First impressions of going all-in with Microsoft Surface, phone and services

On 1 July, I officially started my "Microsoft All-In" summer sojourn. Surface Pro 3 is my PC and Nokia Lumia Icon my smartphone for the next couple of months. Google gets the boot - at least for a while. I now largely use Microsoft products and services and third-party apps available for the company's platforms. Many commenters wonder why, so let me explain.

I last used Windows as my primary platform in 2010 - never for Windows Phone. Like my colleagues, I tend to write about products used regularly. Writing is more authoritative from experience, and often only long-time use reveals hidden problems or benefits.

Something else: Before abdicating the chief executive's position, Steve Ballmer reinvented Microsoft as a "devices and services" company. CEO Satya Nadella inherits what his predecessor started. As someone recently immersed in Google, which gives good contextual cloud computing, I want to assess the Softies' progress. Can the company Bill Gates cofounded transition to the cloud, or do the barbarians wait at the gates to pillage the largely enterprise user base?

Besides, Surface Pro 3 really appeals to me. The device largely lives up to the promise of one tablet to rule them all, and it's a laptop, too. With this model, Microsoft fulfils the vision for Tablet PC, which launched a dozen years ago. That said, there are plenty of quirks, with the whole Modern UI and Desktop thing high among them. The schizophrenic experience is less severe on Windows 8.1, but I want to see more apps supporting the newer motif, including Office.

Some commenters wonder why I narrowly choose among three major platform providers rather than look at open source alternatives. The answer is simple: Most people will choose Apple, Google, or Microsoft - iOS/OS X, Android/Chrome/Chrome OS, or Windows/Windows Phone. During the past year, I have extensively used MacBook Pro with Retina Display, iPhone 5S, Chromebooks (various), and Android phones (various) with the newest operating systems for them. Now Microsoft gets its chance.

Going all-in allows me to immerse in the platforms and get a real feel for where they are and where they could go compared to others. I fully expect to use products from various developers before this exercise is finished. All-in is an exercise, not a lifelong commitment.

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Here are some quick first impressions, which will hopefully help other people considering cloud choices with respect to Microsoft and competitors...

1. Windows 8.1 works your fingers

I move to Surface Pro 3 from Chromebook Pixel, which offers a considerably streamlined user interface. Pixel, like Surface, is touchscreen. But Chrome OS contains most navigational finger movement to two quadrants - tabs across the top and toolbar at the bottom of the screen. The concept keeps the eyes focused mostly to a single area, while making switching apps super easy, since they run in browser tabs.

Windows 8.1 demands your fingers go all over the screen - Charms Bar here, swipe there, etc. But design changes like moving the browser address bar to bottom of the screen reduce distance from fingers on the keyboard, diminishing "Gorilla arm" risks. Overall, I find all the swiping to be quite efficient and use the touchscreen much more than on the Pixel, the screen dimensions and size of which are comparable.

2. Microsoft makes migrating from Google easy

I didn't expect this. Outlook.com copied all my Gmail folders and messages - gigabytes of data - with a couple of mouse clicks. Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8 Mail and People apps can connect to Gmail and Google Contacts. Calendar is good on WP8 but not W8.1. There are other link options as well. I chose Facebook, for reasons explained in point three below, after decoupling Google.

3. Sync is great when it works

I moved from a refurbished original Surface to Pro 3 and surprisingly discovered apps and settings conveniently synced. The experience is very Chromebook-like and efficient. But there are too many glitches. For example, the Windows 8.1 People app won't sync contacts from Outlook.com but works just fine on WP8. What's up with that? All contacts went poof when I broke the Google link. Facebook brought back enough of them, and others.

Mail sync is sluggish and irregular. If I access Gmail from Chromebook and manage messages, changes are immediately visible when opening the Android app. However, there often are mismatches between Surface Pro 3 and Nokia Lumia Icon that necessitate my doing a quick, manual sync.

4. Google sync is smoother

Seven years ago this month, I started calling out sync as the "killer application" for the connected-device era, warning: "If Google gets synchronisation right before Microsoft, it's game over". No company does sync better than Google. Microsoft delivers better than I expected but early experience with W8.1 and Windows Phone 8 puts the cloud rival way ahead.

I trust that changes made here will reflect across the Googlesphere. Microsoft must still earn my trust.

5. Internet Explorer 11 surprises

I like. I like. This is the first version of the browser to tickle my fancy since IE4 - back in your granddad's day, unless you're the oldster. IE11 is smooth and speedy coming from Chrome. Some commenters finger-point to Internet Explorer HTML5 test scores being lower. I don't measure other men's equipment in the public shower. Performance matters, and IE11 delivers.

6. Bing satisfies

I have used Google search forever. So I was most curious about Bing. Results differ but Microsoft gets the job done, and image or video searches are far superior. I love those inline vid plays!

7. Gimme Windows streaming stick

Chromecast is brilliant. Google invades the living room with a Trojan horse for advertising, browser, cloud services, and platform devices. You shouldn't have to spend £349 on Xbox One to get the big benefits Google gives for £30 - all while pulling people to use other products. Microsoft's streaming-to-TV approach depends too much on devices or content connected to the local network.

Image Credit: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock