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The 15-inch version of Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 is big, beautiful and nicely put together. While it is less powerful than most other laptops of this size and price, it meets a real need.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 - large and small models

At a glance:

 

For: Large screen with 3:2 ratio for document work. Well made. Good keyboard. Excellent trackpad.
Against: Lack of ports, AMD Ryzen processor not up to serious media editing.
Maybe: OK battery life, lack of ports and general minimalism could go either way.
Verdict: Great for writers, lawyers and other people who work with documents.
Price: Official Microsoft price is NZ$3100, but shop around, retailers have better deals.
Web: Microsoft NZ

Microsoft offers a range of Surface Laptop 3 variants. Prices start at NZ$1900. Here I looked at the NZ$3100 model that sports a 15-inch screen and, in a brave move, AMD’s Ryzen 5 processor. It also has 256 GB of storage and 16 GB of ram.

Although bigger screens add to laptop prices, NZ$3100 is a little more than you might expect to shell out for that combination of processor, storage and ram.

You may not have to pay that much. Microsoft’s online store asks NZ$3100, but if you shop around, you’ll find retailers offer the same hardware for up to $300 less. At least they did at the time of writing.

For the same money you could buy a 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro or an HP Spectre x360. The other PC makers all have models that offer a little more power for the price. Keep this in mind as you read on.

AMD or Intel inside?

Microsoft doesn’t appear to sell a 15-inch model with an Intel processor in New Zealand1. You can purchase a model with a 13.5 screen and an Intel i7 processor that cost about $100 less. That may be a better choice for some readers.

From the moment you open the box, the Surface Laptop 3 looks impressive. It has a matt black, all-aluminium case. There is none of the fabric coating found on other Surface Laptop models. It looks and feels like Microsoft made it for serious work. Up to a point it fits the bill.

The 15-inch screen gives you much more working real estate than a 13-inch screen. There’s enough to put two documents side-by-side without compromise. Microsoft has opted for a 3:2 screen ratio which is more business-like.

It works better with text documents and web pages than watching wide-screen video.

Microsoft Surface Laptop 3

Design choices

The trackpad works well enough. It sits at the centre of what feels like acres of room. At a guess Microsoft dropped a 13-inch laptop’s keyboard into the 15-inch model’s shell. This is an unusual design choice.

Despite this, the trackpad is one of the best I’ve seen outside of Apple hardware. It works well and it a pleasure to use. In my experience this can be weakness with Windows laptops.

It’s been a while since I’ve used a stand-out laptop keyboard. They must be out there. The Surface Laptop 3 keyboard is decent enough, but it is not anything to get excited about. See my revised opinion on the Surface Laptop 3 keyboard.

There’s plenty of travel for more demanding touch-typists. The keys are nicely pitched an it is comfortable. It could be a fraction crisper in its action, but that’s quibbling.

Spacey

Microsoft has failed to use the extra space around the keyboard on the 15-inch model in any way. Other laptop makers often use this extra real estate to provide bigger speakers. That often means better sounding speakers.

It’s a missed opportunity. The sound from the speakers is more than adequate for work purposes, but disappointing for music. This ‘good for everyday work, not great for entertainment’ is that theme that continues again and again with this computer.

Microsoft has also been stingy about the ports on the Surface Laptop. Sure, Apple has shown that you can build popular laptops with few ports. Here there is Microsoft’s proprietary charging port, one USB-C and one USB-A. Welcome to the world of dongles.

Generally, larger laptop screens mean more grunt under the hood. Gaming laptops have big screens and powerful graphics processors. So do large screen models from brands like Dell or Apple. They aim at creative professionals. Microsoft has not gone down any of those paths.

Solid, not stellar performance

The Surface Laptop 3 is solid performer for the kind of work I do: writing, researching, some basic web design. It is unlikely the Ryzen 5 processor is enough for people who work with large spreadsheets or databases. And you can forget about compiling code without wandering off for a tea break.

This specification is not necessarily a bad thing, many laptops have more power than necessary for the work thrown at them. There are people like writers and journalist who wold enjoy being able to see more on screen but don’t need a stonking CPU to power through numbers.

If it is a little underpowered, the Ryzen chip has its good side: it offers great battery life. Microsoft claims 11.5 hours. In testing that seemed ambitious. I saw nothing like that. Yet there is enough to cruise through an eight-hour working day without looking for a socket and a little more in the tank if you’re asked to stay behind for a wee while.

When the Surface Laptop 3 arrived I felt excited about the machine. At first sight it appears to be a great work computer for people who need a larger screen.

That impression didn’t go away. Yet there is also the dawning realisation that the big screen is all you get with the 15-inch Ryzen 5 Surface Laptop 3. It might help to think of it as a physically pumped-up version of a smaller computer with a bigger screen. That makes it good for personal productivity, not so good for games or media production.


  1. There are overseas 15-inch models with Intel CPUs, but Microsoft’s web site forces local users to the NZ range and prices. ↩︎

IDC thinks the PC market ended 2019 on an ‘impressive’ note. Gartner’s press release talks of the “First sign of growth for worldwide PC shipments after seven consecutive years of decline“.

The numbers don’t lie. Both research companies noted a small uptick in PC sales. Yet it isn’t time to break out the champagne.

First, the uptick isn’t that great. IDC clocks fourth quarter growth at 4.8 percent year-on-year. Gartner puts the number at 2.3 percent.

These are by no means strong numbers. Gartner’s growth figure for the calendar year is only 0.6 percent. They are best thought of as ‘less awful’.

We have, after all, seen seven straight years of falling PC sales. In 2011 Gartner recorded total sales of 352 million units. The number for 2019 was 262 million. That’s a 25 percent drop in eight year. Last year’s growth is small in comparison.

IDC’s numbers of the same period fell from 371 to 266 million. That’s a fall of 28 percent.

 

There’s another reason the reported increase in sales is less reason to celebrate.

Many of the extra sales in late 2019 come because Microsoft’s support for Windows 7 is about to end. Many users need to upgrade their hardware to move to Windows 10. Sure, it isn’t always essential, but upgrading to new hardware simplifies the change.

There was also a shortage of Intel processor chips late last year. Deliveries have only recently recovered.

In other words, special factors account for all the increase in PC sales. And let’s face it, low single digit growth is unimpressive at the best of times.

Almost all the increase in sales is for business models. Interest in consumer PCs continues to decline.

Another trend the sales reports have picked up is the increased dominance of the top PC brands. Lenovo, HP and Dell all added market share at the expense of other brands. Between them they account for around two-thirds of all units sold.

Meanwhile Apple’s unit sales headed in the opposite direction. After years of picking up market share at the expense of the Windows PC brands, Mac sales fell a little. Apple’s share of the total market has fallen from 7.9 percent to 7.5 percent.

There was a time when I always carried a laptop in a backpack. I needed to. Laptops were hefty. They weighed a few kilograms. They were big and thick. Their batteries didn’t last long, That meant you also needed to lug a power brick wherever the laptop went.

Then I got a MacBook Air. It was thinner, lighter and, most important of all, could run all day on the smell of an oily rag.

There was no longer a pressing need to carry the power brick. In the case of the Air, the power supply is tiny anyway.

My laptop backpack went to the attic to gather dust. It’s still there. Today I can fit all the computer I needed into a light leather briefcase with room to spare.

Thinner, lighter laptops were bad news for Targus, perhaps the best known computer bag brand.

Rebooting the laptop backpack

Targus rethought people’s needs. One of its updates on the laptop bag theme is the Work+Play Fitness Backpack.

Targus work play fitness backpack laptop grey
Targus Work+ Pllay Fitness Backpack.

The fitness element of the name doesn’t come from carrying hefty weights to and from the office. The idea is that the bag can carry all you need for the workplace along with your gym gear.

In itself, that’s not a new idea. Back when I carried my laptop in a backpack, I’d also sometimes carry my fitness gear. The problem with that was everything would get mashed together. It could get smelly.

To avoid this, the Work Play Fitness Backpack has compartments to keep everything separate. I counted 11 different compartments on the first run through. While writing up this post I found two more. There may be others. It wouldn’t surprise me if I found a door at the back that leads to Narnia.

Fitness Backpack that works for you

Targus has labelled many bag sections with icons so you don’t have to guess what to put where. There are no hard and fast rules. This is all about what works best for you.

On the outside there’s a zipped pocket for a phone. It’s way bigger than a standard phone so it can take other stuff as well, maybe cables. There’s an obvious laptop pocket with some padding to protect the computer from knocks.

A waterproof barrier separates the computer part of the bag from where you’d store dirty football boots or whatever.

Targus work play fitness laptop backpack grey showing compartmentYou’ll also find a waterproof toiletries pocket and bags to take dirty laundry. There are hooks and stretch bands to hang thing off. There are a couple of external mesh containers which could carry a water bottle or a flask of whiskey if that’s how you roll.

Perhaps the nicest thing about the Fitness Backpack is that is comfortable to wear. There is padding on the shoulder straps, a clip to tighten it across your stomach and stop it from moving around. There is also padding in the rear so you shouldn’t be too bothered by a computer digging into your kidneys as you walk.

The bag is spacious. Targus says it can take a laptop with a 15.6 inch screen. That sounds ridiculously  precise, but there you go. It also says the bag can carry 27 litres, which is ample for most needs.

Poor documentation

It sounds a little crazy, but I felt users need some documentation from Targus on how to get the most from this bag, There are a cryptic picture clues on the packaging, but that’s it, you’re on your own. I’d like to know, for example, if the removable bags are washable. That would be important with muddy football boots or sweaty gym T-shirts.

The bag I looked at is black and grey. There’s another version that’s black and bright, almost fluro, yellow. Both cost NZ$140.

While the bag looks fine, it’s not that pretty to look at. It doesn’t say ‘loser nerd’ like some bags, but nor does it say ‘stylish’. Most people will focus on the practicalities, but there will be a market segment who’d prefer something with a touch more panache.

One last point. As the name suggests, Targus sells the bag to carry a laptop and gym gear, but it is also idea for overnight trips. You can get your work gear into the back plus a clean change of clothes and pack it all into an airplane overhead locker. I tried this myself and found it works a treat.

HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 with monitors

HP has a new twist on the desktop docking station. You can extend the modular HP Thunderbolt Dock with a Bang and Olufsen speaker. This optional extra is ideal for handling conference calls.

I tested the HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 with Audio model. It has an optional speaker attached. You can buy a Dock without the speaker for NZ$400.

At the time of writing there wasn’t a local price for the Audio version. In the US HP adds US$50 to the non-Audio Dock price. So it’s likely the New Zealand version will sell for around NZ$500.

HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 with monitors
HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 with monitors and keyboard

Old school

Docks, often called docking stations, seem old school in 2018. They are enjoying a revival at the moment. In part this is because computer makers like HP now standardise on USB-C connectors. They also put fewer ports on modern laptops.

Today’s laptops are often ultra-thin. This leaves less room for ports. Some ports are deeper than the edge of many modern laptops. Think of an Ethernet port to get the picture.

This means offloading the connectivity options to a separate device makes sense.

Most people who work from home or in a small business will use Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for connections.

Big company IT departments sometimes prefer Ethernet. It means better connection speeds in busy workplaces. It also can be mean trouble for tech support.

HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2
HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 rear view

Connectivity

Docks are often the best way to connect a USB-C laptop to Ethernet. Although you could choose a dongle instead. Docks also allow users to add large screen displays, keyboards and mice. Most docks also act as rechargers.

HP’s Thunderbolt Dock comes with a hard-wired USB-C cable that connects to a laptop. The cable is about 700 mm long, which is enough if you keep the Dock on your desktop. On the right-hand side is a USB 3.0 port, a headphone jack and a Kensington lock connector.

There are a total of eight more sockets on the rear. One connects the Dock to a power brick. Another is an Ethernet port. There are two more USB-C ports, a Thunderbolt port, a power out port, there are also two Display Ports and a VGA port.

HP has chosen a big, heavy power brick. That’s necessary to supply enough power, but it adds a lot of heft to the Dock set-up. If you need to, with say two large screens, it can draw down 100W of power.

I thought I’d prefer to have the power unit built into the Dock. That would add weight and bulk. Another advantage of separate units is the desktop Dock doesn’t get hot.

You wouldn’t want to lug this from place to place, but then you don’t have to. That’s the point of a Dock.

In practice

The HP Notebook recognised the Dock immediately. When connected, it installed the right drivers and rebooted.

When you connect the HP Thunderbolt Dock to a laptop, I used the HP Elitebook x360, the top lights up to show a row of buttons.

These let you use the speaker for conference calls. It would work fine if you had one of these in a meeting room for a group of people to share.

There’s haptic feedback to let your fingers know when you use the buttons.

I managed to test the speaker with a Skype call. When it connected I had to crank the volume down, it was too loud for my quiet, small home office.

You will need the extra volume in a busy open plan office. The people at the other end could tell I was on a speakerphone. From my point of view, the call sounded clearer than usual and much better than listening on a handset.

HP Thunderbolt Dock 120W G2 verdict

HP’s marketing material implies the company optimised the Thunderbolt Dock’s Bang and Olufsen speakers for phone calls. Despite this they do a fine job playing music and handling other audio. There’s plenty of top and bottom to the sound. It helps that the Dock is solid, so no vibrations.

It’s been a while since I last used a docking station. The fact that it was for my IBM ThinkPad and connected it to a CRT screen tells you how long ago. The newer HP design is far easier to use. It is more versatile and offers a lot more functionality for half the price of my earlier dock.

If you make a lot of conference calls and work hands free, it’s a must have. If you want to use a big screen, Ethernet or a full size keyboard it is well worth considering.

HP’s EliteBook x360 1030 G3 is a premium business convertible laptop. It’s the kind of upmarket laptop a big company employer might hand you if they think you need portability and flexibility.

You might choose it yourself. It is a solid, no-nonsense choice with all the features a business user needs, although a touch expensive by 2018 standards.

While you can get more grunt and graphics for the same money or less elsewhere, you won’t get them in such a compact package and with such a quality feel. HP added security features to the business laptop that, depending on how you work, could tip the balance.

At first glance the Elitebook x360 looks like a tiny conventional clamshell laptop. It opens to show a full size keyboard and screen.

HP HP EliteBook x360 in different modes

Convertible

The Elitebook x360 is a convertible. Its 360 hinge means you can open it right up, then fold the screen under the keyboard to give you a tablet. It can also work in what HP calls tent mode to watch video or propped up on a flat service to give personal presentations.

HP says you can get “up to” 18 hours of battery life. Computer maker battery life estimates are often exaggerated. Even  so, you can expect to keep going for the longest of work days.

In testing I found you can get almost nine hours of constant use from the battery. If you take breaks away from the screen it should more than last all day.

As you’d expect the Elitebook x360 is small and light. Yet, at 1.25 kg it feels a shade heavier than it looks.

Build quality

Some of this heft is down to the build quality. The Elitebook x360 has a solid milled aluminium case. This computer feels like it is ready for you to carry it from place to place. I’d be a little concerned working on an industrial site, but it is more than robust enough for everyday business use.

It’s not the best-looking laptop, at least to my eyes, but it is far from embarassing.

HP describes it as the world’s smallest business convertible. That’s a specific claim and, to my knowledge it is true. At only 15mm deep, the Elitebook x360 is a fraction thicker than the MacBook, but Apple’s laptop doesn’t covert into a tablet.

The screen measures 13.3 inches across the diagonal. Resolution on the review model is 1920 by 1080 pixels, there is also a 3840 by 2160 version.

Privacy

The computer comes with Sureview: an integrated privacy filter. When you hit the F2 button, the viewing angles of the screen at reduced so that anyone looking at the display from over your shoulder or the next airplane seat can’t read anything.

HP says this kicks in at 40 degrees. That’s hard to check. Yet it works as promised. Sureview isn’t for everyone, but is ideal if you work on private reports in busy places.

On the downside, Sureview dims the screen and makes it harder to read. It makes colours duller. I struggled a little with it trying to read the display head-on if text was in anything other than black on white.

You wouldn’t want to have Sureview switched on all the time.

Keyboard

HP has gone for a decent quality backlit keyboard. I found it easy to type. There’s little flexing. Otherwise it’s not remarkable one way or the other. If anything it reminds me of the MacBook Air.

The up and down directional keys look squashed. In practice they are not a problem. The touchpad is a good size and responsive. It works better than I’ve seen on some rival Windows computers.

Beneath the keyboard is a tiny fingerprint reader for another layer of security. You can use this to log-in, but the Elitebook x360 does a great job with Windows Hello. Its face recognition was close to flawless during testing.

HP has simplified the ports on the 2018 Elitebook x360. You now get two USB-C ports. One of these is used for charging. There is also an HDMI and a Thunderbolt 3 port. There’s no Ethernet port, although that would make the case thicker.

HP EliteBook x360 verdict

Prices start at around NZ$2,800. That money gets you a model with an Intel Core i5 processor along with a graphics processor, 8 GB ram and 256 GB storage. That lessw expensive models support 1920×1080 graphics.

Pay around NZ$4000 and you’ll get a version with 16 GB ram, 512 GB storage and 3840×2160 pixel resolution. According to the HP web site, these prices include a three year warranty for all models. That alone is worth hundreds of dollars.

The HP EliteBook x360 is a good choice, but you can get a better deal.

If you’re not interested in the security features, then you might do better looking elsewhere. There are less expensive models in the HP range that almost match the x360 on features. You can expect more raw power, better graphics and longer battery life when spending the same amount money. But if you’d prefer to stay safe from prying eyes, the EliteBook x360 1030 G3 makes a lot of sense.