Operating systems: now and then, what next?

Ubuntu on HP Elitebook x360 (screenshot).There are multiple operating systems you can operate. Some are feature-rich, some not so much. While those who are enthusiastic and passionate about these kinds of things continue to be passionate, the actual differences between systems where you can operate are growing less and less important, year by year.

The basics of digital environments are today “good enough”, pretty much everywhere you go.

There are certain significant differences still, of course. Windows has the legacy of great popularity over decades in highly heterogeneous, work and private use contexts. It has a huge backlog of software and hardware that has been created or supported in Windows computers. This is both a blessing and a challenge. It is very difficult to produce a new version of the OS that would not conflict with some software, or some driver-hardware combination out there, as the recent hurdles of Windows 10 upgrade installations have proved.

Apple Macintosh users have more often been left in the cold, as there has been many devices which never came with drivers to make them work with a Mac. There has been arguably a lot of high quality, professional software available for Macs, but in purely numeric terms, Windows software ecosystem is order of magnitude larger.

A bit similarly, iOS (the operating system for Apple mobile devices) is limited by design: there are many restrictions for modifying and customising the default operation and setup of an iOS system. On the other hand, the software developers can rely on highly standardised environment, and users get a very reliable (even if unified and rigid) experience.

There are thus obvious pluses and minuses with the various philosophies that operating systems have adopted, or have been based on.

The current leader, Windows 10 is overall strong in diversity, meaning here particularly the software and hardware support. Be it business software, services or games, Windows is the default environment with most alternatives. On the other hand, a Windows user is challenged by certain loss of control: both the operating system and much of available software and system add-ons and drivers are proprietary. The environment is effectively filled with black boxes that do something – and the user can in most cases only hope that what goes on is based on the right and correct principles. And as there are multiple actors in all Windows installations, the cumulative effects can be surprising: there is Microsoft, trying its best both to introduce new functions and technologies, while at the same time maintaining backward compatibility with their long history of legacy systems. Then there is the OEM (original equipment manufacturer), like Dell or HP, who typically configure their Windows computers with their own, custom-made tools and drivers. Then comes the user, who also installs various kinds of elements into this environment. There is the saying “tårta på tårta” in Swedish – cake upon cake. No-one is capable of carrying responsibility of how the entire conglomerate operates in a Windows computer. In many cases the results are good enough, and the freedom of choice and diversity of support for multiple use cases is what the users are looking for. On the other hand, there is also a well-documented history of bugs and problems related to the piling up effects of the sprawling and ineffective software ecosystem.

As the leading open-source alternative, Linux is known for rather effective use of computing resources. A typical Linux distribution runs well on even ageing computer hardware, and on modern, powerful systems one can really experience what a fast and reliable OS can mean. There are (of course) certain downsides to Linux, as well. The main challenges in this case lie in the somewhat higher threshold of learning. While there are increasingly easy distributions that come pre-configured with graphical tools that allow the non-expert user to take hold of their system, and configure it to their liking, the foundation of Linux is in command-line tools and text-format configuration files. Even today I find that after a new, out-of-the-box Linux distro installation, I feel the need to spend perhaps an hour or two in command line, hunting and installing the various tweaking tools, add-ons and other elements that are lacking in the default installation. But Linux is getting better. Particularly the support for new hardware is now much better than what it used to be ten years ago. While the laptop computer user of Linux in the past would in many cases find out that most of the controllers, special keys and other elements of one’s device would not work at all, or only after considerable efforts, today the situation is different. Most things actually work, which is great. But if something does not work in a Linux installation, one is mostly left to one’s own devices (and for hunting for help in the various community websites online). However, as an alternative example, Lenovo recently announced that they will certify their entire workstation portfolio to run Linux – “every model, every configuration” (see: https://news.lenovo.com/pressroom/press-releases/lenovo-brings-linux-certification-to-thinkpad-and-thinkstation-workstation-portfolio-easing-deployment-for-developers-data-scientists/).

I myself recently configured two laptops with a dual-boot, Windows/Linux setup: Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and HP Elitebook x360 1030 G3. I considered both more challenging devices from a Linux perspective, since these are both two-in-one, hybrid devices with touch screens, which means that they most probably rely on many proprietary drivers to keep all their functionalities running. There were certain challenges (in BIOS/UEFI settings, in configuring the GRUB2 system boot menu, and in the disk partitioning), but Linux itself actually did handle both devices just fine. I was using the most recent, 20.04 release of Ubuntu desktop distribution, but there are several other alternatives that could work just equally well, or even better. Elitebook x360 is my main daily driver, and while my Windows 10 installation makes it run burning hot, fans blowing, Ubuntu is snappy, quiet and cool. And I actually can operate both the touch screen and touchpad with gestures that I have fully customised to my own liking, the active pen is also working fine with the screen, and there are only a couple of things that fall short of Windows 10. The special keys for controlling brigtness do not work (I use control sliders instead), and probably neither does the infrared camera (for facial recognition & login) and the LTE modem (I have not tested it though). One thing that I noticed is that this system sounds currently much better under Windows – the sound system is Bang & Olufsen certified, and they have probably configured the sound drivers and equalizers for optimal sound delivery, as the audio quality of music under Windows perhaps the best of any laptop I have used. But there is a highly detailed software tool, called PulseEffects, available for Linux that allows one to create a customized audio profile – if one is ready to dedicate the time and effort for tweaking and testing. That is the reality of Linux still, for good or bad; but luckily most of the essentials for work use will run just fine, directly out-of-the-box.

As a complete opposite of the high “tweakability” of Linux, iOS/ipadOS systems limit the user possibilities to a radical degree. The upside is then that an iPhone or iPad is very easy to use, one can always find the same settings from same places. It used to be that Apple mobile devices had excellent battery life and system reliability, but could only do one thing at a time. With the launch of iOS/ipadOS 13 (and coming version 14), multitasking became a certain kind of option in iPad Pro devices particularly. One cam also buy (a premium, and rather expensive) “Magic Keyboard” add-on to iPad Pro, and it will come with really nice scissor keys, plus a touchpad that allows mouse-and-keyboard style control of iOS. With iOS 14 there will be some more user-configurable elements added, such as (Android-style) widgets into the desktop. There are inevitable complications related to the added capabilities. iPad Pro which is constantly polling the touchpad (or, burning the back-light in the keyboard) does not have as long battery life as one without it. The multitasking and various split screen modes in ipadOS are rather clumsy and hard to control without considerable dedication into learning new gestures and skills of touch control.

Thus, I would say that we are currently in rather good situation in terms of having several good alternatives to choose from. I myself prefer to have both Windows 10 and Linux installed in my main computers, and keep them updated to their most recent versions. But I also use iOS, ipadOS and Android daily, and all of them have their distinctive strengths and weaknesses. If something does not work in one environment very well, it is often better to try something different, rather than trying to force the operating system out of its own “comfort zone”. I suspect this basic situation will remain the same in the foreseeable future, too.

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.