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mobile productivity review

Class of 2016: The best ultraportable

There has never been a better time to buy an ultraportable computer. PC makers may face falling sales, but they haven’t stopped building great laptops.

For years the laptop market was stagnant, with lacklustre me-too designs and unappetising performance. That’s changed.

The challenge from phones and tablets has spurred a new wave of innovation. In some cases, laptop makers pulled technologies from phones and used them to build better laptops.

We’re seeing a laptop renaissance. Here are six of 2016’s best choices. Four are traditional laptops, albeit slimmed down and stripped back for mobile productivity. One is a hybrid, the other is a tablet moonlighting as a hybrid.

You can find fuller reviews of all the models mentioned here elsewhere on this site. They are expensive but remember this is a round-up of today’s best models.

The list is not in any particular order. Each one is worth considering. We’d be happy to live with any one of these computers, they are all worthy of your attention.

HP Spectre

HP Spectre rear ports

The Spectre marks a return to form for HP. It is slimmer than the 2016 Apple MacBook, with a great keyboard and three USB-C ports. HP didn’t skimp on the power either, inside is a full Intel Core i processor.

This is the best Windows laptop so far this year. It will take some beating. What you don’t get for the NZ$2500 and up asking price is a touch screen. If you think you’ll miss that, look at the Surface Pro or the Elitebook.

Dell XPS 13 Touch

Dell XPS 13 TouchIf you like a touch screen on a Windows laptop, Dell’s XPS 13 Touch should be on your list. Prices start at NZ$2800. For that money you get a dazzling 13.3-inch quad HD+ display along with a Core i7–5500U running at 2.5 GHz. That’s a lot of power in a small package.

The remarkable thing about the screen is despite being 13.3 inches, the computer is the same size as other 12-inch models. Dell does this by almost doing away with the bezels. Also worth noting, the XPS has great battery life. It beats everything here except the Apple models.

2016 Apple MacBook

MacbookNot everyone wants a Windows ultraportable. Apple may be about to retire the MacBook Air that started the ultraportable trend. So if you want a non-Windows machine it’s this or the iPad Pro.

The 2016 MacBook is thin and so light you may forget you’re carrying one in your bag. It has a great keyboard and a wonderful Retina display. Apple built a new keyboard for the MacBook. It isn’t everyone’s taste, but in practice, this is a wonderful machine to work with. Prices start at $2400.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

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Microsoft had a few goes at getting its laptop-PC hybrid right. This fourth-generation device got there in the end after a few firmware teething troubles. The result is well worth the wait. For Windows fans it is close to a dream machine being as coupled to its software as an Apple computer. A Microsoft operating system never felt this good.

Prices start at NZ$1600 plus another $240 for the type cover. Most people would be better off skipping the underpowered Core m3 entry-level model and getting a Core i model. Prices go all the way to a nosebleed NZ$4900 for a 1TB Surface Pro 4 with a Core i7 processor and 16GB Ram.

HP Elitebook Folio G1

HP Elitebook Folio G1 laid flat
HP Elitebook Folio G1 laid flat

HP’s made-for-business ultrabook is a touch more conservative looking and thicker than the Spectre. Yet it is still a powerhouse on the inside. The Elitebook has corporate features like Intel vPro support. It also folds back to a 180 degree position for laptop work.

There’s still the minimal aesthetic and only two USB-C ports. It comes in four configurations with an NZ$2600 non-touch screen model under-pinning the range. Spend $3700 and you get a the top of the line model. It has an ultra-high definition (UHD) touch screen with 3840 by 2160 pixels, an Intel Core m7 processor, 8GB of Ram and a 512GB solid state drive.

Apple iPad Pro 12.9

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro isn’t a true 2016 model, it appeared late last year. It also differs from the rest of the pack because it isn’t a laptop. It’s less of a laptop than the Surface Pro; a tablet with an optional keyboard.

While not for everyone, it does most of the work the other devices here can do and does many of them well, some better. Fans swear it replaces traditional computers, although it’s not good at dealing with complex file system problems.

Prices start at NZ$1400 and go all the way to $2180 for  a Sim card version with 256 GB of memory. You’ll need to find another $320 for the keyboard and, maybe, $190 for the Apple Pencil.

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productivity

Thoughts on iPad-only the new desktop Linux

“You like the iPad because it’s simple. But if you’re using the iPad as your primary computer, you may just like it because it’s a challenge.”

Watts Martin hits a nerve writing iPad-only is the new desktop Linux.

Martin says people who use only iPads for their computing do it because it’s a challenge. He says: “Figuring things out is part of the allure”. This, he says, is just like things were — maybe they still are — with desktop Linux.

When desktop Linux roared

Remember desktop Linux? Kids ask your parents. It was huge in the late 1990s and peaked around the year 2000.

At the time many thought Linux would replace Microsoft Windows for day-to-day desktop computing. Although a handful of organizations imposed it on their workers, It never got beyond being a fringe freak show. Yet it shook Microsoft and had a widespread effect on commercial PC software.

Desktop Linux was hard work. There were practical reasons to use it. Linux needed fewer computing resources, it would work well on older, cheaper computers. Eventually Microsoft responded by trimming the fat on its software.

Free and open

Linux fans would find political or philosophical justifications for choosing a more difficult personal computing path. They’d talk about it being free, about how it was open source and so on.

One common idea at the time was that Linux forced users to get down and dirty with how computers worked at a basic level. This,  the theory says, increases people’s understanding of computing. The knowledge would, in turn, make them safer and more productive.

This idea sounds great until you realise it takes a day to recompile an obscure but necessary piece of code that everything depends on.

Freedom has a price

While the freedom to tinker aspect of Linux could be useful. More often it was a terrible time sink. You could spend hours or days down software rabbit holes.

Desktop Linux was more difficult than Windows or Apple’s operating system. Maybe it didn’t challenge developers so much. They spend all day using esoteric commands and compiling code. But for those of us with little coding experience, desktop Linux was challenging. At times it was an ordeal.

Martin writes:

Don’t deny it, folks who prefer the iPad to the Mac or PC: you like the challenge. It was awesome to check out and edit files in my company’s Github repo and make a pull request, all from the iPad.

Myke Hurley made an observation on his Analog(ue) podcast that even if you could prove that a given task was easier on the Mac, he’d still rather do it on his iPad because it’s just more fun. I absolutely get that.

Pioneering

Now, this is fine. There’s nothing wrong with people choosing difficult paths. They are pioneers, they find ways through the thickets for the rest of us to follow.

One of the reason that OS X is so good today is Apple built it on FreeBSD. OS X stands on the shoulders of open source giants.

FreeBSD isn’t Linux, but the two have a lot in common. Both are Unix-based and both are open source. Many commands are similar. Hacking around in the OS X terminal is a piece of cake for anyone who mastered Linux.

Tweakers of the world unite

Moreover, open source pioneers wrote and tweaked a lot of code powering modern desktops.

Some of today’s iPad-only pioneers may be developers who fix code. It’s unlikely they’ll fix or improve iOS because it is a proprietary operating system.

Even so, they will be helping to find ways through technical thickets for the rest of us to follow later. They’ll figure out how to cope with, say, the iPad’s lack of a formal file system. They’re more likely to be writing useful new apps than parts of the underlying system.

What’s more, they’ll won’t all be passive consumers of technology. Many will submit bug reports and feature requests to Apple’s developers. We’ll get better tablets and tablet software thanks to them.

So while Martin is right about iPad-only pioneers doing it for the challenge, their curiosity and exploration isn’t a waste of time. iPads and other tablets are the future of personal computing, it may take years until they are the mainstream, but the pioneers will help us get there sooner.

Categories
mobile productivity write

Apple iPad Pro 9.7-inch Smart Keyboard Cover

iPad Pro Smart Keyboard Cover
iPad Pro Smart Keyboard Cover

Apple’s Smart Keyboard Cover feels like an essential partner for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. That’s not the case with the 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

Both Smart Keyboard Covers are compact, light and made from a nylon fabric. On the larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro the Smart Keyboard Cover adds what amounts to a full keyboard.

It turns the larger iPad into something more like, but the not the same as, a hybrid PC.

While it’s not a perfect keyboard, it doesn’t fall far short of ideal on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro.

Smart Keyboard Cover misses

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro Smart Keyboard Cover misses ideal by a larger margin. You may think that it is only a matter of size. That’s true up to a point.

Yet the different, smaller size changes the nature of the beast more than you’d expect.

There are two main reasons for this. First, the reduced size of the 9.7-inch Smart Keyboard Cover means it is harder to type on. It’s harder still for touch typists.

Because the smaller keyboard harder to work with, you’re less inclined to use it. It’s not the first port of call when you need to get words into the iPad Pro.

This gets you into a vicious circle. Because the small keys aren’t always where your fingers expect, you are less productive. This means you use it less. Which in turns mean your fingers have less opportunity to learn where the keys are.

On screen typing easier

Second, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is smaller and lighter. This makes it easier to pick up and use in the portrait orientation. Smart Keyboard Covers only use the landscape orientation.

Typing on the glass from the portrait orientation is easy and comfortable. At least it is in my hands. I found myself doing this all the time.

In the end I took the Smart Keyboard Cover off the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, swapping it for a Silicon case and a Smart Cover without a keyboard.

The plan was to see how long I’d go before I needed to go back to the Smart Keyboard Cover. That was six weeks ago. Today I packed the Smart Keyboard Cover back in its case ready to return to Apple.

If you need a keyboard to go with the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, this is a good choice. For some people it will be an occasional option. For others it will be a permanent fixture, in effect turning the iPad Pro into a small light laptop or hybrid.

It’s worth remembering the 9.7-inch iPad Pro can also work with many of the third party Bluetooth keyboards on the market. But for me, I’m sticking with the screen keyboard. I find it suits how I work.

Categories
mobile write

Miss Newton MessagePad? Here’s MyScript Stylus

MyScript Stylus is a free handwriting recognition app for the iPad Pro.

The app is a keyboard extension. It replaces the normal on-screen qwerty keyboard with a space where you can write.

While the app will work if you write with your finger or any kind of stylus, you’ll get the best results if you spend NZ$189 on the Apple Pencil.

Clever

As handwriting recognition apps go, MyScript Stylus is clever, even impressive. As you fill up the line across the screen the writable area scrolls left. When you pause the whole screen shifts left giving you more writing room.

Handwriting is automatically converted to text. The app inserts into the open iOS app. It works well with apps like Mail and even Twitter, but it comes into its own when you use a text editor, iOS Notes or an iPad writing app.

MyScript Stylus stores the handwriting ink that has scrolled off the screen. This means you can use two fingers to scroll back to edit earlier mistakes. It has a number of gestures to insert, delete and otherwise edit text.

Even scruffy handwriting

The handwriting recognition is good. Far better than the first generation Apple Newton MessagePad. Both devices coped well with my scruffy handwriting. There are errors, but with practice you can tear through words at a typewriter-like pace.

If you prefer handwriting to typing this could be the right app for you. Likewise if you’re comfortable with the Apple Pencil for sketching on an iPad Pro screen, this would feel almost as natural as writing on paper.

Flaw

There is a flaw. The screen zone at the bottom of the writing area is used for some commands — there’s a delete button among others. I found I would often hit these buttons with my fingers by mistake when writing. With time you can develop a technique to avoid this.

While there’s something satisfying and elegant about MyScript Stylus, it’s hardly a breakthrough. Windows tablets have had similar handwriting recognition software since the early 1990s.

So did Apple. In 1993 the original Apple Newton MessagePad debuted with a stylus and erratic handwriting recognition. That was 23 years ago.

Moreover, the Windows and Apple Newton handwriting recognition are built-in at a low level. Going instead to a third-party software company for a free app seems an odd move.

Categories
review

Review: 9.7-inch iPad Pro Smart Keyboard Cover

Apple’s NZ$280 9.7-inch iPad Pro Smart Keyboard Cover doesn’t turn the Pro into a laptop. It’s more useful than that.

At the launch Apple said its 9.7-inch iPad Pro is a PC replacement.. That’s debatable. People spend a lot of time typing on PCs so that claim doesn’t start to stack up until you add a keyboard.

There are good third-party keyboards. Yet most iPad Pro users expect to be able to buy an Apple-branded keyboard to go with their tablet. Apple’s official iPad Pro keyboard has a few benefits not found elsewhere.

Smart Connector

Apple’s keyboard uses the iPad Pro’s Smart Connector. This is a row of three metal dots along the side of the tablet.

When you attach the Smart Keyboard Cover to an iPad Pro the connectors snap into place along the dots. A magnet pulls the two parts together and keeps them connected.

The dots carry power and data between the keyboard and the tablet. This means there’s no need for Bluetooth pairing which can sometimes be tricky with other keyboards. It means you are up and running straight away.

Because the Smart Connector also acts as a power link, there is no need for a power cable or charger.

Not so smart orientation

On a down note, the keyboard only allows one screen viewing position. If you don’t like it, too bad. Microsoft nails this with the Surface Pro kickstand. It gives near infinite screen tilt options.

The good news is the stand arrangement is solid and stable. An iPad Pro and keyboard won’t collapse.

Size gives and takes

Apple’s Smart Keyboard Cover for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is a scaled-down version of the larger 12.9-inch iPad Pro keyboard.

And that’s something of a problem.

At 308 mm, the larger Smart Keyboard Cover is as wide as a conventional laptop keyboard. It is even a fraction wider than the 280mm built-in keyboard on the Apple Macbook.

With bigger keyboards you get a full-size layout, full-size keys and room to breathe with space between the keys.

Squeezing a similar design into something that is 240mm wide means compromises. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro Smart Keyboard Cover also lacks depth. It is about 95mm from front to back compared with 110mm on the 12.9-inch version. [1]

Cramped typing

Apple squashed the keys and reduced the space between them to make everything fit.

This may not matter to you if you’re a part-time typist who hunts and pecks around the keyboard. For a long-time touch-typist whose fingers have a keyboard memory, it’s a struggle.

Let’s put it this way. Where possible and appropriate I use the tools in questions to write a product review. That wasn’t easy in this case.

It’s not that the 9.7-inch iPad Pro Smart Keyboard Cover doesn’t work; it does. But it doesn’t work well with my finger memory. I can rattle through words at a fast rate on a normal keyboard at 190 characters per minute.

Fast enough

At first my score on with the smaller Smart Keyboard Cover was less half that speed. Worse, the error rate was horrific.

Let’s not get too hung up on speed [2]. The effect is fleeting. After a two of days I had adjusted and my speed improved almost to normal.

During that time I used the keyboard with the iPad at home and away from home. The advantage is portability. It travels easier than the larger iPad Pro or a MacBook. Although none of these three is a burden.

Unlike normal laptop keyboards, Apple made the Smart Keyboard Cover from nylon fabric. This makes it lightweight. It also means it needs less finger pressure than other keyboards.

The keyboard cover does a fine job of protecting the iPad Pro when you’re on the move. As an added bonus, it clears smudge marks off the screen as you open and close. Like other Apple iPad covers, it turns the iPad on and off.

Pricey alternative

At NZ$280 the 9.7-inch iPad Pro Smart Keyboard Cover is expensive. You can buy a cheap tablet for the same money. Add the price to the cost of an 9.7-inch iPad Pro — prices start at NZ$1050 — and you could buy a decent laptop.

But that’s missing the point here. So is Apple’s claim that the iPad Pro is a PC replacement. If you use an iPad, any iPad as a PC replacement you’re not getting all the benefit of the device.

Tablets like the iPad can go places laptops can’t. They excel at tasks that aren’t practical with conventional laptops. It isn’t easy to pull out a laptop while waiting in a queue and deal with work documents. That is a breeze on an iPad.

Add a keyboard to the iPad Pro and you have portability, mobility and laptop-like features when you need them. It’s a powerful combination.

Pluses:
Slim, light, fits the 9.7-inch iPad Pro like a glove. Doesn’t need cable, charger or Bluetooth. Easy to attach or detatch.

Negatives:
Expensive by any standard. Cramped keyboard may be difficult for touch typists. No backlighting. Only one tilt orientation.

Conclusion
Stylish, reliable, well-made keyboard for a 9.7-inch iPad Pro. You may find third-parties offer better alternatives.


  1. My apologies for switching between metric and imperial measurements. Go and complain to the Americans about imposing archaic nonsense on us.  ↩
  2. Compared with most people I’m fussy about keyboards. Remember this is how I spend my working day. I type for many hours every day.  ↩