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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.

Surface 3 keyboard

Microsoft pitches the NZ$800 Surface 3 as a laptop alternative. While it will fit the bill for some folk, Surface still has a way to go before it’s a realistic laptop replacement for most users.

Let’s start with the price. $800 only buys the tablet. You need to spend another $200 for the keyboard. The Surface Pen adds $80.

There are dozens of Windows laptops costing less than $1000. Although few match the flexibility of the Surface 3, most will give you a better keyboard.

In practice that matters more than you might expect.

Windows apps

The Surface 3’s selling point is that it runs all your favourite Windows applications. It comes with a one year personal Microsoft Office 365 licence as part of the deal.

Despite the popularity of touch screens, Office 365 and most popular Windows apps still mainly depend on keyboards.

Sure you can get by just typing on screen, but that’s not productive or satisfactory in the long term.

Surface 3 keyboard is vital

At first sight the Surface 3 keyboard is clever, thin and weighs next to nothing. As with previous Surface keyboards it doubles as a screen cover and attaches to the tablet with magnets. This makes for a fast set up.

You can lay the keyboard flat on a desk or table or you can put it at a slight angle. Neither is fully comfortable.

For me the keyboard is just too flimsy. There’s an unnerving flex when it is laid flat. The keyboard flexes a lot more when used at an angle. You can’t realistically use the keyboard on your lap[1].

Kickstand

Microsoft’s Surface Kickstand doesn’t help much. It works fine on a table or desk, but not on the lap. Nor is it any help on an airplane. The keyboard depth means the Kickstand sits roughly where there’s a gap between a plane’s tray-table and the seat in front.

The keys are firm enough and there’s a reassuring travel. I struggled to touch type. In practice I needed to keep looking at the keys to see, not feel where my fingers were.

Overall the keyboard isn’t up to the standard of laptop keyboards. It’s not far behind, but if you were looking for a reason to not buy the Surface 3, this is the place to start.

Trackpad

If the keyboard is below average, the trackpad rates near the bottom of the class. I’ve seen rubbish trackpads on cheap laptops, but the Surface trackpad is also disadvantaged by being small.

To be fair, there’s less need for a keyboard trackpad when you have a touch screen device. On the other hand, I find lifting hands from the keyboard to the screen is the fastest was to getting a sore wrist and pains in my arm.

While there’s a lot to like about the Surface 3 — more on that in a day or two — overall I don’t see the Surface 3 as a wise choice for anyone who needs to type anything longer than quick status updates and email replies. You can work with it at a pinch, but if you need to type the money is better spent elsewhere.

Students, journalists, academics, report writers should look elsewhere. I’d recommend spending $1000 on a laptop with a good keyboard. If you can afford it, move up a class.


  1. I hate using laptops this way. That’s a matter of personal taste. Using the keyboard on your lap is downright disastrous with the Surface 3. On the other hand, it’s a tablet so why not use it that way if there’s not a desk handy?  ↩

Microsoft Surface Pro 3Last year I spent a week working with nothing but Microsoft technology. Since then Microsoft updated Surface Pro, the Lumia phone and delivered Windows 8.1. How does this change things?

The big difference is the move from 2013’s Surface Pro 2 to the 2014 Surface Pro 3. While the Surface Pro 2 could run Microsoft Office and the Windows apps most people use most of the time, the Surface Pro 3 does away with the need for a separate notebook.

This means one less item to buy and one less thing to carry. There’s less to fuss over.

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 is better than the Pro 2 in every respect. Better screen, better screen size, better processor, even a better kick-stand.

There’s enough processing power to handle every mainstream application, even editing media files. Unlike the Surface Pro 2, there are no embarrassing glitches. When you add the docking station you can use a big screen for graphics and video work.

 
The Surface keyboard still isn’t as robust as those on desktops or high quality laptops. That aside, you could switch to using the Surface Pro 3 as your only computer. If you do, it may pay to invest in a solid desktop keyboard.
 
Although others use the Surface Pro 3 with large screens — or more than one screens — the 12-inch display is often enough.

Despite higher specifications is almost every department, there is less difference between the Lumia 920 and the 2014 Lumia 930. Yes the camera is an improvement. Anything needing heavy-duty processing is faster, but in day-to-day use this is unnoticable. The Lumia 930 is a good phone, but in hardware terms it has fallen behind Apple’s iPhone 6 and Samsung’s Galaxy S5.

The move from Windows Phone 8 to 8.1 doesn’t amount to much in practice. There’s an extra column of phone screen icons — as if that matters. Microsoft added a notification centre and Cortana.

Cortana digital assistant

Cortana is Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s Siri voice activated digital assistant. The 930 screen keyboard seems to work better than on the 920. You’ll get a little more done with the 930 than the 920, but it’s not going to make a huge difference to the way you work.

Microsoft fixed most of what’s wrong with Windows 8 in 8.1. The move from the start screen to the Windows desktop is less jarring. Internet Explorer 11 is a better browser. Windows 8.1 is faster and more apps and utilities come as standard.

There was nothing wrong with Microsoft’s technology when I tried it last year. Microsoft has fixed all the annoyances. Moving between the Surface Pro 3 and the Lumia 930 is natural. Saving Office documents to OneDrive from the Surface Pro 3 then editing or reading them on the phone works as it should. Microsoft has tightened its technology and sharpened its act all-round.