Researching Through Objects – The Casio F-91W

First year Research students at the Royal College of Art (RCA) are encouraged to participate in the “Research Methods Course”, which according to the website:

…has been developed specifically to prepare first-year MPhil and PhD students for research at a higher level and to explore cultures of research in art and design.

The course is taught by research-active staff drawn from all Schools and by invited speakers. Cited as a national example of good practice by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the RMC aims also to develop the transferable and career skills of postgraduate researchers at the RCA.

I have mixed feelings about the course, I am sure that each session was relevant to at least some of the attendees, but it was never clear who that would be at the start of the day.  I either came away from it having learnt some useful things and feeling more assured in my abilities or having been introduced to abstract concepts that I could not get my head around and feeling uncertain, lost, and in some cases irritated.

I think that this is probably unavoidable in order to cater for the diverse departments and even more diverse research subjects at the RCA.  I believe that, luckily, the lessons in which I struggled, were not hugely relevant to me or my proposed method of research.

One of the most useful exercises so far, for me at least, was part of “Researching Through Objects” lead by Rick Poynor.  The instructions were simple:

  1. Go to the “Making the Modern World” exhibition at the Science Museum (handily a 4 minute walk from the South Kensington campus)
  2. Select an object or related group of objects from the permanent collection
  3. Research the object/group of objects
  4. Produce a piece of writing, 500 to 800 words, that reflects your interest in this exhibit
  5. Present the piece in a follow up session a couple weeks later
The “Making the Modern World” exhibition at the Science Museum, London (Credit: Science Museum)

Although at first glance, this seems like a fairly trivial exercise, it was not without its difficulties.  Actually deciding on on an object was a task in itself, one that warranted a couple more visits before a commitment could be made!  My first instinct was to go with one of the prominent objects with its own section and an already large perceived impact, something that I already had a little knowledge about like the “Flying Bedstead” ,  Apollo 10 CapsuleApple I or even Stephenson’s Rocket.  I then came across something that I thought was related to my research (albeit loosely), the prototype for the “Clock of the Long Now”, an ambitious project to create a clock suitable for 10,000 years use.  However, the more that I researched it, the more I realised that it had been covered extensively from many angles (technical, philosophical, aethetics etc.) by those with much greater knowledge than I, and that a summary would be redundant as it has an extensive website and Wikipedia page.

Luckily, after shuffling my feet around the “Technology in Everyday Life” cabinets along the North edge of the exhibit, and spending an inordinate amount of time looking at some of the familiar, but mostly obsolete articles in the c.1968-2000 section, I came across this unlabelled watch:

Casio F-91W in the Science Museum

Small, cheap, mass produced and practically disposable, it is almost the exact opposite of the clock of the long now.

I have owned this model, and quite a few other Casio watches since a young age, and lost almost all of them before the battery ran out, in some cases finding them years later still in a working state.  I decided to research the object further and found it fascinating, and that it may have had more of an impact that most people realise, although not necessarily in “making” the modern world.

As we were told we could write in any style that we liked, I attempted to use the opportunity to write in a lighter style that hadn’t previously explored. Unfortunately, as the brief was so open ended, the feedback during the review session was not extensive (or negative/critical), so any additional feedback would be appreciated.  (Yes, I know the opening quote is long, but it is my favourite opening page from my favourite book, so indulge me!)

Click “Read More” to see the work I submitted, it can also be downloaded as a PDF from this link. – Casio F-91W


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Surface Pro 2 vs. Dell Venue 11 Pro

This is a wildly outdated review of 2 Windows 8.1 tablets that I have adapted from a comparison I did for someone on reddit.


After deciding I was going to embark upon a PhD, I realised that I would have to return my trusty Dell Latitude laptop to my employer.   With the increased travel I thought it would be useful to have something very portable, but also had good enough specs for image manipulation, light gaming and to handle the ridiculous number of browser tabs I keep open when browsing/researching.  I also wanted something that could annotate my notes and pdfs with.  So a tablet seemed like a perfect choice.  At the time, I also thought I couldn’t be without a proper, laptop-style keyboard.

The Surface Pro 3 had just been announced, and as such the Pro 2 was being heavily reduced.  I managed to get a return from John Lewis for £615.

Just out of interest I looked at the Dell outlet website, where I have purchased from before and been really happy with the service and quality, and managed to find their competitor, the Venue 11 Pro, with very similar specifications, for £415.

So I decided to purchase both, do this comparison, and return the loser.

Specification Comparison

As mentioned previously, they have very similar specs (compiled from their respective websites)

Dell Venue 11 Pro Surface Pro 2
Processor i5 4300y (3MB Cache 1.6GHz 2 Cores) i5 4300u (3MB Cache 1.6GHz 2 Cores)
Hard Drive 256GB Solid State 256GB Solid State
Cameras 2 MP Front, 8 MP Rear 1.2 MP Front, 1.2 MP Rear
Dimensions 298mm X 177mm X 12.2mm 275mm X 173mm X 13.5mm
Battery 36WHr 42WHr
Weight 835g 900g
Stylus Synaptics – About £20 Wacom – Included
Price (on website ex. Delivery incl. VAT) as of Aug 2014 £915 £939
Price Paid £415 (Dell Outlet) £615 (a return in the John Lewis clearance sale)
Warranty 1 year 2 Years


Almost nothing in it Surface is a little thicker, Dell is a little wider and taller.


In the hands they feel almost the same, Dell feels less dense, being slightly larger and lighter.

I don’t have any method of weighing anything nearby so I can’t say for sure.

Build quality

I will admit that upon inspecting the Surface Pro 2 in the shop, I dropped it from over 5 foot in height onto the hard floor (very embarrassing) and it landed on its corner.

Luckily it sustained only really minor damage (a slight bend on the corner and tiny chip in the paint)

I did not subject the Dell to the same rigorous testing! It is still of a good quality, but it’s plastic case is not up to the same standard as the magnesium of the Surface Pro 2. I would recommend a protective case for it, (but I would probably get one anyway in an effort to cover up the annoying Dell/Intel/Windows branding combo on the back)

The Surface also benefits from a 2 position kickstand, which is quite useful.

However, its build quality must be weighed against another key feature of the Venue 11 Pro, its reparability and accessibility. You can pry the back off of it to easily get to many of the common components (including the removable battery) very easily. Further disassembly looks to be fairly simple (screws are visible inside the case)

Compare this with the Surface where in order to disassemble it you must first remove the screen, using a myriad of prying tools, and a heat gun to loosen the sticky, tar like substance that is used to hold components together, this often results in damage being done to the unit (see the iFixit teardown)


The Dell uses a 24W Micro USB to charge the unit, this has the benefit of also being able to charge your other devices. A lower wattage Micro USB (like a regular phone charger) can be used to charge the Dell, but will not charge when it is in use.

The Surface uses a magnetised port on the side of the unit. When not charging, the stylus can be attached to the same port. The small charging brick also includes an additional powered USB port for charging additional devices.

Battery life too was fairly similar, 3-4hrs intense use. Apparently 7-8 light use (browsing etc.) This evening I played games on them, mess around with some bits and pieces, installed software, over a period of about 4hrs, with periods of brief standby, and they are now both at 50%(ish) battery.


Same resolution, same brightness (I have not compared them in direct sunlight yet as I have not had the opportunity yet) both have pretty good viewing angles,


Surface Pro 2 speakers are very good, not just for a Tablet, but even when compared with a lot of laptops.

The Dell was MUCH louder but did not have the same range of sound as the Surface, fairly good speakers still though.


Booting is very quick on both, mostly due to the OS, surface Marginally quicker than the Dell

I used Portal 2 to test its gaming potential, using its (surprisingly high) defaults, at 1280 X 720. The game ran very smoothly on the Surface Pro 2 (it was a triumph), in the graphically intense parts the Dell Venue struggled at the very intense bits until I turned down the settings slightly.


Apparently the Dell had some serious problems with early versions of the stylus.

I think this was Synaptics first foray into the world of tablet styluses, and it shows, it’s fairly jittery, requires AAAA battery, and the palm rejection does not always work. I think it is sufficient for taking notes and sprawling on PDFs, but if you are expecting artist quality you will be disappointed

Pen Comparison

Text in green is Surface (Wacom), Red is Venue (Synaptics) and the blue was just me with a cheap capacitive stylus.

The Wacom stylus on the surface is very good, and when you are not you are not using it, it attaches to the side of the tablet via the magnetic charging port

The Dell stylus also attaches to the bottom of the Venue 11, but I am not sure if this was design or fluke


Didn’t really look at them, they work, you can use the front facing one for skype, I really don’t care about cameras on tablets, I can pretty much guarantee that your phone will have a better camera.

Available Accessories

Both are available with a cover style keyboard with mechanical keys that look very similar and are very similarly priced (around £110ish) which I think is really expensive.

Additionally, the surface can use a touch cover, which offers no feedback at all, and is only about £10 cheaper than the type cover. For a time Microsoft also offered a “power cover” similar to the type cover, that provided an additional battery (however, this has been discontinued)

All of the cover/keyboards mentioned above seem a bit deficient to me. The ace in the hole for the Dell (in my opinion) is the “Tablet Keyboard – Mobile” which pretty much transforms the tablet into a traditional laptop. It also provides an additional 28WHr battery. I imagine it adds significant weight but this is probably necessary to stop the combination from being top heavy.

They could have improved upon it is to add additional USB ports to the base. At £176.78 on the Dell website, the price is almost prohibitive, however it can be found for around £90 elsewhere (e-bay, amazon). In general, Dell seems to have better discounts at other retailers.

In terms of docking station/port replicators Dell offers a dock with 3 USB3 ports, Ethernet, HDMI, Displayport, audio and an adjustable viewing angle. On the Dell website it is listed as £160, but can be found for £60 elsewhere. The Surface Pro 2 Docking station no longer on the Microsoft website (at least I couldn’t find it) I think it was around £150, but can be found elsewhere for about £100. It offers the same connections as the Dell dock, minus the HDMI, and 2 of the 3 USB ports were USB2.

Other stuff that I couldn’t think of a heading for

Haptics – Much better on the surface, the vibration from the Venue 11 Pro feels like from a phone from 2005

Cooling/Fans – When I first started up the Dell, I thought it had a serious problem, I installed a few bits and pieces and started browsing using IE and the fan kicked into overdrive, and didn’t seem to want to stop! It was louder than the old air conditioning system at full tilt in the office. Luckily after installing all the recommended updates (including BIOS) it settled down. The fan is still louder on the Dell than the Surface, but it only engages when doing CPU intensive activities. The Dell also runs a little hotter, but it seems to be much more localised (to the exhaust port area) the Surface gets warm, but it is spread over a much larger area of its case.


At the time it was too close to call, so I decided to live with both of them for a few days to see if I could put up with (or improve) the Venue 11 Pros temperature/fan issues, or if I desperately needed a laptop style base.

If they were the same price the surface would have definitely won outright,  but as it was, at £200 cheaper, the Dell remained in the running, flaws and all.

I eventually realised that the build quality, and seamlessness of the Surface Pro 2 far surpassed the Dell. I found the screen on the Dell sometimes froze for a second when scrolling, or that it would miss letters when typing quickly with the onscreen keyboard, also, booting is about 5 times longer with the Dell (apart from when I was testing) It’s just no-where near as polished an experience as using the Pro 2.

The Venue 11 Pro reminded me of everything I used to hate about Dell (and which they worked so hard to dispel) – slight design flaws, poor driver support, shipping with serious problems.

The fan issue was better after I updated the BIOS, but it was still nowhere near as good as the Surface, and I would imagine with it working overtime, and the localised heat, it would have got worse with age.

I’ve now had the Surface Pro 2 for about 5 months, it has been getting almost daily use and I’m very happy with it.  I couldn’t bring myself to purchase the official Microsoft type cover so instead bought a Logitech K810, which I found for £30 at PC World of all places, and it has only taken a little change in my usual laptop working style (putting the tablet next to me, or on a table and having the keyboard on my legs) which usually results in a better, more desktop like, writing position.

I am really surprised by the lack of hybrid or “tablet transformer” style laptops on the market, especially after the apparent success of Asus Transformer T100.  The flexibility of having a touch screen laptop, but being able to ditch the keyboard when it is not needed is a selling point that shouldn’t be overlooked.  I believe that manufacturers (other than Asus) may have now realised this, and that there will be much more in the near future (e.g. Dells Core M powered Latitude 13 7000)

If I was making this decision now, I would probably look at getting something less powerful and cheaper, and then doing the more intensive work on either my work or home desktop.  I recently bought a Linx 8 Intel Atom tablet as a gift for someone (I’m not going to say for how much as they might read this), and it is surprisingly capable.

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Research Background

In early 2014, I was sent a link to this on the Guardian website and here on the RCA website and thought “that looks interesting”.  As it was close to the application deadline, and in an attempt to make the opportunity relevant to my MSci in Geoscience, I very quickly put together a proposal based around the visualisation of the history of gaseous emissions (both natural and anthropomorphic).  While I was excited by the prospect, I did not think that I was in with a realistic chance of being offered it, which at the time was oddly reassuring and most probably influenced the way in which I wrote the proposal.

A few days later I received an invitation to an interview at the Royal College of Art.  All of a sudden I wasn’t so reassured, again I was excited, but now I knew I would have to introduce and defend myself in front of experts in the field, a field that I had no background in and was making an appeal to enter.  Luckily, everyone there was amiable and (despite my nerves and having misplaced my notes) the interview went well, at least I think that it did, or can infer that it did!  I was asked to make a presentation about myself, attempting to take on board Edward Tufte’s words about Powerpoint, I did this using Prezi which I would not call an alternative, but is an excellent piece of software in its own right.

When I was offered the studentship I was surprised, and after some serious thought about the future, I accepted.  A full description of the undertaking can now be found on the Royal College of Art website.

Before starting I had wrongly assumed that members of  the department (IDE) would predominantly have an art or design history and was (maybe a little pleasantly) surprised to find that is wasn’t the case, and that everyone came from an interesting and diverse background.  This is something that I think adds greatly to the environment, especially for the Masters students, who have a world class and almost unique opportunity.

So far the experience has been fascinating.  It is a real privilege to return a leaning environment and there aren’t many opportunities where you can focus on an important and interesting topic for 3 years and, in the process, (hopefully) become an expert.

I have also been able to explore avenues in formal education that thought I had closed long ago, having not taken history or art on to GCSE level, but having retained an interest in them.

I have started this blog 3 months late to document it in real time from start to finish, but I will attempt to catch up with myself, and document the more interesting aspects of it.

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