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Surface Book

Microsoft’s Surface Book is as good as it gets for hybrid devices. You can’t buy a better one, even if it still has a few irritating bugs.

Hybrids are popular. They are the only growing PC segment. There is no doubt they are what many people want from a computing device.

And yet there is something wrong with the hybrid format. Wrong could be the wrong word here. Perhaps unsatisfactory better fits the bill.

The problem is that all hybrids involve some form of compromise. In most cases you don’t get the best laptop experience, nor do you get the best tablet experience.

Many users are happy to tradeoff these experiences in return for having two devices in one package.

This tradeoff plays out in a different way with the Surface Book. As my earlier post says, it is an excellent Windows 10 laptop. In practice I found once the review was over, I only ever used the Surface Book as a laptop.

Sure detaching the screen is clever. But I never need to do this apart from testing to see how it works. [1]

And there’s the problem. The Surface Book is a great Windows laptop, the extras that turn it into an OK tablet add a lot to the cost. Prices start at NZ$2750. That’s $1000 more than you’d pay for something with the same specification that doesn’t double as a tablet.


  1. I also found I almost never use the touchscreen. It helps that the Surface Book has a great touchpad that means you don’t need to make uncomfortable reaching movements.  ↩

 

surface book
Microsoft Surface Book

A year ago Microsoft launched its first laptop. Last week the Surface Book had a refresh. It remains the best take on a 2-in-1 computer, but at a high price.

All Windows computer makers offer riffs on the laptop-cum-tablet format. There are many designs to choose from at a range of prices. Yet twelve months after it first appeared, Microsoft’s Surface Book still offers the best balance of features.

Hybrids and 2-in–1s are everywhere. For the last two years they have been the fastest growing PC segment. Scrub that, they are the only growing PC segment in recent times.

Most 2-in–1 devices involve compromise. Often you end up with something that is not the best laptop, not the best tablet. Many hybrids feel like tablets with keyboards attached as an afterthought.

Microsoft takes a different approach with Surface Book. It more than passes muster if you only use it as a laptop.

Laptop first

Some Surface Book users may never move beyond using it as a conventional laptop. Yet that misses something. Hit a key to unlock the screen. The Surface Book becomes a large Windows 10 tablet similar in many respects to the 12.9 inch Apple iPad Pro.

While most hybrids are tablet first, laptop second, the Surface Book is laptop first.

If you think the distinction between tablet first and laptop first is splitting hairs, think again. The Surface Book is a first class laptop.

Feature for feature it matches, often beats many premium Windows laptops. Most people reading this would be happy with its performance, design and weight

None of the rival hybrids come close in that department.

First-class Surface Book

Although the original Surface Book is a year old, it still runs fast. The review model has a sixth-generation Intel Core i5 CPU, 8GB of memory and a 256GB solid-state drive. It sells for NZ$2750.

Well-heeled users can push the specification of the original Surface Book. Go all the way with 16GB of memory, 1TB of SSD storage, an Intel Core i7 processor and a separate Nvidia GeForce GPU. That will cost NZ$5800.

Newer Surface Books are faster. They have a more powerful graphics processor and longer battery life. The new top of the line will set you back by NZ$6000.

Pleasing to typists

You get an excellent back-lit keyboard. The keys are well spaced. They have enough travel to please touch typists. As a writer I’d consider buying the Surface Book for the keyboard alone. I haven’t seen a better laptop keyboard in years.

Microsoft has also chosen a great trackpad. It’s bigger than many Windows laptop trackpads and is responsive. This makes it easier to navigate the screen without taking your hands off the keyboard. It reminds me of the old-school mechanical Apple MacBook trackpads.

Microsoft has packed such a full compliment of ports into the Surface Book that it feels almost retro. The power port doesn’t do double duty as anything else. There are two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot, a Mini-DisplayPort and 3.5 mm headset jack.

The Surface Book is thick and heavy by MacBook or Ultrabook standards. It weighs 1.5kg. That’s more than we’re used to and a touch uncomfortable at times. You’re compenstated for extra heft by a better than usual combination of keyboard, touch screen and battery life.

Detachable screen

When you use the Surface Book as a laptop, a locking system holds the screen in place. Hit the detach key or the right onscreen icon and the muscle wire system releases the tablet. You have to have power to do this, the release mechanism is both mechanical and electronic.

You can turn the screen around on the keyboard base to use as a display. Fold it all the way over and it becomes a tablet with the keyboard still attached.

It sounds unlikely, but you may want to do this. The bottom, keyboard part of the Surface Book has all the ports along with extra battery capacity. You can also put a graphics card in this section.

Windows tablet

Surface Book has an excellent screen. The display is as sharp as iPad and it has the 3:2 aspect ratio. At 13.5 inches it is larger than the 12.9 inch iPad Pro in size or roughly the size of an A4 magazine.

Microsoft has included great speakers which mean the tablet is ideal for watching video.

Although the tablet is thin — just 7.5mm — it houses the computer electronics. This makes it bigger and heavier than most tablets, but in one sense it can do more. In another sense it can’t. That’s because it runs Windows 10.

Whatever your views on Windows 10, it lacks the depth and quality of pure tablet software you can find on the iPad. There also seem to be less tablet software options than Android.

You won’t get as much battery life from the tablet part of the Surface Book as from other tablets. In practice it lasts between 3.5 and 4 hours depending on your applications.

The big picture

At 13.5-inch, the display is bigger than the 12.9 inch iPad Pro or the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 tablet. Microsoft. Uses the 3:2 screen ratio, which feels better than 16:9 when used as a tablet.

Resolution is 3000 by 2000 pixels, this makes for stunning images. While it is more generous than most tablets or laptops it doesn’t match the 4K displays. Unless you’re using it to edit 4K video, you won’t notice the difference.

Microsoft includes a Surface Pen with the Surface Book. In practice this works best when you use the device as a tablet. Clicking the pen fires up OneNote, just like on the Surface Pro.

The Surface Book has two batteries. There is one in the base and one in the screen. When you use the device as a laptop you get close to two working days, about 15 hours. That’s enough for the longest flight. When used as a tablet you only four hours, which is lower than most tablet-only alternatives.

Niggles

In use I found the Surface Book wouldn’t automatically switch to tablet mode when released from the keyboard base. And a couple of times it fired up even with a closed lid. On many occasions I’d close the lid and it would continue to chime notifications.

One last positive. Because it’s from Microsoft, there’s no bloatware.

Verdict

You get a beautiful screen and great performance with the ability to switch to a tablet when that helps.

Microsoft managed to fit a useful new device format into a gap no-one could see. For want of a better name, it’s a premium hybrid PC, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

If you want a powerful Windows laptop that doubles as an occasional tablet and have the budget, this is by far the best option.

In mid–2013 I needed a new computer. Like many others I chose A MacBook Air instead of a Windows laptop.

It wasn’t my first Apple. In 1984 I bought one of the first 128k Macs. There were others.

Yet for twenty years my work had revolved around Microsoft Windows.

A vote against Windows

So why throw away the skills and software investment?

It came down to three reasons.

First, the 2013 MacBook Air’s all day battery. At the time no other laptop came close to this. With care you could eke out 12 hours. The best Windows laptops of the day could manage, perhaps, six hours. And that’s being generous.

Second, the MacBook Air is light and thin without compromising on the keyboard or touchpad. While many rival 2013 laptops were as light and thin, there were compromises.

Microsoft misstep

The third consideration is more complicated. It wasn’t so much that Windows 8 was an annoying, hard-to-use mess. Although that is true.

It was that Microsoft’s misstep opened the door to alternatives in ways earlier Windows upgrades did not.

Moving from Windows 8 was not going to be a wrench.

At around this time Windows 8.1 arrived. It was another dog’s breakfast. Microsoft doubled down the madness.

Windows 8.1 was meant to fix 8. It changed nothing.

The move from Windows 8 to OS X Mountain Lion proved less jarring than the move from Windows 7 to Windows 8. There was no going back.

There could have been going back.

Surface Pro
Surface Pro

Surface Pro

In mid–2013, Microsoft’s first Surface Pro was a promising alternative to the MacBook Air.

True, it was underpowered and overpriced. The first Surface models needed expensive add-on keyboards that are fine for casual use, but painful after hours of touch-typing.

Microsoft’s second generation Surface Pro was better. The keyboard wasn’t perfect but was usable.

Had they arrived a few months earlier, a Surface Pro may have graced my desk instead of the MacBook Air.

This may sound contradictory given the earlier comments about Windows 8. There is a simple explanation.

Windows 8 didn’t make sense on a two-year-old desktop computer. Nor did it make sense on a 2013 Ultrabook. Windows 8 was almost as bad on an ordinary 2013 touch screen PC.

Glimpse

You could see what Microsoft was trying to do with Window 8 when you tried it on a Surface.

Windows 8 still wasn’t great. Yet on a Surface it showed occasional glimpses of logic. There were hints of elegance.

As Apple might say; it just works.

Maybe it doesn’t work well as you’d hope. Yet on a device that acts as both a laptop and a tablet Windows 8 was no longer incoherent.

Coherence isn’t the first word that springs to mind with Windows 10. Yet, for the most part, that’s what distinguishes it from Windows 8.

If you’re using Windows 10 on a laptop without a touch screen, you won’t find yourself accidentally dropping into tablet mode. It acts like a laptop operating system.

A laptop operating system that acts like a laptop operating system shouldn’t be a big deal. But that was the problem with Windows 8. It didn’t act like a laptop operating system or a PC operating system.

Apple operating system

When I chose the MacBook, I turned to Apple for the hardware and stayed for the software.

It took time to warm to OS X.

The first thing I did after taking my new MacBook Air out of its box was install Windows 7.

For a while the MacBook Air was a Windows laptop. It may have been the best Windows possible laptop of the time. The MacBook was snappier, lighter and had longer battery life than anything that came with Windows installed.

Over time I moved to OS X. It was a revelation. Life was easier, work was easier, everything was easier. My productivity soared.

Robust alternative

OS X, or macOS as it’s now called, isn’t perfect. It has flaws and annoyances. On the plus side it is robust in ways that Windows never was. You can go months without rebooting. Try doing that with Windows 8.

These days a lot of computing takes place in the browser. You can do almost everything there.

That’s the thinking behind the Google Chromebooks. They use a browser as an operating system. With so much software now being delivered as an online service, operating systems take a back seat.

This is an area where Windows will struggle to recapture its greatness. When everything revolved around operating systems, Microsoft called the shots in the computer industry. Apple carved out a niche.

Browsers, clouds

Now the PC action is all in and around the browser and cloud computing. Today’s main battleground is with phone operating systems.

Microsoft is strong in cloud. It has first class cloud apps, but it lost the plot with phones.

You can still get phones that run Windows 10. Almost no-one buys them. Microsoft has little interest in selling Windows Phones. That may undermine other parts of the business.

Integration

In contrast Apple not only has the popular iPhone, but has found ways to integrate the iPhone with its laptop operating system.

It feels like magic when an incoming iPhone call gets the Apple Watch tapping your wrist and a notification appears on the MacBook. You can answer the call or respond to a text message on any of these devices. They act as a coordinated team.

Windows 10 fixes a lot of the Windows 8 problems. It’s the operating system Microsoft should have had in 2013.

The damage from a failed version will echo down the years at Microsoft. And elsewhere. While it isn’t the reason why PC sales plummeted in recent years, the Windows 8 debacle did not help.

Big numbers

Last month Microsoft trumpet that 400 million computers now run Windows 10. It’s an achievement. But let’s not forget in most cases Microsoft gave the software away.

Today it costs more than $100 for an everyday user to buy a Windows 10 upgrade. At that price Microsoft missed $40 billion in revenue.

It’s not just the money. Nor is it the loss of prestige or the distraction. There’s also a loss of momentum. Above all these, there’s the dawning realisation that Windows is no longer centre stage.

Nothing is going to fix that.

Windows 10

Some diehards still argue Windows XP was Microsoft’s best-ever operating system. Nobody says that about Windows 8. Windows Vista was just as forgettable. For many users, Windows reached a peak with 7.

Where does Windows 10 fit in this picture?

If Windows 10 has yet to earn an XP or 7-like reputation for greatness, it has already passed one test. It is not an embarrassment. It was clear from the moment Windows 10 first appeared, that it was an improvement on the ill-conceived Windows 8.

Fast adoption

One year after launch Windows has a 20 percent share of desktop operating systems. Microsoft says users have adopted 10 faster than any other new version of Windows. Some 350 million computers around the world run Windows 10.

Let’s not get too carried away with this number. The 20 percent figure comes from netmarketshare.com in August 2016. In that month Windows 7 still accounted for 47 percent of operating systems in use.

There are reasons why users have been so quick to adopt Windows.

For a start, it replaces Windows 8. Many users couldn’t wait to move on from that train wreck. Even the 8.1 upgrade didn’t ease their angst.

Frustrated users would sieze almost any route out of 8.

Free upgrade

Moreover, until a few months ago, Windows 10 was a free upgrade.

Microsoft gave everyone using older Windows versions constant, unmissable reminders to update. There were warnings that the software wouldn’t stay free for long.

Windows 8 was unpopular. Microsoft gave users financial incentive to upgrade. It would have been a surprise if users didn’t adopt Windows 10 faster than earlier versions.

It is more remarkable that almost half of all computer users chose to stick with Windows 7.

Since its launch, Windows 7 has enjoyed a well-deserved reputation from users. It is easy to use. It feels right in a way Windows 8 never did. The software is robust and reliable. Windows 7 is low maintenance.  All these things matter when it comes to operating systems, especially for business users.

Happy users

That’s not to say Windows 10 upgraders are unhappy. According to Microsoft, customers are more satisfied with Windows 10 that with any previous edition.

You have to take this kind of statistic with a pinch of salt. For years Microsoft reported impressive high satisfaction scores for unloved versions of Windows. There’s a press release somewhere telling the world how much users loved Windows ME. That version of the software is now regarded as joke.

The voice of the market is far more important that any internal marketing survey. To date there hasn’t been a huge outcry of despair from Windows 10 users.  Yes, you can see plenty of niggles and whinges[1]. Yet there’s no widespread outpouring of anger, grief and denial like there was with Windows 8.

Windows 10 better than 8

Everyone knows Windows 10 is better than the unloved Windows 8. The recent Anniversary Update is another step in the right direction. Microsoft says there are 5000 new features in the update. Most changes are obscure improvements that will pass most people by unnoticed. Even so there’s a clear feeling the code is tighter. And that’s something people will notice.

One aspect of Windows 10 that is yet to sink-in with the great unwashed is how it improves in the background. There are big updates, but there are also frequent smaller updates. In a sense, Windows 10 is an operating system-as-a-service. Just as SaaS applications get frequent tweaks, Microsoft fixes Windows 10 without users noticing.

There was a lot right with the first official version of Windows 10. It was fast, stable and secure. But there were flaws. These have been cleared up over the last 12 months.

There’s a joke in geek circles that Microsoft gets every second Windows version right. It’s too soon to say if Windows 10 will prove a long-lived success like XP or 7. It has already confirmed the good-bad-good Windows release pattern. That’s something to celebrate.


  1. Most of the anger with Windows 10 focuses on privacy issues. We’ll look at that in a separate post. ↩

 

If your heart says MacBook, but your head says Windows, HP’s Elitebook Folio G1 fits the bill.

At a glance

For: Thin, light, attractive. Great keyboard for such a small laptop. 4K touchscreen display in the review model.
Against:  Battery can drain fast at times.
Maybe: Only two USB-C ports.
Verdict:  A minimal, business-class Windows laptop.
Price: From around NZ$2600.

 

For years Windows laptops have been all about features. Size, weight and battery life matter, but for the most part computer makers sell on processor, memory, storage and display. Laptop marketing often amounts to a list of specifications.

Meanwhile, Apple won a lucrative slice of premium computer sales by selling the user experience. MacBook buyers are often unaware of the processor or disc speed. They think of screens in terms of words like Retina, not pixels-per-inch. All they know is their laptop works and does, or doesn’t, deliver.

It took time, but now HP appears to have learned how marketing the laptop experience works.

While the Elitebook Folio G1 boasts an impressive feature list, the user experience it offers is more notable.

Here is a fast, powerful Windows laptop with a stunning display all packed in a thin, light case. It looks good and feels right. The Elitebook Folio is sophisticated and robust. That is the pitch.

Contrast the HP webpage (a clipping shown below) for the Elitebook Folio G1 with other laptop sales material. This looks more like a business suit version of an Apple promotion than the usual Windows laptop marketing.

HP Elitebook Folio G1 design
HP Elitebook Folio G1 design

Made for business

Above all else, the Elitebook Folio G1 is a business computer.

HP has made Elitebooks since 2008. It is HP’s high-end business brand. The company says it builds Elitebooks to military standards so they can deliver performance in tough conditions and take more punishment than usual.

In New Zealand HP underpins this promise with a three-year warranty. Computers sold here for business purposes are not covered by the Consumer Guarantees Act, so this gives companies added confidence.

HP used MacBook template

While the Elitebook Folio G1 looks nothing like the blingy, consumer HP Spectre, the two share much in common.

Both use Apple’s Macbook template. All three are thin and light. They have a minimal number of USB-C ports. The MacBook has one, the Elitebook has two. There are three on the HP Spectre.They are roughly the same size. Both the Elitebook and the MacBook have an aluminium unibody construction.

HP’s laptop has a dark grey, metal exterior similar, but in a different colour, to the MacBook’s anodised finish.

At 17mm, the Elitebook Folio G1 is much thicker than the 10.4mm Spectre. It weighs much the same: between 1000 and 1100 grams, depending on the configuration. HP targets consumers with the Spectre, the Elitebook Folio G1 is for business users, but some consumers may pick it.

Like a MacBook running Windows

One big difference between the Elitebook Folio G1 and the MacBook is  Microsoft Windows. Many users see that as important. Apple’s OSX has its virtues, but can struggle in inflexible Microsoft-based company set-ups. What’s more, many business people are more comfortable with Windows.

People might like the idea of a MacBook, but they don’t want to spend time learning how to use new software.

HP uses the same Intel Core M processors in the Elitebook Folio G1 that Apple uses for the MacBook. The chips are light, thin and sip battery juice, but you can say the same about most laptop chips these days.

Where Core M differ from alternatives is that they are quiet. There are no fans, so no fan noise. If you’re used to a laptop with a fan you’ll notice this. The downside is they are not as powerful as other Intel processors. While that’s a problem if you want to edit video, it’s not going to worry most people.

Four to choose from

There are four configurations to choose from starting with a NZ$2600 non-touch screen model. It has 128GB of storage and an Intel Core m5 processor.

This review looks at the top of the line model with an ultra-high definition (UHD) touch screen. That’s 3840 by 2160 pixels and comparable to a 4k TV screen. It has an Intel Core m7 processor, 8GB of Ram and a 512GB solid state drive.

Although the price is not cheap at $3700 plus GST, it is an investment for people who depend on their computers. The price includes HP’s three-year warranty.

Where the Elitebook Folio G1 trumps Apple

The Elitebook Folio G1 keyboard beats the MacBook keyboard hands down. There’s no comparison. It is a highlight. In comparison the MacBook keyboard is shallow and flat-feeling. The Elitebook has what feels like a proper keyboard with normal travel. When you hit a key it moves as expected. You can touch-type in comfort.

Apple wins by the same margin on touchpads. The MacBook touchpad is larger, more responsive and has Force Touch — which may or may not excite you. The Elitebook trackpad isn’t as good at detecting multiple touches and sometimes things seem to happen at random. This could be a matter of getting used to the trackpad or even adjusting settings. HP makes up for the poorer touchpad with a touch screen — at least on the more expensive Elitebook models.

Whether you prefer a better touchpad over a touch screen is, only in part, a matter of taste. That’s because Microsoft designed Windows 10 for touch screens; it feels a little odd without one.

UHD display

HP Elitebook Folio G1 laid flat
HP Elitebook Folio G1 laid flat

All of the top three Elitebook Folio G1 models sport the UHD touch screen. It’s a little on the reflective side, but bright enough for images to cut through. It looks good even when you’re not looking straight-on.

The screen can fold all the way back, so the screen lays flat. See the photo. When used this way, the Elitebook Folio G1 has something of a tablet feel. About the only time you’d use this is when lounging like the woman in the picture, but then that’s something we might all like do once in a while.

At times the target buttons on a Windows 10 screen look too small compared to a man’s fat fingers, but in practice there are few slips. And anyway, that’s a Windows 10 shortcoming, not an HP one.

UHD is a higher resolution that Apple’s Retina display. At first sight it is hard to tell which is better. Then you view a 4K video and it becomes clear. The resolution is so high that you may have to adjust some Windows text screens to make them easier to read. In practice apps like Microsoft Office look wonderful if you play around with the zoom controls to get the best text size.

One downside is that  UHD screens are power-hungry. We found we could squeeze almost eight hours out of the battery working with business apps. The battery drains faster when watching video. On balance the Elitebook Folio G1 does well enough. There’s enough for a full day’s work, but you may feel nervous when asked to do one last job before going home.

Bang & Olufsen speakers

Bang & Olufsen speakers give the Elitebook Folio G1 audio output. They sit under the case. Two rubber bars raise the body a few millimetres above desk level. You’ll get good sound when the computer is flat on a solid surface, but sit the computer on your lap or on soft furnishing and the audio is muffled. HP’s specification sheet says there are four speakers, but only two speaker grills are visible.

HP has chosen simplicity over adding lots of connectors to the Elitebook. There are just two USB-C ports along with an audio jack. While a lot of users complain, that’s enough for most people if you have Wi-Fi to connect to the net.

Business class

HP has returned to form in recent months. The HP Spectre is excellent, the Elitebook Folio G1 is as good. It is an unfussy business laptop. HP designed it for companies and corporate buyers. It has corporate features like Intel vPro support which IT professionals use to manage PCs in organisations. There is a dedicated communications button that can link to Skype for Business.

Despite being made for business, you can buy one for your own use. It is worth considering, although you might choose the HP Spectre instead. That model is thinner, fancier-looking and  a fraction less expensive. HP optimised the Spectre for all-round use while it built the Folio G1 for work.