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

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

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

On the Surface

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

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

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

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

Chromebook

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

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

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

Chrome OS

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

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

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

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

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

In many schools Chromebooks have displaced Windows laptops.

Microsoft bothered

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

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

Microsoft wants to counter that threat.

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

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

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

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

That job goes to Windows 10S.

Where Windows 10S fits

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

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

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

Crapware

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

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

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

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

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

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

Windows 10S

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

And it locks out crapware.

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

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

Remember Windows RT?

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

RT cost Microsoft hundreds of millions of dollars.

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

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

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

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

This time is different…?

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

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

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

Big guns buy-in

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

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

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

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

App gap

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

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

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

Competition bashing

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

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

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

Ecosystem

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

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

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

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

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

lenovo-miix-510If you want a Surface Pro 4 but find Microsoft’s price too high, the Lenovo Miix 510 may fit the bill.

Lenovo’s Miix 510 has more than a passing resemblance to a Surface Pro 4. It’s a Windows 2-in-1 with a kickstand. Ignore the Lenovo logos on the front and back and you could almost be looking at a Surface Pro.

There are compromises. Lenovo’s 12.2 inch display shows 1920 by 1200 pixels. The Surface Pro 4 screen is a fraction larger at 12.3 inches and has 2736 by 1824 pixels. This is noticeable.

If the build quality of the Surface Pro is ten out of ten, the Miix would rate a nine.

Lenovo misses small details that Microsoft got right. The power brick and connector are not as well finished.

Lenovo chose an inelegant power supply arrangement. A USB-C port would be better.
There are fewer ports. The Lenovo Miix 510 has one standard USB 3.0 and one USB 3.0 type-C port. Microsoft includes an SD card readers and a Mini DisplayPort on the Surface Pro 4.

It weighs more.

The Miix 510 is 880g when the keyboard is not attached and about 1.25kg when it is. This compares with around 790g for the bare Surface Pro 4 and a shade over a kilogram for a Surface Pro 4 with a keyboard.

While extra weight is enough to make a difference in your backpack or briefcase, 250g one way or another is not a deal breaker for most people.

Backlit keyboard

There is a payoff. You get what some users will think is a better, backlit keyboard. In general I found it easier to type on and more laptop-like than the Surface Pro 4 Type Cover.

That’s saying a lot more than is apparent. Lenovo has an odd arrangement for the right shift key which takes some getting used to.

The small right-hand shift key presents problems, the full size arrow keys are a good design choice.
The keyboard is more robust than I’ve seen on other Surface Pro-like computers and doesn’t rely on Bluetooth thanks to plug connections. It flexes a little in use, not enough to trouble most people.

Like other Windows 10 2-in-1s the Miix 510 touchpad is disappointing. It feels more like an afterthought for people who don’t want to spend all their time reaching for the touch screen.

In practice the touchpad is functional enough, if you were looking for a touchscreen computer it won’t be the most important consideration. If you want or need a better touchpad you need to look elsewhere and spend more money.

There’s a kickstand to prop the Miix 510 on a desk. The hinges look neat, but in practice the arrangement functions just the same as the Surface Pro.

A grand less than a Surface

None of this should put you off. At the time of writing, Lenovo’s Miix 510 costs more than NZ$1000 less than a Surface Pro 4 equipped with the same processor and storage.

For a start, the Lenovo price includes a keyboard which it is a optional extra with the Surface Pro 4.1

Like the Surface Pro 4, the Miix 510 is a plausible laptop replacement. It offers more than enough power for most everyday tasks and is light and portable.

It misses many of the Surface Pro specifications, but not by much and not in ways that will matter to all buyers.

Everything written above compares the MiiX 510 with the Surface Pro 4. That’s a tough call. Microsoft’s 2-in-1 is the gold standard.

Compared with every other Windows 2-in-1 the Lenovo MiiX 510 is a standout.

While the MiiX doesn’t reach Microsoft’s lofty Surface Pro standard, it doesn’t fall far short. Put it this way, it is nine-tenths the computer at six-tenths the price.

Unless you need the higher screen resolution, you wouldn’t be disappointed with this computer.


  1. While I was writing this review Noel Leeming offered the Lenovo Miix 510 for NZ$1600. That buys a computer with a 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-6200U dual core processor and 256GB of storage. The same basic Surface Pro 4 configuration in the same store costs NZ$2350. The Surface Pro 4 Type Cover will set you back an extra NZ$240. ↩︎

Dell Inspiron 13 5000

Apple knocked the laptop business sideways when the first iPad appeared in 2010.

It is a stripped-down computer with a touch-screen, sound and wireless connections. But there is no keyboard. It does many, but not all, the things laptops do.

The iPad is easy to use and portable. You can use one to browse the internet, write mail, watch movies and make video calls to friends. It shines when consuming media. Thousands of third-party apps extend its scope.

iPad as a computer

For many people, the iPad is all the computer they need.

But not everyone. Some need more computer. There are those who want a keyboard and those who prefer to use a conventional PC operating system.

Some iPad owners add third-party Bluetooth keyboards to use their tablets more like laptops.

About four years ago the first devices to bridge the gap between tablets and laptops appeared. Intel and Microsoft came up with computers that had elements of both.

Enter the Surface

Microsoft pitched it first Surface as a direct competitor to the iPad. It used a reduced version of Windows 8. Surface had built-in Microsoft Office. A kick-stand held the screen in a laptop-like position.

There was also a, in theory optional, keyboard that doubles as a screen protector. Almost everyone who bought a Surface also paid for the keyboard.

While the Surface looks like a tablet and has tablet-like features, it also looks like a laptop. Most people who own Surfaces use them like laptops as well as tablets.

Microsoft created a new device format distinct from the laptop and the tablet: the hybrid PC.

Moving from a clamshell Windows laptop to a Surface is less of a wrench than moving to an iPad.

All computer

Hybrids evolved since the first Surface. Today’s Surface Pro 4 is a direct descendant. There’s nothing you can do on a Windows laptop that you can’t do on a Surface Pro 4.

The Surface was Microsoft’s first own-brand PC. Other computer makers have since developed their own hybrid models.

There are two distinct types of hybrid. Detatchables are tablets with a keyboard case like the Surface or a docking keyboard.

When you connect the keyboard, you have something close to a laptop. You can remove the keyboard and use the computer as a tablet.

Convertable hybrids

Convertables stay attached to their keyboards. In most designs a hinge lets you fold the keyboard out of the way under the touch-screen. It then acts like a tablet. You can usually fold the hinge to other positions, such as propped up on a table for a presentation.

There’s much to like about hybrids. They could be the way of the future. Yet despite growing sales numbers, customers remain unconvinced. Today hybrids of all types only account for between 10 to 15 percent of laptop sales.

Three reasons stand out for their relative lack of success to date.

Conservative PC owners

First, PC owners are conservative. Perhaps not in a bad way. People invested a lot of time and mental energy mastering keyboards, trackpads and mice. They know their way around a conventional PC or laptop and know how to get the productivity they want from it.

Touch screens have not captured thier imaginations in the way Microsoft anticipated. The botched Windows 8 introduction made that clear. Little has changed since.

Second, the hybrid features and touch screen add to the cost of a computer. You might pay 20 to 25 percent more for a hybrid which, otherwise, has the same specification as a laptop. Many people don’t see any value in that extra price.

Satisfied elsewhere

Another reason is that a hybrid’s tablet functionality is often satisfied by another device. A laptop owner may already have an iPad or another brand of non-Windows tablet. There’s a better chance they’ll have a mobile phone with tablet-like qualities.

Computer buyers may yet move to hybrids if hardware companies can convinced them there’s extra value to justify the cost.

Help for this has come from an unexpected direction. Apple’s positioning and marketing of its two iPad Pro models goes a long way to making the case for hybrid PCs. iPad Pros are still more tablet than PC. But they also have a lot in common with the best detatchable Windows hybrids.

Keyboard shortcomings

Hybrids are often better than you might expect. Yet even the best still have signification shortcomings.

Few detachable hybrids have great keyboards.

Typing ranges for just-about-ok to horrible. This doesn’t matter to all users. But for those who write a lot of words, a good keyboard means greater productivity.

Most detachable hybrid keyboards flex. Making a keyboard that doesn’t flex often means making it heavier. That is bad news for portability.

Clunky convertibles

Convertable hybrids tend to be more solid. That makes for a lousy tablet experience. You always carry a hefty keyboard along with the touch-screen tablet part of the device.

Most convertibles are too thick and heavy for comfortable one-handed use. This undermines the tablet functionality you paid extra for.

All the electronics and battery in a detachable hybrid need to be in the screen part of the device so it works as a tablet. This means it is top heavy when used as a laptop with the keyboard. For this reason most can’t work as laptops in the strict sense of sitting the computer on your lap.

Big bets

Intel and Microsoft bet the Windows 8 move to touch screens in 2012 would trigger a wave of upgrades. Not only did that not happen, it was the start of a long-term slide in PC sales that continues.

Now the pair hope a move to hybrids will pay off with a renewed buying cycle. To do this they must not only convince customers of the value of paying extra for greater versatility. They must also show that buying a new device will make their work easier or their lives more fun.

This is something Apple excels at. Cynics talk of Apple’s fairy dust or a reality-distortion effect. The truth is Apple knows how to articulate technology’s less tangible benefits. Now Apple is selling something that is almost a hybrid, some of the magic may rub off on the Windows hybrids.

On January 9 2007 Apple chief executive Steve Jobs stood on a stage and showed the world the iPhone.

It seemed important at the time. Yet nobody knew just how significant this would turn out to be.

Thanks to the iPhone Apple became the world’s most valuable company. It defined our times.

It isn’t hyperbole to divide the history of personal technology into eras before and after iPhone.

End of the consumer PC

Apple’s iPhone did something else. It killed the consumer PC market. This didn’t happen overnight and it hasn’t finished yet. But it happened.

It may seem remarkable to talk about the death of consumer PCs when one contemplates the massed ranks of glowing Apple logos one often sees on laptop lids. But, while those computers may be fun, they are mainly used for work or education. They are not mere consumer computers.

PC sales didn’t stop immediately. It took until four years after the first iPhone appeared for sales to peak.

From business to consumer and back again

In 2011 the world bought 380 million personal computers. According to IDC, consumers purchased 54 percent, a little over half the total. The rest went to businesses and government.

Since then PC sales numbers have dropped. Or to put it more accurately; they have dropped off a cliff. By 2015 the total market had fallen to around 275 million units a year. Consumer PC sales fell faster than business computer sales. IDC put the consumer share of the total sold in 2015 at around 49 percent.

In round numbers that means consumer PC sales dropped by around one-third from roughly 200 million to 130 million. That fall took four years.

The end of the world as we know it

It is not the end of the PC story. It is the end of a chapter.

Analysts like IDC and Gartner expect PC sales will continue to fall over time. They think that, eventually, business computer sales will stabilise.

For now there is still a need for workers to use desktops and laptops to keep the wheels of industry spinning. Long term that market is also at risk.

Happy days

Nobody makes a similar optimistic forecast about consumer PCs. There is no happy ending in sight. The end point may or may not be where zero consumer PCs are sold. If we stabilise at a point before that one, the number will almost certainly be a tiny fraction of the 200 million units sold in 2011.

Almost overnight PCs are less relevant to people’s away-from-work lives.

IDC runs a programme called ConsumerScape 360 to track how people use technology. In 2012 about 90 percent of PC owners would check email on their computers each day. By 2015 the number had dropped to 65 percent.

Out of favour

If you need to check work mail away from the workplace you no longer have to use a home PC. You can do it just as efficiently on a phone or a tablet.

In fact more efficiently. With a phone or tablet you can reply while on a bus, in a train or while sitting in a pub. PCs are not that flexible.

IDC found similar declines in other popular computing activities. It turns out that when it comes to reading mail, checking news, web browsing and social media, using the PC is often far too much trouble. We now have more convenient devices close to hand all the time.

Planet of the phones

Today, most people are more likely to go to their phone first when doing anything online.

It’s not just Apple iPhones. People also use Android phones from brands like Samsung, Huawei and Sony. They are also using tablets like the iPad, which is, in effect, more phone than PC. But all these devices can trace their roots back to the moment Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone.

That was the turning point.

Rocking all over the world

In developed countries this represents a major change in technology use patterns. It’s an even bigger revolution in much of the developing world: phones the only computers most people in those places have ever known.

Modern smartphones outsell personal computers four to one. Despite the name they are more personal and, sometimes, better computers. They know far more about you than your PC does.

Phones are ubiquitous. About half the global adult population owns a phone. By the end of this decade that number will reach 80 percent.

Replacing PCs the Microsoft way

Even if people buy new consumer PCs, they won’t buy as many or buy as often as in the past. There are tasks which don’t work well on phones and tablets, but the list gets shorter every year[1]. Soon it will be negligible.

Some of those consumer PC replacements will be devices like the Microsoft Surface Pro, which is as much tablet as PC.

After ignoring the march of progress, Microsoft has responded to the change with a dramatic change of focus. It is one company, possibly the only company other than Apple, with the ability to build a tightly coupled combination of hardware, software and services. It comes as no surprise that companies like Samsung and Huawei are now making Surface-like devices.

Microsoft has also responded by bowing to the inevitable and making great versions of Office available to phone and tablet users.

No consumer PC rebound in sight

There’s little question the consumer PC is now in a death spiral. As sales numbers decline, the demand for apps and services declines. Developers will put less investment into satisfying user needs.

What was a virtuous circle fuelling the rise of consumer computing during the 30 years until 2011 has become a vicious circle on the down slope.

It’s hard to see how consumer PCs can rebound from this. At best there will be a long, slow slide into irrelevance. Expect to see PC makers consolidate further, with some brands disappearing. Expect to see hand-wringing at more angst at PC dependent companies like Intel.

Consumer PCs are not dead yet, but it is now only a matter of time. Customers have moved on.


  1. Games are one consumer area where the PC still beats phones and tablets hands down. Even the best iOS or Android games are unsatisfactory compared to PC games. And don’t get me started on the horror of “in-game payments”.  ↩

Huawei Matebook poster in Barcelona

Microsoft’s Surface Pro has been the best Windows computer money can buy for over a year. Now it faces direct competition from an unexpected direction.

Like the Surface Huawei’s MateBook is a similar thin, light hybrid with a 12-inch display.

It follows the same basic format as the Surface: A tablet with a theoretically separate keyboard that everyone is going to buy anyway.

Matebook comes with a similar range of processors and memory configurations. Like the Surface Pro there’s a stylus, although Huawei’s also includes a laser pointer.

It even looks a lot like a Surface although there is also a nod of the head to Apple’s iPad Pro design. One nice touch is the fake leather keyboard case.

Perhaps the most important feature is that the Matebook is priced about 20 percent below Microsoft’s prices. That’s enough to make a difference.

Matebook prices start at €800[1] for a model with a Core m processor and 128 GB of storage. Microsoft has a similar configuration Surface Pro that sells for €1000.

This isn’t a direct comparison, Microsoft’s Surface Pro has a 2736 x 1824 pixel screen. Huawei says its Core m model runs faster than Microsoft’s Core m Surface Pro. The Matebook has a lower resolution at 2160 x 1440 pixels, but it also has the same fingerprint sensor technology used on Huawei’s phones.

Huawei has followed Microsoft’s practice of charging extra for a keyboard (€150), stylus (€70) and dock (€100). A Huawei New Zealand representative told me that when it reaches the country the Matebook will probably be sold bundled with a keyboard.

Bill Bennett travelled to Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to the Matebook launch as Huawei’s guest.


  1. Prices are in euros because Huawei plans to sell the Matebook in Europe first. It goes on sale there in June. If the same price difference holds in New Zealand you can expect prices to start at around NZ$1250. Huawei expects it to be on sale in New Zealand in September.  ↩