’s a cool invention. It fits a suit and clothes in the main bag, and it has a zip-off laptop bag.

Gate8 TriFold Cabin Bag

When fully packed (watch this video to see how), you can’t fit both into the overhead bin of a Regional Jet. Instead – just unzip the laptop and put it under your seat. This makes it a super-convenient option and at $235, it might be considered good value since you get two bags for the price of one!

Tumi Arrivé LaGuardia

The Tumi Arrivé LaGuardia has been replaced by the Norwich, and I own the older model, which I bought deeply discounted (the original $1000 retail price is insane).

At 17.5″x16.5″x8″ it is a very tight fit in the smallest Regional Jets, and you have to remove the laptop and put it wheels out! I assume that the Norwich would also fit (it’s the same, but has spinning wheels), but you’d need to check this, and they have a 30-day returns policy in-store.

Tumi Arrivé LaGuardia

Incredibly, it will fit a spare pair of shoes, gym clothes, 3 shirts, jeans, underwear, washbag and a laptop, when packed to a bulge. It’s the bag I use for 2 night trips, when a single suit will suffice.

The nice thing about this bag is that it looks like a laptop bag, so you don’t get challenged when boarding the flight (remember to fold the handle and carry it on, not drag it!), and it also looks quite nice with its leather and chrome. The latest version is generally available on discount for $700, but deeper discounts are available periodically.

Lat56 Red-Eye

The Lat56 Red-Eye is the latest addition to my collection. It’s an interesting bag because it has a unique feature – a supposedly wrinkle-free suit carrier which fits in the lid.

Lat56 Red-Eye

Here it is, filled with a 4-day trip of clothes (Spare suit, 3 shirts, spare shoes, t-shirts, jeans and gym kit).

 

Lat56 Red-Eye

At a claimed 21.5″x10.5″x7.5″ it should neatly fit in a regional jet (I reckon it’s closer to 22″x11″x9″) and because it’s so light at 2.4lb, you can easily carry it fully packed.

It does require a separate bag for your laptop, and since it doesn’t have external pockets, it’s necessary to put your wash bag in your laptop bag (no big deal for me). If you want a wrinkle-free spare suit with you, there are precious few options. It looks indestructible and at $299, it’s pricey but not insane.

Packing

This requires a whole separate blog, but oftentimes, people ask me how I can pack in such a small bag. The short answer is by packing only what I need. There are several themes here:

  • A 3-day trip only really needs 2 changes of clothes. I wear Monday’s clothes, and pack for Tues/Weds.
  • Personally I like to carry gym clothes and casual clothes for the evening (jeans and a t-shirt).
  • Transfer things like hand creams into 1oz containers or less. This way you can fit all you need for a week of travel into a small TSA-approved cosmetic case.

I never carry anything I don’t use, so everything in the bag has a purpose. I’ll blog on this in more detail some time!

Final Words

I am aware that all this time spent on the humble travel bag could be considered a little neurotic, but traveling efficiently has become a bit of a fun obsession for me. I hope that you’ve enjoyed this and if you fly frequently on the Regional Jet (dubbed the flying sewage pipe by many customers) then you might consider putting away the full-size carry-on rollaboard and go lighter.

Also if your preference is to check a bag, or valet-check a carry-on, then that’s all good. The world is made up of preferences!

Happy Travels!