It is more than a decade since people started telling us we are in the post-PC era. I’m one of those people1. From memory the idea took off soon after crowds first queued to buy the original Apple iPhone.
There is something in the idea. PC sales peaked in 2011 at 365 million. In big picture terms it has been downhill ever since. Last year people bought 260 million PCs. In comparison phone hit 1.5 billion sales. That’s roughly six new phones for every computer2 .
Yet, to steal Mark Twain’s joke, reports of the PCs’ death are an exaggeration.
Who you gonna call?
Nothing illustrates this better than the response to the Covid–19 pandemic. Phone sales dropped when companies, schools and whole communities moved into lockdown.
All the big brands saw strong growth of notebooks and desktops. Apple, Acer and HP all saw double-digit year-on-year growth. Apple is up 36 percent on the year earlier. HP remains in the top slot with 17.7 percent growth. Dell was weakest with only a 3.6 percent increase.
Reports say HP took a punt early on in the quarter and increased its notebook orders with its suppliers. The bet paid off.
Notebooks were the biggest winners. Channels around the world reported selling out of many models. It didn’t help that China, where most computers are made, was in lockdown during the period and the logistics firms moving hardware around the world had reduced capacity.
The main driver was the shift away from offices to working from home. Schools sending students home to continue learning online was another major cause. Both of these were obvious to anyone watching events. Less obvious was the number of people buying home computers to help relive lock-down boredom.
One of the untold stories of the quarter was the shift from retail computer sales to online stores. Customers couldn’t shop, but they could click online. It’s possible this change may stick as the world moves on from lockdowns. This may have wider implications.
The PC may not be dead. Yet despite the new relevance, sales are still nowhere near the peak. And most analysts see the recent strong result as a one-off. The long slow decline may, or may not, have bottomed out, but no-one sees long term recovery.
Indeed, a worldwide recession is likely to have an impact on future PC sales. Mind you, the impact could be worse for phone sales.
Still, the key point here is that when the going got tough, people didn’t reach for phones, they reached for PCs. That should restore some confidence to the market.
A previous, long dead blog of mine used the term post-PC an August 2011 entry IBM CTO: PC dead, we bailed long ago. ↩︎
Tablets change things a bit, but you get the picture here ↩︎
Some employers will give you a work-from-home computer. Others leave the choice or even the cost up to you. You may be your own employer and make all your own decisions.
Either way here’s a short, straightforward guide on choosing the best computer for your needs.
Start by taking a breath. There is no need to stress. You won’t fail this test. Making the wrong choice will not be a disaster.
That’s because for most people reading this almost anything you buy will be adequate. It will get the job done. There are some exceptions. We’ll look closer at them later. But if you fall into the exception camp you already know that.
Here we’re going to focus on finding the right kind of computer for you to work from home. That means something you are comfortable with. One that fits with both your work and the way you live at home. We’ll consider entertainment and other non-work tasks.
We’ll leave specifics, which brands, operating systems and models for another time. This is the first of a series of posts.
What is a computer anyway?
Let’s start by looking at the big picture. When we say computer, we mean what people in the industry might call a device. It could be a desktop personal computer, it could be a laptop or a tablet.
There are devices that sit between these classes. There are 2-in–1 devices that sit between laptops and tablets. Desktop replacement laptops are another class straddling category. As you can guess from the name, occupy the space between conventional laptops and desktop PCs.
At a pinch the right device for your needs could even be a high end mobile phone. Premium smartphones are a least as powerful as most conventional computers. You can connect many phones to keyboards and screens to act more like everyday computers. Samsung designed the Dex range to make this easier and better..
For the sake of keeping things simple, let’s say a computer comes with a screen, a processor and storage. Most come with a keyboard and either a mouse or a touchpad. There are devices worth considering where these are an optional extra.
Cloud does heavy lifting
Earlier we saw that almost anything you buy will be adequate. That’s because cloud computing can do much, even all, of the heavy lifting. So long as you have a reliable internet connection you’ll be able to connect to cloud services.
There’s a good chance the software and tools your company work with are already hosted in the cloud. The most popular cloud software is Google G-Suite and Microsoft 365.
Even the most basic device can connect to the cloud. In some cases there are cloud versions of applications that you might run on a desktop when working in the office.
Being able to connect to cloud apps and tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams covers most of the important stuff. Up to a point everything else in this post is about the icing on the cake. Your choices can make for a better working experience. They will give you something more comfortable to live with, can make you more productive and will offer more fun when you’re not working.
The perfect device depends on what you intend to do, where you intend to do it, how you live and how much budget you have.
Laptops are the most popular choice by a long way. They range from tiny ultraportable laptops to huge desktop replacements. You can pick up a serviceable low-end laptop for a few hundred dollars or spend thousands.
If you don’t have a spare room or a rumpus that can act as a home office, a laptop you can pack away means you can work on the kitchen table or anywhere else. As things return to normal you can take the laptop to a cafe or the local library. You’ll also be able to carry it between the office and home when needed.
The laptop downside is they often don’t last as long as desktop computers. In part that’s because they can take more of a hammering. Moving them around and bumping them doesn’t help.
Some laptops are fragile, others are more robust. As a rule of thumb smaller, lighter, thinner models are more robust. But first impressions can be deceptive.
Although it is easy to upgrade some laptops, that’s not always the case. This means the internal hardware can become out of date if newer, more demanding applications come along or if your needs change.
Unless you have technical and fine motor skills it is best to leave laptop upgrades and repairs to professionals. There is a cost, but it is often worth the investment.
You will hear stories of people who made a laptop last a decade or more. It happens far more often than the industry might have you think. Yet in general you can expect about five years useful life from a laptop if you look after it.
If mobility is your main consideration you may do better to choose a tablet with a keyboard case.
Tablets are easier to move around even when compared with light laptops. You can sometimes work on them in places where laptops feel clumsy. If space at home is tight or there’s a lot of competition for the kitchen table, a tablet could be your best bet.
Although tablets are not always more robust than laptops they often cope better with knocks if you have a nomadic working life. You will need to buy a cover or case to protect the screen. Often tablet keyboards double as protective covers.
Tablets tend to go a longer time between charges than laptops, but that can be down to how you use them.
You can buy tablets that connect direct to the mobile network for communications. Yet most tablet users do fine relying on Wi-fi or by tethering to a mobile phone to reach the internet.
Some laptops fold, origami style, to become tablets. Some can also work in a tent configuration. This is useful for watching movies or giving presentations.
It’s not always the case, but foldable laptops can be more fragile than straightforward tablets or laptops. Take care when choosing.
Another consideration with hybrids that almost everyone overlooks is that buyers often end up using them as only a laptop or tablet.
Given they tend to cost a little more than straight laptops and tablets, this means you can waste money. There are almost always better ways to spend that part of your tech budget.
Desktops almost forgotten these days
Laptops outsell desktops almost two to one1. In round numbers that means desktops only account for one computer sale in five.
There is still a strong case for choosing a desktop computer. Yet they are not right for everyone2.
Desktops can have big screens, far bigger than even the largest laptop. Big screens are great for productivity. They allow you to place documents or windows side by side. If you work with spreadsheets you can see a lot more data.
Desktop computer productive, fun
At a pinch a large desktop computer screen can double as your television. Lots of people do this with laptop or tablet screens, but larger screens are better. Desktops can also have far better audio speakers than laptops. In general they are better than laptops for games and other entertainment software.
You can also use a proper keyboard. While many laptops have great keyboards, desktop keyboards are often better. Again this can help productivity, especially if you are a touch typist.
In some ways desktop computers can be less expensive than laptops. You generally get more raw computing power, storage and graphics for your money.
Desktops also tend to be far easier to upgrade. They take less of a hammering, so you can make them last far longer than a laptop.
You need to have enough room and a spare desk or table for a desktop computer. You can’t pack it up when you’re not working. You can push the screen back and store the bulky part under the desk.
Don’t get too hung up on specifications
At the top of this story it says specifications are not the most important thing to consider any more. That’s true, but it needs more explaining.
Almost every device has more than enough power to handle all your everyday tasks. Writing, web surfing, playing music, watching videos and Zoom calls will not challenge any modern device.
Likewise every modern device will come with a screen of some description, that way you can see what is going on.
Storage used to be a huge deal. Today, if there’s not enough in the device you choose, you can make up for the shortfall by using cloud storage.
Where computer specifications matter
More processing power and memory means you can run more applications at the same time. You also need a more powerful processor if you want photo, video or music editing.
People who work with large databases or huge spreadsheets also need more powerful processors. But you can often let cloud computing do that kind of heavy lifting.
So by all means choose an upscale specification, but don’t waste money buying more computer than you will ever need. You’d be better off spending that money on a better quality device. We’ll come back to this point in a later post.
In case you were wondering laptops outsell tablets by around four to three. ↩︎
I’ve recently gone back to using a desktop as my main work-from-home computer. ↩︎
Gartner’s latest New Zealand shipment forecasts makes for grim reading if you are in the device business.
The total device market is set to drop by 14.6 percent in 2020 when compared with 2019. That means a total of 360,000 fewer devices.
New Zealand fares worse than the rest of the world which Gartner says will see a 13.6 percent fall in device unit shipments.
There are falls in each category Gartner measures, see the table.
New Zealand shipments forecast by device type (thousands of units)
Traditional PCs (Desk-Based and Notebook)
Total PC Market
Ultramobiles (Basic and Utility)
Computing Device Market
Total Device Market
Due to rounding, some figures may not add up precisely to the totals shown.
Thin and light notebooks are listed under premium ultramobiles
Tablets and Chromebooks are listed under basic ultramobiles
Source: May (2020)
Mobile phone sales have fallen faster than computing devices. Gartner forecasts 1.08 million units in 2020 compared with 1.36 million units in 2019. That’s a drop of nearly 19 percent.
The analyst company says it expects consumers to extend the life of their mobile phones replacing them on average once every 2.7 years. For more on this see How long should I keep my phone?
Pandemic device impact
Looking at the worldwide numbers, Gartner says the fall could have been so much worse if it were not for pandemic lockdowns. Because millions of people were forced to work or study from home there was an increase on spending on notebooks and tablets.
Gartner says getting on for half of all employees will work remotely for some or all of the time after the pandemic. This compares with around 30 percent of employees beforehand.
This has accelerated the move from desktop PCs to notebooks.
While people have used their phones more during the lockdown, Gartner says lower disposable incomes mean that people will upgrade more slowly than in the past. Gartner sees the average life of a mobile phone increase from 2.5 to 2.7 years.
One other trend spotted by Gartner is the relative lack of interest in 5G handsets. Before the pandemic it was widely thought that the appearance of 5G mobile networks would kick-start a handset upgrade cycle.
Gartner now forecasts that 5G phones will only account for 11 percent of handset shipments this year. In part this is because of the delayed delivery of new handsets. Gartner also says the extra charges imposed on 5G customers is inhibiting sales.
Microsoft’s uses Surface to take the laptop fight to Apple. While it leaves mainstream Windows hardware to the likes of HP and Dell, its own brand adds an element of sophistication and a different take on innovation.
This week there was a new Surface Book and a new Surface Go.
Surface Go is Microsoft’s smallest and cheapest tablet. Local prices start at less than NZ$600. You can get cheaper tablets, but anything other than an iPad or Surface in that price range or lower is likely to disappoint.
More screen, less bezel
The new Surface Go 2 is the same size as the earlier model, but the screen size bumps from 10 to 10.5 inches. That’s thanks to smaller bezels, the edge around the screen. Surface Go 3 works with existing Go 3 accessories.
That kind of size increase might not sound much, in this case the screen resolution also increases to 1920 x 1280 pixel. The battery is bigger, Microsoft says you now get 10 hours.
There is also a new model with a faster Intel 8th Gen Core m3 processor. Yet the base model still comes with a Pentium Gold processor, that’s the same as the earlier Surface Go. You might want to avoid that.
The Surface Book 3 has a big speed bump, there are 10th generation Intel processors and updated NVIDIA graphics.
Sadly, there’s not much else to excite potential buyers. Physically the new laptops look much the same as the models they replace.
They still have the neat ability to unlock and remove the screen so it can be used as a large tablet. In my review of the earlier Surface Book I speculated that owners rarely use this feature. That appears to be correct.
It still feels like the most interesting variation on the Windows 2-in–1 hybrid theme. Yet it would be nice if there was some fresh innovation in this department. When the first Surface Books appeared the design was well ahead of the curve, today other notebook models feel more up to date.
Microsoft hasn’t sent out review models in New Zealand to date. From the promotion material it looks as if the new Surface Book models continue the solid, well constructed design. Surface Books feel more robust than other mainstream PCs. Apparently it is heavy by laptop standards at about 1.5 kg for the 13.5-inch model.
The next comment will annoy many Windows fans, but the touch screen Windows 10 operating system doesn’t always feel right on 2-in–1 hybrids from other brands. Microsoft seems to have nailed this aspect of design in the past and there’s no reason why the Surface 3 doesn’t continue that legacy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are overseas 15-inch models with Intel CPUs, but Microsoft’s web site forces local users to the NZ range and prices. ↩︎