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.

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.

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.

All-in-one: still not there

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surfacing experiences

2016-02-26 18.08.19
I have been testing the Surface Pro 4 mobile device / two-in-one Windows 10 computer recently – here are some first impressions:

Windows 10 “Hello” feature with its biometric (camera) login is fast and more convenient way to log in to a mobile device that is constantly closed and opened than e.g. passwords or even a fingerprint reader – you just start the tablet and look at it, and it recognizes you and unlocks (the first times it does this feel almost magical).

After installing few essential pieces of software (and updates to the Windows 10 OS), the next thing one notices is fan noise: the process of Dropbox downloading my data from the cloud heated the system so much that the small vents were really pushing air out; on the other hand, after some OS updates, in regular use Surface Pro 4 seems to be mostly rather quiet and cool device.

The touch-screen pen that attaches to the sides of device with snappy magnets is well designed and functional; however, it takes some time to realise that the Surface Pen works in different way than most other such pointing devices. You cannot navigate, flip or scroll web pages using the pen, for example. Microsoft has decided to disable that functionality, which frankly feels pretty weird. The pen selects and draws, but you need to use your fingers to scroll through pages, that is the Surface way. Changing hands to do such basic things requires some learning. There seems to be also some inconsistency in how the pen works in different applications and OS screens, but I need to experiment further to make sure.

2016-02-26 18.09.46The most essential accessory (apart from Surface Pen) is the Type Cover, which is a pretty good keyboard & touchpad combo. It is not perfect (there is some flex, and a flappy cover is never a solid part of device like a real clamshell laptop keyboard is), but it is much better than many other keyboard covers for mobile devices. Keys have slightly rubbery feel and I cannot get as high typing speed as e.g. with a good ThinkPad keyboard or Logitech K810, for example, but with this keyboard Microsoft is almost there. The touchpad is a smooth glass thing that reacts precisely, is large enough and can handle multitouch (five simultaneous touch points), so gestures work fine. (The double-tap and select actions do not always register, however, as the touchpad is affected if Surface Pro is used in uneven or soft surfaces.) The trick is to develop the necessary skills where you automatically put your hands for some tasks to the touchscreen of Surface display, and for some to the touchpad – and then do some elements in multitasking with keyboard combos (Win-Tab, Ctrl-Tab, Alt-Tab etc.) and even then some tasks with the pen. The form factor of Surface also changes depending whether you use it with the keyboard or not, in landscape or vertical orientation, or whether the OS is in Windows 10 desktop mode or tablet mode (the “Metro” user interface that was introduced in Win 8).

This leads to the key lesson derived from testing Surface Pro 4 so far: it is essentially a “Pro” thing, rather than a casual entertainment and surf board. The lack of really high quality, polished and well-designed apps for Win10 tablet mode emphasises that the key use case still lies at the PC desktop side of things. And there is nothing wrong with that: most professionals will benefit from a fully-powered laptop that can also double as a crisp and sharp tablet for those presentation, negotiation or demo events, for example. Ability to use multiple interaction modalities and control techniques, coupled with flexibility and extensive range of different software (communications, office tools, games, media, arts, design tools, etc.) also means that the scope of uses Surface Pro 4 can handle is really great – but that the entire experience also involves its fair share of complexity. While using an iPad, for example, is so straightforward that you can hand one to your grandma and expect her to manage on her own (mostly), Surface Pro has a mixture of elements that are useful and well designed, but can at least initially confuse even a power user.

Where Microsoft cannot get full points is software finish, however. Particularly the display driver of Surface Pro appears to be still half-finished and buggy: e.g. it is now clear that one should not use the default Windows 10 Edge browser with Surface Pro 4, as entering sleep mode with the Edge open will most likely crash the display driver, and the OS even. It is common to see completely blurred, unreadable text rendered in Edge. Giving up on Edge and using Google Chrome fixes that. Another buggy thing is the way sleep mode is implemented in general. There seems to be quite a lot of Windows software that either stops Surface Pro 4 from entering the sleep mode altogether, or which keeps some processes running so intensely, that the fans keep pushing hot air out even while device is supposed to be “sleeping”, and the battery will run out quickly. (I had to uninstall Skype immediately, and Lync/Skype for Business was as bad.) The battery life is a key interest to any mobile worker, and Microsoft really needs to work on this even more. There are multiple different results in the reviews, done with wildly different settings and processor loads: some claim to get 10+ hours from Surface Pro 4, some say that in heavy use three hours is closer to reality. I still have to test this, but I would say that for typical office use, Surface Pro 4’s battery and the way Windows 10 and its current generation of drivers operate, a full working day (I mean a long working day) is probably too much to ask. This is disappointing, but I think about five hours of real-time use with moderate load and multitasking is all it can do. There might be some battery saving techniques, tweaks to the display brightness etc. that will have an effect, but most users will probably not try anything like that, and just try hunting for a power outlet throughout the day – and that is not a good thing for a cutting edge, professional device that is designed primarily for mobile use in 2016. Making a tablet that is also a PC, capable of running fully powered versions of standard productivity software is not that easy feat.

I think that Surface Pro is still “work in progress”, and there are new system software updates coming out every now and then, fixing the worst bugs (at least sometimes), but much work still remains to be done. But even in its current form, Surface Pro 4 might be the optimal compromise for some – most probably for some experienced Windows power users that have need for all that flexibility and multiple use cases that Surface Pro 4 affords, and who are also willing to find solutions and work-arounds for bugs, and to learn new ways of working and handling their tools, in order to get the most out of this “mobile workstation”.

More information: https://www.microsoft.com/surface/ (Microsoft’s marketing pages for Surface Pro).

Edit: I have now (29 Feb, 2016) been using SP4 for a few full work days, and while using Chrome and avoiding installing any more sleep-messing software (Skype, Lync, Win10 ‘Messaging/Skype Video’ app), the situation has been much better than initially, the battery life remains as the main bottleneck. Perhaps bit over a half of regular, intensive work day, and you need to find the power brick. But what this tool delivers, I love: it is light enough (though more hefty and solid than an iPad, of course), and capable enough to run whatever text, media, graphics software I have thrown at it. Game testing is the next in line, and while I do not have spectacular expectations (this has no powerful discrete graphics card), it should manage some DOTA, Minecraft etc. We’ll see.

2016-02-26 18.13.40

Tablets as productivity devices

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard for iPad Air
Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard for iPad Air
Professionally, I have a sort of on-off relationship with tablets (iPads, Android tablets, mainly, but I count also touch-screen small-size factor Windows 2-in-1’s in this category). As small and light, tablets are a natural solution when you have piles of papers and books in your bag, and want to travel light. There are so many things that every now and then I try to make and do with a tablet – only to clash again against some of the limitations of them: the inability to edit some particular file quickly in the native format, inability to simply copy and paste data between documents that are open in different applications, limitations of multitasking. Inability to quickly start that PC game that you are writing about, or re-run that SPSS analysis we urgently need for that paper we are working on.

But when you know what those limitations are, tablets are just great for those remaining 80 % or so of the stuff that we do in mobile office slash research sort of work. And there are actually features of tablets that may make them even stronger as productivity oriented devices than personal computers or fully powered laptops can be. There is the small, elite class of thin, light and very powerful laptop computers with touch screens (running Windows 10) which probably can be configured to be “best of both worlds”, but otherwise – a tablet with high dpi screen, fast enough processor (for those mobile-optimized apps) and excellent battery life simply flies above using a crappy, under-powered and heavy laptop or office PC from the last decade. The user experience is just so much better: everything reacts immediately, looks beautiful, runs for hours, and behaves gracefully. Particularly in iOS / Apple ecosystem this is true (Android can be a bit more bumpy ride), as the careful quality control and fierce competition in the iOS app space takes care that only those applications that are designed with the near-perfect balance of functionality and aesthetics get into the prime limelight. Compare that to the typical messy interfaces and menu jungles of traditional computer productivity software, and you’ll see what I mean.

The primary challenge of tablets for me is the text entry. I can happily surf, read, game, and watch video content of various kinds in a tablet, but when it comes to making those fast notes in a meeting where you need to have two or three background documents open at the same time, copy text or images from them, plus some links or other materials from the Internet, the limitations of tablets do tend to surface. (Accidentally, Surface 4 Pro or Surface Book by Microsoft would be solutions that I’d love to test some of these days – just in case someone from MS sales department happens to read this blog…) But there are ways to go around some of these limitations, using a combination of cloud services running in browser windows and dedicated apps and quickly rotating between them, so that the mobile operating system does not kill them and lose the important data view in the background. Also, having a full keyboard connected with the tablet device is a good solution for that day of work with a tablet. iPad Air with a premium wireless keyboard like Logitech K811 is shoulders above the situation where one is forced to slowly tap in individual letters with the standard virtual keyboard of a mobile device. (I am a touch-typist, which may explain my perspective here.)

In the future, it is increasingly likely that the differences between personal computers and mobile devices continues to erode and vanish. The high standards of ease of use, and user experience more generally, set by mobile device already influence the ways in which also computer software is being (re-)designed. The challenges waiting there are not trivial, though: when a powerful, professional tool is suddenly reduced into a “toy version” of itself, in the name of usability, the power users will cry foul. There are probably few lessons in the area of game (interface) design that can inform also the design of utility software, as the different “difficulty levels” or novice/standard/expert modes are being fine-tuned, or the lessons from tutorials of various kinds, and adaptive challenge levels or information density is being balanced.