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lenovo-miix-510If you want a Surface Pro 4 but find Microsoft’s price too high, the Lenovo Miix 510 may fit the bill.

Lenovo’s Miix 510 has more than a passing resemblance to a Surface Pro 4. It’s a Windows 2-in-1 with a kickstand. Ignore the Lenovo logos on the front and back and you could almost be looking at a Surface Pro.

There are compromises. Lenovo’s 12.2 inch display shows 1920 by 1200 pixels. The Surface Pro 4 screen is a fraction larger at 12.3 inches and has 2736 by 1824 pixels. This is noticeable.

If the build quality of the Surface Pro is ten out of ten, the Miix would rate a nine.

Lenovo misses small details that Microsoft got right. The power brick and connector are not as well finished.

Lenovo chose an inelegant power supply arrangement. A USB-C port would be better.
There are fewer ports. The Lenovo Miix 510 has one standard USB 3.0 and one USB 3.0 type-C port. Microsoft includes an SD card readers and a Mini DisplayPort on the Surface Pro 4.

It weighs more.

The Miix 510 is 880g when the keyboard is not attached and about 1.25kg when it is. This compares with around 790g for the bare Surface Pro 4 and a shade over a kilogram for a Surface Pro 4 with a keyboard.

While extra weight is enough to make a difference in your backpack or briefcase, 250g one way or another is not a deal breaker for most people.

Backlit keyboard

There is a payoff. You get what some users will think is a better, backlit keyboard. In general I found it easier to type on and more laptop-like than the Surface Pro 4 Type Cover.

That’s saying a lot more than is apparent. Lenovo has an odd arrangement for the right shift key which takes some getting used to.

The small right-hand shift key presents problems, the full size arrow keys are a good design choice.
The keyboard is more robust than I’ve seen on other Surface Pro-like computers and doesn’t rely on Bluetooth thanks to plug connections. It flexes a little in use, not enough to trouble most people.

Like other Windows 10 2-in-1s the Miix 510 touchpad is disappointing. It feels more like an afterthought for people who don’t want to spend all their time reaching for the touch screen.

In practice the touchpad is functional enough, if you were looking for a touchscreen computer it won’t be the most important consideration. If you want or need a better touchpad you need to look elsewhere and spend more money.

There’s a kickstand to prop the Miix 510 on a desk. The hinges look neat, but in practice the arrangement functions just the same as the Surface Pro.

A grand less than a Surface

None of this should put you off. At the time of writing, Lenovo’s Miix 510 costs more than NZ$1000 less than a Surface Pro 4 equipped with the same processor and storage.

For a start, the Lenovo price includes a keyboard which it is a optional extra with the Surface Pro 4.1

Like the Surface Pro 4, the Miix 510 is a plausible laptop replacement. It offers more than enough power for most everyday tasks and is light and portable.

It misses many of the Surface Pro specifications, but not by much and not in ways that will matter to all buyers.

Everything written above compares the MiiX 510 with the Surface Pro 4. That’s a tough call. Microsoft’s 2-in-1 is the gold standard.

Compared with every other Windows 2-in-1 the Lenovo MiiX 510 is a standout.

While the MiiX doesn’t reach Microsoft’s lofty Surface Pro standard, it doesn’t fall far short. Put it this way, it is nine-tenths the computer at six-tenths the price.

Unless you need the higher screen resolution, you wouldn’t be disappointed with this computer.


  1. While I was writing this review Noel Leeming offered the Lenovo Miix 510 for NZ$1600. That buys a computer with a 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-6200U dual core processor and 256GB of storage. The same basic Surface Pro 4 configuration in the same store costs NZ$2350. The Surface Pro 4 Type Cover will set you back an extra NZ$240. ↩︎

Apple’s 2016 MacBook Pro has a slim new body. It boasts a faster processor, larger trackpad, improved keyboard, better speakers and a glorious high-resolution Retina display.

Everything in that list, except maybe the keyboard, is an improvement on earlier MacBooks. If you own an old MacBook Pro that’s approaching the end of its life, now is a good time to upgrade. You’ll get a definite performance bump, a better experience and greater mobility.

Complaints about ports and dongles are real enough but overstated. In a year or so everyone will wonder what the fuss was about.

The more expensive new MacBook Pro models have two important additions. The Touch Bar and Touch ID sensor are a departure from earlier computer designs.

Apple’s Touch Bar replaces the row of function keys while the Touch ID button sits on the far right of the function key row where the power button once lived.

Cosmetic or innovation?

People want to know if the Touch Bar and Touch ID are gimmicks or whether they help productivity. They may not be a Great Leap Forward, but they are useful. More useful than you might think. And they are more than just cosmetic upgrades.

Touch ID works on the MacBook Pro in the same way it does on iPhones and iPads. You can use it to bypass the login password. It may not give you a huge productivity boost, but it makes for a better experience.

Move back to a Mac without Touch ID and you’ll miss it.

Touch ID also works as verification for some apps and websites. If you have Apple Pay you can use it to make payments. You can login to some services with it. It won’t change your life, it will rub a few rough corners a fraction smoother.

Touch Bar controllers

Replacing the function key row with a Touch Bar is more radical than it looks. You can still use the function keys by hitting the function key. If you’ve memorised function key shortcuts they are all still there. At times I’ve managed to turn unchanged type the keys and they are exactly where my fingers expect to find them. But replacing function keys is not the whole story.

Because the Touch Bar is a long, thin touchscreen many apps can use the space to let you know your function key options. They can display function names, not just F1 or whatever.

They can have names written on them, show icons or be displayed in bright colours to draw your attention. The functions can change dynamically depending on the state of the software.

In the Safari browser tiny thumbnails of tab displays show allowing to switch quickly between pages. Navigation keys are also more obvious.

Touch Bar when a video is playing in Safari
Touch Bar when a video is playing in Safari

The Touch Bar comes into its own when apps need slider controls. In iTunes you can move a slider to control the volume.

Touch Bar for iTunes
Touch Bar for iTunes

In Garage Band the slider controls various functions for things like the mixing desk or dials used for synthesiser settings and so on. In graphics apps and photos editing tools you can use the Touch Bar to pick colours and so on.

It’s a touchscreen…

With the Touch Bar Apple has drawn a clear line in the sand between Macs and Windows computers.

Apple company wisdom has it that if you want a touchscreen device, you can get an iPad. If you want a more traditional Keyboard-based computer get a Mac. That way won’t need to keep reaching from the keyboard to screen and back again.

Touch Bar for MacOS Mail app
Touch Bar for MacOS Mail app

Apart from anything else, that constant reaching an occupational overuse hazard waiting to happen. The reach from the keyboard to screen is neither natural nor comfortable. I found aches on my forearms when I first spent a lot of time with the Microsoft Surface.

So the Touch Bar gives you some of the functionality you might get from a touch screen, but without the constant reaching.

Theory, practice,

That’s the theory. In practice it works better than you might expect. If it doesn’t make a lot of sense when you see the idea written down, wait until you start using it for real tasks. It takes a little adjusting.

Apple hasn’t done a great job of explaining any of this in its marketing so far. The Touch Bar wasn’t well described during the October 27 MacBook Pro launch.

To be fair, there wasn’t a huge amount of software support for the feature at the time of the launch. It has been progressively added over the past six weeks or so with more and more software using the feature. You also get the feeling that many developers have yet to learn how to make the most of the Touch Bar.

It’s hard to estimate how much extra you pay for Touch Bar and Touch ID because the specifications of models with and without the features are somewhat different.

Even if it is not a great leap forward, it is a useful step towards greater productivity. Often when Apple makes a change of this type, there’s a little market noise or even sneering from rivals, then other computer makers add the feature or something similar to their products. This may not happen with Touch Bar as the Windows world is busy ploughing ahead with full-on touch screens.

macbook pro keyboard

Apple introduced its butterfly laptop keyboard design for the 2015 12-inch MacBook. It is shallower than previous keyboards.

The key action is less positive than on older Apple laptops like the MacBook Air or earlier MacBook Pros. The 2016 12-inch MacBook uses the same keyboard.

Put aside for one moment the Touch Bar that appears on most 2016 MacBook Pro models. We’ll look at that in-depth in another post. What remains of the keyboard looks like those on Apple’s recent MacBooks.

The Force Touch trackpad on the 15-inch MacBook Pro is huge. Because of its size, the MacBook Pro keyboard sits further up the body, closer to the screen. This doesn’t make any difference to typing in practice.

Flush versus recessed keys

Although it has the same underlying design, it is not identical. On the 12-inch MacBook the keys are flush with the body. The new MacBook Pros have keys recessed a millimetre or so below the body.

Apple has improved the butterfly key action. There is more click and greater travel when you hit a key. You hit them harder.

The keys sound louder when you type. This audio feedback helps but I can’t articulate or measure how that works. In practice I found it all adds up to make typing and touch typing easier than on the 12-inch MacBooks.

MacBook Pro keyboard for touch typists

When I first used the 12-inch MacBook keyboard it took a while to adjust my touch typing technique. That’s not unusual, this happens every time I use a different machine or keyboard.

After a few hours I was typing with ease. I made a few more errors than before, but there was no performance hit. At that stage I decided the butterfly keyboard was an acceptable change.

Then I returned to the old MacBook Air keyboard. It was like swapping smart new shoes for comfortable slippers.

Although I didn’t get through my work faster, it felt right. There’s a more pleasing bounce to the keys that feels right or maybe it’s a matter of familiarity.

Comfy

There is less of a comfy slippers effect moving back and forth between the 2016 MacBook Pro and the Air. It could be down to what some describe as muscle memory.

My error rate is still higher on the new keyboard, but not as high as it was on the 12-inch MacBooks. Unlike then, this time I’m certain that it will soon be back to normal.

The new keyboard is not without flaws. The up and down arrow keys are too small and close-packed. They are hard to use. There’s a good chance you’ll hit the wrong one by accident. Yet with the trackpad, there is less need for arrow keys.

Flat, less travel keyboards seem to be a feature of 2016 premium laptops.

Surface Book comparison

Microsoft echoes some aspects of the butterfly keyboard in its Surface Book[1]. Both are flat, both keyboards have a hard feel. If anything the Surface Book keyboard has a better layout and spacing. In practice the typing experience is similar.

Some other reviewers are unhappy about the missing esc key. The good news is that it always turns up on the Touch Bar when you need it. This is not a real issue.

You might argue that a MacBook Pro is not the device for someone who spends a lot of time typing so all this is academic. That view is nonsense. A keyboard is why you buy a computer instead of a tablet. It is not an essential component it is the essential component.

There is always a payoff between portability and function with laptop keyboards. Apple has balanced the two well here. You may find better keyboard experiences elsewhere. Yet the MacBook Pro keyboard goes well beyond being an acceptable compromise given the size and weight. It’s a worthy keyboard for a Pro laptop.

There is so much to write about the MacBook Pro that I’ve broken my review down into a few separate stories. Look out for the next part where I look closer at the Touch Bar

  1. The MacBook Pro and Surface Book have a different fundamental design. They come from different philosophies of what modern laptops should be. Yet in many ways they are head to head rivals. I’ll explore this idea in more depth elsewhere.  ↩

Surface Book

Microsoft’s Surface Book is as good as it gets for hybrid devices. You can’t buy a better one, even if it still has a few irritating bugs.

Hybrids are popular. They are the only growing PC segment. There is no doubt they are what many people want from a computing device.

And yet there is something wrong with the hybrid format. Wrong could be the wrong word here. Perhaps unsatisfactory better fits the bill.

The problem is that all hybrids involve some form of compromise. In most cases you don’t get the best laptop experience, nor do you get the best tablet experience.

Many users are happy to tradeoff these experiences in return for having two devices in one package.

This tradeoff plays out in a different way with the Surface Book. As my earlier post says, it is an excellent Windows 10 laptop. In practice I found once the review was over, I only ever used the Surface Book as a laptop.

Sure detaching the screen is clever. But I never need to do this apart from testing to see how it works. [1]

And there’s the problem. The Surface Book is a great Windows laptop, the extras that turn it into an OK tablet add a lot to the cost. Prices start at NZ$2750. That’s $1000 more than you’d pay for something with the same specification that doesn’t double as a tablet.


  1. I also found I almost never use the touchscreen. It helps that the Surface Book has a great touchpad that means you don’t need to make uncomfortable reaching movements.  ↩