October 2014 Column, Part 2

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Column 370, October, 2014

Part 2 of 3

Jerry continues the October column with with a discussion on “Precious” (Jerry’s Microsoft Surface Prod 3), Windows 8, Getting Some Work Done, and his struggles and (mostly) triumph over AutoCorrect in MS Word.

Precious, Windows 8, and Getting Some Work Done

I really like the Microsoft Surface Pro 3. It feels right and it’s the right size. The screen is bright and very readable. When it’s working properly it does so very well indeed. I like it enough that I’m willing to work hard at learning it.

Precious has a very steep a learning curve for me. Part of that is a problem with Windows 8, part with the latest Word. I rented Office 365 ($100 a year—you can’t buy it), and the version of Word that currently comes with that is Word 2013. Some of it is the way the tablet works: it’s quite different from the Compaq TC 1100, which I carried to several COMDEX and Consumer Electronics conventions as my only computer, and never regretted doing that. I filed a number of stories from Las Vegas with that Compaq, and I really miss it.

Of course the TC 1100 didn’t have a true touch screen, but you could do all those things with a Wacom stylus. There was an editing program – I don’t recall which, but it read and wrote .rtf documents – that I could use to hand-edit long documents, using the standard proof readers’ marks to change the text, capitalize words, and even insert new text. I edited many a column on that Compaq TC 1100 while on an airplane in an uncomfortable seat with the passenger in front of me leaning back as far as he could. I really liked that machine and I have been hoping that the Surface Pro 3 would work as well as the Compaq did.

Peter Glaskowsky has been doing some research, and he suggests that Ink Gestures https://web.archive.org/web/20060216015431/http://www.jumpingminds.com/InkGestures/index.htm
demonstrated in this video http://www.tabletpctalk.com/events/microsoft_mobile_platforms_division_partners_briefing_2006/Word_Ink_Gestures.wmv would be the editing program I used with the Compaq. I fear I don’t remember, and it is no longer for sale. I do hope that someone will come up with such a program as an app for the Surface Pro 3.

Can the Surface Be Your Only Laptop?

There are two discussions here, hardware and software.

The major hardware problem with the Surface Pro 3 is the keyboard. It’s a nice keyboard, and I may get used to it, but I probably won’t. Two finger typists won’t have any problem with it at all: the keys are large enough that you won’t miss them, even when typing in a long password, and the key labels are big enough to see.

Sloppy touch typists – that’s me – will have a different problem. The keys, while large enough, are very close together, and it’s extremely easy to hit two keys at once.

The Surface Pro is also small enough that those with poor eyesight – that’s me again along with just about everyone else my age – need to sit fairly close to the screen. The good news is that kickstand screen backrest can be set to nearly any angle, so that the table height is not critical. Given a decent table – the desk in most motel rooms will be fine – you’ll be able to grind out a good bit of text with this machine, assuming you can type with that keyboard.

The software is good. It makes use of the touch screen, and given some practice the stylus is neat. I’m used to the Wacom stylus, which is quite different from this in both buttons and feel, but it’s not that hard to get used to this one. There are two buttons on the stylus barrel. The top one right-clicks, the bottom one erases. It doesn’t take that long to make their use automatic.

The bottom line here is that you’ll want some accessories – a good port expander will be the first one, and that TrendNet USB 3.0- to-Ethernet adapter will be the second – but yes, you could go to a major conference with nothing else. You’ll know you compromised, but you can get the work done.

That’s provided you are guaranteed a table and chair.

Using a Laptop as a Laptop

What is important about the Surface Pro 3 if you’re considering it to be your only laptop is that they’ve made it so small that it’s not really a laptop at all. That is, if you put it on your lap and try to write with it, you must sit upright and keep your knees fairly close together. That gets uncomfortable fast. Moreover, the angle between the screen and the keyboard is not set by the machine: the screen needs that kickstand backrest set, or it will simply fall over. You have to let that kickstand rest on a knee.

If you do sit upright with your feet on the floor – about the only way it’s going to stay steady enough to use for much – the screen is a bit small, but that of course is a function of age and eyesight.

All in all, though, if I were caught in a conference that didn’t provide tables for the press, I’d rather have a pen and paper log book. Of course I haven’t tried Precious with OneNote and simply a stylus; I never quite had the nerve to do that with the Compaq either, but I could actually type with the Compaq on my lap more steadily than I manage with this.

The bottom line is if I ever go on the road with only the Surface, I’ll be sure to have a paper log book – but then I’m never without one, so that won’t change much.

Or will it? Peter Glaskowsky reports:

“I frequently use my Surface Pro, like all my previous Tablet PCs, as a notepad with a stylus. When I’m traveling, I usually leave the keyboard(s) behind in the hotel room and take only the tablet with me to the conference. OneNote works very well on these modern tablets, since they’re fast enough to eliminate the sluggishness that plagued the early Windows tablets.

“I’ve long since reached the point I will only write something on paper when I have no way to access OneNote. With OneDrive, Microsoft’s cloud-based storage service, OneNote automatically backs up its notebooks to the cloud and syncs them with all my other OneNote devices– including my Mac, my iPad, and my Samsung Slate. By comparison, a piece of paper seems unacceptably fragile.”

That’s more encouragement for relearning OneNote, and I’ll keep at it. Even with all the quirks and quibbles of the Compaq TC 1100, I found the combination of that tablet and OneNote with fast access to the Internet to be the most powerful and effective research tool I had ever experienced; and in fact I haven’t found anything yet that would top it. Once I get more familiar with Windows 8 and the new OneNote, I may not need that paper log book.

Problems Remain

One of the main irritations with the Surface Pro 3 is that when I am trying to fix a problem with Word, I invariably touch something that activates a Windows 8 feature I didn’t want. Closing that can bring out something else. Precious is fast, so very fast that a few touches can take me far away from what I was doing.

AutoCorrect in MS Word

Another problem with using Precious is more the fault of Word 2013 than of either the Surface or Windows 8. For reasons I don’t understand, Microsoft has made AutoCorrect more difficult to use. Fortunately there’s a way around that, because AutoCorrect is a very powerful tool. It can help a lot with problems caused by fat fingers and strange keyboards.

I became addicted to AutoCorrect because of one of its lesser known features. For nearly every version of Word ever sold, including Word 2013, if you misspell a word and it is marked with that squiggly little red line, you can right click the word and you will be offered one or more words to correct it to. This is how most people use the spelling check program, and it works just fine. If you’re on a writing roll you can simply ignore misspellings until you’re done, then go back and fix them. Everyone knows about this.

But if you are a sloppy typist, as I am, there’s a much more elegant solution to the problem. When you see a mistyped word and you notice it’s one you see a lot with this keyboard – such as “fro0m” for “from” because you hit both keys – you can, in Word 2003 through Word 2010, right click on the word and you will see, in addition to a choice of words, an offer to go to AutoCorrect. If you do that, you get to choose the correct spelling, after which it not only corrects this instance, but all of them in future. You’ll never see “fro0m” again unless you deliberately go back and retype it again as I just did for both instances in this paragraph.

Obviously this can be misused, but used with a spot of care it’s a lifesaver. I try to use Microsoft Comfort Curve keyboards on all my machines, but I generally can’t do that with laptops and portables, and new key layouts encourage me to make mistakes. If I notice that I make the same mistake often I can put that mistake into AutoCorrect and it won’t happen again. Of course you want to be careful and aim AutoCorrect only at mistakes with unambiguous resolutions, but given a bit of common sense in its use AutoCorrect can save you a lot of time in your writing.

AutoCorrect with Word 2013

As we’ve noted, for many people the Surface Pro 3 keyboard is quite usable, not as good as the old Compaq 1100 TC board was, but a lot better than many tablet keyboards. The keys are large and square and have a good feel. The problem for me is that there is no key separation at all. They are real keys, and actually depress with a decent feeling, but they look a lot like the “keys” you see on a touch screen. They are only separated by a thin line, so it is very easy to hit two keys at once if you type fast, which I tend to do.

I am an admittedly sloppy typist – back in the controversy over the first IBM PC keyboard an IBM executive flat out told me to learn to type if I didn’t like the IBM PC key layout – but there’s not a lot I can do about it now, and I suspect I am not alone. I keep wondering if there can’t be software that prevents double key pressing, so that if you hit two keys at once, only one will actually print. That would solve a lot of the problems. The problem is that some good typists haven’t let go of the last key before striking the next, which makes the problem very complex. I can keep hoping. After all, I don’t type that way. But see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rollover_(key)

My solution to the problem of keyboards that encourage me to make frequent errors has always been AutoCorrect. When I type “gfind” the resolution is ambiguous, but “qwuick” has only one likely outcome. When I encounter a new keyboard it may take me a couple of days, but eventually I can use AutoCorrect to tame that keyboard so that I can get some work done.

I always tell new writers that the secret of becoming a successful writer is to have written enough that you no longer pay attention to what you are doing, but simply tell the story; the less you have to think about the mechanics of writing, from typing errors to grammatical complexities, the better your story will come out.

Alex tells me that’s important advice which I should repeat, so you may see it again.

Alas, Word 2013 makes taming the Surface Pro 3 keyboard much more difficult. With the default settings it can be done, but you need to be determined. With default Word 2013, when you encounter a misspelled word, right clicking on it displays a choice of words, but no access to AutoCorrect. To get to AutoCorrect, mark the word either with the pen, or your finger, or double-click it to mark it, but don’t single click it. Go up to File, and click that. You’ll see options as the last on a list of menu items. Click options, and you’ll see proofing on the menu that displays; click proofing and you will see a bunch of options for spell checking. Look them over.

While you are here, this will be as good a time as any to unselect the option not to spell check words that have numbers in them. It is selected by default, but since many of my typing errors with computer keyboards involve hitting a number which is above the letter I am reaching for, I need to deselect it, because otherwise the spelling checker won’t see “r4esources” as misspelled. Whether you do that or not you’ll see AutoCorrect enclosed in an oval, sort of a button. Click that and you’ll be at AutoCorrect and if you correctly marked the word to correct it will be in the left side of the area that lets you add to AutoCorrect options. Carefully type in what you want it changed to. Do OK and get back to your text. Your word will now be corrected, and you’ll never make that typing error again unless you really want to.

If this seems a long way around Red Robin’s barn to do something Microsoft previously made easy with a single right-click, I agree completely. I can’t think why Microsoft took the easy path to AutoCorrect out of Word 2013, but it is one more proof that Microsoft has given up having actual users of their product do pre-distribution testing. In the early days of the computer revolution, many companies used their customers as their quality control department. Most of those that did this have not survived.

Fortunately Microsoft’s revision programmers left in a better way to do AutoCorrect, but you have to discover it.

Discoveries

I’ve been writing thousands of words about high tech stuff for thirty years, and I have an astonishingly low record of flat-out errors. It’s not that I’m all that smart. For more than twenty of those years I had the BYTE editorial staff as backup, and if I got something wrong they told me. After BYTE went away I was in a quandary, but fortunately a number of friends and readers have volunteered to serve the same purpose, and I run this stuff through my advisors before publishing it.

I learn a good bit that way. In this case, I learned that Microsoft hasn’t actually eliminated the easy path to using AutoCorrect. You can make it fairly painless, but it takes determination. Thanks to Peter Glaskowsky for having the patience to teach me.

First, Word has a feature I never even thought about: the Quick Access Bar. This is a series of tiny icons, by default at the top of the Word window. It’s always there, even if you make the rest of the ribbon vanish with control-F1. The Quick Access Bar has been there for a long time, certainly since Word 2007 because I see the little icons now, and in fact I often use one of them, the little curly arrow that undoes whatever you just typed. There’s also the familiar 3.5” floppy icon that now means Save, and which I still use out of habits formed back when you saved early and often or you lost your work.

There are others, but one, which is always on the far right of the Quick Access Bar, is nearly invisible. It’s a tiny hyphen above a tiny down arrow. Mousing it tells you that it’s Customize Quick Access Bar (QAB hereafter). Click it and a confusing – at least confusing to me – menu drops down. At the bottom of that is the menu item More Commands. Clicking this shows you what looks like a large list of commands you can add to the QAB. Some of them may interest you, but in fact you ain’t seen nothing yet. Above that long list of commands is another little window that has above it a label: “Choose Commands From”; this little window lets you select a source for more commands.

Choose “All Commands”, and the list of items you can add to the QAB becomes enormous. The one we’re interested in is AutoCorrect Options, which will have associated with it a little icon that contains a lightning bolt. Click on it, look over to the right for the “Add” button, click that, and Lo! That icon will appear in the list of QAB commands it shows you have enabled.

The Windows 2013 AutoCorrect problem is now 90% solved. (It would be better if you could add it back to the right-click menu.) When you mistype a word, double click it to mark it; go up to the Quick Access Bar above the ribbon, and click the tiny lightning bolt you have just added. The AutoCorrect screen will open, your mistyped word will be in the input area, and you need only (carefully) type what you want it changed to and exit. This also works in Windows 2007, but the right click option is a bit faster.

Now that I have this technique installed, I can begin to tame the Precious keyboard to correct mistakes my fat fingers seem intent on making; and I have done enough of them that she’s already a lot easier to use.

Why Not A New Keyboard?

Many of my complaints about Surface Pro 3 seem to be centered around the keyboard. Peter Glaskowsky suggests I can get any Bluetooth enabled keyboard I like and use that. And so I can, but of course that sort of negates the whole point of a small combination tablet and laptop. Apple makes a pretty decent little Bluetooth keyboard that works quite well with the iPad, and if you packed up a briefcase of iPad, keyboard, port expander, and iPad desk stand you’d have quite a good tablet that you could use to write with, but I think I’d rather just bring a good laptop, and add a tablet to the mix. My hope is that the Surface Pro 3 will turn out to be as useful as the Compaq TC 1100, but faster and more versatile. I still haven’t given up on that.

There are several morals to this story. One is that Microsoft sometimes leaves you important options rather than taking them away, but they aren’t much good at telling you about them. When Chris Peters was VP of Development at Microsoft – his principal product was Word, then later all of Office – he frequently brought in users from Seattle offices to try his new stuff. Executive secretaries, engineering secretaries, writers, journalists – he had a fairly large team of users he could rely on. They even had an internal team of developers/testers who watched through one-way mirrors as users tried to adopt a new feature. During that period Microsoft documentation got better, as did user friendliness. All that seems gone now. I think Microsoft ought to bring Chris back to re-establish that team. Surely he’s bored with running a bowling association?

And if they can’t get Chris Peters back, they should try Peter Glaskowsky.

 Part 3 of the column will conclude with some thoughts on Windows 10, and Winding Down with the Books of the Month and other short thoughts.  It is scheduled for publication on October 30, 2014