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Bill Bennett

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The world’s largest software company has repositioned for cloud computing offering software-as-a-service as well as cloud services. Microsoft’s Windows operating system and Office productivity software are important mainstays.

Who should buy a Surface Pro 8?

Microsoft Surface Pro 8Microsoft’s updated Surface Pro 8 is for people who need Windows packaged in the slimmest, lightest device. Make that well-heeled people, it’s not cheap.

That’s the short version. Now for a longer version.

This isn’t going to read like a standard product view. Instead, we’re going to look at who might benefit from buying a Surface Pro 8 and who would do better looking elsewhere. First, the basics

Great display

From the moment you fire up the Surface Pro 8 you’ll notice the display.

It’s nearly an inch larger than the display on the Surface Pro 7 with tiny 5mm bezels at the side. The top bezel is larger at 10mm, but it hides the front facing camera. You don’t see the bottom bezel when you are hooked up to the Signature keyboard.

Microsoft has increased the refresh rate to 120Mhz. That’s something you don’t often see on everyday devices.

Experience

In practice this makes for a better experience. It feels and looks better. The cursor and screen scrolling are smoother. None of this sounds like much and after a while you won’t notice it, but you’ll miss it the moment you start using a device with a slower refresh rate.

There’s an adaptive colour feature that adjusts the screen depending on what’s around you. Again, the effect is subtle, you notice it most when day turns to night or night turns to day.

All of this adds up to a quality experience. When it comes to the visual side of things, the Surface Pro 8 feels better than any other Windows computer.

Typing

Sadly you cannot say the same for the keyboard. As with other Surface Pro models, the keyboard is an optional extra. It’s not that optional. Almost no-one buys a Surface Pro without the NZ$479 Signature Keyboard.

That’s a lot of money for a keyboard by any standard. Thanks to a core made from carbon fibre it is sturdier than early Surface Pro keyboards. Yet it still flexes as you type. It stays in place, but you don’t get the solid feel of a laptop keyboard.

Nor do you get much key travel. On the plus side it is laid out with plenty of room. As a touch typist I didn’t run into problems.

Performance

We’ll look more at relative performance in a moment. There’s a base model Surface Pro 8 that uses the Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of Ram. That’ll cost you NZ$1850. Storage is a mere 128GB, which is barely enough to get by with.

The review model has an i7 with 16GB of Ram, 256GB of storage and Iris Xe integrated graphics. It sells in New Zealand for $2770.

In both cases that’s before you add almost $500 for the not-really-optional Signature keyboard.

Fast by Windows standards

This is a fast machine by 2021 Windows standards. You can run many apps at the same time without seeing any performance drop. I loaded it with a dozen simultaneous tasks without it getting warm.

Microsoft claims you can get 16 hours use on a single charge. I found the Surface Pro 8 fell well short of that. Eight hours is closer to my experience and that’s with dialling down the screen brightness.

Audience

The obvious audience for the Surface Pro 8 is existing Surface users looking for an upgrade.

Beyond that, this will appeal to the rusted-on Windows user. Someone who has spent years working with Microsoft’s OS, and has optimised their practices to the point where switching to, say, MacOS or Linux would be hard.

Surface Pro 8 costs a lot more than conventional Windows laptops offering the same performance. You can buy laptops with similar chip and memory specifications from companies like HP, Lenovo or Dell for $1000 less.

Or you can spend the same money and buy a more powerful device.

That makes it an expensive way of getting a mobile Windows computer. Yet Surface is more than that. It converts to a tablet and delivers a more complete Windows 11 experience. I’d argue it is a better experience than most 2-in-1s.

Comparisons with MacBook Air

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 8 does not scrub up well in a direct comparison with a MacBook Air, the 2020 model with the M1 processor.

By the time you’ve added the Signature Keyboard to the Surface Pro 8, you’re looking at spending more than NZ$3000 for a computer with 256GB of storage.

A MacBook Air with 256GB of storage costs NZ$1750.

It doesn’t have a touch screen and you can’t remove the keyboard. Yet Apple’s computer is much faster. If you like benchmarks, then you’ll see the MacBook Air is about 40 percent faster than the Surface Pro.

When it comes to battery life, the MacBook Air will carry on working for at least three more hours than the Surface Pro. My testing shows you should expect to run for even longer. You get more computer for less money.

The key difference is the operating system. Now that most apps are delivered from the cloud and the key non-cloud apps come in MacOS and Windows versions, there’s less to worry about in this department.

It comes down to whether you like MacOS or Windows and whether you can be as productive if you switch.

In a sense, the Surface Pro 8 makes a strong case for buying an Apple laptop.

Comparisons with iPad Pro

The Surface Pro 8 is far more laptop-like than the iPad Pro. I might hook a keyboard to the iPad Pro for 30 percent of my time with the device. With the Surface Pro it’s never not connected.

Even so, you can view both as tablets and compare them that way.

Adding the Smart Keyboard Folio, which is the closest model to Microsoft’s keyboard to an iPad Pro with 256GB of storage comes to a total of NZ$2380. That’s $650 less than the price of a similar configuration Surface Pro 8.

Like the M1 MacBook Air, the M1 iPad Pro is much faster than the Surface Pro. Meanwhile the iPad Pro’s battery life is on a par with the Surface Pro 8. The iPad Pro is around 100g lighter than the Surface Pro, in practice you’d barely notice this.

On a straightforward comparison, the iPad Pro offers more computer for less money.

Slim Pen 2 Stylus

You can buy pens, or Pencils and Stylus to give them their brand names, for both the Surface Pro 8 and the iPad Pro.

Apple’s Pencil integrates neatly with the iPad Pro. It has magnets which let it stick to the side of the iPad when not in use. It will charge while in this position.

Microsoft’s Slim Pen 2 Stylus tucks into a holder on the Signature Keyboard. In its own way this is as neat as Apple’s magnetic approach. This includes a wireless charger.

There’s also a separate charging holster. I struggled to see the point of this. It makes life more complicated than is necessary.

Surface Pro 8 verdict

There will be people reading this who don’t think price is a barrier. Yet by any standards the Surface Pro 8 is expensive.

By the time you add a non-optional keyboard, the lowest practical option will cost NZ$2500. A MacBook Pro costs less. There are plenty of decent Windows alternatives that will leave change in your pocket.

None of this is to detract from the Surface Pro 8. It has a wonderful screen and there’s the flexibility to remove the keyboard and enjoy a movie on a tablet. It’s about as good as the Windows laptop experience can be.

Why bother with Windows 11?

After a couple of weeks using the beta and a week with the final version of Windows 11, I’ve yet to find a real reason to use it.

Steven Vaughan-Nichols nails the problem with Windows 11 in at Computerworld. 

For many people it is, he notes, “a pointless upgrade”.

That’s the conclusion I reached.

The main justification for moving to Windows 11 is that it will be more secure than Windows 10. To get those benefits you need to have the right hardware.

Windows 11 is picky about hardware. Most versions of Windows have been able to run on computers that are more than a couple of months old.

That’s not the case with Windows 11.

Are you ready to buy a new computer?

For many people reading this, that means buying a new computer.

And anyway, you can get the security updates if you stick with Windows 10.

Which, as the man says, makes the move to Windows 11 pointless.

At least for now. If you want to stay with Windows, you’ll get it with your next hardware upgrade.

You have to ask yourself why Microsoft is moving to Windows 11.

Last version of Windows

When Windows 10 came along the message was this could be the last ever version of Windows. From that point on the idea was that there would be regular incremental upgrades rather than big leaps.

“Last ever version” lasted six years.

In comparison, Windows XP lasted eight years.  Well, five years if you don’t count Windows Vista. Even Microsoft would prefer to see Vista written out of the history books.

Aside from the security benefits, Windows 11’s other selling point is a fresh new look. This is little more than cosmetics. A lick of paint and a brush-up. If anything it now looks more like MacOS.

Some of the changes appear to be change for change’s sake rather than researched improvements. There are background performance changes that users might experience without noticing them.

There is a promise that Windows 11 will run Android apps. That’s unlikely to happen for another year and, unless you have something important you do only on Android, is less interesting than it sounds.

Options

None of this is to say Windows 11 follows the tradition that says every second version of the operating system is embarrassing. It’s usable, popular and up to a point familiar to the majority of users.

On a personal note I was so disappointed with Windows 8 that I investigated, then moved from Windows to Mac. In hindsight it was a smart move, my productivity soared.

This time around Windows users have other options to tempt them away from the mainstream. Desktop Linux is mature and well worth investigating.

If that’s not for you, there are Chromebooks. An iPad Pro can do most things you buy a PC for. You may fancy a change without moving too far from Microsoft’s orbit. A Windows 365 Cloud PC is an option.

Yet I suspect most Windows users will choose to stick with 10 for now and see which way things go. There is no pressing reason to make a decision today. Most enterprise IT departments will wait at least 18 months before changing, you don’t need to take that long, nor do you need to hurry.

 

 

Computer revolution underway behind the scenes

Yesterday’s review of the Dynabook Satellite Pro says the laptop computer looks and feels dated next to modern MacBooks and Surfaces.

This was not a flippant remark.

Modern MacBook and Surfaces include smartphone technology. The M1 processor in today’s MacBooks derives from an Arm chip Apple developed for the iPhone.

Microsoft uses Arm in its latest Surface Pro models.

Power sipping Arm processors

Compared with the Intel processors used in more traditional laptops, Arm sips power. Computers made with Arm can go the best part of a day between charges. The M1 MacBook Air battery gets close to 24 hours.

Another company, Huawei, offers the MateBook which is a neat laptop containing technology developed for phones.

There are a handful of 2-in-1 and similar devices from HP or Lenovo. While they might not derive directly from phones and may include Intel processors, they have many phone-like characteristics.

Old-school computer

In contrast, Dynabook and the other more traditional computer designs descend from flip-lid laptops.

It’s a format that has been around since the mid-1980s. Yes, the Dynabook is slimmer than those models. It is way more powerful and its batteries last longer. It is better.

But its pedigree comes from the old breed. Not from the new phone lineage.

Blurred lines

Phones and personal computers have been on a converging path for at least twenty years.

For much of that time, computer sales were in decline while phone sales soared. Last year’s lockdowns saw a move to working from home that temporarily confused matters. Despite this, there are now many more phones in the wild than PCs.

The phone is the computer people use most often. That’s as true of people who own phones and computers as it is of those who have just a phone.

Computer tasks

Computers remain important for creative tasks. You could edit a movie or write a book on a phone. Yet who would want to when these jobs are easier with a big screen and a keyboard?

Phones and phone-derived devices are pushing into new areas all the time.

You can view tablet computers as big phones.

Apple makes iPads with slots for Sim cards, there are Android tablets that do the same. Technology doesn’t get much more phone-like than that.

While tablets are not designed for voice calls, that’s no longer a phone’s primary function.

Phoning it in

When 5G mobile is everywhere and wireless bandwidth is cheaper and plentiful, you might wonder how you ever computed without an ever-present internet connection.

Apple blurs the lines between device classes. It uses Arm processors everywhere. iPhones, iPads and MacBooks share a lot of common technology.

Microsoft has an issue running Windows apps on an Arm processor. Few developers have rewritten Windows app code for these devices. The next version of Windows should fix that.

Yet Windows 11 can now run Android applications. That is, apps that were made for phones. The convergence is underway. Likewise, Apple’s new Macs can run iPhone apps.

The next generation

Arm processors are at least a generation ahead of anything Intel has. The traditional chip maker is in a tailspin and does not have a plausible roadmap.

MacBooks and Surfaces sit at the high end of the portable computer market. Chromebooks live at the opposite end. They come from a different tradition, in effect, they are cloud computing terminals dressed up as laptops.

Chromebooks may be simple, but in their own way they are every bit as modern as MacBooks and Surfaces.

Always connected computer

There’s not much phone hardware in a Chromebook. Yet they share one important characteristic with phones. Both sets of devices need a constant internet connection to be any use.

You could work with a laptop on an internet-free desert island. A Chromebook is pointless without a connection.

Chromebooks, MacBooks, Surfaces, tablets feel like progress in a way an old-school Windows laptop can not. We’ve gone past an important turning point. In a few years we’ll look back and it will be obvious.

Digital Boost, Productivity Commission and living standards

On Tuesday small business minister Stuart Nash kicked off the Digital Boost Alliance. On Thursday a report from the Productivity Commission told us why business needs a digital shot in the arm.

The Digital Boost Alliance is a group of 20 companies. It was pulled together by Craig Young who heads Tuanz.

There are multinationals like Microsoft and AWS in the mix. You’d expect that.

Business support

The local companies in the alliance are more interesting.

Money, an important part of the digital equation, is represented by the five main banks operation here. Then come local tech companies: Datacom, Xero and, if we accept Australia as local, MYOB.

New Zealand’s telecommunications sector is represented by Spark, 2degrees and Chorus. Vodafone is a notable non-starter.

CertNZ and MBIE are in the mix. So is The Warehouse. While founder Sir Stephen Tindall is a keen personal supporter of initiatives like this, the Warehouse Group sells a lot of technology and supporting products to small business.

Mindlab is a member. It hosted the launch event.

Access and training

Alliance members aim to improve small business access to digital technology. More important they will help businesses get the training needed to make use of technology.

Each partner offers something different. There are offers of discounts of products and services, extra support, employee training and research.

It’s a big, ambitious goal.

World beating

Nash says he wants New Zealand to have the world’s most digitally-enabled small business sector.

We have been here before. Other initiatives have had similar goals. The difference this time is there is more money, broader industry support. It is a public-private joint venture.

Nash says the government kicked-in $44 million for digital training and advice in this year’s budget.

He singles out cloud computing. He says it has great potential. “A 20 percent increase in the uptake of cloud computing could be worth another $6 billion to the economy.”

Small business web sites

One industry speaker said only half of NZ small businesses have a web site. The implication being this is a measure of how much further we need to go.

Having a web site can help small businesses. It’s an efficient way of finding and retaining customers.

Yet it is not always appropriate. Many small businesses are subcontractors. They don’t need to sell themselves online. Nor do they need to spend money advertising with Google or Facebook.

Their digital needs are elsewhere.

Small business barriers to digital

MYOB surveyed small business owners. The results are revealing.

  • 41 percent say cost is the barrier to technology adoption.1
  • 22 percent say staff training is the barrier
  • 21 percent say a lack of knowledge is the issue.
  • 23 percent say the problem is the time taken to implement.

At the event I spoke to a couple of blokes from Innate Furniture, a Christchurch small business who flew up for the launch.

I assumed their story was going to be about how they built a website and sales took off. Instead they told me how last year they moved all their backend systems to the cloud and how that made a real difference to the business.

This is where there are huge benefits.

Why Digital Boost matters

First, New Zealand’s economy is more dependent on small business than many other economies. Small business accounts for a larger share of our GDP and a bigger proportion of jobs.

Larger companies can afford to have technology specialists on the team. With smaller firms responsibility might be with the owner. Most likely it will be with someone without training or experience.

Second, New Zealand small businesses are smaller than you find in other countries.

We’re talking about companies with a less than a couple of dozen employees and the majority are much smaller than that. In other countries these would be called micro-businesses.

Productivity gap

Third, our productivity lags other countries. Today’s Productivity Commission report says New Zealanders work longer hours than people in other rich-world countries and produce less in each hour they work.

  • 34.2 hours a week compared with a 31.9 hours average in the OECD.
  • $68 of output an hour compared with $85 average elsewhere in the OECD.

These numbers affect our living standards.

Innovation is key

Commission Chair Dr Ganesh Nana says: “Innovation is the key to unlocking New Zealand’s productivity. There are only so many hours in the day that people can work, so creating new technology and adopting new and better ways of working is critical to achieving effective change.”

Which means the Digital Boost project is timely.

If there’s one area both the Digital Boost project and the Productivity Commission agree on is that we need to do more than move people to digital tools.

Show how

The key here is to show people how they can use these tools.

There is an echo with cyber security. Many managers and business people think spending money on security products will solve the risks.

It can help, but without educating employees on how to think in more security conscious ways, that spending is wasted.

Spending money on new computers, software and services is a start. Yet it’s crucial to set aside part of the tech budget for training.

Skills essential for digital boost

Skills are essential to unlock the potential.

Likewise, it is important to use technology where it has the most benefits.

It’s no accident that Xero and MYOB are behind Digital Boost, moving to digital account keeping, tax paperwork and electronic invoicing can have an instant pay-off for a small business.

If Digital Boost delivers, Nash says it can be worth billions of dollars each year to the New Zealand economy.

That’s great, but meaningless to individuals, what matters more is that it has the power to lift everyone’s standard of living.

Talking on RNZ about Digital Boost

You can hear me talking about this with Kathryn Ryan on RNZ Nine to Noon in new research into the impact AI could have on our work-lives. The broadcast also covers the potential to help shorten the working week and how CD-Roms are finally about to stop working…

Google docs drops geared-for-print

Google has finally dropped the idea that the end goal of Google Docs is to print words on a sheet of paper.

It’s been a long time coming.

When personal computers were new, word processors were all about print.

But it is now years since everyone used computers to produce printed documents. We may not have the promised paperless offices, but there is a lot less paper in the modern workplace.

These days documents usually spend all their time in a pure digital format.

Yet, until now, editing tools remain geared to print.

Word processors

Take Microsoft Word. You can’t use it for long before seeing a page break. Yes, you can use the web layout view which doesn’t have breaks. But that’s ugly to read as you put down words. And the outline view is for specialist uses.

Likewise Apple’s Pages or the Writer section of LibreOffice. They all assume you want to print documents on paper.

Dive in deeper and you’ll find word processor settings for page headers and footers. Again, these features are print-oriented.

Text editors have a digital-first perspective. But they still nod to printed pages at times.

Google Docs has offered an option not to show pages for years. I wrote Word processor software still geared to print on the subject in 2014.

Google Docs part of Workspace refresh

This week Google announced sweeping changes to Workspace, a set of tools that includes Google Docs.

The big idea behind these changes is that you are no longer working to put words on paper. It’s a symbolic move. It’s a philosophical move and it’s also a practical move.

Instead, Google Docs becomes part of a bigger picture: dynamic, interactive documents that integrate with other tools. This includes embedding video, even links to video conference meetings.

The challenge for Google is that many customers liked Google Docs the way it was. They may not print much these days, but the concepts and workflows are familiar. There’s no discontinuity adapting to a fresh approach.

There’s a lot more coming from Google. More to write about here. Yet for now, Google has untethered its popular word processor from print.

That’s progress.