Sometimes you don't get to notice the true value of something until you really get the opportunity to put it to good use. I wanted to write this post about the Surface Pro 3 and OneNote because when my children were born they really became important go-to tools for both my personal and professional life.
I have always generally been an early adopter, and as a Windows Phone user, I was excited at the prospects of Microsoft's Surface offering enough that I picked up a Surface RT as my first general purpose tablet when they premiered. I had used an iPad in the past, but found it very difficult to justify in daily use—even my wife used it less and less as a device for surfing the Internet and preferred to use a laptop or smartphone. The Surface RT was an interesting device, built well, and with a lot of potential, but the RT version of Windows 8 was hampered by a lackluster application store (I didn't want to spring for the Pro version of the original Surface, as its specs wouldn't allow me to replace my laptop). Truth be told, of all the devices I owned, my first generation Kindle Fire was my most useful. I read a lot of eBooks, and the Kindle reading app is top-notch, as expected. Also, the 7 inch form factor is ideal for a tablet: larger than a phone, but still small enough to fit in your pocket. The only thing that the Kindle failed at (something that the Surface excelled at) was magazine and comic book reading. The 7 inch form factor just isn't large enough for proper viewing of that content. The Surface RT certainly was, so it became a dedicated magazine and comic device, with a few games being played for good measure—not exactly ideal for the price tag.
When the Surface Pro 3 was announced, it finally looked like a hybrid device that could replace my laptop. A few things were happening in conjunction at this time: my employer's long term contract with Peirce College was ending, and more importantly, my wife was pregnant.
I had spent the previous five years (almost six years by the time all the contract work was over) dedicating a lot of time to Peirce College, so mobility was a tertiary concern. Although I wanted to be mobile, it wasn't necessarily a priority, as I worked from home 90% of the time. With this contract ending, I would need to be a little more mobile with other clients, or for demos, or for hackathons, or just for hanging out at Panera Bread. The Surface Pro 3 jumped to the top of my wish list, as the power of the i7 processor and the SSD made it a better machine than what I was currently using.
In parallel with this, my wife and I had a long road towards pregnancy, and the pregnancy itself was harder than what most women experience. There were weekly visits to the obstetrician and bed rest that lasted for about five weeks. It would have lasted longer, except my wife developed preeclampsia, and was 4 centimeters dilated at 31 weeks. We were rushed to the University of Virginia (UVA) Medical Center to be monitored, and at 31 weeks 5 days (on Halloween) my twins were born.
The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at UVA is phenomenal, and there are plenty of NICU babies out there in the wild, but it's very difficult to explain the emotional and physical stress that one goes through when your child (or in this case children) have to spend a prolonged period of time in the hospital. My daughter was there for six weeks; my son for eight and a half. UVA is about 50 minutes away from my home, but traffic can stretch travel time to over an hour and fifteen minutes. Rush hour is worse. I spent every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday at the NICU. When my daughter came home, we were then put in a position where we had to care completely for our daughter, but still find time to visit our son; nothing like making a hard situation even harder. We had to drop down to visiting the NICU every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, and after the first few visits, my wife had decided to stay home on the weekends. It was too difficult to travel and care for a newborn so many times a week.
If visiting them in the NICU was difficult, believe it or not, it paled in comparison to finally having both of them home. Raising twins is the most difficult thing I've ever had to do in my life, and it's hard to explain just how difficult to people who haven't experienced it. Dealing with two crying babies at the same time that need to be fed makes you wish that one was calm or sleeping while you feed the other, but once that does happen, you realize that you're now feeding and rocking one—putting them to sleep—just in time for the other baby to wake. It's a constant juggling act that leads to no housework getting done, and very little professional work. If you had time at an office, you'd have to take sabbatical just to be home to help out. If you already work from home—like in my case—you still need to take sabbatical, but have the opportunity for drips and drabs of work throughout the day.
Lots of journalism reviews of the Surface Pro 3 praised it as the machine that Microsoft finally got right: an ultimate productivity machine. Tech journalists, however, barely scratch the surface of just how much.
When I purchased the Surface Pro 3, I was looking for compact traveling and greater mobility. I even shopped for a specific carrying case so that it remained slim. My former office was turned into a nursery, so I was relegated to sharing my office with the guest room. If there were guests, I had to move. My old laptop was a bulky HP that was heavy to carry, had poor battery life, and wasn't something you wanted to backpack out to a coffee shop for demos. The Surface Pro 3 dominated the HP in every category.
When my wife was rushed to the hospital with preeclampsia, we had no idea how long she would remain there. Some women spend weeks in Labor and Delivery, depending on how fast their preeclampsia progresses. This is great for the developing baby, but not so much for the working professional. We didn't get a chance to find out as my wife was induced two days after admission.
Hospital Wi-Fi is horrible, and UVA guest passwords expire every seven days, but it's better than nothing. Working on a chair in Labor in Delivery isn't ideal either, but it gives you the opportunity to watch over your ailing wife. The light and nimble Surface Pro 3 makes various lap positioning possible, and the battery life was giving me a good 6-7 hours per charge; that's with Visual Studio 2013 and SQL Server 2012 running—not to mention Outlook.com, Twitter, Calendar, and Skype. Our solution files aren't small either. The client project I was working on at the time had over 300 projects in the solution.
Being discharged from the hospital was a good day. Showering at home for the first time in over a week was fantastic. With the babies in the NICU, the Surface ended up being ideal for traveling and programming. I could use the family waiting area when the children were in the higher intensive area early on, and then was able to program bedside (between feedings) once they moved to the nursery area of the NICU. Having a good machine was also ideal for looking up medical information after discussion things with the doctors and nurse practitioners (clipping the information to OneNote). There was no way you'd be able to reasonably work on a laptop inside of the NICU area—not even a MacBook Air.
The flexibility in usage of the Surface Pro 3 allowed for me to stay as compact as necessary. It worked great as a laptop, and although large for a tablet at 12 inches, was perfect for reading PDF's, digital magazines, or eBooks. I also carried a Microsoft Bluetooth mouse because I hate working on touchpads.
The killer app? OneNote—without a doubt. It's an application that you have to train yourself to use, but once you get going, it's easy to start filling up notebooks. OneNote has made it easier with a slew of apps. If I found an article online that I needed for programmatic problem-solving or various other technological needs, I could use the OneNote Clipper. If work sent me an important email I needed to deal with later, I could forward it using firstname.lastname@example.org. If it had a link inside, OneNote would even pull the copy from the link and save the web page into the notebook. I even set up a recipe at IFTTT to forward favorite tweets to OneNote. Spending a lot of time at the hospital, with a ton of traveling, you don't always get everything done that you need to in one sitting, but keeping yourself organized, and saving the information you need is very important. OneNote made this much easier.
Of course, there were always days that I either couldn't use or didn't want to use my Surface. Exhaustion is common when you're spending a lot of time at the NICU, and sometimes you're just out of it. That's why I always had a Mod Notebook tucked away in the back of my traveling case. Writing directly into OneNote is nice, but the tactile feel is a bit off. In addition, you don't always want to break out a 12 inch tablet to write notes or brainstorm. Mod Notebooks have all the quality and feel of a Moleskin, but with the added benefit of being able to ship the book back to the company with the handy included envelope, have them scan it into the Mod Notebook web app, and getting it to auto-transfer to OneNote through their API integration.
Finally getting both babies home cut down on the traveling, but still showed how necessary the mobility and lightness of the Surface Pro 3 really is. I couldn't work in the back guestroom, as I had to be on hand for any potential help. My parents came down for two weeks, so I spent most of my time at the kitchen table. When they left, I stayed at the kitchen table (or the kitchen island) to remain available to my wife during the day.
When the month of February rolled around, I took sabbatical from work to concentrate on writing, and helping out with the twins. The Surface found itself all over the place: the kitchen, the bedroom after putting the twins to bed, on a tray table in the living room, and even on my lap on the couch, sans keyboard, rocking a baby in the other arm. It was at this point that the digital stylus came in great use, especially when annotating OneNote clippings, as well as working one-handed. All things I would have never been able to do with the HP.
Of course, the fun doesn't stop there. I might be winding down my sabbatical for the month of February, but March will be filled with work, rocking babies, conference calls, demos, and even more writing. I feel like I haven't even scratched the surface of the productivity promise that the Surface Pro 3 holds, but I do know that, at this point, it has been the best investment I have made for workplace use.