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The 15-inch version of Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 is big, beautiful and nicely put together. While it is less powerful than most other laptops of this size and price, it meets a real need.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 - large and small models

At a glance:

 

For: Large screen with 3:2 ratio for document work. Well made. Good keyboard. Excellent trackpad.
Against: Lack of ports, AMD Ryzen processor not up to serious media editing.
Maybe: OK battery life, lack of ports and general minimalism could go either way.
Verdict: Great for writers, lawyers and other people who work with documents.
Price: Official Microsoft price is NZ$3100, but shop around, retailers have better deals.
Web: Microsoft NZ

Microsoft offers a range of Surface Laptop 3 variants. Prices start at NZ$1900. Here I looked at the NZ$3100 model that sports a 15-inch screen and, in a brave move, AMD’s Ryzen 5 processor. It also has 256 GB of storage and 16 GB of ram.

Although bigger screens add to laptop prices, NZ$3100 is a little more than you might expect to shell out for that combination of processor, storage and ram.

You may not have to pay that much. Microsoft’s online store asks NZ$3100, but if you shop around, you’ll find retailers offer the same hardware for up to $300 less. At least they did at the time of writing.

For the same money you could buy a 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro or an HP Spectre x360. The other PC makers all have models that offer a little more power for the price. Keep this in mind as you read on.

AMD or Intel inside?

Microsoft doesn’t appear to sell a 15-inch model with an Intel processor in New Zealand1. You can purchase a model with a 13.5 screen and an Intel i7 processor that cost about $100 less. That may be a better choice for some readers.

From the moment you open the box, the Surface Laptop 3 looks impressive. It has a matt black, all-aluminium case. There is none of the fabric coating found on other Surface Laptop models. It looks and feels like Microsoft made it for serious work. Up to a point it fits the bill.

The 15-inch screen gives you much more working real estate than a 13-inch screen. There’s enough to put two documents side-by-side without compromise. Microsoft has opted for a 3:2 screen ratio which is more business-like.

It works better with text documents and web pages than watching wide-screen video.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3

Design choices

The trackpad works well enough. It sits at the centre of what feels like acres of room. At a guess Microsoft dropped a 13-inch laptop’s keyboard into the 15-inch model’s shell. This is an unusual design choice.

Despite this, the trackpad is one of the best I’ve seen outside of Apple hardware. It works well and it a pleasure to use. In my experience this can be weakness with Windows laptops.

It’s been a while since I’ve used a stand-out laptop keyboard. They must be out there. The Surface Laptop 3 keyboard is decent enough, but it is not anything to get excited about. See my revised opinion on the Surface Laptop 3 keyboard.

There’s plenty of travel for more demanding touch-typists. The keys are nicely pitched an it is comfortable. It could be a fraction crisper in its action, but that’s quibbling.

Spacey

Microsoft has failed to use the extra space around the keyboard on the 15-inch model in any way. Other laptop makers often use this extra real estate to provide bigger speakers. That often means better sounding speakers.

It’s a missed opportunity. The sound from the speakers is more than adequate for work purposes, but disappointing for music. This ‘good for everyday work, not great for entertainment’ is that theme that continues again and again with this computer.

Microsoft has also been stingy about the ports on the Surface Laptop. Sure, Apple has shown that you can build popular laptops with few ports. Here there is Microsoft’s proprietary charging port, one USB-C and one USB-A. Welcome to the world of dongles.

Generally, larger laptop screens mean more grunt under the hood. Gaming laptops have big screens and powerful graphics processors. So do large screen models from brands like Dell or Apple. They aim at creative professionals. Microsoft has not gone down any of those paths.

Solid, not stellar performance

The Surface Laptop 3 is solid performer for the kind of work I do: writing, researching, some basic web design. It is unlikely the Ryzen 5 processor is enough for people who work with large spreadsheets or databases. And you can forget about compiling code without wandering off for a tea break.

This specification is not necessarily a bad thing, many laptops have more power than necessary for the work thrown at them. There are people like writers and journalist who wold enjoy being able to see more on screen but don’t need a stonking CPU to power through numbers.

If it is a little underpowered, the Ryzen chip has its good side: it offers great battery life. Microsoft claims 11.5 hours. In testing that seemed ambitious. I saw nothing like that. Yet there is enough to cruise through an eight-hour working day without looking for a socket and a little more in the tank if you’re asked to stay behind for a wee while.

When the Surface Laptop 3 arrived I felt excited about the machine. At first sight it appears to be a great work computer for people who need a larger screen.

That impression didn’t go away. Yet there is also the dawning realisation that the big screen is all you get with the 15-inch Ryzen 5 Surface Laptop 3. It might help to think of it as a physically pumped-up version of a smaller computer with a bigger screen. That makes it good for personal productivity, not so good for games or media production.


  1. There are overseas 15-inch models with Intel CPUs, but Microsoft’s web site forces local users to the NZ range and prices. ↩︎

IDC reports the world wide tablet market fell 1.5 percent in 2019. Total shipments fell to 144 million units. The Apple iPad strengthend its position as the top tablet brand.

The only winner in the sector was Apple, which saw a fourth quarter year-on-year growth of 22.7 percent in iPad sales. Much of that growth came in the last quarter of 2019 after the launch of new models and the arrival of iPadOS 13.

Apple’s growth for the full 2019 year was 15.2 percent. It sold a shade under 50 million units.

This undermines the negative arguments made by John Gruber and other prominent Apple bloggers about the iPad operating system. The geeks may not like Apple’s iPad direction but customers do.

Apple iPad clear tablet leader

Apple now has a 36.5 percent share of the tablet market when measured by units. It is bigger than the next three tablet brands combined. The company’s top tablet models tend to be more expensive than offerings from rivals, which means Apple would dominate tablet revenues and, by extension, tablet profits.

Samsung is the next best selling tablet brand with its Galaxy Tab range. The company sold 21.7 million units in 2019, that’s well under half Apple’s result. Samsung Tablet sales fell 7.2 percent during the year.

Android doesn’t translate well to the tablet format, but Samsung has the best implementation.  It’s tablets are a decent alternative to the iPad for customers who want to stay in the Android world or opt out of Apple’s orbit.

Huawei under pressure

Third place Huawei faces a challenge reaching customers in the US market and, no doubt, the security scare has affected sales in other markets. Even so, it dropped less than Samsung. Huawei has some solid, if unoriginal, offerings in this space. In 2019 Huawei’s tablet sales fell by 3.5 percent.

We don’t see much of fourth place Amazon in New Zealand. The company makes a range of low price tablets with an idiosyncratic version of Android. For the whole of 2019 Amazon’s sales climbed 10 percent, but there was a big 30 percent dropped in the last quarter.

Lenovo with an 8.5 percent market share also saw a small drop over 2019 for its low-cost tablets.

Top Five Tablet Companies, Worldwide Shipments, Market Share, and Growth, 2019 (Preliminary results, combined company view for the current quarter only, shipments in millions)
Vendor 2019 Unit Shipments 2019 Market Share 2018 Shipments 2018 Market Share Year-Over-Year Growth
1. Apple 49.9 34.6% 43.3 29.6% 15.2%
2. Samsung 21.7 15.1% 23.4 16.0% -7.2%
3. Huawei 14.1 9.8% 14.6 10.0% -3.5%
4. Amazon.com 13.0 9.0% 11.8 8.1% 9.9%
5. Lenovo 8.5 5.9% 8.8 6.0% -4.2%
Others 37.0 25.7% 44.3 30.3% -16.6%
Total 144.1 100.0% 146.2 100.0% -1.5%
Source: IDC Worldwide Quarterly PCD Tracker, January 30, 2020

Whatever the expert users say about the iPad, it strikes a chord with Apple’s customers. The move to sell an Apple-branded keyboard and the Apple Pencil, along with the, controversial in geek circles, upgrades to iPadOS have all propelled the iPad. It gives owners of earlier models a solid reason to upgrade and pulls in some buyers who may have considered laptops. The other strategy Apple has got right it pricing. There are low-cost models at the bottom along with more expensive pro models at the top.

Last week was the iPad’s tenth birthday. An elite group of Apple fans celebrated the date with a barrage of criticisms centred  on the iPadOS operating system.

For many people and some tasks Apple’s tablet is the best computer ever made. It is more mobile than any laptop and, despite the high-powered whinging, for the most part is easy to use.

Yet a surprising number of high-profile Apple fans took to their blogs and news outlets to criticise the iPad.

In The iPad Awkwardly Turns 10 at Daring Fireball, John Gruber writes of his disappointment:

“…Ten years later, though, I don’t think the iPad has come close to living up to its potential.”

Gruber has a lot to say on the subject. His blog post runs to 1100 words.

He isn’t the only high profile Apple commentator to criticise the iPad. His piece is here because it was the trigger for others to join the pile-on. If anything Ben Thompson’s Stratechery post is more critical.

Apple Ipad showing iPadOS multitasking

Apple geeks dislike iPadOS

The nub of Gruber’s point is the iPad’s operating system. He explains here:

“Software is where the iPad has gotten lost. iPadOS’s multitasking model is far more capable than the iPhone’s, yes, but somehow Apple has painted it into a corner in which it is far less consistent and coherent than the Mac’s, while also being far less capable. iPad multitasking: more complex, less powerful. That’s quite a combination.”

The words, especially the last two sentences, are damning. Gruber may have focused on multitasking because his blog’s audience tends towards geeks and computing professional. For them multitasking is a big deal.

Of course iPads are not computers for the geek elite.

Until the last couple of years they were simple, lightweight, handy devices best suited to media consumption and basic tasks like dealing with email or writing.

That’s changed with the iPad Pro, they are now far better tools for media creation. In many cases they are now the best tool for media creation.

Multitasking

Multitasking is a nice thing to have on an iPad. It is not essential. It’s unlikely even half the people who own iPads ever use multitasking.

Moreover, iPads enjoyed their best sales in their early days long before anyone gave much thought to multitasking. It is something Apple has bolted on in recent times.

And that brings us to an oddity. It was the geeky, elite iPad users who constantly complained the iPad couldn’t do multitasking. When Apple delivered, they decided this was not the multitasking they had been calling for.

Few everyday users would choose or not choose an iPad because of multitasking. For that matter, few everyday users go for full multitasking on their laptops and desktops. It’ i a subject that matters most to a small segment of users who might be better off with other devices anyway.

Doing more than one thing at a time

That said, iPad multitasking is handy.

iPad multitasking is still relatively new. Apple added a basic form of multitasking in 2017. Then last year multitasking was bumped up to become more powerful and usable. This 2019 multitasking is what upset Gruber and the other Apple commentators.

That was in September. We’ve barely had time to come to terms with the new features.

If, like many iPad users, you often switch between a more conventional computer and Apple’s table, four months is not a lot of time to learn all the nuances of a major operating system update. It’s only a couple of days since I found a hitherto undiscovered multitasking feature. That is already paying off in terms of increased productivity.

There are some complexities to the multitasking user interface in some circumstances. But there are simpler ways to work with the functionality.

Where iPadOS scores

Some computing tasks still work better on a laptop or desktop computer. Few of them affect me in my daily work as a journalist. Many, many other iPad users have similar usage patterns. In my experience, I get through most of my work faster and with fewer roadblocks on an iPad compared to any laptop or desktop computer.

There is a clear productivity advantage.

The list of tasks iPad does not do well has now dwindled to the point where I could keep my MacBook in the cupboard and do most of my writing, website managing and other tasks with my iPad Pro.

For my needs, the iPad Pro is the productive choice.

Shortfalls

Where there are shortfalls, it is often because of poorly designed apps that have yet to adapt to the hardware. This is also true for touch-screen Microsoft Windows. There are iPadOS apps that are not as complete as their desktop equivalents, but a lot of desktop applications are bloated, over-featured and unnecessarily complex.

Gruber’s criticism is damning, but it’s not all negative. He finishes writing:

“I like my iPad very much, and use it almost every day. But if I could go back to the pre-split-screen, pre-drag-and-drop interface I would. Which is to say, now that iPadOS has its own name, I wish I could install the iPhone’s one-app-on-screen-at-a-time, no-drag-and-drop iOS on my iPad Pro. I’d do it in a heartbeat and be much happier for it.

“The iPad at 10 is, to me, a grave disappointment. Not because it’s “bad”, because it’s not bad — it’s great even — but because great though it is in so many ways, overall it has fallen so far short of the grand potential it showed on day one.

“To reach that potential, Apple needs to recognise they have made profound conceptual mistakes in the iPad user interface, mistakes that need to be scrapped and replaced, not polished and refined. I worry that iPadOS 13 suggests the opposite — that Apple is steering the iPad full speed ahead down a blind alley.”

In simple terms Gruber’s criticism boils down to the iPad not being a Mac. He takes us back to the computers versus tablet debate that went underground for a few years before coming back. In the Windows world this is answered by laptops that are also tablets.

Apple’s iPad is great. It is not perfect. There are questions to ask. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, sales have dropped away. Something needs fixing for sales to recover. It is unlikely that something  is the “profound conceptual mistakes in the iPad user interface”. After all, that update only happened four months ago, long after the sales decline started.

Ransomeware screenA ransomware gang attacked Travelex the foreign exchange company on New Year’s Eve.

Ransomware is a kind of online attack where criminals take control of data, usually company data, and demand payment to return it.

There are two main types of ransomware: crypto and locker.
The first encrypts data and files so that users can no longer read anything.

In theory you will get a key to unencrypt the files after you pay a ransom to the crooks. Locker ransomware is similar, but it typical locks down the computer so it can’t be used until the ransom is paid.

Travelex lock-down

After the Travelex attack, the company closed down the websites it operates in 30 countries. It said the move was designed to “contain the virus and protect data”.

That doesn’t quite sound right. After all, it emerged the criminals had been inside the company’s systems for the past six months. By the time of the attack there would little left to contain or protect.

The criminals say they have downloaded many gigabytes of sensitive customer data. This includes dates of birth, credit card information and (British) national insurance numbers.

News reports say the criminal gang asked Travelex to pay US$6 million at first, with the demand ratcheting up over time if it wasn’t paid quickly. It’s not clear if the company paid up.

New Zealand link

There is a New Zealand link. After the attack the company’s branches, which include airport currency exchanges, were still providing services but were using manual processes.

Travelex is also the issuer of Air New Zealand’s OneSmart card. The card makes it easier to deal with money when overseas. It can be loaded with money in as many as eight different foreign currencies before a trip. Users can lock-in exchange rates to avoid fluctuations while they are overseas.

Air New Zealand says the card is not affected by the attack.
The company told the NZ Herald: “OneSmart does not use the Travelex foreign exchange services affected by the attack so Onesmart cardholders are not impacted”.

Ransomware going out of fashion

The Travelex attack happened at a time when ransomware incidents are falling fast. Last year the number of attacks dropped 20 percent as online criminals turned to more lucrative alternatives.

In part the fall in ransomware attacks is because companies are doing a better job at protecting themselves.

The best approach to protection is to have data back-ups so everything ransomed can be recovered quickly. While this sounds simple, it’s something many companies struggle with and criminals know that. Among other matters companies tend to make back-ups without checking the data is recoverable.

Another problem is that a sophisticated ransomware attack can also take control of the back-ups rendering them as unusable as the main data store.

A ransomware attack amounts to a much bigger problem for the victim than the ransom demand. In many countries companies can face fines for not properly and promptly reporting an attack to the authorities.

At the same time, allowing data to be ransomed is often actionable under data protection legislation. At the least a company would need to prove it had taken due care with customer data, that’s hard to do after a ransom attack.

There’s another unpleasant twist to a ransomware attack. While the criminals often release keys after the ransom is paid, that doesn’t always happen. And in at least one reported case, the data was ransomed again by the same gang at a later date. Allowing that to happen is an open and shut case of negligence.

Responding to ransomware

If you are attacked by a ransomware gang, you may need professional help to recover data. Before you get to that stage you need to consider how to respond.

The NZ Police recommend you don’t pay the ransom. That’s understandable and makes sense if there’s a good chance of recovering the data.

Some security experts say that paying the ransom is the smartest course of action. It is often cheaper and, if you don’t have back-ups, quicker than other ways of recovering the data.

I spoke about this story with Lynn Freeman on RNZ Nine-to-Noon.