Despite a slow-down in growth, tablets are displacing traditional portable computers. The market is competitive with Apple’s iPad leading the charge and Microsoft blurring the gap between tablets and laptops with its Surface range
There’s no clear end in sight to falling tablet sales. IDC’s latest tablet quarterly report shows shipments fell over 12 percent year-on-year. This is the seventh quarter in a row shipments have declined.
Tablet sales for the second quarter of 2016 were 38.7 million units compared with 44.1 million in the same period a year earlier. IDC’s figures include slates and detachable devices.
Apple, Samsung down
Apple and Samsung showed the biggest decline. Yet they stay first and second in the market. The pair are a long way ahead of the next place company: Lenovo.
Samsung’s market share fell from 18.2 percent to 15.6 percent. Apple managed to edge up to a market share of 25.8 percent. It shipped 10 million tablets during the quarter, Samsung shipped six million.
Lenovo’s market share held steady with a small, three percent increase in units shipped. Huawei leapt forward with a 71 percent increase in shipments but remains small compared to the two leaders on a 5.6 percent market share.
Amazon’s numbers look great, 1200 percent growth, but IDC says that’s partly because it didn’t include the company’s six-inch tablets in the earlier survey.
Android dominates but stalling
Android still dominates in terms of operating system. It accounts for 65 percent of the total. Apple’s iOS has a 26 percent share. Windows makes the rest.
IDC says a change could be on the way as fewer brands now sell Android tablets and some of those who have in the past now offer more Windows devices.
Jitesh Ubrani, IDC’s senior research analyst says Android is finding it difficult to compete at the moment, but a new version of the OS is on the way with better multi-tasking support. So that could change.
Windows got off to a poor start with tablets. The first Windows tablets from companies like HP and Dell were disappointing. That’s changed with Windows 10, there’s some evidence Windows tablets are picking up momentum with corporate customers, mainly but not exclusively at Android’s expense.
Top Five Tablet Vendors, Shipments, Market Share, and Growth, Second Quarter 2016
(Preliminary Results, Shipments in millions)
2Q16 Unit Shipments
2Q16 Market Share
2Q15 Unit Shipments
2Q15 Market Share
Source: IDC Worldwide Quarterly Tablet Tracker, August 1, 2016
Personal computer sales are in free-fall. Tablet sales are in worse shape. The two do not exist in isolation. Computer makers have different strategies to squeeze the most out of a difficult market.
IDC reports the tablet market has now been in decline for six quarters in a row. Market leaders Apple and Samsung have seen year-on-year shipments drop 19 percent and 28 percent — see table.
Top Five Tablet Vendors, Shipments, Market Share, and Growth, First Quarter 2016
(Preliminary Results, Shipments in millions)
1Q16 Unit Shipments
1Q16 Market Share
1Q15 Unit Shipments
1Q15 Market Share
Source: IDC Worldwide Quarterly Tablet Tracker, April 28, 2016
While Amazon and Huawei look like winners, they both come from a low base.
Amazon is an outlier. It has a different business model. The company doesn’t plan to make money from selling tablets. It sells tablets like printers, at cost or thereabout. Where printer makers earn profits from ink, Amazon aims to make money selling digital content and subscriptions.
Amazon is dominant in cloud computing. It sells cloud to business and enterprise customers. Yet the company’s only hardware play is to consumers.
Huawei moved into tablets and hybrid devices as a way of expanding its reach. It is one of the top three phone makers but Huawei’s main business is selling communications network equipment.
And that’s how Huawei plans to sell computers. They will turn up in the usual retail channels. You can also expect telecommunications companies to offer Huawei devices to customers.
Amazon is a low-cost tablet brand. Huawei and Samsung have mid-range prices. Huawei’s MateBook — yet to go on sale in New Zealand — resembles Microsoft‘s Surface Pro, but costs less.
All four tablet-makers; Apple, Samsung, Amazon and Huawei remain committed to the tablet market despite falling sales in the sector.
That’s not the case with other big brands. HP and Dell have moved away from conventional tablets. They are still focussed on PC sales. They concentrate tablet-like efforts in the hybrid sector making two-in-one Windows devices.
Hybrids are a bright spot in an otherwise depressed market. Yet sales remain tiny compared to today’s PC and tablet sectors.
This could change. Hybrids are huge with enterprise customers. Business users think they deliver better productivity than tablets and greater mobility than PCs. Users prefer them. As enterprise workforces become more mobile, they are becoming the norm in many organisations.
HP and Dell chase enterprise customers by wooing corporate buyers. Apple plays well in that market, but for the most part, individuals choose and buy MacBooks and iPads.
This explains why Apple pushed hard with the iPad Pro. They are closer to conventional iOS tablets than Windows hybrids. They have optional qwerty keyboards and the Apple Pencil to extend their appeal. The 12.9-inch model has the larger screen size preferred by enterprise customers.
Meanwhile, since splitting from HP Enterprise, the new HP is building thin, light laptops. They echo Apple’s MacBook, but offer more powerful processors and Microsoft Windows 10. There are touch screen and non-touch screen models.
Apple appears to have missed a beat. The 2016 MacBook is a minimal, elegant, mobile laptop, but there have been no other new Macs in over a year.
Yet Apple still has a few tricks up its sleeve. Unlike HP, it has control over its software, services and ecosystem. That should still be a recipe for success.
Microsoft is banking on a similar recipe with its Surface Pro range of hybrids. The Surface seems to be selling well. In April Microsoft reported Surface revenues climbed from US$713 million in Q3 2015 to US$1.11 billion in Q3 2016. Microsoft is coy about unit numbers, but, for now, sales are not high enough to rank in IDC’s top five.
Apple and Microsoft both play in the premium market. They promise quality, performance, added-value services and reliability. Huawei and Samsung devices cost less. They aim to offer what amounts to the same functionality at a lower price. That could prove a tough sell. HP and Dell, to a lesser extent Lenovo, reach from the low-end to the top. Their challenge is convincing high-end buyers their flagship products are different enough from cheaper models.
Windows 8’s reception so traumatised Microsoft the company drew a clear line under the operating system. To emphasise this, Windows skipped a version moving direct from 8 to 10.
One reason desktop and laptop owners didn’t warm to Windows 8 was because of its touch screen features. Not only could most people not use them on their existing devices, but the touch screen apps and features were often confusing in a non-touch context.
It wasn’t much better on a touch-screen PC. Switching between two modes was awkward.
Tablet or desktop OS?
Windows 8 made more sense on a tablet.
When Microsoft’s Surface arrived we saw what the software giant had tried to do. While it wasn’t perfect, Surface with Windows 8 was a plausible alternative to iOS or Android tablets.
Android and iOS were born mobile. They were phone operating systems first. Although moving them to tablets wasn’t seamless, it was straightforward.
For Windows the transition was rougher. It’s no accident that if we’re strict about the term, most popular Windows 10 tablets aren’t tablets at all.
They are hybrids. No-one considers buying a Surface Pro without also buying a keyboard at the same time. The same applies to models from Huawei and Samsung.
You never see people using Windows 10 tablets in the portrait phone orientation. They are almost always used in landscape mode. Like laptops.
Surface Pro users look like they are using laptops, because that’s how they are working. Hybrid tablets are, in effect, an alternative laptop design.
While you could say something similar about the iPad Pro and some Android models, at least they keep their born-mobile operating systems.
You can sit on the sofa with an iPad Pro in the portrait orientation. Sure, you can do the same with Surface, but it’s not as natural.
If Surface and other Windows 10 hybrids are, in effect, a different take on laptop design, they have a few obvious disadvantages compared with more conventional laptops.
First, they are expensive. Surface Pro 4 prices start at around NZ$1850 if you include a keyboard.
There’s a big performance jump between the cheapest model and the lowest Intel i5 model which would take the price up to around $2000.
Ultrabooks better value
You can get a lot of conventional laptop for the same money. Prices for Ultrabooks with an Intel i5 processor start at less than NZ$1000. Or you could buy a lot of iPad or Android tablet.
Second, Surface Pro battery life remains terrible. This may not be the case with the Huawei and Samsung hybrids.
Not only do you get a less active battery life from a Surface Pro 4, but the battery doesn’t last long on standby either.
You can flip the power off on, say, the HP Spectre Windows laptop — review coming soon — and know there will be plenty of juice later in the day, or the next day or the day after.
That’s not the case with a Surface Pro. Come back later the same day and you may need to bring the charger.
Third, while Windows 10 hybrids can run most of the vast Windows software catalog, there aren’t many tablet optimised Windows apps. You end up doing everything in the Windows browser.
That may not be bad for you. You may prefer to work that way. But it is not the same smooth experience you’ll get with an Android or iOS tablet.
When there are Windows 10 tablet-style apps, developers give them less love. Developers update Windows tablet apps slower or less often than their Android or iOS versions. They’re not being difficult, they are responding to market demand.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Windows 10 tablets is how they display non-tablet Windows apps. At times the screen is a dog’s breakfast.
Load up a tablet-style app from Microsoft’s Windows Store and you’ll get crisp text, clear lines, smooth graphics. All good.
Now go and load an old-school Windows app. There’s a chance the text is tiny, not resized to account for the high resolution screen. If that’s not the case, then instead of showing larger text, the pixels from small text sizes are blown up leaving blurry, hard to read writing.
Windows 10 laptops better than tablets
Why does this post’s headline say Windows 10 laptops are better than tablets? As we’ve seen, Windows 10 tablets are used in much the same way as laptops. Yet, apart from weight, they don’t have many obvious advantages.
Meanwhile, they have poor battery life and there is not much decent Windows 10 tablet software. It isn’t the focus of this post, but most laptops also offer better keyboards.
There’s nothing foolish about buying a Surface Pro 4 or any other Windows 10 tablet. The best are fine devices. I’d consider one for my use. Hybrid sales show Windows 10 tablets hit a nerve with customers.
Yet four generations on from the first Surface models, they still haven’t met their full potential. Windows 10 tablets could be an incredible productivity tool, but they are not there yet.
We shouldn’t forget Windows RT. More confusion perhaps, but overall a more tablet-like experience. ↩
Apple’s latest iPad Pro packs the internals of the 12.7-inch model in the same space as the 9.7-inch iPad Air.
Prices start at NZ$1050. The 9.7-inch iPad Air is more expensive than many laptops, but then Apple says it’s more powerful.
After a week of using it as my main, but not only, computer, it’s clear some people will find it more useful than a laptop.
iPad Pro in an iPad Air skin
At first sight there’s not much difference between the 9.7-inch iPad Pro and the iPad Air 2.
They are the same size. Both are 6mm thick. They weigh the same: about 445g for the cellular model.
The most obvious external difference is the bump on the back for the camera lens. On paper that sounds like an awful, backward step. In practice you never notice it.
While both iPads have the same 2048‑by‑1536 pixel resolution, the iPad Pro displays a wider colour range. Its screen is also brighter than the iPad Air 2.
Put the two side-by-side and you can see the displays are not the same. Unless both models show the same photograph, it is hard to describe what separates them.
If you do show the same image, you’ll notice it looks better on the iPad Pro with the wider color range. The display is brighter and more vibrant.
A wider colour range also means better colour accuracy. This is important if you use your iPad for work photography or video. In the past iPads weren’t powerful enough for serious editing work. Both iPad Pro models handle these tasks with ease.
The second new screen feature of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is more subtle.
True Tone detects the colour temperature of your surroundings using two four-channel light sensors. The iPad’s software then adjusts the display colour temperature to match.
This is noticeable if you fire up the iPad at night when the room lights are low. In the past bright blue-tinged iPad screen lights could spoil your relaxed night-time mood. There’s some evidence it can stop you from sleeping.
True Tone is clever and nice, but it is not going to excite anyone and won’t set the world on fire. On its own, True Tone is not a good enough reason to upgrade from an earlier iPad.
Like the 12.7-inch iPad Pro, the 9.7-inch model has beefed-up audio with louder, clearer speakers. It doesn’t match the sound quality of the bigger Pro, there’s not enough speaker room for that, but the sound is crisp. Music sounds better than you’d expect and FaceTime calls can be as clear as a bell.
Apple has woken up to the idea that people use the iPad to take photographs. In the past iPad cameras were a long way behind iPhone cameras in terms of specification and performance.
That’s changed. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro has the same camera as the iPhone 6. On the back is a 12 megapixel with flash. You can use it to shoot 4K video, although you’d need steady hands to hold an iPad still.
The front camera is also the same as on the iPhone 6S. It has five megapixels. The higher quality is immediately obvious if you use, say, Facetime for video conferencing.
iPad Pro Performance
Technical-minded reviewers often wax lyrical about the processors, graphics chips and Ram inside phones and tablets. Most of the time discussions about these components are meaningless, either the device runs fast and smoothly or it doesn’t. What matters is can the device do all the work a user is likely to throw at it.
If anything the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is overpowered. It uses the same A9X processor with M9 motion coprocessor that you’ll find on the larger iPad Prod. Apple says it’s almost twice as fast as the iPad Air 2 and more powerful than most laptops.
In practice, you’ll notice the processor is more than fast enough for everyday tablet applications. If you come from an earlier iPad you’ll notice everything happens faster. Media plays more smoothly.
More tablet than laptop
Although it is an iOS device, the 12.7-inch iPad Pro has a laptop feel. Since I’ve had it, the keyboard has stayed attached for most of the time. I use it as I would use my 13-inch MacBook Air. It travelled to Europe with me as my main computer on a reporting trip.
In comparison, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro has more of a tablet. While I have used it with my Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover, it mainly gets used without a keyboard.
The Logitech Ultrathin keyboard works well with the iPad Pro. I used it to type part of this review. Apple Smart Keyboard wasn’t available in New Zealand at the time this review was written.
The 9.7-inch iPad Pro’s small size gives it an extra level of portability when compare to the larger iPad Pro. You can work with either iPad on an airplane tray-table, but the smaller one is even less of a problem in tight space like economy class seats.
Apple’s Pencil works with the smaller iPad Pro. The Pencil is a great input tool for artists and others who draw. You can use it to annotate images or even write notes, but the files are stored as images.
If you could combine the Pencil with system-wide handwriting-recognition software — something the Microsoft Surface Pro manages — you’d have a powerful tool for taking notes while standing. As a journalist who sometimes finds himself in media scrums, I would find this useful. It would be even more useful if it could read Teeline shorthand.
Microsoft Office bonus
Microsoft did a fine job with the iOS version of Office. The software run on iPhones, but it shines more with the increased room on an iPad display. If anything I find Microsoft Word performs smoother, better and is easier to use on a 12.7-inch iPad Pro than on my MacBook Air.
I used Word on the 9.7-inch iPad Pro to write a couple of features. The Logitech Ultrathin keyboard is cramped compared with a full-size keyboard, but the experience was far better than writing on an iPhone or even on the iPad’s screen keyboard.
You need a full Office 365 subscription to use the full version of the software on a laptop or 12.7-inch iPad Pro. However, Microsoft gives a free Office licence to anyone using the software on a device with a screen smaller than 10 inches. So, a bonus of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is that, in effect, it comes with free Microsoft Office.
Office works great on iPads. Word, Excel, OneNote and PowerPoint all come in well-maintained iOS versions with frequent updates. It’s not the full software you’ll find on laptops or desktops, but everything most people need is there. If you don’t like Office, Apple’s iWorks software is included as standard on all iPad models.
Is the 9.7-inch iPad Pro worth buying?
If you only use an iPad to browse material, view photos, read PDFs and so on, then you may not need to upgrade to the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. It isn’t worth the expense to move from, say, the iPad Air 2 to a 9.7-inch iPad Pro.
On the other hand, if you already do, or intend to do most or all of your work on your iPad, an iPad Pro is a logical choice. While it won’t do everything a laptop can do, the things that are missing may or may not be important to you.
By the time you’ve added a keyboard, the 9.7-inch model still costs less than a MacBook Air or an equivalent Windows 10 Ultrabook. The 12.7-inch model is a more direct laptop replacement, the giant screen is worth the extra $350.
If you have an older iPad that’s getting a little tired, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro would be a good next step. You’ll notice the extra power and improved screen.
There’s a lot of confusion about the term colour temperature. It is sometimes used as a way of talking about white balance. And it can mean something quite subjective. When Apple uses the term it relates to making the screen bluer or more orange depending on the colour of the light shining on and around the iPad. This makes for a less jarring screen viewing experience. ↩
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.. ↩
Office is particularly good. Word and Excel are wonderful on the Surface Pro 4. ↩
I’m going to qualify that statement in a fresh post in the coming days. ↩