Microsoft’s Surface Pro has been the best Windows computer money can buy for over a year. Now it faces direct competition from an unexpected direction.
Like the Surface Huawei’s MateBook is a similar thin, light hybrid with a 12-inch display.
It follows the same basic format as the Surface: A tablet with a theoretically separate keyboard that everyone is going to buy anyway.
Matebook comes with a similar range of processors and memory configurations. Like the Surface Pro there’s a stylus, although Huawei’s also includes a laser pointer.
It even looks a lot like a Surface although there is also a nod of the head to Apple’s iPad Pro design. One nice touch is the fake leather keyboard case.
Perhaps the most important feature is that the Matebook is priced about 20 percent below Microsoft’s prices. That’s enough to make a difference.
Matebook prices start at €800 for a model with a Core m processor and 128 GB of storage. Microsoft has a similar configuration Surface Pro that sells for €1000.
This isn’t a direct comparison, Microsoft’s Surface Pro has a 2736 x 1824 pixel screen. Huawei says its Core m model runs faster than Microsoft’s Core m Surface Pro. The Matebook has a lower resolution at 2160 x 1440 pixels, but it also has the same fingerprint sensor technology used on Huawei’s phones.
Huawei has followed Microsoft’s practice of charging extra for a keyboard (€150), stylus (€70) and dock (€100). A Huawei New Zealand representative told me that when it reaches the country the Matebook will probably be sold bundled with a keyboard.
Bill Bennett travelled to Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to the Matebook launch as Huawei’s guest.
Prices are in euros because Huawei plans to sell the Matebook in Europe first. It goes on sale there in June. If the same price difference holds in New Zealand you can expect prices to start at around NZ$1250. Huawei expects it to be on sale in New Zealand in September. ↩
The XPS 13 Touch is a business class Ultrabook at a business class price. The review model costs NZ$2800.
A dazzling 13.3-inch quad HD+ display sets the XPS 13 Touch apart from the Ultrabook pack.
To infinity… and beyond
Dell calls this an infinity edge display. There is almost no bezel — that’s the frame around the screen. So the pixels go almost to the edge of the laptop lid.
Which means, in effect, Dell crams a 13-inch display into an 11-inch case. The XPS 13 Touch is smaller than a MacBook Air 13, but with a similar screen size.
And what a screen it is. While most premium computers have impressive displays, I don’t think I’ve seen one this good on any laptop.
It has 3200 by 1800 pixels. That’s more than a Retina MacBook Pro. It makes for a high pixel density. That means crisper, easier to read text along with more image detail.
Although it also means tiny barely readable text when Windows fails to adjust to the resolution — something that happened a few times during testing.
Another notable feature of the display is its brightness. When compared to other similar size screens, the XPS 13 Touch seems far brighter. The white spots seem whiter, without that yellowish tinge. There’s also better contrast.
You can get the same effect from other displays by tinkering with the settings. The XPS 13 Touch does all that for you. It has adaptive brightness. This feature automatically optimises depending on external light conditions and the content on the display.
While this may be troublesome for, say, professional image work, it makes life easier for those of us who use computers to browse, handle mail and run business productivity apps like Microsoft Office.
All day battery life and then some
The other impressive feature is the XPS 13 Touch’s battery life. These days I’m used to getting eight hours from a computer even if there’s almost nothing in the tank at the end of the working day.
I found the XPS 13 Touch worked for ten hours before it ran out. That’s more than twice the working time I managed with the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. It’s the same that I got from my 13-inch MacBook Air when it was new — these days I get perhaps eight and a half, maybe nine hours.
Dell’s battery does a better job than many alternatives when it comes retaining power. I left a fully charged XPS 13 Touch on my desk through the long Auckland Anniversary weekend. When I returned on Tuesday morning, it still had about 90 percent power and was good for more than eight hours work. In contrast, the Surface Pro 4 would lose almost all of its charge over the same period.
Another plus point: the charger works fast by laptop standards. It can recharge an empty battery in less than two hours.
Give my regards to Broadwell…
Processor chips are rarely worth mentioning in laptop reviews any more. Away from the bargain basement, everything runs faster than most of us need for everyday computing.
That’s not the case here.
The review model has a Core i7–5500U running at 2.5 GHz. That’s powerful by any standard and provides far more grunt than I’ve seen in any Ultrabook-class device. It is also responsible for that long, long battery life. Overall the XPS 13 Touch is noticably faster than any direct rival.
Dell uses Intel’s latest 14 nm Broadwell chip technology. It’s fast by any standards and tiny. It is also responsible for the excellent battery performance. There’s a graphics chip which means the XPS 13 Touch can handle games at high resolution.
What’s not so good?
A few aspects of the XPS 13 Touch are less impressive. While the backlit keyboard is solid and serviceable, it feels cramped. It’s a loser in the trade-off between size and comfort. I found the key action is more like I see on hybrids than on laptops with not enough travel for my taste. I’m an old school touch-typist, so this may not bother you.
During the review I ran into a couple of freezes. I saw something similar with the Surface Pro 4. I’m beginning to think this is a Windows 10 problem and nothing to do with hardware. If you can shed light on this please do so in the comments.
You may also not be bothered by the crapware Dell loads on the computer. I am. My first few days with the machine were marred by constant nagging messages trying to extract more money from me.
While it may be understandable for laptop makers to load up sub-$500 computers with third-party software in an attempt to recover costs, it’s not appropriate on a business machine costing the thick end of three grand.
Dell offers three versions of the XPS 13, only one has touch. There are touchless models selling for NZ$2000 and $2200. Both have i5 processors instead of i7.
I’m not convinced of the value of touch on a Windows laptop. Yes, Windows 10 is designed for touchscreen computing, but I found I barely touched the screen at all during my first days with the review computer. The TouchPad is better than I’ve seen on other Windows laptop and does a great job.
Touch works great on tablets, but lifting your hand from the keyboard to the screen is unnatural. You may disagree.
When I made a conscious effort to touch the screen — and it never felt anything other than forced — I quickly ran into problems with muscle pain in my shoulder and at the top of my right arm. It seems there’s a whole new world of occupational overuse syndrome opening up right there.
Dell XPS 13 Touch – verdict
If you want a premium touch-screen Windows laptop for business, Dell’s XPS 13 Touch is the best option at the moment. It’s powerful, small and light with a great screen.
While the power of an i7 processor is tempting, if I was spending my own money I’d save myself $600 and choose the touchless i5 version.
Forget Microsoft Surface, Lumia and Windows. Today it is all about Microsoft cloud and subscriptions.
Surface Pro tablets did well in the company’s most recent financial quarter. Microsoft says it has strong orders for the Surface Book. Yet the big story is elsewhere.
Investors are more interested in the Microsoft cloud progress: Azure grew 140 percent last year.
Office 365 subscriptions continue to surge. The interesting thing here is that Office 365 has broken out of the Windows market. The Android and iOS apps are a huge success and they, in turn, generate subscription revenue.
Reaction to the result was upbeat given stalling phone sales and traditional PC sales in a tail spin. Microsoft now only accounts for one percent of the global phone market. PC sales are down ten percent on last year.
Microsoft has shown a remarkable ability to reinvent its business to cope with change. Looking back Satya Nadella’s appointment and his focus on a Microsoft cloud looks like a masterstroke. The only fly in the oinment is falling margins. That’s going to mean cultural changes throughout the business.
Most Chromebooks are low-cost, low-specification devices. In New Zealand prices start at about 20 percent the cost of the other computers mentioned earlier. The ones I’ve seen are not as thin or light, nor do they have great screens and long battery lives. They are not as well made.
You can’t do much on a Chromebook when they don’t have an internet connection. Nor can you do anything that isn’t done through the Chrome browser. If you don’t like Chrome as your browser, you can change it, but it’s not easy for non-technical users.
To some these sound like limitations. To many Chromebook buyers they are virtues. Corporate and government buyers like the idea. There’s less to go wrong, less scope for misuse. Less to manage, less to support, less capital expense, less to lose. Chromebooks are just straightforward, basic computers that can do 90 percent of what most office workers need.
The low-cost is a big deal. Parents don’t have to decide between a Chromebook and a family holiday or school shoes in the way they might with other new era devices.
I don’t see many buyers tossing up the merits of a Chromebook against, say, the iPad Pro. They will make a choice between a Chromebook and a Windows laptop.
Chromebook fits into the picture at the opposite end of the spectrum from the computers mentioned earlier. They put Windows laptops in a pincher. The machines mentioned earlier challenge Windows laptops at the top of the market. Chromebooks undermine Windows laptops from below.
For that reason, Chromebooks are another reason why Windows laptops are not the future of personal computing.
One aspect of Chromebooks I’ve not been able to determine is Google’s commitment. Google has licensed Android to computer makers. There may be two product lines long-term, the two may converge. Whatever, one way or another Google is in the market with a cloud alternative. It’ll be interesting to see if the company gets serious about selling the Pixel C model.