Mini-Review: Microsoft Surface 3 + Windows 10 for Humanitarian Response

So I’ve been testing the Microsoft Surface 3 for a few weeks now as a potential deployment laptop for NGOs and humanitarian responders who may find themselves headed into emergencies, ICT4D or other similar scenarios.  The need for computing in remote areas is increasing, and being able to get a good solution in the field is sometimes different than what is needed at home or in the enterprise.  With the release of Windows 10 the other day, I’ve also gotten to take the new OS for a spin.

First off, people should use what works best for them:  If a chromebook is what does it for you, by all means, use it.  I’m mostly an Apple person, so my personal deployment gear has traditionally been a MacBook Pro, an iPad and my iPhone.  Operating System wars are lame, and I have no desire to refight them here.  However, if you want an idea of whether this particular solution might be useful, read on…

What do we need for a deployment laptop?  The ability to run all of the network management software (ssh, visio, etc.), general business productivity apps, low power draw (in case you need to run on solar or wind power), portability (every pound you carry into the field matters), and low cost (a $3000 Toughbook isn’t usually necessary in most situations, even in a disaster, and you’re often better off buying three $1000 laptops instead for the same spend.)

The Surface 3

So when the Microsoft Surface was first announced, I was really excited about the form factor – it wasn’t quite a laptop, and it wasn’t quite a tablet.  It was something in-between.  We even got a few first generation Surface Pros to work with.  Unfortunately, for what we’d need for a deployment laptop, they consumed too much power and had too little battery life.  I’ve kept my eye on the platform as it continued to evolve… the ARM-based Surface was killed and replaced by an x86-based Atom CPU system.  It’s this latest generation of Surface that I got from Microsoft as a loaner.  Yes, this one is a real PC (the ARM-based systems couldn’t run the majority of PC software because it had a different CPU).

Why not the Surface Pro?  Because for a deployment laptop, the substantial difference in power consumption matters.  The Atom CPU in the Surface 3 won’t win any PhotoShop rendering battles, but it has proven to be adequate for the kind of general business apps we might want to use.  My loaner from Microsoft came pre-loaded with the Pro version of Windows 8.1 (and later Win10) – so I could test performance with BitLocker and other security elements turned on.

Things worked as they should.  Also, the keyboard for these computers now has a backlit keyboard, which is great for when you’re working in low-light situations.  Since it has standard USB, various accessories (like a router’s console cable for example) worked fine.  Anyway, if you want to think of it as a “real computer” that happens to be the same sized as an older iPad, that’s about right. Compared to other laptops, this one sips power (my new MacBook Pro 13 Retina also sips power, but the Surface is a few watts less).  The Microsoft Type Keyboard is a must with this system (even though they’re sold separately) – and I find the keyboard enjoyable to use, which is unlike many other “thin and light” PC keyboards.

Windows 10

I don’t know anybody who *loves* Windows 8 – if you’re using Windows, it’s probably Win7.  People who use Windows 8 use it, but the UI hasn’t been great… it tried to be both a tablet OS and a PC OS and in the end, didn’t get the hybrid thing quite right.  Windows 10 doesn’t require you to relearn anything if you’ve already been using Windows – a huge usability improvement.  The thing has been out for only a day or so, and I’m sure there are roadbumps with bugs and such that will come up – there are some concerns with user privacy and the sharing of WiFi keys, and I’m waiting for responses to some of those issues that are being debated as I write this … but Windows 10 is a big improvement.  I’m actually enjoying using the OS, and find everything pretty intuitive.  My biggest concern from a Windows OS standpoint in the field has been security – there are a number of security improvements in the OS that I think justify the upgrade compared to previous versions of Windows.  One of the things that is intriguing is the torrent-like peer-to-peer distribution of patches and updates (“Windows Update Delivery Optimization“) that promises to be really useful in disasters and humanitarian crises.   The idea being that a single computer might pull down patches and then other computers would be able to pull down those patches from the first computer, rather than going over the WAN individually.  This may be a huge bandwidth saver for disaster response/ ICT4D when you’re on the thin sippy straw of a VSAT link or other low-bandwidth connectivity.  On the Surface 3 (and other hybrid / convertible systems), the system is smart enough to switch seamlessly between a PC desktop mode and a more touch-friendly tablet mode when the keyboard is detached.

It was hard to recommend the Surface hardware with Windows 8 – the hardware was great, but the OS and a very confusing user experience just was not doing it for me.  The combination of Windows 10 and the Surface 3 rectifies most of the major shortcomings in the earlier versions of both and makes a compelling solution for people who prefer (or are required) to use Windows in humanitarian response or ICT4D.  For some users who currently take three separate devices into the field, you might very well be able to take fewer devices with you – which means less weight, less power needed, and one less thing to break.

So is it right for you?  If you’re using Windows in the field, there’s really no real argument to avoid Windows 10 in the same way there were plenty of reasons to avoid Windows 8.  You might want to wait for some of the invariable bugs and issues to get worked out first, but really, yeah, go for it.  And I think the Surface 3 is a great PC system in a very tidy form factor that makes it great for HA/DR deployment scenarios.

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