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.

Tools for Trade

Lenovo X1 Yoga (2nd gen) in tablet mode
Lenovo X1 Yoga (2nd gen) in tablet mode.

The key research infrastructures these days include e.g. access to online publication databases, and ability to communicate with your colleagues (including such prosaic things as email, file sharing and real-time chat). While an astrophysicist relies on satellite data and a physicist to a particle accelerator, for example, in research and humanities and human sciences is less reliant on expensive technical infrastructures. Understanding how to do an interview, design a reliable survey, or being able to carefully read, analyse and interpret human texts and expressions is often enough.

Said that, there are tools that are useful for researchers of many kinds and fields. Solid reference database system is one (I use Zotero). In everyday meetings and in the field, note taking is one of the key skills and practices. While most of us carry our trusty laptops everywhere, one can do with a lightweight device, such as iPad Pro. There are nice keyboard covers and precise active pens available for today’s tablet computers. When I type more, I usually pick up my trusty Logitech K810 (I have several of those). But Lenovo Yoga 510 that I have at home has also that kind of keyboard that I love: snappy and precise, but light of touch, and of low profile. It is also a two-in-one, convertible laptop, but a much better version from same company is X1 Yoga (2nd generation). That one is equipped with a built-in active pen, while being also flexible and powerful enough so that it can run both utility software, and contemporary games and VR applications – at least when linked with an eGPU system. For that, I use Asus ROG XG Station 2, which connects to X1 Yoga with a Thunderbolt 3 cable, thereby plugging into the graphics power of NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070. A system like this has the benefit that one can carry around a reasonably light and thin laptop computer, which scales up to workstation class capabilities when plugged in at the desk.

ROG XG Station 2 with Thunderbolt 3.
ROG XG Station 2 with Thunderbolt 3.

One of the most useful research tools is actually a capable smartphone. For example, with a good mobile camera one can take photos to make visual notes, photograph one’s handwritten notes, or shoot copies of projected presentation slides at seminars and conferences. When coupled with a fast 4G or Wi-Fi connection and automatic upload to a cloud service, the same photo notes almost immediately appear also the laptop computer, so that they can be attached to the right folder, or combined with typed observation notes and metadata. This is much faster than having a high-resolution video recording of the event; that kind of more robust documentation setups are necessary in certain experimental settings, focus group interview sessions, collaborative innovation workshops, etc., but in many occasions written notes and mobile phone photos are just enough. I personally use both iPhone (8 Plus) and Android systems (Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and S7).

Writing is one of they key things academics do, and writing software is a research tool category on its own. For active pen handwriting I use both Microsoft OneNote and Nebo by MyScript. Nebo is particularly good in real-time text recognition and automatic conversion of drawn shapes into vector graphics. I link a video by them below:

My main note database is at Evernote, while online collaborative writing and planning is mostly done in Google Docs/Drive, and consortium project file sharing is done either in Dropbox or in Office365.

Microsoft Word may be the gold standard of writing software in stand-alone documents, but their relative share has radically gone down in today’s distributed and collaborative work. And while MS Word might still have the best multi-lingual proofing tools, for example, the first draft might come from an online Google Document, and the final copy end up into WordPress, to be published in some research project blog or website, or in a peer-reviewed online academic publication, for example. The long, book length projects are best handled in dedicated writing environment such as Scrivener, but most collaborative book projects are best handled with a combination of different tools, combined with cloud based sharing and collaboration in services like Dropbox, Drive, or Office365.

If you have not collaborated in this kind of environment, have a look at tutorials, here is just a short video introduction by Google into sharing in Docs:

What are your favourite research and writing tools?

Yoga 510, Signature Edition

2017-07-30 18.39.57At home, I have been setting up and testing a new, dual-boot Win10/Linux system. Lenovo Yoga 510 is a budget-class, two-in-one device that I am currently setting up as a replacement for my old Vivobook (unfortunately, it has a broken power plug/motherboard, now). Technical key specs (510-14ISK, 80S70082MX model, Signature Edition) include an Intel i5-6200U processor (a 2,30-2,80 GHz Skylake model), Intel HD Graphics 520 graphics, 4 GB of DDR4 memory, 128 GB SSD, IPS Full HD (1920 x 1080) 14″ touch-screen display, and a Synaptics touchpad and a backlit keyboard. There is a WiFi (802.11 a/b/g/n/ac) and Bluetooth 4.0. Contrasted to some other, thinner and lighter devices, this one has a nice set of connectors: one USB 2.0, two USB 3.0 ports (no Thunderbolt, though). There is also a combo headphone/mic jack, Harman branded speakers, a memory card slot (SD, SDHC, SDXC, MMC), 720p webcam, and a HDMI connector. There is also a small hidden “Novo Button”, which is needed to get to the BIOS settings.

This is a last-year model (there is already a “Yoga 520” with Kaby Lake chips available), and I got a relatively good deal from Gigantti store (499 euros). (Edit. I forgot to mention this has also a regular, full size wired gigabit ethernet port, which is also nice.)

The strong points (as contrasted to my trusty old Vivobook, that is) are: battery life, which according to my experience and Lenovo promises is over eight hours of light use. The IPS panel is not the best I have seen (MS Surface Pro has really excellent display), but it is still really good as compared to the older, TN panels. Multi-touch also operates pretty well, even if the touchpad is not so much to my taste (its feel is a bit ‘plasticky’, and it uses inferior Synaptics drivers as contrasted to the “precision touchpads”, which send raw data directly to Windows to handle).

2017-08-01 19.21.39The high point of Lenovo Thinkpad laptops has traditionally been their keyboards. This Yoga model is not one of the professional Thinkpad line, but the keyboard is rather good, as compared to the shallow, non responsive keyboards that seem to be the trend these days. The only real problem is the non-standard positioning of up-arrow/PageUp and RightShift keys – it is really maddening to write, and while touch-typing every Right-Shift press produces erroneous keypress that moves the cursor up (potentially e.g. moving focus to “Send Email” rather than to typing, as I have already witnessed). But this can sort of be fixed by use of KeyTweak or similar tool, which can be used to remap these two keys to other way around. Not optimal, but a small nuisance, really.

2017-07-30 18.41.48Installing dual boot Ubuntu requires the usual procedures (disabling Secure Boot, fast startup, shrinking the Windows partition, etc.), but in the end Linux runs on this Lenovo laptop really well. The touch screen and all special keys I have tested work flawlessly right after the standard Ubuntu 17.04 installation, without any gimmicky hacking. Having a solid (bit heavy though) laptop with a 14-inch touch-enabled, 360 degree rotating screen, and which can be used without issues in the most recent versions of both Windows 10 and Linux is a rather nice thing. Happy with this, at the moment.

Linux on Vivobook X202E

Ubuntu on Vivobook X202E
Ubuntu on Vivobook X202E

In January 2013 I bought a Asus Vivobook X202E, a small, budget class, touch screen laptop. It has now served me almost four and a half years – an eternity in ICT terms. For some time it has been upgraded from Windows 8 into Windows 10, which in principle operates rather well. It is just that the operating system eats almost all resources, and it is painfully slow to do anything useful, with contemporary web apps and browsers particularly. Even a Chromebook serves better in that regard.

Last night I tried installing Linux – Ubuntu 17.04 version – into multiboot configuration to X202E. There were certain hurdles in the setup: it was necessary to disable Secure Boot, get into the UEFI/BIOS (fast F2 pressing in boot sequence), disable Fast Boot, enable Lauch CSM (disable Launch PXE OpROM), and enable USB options, in order to make the system bootable from an USB installation stick. (Also, my first attempts were all failures, and it was only when I tried to use another USB stick when the boot from USB disk option came available in UEFI/BIOS.)

Currently, all seems to be ok in Ubuntu, and laptp works much faster than in the Windows side. The battery of this laptop has never been strong, and in its current condition I would say that 2-3 hours is probably maximum it can go, unplugged. Thermal cooling is also weak, but if run ‘indicator-cpufreq’ tool and drop the CPU into slower speeds, the system stays manageable. The reality is, however, that the realistic life cycle of this little machine is coming towards its final rounds. But it is nice to see how Linux can be used to breath some new life into the aging system. Also, the touch controls and gestures are better today in Ubuntu, than they were only few years ago. Linux is not a touch-focused operating system by design, and gestures work rather badly in e.g. Firefox – Chrome is better in that regard. Windows 10 is much more modern in that area, and pen-based computing is something that one can really integrate in one’s daily work flow only in Windows 10. But writing, coding, and various editing tasks for example can be achieved in a small Ubuntu laptop quite nicely. Chromebooks, however, are also making promising steps by opening the vast repositories of Android apps that is good news for hybrid devices and touch-oriented users. Linux remains strong as a geek environment, but when user cultures and mainstream users needs are considered, other software and service ecosystems are currently evolving faster.

Thunderbolt 3, eGPUs

(This is the first post in a planned series, focusing on various aspects of contemporary information and communication technologies.)

The contemporary computing is all about flow of information: be it a personal computer, a mainframe server, a mobile device or even an embedded system in a vehicle, for example, the computers of today are not isolated. Be it for better or worse, increasingly all things are integrated into world-wide networks of information and computation. This also means that the ports and interfaces for all that data transfer take even higher prominence and priority, than in the old days of more locally situated processing.

Thinking about transfer of data, some older generation computer users still might remember things like floppy disks or other magnetic media, that were used both for saving the work files, and often distributing and sharing that work with others. Later, optical disks, external hard drives, and USB flash drives superseded floppies, but a more fundamental shift was brought along by Internet, and “cloud-based” storage options. In some sense the development has meant that personal computing has returned to the historical roots of distributed computing in ARPANET and its motivation in sharing of computing resources. But regardless what kind of larger network infrastructure mediates the operations of user and the service provider, all that data still needs to flow around, somehow.

The key technologies for information and communication flows today appear to be largely wireless. The mobile phone and tablet communicate to the networks with wireless technologies, either WiFi (wireless local area networking) or cellular networks (GSM, 3G and their successors). However, all those wireless connections end up linking into wired backbone networks, that operate at much higher speeds and reliability standards, than the often flaky, local wireless connections. As data algorithms for coding, decoding and compression of data have evolved, it is possible to use wireless connections today to stream 4K Ultra HD video, or to play high speed multiplayer games online. However, in most cases, wired connections will provide lower latency (meaning more immediate response), better reliability from errors and higher speeds. And while there are efforts to bring wireless charging to mobile phones, for example, most of the information technology we use today still needs to be plugged into some kind of wire for charging its batteries, at least.

Thunderbolt 3 infographic, (c) Intel
Thunderbolt 3 infographic, (c) Intel

This is where new standards like USB-C and Thunderbolt come to the picture. Thunderbolt (currently Thunderbolt 3 is the most recent version) is a “hardware interface”, meaning it is a physical, electronics based system that allows two computing systems to exchange information. This is a different thing, though, from the actual physical connector: “USB Type C” is the full name of the most recent reincarnation of “Universal Serial Bus”, an industry standard of protocols, cables, and connectors that were originally released already in 1996. The introduction of original USB was a major step into the interoperability of electronics, as the earlier situation had been developing into a jungle of propriety, non-compatible connectors – and USB is a major success story, with several billion connectors (and cables) shipped every year. Somewhat confusingly, the physical, bi-directional connectors of USB-C can hide behind them many different kinds of electronics, so that some USB-C connectors comply with USB 3.1 mode (with data transfer speeds up to 10 Gbit/s in “USB 3.1 Gen 2” version) and some are implemented with Thunderbolt – and some support both.

USB-C and Thunderbolt have in certain sense achieved a considerable engineering marvel: with backward compatibility to older USB 2.0 mode devices, this one port and cable should be able to connect to multiple displays with 4K resolutions, external data storage devices (with up to 40 Gbit/s speeds), while also working as a power cable: with Thunderbolt support, a single USB-C type port can serve, or drain, up to 100 watts electric power – making it possible to remove separate power connectors, and share power bricks between phones, tablets, laptop computers and other devices. The small form factor Apple MacBook (“Retina”, 2015) is an example of this line of thinking. One downside for the user of this beautiful simplicity of a single port in the laptop is need for carrying various adapters to connect with anything outside of the brave new USB-C world. In an ideal situation, however, it would be a much simpler life if there would only be this one connector type to worry about, and it would be possible to use a single cable to dock any device to the network, gain access to large displays, storage drives, high speed networks, and even external graphics solutions.

The heterogeneity and historical layering of everyday technologies are complicating the landscape that electronics manufacturers would like to paint for us. As any student of history of science and technology can tell, even the most successful technologies did not replace the earlier ones immediately, and there has always been reasons why people have been opposing the adoption of new technologies. For USB-C and Thunderbolt, the process of wider adoption is clearly currently well underway, but there are also multiple factors that slow it down. The most typical peripheral does not yet come with USB-C, but rather with the older versions. Even in expensive, high end mobile phones, there are still multiple models that manufacturers ship with older USB connectors, rather than with the new USB-C ones.

A potentially more crucial issue for most regular users is that Thunderbolt 3 & USB-C is still relatively new and immature technology. The setup is also rather complex, and with its integration of DisplayPort (video), PCI Express (PCIe, data) and DC power into a single hardware interface it typically requires multiple manufacturers’ firmware and driver updates to work seamlessly together, for TB3 magic to start happening. An integrated systems provider such as Apple has best possibilities to make this work, as they control both hardware as well as software of their macOS computers. Apple is also, together with Intel, the developer of the original Thunderbolt, and the interface was first commercially made available in the 2011 version of MacBook Pro. However, today there is an explosion of various USB-C and Thunderbolt compatible devices coming to the market from multiple manufacturers, and the users are eager to explore the full potential of this new, high speed, interoperable wired ecosystem.

eGPU, or External Graphics Processing Unit, is a good example of this. There are entire hobbyist forums like eGPU.io website dedicated to the fine art of connecting a full powered, desktop graphics card to a laptop computer via fast lane connections – either Expresscard or Thunderbolt 3. The rationale for this is (apart from the sheer joy of tweaking) that in this manner, one can both have a slim ultrabook computer for daily use, with a long battery life, that is then capable of transforming into an impressive workstation or gaming machine, when plugged into an external enclosure that houses the power hungry graphics card (these TB3 boxes typically have full length PCIe slots for installing GPUs, different sets of connection ports, and a separate desktop PC style power supply).  VR (virtual reality) applications are one example of an area where current generation of laptops have problems: while there are e.g. Nvidia GeForce GTX 10 series (1060 etc.) equipped laptops available today, most of them are not thin and light for everyday mobile use, or, if they are, their battery life and/or fan noise present issues.

Razer, a American-Chinese computing hardware manufacturer is known as a pioneer in popularizing the field of eGPUs, with their introduction of Razer Blade Stealth ultrabook, which can be plugged with a TB3 cable into the Razer Core enclosure (sold separately), for utilizing powerful GPU cards that can be installed inside the Core unit. A popular use case for TB3/eGPU connections is for plugging a powerful external graphics card into a MacBook Pro, in order to make it into a more capable gaming machine. In practice, the early adopters have faced struggles with firmwares and drivers that do not provide direct support from either the macOS side, or from the eGPU unit for the Thunderbolt 3 implementation to actually work. (See e.g. https://egpu.io/akitio-node-review-the-state-of-thunderbolt-3-egpu/ .) However, more and more manufacturers have added support and modified their firmware updates, so the situation is already much better than a few months ago (see instructions at: https://egpu.io/setup-guide-external-graphics-card-mac/ .) In the area of PC laptops running Windows 10, the situation is comparable: a work in progress, with more software support slowly emerging. Still, it is easy to get lost in this, still evolving field. For example, Dell revealed in January that they had restricted the Thunderbolt 3 PCIe data lanes in their implementation of the premium XPS 15 notebook computer: rather than using full 4 lanes, XPS 15 had only 2 PCIe lanes connected in the TB3. There is e.g. this discussion in Reddit comparing the effects this has, in the typical case that eGPU is feeding image into an external display, rather than back to the internal display of the laptop computer (see: https://www.reddit.com/r/Dell/comments/5otmir/an_approximation_of_the_difference_between_x2_x4/). The effects are not that radical, but it is one of the technical details that the early users of eGPU setups have struggled with.

While fascinating from an engineering or hobbyist perspective, the situation of contemporary technologies for connecting the everyday devices is still far from perfect. In thousands of meeting rooms and presentation auditoriums every day, people fail to connect their computers, get anything into the screen, or get access to their presentation due to the failures of online connectivity. A universal, high speed wireless standard for sharing data and displaying video would no doubt be the best solution for all. Meanwhile, a reliable and flexible, high speed standard in wired connectivity would go a long way already. The future will show whether Thunderbolt 3 can reach that kind of ubiquitous support. The present situation is pretty mixed and messy at best.

Tietokone, henk.koht. (On personal computers)

lenovo-x1-yoga-feature-3
Thinkpad X1 Yoga (photo © by Lenovo)

[Note in Finnish about the use and evolution of personal computers] Henkilökohtaiset tietokoneet ovat verrattain nuori ilmiö, ja ajatus yhden ihmisen käyttöön suunnitellusta ja hankitusta tietokoneesta olisi ollut vielä 1950- ja 60-luvuilla lähes käsittämätön. Tietotekniikan hinta on kuitenkin alentunut, ja samalla ajatus tietokoneesta on ihmiskeskeistynyt. Kalliit tieteelliset ja taloushallinnon laskimet ovat mukautuneet ja mukautettu ihmisten mitä moninaisimpien tarpeiden palvelukseen. Tietokone tallentaa ja arkistoi tekstiä ja dataa, hallitsee digitaalisia kalentereita, mutta myös taipuu tuottamaan ja toistamaan musiikkia, kuvia ja mallintamaan vuorovaikutteisia virtuaalisia tiloja. Yhdistyneenä tietoverkkoihin, tietokoneet ovat monikanavaisia ja monimuotoisia viestimiä, itseilmaisun ja sosiaalisen järjestäytymisen välineitä, arkisen elämän, viihteen ja taiteen näyttämöitä.

Apple_I_Computer
Apple I (photo by By Ed Uthman – originally posted to Flickr as Apple I Computer, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Kun 80-luvulla aloittelin silloisten kotitietokoneiden parissa tietokoneharrastusta, mahdollisuudet olivat avoinna tietotekniikan kehityksen osalta moneen suuntaan. Erilaisia kokeiluja, tuotekategorioita ja digitaalisten sisältöjen lajityyppejä kehiteltiin aktiivisesti. 1990- ja 2000-lukujen aikana tuntui ajoittain siltä, että merkittävät innovaatiot olivat jo takanapäin, ja mielenkiinto rajoittui lähinnä siihen, milloin 286:n jälkeen tulee 386 ja 486, ja mikä Windows 3.1:sta seuraavan käyttöjärjestelmäversion nimeksi tulee.

Mobiililaitteet, ympäristöön sulautuva ja kaikkialla läsnäoleva tietotekniikka on muuttanut tätä perustilannetta niin, että nyt 2010-luvun lopulla tieto- ja viestintätekninen tulevaisuus vaikuttaa jälleen kiehtovalta. Samalla globaalit ongelmat ovat kuitenkin myös nousseet sellaiseen mittaan ja tietoisuuteen, että tietotekniikka itsessään vaikuttaa jossain määrin triviaalilta ja marginaaliseltakin aihepiiriltä. Sosiaalisen median kautta tapahtuva yhteiskunnallisen vastakkainasettelun kasvu ja julkisen keskustelun kriisi kuitenkin osaltaan todistavat myös siitä, kuinka merkittävällä tavalla viestinnän ja vuorovaikutuksen järjestämisen tekniikoillamme on syvällistä vaikutusta arkielämän ja yhteiskunnan kehitykseen.

OLPC: Kannettava tietokone jokaiselle lapselle -järjestön esituotantomalli (photo by “Fuse-Project”; OLPC-Wiki: “Walter”)

Koneiden kanssa keskustelu on myös vuoropuhelua oman, teknologisesti sävyttyneen ja rakentuneen minuutemme kanssa. Mikään laite mitä käytämme tänään, ei ole tietääkseni saapunut ulkoavaruudesta keskuuteemme, vaan kyse on ihmisenä olemisen laajennuksista, joita olemme itse kehitelleet ja joihin olemme syystä tai toisesta ripustautuneet. Kierros kodinkonemyymälässä tai autokaupassa jättää itselleni usein saman, hieman kummastuneen ja kunnioittavan tunnelman kuin esimerkiksi käynti kansatieteellisessä museossa, loputtoman monimuotoisesti kirjailtujen päähineiden tai toisistaan eri tavoin eroavien rukinlapojen keskellä. Ecce homo. Totuus löytyy uusimmasta automaattivaihteistosta.

Tänä vuonna ihmisillä jotka uhraavat aikaansa ja vaivojaan henkilökohtaisten tietokoneiden kehittämiseen, vaikuttaa olevan käsillä useita perustavia erimielisyyksiä ja vaihtoehtoisia kehityssuuntia sille, mitä tietokoneen tulisi meille olla ja merkitä. Osin kyse on henkilökohtaisen tietokoneen jäämisestä kehityksen sivuraiteelle: tietokoneiden pohdiskelua paljon suurempi osa energiastamme menee siihen kun yritämme taivuttaa käyttäytymistämme sellaiseen muotoon että Facebookin, Googlen tai Applen kaltaisten yritysten palveluihinsa kehittämät algoritmit paljastaisivat meille maailmasta ne kasvot joista olemme kiinnostuneita, ja samalla kuvastaisivat meitä itseämme toisille ihmisille siten kuin meistä hyvältä tuntuu. Tai siihen kun valitsemme uutta älypuhelinmallia ja siihen päivittäisen elämän kannalta olennaista valikoimaa mobiilisovelluksia.

Osa kehittäjistä pyrkii sekoittamaan tietokoneen ja mobiililaitteen välistä rajaa: hybridilaitteet kukoistavat. Osa pyrkii pitämään esimerkiksi kosketusnäyttöihin, hahmontunnistukseen ja puheohjaukseen liittyvät kehityskulut poissa henkilökohtaisten tietokoneiden rajoja ja olemusta hämärtämästä. Osa yrittää tehdä tietokoneesta mahdollisimman ohuen ja kevyesti kaikkialle mukana kulkevan, vaivattomasti auki sujahtavan ja päiväkausia yhdellä latauksella toimivan. Toisille henkilökohtainen tietokone on vain tietynlainen pääte pilvipalveluissa raksuttaviin toiminnallisuuksiin ja dataan – tietokone voi kulkea taskussa, ja sen käyttöliittymä korvassa. Yhdelle kehittäjäryhmälle puolestaan henkilökohtaisen tietokoneen tehokkuus on kaikki kaikessa, ja tavoitteena on pakata virtuaalitodellisuuden edellyttämää suorituskykyä myös kannettavan tietokoneen kehysten sisään, ja varustaa se liitännällä silmikkonäyttöön. Suuri joukko kehittäjiä ja valmistajia pyrkii tuomaan henkilökohtaisen tietokoneen hintaa niin alas, että se olisi kilpailukykyinen jopa edullisempien älypuhelintenkin kanssa, vaikka silläkin riskillä että pitkälle tingitty laite ei enää selviäisi vähääkään haastavammista tehtävistä tökkimättä. Toisiin pyrkimyksiin liittyy muotoilu, missä kestävyys ja käytännöllisyys ovat keskeisintä, toisissa puolestaan henkilökohtaista tietokonetta pyritään kehittämään paitsi elektroniikan, myös värien, viimeistelyn ja hienomekaanisen insinöörityön alueella niin sofistikoituneeksi ja yksilölliseksi kokonaisuudeksi kuin mahdollista.

Leonardos-Laptop
Ben Shneiderman, Leonardo’s Laptop (2002) – sikäli kun tiedän, ei ole juurikaan tehty “cultural laptop studies”-tutkimusta sillä kriittis-analyyttisellä tutkimusotteella kuin Paul du Gay ym. “Story of Sony Walkman” -kirjassaan (1996)  – Schneiderman keskittyy ‘universal usability’-teemaan.

Hyötyrationaalinen tarve on vain yksi ulottuvuus ihmisen suhteessa teknologiaansa. Tosin, jos omat tähänhetkiset tarpeeni jos ottaa esimerkiksi, ollaan näissäkin nopeasti yhteensovittamattomien ristiriitojen viidakossa. Pitkät työpäivät, pienet näytöt, pieni teksti ja helposti väsyvät silmät ovat yhdistelmä, mihin parhaiten vastaisi laite, missä näyttö on vähintään 40-50-tuumainen, ja sitä katsottaisiin ainakin puolentoista, parin metrin etäisyydeltä. Toisaalta liikkuvassa työssä mukana kannettavan laitteen olisi tärkeää olla mahdollisimman kompakti, kevyt ja toisaalta siinä pitäisi olla akku jonka varassa kymmentuntinenkin työrupeama sujuu tarvittaessa ilman yhteyttä seinäpistokkeeseen. Niin kauan kuin nämä laitteet eivät osaa vielä lukea ajatuksia, mahdollisimman monipuoliset mahdollisuudet itseilmaisuun ja vuorovaikutukseen erilaisten sisältöjen luomisessa olisivat tärkeitä: mahdollisuus paitsi kirjoittaa ergonomialtaan korkealuokkaisella mekaanisella näppäimistöllä (siksikin koska sanelu ei vielä täysin luotettavasti toimi), piirtää ja värittää, maalata ja valokuvata, myös tallentaa hyvälaatuista videota ja ääntä suoraan laitteesta, esimerkiksi videoitujen luentojen ja neuvottelujen tarpeisiin. Pelien, virtuaalimaailmojen, multimedian, analyysiohjelmistojen ja erilaisten kehitystyökalujen parissa tehtävä työ puolestaan edellyttäisi laskentatehoa, muistia ja korkearesoluutioisia näyttötiloja, jotka ovat ristiriidassa vaikkapa keveyden ja pitkän akunkeston kanssa. Henkilökohtainen tietokone on siis kameleonttimaisena, digiaikakauden “kaiken teknologian” leikkauspisteenä ja pullonkaulana sikäli epäkiitollisessa asemassa, että oli se mitä tahansa, se aina sulkee pois jotain muuta, mitä henkilökohtainen tietokone myös mielellään saisi olla – ainakin joskus, jonakin päivänä ja hetkenä.

Vaikka mainostajat mielellään korostavat pyrkimystä täydellisyyteen ja kaupustelemiensa tuotteiden tinkimättömyyttä mahdollisimman monella osa-alueella, niin kehittäjät kuin useimmat käyttäjät ymmärtävät että henkilökohtainen tietokone on aina jossain määrin epätyydyttävä kompromissi. Sitä leimaa puute ja vajavaisuus – jotain joka usein paljastuu kaikkein kiusallisimmalla hetkellä, kun akku loppuu, teho osoittautuu riittämättömäksi, tai kun riittämättömät ohjauslaitteet ja näytön ominaisuudet tuskastuttavat jännetuppitulehduksen ja päänsäryn piinaamaa käyttäjää. Jotkut yrittävät luopua tietokoneista kokonaan, käyttää jotain muuta tekniikkaa, tai ottaa etäisyyttä kaikkeen tietotekniikkaan. Totuus kuitenkin on, että olemme edelleen lähes jokaisena päivänä myös henkilöitä, joita meidän jokapäiväinen henkilökohtainen tietokoneemme määrittää, rajoittaa, kiusaa ja ajoittain myös palkitsee. Tietokoneen monet mahdollisuudet tuovat esiin omat rajoituksemme – katsot tietokonetta, ja tietokoneestasi katsoo takaisin sinä itse.

Porsche-Design-Book-One
Book One (photo © by Porsche Design)

Using Surface Pro

Surface Pro 4, Logitech K811, M570 trackball.
Surface Pro 4, Logitech K811, M570 trackball.

Short note on what I have found to be the most useful way of using MS Surface Pro 4 in my daily workflow: firstly, I have mostly learned to ignore the dedicated “Windows 10 app” versions of services that I am using. The user experience in those, stripped down versions are generally rather bad. It is much better idea to use the full, desktop version (if available – and Surface Pro 4 is powerful enough to run the desktop one in 99 % of cases). The second option is to try using the “web app” version of the service – even those are generally much better than the “app” you might find from the Windows Store. Chrome is really helpful here, as you can save almost any web page into a Web App to the Windows desktop (go to: Settings [three dots up right], then ‘More Tools’, then ‘Add to Desktop’). The web versions are versatile and powerful these days, and you can e.g. easily enlarge elements in the web interface by simple ‘pinch zoom’ finger gestures – in contrary to the Windows apps, whose interfaces mostly do not scale at all.

I have also tried to learn my own user interface technique, which is a combination of scrolling and pinching with my fingers, precise pointing, underlining, drawing and writing with the Surface Pen, and more exact mouse work, where I currently mostly use Logitech M570 Wireless Trackball. I have never really learned to enjoy the official Type Cover, even while it is great improvement over previous generations of thin-and-light keyboard covers (there is still bit too much flex, and the shallow and imprecise key movement sometimes really irritates a touch typist). So I use a high quality external wireless keyboard, currently either a Logitech K810 or a K811, which I have several.

The downside of this system is that there is a real patchwork to move around and set up: Surface tablet, Pen, trackball mouse, external keyboard, plus of course the power brick. When contrasted to a regular laptop, the benefits are in flexibility: in tablet mode, I can go some time without any other items, or just work with the Surface and the Surface Pen (e.g. when marking drafts and grading student work). But when writing and productivity tasks take priority, then a regular laptop would indeed make things a bit simpler. Maybe the next version of Surface Book might bring these things together? Currently there are some nice compromise efforts (e.g. Lenovo Yoga 900S), but there are multiple compromises in e.g. processing power, storage, pen integration and keyboard quality that this kind of “convertible ultrabooks” take, as contrasted to having separate devices that are all excellent in what they do.

Thus, my current patchwork seems to work best, for me, at least.