Category Archives: laptops

On Microsoft Surface: premium hardware, declining vision

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Microsoft’s Panos Panay shows off Surface Pro 3

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 was launched yesterday, but the roots of Microsoft’s Surface project – the company’s first own-brand PC – go back a long way. There are three big issues which it attempts to tackle:

1. The PC OEM hardware ecosystem was (and to a large extent still is) stuck in a vicious loop of a price-sensitive market driving down prices and forcing vendors to skimp on design and materials, and to pre-install unwanted third-party applications that damage user experience. Most high-end users bought Macs instead. With Surface Microsoft breaks out of the loop with premium design and zero unwanted add-ons.

2. The tablet market. Windows 8 is designed for touch, at least in its “Metro” personality. But desktop apps need a keyboard and mouse. How do you combine the two without creating a twisty monster? Surface with its fold-back, tear-off keyboard cover is an elegant solution.

3. Fixing Windows. Users of today’s PCs live on a precipice. One false click and the adware and malware invades. Live in the “Metro” environment, or use an iPad, and that is unlikely to happen. Use Windows RT (Windows on ARM) and it is even less likely, since most malware cannot install.

Surface could not have happened without Windows 8. The efforts to make it work as a tablet would make no sense.

Now we have Surface 3. How is Microsoft doing?

I have followed Surface closely since its launch in September 2012. The models I know best are the original Surface RT, the second Surface RT called Surface 2, and the original Surface Pro, which is my machine of choice when travelling. A few observations.

There is plenty that I like (otherwise I would not use it so much). It really is slim and compact, and I would hate to go back to carrying a laptop everywhere. It is well-made and fairly robust, though the hinge on the keyboard covers is a weak point where the fabric can come unglued. The kickstand is handy, and one of my favourite configurations is Surface on its kickstand plus Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, with which I can be almost as productive as with a desktop (I do miss dual displays). I can also use the Surface successfully on my lap. In cramped aircraft seats it is not great but better than a laptop.

There are also annoyances. Only one USB port is a severe limitation and seems unnecessary, since there is room along the edge. For example, you plug in an external drive, now you cannot attach your camera. Not being able to upgrade the internal SSD is annoying, though I suppose inherent to the sealed design. Performance was poor on the original Surface RT, though Surface 2 is fine.

More annoying are the bugs. Sometimes the keyboard cover stops working; detaching and re-attaching usually but not always fixes it. Sometimes the wifi plays up and you have to disable and re-enable the wifi adapter in device manager. Another problem is power management, especially on Surface Pro (I gather that Pro 2 is better). You press power and it does not resume; or worse, you put it into your bag after pressing power off (which sends it to sleep), only to find later that it is heating your bag and wasting precious battery.

The key point here is this: Microsoft intended to make an appliance-like PC that, because of the synergy between first-party hardware and software, would be easy to maintain. It did not succeed, and even Surface RT is more troublesome to maintain than an iPad or Android tablet.

Microsoft also ran into user acceptance problems with Windows RT. Personally I like RT, I think I understand what Microsoft is (or was) trying to achieve, and with Surface specifically, I love the long battery life and easier (though this imperfect) maintenance that it offers. However, the apps are lacking, and Microsoft has so far failed to establish Windows as a tablet operating system like iOS and Android. People buy Windows to run Windows apps, they make little use of the Metro side, and for the most part Surface customers are those who would otherwise have bought laptops.

Incidentally, I have seen Surface RT used with success as a fool-proof portable machine for running Office and feel it deserved to do better, but the reality is that Microsoft has not persuaded the general public of its merits.

Another issue with Surface is the price. Given most Surface customers want the keyboard cover, which is integral to the concept, the cost is more than most laptops. But was Microsoft going for the premium market, or trying to compete with mass-market tablets? In reality, Surface is too expensive for the mass-market which is why its best success has been amongst high-end Windows users.

Surface Pro 3 and the launch that wasn’t

That brings me to Surface Pro 3. The intriguing aspect of yesterday’s launch is that it was rumoured to be for a new mini-sized Surface probably running Windows RT. Why else was the invite (which someone posted on Twitter) for a “small gathering”?

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Admittedly, it is a stretch to suppose that the Surface Mini was cancelled between the date the invitations were sent out (around four weeks ago I believe) and the date of the event. On the other hand, this is a time of change at Microsoft. The Nokia acquisition completed on  25th April, putting former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop in charge of devices. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has only been in place since February 4. While cancelling a major hardware launch at such short notice would be surprising, it is not quite impossible, and a report from Bloomberg to that effect seems plausible.

It is also well-known that Microsoft does not intend to continue with three mobile operating systems: Windows x86, Windows on ARM, and Windows Phone. Windows Phone and Windows RT will “merge”, though merge may just mean that one will be scrapped, and that it will not be Windows Phone.

The promised arrival of a touch-friendly Microsoft Office for Windows Phone and Windows 8 further will rob Windows RT of a key distinctive feature.

This does not mean that Microsoft will not complete in the growing market for small tablets. It means, rather, that a future small tablet from Microsoft will run the Windows Phone OS – which is what some of us thought Microsoft should have done in the first place. This is a company that sometimes takes the hardest (and most expensive) possible route to its destination – see also Xbox One.

Surface Pro 3 specs: a MacBook Air compete

Surface Pro 3 is a large-size Surface Pro. It has a 12 inch 2160×1440 screen, a pen, and a redesigned keyboard cover that has an additional magnetic strip which sticks to the tablet when used laptop-style, for greater stability.

The kickstand can now be used at any angle, supposedly without slipping.

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The weight is 800g making it lighter than a MacBook Air.

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though note that the MacBook Air has a keyboard built in.

Battery life is quoted as “up to 9 hours”. There is still only one USB port. Full specs are here.

The Surface Pro 3 looks like a nice device. In the UK it starts at £639 for an Intel i3 device with a tiny 64GB SSD (I am running out of space with 128GB). And don’t forget the cover which will be at least £110 on top (prices include VAT).

A sensible Core i5 with 256GB SSD and a Type 2 cover will be around £1200. Not a bad buy; though personally I am not sure about the larger size.

Note that Microsoft has now abandoned the 16:9 wide-screen format which characterised the original release of Windows 8, designed to work well with two apps side by side. Surface Pro 3 has a conventional 3:2 screen ration.

Declining vision

Microsoft’s Surface project had a bold vision to reinvent Windows hardware and to usher in a new, more secure era of Windows computing, where tablet apps worked in harmony with the classic desktop.

It was bold but it failed. A combination of flawed implementation, patchy distribution, high prices, and above all, lack of success in the Windows Store ecosystem, meant that Surface remained at ground level.

What we have now is, by all accounts, an attractive high-end Windows hybrid. Not a bad thing in itself, but far short of what was originally hoped.

Microsoft is moving on, building on its investment in Active Directory, Azure cloud, and Microsoft Office, to base its business on an any-device strategy. The market has forced its hand, but it is embracing this new world and (to my mind) looks like making a success of it. It does not depend on the success of Surface, so whether or not the company ends up with a flourishing PC business is now almost incidental.

Acer’s R7 the most twisty Windows 8 tablet/laptop yet

What is the name for a laptop that is also a tablet? A tabtop? Or perhaps a tabletop, which is a good way to describe Acer’s R7. The hinge (called “Ezel”) swings up to become a stalk supporting the tablet, raising it above the table.

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What is the value of this configuration? Maybe you can think of something?

The thinking here (if I have it right) is that you can get the screen closer to your eyes than would be possible with a normal laptop. In other words, the flat table-top is not the normal use, but rather a tilt towards you but raised above the keyboard, if you see what I mean.

Alternatively, there is a backwards configuration which, I was told, is for presentations. The keyboard is your side, while the screen points into the room.

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Of course, you won’t actually be able to see the screen yourself but that is a small detail versus the great view afforded to your audience. I am being a little unfair – the idea I think is that you sit screen-side too, and control it by touch.

You can also fold the screen flat to make a standard fat tablet configuration.

Failing that, there is a keyboard-only mode – note, no trackpad on view.

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This is to avoid hitting the trackpad by mistake, apparently. Or if you really want a trackpad, you can have it, but note that it is behind the keyboard:

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A bit odd? Let’s just say, different.

Close the lid, and looks like just another laptop.

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For more information on the R7 see here.

Review: Acer C720 Chromebook and reflections on Chrome OS

When I saw the first announcement of Chrome OS I was amazed and wrote a breathless post:

I’m watching Google’s press briefing on the forthcoming Chrome OS. It is amazing. What Google is developing is a computer that answers several of the problems that have troubled users since the advent of the personal computer.

That was in November 2009. Unfortunately it has taken me a while to try a Chromebook (the generic name for a computer running Chrome OS) for myself; but I have been trying out an Acer C720 and what follows is in part a review of this machine, and in part some wider reflections on the Chrome OS and Chromebook concept.

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In terms of hardware, a Chromebook is another take on the netbook idea: a small, light laptop but running Linux rather than Windows. The earliest netbooks also ran Linux but the mass market could not cope with it; Google has done what is necessary to make it work for non-technical people, not least by hiding almost all of the operating system other than the browser.

I have given detailed specifications at the end of this post, but in summary this is an 11.6″ traditional clamshell laptop/netbook with 1.4Ghz Intel Haswell processor, 2GB RAM and 16GB SSD. It weighs just 1.2Kg

It’s cheap. You can pick one up for just under £200 at Amazon; it’s smart looking and does not feel as cheap as it is.

At left we have power input, HDMI out, USB 3.0 port and a standard headset socket.

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On the right there is an SD card slot, USB 2.0, and a lock attachment point.

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You can get a touchscreen version for an additional £80 or so but it does not seem worth it to me.

When you turn on for the first time, you have to accept the Google agreement. You won’t read it all, but here is something you should note:

You acknowledge and agree that Google may stop (permanently or temporarily) providing the Services (or any features within the Services) to you or to users generally at Google’s sole discretion, without prior notice to you…

You acknowledge and agree that if Google disables access to your account, you may be prevented from accessing the Services, your account details, or any files or other content which is contained in your account.

More on this later.

You can sign in as guest, and use the device to browse the web, or you can sign in with a Google account. If you sign in as guest, none of your activity (including any files you download) will be preserved when you sign out. This is a nice feature for, literally, guests for whom you want to give internet access while protecting both your privacy and to some extent theirs.

Normally you will sign in with a Google account. If you have used Google’s Chrome browser, much will be familiar. What you get is the browser, which you can run full screen or in a resizable window, and a taskbar along the bottom which shows running apps, date and time, network connection, battery status, and notifications.

Local storage is accessible via a file browser. This gives access to a Downloads folder, Google Drive which is cloud storage but includes offline files that are available locally, and USB storage devices that you attach.

I attached a drive full of media files and was able to play MP4 video and FLAC audio without any problems. Some file types, such as PDF and Microsoft Office, open in the browser. This aspect can be disorienting; there is no Quit option, but you just close the browser tab when you are done.

At the left of the taskbar is an Apps button which you might think of as a Start button since it has the same purpose. Click it, and app shortcuts appear in a window. You can also press the Search key, which sits where you would expect to see Caps Lock.

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A Chrome OS app is a web app, though it can take advantage of Chrome features like access to local storage or NaCl (Native Client), which lets you run compiled native code in the browser. NaCl is enabled by default.

I actually have a web app in the Chrome Store – apologies it is not very good, but it was a demonstration to support this how-to; it is really not difficult to adapt a web site though as ever, excellence is more challenging.

As an app platform, it would be wrong to think of a Chromebook as “crippled”, though it does require a change of mind-set if you are used to apps on Windows, OSX, iOS or Android. Apps are sandboxed, of course, and run in the browser, but native performance is possible and there are ways to access devices like the camera and local storage. Adobe Flash is also available. This is a physics demo using Native Client:

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and this is an audio editor:

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Can you get your work done? Probably, but if you are like me you will miss a few things like Microsoft Office or equivalent, or the Live Writer blog authoring tool (for which I have not found a good replacement on any platform). Of course you have full access to Google Docs, for browser-based document editing.

It also turns out that a Chromebook is a rather good Microsoft SkyDrive or Office 365 client. Perhaps it is just familiarity, but I prefer Office Web Apps to the Google Docs equivalents.

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I did experience an oddity in Office 365. I clicked a link to a recently opened document, which was an URL to a .docx file. This should have opened the document in Word web app, but instead it opened in a beta of Quickoffice running as a Chrome extension. This is bad, since editing the document and hitting save opened a Save As dialog for the local drive, or Google Drive, not the SharePoint site, and when I tried a document including an image, it was reported as corrupt.

It is possible to do some coding on a Chromebook, for example using the rather good online scripting IDE at script.google.com. This is a debugging session using the example script, which creates a document in Google Apps and emails a link:

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If you get stuck, there is always remote desktop to a Windows box as a fallback. There are several clients to choose from, of which I used 2X:

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Although the Linux shell is hidden unless you enable developer mode, you can press Ctrl-Alt-T and open crosh (Chrome OS Shell), enabling simple network testing with ping as well as an ssh client. More features magically appear if you do enable developer mode.

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Chromebook pros and cons

A Google Chromebook has several big advantages.

One, it’s safe; not entirely safe perhaps, but relatively immune from malware given that most users never get deeper into the operating system than the web browser, and therefore neither does anything else – though the machine is in fact hackable (in a good way) if you switch to Developer mode, and you can do things like getting shell access or installing Ubuntu if you want.

Second, it is good value. You are not paying for Windows or Office, and whatever deal Google makes with OEMs like Acer must be generous enough to allow for low prices.

It would actually make sense for Google to subsidise Chromebooks if it needed to, since they drive users to its services.

Third, a Chromebook is cloud-centric. If you lose it, or upgrade to a new machine, all your data will be there on Google’s cloud and you will hardly notice, with seamless sync of settings when you log in.

Fourth, Google and its hardware partners (in this case Acer) have done a good job. Sleep and resume works reliably – more so than any Windows machine I have known – and boot from cold takes seconds. Performance is fine, provided you have a strong internet connection.

There is no unwanted third-party software here unless you count Google’s own services; but if you did not want them you probably should not have bought a Chromebook. The out of box experience is good.

What are the annoyances? Here are a few.

The user interface is effective and not difficult to learn, though I do find that the screen fills with multiple tabs which is ugly and not that easy to navigate. You can float a browser window by dragging it down, in which case you get something that behaves as a new instance, and you can switch between instances with alt-tab.

Printing is awkward in that you have to set up Google Cloud Print and send your documents to Google and back even if the printer is right next to you.

Working offline is a problem but maybe not as bad as you have heard. The app store has a section devoted to apps that work offline, and you can create and edit documents offline other than spreadsheets, which are read-only. There is no problem with playing some videos or music from the built-in storage or from a USB drive when on the move and offline. If you are going to be offline a lot though, this is probably not the best choice.

Is this machine locked to Google? Maybe not as much as you would expect. There is no alternative web browser, but you can set your search engine to Bing, DuckDuckGo or anotehr if you prefer. Or you can enable developer mode and you install Linux, either in place of, or alongside Chrome OS. The two obvious choices are ChrUbuntu and Crouton, and setup is nicely explained here

http://www.kitware.com/blog/home/post/498

Does this machine breach your privacy? That is tough to answer; but it is worth noting that Chromebook offers, as far as I can tell, the same privacy settings that are in the Chrome browser. If you are happy using the Chrome browser in Windows or elsewhere, there is no reason not to be happy with a Chromebook from this perspective.

That said, this machine is committed to, on the one hand, cloud and web apps, and alongside that, the Google life. The two main objections to the Google life, it seems to me, are that Google’s business model depends on advertising and mining personal data for that purpose; and that it has been known for individuals to get locked out of their Google accounts for what might be arbitrary reasons whereupon comeback is difficult. It may be though that I worry too much, since this is uncommon, and trusting everything to Google is probably not high on the list of the most stupid things to do in IT.

Summing up

This is not a machine for every task. It is not a powerhouse, and in case you had not noticed, will not run apps other than browser apps. Either of those could be deal-breakers and might mean that you need a different device.

It is early days for laptops that run only browser apps, and there are areas of immaturity. Some file types are not supported or badly supported. The app store has limitations, and although there is a browser-based solution to most common tasks, it may not equal what can be done with a conventional app. The user interface is reasonable but utilitarian. Tastes vary, but personally I do not find Google Apps the equal of Microsoft Office yet, and I even miss Outlook, despite its many annoyances.

There are compromises then; but this is still a great little laptop, light and convenient, quick and responsive, and almost immune to PC-style problems and slowdowns.

In business or education, it is easy to see the attraction of a machine that is low maintenance and simple to replace if it breaks, provided that its capabilities match the tasks that are required.

The comparison with Windows RT is interesting and will be the subject of a separate post.

Watch this space. Chromebooks are already making inroads into the market for budget laptops, and in education, and I would expect this momentum to gather force as the platform matures.

Detailed specification:

  • Intel Celeron 2955U 1.4 GHz processor
  • 2GB RAM
  • SD card slot
  • 16GB SSD
  • 11.6″ 1366 x 768 TFT screen
  • Intel GMA HD Graphics
  • Webcam and Microphone
  • 3.5mm headset socket
  • HDMI out, 1USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0
  • Wireless: 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 +HS (High Speed)
  • 3950 mAh battery, quoted 8.5 hr battery life
  • Weight: 1.25 Kg

Toshiba ships DVD media with laptop without DVD drive

One day you will be able to buy a Windows device and have a smooth and delightful experience getting started.

To be fair, something like a Surface tablet can give offer a reasonable experience if you are lucky.

Not so a Toshiba Portege Z930 ultrabook – at least, not if you buy one with Windows 7 pre-installed, and want to run Windows 8, as a contact of mine has just done.

Why would you not buy one with Windows 8 pre-installed instead? With hindsight, that is what I would recommend; but since it says on the box, “This system is pre-installed with Windows 7 Pro software and also comes with a license and media for Windows 8 Pro software,” he did not think it much mattered.

The problem: The Z930 has no optical drive, but Windows 8 is supplied in the form of two recovery DVDs.

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I thought that was pretty silly, but luckily I know all the tricks about creating a bootable USB drive from a DVD. I even spotted the note in the box that instructs you to go into the BIOS and change it from CSM Boot to UEFI Boot.

No go. It would not boot from the USB drive in UEFI mode, and in CSM mode (which is also meant to work for Windows 8, with a few limitations) it boots, starts a Toshiba recovery wizard, and then bombs out.

I spoke to support. The first thing they told me, unprompted, was to make Windows 7 recovery disks, since not everyone likes Windows 8.

Next, the support guy was surprised that a model without a DVD drive ships with DVDs. Had the machine been tampered with? Then he looked it up, and admitted that they are all like that.

After a little more investigation, he said there is no way it will work from a bootable USB drive, because it is coded to look for the DVD. The only way is to buy an external DVD drive and attach it via USB.

The behaviour began to make sense to me. The scripts must be hard-coded to look on the optical drive for the files. I’d guess you can fix it by modifying the scripts if you know where to look, but life is too short and I went out and bought a DVD drive.

Smooth after that? Not brilliant. Recover Windows 8, go to Store for Windows 8.1, remember that you have to apply updates before it appears, apply 80 Windows updates, remove McAfee trialware and a few other unwanted applications, back to Store, do large Windows 8.1 download, and done.

In an era where usability is king, it is remarkable that Toshiba thinks that shipping DVDs with a computer that cannot read them is a smart thing to do. That said, I have a few more observations.

  • If you got a product key for Windows 8 and could download the media from Microsoft, that would work. But OEM Windows 8 is now pre-pidded so you don’t get a key.
  • If Microsoft were not still making so much money from businesses paying for Windows licenses, it could give Windows away and offer users a more Apple-like upgrade experience.
  • If Microsoft had not come out with a Windows upgrade which many of its customers do not like, companies like Toshiba would not be selling so many laptops with Windows 7 pre-installed.

As for the Z930, it is a lovely light, fast laptop if you do not need touch. But when will Windows OEMs, and to some extent Microsoft itself, learn the importance of out-of-the-box user experience?

Brief hands on with new Asus Windows 8.1 T100 tablet – or should that be netbook?

Asus has launched two new tablets in the UK.

This one is the 10.1″ T100 has an Intel Atom “Bay Trail” Z3740 quad-core processor. The display is 1366 x 768 and supports capacitive multi-touch.

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You press a release button under the display to detach it from the keyboard, whereupon it becomes a tablet. This approach, it is now generally agreed, is better than a screen which twists over, since it gives you a reasonably thin and lightweight (550g) tablet rather one that is bulky and odd to hold. However, there is still the question of what you are going to do with the keyboard once detached, and I have a suspicion that these machines are likely to be almost permanently attached to the keyboard making them similar to netbooks.

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Microsoft’s Surface overcomes this to some extent, especially with the Touch keyboard cover that folds underneath and adds little weight or bulk.

On the other hand, the T100 strikes me as good value at £349.99 (which includes the keyboard dock), especially bearing in mind that Office Home and Student is bundled (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, but no Outlook).

The T100 comes with 2GB RAM and 32GB eMMC storage. Connectivity includes Bluetooth 4.0, Micro-USB, Micro-HDMI, MicroSD slot, and a USB 3.0 port in the docking keyboard.

I tried the T100 briefly. I was impressed with the performance; Word and Excel opened quickly and overall it feels quick and responsive. I did not like the keyboard much; it felt slightly spongy, but at this price a few weaknesses can be forgiven.

The tablet Windows key is not under the screen as with most Windows 8 tablets, but a button on the side. What looks like the Windows key in the above snap is inactive, and that logo will not show on the production units.

7 types of Windows 8 users and non-users

When I was in Seattle earlier this month I visited the Microsoft Store in Bellevue. I nearly bought a Nokia Lumia 1020, but also observed an enthusiastic salesperson showing off Surface 2 (a pre-launch demo unit) to an older customer. She watched patiently while he showed how it handled pictures, SkyDrive, Office, Email, Facebook and more. At the end she said. “I don’t need any of that. Show me your cheapest laptop.”

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Yes, it’s tough for Microsoft. The incident got me thinking about computer users today and whether or not they are in the market for Windows 8 (or the forthcoming Windows 8.1).

Here is a light-hearted at some categories of users. And yes, I think I have met all of them. For those that are saying no, what would change their minds?

1. The Apple fan.

Switched to Mac from Windows XP around 2007. Has Mac, iPhone, iPad. So much easier, no anti-virus nags, boots quicker, less annoying, always works smoothly. Occasionally runs a Windows app on Parallels but nothing non-nuclear would persuade them to switch back.

Buying Windows 8? No.

2. The Enterprise admin.

In latter stages of migration from Windows XP to Windows 7. Still a few XP machines running awkward apps or run by awkward people. Last holdouts should be gone by year end. Job done, won’t even think about another migration for 3-5 years. Next focus is on BYOD (Bring your own device); will be mostly iPhones and iPads with the occasional Android or Windows 8 tablet.

Buying Windows 8? Mostly no.

3. The older Windows user

Son thinks a Mac would be better, but Windows works fine, is well understood, and does all that is needed. No desire to upgrade but when PC conks out will look for the most familiar looking machine at a good price. Would prefer Windows 7 but may be forced into Windows 8 if those are the only machines on offer.

Buying Windows 8? Maybe reluctantly.

4. The PC guy

This is the guy who understands PCs back to front. Never saw the point of Macs, overpriced, fewer apps, and little different in functionality. First thing to do with a new PC is either spend 3 hours removing all the crapware, or reinstall Windows from scratch. The Windows 8 user interface took some adjustment at first but fine with it now, likes the slightly better performance, and even uses a few Metro apps on the Surface Pro tablet.

Buying Windows 8? Yes, best Windows yet.

5. The tablet family

Used to update the family PC every few years, but mum got an iPad, son got an Android tablet, then dad went Android too, and now they spend so much time doing email, games, web browsing, YouTube, Facebook and BBC iPlayer on the tablets that the PC gets little use. It’s still handy for household accounts but it won’t be replaced unless it breaks.

Buying Windows 8? Not soon, and maybe not ever.

6. The tried it once never again person

It was embarrassing. Used Windows for years, then a friend brought over a Windows 8 laptop. Clicked on desktop, but with no Start button how do you run anything? Clicked around, right-clicked, pressed ESC, pressed Ctrl-Alt-Del, but nothing doing. Friend was laughing. Now the sight of Windows 8 evokes a chill shudder. Never, just never.

Buying Windows 8? No way.

7. The “Make it like 7” person

Windows 8? No problem, it’s just like 7 really. Installed Start8, got the Start menu back, set it to boot to desktop, set file associations for PDF and images to desktop apps, and never sees the Metro environment.

Buying Windows 8? Kind-of, but will never run a Metro app.

Fixing a slow Lenovo laptop

Here is a problem I’ve not seen before. A Lenovo Thinkpad E530 laptop running Windows 7, which after working fine for months developed a critical problem. On start up the user would see the network icon in the notification area (bottom right) show a busy icon or a red cross. No network connectivity, and the machine almost unusable.

After around 20 to 25 minutes the network sprang into life and everything was fine, until the next reboot when the problem repeated.

I fixed several errors in the event log to no avail. The problem persisted.

Went into msconfig and did the usual trick of disabling all non-Microsoft services and startup items. Everything worked fine. Laptop booted quickly and connected to the network.

What was the culprit? Trial, error and instinct eventually narrowed it down to an Intel service: Bluetooth Device Monitor. If enabled, 25 minute boot. If disabled, two minute boot.

I updated the Intel Bluetooth driver, a substantial 300MB download. This fixed it. I noticed that the updated Bluetooth Device Monitor now says it is from Motorola:

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I understand it was always provided by Motorola but previously signed by Intel.

Posted here in case others run into this issue.

Update: this seems to be a common problem. It seems that a recent Microsoft update is incompatible with some versions of the Bluetooth driver. See here for discussion on the HP support forums, where it has occurred with the HP Probook 4540s and others.

As noted in the comments, I used Lenovo’s system update utility to grab the more recent “Motorola” driver. It shows there as an optional update.

I am done with laptops

2012 was the year I lost interest in laptops. It happened in February, when I was in Seattle and purchased a Samsung Windows 7 Slate for the purpose of testing Windows 8.

This Slate has an Intel Core i5 CPU and is a flawed device. With Windows 7 it was particularly bad, since Windows 7 is not much fun for touch control. Windows 8 is much better, though now and again the screen will not respond to touch after being woken from sleep, and a cold reboot is needed.

That said, performance is fine, and the Slate has a couple of characteristics which I like. One is small size. It fits easily in almost any bag. In fact, I can put this Slate, an iPad and a Surface RT in a bag and they take up no more room that with a typical 15.6” laptop.

The second is convenience. If you are travelling, a laptop is an awkward and unsocial thing. I have come to dislike the clamshell design, which has to be unfolded before it will work, and positioned so that you can type on the keyboard and see the screen.

I do not pretend that desktop Windows has a great user interface for touch control, but I have become more adept at hitting small targets in the likes of Outlook. In addition, many tasks like browsing the web or viewing photos work fine in the touch-friendly “Metro” personality of Windows 8.

What about when you need to sit down and do some serious typing, coding, or intricate image manipulation? This is when I pull out a keyboard and mouse and get something similar to a laptop experience.

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The above shows my instant coffee-shop office, with wireless keyboard and mouse, and internet connection through mobile phone. Though I have abandoned the keyboard and mouse shown, preferring a Bluetooth set I picked up late last year which leaves does not require a free USB port.

I am not sure why I would ever want another laptop. When in the office, I prefer a PC under the desk to a laptop on the desk. A tablet, whether Windows, Android or iOS, works better for mobility, even if mobility means watching iPlayer in the living room rather than travelling around the world.

Nor do I like hybrid tablets with twisty screens and keyboards, which lose the simplicity and instant usability of the tablet concept. I make an exception for Microsoft’s Surface RT, particularly with the touch keyboard cover, which does not get in the way or take up significant space, but does form a usable keyboard and trackpad when needed. There will always be an advantage to using a physical keyboard, since even if you get on fine with a soft keyboard there is no escaping the large slice of screen it occupies. Well, until we can type with detected thought processes I guess.

I am told that an iPad with a Logitech Ultrathin keyboard is also a nice combination, though I have not tried this yet.

Building a cheap PC, and why it still beats tablets and laptops for value

I thought the Google Nexus tablet was good value, and compared to an Apple iPad or most other tablets out there it is, but for sheer capability on a budget a desktop PC has it beat.

Needing a cheap desktop I went along to Ebuyer and purchased the following:

  • Asus P8H61-MX SI Motherboard bundled with Intel Pentium G620 and 2GB DD3 RAM
  • Extra Value Micro ATX case with 500w PSU (unbranded)
  • Additional 2GB RAM

The total cost was £128.54 with free delivery. I then plucked a Sata DVD drive and a 200GB hard drive from a dead server, and put it all together, which took less than an hour. Next installed Windows 7 64-bit, for which fortunately I have a subscription license. Plugged in spare keyboard, mouse and monitor.

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I was impressed by the Windows Experience Index of 4.9, and Gaming graphics of 5.6 achieved by Intel’s integrated graphics. The board has VGA and DVI ports and supports dual displays. It also has HD audio and of course ethernet networking.

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What would it cost if I had not had spare DVD and hard drives? A 500GB drive is £42.70 and a DVD drive £11.94 currently, making £183.18, or £152.65 without the VAT.

Need Windows? You are a system builder, so you can get Windows Home Premium with SP1 64-bit for £75.99, or Professional for £104.98. Total cost with the cheaper option is £259.17, now more than a Google Nexus tablet (£159.00 for the 8GB version).

Add a screen, keyboard and mouse for £65.97 (BenQ LCD 18.5” 1366 x 768), and the complete system is £325.14, or £249.15 if you stick Ubuntu on in place of Windows 7.

Still, I’d bet that the average household has at least some reusable bits lying around.

The real point is how capable even a budget box like this turns out to be. The RAM is upgradeable to 16GB.

The dark side to all this is that the value of your old PC has plummeted since you bought it three or four years ago, and faults beyond the trivial are hardly worth repairing.

Finally, I should mention Raspberry Pi. The board complete with CPU, networking and graphics is £25.92. Add case, 4GB storage, power, keyboard, mouse, and HDMI monitor though, and my quick price for the complete system is £147.81, mostly for the monitor (Benq 21.5” HDMI). Of course there are many creative uses for a Raspberry Pi without buying a monitor.

My vote still goes to the PC for the best productivity on a budget.

PS let’s not forget the cheapest Mac, currently a Mac mini at £529. OS comes with it, but only 2GB RAM, no mouse, keyboard or monitor. Add those and it is over £600.

Tablets, laptops, smartphones: which form factors will win?

There have been several thoughtful pieces recently on device form factors and what you can and cannot easily do with tablets versus laptops versus smartphones.

Richard Gaywood says the iPad (it’s an Apple site) is “heavily skewed towards, but not entirely about, consumption” rather than creation. His observation is based partly on app statistics, partly on the lack of a keyboard (if you add a Bluetooth keyboard, he argues, an iPad becomes as bulky as a laptop), and partly on weak multitasking and the lack of an accessible file system.

Tim Bray currently carries a laptop, a small tablet (a Nexus 7 I guess) and a phone. He does not seem to be considering abandoning the laptop, but suggests that he might be able to manage without a phone:

I spent several months back in 2010-11 carrying around the original Samsung Galaxy Tab, which may have only been Gingerbread, but included a first-rate phone, and my handset rarely left my pocket.

John Gruber writes at unusual length about why Apple might or might not do a smaller iPad.

On the eve of the Windows 8 launch this is an interesting discussion. Windows 8 will renew the debate: is a tablet all I need, at least when travelling? And where will Google’s 7” Nexus fit in? I foresee this selling well simply because it is great value, but will it be packed in the flight case alongside a laptop and a phone, or left at home, or could it even replace laptops and bigger tablets?

We in the the great unknown; but I will make a few predictions.

First, laptops and indeed desktop applications (that is, not apps) are in permanent decline. That does not mean they will disappear soon, just that they will be used less and less.

The implication is that tablets will be used for content creation as well as consumption, and for work as well as for play. Will developers and designers still want huge multi-display setups? Yes, of course; but most people will get most of their work done with tablets.

Second, that unadorned tablets will win over complicated solutions like laptops with twisty screens (the old Tablet PC concept), styluses, transformers, and the like. My guess is that we will see lots of clever and expensive Windows 8 x86 devices that will only achieve niche sales. The ones that succeed will be the slates, and the traditional laptops.

Third, there may be merit in the keyboard case concept, particularly when the keyboard is very thin, as in Microsoft’s Surface with Touch Cover. On the other hand, keyboard cases that make tablets into laptops, like one I tried for the iPad, also tend to give tablets the same disadvantages as laptops: clam shell design, difficult to use without a desk, and so on. I have found that I prefer a loose keyboard in my bag. It does not take much space, and does not get in the way when not needed.

What about mid-sized devices like the Nexus? I am not convinced. They are too small for all your work, and too big to be phones. The large-size Smartphones like Samsung’s 5.2-inch Galaxy Note sort-of work: they sell to people who do not mind having a large phone. But most of us will end up with two devices in constant use, a phone and a tablet. In the office or study, add a large screen and keyboard to taste.