Bill Bennett

Menu

Tag: tablets

Surface Laptop Studio review: Versatile Windows 11 PC

At a casual glance the Surface Laptop Studio looks like every other Windows 11 laptop. You have to look closer to see a second hinge. This lets you fold the device into a variety of positions for different tasks.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio

Surface Laptop Studio - At a glance

For:Great touch screen, keyboard, trackpad. Versatile design.
Against:Expensive, lacks top end models for toughest workloads
Maybe:Windows 11. Battery life good compared with other Windows devices.
Verdict:Great desktop or mobile choice for on the move creative professionals. Innovative thinking.
Rating:4.5 out of 5
Price:From NZ$2700
Web:Microsoft New Zealand

Closed, the Surface Laptop Studio resembles other Surface devices. It’s larger, but otherwise familiar.

Microsoft etched its shiny four squares logo on the brushed metallic top of the laptop. That way everyone watching knows you are using a Surface1.

A hinge across the top looks similar to the kickstand you’ll find on Surface Pro tablets.

Elegant, minimal

Open the lid and the keyboard and touchpad will remind Apple users of an old school MacBook Pro. It is all about elegance and minimalism. There are no annoying, embarrassing stickers boasting about what is inside.

The LCD touch screen looks great from the moment it lights up. At 14.1 inches with a few mm of bezels, it is a generous size for working or playing on the move. A high 120Hz refresh rate adds to the classy look and feel.

It’s hard to find a bad display on any device that aspires to be more than a basic bargain basement workhorse. Yet, this is good. You may not always be conscious of the high refresh rate, but you’ll notice it immediately if you look at a similar size screen with a slower rate.

Transformer

Fiddle around with the open laptop for a moment and you will find that the screen swings away from the laptop lid along that hinge line we mentioned earlier.

This hinge may be a simple innovation, but it is what puts the Surface Laptop Studio in a class of its own. It turns the Laptop Studio into a more modern, upmarket take on the hybrid device idea.

Magnets in the lid and elsewhere on the case help you position the screen in a range of positions. That way, the laptop transforms into other Windows 11 devices.

Stage mode

There’s what Microsoft calls the stage mode. You could use this to watch videos. It works well for Zoom or Teams calls.

There’s a reverse position which has the screen pointing away from you. This may be useful for giving presentations to a small audience

You can fold the screen all the way down. This, in effect, reverses the lid position and turns the laptop into a thick and heavy large screen Windows tablet.

At 1.8 kg and 20mm deep, the Surface Laptop Studio makes a hefty, thick tablet. Your arms will tire if you hold this for a long time. Mind you, the 14 inch screen is larger than you’ll find on other tablets. This makes direct comparison with, say, a ten-inch iPad, meaningless.

Studio

There’s a variation on this known as studio mode. You might use studio mode to sketch or write on the screen with Microsoft’s optional Slim Pen 2 stylus. In effect it turns the computer into a giant drawing tablet.

Artists and designers will find this handy. Whether you find these screen positions useful is another matter.

At first it takes a conscious effort to use them, we have become conditioned to using laptops in certain ways. During the short review period it never felt natural using these modes, that might change over time.

And that’s the nub of the Surface Laptop Studio. Its signature feature is not for everyone.

Fan base

The extra thickness is, in part, down to the curious design of the base. It is smaller than the size of the rest of the case. It is where the CPU and the graphics processor live and there are fan vents at both ends.

When you push the computer hard, the fan will kick in. You can hear it working, it’s not silent, but nor is it noisy. You won’t be distracted and the sound should not interfere with video calls.

The fact that the Laptop Studio needs a fan underlines how much Microsoft’s rival, Apple, has moved ahead of Intel processors.

CPU power

Microsoft uses an 11th generation Intel Core i7 in the review device. This is as good as it gets in the Intel world. There is a cheaper model with a Core i5 processor.

Intel’s i7 is more than powerful enough for everyday users. Even the majority of power users will be satisfied. Unless you run the most demanding applications you will not want for computer power.

Yet it is no match for the processors in Apple’s current laptops and high-end tablets.

Graphics processor

Microsoft includes the NVIDIA GoForce RTX 3050 Ti graphics processor in the review model. The cheaper version of the Laptop Studio uses Intel Iris X.

The graphics processor and CPU quickly get hot if you push the hardware. That’s not going to happen if you use the device for business applications, mail, web surfing and Zoom calls.

If you play games it is another story. It was noticeable during the device set up that Microsoft encourages users to sample its game playing services.

Maybe Microsoft does that with every device it sells, yet this would be the Surface device that delivers the best gaming experience.

Powering through tasks

In testing, the i7 version of the Surface Laptop Studio was more than the equal of any conventional business application. It handled photo editing tasks with ease.

Although Microsoft’s marketing describes the Laptop Studio as ‘workstation class’, that’s pushing it.

Running high end workstation apps is beyond the scope of this review, but looking at the specification, the device might struggle with heavy duty video work.

You’ll find workstation class laptops from rival brands that sell for a similar price to the Surface Laptop Studio, but offer more raw power.

Battery hog

It was noticeable that high-end work is greedy for battery power. Use the Surface Laptop Studio for everyday work and you might get ten hours on a single charge. There would be fuel left in the tank after a normal day’s work.

This is a long way behind the latest Apple MacBook Pro models that sip battery power and can run for 14 hours on a charge.

Things get worse fast if you perform tasks where the fan kicks in. When you can hear its gentle hum you know you’ll be lucky to get four hours before hunting for a power socket.

Speakers, keyboard, touch pad

Two other hardware features are worth mentioning. The speakers are surprisingly good considering the engineers had little room to work with. You’d need external speakers for serious audio editing work and fussy listeners might prefer to hear music delivered that way. Otherwise, your ears will be happy.

Microsoft has included a first rate keyboard. This is one area that laptop buyers can overlook. Once you’ve got past the novelty of a new computer and its power or features, you can often end up feeling frustrated by a less than perfect keyboard. This can be even more the case if you buy a tablet with a keyboard like, say, the Surface Pro.

The haptic touchpad is equally excellent. It is as good as anything you’ll see from Apple. This has not been the case with Surface devices in the past.

Microsoft missed a trick not including an SD card slot. That would be helpful for the creative market the laptop aims to serve.

Windows 11

As you’d expect, the review Laptop Studio was delivered with Windows 11.

Thankfully Microsoft avoids the bloatware that Windows rivals unhelpfully pack with their hardware. The only preloaded software is a trial version of Microsoft Office. This is hardly an imposition. Almost every Surface Laptop Studio buyer will want Office.

Microsoft’s Hello face recognition works as before. It’s a better way of logging in.

Firing up Windows 11 for the first time took the review computer into Microsoft’s tiresome, but essential software update process. It was a full 20 minutes before the computer was ready to work and that is on a gigabit internet connection. If you have a slower link, don’t expect to open the box and get started straight away.

Handwriting recognition

It took a while to realise that Windows 11 has improved handwriting recognition compared with earlier versions of Windows. This makes the various modes more useful than they might otherwise be if you buy the optional NZ$200 Surface Slim Pen.

Like the Touchpad, the Slim Pen has haptic feedback which makes writing on screen feel like a pen on paper. It’s impressive, but not essential for productivity.

Bold move

Surface Laptop Studio is another bold, you might even say brave, hardware move from Microsoft. The software and cloud company shows it remains determined to push the device design envelope.

This strategy doesn’t always work. Surface Duo was ridiculous and the early Windows RT tablets flopped.

Yet, in a sense, that’s the whole point of Surface. Microsoft got into the device business ten years ago because it wanted to push its Windows hardware partners into more innovation, more risk taking.

Sans Microsoft

In passing it is worth mentioning that Microsoft no longer brands its hardware as “Microsoft Surface”. It is letting the name stand on its own. There’s more distance than in the past. While this would make it easier to sell the division in future, it looks as if the idea is more about giving the brand more meaning.

Surface devices don’t sell in huge numbers compared with hardware from HP, Lenovo, or that elephant in the room: Apple.

In round numbers Surface accounts for about four percent of US device sales and a lower share of worldwide sales.

Where Surface fits

The range does make money for Microsoft, but is dwarfed by the company’s cloud, enterprise software and personal software business. This could change if Surface stumbles over a hit product.

Surface’s more important role is laying down important markers and staking out turf. Microsoft doesn’t say as much, but it’s clear it wants to show it can go head to head with Apple with innovation. Or at least prove it in the same league.

Surface Laptop Studio verdict

Despite the versatility, Microsoft’s Surface Laptop Studio is not hard to use or understand. Its ability to shapeshift may be essential for a niche creative audience, but it will have broader appeal, for novelty value if nothing else.

There’s no question the Laptop Studio is expensive. Prices start at NZ$2700, you can pay NZ$5350 for a fully-loaded model with 2TB of solid state storage, 32GB of Ram and the top-of-the-line CPU and graphics.

Microsoft wants a further NZ$200 for the Slim Pen. That’s outrageous. At these prices the pen should be bundled. That said, at least you don’t have to dig deeper to buy a keyboard. That’s annoying when you buy a Surface Pro.

The problem potential creative buyers face is the money you’d pay for a Surface Laptop Studio can buy a more powerful workstation class system. Go that route and you won’t get the portability or the versatility, you will power through your work faster.


  1. Go to a busy cafe where people work and you’ll notice there are three distinct tribes of device users. Apple is the largest, or at least the most visible. There are fewer Surface tribe members, but, like Mac users, they can share knowing nods and smiles. There does not appear to be a similar camaraderie among HP, Dell or Lenovo cafe workers – or, if there is, their acknowledgement signals are known only to insiders. ↩︎

Surface Pro 8 – who should buy?

Microsoft’s updated Surface Pro 8 is for people who need Windows packaged in the slimmest, lightest device. Make that well-heeled people, it’s not cheap.

That’s the short version. Now for a longer version.

This isn’t going to read like a standard product view. Instead, we’re going to look at who might benefit from buying a Surface Pro 8 and who would do better looking elsewhere. First, the basics

Great display

From the moment you fire up the Surface Pro 8 you’ll notice the display.

It’s nearly an inch larger than the display on the Surface Pro 7 with tiny 5mm bezels at the side. The top bezel is larger at 10mm, but it hides the front facing camera. You don’t see the bottom bezel when you are hooked up to the Signature keyboard.

Microsoft has increased the refresh rate to 120Mhz. That’s something you don’t often see on everyday devices.

Experience

In practice this makes for a better experience. It feels and looks better. The cursor and screen scrolling are smoother. None of this sounds like much and after a while you won’t notice it, but you’ll miss it the moment you start using a device with a slower refresh rate.

There’s an adaptive colour feature that adjusts the screen depending on what’s around you. Again, the effect is subtle, you notice it most when day turns to night or night turns to day.

All of this adds up to a quality experience. When it comes to the visual side of things, the Surface Pro 8 feels better than any other Windows computer.

Typing

Sadly you cannot say the same for the keyboard. As with other Surface Pro models, the keyboard is an optional extra. It’s not that optional. Almost no-one buys a Surface Pro without the NZ$479 Signature Keyboard.

That’s a lot of money for a keyboard by any standard. Thanks to a core made from carbon fibre it is sturdier than early Surface Pro keyboards. Yet it still flexes as you type. It stays in place, but you don’t get the solid feel of a laptop keyboard.

Nor do you get much key travel. On the plus side it is laid out with plenty of room. As a touch typist I didn’t run into problems.

Performance

We’ll look more at relative performance in a moment. There’s a base model Surface Pro 8 that uses the Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of Ram. That’ll cost you NZ$1850. Storage is a mere 128GB, which is barely enough to get by with.

The review model has an i7 with 16GB of Ram, 256GB of storage and Iris Xe integrated graphics. It sells in New Zealand for $2770.

In both cases that’s before you add almost $500 for the not-really-optional Signature keyboard.

Fast by Windows standards

This is a fast machine by 2021 Windows standards. You can run many apps at the same time without seeing any performance drop. I loaded it with a dozen simultaneous tasks without it getting warm.

Microsoft claims you can get 16 hours use on a single charge. I found the Surface Pro 8 fell well short of that. Eight hours is closer to my experience and that’s with dialling down the screen brightness.

Audience

The obvious audience for the Surface Pro 8 is existing Surface users looking for an upgrade.

Beyond that, this will appeal to the rusted-on Windows user. Someone who has spent years working with Microsoft’s OS, and has optimised their practices to the point where switching to, say, MacOS or Linux would be hard.

Surface Pro 8 costs a lot more than conventional Windows laptops offering the same performance. You can buy laptops with similar chip and memory specifications from companies like HP, Lenovo or Dell for $1000 less.

Or you can spend the same money and buy a more powerful device.

That makes it an expensive way of getting a mobile Windows computer.

Yet Surface is more than that. It converts to a tablet and delivers a more complete Windows 11 experience. I’d argue it is a better experience than most 2-in-1s.

Comparisons with MacBook Air

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 8 does not scrub up well in a direct comparison with a MacBook Air, the 2020 model with the M1 processor.

By the time you’ve added the Signature Keyboard to the Surface Pro 8, you’re looking at spending more than NZ$3000 for a computer with 256GB of storage.

A MacBook Air with 256GB of storage costs NZ$1750.

It doesn’t have a touch screen and you can’t remove the keyboard. Yet Apple’s computer is much faster. If you like benchmarks, then you’ll see the MacBook Air is about 40 percent faster than the Surface Pro.

When it comes to battery life, the MacBook Air will carry on working for at least three more hours than the Surface Pro. My testing shows you should expect to run for even longer. You get more computer for less money.

The key difference is the operating system. Now that most apps are delivered from the cloud and the key non-cloud apps come in MacOS and Windows versions, there’s less to worry about in this department.

It comes down to whether you like MacOS or Windows and whether you can be as productive if you switch.

In a sense, the Surface Pro 8 makes a strong case for buying an Apple laptop.

Comparisons with iPad Pro

The Surface Pro 8 is far more laptop-like than the iPad Pro. I might hook a keyboard to the iPad Pro for 30 percent of my time with the device. With the Surface Pro it’s never not connected.

Even so, you can view both as tablets and compare them that way.

Adding the Smart Keyboard Folio, which is the closest model to Microsoft’s keyboard to an iPad Pro with 256GB of storage comes to a total of NZ$2380. That’s $650 less than the price of a similar configuration Surface Pro 8.

Like the M1 MacBook Air, the M1 iPad Pro is much faster than the Surface Pro. Meanwhile the iPad Pro’s battery life is on a par with the Surface Pro 8. The iPad Pro is around 100g lighter than the Surface Pro, in practice you’d barely notice this.

On a straightforward comparison, the iPad Pro offers more computer for less money.

Slim Pen 2 Stylus

You can buy pens, or Pencils and Stylus to give them their brand names, for both the Surface Pro 8 and the iPad Pro.

Apple’s Pencil integrates neatly with the iPad Pro. It has magnets which let it stick to the side of the iPad when not in use. It will charge while in this position.

Microsoft’s Slim Pen 2 Stylus tucks into a holder on the Signature Keyboard. In its own way this is as neat as Apple’s magnetic approach. This includes a wireless charger.

There’s also a separate charging holster. I struggled to see the point of this. It makes life more complicated than is necessary.

Surface Pro 8 verdict

There will be people reading this who don’t think price is a barrier. Yet by any standards the Surface Pro 8 is expensive.

By the time you add a non-optional keyboard, the lowest practical option will cost NZ$2500. A MacBook Pro costs less. There are plenty of decent Windows alternatives that will leave change in your pocket.

None of this is to detract from the Surface Pro 8. It has a wonderful screen and there’s the flexibility to remove the keyboard and enjoy a movie on a tablet. It’s about as good as the Windows laptop experience can be.

Tablets, Chromebooks have bumper year

IDC reports says sales for tablets and Chromebooks grew in 2020 and will continue to do well in 2021.

It says both classes of devices sold to consumers, businesses and schools as people looked to stay connected during the pandemic lockdowns.

IDC says tablet shipments had double digit growth in 2020. It forecasts shipments will grow a further 1.8 percent in 2021. That’s a modest number, but is better than flat or negative growth experienced before the Covid outbreak.

A different take

Gartner offers a different take on the tablet sector. It forecasts the number of tablets in use will rise 11.7 percent in 2021.

That is faster growth than for laptops, which Gartner says will increase 8.8 percent this year.

IDC expects Chromebook sales to climb 33.5 percent this year. 2020 was the best year ever for Chromebook sales. Gartner puts last year’s growth at 80 percent.

While Chromebook growth is higher, it is off a smaller base. IDC expects a total of 43.4 million Chromebooks to ship this year while tablet numbers will reach 166.5 million.

In both cases, the devices’ lower price when compared with laptops or desktops is behind the growth.

Tablets future less certain

IDC is less positive about future sales of these devices. It says it expects demand to slow as lockdown restrictions relax.

In the past Chromebooks have mainly been popular with schools and with cash-strapped parents looking for low-cost devices for learning and entertainment.

Jitesh Ubrani, research manager with IDC Mobility and Consumer Device Trackers says: “Chromebooks are quickly proving themselves useful within workplaces. While they will not supplant Windows and Mac in these settings, they are expected to provide competition, particularly in job functions where high performance and legacy support isn’t a priority.”

“On the tablet side, detachable tablets will remain a bright spot as these devices are more PC-like than ever, both from a hardware and a software perspective.”

Meanwhile phones are about to see a modest upturn in sales after an ugly year in 2020. Gartner says the total number of phones in use declined 2.6 percent in 2020 and will rise by one percent this year.

Pandemic tablet sales boom rolls over into 2021

Tablet shipments are up 55 percent on the same period last year. The 2020 tablet sales boom that started when the world went into lockdown rolled over into the first quarter of 2021.

IDC reports almost 40 million tablets were shipped in the quarter. It says the market hasn’t seen growth of this magnitude since 2013.

Demand for tablets remains high. IDC says it expects strong numbers to continue for a while yet.

Chromebook surge

Meanwhile some 13 million Chromebooks shipped in the quarter. This compares with 2.8 million in the same period a year ago. Growth was a stunning 357 percent.

We don’t see as much Chromebook activity in New Zealand as elsewhere. That could change, but most education sales activity here seems to be around low-cost conventional laptops and tablets.1

Apple dominates tablet sales boom

Apple’s iPad remains the star tablet performer ahead of Samsung, Lenovo and Amazon, in that order.

IDC says the iPad accounted for 31.7 percent of shipments in the quarter. A total of 12.7 million iPads left Apple’s warehouses during the period. Year-on-year growth was a 64 percent.

A rival research company, Strategy Analytics, says iPad shipments were up 75 percent. It counted a total of 16.8 million.

There’s a significant spread between the two market share estimates. Either way, iPad sales are surging.

Apple’s most recent financial reports noted the company made US$7.8 billion revenue from iPad alone during the quarter. That’s up 79 percent on the previous year’s revenue.

Things could be as strong this quarter. A week ago Apple announced the first iPad Pro model to use the company’s M1 processor and a mini-Led display.

Samsung strong

Samsung remains in second place with 20 percent of the market. It moved eight million units and saw shipments grow 61 percent.

Lenovo more than doubled its shipment numbers to 3.8 million. That’s a shade under 10 percent of the market. Growth was 138 percent.

We don’t see much of Amazon’s tablets in New Zealand. In the first quarter the company moved into fourth place ahead of Huawei which slipped from third place a year ago.

HP dominates Chromebook shipments, it accounted for one-in-three units during the first quarter. Shipments are up 633 percent.

Lenovo is in second place with a 25 percent market share. Shipments are up 350 percent. Samsung is a smaller player with only eight percent market share, but shipments climbed 500 percent. Now that’s a tablet sales boom in itself.

Phone shipments have shown similar growth in 2021


  1. I’m interested to hear if there are sizeable pockets of Chromebook action in New Zealand. If you know, please drop me a line. ↩︎

The PC: Reports of its death an exaggeration

It is more than a decade since people started telling us we are in the post-PC era. I’m guilty1. From memory the idea took off soon after crowds first queued to buy the original Apple iPhone.

There is something in the idea. PC sales peaked in 2011 at 365 million. In big picture terms it has been downhill ever since. Last year people bought 260 million PCs. In comparison phone hit 1.5 billion sales. That’s roughly six new phones for every computer2 .

Yet, to steal Mark Twain’s joke, reports of the PCs’ death are an exaggeration.

Who you gonna call?

Nothing illustrates this better than the response to the Covid–19 pandemic. Phone sales dropped when companies, schools and whole communities moved into lockdown.

Meanwhile PC sales are up 11.2 percent year-on-year. That’s according to IDC’s preliminary PC sales numbers for the second quarter of 2020.

All the big brands saw strong growth of notebooks and desktops. Apple, Acer and HP all saw double-digit year-on-year growth. Apple is up 36 percent on the year earlier. HP remains in the top slot with 17.7 percent growth. Dell was weakest with only a 3.6 percent increase.

Reports say HP took a punt early on in the quarter and increased its notebook orders with its suppliers. The bet paid off.

Notebooks notable

Notebooks were the biggest winners. Channels around the world reported selling out of many models. It didn’t help that China, where most computers are made, was in lockdown during the period and the logistics firms moving hardware around the world had reduced capacity.

The main driver was the shift away from offices to working from home. Schools sending students home to continue learning online was another major cause. Both of these were obvious to anyone watching events. Less obvious was the number of people buying home computers to help relive lock-down boredom.

An untold story of the quarter was the shift from retail computer sales to online stores. Customers couldn’t shop, but they could click online. It’s possible this change may stick as the world moves on from lockdowns. This may have wider implications.

Relevance

The PC may not be dead. Yet despite the new relevance, sales are still nowhere near the peak. And most analysts see the recent strong result as a one-off. The long slow decline may, or may not, have bottomed out, but no-one sees long term recovery.

Indeed, a worldwide recession is likely to have an impact on future PC sales. Mind you, the impact could be worse for phone sales.

Still, the key point here is that when the going got tough, people didn’t reach for phones, they reached for PCs. That should restore some confidence to the market.


  1. A previous, long dead blog of mine used the term post-PC an August 2011 entry IBM CTO: PC dead, we bailed long ago. ↩︎
  2. Tablets change things a bit, but you get the picture here ↩︎