HP has a new twist on the desktop docking station. The HP Thunderbolt Dock is modular. You can extend it with an optional Bang and Olufsen speaker. This is ideal for handling conference calls.

I tested the HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 with Audio model. It has an optional speaker attached. You can buy a Dock without the speaker for NZ$400.

At the time of writing there wasn’t a local price for the Audio version. In the US HP adds US$50 to the non-Audio Dock price. So it’s likely the New Zealand version will sell for around NZ$500.

HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 with monitors
HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 with monitors and keyboard

Old school

Docks, often called docking stations, seem old school in 2018. They are enjoying a revival at the moment. In part this is because computer makers like HP now standardise on USB-C connectors. They also put fewer ports on modern laptops.

Today’s laptops are often ultra-thin. This leaves less room for ports. Some ports are deeper than the edge of many modern laptops. Think of an Ethernet port to get the picture.

This means offloading the connectivity options to a separate device makes sense.

Most people who work from home or in a small business will use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for connections.

Big company IT departments sometimes prefer Ethernet. It means better connection speeds in busy workplaces. It also can be mean trouble for tech support.

HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2
HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 rear view

Connectivity

Docks are often the best way to connect a USB-C laptop to Ethernet. Although you could choose a dongle instead. Docks also allow users to add large screen displays, keyboards and mice. Most docks also act as rechargers.

HP’s Thunderbolt Dock comes with a hard-wired USB-C cable that connects to a laptop. The cable is about 700 mm long, which is enough if you keep the Dock on your desktop. On the right-hand side is a USB 3.0 port, a headphone jack and a Kensington lock connector.

There are a total of eight more sockets on the rear. One connects the Dock to a power brick. Another is an Ethernet port. There are two more USB-C ports, a Thunderbolt port, a power out port, there are also two Display Ports and a VGA port.

HP has chosen a big, heavy power brick. That’s necessary to supply enough power, but it adds a lot of heft to the Dock set-up. If you need to, with say two large screens, it can draw down 100W of power.

I thought I’d prefer to have the power unit built into the Dock. That would add weight and bulk. Another advantage of separate units is the desktop Dock doesn’t get hot.

You wouldn’t want to lug this from place to place, but then you don’t have to. That’s the point of a Dock.

In practice

The HP Notebook recognised the Dock immediately. When connected, it installed the right drivers and rebooted.

When you connect the HP Thunderbolt Dock to a laptop, I used the HP Elitebook x360, the top lights up to show a row of buttons.

These let you use the speaker for conference calls. It would work fine if you had one of these in a meeting room for a group of people to share.

There’s haptic feedback to let your fingers know when you use the buttons.

I managed to test the speaker with a Skype call. When it connected I had to crank the volume down, it was too loud for my quiet, small home office.

You will need the extra volume in a busy open plan office. The people at the other end could tell I was on a speakerphone. From my point of view, the call sounded clearer than usual and much better than listening on a handset.

HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 verdict

HP’s marketing material implies the company optimised the Thunderbolt Dock’s Bang and Olufsen speakers for phone calls. Despite this they do a fine job playing music and handling other audio. There’s plenty of top and bottom to the sound. It helps that the Dock is solid, so no vibrations.

It’s been a while since I last used a docking station. The fact that it was for my IBM ThinkPad and connected it to a CRT screen tells you how long ago. The newer HP design is far easier to use. It is more versatile and offers a lot more functionality for half the price of my earlier dock.

If you make a lot of conference calls and work hands free, it’s a must have. If you want to use a big screen, Ethernet or a full size keyboard it is well worth considering.

HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 review – Sound and vision was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

HP’s EliteBook x360 1030 G3 is a premium business convertible laptop. It’s the kind of upmarket laptop a big company employer might hand you if they think you need portability and flexibility.

You might choose it yourself. It is a solid, no-nonsense choice with all the features a business user needs, although a touch expensive by 2018 standards.

While you can get more grunt and graphics for the same money or less elsewhere, you won’t get them in such a compact package and with such a quality feel. HP added security features to the business laptop that, depending on how you work, could tip the balance.

At first glance the Elitebook x360 looks like a tiny conventional clamshell laptop. It opens to show a full size keyboard and screen.

HP HP EliteBook x360 in different modes

Convertible

The Elitebook x360 is a convertible. Its 360 hinge means you can open it right up, then fold the screen under the keyboard to give you a tablet. It can also work in what HP calls tent mode to watch video or propped up on a flat service to give personal presentations.

HP says you can get “up to” 18 hours of battery life. Computer maker battery life estimates are often exaggerated. Even  so, you can expect to keep going for the longest of work days.

In testing I found you can get almost nine hours of constant use from the battery. If you take breaks away from the screen it should more than last all day.

As you’d expect the Elitebook x360 is small and light. Yet, at 1.25 kg it feels a shade heavier than it looks.

Build quality

Some of this heft is down to the build quality. The Elitebook x360 has a solid milled aluminium case. This computer feels like it is ready for you to carry it from place to place. I’d be a little concerned working on an industrial site, but it is more than robust enough for everyday business use.

It’s not the best-looking laptop, at least to my eyes, but it is far from embarassing.

HP describes it as the world’s smallest business convertible. That’s a specific claim and, to my knowledge it is true. At only 15mm deep, the Elitebook x360 is a fraction thicker than the MacBook, but Apple’s laptop doesn’t covert into a tablet.

The screen measures 13.3 inches across the diagonal. Resolution on the review model is 1920 by 1080 pixels, there is also a 3840 by 2160 version.

Privacy

The computer comes with Sureview: an integrated privacy filter. When you hit the F2 button, the viewing angles of the screen at reduced so that anyone looking at the display from over your shoulder or the next airplane seat can’t read anything.

HP says this kicks in at 40 degrees. That’s hard to check. Yet it works as promised. Sureview isn’t for everyone, but is ideal if you work on private reports in busy places.

On the downside, Sureview dims the screen and makes it harder to read. It makes colours duller. I struggled a little with it trying to read the display head-on if text was in anything other than black on white.

You wouldn’t want to have Sureview switched on all the time.

Keyboard

HP has gone for a decent quality backlit keyboard. I found it easy to type. There’s little flexing. Otherwise it’s not remarkable one way or the other. If anything it reminds me of the MacBook Air.

The up and down directional keys look squashed. In practice they are not a problem. The touchpad is a good size and responsive. It works better than I’ve seen on some rival Windows computers.

Beneath the keyboard is a tiny fingerprint reader for another layer of security. You can use this to log-in, but the Elitebook x360 does a great job with Windows Hello. Its face recognition was close to flawless during testing.

HP has simplified the ports on the 2018 Elitebook x360. You now get two USB-C ports. One of these is used for charging. There is also an HDMI and a Thunderbolt 3 port. There’s no Ethernet port, although that would make the case thicker.

HP EliteBook x360 verdict

Prices start at around NZ$2,800. That money gets you a model with an Intel Core i5 processor along with a graphics processor, 8 GB ram and 256 GB storage. That lessw expensive models support 1920×1080 graphics.

Pay around NZ$4000 and you’ll get a version with 16 GB ram, 512 GB storage and 3840×2160 pixel resolution. According to the HP web site, these prices include a three year warranty for all models. That alone is worth hundreds of dollars.

The HP EliteBook x360 is a good choice, but you can get a better deal.

If you’re not interested in the security features, then you might do better looking elsewhere. There are less expensive models in the HP range that almost match the x360 on features. You can expect more raw power, better graphics and longer battery life when spending the same amount money. But if you’d prefer to stay safe from prying eyes, the EliteBook x360 1030 G3 makes a lot of sense.

logitech slim combo keyboardLogitech’s Slim Combo for iPad Pro keyboard is a mixed bag. Its good points are excellent. Its less good features are, well, disappointing.

I’m testing the 12.9-inch iPad Pro version. You can buy it nn the New Zealand online Apple store for $250. At the time of writing JB Hi-Fi has it for $230.

This compares with $270 for Apple’s Smart Keyboard. So it’s cheaper than Apple’s keyboard, but not a lot cheaper.

You can’t judge the Slim Combo without reference to the Smart Keyboard. The pair are a head-to-head choice. In some ways they are polar opposites. What one keyboard gets right, the other gets wrong.

Great typing

Let’s start with the keys themselves. Logitech’s Slim Combo feels great when you’re typing. Keys are back-lit. This makes it easier to use in low light conditions.

The keys have positive travel. They move more than on the Smart Keyboard. The keys stretch across 270mm wide and 95mm deep. That’s a little less depth that ideal, but the width is fine.

Each key is about the same size as on a normal keyboard: 15mm square for most keys. The top row of function keys are only half height. They are a little more cramped than on the Smart Keyboard.

In practice this means you can touch type on the Slim Combo without giving it a second thought. There’s no audible click, but enough of a clatter to let you know what’s going on.

If you loves Apple kit, but don’t like the new laptop keyboards, then the Slim Combo and an iPad Pro could meet all your typing-on-the-go needs. It feels better than the keyboard on Apple’s alternative.

The only negative I found with the keyboard is when it comes to reaching up and touching the screen. Somehow that is more comfortable on the Smart Keyboard.

During testing it felt fine. When, after testing, I retried the Smart Keyboard I realised I prefer Apple’s version. There’s not a lot in it and my preference could be a matter of familiarity.

Two parts

Logitech made the Slim Combo in two parts; the keyboard itself and a plastic case. This does two things. First, it turns the Slim Combo into a protective shell when you’re on the move. Second, there’s a Microsoft Surface-Style kickstand.

There is also a nylon loop to store an Apple Pencil. While handy, it looks a little tacky when the Slim Combo is new, I can only imagine it will get worse over time.

This sounds better on paper than the Slim Combo is in practice. While the keyboard is sound, the plastic case has a down-market feel.

It’s not as solid as I’d like. When you use the kickstand on a desk, there’s a disturbing wobble. You can’t use the Slim Combo on your lap — if that’s important to you — because the set up is too flimsy. I also found the Slim Combo doesn’t work as well on an airplane as the Smart Keyboard.

Another negative is the case is a pain to get on and off the iPad. My iPad Pro may be a laptop replacement when I’m on the move, but at home it’s a tablet. The case adds nothing useful at those times. It feels as if the Slim Combo wants you to use the iPad as a laptop all the time.

It adds bulk. While the Slim Combo is light, it is also bulky.

Logitech Slim Combo verdict

Logitech has made great iPad keyboards in the past. This doesn’t live up to the brand’s reputation. There’s not enough here to pull me away from Apple’s keyboard.

That said, the Slim Combo is a welcome alternative to the Smart Keyboard. Some readers might prefer its typing action and there will be others who like the kickstand.

Dragon Anywhere is the iOS version of Nuance’s Dragon speech recognition software. It’s a powerful dictation application that can transform how you work.

It needs to deliver: an annual subscription costs a nosebleed NZ$240.

At that price Dragon Anywhere is not a buy, try, forget app store experiment. It’s a significant investment. It needs to earn its keep.

Worth the money?

For some people Dragon Anywhere will be worth every penny. Accurate speech to text software can unpack a new level of productivity for some people. Not everyone will see a return on the investment.

If you already use desktop dictation software, you’ll have an idea of what Dragon Anywhere can do for you.

Being able to dictate text to an iPhone is a bigger deal than it might sound at first hearing.

The designers made the iPhone for dictation. Let’s face it, writing on a tiny glass keyboard is a challenge if you want to do anything more than send a text or a tweet.

I’ve written 1000 word stories on the iPhone. It’s not fun, nor is it productive. The alternative to dictation is carrying a Bluetooth keyboard. That can be a pain in the backside.

It also means you can replace desktop dictation with your iPhone. Given that your phone goes everywhere you do, it means you can produce text almost anywhere. This explains the product name.

You could, for example, write while in the back of a car or lounging in bed. In practice I found using the iPhone for dictation is more natural than using a desktop or laptop Mac.

Dragon Anywhere

Anywhere

Mobility is important, because ideas do not work nine-to-five in an office. Your writing muse can turn up unannounced at any time. With Dragon Anywhere you can jot down your ideas as they appear. There’s no need to hunt around for a computer or a pen and paper.

Your phone is already your most important computer. Dragon Anywhere takes that further. Depending on how you work, you may be able to ditch the desktop altogether. Although if you don’t want to, Anywhere integrates with Nuance’s desktop dictation applications.

If Dragon Anywhere save you buying a new computer, the subscription starts to look like a bargain. Even if you don’t go that far, your typewriter keyboard may gather dust.

Dragon Anywhere works anywhere there’s a connection

The software doesn’t quite work anywhere. You need a live internet connection. Dragon Anywhere calls on Nuance’s cloud resourced to work its magic. That means you can only use it when you have a live internet connection.

The good news is that it sips data. You might run through a megabyte or so dictating thousands of words. I found after an hour’s use, my data consumption was still measured in hundreds of kilobytes.

Another piece of good news is the cloud round trip is fast. Speak a sentence or two, pause and the text is there on screen. It takes seconds. I found I couldn’t dictate fast enough to get ahead of the cloud connection.

In other words, you can use Dragon Anywhere while you’re on the move. If you have anything but a minimal data plan you can use it without counting the bytes or hunting for Wi-Fi.

Nuance says it encryopts connections, so criminals can’t listen in on your dictations.

How well does it perform?

The performance is impressive. I used it to write a first draft of this review. From the first words I uttered it was catching almost everything without error.

The software stumbled over the word iOS in the first sentence. To be fair, it’s a specialist word. If you think of how you say the name: eye-oh-ess, not picking it up it understandable.

User error

It wasn’t the software that stumbled in the second paragraph. I can take the blame for not figuring out how to say NZ$240 in a way that made my meaning clear. Put this down to user error.

The third sentence was perfect.

Out of the first hundred words, Dragon Anywhere got everything except iOS right. That’s impressive. Remember this was my first try of the software. The software had not encountered my voice or accent before.

In practice it learns a little as it goes along. To see how this worked I read the words again and this time Dragon Anywhere scored a perfect 100 percent. It understood iOS. The software understood my speech far better than Apple’s own Siri software.

If you make an error, fixing your text is easy. The only barrier is that you have to memorise instructions. In most cases the words are obvious, you don’t need to guess them. Some take a little practice.

I ran into a problem with some New Zealand place names. That’s understandable. Dragon Anywhere allows you to add custom words to the system which gets around the problem.

The productivity question

If you notice, I hedged my words when I said the software could be worth the money. Likewise when I said it may transform how you work or make you more productive.

That’s because, good as it is, speech recognition is not for everyone. In my experience it takes longer to dictate stories than to type them. I also find I struggle to compose while speaking. This could be down to 40 years of touch typing. With practice my dictation speed might improve.

There are also times where I need to write and dictation isn’t the best tool. Writing on a train, an airplane or somewhere public would be too much for everyone else.

If you find typing is difficult or run into overuse problems, then its a godsend. If you think by speaking, you’ll love it.

Acronis says True Image 2019 provides set and forget protection. Going by my experience with the 2018 version, I can verify this. The last time I checked the older edition of the software was in May. I know this date is correct because that’s when I swapped to a new iMac.

It has backed up my iMac to the cloud for four months without any attention.

Now I’m using the 2019 version. It’s installed and it’s working. Every evening it updates some 200 GB plus sending it to Acronis’ cloud for safe keeping.

The process is so unobtrusive and the upgrade from True Image 2018 was so seamless that it’s hard to see any difference between the two versions.

Acronis True Image 2019

True Image 2019 differences

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a difference. The main new feature in the Mac version is Active disc cloning. You can use it to move data from one computer to another, or to make a bootable image on an external hard drive.

The external drive needs to connect directly to the computer being cloned. I couldn’t clone my Mac drive to the home network drive. You can only copy the entire drive. There’s no way to select directories for cloning.

Acronis’ other new 2019 feature is call a Survival Kit. This is like Active disc cloning, you can use it to make a bootable back up of your start-up partition.

In truth these are both variations on Acronis True Image’s main theme, although they give you more back-up options.

Auto-start on connect

Another clever, helpful update is that you can set the software to start backing-up when a new external USB drive is plugged-in. It’s another step towards simplifying backing-up. Let’s face it, the easier it is to make back-ups, the more likely you are to keep everything up-to-date.

The last interesting update in True Image 2019 is that you can now make snapshots of Parallels Desktop virtual machines. It’s a niche feature for sure, but a welcome one.

My year with Acronis True Image 2018 passed without incident. During that time I switched computers twice and carried on backing up. I did a single restore from the Acronis Cloud to a computer, but it was a test, not a real panic recovery.

It’s a solid alternative offering both a secure cloud backup and the ability to make local backups at the same time.

Prices

Acronis may seem expensive when compared with other apps, but it costs are on a par with other cloud backup services. You can pay US$50 to buy the software for a single computer. It’s a one time payment and lasts forever, but it doesn’t include cloud storage.

A single year licence with 250GB of cloud storage is also US$50. This rises to US$100 if you want to connect five computers. A three computer option is US$80.

The full monty premium version comes with a terabyte of cloud storage. This is the only version that includes blockchain certification. Acronis fingerprints your files to show no-one else has altered them. This is a way to protect against ransomware. The premium version costs US$100 a year for one machine and US$150 for five.