Bill Bennett

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

Future of personal computing: Not a Windows laptop

Microsoft understands where personal computing is heading. So does Apple.

Only a handful of today’s computers matter1. None are Windows laptops. None are desktops.

They are:

Everything else is legacy computing, a clever clone of one of the above or specialist kit for  power users2.

Evolution

All three3 represent evolutionary steps from the old PC model. They also represent a move from local processing towards a cloud, web and services model.

This last point is essential. The productivity bottleneck in old-style personal computing was running out of the headroom needed to run many local apps at the same time.

When, say, a new version of Microsoft Office appeared, there was a worry that existing hardware couldn’t carry the extra load.

Everyday users don’t care about those things any more.

Browser is king

Today a lot of apps run in the browser. Most apps are lightweight compared to the old behemoths. And, I’m thinking here of iOS, they can stay live in the background without chewing resources.

We use computers so different today that the old resource requirements don’t make sense. They haven’t been essential since the first netbooks arrived more than a decade ago.

Microsoft and Apple recognise this. Their response has been to pare back the personal computer to its essentials. Add a great display, long battery life and, in most cases, touch.

Most people in most jobs can achieve everything they need on one of these three computers. Before you write to tell me this is nonsense, ask yourself if your arguments are matters that concern mainstream users.

Hurdles

There are still hurdles. All these machines are expensive compared to mainstream PCs. Not everyone can afford the premium prices they command. I get that.

You might argue some of the devices I list are underpowered. Well, maybe, but we’re talking mainstream computing here. It’s been a generation since computers struggled to deliver the power I need for writing, publishing and trimming photos to size.

Some say “you can’t do real work” on these devices. That maybe true for some given value of real work, but be realistic about what other people do on their computers.

Most of the critics can’t get their head around the idea that for most people Microsoft Word is the most sophisticated app in their locker.

I’ve spent weeks at a time using each of a Surface Pro 4, 2015 MacBook and iPad Pro as my only computer. In each case there are either a few, minor things I can’t do or that involve an uncomfortable compromise.

For the most part these problems were down to my unwillingness to change old habits. None of these were deal breakers. And I’m old. I’ve been using personal computers for 36 years. Young people will see these devices in a different light. Which is just as well. After all, they are going to live with the future of personal computing longer than I will.


  1. We’re talking here about mainstream users. If you’re a gamer, a developer or a hard core geek these tools may not meet your needs, you are not typical.
  2. In theory PC makers like Lenovo, HP and Dell all have the ability to make decent Surface or Surface Book clones.
  3. Four if you think the Surface Book is distinct from the Surface Pro.

Surface Pro 4 – Microsoft’s premium Windows tablet

There are plenty of good options if you can afford a premium work computer. For most the best choices are something with MacBook in the name, an iPad Pro or a Surface Pro 41.

All are light, robust, portable and have long battery life. They have beautiful build quality. They all look and feel attractive. While they offer a similar range of business functions, each goes about it in a different way.

You won’t go far wrong if you choose any of the three. They are all excellent. I have spent quality time with them all and would be happy with any of them.

Surface Pro 4 hardware

Since the first Surface Pro, Microsoft has shown it can match the world’s best on build quality. There is nothing to complain about with the Surface Pro 4. Microsoft has an Apple-like attention to detail.

One detail where Microsoft trumps Apple is the kickstand. It sounds trivial. In practice always having a flexible way of standing the Surface Pro on a table makes life easier. This is one idea I’d like to see Apple copy.

Another big plus for the Surface Pro 4 is that, on the whole, its speakers do a better job of delivering audio. The sounds are crisp and clear. They work fine for music but are at their best when using apps like Skype.

Keyboard

Microsoft’s latest Surface Pro Type Cover keyboard is a step up from earlier models. It needed to be. The original soft Surface keyboard wasn’t adequate. More recent versions have been acceptable, not great.

The latest version brings backlit keys. It now feels much more like a real keyboard. One thing still bothers me: While you can use the Type Cover angled or flat, neither option feels right.

When angled the keyboard is too steep and the keyboard flexes too much when you pound away at the keys. When used flat it feels better, there’s no flexing, but it is uncomfortable.

Despite this, touch typing is more practical than on earlier Surface Pro keyboards. It still isn’t as good as on a laptop keyboard. I suspect this is where Microsoft’s Surface Book is going to make a difference.

The Type Cover is at least as good as Apple’s Smart Keyboard Cover for the iPad Pro. If anything, I prefer the Surface Pro Type Cover.

Surface Pro 4 Pen

A pen, or rather the Pen, comes as standard with the Surface Pro 4. It has two buttons and a clip — I wonder about the wisdom of that addition. It isn’t rechargeable. Instead it uses an AAAA battery. Microsoft says it should last 18 months between replacements.

The Pen shows it value with Microsoft OneNote. Click the pen button and OneNote will open ready to take you handwritten notes. This is great for my work when I’m at, say, a conference, and I need to make a quick note without setting up the keyboard.

Let down by poor battery life

I can get 10 hours from my MacBook Air between charges. The Retina 2015 MacBook works for about seven hours. My iPad Air 2 is good for more than 10 hours, the iPad Pro sails past the eight hour barrier with juice to spare.

In comparison the Surface Pro 4 is a huge disappointment. If I use it away from home, I can just about get to lunchtime before needing to plug it in. At best I can squeeze six hours and that’s with turning it off and cranking down settings more than I’d like.

I can’t figure out what to blame for the poor battery performance. It could be down to the raw power of the processor — which has a lot of grunt — or Microsoft’s design choices.

Another possible culprit is Windows 10.

Windows 10

When Microsoft released Windows 8 it was awful on conventional, old school PCs. It didn’t make sense to me until I saw it on an original touch screen Surface. That doesn’t mean I liked it, just that it seemed logical on a touch screen in ways it didn’t on an ordinary PC.

While Windows 10 goes some way towards fixing Windows 8’s cognitive dissonance, it still feels clumsy on a non-touch PC. It feels much better on the Surface Pro 4. I’d go further, it feels right on the Surface Pro 4.

Windows 10 is solid and predictable. There’s still a little weirdness about tablet mode. As the name suggests Microsoft optimised this for a touch screen tablet. Apps open full screen. The screen keyboard appears when another keyboard isn’t attached. Everything revolves around the Start screen.

In practice I found it easier to stay all the time in tablet mode than shift between modes.

After years not using Windows as a day-to-day operating system, I expected frustrations. This didn’t happen. There were occasions where I couldn’t figure out how to do something. That’s not going to bother everyday Windows users.

Microsoft’s own apps have matured and work well on the Surface Pro 42. Many other Windows apps feel stuck in the past. Like old friends that haven’t changed a bit, while I’ve moved on.

That tablet thing…

One aspect of the Surface Pro 4 that needs exploring is that it still doesn’t work well as a pure tablet. iPads beat it hands down for lying on the sofa browsing web pages or reading documents.

For me it is not a tablet with PC characteristics, but a reboot of the laptop. I’d score it at seven out of ten for a tablet but ten out of ten as a replacement for a Windows laptop.

Price

Microsoft wants a premium price for the Surface Pro 4. The review model I looked at had an Intel Core i5 processor, 256GB of storage and 8GB ram. This sells in New Zealand for $2350. You need to budget an extra $200 for a keyboard.

You could spend $4000, plus $200 for the keyboard, to get a core i7 version with 16GB of ram and 512GB of storage. The cheapest model is $1600, for that you get an m3 processor, 128GB storage and 4GB ram.

Summary

Microsoft has given its Windows tablet a speed bump and a new type cover keyboard. These updates are more than enough to keep the Surface Pro 4 ahead of the Windows pack. They also keep the Surface Pro 4 competitive with alternatives from Apple.

The speed increase is significant. Microsoft uses Intel Skylake chips and improved the performance of the solid state drive.

This isn’t going to make a difference to, say, writing with Word. It does mean complex Excel spreadsheets crunch numbers faster. The real benefit is with more demanding apps. You’ll see an improvement with intense graphics and video tools. There’s a noticeable difference when playing games.

Surface Pro 4 – verdict

I found I could be as productive on the Surface Pro 4 as on any other laptop3. It beats all the Windows laptops I’ve seen so far by a wide margin. There is nothing I need that I can’t do on this computer.

Having said that, I suspect the Surface Book is a better laptop because of the improved keyboard. We’ll revisit this point when I get to see the Surface Book.

I’m going to save in-depth comparisons with the iPad Pro for a later post. Surface Pro 4 is a better choice for people who have invested in Windows skills, software and mastering Microsoft apps.

My advice to people who ask me about buying a mainstream business portable is: Choose a MacBook or a Surface. Maybe opt for an iPad Pro if you’re embedded in the iOS world.

I was late to review the Surface Pro 4. The beauty of being behind the pack meant I had longer with the machine.


  1. Maybe Microsoft’s Surface Book belongs on the list. I’ll let you know when I see it. You’ll notice I don’t include any Windows PCs in this list. That’s, in part, because the sweet spot for Windows laptops is lower than NZ$2000. The devices I list are displacing conventional Windows laptops because they offer better productivity. This goes some way to explain why Windows PC sales are falling..  
  2. Office is particularly good. Word and Excel are wonderful on the Surface Pro 4.  
  3. I’m going to qualify that statement in a fresh post in the coming days.  

HP Spectre x2: like Surface Pro, expensive

Microsoft gave the mobile PC tree a good shake when it introduced the Surface. Its touch-screen PC-cum-tablet design is a fresh take on mobile computing. If imitation is flattery the HP Spectre x2 is a love letter to Microsoft.

The Spectre x2 has its own style and finish but the nods to Surface are constant and unmistakable. It even has a Surface-like kick-stand.

Surface is a technical and commercial hit. So it is no surprise that a leading PC maker is cooking with the same successful recipe.

Another music in a different kitchen

The similarities are too strong to ignore. Yet the differences between the Spectre x2 and Surface models are important. Top of the list; HP packs a more sturdy keyboard than Microsoft. More to the point, the Spectre x2 keyboard comes in the box.

How long Microsoft can get away with charging an extra NZ$200 for a keyboard is anyone’s guess. Buyers look at the headline price. They don’t realise that’s only a down payment on getting what they see in the marketing. After all, it’s not as if many Surface buyers choose not to take the official Microsoft keyboard.

Overseas HP has positioned the Spectre x2 as the value alternative to Microsoft’s range. It’s not the cheap alternative.

In New Zealand there’s less price difference between the two ranges. This undermines the point of the Spectre x2 which has a lower specification than the Surface.

Elegant HP Spectre x2

There’s nothing cheap about the Spectre x2 in either sense of the word. At first glance it looks like a Surface. That has a lot to do with the kick-stand. On closer inspection it has its own distinct style. It’s a clear improvement on some of HP’s recent designs.

Competition from Apple and Microsoft has forced computer makers to lift their design game. HP has even paid attention to the packaging. The Spectre x2 gives buyers a good impression from the moment they take the lid off the box.

Hands on

Spectre x2’s more robust keyboard means better, more productive typing. There was no worrying keyboard flexing. I had no problems typing at speed, I’m a touch typist and fussy in this department.

The touchpad is wider than normal. That’s not a problem. In practice it works well. HP’s extra keyboard sturdiness adds a few grams to the weight but I never found this a concern.

There’s a lot of visible branding for the built-in Bang & Olufsen speakers. In practice the sound is OK, not outstanding.There are two USB-C ports and a Micro-SD slot.

HP claims ten-hour battery life. That’s a fair estimate if you’re just writing or reading. Hop online for extended browsing or watch video and that plummets closer to six hours.

Priced on a par with Surface

My review model has the Intel Core m7 processor running at 1.2 GHz. There is 8GB of Ram and a 256GB SSD hard drive. There’s a 12-inch touchscreen that displays 1920 by 1280 pixels. The official NZ list price for this configuration is NZ$3200. At the time of writing I can’t find anyone offering this for a lower price.

That’s NZ$50 less than a Surface Pro 4 with a Core i7 processor, 16GB Ram and a 256GB SSD hard drive. The Surface Pro trumps the Spectre x2 display with its 2736 by 1824 pixels.

The comparison is theoretical because the Core i7 Surface isn’t in stock here at the time of writing.

Remember you have to find an extra NZ$200 for the Surface keyboard. The NZ$50 or thereabouts price difference applies across the range.

Performance: Close to Surface where it matters

Both the HP Spectre x2 and the Surface Pro 4 run every important business application at a cracking pace. You don’t notice any sluggishness with Office and similar software.

If anything the Spectre x2 turns in a better performance than the Surface. Yet there’s not much in it for any of the software I use. Gamers, power spreadsheet users and graphic designers might notice otherwise. My assumption is the Surface has a better graphics subsystem.

What matters is the bang for buck. You get about the same performance but poorer graphics when comparing the HP Spectre x2 to a Surface Pro. After adding a Surface keyboard there’s a NZ$250 price difference. This means low-end Spectres work out about 10 percent cheaper than Surface Pros. The discount is less as you move up the range.

Worth buying?

New Zealand’s price gap between Spectre x2s and Surfaces tips the scale Microsoft’s way.

You’ve got to like and trust HP a lot or have a grudge against Microsoft to favour the Spectre x2. Anyone willing to pay over NZ$2200 won’t find Microsoft’s NZ$250 price premium a barrier.

After accounting for GST HP is asking New Zealand Spectre x2 customers to pay 60 percent more than the US price. The review model sells for NZ$3200 here and US$1150 in the United States.

The US dollar is trading at NZ$1.50. That would make the NZ Spectre x2 price around $1750. Add GST and the price would be a fraction under NZ$2000.

In contrast New Zealand Surface prices are in line with US prices.

HP Spectre x2 – price out of alignment

It might make sense for HP to have large mark-ups on unique products entering New Zealand. The Spectre x2 is a low-cost Surface clone; taking “low-cost” out of the equation is crazy.

Would I buy a Spectre x2 over a Surface Pro? Not at the New Zealand price. I might choose it if both sold here at US prices.

2015 MacBook, MacBook Air, iPad Pro productivity

Nothing bad happened switching from the 2015 MacBook to the iPad Pro. If there were any surprises they were all good ones.

Every Friday morning I pack a computer, coffee money and a banana in a briefcase. Next I catch a bus to town where I work in a client’s office. Although I interview people, make phone calls and attend meetings, I write for most of the day.

Until three months ago my Friday-working-away-from-home computer was an Apple MacBook Air. It served me well. The MacBook Air has more than enough battery life to get through an eight-hour day. It is light, portable, has a great keyboard and runs all the apps I need.

Then I switched to a 2015 MacBook. It was a review machine borrowed from Apple. My goal to understand where the new MacBook fits into the bigger productivity picture.

Comparing MacBook keyboards

In hindsight I found the 2015 MacBook keyboard isn’t as good as the MacBook Air’s. I didn’t notice this at the time. The difference became noticeable when I returned to the MacBook Air earlier this week.

Despite what you may read in other reviews, the 2015 MacBook keyboard is fine. It just doesn’t deal with touch typing as well as the Air.

There’s not much in it. On a scale of one to ten I’d give the 2015 MacBook keyboard an eight. The MacBook Air keyboard scores nine out of ten.

To put it another way, I’ve not used a better laptop keyboard than the MacBook Air’s in recent years.

If this seems fussy, remember touch typing is what I do all day. For me this is one of the most important aspects of a portable device. A better keyboard makes writing more efficient. That’s money in the bank.

2015 MacBook battery life

The 2015 MacBook’s biggest negative is battery life. My two year old Air can no longer last for the ten hours it did when it was new. In part because I now leave wi-fi and Bluetooth on all day. Yet it still gives me well over eight hours.

From the outset the 2015 MacBook battery struggled to last the full eight hours I work in town each Friday. That Retina screen sucks juice.

For weeks I had to devise power-saving strategies such as using my phone for mail and browsing.

That’s not the best way to work and didn’t solve the problem. In the end I gave in and took the power cable with me. It wasn’t optional.

USB-C works for me

Others may whinge, but the single USB-C connector doesn’t worry me. I use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for everything. I’ve heard people complain about the feeble processor. It doesn’t make a difference to word processing or browsing.

The Retina screen is a delight. Not that it makes any difference to my writing productivity. While the Force Touch trackpad is handy, there’s no obvious productivity gain.

I like the way there’s no fan in the 2015 MacBook. You never find yourself wondering what that strange humming noise is.

To be fair, the MacBook Air rarely uses its fan. Sorry to sound repetitive, this also has nothing to do with productivity.

A bigger advantage was the 2015 MacBook’s reduced weight and size. Having less to carry in my brief case may not sound like a big deal, it always felt like a bonus during the commute. It’s a more of a benefit when travelling on an airplane.

Even so, on balance the lower-priced MacBook Air is a better option for my Friday work. That’s clear now after three months with the 2015 MacBook. There’s not much in it, productivity and battery life trump smaller and lighter. Your requirements may differ.

Enter the iPad Pro

When the review iPad Pro arrived I wasn’t sure where it would fit in the productivity picture. At first I doubted I would want to use an iOS device as my Friday computer for the next three months.

I worried about the lack of a trackpad, about the keyboard and what iOS might mean in practice. There was a fear I may not be able to use all the apps I need.

Despite these worries, I took the iPad Pro with me for my regular Friday gig. I decided if the first week was a disaster, I could always switch back to the Air.

Rivals the MacBook

In the event, the iPad Pro was anything but a disaster. It proved a great Friday computer. The iPad Pro could be better than the 2015 MacBook for working away from home.

My iPad Pro is the cellular version. I’ll write more about that in another post. It weighs 723 grams. The Smart Keyboard adds another 330 grams. My 13-inch MacBook Air weighs 1.35 kilograms. The 2015 MacBook is 920 grams.

The iPad Pro is larger than the 2015 MacBook. With a connected Smart Keyboard, it is about the same size as the MacBook Air.

In practice the iPad Pro is as portable as the 2015 MacBook. It puts any extra size and weight to good use. At 12.9 inches, the display is larger than the 12-inch display on the 2015 MacBook. It has more pixels, 2732-by–2048 compared with 2304-by–1440.

A beautiful view

This makes more difference than you might suspect. I get a better overview of my words and can read them better on the bigger screen. The text is clearer, crisper. It makes proofing easier, which means improved quality.

You would need to buy a lot more laptop to get a screen like this. Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 gets close with its 2736-by–1824 resolution across 12.3 inches. The result is better all-round writing productivity.

The iOS 9 slide-over feature makes multitasking practical. I’m no fan of doing more than one thing at a time. Being able to read, say, an email brief while working on a story is useful.

Keyboards

On Friday I used the Smart Keyboard. If I didn’t have that, the larger iPad screen can display a full-size qwerty keyboard. At NZ$319, the Smart Keyboard is expensive. Even so it is a better option than on-screen typing for all but the shortest jobs.

Thanks to the iPad Pro’s large size, the on-screen keyboard is full-size. There’s no tactile feedback, so it’s tricky, not impossible, for touch-typing. It’s the best screen keyboard I’ve ever seen, even so, you wouldn’t want to write War and Peace on it. It’s fine for quick notes.

There are some similarities between Apple’s Smart Keyboard and the Microsoft Surface Pro Keyboards. The keyboard uses the same switches found in the 2015 MacBook keyboard. Instead of the MacBook’s butterfly mechanism, the Smart Keyboard use a custom-designed fabric. When you type, the fabric’s springiness provides the action.

I didn’t have problems with the Smart Keyboard. While it’s not as comfortable as typing on the MacBook Air, it isn’t bad. I’d rate it eight out of ten. On Friday I wrote a little over 1000 words without a slip. Let’s see what I think in a few weeks.

Say it loud

Compared with the MacBook, the iPad Pro has loud loudspeakers. There are four channels of sound, so music plays better than you’d expect from such a thin device. It can be surprising the first time you hear it, even more surprising if you hold the tablet and feel the bass notes vibrating.

One of the biggest criticisms against the iPad Pro is the lack of quality business apps. Although there is no shortage of good iOS apps, few are optimised for the bigger format. My work is writing, so I need word processors. There is no shortage of choice in that department.

On Friday I wrote stories using Apple’s Pages word processor then converted them to Word format before sending. I could have written in Word, the iOS version is excellent. Where practical, I prefer writing in Markdown. My licences for Byword and iA Writer work on the iPad Pro. Both apps are great on the Pro — I’m writing this using iA Writer.

Still an iPad

Apple avoided creating a hybrid device. The iPad Pro is still an iPad. It doesn’t aim to be a PC on the desktop and a tablet on the couch, like, say, Microsoft’s Surface Pro. That’s not a good or a bad thing. It just is.

There are no business apps that I need, that don’t work on the iPad Pro. There are other things that I want to do that work better on OS X or Windows. Last week I needed to deal with data on the family NAS drive — that’s not something the iPad can manage well. I also had to install fresh firmware on a router, the job required an Ethernet-connected PC.

Still the iPad Pro is big. It is fast. And it can do a lot of things that might not be practical on smaller, slower tablets. So far I’ve found it can replace my laptop for my core business applications. It is a great writing tool. I can use it to earn my living. And that’s what matters most to me.

New Zealand PC sales buck global trend

IDC Research reports New Zealand PC sales fell 2.7 percent in the second quarter compared with the same period last year. This dip contrasts with plummeting sales in some overseas markets.

IDC senior market analyst Arunachalam Muthiah says 188,000 PCs were shipped1 in the first quarter of 2015.

The number is the same as the previous quarter and represents a 2.7 percent decline on the same period a year ago.

Muthiah says sales were 2.8 percent higher than forecasted.

Down, down, deeper and down

Compared with other markets overseas New Zealand’s downturn is a gentle dip. IDC reported at sharp 25.6 percent decline over the same period in the Middle East & Africa PC Market.

IDC says the global PC market will fall 8.7 percent during 2015.

Rival research company Gartner estimates global sales fell 9.5 percent in the second quarter of 2015. Gartner includes tablets in its numbers.

At IDC, which just counts PCs, the second quarter fall was 11.8 percent. This is the biggest drop in two years and underlines the steady demise of personal computers2.

Lenovo enters New Zealand PC sales top 5

New Zealand’s figure was helped by Lenovo entering the consumer PC market. Muthiah says this lead to increased competition. There was also strong spending in government and education.

He says refresh sales that may ordinarily taken place in 2015 were moved forward into 2014 after Microsoft dropped support for Windows XP.

IDC expects 2016 sales to be marginally higher than those in 2015 for New Zealand. This contrasts with the global picture where sales are expected to fall again in 2016 marking a five-year decline. IDC expects global sales to pick-up in 2017 thanks to the commercial market buying again.

Tablets can’t take the blame any more

In recent years analysts blamed the rise of mobile devices, especially tablets, for falling PC sales. That explanation is no longer valid. If anything tablet sales are now falling faster that PC sales.

While smartphone sales are not yet in decline — although that day will come — they have slowed from double-digit growth.

HP remains New Zealand’s top selling PC brand. The company accounted for almost two our of every five computers sold in the quarter with a 37 percent market share. It has been in this position for years now.

Second place goes to Acer. The company has been runner up to HP for some time. Acer has an 18 percent market share.

Apple slipped from the third slot to number four position as Lenovo stepped into the consumer market. Both companies have around a 12 percent share. Dell and Toshiba continue to face declining market share in a falling market — not an enviable position.

One thing is clear about the overall PC market, it is in a long-term decline. It may tick up some years and stand still in others, but we are now well past peak PC.


  1. Analysts talk about shipments. They are similar, not the same as sales. Shipped means a computer left the factory for the distributor or retailer. It is easier to measure. Not all shipments turn into sales. Shipments give us a consistent and more reliable number to make useful comparisons. 
  2. My take on this is that the market peaked four or five years ago as the upgrade cycle switched from two, three or four years to something longer. Many users find their existing devices are good enough for their computing needs. They have few compelling reasons to upgrade until their hardware starts to fall apart. At the same time new versions of Windows no longer trigger a fresh buying cycle. 

Dell XPS 13 review: 2015’s best Ultrabook

The Dell XPS 13 is a premium Ultrabook. Dell designed it to show off what it can do with the format. It does that with style. You won’t find a better Windows 8.1 clamshell laptop..

For a while it looked as if traditional Windows laptops were a thing of the past. The main mobile computing action moved to smartphones, tablets and hybrids.

Microsoft muscled in on the territory with its Surface and laptop-like Surface Pro tablets. Meanwhile Apple MacBook sales took off.

The Dell XPS 13 addresses everything you didn’t like about conventional Windows laptops. Well, almost everything. It’s lightweight and slim. It has a 13-inch screen but is smaller than my 13-inch MacBook Air and as powerful as a MacBook Pro.

Dell sent me the NZ$2500 top-of-the-line model with an Intel i7 processor, 256GB of solid state storage and 8GB of Ram.

Bright, sharp, glorious display

From the moment I opened the box it was clear this is special. The Dell XPS 13 display is glorious with 3200 by 1800 pixels. It’s bright and sharp. Too bright at times. On a night flight I worried about waking fellow passengers and tried to dial the brightness down. I couldn’t find out a quick way to do this, so ended up closing the computer down.

On the positive side images look great and, for the most part, text is easy to read. We’ll revisit this point later.

There’s a lightweight aluminium frame with almost no gap between the edge of the screen and the edge of the lid. That’s the bezel in laptop-maker jargon. The small bezel means the case is about the size of other computer makers’ 11-inch models. In practical terms it means it fits on a tray table on a business class flight.

One curious aspect of the tiny bezel is the webcam isn’t in the normal spot at the top of the screen.

This was noticeable the moment I powered up the computer because Dell uses facial recognition software to replace the traditional Windows password. The camera looks for your face, then asks you to centre your image. I had to hunt for the camera, located under the screen on the left to get this to work.

Intel i7 processor

Dell’s processor choice is interesting. The Intel i7 is fast by any standard. It is fan-less which makes for a quiet computer and uses Intel’s Broadwell design, which means better battery life.

Better than what? Dell says you can get 11 hours from the XPS 13. That may be true if you crank down the screen brightness and don’t overtax the chip. I found it lasted about nine hours, enough for a normal day’s work if you don’t push it.

If I sat and worked non-stop the battery would fade after a few minutes more than six hours. That’s less battery life than I get from an 18-month-old MacBook Air, but still good considering the grunt inside the box.

Dell’s keyboard is good enough for most work. The keys are smaller than I like and I found typing is a touch more cramped than is comfortable. Sometimes the keys don’t feel as if they move enough. However, I’m sure I could adapt if this was my main computer. The touchpad is excellent, the best I’ve seen in a Windows laptop.

Touchscreen are something you love or hate. I get fingerprints on my MacBook Air screen after spending time on a touchscreen computer, but for the most part I find I get wrist pains lifting my hand from the keyboard to point and touch the display.

My only serious niggle with the XPS 13 isn’t Dell’s fault. Windows 8.1 still struggles to use high-resolution screens sensibly. Often apps don’t scale and you find yourself staring at microscopic type. That’s something I don’t see on a Mac with a Retina display.

Dell XPS 13 verdict

Dell has managed to overcome all the things that annoy me about Windows laptops. This one is small, light, powerful, has a great screen and day-long battery life. For all these reasons it gets three thumbs up.

Even so it’s not the right machine for me. Although if I was planning a move back to Windows I’d consider this ahead of the Surface Pro 3 purely because of the better keyboard and trackpad.

Most of the time I use a word processor and a browser. These apps don’t require i7 grunt and the battery life trade-off that entails. There are days I need the 10 hours or more I can squeeze from my MacBook Air.