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Bill Bennett

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The computer and printer maker formerly known as Hewlett-Packard. Still big in the technology business, not as successful as it once was.

HP works both ends of the PC street

HP Chromebook EnterpriseSuddenly after years of decline personal computers are hot again. Sales are up and there are shortages of some models.

It may not last. Indeed the full year could still see an overall decline in sales. Yet for now, the PC has regained relevance.

After playing second fiddle to the phone, the focus is back on the PC. That mainly means laptops.

The move to working from home has seen an explosion in demand for hardware with a decent size screen and a proper keyboard.

It’s not just office workers setting up shop on the kitchen table, it’s also students logging on to remote lessons and many others turning to digital entertainment to fill the hole left when you can’t go out so much.

HP in a good place today

HP is in a good place to exploit the exploding demand. It is, after all, New Zealand’s best selling PC brand by a fair clip. It is the leader in many countries around the world and even where it doesn’t dominate, it is an important player.

Apple’s computer strategy may not be as laser focused today as it has been in recent years, but it focuses on a handful of product lines. Microsoft does something similar with its Surface hardware.

In contrast, HP takes the opposite approach. It throws a lot of ideas against the wall knowing full well that some will stick.

This week’s announcements in the US follow that approach. The company has focused on two distinct, non-mainstream PC sectors. At one extreme it has gone big with new Omen gaming PCs. At the other there are enterprise-focused Chromebooks.

The Omen announcements are grunty machines ideal for people who need lockdown entertainment. There is a large screen 27-inch gaming monitor with 165Hz refresh rate and 1ms response time.

HP Omen 27i Gaming Monitor
HP Omen 27i Gaming Monitor

The new Omen computers are built around high performance Intel i9 and AMD Ryzen 9 CPUs. They use Nvidia RTX 2080 or AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT graphics cards. Also in the mix are a fancy new case design, Cooler Master cooling components and HyperX high-speed Dram along with WD Black SSDs.

A good Omen

Gaming PCs have been a success story for HP. They are one of the few PC categories to experience growth and because the products tend to be premium throughout, margins are healthy. With people spending even more time at home, they are likely to continue selling well.

We don’t see them so much in New Zealand, but elsewhere in the world Chromebooks are very popular in education. HP makes plenty of affordable low-end Chromebooks to address this market. Now it is parlaying some of that expertise to meet a corporate need for low-cost cloud-based hardware.

The revived Enterprise 14 G6 Chromebook won’t win any prizes for performance. It doesn’t have to. It is as a solid cloud-based laptop with a 14-inch display. There are more swept up Chromebooks and one model comes in the 2-in-1 format.

There’s also a mobile thin client, which is, in effect, a laptop for people who use a virtual desktop, another trend which is more prevalent overseas than in New Zealand.

Elsewhere HP has a new laser printer for home users. Its sales pitch is that it comes with seven times as much toner as earlier laser printers.

 

 

 

PC market good news not so hot

IDC thinks the PC market ended 2019 on an ‘impressive’ note. Gartner’s press release talks of the “First sign of growth for worldwide PC shipments after seven consecutive years of decline“.

The numbers don’t lie. Both research companies noted a small uptick in PC sales. Yet it isn’t time to break out the champagne.

First, the uptick isn’t that great. IDC clocks fourth quarter growth at 4.8 percent year-on-year. Gartner puts the number at 2.3 percent.

These are by no means strong numbers. Gartner’s growth figure for the calendar year is only 0.6 percent. They are best thought of as ‘less awful’.

We have, after all, seen seven straight years of falling PC sales. In 2011 Gartner recorded total sales of 352 million units. The number for 2019 was 262 million. That’s a 25 percent drop in eight year. Last year’s growth is small in comparison.

IDC’s numbers of the same period fell from 371 to 266 million. That’s a fall of 28 percent.

 

There’s another reason the reported increase in sales is less reason to celebrate.

Many of the extra sales in late 2019 come because Microsoft’s support for Windows 7 is about to end. Many users need to upgrade their hardware to move to Windows 10. Sure, it isn’t always essential, but upgrading to new hardware simplifies the change.

There was also a shortage of Intel processor chips late last year. Deliveries have only recently recovered.

In other words, special factors account for all the increase in PC sales. And let’s face it, low single digit growth is unimpressive at the best of times.

Almost all the increase in sales is for business models. Interest in consumer PCs continues to decline.

Another trend the sales reports have picked up is the increased dominance of the top PC brands. Lenovo, HP and Dell all added market share at the expense of other brands. Between them they account for around two-thirds of all units sold.

Meanwhile Apple’s unit sales headed in the opposite direction. After years of picking up market share at the expense of the Windows PC brands, Mac sales fell a little. Apple’s share of the total market has fallen from 7.9 percent to 7.5 percent.

HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 review – Sound and vision

HP has a new twist on the desktop docking station. You can extend the modular HP Thunderbolt Dock with a Bang and Olufsen speaker. This optional extra 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.

EliteBook x360 review: secure, tiny business convertible

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.

PC sales could be worse

~650,000 machines still ship every day, but that’s the lowest total since 2007

Source: PC sales still slumping, but more slowly than feared • The Register

Simon Sharwood writes:

Both analyst firms suggest that rising component prices have led to rising PC prices which has led to falling enthusiasm from buyers, especially consumers. DRAM, LCD panels and solid state disks prices all share some of the blame for the rise, as all are in short supply.

This is nonsense: not Sharwood’s reporting, what the analysts say. They are clutching at straws. Rising PC prices are not the issue, prices have only ticked up a smidgen. That is not enough to affect sales if there is an underlying demand.

The demand is not there. Customers have little appetite or need to start buying PCs again in large numbers. Not today.

Two points stand out from the latest PC sales figures.

First, HP moved ahead of Lenovo. Sharwood quotes a Gartner analyst talking about Lenovo pulling back to focus on margins.

That’s a plausible explanation, but I think there’s more to it.

HP has been on a roll since the business split from HP Enterprise. Hardware quality is better than in the past and the designs are more interesting. While it would overdoing it to use a word like excitement, HP has momentum. Some good products too.

Second, Apple has moved to fourth place. Apple’s year-on-year sales are flat, in a falling market that means the company’s market share has climbed. It’s not much of a climb, about 0.3 percent, but that’s enough to move Apple past slumping Asus.