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Editors' Blogs

Scratching the Surface (Part 1)

February 20, 2013

For the past several weeks, my friend and musical colleague (and frequent RECORDING contributor) Darwin Grosse has been chatting with me off and on about future trends in the computer experience, and how they might relate to music making. One topic that's come up a lot is Microsoft's new Surface pad computer; not the feature-crippled one that runs Windows RT (great for content consumers and not much good for anyone else) but the Surface Windows 8 Pro which runs the full Win8 operating system.

Darwin said, more than once, "I'd like to get my hands on one of those and see how it would work for music stuff; it represents, in some sense, a possibly ideal way to work." He went on to discuss the system's (admittedly still theoretical) handiness, portability, and immediacy, combined with the real power of a proper Windows machine. I was intrigued; everyone who reads the magazine knows that I'm an iPad user (my current live-music rig is three iPads and a line mixer) but I have to admit that until they release something like Ableton Live or PreSonus Studio One for the iPad (WaveMachine Labs Auria's fantastic but you don't gig with it), the idea of an easily portable do-it-all music computer is really pretty intriguing.

Last night I popped into the local branch of our Famous Big Box Store looking for something else, and saw the Surface and Surface Pro on display for the first time, complete with their little pop-out easel stands and the Touch Cover keyboard/trackpad covers. I played with the Surface Pro (which sells for about $900) for about a half hour rather than shopping for what I'd come in for, and left empty-handed but with a lot to think about. Some initial impressions:

First of all, as someone who had an iPad mini tucked into the inner pocket of his ski jacket, I found the Surface Pro to be really big and heavy, bulkier than my iPad 3 in its cover and hardshell case. Yes, you could pick it up easily and hold it for tablet-style work, but it wasn't very comfortable.

Second, the Touch Cover is the weirdest input device I've ever used, with the possible exception of a couple of gyroscopic controllers that thankfully went extinct in the 90s. Yes, it's a full keyboard with a very small multitouch trackpad and two buttons... but it's covered in screen-friendly microfiber cloth. Imagine trying to do stuff with fine control on a trackpad that's about a sixth the size of what you get on any other laptop, covered in fuzz.

Third, and this is what I'll come back to after further cogitation: after a little while, I realized that Microsoft may well be onto something here. Not just with the Surface Pro, but with the entire touchscreen-centric design of Windows 8. As I navigated around, launched Google Chrome and did a little surfing, I was jolted back to the fact that this was a full-on computer I was working with... with real applications built in and real power under the hood (an Intel i5). It wasn't an iPad imitator that was big and clunky and awkward... it was the smallest self-contained Windows computer I'd ever seen, handier than any Atom-powered netbook and way more powerful.

To quote one of my favorite comic characters, "This a development what need some thinkin' on."

to be continued...

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