Asus Transformer T300 Chi

Asus has worked hard to move upmarket. Making low-cost no-brand PCs is not good business. Today Asus wants to been seen as a maker of affordable, good-quality hardware. And Asus wants to be interesting.

The Asus Transformer T300 Chi is a step on that path. It’s a good-looking laptop that doubles as a tablet. The screen connects to the keyboard by a magnetic dock allowing you to quickly pull the device apart. Hence the Transformer name.

It works well as a laptop. Make that a touch-screen laptop.

Inevitable Macbook comparison

The list price is NZ$1800, the same as a 13-inch Apple Macbook Air, the 256GB model. You may find it cheaper.

On paper the T300 compares well with the MacBook Air. The Transformer T300 Chi is a fraction lighter and a little thinner. It looks like a proper computer, despite being able to transform to a tablet – some two-in-one devices look odd. Asus hasn’t compromised on the external looks.

For the money you get a solid keyboard. I didn’t spend enough time with the computer to learn if the keyboard is better than Apple’s, but it is respectable and can take the kind of hammering that touch typists are capable of.

You get a decent, not outstanding fan-less Intel M processor. It means the Transformer T300 can handle most everyday computing tasks without a hiccup, biut push it hard and you’ll find shortcomings. Don’t expect to edit video, run photoshop or handle huge databases on this device.

Windows 8.1

As you’d expect, the Asus Transformer T300 Chi is a Windows 8.1 device. In some ways it goes head to head with the Microsoft Surface more than the Macbook. You certainly get a better keyboard than you’ll find on the current crop of Surface Pro models. That’s a decider for some buyers.

While the design works just fine. There are three potential annoyances depending on how you view these matters.

First, the 12.5-inch display has the 16:9 aspect ratio used by widescreen TVs. That’s a plus when you want to watch a movie. And I’m sure some users like being able to display windows side-by-side on the wide display, I find it irritating to have such a shallow screen when I’m typing. I prefer reading down the page over a narrower measure.

Asus Transformer T300 Chi annoyances

That annoyance can go either way depending on your taste. The second annoyance isn’t so finely balanced. As you’d expect the computers guts are all in the screen unit. That makes sense until you come to charge it. Charging the screen is straightforward enough.

Charging the keyboard involves running a cable across the back of the device from one side to the other. It’s awkward and can mean carrying a cable all day.

Annoyance number three is the battery life. You’ll get about three to four hours use from a single charge. That’s less than half what you can get from a MacBook or a Surface. Admittedly part of that is because you’ll need to have Bluetooth switched on all the time you use the Asus Transformer T300 Chi as a laptop. But even so, rival devices are now capable of going all day on a charge.

These criticisms aside, the Transformer T300 Chi is a fine choice if you want to work and watch movies. It’s also a solid alternative to the Surface for Windows fans. Microsoft needs more competition in that area.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 goes on sale in New Zealand on August 28. Two days with the device has convinced me it’s one of the best computers I’ve used, but it’s not perfect. 

Microsoft flagship tablet, the Surface Pro, is already on version three just 18 months after the first version appeared. That’s good, it shows Microsoft is moving quickly, learning fast and responding to market signals.

To a degree Surface Pro 3 fixes almost all the things that were wrong with earlier versions. But there’s more than that.

The first Surface models were tablets with laptop-like qualities. Surface Pro 3 turns that around. It has evolved to become a laptop-alternative with tablet-like qualities. Microsoft does little to hide this, the Surface Pro 3 advertisement shown here makes direct comparisons with Apple’s MacBook Air:

That’s interesting because I was given a brief demonstration of the device and tweeted my first impression long before seeing the advertisement:

While the Surface Pro 3 is a good Windows tablet, it is also arguably one of the best Windows 8 laptops. However, despite what Microsoft says, I’m not convinced it is a direct competitor with the MacBook Air — as we shall see.

Third time’s the charm

It took Microsoft until Windows 3.1 to get its famous operating system right. Since then there’s been a long-standing joke that you have to wait until version 3.1 of anything before Microsoft irons out all the kinks.

That could well be the case with the Surface Pro 3. I liked the earlier Surface Pro 2 a lot, but found a few niggles. The screen was big enough for a tablet, but not for serious laptop-style work. And the screen was the wrong shape for serious writing or spreadsheet work.

The Pro 3 has a better screen. It’s bigger, at 12 inches instead of the 10 inches in earlier Surface Pro models.

Portrait and landscape

Perhaps more important than being bigger, the Pro 3 screen is a better shape for getting things done. Older Surface Pros had a widescreen format that’s optimised for watching HD video, but feels just plain wrong when you hold the tablet in the portrait orientation.

The Pro 3 screen has a height to width ratio of 2:3. That means it works nicely as a tablet in both orientations and makes sense when you’re typing a document down the page while word processing in landscape mode. It also makes working with spreadsheets, photographs and websites easier.

Microsoft tells me the screen is 40 percent bigger with 50 percent more pixels. It certainly looks better.

A bigger screen makes for a slightly larger device, but at the same time the Surface Pro 3 is thinner than its predecessors and lighter at just 800g. Despite this, there’s nothing flimsy about the device, it still has superb built quality. Physically it’s just the ticket.

Keyboard good, not perfect

Because Microsoft sells the Surface Pro 3 as a tablet, it doesn’t come with a keyboard as standard. The Surface Pro Type Cover costs another $200. For your money you get a good tablet keyboard. It’s thin, with proper physical keys and backlighting. In theory the $200 turns your tablet into a laptop.

However, the Type Cover is still a tablet keyboard. While you can work, even touch type on the keys, it isn’t as good for sustained writing sessions as a the keyboard on a full-price laptop. This, for me, is where Microsoft’s comparison with the MacBook Air falls short. All the functionality is there, but the experience isn’t the same.

Understanding the Surface Pro 3

And that’s the key to understanding the Surface Pro 3. It’s the perfect device for certain people in certain niches, it can be both the functional equivalent of a good quality tablet and a laptop.

Generally attempts at hybrid devices end up with something that’s not the best of both worlds. There are compromises. In this case, you end up with a less than perfect laptop keyboard — if you don’t spend all day typing, that’s not going to matter.

I’m not one for sticking a laptop on my lap. I work at desks and tables. When I don’t I use a tablet without a keyboard. When Microsoft says the Surface Pro 3 can be used on your lap, it is telling the truth, but I found it uncomfortable and the weight is distributed in an unnerving way.

Price

New Zealand prices for the Surface Pro start at NZ$1200. That’s for a tablet with 64GB of storage and an Intel i3 processor. The model I’m looking at had 128GB of storage and an i5 processor — I suspect this is the sweet spot at NZ$1450. There are other options, the top of the line model with an i7 and 512GB will set you back a hefty NZ$2829. You’ll need to budget another $200 for a keyboard and NZ$310 for the docking station — I’ll write more about these in a later post.

In effect, Microsoft prices are roughly in line with premium laptops including the MacBook Air. I don’t think it directly challenges Apple, nor do I think it threatens high-end Windows laptops for people who need solid keyboards.

If you want a lovely Windows laptop that doubles as a tablet, this is the best way to go. If you like the idea of a pen, then it is an even better bet.

Microsoft’s Surface 2 shows the software giant’s vision of where personal technology is heading. It’s one most of us would be happy to live with.

Microsoft isn’t the only tech giant with a vision. Apple and Google, possibly even Facebook, have other ideas. Perhaps Samsung does. There are plenty of other visionaries out there who don’t have the clout these industry leaders command.

Microsoft’s long-term vision is one thing. In the short-term, there are contradictions, workarounds and occasional frustrations.

In part, this is because the Microsoft engine has to pull a long train of legacy carriages. You get the impression the Microsoft engineers who worked on Surface would love to uncouple most if not all of those carriages.

Two-in-one

All this means you see two Surface 2s in the one device. The visionary, futurist Surface 2 is lovely. Or at least it will be when it’s finished.

The other Surface 2 devices is a pragmatic look back to recent history. It’s like having a virtual Windows laptop crammed inside a sleek modern tablet. You enter this back-to-the-future world when you switch to the desktop world and the Office apps.

Surface 2 is physically minimal. And where its designers can get away with it, it’s minimal on the inside. The Metro apps are pared back – OK we’re not supposed to call them Metro anymore, but this is about communications, not branding. There’s a wonderful, European design theme running through them. Microsoft deserves credit for keeping complexity out of sight.

Consistent up to a point

At present, the Surface 2 apps aren’t tightly integrated. More about that later. But there is a design consistency so long as you stay in the Metro world. Once you’ve mastered a few basic ideas, working in the Surface 2 Metro-whatever world is easy and logical.

Sadly the switch back to Windows desktop is jarring. The good news is this is almost avoidable – in fact, it may be completely avoidable if you can find a decent Metro writing tool. I haven’t yet, but I’m too busy being productive to spend a lot of time hunting.

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait until Surface 3 for Metro-style versions of Microsoft’s Office apps.

I wasn’t sure when I started this experiment, but now I’m convinced, I could stay here. I could be happy and productive in the Windows stack. So could most people.

Whether people buy into all this is another matter entirely. It is said Microsoft’s core skill is selling technology. If so, it has its work cut out. Microsoft has leapfrogged a generation or two from where it was 18 months ago. Its engine could be moving faster towards the future than its customers sitting towards the back of the train.

A work in progress

For all the good stuff in Surface 2 and Windows 8.1, there’s still something of a work-in-progress feel about the software. I’m cool with that. So should you be? After all, people tolerated Gmail for years while it was still technically in beta.

Take the Windows 8.1 Mail app. It’s been upgraded since it first appeared at the end of 2012. Most of the time it is good enough for day-to-day work. It’s well laid out on-screen and logically organised. Messages are easy to read and compose. The touchscreen is used well.

It’s also possible to use Mail when the Surface 2 is working purely as a tablet. There’s a lot to like, but it lacks some basics.

More, better integration please

Overnight I discussed tonight’s dinner with my daughter, found a recipe on a website and sent a link in an email from my Windows Phone. My aim was to go to the recipe on the Surface 2, then cut and paste the ingredients list into OneNote, so we could pick them up later today when we visit the local shops.

Oddly, the link in the email, which is clickable from the Windows Phone mail client, isn’t clickable in Windows 8.1 Mail app. Some links are, this one isn’t.

To go to the web page I need to selected the URL, open a new Internet Explorer tab then manually cut and paste it in. I’ve found it easiest on the Surface 2 to use the keyboard and do a Control-C, Control-V cut and paste although the touch controls can do the job as well.

All-in-all I’m surprised at the lack of integration between Microsoft apps.

I’ve already mentioned the lack of integration between the Mail app and the Calendar or the People app. If I click on an email signature in the Apple OS X Mail app, I can then link directly to that person’s contact book entry and even quickly update fields. If I click on event time details in Apple’s Mail, I can turn it into a Calendar entry. Phone numbers can trigger calls. URLs are always links.

Surface 2 has potential

I sometimes wonder how different the world would be if Microsoft got the Surface, or something similar, out of the door when Apple first released the iPad. That aside, you have to give Microsoft credit for persistence. The Surface 2 is a huge improvement on the first Surface. If history is any guide, the product will hit its stride when it reaches version 3.1.

The $130 Microsoft Type Cover 2 costs NZ$10 more than the $120 Surface Touch Cover 2 keyboard. Yet when it comes to productivity, the Type Cover 2 is streets ahead. At least for me.

That’s because I’m a touch typist. I learnt to use a keyboard without looking at it. That means I can write faster and more efficiently than using the hunt and peck approach. It’s also something I’ve done for the last 3o years. Changing now is difficult.

Moving from the Touch Cover to the Type Cover makes a difference. With the Touch Cover the Surface 2 is just another tablet – with the ability to type a few characters on the flat slim keyboard. The Type Cover turns the Surface 2 into a laptop replacement.

Surface 2: almost a laptop

It can’t do everything a laptop can, but it can do the most important 90 percent. And that’s important. Suddenly my week in the Windows stack has changed in ways that I didn’t expect.

Above all, I barely need to use conventional Windows. I can efficiently deal with mail, social media and browsing all from the Surface 2 without skipping a beat. Writing – which is what I do most of the time – works fine on the Surface 2. More about that later.

Surface 2 has enough processing power to handle my immediate needs. There are times when I’m waiting for apps to load – some can take a minute or more to fire up. You can keep plenty of apps loaded in memory to avoid this.

Writing

On Tuesday I wrote a couple of stories from scratch using Microsoft Word on the Surface. I also wrote another couple directly into WordPress using the web-based full screen editor. Both work well.

Jumping into Windows desktop to use Word is a little irritating. It’s something I could get used to. Cutting and pasting text from Word into the WordPress editor is not as smooth as cutting and pasting between conventional Windows apps. Again, this is partly down to lack of practice. Moving between apps on the Surface isn’t so much tricky, as different. You can, but don’t normally, get to see two windows open at the same time.

I ran into three speed bumps. None of them serious.

First, if I get a mail invitation to an event in the Apple Mail app, I can click on the time details to send the information directly to the Calendar app. I kept trying to do this on the Surface before realising there is no such link between the apps.

The job is made harder because you have to continually switch back and forth from the Windows Mail app to the Calendar app to fill out the details. It’s clumsy in comparison. It isn’t a deal breaker. However, I incorrectly entered one invitation – something that’s less likely in the Apple stack.

Internet Explorer, better not foolproof

Second, Surface restricts you to Internet Explorer 11. You can’t install Chrome or Firefox. Again this isn’t a big problem most web sites seem to work fine. I ran into problems with a custom-made online content management system that struggled to display anything in IE.

I tried to get around this using an App called Mimic Browser. This ran the CMS fine, but the user interface is poorly designed. Normally I do an on page search for the button I need to enter my copy – there are thousands so scrolling and looking doesn’t work. Either Mimic Browser doesn’t allow on page searches, or I couldn’t find it. Using Search from the Charms bar didn’t work.

In the end I had to fire up Windows on the MacBook to do this simple task.

Almost no need for a PC as well

With the exception of that one problem, the Surface 2 means I could almost do away with the laptop – at least for day-to-day working. This brings me to an important point, Apple sees a tablet as an adjunct device. The iPad doesn’t attempt to replace a laptop. Although for some people, perhaps most, it is all the computer they need.

Microsoft sees its tablet as a replacement for a laptop. When you see images of the Surface 2, it is rarely shown without the keyboard. Workers who don’t need big screens or tons of storage could go from three devices to two quite easily in the Windows world.

Windows 8.1

Most press reviewers and bloggers agree there’s little wrong with the Microsoft Surface 2 hardware. Microsoft gets credit for bringing its tablet hardware up to date.

There’s a different story with the tablet’s software. Scan the news feeds and you’ll find Windows RT 8.1  comes in for almost as much criticism as the original Windows RT.

Is this justified?

Windows 8.1 RT is a small update on the operating system that shipped with the original Surface RT tablet. For most of the time it looks and behaves exactly the same as Microsoft’s desktop operating system: Windows 8.1.

Windows 8.1 RT perceptions

This is where problems begin, because Windows 8.1 RT can’t do all the things that a desktop operating system can. More precisely, it can’t run full Windows applications. That means users are locked out of the Windows apps they’ve used in the past. It also means they no longer have millions to choose from.

You can’t run Photoshop or install the Chrome browser as an alternative to Internet Explorer. You can’t run some cloud services that have Windows clients.

On the other hand you can run any of the apps in the Windows Store. Some of the traditional Windows apps come in Windows Store versions for RT, but many don’t. It would pay to look at the store to check it meets your needs before plonking down cash for Surface 2.

The wrong Windows?

Microsoft has a product for people who want to run Windows apps on a tablet. It’s called the Surface Pro 2 – prices start at $1300, roughly twice the price of a Windows RT tablet.

At least part of Windows RT’s problem is confusion about the difference between the two product ranges. Given that the OS looks like Windows and acts like Windows,  people expect it to do everything full-blown Windows can.

This is essentially a marketing and perception problem for Microsoft. It doesn’t help that the flip-side of the logic could be framed as ‘you pay less money and get an inferior experience’.

How Apple deals with this

You could ask yourself why Apple doesn’t face exactly the same problem. The iPad’s operating system is equally limited when compared to the Mac’s operating system.

There’s a clue in the names. Apple calls its tablet OS iOS, while the desktop OS is called OS X. If Apple had launched iPads with OS X RT, it may have run into similar problems.

Which brings up to an interesting point. How does Windows 8.1 RT compare with iOS 7?

It’s certainly a different experience. You may find cast iron reasons why you consider one better than the other, but most of that is a matter of taste and need.

Where Office fits

Windows 8.1 RT comes with plenty of software. There’s a version of Microsoft Office which looks and behaves just like the desktop version. Not so long ago, you’d pay more for a single copy of Office than you pay now for a Surface 2 with the software installed.

Office works with Skydrive, so you can work with files on the move, then make changes to the same documents from a desktop computer later. Or on a smartphone. The new version of RT comes with a full copy of Outlook, an  important productivity tool for companies committed to Microsoft’s technology stack.

Overall Microsoft Windows 8.1 RT works well. I found the touch controls in Windows 8 were clunky and awkward on a desktop, on a 10-inch screen they make perfect sense. Everything is well signposted with big clear buttons to tap and lots of navigation help.

Cognitive leap

There’s a cognitive leap you have to make – particularly if you’ve used other tablets – because many screens are quite minimal. This keeps things tidy and uncluttered. What isn’t immediately obvious is that there are screens and menus behind these screens which you get at through swipe gestures from the edge of the display.

Once you grasp this, you’ll find Windows 8.1 RT can be as productive as any tablet. Possibly more so. I wouldn’t describe it as intuitive. I would say that finding your way around isn’t hard.

Multi-tasking is much improved over the original Windows 8 RT. It’s now practical to have two windows open at the same time, making it easier for tasks such as cutting and pasting between apps.

Where’s the desktop?

Long-time Windows 8 users will notice there’s no desktop button on the 8.1 RT start page. That’s because you mainly don’t need to go there. However, the one aspect of Windows 8.1 RT I dislike most is that the Office apps all work on the desktop. So there’s a jarring transition between what was formerly known as the Metro interface and the old-school Windows desktop when you switch to Office.

Personally, I would have been happier if Microsoft had created Metro-style versions of the Office apps. I don’t know whether the company chose not to maintain full compatibility with the desktop version or whether Microsoft just hasn’t got around to modernising the apps yet. Either way, this discontinuity is annoying.

So to answer my original question, is the media criticism of Windows 8.1 RT justified? We certainly need to stay critical but some of the negativity is overstated.

Work needed on sales and marketing

Microsoft and the people in retail stores selling the Surface 2 could do a better job of managing customer expectations. I heard a sales person, wrongly, tell a customer an earlier RT device had a full copy of Windows. That doesn’t help. More retail training and clearer advertising may help.

The switch to desktop when using Office is not enough to dismiss the OS. For people who don’t need powerful desktop apps like Photoshop – let’s face it, that means most people – a Surface 2 tablet will be all the computer they need. RT’s limitations are not such a big deal for 90 percent of the population.