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Huawei Matebook launchA telecommunications industry conference may seem an odd place to launch a new laptop.

Maybe not if you are Huawei, the world’s biggest telecommunications hardware brand and the third largest phone maker.

There’s a lot about Huawei’s computer that defies conventional thinking.

This week’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona is the industry’s biggest showcase and talkfest.

Many sessions are on the big questions about the future of mobile phone technology, such as whether the move to 5G networks should be evolutionary or revolutionary.

On the day before MWC started, Huawei showed its MateBook computer to journalists flown in from around the world.

Read the full story at the New Zealand Herald.

Bill Bennett travelled to Barcelona as Huawei’s guest. 

Forget Microsoft Surface, Lumia and Windows. Today it is all about Microsoft cloud and subscriptions.

Surface Pro tablets did well in the company’s most recent financial quarter. Microsoft says it has strong orders for the Surface Book. Yet the big story is elsewhere.

Investors are more interested in the Microsoft cloud progress: Azure grew 140 percent last year.

Office 365 subscriptions continue to surge. The interesting thing here is that Office 365 has broken out of the Windows market. The Android and iOS apps are a huge success and they, in turn, generate subscription revenue.

Microsoft’s quarterly financial result highlights success with services sitting on top of Azure and Windows.

Reaction to the result was upbeat given stalling phone sales and traditional PC sales in a tail spin. Microsoft now only accounts for one percent of the global phone market. PC sales are down ten percent on last year.

Microsoft has shown a remarkable ability to reinvent its business to cope with change. Looking back Satya Nadella’s appointment and his focus on a Microsoft cloud looks like a masterstroke. The only fly in the oinment is falling margins. That’s going to mean cultural changes throughout the business.

 

Apple iPad Pro

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.

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.

Conclusion

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.