surface book
Microsoft Surface Book

Is it time to swap your Mac for a Windows laptop? 1

You don’t have to look hard to find similar stories elsewhere. A number appeared after Apple launched the MacBook Pro in late October.

Other Apple users used social media to wonder out loud about jumping to Windows or to announce an actual move.

And Windows users are thinking of moving to Mac.

On one level moving is easy

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.

Wrenching…

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.

Cloud

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.

Phones

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.

Brain

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.

Peak productivity

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.


  1. Spoiler alert: After testing the Surface Book Hern is not moving. ↩︎
  2. If you’re a disgruntled MacBook Pro user you’d have to be crazy to spend up to NZ$6000 on a Surface Book because of a missing port. In comparison dongle costs are nothing. ↩︎

PC sales have fallen for five years. They will never return to the glory days. But the PC is a long way from extinction.

Many of us still need personal computers for our work. They perform tasks phones and tablets cannot. They perform other tasks better than phones or tablets.

Not everybody needs to perform those tasks. And not everyone needs to do them well.

PCs are no longer centre stage. That’s one reason we don’t need to replace them as often as before.

For the most part newer computers are also better made. Another reason we spend less time upgrading them.

Five years of decline

Less need means fewer sales. The computer industry reports 2016 will show another year of declining shipments. That means five years of falling shipments and sales.

Sales may fall, but the market remains huge. It will stay big for some time yet. Last year the industry shifted close to US$175 billion of hardware.

That’s a lot of money. The bulk of it goes to half-a-dozen companies. They all come away with billions in revenue, if not profit.

There are bright spots. Sales of hybrid devices that combine elements of traditional laptops and tablets are booming. IDC Australia reports convertibles — another name for hybrids — grew 91 percent year on year. New Zealand is seeing a similar interest in these models. It a small sector compared with the entire market, but enough for a renewed optimism in some quarters.

Two other PC sectors are strong.

Life at the top

High-end computers, especially laptops, continue to sell in large numbers. Apple and Microsoft show computer makers can command premium prices. The MacBook Pro and Surface Book models are not cheap, but sell well.

Business, media and creative types will pay more for better quality, powerful PCs. They want modern specifications, sleek designs and innovative new features. Microsoft’s latest Surface Studio fits this category.

While some whinge about new MacBook Pros’ missing features, they sell in reasonable numbers.

Apple shows one way for laptop makers to succeed. It sells few computers compared with, say, HP. It isn’t among the top five PC makers by unit numbers. But Macs make Apple more than US$20 billion a year in revenue.

Moreover Apple makes a profit from computers. By some estimates it makes more profit from its small market share than some of the big guns make.

Most PC makers have seen sliding sales. The downturn has not hit Apple as hard. It had one declining year in 2012, otherwise it has grown while the others decline.

Cause for optimism

Sales of high-end laptops are set to grow this year and next. The growth may be sluggish; one or two percent at best. Yet compared with the total market which is dropping at 10 percent or more, that is reason for optimism.

The other bright spot is with low-priced models. Chromebook sales are racing ahead in some parts of the world. This year they will account for 15 percent of US PC sales.

If the high-end and the low-end are growing, there’s a collapse in the middle of the market. In effect, there are now two distinct PC markets. Cheap and cheerful machines at near throw-away price or glitzy high-end models.

Disappearing middle

After five years of decline, PC makers are learning how to cope with the disappearing middle. Until this year brands like HP and Lenovo would pump out models to fill every niche regardless of the demand. Then discount the unwanted models until stocks cleared.

If you think that sounds like a recipe for losing money, you’d be right.

Today they are more selective. The big brands are more focused on selling the models with the best margins. That means moving upmarket and moving down-market, not messing with Mr Inbetween.

Both HP and Lenovo have improved profits by learning which machines not to make. HP’s strategy is paying off. In the most recent quarter it saw better than expected growth of 2 percent.

It’s not much, margins are still wafer thin, but they are improving.

 

Surface Book
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.  ↩

surface book
Microsoft Surface Book

A year ago Microsoft launched its first laptop. Last week the Surface Book had a refresh. It remains the best take on a 2-in-1 computer, but at a high price.

All Windows computer makers offer riffs on the laptop-cum-tablet format. There are many designs to choose from at a range of prices. Yet twelve months after it first appeared, Microsoft’s Surface Book still offers the best balance of features. Hybrids and 2-in–1s are everywhere. For the last two years they have been the fastest growing PC segment. Scrub that, they are the only growing PC segment in recent times. Most 2-in–1 devices involve compromise. Often you end up with something that is not the best laptop, not the best tablet. Many hybrids feel like tablets with keyboards attached as an afterthought. Microsoft takes a different approach with Surface Book. It more than passes muster if you only use it as a laptop.

Laptop first

Some Surface Book users may never move beyond using it as a conventional laptop. Yet that misses something. Hit a key to unlock the screen. The Surface Book becomes a large Windows 10 tablet similar in many respects to the 12.9 inch Apple iPad Pro. While most hybrids are tablet first, laptop second, the Surface Book is laptop first. If you think the distinction between tablet first and laptop first is splitting hairs, think again. The Surface Book is a first class laptop. Feature for feature it matches, often beats many premium Windows laptops. Most people reading this would be happy with its performance, design and weight None of the rival hybrids come close in that department.

First-class Surface Book

Although the original Surface Book is a year old, it still runs fast. The review model has a sixth-generation Intel Core i5 CPU, 8GB of memory and a 256GB solid-state drive. It sells for NZ$2750. Well-heeled users can push the specification of the original Surface Book. Go all the way with 16GB of memory, 1TB of SSD storage, an Intel Core i7 processor and a separate Nvidia GeForce GPU. That will cost NZ$5800. Newer Surface Books are faster. They have a more powerful graphics processor and longer battery life. The new top of the line will set you back by NZ$6000.

Pleasing to typists

You get an excellent back-lit keyboard. The keys are well spaced. They have enough travel to please touch typists. As a writer I’d consider buying the Surface Book for the keyboard alone. I haven’t seen a better laptop keyboard in years. Microsoft has also chosen a great trackpad. It’s bigger than many Windows laptop trackpads and is responsive. This makes it easier to navigate the screen without taking your hands off the keyboard. It reminds me of the old-school mechanical Apple MacBook trackpads. Microsoft has packed such a full compliment of ports into the Surface Book that it feels almost retro. The power port doesn’t do double duty as anything else. There are two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot, a Mini-DisplayPort and 3.5 mm headset jack. The Surface Book is thick and heavy by MacBook or Ultrabook standards. It weighs 1.5kg. That’s more than we’re used to and a touch uncomfortable at times. You’re compenstated for extra heft by a better than usual combination of keyboard, touch screen and battery life.

Detachable screen

When you use the Surface Book as a laptop, a locking system holds the screen in place. Hit the detach key or the right onscreen icon and the muscle wire system releases the tablet. You have to have power to do this, the release mechanism is both mechanical and electronic. You can turn the screen around on the keyboard base to use as a display. Fold it all the way over and it becomes a tablet with the keyboard still attached. It sounds unlikely, but you may want to do this. The bottom, keyboard part of the Surface Book has all the ports along with extra battery capacity. You can also put a graphics card in this section.

Windows tablet

Surface Book has an excellent screen. The display is as sharp as iPad and it has the 3:2 aspect ratio. At 13.5 inches it is larger than the 12.9 inch iPad Pro in size or roughly the size of an A4 magazine. Microsoft has included great speakers which mean the tablet is ideal for watching video. Although the tablet is thin — just 7.5mm — it houses the computer electronics. This makes it bigger and heavier than most tablets, but in one sense it can do more. In another sense it can’t. That’s because it runs Windows 10. Whatever your views on Windows 10, it lacks the depth and quality of pure tablet software you can find on the iPad. There also seem to be less tablet software options than Android. You won’t get as much battery life from the tablet part of the Surface Book as from other tablets. In practice it lasts between 3.5 and 4 hours depending on your applications.

The big picture

At 13.5-inch, the display is bigger than the 12.9 inch iPad Pro or the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 tablet. Microsoft. Uses the 3:2 screen ratio, which feels better than 16:9 when used as a tablet. Resolution is 3000 by 2000 pixels, this makes for stunning images. While it is more generous than most tablets or laptops it doesn’t match the 4K displays. Unless you’re using it to edit 4K video, you won’t notice the difference. Microsoft includes a Surface Pen with the Surface Book. In practice this works best when you use the device as a tablet. Clicking the pen fires up OneNote, just like on the Surface Pro. The Surface Book has two batteries. There is one in the base and one in the screen. When you use the device as a laptop you get close to two working days, about 15 hours. That’s enough for the longest flight. When used as a tablet you only four hours, which is lower than most tablet-only alternatives.

Niggles

In use I found the Surface Book wouldn’t automatically switch to tablet mode when released from the keyboard base. And a couple of times it fired up even with a closed lid. On many occasions I’d close the lid and it would continue to chime notifications. One last positive. Because it’s from Microsoft, there’s no bloatware.

Verdict

You get a beautiful screen and great performance with the ability to switch to a tablet when that helps. Microsoft managed to fit a useful new device format into a gap no-one could see. For want of a better name, it’s a premium hybrid PC, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. If you want a powerful Windows laptop that doubles as an occasional tablet and have the budget, this is by far the best option.

IBM says Macs cheaper than PCsThe jamf blog covers a presentation by Fletcher Previn, VP of Workplace as a Service at IBM:

In 2015, IBM let their employees decide – Windows or Mac. “The goal was to deliver a great employee choice program and strive to achieve the best Mac program,” Previn said. An emerging favorite meant the deployment of 30,000 Macs over the course of the year. But that number has grown. With more employees choosing Mac than ever before, the company now has 90,000 deployed (with only five admins supporting them), making it the largest Mac deployment on earth.

But isn’t it expensive, and doesn’t it overload IT? No. IBM found that not only do PCs drive twice the amount of support calls, they’re also three times more expensive. That’s right, depending on the model, IBM is saving anywhere from $273 – $543 per Mac compared to a PC, over a four-year lifespan.

IBM is now the biggest Mac user, so the business technology giant’s experience is important. By any standard 90,000 users is a significant sample size. The total cost of ownership matters when you measure users in tens of thousands.

And we’re talking here about the company that started the PC ball rolling 35 years ago. That must count for something too.

 

Gartner reports the PC industry shipped some 69 million units in the third quarter of 2016. That’s a 5.7 decline on the same period in 2015 and the eighth consecutive quarter of falling sales.

Meanwhile, the business is consolidating into fewer and fewer hands. The top six PC brands accounted for 78 percent of all shipments during the quarter. That’s up from a shade under 75 percent a year earlier.

Gartner says Lenovo remains the leader with 20.9 percent of the global market. HP is a nose behind with 20.5 percent.

Realistically, the two are neck and neck given the margin of error in these kinds of reports. And anyway, the numbers are provisional. Gartner says these rankings could change when it publishes the final shipment results.

Lenovo may not stay at the top. Its sales have fallen for the last six quarters. A rebooted HP and Dell have both grown sales in the last year.

Acer is the biggest loser among the top brands. Its sales are down more than 16 percent on a year earlier. Apple also fell by double digits as customers wait for long overdue new Mac models.

You don’t need to be a market analyst to figure out why sales are falling. PCs are better made. They last longer than ever before and, away from gaming, there are less compelling reasons for regular upgrades.

Meanwhile a lot of users, especially in the developing world find that phones can handle all or most of their computing needs.

Preliminary Worldwide PC Industry Unit Shipment Estimates for 3Q16 (Thousands of Units)

Company

3Q16 Shipments

3Q16 Market Share (%)

3Q15 Shipments

3Q15 Market Share (%)

3Q16-3Q15 Growth (%)

Lenovo

14,434

20.9

14,789

20.2

-2.4

HP Inc.

14,058

20.4

13,744

18.8

2.3

Dell

10,111

14.7

9,856

13.5

2.6

Asus

5,397

7.8

5,271

7.2

2.4

Apple

4,946

7.2

5,709

7.8

-13.4

Acer

4,613

6.7

5,370

7.3

-14.1

Others

15,386

22.3

18,359

25.1

-16.2

Total

68,945

100.0

79,098

100.0

-5.7

Notes: Data includes desk-based PCs, notebook PCs and ultramobile premiums (such as Microsoft Surface), but not Chromebooks or iPads. All data is estimated based on a preliminary study. Final estimates will be subject to change. The statistics are based on shipments selling into channels. Source: Gartner (October 2016)

Surface Pro
Surface Pro

In mid–2013 I needed a new computer. Like many others I chose A MacBook Air instead of a Windows laptop.

It wasn’t my first Apple. In 1984 I bought one of the first 128k Macs. There were others.

Yet for twenty years my work had revolved around Microsoft Windows.

A vote against Windows

So why throw away the skills and software investment?

It came down to three reasons.

First, the 2013 MacBook Air’s all day battery. At the time no other laptop came close to this. With care you could eke out 12 hours. The best Windows laptops of the day could manage, perhaps, six hours. And that’s being generous.

Second, the MacBook Air is light and thin without compromising on the keyboard or touchpad. While many rival 2013 laptops were as light and thin, there were compromises.

Microsoft misstep

The third consideration is more complicated. It wasn’t so much that Windows 8 was an annoying, hard-to-use mess. Although that is true.

It was that Microsoft’s misstep opened the door to alternatives in ways earlier Windows upgrades did not.

Moving from Windows 8 was not going to be a wrench.

At around this time Windows 8.1 arrived. It was another dog’s breakfast. Microsoft doubled down the madness.

Windows 8.1 was meant to fix 8. It changed nothing.

The move from Windows 8 to OS X Mountain Lion proved less jarring than the move from Windows 7 to Windows 8. There was no going back.

There could have been going back.

Surface Pro

In mid–2013, Microsoft’s first Surface Pro was a promising alternative to the MacBook Air.

True, it was underpowered and overpriced. The first Surface models needed expensive add-on keyboards that are fine for casual use, but painful after hours of touch-typing.

Microsoft’s second generation Surface Pro was better. The keyboard wasn’t perfect but was usable.

Had they arrived a few months earlier, a Surface Pro may have graced my desk instead of the MacBook Air.

This may sound contradictory given the earlier comments about Windows 8. There is a simple explanation.

Windows 8 didn’t make sense on a two-year-old desktop computer. Nor did it make sense on a 2013 Ultrabook. Windows 8 was almost as bad on an ordinary 2013 touch screen PC.

Glimpse

You could see what Microsoft was trying to do with Window 8 when you tried it on a Surface.

Windows 8 still wasn’t great. Yet on a Surface it showed occasional glimpses of logic. There were hints of elegance.

As Apple might say; it just works.

Maybe it doesn’t work well as you’d hope. Yet on a device that acts as both a laptop and a tablet Windows 8 was no longer incoherent.

Coherence isn’t the first word that springs to mind with Windows 10. Yet, for the most part, that’s what distinguishes it from Windows 8.

If you’re using Windows 10 on a laptop without a touch screen, you won’t find yourself accidentally dropping into tablet mode. It acts like a laptop operating system.

A laptop operating system that acts like a laptop operating system shouldn’t be a big deal. But that was the problem with Windows 8. It didn’t act like a laptop operating system or a PC operating system.

Apple operating system

When I chose the MacBook, I turned to Apple for the hardware and stayed for the software.

It took time to warm to OS X.

The first thing I did after taking my new MacBook Air out of its box was install Windows 7.

For a while the MacBook Air was a Windows laptop. It may have been the best Windows possible laptop of the time. The MacBook was snappier, lighter and had longer battery life than anything that came with Windows installed.

Over time I moved to OS X. It was a revelation. Life was easier, work was easier, everything was easier. My productivity soared.

Robust alternative

OS X, or macOS as it’s now called, isn’t perfect. It has flaws and annoyances. On the plus side it is robust in ways that Windows never was. You can go months without rebooting. Try doing that with Windows 8.

These days a lot of computing takes place in the browser. You can do almost everything there.

That’s the thinking behind the Google Chromebooks. They use a browser as an operating system. With so much software now being delivered as an online service, operating systems take a back seat.

This is an area where Windows will struggle to recapture its greatness. When everything revolved around operating systems, Microsoft called the shots in the computer industry. Apple carved out a niche.

Browsers, clouds

Now the PC action is all in and around the browser and cloud computing. Today’s main battleground is with phone operating systems.

Microsoft is strong in cloud. It has first class cloud apps, but it lost the plot with phones.

You can still get phones that run Windows 10. Almost no-one buys them. Microsoft has little interest in selling Windows Phones. That may undermine other parts of the business.

Integration

In contrast Apple not only has the popular iPhone, but has found ways to integrate the iPhone with its laptop operating system.

It feels like magic when an incoming iPhone call gets the Apple Watch tapping your wrist and a notification appears on the MacBook. You can answer the call or respond to a text message on any of these devices. They act as a coordinated team.

Windows 10 fixes a lot of the Windows 8 problems. It’s the operating system Microsoft should have had in 2013.

The damage from a failed version will echo down the years at Microsoft. And elsewhere. While it isn’t the reason why PC sales plummeted in recent years, the Windows 8 debacle did not help.

Big numbers

Last month Microsoft trumpet that 400 million computers now run Windows 10. It’s an achievement. But let’s not forget in most cases Microsoft gave the software away.

Today it costs more than $100 for an everyday user to buy a Windows 10 upgrade. At that price Microsoft missed $40 billion in revenue.

It’s not just the money. Nor is it the loss of prestige or the distraction. There’s also a loss of momentum. Above all these, there’s the dawning realisation that Windows is no longer centre stage.

Nothing is going to fix that.

Dell Inspiron 13 5000

Dell sent a sample computer with a non-working trackpad. This meant we couldn’t do a full review. Here’s what we learned about the Dell Inspiron 13 5000 before Dell took it back for repair.

At a glance

For: Laptop, can work as a tablet. Keyboard.
Against: Heavy for a tablet. Some missing drivers. Touchpad on review model didn’t work.
Maybe: Performance. Display.
Verdict: Versatile, affordable compromise between tablet and laptop.
Price: From NZ$1200

Dell describes the Inspiron 13 5000 as a 2-in–1. That means it is a convertible touch-screen laptop with a dual hinge that lets you flip the screen over so it becomes like a tablet. The emphasis in that last sentence is on the word like.

In practice it is too heavy to use as a tablet except for short bursts. Buy an Inspiron 13 5000 if you want a touch-screen laptop that can do occasional tablet duty.

An old format

Inspiron’s 2-in–1 flip position echoes the first so-called Tablet PCs Microsoft introduced in the early 2000s.

Most users ignored them at the time. Today’s 2-in–1 models are better in every respect, but still imperfect. There’s a reason the early models never took off.

The best thing about modern 2-in–1s is they cost about 30 percent less than devices with similar specifications and detachable keyboards. Prices are not that different from standard laptops.

So you can save about NZ$300 if you’re prepared to put up with the shortcomings.

Because you can’t remove the Inspiron keyboard, you’re stuck with all the weight and bulk of a laptop when using it as a tablet.

Heavy tablet

The Inspiron 13 5000 is 20 mm deep and weighs 1.7 kg. That makes it heavy and thick even by laptop standards, let alone tablets.

In comparison the HP Elitebook Folio G1 is a shade under 1 kg. Apple’s MacBook Air weighs 1.35 kg. Keep in mind those computers cost twice as much.

The Inspiron is more than twice as thick as most tablets and three times as thick as an iPad Air.

Used as a handheld tablet it gets uncomfortable fast.

Unwieldy tablet

You need to be strong to hold it in one hand. The weight and the thickness combine to make the device unwieldy. Even if you had the strength to carry it in your hand, there’s too much heft to balance it.

It is more comfortable when you use it as a tablet on your lap. But still, it doesn’t compare with lighter, thinner alternatives.

Yet the Inspiron 13 5000 works fine as a tablet when resting on a flat surface. And the dual hinge arrangement means you can twist it to other useful positions. In a tent-like shape you can use it for desktop presentations.

Built to a price

If you’re in the market for a Inspiron 13 5000, it will be because you’re on a budget.

Dell gives you a lot of computer for the money. Inspiron 13 5000 models start at NZ$1200 for a computer with an Intel Core i3 processor, 4GB of memory and a hard drive.

At the top of the range is a NZ$2000 model with an Core i7 processor, 8 GB memory and 256 GB of solid state drive. The review machine has an Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB memory and a 256 GB solid state drive. It sells at $1700.

Inspiron is Dell’s consumer laptop brand. There are three levels. Low-end models are no frills laptops. Computer makers hate the word cheap but it’s appropriate. High-end Inspirons have top specifications and a metal finish.

Mid-range consumer laptop

The Inspiron 13 5000 sits between the two extremes. For the most part, the finish is matt grey plastic. It’s not ugly, but nor is it a work of art. Get rid of the sticker on the palm rest and it might look OK.

The plastic case is tough. In practice it can take a battering. There are screws underneath so you can upgrade components yourself if necessary.

Ports are going out of fashion with some laptop makers. Dell isn’t going there. The Inspiron 13 5000 has two USB 3.0 ports on the left along with a power inlet and a HDMI port. There’s a USB 2.0 on the right along with a SD card reader.

Dell Inspiron 13 5000 in use

The 13.3-inch touch screen is responsive and accurate enough. It has a 1920 x 1080 pixel display and a high gloss finish. Resign yourself to smudges. The blacks are solid and images are sharp. Text is easy to read.

Movies look fine, but the sound gets tinny if you crank up the volume. The speakers are under the case and don’t distort until you push them. There’s a good chance you will push them because they are not loud.

Dell’s chiclet style keyboard is OK. Not brilliant, not bad. It isn’t backlit. You’ll find better laptop keyboards, but maybe not at this price. It’s fine for everyday typists and touch typists.

Touch and go

As mentioned at the top of the page, the touchpad on the review machine didn’t work. This maybe be a driver problem or it could be a hardware fault. The system didn’t detect a touchpad.

It’s hard to know if we just had a bad machine or if there’s a wider problem. We heard of other Dell users experiencing trackpad problems, but that’s not a scientific sample.

When you fold the screen back, the device switches from laptop mode to tablet mode and the Windows 10 on-screen keyboard appears. During the reverse process, the physical keyboard snaps back into action.

Otherwise the Dell Inspiron 13 5000 performance was solid. The Intel Core i5 Running at 2.8 GHz and 8 GB memory are plenty for most applications. Everyday office apps run fine. There’s enough power for the 1920 by 1080 display, but you might hit the machines limits driving higher resolution graphics, especially if you are a gamer.

Push the computer hard and a fan starts with air passing though vents in the case. This is normal for laptops, but seems strange when the device is in tablet mode. It’s not a loud fan noise, but tablets are usually silent.

Dell says the battery is good for up to nine hours. Battery claims are often ambitious, this one is more than most. In practice the computer lasted less than seven hours on a single charge.

Dell Inspiron 13 5000 verdict

Putting the non-working trackpad to one side, the Inspiron 13 5000 is a good value laptop for someone on a budget. We recommend it for high school or university students.

You get a lot of computer for your money, performance is good and the 2-in–1 versatility can be handy at times. Just remind yourself it’s not a lightweight as a detachable.

HP Elitebook Folio G1 laid flat

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

Microsoft had a few goes at getting its laptop-PC hybrid ultraportable 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.

Personal computer sales peaked in 2011. In that year businesses and consumers bought around 360 million personal computers. IDC puts the number at 352 million. Gartner says it was 365 million. Consumer PC sales were about half the total.

It has been downhill ever since.

At some point PC sales will stabilise. We’re not there yet.

For a while analysts following computer markets struggled to explain what happened. At first they blamed the economy. That was nonsense.

Compared to the economic shock of the global financial crisis in 2007 and 2008, the events of 2011 and 2012 were benign. PC sales grew through the GFC.

Blame Windows 8 for slow consumer PC sales

Some blamed Microsoft’s Windows 8. Earlier releases of new Windows versions boosted PC sales. Computer makers timed new models to coincide with the launch.

Not only did Windows 8 failed to deliver an uptick, it was the start of the slide.

Microsoft can shoulder some responsibility. Windows 8 was awful in many respects. Microsoft stumbled. The apologetic Windows 8.1 only emphasised the scale of Microsoft’s mistake.

Windows 9

It speaks volumes that Microsoft skipped Windows 9. Windows 10 is better. It got Microsoft and Windows back on track. But the underlying problem is not fixed. There was no PC sales boost along with the new operating system, no return to industry growth.

There was no compelling reason to move from Windows 7 to the confusing new Windows 8 operating system.

Betting the farm on an early, rapid and total market switch to expensive touch screen PCs proved as dumb in hindsight as it looked at the time.

Tablets

Windows 8 was Microsoft’s first response to tablets like the iPad. At the time tablets were selling fast and that hurt PC sales.

Microsoft’s second response was the Surface. It’s a better, more measured comeback.

Since Windows 8 launched tablet sales have also fallen. That is another story, but it’s not unrelated. Tablets exposed the PC to realities that were hidden or, at least, hard to see.

Incentives

The problem with tablets is users have fewer reasons to upgrade them. The first wave of iPads still do what they could do six years ago when first introduced. They may be wearing out now and need replacing.

Sure new iPads are better. They are lighter, have better screens, better sound, faster processors. They do more and are nicer to use.

On the whole, when it comes to the things that matter newer models don’t do much more than the first wave of tables. Not enough more to make upgrading essential.

Great hardware

It turns out you can say the same about PCs. The 2016 crop of PC hardware is great. Today’s computers are a huge improvement on, say, 2010 models in almost every department.

Modern laptops are lighter, easier to carry, their batteries last longer. Their screens are more pleasing to look at.

Yet they don’t do anything to make everyday users more productive than their earlier counterparts.

Action elsewhere

That’s because for the best part of a decade now, all the technology action that matters takes place elsewhere. The important new apps are online, most productivity gains are in the cloud. Remote data centers do the heavy lifting.

PCs and tablets are little more than portals into that world. Xero’s small business accounting software is as efficient on a clunky old PC as on a spanking new one. You can use a tablet. Or, for that matter a phone. It’s still efficient.

Citius, altius, fortius

The days of faster, higher, stronger are over.

You still need physical devices to be productive or entertained, but, up to a point, any old device will do.

Or, to put it another way, you won’t get a productivity boost from spending on a new computer or tablet.

Nice to have

What you money will buy is a better experience. Newer devices are nicer to use, they are more comfortable, more pleasing on the eye. That’s not always a spending priority. It comes higher up the hierarchy of needs.

Congratulations if that’s where you are, most computer buyers are not. They are more focused on satisfying basic needs.

Buying software and online services is a better investment than a hardware upgrade.

Where next for consumer PC sales?

PC sales are never going to rebound. It’s easy to talk of a post-PC era, but it’s more than that. Tablet sales won’t rebound either and phone sales have flattened.

The western world is past the saturation point for digital devices. The developing world is not far behind. There are still deprived pockets, but few untapped markets.

This doesn’t mean the end of the line. Sales will stabilise at a point where they meet the replacement demand.

From here on in personal hardware sales are all about replacing retired, worn out or broken devices. The job now is to make better replacements. That means building better cloud portals and better experiences.