PC shipments perked up in the second quarter of the year. While this is the first increase in six years, no-one is talking about a revival yet. It could be what people in the finance industry call a dead cat bounce.

Both Gartner and IDC published sales estimates showing a small increase in sales. Gartner put the increase at 1.4 percent. IDC has a more bullish 2.7 percent increase.

It’s worth noting here the two market research companies are not measuring quite the same thing.

Also, a shipment is not a sale. It is a computer that has moved from a factory to a retailer’s warehouse. But PC supply chains are tightly managed so, in general, shipments closely mirror actual sales.

PC Shipments joy not evenly spread

IDC’s more bullish estimate includes sales of PC-like devices such as Chromebooks, but doesn’t not include Windows tablets such as Microsoft’s Surface Go. Gartner counts a Windows tablet with an attached keyboard as a PC. Its number does not include other tablets nor does it include Chromebooks.

Both IDC and Gartner say that at least some of the increase is down to business computers running Windows 10.

Mikako Kitagawa, a principal analyst at Gartner says: “PC shipment growth in the second quarter of 2018 was driven by demand in the business market, which was offset by declining shipments in the consumer segment.

“In the consumer space, the fundamental market structure, due to changes on PC user behaviour, still remains, and continues to impact market growth. Consumers are using their smartphones for even more daily tasks, such as checking social media, calendaring, banking and shopping, which is reducing the need for a consumer PC.”

All of which has been true since 2012.

Recovery or dead cat bounce

Kitagawa expects business sales to weaken again when the Windows 10 replacement cycle ends.

IDC says the top five PC makers all saw sales growth and collectively they now account for a larger share of the market. This year they make up 78 percent of all sales.

Gartner and IDC can’t decide whether the top PC company is Lenovo or HP. Gartner has Lenovo a nose ahead shipping 12,000 more units than HP. IDC has HP in front by around a million machines. Remember the two companies are measuring different things.

Both put Dell, Apple and Acer in that order behind the leaders. IDC and Gartner also agree that Apple experienced the least growth during the quarter. New MacBook Pro models this week could change that.

Neither of the market research companies is prepared to say if the PC shipments uptick is the start of something new, a one-off before the slide resumes or an indication that shipments have bottomed out. The only certainty is that these top five PC brands are likely to strengthen their hands against the rest of the market. PC manufacturing is a game when volume matters.

Apple 2018 iPadApple’s sixth generation 2018 iPad is a bargain. In New Zealand it costs NZ$540. For many people it is all the computer they will ever need.

Sure, there will be people who consider it dull next to the swept-up iPad Pro. It doesn’t have as many features. Yet it does one important thing that, until now, only the Pro model iPad could handle. The 2018 iPad works with Apple Pencil.

That’s great if you want to use an iPad to create art or jot quick notes without adding a keyboard or dealing with the device’s glass keyboard. This, coupled with the price should open up the iPad to new audience.

It’s a solid, reliable alternative to buying a low-cost computer. Some geeks will hate me writing that.

Half the price of an iPad Pro

While the 2018 iPad doesn’t have all the features you’d find in an iPad Pro, it’s close to half the price of the cheapest Pro. The basic model $540 2018 iPad Pro comes with 32GB of storage. In contrast, the cheapest iPad Pro model costs NZ$1100 and has 64GB of storage.

There’s a NZ$700 version of the 2018 iPad with 128GB. If you can find the extra $160 it’s worth it. If you have a large library of music, videos or photographs you’ll soon bump up against the limits of 32GB. With a 128GB you won’t need to continually swap out files to a back-up device or the cloud.

What you get with both models is the classic 9.7-inch iPad Retina display. There are not as many pixels as you’ll find on the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, but the resolution is much the same. It has 2048 by 1536 pixels compared with the Pro’s 2224 by 1668. The 2018 iPad weighs exactly the same amount as the 10.5-inch iPad Pro; around 480 grams.

At 7.5mm, the 2018 iPad is a sliver thicker than the Pro which is just 6.1mm. That’s enough to notice, but not much of a compromise. It’s about 10mm shorter and 5mm less wide. This means you can’t swap covers or keyboards between the two devices. Not that many people will be doing that.

Adding a keyboard

And anyway, the 2018 iPad doesn’t have the Smart Connectors found on iPad Pro models. These make it easier to use a keyboard without resorting to Bluetooth. If you want to run a keyboard with the 2018 iPad there are dozens of options, many are excellent.

The speakers are not as loud or as clear as you’ll find on an iPad Pro.

Another difference between the Pro and the 2018 iPad is that you only get a first generation Touch ID button. It’s a little slower than the newer version and more prone to stumble when you use a fingerprint to sign-in. This is noticeable in practice if you’re stepping down from a newer iPad Pro or have an iPhone 7 or 8.

There’s a software difference too. The 2018 iPad only allows two apps to appear on screen at any time. While the Pro models allow three, this is something I never use on my tablet. I doubt many others will miss it.

The 2018 iPad uses Apple’s A10 Fusion chip, it’s similar, but not as powerful as the A10x Fusion chip in the Pro model. In theory it doesn’t run as fast, you could probably prove this by running benchmarks. In practice, you won’t notice. I didn’t find any lag on the 2018 model, it doesn’t feel slower. In fact, when it comes to speed, it feels almost exactly the same as my first generation 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

Where the 2018 iPad fits

Apple launched the 2018 iPad with an emphasis on education. It’s a great choice for students. Apple critics will tell you the iOS operating system is a walled garden and restrictive. Although there is some truth in this, in practice iOS is as open to the rest of the computing world as all the alternatives. Chromebook, Android and Windows are all as flawed in their own ways – possibly more flawed given their business models.

I’ve spent much of the last year using a 12.9-inch iPad Pro as my main mobile computer. It doesn’t do everything I need, but for most purposes it is more than enough computer. It has travelled overseas and out-of-town with me several times. For the most part the limitations of the 2018 iPad would be the same. If you’re on a tight budget and don’t need a lot of fancy features it could be all the computer you need. It’s a great device for creativity, just don’t expect to edit movies on it’s 9.7-inch screen.

The key to the 2018 iPad is that you get a lot of computer for not much money. You can buy cheaper Chromebooks, Android tablets and, at a pinch, Windows PCs. Unless you’re looking for an app that doesn’t appear in Apple’s store, this beats all those devices for most people who have light computing needs.

Also on:

macbook pro keyboard

Marco Arment has a number of suggestions for Apple in Fixing the MacBook Pro. Arment’s post runs down a list of the things that are wrong with the 2016 MacBook Pros and offers suggestions for putting them right. It covers four areas, but the main one and the problem that bothers me personally is the new MacBook Pro keyboard.

Arment writes:

Butterfly key switches are a design failure that should be abandoned. They’ve been controversial, fatally unreliable, and expensive to repair since their introduction on the first 12” MacBook in early 2015. Their flaws were evident immediately, yet Apple brought them to the entire MacBook Pro lineup in late 2016.

The decision to use the butterfly key switch keyboard looked odd at the time. One reason people thought earlier MacBook Pro models were among the best-ever laptops was the solid keyboards. They were great. Dropping the earlier design looked and felt like a mistake at the time. Yet, as Arment points out, things only got worse when it emerged they were unreliable and required an expensive, fix.

He says:

After three significant revisions, Apple’s butterfly key switches remain as controversial and unreliable as ever. At best, they’re a compromise acceptable only on the ultra-thin 12” MacBook, and only if nothing else fits. They have no place in Apple’s mainstream or pro computers.

Maybe not. But here’s the strangest thing. I have a 12.9 inch iPad Pro with the Apple Smart Keyboard. It is great to type on. Yet it uses the same basic butterfly key switch.

I’m a touch typist and hammer keyboards because I learnt to type on manual typewriters. The Smart Keyboard may not be perfect, no portable keyboard is, but it is a far better experience than typing on a new MacBook or MacBook Pro.

When I wrote about the MacBook Pro keyboard before, I found it acceptable, but clearly preferred the keyboard on the Air.

Few options beyond MacBook Pro

My ageing MacBook Air is coming up for replacement. After looking at the MacBook and MacBook Pro keyboards and deciding they are not for me, I’m thinking about the options for my next portable computer. At this stage the shortlist is go with the iPad Pro and get a desktop iMac for home, buy a new MacBook Air or wait until there’s a refurbished older Retina MacBook Pro in the local Apple Store.

While buying a refurbished machine is good for the planet, it doesn’t seem right. A new MacBook Air would be a productive choice. Yet I prefer Retina displays. The MacBook Air specification is old-fashioned by late 2017 standards.

Which means the most likely choice will be the iPad Pro and iMac. That’s remarkable as it means for the first time in years there isn’t a MacBook model that meets my needs. All because Apple doesn’t offer one with a decent keyboard.

Back to Arment:

The MacBook Pro must return to scissor key switches. If Apple only changes one thing about the next MacBook Pro, it should be this.

It needs to do this soon to get my business. I’m probably not alone. And yet it’s unlikely Apple will move because it seems the new MacBook Pros have been selling better than expected. If the market has spoken, whatever it said was not: “fix the MacBook Pro keyboard”.

I’m not an early adopter.

Early adopters must own the latest devices. They run ahead of the pack. They upgrade devices and software before everyone else.

Early adopters use the latest phones. They buy cars with weird features. They queue up in the wee small hours for iPhones, iPads or games consoles. Back in the day they’d go to midnight store openings to get the newest version of Microsoft Windows a few hours earlier.

Their computers never work because they are awash in beta and alpha versions of software screwing things up.

And some of their kit is, well, unfinished.

Computer makers depend on early adopters. They use them as guinea pigs.

Early adopters first to benefit

Marketing types will tell you early adopters will buy a product first to steal a march over the rest of humanity. They claim they will be the first to reap the benefits of the new product. It will make them more productive or live more enjoyable lives.

This can be true. Yet early adopters often face the trauma of getting unfinished, unpolished products to work. Often before manufacturer support teams have learnt the wrinkles of their new products.

There’s another reason computer makers love early adopters — they pay more for.

New products usually hit the market with a premium price. Once a product matures, the bugs eliminated and competition appears, profit margins are slimmer.

Companies use high-paying early adopters to fund their product development.

Being an early adopter is fine if you enjoy playing with digital toys. If productivity isn’t as important to you as being cool. If you have the time and money to waste making them work.

I don’t. I prefer to let others try things first. Let computer makers and software developers iron out the wrinkles while the product proves its worth. Then I’ll turn up with my money.

In technology the early bird pays the bill.

Edifier R1700BT eagle eye

If you want more from desktop speakers, the Edifier R1700BT is worth a look, and a listen.

Edifier R1700BT at a glance

For:Big warm sound, smart-looking, fun to use.
Against:Too much bass, Controls sometimes difficult to use
Maybe:The design and sound may not be to your personal taste.
Price:$250
Website:Edifier’s Australian site

Although Edifier is 20 years old, the brand has only been on sale in New Zealand since earlier this year. The company makes speakers, most come with Bluetooth as standard.

I tested a pair of Edifier R1700BT used as desktop speakers for a Mac, iPad and iPhone. You could use them as bookshelf speakers or with Bluetooth.

The pair come supplied with a cable to connect the two speakers, a 3.5mm jack to dual RCA cable and a dual RCA to RCA cable. There’s also a remote control unit in the box.

On the outside

The speakers look smart enough. They come with take-it-or-leave-it walnut wood-look panels and a black vinyl finish. They pass as classy, but don’t always look right in every room or on every desktop.

Bookshelf speakers are compact. Compared with floor-standing speakers they are. But at 220 x 155 x 215mm they are huge compared with most desktop speakers. And weighing in at 6.6kg, they are hefty too. If your computer is a laptop, they dominate the desktop. They look a lot better when used with an all-in-one computer or a large screen display.

Edifier has thought about how you are likely to use the speakers in practice. They come with an upward tilt so the sound will point at your ears if you sit at the desk.

Edifier R1700BT: Side view showing controls
Edifier R1700BT: Side view showing controls

There’s a cut-out on the side of the right-hand speaker for controls. You can twiddle knobs to adjust the volume as well as the treble and bass.

This positioning can be awkward. I found I had to turn the speaker to make adjustments. Even so, it’s better than making the controls hard to access by putting them on the rear. And it makes for a better, minimal look not having them clutter the front.

Get the settings right

In testing I found it hard to get the settings right. Playing some tracks the controls seemed oversensitive. At other times the treble and bass controls didn’t seem sensitive enough. This could improve with familiarity.

There are grills over the speakers which you can remove to expose the drivers. In practice it is better to keep them in place, although you might prefer otherwise.

Edifier includes a remote in the box. It’s not the best controller. The remote is plastic and feels cheap. In this sense, it seems a little out-of-place with the speakers. Yet it is useful to control things when you’re sitting away from the speakers.

You buy speakers for the sound and the R1700BTs don’t disappoint in this department. Most of the time you’ll get crisp, clear music. With exceptions we’ll get to in a moment, most lossless digital music sounds near perfect. The speakers cope well with low-resolution rock. They seem to smooth over some of the bumps.

You get plenty of detail in the midrange. Male vocals tend to work well all the time. Things start to go off beam with female vocals. The treble part of the sound is a touch weak, but never tinny or unpleasant.

Too much bottom

The opposite is true at the other end of the audio spectrum. There is too much bottom. Bass lines punch through. There’s a hint of booming distortion. That’s fine for parties, but a touch off-putting with mood-setting music.

In general modern rock and electronic music is fine. Classical music is more of a challenge, although it is never unpleasant. With jazz and classic heavy rock there is often too much happening at the low-end.

Let’s put these points in context: the R1700BTs are better than any other affordable desktop speakers I’ve used. But this is a review, it would be remiss to not notice shortcomings.

At the price the Edifier R1700BTs are excellent value. You’d need to spend close to double to get a better sound and that’s the point for NZ$250 they are a steal.