The Rise and Fall and Rise of MS Word and the Notepad

MS Word installation floppy. (Image: Wikipedia.)

Note-taking and writing are interesting activities. For example, it is interesting to follow how some people turn physical notepads into veritable art projects: scratchbooks, colourful pages filled with intermixing text, doodles, mindmaps and larger illustrations. Usually these artistic people like to work with real pens (or even paintbrushes) on real paper pads.

Then there was time, when Microsoft Office arrived into personal computers, and typing with a clanky keyboard into an MS Word window started to dominate the intellectually productive work. (I am old enough to remember the DOS times with WordPerfect, and my first Finnish language word processor program – “Sanatar” – that I long used in my Commodore 64 – which, btw, had actually a rather nice keyboard for typing text.)

WordPerfect 5.1 screen. (Image: Wikipedia.)

It is also interesting to note how some people still nostalgically look back to e.g. Word 6.0 (1993) or Word 2007, which was still pretty straightforward tool in its focus, while introducing such modern elements as the adaptive “Ribbon” toolbars (that many people hated).

The versatility and power of Word as a multi-purpose tool has been both its power as well as its main weakness. There are hundreds of operations one can carry out with MS Word, including programmable macros, printing out massive amounts of form letters or envelopes with addresses drawn from a separate data file (“Mail Merge”), and even editing and typesetting entire books (which I have also personally done, even while I do not recommend it to anyone – Word is not originally designed as a desktop publishing program, even if its WYSIWYG print layout mode can be extended into that direction).

Microsoft Word 6.0, Mac version. (Image: user “MR” at https://www.macintoshrepository.org/851-microsoft-word-6)

These days, the free, open-source LibreOffice is perhaps closest one can get to the look, interface and feature set of the “classic” Microsoft Word. It is a 2010 fork of OpenOffice.org, the earlier open-source office software suite.

Generally speaking, there appears to be at least three main directions where individual text editing programs focus on. One is writing as note-taking. This is situational and generally short form. Notes are practical, information-filled prose pieces that are often intended to be used as part of some job or project. Meeting notes, or notes that summarise books one had read, or data one has gathered (notes on index cards) are some examples.

The second main type of text programs focus on writing as content production. This is something that an author working on a novel does. Also screenwriters, journalists, podcast producers and many others so-called ‘creatives’ have needs for dedicated writing software in this sense.

Third category I already briefly mentioned: text editing as publication production. One can easily use any version of MS Word to produce a classic-style software manual, for example. It can handle multiple chapters, has tools such as section breaks that allow pagination to restart or re-format at different sections of longer documents, and it also features tools for adding footnotes, endnotes and for creating an index for the final, book-length publication. But while it provides a WYSIWYG style print layout of pages, it does not allow such really robust page layout features that professional desktop publishing tools focus on. The fine art of tweaking font kerning (spacing of proportional fonts), very exact positioning of graphic elements in publication pages – all that is best left to tools such as PageMaker, QuarkXPress, InDesign (or LaTex, if that is your cup of tea).

As all these three practical fields are rather different, it is obvious that a tool that excels in one is probably not optimal for another. One would not want to use a heavy-duty professional publication software (e.g. InDesign) to quickly draft the meeting notes, for example. The weight and complexity of the tool hinders, rather than augments, the task.

MS Word (originally published in 1983) achieved dominant position in word processing in the early 1990s. During the 1980s there were tens of different, competing word processing tools (eagerly competing for the place of earlier, mechanical and electric typewriters), but Microsoft was early to enter the graphical interface era, first publishing Word for Apple Macintosh computers (1985), then to Microsoft Windows (1989). The popularity and even de facto “industry standard” position of Word – as part of the MS Office Suite – is due to several factors, but for many kinds of offices, professions and purposes, the versatility of MS Word was a good match. As the .doc file format, feature set and interface of Office and Word became the standard, it was logical for people to use it also in homes. The pricing might have been an issue, though (I read somewhere that a single-user licence of “MS Office 2000 Premium” at one point had the asking price of $800).

There has been counter-reactions and multiple alternative offered to the dominance of MS Word. I already mentioned the OpenOffice and LibreOffice as important, more lean, free and open alternatives to the commercial behemot. An interesting development is related to the rise of Apple iPad as a popular mobile writing environment. Somewhat similarly as Mac and Windows PCs heralded transformation from the ealier, command-line era, the iPad shows signs of (admittedly yet somewhat more limited) transformative potential of “post-PC” era. At its best, iPad is a highly compact and intuitive, multipurpose tool that is optimised for touch-screens and simplified mobile software applications – the “apps”.

There are writing tools designed for iPad that some people argue are better than MS Word for people who want to focus on writing in the second sense – as content production. The main argument here is that “less is better”: as these writing apps are just designed for writing, there is no danger that one would lose time by starting to fiddle with font settings or page layouts, for example. The iPad is also arguably a better “distraction free” writing environment, as the mobile device is designed for a single app filling the small screen entirely – while Mac and Windows, on the other hand, boast stronger multitasking capabilities which might lead to cluttered desktops, filled by multiple browser windows, other programs and other distracting elements.

Some examples of this style of dedicated writers’ tools include Scrivener (by company called Literature and Latte, and originally published for Mac in 2007), which is optimized for handling long manuscripts and related writing processes. It has a drafting and note-handing area (with the “corkboard” metaphor), outliner and editor, making it also a sort of project-management tool for writers.

Scrivener. (Image: Literature and Latte.)

Another popular writing and “text project management” focused app is Ulysses (by a small German company of the same name). The initiative and main emphasis in development of these kinds of “tools for creatives” has clearly been in the side of Apple, rather than Microsoft (or Google, or Linux) ecosystems. A typical writing app of this kind automatically syncs via iCloud, making same text seamlessly available to the iPad, iPhone and Mac of the same (Apple) user.

In emphasising “distraction free writing”, many tools of this kind feature clean, empty interfaces where only the currently created text is allowed to appear. Some have specific “focus modes” that hightlight the current paragraph or sentence, and dim everything else. Popular apps of this kind include iA Writer and Bear. While there are even simpler tools for writing – Windows Notepad and Apple Notes most notably (sic) – these newer writing apps typically include essential text formatting with Markdown, a simple code system that allows e.g. application of bold formatting by surrounding the expression with *asterisk* marks.

iA Writer. (Image: iA Inc.)

The big question of course is, that are such (sometimes rather expensive and/or subscription based) writing apps really necessary? It is perfectly possible to create a distraction-free writing environment in a common Windows PC: one just closes all the other windows. And if the multiple menus of MS Word distract, it is possible to hide the menus while writing. Admittedly, the temptation to stray into exploring other areas and functions is still there, but then again, even an iPad contains multiple apps and can be used in a multitasking manner (even while not as easily as a desktop PC environment, like a Mac or Windows computer). There are also ergonomic issues: a full desktop computer probably allows the large, standalone screen to be adjusted into the height and angle that is much better (or healthier) for longer writing sessions than the small screen of iPad (or even a 13”/15” laptop computer), particularly if one tries to balance the mobile device while lying on a sofa or squeezing it into a tiny cafeteria table corner while writing. The keyboards for desktop computers typically also have better tactile and ergonomic characteristics than the virtual, on-screen keyboards, or add-on external keyboards used with iPad style devices. Though, with some search and experimentation, one should be able to find some rather decent solutions that work also in mobile contexts (this text is written using a Logitech “Slim Combo” keyboard cover, attached to a 10.5” iPad Pro).

For note-taking workflows, neither a word processor or a distraction-free writing app are optimal. The leading solutions that have been designed for this purpose include OneNote by Microsoft and Evernote. Both are available for multiple platforms and ecosystems, and both allow both text and rich media content, browser capture, categorisation, tagging and powerful search functions.

I have used – and am still using – all of the above mentioned alternatives in various times and for various purposes. As years, decades and device generations have passed, archiving and access have become an increasingly important criteria. I have thousands of notes in OneNote and Evernote, hundreds of text snippets in iA Writer and in all kinds of other writing tools, often synchronized into iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive or some other such service. Most importantly, in our Gamelab, most of our collabrative research article writing happens in Google Docs/Drive, which is still the most clear, simple and efficient tool for such real-time collaboration. The downside of this happily polyphonic reality is that when I need to find something specific from this jungle of text and data, it is often a difficult task involving searches into multiple tools, devices and online services.

In the end, what I am mostly today using is a combination of MS Word, Notepad (or, these days Sublime Text 3) and Dropbox. I have 300,000+ files in my Dropbox archives, and the cross-platform synchronization, version-controlled backups and two-factor authenticated security features are something that I have grown to rely on. When I make my projects into file folders that propagate through the Dropbox system, and use either plain text, or MS Word (rich text), plus standard image file types (though often also PDFs) in these folders, it is pretty easy to find my text and data, and continue working on it, where and when needed. Text editing works equally well in a personal computer, iPad and even in a smartphone. (The free, browser-based MS Word for the web, and the solid mobile app versions of MS Word help, too.) Sharing and collaboration requires some thought in each invidual case, though.

Dropbox. (Image: Dropbox, Inc.)

In my work flow, blog writing is perhaps the main exception to the above. These days, I like writing directly into the WordPress app or into their online editor. The experience is pretty close to the “distraction-free” style of writing tools, and as WordPress saves drafts into their online servers, I need not worry about a local app crash or device failure. But when I write with MS Word, the same is true: it either auto-saves in real time into OneDrive (via O365 we use at work), or my local PC projects get synced into the Dropbox cloud as soon as I press ctrl-s. And I keep pressing that key combination after each five seconds or so – a habit that comes instinctually, after decades of work with earlier versions of MS Word for Windows, which could crash and take all of your hard-worked text with it, any minute.

So, happy 36th anniversary, MS Word.

Personal Computers as Multistratal Technology

HP-Sure-Run-Error
HP “Sure Run” technology here getting into conflicts with the OS and/or computer BIOS itself.

As I was struggling through some operating system updates and other installs (and uninstalls) this week, I was again reminded about the history of personal computers, and about their (fascinating, yet often also frustrating) character as multistratal technology. By this I mean their historically, commercially and pragmatically multi-layered nature. A typical contemporary personal computer is a laptop more often than a desktop computer (this has been the situation for numerous years already, see e.g. https://www.statista.com/statistics/272595/global-shipments-forecast-for-tablets-laptops-and-desktop-pcs/). Whereas a personal computer in a desktop format is still something that one can realistically consider to construct by combining various standards-following parts and modules, and expect to start operating after installation of an operating system (plus typically some device drivers), the laptop computer is always configured and tweaked into particular interpretation of what a personal computing device should be – for this price group, for this usage category, with these special, differentiating features. The keyboard is typically customised to fit into the (metal and/or plastic) body so that the functions of a standard 101/102-key PC keyboard layout (originally by Mark Tiddens of Key Tronic, 1982, then adopted by IBM) are fitted into e.g. c. 80 physical keys of a laptop computer. As the portable computers have become smaller, there has been increased need to do various customised solutions, and a keyboard is a good example of this, as different manufacturers appear to resort each into their own style of fitting e.g. function keys, volume up/down, brightness controls and other special keys into same physical keys, using various keyboard press combinations. While this means that it is hard to be a complete touch-typist if one is changing from one brand of laptops to another one (as the special keys will be in different places), one should still remember that in the early days of computers, and even in the era of early home and personal computers, the keyboards were even much more different from each other, than they are in today’s personal computers. (See e.g. Wikipedia articles for: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer_keyboard and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Function_key).

The heritage of IBM personal computers (the “original PCs”) coupled with the Microsoft operating systems, (first DOS, then various Windows versions) has meant that there is much shared DNA in how the hardware and software of contemporary personal computers is designed. And even Apple Macintosh computers share much of similar roots with those of IBM PC heritage – most importantly due to the influential role that the graphical user interface and with its (keyboard and mouse accessed) windows, menus and other graphical elements originating in Douglas Engelbart’s On-Line System, then in Xerox PARC and Alto computers had for both Apple’s macOS and Microsoft Windows. All these historical elements, influences and (industry) standards are nevertheless layered in complex manner in today’s computing systems. It is not feasible to “start from an empty table”, as the software that organisations and individuals have invested in using needs to be accessible in the new systems, as also the skill sets of human users themselves are based on similarity and compatibility with the old ways of operating computers.

Today Apple with its Mac computers and Google with the Chromebook computers that it specifies (and sometimes also designs to the hardware level) are most optimally positioned to produce a harmonious and unified whole, out of these disjointed origins. And the reliability and generally positive user experiences provided both by Macs and Chromebooks indeed bears witness to the strength of unified hardware-software design and production. On the other hand, the most popular platform – that of a personal computer running a Microsoft Windows operating system – is the most challenging from the unity, coherence and reliability perspectives. (According to reports, the market share of Windows is above 75 %, macOS at c. 20 %, Google’s ChromeOS at c. 5 % and Linux at c. 2 % in most markets of desktop and laptop computers.)

A contemporary Windows laptop is set up in a complex network of collaborative, competitive and parallel operations networks of multiple operators. There is the actual manufacturer and packager of computers that markets and delivers certain, branded products to users: Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and numerous others. Then there is Microsoft who develops and licences the Windows operating system to these OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), collaborating to various degrees with them, and with the developers of PC components and other device makers. For example, a “peripheral” manufacturer like Logitech develops computer mice, keyboards and other devices that should install and run in a seamless manner when connected to desktop or laptop computer that has been put together by some OEM, which, in turn, has been combining hardware and software elements coming from e.g. Intel (which develops and manufactures the CPUs, Central Processing Units, but also affiliated motherboard “chipsets”, integrated graphics processing units and such), Samsung (which develops and manufactures e.g. memory chips, solid state drives and display components) or Qualcomm (which is best known for their wireless components, such as cellular modems, Bluetooth products and Wi-Fi chipsets). In order for the new personal computer to run smoothly after it has been turned on for the first time, the operating system should have right updates and drivers for all such components. As new technologies are constantly introduced, and the laptop computer in particular follows the evolution of smartphones in sensor technologies (e.g. in using fingerprint readers or multiple camera systems to do biometric authentication of the user), there are constant needs for updates that involve both the operating system itself, and the firmware (deep, hardware-close level software) as well as operating system level drivers and utility programs, that are provided by the component, device, or computer manufacturers.

The sad truth is, that often these updates do not work out that fine. There are endless stories in the user discussion and support forums in the Internet, where unhappy customers describe their frustrations while attempting to update Windows (as Microsoft advices them), the drivers and utility programs (as the computer manufacturer instructs them), and/or the device drivers (that are directly provided by the component manufacturers, such as Intel or Qualcomm). There is just so much opportunity for conflicts and errors, even while the big companies of course try to test their software before it is released to customers. The Windows PC ecosystem is just so messy, heterogeneous and historically layered, that it is impossible to test beforehand every possible combination of hardware and software that the user might be having on their devices.

Adobe-Update-Issue
Adobe Acrobat Reader update error.

In practice there are just few common rules of thumb. E.g. it is a good idea to postpone installing the most recent version of the operating system as long as possible, since the new one will always have more compatibility issues until it has been tested in “real world”, and updated a few times. Secondly, while the most recent and advanced functionalities are something that are used in marketing and in differentiation of the laptop from the competing models, it is in these new features where most of the problems will probably appear. One could play safe, and wipe out all software and drivers that the OEM had installed into their computer, and reinstall a “pure” Windows OS into the new computer instead. But this can mean that some of the new components do not operate in advertised ways. Myself, I usually test the OEM recommended setup and software (and all recommended updates) for a while, but also do regular backups, restore points, and keep a reinstall media available, just in case something goes wrong. And unfortunately, quite often this happens, and returning to the original state, or even doing a full, clean reinstall is needed. In a more “typical” or average combination of hardware and software such issues are not so common, but if one works with new technologies and features, then such consequences of complexity, heterogeneity and multistratal character of personal computers can indeed be expected. Sometimes, only trial and error helps: the most recent software and drivers might be needed to solve issues, but sometimes it is precisely the new software that produces the problems, and the solution is going back to some older versions. Sometimes disabling some function helps, sometimes only way into proper reliability is just completely uninstalling an entire software suite by a certain manufacturer, even if it means giving up some promised, advanced functionalities. Life might just be simpler that way.

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.

Best of both worlds: Windows 10?

2015-12-15 23.40.26
Win10 on Vivobook X202E.

I have been running some small workflow tests on doing basic daily tasks – writing, surfing the web, doing email and project budgets – comparatively on three environments: Chromebook, Windows 10 touchscreen PC, and a Macbook Pro.

While the Mac is the most efficient and beautifully designed of them all (and the retina display is a pleasure to behold), the shallow-move chiclet keyboard does not suit my style of touch-typing. Also, I am still a bit uncomfortable with the way OS X handles maximized apps and keyboard shortcuts to move between them.

2015-12-15 23.23.39
Side by side: Toshiba Chromebook 2, Asus Vivobook X202E (with Win10), and Macbook Pro (with OS X El Capitan).

My Toshiba Chromebook 2 has excellent keyboard, beautiful screen and even the keyboard shortcuts and touchpad controls are simple and clear enough. The problem for a power-user is in the way Chrome OS is often a bit slow to respond, as it needs to load every app and file from the cloud. Also, basic operations such as copy and paste of data between cloud-based apps does not always work, which can be really painful when you are busy working on a deadline.

Windows systems are the basic workhorses of many industry professionals and office workforce in general. I recently updated my old Asus Vivobook X202E into Windows 10, and I have actually been positively surprised how snappy this underpowered, “netbook class” PC can be under the new OS. I also like the flexible, two-handed way of managing the OS and apps simultaneously via both touchscreen, touchpad and keyboard. The trick is to stick to the bare essentials in the software – for example, Chrome is too much work for this old machine to handle these days, but the native Edge browser of Win10 is not (yet) burdened by various extensions and it runs light and fast enough so that I can actually get into the web-based data before my patience runs out. Also, the classic office software and some interesting “modern style” apps work fine in Windows – e.g. this post was written in the new native WordPress desktop app, which can be from found here: https://desktop.wordpress.com/ .

Your mileage may vary, e.g. depending on which cloud service and app ecosystem you are primarily located in. I am a mixed user of iCloud, OneDrive and Dropbox myself (and Android, iOS, PC, Mac, Chrome devices), and while I think that all major OS & service ecosystems have their strengths, I am particularly happy with the Windows 10 style of doing things at the moment. (If only my touchscreen laptop would be a bit more capable and up to date model…)

Gestures and multi-touch: Logitech T650

As operating systems evolve, so do the ways of interacting with them. While older laptops might have still the processing power or even the disk space to run e.g. Win8 or Win10, it is often in the control, or human interface hardware where the support is lacking. Adding an external keyboard and touchpad might be a way to give some extra life to an older system, while the downside of such “hybrid system” will unavoidably be that you’ll lose the simplicity of being able to just open the laptop cover and quickly start working. Setting up the external keyboard and external touchpad might make nevertheless sense for longer working sessions. In my case, I suffer from chronic carpal tunnel syndrome and simply cannot work with non-ergonomic mouses, keyboards or touchpads – and I regularly rotate and try all sorts of mouse replacements and other add-ons.

Logitech T650
Logitech T650.

My optimal system at the moment is based on some very nice gear Logitech has developed. Both on my Macbook Pro and Vaio Z3 I have now set up the illuminated bluetooth keyboard by Logitech: K810 model for Vaio, K811 for Mac. The key travel in either of these, otherwise pretty excellent PCs is just too shallow to allow for high-speed typing – at least for me, your mileage may vary. Logitech K810/K811 is so excellent piece of design and engineering, with such an outstanding typing experience, that I just cannot stop marvelling at it every day I use these things – and I have purchased several, despite the rather steep price. My lurking nightmare is that Logitech will some day cancel this product, or somehow alter and ruin the design and functionality – so I just might again go out and get a couple extra ones to my spare parts closet, just to be on the safe side.

While I really like the touchpads of Macbooks, the touch behaviour in Windows systems has been much more problematic. In modern Windows 10 systems the touchpads apparently are getting closer to the Mac standard, and there is also the additional interaction affordance of touch screen in many Win10 models (something that Apple has stayed away in their laptops, while the touch interface of iPads and iPhones is of course very good). I happen to like the combination of touch screen and mouse/touchpad – it feels natural to handle screen directly, and it is also good for ergonomics to change the manner of manipulation every now and then – even while if touch screen would be the only mouse replacement, it would not really work.

For older Windows 7 devices like my Vaio Z3 there is no luxury of truly working multitouch gestures or anything like that – the touchpad in this Vaio is small, cramped and operates so erratically that it can pretty much drive you crazy, particularly if you have used something like Macbook Pro, with a really good touchpad and multigesture OS X that supports it.

While originally purchased for my other, Windows 8.1 equipped home computer, I recently took the Logitech T650 external touchpad to work and tried setting it up with my Vaio. While the small “Unifying” connector now takes up one precious USB port (no bluetooth in T650), I was surprised how well this Logitech touchpad works with Windows 7. The newest version of Logitech’s SetPoint software works really well also under Windows 7, and the two-finger, three-finger and even four-finger gestures really transform the speed and ease of use for scrolling and handling many documents and different software running simultaneously in my Vaio. The operating system is originally not really optimised for this kind of use, and there is no e.g. “expose” style overview mode in Win7, but Logitech add-on software provides that feature, as well as several others. The main problem is that if you are constantly running from meeting room to another like I do, there is not really time to set up the laptop, set up the keyboard and touchpad, switch on all of them, make sure that they connect correctly (sometimes they do not – a reboot might be required); and then, at the end of meeting to switch off and repack all three things again – just to repeat everything at the next room. But I guess I’ll just need to live with that at the moment. The multitouch gestures and solid typing experience that Logitech provides are so much better than the alternatives.

Logitech T650 multitouch gestures
Logitech T650 multitouch gestures.

Price for mobile use value: laptops

Chromebook 2 on scale.
Toshiba Chromebook 2 on scale.

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

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

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

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

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

Windows 8 ergonomics

Mouses and trackpads
Mouses and trackpads

I have been testing and using Windows 8 (and now 8.1) in most of my Windows PCs for some time now, and while I mostly fail to find any real use for the Metro style apps, there are some nice improvements (most of them “under the hood”) that make Windows 8 preferable to Windows 7, for me, at the moment. However, there remains some issues that mostly relate to how to manage the new gesture controls of Windows 8, when only one of my Windows laptops is an actual touch-screen device. Swipes from the sides of the screen need to be carried out by pointing and clicking with a mouse, which is cumbersome, or through a touchpad, which have their benefits and downsides. 

The attached picture shows by current cavalcade of optional pointing and gesturing devices that are connected and available next to the keyboard in my Windows 8.1 desktop workstation. These include the Logitech Touchpad T650, Apple Wireless Touchpad, Logitech Marble Trackball and Microsoft Sculpt Comfort Mouse, the most recent addition. The traditional mouse (with the optional Win8 button/touch area) is the most precise for pointing, the Marble trackball provides overall best ergonomics, and T650 is best compatible and supported in Windows 8 of the two touchpads (no surprises there, really). What really irritates me, is that after using one of them, there is aways some shortcoming which forces me to move to another device for a while: the touchpad is great for gestures and skimming through web pages, for example, but whenever multiple files need to be manipulated precisely, I find myself getting hold of the mouse or the trackball. And when my fingers and wrist get tired of rotating and swiping with a mouse, then I need to move a touchpad back to the mousepad. 

A mobile device does not suffer from similar schizophrenia – you just use the mobile-optimized apps through a mobile-optimized UI. The touch gestures in Windows 8/8.1 desktop mode are a problem mostly since they are almost useful, so that once you have started to use them, it is hard to go back — yet, on the other hand, they do not naturally fit the desktop computer control devices capabilities. You are stuck in the middle.

And my carpal tunnel syndrome gets worse, again.