Optimizing your Microsoft Surface experience

Last update: Jan 23rd, 2013.

I was lucky enough to start using Windows 8 on a Tablet since this summer so when I received my Surface RT two weeks ago I immediately tried to see how to best optimize it for my family and I, and for both work and leisure.

I will not go back on to the Windows 8 “ basics”  (edges swipes, corner, tiles resizing etc.) but just talk about a few features and customizations I have implemented to make the Surface RT a great consumption and productive device. The best of both the tablet (think “iPad”) and the PC world. If you are a “beginner” I would advise to spend a few minutes there.

It’s important to remember that the Surface RT is running on an ARM-core based processor. All Windows RT devices are running on those ARM-core based processors from either Nvidia (Tegra or “T30” in the case of the Surface, the Asus Vivo Tab RT, Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11, ) or Qualcomm (in the Dell XPS 10 case for instance). Therefore, applications from the traditional Intel/AMD “x86” (or x64 for the 64 bits ones) world won’t work on these devices. Only new modern Windows 8 applications (the ones you get through the Microsoft store) have been developed to run independently of the chipset on the new cool and modern Windows 8 UI. This creates some limitations for business uses (support for internal apps) but those are limited as most of what you will do in a normal work day will be available on Windows RT.

Finally, as I was writing this I realized that most of those tips where applicable to Windows 8 in general, RT in particular and a few to only Surface. So, for simplicity sake, and unless stated as “Surface Only”, all tips below work with all Windows 8 PCs or tablets.

Here are the top customization I made (and why), by types:

  1. User Interface
  2. Leverage the extended Storage (micro-SD card)
  3. Communication
  4. Productivity (MS Office)
  5. Work files access
  6. Classic desktop optimization
  7. Miscellaneous
  8. and some cool Hardware related things worth mentioning

note: As I figure out new tips I will update this post.

1) User Interface

  • Move a tile by holding and dragging it while using your other hand to move the screen (all Windows 8 PC, RT or “regular” x86 support 5 points touch)
  • Zoom-out (by pinching the start screen or using the “-“ at the bottom right when you are using a mouse) and select a group of apps (by swiping up the group while zoomed out) to (re)name and move it.
  • Regroup on your main screen the top apps you’re using the most. It will save you lots of swiping over time.
  • Reduce the size of the tiles (swipe up from the bottom) to have more of them on this screen if needed.
  • Pin key sites to your start menu you’re using often: Outlook Web Access (see below, for tasks and DRM emails), traffic, news, internal SharePoint sites…
  • Don’t forget to add (settings > users) a picture password and/or PIN for faster log in!

2) Leverage the extended Storage (micro-SD card)
(Surface or other Windows 8 devices with SD card storage option only)

The surface 32 or 64GB memory can be extended through the adjunction of a standard micro-SD card. You won’t (for now at least) be able to put apps on this device but you will be able to store:

  • Photos
  • Videos
  • Music
  • Documents (pdf, word, excel, powerpoint, etc)
  • OneNote local cache files
  • Windows Index files

To achieve this you unfortunately need to do a bit of a manipulation and you will need to do this for all those types of documents for all users on the device.

The process for the first 4 (Photos, Videos, Music and Documents) is similar:

  1. Mount the SD card as a folder in your “C:\” drive (i.e. you main flash drive). This is well explained on this site.
  2. Redirect all you “libraries” to folders on the SD cards. For instance, with an SD card mounted as “C:\SD”  you could have you public libraries in C:\SD\Public\Documents ; \Music  ; \Pictures ; \Videos. Likely your personal ones (and remember, you’ll need to do this for all the users on the device): C:\SD\user1name\Documents ; \Music etc.The easier way to redirect those libraries is to open Windows Explorer (in Desktop mod), click on the library (e.g. “Music” ), then on the tab “Manage” of the explorer ribbon, then add the folders (C:\SD\…), right click on them to set them as idefault personal and public folders, and delete the previous ones. The following screen shot shows how to do this:

clip_image002

note: if your photos don’t show up rebuilding the index should fix this. To rebuild the index just follow the steps below and click on the “rebuild” button.

 

OneNote:

  • I am not aware of a way to cache modern OneNote files on the SD card.
  • However, it is fairly easy to ensure all the desktop OneNote backup files and local caches are store on the SD card by simple going to the “option” menu of the desktop version of OneNote. Just redirect the quick note sections, backup folder, default notebook and cache file locations to your C:\SD\ folders.

clip_image002[5]

Windows Index files

Windows indexes your storage to enable instant search. This local “database” is permanently updated each time you add a file, email etc. This is not a huge issue from a size perspective. However, to err on the conservative side, moving these files to the SD card will avoid unneeded write actions on your device’s SSD (which is Flash memory with limited read/write life cycle compared with a regular hard drive). It’s much cheaper and easier to replace an external micro-SD card than the Surface’s SSD!

To move it it’s a very simple (and similar) process:

  • Hit search and type “index” in the settings section of your charms bar
  • Select “Indexing Options”
  • Click on “Advanced” and “select new” to select a new folder to store them. Following the previously shared model, I selected “C:\SD\indexfiles” instead of the default “c:\program data\Microsoft” one.image

3) Communication

Skype

  • Go to www.Skype.com and merge your existing Microsoft Account (messenger, Hotmail, Zune, Xbox) with your Skype account
  • Install Skype from the store
  • Skype interoperates with: messenger, Facebook, and Lync. In one place you’ll be able to communicate (IM, voice and video, depending on the network) with all your personal and business contacts!
  • Surface and PCs with front and read cameras only: Here is a little tip to use when you are in Skype video mode : by tapping your own video preview you can toggle the front and rear facing cameras of your Surface. Great when walking around the house to show your family your Christmas decorations and kids projects and then quickly go back to you
  • Surface and PCs with standard jack plugs only: Don’t forget that the headset plug support the standard (e.g. the one you get with your Windows Phones for instance) phone headsets, i.e. Stereo headset + microphone. A great way to have a more private and crystal clear conversation while on Skype! (or Lync for that matter Smile)

Lync

  • Lync now has a free Windows RT version you can find on the Store
  • It requires a back-end service so this is only useful for people with a corporate (or Office 365) Lync account
  • Both Lync and Skype can run in the background concurrently on the Surface.

4) Productivity (MS Office)

On Surface you should first start by installing the RTM version of Office 2013: When you receive your Surface you will have a pre-release version of Office 2013 RT. To get the final bits you will need to go to the traditional Windows Update control panel menu (no the one from the charm bar: setting/Windows Update, that only shows the mandatory updates, not the optional ones) and install the optional update

OneNote: desktop

OneNote modern has some limitations so having the full desktop version is great. For instance to add links.

A few tips:

  • Set the cache, backup… to be saved on your SD card to save space on the main memory for apps.  (see above for screen shots)
  • You can now fully expand full-screen OneNote to be able to optimizing the note taking experience by clicking on the double arrow at top right of your page (image)

OneNote: Modern UI (touch, UI previously known as “ Metro” )

Installed from the Windows Store and free this is the note taking app for Windows 8. It has limitations but it’s great to use in a touch + type (or write if you have a device with a pen) mode. It can also be docked in split-screen mode on the left of right hand side which is great to take notes while browsing, analyzing documents, etc. However, it is not possible to open local OneNote files with this application. Only OneNote files stored in the cloud (SkyDrive, SharePoint) are accessible.

A few tips:

  • You will only see the OneNote files saved on your SkyDrive under your name. To see the others, e.g. the ones shared with you by others, on Live Groups, SharePoint/SkyDrive Pro you will need to open your browser, go on the web-based version of the OneNote, then click “Open in OneNote”.note: if the Desktop application opens, you will need to change your default application settings to have OneNote Windows 8 to be the default one (just search “ default applications” in the setting menu of the Charm bars on the right).Once the file has been opened once it will remain available from the application and will automatically synchronize with the online version but will allow you to edit and review from the local app on- and offline.
  • Swipe left to right and vice-versa to show the notebooks, sections and pages or to hide them
  • You can’t create sections in this version so for heavy editing of the structure of your OneNote, use the desktop version then wait for it to sync-up and you’ll be good to go.

Word, Excel, PowerPoint RT 2013

Add to your office account your other accounts (other live IDs, Company accounts…) to have access to all the online documents through simple browsing from the applications themselves.

DRM protected emails and Tasks/to-dos

The only way to see protected emails content in Windows RT, as there is no Outlook application and the Windows Mail one does not support it for now, is to open them through Outlook Web Access.

Same issue with Tasks and to-dos: you need to go OWA or purchase an application in the Store. However, I haven’t found a great task/to-do app that synchronize with Exchange so far.

5) Work files access

SharePoint / SkyDrive Pro is the new product from Microsoft that allows you to sync-up your work files with a secure company-hosted cloud.

If you click on the “library” tab you will be able to “open with Explorer” this page and have direct access (save this link as a favorite in Explorer) to all your files from Windows Explorer as if they were on your local machine.

image

6) Classic desktop optimization

Avoid to often return to the modern UI while in desktop mode by pinning all the app you will need on the taskbar. Most are already there by default (Office, IE, Explorer) but I would also add the control panel (the “old” Windows one), and any relevant pinned websites such as SharePoint Pro or Outlook Web Access (for DRM emails and tasks).

7) Miscellaneous

  • Easily access your home media and files: Add the links to your shared media folders to your library and your home folders to Favorites in Windows Explorer
  • Vice-versa: to access your Surface RT content from other PCs you need to proceed to a small manipulation as it is disabled by default. Search for ‘view local Services’ in the setting section. Open the app (will open in desktop mode), scroll down to find ‘Server’ in the list. Right click or tap and hold and choose properties. Change the Startup type to Automatic and you will be able to share folders on your home network. Note: this might impact battery life so unless you really need it it’s probably better not to do it, or at least not permanently.
  • Remote desktop: connect to other PCs  (and the app on it) through this free app.
  • Don’t forget to install the free Surface Keyboard app from the store to control the behavior of your keyboard.
  • My key useful shortcuts and tips are listed on this other post: https://olivierfontana.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/windows-8-modern-ui-tips

8) Cool Hardware tips
(Surface and other PC with similar hardware support only)

Surface had a huge advantage over iPad that, besides the power supply given it’s innovative magnetic-based connection and it’s keyboard cover one, it supports industry standard connectivity options which not only expand the scenarios in which it can be used but also allows us to do this at a fraction of the hardware cost an iPad requires as you can buy all those online for a few dollars each.

The Surface has 4 open connectors available plus Bluetooth. I’ll pass on the headset one (which also support microphone, great for communication through Skype or Lync, see section 3) for more on this). The remaining 3 are:

  • USB: through this connector you can plug any external keyboard, mice, digital camera (think picture and video import), Windows Phone 8, USB hub (if you need more than one USB device connected at a given time), Nike Fitbit etc. No specific connector necessary (which also makes it cheaper for the companies selling hardware+software/service solutions like Nike’s Fitbit)
  • Micro-HDMI: Don’t believe what is on the Surface site, you don’t need the $40 “exclusively designed for Surface” TV (i.e. HDMI) or PC (i.e. VGA) connectors. The interface on the Surface is a standard micro-HDMI one and you can find online Micro-HDMI to HDMI, DVI or VGA connectors from $5-15 depending on what you need.
  • Micro-SD card: I mentioned this above already so the net is that it’s super easy and cheap to add additional storage on the Surface. As of today (12-2012), an additional 32GB micro-SD card sells for $25 and a 64GB for 45$. Soon you’ll be able to get HD-size equivalent micro-SD cards (128-256GB) for less than $50.
  • Bluetooth: Surface has built-in Bluetooth support so you can use this to connect mice and keyboard but also wireless speakers (Jawbone anyone?), headsets, etc.

A word on Battery life: The Surface has a Li-ion polymer battery and it will eventually lose its original charging capacity. If you want to maximize your battery life here are a few useful tips and links:

  • Don’t leave the Surface in a hot or cold environment,
  • Try to avoid charging it to 100% (say 90%) if possible, and,
  • More importantly do not let it discharge below 25-30%.The easiest way I have found to do this is to just set the Windows battery level warning level to 25% versus the default 10%. When the message shows, I plug the Surface back in (or my laptop for that matter).
    The fastest way to set this up is to right-click on the battery icon in the system tray area of desktop mode, click “power options”, then “Change plan settings”, “Change advanced power settings”, “battery” and “low battery level” for “on battery” (you can do plugged in too, but does not really add anything):
    image
  • Let it run to empty once a month or so.

and you should maximize it’s life cycle (according to NASA’s work on Mars Lander, Battery University’s and Power Electronics sites for instance)

For the curious geeks here is Surface tear down to look at its inside: www.ifixit.com/Teardown/Microsoft+Surface+Teardown/11275/1

Last update: 2013-01-16

5 thoughts on “Optimizing your Microsoft Surface experience

  1. Pingback: Windows 8 modern UI tips | Olivier Fontana's blog

  2. Pingback: Another OneNote alternative: Work Notes Pro | ye old Half Byte blog

  3. Daryl D

    Hi there!

    Thanks for the tip! I got it working and was able to save my OneNote 2010 local cache files to the MicroSD card. This saved me a massive amount of space on my limited SSD on my Surface Pro.

    However, I’ve just upgraded to Office 2013. Unfortunately now when I try to save my OneNote 2013 local cache to the microSD card it will NOT sync. Switching my onenote cache back to the C:\ drive proper will fix the syncing issues.

    Likewise, my Pictures Library still recognizes and indexes the photos on my microSD card. Any thoughts?

    Reply
    1. Olivier F Fontana Post author

      Hi. This is odd as I wrote this based on OneNote 2013 not 2010 so it should work.

      2 potential avenues I would try if I were you:
      1) right-click for properties of the Notebook then chose ” change location”
      2) if this does not work. Close it, then delete the files locally, change the parameters for default file locations (file, option, save and backup, Default Notebook location), then re-open from your cloud storage and sync. Should start synching with the new SD card location.

      Not sure about the Picture comment but I did myself saw some odd behaviors some times with photos.

      Reply
      1. Daryl D

        Hi!

        Thanks for the very prompt reply. I tried the steps you mention above. Unfortunately, Onenote 2013 is still having issues saving its offline cache to the microSD card.

        What I meant with the picture comment is that it works just fine reading from the microSD card – thus suggesting that “mounting” of the microSD card was successful.

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