Microsoft Surface Pro 3 first impressions

My office is replacing its aging fleet of HP 620 notebooks with Surface Pro 3  (256 GB, Intel Core i5) tablets.  Each tablet will be deployed with an optional keyboard cover and docking station.  This is the middle-of-the-road model, which is powerful enough to run most business applications but not suitable for more demanding video or graphic editing tasks.

The Surface Pro works well as a tablet replacement.  Although it’s somewhat clunky compared with Apple’s iPad, the build quality and overall feel are solid.  The built-in kickstand adjusts to a wide range of viewing angles and folds flat when not in use.  The power connector, which attaches magnetically similar to Apple’s MagSafe plug, is a bit awkward to plug in because of its width and the Surface’s beveled edge.  The sharp edges make the Surface Pro less comfortable to hold than an iPad.  The touchscreen is responsive and the display is bright with well saturated colors.

As a notebook replacement, the Surface Pro leaves a lot to be desired. The optional keyboard cover is both ingenious and frustrating.  The cover attaches magnetically.  Unlike the power connector, it attaches without any fuss and is easy to position even in dim light.  It can either lay flat or the back can be raised a bit by folding a section at its back. Both positions have flaws.  The tipped-up position achieves a more natural typing angle, but the not rigid enough keyboard cover flexes considerably.  The flexing disappears when the keyboard is in its flush position but I found it uncomfortable that way for long typing sessions. The trackpad is imprecise and I frequently found myself reaching for the touchscreen instead.

By no means should you call the Surface 3 Pro a laptop!  Trying to use the Surface on your lap is an exercise in discomfort and frustration.  The sharp edge of the kickstand digs into your legs and the keyboard cover flops around like a dead fish.  And you will look like a dork.

A stylus is included with the Surface Pro 3 but it isn’t particularly useful.  It took some considerable head scratching before I figured out that the stylus only works with Microsoft OneNote and a handful of apps.  I don’t see any good reason why it isn’t recognized by the general touchscreen interface.  The Surface doesn’t provide any place to stash the stylus.  If you buy the optional keyboard cover you get a flap of material with a loop to hold the stylus.  It has a self-stick backing that can be affixed to the cover but it looks goofy and would probably rip off after a week of use.

The docking station provides a full set of ports and comes with it’s own power brick.  It positions the tablet at a good viewing angle and has a conveniently located magnetized area along the left side to hold the stylus.  I struggled with inserting and removing the Surface from the docking station until I realized its sides slide in and out.  (Yeah, I know, RTFD, but there aren’t arrows or any other kind of visual cues.  This should be more intuitive.)

Overall, the hardware isn’t half bad.  However, the UI is a hot mess!   The Surface-specific annoyance is that the OS doesn’t automatically adjust when the keyboard cover is affixed or removed.  After disconnecting the cover and heading out without it, there was no way to unlock the tablet because the password field wouldn’t present a “soft keyboard.”  Conversely, I wasn’t able to connect and use the keyboard to finish a document that I started in tablet mode.

Other annoyances are just because the Surface Pro 3 runs Windows 8.1.  The GUI is wildly inconsistent and switches between “classic” Windows and the new Metro look depending on what you are doing.  This schizophrenic UI must be baffling to users migrating from Apple platforms!  I’m thinking about disabling Metro entirely so at least I can get a consistent user experience.

Bottom line: the Surface Pro 3 is a good choice if you’re looking for an ultra-mobile computer to leverage existing Microsoft licenses or mainly use Windows-only applications.  And you want the ability to use it as a touchscreen tablet.  Otherwise, the similarly sized 11-inch MacBook Air, which has a “real” keyboard and intuitive OS is worth a look.

An excellent SSD upgrade

I was tasked with upgrading 36 aging corporate desktop computers (HP model DC5700) to defer the next hardware refresh by 2-3 years.  Bumping the RAM to the maximum 4 GB didn’t result in a satisfactory speed improvement so I decided to explore Solid State Disk (SSD) options.

Users store their files on networked home directories, so there wasn’t any need to expand the PC storage much beyond the stock 80 GB.  Based on user reviews, size and price, the 120 GB Samsung 840 EVO-Series looked like a great fit. (These are also available in 250 GB, 500 GB and 1 TB capacities).  It’s 3-year warranty also aligned perfectly with the planned remaining life of the computers.

I fully expected to have a few issues to sort out on a test system before I could turn over the project to a junior tech for deployment.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover the bundled software is remarkably efficient and user-friendly:

  1. Boot Windows and log in as a local administrator
  2. Connect the SSD to the PC using a SATA to USB adaptor cable or drive enclosure
  3. Run Samsung’s Data Migration utility to copy the PC hard disk to the SSD
  4. Shutdown the PC and replace the hard disk with the SSD.  (Don’t waste money on a 2.5″ to 3.5″ mounting adapter.  A piece of double sided foam tape is all you need to secure the SSD).
  5. Run the Samsung Magician utility to tweak performance settings

Hands-on time was under five minutes per PC and it took around 20 minutes for the migration utility to copy everything off the hard disk.

The performance improvement is amazing.  Boot time reduced from 3+ minutes to under 30 seconds.  McAfee full antivirus scan, which previously rendered the PCs almost unusable when it was running, is now barely noticeable.

Tremendous bang for the buck and unconditionally recommended!!!

Best wax for a black car


If you have a black car like I do, you  already know that black paint shows every smudge, chip and swirl mark.  Over the years I’ve owned three black autos and only recently discovered a collection of products and an application process that produce what I would consider excellent results.

The key to getting a great shine on black paint is to clean the surface very thoroughly and then apply black tinted polish and wax in separate steps.

You will need to set aside the better part of a day to give your black car this “spa treatment”, but the results will be better than what many professional detailers charge hundreds of dollars to do.

Shopping list

  • Turtle Wax Black Box Kit. This kit consists of bottles of black tinted pre-wax cleaner (polish) and liquid carnauba wax, 2 bottles of detailing spray and 2 applicator pads.  Conventional wax dries white, highlighting imperfections and chips in the paint.  These products are all tinted black and perform wonderfully on black paint.  My only gripe is that both the polish and wax come in tall bottles with screw-off caps that are all too easy to over-apply or spill.  A wider bottle and/or a flow control nozzle would be huge improvements.  Oh, second gripe, the stuff is heavily perfumed.  My car really doesn’t need to smell like Fruit Loops!
  • Call me paranoid, but before rubbing polish into my car’s paint I want to be certain that the surface is absolutely clean and free of grit.  Pros like to use paint cleaning clay for this purpose and so do I.  Griot’s Garage makes a kit that includes the clay and a bottle of Speed Shine, which is great for touchups in-between washes. The Turtle Wax kit includes an inferior version of Speed Shine that I don’t use.
  • You’ll need a random orbital polisher to apply polish and wax.  The best one I’ve ever tried is manufactured by Griot’s Garage.  The tool is well balanced, light and sufficiently powerful.  It comes with either a 10-foot or 25-foot cord.  Although I agree with others that 10 feet isn’t long enough to get around a vehicle, I prefer to just attach an easy to replace extension cord to get the extra length. Make a square knot to keep the cords from decoupling.
  • Polish pads and wax pads for your orbital polisher.
  • Microfiber cloths for removing polish and buffing.  I highly recommend this 36-pack, which is an excellent value.
  • The Turtle Wax products will stain your skin and clothes!  Grab a box of disposable gloves if you don’t already have some.  And don’t let this product get anywhere near a nice paver or concrete driveway.  You will spill some.  Consider yourself warned!!


  1. Thoroughly wash your car using your favorite detergent.  When I’m polishing or waxing my car, I prefer to wash the wheels first and then make a new bucket of detergent for washing the rest of the car.  I really like inserts like this one that fit into the wash bucket, allowing any grit to settle to the bottom.
  2. Go over all painted surfaces with cleaning clay to remove contaminants.  Do one small area at a time.  Spray with Speed Shine to lubricate the surface, wipe with a wad of clay and buff dry with a microfiber cloth.
  3. I learned this trick too late in life.  Blast the car dry with a leaf-blower, followed up by a microfiber towel.
  4. Apply the Turtle Wax polish following the manufacturer’s instructions for machine application.  Orange pads and a speed setting of 1 on the Griot’s orbital tool work well.
  5. Buff off the polish with a microfiber cloth. A little spritz of Speed Shine hastens the job.
  6. Apply the wax using a red pad and speed setting of 1-1/2.  Buff off the wax using a microfiber cloth and Speed Shine.
  7. Pop open your favorite adult beverage and enjoy your work!

Switching between HDMI and analog audio on a Mac

Here’s a proven fix if you need both analog and HDMI audio outputs and require a way of switching between them.  In my case, I had an application where a rack mounted Mac Mini serves as both a media server and an audio source for a whole house paging system.

I first tried using the headphone output as an analog audio output.  The problem is that if anything is plugged into the headphone jack, it is not possible to select HDMI for sound output via the Sound preference panel or via any other means.  Various people have posted methods for outputting audio to both HDMI and headphone out simultaneously, but my application requires only one output to be active at any given time.

The hardware piece of the solution is a relatively cheap Turtle Beach USB DAC.  I’d imagine other USB audio converters would work equally well.

After plugging in the DAC, I confirmed that I could switch audio sources from the Sound preference panel.

The next step was to to automate the audio switching.  I found various Applescript techniques on the web for doing this by scripting the sound preference panel UI, but that approach seemed kludgy and probably slower than using a compiled command line tool.  If such a tool is included in OS X Mavericks, I couldn’t find it.  Fortunately, a generous developer created an output switching utility called audiodevice, which is available here.

Audiodevice works perfectly but has one minor quirk.  Some output devices have trailing spaces after their names, which need to be included in audiodevice commands.

Here is an example of a shell script that uses audiodevice to switch audio output from HDMI to USB DAC, plays a sound effect, outputs a string that was passed to it from the command line as text to speech, and then switches back to HDMI:

/usr/local/bin/Audiodevice/audiodevice output "USB Sound Device        "
/usr/bin/afplay "/Library/Audio/Apple Loops/Apple/iLife Sound Effects/Machines/Communication Engaged.caf"
say $1
/usr/local/bin/Audiodevice/audiodevice output "HDMI Matrix  "

Notice the spaces after USB Sound Device and HDMI Matrix.  If you are not using the Turtle Beach DAC, the USB DAC may have a different name.  Use the audiodevice output list command to get a list of the audio output devices installed on your Mac.

Vehicle detection using iAutomate RFID

One item on my to-do list for a long time was to enable our home automation system to detect the comings and goings of our vehicles.  Each has an EZ-Pass badge, so I figured slam-dunk, just find an appropriate active RFID reader and we’re done.  But I was unable to find a cost-effective solution.  (But wouldn’t that be an awesome Kickstarter project . . .)

I also explored homebrew solutions using Bluetooth modules and Wi-Fi but laziness triumphed when I heard about a plug and play long range RFID kit for Indigo.  (There are also versions available for Homeseer and Crestron.)  The kit comes with a reader module and two RFID tags.

Overall, I give this product a B+.  It works well but you have to get past a few annoyances.  #1, the price.  I think iAutomate is making a mistake with the pricing.  $549 for the “starter kit” puts this product out of reach for a lot of people.  I’m taking a very rough guess that the whole kit costs well under $100 to produce.  iAutomate should really consider a $399 price point (or <shudder> $199?)

Next annoyance:  WTF with the pinout?  The readers have RJ-45 (ethernet style) jacks to carry 12-volt power and RS-232 serial signal.  But, as the manual cautions, if you plug this thing into Ethernet, something will surely fry.  iAutomate provides a lovely color engineering diagram showing how to terminate an eight conductor RJ-45 plug into the custom, 4-conductor pinout that the reader uses.  Ignoring that will make many, many crispy devices on your LAN. Gosh, if you’re gonna insist on using a proprietary pinout, at least use a proprietary connector.  Or an RJ-11 that won’t get confused with Ethernet?  Or better yet, just put an adaptor in the box to convert to standard Ethernet pinout.

And yet another nit.  The reader case doesn’t have any sort of mounting flange.   I just used a couple of cable ties with screw holes to fasten the reader to a wall.

iAutomate says you need to use a USB-to-serial converter that uses the FTDI chipset.  And they mean it.

Initially I tried connecting both the RFID reader and a Lutron RadioRA 2 main repeater to a Keyspan 4-port adapter (which does not use the FTDI driver). This combination was catastrophic!  The computer crashed every time the RFID reader saw a tag.  So I tried leaving the Lutron repeater on the 4-port adaptor and putting the RFID reader on a single port Keyspan unit that I had in my parts box.  This had the frustrating result of working perfectly except when a tag would first come within range of the reader, causing the Indigo plugin to reset communications.

Finally, I plunked down 12 bucks for a generic FTDI converter and voila, the reader worked reliably!  I still don’t understand why the Keyspan adaptor, which is my go-to device whenever I need to do USB to serial conversion, didn’t work.  iAutomate’s Indigo plugin is written in Python, using the same libraries that I used for the RadioRA 2 plugin, so it would be reasonable to assume that both devices would be hardware compatible with the Keyspan.

The manual also cautions that placement of the RFID reader and orientation of the tags may require some trial and error.  This couldn’t be more true.  I had to try about a half dozen locations for the reader before finding one where all the tags could be reliably read.

Conclusion:  an effective, but expensive and tricky to install device.

Update (May 21, 2014):  I am revising my overall assessment of this product to an A- for the following reasons:

  1. The latest version (2.1) of the iOS RFID Track app adds signal strength display and an improved UI, among other things.  It’s a real pleasure to use and is available from the iTunes Store.
  2. I recently needed technical support for the Indigo plugin and was very satisfied with the experience.
  3. Peter Monahan, the President of iAutomate, explained the reasoning behind several of the product’s pricing, manufacturing and design decisions to me.  For example, their decision to use RJ-45 connectors now makes sense to me.  Here are Peter’s remarks:

I thought I would take a moment to address some of the concerns that you had and then mentioned in your remarks. I hope to provide you with a better understanding.

The hardware devices cost us far more to manufacture than you cited.  Far more.  Many users are not aware that all of the RFID devices have FCC, IC and CE approvals; this adds tremendous cost to the hardware. We don’t have a choice in the USA, the devices must be FCC listed. We also sell in Canada and Europe.

We fight the temptation to have the devices manufactured in Asia.  There are non-financial costs associated with “making it cheap in China” and we are not willing to compromise.

As you are already aware, we provide free technical support for the product M-F 8am-5pm and are often available outside of those hours and on weekends.

The plugins (yes there are two) cost thousands of dollars to develop and are the most professional, full-featured, reliable,  detailed and documented plugin available for Indigo, bar none, yet they are bundled for free with the hardware.  The hardware was extensively tested by a team of Beta Testers prior to release (not on a single workbench). The cost of this development and continuing updates is priced into the hardware.

Similarly, RFID Track for iOS cost thousands of dollars to develop and is available for Free via iTunes for unlimited devices.The cost of this development and continuing updates is also priced into the hardware.

There is a lower cost “LE” version of the kit available for those who do not expect to expand their network beyond a single reader that sells for $399.00, but the higher cost kit sells better at $549.00.

FTDI Chipset:
FTDI provides the most current driver support and updates for OS X. During development, it was discovered that the Prolific brand chipset was often “bootlegged” and despite the amount of Prolific devices on the market, Prolific would not support many of them because they were not authentic Prolific chipsets.  We were not willing to put our reputation on the line if performance suffered because of a bad or “knockoff” adaptor.  I made the executive decision to standardize on FTDI.

The problem with “non-FTDI” adaptors is amplified, because our data stream is real time data ALL THE TIME. Even when no tags are detected, the reader sends an “empty packet” every 40ms to make certain the buffer is empty and the tag data is real-time. This empty packet also acts as a heartbeat. Other chipsets could not handle the data stream; we deemed them to be cheap, weak and inefficient. Sometimes, they were cheap knockoff copies of other chipsets.

The RJ45 Connector:
Depending upon how you terminate the reader, it has the ability to communicate via RS232 or RS485 via the RJ45 connector, so six terminations are possible out of 8 (see the drawing that was provided with kit). The RJ45 connector is the least expensive connector for providing 6, but up to 8 connections.  If we used a proprietary connector, the price would increase and Customers would be very unhappy that we “force” them to use our proprietary connectors.

The single biggest reason that standard Ethernet cables cannot be used is because such a configuration would connect RS232 AND RS485 at the same time and the reader would not detect the correct protocol for reliable communication.

The warning labels are because We’ve had Customers skip over reading the wiring diagrams as well as the manual and connect the reader directly to an Ethernet port or switch out of ignorance.  Other manufacturers place warning labels on clothes irons, cautioning the user not to iron their clothes *while on their body*.  I guess this is our version of that warning label, but if you ignore our warning, I assure you that you will not burn your flesh.

Thank you again for your business, we appreciate you.


Peter Monahan