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Personal computers or PCs remain important despite their numbers falling behind phone handsets.

PC shipments up: Recovery or dead cat bounce?

PC shipments perked up in the second quarter of the year. While this is the first increase in six years, no-one is talking about a revival yet. It could be what people in the finance industry call a dead cat bounce.

Both Gartner and IDC published sales estimates showing a small increase in sales. Gartner put the increase at 1.4 percent. IDC has a more bullish 2.7 percent increase.

It’s worth noting here the two market research companies are not measuring quite the same thing.

Also, a shipment is not a sale. It is a computer that has moved from a factory to a retailer’s warehouse. But PC supply chains are tightly managed so, in general, shipments closely mirror actual sales.

PC Shipments joy not evenly spread

IDC’s more bullish estimate includes sales of PC-like devices such as Chromebooks, but doesn’t not include Windows tablets such as Microsoft’s Surface Go. Gartner counts a Windows tablet with an attached keyboard as a PC. Its number does not include other tablets nor does it include Chromebooks.

Both IDC and Gartner say that at least some of the increase is down to business computers running Windows 10.

Mikako Kitagawa, a principal analyst at Gartner says: “PC shipment growth in the second quarter of 2018 was driven by demand in the business market, which was offset by declining shipments in the consumer segment.

“In the consumer space, the fundamental market structure, due to changes on PC user behaviour, still remains, and continues to impact market growth. Consumers are using their smartphones for even more daily tasks, such as checking social media, calendaring, banking and shopping, which is reducing the need for a consumer PC.”

All of which has been true since 2012.

Recovery or dead cat bounce

Kitagawa expects business sales to weaken again when the Windows 10 replacement cycle ends.

IDC says the top five PC makers all saw sales growth and collectively they now account for a larger share of the market. This year they make up 78 percent of all sales.

Gartner and IDC can’t decide whether the top PC company is Lenovo or HP. Gartner has Lenovo a nose ahead shipping 12,000 more units than HP. IDC has HP in front by around a million machines. Remember the two companies are measuring different things.

Both put Dell, Apple and Acer in that order behind the leaders. IDC and Gartner also agree that Apple experienced the least growth during the quarter. New MacBook Pro models this week could change that.

Neither of the market research companies is prepared to say if the PC shipments uptick is the start of something new, a one-off before the slide resumes or an indication that shipments have bottomed out. The only certainty is that these top five PC brands are likely to strengthen their hands against the rest of the market. PC manufacturing is a game when volume matters.

Windows no longer Microsoft’s main focus

Since taking over as Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella has remade the company. What was a PC giant is now a cloud and enterprise computing giant. And that has implications for Windows.

Microsoft’s latest financials underline the change. In the three months to December 2017 the company’s revenue was almost US$29 billion. Of that, what Microsoft calls Productivity and Business Processes was almost US$9 billion. Intelligent cloud made up almost US$8 billion.

The remainder, a little over US$12 billion, fell under the label of More personal computing. This unit includes Surface hardware, advertising and everything Xbox.

Given the gaming business brought in around US$4 billion, that means in round numbers, Windows accounts for only a quarter of today’s Microsoft.

That proportion is falling fast.

Windows stagnant as cloud, enterprise booms

Microsoft’s More personal computing business grew around one percent between the end of 2016 and the end of 2017. Intelligent cloud was up almost 15 percent. Productivity and Business Processes climbed 25 percent.

Draw a straight-line projection and Windows will be under 20 percent of Microsoft’s revenue by the end of this year. Within two to three years it will be less than 10 percent.

Microsoft’s accounting is hard to break down, but looks as if the operating system business is fading into the background.

Some parts of Windows have done more than fade. During the year Microsoft dropped Windows Phone. Then company admitted it failed to keep pace with iOS and Android.

You can’t dismiss the phone OS as a meaningless sideshow. Former CEO Steve Ballmer spent close to US$10 billion on it. This figure includes the US$7.6 billion write-down of the Nokia acquisition.

Poor performance

It would be fair to say Microsoft’s Windows strategy hasn’t been right since Windows 7. Some less kind souls say it hasn’t been right since XP. That’s extreme, yet Windows 8 was clearly a flop.

Windows 10 stopped the immediate rot, but did nothing to recover Microsoft’s reputation with uncommitted users. It’s no accident that PC sales have stayed in free fall since 10 appeared. Nor is it an accident that Apple sales have climbed in that time. Likewise Chromebook sales rocketed.

Those users who can are bailing out.

Something else is going on. Writing at ZDNet Ed Bott says: “Microsoft’s steady retreat from consumer products is nearly complete.” Bott’s story looks at how Microsoft has shifted its focus from the consumer towards business.

What’s next to go?

Bott doesn’t say so, but you could read between the lines when looking at the financial numbers and conclude that Windows could be next. He writes about Microsoft: “…shifting resources to business units that are thriving: enterprise software and cloud services”.

Go back to the financials mentioned earlier: those thriving business units do not include Windows.

People who are heavily invested in Microsoft and its OS may argue otherwise, but if you use another operating system and make occasional visit back, there’s a feeling things are running down. Not a lot, but there is a sense Windows is past its prime.

There’s also a sense Microsoft no longer has a clear vision for its operating system. Or maybe any vision.

A year ago Microsoft introduced Windows 10 S. The company said it was a new edition. On paper it sounded good. 10 S boots faster, is more secure, offers better battery life and is more robust in the sense that its harder to corrupt files.

These positives are down to the fact that Windows 10 S is a cut-down, limited version of Windows 10.

10 S was a mess

Windows 10 S turned out to be a mess. Nobody outside Microsoft seemed to like it. Reviewers panned it. Consumers hated it. It is another shot-in-the-foot disaster on the scale of Windows 8.

At the time of the launch the idea was that users could pay US$50 to switch to Windows 10 Pro. Microsoft would pack 10 S with a new computer. Customers buying a new PC would then be hit up for an extra charge later to unlock all the features of the computer they purchased. Almost everyone would want to upgrade. At Redmond it looked like free money.

Let’s hope no-one at Microsoft wonders why Chromebook and MacBooks are selling so well.

Last week Microsoft backtracks on that madness. It said users can now upgrade to Windows 10 at no extra charge.

The10 S debacle tells us Microsoft no longer employs its best thinkers on its operating system software. It suggests Microsoft doesn’t really care about the product any longer. After all, it doesn’t make much money.

Microsoft has a huge cash cow. The software is still installed on most of the world’s traditional computers — although not the pocket computers people now use most often. There are ways it can and will continue to squeeze money out of its huge installed base.

Ring out the old, ring in the new

And yet you can’t help getting the impression Microsoft’s top brass are no longer interested. That’s the old world; a declining empire. Meanwhile there are exciting new opportunities to chase in the cloud and enterprise spaces.

One possible way out would be for Microsoft to hive off Windows into a seperate business and sell or otherwise demerge the operation. This worked for IBM’s PC business, although not for IBM. A similar approach also worked up to a point for HP.

More likely Microsoft will continue to manage down its Windows operation. Sooner or later even the most die-hard fans will realise they are neglected. Apple and Chromebooks loom. There’s an opportunity for Android or for a revival of desktop Linux.

We’ll soon be in a post-Windows world. It’s just that two-third of computer users don’t realise that yet.

Duet Display uses iPad to extend Mac, PC scope

Duet Display started life as an iOS app to turn an iPad into a second screen for a Mac or Windows PC.

It has since moved on. The latest version adds a Touch Bar interface. There’s also an optional upgrade that turns an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil into an advanced drawing tablet.

I’ve been using Duet Display for a couple of years. It was great in its day. There are still times when it comes in handy.

Yet, changes to both Apple operating systems means it’s no longer as useful as it was. At least not for my purposes.

Turning an iPad into a second screen is a breeze.

You connect your iPad to a computer using the charging cable. This may seem odd in an era when everything is wireless. It turns out having wire between a computer’s USB port and an iPad’s Lightning connector gives Duet a huge advantage. The connection is fast, responsive and reliable. The two devices act as one.

Duet Display needs two apps

There are apps to install at both ends. The iPad app shows up as a normal icon, like any other iOS app. There is also an icon for the MacOS app. When the software is in use, you see a second, small icon on the Mac menu bar.

Duet Display takes no time to set up. It’s as easy as connecting the cable. Once connected, the iPad works exactly like you’d expect an external screen to work.

There are settings to fiddle with. My iPad is set up to work a 60 frames per second. There is a slower, more energy-efficient 30 frames per second option.

You can choose between four different resolutions. The highest Retina resolution on the iPad uses more power, you can wind it down. If I connect from my 1440 by 900 pixel MacBook Air there’s an option to mirror the screen.

Touch Bar

The other option is to add a Touch Bar to the bottom of the iPad display. While this can be handy with some apps, I find I don’t tend to use it.

In practice it pays to tinker with the settings to get everything right. Some of this is a matter of taste. Some of it is depends on the apps you use.

If, say, I run my MacOS Mail app on a 12.9-inch iPad Pro screen at the highest resolution, text is too small to read. It is worth cranking the resolution up that far to work with a graphics app.

Duet Display seems useful for productivity apps. I might have an editor open on the Mac screen and have a research document open on the iPad. This used to be the best way to work.

Today it is often simpler to use the Mac and iPad as standalone devices. Thanks to iCloud it is as easy to have the editor run on the Mac and use, say, Preview, to look at the research document on the iPad. Sharing documents between devices is trivial if you have iCloud.

Duet looks helpful if, say, I’m editing CSS or HTML and want to see my changes on the page in a browser. Again, this works as well, maybe better with two standalone devices.

Integration

If I had written this post 18 months ago, Duet Display would have been the best way to go. These days the Mac and iPad integrate so well with each other it is less essential. I can hit control-C on the Mac to copy, then post the information on my iPad.

There are still times when using it as a second screen is a productivity boost. Say, you’re working with two word processor documents. Having two open windows in the same instance of the application can be useful if you move text between them. It’s a fraction smoother than Apple handing over between iOS and MacOs.

Duet Display brings the iPad’s touch screen to the non-touch Mac. There are times when this is useful. MacOS isn’t designed for touch, so you won’t use it that much.

It also uses the Apple Pencil. Again, there’s not much MacOs support, so it’s of limited use.

The Mac app is free. I paid NZ$20 for iOS app. There is a NZ$32 in-app purchase to unlock the Pro version. That’s a lot of money by iOS app standards. Whether it is worth paying depends on your needs.

Pro version

Duet Display Pro version has more Apple Pencil support and better colour matching between devices. It means you can use your iPad as a drawing tablet with apps like Adobe Photoshop. That’s no use for me, I’m terrible at drawing, but if you have an artistic bent, it would be powerful.

You can use Duet Display with an iPhone, although it’s hard to see what benefit there is in having a tiny second screen.

At times Duet Display is useful and powerful. Those times are fewer than in the past. When they come around, it is an ideal and impressive way of solving a problem. It’s the kind of software you should know about and file away in your memory until you need it.

PC sales slump, but not as bad as feared

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

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

Simon Sharwood writes:

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

This is nonsense: not Sharwood’s reporting, what the analysts say.

The analysts are clutching at straws. Rising PC prices are not behind the PC sales slump, prices have only ticked up a smidgen. That is not enough to affect sales if there is an underlying demand.

PC sales slump shows lack of appetite

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

Two points stand out from the latest PC sales figures.

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

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

HP on a roll

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

Second, Apple moved up to fourth place. Apple’s year-on-year Mac sales are flat, in a falling market that means the company’s market share has climbed. It’s not much of a climb, about 0.3 percent, but that’s enough to move Apple past slumping Asus. Apple may not dominate unit sales, but it does better in terms of its share of PC market revenue. And let’s face it, for a small market share, it has a lot of influence over the sector.

Windows 10S — Microsoft tries locking down again

At first sight Microsoft’s Surface Laptop and Windows 10S launch is all about education. That was the company’s emphasis at the product roll-out in New York.

Yet there is more at stake here than putting computers in school bags.

The announcement outlines a strategy for the next stage of personal computing. If Microsoft pulls this off, it will once again dominate the sector.

On the Surface

Surface Laptop is Microsoft’s most ambitious touch screen hardware product to date.

Previous Microsoft devices; Surface Pro tablets, Surface Book, Surface Hub and Surface Studio, are all niche products. They cater for minority tastes.

The Surface Laptop is mainstream. It competes head on with hardware from brands like HP, Lenovo and Asus. The Surface Laptop is a direct challenge to Apple’s MacBook range.

It doesn’t directly address Google’s Chromebook, but Microsoft developed the Surface Laptop with that product in mind.

Chromebook

Chromebook is a basic, low-cost, easy-to-manage laptop. It has sold well. It is one of the few PC success stories of recent years. Chromebook sales have climbed while sales of most other computer formats have been in free fall.

It is more sucessful than Google’s rivals expected. Above all else the Chromebook is strong in education. Yet that’s only part of the story. IDC’s latest market survey says Chromebook are now selling well to commercial customers.

We can assume Microsoft understands the Chromebook threatens its PC business.

Chrome OS

Chromebooks run Google’s Chrome OS. In effect, the operating system is the Chrome browser.

Chrome OS is light on features. You can’t do everything with Chrome OS. You don’t have as much low-level control. But that’s a good thing for many customers.

Lots of users don’t need all the personal computer trimmings. They just want to get a limited set of tasks done in an unfussy way. This applies in spades to young school students.

More to the point, school students and their families are not willing or able to pay for a more powerful computer with a full operating system.

You can buy a Chromebook in New Zealand for less than NZ$400. Brands like HP, Asus, Acer and Lenovo all have versions. This is less than half the price of a mainstream laptop. It is about one-quarter the price of the cheapest Apple Mac.

In many schools Chromebooks have displaced Windows laptops.

Microsoft bothered

That bothers Microsoft. Aside from the impact on today’s market share and revenue, there is a risk people will get a taste for Chromebooks.

Youngsters growing up with school Chromebooks may stick with them later in life. Or if not Chromebook, something else that doesn’t involve Microsoft Windows. The no Windows habit could rub off on their families, friends and workplaces.

Microsoft wants to counter that threat.

The Surface Laptop looks great but it is not going to do that. For a start it is too expensive. It sells in the US for $1000. That’s four or five times the price of a Chromebook.

It is a premium 13-inch laptop, more a competitor to models like the MacBook, HP Spectre and Dell XPS 13. It’s lighter and thinner than a MacBook Air. It costs less and is more powerful.

That comparison is a whole other story that needs closer inspection. Maybe another post. We’re going to look at something more fundamental here.

While Surface Laptop is inexpensive compared to, say, a MacBook Pro or Surface Book, it’s not going to shake up the education market.

That job goes to Windows 10S.

Where Windows 10S fits

There are, of course, plenty of low-cost Windows laptops to choose from. Asus, Lenovo and Acer all have PCs in New Zealand that sell for under NZ$400. If you can afford a little more, there are plenty of better models for less than NZ$500.

Low-cost Windows laptops tend to be clunky and inelegant. They are not powerful by 2017 standards. But, like Chromebooks, they get the job done.

At least they would get the job done but for one problem. To claw back the dollars makers don’t earn from hardware sales, they load them with trial software. This often makes more money for the computer maker than they get from the hardware sale.

Crapware

Software makers pay to have their apps included as standard on PCs. They may call their products trial ware or use some other coy name. We know them as crapware.

The name is well deserved. These programs are ugly. They make for an awful user experience. They bombard people with messages. At times they can frighten less experienced or tech-savvy users. Some include marketing messages that border on blackmail.

Crapware often slows computers down. It can introduce security risks. More than one of these programs has included a serious malware payload in the past.

Other crapware programs report key information back to their owners behind the computer user’s back.

Even the best crapware is annoying. It can pop up with a distracting, unwelcome message at an inappropriate moment.

In effect, you can get a great deal on a low-end PC in return for accepting a steaming pile of crapware. What a time to be alive.

Windows 10S

By locking down the computer, Microsoft says Windows 10S will improve security and performance. It keeps things simple. Windows 10S makes it easy for administrators to manage fleets of computers.

And it locks out crapware.

If you choose to stick with Windows 10S, and that’s optional, then you’ll only be able to install apps from the official Microsoft app store.

Now that may not be what you want from a computer. But there are people who like the sound of this.

Remember Windows RT?

We’ve been here before. Windows RT was the Microsoft operating system on the first Surface Tablets. It had the same lock-down approach and similar restrictions. It was a commercial flop.

RT cost Microsoft hundreds of millions of dollars.

In practice, Windows RT was not an awful OS. After all Apple’s iOS is locked down in a similar way and that’s been a winner.

The issue is that Microsoft Windows users want different things from their devices to Apple users. One of them is the ability to run tons of obscure, esoteric and, in some cases, poorly written niche apps.

Creating a version of Windows that can’t run most Windows apps was a mistake.

Unlike Apple, Microsoft failed to make sure the app store was packed with all the must have apps. Using the RT store was like walking into a shop with dusty, empty shelves and few recognisable products or brands.

This time is different…?

You may ask yourself what’s different this time. The simple answer is that Microsoft will force Windows 10S on the market.

Most or at least many future Windows PCs will come with Windows 10S installed at the outset. Customers can upgrade, if upgrade is the right word here, to a full unlocked version of Windows 10 by paying US$50.

Inertia and a reluctance to spend any money means many customers will never upgrade.

Big guns buy-in

Another difference this time is that Windows hardware makers are joining the lockdown party.

Some of the biggest names will have Windows 10S laptops on sale within weeks. It’s going to be hard for PC buyers to ignore these machines. The list of companies already signed up is a who’s who of the hardware business.

With Windows 10S users will only be able to get apps from Microsoft’s App Store. That means the company gets to clip the ticket with every purchase.

Independent developers may whinge, but the same approach has worked well for Apple.

App gap

When it arrives a lot of popular Windows apps will not be available for Windows 10S. Among the stand-outs are the Chrome browser and iTunes. The pair may not be your favourite apps, but they are popular.

What happens when a user, who has paid a bargain basement price for their PC, learns they need to shell out another $50 to run Chrome or iTunes?

The deal is worse than that. When you switch to the full version of Windows, you lose a lot of the security benefits. The responsibility of managing your system returns. Again that may not worry you, but it will be a problem for some others.

Competition bashing

If you read the above section and thought Windows 10S will cause headaches for Microsoft’s biggest competitors, you’d be right.

It’s no accident Chrome and iTunes were mentioned above. Google and Apple need to put their games theory strategists onto this one. Do they invest in creating Microsoft app store versions of their software?

If they don’t they run the risk of being cast adrift from large numbers of their customers. Although it’s possible the disconnected customers might be the kind that don’t use their software anyway.

Ecosystem

If Google and Apple do build app store versions, they help Microsoft create a formidable ecosystem that may bash them again later.

Windows 10S is likely to be a hit with schools and organizations that want to impose order on PCs.

Otherwise there’s always a chance Microsoft’s customers may walk away from Windows 10S.

People don’t have many other places to go. Chrome OS is even more locked down. Apple is less so, but the nuances of its approach aren’t always understood.

Microsoft still accounts for the vast majority of PC operating systems. So it looks like it will succeed this time. But there’s always a possibility Windows 10S will be an RT rerun with even higher stakes.

Review: Lenovo ThinkPad E570 — old school laptop

Lenovo serves up a mid-price, not-so-small business laptop. The ThinkPad E570 is so traditional it borders on retro. It will please laptop conservatives. If you need greater mobility, look elsewhere.

Lenovo ThinkPad E570 at a glance:

For:Configurable
Latest processor
Against:Heavy
Large
Build quality
Maybe:No touch screen
Removable battery
Verdict:Mid-price large screen laptop. Will appeal to small business owners.
Price:From NZ$1100. Review model NZ$1300.
Website:Lenovo NZ

By 2017 standards, the Lenovo ThinkPad E570 is bulky. The review model weighs 2.4Kg. It measures 376 by 262 by 34 mm at its widest, broadest and deepest.

Part of the heft is because the case includes a large, bright 15.6-inch display and a DVD drive.

There’s a lot of plastic around the edge of the screen. Indeed, there’s a lot of black plastic full stop. It’s chunky and robust which adds protection but you’ll need a backpack to move it.

Another reason for the bulk is the battery and studs rise the base a few millimetres off a desktop. This gives breathing room so air can flow through vents. There’s also a heavy-duty fan vent on the left side of the case too.

Rough in places

An E at the start of a product number indicates the E570 is from the lower-price ThinkPad range. That means you get a lower quality finish than you’d find on more expensive models. It’s a little rough in places and the matt black plastic picks up smudges with a vengeance.

The front of the lid doesn’t sit flush with the bottom part of the computer. This makes it easier to open. The hinge has a small amount of give, but nothing to trouble anyone.

While the case is not pretty, it does look like Lenovo made the computer to do business. If you like the red and black ThinkPad look, you’ll be happy with the effect.

Desktop replacement

Given size and weight, you won’t want to carry the E570 all the time. If portability is important get something else. It makes a fine desktop replacement that can travel at a pinch.

A big case means there’s room for a full-size keyboard and numeric keys. The layout takes getting used to. A week or two of reviewing was not enough time to master the keyboard idiosyncrasies.

Among other things, having two backspace and one delete key in the top right corner is strange. Also odd is the off centre touchpad and the small space bar.

TouchPad

Because there’s no touchscreen, you’ll use the touchpad a lot. It’s small by 2017 standards. The little red signature ThinkPad cursor joystick is some compensation. In practice the touchpad is erratic, that could be a Windows 10 driver problem.

If you owned this computer and used it often, trackpad aside, all these things, would be no trouble after a few weeks.

The lack of a keyboard backlight is disappointing.

As already mentioned, there is no touchscreen. The display is 1366 by 768 HD format. There is a FHD 1920 by 1080 model that, at the moment, costs $100 more than the review computer.

It comes with a faster processor and a better video card, that’s a lot of extra value for $100.

One minor worry about the display is that the default setting is 100 percent brilliance. While that’s fine, there’s nothing extra for when you need a boost.

Video and everyday Windows apps work fine with the display. It’s not state-of-the-art, but its good considering the price tag.

Kaby Lake

The review model has an Intel i5 7200U processor running at 2.5GHz. That’s a Kaby Lake chip or the seventh generation of Core processors.

Intel says they are faster than last year’s processors, enough for users to notice. They are video optimised and should be more power efficient.

Lenovo says you can get eight hours on a single charge. As always, the manufacturer’s claim is pushing it. In practice, it works for a little over six hours before power supply nagging starts. Battery life isn’t so vital in a computer that will sit on a desk most of the time.

There’s a DVD drive, which feels anachronistic, but will please many users. There are three USB ports — again, that pleases some users not others. Lenovo also includes HDMI, Ethernet, a multi-format card reader and an audio jack.

ThinkPad E570 feels old fashioned

Despite a state-of-the-art processor, the ThinkPad E570 is, in many ways, old-fashioned. It’s been a long time since a review non-touch Windows PC with a hard drive instead of SSD has turned up here.

The question is how the specification trade-offs work with value for money. The biggest downside is the quality of finish. You can find better-made computers at the same price, although they may not have the same mix of features.

At first sight it looks as if Lenovo charges a premium for its 15.6 inch display. On a more positive note, you get a lot of processor performance for your money. It would be a good choice if you crunch numbers on a spreadsheet all day.

It’s clear the $1400 top of the line model with a Core i7 processor, higher resolution screen and better graphics card is better value. This is a promotional price and may not be available for long.

You might want to swap the 1TB hard drive for a 256GB SSD, that would add around $170 to the list price.

Not everyone prizes slim and light over big screens, full keyboards and processor power. The Lenovo ThinkPad E570 isn’t for the kind of person who works from cafés or airport lounges. There are many who still want DVD drives. This will hit the spot for some demographics.