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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. ↩︎

Typora markdown editor review

Typora is a great Markdown editor that brings distraction-free writing to Windows and Linux.

There’s a smorgasbord full of Markdown editors for Apple users. Windows and Linux users who want to simplify writing have fewer options. Typora changes that.

It’s possible to run Typora on a Chromebook. While there are no versions for Android or iOS, that may change.

Markdown editors are stripped-back distraction-free writing apps. If you want to focus on getting your words onto the virtual page and nothing else, they are your best option.

Many writers swear Markdown improves productivity.

Typora offers a different Markdown take

Markdown editors have a limited range of type and formatting options compared to traditional word processors like Microsoft Word. Even Google Docs offers a wider range of choices.

That’s deliberate, it keeps things simple.

With Markdown editors you can enter formatting codes directly into your text. A pair of * symbols tells Markdown the next few characters are in bold type and so on.

Keep it out of sight

Other Markdown editors tend to keep these codes in sight. You type onto a blank pages and can see your markup codes. You can then switch to a second screen to see how they look after formatting.

Typora doesn’t do that. In normal use, it styles the text as you type. This takes us back to an acronym that we don’t hear much these days: wysiwyg – what you see is what you get.

There is an option to choose a view with pure Markdown codes. Yet, for the most part, Typora keeps this out of sight.

I’m not convinced this is an improvement, but you may feel otherwise.

Themes

The other departure from standard Markdown editors is that Typora offers a series of themes. Many allow you to switch from dark text on a light background to light on dark, or perhaps, format the output in different ways.

Typora takes themes further than that. There is a theme gallery, you can download more themes If you are handy with CSS, you can create your own custom themes.

While this is neat, it is a form of distraction. Instead of procrastinating over font choices and layout options when using Microsoft Word, you can now waste valuable writing time looking at these themes.

Document format

There are Markdown editors that store files in a proprietary format. Thankfully, Typora does not do this. Proprietary formats are a backward step.

The files store as .md documents that you can open with other Markdown editors and applications or services that accept Markdown input. This can be handy if, say, you have a WordPress blog.

You can save direct to Word format if you need to stay compatible with colleagues. Typora has HTML and PDF output too.

Typora verdict

If you already use a Markdown editor, Typora can make sense if being able to see formatted text as you type appeals. I find it doesn’t help, but it doesn’t do any harm.

Typora is the best Markdown editor I’ve seen for Windows and Linux systems. If you want to simplify your writing and you use one of these, it is the smartest option.

If you are a Mac user, take advantage of the free trial period to see if Typora suits better than the other Markdown options.

Typora costs a one-off US$15. There is no cheeky annual subscription to worry about. I couldn’t find it in app stores, you can buy direct from the Typora site.

Why bother with Windows 11?

After a couple of weeks using the beta and a week with the final version of Windows 11, I’ve yet to find a real reason to use it.

Steven Vaughan-Nichols nails the problem with Windows 11 in at Computerworld. 

For many people it is, he notes, “a pointless upgrade”.

That’s the conclusion I reached.

The main justification for moving to Windows 11 is that it will be more secure than Windows 10. To get those benefits you need to have the right hardware.

Windows 11 is picky about hardware. Most versions of Windows have been able to run on computers that are more than a couple of months old.

That’s not the case with Windows 11.

Are you ready to buy a new computer?

For many people reading this, that means buying a new computer.

And anyway, you can get the security updates if you stick with Windows 10.

Which, as the man says, makes the move to Windows 11 pointless.

At least for now. If you want to stay with Windows, you’ll get it with your next hardware upgrade.

You have to ask yourself why Microsoft is moving to Windows 11.

Last version of Windows

When Windows 10 came along the message was this could be the last ever version of Windows. From that point on the idea was that there would be regular incremental upgrades rather than big leaps.

“Last ever version” lasted six years.

In comparison, Windows XP lasted eight years.  Well, five years if you don’t count Windows Vista. Even Microsoft would prefer to see Vista written out of the history books.

Aside from the security benefits, Windows 11’s other selling point is a fresh new look. This is little more than cosmetics. A lick of paint and a brush-up. If anything it now looks more like MacOS.

Some of the changes appear to be change for change’s sake rather than researched improvements. There are background performance changes that users might experience without noticing them.

There is a promise that Windows 11 will run Android apps. That’s unlikely to happen for another year and, unless you have something important you do only on Android, is less interesting than it sounds.

Options

None of this is to say Windows 11 follows the tradition that says every second version of the operating system is embarrassing. It’s usable, popular and up to a point familiar to the majority of users.

On a personal note I was so disappointed with Windows 8 that I investigated, then moved from Windows to Mac. In hindsight it was a smart move, my productivity soared.

This time around Windows users have other options to tempt them away from the mainstream. Desktop Linux is mature and well worth investigating.

If that’s not for you, there are Chromebooks. An iPad Pro can do most things you buy a PC for. You may fancy a change without moving too far from Microsoft’s orbit. A Windows 365 Cloud PC is an option.

Yet I suspect most Windows users will choose to stick with 10 for now and see which way things go. There is no pressing reason to make a decision today. Most enterprise IT departments will wait at least 18 months before changing, you don’t need to take that long, nor do you need to hurry.

 

 

ThinkPad P14s i Gen 2 workstation review

Lenovo’s ThinkPad P14s i Gen 2 workstation may be pricey but it is one of the most powerful laptops you can buy. If you need raw power, this delivers.

At a glance

For:Graphics performance, great display, keyboard and build quality.
Against:Sound quality and webcam could be better. Pricey.
Maybe:Battery life, screen ratio. Non-touch screen.
Verdict:Packs the most Windows laptop power into the smallest package. Good choice if you need the grunt.
Rating:4.5 out of 5
Price:From $3530, as reviewed $5400.
Web:Lenovo

Who is the ThinkPad P14s for?

Lenovo engineered the ThinkPad P14s for demanding users who need mobility. We used to call them power users.

It offers Intel CPU options that, when added to the Nvidia Quadro T500 graphics processor, are more than powerful enough for heavy duty work but not the most demanding workloads.

There are 17 and 15-inch models for people who need bigger screens. These can get big and hefty.

With a case that is 18mm deep and 330 by 230 mm elsewhere, the 14-inch model is the most portable P series model.

On the move

You might choose this if mobility is your priority.

While it is ideal for serious on-the-go photo or light video work, if you work in animation, CAD or need heavy video rendering you may prefer a less mobile computer with more grunt.

It would be good for scientific computing in the field and number crunching through large databases. Developers would be a key market and people who need to demonstrate creative work.

If you are reading this and think the price tag is outrageous; you are not the target market.

This machine is overkill for everyday computing. If your work means spending time waiting for calculations to finish, then you’ll see a return on your investment in weeks.

Above all, it’s a ThinkPad

Lenovo inherited the bento lunchbox inspired ThinkPad design when it acquired the brand from IBM in 2005. It has run with it ever since.

While Lenovo has tried other ideas, ThinkPad remains a classic premium business-focused laptop design. ThinkPads tend to be robust, but they are not tanks.

It’s a physical format that suits a powerful workstation.

The ThinkPad P14s i Gen 2 workstation is made to get work done. It looks that way from the moment you unpack the box.

Black and red

You won’t be surprised to hear the ThinkPad P14s i Gen 2 workstation keeps the black plastic case with red trim.

It includes the tiny, red, joystick-like TrackPoint controller which, once you adapt to using it, moves the cursor around the screen.

In case that’s not enough, there’s an excellent three button TrackPad. Because I’m a touch typist and prefer not to move my hands away from the keys, I find the TrackPoint works best. Both TrackPoint and Trackpad are accurate

No-one beats Lenovo when it comes to laptop keyboards. That’s true with the P14s keyboard. There is plenty of key travel for touch typists. Each key is sculpted and backlighting is best in class. It feels right.

Basics

The review model has a 14-inch display. Inside there is the 11th generation Intel Core i7–1185G7 processor. It has 32GB of Ram and 512Gb of storage. We mentioned the Nvidia Quadro T500 4GB graphics card earlier.

Lenovo sent the model with the UHD (3840 by 2160 pixel) display.

That configuration adds up to a New Zealand list price of $54001.

By any standard this is a lot of money for a laptop. Yet the second generation ThinkPad P14s i is no ordinary computer.

There is a base model P14s for NZ$3530. It’s hard to see who might choose that over a more conventional high-end laptop. This technology comes into its own when you pump up its specification.

 

Mobility

At 1.5Kg the P14s is light for this class of 14-inch laptop. That achievement is spoiled somewhat by the small 65w power brick and cables that add another 320g. Yet you won’t stretch your arms moving it around.

It feels robust enough to be hauled around town or, if you’re flying at the moment, on to planes without any worries. There’s a small amount of flex in the plastic case which can soften blows.

Display

Given the premium nature of the ThinkPad P14s, the bezels are large by the standard of modern laptops. The aspect ratio is 16:9. Lenovo missed a trick here2.

The non-touch display on the review laptop is nothing short of stunning.

It is luscious and bright, has high 3840 by 2160 pixel resolution, great colour and fast response. Thanks to the 500 nits of brightness, you can read the screen fine in sunlight.

White coloured areas on screen can glare at times… you may need to adjust the brightness down if you are in dark conditions.

In use

There are no applications in my armoury that could begin to trouble the ThinkPad P14s. I tried video editing, page design and audio rendering software without ever seeing any signs of stress.

While it handled almost everything with ease, there was one area of less than stellar performance: Video calling.

Many laptops have inadequate webcams. That’s to be expected on low-cost computers. You might expect better from something that costs more than five grand.

Lenovo’s 720p webcam is poor. 720p is about 0.9 megapixels. That’s a fraction of what you might find even on a modestly priced mobile phone.

Webcam

For comparison, my iMac has a 1080p webcam which is 2.1 megapixels. I thought that was low. My iPad has an 8 megapixel front facing camera.

In practice, P14s webcam pictures are blurry with washed out colours. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a boss who has shelled out for an employee to buy a P14s wondering where the money went.

Likewise, the P14s speaker and microphone are adequate, not outstanding. I found I needed to use earbuds to get better video call performance.

Battery

Lenovo has the balance between portability and battery life about right. The processor, GPU and screen consume plenty of power and yet I could get close to ten hours between charges. I haven’t attempted to measure battery life when driving the system harder, no doubt it would drop.

Bits and pieces

  • The privacy shutter is a nice idea, but it was hard to find, hard to use and feels like it will be the first thing on the laptop to break.
  • I’m not going to dismantle a $5400 review laptop, but looking at the screws on the case, this would be easy to take apart if you want to upgrade components.
  • Wi-Fi 6 support is welcome. Should be a minimum in any 2021 device. It may pay to upgrade your wireless router to Wi-Fi 6 if you buy this computer.
  • There’s a fan in the case, but you wouldn’t know it. My home office is quiet, but it was rare to notice any noise even when more demanding tasks might need extra cooling.
  • The P14s includes 12 ports – there’s a list on the website spec page. You probably won’t need a docking station with this, but Lenovo offers plenty of options if that’s your preference.

Verdict: ThinkPad P14s i Gen 2 workstation

Lenovo has crafted a top quality, premium Windows workstation for professionals who need power while on the move.

It looks good, feels good and delivers on the promised high performance. Mobility and battery life are on a par with less powerful laptops.

This is not a laptop for everyone, the price makes that clear.


  1. As an aside, the Lenovo web site warns you may need to wait weeks to get this configuration. ↩︎
  2. I much prefer a square screen 16:10 or 3:2 because writing needs less width, more depth. ↩︎

More on the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3

There’s more to say about 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.

 

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.

Norton 360 Premium: Security overkill for Macs

This year’s Norton 360 offers the most comprehensive set of cross-platform computer security tools. It is a safe choice. Yet it is expensive and is not necessarily the right choice for everyone. It’s a poor option for Apple users who don’t get all the benefits.

Norton 360 is aimed at consumers, people who work from home, freelancers and sole proprietors. You might buy it if you have a handful of vulnerable devices to protect. If you run a bigger operation you should look elsewhere for an alternative built for business or corporate users.

Even if you fall into Norton’s target market, it may not be necessary to buy security software at all. In fact, I recommend you don’t unless you are in a group that needs extra protection.

Should you decide you want protection, then Norton 360 is a safe choice. It’s popular. According to Norton there are 50 million users. It wouldn’t stay popular if it didn’t deliver benefits.

Norton fails to deliver on Apple kit

If you run Windows, it’s a solid option. In practice I found it was overkill for my Apple-centric home business. You might find otherwise.

Norton 360 is a comprehensive suite of security tools covering Windows, MacOS, Android and iOS devices. Here I only look at the product on MacOS and iOS.

According to the marketing you get anti-virus and anti-spam software, a full VPN, a firewall, parental controls1 and back-up.

Because these are a family of tools, they all dovetail neatly with each other. That’s not always the experience when you mix and match security components from multiple sources.

LifeLock

There’s also a feature called Lifelock. This promises to help protect against identity theft, although it can feel alarming to use.

I didn’t test LifeLock because the first rule of privacy protection is to not hand over important personal details to every Tom, Dick and Harriet who come asking for them. If you read on, you’ll see why I’m not planning to maintain the kind of long-term relationship that might make LifeLock worthwhile.

Norton 360 comes in an array of versions, each includes a different number of licences. You can buy a single licence product, or two or three or five or ten.

The price rises as you go up the levels. Spend NZ$100 and you get a single licence, spend NZ$250 and you get ten. Keep in mind these are subscriptions for a single year’s use.

Slow start

Getting started on a Mac isn’t as easy as Norton wants you to think. The process takes 30 minutes, a lot of that is waiting around for things to download even on a gigabit fibre connection. Clearly Norton is not geared up for fast download speeds, that doesn’t make me confident about using the back-up feature.

There’s a moment in the install process where the software directs you to change the MacOS Security and Privacy settings in the General Preferences. After this, you then have to reboot the computer and then, ridiculously go back to the settings and do it all over again.

Maybe it is necessary. It certainly grates.

I should also point out Norton doesn’t explain why you should change these settings. It may seem obvious, but that’s not good enough. Security is about trust. Expecting customers to unlock the gates without offering a good reason goes against good security principles.

This all seems irritating and time consuming, but it would be a small price to pay if Norton made a Mac safer. And that’s the problem. It’s not clear that Norton 360 makes much difference. It’s also not clear it adds NZ$200 worth of value.

My Norton

Once everything is loaded, there’s a My Norton home page with five tabs. These are: Device Security; Secure VPN; Password Manager; Parental Controls and Cloud Backup.

Let’s run through the feature list and see where there is value and where there is none.

Top of the list is Device Security. This includes malware scanning and a firewall. There’s no indication that Norton’s firewall is an improvement on the free, built-in MacOS firewall. No obvious value there.

This is less clear cut with the malware scanning. I’ve owned Macs for seven years and have never seen any malware on any of the Apple devices in my home2. At one point there were eight devices when all the family had Macs and iPads.

You might have a different experience or indulge in riskier behaviour that lets malware in. While there’s no value in malware scanning for me, I accept it may help others.

VPN the highlight

Norton’s Secure VPN is excellent. Earlier standalone versions nagged you if you attempted to use Bittorrent, even legal torrents. And it didn’t like some legitimate streaming services. There is no longer any of that nonsense. At least not in the time the VPN has been running.

The Password Manager does nothing for me. Similar functionality is part of Apple operating systems and there are excellent tools such as 1password that do a better job. Again, other people may find it helpful. I don’t.

My children have grown up and left home, so parental controls are not needed. It turns out that they are not part of the deal for Mac users although it does work with iOS.

Back-up missing in action

Norton’s cloud back-up is also missing in action for Mac users. In theory you get 100GB of online storage to play with on the NZ$200 a year plan. If you are a light Windows computer user this may be enough to back-up your files. You can get extra storage if you buy a more expensive plan, but the price seems high if that’s all you want.

Either way, there is no MacOS back-up software.

There’s an option to buy what Norton calls the Ultimate Help Desk for another $150 a year. It’s not clear from the website if that is US or NZ dollars.

It’s hard to love the way Norton wants a hefty up-front NZ$200 and then charge more for extras which you might reasonably expect to be part of the deal. But sadly that’s the way of the world, consumers seem to tolerate apps with in-app purchase, so may be I’m out of touch for even mentioning this.

What’s missing?

In a package of this price and complexity, I’d expect to see something for protecting users against ransomware. Maybe that’s in there somewhere, but I haven’t found it.

I wasn’t a fan of parental controls when my children were young, they don’t seem to guard against the biggest risk which is online bullying. Yet not having a Mac version wipes some of the perceived value of Norton 360 for Apple users.

The lack of back-up also detracts from the product’s value for Mac owners. In effect only three of the five main feature groups are available for Mac owners. You have to wonder why these features are shown on the MacOS version of the MyNorton home page if they don’t exist.

From a MacOS point of view, Norton 360 is an expensive disappointment. The brightest spot is the Secure VPN. You get five one year VPN licences for $200. Norton sells a stand-alone VPN product, five one year licences purchased that way cost NZ$140, you have to ask yourself if the firewall and malware protection are worth another NZ$60. I’m not convinced they are.


  1. See what I mean about it not being aimed at business users? ↩︎
  2. This is not 100 percent true. We have seen Windows malware in email spam folders. But that’s not a concern for a Mac user. ↩︎