Summer Computing

20180519_190444.jpg
Working with my Toshiba Chromebook 2, in a sunny day.

I am not sure whether this is true for other countries, but after a long, dark and cold winter, Finns want to be outdoors, when it is finally warm and sunny. Sometimes one might even do remote work outdoors, from a park, cafe or bar terrace, and that is when things can get interesting – with that “nightless night” (the sun shining even at midnight), and all.

Surely, for most aims and purposes, summer is for relaxing and dragging your work and laptop always with you to your summer cottage or beach is not a good idea. This is definitely precious time, and you should spend it to with your family and friends, and rewind from the hurries of work. But, if you would prefer (or, even need to, for a reason or another) take some of your work outdoors, the standard work laptop computer is not usually optimal tool for that.

It is interesting to note, that your standard computer screens even today are optimised for a different style of use, as compared to the screens of today’s mobile devices. While the brightest smartphone screens today – e.g. the excellent OLED screen used in Samsung Galaxy S9 – exceed 1000 nits (units of luminance: candela per square meter; the S9 screen is reported to produce max 1130 nits), your typical laptop computer screens max out around measly 200 nits (see e.g. this Laptop Mag test table: https://www.laptopmag.com/benchmarks/display-brightness ). While this is perfectly good while working in a typical indoor, office environment, it is very hard to make out any details of such screens in bright sunlight. You will just squint, get a headache, and hurt your eyes, in the long run. Also, many typical laptop screens today are highly reflective, glossy glass screens, and the matte surfaces, which help against reflections, have been getting very rare.

It is as the “mobile work” that is one of the key puzzwords and trends today, means in practice only indoor-to-indoor style of mobility, rather than implying development of tools for truly mobile work, that would also make it possible to work from a park bench in a sunny day, or from that classical location: dock, next to your trusty rowing boat?

I have been hunting for business oriented laptops that would also have enough maximum screen brightness to scale up to comfortable levels in brighly lit environments, and there are not really that many. Even if you go for tablet computers, which should be optimised for mobile work, the brightness is not really at level with the best smartphone screens. Some of the best figures come from Samsung Galaxy Tab S3, which is 441 nits, iPad Pro 10.5 inch model is reportedly 600 nits, and Google Pixel C has 509 nits maximum. And a tablet devices – even the best of them – do not really work well for all work tasks.

HP ZBook Studio x360 G5
HP ZBook Studio x360 G5 (photo © HP)

HP has recently introduced some interesting devices, that go beyond the dim screens that most other manufacturers are happy with. For example, HP ZBook Studio x360 G5 supposedly comes with a 4k, high resolution anti-glare touch display that supports 100 percent Adobe RPG and which has 600 nits of brightness, which is “20 percent brighter than the Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch Retina display and 50 percent brighter than the Dell XPS UltraSharp 4K display”, according to HP. With its 8th generation Xeon processors (pro-equivalent to the hexacore Core i9), this is a powerful, and expensive device, but I am glad someone is showing the way.

EliteBook-X360-2018
HP advertising their new bright laptop display (image © HP)

Even better, the upcoming, updated HP EliteBook x360 G3 convertible should come with a touchscreen that has maximum brightness of 700 nits. HP is advertising this as the “world’s first outdoor viewable display” for a business laptop, which at least sounds very promising. Note though, that this 700 nits can be achieved with only the 1920 x 1080 resolution model; the 4K touch display option has 500 nits, which is not that bad, either. The EliteBooks I have tested also have excellent keyboards, good quality construction and some productivity oriented enhancements that make them an interesting option for any “truly mobile” worker. One of such enhancement is a 4G/LTE data connectivity option, which is a real bless, if one moves fast, opening and closing the laptop in different environments, so that there is no reliable Wi-Fi connection available all the time. (More on HP EliteBook models at: http://www8.hp.com/us/en/elite-family/elitebook-x360-1030-1020.html.)

HP-EliteBook-x360-1030-G3_Tablet
EliteBook x360 G3 in tablet mode (photo © HP)

Apart from the challenges related to reliable data connectivity, a cloud-based file system is something that should be default for any mobile worker. This is related to data security: in mobile work contexts, it is much easier to lose one’s laptop, or get it robbed. Having a fast and reliable (biometric) authentication, encrypted local file system, and instantaneous syncronisation/backup to the cloud, would minimise the risk of critical loss of work, or important data, even if the mobile workstation would drop into a lake, or get lost. In this regard, Google’s Chromebooks are superior, but they typically lack the LTE connectivity, and other similar business essentials, that e.g. the above EliteBook model features. Using a Windows 10 laptop with either full Dropbox synchronisation enabled, or with Microsoft OneDrive as the default save location will come rather close, even if the Google Drive/Docs ecosystem in Chromebooks is the only one that is truly “cloud-native”, in the sense that all applications, settings and everything else also lives in the cloud. Getting back to where you left your work in the Chrome OS means that one just picks up any Chromebook, logs in, and starts with a full access to one’s files, folders, browser addons, bookmarks, etc. Starting to use a new PC is a much less frictionless process (with multiple software installations, add-ons, service account logins, the setup can easily take full working days).

20180519_083722.jpgIf I’d have my ideal, mobile work oriented tool from today’s tech world, I’d pick the business-enhanced hardware of HP EliteBook, with it’s bright display and LTE connectivity, and couple those with a Chrome OS, with it’s reliability and seamless online synchronisation. But I doubt that such a combo can be achieved – or, not yet, at least. Meanwhile, we can try to enjoy the summer, and some summer work, in bit more sheltered, shady locations.

Recommended laptops, March 2018

Every now and then I am asked to recommend what PC to buy. The great variety in individual needs and preferences make this ungrateful task – it is dangerous to follow someone else’s advice, and not to do your own homework, and hands-on testing yourself. But, said that, here are some of my current favourites, based on my individual and highly idiosyncratic preferences:

My key criterion is to start from a laptop, rather than a desktop PC: laptops are powerful enough for almost anything, and they provide more versatility. When used in office, or home desk, one can plug in external keyboard, mouse/trackball and display, and use the local network resources such as printers and file servers. The Thunderbolt interface has made it easy to have all those things plugged in via a single connector, so I’d recommend checking that the laptop comes with Thunderbolt (it uses USB-C type connector, but not all USB-C ports are Thunderbolt ports).

When we talk about laptops, my key criteria would be to first look at the weight and get as light device as possible, considering two other key criteria: excellent keyboard and good touch display.

The reasons for those priorities are that I personally carry the laptop with me pretty much always, and weight is then a really important factor. If thing is heavy, the temptation is just to leave it where it sits, rather than pick it up while rushing into a quick meeting. And when in the meeting one needs to make notes, or check some information, one is at the mercy of a smartphone picked from the pocket, and the ergonomics are much worse in that situation. Ergonomics relate to the point about excellent keyboard and display, alike. Keyboard is to me the main interface, since I write a lot. Bad or even average keyboard will make things painful in the long run, if you write hours and hours daily. Prioritising the keyboard is something that your hands, health and general life satisfaction will thank, in the long run.

Touch display is something that will probably divide the opinions of many technology experts, even. In the Apple Macintosh ecosystem of computers there is no touch screen computer available: that modality is reserved to iPad and iPhone mobile devices. I think that having a touch screen on a laptop is something that once learned, one cannot go away from. I find myself trying to scroll and swipe my non-touchscreen devices nowadays all the time. Windows 10 as an operating system has currently the best support for touch screen gestures, but there are devices in the Linux and Chromebook ecosystems that also support touch. Touch screen display makes handling applications, files easier, and zooming in and out of text and images a snap. Moving hands away from keyboard and touchpad every now and then to the edges of the screen is probably also good for ergonomics. However, trying to keep one’s hands on the laptop screen for extended times is not a good idea, as it is straining. Touch screen is not absolutely needed, but it is an excellent extra. However, it is important that the screen is bright, sharp, and has wide viewing angles; it is really frustrating to work on dim washed-out displays, particularly in brightly lit conditions. You have to squint, and end up with a terrible headache at the end of the day. In LCD screens look for IPS (in-plane switching) technology, or for OLED screens. The latter, however, are still rather rare and expensive in laptops. But OLED has the best contrast, and it is the technology that smartphone manufacturers like Samsung and Apple use in their flagship mobile devices.

All other technical specifications in a laptop PC are, for me, secondary for those three. It is good to have a lot of memory, a large and fast SSD disk, and a powerful processor (CPU), for example, but according to my experience, if you have a modern laptop that is light-weight, and has excellent keyboard and display, it will also come with other specs that are more than enough for all everyday computing tasks. Things are a bit different if we are talking about a PC that will have gaming as its primary use, for example. Then it would be important to have a discrete graphics card (GPU) rather than only the built-in, integrated graphics in the laptop. That feature, with related added requirements to other technology means that such laptops are usually more pricey, and a desktop PC is in most cases better choice for heavy duty gaming than a laptop. But dedicated gaming laptops (with discrete graphics currently in the Nvidia Pascal architecture level – including GTX 1050, 1060 and even 1080 types) are evolving, and becoming all the time more popular choices. Even while many of such laptops are thick and heavy, for many gamers it is nice to be able to carry the “hulking monster” into a LAN party, eSports event, or such. But gaming laptops are not your daily, thin and light work devices for basic tasks. They are too overpowered for such uses (and consume their battery too fast), and – on the other hand – if a manufacturer tries fitting in a powerful discrete graphics card into a slim, lightweight frame, there will be generally overheating problems, if one really starts to put the system under heavy gaming loads. The overheated system will then start “throttling”, which means that it will automatically decrease the speed it is operating with, in order to cool down. These limitations will perhaps be eased with the next, “Volta” generation of GPU microarchitecture, making thin, light and very powerful laptop computers more viable. They will probably come with a high price, though.

Said all that, I can then highlight few systems that I think are worthy of consideration at this timepoint – late March, 2018.

To start from the basics, I think that most general users would profit from having a close look at Chromebook type of laptop computers. They are a bit different from Windows/Mac type personal computers that many people are mostly familiar with, and have their own limitations, but also clear benefits. The ChromeOS (operating system by Google) is a stripped down version of Linux, and provides fast and reliable user experience, as the web-based, “thin-client” system does not slow down in same way as a more complex operating system that needs to cope with all kinds of applications that are installed locally into it over the years. Chromebooks are fast and simple, and also secure in the sense that the operating system features auto-updating, running code in secure “sandbox”, and verified boot, where the initial boot code checks for any system compromises. The default file location in Chomebooks is a cloud service, which might turn away some, but for a regular user it is mostly a good idea to have cloud storage: a disk crash or lost computer does not lead into losing one’s files, as the cloud operates as an automatic backup.

ASUS Chromebook Flip (C302CA)
ASUS Chromebook Flip (C302CA; photo © ASUS).

ASUS Chromebook Flip (C302CA model) [see link] has been getting good reviews. I have not used this one personally, and it is on the expensive side of Chromebooks, but it has nice design, it is rather light (1,18 kg / 2,6 pounds), and keyboard and display are reportedly decent or even good. It has a touch screen, and can run Android apps, which is becoming one of the key future directions where the ChromeOS is heading. As an alternative, consider Samsung Chromebook Pro [see link], which apparently has worse keyboard, but features an active stylus, which makes it strong when used as a tablet device.

For premium business use, I’d recommend having a look at the classic Thinkpad line of laptop computers. Thin and light Thinkpad X1 Carbon (2018) [see link] comes now also with a touch screen option (only in FHD/1080p resolution, though), and has a very good keyboard. It has been recently updated into 8th generation Intel processors, which as quad-core systems provide a performance boost. For a more touch screen oriented users, I recommend considering Thinkpad X1 Yoga [see link] model. Both of these Lenovo offerings are quite expensive, but come with important business use features, like (optional) 4G/LTE-A data card connectivity. Wi-Fi is often unreliable, and going through the tethering process via a smartphone mobile hotspot is not optimal, if you are running fast from meeting to meeting, or working while on the road. The Yoga model also used to have a striking OLED display, but that is being discontinued in the X1 Yoga 3rd generation (2018) models; that is replaced by a 14-inch “Dolby Vision HDR touchscreen” (max brightness of 500 nits, 2,560 x 1,440 resolution). HDR is still an emerging technology in laptop displays (and elsewhere as well), but it promises a wider colour gamut – a set of available colours. Though, I am personally happy with the OLED in the 2017 model X1 Yoga I am mostly using for daily work these days. X1 Carbon is lighter (1,13 kg), but X1 Yoga is not too heavy either (1,27 kg). Note though, that the keyboard in Yoga is not as good as in the Carbon.

Thinkpad X1 Yoga
Thinkpad X1 Yoga (image © Lenovo).

There are several interesting alternatives, all with their distinctive strengths (and weaknesses). I mention here just shortly these:

  • Dell XPS 13 (2018) [see link] line of ultraportable laptops with their excellent “InfinityEdge” displays has also been updated to 8th gen quad core processors, and is marketed as the “world’s smallest 13-inch laptop”, due to the very thin bezels. With the weight of 1,21 kg (2,67 pounds), XPS 13 is very compact, and some might even miss having a bit wider bezels, for easier screen handling. XPS does not offer 4G/LTE module option, to my knowledge.
  • ASUS Zenbook Pro (UX550) [see link] is a 15-inch laptop, which is a bit heavier (with 1,8 kg), but it scales up to 4k displays, and can come with discrete GTX 1050 Ti graphics option. For being a bit thicker and heavier, Zenbook Pro is reported to have a long battery life, and rather capable graphics performance, with relatively minor throttling issues. It has still 7th gen processors (as quad core versions, though).
  • Nice, pretty lightweight 15-inch laptops come from Dell (XPS 15) [see link] and LG, for example – particularly with LG gram 15 [see link], which is apparently a very impressive device, and weighs only 1,1 kg while being a 15-inch laptop; it is shame we cannot get it here in Finland, though.
  • Huawei Matebook X Pro
    Huawei Matebook X Pro (photo © Huawei).
  • As Apple has (for my eyes) ruined their excellent Macbook Pro line, with too shallow keyboard, and by not proving any touch screen options, people are free to hunt for Macbook-like experiences elsewhere. Chinese manufacturers are always fast to copy things, and Huawei Matebook X Pro [see link] is an interesting example: it has a touch screen (3K LTPS display, 3000 x 2000 resolution with 260 PPI, 100 % colour space, 450 nits brightness), 8th gen processors, GTX MX 150 discrete graphics, 57,4 Wh battery, Dolby Atmos sound system, etc, etc. This package weighs 1,33 kg. It is particularly nice to see them not copying Apple in their highly limited ports and connectivity – Matebook X Pro has both Thunderbolt/USB-C, but also the older USB-A, and a regular 3,5 mm headphone port. I am dubious about the quality of the keyboard, though, until I have tested it personally. And, one can always be a bit paranoid about the underlying security of Chinese-made information technology; but then again, the Western companies have not proved necessarily any better in that area. It is good to have more competition in the high end of laptops, as well.
  • Finally, one must mention also Microsoft, which sells its own Surface line of products, which have very good integration with the touch features of Windows 10, of course, and also generally come with displays, keyboards and touchpads that are among the very best. Surface Book 2 [see link] is their most versatile and powerful device: there are both 15-inch and 13,5-inch models, both having quad-core processors, discrete graphics (up to GTX 1060), and good battery life (advertised up to 17 hours, but one can trust that the real-life use times will be much less). Book 2 is a two-in-one device with a detachable screen that can work independently as a tablet. However, this setup is heavier (1,6 kg for 13,5-inch, 1,9 kg for the 15-inch model) than the Surface Laptop [see link], which does not work as a tablet, but has a great touch-screen, and weighs less (c. 1,5 kg). The “surface” of this Surface laptop is pleasurable alcantara, a cloth material.
MS Surface Laptop with Alcantara
MS Surface Laptop with alcantara (image © Microsoft).

To sum up, there are many really good options these days in personal computers, and laptops in general have evolved in many important areas. Still it is important to have hands-on experience before committing – particularly if one is using the new workhorse intensely, this is a crucial tool decision, after all. And personal preference (and, of course, available budget) really matters.

All-in-one: still not there

HP-elite-x2
HP Elite X2 1012 press photo (image © HP).
Some time ago, I blogged about tablets as productivity devices, and then I also have written about some early experiences as a user of Microsoft Surface Pro 4: a Windows 10, 2-in-one tablet PC that relies on combination of touch screen, pen computing, and keyboard and touchpad cover (plus Cortana voice assistant, if you are a US/English user). It just might be that I am restless and curious by nature, but these days I find myself jumping from Microsoft to Apple to Google ecosystems, and not really finding what I am looking for from any of them.

When I am using an iOS or Android tablet, the file management is usually a mess, external keyboard and mouse inputs are not working reliably, and multitasking between several apps and services, copy-pasting or otherwise sharing information between them all is a pain.

When I am on a regular Windows laptop or PC, keyboard and mouse/touchpad usually are just fine, and file management, multitasking and copy-pasting work fine. Touch screen inputs and the ease of use lag behind tablet systems, though. (This is true also to the Apple OS X desktop environment, but I have pretty much given up the use of Macs for my work these days, I just could not configure the system to work and behave in the ways I want – as a Microsoft OS/PC user who has hacked his way around DOS, then Windows 3.0 etc., and thus has certain things pretty much “hard-wired” in the way I work.)

Surface Pro 4 is the most optimal, almost “all-in-one” system I have found so far, but I have started to increasingly dislike its keyboard cover. Surface Pro 4 cover is not that bad, but if you are a touch-typist, it is not perfect. There is still slight flex in the plastic construction and shallow key movement that turns me off, and produces typing errors exactly when you are in a hurry and you’d need to type fast. I am currently trying to find a way to get rid of the type cover, and instead use my favorite, Logitech K810 instead. But: I am not able to attach it to Surface Pro in solid enough way, and there is no touchpad in K810, so workflow with all those mouse right-clicks becomes rather complex.

I really like the simplicity of Chromebooks, and this blog note, for example, is written with my trusty Toshiba Chromebook 2, which has excellent, solid keyboard (though not backlighted), and a good, crisp Full HD IPS screen plus a responsive, large touchpad. However, I keep reaching out and trying to scroll the screen, which is not a touch version. (Asus Chromebook Flip would be one with a touch screen.) And there is nothing comparable to the Surface Pen, which is truly useful when one e.g. reads and makes notes to a pile of student papers in PDF/electronic formats. Also, file management in a Chrome OS is a mess, and web versions of popular apps still respond more slowly and are more limited than real desktop versions.

So, I keep on looking. Recently I tested the HP Elite X2 1012 (pictured), which is pretty identical to the Surface Pro systems that Microsoft produces, but has an excellent, metallic and solid keyboard cover, as well as other productivity oriented enhancements like the optional 4G/LTE sim card slot, USB C port with Thunderbolt technology, and a decent enough screen, pen and kickstand design. However, Elite X2 falls short in using less powerful Intel Core M series processors (Surface Pro 4 goes for regular Core i5 or i7 after the entry-level model), by being rather expensive, and according to the reviews I have read, also the battery life of Elite X2 is not something a real mobile office worker would prefere.

Maybe I can find a way to connect the Elite X2 metallic keyboard cover to the Surface Pro 4? Or maybe not.

(Edit: The battery life of Elite X2 actually appears to be good; the screen on the other hand only so-and-so.)

Price for mobile use value: laptops

Chromebook 2 on scale.
Toshiba Chromebook 2 on scale.

I did a quick comparison of three kinds of laptops: a touchscreen Win8-PC, Macbook Pro, and a Chromebook. Since I am primarily interested in how much use time I get, for which price, and how much weight I need to carry around, here is a simple metric for the price of such “mobile use value” of a laptop. ASUS Vivobook X202E (500 €) = 1,5 kg, MacBook Pro Retina 13 (1300 €) = 2.2 kg, Toshiba Chromebook 2 Full HD/IPS (400 €) = 1,5 kg (all weights with the powerbrick included, my Mac is also protected by a Tech21 case). Vivobook’s battery runs out in c. 3-4 hours, Toshiba should go for 8 hours, and the Mac can do perhaps 9-11 hours (this is the late 2013 model). The “metric” for price/hours*weight comparison would thus be:

  • ASUS Vivobook: 500/4*1,5 = 188
  • Macbook Pro: 1300/10*2,2 = 286
  • Toshiba Chromebook 2: 400/8*1,5 = 75

Your needs may vary, but with these criteria of mine, Toshiba Chromebook 2 is pretty much in its own class regarding this kind of mobile use value (light-weight, capable laptop with adequate battery life and moderate price). Chrome OS is mostly limited by its reliance on various online services, and particularly on daily work, moving data and files from one service to another may require some extra steps, but in my tests, almost everything that needs to be done, can be done also with a Chromebook. And the totally silent, solid laptop with good keyboard, responsive touchpad and amazing, Full-HD IPS screen provides excellent user experience. MacBook Pro is much more premium device, but with its price-tag I feel less confident throwing it into my back while running into bus/airport etc. (hence, the Tech21 case). A Chromebook can even be lost on the road – and all data is still safe in the cloud, not in the laptop. (The “Smart Lock” of Chromebook detects when myself/my Android phone is not nearby, and will automatically lock itself.) A budget Windows laptop like my old ASUS Vivobook simply cannot compete here, it is much slower than either of the two others, its touchpad is pretty terrible and touchscreen use of Win8.1 has its continuous challenges. Add there mediocre battery life, and you do not have best value for mobile use.

Toshiba Chromebook 2.
Toshiba Chromebook 2 (viewing angles, from the sides).

One could of course add tablet devices like iPad Air 2 or the forthcoming Surface Pro 4 into the equation here, and argue that they’d make more sense than a Chromebook – even according to the above metric. That might be true for some, but in my use I rely on the classic “clamshell” design of a laptop, and an add-on keyboard is never the same. MacBook Air, or the new 12″ MacBook are very good devices for mobile use, but the price is not in the Chromebook range. But: everyone makes their own decisions, in the end. My guess is that particularly in the education sector Chromebooks will do increasingly well in this new era of “Cloud Computing”.