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.

EliteBook x360 review: secure, tiny business convertible was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

D-Link’s NZ$600 Covr attempts to help home users fill Wi-Fi blackspots. I say attempts because the results are hit and miss. Most of the time it misses.

The kit first arrived at Castle Bennett in May. I tried and failed to make it work at the time. This week I tried it again and got it to work. Yet, as we shall see, it disappointed.

In the last few days I’ve been busy revisiting and retesting all the routers and related kit that I have to hand.

Chorus installed my fibre this week. I’ve a gigabit line. So for the first time Wi-Fi is my speed bottle neck. There’s a slew of products which, on paper, promise Wi-Fi speeds greater than 1 Gbps. None of them come close.

More about that in another post. Let’s get back to Covr.

During testing it worked as expected for a fleeting moment. The system was unable to create a stable network for more than 20 minutes at a time. When it did manage to work, the performance was erratic and poor.

Covr is an unwelcome reminder of the bad old days of home networking.

If you were there you’ll know what I mean. In those days a new piece of software could make a network grind to a halt. At times it felt like a sneeze could put a home network out of action for hours.

D-Link Cover home wireless mesh network nodes

Mesh network

D-Link’s Covr is an example of something known as a mesh network. This is a way of spreading Wi-Fi signals over a larger area than a single wireless router might cover. In effect you have three connected wireless routers, but to the user they look and act like a single router.

Mesh networks are common in offices, campuses and large buildings.

You might want a mesh network if you have a large home or the house is laid out in a way that means the Wi-Fi isn’t strong enough in places where you want it. Say you’ve had fibre installed next to your TV at one end of the house and a kid’s bedroom at the other end gets a poor Wi-Fi signal.

There are other consumer mesh network products on the market. Most seem to suffer from similar flaws. This suggests to me this is because the technology isn’t quite ready for everyday users.

If Apple hadn’t lost interest in home networking, mesh technology would be ripe for that company’s attention. Apple has a knack for packaging unpolished technologies in a consumer friendly ready-to-use format.

Not so simple

In the Covr box are three wireless access points. One is the main unit. D-link calls them nodes.

Each node has a power supply. And that means it needs a power socket. The power cables are about a metre long, so you’re restricted to putting nodes near power outlets. There is a rival home network technology that uses power outlets. You might want to consider that instead of Covr.

The box also holds a single Ethernet cable and, for the aesthetically minded, alternative colour fascia plates for the access points. Presumably this is to make sure your nodes don’t clash with the curtains. I find this silly because even if you change the cover the nodes still stand out.

There’s also a sheet of paper optimistically labelled Simple Setup Guide. You can work through this, or you can download an iOS or Android app that walks you through the process.

As we shall see, the app didn’t work for me. Which meant I had to return to the paper instructions.

Covr app

The app tells you to connect the main node to a power supply and to turn off your modem. You then connect the access point to the modem with the Ethernet cable and switch everything on. Once everything is running, you are then asked to log into the Covr wireless router from your phone.

In my case this simply did not happen. The iPhone could find the router, but it couldn’t log on. Nor could my small iPad Pro or my other iPad Pro. I then tried to do this all over again with an Android phone. Once more, there was nothing. Four attempts with four devices didn’t work. Not a sausage.

When I first tried Covr I gave up in frustration at this point. This time around I attempted to manually log-in to the router from a desktop Mac. It worked. I managed to get into the web-based control panel.

Part of the panel shows a map of the network. If one of the connections, and this includes the connection from the main node to the internet, is broken it shows up in red. At this point things appeared to be running fine. The next task is to configure the secondary nodes.

Secondary nodes

In some ways configuring secondary nodes is clever. As already mentioned, you have to find an extra power socket to do this. Given the master node needs to connect to a modem which needs to connect to the fibre ONT and all three need a power supply, you need four power points to configure Covr. I had to use a distribution board. There are other cables here, so it is a rats’ nest.

Once you have power, you then connect the secondary node to the main one using the Ethernet cable. After a few minutes the light changes colour. When it turns white, you’re configured.

At this point you can unplug, move the secondary node to a Wi-Fi blackspot and connect it by wireless back to the mothership. The light flashes orange then glows white when you can connect. You may need to move it about for a while until it turns white. Let’s hope all your Wi-Fi blackspots are in easy reach of a power socket.

A working wireless mesh?

At this point I had a working wireless mesh. Well almost. None of the mobile devices would connect. But I did have strong signals around the house and all the PCs in the house were able to connect.

After about 20 minutes of a working mesh network, the main Covr node lost its internet connection. I should point out that nothing had moved, there were no external events, no visible triggers.

Next the secondary nodes dropped off the mesh network. I spent an hour troubleshooting, but nothing I did changed things.

Eventually I decided to reboot everything and start once more from scratch. It took about an hour to get back to the same point with a working mesh. About an hour later it all fell apart again.

This was the pattern all day. Actually I’m not sure about that. I gave up the third time the network collapse. Life is too short. In the end I packed the Covr bits and pieces back in the box. It’s not for me.

Performance issues

During the brief interludes while things were humming, I tested the internet connection speed from the iMac. It was getting around 150 mbps up and down. This is less than half the usual connection speed through the main UFB modem and wireless router. Typically the iMac ‘sees’ 350 to 420 mbps. So the price of filling in Wi-Fi blackspot is a much slower connection.

It turns out poor performance is by design. Mesh networks in offices and factories have a separate channel to manage traffic between nodes. Covr uses the same Wi-Fi bandwidth that connects devices to the access points. In other words it shares the connection with your devices. This explains why we only saw half the usual connection speed.

I can’t recommend D-link’s Covr. It seems half-finished. There was a firmware update that I installed before testing, so the software is up-to-date.

Of course, you might have a different experience. The fact that none of the devices, other than the computer, would connect is a deal-breaker. For me the slow network speed is also a problem. I’d prefer to spend the NZ$600 asking price on a better quality wireless router and learn to live with any Wi-Fi blackspots.

D-Link Covr review: fails to fix Wi-Fi woes was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

New customers signing for Vodafone’s home fibre plans can get an Ultra Hub Plus modem as part of the deal. This means they get a connection on the carrier’s mobile network straight away. Lucky customers will connect via 4G. Less fortunate ones may have to do with a 3G connection.

Ultra Hub Plus is an interim fix while customers wait for fibre. It means their connection is not disrupted during the installation. Once they are on the UFB network, it then acts as an always on backup connection. Like a lot of these things it is good in parts.

Vodafone’s press release says the Ultra Hub Plus makes for a smoother switch to fibre.

It goes on to describe the Ultra Hub Plus as a “game changer”: isn’t everything these days? The release also says it is super easy to set up and use and a seamless experience.

I tested the device and found Vodafone isn’t exaggerating on those counts. Yet it’s not all wonderful. The Hub’s fixed wireless broadband performance is only so-so.

Vodafone Ultra Hub Plus

Easy as

When you sign up, Vodafone dispatches an Ultra Hub Plus modem by courier. Open the box and along with the modem and its power supply are a couple of sheets of paper. One says: “Five minute easy start”.

Experience says that a marketing department that uses words like “game changer” then adds both ultra and plus to an otherwise straightforward product name might not take a lot of care over a claim like five-minute easy start.

In practice, Vodafone’s claim is modest. I had a working connection in four minutes.

You plug the device in, then hit the power button. The instruction sheet says the modem’s wi-fi is active in around 90 second and the 4G or 3G connection is ready in three minutes and thirty seconds.

Both sets of indicator lights switched on more or less on schedule.

Wi-fi router

The next step is to connect wireless devices to the modem. Vodafone includes another sheet of paper with a QR code. All you need to do is point an iPhone or iPad camera at the code and those devices will connect.

If you use Android, you’ll need to download a QR app first. Depending on your circumstance, this could take you past the five minutes. But not by much.

With Apple devices, you only need to scan once, all your other Apple kit learns the password by what seems like telepathy. In truth this is one of those Apple features which feels a little like magic.

Ethernet

There are three Ethernet ports on the back of the Ultra Hub Plus, so connecting a laptop or desktop with a port is a breeze. Connecting by wi-fi is also straightforward. Either use the scan code or press the WPS button and find the Hub in your wi-fi router list.

This is as easy and fast as Vodafone’s marketing promises.

It is not the end of the set up story.

While the set-up speed for Ultra Hub Plus is impressive, the broadband speed is not great.

As you can see from the screen shots, I get around 13 mbps down, less than 5 mbps up.

Throttle

While higher speeds are possible in theory, Vodafone says it throttles the speed to 12 down and 6 up. At the same time, it tweaked the hardware to deliver a decent level of service.

How decent? In practice the throttled, optimised throughput is plenty for acceptable high-definition television streaming. When I first tried, we saw plenty of buffering. Once things started the modem seemed to cope with the stream.

Next I tested Sky’s Fan Pass and BeIn Sport on an iPad. In both cases the apps stumbled at first. Each gave me an initial error message. Fan Pass thought there wasn’t a network connection for a few seconds. BeIn went blank.

None of this happens with my normal connection. It might scare less tech-savvy users, but everything worked fine only seconds later.

In both cases the picture was acceptable soon after. There was a little stutter at first, then it settled down. I even managed to get two streams running at the same time. Which says a lot about acceptable baseline speeds for non-specialist home internet users.

Vodafone Ultra Hub Plus verdict

There’s a clever balance here between ‘enough broadband to tied you over’ and ‘not clogging the mobile network with fixed wireless traffic’ or ‘encouraging customers to choose this instead of fibre’. Vodafone has the mix spot on for what the Ultra Hub Plus promises on the box.

The Ultra Hub Plus’ ability to act as a back-up connection for when fibre fails is also smart.

Fibre doesn’t break down often, except in a power cut which, ironically, would also take out the Ultra Hub Plus. In that case then you’ll need to use a mobile phone. Many of us are so dependent on broadband that an alternative channel, that’s still able to handle Netflix is an insurance policy.

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.

Android phone makers often borrow ideas from Apple. The Oppo R15 Pro takes this further than its rivals. Oppo’s need to emulate Apple runs through Its phones like Blackpool through a stick of English seaside rock.

Oppo’s newest iPhone lookalike is the $800 R15 Pro. It doesn’t look much like an Apple on the outside, but fire it up and the resemblance is uncanny. Oppo even copies the notch that features at the top of the iPhone X screen.

The Oppo R15 Pro is not the first Android phone to do this. See my Huawei P20 Pro review. Yet the R15 Pro pays a more comprehensive homage to Apple than any other Android.

Oppo R15 Pro comes in bright red or a dark purple colour

Oppo‘s Apple-following strategy seems to work. In the first quarter of 2018 Oppo sold more phones in China than anyone else. At the NZ launch Oppo said it is now the number four phone brand here behind Apple, Samsung and Huawei.

Being number four in New Zealand is not a big deal. Oppo says its market share is around two or three percent. While the R15 Pro is solid enough, it doesn’t look like the breakthrough phone Oppo needs. The company releases a new model roughly every six months, so it could soon have a hit on its hands.

Oppo R15 Pro

At NZ$800, the Oppo R15 Pro is less than half the price of an iPhone X. Despite similar software, that’s not the best phone to compare it with. The R15 Pro is around half the price of the Samsung Galaxy S9 which is a closer match. For 50 percent of the cost you get 95 percent of the functionality.

The R15 Pro has more rough edges that the Galaxy S9. That’s metaphorical. With earlier Oppo phones it was literal too. Older Oppo phones were quite rough in the hands. The R15 Pro is less so.

I tested a model with a polished dark purple aluminium case. There’s a bright red version as well. It’s attractive looking, but there are few 2018 handsets at this price or higher that don’t look good.

Although it doesn’t look much like an iPhone on the outside, it does when you switch the screen on. You’ll see rows of iOS style app icons.

The effect doesn’t last long because Oppo’s ColorOS operating system doesn’t always act like iOS. It has some Apple-like characteristics, but sooner or later you are back to Android.

In use the R15 Pro doesn’t work any better than any other phone running Google’s Android 8.1 Oreo software. In places it is worse.

All Android software overlays are disappointing, Oppo’s is more disappointing than most. In part that’s because there are places where it attempts to force Apple-like behaviour. In part that’s because the software is buggy compared to Samsung or Huawei Android phones.

Most of the top 2018 phones have a longer, thinner body with a 19:9 screen ratio. They also have tiny bezels, which mean the screen covers almost the entire front of the phone. The Oppo R15 Pro is no different.

It also has a Amoled screen, which is popular with 2018 phones. The display is big at 6.3 inches. It doesn’t quite hit 1080p resolution. In practice it can be a good phone for viewing videos, the speakers are louder and clearer than you might expect.

Not so powerful

The processor and graphics chip are not as powerful as those you find on more expensive phones. This is, for me, the main price compromise. If you want to play the latest games or get high video performance, go and spend more on a Huawei or Samsung. Almost every iPhone from the last three years would be more powerful.

Every phone maker emphasises camera features. At the New Zealand launch, the presenter made more of the phone’s beauty mode than the sensors and lenses. They’re not bad, but again, being half the price of a premium phone means compromise.

You get 16 and 20 megapixel lenses on the back. Oppo talks about a Sony sensor which uses a larger pixel size to do a better job in low light conditions.

There is a 20 megapixel front camera for selfies. Oppo’s beauty mode software tidies up skin blemishes. It then adds a little colour to make you look prettier. It also, this is a worry, makes people look whiter. Presumably the politics of this are different in China.

Like every other modern phone, the Oppo R15 Pro comes with software to automate picture-taking. The company says it uses AI. I doubt anything here uses machine learning or other AI techniques.

According to Oppo, the software identifies different scenes. It can detect a shot of the outdoors, a plate of food or a family pet. It only works up to a point. When it does, the camera automates settings. If it gets things wrong, the settings can be way out of whack.

Easy to use

The good news is all this makes the phone and its camera easy to use. Oppo’s photo app interface is a near carbon copy of the iOS app. The bad news is the photo filtering goes too far at times.

For some unexplained reason Oppo uses a microUSB 2.0 connector for its power supply. It’s old-school. Almost every other Android phone has moved on to the USB Type-C connector. The great thing about that now being standard is you can use someone else’s charger if you don’t have your own.

Also old-school, not in a bad way, is the 3.5mm earphone jack. Some people regard it as a must have even if many earphones now use Bluetooth. Moving to Bluetooth is something Oppo has not copied from Apple.

Not tested for this review is the NFC feature for making contactless payments. Earlier Oppo phones did not include NFC. There is a fingerprint reader on the back and the phone uses facial recognition.

Verdict, comparison

At NZ$800 the Oppo R15 Pro is at the top end of the middle price band for 2018 phones. It is the same price as the Oppo R11s which appeared at the start of this year. For $100 less you can buy the Nokia 7 Plus. It has a better operating system and longer battery life.

There’s little remarkable. Nothing stands out here, but then nothing stood out with the last, more expensive, flagship Android phones from Samsung and Huawei. Nokia’s 7 Plus has the advantage of a better Android and holds the promise of better software support.

The R15 Pro gets the job done without breaking the bank. If you want more phone and a fancier camera expect to pay more. If NZ$800 is your budget limit, this is a good choice, but take a closer look at the NZ$700 Nokia 7 Plus first. That would be my choice.