Surface and iPad mini: Keep or return?

A few months ago, I got over my longstanding objection to buying gadgets just so I could review them. It beats waiting for a distracted or picky PR department to send a loaner unit, and it ensures I get the same hardware any reader might buy.

But unless I’m going to become a one-man stimulus program for the electronics industry, I can’t keep everything I buy to test. When I tried the iPhone 5, for instance, I had to return the phone within Verizon Wireless’s 14-day trial to avoid sentencing myself to a two-year contract.

(Returning used devices usually entails a restocking fee, but it would take a lot of those to equal what I spent on the ONA conference fee alone, much less all the other expenses it takes to stay in business.)

That brings me to my two latest review purchases: Apple’s iPad mini and the Microsoft Surface.

Going into this, I might have picked the iPad as the one more likely to go. We already own an iPad, I’d been leaning towards getting the Nexus 7 as our smaller tablet, and the absence of restocking fees at Apple’s stores would make returning it a cost-free proposition. The Surface, on the other hand, would be a new type of device in my home, and it would also allow me to experience Windows 8′s interface on hardware designed for it.

But now I’m thinking I’ll keep the mini and return the Surface. It’s a great little device, especially for use away from home, and our iPad 2 is starting to run out of space between the apps I’ve put on it for test purposes and those my wife uses for her job. Meanwhile, I don’t need Microsoft’s tablet to test Windows RT apps when my ThinkPad’s copy of Windows 8 also runs them. The Surface itself is too heavy to carry around as a tablet; when I tried using it on my lap, the Touch Cover flexed distractingly with my typing and the kickstand didn’t stop the screen from wobbling back and forth.

Plus, my MacBook Air only weighs a pound more than the combined Surface and Touch Cover but can do a lot more. It also cost twice as much–but that money was spent long before I set foot in a Microsoft Store to buy a Surface.

So that’s what I think I’ll do. If you think I’m making a huge mistake, you have until tonight to talk me out of it in the comments.

11/11/12, 10:34 a.m. Welcome, Loop Insight readers! I did, in fact, return the Surface last night–and found myself next to another Surface buyer at Microsoft’s Pentagon City store who was doing the same thing, for about the same reasons. The clerk apologized for the tablet not meeting our expectations and suggested that the upcoming Surface Pro might be a better fit. He could be right.

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Weekly output: Silent Circle, smartphone battery life, FM radios in phones, Surface,

Not much to show for myself this week, but then again I spent most of the first half of it off the grid. Next week will be busier.

10/30/2012: Silent Circle Promises Spy-Proof Calls, Discovery News

I learned about this company back in June at the Tech Policy Summit, where co-founder Phil Zimmermann spoke on one panel, then got a briefing about from Zimmermann and another co-founder, Mike Janke, in mid-September. But actually testing Silent Circle’s encrypted-calling and encrypted-texting apps took just long enough that I finished and filed the review only an hour or so before the lights went out–ensuring it went online to a Sandy-diminished audience the next morning. That was not so smart.

11/1/2012:  Lessons of Sandy: How to keep your phone juiced longer, USA Today

I was going to write about ways to find and shut down a lost smartphone (that’ll happen next week), but sharing my own experience with keeping phones ticking along in a blackout seemed more timely. My editor thought so too, which is why a column that normally runs on Sunday appeared Thursday afternoon. It also includes a tip about some Android phones including FM radios that you can use even when you have no wireless service; a reader e-mailed to say that some Windows Phone devices share that feature, which was a point good enough for me to echo in a comment I left on the story.

11/3/2012: Microsoft’s Surface, A Tablet With Many Faces, Discovery News

I’m really on the fence about this tablet. The hardware is as tremendous as the first journalists to get a peek at it claimed this summer, but the software–well, if Microsoft had simply killed off the traditional Windows desktop entirely here, at least I’d know what I was dealing with. Meanwhile, I already own two laptops with great battery life that also run an enormous inventory of applications.

Weekly output: iPad mini (x), Windows 8 (x2), Lightning cable, OS X updates

Was there any surprise about which two stories would dominate my time this week?

10/23/2012: New iPad Mini Eats Steve Jobs’ Words, Discovery News

My reaction to Apple’s announcement of a smaller iPad had to remind readers of Steve Jobs’ lengthy explanation two years ago of the functional impossibility of a quality tablet experience on a screen smaller than 10 inches.

10/23/2012: Apple’s iPad Mini much pricier than rival tablets, Fox 5 News

That evening, the folks at the local Fox station had me on to talk about the iPad mini. Our conversation focused on the gap between its $329 starting price and the $199 cost of two smaller tablets, Google’s Nexus 7 and Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD. I left out the iPad mini’s lack of a Retina display, but then again I’m not sure I’ll notice that when using the thing. (I’ll find out soon enough, as I pre-ordered one on Friday; if I don’t like it enough to keep after writing up my reviews, Apple doesn’t charge a restocking fee.)

On Wednesday the 24th, I moderated a good panel discussion with Potomac Tech Wire’s Paul Sherman, the Washington Business Journal’s Bill Flook and the Washington Post’s Steven Overly about how tech reporters interact with public-relations types. But there’s no record of this event, hosted by the PR agency Environics Communications, besides a round of tweets.

10/25/2012: Windows 8 release, Fox 5 News

Two days later I was back in WTTG’s newsroom–even standing on the same marker tape on the floor–to talk about the impending arrival of Microsoft’s Windows 8. I spent most of this brief hit talking about its new, wildly different interface and didn’t even mention Windows RT and the Surface tablet. Considering that Microsoft has papered the Gallery Place Metro station with ads for Surface, that might not have been the best call.

10/27/2012: Windows 8: Twice The Interface, Third The Price, Discovery News

This review was supposed to run on Friday, but a miserable all-nighter of an installation experience ensured I’d need more time. I’m glad I took it; the insight that Windows 8′s new Start-screen user interface could be seen as a descendant of such simplified, media-playback front ends as Microsoft’s Media Center and Apple’s Front Row didn’t come to me until Saturday morning.

10/28/2012: Apple’s Lightning cable: Making the switch, USA Today

This is my attempt at summing up the long-term complications of Apple’s switch to a smaller cable for its mobile devices. Anybody want to bet how long it will be before cars that today ship with dock-connector cables will leave factories with Lightning cables instead? The column wraps up with a reminder about how you can repair a botched OS X patch installation by downloading a large “combo update” from Apple’s site.

To all reading this along the Northeast Corridor: Stay safe, stay dry, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Weekly output: Microsoft Surface (x2), Kojo Nnamdi Show, soundbars, NFC payments, This Week in Law, HDMI DRM, remote-control apps

Microphones played almost as big of a role in my work this week as keyboards usually do.

6/19/2012: Microsoft’s Tablet: No Depth Below The Surface, Discovery News

I wasn’t invited to Microsoft’s Monday-afternoon event in Los Angeles to unveil its Surface tablets (not that I would have been too keen to fly across the country on four days’ notice), but I didn’t mind that much after learning how attendees didn’t actually get to use the display units in any meaningful way.

6/19/2012: New Microsoft Tablet Is Unveiled, Fox 5 News

The local Fox station’s Will Thomas interviewed me about Surface on its morning-news show. As I did in the Discovery post, I noted what Microsoft left out of its introduction of the two Surface tablets: a price, a ship date and even vague promises about battery life.

(Update, 5:53 p.m. Oh, one other thing… the next guest on the show was rapper Ice-T. That does not make me his opening act, but it did result in a photo of me with the gentleman and his wife.)

6/19/2012: Personal Tech Advice, The Kojo Nnamdi Show

About three hours later and half a mile south on Wisconsin Avenue, I talked about cell-phone pricing, iOS 6′s maps app, password security, car2go, and, yes, Surface with two old friends: veteran tech journalist Wayne Rash and guest host Marc Fisher, who remains one of my favorite people at the Washington Post.

6/22/2022: No Soundbar To Mass Adoption, CEA Digital Dialogue

This week’s CEA post chronicles my evolution from a set of what I’ve called Single Guy Speakers to a far more compact soundbar system and discusses how many other people seem to have decided to trade some sonic fidelity for a less bulky (and more baby-proof) setup.

6/22/2012: The High Cost Of Paying By Phone, Discovery News

My first attempt to buy something with the Google Wallet app on the Evo 4G LTE phone I reviewed last month was a flop. The second one worked–and then the entire Wallet app stopped working. I don’t know if I’ll have a chance for a third try before I have to return this loaner phone.

6/22/2012: Episode 167: Are You Game?, This Week in Law

I talked about politicians on Twitter, privacy rights in an age of ubiquitous cameras, how “quantified self” apps might push us to do dangerous things, and the latest DMCA anti-circumvention debate with host Evan Brown and fellow guests Joseph Gratz (a San Francisco-based lawyer) and Sherwin Siy (a vice president at Public Knowledge). I look forward to my next spot on TWiL–one of a series of podcasts produced by TWiT.TV, a Petaluma, Calif.-based network–and hope that it won’t feature Skype locking up and crashing with about 10 minutes to go.

6/24/2012: TiVo ‘viewing error’ a rights issue, USA Today

You may recall me venting on Twitter two weeks ago about an annoying HDMI failure on a Samsung HDTV; this column is the result of that failed troubleshooting session. It also includes a tip about using smartphone or tablet apps as remote controls that I explored at greater length on CEA’s blog last month.