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.

4K Ultra HD monitor

Samsung U28D590D
Samsung U28D590D.
Sharper is better. I just booked the last remaining unit of Samsung U28D590D, an Ultra HD, 4K monitor from the local PC store (a display unit) at nice, 320 euros price. This is probably the most budget-consious alternative in 4K, 28″ monitors you can find; there are better, IPS screens (this is a high quality TN), and particularly professional models have better ergonomic in the stand (this is a completely fixed thing, and no VESA mounting either). But the colour reproduction, brightness are excellent, and particularly having 3840 x 2160 resolution at 60Hz, with 1 ms speed (over the Display Port 1.2) makes this pretty much what I have been looking for my gaming and photo editing needs. I am also regularly plugging in several computers (PC/gaming workstation, Macbook Pro Retina, Chromebook) to the same display at my desk, and there is interesting PIP (picture-in-picture) mode in U28D590D where you can keep an eye on the second PC while simultaneously working full screen on the other (let’s see how useful this will be in reality, though). If you think there is a better deal available from somewhere at the 300 euros price range, let me know. More information: http://www.samsung.com/levant/consumer/it/monitor/uhd-monitor/LU28D590DS/ZN.

Edit: this is the thread with instructions for getting 52 Hz at 4k on the retina MacBook Pro 13: http://forums.macrumors.com/threads/4k-display-and-retina-macbook-pro-13.1741440/

From Smartphones to (Playful) Smart Devices?

Casio Databank
Casio Databank

If you were a techie nerd in the 80s, you might have used a Casio Databank wristwatch: a bulky device that had a small LCD screen, capable of acting as a calculator, address book, as well as a simple gaming device, while also providing advanced clock features. Those watches were (and still do) dividing user opinions, some enjoying their technically advanced, engineer-oriented pleasures, some staying as far as possible from such gadgets. With today’s focus on “smart watches” and “fitness bands”, such bulky appendices may be making a return to thousands of wrists this Christmas.

Another way of looking at these things is to consider them as the coming of the “wristwatch computer”, or manifestations of wearable, pervasive or ubiquitous computing, depending on the more general concept to adopt. As such small, “smart things” start to network and communicate with each other, they are also parts of “Internet of Things”, or “Web of Things” developments. The overall promise is of better services, which are more contextually aware, that provide information and interaction affordances in more convenient ways than the old, “PC-centric” computing paradigm has allowed. Such technologies are on the one hand inherently personal, as they connect with a trusted device (typically your mobile phone), which also may include your calendars, contact information, various social media accounts and other personalization information. On the other, they tap into new types of sensors, location-aware services and proximity beacons to provide novel services and experiences.

The futuristic promises are great, but the reality is still in the making. The current generation of smartwatches are limited in many ways, including unwieldy form factor, limited functionalities, occasional bugs, and typically rather short battery lives. The promise is nevertheless there, and many people appear to be drawn to experiment with such devices on the basis of two key functionalities: accessing smartphone alerts and information from a wristwatch, and for fitness or health information captured by the smartwatch sensors. The more advanced functionalities such as universal NFC payments, or location-based games are still waiting in the future.

My recent experiences on smartwatches are based on setting up the Samsung Galaxy Gear S (apparently a good exercise for your faculties also while lying down with a nasty flu in bed). There are multiple hoops that an early adopter seems to need to hop through: for example, you need to have a particular type of Samsung smartphone in order to use it. Having a custom rom in the phone was also a no-go, so in my case for example, I first had to uninstall the Cyanogenmod 11 I had been using in my Galaxy S4, wipe the phone, install the stock Samsung TouchWiz rom, and after that to proceed to reinstall all my applications, set up all the user accounts and re-authenticate e.g. all two-factor authentication-enabled services – a process that can easily take several hours, and is probably btw enough to turn away few interested testers.

Galaxy Gear S
Galaxy Gear S

After inserting a nano-SIM card (this device can also double as a stand-alone gsm phone), and charging the Gear S, it is time to install the necessary Galaxy Gear Manager application into Galaxy S4 from Galaxy Store (this is not available from the Google Play store, even if it is an Android app), which makes it possible to install applications and customize the Gear S. The limited selection of Gear apps is one indication of the somewhat problematic, fragmented character of current wearable ecosystems. Rather than supporting Android Wear, the Google ecosystem for wearables, Gear S is based on Tizen, a different Linux based mobile OS, developed by an association of companies, led by Samsung. Next year, the Apple Watch will arrive, opening up yet another key competing ecosystem. Getting support of e.g. your Google Maps favourites and navigation to Gear S soon does not seem likely in this competitive situation, and if you are having your calendar in Microsoft Exchange 365 server, or iCloud, for example, you first need to figure out how to get that information synchronized to the smartphone that acts as the “base station” for the particular smart device you got your eyes on. Everyone is obviously adopting a gold rush tactic, and try to grab as much land in the emerging user base as possible, trying to lock the users to their own, proprietary wearable ecosystem. From the user perspective, the situation is not optimal.

Thus, while it is nice to see e.g. movement information automatically recorded by Gear S in its S Health app, I am already a user of the leading Runkeeper service, and there is no Runkeeper app in Galaxy Gear S, nor is there a way to integrate S Health data with Runkeeper that I know of. Another handy feature would be to have the daily navigational guidance right at your wrist, when you need it. I have already long adopted the habit of including location information to all my important calendar events, so that when I am on the run, one click on the smartphone calendar will automatically open maps, with navigation, helping to choose whether to walk, pick up public transport or a taxi, which is particularly handy in a foreign country or city. Google Maps is particularly good with the public transportation schedule integration, but also Here Maps (ex-Nokia) is pretty decent in this area, at least here in Finland. Gear S does not support Google Maps/navigation, but Here Maps is supported (in “Beta”). It features turn-by-turn navigation, which appears to work and is a very good service. However, while Gear S has a bright and sharp two-inch AMOLED touch screen, which makes it into a very large wristwatch, it is still painful to use for typing in an address, with the tiny QWERTY keys. It is possible to use “Send to Gear” action from the smartphone version of Here Maps, but this seems to work only for beaming the walking instructions, and the entire operation also somewhat negates what is the key idea of wearables – of not needing to dig up the smartphone in a busy situation, with the smartwatch ready in the wrist. Another way around this would be to use “S Voice” input in Gear, but as the Finnish language is not supported, there is currently no way to just speak the local address to the Gear S. While you can get your meetings’ location information displayed in Gear S by including it into the default calendar in your supported Galaxy smartphone, it does no good trying to tap that address line in Gear S, as it is not currently linked to any navigation action.

It finally boils down to practical things such as battery life and form factor of the device, as well as language and application/service support, which of the emerging smartwatches will be a real success among the users. Based on very limited, first experiences, Galaxy Gear S is a good attempt, but finally a borderline case. The plastic-covered wrist computer is so large that at least my skin gets a bit sweaty and irritated after wearing it for several hours; stylistically, the size alone might be a complete turn-off for many potential users. Getting the notifications from text messages, emails (I opted out of those), Facebook or Twitter messages, or occasional Google Now update into the wrist display are sometimes truly useful alarms, but often distracting interferences. If you already have a tendency to lose your concentration easily, the current wearables might not be for you. On the other hand, if your work life relies on following and responding to the flow of various messages and communications and calendar events quickly and efficiently, you might consider one. I have not yet used actively Gear S for a full working day, but I suspect it should make it through a day even with the clock display turned on (the default behaviour is that it is turned off to save battery, and reacts to the movement of your rising hand by lighting up – which it often did, but also failed to do often enough to become really irritating to me at least).

Our research group has been doing studies into the future user cultures of emerging game and media technologies for years, and the ethics and rationale of design is something that we try to pay special attention with. Wearable smart technology holds promise e.g. in health, social and gamification applications of various kinds, potentially communicating the social presence of our important people literally to “our skin” in real time. It can also be used to remind us to balance our lives better, or to help us achieve our important goals by supportive messages or incentives. Gear S did bring up the S Health Pedometer display every now and then while I was writing this thing, reminding me about my physical inactivity and encouraging me to get up and moving. In my case, that was not probably the most efficient rhetoric Samsung could have adopted, but maybe there will be also other, more playful and less efficiency-oriented apps available in the future. And if not in Galaxy Gear platform, then those interesting experiments will be arriving in some other. (There was one, exploration oriented “POI Nearby” style Gear app I could find, but I could not get it to understand Finnish language or place names, either.) In any case, the door for real-world pervasive computing and play applications is now starting to open.

Gear S intro video:

More information e.g. in:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smartwatch
http://www.menstylefashion.com/retro-lcd-watches-bring-back-the-eightys-wrist-fashion/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casio_Databank
http://raredigitalwatches.com/digital/casio/cal1.html
http://www.samsung.com/global/microsite/gears/
http://www.samsung.com/us/support/howtoguide/N0000895/21285/305957

Tablets, the Next Generation

Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, with S Pen
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, with S Pen

I have been testing two very good tablets recently: iPad Mini with Retina Display (Cellular) and Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition, LTE). In principle I would say that if you already are using a large-screen, phablet-style smartphone (like the Samsung Galaxy S4 I am using daily), and also carry around a powerful and light-weight laptop for the serious work stuff, tablet has a rather tight spot to cover. It is mostly too large to fit into your pocket (maybe a 7″ model like Nexus 7 can do that, however) so it not always available in the same way your smartphone is. And since the tablet does not have a full, dedicated keyboard and multitasking-oriented OS like your laptop has, it is not as efficient in the actual work, either. What to think about the continuing success of tablets, then?

When Apple introduced the original iPad, there were many who were sceptical about the actual benefits of again introducing the third, “middle category”, and there had been previous attempts to implement and market tablet computers and those had not been particularly successful. Apple’s virtue has been in the combination of extremely polished user experience with straightforward access to the key contents that most people actually care about. iPad proved that music, movies, photos, web and email can be rather well be handled also with a responsive, nicely designed tablet device.

iPad Mini with Retina Display continues the tradition of design excellence in Apple products. It is absolutely one of the most beautiful products of industrial design I have ever beheld. The care to the detail is admirable, and it is pleasure to touch and study this mini marvel. I have also been testing the new iPad Air and the new Mini has all the bells and whistles like its bigger brother, and it also boasts the same display resolution, just squeezed into significantly smaller frame. (There are some rather minor differences in processor power and in colour accuracy, in addition to size, to iPad Air’s benefit.) The iOS app ecosystem is the best in the mobile universe, and this concerns particularly the quality of applications. Many of the best iOS apps are just pleasure to use, so most games, lifestyle and productivity apps work best in the iOS environment. The main limitations, however, are at the growingly clear lack of innovation: iOS7, the newest version of Apple’s mobile operating system is prettier and in some areas clearly better than older versions of iOS. But the live titles and more flexible control scheme of Windows Phone provide more information at a glance, and Android is much more flexible and comes in myriad variations, with tools that a power user in particular can appreciate.

Google’s Nexus line of “stock Android” tablets and phones is perhaps the best example of the benefits that a modern mobile OS can provide, but there were important reasons why I wanted to turn my attention to a Galaxy Note this time. Most important of them was the “S Pen” stylus and its associated operating system enhancements.

Samsung’s S Pen is equipped with the state-of-the-art technology by Wacom, long-time leader in stylus and digitizing solutions. It is fascinating to see the fast reaction of tablet to the approacing tip of the small stylus, and writing and controlling of the tablet is effortless with the S Pen. It feels nice to be able to scribble handwritten text into a search box or straight into a document, and see the software automatically recognise and transform it into text. With Galaxy Note 10.1, I can take a PDF contract document, sent my a publisher, for example, and simply sign it with the S Pen, and email it back. This kind of common task has involved frustratingly complex negotiations between the hybrid worlds of print and digital documents, and now, with the help of S Pen and the magic of Evernote Skitch (a premium, paid feature), annotating PDFs is finally made natural and easy.

The downsides of Android’s increased capabilities include that often there is higher threshold of learning all the various features that manufacturers have made available to the user. iPad and its apps usually do less, but do it better. When I want to play games or consume content, I definitely lean more towards iPad Mini or iPad Air than an Android device. But when I today consider which device to pack with me for that next work trip, the choice is much harder. There is much B-quality bloatware and superfluous stuff in Samsung’s tablet, but also some really unique and genuinely useful features that make the life of a power user much easier. It is difficult to say what will be the outcome of the mobile competition in the long run, but the latest generation of tablets provide delightful and great user experiences, making a compelling case for the continuous existence of tablets as a device category.