Bill Bennett

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How the iPad made lockdown productive

An enforced stay at home meant a change of emphasis for personal technology. The Apple iPad proved the best tool of all.

Here in New Zealand we spent five weeks at lockdown level 4 and two weeks at level 3.

For most of us that meant staying at home apart from exercise, trips to buy food or urgent medical appointments.

Above all it meant working and being entertained at home. For that you need a computing device, the right software and decent connectivity.

iPad ticks all the boxes

Phones, tablets and personal computers all fit the bill, but the one that delivered best on all counts turned out to an iPad.

It could be any iPad. In my case it was the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, but most of what I’m about to say could equally apply to a basic NZ$600 model

The iPad has the perfect combination of features for working at home. The screen is much bigger than on a phone.

Videoconferencing is a breeze. If you are lucky enough to work with other Apple users the FaceTime app is excellent. We used it for three way catch-ups with our daughters who were locked down elsewhere.

Not everyone you deal with chooses Apple kit. Zoom and most other popular videoconference tools work fine on the iPad. In fact I find they work better on the iPad than anything else.

That’s entertainment

The iPad is also great for watching Netflix and other online entertainment. Sadly there was no sport in the lockdown, but it’s great to cuddle up warm in the wee small hours to watch matches beamed in from the other side of the world.

All iPads are good for video, the 12.9-inch screen is better for older, weaker eyes. It’s also possible to wirelessly connect the iPad to a big TV screen. In our case we use a Chromecast.

Add a keyboard to an iPad and it becomes a basic computer. You can surf the web, read and compose emails, write blog posts like this one or even wrangle Office apps like Microsoft Word and Excel.

It’s possible to write without a keyboard. I’ve posted elsewhere about my keyboard-free iPad writing experience.

Yet a real keyboard is better. I have an Apple Magic Keyboard, the iPad Pro Smart Keyboard and a couple of older Logitech Bluetooth keyboard. All work a treat.

iPad creativity

There are creative apps. My iPad doubles as a music workstation, photo editing terminal and games machine. Apple’s Pencil helps when it comes to fine drawing or other on screen work.

I also download magazines, books, audio books, podcasts and music. It’s a great reader.

Yes, you can do all the above with a phone. Yet the bigger screen improves everything, except portability, which isn’t a huge deal in a lockdown.

Best of all the iPad’s form means you can do all these things from a desk, from the dining room table, from the deck, sofa or the bed.

Value

Apple iPads can be good value. As already mentioned the cheapest full size model costs NZ$600.

That’s much cheaper than an equivalent phone and, by the time you’re added a keyboard, the price is on a par with everyday laptops.

That basic iPad will done everything, although it may wheeze a little with more demanding create apps.

While the basic iPad is a bargain at $600, you may be reading this and thinking you could economise further with a cheaper tablet. There are pitfalls with that plan.

A cheaper tablet will have a lower quality screen. In general it will be slower than the iPad and may not be so flexible with software choices.

You’ll need to budget extra for a keyboard. There are excellent Logitech keyboards for around $170. These will also protect your iPad. The Apple Magic Keyboard doesn’t hook up direct to the iPad – I use a stand when I wrote on the iPad with this keyboard. It costs $150.

Apple’s Smart Keyboards are pricey. The 11-inch model costs NZ$330 while the 12.9-inch iPad Pro Smart Keyboard costs $359. I find they work the best, but they bump up the entry price a lot.

Storage

The other cost to consider is buying more storage with your iPad. The basic model comes with 32GB. That’s fine if you are at home and have an external hard drive or a cloud account with plenty of storage. I’d recommend finding the extra $180 to get the 128GB model.

Adding a keyboard and storage takes the price up to around the $1000 mark. If you don’t have a specific need for a laptop and there is maybe already a more traditional computer at home, this would be good choice.

Is it good value? It depends on how you use technology.

It clearly is good value for me. Apple recently added an iPadOS app that tells you how much time you spend with the device. During a typical lockdown week I was spending about 45 hours on the iPad and less than an hour on the iPhone.

 

Android tablets – Best left on the shelf

Google doesn’t like to talk about it, but there’s one type of Android hardware you really shouldn’t be buying.

Writing at Computerworld JR Raphael reveals: The Android hardware truth Google won’t tell you.

Before we go further, note that Raphael writes a regular Android column. This isn’t an attack from outside the tent.

He says:

“Google’s priorities and the desires of the companies making the bulk of the devices don’t always align. And that forces Google to do a delicate dance in order to push forward with its own plans without saying anything that’d go directly against a device-maker’s interests.

Well, it’s time to stop beating around the bush and just say what Google won’t openly acknowledge: You should not be buying an Android tablet in 2020. Period.”

Long wait for Android tablet OS updates

It’s a long story well worth reading. The gist boils down to Google having some good ideas about how Android should work with tablets, then it lost interest for a while. That while turned out to be too long.

Now we’re in a position where Google isn’t updating the tablet version of its operating system at anything like an acceptable pace. Raphael points out Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S6 got Android 10 eight months after the software was first released. And that’s the Android tablet with the best OS upgrade record.

He says:

“Plain and simple, buying an Android tablet is setting yourself up for disappointment — when it comes to both performance and capability and when it comes to the critical areas of privacy, security, and ongoing software upkeep.”

Get a Chromebook instead

Raphael recommends people who want an Android tablet would do better to buy a convertible Chromebook.

All this is one reason why Apple continues to dominate tablet sales with iPad and iPad Pro models. The only other serious player in premium tablets is Microsoft with its Surface range. These two brands run iOS and Windows. The Android tablet market skews towards the low end with a lot of low value, undifferentiated tablet models.

Sure, plenty of people are happy with these devices. No doubt many reading this love their Android tablets. Yet the Android world hasn’t got its tablet act together enough to mount an assault on the premium market. That’s odd considering how, outside of the US, Android has a huge share of the phone market.

NZ device sales plummet across every category

Gartner’s latest New Zealand shipment forecasts makes for grim reading if you are in the device business.

The total device market is set to drop by 14.6 percent in 2020 when compared with 2019. That means a total of 360,000 fewer devices.

New Zealand fares worse than the rest of the world which Gartner says will see a 13.6 percent fall in device unit shipments.

Falls everywhere

There are falls in each category Gartner measures, see the table.

New Zealand shipments forecast by device type (thousands of units)
Device Type20192020
Traditional PCs (Desk-Based and Notebook)439396
Ultramobiles (Premium)199190
Total PC Market637585
Ultramobiles (Basic and Utility)538474
Computing Device Market1,1761,059
Mobile Phones1,3251,077
Total Device Market2,5002,136
Due to rounding, some figures may not add up precisely to the totals shown.
Thin and light notebooks are listed under premium ultramobiles
Tablets and Chromebooks are listed under basic ultramobiles
Source: May (2020)

Mobile phone sales have fallen faster than computing devices. Gartner forecasts 1.08 million units in 2020 compared with 1.36 million units in 2019. That’s a drop of nearly 19 percent.

The analyst company says it expects consumers to extend the life of their mobile phones replacing them on average once every 2.7 years. For more on this see How long should I keep my phone?

Pandemic device impact

Looking at the worldwide numbers, Gartner says the fall could have been so much worse if it were not for pandemic lockdowns. Because millions of people were forced to work or study from home there was an increase on spending on notebooks and tablets.

Gartner says getting on for half of all employees will work remotely for some or all of the time after the pandemic. This compares with around 30 percent of employees beforehand.

This has accelerated the move from desktop PCs to notebooks.

Phones

While people have used their phones more during the lockdown, Gartner says lower disposable incomes mean that people will upgrade more slowly than in the past. Gartner sees the average life of a mobile phone increase from 2.5 to 2.7 years.

One other trend spotted by Gartner is the relative lack of interest in 5G handsets. Before the pandemic it was widely thought that the appearance of 5G mobile networks would kick-start a handset upgrade cycle.

Gartner now forecasts that 5G phones will only account for 11 percent of handset shipments this year. In part this is because of the delayed delivery of new handsets. Gartner also says the extra charges imposed on 5G customers is inhibiting sales.

Microsoft Surface Book 3, Surface Go 2

Microsoft’s uses Surface to take the laptop fight to Apple. While it leaves mainstream Windows hardware to the likes of HP and Dell, its own brand adds an element of sophistication and a different take on innovation.

This week there was a new Surface Book and a new Surface Go.

Surface Go is Microsoft’s smallest and cheapest tablet. Local prices start at less than NZ$600. You can get cheaper tablets, but anything other than an iPad or Surface in that price range or lower is likely to disappoint.

More screen, less bezel

The new Surface Go 2 is the same size as the earlier model, but the screen size bumps from 10 to 10.5 inches. That’s thanks to smaller bezels, the edge around the screen. Surface Go 3 works with existing Go 3 accessories.

That kind of size increase might not sound much, in this case the screen resolution also increases to 1920 x 1280 pixel. The battery is bigger, Microsoft says you now get 10 hours.

There is also a new model with a faster Intel 8th Gen Core m3 processor. Yet the base model still comes with a Pentium Gold processor, that’s the same as the earlier Surface Go. You might want to avoid that.

Surface Book 3

It has been three years since the Surface Book 2. Longer since the first Surface Book. The models brought innovation and style to Windows, although at a high price.

The Surface Book 3 has a big speed bump, there are 10th generation Intel processors and updated NVIDIA graphics.

Sadly, there’s not much else to excite potential buyers. Physically the new laptops look much the same as the models they replace.

They still have the neat ability to unlock and remove the screen so it can be used as a large tablet. In my review of the earlier Surface Book I speculated that owners rarely use this feature. That appears to be correct.

Interesting hybrid

It still feels like the most interesting variation on the Windows 2-in–1 hybrid theme. Yet it would be nice if there was some fresh innovation in this department. When the first Surface Books appeared the design was well ahead of the curve, today other notebook models feel more up to date.

Microsoft hasn’t sent out review models in New Zealand to date. From the promotion material it looks as if the new Surface Book models continue the solid, well constructed design. Surface Books feel more robust than other mainstream PCs. Apparently it is heavy by laptop standards at about 1.5 kg for the 13.5-inch model.

The next comment will annoy many Windows fans, but the touch screen Windows 10 operating system doesn’t always feel right on 2-in–1 hybrids from other brands. Microsoft seems to have nailed this aspect of design in the past and there’s no reason why the Surface 3 doesn’t continue that legacy.

Surface Laptop 3 15-inch review: Big touch screen

The 15-inch version of Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 3 is big, beautiful and nicely put together. While it is less powerful than most other laptops of this size and price, it meets a real need.

 

At a glance:

 

For:Large screen with 3:2 ratio for document work. Well made. Good keyboard. Excellent trackpad.
Against:Lack of ports, AMD Ryzen processor not up to serious media editing.
Maybe:OK battery life, lack of ports and general minimalism could go either way.
Verdict:Great for writers, lawyers and other people who work with documents.
Price:Official Microsoft price is NZ$3100, but shop around, retailers have better deals.
Web:Microsoft NZ

Microsoft offers a range of Surface Laptop 3 variants. Prices start at NZ$1900. This review looks at the NZ$3100 model. It sports a 15-inch screen and, in a brave move, AMD’s Ryzen 5 processor. It also has 256 GB of storage and 16 GB of ram.

Although bigger screens add to laptop prices, NZ$3100 is a little more than you might expect to shell out for that combination of processor, storage and ram.

You may not have to pay that much. Microsoft’s online store asks NZ$3100, but if you shop around, you’ll find retailers offer the same hardware for up to $300 less. At least they did at the time of writing.

For the same money you could buy a 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro or an HP Spectre x360. The other PC makers all have models that offer a little more power for the price. Keep this in mind as you read on.

AMD or Intel inside?

Microsoft doesn’t appear to sell a 15-inch model with an Intel processor in New Zealand1. You can purchase a model with a 13.5 screen and an Intel i7 processor that cost about $100 less. That may be a better choice for some readers.

From the moment you open the box, the Surface Laptop 3 looks impressive. It has a matt black, all-aluminium case. There is none of the fabric coating found on other Surface Laptop models. It looks and feels like Microsoft made it for serious work. Up to a point it fits the bill.

The 15-inch screen gives you much more working real estate than a 13-inch screen. There’s enough to put two documents side-by-side without compromise. Microsoft has opted for a 3:2 screen ratio which is more business-like.

It works better with text documents and web pages than watching wide-screen video.

 

Design choices

The trackpad works well enough. It sits at the centre of what feels like acres of room. At a guess Microsoft dropped a 13-inch laptop’s keyboard into the 15-inch model’s shell. This is an unusual design choice.

Despite this, the trackpad is one of the best I’ve seen outside of Apple hardware. It works well and it a pleasure to use. In my experience this can be weakness with Windows laptops.

It has one of the better laptop keyboards. There’s plenty of travel for more demanding touch-typists. The keys are nicely pitched an it is comfortable. It could be a fraction crisper in its action, but that’s quibbling.

Spacey

Microsoft has failed to use the extra space around the keyboard on the 15-inch model in any way. Other laptop makers often use this extra real estate to provide bigger speakers. That often means better sounding speakers.

It’s a missed opportunity. The sound from the speakers is more than adequate for work purposes, but disappointing for music. This ‘good for everyday work, not great for entertainment’ is that theme that continues again and again with this computer.

Microsoft has also been stingy about the ports on the Surface Laptop. Sure, Apple has shown that you can build popular laptops with few ports. Here there is Microsoft’s proprietary charging port, one USB-C and one USB-A. Welcome to the world of dongles.

Generally, larger laptop screens mean more grunt under the hood. Gaming laptops have big screens and powerful graphics processors. So do large screen models from brands like Dell or Apple. They aim at creative professionals. Microsoft has not gone down any of those paths.

Charging

The Surface Laptop 3 charges faster than most laptops. If the machine is running low, say between 10 and 20 percent battery left, it takes a little over an hour to get back to full charge.

This is wonderful news if, say, you might work late into the evening, then get up next morning and realise there is not enough power for a day on the move. Plug it in, wander off for a shower, breakfast and a cup of tea or coffee, by the time you are dressed and ready to go the computer will have a full charge or be close to it.

The proprietary charging plug for the Surface Laptop 3 is a reminder of the old-style Apple Magsafe. It’s a similar shape and magnetic. Like Magsafe, it attaches to the laptop body loosely so that should you trip over the power cable, it detaches instead of sending your laptop flying across the room.

What Microsoft designers give with the charging plug, they also take away. The magnetic plug is difficult to attach to the laptop in the first place. You can’t simply connect it while the laptop is sitting on a flat surface, you have to lift and turn the laptop first. It’s far from a deal breaker, but is strange given the computer is otherwise so well thought out from a usability point of view.

 

One last power supply observation. Microsoft includes an old-style USB port on the power brick, so you could charge, say, your phone or wireless headphone without hunting for another power socket.

Solid, not stellar performance

The Surface Laptop 3 is solid performer for everyday work: writing, researching, some basic web design. It is unlikely the Ryzen 5 processor is enough for people who work with large spreadsheets or databases. And you can forget about compiling code without wandering off for a tea break.

This specification is not necessarily a bad thing, many laptops have more power than necessary for the work thrown at them. There are people like writers and journalist who wold enjoy being able to see more on screen but don’t need a stonking CPU to power through numbers.

If it is a little underpowered, the Ryzen chip has its good side: it offers great battery life. Microsoft claims 11.5 hours. In testing that seemed ambitious. I saw nothing like that. Yet there is enough to cruise through an eight-hour working day without looking for a socket and a little more in the tank if you’re asked to stay behind for a wee while.

It is a great work laptop for people who need a larger screen.

Yet there is also the dawning realisation that the big screen is all you get with the 15-inch Ryzen 5 Surface Laptop 3. It might help to think of it as a physically pumped-up version of a smaller computer with a bigger screen. That makes it good for personal productivity, not so good for games or media production.


  1. There are overseas 15-inch models with Intel CPUs, but Microsoft’s web site forces local users to the NZ range and prices. ↩︎

Why is the Surface 3 laptop so expensive?

After this story was posted Mike Riversdale said he had a problem with the price of the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3. He responds on Twitter:

Soon after:

Then:

He has a point. The Surface Laptop 3 is more than expensive than similar laptops by a considerable margin. Even if you shop around, it is  $1000 or so more expensive than similar laptops. That makes it at least 50 percent more than the price of a 15-inch Windows laptop from HP, Dell or Lenovo. It is a whopping 80 percent more than Riversdale’s fancy new birthday laptop.

Premium laptop

Microsoft positions its Surface Laptops as premium models. It would be fair to say the build is top notch. The case is nicer than you’ll find on most commodity laptops. The keyboard is the best in any laptop. The screen ratio is more suited to writing than displays on consumer laptops optimised for video.

All these things are nice. For many people who spend all day writing a first class keyboard is a must. It is well worth paying a few extra dollars for more comfortable, more productive typing.

Yet it’s still a struggle to justify a 50 or 80 percent premium.

And anyway, Microsoft does not sell its Surface Laptop 3 on these features. At the time of writing the marketing copy on Microsoft’s website makes that clear. It starts: “Make a powerful statement and get improved speed, performance, and all-day battery life”.

The $3100 review model might have improved speed compared with a second generation Surface Laptop. Yet it is no faster than those $1700 rival Windows laptops. We can concede the battery life is good, but not a lot better than those competing machines.

Tangible, intangible

If the tangible aspects can’t justify the higher price, does it come down to less tangible things?

And that’s where Microsoft’s price becomes more of a puzzle.

Apple can and does charge more for MacBooks than most Windows computer makers can get away with. There are people who are happy to pay more for Apple’s software and ecosystem. The fact you can handoff between phone, iPad and MacBook is worth paying a little extra for.

Some people swear there are productivity benefits from using a Mac. You don’t have to agree with this opinion. That’s not important. What is important is that many computer buyers believe they get better productivity from a Mac.

Microsoft cannot make a similar claim. The version of Windows 10 on the Surface Laptop 3 is near identical to that on rival Windows laptops. There is no premium in the software. Unless you count the fact that Microsoft doesn’t load up its laptops with bloatware.

Microsoft Surface Laptop brand

Which only leaves another reason Microsoft thinks it can charge a premium; that the brand is more valuable. It can’t be that Microsoft computers are more reliable than competing devices. In 2017 the US Consumer Reports said that it would no longer recommend Microsoft’s Surface laptops and tablets because of “poor predicted reliability” compared to other brands.

That’s damning. Microsoft says it has fixed the problems. It may have done. But any laptop buyer with a memory or access to Google will doubt it is worth paying a quality premium.

It’s not going to cut much ice with buyers, yet scale is one reason Microsoft hardware is expensive. The company does not rate among the top five PC makers. HP, Dell, Lenovo, Apple and Acer account for 80 percent of personal computer sales. Acer is the smallest of the top 5 with a six percent share of the market. It’s no secret Acer is struggling.

The Surface range is a US$2 billion business for Microsoft. That puts it in the region of a little over one percent of the company. It’s healthy, but not essential to Microsoft’s future.

It’s not about you, it’s not about the laptop

So what is going on with Surface? Before Microsoft entered the market, the Windows laptop scene was in bad shape. There was as race to the bottom between computer makers. They still make tiny margins selling hardware, in some cases unsustainable margins.

Microsoft introduced the Surface to inject quality and excitement back into the market.

At the time Apple was almost the entire premium end of the PC market. That’s not something Microsoft could sit by and watch. Over time that would erode the Windows brand and create all sorts of tensions. There was no way Microsoft would leave the high ground to Apple.

You can see from the numbers and the market share, Microsoft is not serious about winning the bulk of hardware customers. It doesn’t need to do that. It needs to establish a premium Windows computer brand that shines out as an alternative to Apple.

A high price is part of that strategy. High prices can be as much a marketing strategy as low, low prices. It also means Microsoft makes a tidy sum from the exercise.

If you, like Mike Riversdale, think the Surface Laptop 3 costs too much at NZ$3100, that’s fine. Shop elsewhere. It’s not for you. It is a message from Microsoft to let you know there is more to the PC business than getting a bargain.

 

Sales show Apple iPad doing something right

IDC reports the world wide tablet market fell 1.5 percent in 2019. Total shipments fell to 144 million units. The Apple iPad strengthend its position as the top tablet brand.

The only winner in the sector was Apple, which saw a fourth quarter year-on-year growth of 22.7 percent in iPad sales. Much of that growth came in the last quarter of 2019 after the launch of new models and the arrival of iPadOS 13.

Apple’s growth for the full 2019 year was 15.2 percent. It sold a shade under 50 million units.

This undermines the negative arguments made by John Gruber and other prominent Apple bloggers about the iPad operating system. The geeks may not like Apple’s iPad direction but customers do.

Apple iPad clear tablet leader

Apple now has a 36.5 percent share of the tablet market when measured by units. It is bigger than the next three tablet brands combined. The company’s top tablet models tend to be more expensive than offerings from rivals, which means Apple would dominate tablet revenues and, by extension, tablet profits.

Samsung is the next best selling tablet brand with its Galaxy Tab range. The company sold 21.7 million units in 2019, that’s well under half Apple’s result. Samsung Tablet sales fell 7.2 percent during the year.

Android doesn’t translate well to the tablet format, but Samsung has the best implementation.  It’s tablets are a decent alternative to the iPad for customers who want to stay in the Android world or opt out of Apple’s orbit.

Huawei under pressure

Third place Huawei faces a challenge reaching customers in the US market and, no doubt, the security scare has affected sales in other markets. Even so, it dropped less than Samsung. Huawei has some solid, if unoriginal, offerings in this space. In 2019 Huawei’s tablet sales fell by 3.5 percent.

We don’t see much of fourth place Amazon in New Zealand. The company makes a range of low price tablets with an idiosyncratic version of Android. For the whole of 2019 Amazon’s sales climbed 10 percent, but there was a big 30 percent dropped in the last quarter.

Lenovo with an 8.5 percent market share also saw a small drop over 2019 for its low-cost tablets.

Top Five Tablet Companies, Worldwide Shipments, Market Share, and Growth, 2019 (Preliminary results, combined company view for the current quarter only, shipments in millions)
Vendor2019 Unit Shipments2019 Market Share2018 Shipments2018 Market ShareYear-Over-Year Growth
1. Apple49.934.6%43.329.6%15.2%
2. Samsung21.715.1%23.416.0%-7.2%
3. Huawei14.19.8%14.610.0%-3.5%
4. Amazon.com13.09.0%11.88.1%9.9%
5. Lenovo8.55.9%8.86.0%-4.2%
Others37.025.7%44.330.3%-16.6%
Total144.1100.0%146.2100.0%-1.5%
Source: IDC Worldwide Quarterly PCD Tracker, January 30, 2020

Whatever the expert users say about the iPad, it strikes a chord with Apple’s customers. The move to sell an Apple-branded keyboard and the Apple Pencil, along with the, controversial in geek circles, upgrades to iPadOS have all propelled the iPad.

It gives owners of earlier models a solid reason to upgrade and pulls in some buyers who may have considered laptops. You can use the iPad for jobs, like writing, that were previously only practical on a traditional computer. The other strategy Apple has got right it pricing. There are low-cost models at the bottom along with more expensive pro models at the top.