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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.  

Microsoft gave the mobile PC tree a good shake when it introduced the Surface. Its touch-screen PC-cum-tablet design is a fresh take on mobile computing.

If imitation is flattery the HP Spectre x2 is a love letter to Microsoft. The Spectre x2 has its own style and finish but the nods to Surface are constant and unmistakable. It even has a Surface-like kick-stand.

Surface is a technical and commercial hit. So it is no surprise that a leading PC maker is cooking with the same successful recipe.

Another music in a different kitchen

The similarities are too strong to ignore. Yet the differences between the Spectre x2 and Surface models are important. Top of the list; HP packs a more sturdy keyboard than Microsoft. More to the point, the Spectre x2 keyboard comes in the box.

How long Microsoft can get away with charging an extra NZ$200 for a keyboard is anyone’s guess. Buyers look at the headline price. They don’t realise that’s only a down payment on getting what they see in the marketing. After all, it’s not as if many Surface buyers choose not to take the official Microsoft keyboard.

Overseas HP has positioned the Spectre x2 as the value alternative to Microsoft’s range. It’s not the cheap alternative.

In New Zealand there’s less price difference between the two ranges. This undermines the point of the Spectre x2 which has a lower specification than the Surface.

Elegant Spectre

There’s nothing cheap about the Spectre x2 in either sense of the word. At first glance it looks like a Surface. That has a lot to do with the kick-stand. On closer inspection it has its own distinct style. It’s a clear improvement on some of HP’s recent designs.

Competition from Apple and Microsoft has forced computer makers to lift their design game. HP has even paid attention to the packaging. The Spectre x2 gives buyers a good impression from the moment they take the lid off the box.

Hands on

Spectre x2’s more robust keyboard means better, more productive typing. There was no worrying keyboard flexing. I had no problems typing at speed, I’m a touch typist and fussy in this department.

The touchpad is wider than normal. That’s not a problem. In practice it works well. HP’s extra keyboard sturdiness adds a few grams to the weight but I never found this a concern.

There’s a lot of visible branding for the built-in Bang & Olufsen speakers. In practice the sound is OK, not outstanding.There are two USB-C ports and a Micro-SD slot.

HP claims ten-hour battery life. That’s a fair estimate if you’re just writing or reading. Hop online for extended browsing or watch video and that plummets closer to six hours.

Priced on a par with Surface

My review model has the Intel Core m7 processor running at 1.2 GHz. There is 8GB of Ram and a 256GB SSD hard drive. There’s a 12-inch touchscreen that displays 1920 by 1280 pixels. The official NZ list price for this configuration is NZ$3200. At the time of writing I can’t find anyone offering this for a lower price.

That’s NZ$50 less than a Surface Pro 4 with a Core i7 processor, 16GB Ram and a 256GB SSD hard drive. The Surface Pro trumps the Spectre x2 display with its 2736 by 1824 pixels.

The comparison is theoretical because the Core i7 Surface isn’t in stock here at the time of writing.

Remember you have to find an extra NZ$200 for the Surface keyboard. The NZ$50 or thereabouts price difference applies across the range.

Performance: Close to Surface where it matters

Both the HP Spectre x2 and the Surface Pro 4 run every important business application at a cracking pace. You don’t notice any sluggishness with Office and similar software.

If anything the Spectre x2 turns in a better performance than the Surface. Yet there’s not much in it for any of the software I use. Gamers, power spreadsheet users and graphic designers might notice otherwise. My assumption is the Surface has a better graphics subsystem.

What matters is the bang for buck. You get about the same performance but poorer graphics when comparing the HP Spectre x2 to a Surface Pro. After adding a Surface keyboard there’s a NZ$250 price difference. This means low-end Spectres work out about 10 percent cheaper than Surface Pros. The discount is less as you move up the range.

Worth buying?

New Zealand’s price gap between Spectre x2s and Surfaces tips the scale Microsoft’s way.

You’ve got to like and trust HP a lot or have a grudge against Microsoft to favour the Spectre x2. Anyone willing to pay over NZ$2200 won’t find Microsoft’s NZ$250 price premium a barrier.

After accounting for GST HP is asking New Zealand Spectre x2 customers to pay 60 percent more than the US price. The review model sells for NZ$3200 here and US$1150 in the United States.

The US dollar is trading at NZ$1.50. That would make the NZ Spectre x2 price around $1750. Add GST and the price would be a fraction under NZ$2000.

In contrast New Zealand Surface prices are in line with US prices.

Priced out of alignment

It might make sense for HP to have large mark-ups on unique products entering New Zealand. The Spectre x2 is a low-cost Surface clone; taking “low-cost” out of the equation is crazy.

Would I buy a Spectre x2 over a Surface Pro? Not at the New Zealand price. I might choose it if both sold here at US prices.

Microsoft SurfaceTwo years ago Microsoft was staring down the barrel of disaster. Today it looks stronger than it has in a decade.

In April 2013 IDC research reported second-quarter PC sales were 14 percent lower than the year earlier. The firm’s analysts had previously forecasted falling sales. They got that much right, but their earlier forecast said PC sales would drop just seven percent.

Something happened between the forecast and the quarter: Microsoft launched a new version of Windows.

Windows 8 failed to revive hardware sales

Until 2013 the usual pattern was for PC sales to pick up as users upgraded their hardware when a new version of Windows arrived.

Instead, observers saw Windows 8 as one reason for the accelerated drop in PC sales.

Windows 8 was a flop. More than a flop. It hurt the entire PC industry.

Microsoft had banked on PC users shifting away from keyboards to tablet-like touch-enabled Windows.

Fear of tablets

In 2013 this made sense. Tablet sales were growing fast at a time PC sales were falling. It looked as if PCs would be eclipsed by a newer, lighter in both senses, style of computer.

Microsoft came up with a touch version of Windows that included a radical new user interface optimised for fingers, not keyboards and mice.

Along the way ditched the familiar start button and confused everyone with constant yet inconsistent switching between a familiar Windows desktop and the tablet-like Metro interface.

Things got even more confusing when Microsoft had to change the name of Metro to Modern.

Little love for Windows 8

Windows 8 had a tough time from reviewers. That was nothing compared to the market reaction.

Customers hated Windows 8. Or at least vocal customers did. Word quickly got around that this was another version of Windows to skip, like Windows Vista and Windows Me.

If anything computer makers were less happy with Microsoft. Not only had Microsoft put a brake on sales with an unpopular Windows release but it had also recently entered the hardware market with the first generation of Surface tablets.

No margin boost from touch screen hardware

There was something else. Microsoft made Windows 8 for touch screens. In theory the extra hardware needed would put more pressure on customers to upgrade to get all the promised benefits of the new technology.

At the same time it pushed up the average selling price of a laptop.

This might be good news for computer makers if it meant better margins. Typically a hardware maker earns a single digit profit from laptop sales. Higher prices for adding touchscreens might improve margins if enough consumers considered touch to be worth a premium price.

They didn’t. Instead the market was confused about what to buy. When that happens customers often keep their money in their pockets until clear patterns emerge.

Users voted with their wallets

And anyway higher prices for touchscreens meant many users opted to stay with their existing hardware for longer than they otherwise might have done.

It is possible Microsoft’s misjudged move to touchscreen technology paved the way for a surge in Apple Mac sales.

Apple’s third quarter of the 2015 year shows 33 percent year-on-year growth in Mac sales. In that quarter Mac sales were up nine percent while overall PC sales fell 12 percent.

This didn’t happen in a vacuum. Apple makes exceedingly good computers. There’s a halo effect from iPhone sales and let’s not underestimate the brand strength.

Microsoft’s loss was Apple’s gain

Yet despite all this, logic says that Apple has wooed many customers away from Windows. This trend stepped up a gear soon after Microsoft launched Windows 8.

Today Apple’s market share by unit is about 50 percent higher than it was before Windows 8 launched. The company’s share of PC sales revenue and profit is also much higher.

Slow selling Microsoft Surface

Surface sales got off to a slow start.

During the first quarter of 2013 Microsoft sold 900,000 Surface tablets. Apple sold 20 million iPads during the same period and Samsung shifted 9 million Android tablets.

The first Surface models came with a cut-down version of Windows known as Windows RT. Rationally or otherwise the market never warmed to RT. [1]

Microsoft could have done better. It had a long head start. Remember it was Bill Gates, not Steve Jobs, who first pushed the idea of tablet computers.

Remember Slate computers?

Microsoft had been pushing slate-like devices for a decade before the iPad arrived. Sure, those stylus controlled devices were different, heavier and more sluggish than iPads, but the idea was a good one.

To be fair to Microsoft, Surface devices are excellent. [2] If you use Windows, have an investment in Microsoft products and services, they are a great, albeit expensive choice.

The Surface brand has a fiercely loyal following. Yet, I’ll stick my neck out and say if you should look around at this week’s Microsoft Ignite event, you’ll see almost as many Apple logos as Surfaces.

And then there was Nokia…

Microsoft’s other touchscreen blunder was buying Nokia’s phone business.

When Microsoft acquired the Nokia brand in 2013 it was clear what had been mainly a software company was now up to its neck in a strategy revolving around hardware.

Microsoft spun the acquisition as a triumph. That’s not how it looked to anyone outside the Microsoft bubble.

Buying a failed business

Yet here was a phone maker that had, in effect, picked a failed strategy. Perhaps Nokia’s biggest failure was choosing Microsoft’s phone operating system.[3]

Windows 8, Surface hardware, the Nokia acquisition were all strategic moves made when Steve Ballmer was Microsoft CEO.

History paints Ballmer as a general who, having learned how to fight in the last war, was leading his troops into a new style of conflict without any maps.

There’s something in that, but it isn’t the whole story. A lot of people misread the signs at that time.

If we extend the metaphor, Ballmer had the wit to go out and buy his troops modern weapons. He got Microsoft into the tablet and smartphone business at a time most people saw these technologies as the logical successors to personal computers.

Far from simple

Some people still see them that way. I don’t. Things aren’t that simple.

Three years ago the PC market peaked in unit sales and revenues. They took 30 years to reach their peak. The tablet market, at least the first wave of the tablet market, peaked in three years.

At the time of writing smartphone sales still haven’t peaked. Maybe they have and we don’t know it yet.

Either way they will peak soon.

Mature markets

From that point on the hardware market — PCs, tablets and phones — will be a mature market. Sales may grow in line with overall economic growth. There may be excitement as new geographic and submarkets open up. But the glory days are over.

Where things go next is interesting because as computer hardware markets mature, the focus switches from selling devices to software and services. That’s where Microsoft has always been strong.

If you like Ballmer sent his troops to fight the last war, when, in fact, they were always better equipped to fight the next one.

Ballmer’s value destruction

On one level Ballmer’s investments in Nokia, Surface and touch Windows were disastrous. They may have cost the company more than US$10 billion.

Yet those moves helped push Microsoft to the position it is in today. The company is now better positioned to dominate the markets supplying software and services to every type of computing device.

It won’t be easy. Apart from anything else, Microsoft is entering uncharted waters as far as making money is concerned.

Functional, free software

Customers are used to getting a lot of software functionality for free. Microsoft’s biggest rival, Google, operates a free model with customers trading their privacy for software or having to accept advertising as part of the deal.

Microsoft’s strategy is to offer some free services and free tiers of products like OneDrive and Office. Customers pay more to get more or a better experience. Microsoft is generous to consumers while recovering revenue from business users.

Microsoft remains a solid business. It is still the market leader in many areas. The company has remarkable resilience, there can’t be many businesses able to waste $10 billion or so chasing a dead end strategy and still come up smelling of roses.


  1. Surprising given the affordable price and the popularity of Microsoft Office which was included as part of the deal.  ↩
  2. If I didn’t need a solid, laptop-style keyboard for touch typing I’d be happy to use a Surface instead of a MacBook as my everyday computer.  ↩
  3. I don’t buy that theory. Nokia would have been even more screwed if it had gone with Android.  ↩

Microsoft Surface 3 tablet

Microsoft comes close to getting it right with the Surface 3.

It has a new Atom chip, real Windows 8.1, great screen, decent battery life and a one year, one person subscription to Office 365.

Power for day-to-day needs

Intel’s Atom mobile device chip and a full version of Windows 8.1 are more than enough to cope with most everyday applications. There’s all you need to write documents, crunch numbers, surf the web, watch streaming video and play basic games.

Thanks to the chip’s low power requirements, you can work for at least eight hours on a single charge. That’s plenty to get through a normal day.

One noticeable plus with the low-power Surface 3 processor is that it doesn’t need a fan. There’s no noise, no moving parts to worry about.

Who should buy the Surface 3?

Earlier I wrote about the limits of the Surface 3 keyboard.

This means it is not suitable for anyone who needs to type lots of words. Journalists, writers, keen bloggers and essay-writing students should look elsewhere.

That leaves people who work on the road and prefer Windows over iOS, OS X or Android.

Those who use Windows on a desktop will get value from the Surface 3 when they are on the move.

It’s a great secondary device for anyone committed to Microsoft products and services. This applies to companies and people.

Specification is right, price not

Apart from the weak keyboard, there is one other thing holding the Surface 3 back: Its price.

The Surface 3 tablet sells in New Zealand a $800 for the 64GB model and $960 for one with 128GB of storage. Almost everyone buying a Surface 3 will spend another $200 on the keyboard cover.

That’s expensive when compared with what $1000 can buy elsewhere.

The same money will buy a good laptop with a more powerful processor, more storage and a better keyboard.

Surface Pro 3 a better deal

A little more money buys a lot more computer.

That includes the Surface Pro 3. The least expensive Surface Pro 3 64GB model will set you back another $400. That extra money buys better everything, including a better keyboard.

Good Ultrabooks start at about $1300 and offer a big performance and productivity bump over the Surface 3.

Microsoft is looking for a premium price for the Surface 3 while positioning it as the junior model to the Surface Pro. That’s tricky market positioning. At $800 for a tablet and a keyboard it would be unbeatable, at $1000 it is only going to appeal to the Microsoft faithful.