web analytics

After spending more time with the 15-inch Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 there is more to say.

My original review is dismissive of the keyboard. That needs to be updated.

First time around I wrote:

“The Surface Laptop 3 keyboard is decent enough, but it is not anything to get excited about.”

That was written after a couple of hours tinkering with the machine. Later I used the laptop to write a long feature and realised the keyboard deserves more praise. It is among the better laptop keyboards I’ve used.

For someone who writes all day, this is important. Laptop typing can leave me exhausted after ten hours at the keyboard.

This goes a long way towards justifying what is, by 2020 standards, the expensive price tag.

Charging

The Surface Laptop 3 charges faster than most laptops. If the machine is running low, say between 10 and 20 percent battery left, it takes a little over an hour to get back to full charge.

This is wonderful news if, like me, you might work late into the evening, then get up next morning and realise there is not enough power for a day on the move. Plug it in, wander off for a shower, breakfast and a cup of tea or coffee, by the time you are dressed and ready to go the computer will have a full charge or be close to it.

The propritary charging plug for the Surface Laptop 3 reminds me of the old-style Apple Magsafe. It’s a similar shape and magnetic. Like Magsafe, it attaches to the laptop body loosely so that should you trip over the power cable, it detaches instead of sending your laptop flying across the room.

What Microsoft designers give with the charging plug, they also take away. The magnetic plug is difficult to attach to the laptop in the first place. You can’t simply connect it while the laptop is sitting on a flat surface, you have to lift and turn the laptop first. It’s far from a deal breaker, but is strange given the computer is otherwise so well thought out from a usability point of view.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Power Supply

One last power supply observation. Microsoft includes an old-style USB port on the power brick, so you could charge, say, your phone or wireless headphone without hunting for another power socket.

A better Windows experience

There’s one other aspect of the Surface Laptop 3 that took more time to sink in is how much better Windows 10 is in 2020 than in earlier versions. Yes, I know most people use Windows most of the time and this might be an unremarkable comment for many readers. My Windows 8 experience was so negative I switched to an Apple Mac. My productivity soared and I never looked back.

The earlier incarnations of Windows 10 didn’t fix things for me. Eight years later it finally feels as if Windows is back on track. That doesn’t mean I plan to switch back from MacOs to Windows, it does mean that doing so would no longer be a jarring backward step.

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. ↩︎

Apple’s iPhone 11 is all about the camera. This isn’t the first time I’ve written about a phone and said much the same thing. So let’s put it another way: Apple’s iPhone 11 is even more about the camera.

You can’t miss the cameras on Apple’s iPhone 11. Two lenses and a camera bump dominate the phone’s rear.

Not so long ago camera bumps were controversial. People fretted they spoiled the clean lines of otherwise near pure metal-glass slabs.

Bump baby bump

Apple’s earlier camera bumps were small. On the iPhone 7 Plus, the entire bump, including the non-bump flash, measures around 30 by 10mm. On the iPhone XS Plus the bump is more like a 25 by 10mm strip. The iPhone 11 bump is 30 by 30 mm and squarish.

iphones 7 Plus XS Max 11
iPhone bump evolution: 7 Plus, XS Max, 11

This physical dominance reflects the camera system’s importance. Yes, that’s what Apple calls the collective photography components in the iPhone 11. Camera system may be marketing, but it makes sense.

Speaking of marketing, Apple’s iPhone 11 message is all about the photography.

That should not surprise anyone. Two years ago I wrote that modern phones were all about the camera. It was true then. It is more true today.

It’s a camera

Strip away the marketing and Apple’s iPhone 11 is a camera packed in a phone’s body. It is an excellent camera that happens to sit alongside a terrific phone and pocket computer.

Great though it may be, all that non-camera stuff is almost a footnote.

By camera standards it is tiny. 1

While the hardware is clever, it’s clear from the size and depth there is more to picture quality than optics. A lot of smart software does the heavy lifting.

iPhone 11 photography in practice

What does this mean in practice? To understand take a look at this example shot I took one night in December from a Coromandel Beach.

Mercury Bay Moonlight December 2019
A casual iPhone 11 shot. Click on this to see a larger version.

It’s stunning, but it shouldn’t be. I’m no photographer. Before we go on, let’s make one thing clear, I wasn’t making an effort to take a great picture to show off the iPhone 11. This was a casual shot taken on the spur of the moment.

While walking home from dinner, I noticed the moon coming out from behind the clouds. I took the camera out, stood on the beach and that was it.

The iPhone did all the hard work. My role was choosing the scene, holding the camera and timing my click to take the shot between the flashes of the lamps on the harbour buoys. It was that easy.

Sure, it wasn’t pitch black at the time, but it was dark. The naked eye couldn’t pick out the plants in the foreground, let along the individual blades of grass.

It looked more impressive when I got back to my room and looked again at the shot. It seemed like a professional picture. Sure, experts can nitpick this statement. Over the years I’ve edited newspaper sections and magazine. I’ve hired professional photographers. From my editor’s point of view it looks like a professional photo.

Night mode

What I didn’t know at the time, I only had the phone a few days, is Apple’s camera system includes a night mode. It is automatic and kicks in when needed.

Night mode simulates long exposure: one, two or three seconds depending on conditions. In the case of my picture, that’s important because the navigation buoys in the harbour flick light on every second or so. The window between them is shorter than the camera needs for a long exposure shot.

Night mode isn’t to everyone’s taste. There may be times you don’t want or need it. That’s cool. It’s possible to turn it off. This works in much the same way as the automatic flash, which can kick in as needed. Again, you can use a manual setting to turn it off.

When I take night time pictures with my digital SLR, I need a tripod to keep the camera still. My hands shake too much for a traditional long exposure shot. That’s not necessary with the iPhone 11. Look again at the example, it’s crisp and clear.

iPhone 11 makes bad shots harder

As my trip went on, it became clear. The iPhone camera system makes it hard to take bad shots. Of course, you can still take terrible shots if you work at it. My point here is that casual, off the cuff snaps often come out looking great.

For a second example take a look at the shot of three chilli bottles. I made no effort to compose something artistic. All I did was line up the bottles so I could remember what sauces to buy later.

Three Chilli Bottles
Another casual iPhone 11 shot that you wouldn’t expect to look good.

It’s not art, it’s an aide-mémoire. And yet somehow it’s also a bit, well, artistic.

Keen price

The iPhone 11 has been my day-to-day phone now for about four weeks. Before that I was using the iPhone XS Max. The 11 is a little smaller, but otherwise on a par with the XS Max. It costs about $1000 less. With iPhone 11 prices starting at $1350, it compares well with Android flagship phones.

The two other big brands in New Zealand: Samsung and Huawei, also have great cameras on their top phones.

Each brand has its own set of camera strengths and weaknesses. They are all good.

That said, for my needs, Apple’s iPhone 11 (and 11 Plus) have the best all-round mix of features, function and usability.

Soon, I’ll write a more comprehensive overview of my iPhone 11 experience. There are other surprises worth sharing.

Like most, but not all, product reviews on this site, I didn’t buy the iPhone 11. Apple gave me a loan unit. It’s a bright red model and will go back to the company. For the record I own an iPhone 7 Plus.


  1. It may not do everything my digital SLR can do, distant wildlife close ups remain tricky, but it can handle most of my work photography needs and then some. ↩︎

They sound great and last for hours on a single charge. Apple AirPods Pro pack impressive noise cancelling into a tiny space. At NZ$450 the price is competitive if you are looking at more traditional noise cancelling headsets.

Apple AirPods ProApple’s original AirPods were a surprise hit. You see them everywhere. Almost everyone who has a pair loves them.

Reports say they account for six of every ten wireless earbuds sold worldwide.1

My old AirPods are the second generation model. They fit my ears and work better than you might expect.

Airpods Pro are a step up in every dimension. Apple added active noise cancellation to an already successful recipe. It then improved the fit and upgraded the functionality. They look like another hit.

AirPods Pro wake-up

My first AirPods Pro demo was in a noisy cafe with hard floors and background clatter. We connected them to an iPhone.

From the outset the earbuds blocked out most of the noise. They allowed me to hear music with an unexpected clarity.

It got better fast.

That’s because there is a built-in feature that lets you check how well the earbuds fit in your ear. Unlike the original all hard plastic AirPods, Apple uses removable soft tips. Three sizes of removable tip come packed in each box. Mine needed changing. This is a little fiddly, but only takes a minute or so.

After swapping, the new tips block even more of the background sound. The sound quality is astounding for something so small.

Later, I listened again on the bus ride home. The experience was even better than the cafe. I’m not sure I’ve heard such outstanding crystal clear sounds while on public transport.

At home I can be blissfully unaware when helicopters pass overhead or if the Royal New Zealand Airforce takes off from nearby Whenuapai,

Both types of music

AirPods Pro work well with all kinds of music, which is good because I listen to all kinds of music. One acid test I use to gauge loudspeaker or headphone quality is high quality recordings of piano music. Both the classical and jazz tracks I tested came out near perfect… on a bus. You don’t get a bass boost, which may not be your taste.

I’ve enjoyed noise cancelling for a few years now. When I reviewed the Sony MDR-1000X headphones, I liked them so much I bought a pair. They proved their worth on long distance flights.

There is some colour to the MDR-1000X sound. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They sound fine when listening to my favourite music. In comparison, the Airpods Pro have a much flatter, more accurate sound.

In the past I’ve always thought the MDR-1000X-style over-the-ear form is more comfortable if you use them for hours, say on a trans-Pacific flight.

I haven’t been on a flight since getting the Airpods Pro, but I have enjoyed long listening sessions. The earbuds don’t get uncomfortable if you wear them for a few hours. They are certainly much easier to drop into carry-on luggage. I expect them to replace my older style noise cancelling headphones.

On most measures the Airpods Pro are the better or equal to the Sony headphones. It feels like the Sony controls are easier to use, but that could be familiarity; I’ve only had the Airpods four days.

The flat response is so good that I can use them as a reference when mixing music tracks on my iPad without waking the house. They are that good.

During testing I never heard any lag or had trouble connecting. Although, if you pull the AirPods Pro out to talk to someone the music will pause. This isn’t always necessary as we will see later. I found Apple’s Music didn’t have a problem, but some other non-Apple apps can stop altogether and need a restart.

Controls

AirPods Pro have smaller stalks than the older AirPods, but are a fraction heavier. Not that you’d notice. They come in a slightly larger snap-top box.

You can store AirPods in the box when they’re not in use. The box charges the AirPods, you can use a lightening connector or wireless charging. When charged, the box carries its own reserve of charge, so you can top-up the AirPods Pro charge between sessions.

A single charge gives around four hours listening time. Depending on how you use the box, Apple says you can get up to 24 hours before needing a recharge. This more or less squares with my experience, although my record keeping while watching the battery life wasn’t perfect.

There’s a squeezable control surface. Squeeze once and the music or other audio will stop playing. Squeeze twice and you skip to the next music track.

Squeezing and holding either fires up Siri or turns off noise cancelling. You can also start Siri by saying “Hey Siri” and have your text messages read. It also uses the microphones to deliver external sounds. You might want to do this if, say, a flight attendant wants a word.

One of the magical features is the way AirPods Pro pair with your other Apple devices. Once they have met one Apple device, all the others can find them. Open the box close to an Apple device and you’ll see a message telling you how much charge is left.

Apple AirPods Pro Verdict

AirPods Pro show off Apple technology at its best. They feel a little magic. It’s rare for someone like me who has been looking at new gadgets for decades to break out even a modest smile. The AirPods Pro left me grinning.

They are comfortable, sound good and have battery life to see you through everything except a long haul flight. The noise cancellation is excellent, on a par with headphones costing much more. You can use them if you have an Android phone or Windows device. Best of all, they fit into a tiny pocket.

While the price tag looks expensive, you get a lot of value for the money. Decent noise cancelling technology is never cheap.


  1. This success came at the moment Apple’s iPhone sales stumbled. ↩︎

Deebot Ozmo 900 with Howl Bennett

Bill Bennett writes: My first inclination was to turn down the offer to review Deebot Ozmo 900, a robot vacuum cleaner and mopper. At the time I was too busy. Jo overhead the phone conversation and told me to call back – she was keen. So keen I left her to write the review:

Dennis, or, to use his proper name; Deebot Ozmo 900, has the wrong voice. It is a woman’s voice. As a modern girl I don’t believe vacuuming is a woman’s job. 

The man of the house thinks he sounds like a female version of the toaster in the 1980’s science fiction sitcom Red Dwarf about Dave Lister, the space-ship snack-machine repairman who wakes up alone three million years in the future after his ship suffers a fatal radiation leak. 

Actually, Dennis does have a futuristic look. He is a smooth white disc (320 mm in diameter, 70 mm high) who trundles around on rollers and comes equipped with a laser distance sensor (LDS), a bumper and anti-collision sensors. 

He also has a docking station that you plug into an electrical socket.  However, although he may sound like Red Dwarf’s toaster, his software is better.  He can build room maps and he comes with an app (Google Assistant and Alexa enabled).

Lovable

Like lots of people who have tried him out, I quickly came to think of Dennis as a lovable, useful pet. 

It’s hard not to develop affection for a machine that tells you when he’s tired. That is when his battery is low. He then trundles off to his docking station for a rest (recharge). Dennis’ formal name is Deebot Ozmo 900. He is the latest robot vacuum cleaner from Ecovacs Robotics.

He is also the latest in a long line of slowly improving robot cleaners. There is still a way to go, but for many people Dennis would be a boon. Where he really scores is that he mops as well as vacuums. I have criticisms of Dennis and I will come to these later, but he is a huge help around the house. 

He is cordless and can run for up to 90 minutes when the cleaning is easy – less when mopping as vacuuming and mopping at the same time as this uses more battery power. 

He would be a great help for mothers with messy young children, the elderly and those with a mild disability or infirmity. However, he needs supervision. He is a bit like a two-year-old in that he gets stuck and calls for help. Cables plus our television sideboard proved a problem for him. But I could work on my laptop while keeping an ear cocked for when he got into trouble. 

Death to dust bunnies 

What I really loved though was how Dennis dealt with dust bunnies. Vacuuming these up a hateful job as it involves grovelling next to beds manipulating our Dyson vacuum cleaner’s wand extension. Dennis, in comparison, gaily scoots under the beds and vacuums up the bunnies with ease. 

On the minus side, because he often gets stuck I don’t think his accompanying phone app is very useful. What would you do if you set him to work from the app while at the office and he got marooned in a corner? 

The app is also difficult to install. There has been a lot of flak in the online support forums and elsewhere about this. I got the impression Ecovacs is more focused on robotics than apps, with the app just being something it feels it has to provide.  

Maps

Other criticisms: Dennis’ mapping limitations. Ours is a split-level home and Dennis is designed to create just the one map. He kept having to create new maps. 

In practice this isn’t a big issue, except I think this is why he gets stuck backing away from our sideboard, needing frequent rescuing. Other minor issues are his bin is small. It needs frequent emptying. Similarly, the water reservoir for mopping is also small. It quickly runs out of water. But the mop pad is excellent for cleaning a laminated floor like ours as the boards swell up with too much water. 

Dennis is best suited to hard floors. While he worked well on our low-pile Turkish rug, I could see deep pile carpeting would be beyond his suction capacity. He would work well with wall-to-wall low pile though.  

On the plus side, after using him several times in one week, our house smelt fresher and breathing was easier. I get asthma and he obviously picked up a lot of dust, pollen and pet dander. 

Because he is a robot, users would be likely to use him often and so keep more on top of cleaning. 

No longer a luxury product 

The competition: other robots and the Dyson cordless stick cleaners. 

Dennis – aka the Deebot Ozmo 900 – is an affordable robot at NZ$800. Not long ago, robot vacuum cleaners were a luxury. While Dennis can’t do everything, ie, vacuum curtains and furniture, he is excellent at what he does do.  

A competitor would be the Dyson range of five cordless stick vacuum cleaners. These range in price from $900 to $1400. While I haven’t tried them, I did lift one up in a store and found it quite heavy and unwieldly. The big battery sits on the stick handle. For families whose vacuuming involves lots of quick clean-ups this could suit, although I think being able to leave a vacuum cleaner to get on with the job is preferable. 

To be fair, this isn’t a like-for-like comparison. The best way to think of a robot such as Dennis is as the vacuum cleaner equivalent of the washing machine. Both get on with the job largely unattended. Normal vacuum cleaners are a different kind of beast. 

More pros and cons: 

Dennis is squat and circular and not very tall – 100 mm at his tallest, where his LDS disc sits. This makes him good for sucking up under-bed dust bunnies. However, it takes a while to get going with him as his manual is short and a bit limited. 

He also needs more maintenance than my old-style Dyson. For instance, his main ‘rolling’ brushes clogs up with hairs these need cutting away. But he does a wonderful mopping job. 

He does get stuck often. I think this is because his map is confused as we have split floors and he can only create one map – he kept re-creating this. Ecovacs could upgrade here, providing Dennis with the ability to create two or more maps. This would make him useful in small hotels as well as multi-storey homes. 

Also, the LDS disc that sits on top of Dennis’ main body proved to be the same height as the bottom of our sideboard – this could be why he kept returning to this same spot and getting stuck.

Deebot Ozmo 900 mops as well

On the plus side, the fact that Dennis mops too is a major bonus, especially with messy pets and their muddy paws.

Some  robot vacuum cleaner reviews describe robots falling down stairs. To guard against this, I set up obstacles – mainly cushions – as advised by the manual. This proved unnecessary as Dennis’ sensors easily detected the stairs; he stopped and turned around. 

The man of the house commented that it was good to know all you needed was a couple of cushions to stop a dalek invasion. Clearly, he watched too much Dr Who in his youth. Happily, Dennis doesn’t have a murderous Dalek personality.