Arbitrary Tech

Arbitrary: Switching to Windows as a Writer

The gorgeous Microsoft Surface Book 2. It’s solid, it’s not too heavy and it’s easy on the eyes.

I’ve been an Apple diehard for most of my life. I learned to type, program and piece together my elementary school newspaper on an Apple IIe. In university, I wrote papers on a Mac Classic I bought used from a friend for $40 that connected to the net with a 14.4k modem. In the early 2000s, I took an iBook to West Africa to write and edit photos and work on a newspaper redesign project. And until recently, NEAROF! has been largely written, edited and administered with a MacBook Pro.

Which is to say I know Apple. I’m not some Johnny-come-lately who only joined the cult of Mac when the iPod came out. I can remember System 7. I took apart a LaserWriter printer to replace the scanner motor. I’ve configured an AppleTalk network.

But my relationship with Apple has soured of late. It’s not one thing, either, but a collection of missteps and just plain dumb decisions. To my mind, Apple’s arrogance and hubris has finally reached a level where it’s hard for me to root for them.

Less Isn’t Always More – A History Lesson

Apple has a reputation for ditching things. When they dropped the floppy disk, a subset of people complained, but mostly got used to it – they were, after all, terrible pieces of tech that were prone to failure, and could only store a tiny amount of data. When they dropped optical drives from their laptops, I was skeptical … until I realized that I hardly ever used CDs or DVDs in my computer anymore. Apple had a way of knowing when to adopt things and when to ditch other things when they’d outlived their useful life, when they knew people generally wouldn’t miss them.

But then they started going too far. When Apple released the underpowered but ultraportable 12-inch MacBook with only one measly USB-C port, no MagSafe power adaptor and a keyboard that made laptop typing as uncomfortable as typing on an iPad touchscreen, they got considerable pushback. When Apple released a flagship phone without the standard headphone jack that everyone had been using for decades, there was more frustration still. These changes were being made in the name of ever thinner and lighter phones and laptops, even though they were already pretty damned thin and light.

Note that some of these same people now wondering what to do with their $400 corded headphones were the same people who bought nice speaker docks for their iPhones and iPods, only to have Apple junk the old dock connector for a new port. That $400 Bose Sound Dock you bought to charge your phone while you filled your condo with music? Obsolete. Apple has a track record of being a dick with its customers, and at a certain point, being a dick can catch up with you.

Any Ports in a Storm?

Just when you thought Apple had reached peak hubris, they released an updated MacBook Pro line that dumped all ports other than USB-C (goodbye to the ubiquitous industry standard USB-A ports that just about everyone uses) and adopted that godawful butterfly keyboard from the ultraportable MacBook. Instead of learning from their mistakes, they’d doubled down on them.

Design professionals have their own gripes about Apple’s recent offerings, and I’ve read plenty of them online. But I’m a writer, and a writer has a different set of needs. First and foremost, a writer needs a computer with a good keyboard and good battery life that’s able to quickly and painlessly generate and move documents around (including with USB thumb drives). If they do photography, they also need an easy way to read the SD cards typically used by DSLR cameras.

Today, as a result of its endless quest to make thinner and lighter devices, Apple no longer makes a laptop that meets my needs. While I could deal with an external SD reader (plugged in through a USB-A to USB-C dongle, I guess), and even if I could get past the ridiculous lack of USB-A ports, I just couldn’t work with an utterly shitty keyboard on a $2,000 computer when a keyboard is the main way I interact with a computer on a daily basis.

In rushing to build a fashion accessory that’s as thin and sexy as possible, Apple ditched the things that have made them a staple of writing desks everywhere.

So, I bought myself a Microsoft Surface Book 2.

Well, look at that! Two useful USB ports, and an equally useful SD card slot. Note, also, the amazing hinge the connects the removable screen to the bottom keyboard section. It’s very slick.

Moving to Windows

I’ve been using Windows at offices for years, and I know enough about the Windows world to know that it’s not as slapdash and flaky as it used to be. Windows 10 is a reasonably competent operating system, and it’s not a stretch for anyone who is used to using MacOS X to transition to Windows 10.

Is it as highly polished as MacOS? No. Windows is still a more utilitarian experience, complete with annoying software updates and strange error messages. There’s always more of a chance of bumping into a strange problem that requires some nerdy googling to resolve. That’s just the nature of Windows. If you’re a bit nerdy, you’ll be fine. If you don’t want to have to dig around in settings areas to get things to work how you want them to, you might be better off sticking to MacOS, especially if you don’t outright hate the new butterfly keyboard.

If you’re not used to Windows, you’ll be surprised by how easy it is to get around. It uses the same desktop approach as it did in XP and Windows 7, with a few holdover elements from Microsoft’s curiously half-baked (and much maligned) Windows 8 experiment. (Note that Microsoft learned the hard way with Windows 8 that pushing customers to adapt to something they don’t want can sometimes backfire, and that it’s OK to backtrack in the name of usability. Compare and contrast with Apple.)

Also, now that Microsoft has finally stopped trying to make Windows on phones a thing, they’re free to find the best ways possible to integrate iPhones and Android devices into the Windows universe. When I popped into the Microsoft store in Edmonton a couple months back, I noted that the guy helping me was wearing an Apple watch. It’s possible to live in both worlds.

With this generation of Surface Book, you have to buy the pen separately, which is too bad. But I bought it because it’s a great way to interact with the screen. And the screen is gorgeous. Shame about all the trouble with high-dpi app integration.

The Hardware

Around six years ago, after I started a new job at a Windows-centric office, I bought a Dell Inspiron to test the Windows 8 waters, to get used to it and use it as a secondary home computer. I was hoping that since it was a beast on paper (Tons of ram! Huge hard drive! An i7 processor!), it would be a great re-introduction to Windows at home. But oh god, it was awful.

The keyboard was a rickety mess, the trackpad had both a lag problem and lack of sensitivity, and the system was bogged down with shitty Dell bloatware that would constantly nag me about buying upgraded versions of things I didn’t want. The high-res screen had a dead pixel, much of the software didn’t seem to understand how to make use of the high-res hardware (choose one: an app that’s either uselessly tiny or cataract-level blurry), and, about three years in, the WiFi stopped working entirely so I had to buy an external USB WiFi dongle to get basic wireless connectivity back. It felt like lugging a cinder block in my bag, and I could only eke out maybe two hours (if I was lucky) from the battery. I couldn’t help but laugh at how spoiled I’d been by the Apple hardware ecosystem, where a good keyboard and trackpad were a given, and where the gorgeous displays worked seamlessly with all the software I had.

I chalked up my terrible experience to the Dell box, even though it wasn’t a budget system. I knew from my office experiences that Windows wasn’t the devil, and that it worked pretty well on systems other than my laptop. So I resolved that when and if I bought another Windows machine, I would pay special attention to the hardware.

Hence the Surface Book. They aren’t cheap, but they’re the closest thing I’ve seen in the Windows world to a MacBook Pro. As in the Apple universe, having the same company behind the hardware and software means things are tuned to work together, which can help to avoid strange conflicts and needless battles with drivers and settings. I assumed.

Choosing the Surface Book came down to a combination of features for me:

  • Everything I’d read online led me to believe that the keyboard was one of the best available on a current Windows laptop.
  • The trackpad was also highly regarded by reviewers, which was important. Mac folks who have had to work on PC laptops rightly covet their Mac trackpads, while Apple lifers often have no idea how awful trackpads can be on Windows machines. I learned my lesson with the Dell.
  • I love sketching down ideas and drawing mock-ups of workflows, so the idea of a pen-capable system was alluring.
  • The build quality seemed every bit as premium as Apple’s. This is Microsoft’s flagship portable device, and they damn well want it to impress users and showcase their best design work.
  • It has ports! So many ports! USB-A! USB-C! An SD card slot! A charging cable that’s similar to Apple’s dearly departed MagSafe – if you’ve got an energetic kid, you don’t want a laptop hauled down to the floor by someone pretending to be a cat.
  • I’d been thinking of getting a new tablet to replace my aging iPad, but the current iPad line was uninspiring at the low end, and expensive at the high end. A Surface Book is like getting an iPad and a fully functional Windows 10 computer in one package, which is hella useful. Even if I got an iPad Pro, I’d still be stuck with iOS instead of a full operating system like MacOS.
  • Battery life is apparently as good as what I’ve come to expect on modern Macs, and the weight/portability factor was excellent. It didn’t need to be as sleek as the new MacBooks, which had sacrificed utility in order to be svelte. It needed to be a workhorse that I could rely on whenever I needed it.

Sure, I could have gone with the Surface Laptop, and I nearly did. But the versatility of the screen/tablet hybrid nailed it for me.

This keyboard. What can I even say. It’s a joy to type on. Solid but with great key travel. It’s the functional opposite of the new style MacBook keyboards.

The Hardware Reality

So far, the keyboard is maybe the single biggest selling point of the Surface Book. It’s spectacular. It’s everything I hoped it would be. My fingers love the keyboard, which is solid and familiar, with lots of room for big hands like mine. It feels both solid and forgiving, which is perfect. The modern MacBook keyboards are so stiff and hard, they feel characterless. This keyboard makes it easy to type.

The screen is excellent, though this is where the Windows experience falters. The Mac world has been much better at adapting to high-res displays, while I’ve been encountering random Windows apps that want to display text in a format so small it’s hard to read. On the Mac, this isn’t much of an issue. On Windows, it’s a reminder of the lack of complete fit and finish with the OS and how it handles apps from developers who haven’t fully adopted high-dpi displays. Which is a shame, since the screen is gorgeous, and it had touch built right in. I’ve used it with the Surface Pen a bit already, and it’s pretty great. Handwriting recognition is excellent, even with my decidedly messy scrawl, and I can sketch things to add to documents when a diagram works better than words. (Aside: My daughter loves the Surface Pen and touch screen. She figured it out within minutes of picking it up, and loves drawing things in the included sketching app.)

The trackpad’s click mechanism is stiffer than I expected it to be, and it takes a determined bit of pressure to register a click. To compensate, I’ve gotten used to using the tap feature of the trackpad so that I don’t have to press down as hard while doing basic tasks. So, while the sensitivity and responsiveness will be familiar to Mac folks, the clicking isn’t quite as slick, especially compared to the generation of MacBook Pro I have, which uses the haptic response system. (There’s no physical clicking motion when you click on Modern MacBooks, but it feels like there is. It’s pretty neat tech and one of those cases where Apple’s drive for thinness has resulted in a perfectly acceptable result.) The trackpad clicking is the single biggest annoyance I’ve faced so far, which is still pretty minor.

The Software

It’s weird to have to say this, but Windows 10 is kinda OK. It helped that I already knew my way around the place due to office life, but being able to go in and tinker with settings the office IT department had locked down was easier than I thought it would be.

No, it’s not as intuitive as MacOS used to be, but that’s just it. Used to be. MacOS hasn’t been as intuitive as it used to be in a very long time. Just try to navigate your way around a recent version of iTunes, or explain where to find certain system functions. Need to install a printer driver that isn’t bundled in MacOS? Have fun. (I know I did, on my dad’s MacBook.) MacOS has become more complicated and bewildering just as Microsoft appears to have made the Windows user experience nicer and more intuitive. Plus, because the world mostly runs on Windows, any time I’ve felt stuck, I just did a bit of quick searching online and turned up answers to my questions.

I quickly picked up a Windows copy of Microsoft Office, which feels much like the Mac version. While Microsoft has done a great job with Office on the Mac, I’m looking forward to being able to mess around in Access, which is available for Windows but not MacOS. Project planning, home databases, etc.

Another cool aspect of Office on the Surface Book is being able to use pen input for things. I’ve been using OneNote to jot down thoughts in ink and translate it into text, and the results are amazing. Typing notes in meetings always makes me feel strange, with that distracting clackity clack of the keys disrupting the mood of the room, but taking notes with ink on a screen may prove more useful. I’ll report back when I have more experience with this.

Another factor in the switch was knowing writing world staple Scrivener is also available for Windows. They’re working on a new version for Windows to bring it up to feature parity with the Mac edition. In the meantime, the older version is fine and will do me well. (Though again, high-dpi problems make the text blurry. Sigh.)

To round out my software collection, I picked up a copy of Affinity Photo, a handy alternative to Photoshop that doesn’t require me to pay a monthly subscription to Adobe in order to keep using my software. So far, so good. I’m patiently waiting for the same company’s desktop publishing program to launch so I can have a non-Adobe alterative to InDesign.

Oh, look! It’s a cryptic error message! Thanks for that, Windows. Some things never change.

It Ain’t All Roses

On the not-so-awesome side? I fought with the computer for ages trying to get my speech recognition settings set up so that I could dictate text to it if I felt the need. On my Mac, this same process was predictably simple. I mention this as it’s an example of the lingering bits of multiple Windows versions within the same operating system. For some settings, there’s the Control Panel area. For other settings, there’s the more modern Settings area that I believe was introduced around Windows 8. There’s no unity between things like this, and you get left to puzzle out where the hell you’re supposed to go to make a necessary change. It’s bewildering.

Windows also has a habit of throwing up strange error messages whenever something doesn’t go quite as planned. I’m nerdy, but even I didn’t know what the hell to make of many of the errors that would pop up. Again, I’ve rarely had this issue on the Mac. Some of this is on developers who don’t know who to speak the type of language normal people speak. But some of it is just the way Windows works, and how developers treat this as a normal part of interacting with an app. It’s a black eye on Windows that this hasn’t been resolved for what feels like decades.

The Verdict

Overall, I’m extremely impressed by the Surface Book hardware, and by how easy it is to get along as a writer/editor/photographer/blogger in the Windows universe. I don’t know why I expected otherwise, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. In this case, the hardware has made all the difference over my earlier experience with the Dell. I’ve had my Surface for a couple weeks now, and it feels more like home every day.

Where to Next?

I’ll try to post occasional updates on my experience transitioning to a post-Mac writing workflow, including thoughts on Windows, the Surface Book, and the software ecosystem that allows me to do what I do as a writer. Let me know if you have any questions about my setup in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer.


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