Microsoft grew big on the back of Windows, its PC operating system and Office, the software people and businesses use to create written documents, crunch numbers and build presentations. Now the company is moving into hardware devices and cloud computing. For a while it looked as if Microsoft was losing relevance, but that seems to be changing.
You can slide a wafer-thin device between Apple and Microsoft’s New Zealand slate market share.
IDC New Zealand reports Apple shipped less than 1000 more detachable or slate devices than Microsoft in 2016.
The total market for the year was 80,000 units. Apple had a 32 percent market share, which is around 25,600 units. Microsoft was at 31 percent, a shade under 25,000 units.
Detachable is a curious market to measure. IDC defines it:
“A slate tablet is a portable, battery-powered computing device with a screen size 7-inches to 16-inches.
In addition to the attributes of a slate tablet, a detachable tablet is designed to function as a stand-alone slate tablet as well as a clamshell device through the addition of a detachable keyboard designed specifically for the device.”
IDC New Zealand mobile device market analyst Chayse Gorton says this includes Apple’s 12.9-inch and 9.7-inch iPad Pros. Yet both sell without detachable keyboards and not every buyer uses them with one1.
The category includes Microsoft Surface Pro, Surface Book, HP Envy and others.
Slate-tablet distinction blurry
It is distinct from traditional laptops. The distinction between slates and tablets like non-Pro iPads is blurry.
Either way, Apple topped the market in 2016. Microsoft is second. It had been number one for the years 2013, 2014 and 2015. Microsoft’s shipments climbed three percent from 2015 to 2016.
It was a bonza year for detachable sales. Shipments2 increased from 55,000 in 2015 to 80,000 — a year-on-year increase of 45 percent.
The runners-up are, in order: HP on nine percent; Samsung on seven percent and Acer also with seven percent. Other brands were less than 15 percent.
Gorton says Microsoft faces competition from a range of models running Windows. Its share of the Windows detachable market fell from 58 percent in 2015 to 50 percent in 2016.
“Competing windows detachables often have similar specifications to Microsoft detachables, but are frequently sold at a lower price. Given New Zealand is a price conscious nation, a lower price, even by small a margin can be enough to entice a consumer to purchase from a competing vendor”, he says.
Gorton says Microsoft sharpened its premium market position introducing high-end models and halting low-end models. It introduced the Surface Book early in the year and dropped the Surface 3 from its line-up.
IDC expects detachable shipments to grow between 25 and 30 percent in 2017. From the market will start to flatten off.
You could argue the iPad Pro and Windows devices are not direct head-to-head rivals. It’s possible there are buyers who would weigh up an iPad Pro against these Windows devices. Yet for the most part the two groups inhabit parallel universes. ↩︎
Shipments is a normal term for this kind of survey. Most of the time it means how many devices vendors sent from warehouses to retailers. It gets tricky with detachables because Apple and Microsoft sell direct. ↩︎
If 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.
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.
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. ↩︎
This level of fluidity is unprecedented. In many respects it has never been easier to move from Mac to Windows or Windows to Mac.
Yet switching from one to the other or for that matter to Linux or a Chromebook can be trouble. It can be so much trouble that you need powerful reasons to move.
A missing HDMI port is not enough reason.2 At least not on its own.
Wrench number one is that most long-term computer users have invested in one or more expensive apps that don’t make a good journey to the alternative operating system.
This is less of a problem now that many apps are cloud-based or purchased as a subscription. It’s not going to worry anyone who uses, say, Xero.
If, say, you move from a Mac to a Windows machine, and use Microsoft Office then you can kill the MacOS account and download the applications to your new Windows computer in a matter of minutes.
You can keep your iCloud account active long after moving to Windows. Likewise, Microsoft OneDrive works well on Macs.
More specialist applications and games can be more troublesome.
There aren’t many third-party hardware devices still limited to only Apple or Windows. Printers, back-up drives, routers and so on can make the switch in minutes.
If you like a big screen or typing on a mechanical keyboard your old devices will all work with your new computer. Although you may need to buy a dongle to connect them to the ports on the new machine.
You may run into unforeseen compatibility problems between devices like phones or tablets. iPhones and iPads play nice with Windows PCs and Macs, but the experience is much better when you are all Apple.
Likewise, the flow between your Android phone and your Windows laptop will be different if you switch to a Mac. Maybe not worse; different.
There will be minor niggles.
Standardisation and convergence mean from a hardware and software point of view moving from Windows to Mac or Mac to Windows isn’t a big deal.
However, moving your brain from one way of thinking to another is harder.
This isn’t so much of a problem for casual users who don’t dive too deep into their operating system. There will be frustrating mysteries in their new system, but there already are in the old one.
More sophisticated users can struggle. All of us who work many hours each day with computers develop habits, learn shortcuts and productivity hacks to get more done in less time. These rarely translate from one operating system to another.
You’d be surprised how many you have accumulated over the years.
It can take hours to get used to the basics of a new operating system, it can take months to get to peak productivity.
This is why moving can be trouble.
Within hours of firing up a new computer with a different OS you’ll take delight in features that were missing from your old one.
Not long after you’ll start to wonder why simple things that were so easy with your old computer are suddenly hard — or even seem impossible.
You have to build this learning curve into your planning before moving.
If you are unhappy with what you have, if your frustrations have reached boiling point or if you like the look of that fancy new computer then by all means move to another operating system.
While changing may be rewarding in the long-term, in the short-term it could be harder than you expect.
You could see these differences as a fork in portable computing’s evolutionary path.
Most people considering one of these two laptops will have already made up their mind. A number will weigh the two up and choose the computer that most suits their needs.
There are matters to consider. You may prefer Windows 10 or MacOS. Perhaps you invested a fortune in apps. You could have a lifetime of habits, skills and muscle memory tied up in one or other operating system.
You may have a deep-seated philosophical or ideological objection to Apple or Microsoft. This may, or may not, be rational.
You may want a device with a detachable screen that acts as a tablet. It possible you need plenty of ports or you have an aversion to dongles. You may want to punish Apple for not keeping faith with whatever was on your personal MacBook Pro wish list.
Or you might like the look of the Touch Bar.
All these considerations are valid. Only a fool would spend a few thousand dollars without thinking them through. The important thing is you have a real choice between two quite different machines.
What you do with your hands
Switching from one line to the other is more than just a one-off investment in a new laptop.
Yet the most important choice between the two ranges is simple and fundamental question:
Do you prefer to work where your hands stay on the keyboard plane or are you happier reaching up from the keyboard to hunt and peck screen buttons?
Apple thinks you’ll be more productive and comfortable keeping your hands on one plane. Microsoft begs to differ.
Getting this decision right is vital. It depends on what you do with your computer.
People who touch type, who write vast numbers of words each day might do better going with Apple’s keyboard-centric approach. 1
If you use your laptop more as a consumption device, then Microsoft’s touch-screen way of working may better suit your needs.
Again there’s a qualification: may. Some readers who want a touch screen computer could be better served with something else. That could be an iPad Pro or it could be another brand of tablet.
There are qualifications here because you don’t need me to tell you what to buy2. Once you’ve figured out how the physical user interface relates to the way you work, you’ll know yourself which is right for you.
The question may be simple, the answer is not.
Clash of ideas
Both computers appeal to the same class of demanding, well-heeled user. They both look and feel good. Both deliver enough power. They both cost a lot compared with alternatives.
Apple is sticking with the clamshell-keyboard-screen laptop format that has been around in one form or another since the early 1980s.
While it uses an old format, the MacBook Pro is not conservative. You only have to listen to the critics who decry the lack of ports or sneer at the Touch Bar to realise just how different it is to what went before.
Computer makers don’t alienate customers with incremental design changes.
The Surface Book has an elegant approach to docking and undocking the two parts. Most hybrids involve compromise. They sacrifice something of their laptop personality and part of their tablet identity.
Microsoft avoids this.
It can sound pompous to talk of philosophy in this context, but there is a clear divide in the thinking behind Microsoft and Apple’s designs. It goes beyond the hands flat or hands moving between screen and keyboard choice.
Microsoft built its device for people who want both a laptop and a tablet in a single package. Most likely, people who buy a Surface Book will use it as a laptop most of the time with occasional tablet forays.
The Surface Book has a touch screen. This isn’t because it can function as a tablet, it’s because Microsoft sees touch screens as the future.
Microsoft bet the farm on touch technology when it released Windows 8. That was a mess of an operating system. It belongs among the great technology missteps of modern times. The mistake could have killed a less robust business than Microsoft.
Consumers are less keen on touch screen laptops than Microsoft anticipated. There are good reasons for this. Touch interfaces are still clumsy. The jarring step between Windows tablet mode and desktop Windows is still not resolved.
This makes for cognitive dissonance. The effect is not as pronounced in Windows 10 as in Windows 8, but it has not gone away. If you’re a Windows user and you don’t like or need the touch interface, it is easier to ignore in Windows 10.
The Surface Book is the most expensive Windows laptop choice. You’ll be hard pressed to find an everyday computer that costs more. Although if it meets your needs, the Surface Book is worth every penny.
You can buy a Surface Book for NZ$2750. That money gets you a model with only 128GB of storage and an i5 processor. Going all the way to a i7 power plant and 1TB of storage will lighten your bank account by NZ$5800.
That’s a big investment. Yes, if you work all the time with your computer and it lasts more than a couple of years it only amounts to $50 a week.
Apple’s prices are at the same nosebleed altitude. A bare bones 13-inch 2016 MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar but with 256GB of storage and an Intel i5 processor costs NZ$2500.
If you crank the spec up all the way to a 2.9GHz i7 chip and 2TB of SSD storage, a graphics card and extra graphics memory then you can spend a whopping NZ$7250.
As with the Surface Book, you’re only going to go for the full monty if you run applications that need all the power. If you do, then the price of the hardware is among the least of your problems.
Apple touch screen
Apple doesn’t offer touch screen laptops. At least it doesn’t offer touch screen laptops running MacOS.
You could argue the iPad Pro with Apple’s Smart Keyboard or with a decent third-party keyboard gives you what amounts to a laptop.
Whatever that is and whatever its merits, it does not compete with the Surface Book or the MacBook Pro.
It’s possible Apple may one day build an iPad with the power and versatility of a Surface Book or MacBook Pro. It won’t be soon, the chips needed to build such a device don’t exist today.
Might because my experience is touch screen computers are painful after hours of typing. They may not trouble you. ↩︎
Often when I write about comparisons readers think I’m telling them what to do. That’s not my aim. ↩︎
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. 
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.
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. ↩