Category: Computer Systems

Windows 10 on Qualcomn ARM chips–to be real

Articles

Snapdragon smartphone electronics in 2-in-1 laptop press picture courtesy of Qualcomn

Implementing high-end smartphone electronics into an ultraportable laptop

Smartphone Guts Are Coming to Windows Laptops, and It Could Triple Your Battery Life | Gizmodo

Microsoft reveals ‘Always Connected PCs’ from HP and ASUS with Windows 10 on ARM | Windows Central

From the horse’s mouth

Microsoft

Always Connected PCs enable a new culture of work (Windows Experience Blog)

Qualcomn

Qualcomm Launches Technology Innovation with Advancements in the Always Connected PC and its Next-Generation Qualcomm Snapdragon Mobile Platform (Press Release)

A day in the life with the Snapdragon 835 powered HP Envy x2 PC (OnQ Blog)

Video – Click or tap to play

My Comments

Microsoft had made some attempts at bringing Windows to the ARM RISC microarchitecture with a view to bringing forth cheaper computers. But they had failed thanks to silicon based on traditional Intel x86/x64 microarchitecture being offered at very cheap price points and able to natively run a large roster of software already available for that platform.

But they, along with Qualcomn who supply the silicon for most of today’s smartphones, have re-approached this through the vision of an ultraportable laptop computer or tablet that implements the same technology as one of the recent high-end smartphones and phablets. This has been drawn out alongside the recent crop of highly-capable 11”-14” 2-in-1 laptops that are making a strong appeal as a highly-capable alternative to the iPad and Android-based tablets.

But the computers that represent the “Always Connected PC” product class integrate a large battery along with the LTE-based wireless-broadband modem, both of which allow for a long time of computer activity without the need of Wi-Fi or daily charging. These would also support eSIM which allows for over-the-wire provisioning of mobile broadband service, including the ability to provide “international-focused” service for people roaming around the world. HP and ASUS have premiered a detachable 2-in-1 and a convertible 2-in-1 which are based on this technology.

Microsoft is pushing the Always-Connected PC for the workplace with a focus towards a managed computing environment. Here, it is about avoiding the need to connect to insecure public-access Wi-Fi networks or worry about whether you have the laptop’s power supply with you when you head to work or make that business trip.

I see it more as an answer to Apple’s iOS platform, Google’s ChromeOS platform and Samsung’s interpretation of the Android platform where the goal is to cater to a mainstream productivity-focused computing environment for work or school.

Here, the focus would be about interacting with cloud-based business / education software whether as a Web app or as platform-native software or simply working with information using standard office-productivity software, perhaps with some video playback or mobile-grade gaming. I also see this as a way for Microsoft to aggressively compete against the iPad in the household, education and business environment by encouraging its partners to offer tablets and 2-in-1s that have the same operational qualities as that tablet.

But it wouldn’t displace the Intel / AMD x86/x64-based computers which would be focused towards applications where performance is of importance such as serious gaming or photo / video editing. But as for running Windows software, the ARM-based variants of Windows will be implementing an x86 emulation layer that allows 32-bit Windows software to run on these computers. This is while Windows software developers who package software for the Windows Store will be encouraged to deploy code native to x86, x64 and ARM microarchitectures.

The big challenge now is for software developers and games studios to port the software that is on the iOS or Android platforms towards the Windows 10 platforms on all the microarchitectures. It would them make it viable for Windows to continue as a third force for “non-handheld” mobile computing.

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Product Review–Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop (Intel 8th Generation CPU)

Introduction

I am reviewing the latest version of the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 8th Generation which replaces the Inspiron 13 7000 7th Generation models that I previously reviewed. Here, this is based around implementing the Intel Kaby Lake Refresh technology which is a step towards making mainstream portable computers capable of doing most computing tasks without being seen as underpowered cousins of desktop computers.

There is also the Dell Inspiron 13 5000 2-in-1 series which omits the USB Type-C connection and the Intel RealSense camera but available at a cheaper price. These are available in three different configurations, one with an Intel Core i5 CPU, 8Gb RAM and 256Gb SSD; a step-up variant with a Core i7 CPU and the top-shelf model with 16Gb RAM and 512Gb SSD storage.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 Intel 8th Generation CPU at QT Melbourne hotel

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 Intel 8th Generation CPU at QT Melbourne hotel - presentation mode

Price
– this configuration
AUD$2399
Market Positioning Mainstream consumer laptop
Form Factor Convertible laptop
Processor All CPUs:
Intel Kaby Lake R
Installed option
Core i7-8550U
cheaper option
Core i5-8250U
RAM 16 GB
cheaper option:
8 Gb
Secondary storage 512 GB SSD
cheaper option:
256Gb SSD
SDXC card reader
Display Subsystem Intel UHD 620 Integrated Graphics
Screen 13.3” widescreen touch display (Full HD) LED backlit LCD
Audio Subsystem Intel HD audio
Audio Improvements Waves MaxxAudio
Network Wi-Fi 802.11a/g/n/ac dual-band two-stream
Ethernet
Bluetooth 4.2
Modems
Connectivity USB and Thunderbolt 3 1 x USB-C with Power Delivery and DisplayPort
2 x USB 3.0 (1 with Sleep and Charge)
Other Data Connections
Video DisplayPort via USB-C
HDMI 2.0
Audio 3.5mm input-output jack
Authentication and Security RealSense camera
Operating System in supplied configuration Windows 10 Home

The computer itself

Aesthetics and Build Quality

Now with 8th Generation Intel silicon

Thee Dell Inspiron 13 7000 8th Generation convertible laptop has the same aesthetics and build quality as the previous two generations. This means that it has the same metal finish and housing but also comes across as being very durable. As well, Dell have embraced the narrow display bezel trend started with the XPS 13 Series and implemented it in to this lineup, making for an effectively larger display space in a relatively compact machine.

There is still a smooth action involved when converting it between a laptop and tablet mode which makes for something that can be easily used by most people.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 Intel 8th Generation CPU - presentation mode

… as a presentation viewer

Like with the prior generation of the Dell Inspiron 13 7000, the cooling vent is located near the hinges yet there is a bit more heat build-up that can occur with basic gaming. It doesn’t exhibit this kind of heat buildup during basic computing tasks. This is even though I am dealing with the newer Intel Core i7 silicon which is known to be more powerful than prior versions.

User Interface

The Dell Inspiron 13 7000 uses an illuminated keyboard that lights up as needed. But it is wide enough to type with accurately and has a shallow key throw but that is enough for proper tactile feedback.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 Intel 8th Generation CPU - tent mode

… as a tent mode

Like with most laptops, the function keys default to the volume, multimedia and display controls. But with this one, press the Fn key and ESC key to toggle on the normal function-key behaviour.

The trackpad and touchscreen work properly and effectively. In the case of the trackpad, I have not noticed any situation where the pointer moved around while I was typing, thus being less of a distraction.

Audio / Video

The Waves MaxxAudio sound-tuning software does improve the sound but the internal speakers have that tinny sound common with laptops. But I would find best results when you use the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 with with headphones, external speakers or sound system. Most likely, you will end up needing to use headphones to avoid distracting others when you use this computer in a public place for multimedia, videocall, gaming or similar activities.

The Intel UHD 620 integrated graphics provides the kind of performance you would expect for most computing tasks including the occasional gaming and similar tasks that most of us would do. Here, you would see smooth video playhack for most of these tasks.

Like with all consumer-grade computers, there is still the glossy display which can become dirty very quickly and show reflections easily.

Connectivity, Storage And Expansion

Left-hand side – USB Type-C, USB 3.0 Type A, HDMI 2.0, 3.5mm headset jack

Like with the prior iterations of the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1, the connectivity options are essentially the same with the 2 USB 3.0 ports and the 1 USB Type-C port as well as the HDMI video port.

Personally I would like to see Dell implement the Thunderbolt 3 port in the Inspiron 13 7000 Series computers but this will have to wait for a full model-level revision rather than a silicon-level refresh.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 Intel 8th Generation CPU laptop Left-hand side - USB 3.0 Type A, SD card reader

Right hand side- USB 3.0 port, SD card reader

The whole of the Inspiron 13 7000 range offers the kind of capacity on the solid-state drives that would be expected for most people to benefit from with these drives living up to the promise of quick access. This also includes the fact that even the haseline variants have that healthy 256Gb capacity that would suit most users even as a main or sole computer.

Battery Life

The use of Intel 8th Generation silicon for the CPU and graphics hasn’t made a difference to the Dell Inspiron 13 7000’s battery life although you are really allowing the computer to perform better using the newer technology.

Other Usage Notes

One of the men who run the Melbourne Men’s Shed was impressed with the Dell Inspiron 13 7000’s specifications even though the review sample is the top-shelf model. He was also impressed by the convertible design that this unit has.

Similarly some hotel staff wore impressed by the convertible design and described it as looking similar to a recent iPad when they saw it at first glance.

Limitations And Points Of Improvement

Dell could “carve out” the Inspiron 13 2-in-1 product range for those of us who aren’t necessary after a very light ultraportable 2-in-1 but want something that is portable enough for most applications.

Here, they could implement the 8th-generation Intel Core processors across the range as well as providing some of the premium models in the lineup with Thunderbolt 3 connectivity. This is more so for those of us who want to run them with external graphics modules.

Similarly, Dell could offer one or two configurations with Intel Iris higher-performance integrated graphics as a product differentiator. This would appeal to those of us who want that bit more out of the graphics abilities.

As for enablement of options like PowerShare “sleep and charge” or anything that is only available in the computer’s BIOS, Dell could provide an app that allows some of these options to be manipulated from the Windows interface rather than having to reboot your computer to achieve that goal.

Conclusion

I would recommend this variant of the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 Series 2-in-1 comvertible computer for those of us who want value for money and want something that is powerful for most computing tasks. Even the improvement that Dell offers by implementing the Intel Kaby Lake R silicon still underscores the value for money that they are known for with the products.

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AMD now launches the Ryzen processor for portable computing

Articles – From the horse’s mouth

AMD

Ryzen Processors (Product Page)

Video (Click or tap to play)

My Comments

Just lately, Intel released their 8th generation Kaby Lake R family of “Core i” processors which are targeted at portable computers. These powerful CPUs that were optimised for portable use were issued with an intent to compete against AMD’s upcoming release of their Ryzen processors, pitched at a similar usage scenario. Various press articles even drew attention towards being able to play more powerful PC games on these lightweight computers rather than limiting their scope of activity.

Now AMD have released this silicon which also integrates the Radeon Vega graphics-processing silicon for the laptop market. This is where they are targeting the Ryzen 7 2700U CPU and the Ryzen 5 2500U 15-watt processors and instigating a race against Intel’s Kaby Lake R horsepower and QHD integrated graphics.

What I see of this is that Intel and AMD will make sure that this generation of ultraportable computers will be seen to be more powerful than the prior generations. Think of using an Intel Kaby Lake R Core i7 or AMD Ryzen 7 powered 2-in-1 for most photo-editing tasks or as a “virtual turntable” in the DJ booth, activities that wouldn’t be associated with this class of computer.

At the moment, Intel hasn’t licensed the Thunderbolt 3 connectivity standard across the board including to AMD, which will see it as a limitation when it comes to allow users to upgrade graphics capabilities on their AMD Rysen-equipped laptops using an external graphics module.

One way Intel could approach this is to divest the Thunderbolt standards and intellectual property to an independent working group like the USB.org group so that manufacturers who implement Intel, AMD, the ARM RISC-based vendors like Qualcomm or other silicon can use Thunderbolt 3 as a high-throughput external connectivity option. This could be a way to establish an even playing field for all of the silicon vendors who are providing processor power for all the various computing devices out there.

At least Intel and AMD are taking steps in the right direction towards the idea of mixing portability and power for computing setups based on regular-computer platforms. It may also make this kind of performance become affordable for most people.

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Intel’s 8th Generation CPUs give ultraportable laptops more performance

Articles

Computers like these won’t be considered puny when it comes to what they can do thanks to Intel 8th Generation Core horsepower

HP Unveils Its Most Powerful Detachable PC The ZBook x2 | Gizmodo

Dell gives XPS 13 and Inspiron laptops a boost with Intel’s eighth-generation processors | Windows Central

Four Cores for Ultrabooks: Core i7-8550U Review | TechSpot

From the horse’s mouth

HP

ZBook x2 (Product Page, Press Release)

My Comments

Intel are releasing the eighth-generation lineup of CPU processors which have been considered a major step when it comes to performance from the “engines” that drive your computer. This is affecting the the Core i family of processors which are used in most desktop and laptop computers issued over the last few years.

There are three classes of the 8th Generation lineup – the Coffee Lake which is pitched at desktops, the Cannon Lake which is pitched at mobile applications and the Kaby Lake Refresh which also is pitched at most of the ultraportables including the 2-in-1s.

This class of CPU has impressed me more with the arrival of ultraportable computers, especially 2-in-1 detachables and convertibles, that could do more than what is normally associated with this class of computer.

It is brought about through an increase in the number of “cores” or processor elements installed in the physical chip die, similar to the number of cylinders in your car’s engine which effectively multiply the power available under that hood. In this case, the improvements that Intel were providing were very similar to what happened when the “V” configuration was implemented for engine-cylinder layouts that allowed more power from a relatively-compact engine, allowing the vehicle builder to offer increasingly-powerful engines for the same vehicle design.

In this case, there was the ability to use low-power processors like 15-watt designs with the increased “cores” but not sacrifice battery runtime or yield too much waste heat. This opened up the capability for an ultraportable or tablet to be able to do more without becoming underpowered while running for a long time on battery power.

For example, HP just released the ZBook x2 detachable tablet computer which has the kind of power that would work with advanced graphics and allied programs. Some could see this as a typical detachable tablet that could be considered not so powerful but this handheld workstation can use these programs thanks to use of the Intel 8th Generation Core i7 Kaby Lake R processor and NVIDIA Quadro discrete graphics. There is even the option to have it specified with 32Gb of RAM.

Then there’s Dell who have refreshed their XPS and Inspiron ultraportables with Intel 8th-generation horsepower with the XPS 13 benefiting from that extra performance, making the whole XPS 13 clamshell Ultrabook lineup show its relevance more.

What is to happen with the ultraportables is that you won’t need to think of them as being unfit for heavy-duty computing tasks while on the road. You may even find that you could do things like watch a season of downloaded TV episodes or play an intense round of Civilization 6 while you are flying one of the new Qantas non-stop long-distance flights to London or Los Angeles without worrying about the battery dying out.

It will be up to the software vendors to make games and other software that take advantage of these high-performance 2-in-1 computers by exploiting the touchscreens and the higher power offered by these machines. How about a Civilization, SimCity, one of the mobile “guilty-secret” games, or more being available through the Microsoft Store for one to install on that 2-in-1?

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Lenovo does a Wurlitzer with their iconic ThinkPad laptop

Articles Lenovo ThinkPad 25 Anniversary laptop press picture courtesy of Lenovo

Lenovo Releases Retro ThinkPad At 25th Anniversary Celebration | Lifehacker

Lenovo’s retro-inspired ThinkPad Anniversary Edition 25 now available to order | Windows Central

From the horse’s mouth

Lenovo

ThinkPad 25

Product Page

Happy 25th Birthday ThinkPad (Press Release)

My Comments

.. just like this classic Wurlitzer 1015 One More Time juke box

There are always those times where a design that celebrates a particular product type and what it’s about is revisited. With technology, this is approached by maintaining the look of the legendary original design but implements newer technical expectations on the inside.

IBM released what they defined as the ThinkPad laptop in 1992 with the black-finished clamshell housing, the red thumbstick, the blue Enter key and the 7-row keyboard. This was an effort to define what a portable business computer is to be about.

But like Wurlitzer with their legendary 1015 juke box which symbolised the rock’ n’ roll culture of the 1950s where these machines were playing the latest hits at the diners and “greasy spoons” where teenagers worked at and met up with their friends after school, this computer ended up being seen as an icon for highly-portable business computing in 1992.

Lenovo, who had taken over IBM’s personal-computing business, had just lately released their equivalent of the Wurlitzer 1015 One More Time juke box. The “One More Time” illustrated here kept the look of the original 1015 rock’ n’ roll machine but implemented higher-power solid-state stereo amplification along with the ability to play from 50 7” 45-rpm singles rather than the original’s 10 78-rpm record capacity and low-power valve-amplification technology.

In the case of the ThinkPad Anniversary Edition 25, Lenovo kept the look of the 1992-original ThinkPad but implemented today’s expectations in it. These manifest in the form of Intel Core i7-7500U providing the horsepower along with 16Gb RAM and 512Gb solid-state storage and discrete graphics processing handled by NVIDIA GeForce 940MX GPU with 2Gb display memory serving a 14” Full HD LCD screen. Let’s not forget that this laptop is much thinner and lighter than the original machine.

There is also other new expectations like the use of a Thunderbolt 3 connection, enhanced security with an Intel RealSense camera and fingerprint reader, dual-stream 802.11a/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1, 3 USB 3.0 sockets, HDMI video output and Gigabit Ethernet.  This totally underscores that the Lenovo ThinkPad Anniversary Edition 25 is really the “One More TIme”.

At the moment, Lenovo is releasing it as a limited edition for US$1899 from their Website. But they will be releasing it through other local online storefronts under similar conditions including pushing it as a limited edition.

Happy 25th Anniversary to the ThinkPad laptop design that defined what a business laptop is about!

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Laptop Buyer’s Guide–2016-2018

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop at Rydges Melbourne hotelYour old computer is going slow and you are thinking of your next computer. But what do you get? Perhaps, you may be thinking of getting someone a laptop computer as something that could go a long way towards their computing life especially if they move around a lot.

But you want to be sure you buy the right portable computer that suits your needs properly and are gaining the best value for money out of the new equipment. It is becoming more so with the way laptop computers are offering similar levels of functionality to traditional desktops, where you are able to buy high-performance machines that can excel at graphically-intensive tasks like gaming or high-end professional graphics. This is while most of the mid-tier computers offered nowadays are able to do what was expected of last generation’s high-performance computers.

Today’s laptop computers are moving towards areas that were considered by some to be previous off-limits to this class of computer. For example, there is an increase in the number of high-performance laptop computers that can appeal to people playing high-end games or dabbling with advanced computer-graphics work. As well, the Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C connection is opening up paths to high-performance computing thanks to the ability to plug in external graphics modules.

What should I pay attention to

There are certain specification that you need to pay attention to when you choose that laptop or 2-in-1 computer so you can be sure it is up to the job you purchased it for.

Pay attention to the class of CPU your computer is equipped with and its expectations. Here, you will find that entry-level processors the Intel Pentium and Celeron processors will get by for most basic computing tasks, perhaps with some casual gaming or video / audio playback thrown in. Expect that Intel Core m or i processor families and their AMD equivalents will do most computer tasks without stressing with the Intel Core i5 being able to suit most tasks effectively. If you are after performance for advanced gaming, workstation-grade graphics or heavy number-crunching, you may need to look towards the Intel Core i7 processors.

The amount of RAM memory in your computer will affect how many programs you can have running concurrently alongside including the ability to have one or more of these programs work with large files. In the case of your Web-browsing efforts, it will affect how many Web pages you can have open at once whether as separate tabs or browser sessions. This is without the computer slowing down or using up battery power because it has to swap memory data out to the hard disk because you, for example, are running Google Chrome with many Websites open along with Microsoft Word which you are using to make that “magnum opus” document that is based on your Web-based research.

Another factor to pay attention to is the amount of storage you will have on your computer because you don’t want to always be moving your files in to or out of the computer via something like a USB hard disk or rent a large amount of space on an online storage service. As well you don’t need to be regularly thinking of what programs or data to be getting rid of all the time.

Choosing to have your laptop computer equipped with either integrated or discrete graphics can affect how well it performs if you end up doing a lot of graphics-intensive work like advanced games, photo/video editing or workstation-grade graphics. It can also affect how well it performs with some other tasks like video transcoding or playback.

A trend that is surfacing with this generation of portable computers is that an increasing number of these computers may have the ability to be connected to an external graphics module to “bump up” the graphics performance when you need it. In most cases, these modules will be sold as an option you can purchase at a later date.

Most often, the screen size has an influence on how portable your laptop will be and whether it can suit certain tasks while on the road. This obviously influences how large the computer is, thus influencing factors like the ability to have larger storage or the kind of keyboard you can work with. Let’s not forget that it can also affect how much workspace you can have at once especially if you are a multitasker.

From my experience while reviewing laptop computers for this Website, I had found that a computer having a screen size of between 12”-14” was able to offer the best balance between comfortable use for content creation while being portable enough to be carried in a shoulder bag or small briefcase. It also is the smallest screen size for a computer that  provides a keyboard that is big enough for comfortable typing, especially if you are a touch-typist.

If you buy a 2-in-1 laptop that can be turned in to a tablet, you may find that the 13″ screen may be too large for use as a tablet. This is because most of us are used to the iPad which is a 10″ screen. But the larger screen on a tablet may provide comfortable viewing for situations where two or three of you are watching online video or browsing through photos or Web resources.

It is also worth paying attention to the screen resolution for your laptop’s integrated screen because this can be a trade-off between how sharp and detailed your display looks and how much battery power your laptop needs to run during the day. In a lot of cases, you may find that those laptops with too high a screen resolution for their screen size can become unbearable to use unless you spend a lot of time adjusting your operating system’s user-interface settings because the text and shell icons may be too small for comfortable use. It is although the newer operating systems do factor in the “dot-per-inch” settings for the higher-resolution displays and maintain that same level of visibility.

In most cases, you can get by with a screen that natively uses 1366×768 as its maximum resolution when you are on a limited budget or use a screen less than 13”. On the other hand, you can use a Full HD (1920×1080) screen resolution in most other situations because this resolution puts up a sharp display without draining your laptop’s battery too heavily.

Key trends to look at

There are a few key trends that are coming strong in the recent crop of laptop computers in addition to faster processors, increased RAM and storage capacity including use of solid-state storage, and integrated graphics subsystems that rival baseline discrete graphics cards.

USB Type-C connectivity

USB-C to be the key connection trend for the current laptop generation

An increasing number of laptop computers released during the 2016-2018 model years will be equipped with a USB Type-C socket. It is being considered as the single pipe that serves power connection along with high-speed data transfer. Some of these USB Type-C connections are also working as another high-speed data conduit like a DisplayPort or Thunderbolt 3 connection which I will be talking about next.

At the moment, this connection is appearing mainly on premium models but is trickling down to mainstream and low-cost computers. It is appearing as a sole connection type on some of the ultraportable computers including some low-end varieties because this connection type is very conducive towards a slimline design. But it will appear on a range of traditionally-designed laptops including most ultraportables and mainstream designs as an extra input-output port alongside the USB Type-A ports.

The USB Type-C connector is also being used as an external DisplayPort-compliant display connector and if you want to connect an existing monitor or projector to these computers, you will have to use a USB Type-C adaptor that is compliant to DisplayPort specifications and support “DP alt” mode.

You can connect existing USB-equipped peripherals to computers that have only these connections by using a USB-C adaptor cable or docking station (expansion module) that suits your needs. Some of the adaptors that have their own power supply even provide USB Power Delivery support so you can charge your laptop or avoid compromising its internal battery’s runtime while using external accessories – this is a feature you must look for if you want to get the most out of your laptop and adaptor device. Here, you can buy these accessories at most office-supply, consumer-electronics or computer stores.

External Graphics via Thunderbolt 3

Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port on Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

Thunderbolt 3 ti open up paths for external graphics on this Dell XPS 13 2-in-1

The USB Type-C connector will serve as a way to provide a Thunderbolt 3 connection which is being exploited not just for direct-attached storage, but for external-graphics modules. Here, this connection is appearing mainly on premium-grade laptop computers including some ultraportables and will end up as a product-differentiating feature

What this allows for is that a person could buy an external graphics module that can be connected to their computer for improved graphics performance. This will come in two forms – a module with an integrated desktop graphics chipset or a “card-cage” where you can install a desktop graphics card.

Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 "card cage" external graphics module - press image courtesy of Akitio

Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 “card cage” external graphics module – to hot up the Thunderbolt-3-equipped laptops graphics abilities

At the moment, these devices are being pitched primarily at gamers who are wanting to “hot up” their gaming laptops but I would see them as something that permits a portable computer to work in a higher-performance manner for gaming / workstation / multimedia use  at your main usage space. NVIDIA even made it possible to allow workstation-grade graphics setups to work in this context, thus opening up the door towards situations like mainstream laptops heading towards mobile workstation territory.

Solid-state storage as the preferred option

Increasingly, solid-state storage is being implemented on more portable computing devices. This is either as a sole storage device or alongside a separate mechanical hard disk.

The driver for this technology is the the fact that this storage method isn’t demanding on battery power which is very important for portable computing. As well, the typical solid-state drive occupies less space in the computer than a traditional hard disk and is lighter, also making it conducive towards portable use. Let’s not forget that solid-state storage is quicker and more responsive.

But the “cost per byte” for solid-state storage is still more expensive than the traditional hard-disk technology, and is more so when it comes to capacities in the order of 500Gb or more. Typically, this will lead to 15” or larger mainstream laptops being equipped with a 1Tb hard disk as the base option with a 128Gb or 256Gb solid-state drive as a “high-speed system disk” option. Or you may come across a solid-state disk up to 512Gb as the sole integrated secondary storage option as a common specification for most laptop computers.

USB external hard disk

High capacity USB hard disks can be a godsend with laptop computers that have small solid-state storage capacities

If you value what solid-state storage offers in the form of high performance, reduced battery consumption and a lightweight computer, you may find that something around the 256Gb mark may hit the spot. But you would need to consider using a USB external hard disk of at least 1Tb as an “offload” storage device for your data especially if you expect this computer to be your main or sole computer. On the other hand, if you value a combination of performance and storage capacity, a laptop that uses a 128Gb SSD system disk and a 1Tb hard disk as the secondary disk could serve your needs better.

Integrated graphics with the same performance as baseline discrete graphics

Intel has pushed the HD Graphics and Iris Graphics integrated-graphics chipsets to offer the same graphics-performance prowess as an equivalent baseline discrete graphics chipset offered by AMD or NVIDIA. This would be represented by a “budget” desktop graphics card that you would equip a “workhorse” desktop PC with if the motherboard has no graphics chipset on board.

Here, they are investing in the integrated-graphics chipsets due to the fact that they don’t draw too much current and don’t yield too much heat thus being suitable for portable-computer use. This is more so with computer configurations that use 8Gb or more of RAM and they use some of that RAM capacity to “paint” the screen images. What these chipsets are offering is the ability to answer everyday computing including casual gaming or occasional photo and video editing work.

Let’s not forget that nearly all recent-issue laptops that are equipped with discrete graphics are also equipped with integrated graphics. But these setups switch between the graphics chipsets automatically dependent on the software you are running and on whether you are using the laptop’s internal battery or external power as well as how much battery power is left in the internal battery. These automatic-switchover setups are known by trade names like NVIDIA Optimus or AMD PowerPlay and, in most cases, work behind the scenes.

Improved sound reproduction

Most of the computer manufacturers are providing improved sound reproduction for their portable computer products, save for the low-tier models. This is in answer to a problem associated with the way these computers are designed where the sound came out being tinny or lifeless.

Initially the sound functionality in a computer was to provide audio prompts like the familiar “ding” tone but computer users are asking a lot more out of these computers. This is to allow them to enjoy music and video content on these systems thanks to file-based or streaming media delivery; along with being able to use IP-based voice and video communications platforms to talk to distant people.

This trend is being fulfilled by the computer manufacturers working with respected home or professional audio brands to “tune” their products for better sound reproduction. Examples of this include HP initially working with Dr. Dre’s Beats Audio but subsequently working with Bang & Olufsen; or Lenovo and ASUS partnering with Harman, known for JBL speakers or Harman-Kardon home audio, to “tune” some of their products.

System classes

Nearly every one of the main laptop manufacturers are following the same playbook that every one of the popular vehicle builders have followed when it comes to segmenting their product ranges. This is where a particular class of vehicle would be targeted towards a particular driver type such as the standard family cars being targeted towards the typical everyday driver.

Low-tier portables

These are a group of small notebooks that have followed on from the “netbooks” offered around 2009-2011 and have a very similar focus to those computers – a “cheap and cheerful” system that doesn’t have much. One could see these computers as being equivalent to the low-tier small cars that offer a baseline seating capacity of up to four normal-sized adults, a feature set that doesn’t offer much along with a powertrain that isn’t considered to be powerful.

Typically they will have an 11”-14” screen served by integrated graphics and will have a low-powered processor like an Intel Pentium or Celeron. The RAM memory will be this side of 4Gb while the storage will be up to 128Gb. Some of these computers will come as a 2-in-1 design of the detachable kind or, perhaps, a convertible kind rather than the traditional “clamshell” form factor. You will most likely see these computers offered in a bright colour so as to increase their appeal to children especially.

Units with a storage capacity of 32Gb to 64Gb and an 11” screen are being pitched as a Windows-based alternative to an Android tablet or an iPad. This is a way for Microsoft to “cut in” to the market traditionally held by Apple and Google when it comes to personal tablet computers.

Personally, I would see most of these computers serve as a baseline portable secondary computer for those of us on a budget and don’t expect to do much with them. Families could even see them as a “first-computer” option for lower-secondary-school (US: middle-school) students.

If you are expecting them to be your budget option for your only computer, I would recommend looking towards something with 128Gb storage and a 13”-14” screen and, perhaps, making use of an external hard disk. This may be more so for people like the older generation who just want something for basic computing and online-communications tasks but don’t want to shell out much.

Mainstream laptops

Lenovo Thinkpad G50-70 Laptop

Lenovo G50-70 – an example of a mainstream home laptop

This class of laptop computer is seen as the “bread and butter” for consumer and business portable computing ever since these kind of computers became popular as a viable alternative to the desktop personal computer. Over the last two decades, they got to a point where most households and businesses preferred to buy a laptop computer over a desktop computer for regular personal computing requirements.

In the same context to cars, they could be considered as being equivalent to the common family cars, typifying medium-to-large size vehicles that have the ability to seat four or five people comfortably, have a wide range of options and are powered with a powertrain that suits city and highway travel. Like these family cars where vehicle builders offered a range of model varieties with different powertrains (engine and transmission combinations), body styles or feature sets, the laptop manufacturers would provide a large product selection and options list for this class of laptop with some offering the ability for you to “build your own computer” where you have a system with the right product mix that suits your needs.

These computers will have a heavier and thicker chassis and will have plenty of connectivity options along with a larger battery for portable use. Essential features for this class of computer, whether home or business, are a 15” screen with some offering a variant with a 13” or 14” screen for portability or a 17” screen for a large workspace. Here, these screens would be mainly driven by integrated graphics although premium varieties will use discrete graphics.

The horsepower for these machines will typically come from any processor in the Intel Core i family with i3 or i5 being of choice for value-priced variants. AMD A4 or A6 may also be offered as a processor alternative for cheaper options. There will be a minimum of 4Gb RAM with newer machines offering 8Gb at least, and storage will be either in the order of at least 500Gb on a hard disk or 256Gb on a solid-state drive along a good chance of them being equipped with a read/write optical drive, most likely a DVD burner. Some of these systems may come equipped with a 128Gb or 256Gb solid-state drive alongside a 1Tb hard drive. This will be set up with the solid-state drive being your system disk where the operating system and applications are kept, thus allowing for quick starts.

There will be some premium variants that have discrete graphics, a high-performance processor like an Intel Core i7, 8Gb or more of RAM and 1Tb hard disk or solid-state storage. You may come across with some of them being equipped with a Blu-Ray drive as their optical drive. These models will end up being pitched for multimedia (photo/video editing, AV playout, etc), workstation or gaming use. and will appeal to this kind of application. Again, this is equivalent to higher-specification family cars which come with all the desirable options.

Mainstream home laptop

Mainstream laptops that are pitched as home computers will typically have some attention paid to their aesthetics but will miss out on durability, security or manageability features that business laptops would be equipped with.

They will also be sold through department stores, consumer-electronics stores and similar outlets that “Average Joe” would come across. Sometimes the office-supply stores or specialist computer stores may offer these computers as something for ordinary households to benefit from.

Here, you can get by using these computers as a portable household computer which most likely will be one that you can easily stow away in a drawer when not in use. It can also appeal to senior secondary or tertiary students as their first computer that they take with them when the leave the family nest. Some small-business users can get by with using them as their business computer, perhaps with having the operating system upgraded to a “professional” variant like Windows 10 Pro.

Mainstream business laptop

Expect this class of computer to be pitched towards office or field use in the workplace.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook

A traditional business laptop represented by the Lenovo ThinkPad lineup

There will be most of the features and specifications associated with the mainstream home laptop computer although there will be a lot of emphasis on durable construction, security and fleet-level management. For example, there will be the use of fingerprint readers on a lot of these machines allowing for “sign-in with your finger” while there are chipsets associated with data encryption and authentication, including the use of Trusted Platform Modules. You may find that computers equipped with a fingerprint reader would come with a baseline password-vault program of some sort that is tied in with the fingerprint reader so you could sign in to Facebook or Gmail using your fingerprint.

Some of the manufacturers like HP and Dell offer different ranges of mainstream business computers. This is while other companies like Lenovo and Acer offer some models with the mainstream business product lineup, typically the entry-level models, that are focused towards the small business user.

Dell Vostro 3550 business laptop

Dell Vostro 3550 business laptop – an early example of what the Dell Vostro small-business laptop is about

Product ranges like the HP Probook and Dell Vostro range have a feature set very similar to the mainstream consumer laptop except that they would come with the “pro” edition of Windows, increased connectivity including VGA and Gigabit Ethernet ports along with TPM module and fingerprint reader security features as an option at least. With these systems, it is typically assumed that the IT team for a small business or community organisation consists of whoever owns or manages the organisation, along with IT-astute members of their community, and the retailer who supplied them the equipment or business-IT solution.

This is compared to the premium business product ranges like the Dell Latitude and HP Elitebook ranges where these computers come with a wider range of security and manageability features either as standard equipment or as options, along with the increased connectivity options. These machines are typically sold under contract to government departments and larger businesses who have their own IT staff or contract with an IT service provider to look after their computing and communications needs.

The HP Elitebook 2560p – an earlier 13″ example of a corporate-grade business laptop

The mainstream business computers will primarily be sold through specialist computer outlets whether online or “bricks-and-mortar”. It is more true for those outlets who place their focus on selling to the business market with a “solutions-based” approach where there is a strong support cycle. For example, you may approach one of these providers when your shop “grows up” from the old cash register to a fully-computerised point-of-sale system.

The question that may be raised when buying the mainstream business laptop is whether the manageability features that these will be supplied with are a waste of money or not. This also includes whether your supplier will use these features as part of them providing  after-sales support for your system.

Personally, I would place importance on a mainstream business laptop if you value system durability and security for your data or a strong relationship with your IT supplier, which is important for the typical “work-home” laptop that you take around frequently.

But with this class of computer, be careful of your potential supplier over-specifying your system. This is more so when your small business or community organisation is being sold management functionality that isn’t really necessary for their operation. Here, I would ask if they are using any of these features as a tool to provide remote support or for you to have the right level of security over your data in your business’s context.

Ultraportables

Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook on tray table

Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabook – one of the first Ultrabooks that defined this class of ultraportable computer very well

The typical ultraportable computer is designed to be light and occupy less space in your bag or briefcase, while running for a long time on its own batteries. A lot of manufacturers even invest a lot of money in developing these models and positioning them as the “beauty queens” of their product lineup. But these ultraportables will offer a level of performance very similar to what most of the mainstream home and business laptops will offer.

Some of these machines that fit Intel’s preferred specifications for an ultraportable are described as Ultrabooks but the others in this class are simply described simply as being ultraportable, thin and light or something else that describes their beauty. There has been an increase in product development in this class of computer due to the fact that everyone else wants to compete against the Apple MacBook product lineup that exudes itself in the beauty stakes.

Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook – the latest example of an ultraportable clamshell laptop

Such computers could be seen in the vehicle world as being equivalent to the sporty-looking coupés and convertibles which have improved performance but are styled in a way to exude their beauty – a car to be seen in as well as to drive.They can also be seen as being equivalent to the luxury cars where there is an emphasis on the luxurious driving experience.

Most of these will end up with a screen size of between 11” and 14” with some larger variants coming with a 15” screen. The screens will typically have a resolution of up to QHD (3200×1800) and work from the computer’s integrated graphics processor. As for the horsepower, this will come most likely from Intel Core m or i processor families that are optimised for reduced power consumption and heat output. As for RAM, this will be typically 4Gb-8Gb RAM depending on the model with some premium models offering 16Gb RAM. They will also have a storage configuration of up to 256Gb on a solid-state drive or 500Gb on a hard disk with some top-shelf models offering 512Gb to 1Tb on a solid-state drive.

A lot of these computers will appear in the traditional “clamshell” form while an increasing number of them are appearing as a detachable or convertible 2-in-1 form. As well, most of these computers will be styled to look very elegant, more as fashion accessories and something you can impress others with. This will include use of finishes like rose gold or champagne gold on some of the premium models.

These computers will appeal to those of us who can afford the premium offered for a system that provides mainstream-grade performance in a very lightweight chassis. Units equipped with low-tier processors like some Core m varieties and have low-capacity storage will appeal as “portable-use” secondary computers rather than as main-use or sole-use computers.

High-performance laptops

The laptop is now showing itself as a computer type that doesn’t have to be an ordinary old low-performing unit for pedestrian computing tasks. Increasingly, the manufacturers are offering mobile computing systems that could relate to the high-performance cars of this world whether for work or play and they are being offered under one or two separate product ranges or even as separate brands.

High-performance mainstream laptop variants

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop

The Dell Inspiron 15 7000 Gaming laptop – a high-performance variant of the Dell Inspiron laptop computer lineup

This is in addition to mainstream consumer and business laptop variants that have been specified for performance like being equipped with high-performance CPUs and discrete graphics processors, along with plenty of RAM. The high-performance variants are typically identified as “gaming” or “workstation” packages but they still have the same conventional look as one of the regular mainstream laptops, perhaps with some detailing that underscores the performance.

These computers are portable computing’s equivalent of the high-performance variants of a vehicle builder’s common family-car products. Such cars are identified with names that have sport or GT connotations and are referred to as “sports sedans”, “hot hatches” or something similar. These cars are typically equipped with a high-performance powertrain and have exterior and interior detailing that conveys the sporting image.

Gaming laptops

Alienware gaming laptop

An Alienware gaming laptop that can benefit from the Alienware Graphics Amplifier expansion module

Gaming laptops are being pitched towards the young gamers who expect performance while they play the advanced games. They carry on from the “gaming rigs” – the aggressively-styled desktop computers that gamers tune up for performance during their gameplay.

They will have a highly-strung discrete graphics chipset integrated in to them, typically one of those GPUs that is tuned to work with fast-paced games. As well, they use extra RAM with this being in the order of 8Gb to 16Gb if not more, and a highly-powerful processor like the Intel Core i7 family. There will even be the ability to tweak more performance out of these components through the use of desktop software while they use high-performance hard disks or solid-state storage for their secondary storage. As for the screen, the size will typically range between 13” to 15” with the resolution being at least 1080p Full-HD quality.

Expect most of the gaming laptops to be designed to look aggressive because they convey the image of one of the American or Australian muscle cars that were popular through the late 60s to early 70s; or a car from one of Europe’s well-known sports-car marques. These were vehicles designed from the outset for high-performance driving.

Mobile workstations

Dell Precision M2800 Mobile Workstation courtesy of Dell USA

Dell Precision M2800 – a mobile workstation that also bridges performance and portability

This class of computer will typically be constructed for business performance and will have particular components that are designed to get the most out of a CAD, engineering, statistics, animation or similar highly-powerful business program. A significant number of these systems will be described as “certified” workstations in that they are certified by Autodesk or a similar software vendor to run their software reliably at best performance.

These business-class computers will be at least 15” with high-end business-focused discrete graphics and will use a processor like the Intel Core i7. The RAM memory will typically be at least 8Gb and using particular high-reliability chips while there is a high-performance hard disk and/or solid-state drive on board. Some of these systems will even be serviceable so that the components can be upgraded or replaced at will.

Some, if not most, of the mobile workstations may offer the features associated with a mainstream business laptop such as a fingerprint reader, a TPM module or manageability features. This is especially for those of us who are dealing with plans or blueprints that are considered highly-valuable intellectual property.

What to remember

Should I buy a laptop or a desktop computer?

This question will come up more frequently with those of us who are buying a computer as the main or only personal computer that we use rather a computer we intend to use as a secondary computer.

I would recommend purchasing a laptop or similarly-portable computer if you place emphasis on the portability factor.

For some of you, this may be about having to regularly store your computer away while it is not in use or to move it around the house as required. One of these situations is to use the dining table or kitchen bench as a desk, something you will be asked of if you live in a small home or apartment. It may also be about an aesthetic requirement to stow the computer away when you aren’t using it, even if you maintain a separate home office. This may be of importance where you expect to have your home office serve as a spare bedroom (think of that sofa-bed or something similar you have in there for guests), or you integrate your home office as part of a main living area.

On the other hand, you are taking your computer between two or more locations. For example, you have that “work-home” laptop that you use in the office then take home so you can do further work there. As well, you may be travelling a lot including frequently using public transport or using a café as your “second office” or “office away from the office”. It will also include those of you who are likely to live a nomadic lifestyle where you don’t expect to live at the same address for the long haul, such as people who are on work placements for example.

Setting up a dedicated workstation with your laptop

You can set up a dedicated workstation that is based around your laptop computer so you can work much better at your regular desktop working locations. This practice can work well with the mainstream laptops along with ultraportables and performance-grade computers where you expect to use these computers as a main-use or sole-use computer. It will also be of importance for those of you who have decided to move away from using a desktop computer as your main computer.

Typically, you establish this workstation by installing at least one larger monitor, along with a full-sized keyboard and a regular mouse on your desk and connecting them to the laptop computer. In this context, when you use a large monitor in this way, you may find yourself being able to use two screens (the laptop’s screen and the larger monitor) as a large display space.  You may decide to add better speakers or connect the laptop to a sound system like that old hi-fi amplifier and those old speakers for improved sound reproduction while you could add extra local-storage opportunities like a USB hard disk or optical drive. As well, you may take advantage of a wired Ethernet connection for assured network-connection reliability. Then you disconnect these peripherals from your computer when you take it between locations.

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Ultrabook in tent mode

Tent mode – one way you could set up a 2-in-1 as part of your workstation

Some of you may use a bracket which allows you to hang your laptop computer so it becomes one of the screens in your multi-screen setup. Such brackets will typically anchor to your monitor so you effectively have a contiguous large-screen display and they can apply to the 13”-14” computers. Similarly, a 2-in-1 set up in a presentation-viewer or tent mode can provide a very similar experience.

Minix Neo-C USB-C Multiport Adaptor press image courtesy of Minix

One of the docking stations or expansion interfaces that can be part of your workstation

Most of us would simplify this process using a docking station, which is a fancy name for an “expansion interface” module that simplifies how you connect these peripherals to your computer. Most of these devices simply plug in to a USB 3.0 port while the USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 port on newer equipment allows for a simplified high-speed data-pipe between the expansion module and the laptop computer. As well, an increasing number of these USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 docking stations also provide power to the host computer. It is also worth noting that some of the larger display monitors may offer the docking-station functionality  as a differentiating feature where they have, for example, an integrated multiple-port USB hub. This can save on the cost of another docking station if you are buying that large screen as well if the screen offers the same kind of connectivity that you want.

You could set up one of these peripheral-based dedicated workstations for each regular workspace that you use with the ability to spend more on equipping the workstation you use the most with the better peripherals. As well, you could even get away with “pushing down” peripherals to less-often-used workspaces when you equip your main workspace with better peripherals. This is like what most people have always done with refrigerators or colour television sets where the newer better one ends up where they use it most while older units end up continuing to give service in secondary areas.

To gain best advantage out of these setups, it is a good idea to use a docking station to connect the wired peripherals to the computer. If your computer is relatively new and implements a USB Type-C / Thunderbolt-3 connector, make sure that the docking station has this same connection. If you have a Thunderbolt-3-equipped computer, you could use a USB-C dock as something to start with, then see a newer Thunderbolt-3-equipped dock as something to use in the main workspace.

As well, make sure you buy one with at least all of the connections that you need for your desk-bound peripherals. If you are thinking of using a wireless mouse or keyboard, look towards any of those input devices that use Bluetooth rather than a proprietary connection that takes up a USB connection for its receiver dongle.

The laptop computer as a secondary computer

There are those of us who may find that we can get by with two computers – a fully-specified desktop or large laptop that has all the performance and capacity we need as the primary machine; and an easy-to-transport laptop that doesn’t have all of the specifications but is capable of being a portable-use secondary machine. Examples of these would be the budget portables, most affordable 2-in-1s, or the lower-specified models in a manufacturer’s ultraportable lineup.

Here, we cam shift data and synchronise files between the multiple computers using  shared folders on a NAS; a cloud storage service like Dropbox; removable media or sharing a “file-transfer” folder on one of the computers via your home network. As well, you can install on these computers a reduced complement of software that fulfills the essential tasks that you want to do on the road.

Thunderbolt 3 on this kind of secondary-use computer may also appeal to a range of users who may occasionally seek extra display performance from these computers and simply hook up an external graphics module for this purpose. This may be to turn out a “there-and-then” rough-edit of video taken during a location shoot that is part of your video project; or to “work through” a high-end game while on the road.

This kind of setup would appeal to those of us who want to do some computing work while away from our main home or office location, but keep that location as where you do most of your work.

Should I use a mobile-platform tablet or a laptop as my secondary computer?

Some of you may think that a mobile-platform tablet like an iPad or Android tablet is all you need for a secondary computer device, rather than you purchasing a laptop. The same question can also be raised by some people like those of the older generation who want to purchase a personal computing device like a laptop or iPad but don’t see themselves using it regularly.

This can hold true with those of us who do a lot of content consumption and create very little content while away from your main workspace. Examples of this may just be you writing a small amount of text such as short replies to email or writing up notes. But you may find that using a keyboard accessory like one of the many keyboard cases may have you able to create more content using a mobile-platform tablet.

It can also hold true if you do make use of software that is written for desktop (regular-computer) platforms. Here, the software that is written for these platforms comes with more abilities compared to similar software that is targeted towards mobile platforms and you will find yourself being able to work more productively with this software.

Here, if you are primarily doing activities like Web-browsing, viewing video content, playing casual games or answering a small amount of email, you may get by with a mobile-platform tablet. On the other hand, if you do frequent amounts of content creation including answering many emails or make heavy use of highly-capable regular-computer software, the laptop would earn its keep.

It is also worth noting that the “2-in-1” computer that can double as a laptop or a tablet may offer a bridge between these two conundrums. Most of these computers run Windows 10 and will run the commonly-powerful office software if you are thinking of using them to work on that magnum opus document, with the 13” varieties having a full-sized keyboard so you can type comfortably. This is while you can engage in social media with most of the social media platforms having their own Windows 10 apps.

 

Should I buy a gaming laptop or a mobile workstation as a high-performance personal computer?

Increasingly, most computer manufacturers are offering a range of high-performance computers in their product lines, whether as performance-optimised variants of their mainstream products or units designed from the ground up as gaming laptops or mobile workstations.

But you may be dabbling with high-end games, or high-end-graphics and video work and are considering this kind of equipment. What kind of high-performance computer should you really go for?

Those of us who are working with high-end games or are doing video editing, computer graphics or animation as a hobby may find that high-performance mainstream laptops or gaming laptops may be the way to go. It can also apply to students who are putting their foot in the door when it comes to architecture, engineering and allied courses. You would be on a winner if the computer you are after is equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 connector because you could buy an external “card-cage” graphics module and a CAD-grade high-performance desktop graphics card at a later state when you can afford it.

On the other hand, a mobile workstation would earn its keep when you head full-time in to the world of advanced graphics, especially if you are using the computer as your “axe” to make regular money.

Which system for whom

Expected computer role

Main or sole computer

You may be upgrading your main “workhorse” computer and wanting to use something a bit more portable. The system could be your “main” computer that you use in your primary working area while you use another computer as your “on-the-go” secondary computer. Or it could just be your only computer that you have.

Here, I would recommend a mainstream laptop computer or, if you can afford something more luxurious, an ultraportable if it’s your sole computer you are taking with you a lot or a high-performance machine for other situations. In all cases, place emphasis on the computer’s storage capacity and RAM memory and buy a system with as much of this as you can afford. You may find that if you are saving towards your computer, a stretch goal you could apply is for a machine that has more RAM or storage capacity than what you initially budgeted for.

Those of you who make light use of a computer like using it just for Web surfing, online communication (email, Social Web and some Skype) and some word-processing may find that you can get away with one of the entry-level laptops. The word-processing application may be the deal-maker that has an entry-level computer overtake an iPad or similar tablet especially if your idea is to create a memoir or some other magnum opus. It can also apply if you are wanting to head towards creating that small-time Website or blog. This is because of these computers having a keyboard more conducive to this activity and being able to run a fully-fledged word-processing or similar program.

Some of you may find that you may not be able to have a lot of storage on your main or sole computer, such as if you are on a budget and are buying a low-tier laptop, or are buying that ultraportable because of your travelling. In this case, I would make sure that the computer you are getting is equipped with at least one USB 3.0 Type-A port or a USB-C port and purchase a high-capacity USB hard disk as a data-offload solution.

Secondary computer

If the laptop or other portable computer you are buying is simply something you are intending to use as a supplementary computer while you keep using your main computer, you may be able to look at different factors here.

In most cases, you may be considering this computer for use while you are travelling while your main computer stays at home or in the office. Here, you place importance on the portability factor. This is where you could consider an ultraportable computer, whether in a clamshell or 2-in-1 form. If you are on a budget, you may find it worth looking at one of the entry-level 14” variants powered by a low-end processor. In this situation, you can skimp on storage capacity if you are sure you can offload data to your main computer.

Some of you may use a secondary laptop at home, perhaps as a “family computer” that you can store away when it isn’t used. Similarly this would be a laptop computer that you may give to your “better half” as a gift and have them keep their data on it. In the same context, you may be considering a “private” computer that you use for your personal data so you don’t store any of it on your business computer. This is more so for those of you who have your laptop supplied and managed by your workplace or rent or lease the IT your small business needs on an ongoing basis.

Here, most mainstream computers with modest specifications may answer your needs. If you are expecting it to be a personal alternative to that “work-home” laptop, you may then have to place emphasis on storage capacity for this application.

Particular usage cases

Highly nomadic user

There are some users who will have a “sole-use” laptop computer but are likely to move between many different locations. These may range from people working in the merchant navy or on oil / gas rigs where they are likely to spend a significant amount of time on that ship or rig; through people who are engaged in placement-based work where they are never sure if they will be in the same work location; to students who are mainly living in temporary accommodation like college dorms / residence halls or short-let housing.

Here, the laptop computer can suit your needs very well. At the moment, most mainstream computers would suit your needs especially if you find that they offer a large amount of storage. This is important for you because you may end up piling music, photo and video content on the hard disk before and during your travels. If you are a gamer, you will most likely be storing all the data related to the games you regularly play, be it the game files or information about your progress in that game.

You may be interested in the high-performance variants like the Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming that I previously reviewed if you value performance for gaming or entry-level workstation tasks.

If you are expecting to transport your computer around your destination location such as, for example a college student living in a college dorm who then takes the computer between classes, the library and the dorm, you may want to consider an ultraportable laptop or a 13”-14” mainstream laptop. Such systems can easily be stored in a backpack or other day luggage without taking up much room and they are relatively light compared to the traditional 15” mainstream laptop.

The use of a small-sized high-capacity USB external hard disk may satisfy your needs if you have to buy a computer that doesn’t have enough storage for your needs such as an entry-level laptop. Here, you can easily stow this hard disk in your luggage without it taking up too much room if you need to transport it. This hard disk can simply serve as a backup or offload storage device while you keep what you are working with on the laptop’s own storage.

Similarly, having a computer that implements the Thunderbolt 3 connection and works properly with the external graphics modules can appeal to this class of user.

Work-home use

A more common scenario for those of you who regularly work away from home is to take the same computer between your home and your workplace. Some of you may also be likely to use this same computer for your personal computing needs.

Here, consider the purchase of a mainstream business laptop with as much RAM and capacity as you can afford. The 13”-14” varieties appear as a sweet spot for portability if you use it on the go, but you may have to look at an ultraportable if you are travelling a lot with it.

They also benefit from the “dedicated workstation” approach and should have at least a USB 3.0 port. Personally, I would even go towards a computer with at least a USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 port, then use a dock with a similar connection and the desirable peripheral connections for your main workspace.

Conclusion

The first thing to be sure of when you buy a laptop computer tis that you are buying the right unit that suits your usage requirements.

Here, this is about making sure you have a computer that has the right amount of horsepower, storage space and RAM capacity to suit your needs yet is light enough for the portability that you need out of it. For those of you buying a computer for your business needs, you also need to be sure that you aren’t being forced to buy the more expensive overspecified model that can end up being complicated to deal with.

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Acer raises the bar for convertible 2-in-1 laptop performance

Articles

Acer goes after casual gamers with upcoming Nitro 5 Spin convertible laptop | Windows Central

Acer Nitro 5 Spin: Gaming Convertible with 8th Gen Core Power | Laptop Mag

From the horse’s mouth

Acer

Press Release

My Comments

Before, the idea of a 2-in-1 convertible or detachable laptop having any sort of gaming or mobile-workstation acumen was considered ludicrous. These systems were simply more about computing that matched your lifestyle rather than something that was about performance.

Lenovo offered the 15” Yoga 720 which was specced with a NVIDIA GTX 1050 graphics processor but this was pitched more as a productivity machine or, should I say, a “prosumer” machine for video hobbyists, animators and the like.

But Intel recently announced the 8th Generation “Coffee Lake” range of Core CPUs with a focus towards high-performance portable computing. Acer came hot on the heels of this announcement by announcing a 2-in-1 convertible laptop incorporating this technology optimised for casual gaming.

Here, the Acer Nitro 5 Spin, which is a 15” convertible laptop equipped with the 8th generation Intel Core i7 CPU and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 GPU, is optimised and promoted specifically for casual gamers. There is up to 512GB of solid-state storage space which makes this machine earn its chops as your primary or only computer where you would harbour a lot of data. The display is a 15” Full HD display while the sound is looked after with a 3-speaker setup involving 2 properly-placed speakers and a subwoofer.

There is the backlit keyboard as expected for premium computer setups while the computer is secured using a Windows-Hello-compliant fingerprint reader. As for connecting to your home network, its 802.11a/g/n/ac MU-MIMO Wi-Fi infrastructure is augmented by Acer’s OmniAmp omnidirectional antenna setup which avoids your computer losing the optimum connection no matter how you set it up. It is also worth noting that Acer places a promise for the battery on this computer to run for 10 hours before it dies out, but I am not sure if this is with the computer running a game or video content, or simply doing light computing tasks.

As the sales pitch goes, the use case would be someone who is a casual gamer rather than the core gamers who want the highest-performing computers. The class of user would be someone who, for example, plays one of the Civilization games to while away the long flight or plays games streamed from a console that has the ability to play a console game on a regular computer. But the Acer Nitro 5 Spin would also appeal to people who view the game streams like what is offered on the Twitch platform.

Let’s not forget that the powerful CPU and GPU in the Acer Nitro 5 Spin makes the computer earn its chops with people who are dabbling with video editing, animation and the like. It could also appeal as a “foot-in-the-door” towards mobile workstation territory for engineering, graphics arts and similar students, but I would like to be sure it has a Thunderbolt 3 connection for use with eGPU modules kitted out with Quadro or similar workstation-class graphics cards.

The initial price that Acer called for the Nitro 5 Spin in the US and Canada market is US$999.

Personally, I would see Acer’s Nitro 5 Spin underscore the viability of integrating the versatile positioning abilities of the 2-in-1 convertible with the concept of high-performance computing for a lot of applications.

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Product Review–Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 convertible Ultrabook

Introduction

Dell has established the XPS 13 as a value-priced Ultrabook that ticks the boxes when it comes to the kind of functionality that it offers for its product class. There was some doubt that they would offer a “2-in-1” ultraportable computer under this banner alongside the traditional “clamshell” model, due to there not being an essential need for that class of computer.

Now they have offered a 2-in-1 convertible variant of the XPS 13 and it is what I am reviewing. There are two different configurations being offered for this model, one with the Intel Core i5 CPU, 8Gb RAM and 256Gb solid-state storage alongside the premium variant which comes with an Intel Core i7 CPU, 16Gb RAM and 512Gb solid-state storage.

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Ultrabook at Rydges Melbourne

Price
– this configuration highlighted in bold
RRP price
AUD$2798.99
(i7 CPU, 16Gb RAM, 512Gb SSD)
AUD$2599.99
(i7 CPU, 8Gb RAM, 256Gb SSD)
AUD$2299.99
(i5 CPU 8Gb RAM 256Gb SSD)
Market Positioning Premium Consumer Ultraportable
Form Factor Convertible laptop
Processor Intel Core i7 Kaby Lake
cheaper option:
Intel Core i5 Kaby Lake
RAM 16 GB
cheaper option: 8 Gb
Secondary storage 512 GB SSD
cheaper option:
256Gb SSD
MicroSD XC card reader
Display Subsystem Intel HD Graphics 615 integrated display Can support eGPU modules
Screen 13” widescreen touch display (3200 x 1800) LED backlit LCD
Audio Subsystem Intel HD audio
Audio Improvements Waves MaxxAudio Pro
Network Wi-Fi 802.11a/g/n/ac dual stream
Ethernet
Bluetooth 4.2
Modems
Connectivity USB and Thunderbolt 3 1 x USB-C with DisplayPort and Power Delivery including Sleep and Charge
1 x Thunderbolt 3 with Power Delivery including Sleep and Charge
Other Data Connections
Video DisplayPort via USB-C
Audio 3.5mm input-output jack
Digital audio via DisplayPort (USB-C)
Authentication and Security Fingerprint Reader
RealSense camera
Operating System in supplied configuration Windows 10 Home
Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Ultrabook in presentation viewer mode

Presentation Viewer mode

The computer itself

Aesthetics and Build Quality

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Ultrabook in tablet mode

Tablet mode

The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 had the same build quality as the XPS 13 clamshell where it came across as being very durable. The outside is finished in aluminium while the keyboard surround maintains that rubberised finish that provides that tactile non-slippery feel. The only disadvantage I see with this is a combination of oily hands and fine dusty materials may have it look dirty.

This convertible smoothly swivels all the way from closed to a tablet position and even closes up neatly and tightly. This again makes for something that has the smooth feel to it.

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Ultrabook in tent mode

Tent mode

I paid attention to how this computer kept its cool, with respect to system performance, battery runtime and user comfort. Here, I haven’t noticed any overheating going on even after I viewed video content on this system. This is thanks to the metal housing and the way the system is architected to work in the context of an ultra-thin design.

User Interface

The illuminated keyboard has that distinct feedback that allows for accurate typing especially if you are a touch-typist. It lights up in an “on-demand” manner that avoids excessive battery drain but can be turned off. The way I have seen the keyboard light up means that the keys are more discoverable especially for those of us who are one-finger or two-finger typists.

The multi-touch trackpad works as expected and doesn’t act in a hair-trigger manner, so you don’t have to worry about disabling it if you are working on your lap. The touchscreen works as expected for a tablet screen but at times can be a bit unresponsive especially if you have your hands on the edge.

The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 comes with a one-touch smartphone-style fingerprint reader just under the keyboard where you just put your finger in the one place for it to be recognised. This works in conjunction with the Windows 10 Hello functionality that allows for fingerprint recognition and Dell also supplied the Keeper password vault for those of us who want to keep our online service passwords on a secure digital keychain.

Here, it is the second consumer-focused computer that I have come across for review to be equipped with such a device, something typically associated with business-grade computers. What I had found from my experience was that it was reliable to scan even if you had something like the oil from deep-fried food on your fingers. But you have to scan your finger lengthways as well as pointing vertically during the Windows Hello setup procedure so it works when you are using the XPS 13 2-in-1 Ultrabook as a tablet.

Audio / Video

The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 implements the MaxxAudio sound-tuning but I have tried it with playing music using the Spotify online music service. Here, the sound from the internal speakers is very typical of what is offered for laptops, especially the “thin-and-light” units thanks to the small chassis. This means that you don’t get the full sound reproduction when you use these speakers and it may be good enough for notification sounds or dialogue, but I would recommend using external speakers, headphones or a sound system if you want to enjoy playing music through this laptop.

The video playback behaviour for this computer has come through very smoothly especially with on-demand content and can show that you could use it for any class of video content. It would also work well for gaming environments that aren’t too demanding.

Connectivity, Storage And Expansion

Left-hand-side connections – Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C port with PowerShare and USB Power Delivery, audio input-output jack

The peripheral-connectivity options for the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 are a pair of USB-C connectors. One of these is a Thunderbolt 3 connector that comes in handy with equipment like external graphics modules while the other is equipped with DisplayPort alt connectivity for use when you want to connect an external screen as long as  you use the appropriate adaptor or expansion module dock. Both of these ports implement the USB Power Delivery specification and also implement the PowerShare “sleep and charge” option, only enabled through the BIOS user interface rather than a Windows program.

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Ultrabook - USB-C power

USB-C as the power connection

The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 has become the first computer model that I have had access to for review which implements the USB-C connections exclusively as a peripheral connection and power-input connection. It is a sign of things to come with laptops that are designed to be thin and light where this kind of connection will be the only peripheral connection type. But I am pleased that there are the two connections compared to just one of them, thus still allowing you to connect more devices at once.

Right-hand-side connections – USB-C port with DisplayPort alt video mode, USB Power Delivery and PowerShare; MicroSD card reader

There is also an audio jack as the other device connectivity option, compared to the XPS 13 which implements standard USB connections for other peripherals. Let’s not forget that the XPS 13 2-in-1 comes with a short adaptor cable that allows you to connect devices with the traditional USB Type-A connector to one of the USB-C sockets. If you are wanting more connectivity, I would consider using the Dell DA200 USB-C connector module if it is just external displays, USB peripherals and an Ethernet networks segment you want to connect or the Minix Neo C USB Multiport Adaptor if it’s your digital camera’s SD card you want to download while being able to connect external displays, Ethernet networks and other peripherals.

The secondary storage options available are adequate for most portable-computing needs. This is through the entry-level variant coming with a 256Gb SSD and the premium variant coming with the 512Gb SSD. Personally, I would like to see Dell offer a step-up variant or mid-tier option with the 512 Gb SSD as the only incremental feature over the entry-level model to court those of us who aren’t chasing the performance expectations but want something that can make it appeal as a sole-use computer.

Thanks to the slimline design goal, the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 convertible laptop has a microSD card slot as its integrated removable-media option. This will be a limitation for those of us who use digital cameras or camcorders and want to download images to the computer by removing the SD-card “film” from the camera and inserting it in the computer. In this case, you would have to use an SD card reader that plugs in to the computer’s USB-C port with or without an adaptor.

The Wi-Fi network adaptor still works effectively even if it is on the fringe of a Wi-Fi network segment and still provides the necessary throughput.

Battery Life

The non-removable battery in the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 convertible Ultrabook is able to satisfy general-purpose computing tasks for a day without the need for you to carry the charger with you. I even ran a TV show from SBS On Demand for an hour and found that the battery had 68% capacity left in it after that.

These results may be typical for a relatively-new machine and the battery may not last as long for a unit that has been in service for many years.

Other Usage Notes

The people in the different communities that I associate with whom I have shown this computer to are impressed with the fact that this computer answers the thin-and-light market call while also being an elegant 2-in-1 convertible. At the moment the only thing that will put them off the computer would be the price.

Limitations And Points Of Improvement

As far as the USB-C connections go, an improvement I would like to see would be to provide the same advanced connection types i.e. Thunderbolt 3 and DisplayPort alt on both ports. This may involve having the computer effectively have two Thunderbolt 3 host interfaces and two DisplayPort connections off its Intel HD integrated graphics circuitry, but could allow for simplified error-proof connectivity of display devices and Thunderbolt 3 peripherals.

In relation to the Thunderbolt 3 connection, the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 could implement a high-power performance-focused stance while it is connected to an external graphics module that supplies the right amount of power. This would then make it able to handle advanced graphics tasks like gaming at home, but this may be limited by issues regarding heat management for a thin-and-light chassis.

A feature that would improve the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1’s useability would be to have dedicated volume buttons on the edge of the screen or as touch buttons on the bottom of the screen to allow the user to instantly regulate sound volume when playing multimedia. This would be more of importance when the computer is operating in a tablet, presentation viewer or tent mode.

Similarly, providing a standard SD card reader in a 2-in-1 Ultrabook like this may be a challenge but could be looked at especially for those of us who use these computers to download pictures or footage from our good digital cameras or camcorders

Conclusion

I would see the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 Ultrabook as a viable option for someone who is after a “Yoga-style” convertible notebook but want something that conveys a thin, light and elegant image. The configurations that are available at least put its RAM and storage capacities above average for its peers offered by its competitors and definitely underscore value for money for its product class.

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Why I refer to desktop and laptop computers as “regular” computers

Dell Inspiron 15 Gaming laptop

Why I refer to computers like this as “regular” computers

Through this Website, I refer to the desktop and laptop computers that run Windows 10 PC, macOS, desktop Linux or Chrome OS as regular computers and refer to these operating systems as regular-computer operating systems. This is in a manner to distinguish them from the smartphones or tablets that run iOS, Android or similar mobile-platform operating systems, or devices like Smart TVs, games consoles or vehicle infotainment systems that run a dedicated operating system.

It is based on the fact that these desktop and laptop computers have their design roots in the original personal computers that were built and sold from the late 1970s. Here, the goals were to concentrate all of your computing power to a box that existed at your workspace while you were using it with the system able to do whatever task you wanted it to do once you loaded the appropriate program.

Another factor that is also underscored is the way that the “regular” computer can be optimised to suit one’s computing needs more easily through the use of an operating system designed to be highly configurable from the outset. This includes the ability to choose computers with the right amount of performance for what you want to use them for, the ability to connect devices to them so they can answer your needs better or even modify them to suit newer needs.

It was compared to the previous idea of computing which was centred around large mainframes kept in special computer rooms and users interacting with them using “green-screen” VDU terminals. As well, they have been seen since that period as the example of what desktop or personal computing was about.

It is compared to the mobile-platform devices that had their design roots in the handheld mobile phones and PDAs that came through in the 1990s. Here, it was about a battery-operated device you could hold in your hand and carry personal information with you or use as a communications device.

It is also compared to the likes of games consoles, Smart TVs, set-top boxes and vehicle infotainment systems that are designed around a particular goal. These implement a particular operating system or variant of a desktop operating system highly shoehorned for high-reliability “always-alive” operation in their chosen primary task.

The reason I use the term “regular computer” rather than “personal computer” for this class of traditional computer design is because there may be an argument that the mobile-platform devices like today’s smartphones are more of a personal computer than the traditional devices. There is also the fact that businesses have purchased these computers and implemented them as the workspace-based all-in-one solution for your office tasks since the late 1980s.

Here, it is to distinguish these desktop and laptop computers, including the tablets and 2-in-1s, that are using the traditional computing architecture and running the likes of Windows, macOS or desktop Linux from the other classes of personal-computing devices that have become more popular.

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Challenges that face the Windows 10 2-in-1 user

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 in viewer mode

These 2-in-1s are as important as the iPads and Android tablets out there

The Windows-10-based 2-in-1 portable computer like the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 Series that I reviewed just lately is appealing as a viable alternative to the iPad or Android tablet. For some users, it may be about a single device that they can use for creating material like writing that memoir; or enjoying content including playing some casual games like Words With Friends or watching online video. The same can also hold true for people who use clamshell laptops, especially the thin-and-light or entry-level variety and want to engage in these activities.

Here, these computers are seen by Microsoft and developers as another “PC-class” device i.e. a regular computer in the same vein as the typical desktop or laptop computer. It is in contrast to how the iPad and Android tablets are seen by their respective operating systems as a distinct mobile device which can be developed for separately.

Apple iPad Pro 9.7 inch press picture courtesy of Apple

But there is a lot more casual games, catch-up TV front-ends and other software being developed for these devices

But the mobile platforms have acquired a large range of software behind them that appeals to people who want to consume content. Here, the iOS App Store and the Google Play Store are replete with many respected social-play and casual games along with official native client apps for various media and information services including catch-up TV or video-on-demand services.

As well, most if not all, communications platforms and social networks implement a native client for the mobile platforms with a large percentage running a Windows 10 native client that can work on a regular computer and available through the Microsoft Store.

Let’s not forget that the Microsoft Store is full of the well-known games with different variants providing different user experiences and capability levels for these games, For example, no personal computing platform has ever existed without one or more variants of the common board games like chess or backgammon that you play against a hard-to-beat computer opponent.

SBS On Demand Windows 10 platform app

SBS On-Demand – one of the few catch-up TV / video-on-demand apps on the Windows 10 PC platform

But there are some online media services, games and apps that have been engineered for the touch experience but haven’t been ported to Windows 10 as Universal Windows Platform applications that can run on the 2-in-1 computers. If an app or game is ported to Windows 10, it typically may just be ported to the Mobile variant which means the Windows-10-based mobile phones. This affects some of the popular mobile-platform games like Plants vs Zombies or Piano Tiles, along with the “TV Everywhere” or “catch-up TV” apps that TV broadcasters and pay-TV platforms offer.

Similarly, a lot of the smart-home devices that work on the app-cessory model offer most of these apps only on the iOS App Store or the Google Play Store. Here, I have had to run an article about how to use the Web to set up or manage an Amazon Echo but most of the other devices wouldn’t work further without an app from these stores.

The only other option that people have for playing a favourite casual game or using an online media service is to use Web-based resources such as playing a Web-app version of the game or visiting the service’s Web page. In some cases, the pages aren’t really optimised for a touch-driven user interface like what these computers offer, nor do they take full advantage of what Windows and your 2-in-1 computer has to offer. Similarly, some of these services use Adobe Flash as the preferred advanced user interface rather than HTML5 and this has been highlighted as a security and performance risk.

Time to port those apps to Windows 10 PC

Microsoft is now simplifying the process for porting mobile-platform apps from iOS or Android to the Windows 10 Universal Windows Platform and having them available through the Windows Store thanks to Xamarin or Apache Cordova or various Windows Bridge frameworks. Some of these tools also simplify the process of writing and targeting an app to Windows 10, iOS and Android all at once, something that can work for those of us who are writing an app from scratch with the goal to target those platforms.

The challenge here for developers who have written iPad or other tablet apps would be to port them to Windows 10 and maintain a similar user experience to the iPad package. Then the developers would benefit from making tweaks to the app to exploit the Live Tiles and other Windows 10 user-interface features.

There also has to be some importance towards maintaining the same level of “touch-ability” between the tablet platforms thus yielding the same experience. Let’s not forget the issue of maintaining the same level of performance and playability across the different platforms so you are not finding that the Windows 10 port of that iPad game appears more sluggish than the original version.

By making sure that the mobile apps and games are available across iOS, Android and Windows 10 UWP including PC users who use the 2-in-1s, it can be feasible for app developers to cover all their bases and reach every platform effectively. In some cases, it could place the likes of the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 as viable personal-computer devices for the family house where Grandma lives.

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