Reporting Data with Daylight Savings Time

At the end of October it’ll be time to put the clocks back. We’ll get an extra hour in bed to compensate for the hour lost at the end of March, and the bi-annual tradition of media articles asking whether we should ditch the whole thing will run again.

For anybody dealing with dates and times, daylight savings can be a pain. If your job involves managing computers, you might well keep everything in UTC (/GMT) to save headaches. This is also sensible advice if you deal with multiple time-zones. By sticking to UTC, you avoid the annoying issue of living out the same hour twice one morning somewhere in Autumn.

In city centres, retail and business, our data is very much dictated by local time, not UTC. If the shops open at 8am, it will be based on local time. Work starts at 9 sharp, even if your previous night’s sleep was rudely shortened by sixty minutes.

For this reason, when we (meaning I – my company) report on city centre figures, we use local time. It keeps the peaks and troughs of the day in order. If we used UTC, it would be harder to compare a July day with a November day – they’d be off by an hour.

We also store data in local time, mainly because of the complexities involved in constantly switching between UTC and local time. It’s a minor issue, buts adds time to every query and makes the underlying system more complicated. Some might store in UTC, and convert. However you do this you’ll still need to decide what to do at 2am at the end of October, when time steps backwards.

Springboard

For some useful observations, I needed to look for high-traffic places with a decent night-time economy. These are from Heart of London (West End):

heartlondon-springboard

First observation is that all the times appear to be based on local time. The general peaks/troughs appear to line up irrespective of daylight savings time. Sunday is shown in grey on these charts.

There’s not a lot to go on here, but March 2015 looks like a straight line between 1am and 3am. March 2014 has a data point in the non-existent time, but there’s a noticeable drop. By comparison, October (where we live 1am-2am twice) seems to have a bump at 3am. This is also what I saw in the 2014 data – not shown here.

Given that there’s data in the March 2014 slot, I wonder if this is being accommodated in Springboard’s stats – and if they’re similarly compensating in the early hours of October’s backwards step.

Highways England

Looking elsewhere, Highways England publishes traffic data across its network on a 15 minute basis. They also use local time – again, this makes sense as traffic demands are dictated by the clock.

In March, they simply skip over the non-existent time. 1am to 2am is missing in the data, so for one day per year there are 23 hours’ worth of records.

In October, there is something weirder. The hour is repeated, but the data is inconsistent. This is the traffic data on a section of the M25 over October, with 1am-2am counted twice. Time Period shows the end of the 15 minute section as measured; the last column shows the number of vehicles of a given length over this period.

he-october

It looks like the sensor has managed to send something across throughout the affected time, but the data is largely missing. Interesting that the time period reports as :59 seconds only in this highlighted period, and for the two records where this doesn’t happen (01:44:00 and 01:59:00) we seem to have data. I wonder if this is a bug of some kind.

Conclusions

These are the two main data suppliers I have an interest in, but it’d be useful to gauge feedback from elsewhere. This is a tricky issue. The ultimate goal is to show something which is meaningful to the reader, but we need to do this in a way that does not affect comparisons at the hourly level.

In one way this is a fairly moot point. The volume of traffic at 2am on an out-of-season Sunday is likely inconsequential for many. However it does raise an interesting challenge for reports and figures, and is just one of many subtleties to consider in this sort of analysis.

Final thought: is it possible that the change in daylight savings time actually attracts people?

MariaDB Indexes on DATETIME and DATE functions

Quick note in haste, but important for me to remember.

SELECT * FROM table WHERE DATE(`period`)='2016-09-05'

is orders of magnitude slower than

SELECT * FROM table WHERE `period`>='2016-09-05 00:00:00' AND `period`<'2016-09-06 00:00:00'

where `period` is an indexed DATETIME field. The former uses an assortment of WHERE and INDEX clauses; the latter relies on the INDEX and uses a RANGE search, which is much faster.

Visual Studio/ASP.NET Code Behind

I’m going to need to remember this, as it runs slightly counter-intuitive to what I was expecting (although makes sense).

Code compiled in App_Code is available globally, so any other piece of code can reference it.

Code compiled in code-behind (i.e. the .cs files ‘behind’ ASPX pages) is only available to its corresponding ASPX page unless you explicitly reference it.

This can be done by adding the following to the ASPX page:

<%@ Reference Page="......link to .aspx" %>

One to remember.

The 5 Weekends 823 Years Thing

There’s a thing going around Facebook about ‘this month has five weekends, it only happens once every 823 years’.

At first glance, it is pretty amazing. The dates line up just right to grant us five whole weekends, including Friday. Bliss.

11796265_868726643198344_7206118342273344835_nSadly, it’s rubbish. Or, to put it another way: if you like 5 weekend months, I’ve got good news for you!

The only way a month have even a chance of five weekends (I’m counting Fri+Sat+Sun) is if it has 31 days. Any shorter, and at least one of those weekends would also be cut short.

That means only January, March, May, July, August, October and December can qualify.

We can also only achieve this if the first of the month is a Friday, since it’s the only way we can fit all five weekends into a single month.

So, of the seven months of the year that fit the criteria, at least one of those needs to start on a Friday. You’ve seven months; seven days. The odds are pretty good.

I make it 1-(6/7)^7, around 66% chance that any given year will have at least one 31-day month that starts on a Friday.

But wait, there’s more…

Years are pretty regular things. Apart from the small annoyance of February (damn you February) every month is a fixed length – and even the changeable one is predictable.

This is partly how people manage to tell you the day of the week, given any date in recent history. They don’t memorise each day – it’s systematic.

So if January is a ‘5 weekend month’ then October of the same year will also be one, provided it’s not a leap year. If it is, then July is also a 5 weekend month.

This affects the probabilities a little, since the dates aren’t truly random, but 66% is a fairly good ballpark for most purposes.

Good news for fans of the weekend

2015 has one month that fits the ‘5 weekend month’ rule: May (not August as the original email suggested).

2016 has two: January and July

In 2017 we’ll have to wait until December to celebrate again.

2018 there won’t be any – so we’ll have to wait until March 2019 before we pull out the party poppers again.

Whatever the outcome, it’s certainly not once every 823 years so don’t worry if you missed it.

Slice of Radio for the Raspberry Pi

As part of an ongoing project I have been trying to get multiple Raspberry Pis to talk to each other across a city centre. First, they used wifi for ad-hoc networks. In some cases I’ve used 3G dongles to connect over the Internet. Both have their downsides. Now, I am looking at radio communications to build a mesh of devices.

After a bit of investigation I’ve purchased three Ciseco Slice of Radio devices from Pimoroni or Ciseco themselves. These are fairly straightforward devices that enable the Pis to communicate over radio via the serial port.

There’a a fair amount of information out there about configuring them (although you need to look for the chip itself – SRF – rather than ‘Slice of Radio’ in Google) – this is the best resource I found (with handy links at the bottom).

These devices send 12 byte packets by default, so I’ve written a low level protocol to support a mesh-style network. This will allow the individual devices to relay messages through the network and eventually communicate with a server on the Internet. More on that soon.

Meanwhile, the range of the devices as bought is somewhat limited. I have two devices successfully talking to each other over radio, from the front of the house to the garage in the back garden. Straight-line this is going through two internal walls, an external wall and a metal garage door – so not too bad.

In production this is likely to be more challenging, so I will need to try adding an antenna to the device. There are two types I can use – u.FL and a simple (vertical) wire.

I’m an absolute novice with radio so please excuse/correct me if something is wrong! These are more notes than anything concrete!

u.FL supports the ‘standard’ coaxial aerial found on wifi hubs and – as far as I can tell – this is the connector (presuming u = micro). One can then get a u.FL to SMA (bigger) connector and start adding standard antennae.

Here’s a fairly good overview from Instructables.

Option two is to use a ‘wire whip’ or ‘whip antenna’ connected directly to the board. For an 868Mhz device this needs an 82.2mm vertical wire.

In terms of aesthetics and practicality I’d rather not have a vertical wire coming directly out of the Pi – as shown here – and need to figure out the options.

For the antenna, then it looks like I’ll need the following:

u.FL connection for mounting on the board itself. – £1.00

u.FL to SMA cable – £3.33

SMA ‘rubber duck’ aerial. – £4.58

Total material cost of adding the aerial is therefore £8.91 + VAT

There are various other issues to deal with, but this seems like it’ll give a significant signal boost for the devices. As I explore further, expect more updates!

 

Bruges

Bruges (or ‘Brugge’ locally) is a wonderful mediaeval city in the north of Belgium. The cobbled city centre and its canals form a UNESCO World Heritage Site and regularly attracts visitors from all over the world.

Last week, my wife and I visited the city for a long weekend (our second visit) along with the in-laws (their first visit). A quick-ish trip across Eurotunnel and a 90 minute drive the other end, and we were at a B&B just outside the city.

Belfort Tower
The Belfort Tower dominates the main square
IMAG0561
Near Christmas, the main square is transformed into a seasonal market and ice rink. It’s quite beautiful.

 

View from the top. Looking out over the city of Bruges
View from the top. Looking out over the city of Bruges.

Between this and the last visit, we’ve taken in most of the major attractions. The city lends itself to wandering. There are plenty of beautiful areas and little streets to walk through. Coffee shops and brasseries are numerous – you don’t go hungry in Bruges (except Mondays; many places close – although this seems to be diminishing).

The Belfort Tower stands high above the main market square and gives some impressive views of the city and area (as well as a nervous walk back down on a tight spiral staircase).

De Halve Maan (‘Half Moon’) Brewery is an interesting guided tour around the place where local (delicious) beers are brewed. Brugse Zot is a particular favourite of mine. There is now a beer museum near the main square, although we didn’t try this.

The Choco Story features a detailed history of chocolate (its manufacture, health benefits and economic status) which is pretty interesting. Tied with this is the Frietmuseum (‘Chip Museum’) which is a potato-based equivalent. You might also take in a visit to the Diamond Museum – combined tickets are available between the three venues.

Canal tours are readily available from several locations, and are a great way to see the city from its numerous watery thoroughfares. You will take in the convent/monastery Ten Wijngaerde; Sint-Janshospitaal – an 11th c. hospital; Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (‘Church of Our Lady’) and plenty more.

Similarly, horse rides through the city take a different route and explore even more. With a group of four, it was certainly a good way of seeing the city. Rides start in the main square.

We left the in-laws to take in the canal trip while retreating to the Bierwall, a fabulous – if slightly touristy – place to sit, drink and enjoy the passing crowds and canal tours.

If travelling in by train, you should have no problem getting around. Most areas are within walking distance. The station is a short trip outside the city centre.

It’s possible to drive through the centre but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you need to. The streets are bursting with tourists who seem to have no skills of awareness. It could also be a little daunting for those driving on the continent for the first time.

Fortunately parking is fairly easy, find ‘t Zand or Centraal Station parking in the south west. Both are reasonable, spacious and the station has a park & ride facility (although walking is again quite possible). Station parking was €3.50.

I believe it’s also possible to park along the ring road on the northern parks – but don’t quote me on that.

All in, a great time (again) and somewhere we could well imagine visiting again & again. The restaurant food is fantastic and not too pricey. Once all the tourist activities are done, it’s still an incredibly beautiful city and a great place to relax and explore.

I’m not a huge fan of tourist-heavy hotspots. This is definitely one of them, and prepare to fight your way through a sea of selfie sticks and tours. Normally something I’d avoid at any cost, but in this case the beauty of the city is well worth it, and the facilities that come with the crowds are appreciated.

Horse meat

Just over two years ago, a number of food sources were found to be using horse meat in some of their products, usually substituting more expensive beef. This affected both small and large retailers alike. There’s plenty to read about the ‘horsemeat scandal’ on the BBC Website.

As far as I can tell, there are two key objections. First, about the deception itself – we expect beef in beefburgers. Second, about the choice of replacement – we simply don’t eat horse in the UK, it’s just wrong.

It’s this latter part that got me intrigued. Why don’t we eat horse in the UK? What’s so repulsive about the idea?

Again the BBC provides much more about this than I can possibly contribute. Suggestions vary: horses are companions; national tendencies; feedback loops of supply, and so on.

Amongst my group of friends (myself included) a new response emerged from the scandal: Actually I’d quite like to try horse – see what all the fuss is about.

Mission accepted.

In Europe, the Belgians are the biggest consumers of horsemeat according to Eurostat. Italy and the Netherlands are roughly equal second eating around a kilo per person per year. Typically, the average French person eats less than half of this.

IMG_20150530_143543 (1)

This roughly tallies with my experience of shopping for the stuff: paardenvlees and viande de cheval for Dutch- and French-speaking areas respectively. Finding it in northern France was rather tricky (we eventually found steak in a large Carrefour supermarket), whereas it was easily found in Colruyt (Belgian bulk supermarket) and Albert Heijn (Dutch; smaller supermarkets).

It can often be found smoked (key word gerookte in Dutch, or fumé in French) and ready to put in a sandwich or salad. The meat is also used in continental dishes (such as stews).

Generally speaking, horsemeat is much darker than beef with a richer colour. I found it very soft and the meat breaks apart in your mouth. The taste (disguised a little when smoked) is a bit hard to describe. I find it a bit stronger than beef, and leaner too.

It’s frankly a delicious alternative to beef and one I’d be happy to include more regularly in meals.

I was hoping that some enterprising butchers would source horse meat following the scandal – to capitalise on public curiosity – but it seems there’s still a fair amount of opposition to the idea and I haven’t seen it added alongside wild boar, kangaroo or crocodile (at our more diverse local shops).

It could well be that British tastes make the widespread import/production of horse meat unlikely, but tastes do change. In the US it might prove to be an economical option. Our closer neighbours clearly have no issue with the meat, and there are plenty of stockists willing to take a risk or two.

If we do see horse meat on the shelves in future, it will of course be correctly labelled and – one would hope – responsibly sourced. Rather than being an undesirable addition to our meals, it might well be a welcome one. I for one would be happy to buy it if that ever happened.

A Cycle Log to Fareham

This is as much a log as anything else, so bear with me. After my post the other day I decided to make a note of all the ‘tiny inconveniences’ and notes on a recent shopping trip to local market town, Fareham.

The theory goes like this: every situation that unduly burdens the cyclist is a disincentive to use the track (and, possibly, to cycle at all).

I’m not a huge cycling fan. It’s as much for utility as anything else, but my purpose for logging this is to capture all the little bugbears that steadily erode my willingness to cycle over public transport or (more likely) the car.

Trip started off at the north edge of Lee-on-Solent, towards Fareham. I was keen to get onto the dedicated bus route as Newgate Lane, the most direct route, is frustratingly narrow and busy.


Screenshot 2014-11-26 11.23.49
Lee at the bottom; Fareham at the top. I took the rightmost line to Fareham and returned on the left-hand one.

New Daedalus Junction – Shared path on northbound side. The pedestrian/cyclist crossing is staggered, so there are two sets of lights to press and wait at, just to get across one road. The estate is largely unbuilt so the road is quiet. With few cars turning in or out, there’s little point in waiting. In reality, as I was simply going ahead it would have been easier to rejoin the road and come back off to the cycle track again.

Peel Common Roundabout – To get round this roundabout from Lee to Gosport you need to cross two fairly busy roads. Both have dedicated signals for crossing, and these seemed reasonably quick.

There’s quite a deep trench in the path. Clearly somebody has come along and dug across the path, and the tarmac has subsequently sunk. At about an inch deep and a sharp edge I can’t imagine that does tyres any favours.

Recreation ground. Rarely used (except for roadsweepers?). The humps don't meet the kerbs making for a bumpy ride. [Source; Google Streetview]
Recreation ground. Rarely used (except for roadsweepers?). The humps don’t meet the kerbs making for a bumpy ride. [Source: Google Streetview]
After coming off Peel Common Roundabout the cycle path crosses the Recreation Ground entrance. This is normally closed – I’m not sure if it’s even used any more, but cyclists must give way to any traffic potentially coming in. There are humps on the entrance road where the path crosses (with an island inbetween), but these don’t extend to the edges giving the cyclist four nasty bangs if they’re not careful.

I came off the cycle path and round the Peel Common estate to connect to Tukes Avenue. Not sure if this is quicker, but I know the cycle path has several priority issues (cars over cyclists) which put me off following that path.

The new 'busway' - actually a really nice stretch for cycling.
The new ‘busway’ – actually a really nice stretch for cycling. [Source: Google Streetview]
At Wych Lane I join the new dedicated bus road. At the Wych Lane junction turning into the road is prohibited except for buses and cycles. On the road itself, there’s a “no motor vehicles” sign applied ‘except for authorised buses’. There’s also a ‘no pedestrians’ sign. It would have been reassuring to see a cycle sign just to make sure I was supposed to use the road. The signs technically allow it but with so many prohibition signs and cameras about I had residual doubt. That said, I’m overly cautious anyway so for most I doubt this matters.

Further down, by the Palmerston Business Centre, there are even signs for ‘Cyclists Dismount’. I’m not sure if this is intended for path-users or not but I figured I could continue using the road.

The bus road itself is fantastic to cycle down. Dead straight, very little traffic (naturally) and smooth.

At the end of the bus route, just before Redlands Lane a little cycle path deviated to the right. I know there’s a path on the far side of the A32, but there were no direction signs anywhere in sight. It would be useful to know the ‘recommended’ route to Fareham from here.

I turned right here, onto the cycle path. Pedestrians crossing the path had right of way, which left me waiting in the middle for a bit. Not the worst junction by a long way, but might scare a few novices.
I turned right here, onto the cycle path. Pedestrians crossing the path had right of way, which left me waiting in the middle for a bit. Not the worst junction by a long way, but might scare a few novices. [Source: Google Streetview]
I stuck with Redlands Lane and headed towards a path I knew, starting at the junction with St Michael’s Grove. This was a little tricky as several cars (and a bus) were trying to negotiate the junction and pedestrians were walking across the path entrance completely unaware of me. I waited in the middle of the road for them to cross but I can imagine this manoeuvre wouldn’t be to everybody’s liking.

The cycle path crosses a small residential road and crosses one of the streams leading to the Creek. Here, pedestrians are granted a fairly substantial bridge while cyclists follow the hill down and back up again. Unfortunately this stream also seems to be a favourite destination for dog walkers who naturally need to use the same (narrow) path. I had one nearly walk out on me, which – having just come down a fairly steep hill – was a good test for the brakes. There is good visibility here so realistically cyclists should see any potential hazards well in advance.

This path then turns under the railway and Western Way, with a rather blind bend caused by the bridge brickwork. This is also quite a narrow section, so cyclists and pedestrians alike have to be ready for anything.

Finally the path dumps the cyclist rather unceremoniously into a residential street, Crescent Road behind West Street. Poor signage again leaves the cyclist wondering which way is recommended, although the main street is clearly nearby and there aren’t that many options. Caution needs to be applied here as a garage is operational – I stopped to let a van reverse but wasn’t entirely sure he ever saw me.

Good bit of segregation here to protect the cyclist, although I suspect most don't bother waiting. [Source: Google Streetview]
Good bit of segregation here to protect the cyclist, although I suspect most don’t bother waiting. [Source: Google Streetview]
Once on West Street a cycle strip alongside the road takes the cyclist towards the town centre. A set of traffic lights protects the cyclist (continuing straight) as traffic is forced left onto Trinity Street. I had to wait a while for the lights to change, and imagine most cyclists don’t bother waiting. That said, the protected turn was nice to have.

Finally, to Fareham Town Centre where there was a bike stand waiting for me. Nice and straightforward.

On the way back, I decided to take a slightly different route and followed the journey as far as Redlands Lane. Here, I continued down St Michael’s Grove all the way to the bottom. Halfway down there was a sign directing Stubbington cyclists to turn right, but by the time I spotted this it was too late and traffic was passing me.

Sharp turn to join the cycle path, and judging by the grass damage it looks like a common issue. [Source; Google Streetview]
Sharp turn to join the cycle path, and judging by the grass damage it looks like a common issue. [Source; Google Streetview]
Once on Longfield Avenue I cycled on the road until a sign directed me onto the pavement. This was nearly a ninety-degree bend – quite sharp, but in hindsight (and with Google Maps) I realise this was intended for cyclists crossing from the other side – presumably the route I’d missed earlier.

From here it was a straight run up to the roundabout with Peak Lane, which I took to head towards Stubbington. This is a great path, nice and straight with a fairly smooth ride. However, once I’d built up speed I had to put on the brakes again to cross a small side road – I believe this is a restricted road to Newgate Lane. Again, cyclists must give way to traffic and despite nearly no traffic it is a blind corner so the cyclist must slow right down before crossing. I would bet most cyclists risk it – having built up speed. Also worth noting if I’d cycled on the main road, of course, I’d have no such priority issues.

Road crossing halfway up Peak Lane. The cyclist must slow right down and give way (blind corner). Google proves here that at least somebody uses the road! [Source: Google Streetview]
Road crossing halfway up Peak Lane on an otherwise long, straight, flat section. The cyclist must slow right down and give way (blind corner). Google proves here that at least somebody uses the road! [Source: Google Streetview]
In Stubbington the path crosses another small side road (again with priority to crossing traffic) before merging the cyclist onto a strip on the road. This is a bit of an awkward junction, since the cyclist must watch both the side road and the traffic behind them to ensure both a cross and a merge can be performed safely.

Cyclists are directed to turn onto Windermere Avenue which passes Meoncross School. As luck would have it it was kicking-out time and the road was congested with school-run drivers. I got a little satisfaction from passing them all.

At the bottom end, this turns into Burnt House Lane where the same school-runners were queuing to get onto the Gosport Road. The lane is narrow here and I had trouble passing the traffic. Admittedly I could’ve been a little more aggressive but many of the cars were too close to the kerb to pass on the inside.

Once through Stubbington I followed Gosport Road all the way back to the Mark’s Road junction, where a shared path re-emerges. This is a tricky junction and I’m sure it used to be signposted better.

Essentially the cyclist must take a left turn into the adjacent layby and move onto the pavement. The left turn is sharp but quite doable, however not signposted at all. They must then cross Mark’s Road (newly traffic light controlled) and cross the Gosport Road (again, with lights) to end up on the cycle path. I pressed the button for the first set of lights but after about twenty seconds the ‘please wait’ light disappeared. I ended up just waiting for a quiet time to cross, but this seemed fairly idiotic.

The second set of lights worked rather better and changed almost immediately. I crossed the main road and met the cycle path to take me back to Lee.

it’s worth adding that this section of Gosport Road (between Stubb and Peel Common Roundabout) is quite narrow and has a lot of motor traffic, yet at least two cyclists passed me on the road, while I used the dedicated path. I can’t help but wonder if the sheer hassle of crossing those junctions is enough to discourage them from bothering.

The Demise of Home Delivery?

I can’t help but feel today’s announcement that Amazon will offer collection from Post Offices is the tipping point for home delivery – actually for its demise. It seems logical to view home delivery as a critical mass. There needs to be a minimum density of deliveries per mile per day to justify the running of the vehicles, the staff, the infrastructure. If the deliveries for a parcel company are too far apart, the costs must go up and home delivery loses appeal. It’s a self-perpetuating route to failure.

Couple this with the sheer inconvenience of home delivery – taking time off or avoiding leaving the house to wait for a parcel seems ludicrous. I’ve encountered many businesses which ban employees from sending parcels to work. Home delivery is, in many ways, inconvenient.

Just yesterday on BBC News two ‘click and collect’ business owners were interviewed. Both companies operate those lockers you sometimes see next to supermarkets and in petrol stations. A code on your mobile phone unlocks the right door and your package is revealed. Business is booming, and growth rate is impressive.

All of this is eating away at the delivery companies’ model, and in a substantial way. Again, a critical mass model will fall apart when that mass is no longer maintained – i.e. when enough people switch away from home delivery – and the model spirals into unsustainability.

There are clearly opportunities remaining for home delivery companies: B2B and rural locations are two that come to mind, although I suspect prices might rise for both. For the rest of us, the appeal of picking up our packages at a local Post Office (or increasingly it seems, the Co-op) at our convenience must surely be greater than waiting for the parcel to come to us..

Surface Pro 3

Back in September I bought a Surface Pro 3 as they were being released in the UK. The first dilemma was choosing the device. I wanted one powerful enough not to feel sluggish, but the price escalation was quite significant so I had to choose well.

My choice: the mid-range i5, 4GB RAM, 128GB disk. For a general purpose work device, this appears to have been the perfect choice.

There are plenty of reviews online, describing the pros and cons of the device. Some daft sods have even pulled it apart to see what’s inside. I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s cover the basics.

The Screen

The screen is lovely. It’s nice and sharp, with a high-density screen meaning fonts look good. It’s possible to adjust the resolution and fit more on the screen, but I found the touch screen (which is useful) quickly loses its appeal as your fat finger becomes more of a clumsy liability than a helpful pointer.

At the default settings, I get an effective screen size of 1440×960, which is a reasonable workspace.

I haven’t yet hooked up a monitor (you need to go buy extras to convert from their diddy DisplayPort to something compatible with most monitors). Supposedly this device could run with a huge 4K screen, so the options are there if you need more ‘real estate’.

The screen is bright. I’ve used it outside in September sun with few problems. Yes, it’s reflective but at its maximum setting the screen easily outshines most local light sources.

I’ve found mine has a small but irritating brightness wobble. I’m not sure if this is by design (adaptive lighting and whatnot) but it’s distracting and I find myself turning up the brightness to avoid its effects.

The Disk

My business usually revolves around Word, Excel and online databases, so my disk requirements aren’t huge. If you’ve a lot of photos or video you probably ought to consider an external disk or online options. The Surface Pro has a slot for MicroSD cards but I haven’t had a reason to use this yet. It might give a helpful capacity boost but I’m not aware SD cards are known for their speed.

Many cloud services like Dropbox will dump all your files on the device when you add a new computer, which annoyingly eats up space unless you selectively choose to ignore some folders. Microsoft’s OneDrive offers online-only sync, which seems eminently more sensible on portable devices. Roughly speaking, your files appear but don’t take up any space until you choose to open them or keep them offline. It’s a sensible option and makes a big difference on these devices.

If you’re sensible you ought to have no problems with a smaller disk, but individual requirements will clearly matter. I’m still evaluating cloud services but will likely settle on one which offers online-only modes to save space.

The Keyboard

Let’s get one thing out of the way first. I really resent paying extra for the keyboard. It’s £100-odd on top of an already premium device. The problem is that it’s pretty well necessary to make the most of the Surface Pro.

I spent about two weeks with the device before acknowledging I would need to spend out more. WIthout the Type Cover Keyboard designed for the Pro you’re left with two choices: use a third-party USB/bluetooth keyboard or use the on-screen one. The former comes with the obvious obligation to carry yet another device. The latter is straightforwardly annoying, with the on-screen keyboard taking nearly half of the screen. Windows becomes letterbox-sized and is basically unusable.

I started with the on-screen keyboard but couldn’t get anything done without constantly scrolling. I moved to a bluetooth keyboard but became frustrated with the device overhead. So, I took the plunge and bought the Type Cover.

Skeptical at first, I rather like the keyboard. I’m a decent touch typist and can rattle out a document nearly as quickly as I can at home. The keyboard is comfortable enough and the keys feel well laid out. Usual ergonomics apply: as a flat laptop-style keyboard this is not something you want to use for hours on end, but it’s certainly effective and productive.

The keyboard has a backlight which is handy if you enjoy typing in darkness. The function keys are a little frustrating. Home, End, etc. are shared with function keys, so a secondary Fn keypress needs to be used to switch from one to the other. Annoying, but it’s something I’m getting steadily accustomed to – and seems to be fairly common nowadays anyway.

The touchpad is okay. I’ve found mine a little flimsy – enough to wonder if it’s a defect – but reviews elsewhere have made similar comments and the thing works. Realistically as more programs, web sites and the OS are gearing up for touch screens I find myself increasingly tapping on the screen to get something done, rather than move the cursor about. It saves time and works well.

The keyboard is magnetically attached, which is fun to snap on and off – and convenient if I’m working on something which doesn’t need it. Once attached it folds over the screen and offers some protection when the device is being carried about.

The Pen

As a fan of OneNote and an idle doodler, I use my pen quite a lot. It’s responsive, accurate and comfortable to use. My handwriting is usually recognisable but since I type faster than I write, it’s rarely put to the test. The Surface Pro has been an impressive companion at meetings and conferences, where I can quickly wake it up, jot some notes and shut it off again. OneNote’s workflow for new notes can be a little cumbersome but the hardware is in place.

Battery

I’ve managed day trips without my charger, firing it up at the airport at 6am, working through a conference and with still enough juice to see me through the return. This is with a reasonably conservative use and dimmer screen. If I’m working remotely at a desk I’ll take my charger for assurance but as-is the battery is quite capable of seeing me through most days.

Unlike my laptop, I get no indication of battery life remaining. This is supposedly to do with Microsoft’s smart standby technology, which I’ve mixed feelings about. The idea is that the device continues to run in a low-power mode, receiving emails and keeping itself ticking over – like a phone. In reality, my phone already fulfills the notification role and on a few disappointing occasions I’ve opened the Surface to discover the whole thing had failed to fall asleep and the battery nearly depleted.

As a result, I’ve now taken to shutting the device down completely when I’m likely to leave it for an hour or more. This is – I suspect – a problem with software, but it’s incredibly irritating to have to form counter-productive habits around this sort of stuff.

The charger is quite small, so easy to carry about, with a handy USB slot included. The power cable is magnetically attached and reversible, although I could do with the cable being a wee bit longer.

I’ve some concerns about having a battery sealed in the device. My laptops have never fared too well from constant usage, and batteries wear easily with constant recharges. My fear is that – after two years’ usage – the battery in this will be nigh-on useless. It’s a shame technology hasn’t improved around this as a fixed battery is likely a compromise for such a trim device, and I wonder what I’ll be thinking once its usefulness has deteriorated.

The Result

I bought this device because I needed a capable companion at meetings and on the move. I think it’s fulfilled that role rather wonderfully. As a ‘power’ user of Office and desktop apps, I’m still tied to the Windows ecosystem and the Surface Pro, being Microsoft’s flagship device, demonstrates its vision of how operating systems and devices can work together effectively.

My eventual goal is to shift to the Surface Pro entirely. I really feel productive on this device, and as my work patterns are changing (long story) I ought to be its ideal user – a mix of Windows apps, Office and the browser, all in a portable setting. This will undoubtedly form the basis for another post.

I’m not disappointed by the capabilities, but the quality needs some work. The Type Cover Keyboard came with a special fabric loop for the pen (which has nowhere else to live). This is left to the customer to attach, and whichever way you place it it looks tacked on. For a £100 keyboard and a £40-odd pen it feels like a cheap afterthought.

Windows 8.1 continues to be a clunky bastard amalgamation of desktop and tablet, but early reviews of Windows 10 are impressive. I can’t wait to use it – it seems made for Surface – but am not yet ready to risk installing a development version on this device.

The i5 4GB model has suited me, and reviews have suggested the i3 runs well enough – although I’d be reluctant to run more than the basic Office suite on that one. The i7 could offer a useful boost for the high-end requirements, although I question whether such a powerful processor is ready to be put into this form factor yet – my fan has rarely kicked in but I’ve read i7 reviews which complain of constant fan noise, heat issues and poor battery performance.

I would recommend the Surface Pro 3 (particularly this model) to those looking for a portable WIndows device with minimal fuss and good build quality. I’d strongly recommend the Type Cover keyboard as well – out of necessity. It’s worth checking with i3 owners to see how they’re finding things but performance has not once been an issue for me (that might change as I plan to install Adobe Creative Suite soon…)

If you’re not bound to Windows, a Nexus or Chromebook might fulfill your needs. Apple equivalents are, of course, available. I used a Nexus tablet for a long while and really liked it, but my productivity was limited by lack of split screen and mediocre Office apps. My requirements are specific; others’ mileage may vary.