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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.

Since taking over as Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella has remade the company. What was a PC giant is now a cloud and enterprise computing giant. And that has implications for Windows.

Microsoft’s latest financials underline the change. In the three months to December 2017 the company’s revenue was almost US$29 billion. Of that, what Microsoft calls Productivity and Business Processes was almost US$9 billion. Intelligent cloud made up almost US$8 billion.

The remainder, a little over US$12 billion, fell under the label of More personal computing. This unit includes Surface hardware, advertising and everything Xbox.

Given the gaming business brought in around US$4 billion, that means in round numbers, Windows accounts for only a quarter of today’s Microsoft.

That proportion is falling fast.

Windows stagnant as cloud, enterprise booms

Microsoft’s More personal computing business grew around one percent between the end of 2016 and the end of 2017. Intelligent cloud was up almost 15 percent. Productivity and Business Processes climbed 25 percent.

Draw a straight-line projection and Windows will be under 20 percent of Microsoft’s revenue by the end of this year. Within two to three years it will be less than 10 percent.

Microsoft’s accounting is hard to break down, but looks as if the operating system business is fading into the background.

Some parts of Windows have done more than fade. During the year Microsoft dropped Windows Phone. Then company admitted it failed to keep pace with iOS and Android.

You can’t dismiss the phone OS as a meaningless sideshow. Former CEO Steve Balmer spent close to US$10 billion on it. This figure includes the US$7.6 billion write-down of the Nokia acquisition.

Poor performance

It would be fair to say Microsoft’s Windows strategy hasn’t been right since Windows 7. Some less kind souls say it hasn’t been right since XP. That’s extreme, yet Windows 8 was clearly a flop.

Windows 10 stopped the immediate rot, but did nothing to recover Microsoft’s reputation with uncommitted users. It’s no accident that PC sales have stayed in free fall since 10 appeared. Nor is it an accident that Apple sales have climbed in that time. Likewise Chromebook sales rocketed.

Those users who can are bailing out.

Something else is going on. Writing at ZDNet Ed Bott says: “Microsoft’s steady retreat from consumer products is nearly complete.” Bott’s story looks at how Microsoft has shifted its focus from the consumer towards business.

What’s next to go?

Bott doesn’t say so, but you could read between the lines when looking at the financial numbers and conclude that Windows could be next. He writes about Microsoft: “…shifting resources to business units that are thriving: enterprise software and cloud services”.

Go back to the financials mentioned earlier: those thriving business units do not include Windows.

People who are heavily invested in Microsoft and its OS may argue otherwise, but if you use another operating system and make occasional visit back, there’s a feeling things are running down. Not a lot, but there is a sense Windows is past its prime.

There’s also a sense Microsoft no longer has a clear vision for its operating system. Or maybe any vision.

A year ago Microsoft introduced Windows 10 S. The company said it was a new edition. On paper it sounded good. 10 S boots faster, is more secure, offers better battery life and is more robust in the sense that its harder to corrupt files.

These positives are down to the fact that Windows 10 S is a cut-down, limited version of Windows 10.

10 S was a mess

Windows 10 S turned out to be a mess. Nobody outside Microsoft seemed to like it. Reviewers panned it. Consumers hated it. It is another shot-in-the-foot disaster on the scale of Windows 8.

At the time of the launch the idea was that users could pay US$50 to switch to Windows 10 Pro. Microsoft would pack 10 S with a new computer. Customers buying a new PC would then be hit up for an extra charge later to unlock all the features of the computer they purchased. Almost everyone would want to upgrade. At Redmond it looked like free money.

Let’s hope no-one at Microsoft wonders why Chromebook and MacBooks are selling so well.

Last week Microsoft backtracks on that madness. It said users can now upgrade to Windows 10 at no extra charge.

The10 S debacle tells us Microsoft no longer employs its best thinkers on its operating system software. It suggests Microsoft doesn’t really care about the product any longer. After all, it doesn’t make much money.

Microsoft has a huge cash cow. The software is still installed on most of the world’s traditional computers — although not the pocket computers people now use most often. There are ways it can and will continue to squeeze money out of its huge installed base.

Ring out the old, ring in the new

And yet you can’t help getting the impression Microsoft’s top brass are no longer interested. That’s the old world; a declining empire. Meanwhile there are exciting new opportunities to chase in the cloud and enterprise spaces.

One possible way out would be for Microsoft to hive off Windows into a seperate business and sell or otherwise demerge the operation. This worked for IBM’s PC business, although not for IBM. A similar approach also worked up to a point for HP.

More likely Microsoft will continue to manage down its Windows operation. Sooner or later even the most die-hard fans will realise they are neglected. Apple and Chromebooks loom. There’s an opportunity for Android or for a revival of desktop Linux.

We’ll soon be in a post-Windows world. It’s just that two-third of computer users don’t realise that yet.

Microsoft Windows 10SAt first sight Microsoft’s Surface Laptop and Windows 10S launch is all about education. That was the company’s emphasis at the product roll-out in New York.

Yet there is more at stake here than putting computers in school bags.

The announcement outlines a strategy for the next stage of personal computing. If Microsoft pulls this off, it will once again dominate the sector.

On the Surface

Surface Laptop is Microsoft’s most ambitious touch screen hardware product to date.

Previous Microsoft devices; Surface Pro tablets, Surface Book, Surface Hub and Surface Studio, are all niche products. They cater for minority tastes.

The Surface Laptop is mainstream. It competes head on with hardware from brands like HP, Lenovo and Asus. The Surface Laptop is a direct challenge to Apple’s MacBook range.

It doesn’t directly address Google’s Chromebook, but Microsoft developed the Surface Laptop with that product in mind.

Chromebook

Chromebook is a basic, low-cost, easy-to-manage laptop. It has sold well. It is one of the few PC success stories of recent years. Chromebook sales have climbed while sales of most other computer formats have been in free fall.

It is more sucessful than Google’s rivals expected. Above all else the Chromebook is strong in education. Yet that’s only part of the story. IDC’s latest market survey says Chromebook are now selling well to commercial customers.

We can assume Microsoft understands the Chromebook threatens its PC business.

Chrome OS

Chromebooks run Google’s Chrome OS. In effect, the operating system is the Chrome browser.

Chrome OS is light on features. You can’t do everything with Chrome OS. You don’t have as much low-level control. But that’s a good thing for many customers.

Lots of users don’t need all the personal computer trimmings. They just want to get a limited set of tasks done in an unfussy way. This applies in spades to young school students.

More to the point, school students and their families are not willing or able to pay for a more powerful computer with a full operating system.

You can buy a Chromebook in New Zealand for less than NZ$400. Brands like HP, Asus, Acer and Lenovo all have versions. This is less than half the price of a mainstream laptop. It is about one-quarter the price of the cheapest Apple Mac.

In many schools Chromebooks have displaced Windows laptops.

Microsoft bothered

That bothers Microsoft. Aside from the impact on today’s market share and revenue, there is a risk people will get a taste for Chromebooks.

Youngsters growing up with school Chromebooks may stick with them later in life. Or if not Chromebook, something else that doesn’t involve Microsoft Windows. The no Windows habit could rub off on their families, friends and workplaces.

Microsoft wants to counter that threat.

The Surface Laptop looks great but it is not going to do that. For a start it is too expensive. It sells in the US for $1000. That’s four or five times the price of a Chromebook.

It is a premium 13-inch laptop, more a competitor to models like the MacBook, HP Spectre and Dell XPS 13. It’s lighter and thinner than a MacBook Air. It costs less and is more powerful.

That comparison is a whole other story that needs closer inspection. Maybe another post. We’re going to look at something more fundamental here.

While Surface Laptop is inexpensive compared to, say, a MacBook Pro or Surface Book, it’s not going to shake up the education market.

That job goes to Windows 10S.

Where Windows 10S fits

There are, of course, plenty of low-cost Windows laptops to choose from. Asus, Lenovo and Acer all have PCs in New Zealand that sell for under NZ$400. If you can afford a little more, there are plenty of better models for less than NZ$500.

Low-cost Windows laptops tend to be clunky and inelegant. They are not powerful by 2017 standards. But, like Chromebooks, they get the job done.

At least they would get the job done but for one problem. To claw back the dollars makers don’t earn from hardware sales, they load them with trial software. This often makes more money for the computer maker than they get from the hardware sale.

Crapware

Software makers pay to have their apps included as standard on PCs. They may call their products trial ware or use some other coy name. We know them as crapware.

The name is well deserved. These programs are ugly. They make for an awful user experience. They bombard people with messages. At times they can frighten less experienced or tech-savvy users. Some include marketing messages that border on blackmail.

Crapware often slows computers down. It can introduce security risks. More than one of these programs has included a serious malware payload in the past.

Other crapware programs report key information back to their owners behind the computer user’s back.

Even the best crapware is annoying. It can pop up with a distracting, unwelcome message at an inappropriate moment.

In effect, you can get a great deal on a low-end PC in return for accepting a steaming pile of crapware. What a time to be alive.

Windows 10S

By locking down the computer, Microsoft says Windows 10S will improve security and performance. It keeps things simple. Windows 10S makes it easy for administrators to manage fleets of computers.

And it locks out crapware.

If you choose to stick with Windows 10S, and that’s optional, then you’ll only be able to install apps from the official Microsoft app store.

Now that may not be what you want from a computer. But there are people who like the sound of this.

Remember Windows RT?

We’ve been here before. Windows RT was the Microsoft operating system on the first Surface Tablets. It had the same lock-down approach and similar restrictions. It was a commercial flop.

RT cost Microsoft hundreds of millions of dollars.

In practice, Windows RT was not an awful OS. After all Apple’s iOS is locked down in a similar way and that’s been a winner.

The issue is that Microsoft Windows users want different things from their devices to Apple users. One of them is the ability to run tons of obscure, esoteric and, in some cases, poorly written niche apps.

Creating a version of Windows that can’t run most Windows apps was a mistake.

Unlike Apple, Microsoft failed to make sure the app store was packed with all the must have apps. Using the RT store was like walking into a shop with dusty, empty shelves and few recognisable products or brands.

This time is different…?

You may ask yourself what’s different this time. The simple answer is that Microsoft will force Windows 10S on the market.

Most or at least many future Windows PCs will come with Windows 10S installed at the outset. Customers can upgrade, if upgrade is the right word here, to a full unlocked version of Windows 10 by paying US$50.

Inertia and a reluctance to spend any money means many customers will never upgrade.

Big guns buy-in

Another difference this time is that Windows hardware makers are joining the lockdown party.

Some of the biggest names will have Windows 10S laptops on sale within weeks. It’s going to be hard for PC buyers to ignore these machines. The list of companies already signed up is a who’s who of the hardware business.

With Windows 10S users will only be able to get apps from Microsoft’s App Store. That means the company gets to clip the ticket with every purchase.

Independent developers may whinge, but the same approach has worked well for Apple.

App gap

When it arrives a lot of popular Windows apps will not be available for Windows 10S. Among the stand-outs are the Chrome browser and iTunes. The pair may not be your favourite apps, but they are popular.

What happens when a user, who has paid a bargain basement price for their PC, learns they need to shell out another $50 to run Chrome or iTunes?

The deal is worse than that. When you switch to the full version of Windows, you lose a lot of the security benefits. The responsibility of managing your system returns. Again that may not worry you, but it will be a problem for some others.

Competition bashing

If you read the above section and thought Windows 10S will cause headaches for Microsoft’s biggest competitors, you’d be right.

It’s no accident Chrome and iTunes were mentioned above. Google and Apple need to put their games theory strategists onto this one. Do they invest in creating Microsoft app store versions of their software?

If they don’t they run the risk of being cast adrift from large numbers of their customers. Although it’s possible the disconnected customers might be the kind that don’t use their software anyway.

Ecosystem

If Google and Apple do build app store versions, they help Microsoft create a formidable ecosystem that may bash them again later.

Windows 10S is likely to be a hit with schools and organizations that want to impose order on PCs.

Otherwise there’s always a chance Microsoft’s customers may walk away from Windows 10S.

People don’t have many other places to go. Chrome OS is even more locked down. Apple is less so, but the nuances of its approach aren’t always understood.

Microsoft still accounts for the vast majority of PC operating systems. So it looks like it will succeed this time. But there’s always a possibility Windows 10S will be an RT rerun with even higher stakes.