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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.

Samsung’s $180 DeX Pad is a docking station that turns a Galaxy S9 or S9 phone into a desktop computer. On paper it looks like a good idea. In practice it’s less useful than you might expect. At least not for most people.

The DeX Pad is a lightweight black plastic box that lies flat on a desk or table top. It has a cheap, flimsy feel. This is in stark contrast to premium finish of the Galaxy 9 phone. You plug a Samsung Galaxy 9 or 9 phone into it using the USB-C port. This also lies flat, which is a potential minor problem as we will see.

Samsung Dex Pad - flat

There are two USB 2 ports. You can use these to connect a keyboard and a mouse. A HDMI port connects the DeX Pad to a screen. There’s another USB-C port for the DeX Pad’s power supply. It comes with a New Zealand-style wall plug, but the cable is on 1 metre long, which may not be enough for many people.

The box is a little bigger than the Galaxy S9 phone. It measures 84 by 158 mm. When it sits on its little rubber footpads, the height is around 15 mm plus a small lump with the USB-C phone connector. That adds another 15 mm to the height.

Lightweight hardware

On its own, the DeX Pad weighs 135 g. Together a Dex Pad and a Galaxy S9 phone weigh around 300 g. The two weigh less than, say, an iPad or a small, light laptop.

Samsung DeX Pad

So all good to go? Well no. The DeX Pad is meaningless without a screen and you really need a keyboard to get much value. Carrying both along with the various cables and power supplies is far harder than taking a tablet or a laptop. Even if you know you can expect to find a suitable screen at your destination, you still have to carry a satchel full of kit.

When you get to your destination it takes time to hook everything up. The inventory of parts you need to carry includes phone, DeX Pad, keyboard, two cables and, perhaps, a mouse. Which mean there’s risk of leaving something behind. Taking a laptop or tablet would be far less trouble.

If you’re OK with all that, DeX Pad has another drawback: Android.

Lightweight OS

Whatever your opinion of Android as a phone operating system, it is not the best desktop OS. Windows, MacOs or Linux are better in almost every conceivable circumstance. The DeX Pad Android desktop OS feels a little like ChromeOS, but Google’s browser-based operating system would have been a better choice. Indeed, any of the OSs mentioned earlier would give you a better and more productive experience.

That’s not to say Android needs to be awful on the desktop, but Samsung has not done enough work on the software user experience. For example, some apps appear in portrait mode windows that mimic how they would look on a phone. Others have lots of white space. Almost nothing makes the best use of the screen real estate.

The good news is that most apps popular with IT departments and the enterprise users likely to choose  Dex Pad now have decent Android versions. You could run, say, Microsoft Office or G-Suite this way.

Jerky

Microsoft Word functions as expected. But performance is poor. Even the cheapest Windows 10 PC has less lag than a Galaxy and Dex Pad. At times the cursor jerks slowly almost painfully across the screen.

You can choose to use the phone screen as a touch pad instead of a mouse. It’s just as jerky and at times unpredictable. Likewise the double-tapping to click can be tricky when the touch pad function decides to be unresponsive.

Dex Pad Screen

Because the phone lies flat on the desk, you can’t use the fingerprint reader. So if you leave the Dex Pad long enough for it to go to sleep, you have to lift the phone in its cradle and turn it through 180 degrees to use the face recognition. There’s little that is downright bad, but lots of small niggles add up to a less than stellar user experience.

Don’t even think of running a fast moving game on this combination. Of course that’s not what Samsung designed the device for. The target is enterprise users.

Samsung DeX Pad verdict

Samsung’s marketing suggests a Galaxy S-series phone owning consumer might choose Dex Pad instead of buying a desktop or laptop computer. They would be disappointed.

Dex Pad would be handy if you’re in sales and turn up at a customer’s office to present with, say, PowerPoint.  It might be useful if you stop overnight in hotels where you can plug the Dex Pad into the TV set. Beyond that there is not an obvious market for the product.

Say you shuttle between, say, a home office and a company office. You would need screens and keyboards sitting waiting at both locations. You’d be better off buying two computers.

And that’s the problem. The idea is not silly. After all, phones are powerful and dominant. And the phone business is short of fresh thinking. One day a Dex Pad-like product might arrive and change the face of personal computing. We’re not at that day yet. The execution lacks too much for Dex Pad to be a serious PC alternative. For now it is likely to appeal to a tiny niche.

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.