Surface Pro 3: First Impressions

I received the brand-spanking-new Surface Pro 3 yesterday, and I have to say, I like the direction technology is headed. The Surface is this strange hybrid between netbook and tablet which, while hard to pin down with contemporary vocabulary, fits a certain device niche perfectly.

Surface vs iPad Surface vs Macbook Air
Dimensions compared to an iPad. Dimensions compared to the Macbook Air.

See, I needed a small netbook-style device to unobtrusively take notes on, etc. A tablet wouldn’t cut it because, even with a third-party physical keyboard peripheral, tablet OS’s lack the word processing and file management ease you get with desktop applications. However, netbooks lack the easy deployment and quick search capabilities of phones and tablets. Netbooks have a large vertical form factor, while phones and tablets are almost always laid flat or nearly-flat.

The Surface covers all of these capabilities: it can be a high power tablet or a small laptop. It can be either a largish tablet (although it is similar to an iPad, so not that large) in your lap or flat on the table, or a thin screen with a thinner keyboard, propped at any angle on a desk. With Windows 8 you can alternate between the tablet feel and the PC feel easily. However, it is almost impossible to effectively use any of PC functionality with only the touchscreen; you do need the keyboard and its trackpad. This may stem from the fact that the screen is a high enough resolution that fingers lack the requisite precision to really do anything.

On that note, I don’t know how I feel about Windows 8. This isn’t a specific complaint against the Surface, except to say that the execution of the OS is the worst part about the device. While the hardware pulls from the best qualities of tablets and laptops, Windows 8 pulls from the worst. It just seems confused as to whether its a finger-friendly, simple interface, or a mouse-based system with dumbed-down menus. It relies on a number of contextual gestures to access menus while in finger mode, and it seems to use a combination of hovering and right clicking to reach “advanced” menus with a mouse. This may partially just be a poor UI design paradigm the specific app developers are stuck on and not a fault of the OS, but even in the native Windows menus, I’ve noticed no clear conversion between left and right click, mouse hovering, and mouse dragging versus finger swiping, finger holding, and finger tapping. It makes some parts of the OS more “hand friendly” and others “mouse friendly”.

This only becomes more confused when you take into account the stylus that comes included. It has two buttons on the body and a button on the end, but again, none of the actions map cleanly to any of the other input methods. Nonetheless, the stylus means that the Surface could easily be used as a graphic design tablet, which is a use I hadn’t considered but am now eager to try out.

Lastly, some minutiae. The stand is a little difficult to open, and the fan can get somewhat loud (or at least audible). The speakers are mediocre, and the voice recognition is awful. The case gets hot occasionally, and the trackpad on the keyboard peripheral is annoying to use (the mouse buttons are not well delineated, and it is not possible to disable the overly sensitive tap-to-click feature).

On the other hand, I haven’t noticed battery life issues, and the screen is very high resolution. My version is the 8GB RAM/i5 processor and I have noticed no performance issues (obviously). The App store is a little sparse on touch-friendly programs, but fortunately the whole point is that the Surface functions as a fully capable laptop, so its going to run video editing software and even intensive high-def video games way better than your standard netbook.

At the end of the day, I give the Surface Pro 3 two thumbs up. Good job, Microsoft.

5 Things NASA Should Have Never Cancelled

NASA has a long history of cancelling the most exciting and promising projects in its portfolio, instead opting for the safer and less expensive options (which invariably develop ballooning budgets and dismal success records). While I don’t mean to bash the totality of NASA in this post, I do want to lament a few of the best ‘could-have-beens’.

AAP Venus Flyby Schematic

Schematic for the S-IVB wet workshop.

The first is the Venus flyby of the Apollo Applications Program. This would be similar to the Skylab missions, except that instead of launching a pre-built laboratory, the third stage of the Saturn V would be converted into a ‘wet workshop’ living space after using all of its fuel. This would enable the spacecraft to be launched on a trajectory to pass by Venus and then free-return to Earth. I’ll be the first one to point out that manned flybys are not particularly useful scientifically; nonetheless, having the achievement of sending humans into interplanetary space under our belt would be really cool. Then again, being able to say that we’ve ‘already done it’ may have tempered our drive to do it again — much in the way that sending people to the Moon holds less appeal now. For better or for worse, the AAP got dropped along with the rest of the Apollo program in favor of the the Space Shuttle.
 
NERVA mockup

A scale mockup of the NERVA rocket.

In any case, I’ve always believed that the Apollo program took a fundamentally flawed approach to space travel. Instead of scaling up existing technologies, we need to develop more efficient methods that aren’t rooted in the old ‘stick a tin can on an ICBM’ method. This is why the cancellation of NERVA research was so disappointing. NERVA was a nuclear thermal rocket, meaning it used a nuclear reactor to heat up hydrogen propellant. The program was highly successful, and showed great promise in enabling manned missions to Mars without significantly larger rockets than we already had at the time. However, the NERVA program got dragged down with the demise of the Apollo program, and only recently have we seen the rise of a possible replacement technology (electric propulsion).

 

 
But why settle for the 154 ton payload promised by the NERVA-augmented Saturn V? That’s peanuts compared to the 10,000 TONS to LEO made possible through nuclear pulse propulsion. Yes, I’m talking about Project Orion. While, I’ve never been a fan of the concept, I have to admit that 10,000 TONS for (at most) $5 billion is really appealing. Even one such launch would basically make establishing a Mars colony trivial. However, Project Orion never got off the ground (so to speak), because nobody really liked the concept of propelling a spaceship with nuclear bombs. Go figure.

Project Orion Concept Art

One of the longer Orion designs


 
So after Apollo got cancelled and most beyond-Earth projects got trashed, we were left with boring stuff like Single-Stage-To-Orbit completely reusable spacecraft built with off-the-self components. Wait, WHAT?! Yeah, that’s right. In 1985 we had the ability to build a reusable SSTO with almost entirely low-cost commercially-available components.
Delta Clipper Experimental

Sure it looks weird, but it’s awesome!

However, nobody was interested in funding the project. Eventually it got picked up by the DoD’s SDIO (Strategic Defense Initiative Organization), and a team of engineers built a scaled-down version of the craft called the DC-X. It was created to test the concept of a propulsive vertical landing, fast turnaround, and other novel concepts. The project was wildly successful, and showed huge amounts of promise. Perhaps because of this success, it never got much funding, and eventually the SDIO was closed down and NASA reluctantly picked up the DC-X project. With minimal funding and personnel, the DC-X team continued to make fabulous advances and show promise. When the test spacecraft finally had a mishap and caught on fire, NASA refused to front the mere $50 million repair bill, mostly because the DC-X conflicted with their own SSTO project, the X-33.
 
VentureStar size comparison

The VentureStar is one of the fatter spaceplane designs.

Oh yeah, NASA had its own SSTO in development. The X-33 was a suborbital scale version of the proposed VentureStar. The VentureStar was an entirely reusable spaceplane, unlike the Space Shuttle. It launched vertically, landed horizontally, and only used hydrogen-LOX, unlike the Space Shuttle, which required toxic SRBs to get into orbit. The only roadblock to the X-33/VentureStar’s development was the fuel tanks, which were a tricky dual-conic shape. The materials science necessary to construct the fuel tanks was still in its infancy, and so the program got axed (although soon after cancellation, a group of engineers actually constructed a fuel tank which fulfilled all the necessary constraints).

Most of the programs mentioned here were, in one way or another, dropped in favor of the Space Shuttle, which slowly became an embarrassing farce and regrettably set back spaceflight by a good 20-30 years by causing the cancellation of these promising programs. The saddest thing is that we now have the technology to easily solve most of the technical hurdles faced by these programs, but with NASA’s limited budget and vision, we are stuck paddling around LEO with conventional, non-reusable chemical rockets. Even SpaceX’s innovation and drive pales in comparison to the 100% reusable SSTOs mentioned here.

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