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Personal Thoughts on the Microsoft Surface Laptop

I’ve been using Macs exclusively since 1998, when I jettisoned whatever Dell I was using at the time in favor of a shiny new iBook SE (the gray and white version of the original Hello Kitty toilet seat-esque iBook). After adapting to the Mac’s ways, it seemed like a revelation to me at the time – easy to use, reliable, and beautifully designed.

That iBook SE led to a string of Macs over the years – white plastic iBooks, MacBook Pros of various designs and ages, an eMac, a Power Mac G4, and finally a few used Mac Pro towers, which were beasts that had power to spare. I loved them all, and they helped me get a lot of creative projects done. My Macs were the platform I made my old local architecture & urbanism blog on. They were what I did all the sorting and editing and publishing for my photography projects on. They were what I wrote for the newspaper on, what I dabbled in programming on, and what I started my music creation with. They were a big part of my life.

And so, when my 2015 Retina display 13″ MacBook Pro was annihilated in an accident, my thoughts for replacement turned to the current MacBook lineup. In my current day job in IT, I’ve had a lot of time with the current era of the MacBook and Pro, and while I can’t deny that they’re beautiful and sleek, I’ve been fairly underwhelmed by them thus far. The total changeover to USB-C means I would need to get a host of dongles and adapters and replacement cables, the battery life seems lacking compared to the previous generation models, and the optional Touch Bar hasn’t panned out to be the wildly helpful interface element it was promoted as. Besides all those issues, though, the new MacBook Pros are more expensive than the ones they replaced, and there’s the matter of the biggest dealbreaker for me, personally: the new butterfly switch keyboard. I’ve used a 12″ MacBook at work for months, and newer MacBook Pros regularly, and I can’t get around the fact that I really, genuinely hate the new keyboard Apple has come up with.

We’ve seen all the reports about questionable reliability, which is enough for me to be leery, but as somebody who does a lot of typing (and is planning on doing even more in the near future), I can’t get past the new keyboard’s feel. The key travel is so shallow that I feel little feedback when typing, and that shallow travel actually makes my fingers hurt after typing for an extended period. It’s barely a step up from typing out long articles on an iPad screen.

So, since I’ve been feeling jaded about Apple’s odd choices & frequent neglect of the Mac lineup, I did something I never expected I’d do: I looked for alternatives. This led me to a Microsoft store, where I walked out with a brand-new Surface Laptop in burgundy.

In my semi-recent conversion to enjoying gaming again, I’ve been doing most of my game playing on an Xbox One S, the newer revision of the Xbox One. I’d never considered Microsoft to be talented in the hardware field, but their new design language as expressed on the Xbox One S I find genuinely striking and attractive. I guess it was my positive experience with the Xbox that led me to look at Microsoft’s laptop offerings, and I’ve been similarly impressed by the Surface Laptop.

This computer is more or less exactly what I have been wishing Apple would make: an update of the MacBook Air, with modern tech and a high-res Retina-caliber display. The Surface Laptop is a thin, light wedge, with a comfortable keyboard and the best trackpad I’ve ever used on a Windows device. It has a USB-A port, a magnetic power plug that pulls out easily when something trips on the cable (something that has also been removed from the newer MacBooks in Apple’s USB-C quest), and a face-scanning camera that logs me in extremely quickly and reliably. And the screen is a gem – high-res (running at 2256×1504), multi-touch capable (which has been more useful on occasion than I suspected), and running at a 3:2 aspect ratio, giving a lot more vertical space than a 16:9 ratio (which seems favored by almost all other Windows computer makers).

I went with burgundy as a change of pace from the long line of silver & black laptops I’ve been using, and I’ve become quite fond of the color. The burgundy Surface Laptop has an attractive, warm appearance that’s a nice alternative to the visual coldness of most modern portable computers.

It even has a physical warmth, thanks to the left-field choice of covering the keyboard & trackpad area with alcantara, the synthetic suede-like material that so often shows up in higher-end car interiors. I’ve only used the Surface for a short while, but thus far the alcantara is holding up well. It gives the machine a nice soft-touch feel that’s unlike any other laptop I’ve ever used.

Many of my initial fears about switching to the Surface came down to the software and OS side of things, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Windows 10. It’s significantly more attractive, design-wise, than I expected it to be, and I like where Microsoft is going with their design language. It feels as though they’re heading in a direction where they’ll have something genuinely unique and distinctive, and I’m glad to see it. Windows 10 has also thus far been pretty well rock-solid and reliable for me, something which is probably helped by the Surface Laptop being designed and built by Microsoft themselves. One of Apple’s major strengths has always been the integration between their hardware and software, and it’s interesting to see Microsoft taking advantage of something similar on their Surface line.

As far as software goes, the major suite I need – Adobe Creative Cloud – works pretty much exactly as you’d expect, with little difference day-to-day compared to the Mac version. All it took was downloading and running the installer from my existing subscription. I also had acquired an Office 365 license, as the newspaper required submissions in Word format, so that seamlessly transferred to the Surface as well. FTP software (for managing WordPress installs) has been where I’ve noticed the change most severely, as I’ve not found anything that compares to the polish and design of Transmit on Windows, but that’s been a minor thing so far.

The biggest adjustment I’m going to have to make is in audio, as I was a Logic user on the Mac. I’m not in a place anymore where I’m doing the actual recording for our music, as our drummer handles that, but I still need some form of audio workstation for making demos and composing. I’m currently trying out Reaper, and will see how that goes.

One other nice side effect of switching to Windows has been native game support. While the Surface Laptop, with its Intel integrated graphics processor, is in no way a “gaming laptop,” it’s more than capable of running a huge assortment of indie games and several older AAA titles, and it’s nice to not have to reboot via Boot Camp to play them. (Finding out that the Surface runs the original Mass Effect trilogy with no real trouble was quite a nice bonus.)

Nobody is more surprised than me that I’m using a Windows computer, but…it’s honestly been great so far. The Surface Laptop is a beautifully designed, very capable computer that I’d put up alongside most MacBooks any time. It’s a different aesthetic than Apple’s, to be sure, but it’s executed very well. It’s reasonably powerful and capable of adapting to a wide variety of use cases, while being light and thin and easy to toss into a messenger bag. I never expected to be writing something from Windows again, but Microsoft unexpectedly made a laptop that fits me really well.

Pokemon Go and Walkable Urbanism

(Note: this piece was originally published in the Fort Worth Weekly in July 2016. I’ve tweaked and nipped and tucked it and put it up here on my personal site, too, as it’s something that might actually be interesting to people outside Fort Worth.)

By now, you’ve no doubt heard about the insane phenomenon that is Pokemon Go, the first time the beloved gaming/anime/disturbing fan art property has been brought to smartphones. Pokemon Go is no mere free-to-play licensed revenue stream, though –– it’s an augmented reality free-to-play licensed revenue stream.

“Augmented reality” is the process by which virtual information and objects are overlaid on the real world via a live camera view seen through a smartphone display. Pokemon Go uses this technology to let players chase the various wild denizens of the Pokemon universe around the real world, allowing you to visit, say, the local coffee shop, a famous art museum, or the United States Strategic Helium Reserve to snag the Charmander you’ve always wanted, so that you may then force it to compete in captive animal combat.

To see for myself, I downloaded Pokemon Go and headed to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. It was full of my fellow Fort Worthians, virtually every one of which had their eyes locked to a smartphone running Pokemon Go.

Walking through the garden, I passed a family – a couple of adult women, an adult man, a couple of young kids, all Pokemon Go-ing. One woman remarked to the family, “I ain’t found shit,” to which the other woman replied “It’s OK that you suck. Your family still loves you.” Minutes later, a young couple ran past me at top speed along the Texas Native Plants boardwalk. The young woman yelled to her young male friend, “Have we found your stupid Pokemon yet?” Unperturbed, the guy shouted back “We’re getting closer,” to which she shout-replied “Well, you’re stupid!” The guy seemed not to notice.

On my way out of the garden, I passed the ain’t-found-shit family again, but they were pulled out of the game by a passing twentysomething guy and his friend who were offering advice on where to search the grounds for desirable Pokemon.

The sights were the same when I visited Sundance Square, and downtown Dallas, and the courthouse square in Denton. People immersed in this virtual fantasy world of cute fighting creatures, exploring our walkable urban spaces together, offering help to each other where they could.

It’s often at this point in the narrative that writers & ranters deride Pokemon Go players for having their faces buried in their glowing rectangles, being Kids Today with their Pokeymans and hula hoops and fax machines, only taking the time to visit these wonderful places when they have the excuse of hunting Pokemon but otherwise not engaging with the REAL WORLD. (There’s been no shortage of such reactions expressed on social media.) But…I’m not so sure I can get behind that viewpoint. What makes “hunting Pokemon” any less valid a reason to visit the Botanic Garden or Sundance Square or Magnolia Avenue than “taking photos of flowers” or “grabbing a bite to eat” or even just “taking a walk because you feel like it?”

If anything, I feel like Pokemon Go reveals how important building great, human-oriented places is – and how few of them we truly have in cities like Fort Worth. From my exposure to the game, I can’t see how it would work nearly as effectively in a far-flung exurban setting where the use of a car is a requirement for mobility. It’s a game that cries out for easily-navigable grids of streets, wide sidewalks, pedestrian-oriented buildings, and parks and plazas woven into their fabric. It’s a game that thrives on density and engagement with the city.

There are approximately 63 trillion people playing Pokemon Go in urban Fort Worth at this very moment. Sure, some of them may solely be going out to hunt for Pokemon – but plenty of them are likely discovering new places, new landmarks, and new views of their city in their explorations. If capturing adorable cartoon animals to make them do your bidding gets even a small number of players to gain a new appreciation for how great human-oriented cities can be – and support further efforts to make the city into a more human-oriented place – then that’s not a bad outcome at all.

In Praise of the Gleefully Ridiculous: Sunset Overdrive

I’m not entirely sure what prompted me to pick up Sunset Overdrive on my Xbox One, but I suspect there was a sale going on. I’d heard of the game before – likely the glowing review on Polygon by Arthur Gies – but as I didn’t get an X1 until three years after the game’s release, by the time I came to the console Sunset Overdrive was out of most peoples’ minds and available at a discount.

The game sat on my Xbox’s drive for a while before I fired it up; this week, needing a break from the various serious open-world RPGs and action titles I’d been working through, I launched Sunset Overdrive and was immediately metaphorically punched in the face by a game that’s crazy, ridiculous, and not ashamed of either of those descriptors.

I’ve only been playing a short while, but thus far Sunset Overdrive is a garage punk-scored candy-coated rush of day-glo imagery, outrageous fashion, and aerial acrobatics, and it’s one of the biggest pleasant surprises I’ve had on the Xbox One so far.

As I’m not attempting to do a “review” here on my blog – this is more just a place for me to collect some thoughts in a longer form than my Twitter account allows – I’m not going to be comprehensive in my post here about the game. The controls are fun and fluid, yes; the soundtrack is glorious for those of us who like garage & female-fronted punk, true. Weaponry is completely mad – from the massive hand-cannon that is the Dirty Harry to the LP-slinging High Fidelity and even the decidedly unsubtle, err, Flaming Compensator.

The game’s total lack of seriousness and its full-throttle embrace of crazy I find to be truly endearing – this is a game where the premise “corporation creates soft drink that turns people into mutant monsters and you have to slide around wires and railings while shooting them with a gun that fires vinyl records” is both totally embraced & run with and called out for being absolutely nuts – and I think I could tell I was on this game’s wavelength the second it deposited me into its character creator.

I admit to having a sickness: I love a good character creator. I never really thought about it until I played (and became obsessed with) the original Mass Effect, and ever since I became wrapped up in the story of my Meredith Shepard I’ve appreciated a game that lets me make a unique avatar for the game world. I also doubly appreciate a game with a character creator that lets me make the star a woman. There are countless games (not to mention movies and TV) that lock you into Stubbly Generic White Dude #3726, and even as a stubbly generic white dude myself I find games far more interesting when they’ve got a woman in the lead role.

Sunset Overdrive‘s character creator fully commits to its vividly colorful style. You can be a woman or a man (and in fact, you can change your character’s gender pretty much whenever you customize them). Clothing ranges from the relatively subdued to neon pink tops & short shorts – and as far as I can tell, none of it is gender-locked. Hairstyles are many and varied, with multicolor options for every style (even facial hair isn’t gender-locked). There are plentiful makeup and body art options. You even get to chose two body types for both women and men – so if you want to save the city as a slender build or, as in my case, a fuller-figured sort, the game treats everybody as equals.

Sunset Overdrive encourages you to just dive in and embrace its craziness, and the character creator reflects that freewheeling, however-you-wanna-be-is-ok-with-us attitude. Be as punk rock as you want – you’re not going to feel out of place for showing up in something bright, colorful, and bold when the game around you is telling you it’s OK to be that way. (This is in contrast to another game I’ve been playing lately, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands, which I enjoy in its own way and where you’re similarly given a range of character customization from the serious to the whimsical – though not nearly to the extent you are in Sunset Overdrive –  but I tend to keep things grounded, as I feel a tonal disconnect executing special ops raids in a skull mask and graphic tee when the rest of the game is a gritty drug war scenario set against an incredibly realistic recreation of an entire real-world country.)

I’ve got no shortage of games that are straight-laced and serious, games that depict their world in subdued grays and browns, games that put so much weight and import on your shoulders that they can feel like a bit of a downer at times. After hours fighting grim scenarios to save the universe, it can be truly refreshing to dive into the sugar rush of Sunset Overdrive and watch the neon pinks and greens and blues whiz past as my character slides down a wire in her disco boots, firing multicolored rockets at soft drink monsters. This kind of madness is probably not for everybody, but if you’re tuned to this game’s wavelength, it’s a ton of fun.

Time, Urbanism, and Cynicism

I often fear that one of the major lessons I took away from running the late Fort Worthology blog for so many years is that it’s safer to be cynical about urbanism than it is to be enthusiastic.

This is likely silly, as during the site’s run, I got to see a lot of good things happen in Fort Worth: the South Main Better Block event get turned into a real long-term plan enacted by the city, the official bike plan get off the ground, the Urban Village program get set in place, several areas around the central city become hotbeds of new activity, and more. The flip side of this, of course, is that there was a lot of bad mixed in, and after a while it became hard to see past the bad. The streetcar project died due to the nonsense jackassery of politicians blinded by windshield perspective. The transit system overall seemed stagnant and ineffective, and improvements take ages while new and wider roads seem rubber-stamped. Whatever good was accomplished in small pockets of the central city was balanced by absolutely no changes to how Fort Worth’s sprawl outside of the immediate core was designed and built. Downtown continues to be sadly reliant on subsidized free parking, to the long-term detriment of the central city.

Chalk it up to the difference between writing as a naively enthusiastic twenty-something versus writing as a more jaded thirty-something, perhaps, but it’s part of what drove that dumb site into oblivion.

So imagine my surprise tonight when I happened to see news that New York is finally demolishing the hated Sheridan Expressway, a relic of freewayphile & noted wrong person Robert Moses, to be replaced with a more human-scaled parkway.

This news surprised me because I remember hearing about this issue in 2009, in a PBS series titled Road to the Future, at which time the fight over the Sheridan was already many years old. Like so many freeway projects, it had wrecked low-income neighborhoods and contributed to their decline and poor health. (It is the regular role of the central-city freeway that it actively harms the fabric of the city around it to make it easier for residents of the suburbs to leave it.) People who lived around the Sheridan had been fighting for ages for it to be removed, and by 2019 or so, it finally will be. It took eight years from when I even became aware of the situation on top of the already-huge length of time fighting to get that freeway removed.

The push to make cities better is frequently frustrating, maddening, dispiriting, and draining. It can take years, or decades, to make a place more livable – especially when it doesn’t have a billionaire or two advocating for it. This can easily sap one’s spirit.

However, seeing news of the Sheridan’s long-awaited demise really slathered some locally-sourced organic perspective onto my mind grapes. The enthusiastic, can-do me remembers learning about the Sheridan, and the jaded asshole me is now seeing it get replaced. These things take time, and they will frequently piss you off or make you depressed, but they can get done.

When you fall into a rut writing about people opening wine bars or whatever it’s easy to lose perspective on the real, meaningful work being done. It happened to me. It’s worthwhile to step back and realize it.

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