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If I didn’t promise to help you out in the next sentence, you’d probably have to look up skeuomorphism in a dictionary.

In simple terms the word means something that resembles whatever it was that used to do the job.1

The word may be unfamiliar. The idea is not.

Take the old Macintosh Address Book app. Before Apple modernised its software, the Address Book app looked like a paper address book.

You might also remember when computer operating system desktops had waste paper bin or trash can icons to tell you this is where you throw things away.

Skeuomorph central

The smartphone is skeuomorph central. Every iPhone has icons showing a torch, a telephone handset, a camera and so on. What each of these does is obvious. The envelope icon isn’t quite so apparent, yet you don’t need a PhD to figure out it is for email. Android phones have similar skeuomorphs.

Skeuomorphs don’t have to be software. Houses might have cladding where manufacturers made the building material resemble wooden boards or brick.

Soon electric vehicles in Europe will have to make noises so that pedestrians and others get an audio cue to take care.

Understanding

The idea behind skeuomorphism is that it helps you to better understand what you are looking at. It’s a visual clue telling you the purpose of the object. You see something familiar and, bingo, you know what that thing is going to do.

There’s a special breed of skeuomorph idea where the visual cue lives on long after the original item has disappeared from use.

Mr flippy floppy

Perhaps the best known is the floppy disk icon you sometimes see used to indicate the save function.

It’s getting on for 20 years since computers had built-in floppy disk drives. An entire generation has entered the workforce without every having seen a floppy disk in action. And yet, everyone knows what that image is supposed to mean.

No doubt you have heard stories of young people encountering a real floppy disc for the first time. While they may not know what the item is, or how it is used. They often recognise it from the icon.

Time to put skeuomorphism to bed

While the thinking behind skeuomorphism makes sense, as far as software and operating systems go, it’s best days are in the past. Skeuomorphic designs are often fussy and ugly. They clutter things up. The images are often meaningless and what is represented is not always clear cut.

Yet there’s a Catch 22 here. I prefer minimalist design. It’s easier to focus on the job in hand when the software stays out of the way. I was about to say that when I’m writing, I prefer to start with a blank sheet of paper. Which is, of course, itself a skeuomorphism.


  1. 1 My Mac’s dictionary says: An object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artefact made from another material. ↩︎

Mike Riversdale has a problem with the price of the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3. He responded to my review of the Laptop on Twitter:

Soon after:

Then:

He has a good point. The Surface Laptop 3 is far more than expensive than similar laptops. 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 I’ve seen 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, I’m one of them, who are happy to pay more for Apple’s software and ecosystem. The fact that I can handoff between my 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, that 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.

Having high prices is an important part of that strategy. A high price 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.

After spending more time with the 15-inch Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 there is more to say.

My original review is dismissive of the keyboard. That needs to be updated.

First time around I wrote:

“The Surface Laptop 3 keyboard is decent enough, but it is not anything to get excited about.”

That was written after a couple of hours tinkering with the machine. Later I used the laptop to write a long feature and realised the keyboard deserves more praise. It is among the better laptop keyboards I’ve used.

For someone who writes all day, this is important. Laptop typing can leave me exhausted after ten hours at the keyboard.

This goes a long way towards justifying what is, by 2020 standards, the expensive price tag.

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, like me, 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 propritary charging plug for the Surface Laptop 3 reminds me 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.

Microsoft Surface Laptop Power Supply

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.

A better Windows experience

There’s one other aspect of the Surface Laptop 3 that took more time to sink in is how much better Windows 10 is in 2020 than in earlier versions. Yes, I know most people use Windows most of the time and this might be an unremarkable comment for many readers. My Windows 8 experience was so negative I switched to an Apple Mac. My productivity soared and I never looked back.

The earlier incarnations of Windows 10 didn’t fix things for me. Eight years later it finally feels as if Windows is back on track. That doesn’t mean I plan to switch back from MacOs to Windows, it does mean that doing so would no longer be a jarring backward step.

Many computer users don’t need to spend extra money on security software. Others do. This helps you decide where you fit.

Windows users can get Microsoft Defender1 for free. MacOS has built-in security features2.

For many people these free OS tools are more than enough protection.

That doesn’t mean there are no risks. The online world is as dangerous as ever. Yet, for many people there’s little value in paying for protection. Spend the money elsewhere.

Paid-for computer security won’t be foolproof even if you buy the best on the market. A clever social engineering attack can shimmy past the smartest defence.

A common example is when a crook persuades a victim to hand over a password or let them behind the defences.

Perhaps the most powerful way of defending your computer and data is making frequent encrypted backups. You can automate this in Windows and MacOS.

Given a choice between spending on security software or backup, I’d pick the latter every time.

You should make more than one kind of back-up. Perhaps use a cloud service and a local hard drive or network server. Ideally back up to a removable hard drive that you can store away from your computer.

Always test back-ups to make sure they are usable.

With back-up you can recover from most attacks, even ransomware . Some security products and services include back-up as part of their deal.

Who needs extra security?

  • If you deal with customer data or anyone’s personal data the law says you must protect it from attack. Security software goes some way towards meeting your obligations. It will reduce the likelihood of attack, criminals often find enough low hanging fruit elsewhere to leave your protected data alone.
  • If you have valuable data including material you want to stay secret. This includes things like business plans or product designs.
  • If you are a potential target for online criminals. This can include having valuable IP that crooks or foreign governments might want. It also includes things like working for political parties or campaigns where there are people who would be only too happy to embarrass or expose your data.
  • If you indulge in risky behaviour online. This can mean activity like illegal downloads or visiting dodgy streaming sites. Some sites at the dark end of the web are fronts to help find victims.
  • If you run a small business where employees are on a local network or you have a home system with teenagers. Sure, you can trust the people you know, but you can never be certain that others might make mistakes, either by indulging in risky behaviour or being susceptible to scams. Spending a couple of hundred dollars on security is easier and less stressful than attempting to monitor and police other people’s activity.

  1. Microsoft Defender isn’t perfect, but it does a good job and doesn’t get in the way, unlike some paid-for security software. ↩︎
  2. In six years I’ve never had the slightest security scare on my Macs ↩︎

HP’s EliteBook x360 1030 G3 is a premium business convertible laptop. It’s the kind of upmarket laptop a big company employer might hand you if they think you need portability and flexibility.

You might choose it yourself. It is a solid, no-nonsense choice with all the features a business user needs, although a touch expensive by 2018 standards.

While you can get more grunt and graphics for the same money or less elsewhere, you won’t get them in such a compact package and with such a quality feel. HP added security features to the business laptop that, depending on how you work, could tip the balance.

At first glance the Elitebook x360 looks like a tiny conventional clamshell laptop. It opens to show a full size keyboard and screen.

HP HP EliteBook x360 in different modes

Convertible

The Elitebook x360 is a convertible. Its 360 hinge means you can open it right up, then fold the screen under the keyboard to give you a tablet. It can also work in what HP calls tent mode to watch video or propped up on a flat service to give personal presentations.

HP says you can get “up to” 18 hours of battery life. Computer maker battery life estimates are often exaggerated. Even  so, you can expect to keep going for the longest of work days.

In testing I found you can get almost nine hours of constant use from the battery. If you take breaks away from the screen it should more than last all day.

As you’d expect the Elitebook x360 is small and light. Yet, at 1.25 kg it feels a shade heavier than it looks.

Build quality

Some of this heft is down to the build quality. The Elitebook x360 has a solid milled aluminium case. This computer feels like it is ready for you to carry it from place to place. I’d be a little concerned working on an industrial site, but it is more than robust enough for everyday business use.

It’s not the best-looking laptop, at least to my eyes, but it is far from embarassing.

HP describes it as the world’s smallest business convertible. That’s a specific claim and, to my knowledge it is true. At only 15mm deep, the Elitebook x360 is a fraction thicker than the MacBook, but Apple’s laptop doesn’t covert into a tablet.

The screen measures 13.3 inches across the diagonal. Resolution on the review model is 1920 by 1080 pixels, there is also a 3840 by 2160 version.

Privacy

The computer comes with Sureview: an integrated privacy filter. When you hit the F2 button, the viewing angles of the screen at reduced so that anyone looking at the display from over your shoulder or the next airplane seat can’t read anything.

HP says this kicks in at 40 degrees. That’s hard to check. Yet it works as promised. Sureview isn’t for everyone, but is ideal if you work on private reports in busy places.

On the downside, Sureview dims the screen and makes it harder to read. It makes colours duller. I struggled a little with it trying to read the display head-on if text was in anything other than black on white.

You wouldn’t want to have Sureview switched on all the time.

Keyboard

HP has gone for a decent quality backlit keyboard. I found it easy to type. There’s little flexing. Otherwise it’s not remarkable one way or the other. If anything it reminds me of the MacBook Air.

The up and down directional keys look squashed. In practice they are not a problem. The touchpad is a good size and responsive. It works better than I’ve seen on some rival Windows computers.

Beneath the keyboard is a tiny fingerprint reader for another layer of security. You can use this to log-in, but the Elitebook x360 does a great job with Windows Hello. Its face recognition was close to flawless during testing.

HP has simplified the ports on the 2018 Elitebook x360. You now get two USB-C ports. One of these is used for charging. There is also an HDMI and a Thunderbolt 3 port. There’s no Ethernet port, although that would make the case thicker.

HP EliteBook x360 verdict

Prices start at around NZ$2,800. That money gets you a model with an Intel Core i5 processor along with a graphics processor, 8 GB ram and 256 GB storage. That lessw expensive models support 1920×1080 graphics.

Pay around NZ$4000 and you’ll get a version with 16 GB ram, 512 GB storage and 3840×2160 pixel resolution. According to the HP web site, these prices include a three year warranty for all models. That alone is worth hundreds of dollars.

The HP EliteBook x360 is a good choice, but you can get a better deal.

If you’re not interested in the security features, then you might do better looking elsewhere. There are less expensive models in the HP range that almost match the x360 on features. You can expect more raw power, better graphics and longer battery life when spending the same amount money. But if you’d prefer to stay safe from prying eyes, the EliteBook x360 1030 G3 makes a lot of sense.