Category: Laptop, Notebook and Netbook Computers

Consumer Electronics Show 2017–Computer Trends

I am writing up a series of articles about the trends that have been put forward at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The first article in this series covers all of the trends affecting personal computers.

1: Computer Trends

2: Accessories And The Home Network

Computers

Most manufacturers were exhibiting refreshed versions of their product ranges. This is where the computers were being equipped with up-to-date chipsets and had their RAM, storage and other expectations brought up to date.

  • Key trends affecting mainstream computers included:
  • the use of Intel Kaby Lake processors for the computers’ horsepower
  • solid-state storage capacity in the order of up to 1 Terabyte
  • RAM capacity in the order of up to 16Gb
  • at least one USB Type-C socket on mainstream units with Thunderbolt 3 on premium units and / or ultraportables using just USB-C connections with some having 2 or more of these connectors

    Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon USB-C Thunderbolt-3 detail image - press picture courtesy of Lenovo USA

    More of this year’s laptop computers will be equipped with these USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 sockets

  • Wi-Fi connectivity being 802.11ac multi-band with MU-MIMO operation

Another factor worth noticing is the increase in detachable or convertible “2-in-1” computers being offered by most, if not all, of the manufacturers; along with highly-stylish clamshell ultraportable computers. This class of computer is being brought on thanks to Microsoft’s Surface range of computers with some of of the computers in these classes also being about performance. The manufacturers are even offering a range of these “2-in-1” computers targeted towards business users with the security, manageability, durability and productivity features that this use case demands.

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 convertible Ultrabook press picture courtesy of Dell USA

More of these convertibles and detachable 2-in-1 computers will appear in manufacturers’ product ranges

Nearly every manufacturer had presented at least one high-performance gaming laptop with the Intel Core i7 processor, at least 16Gb RAM and 128Gb solid-state storage, dedicated graphics chipset. Most of these computers are even equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 connection to allow for use with external graphics docks, considered as a way for core gamers to “soup up” these machines for higher gaming acumen.

Lenovo had refreshed most of their laptop range, especially the ThinkPad business range. Here, this is a product range that makes no distinction between the small-business/SOHO user class where a few of these computers are managed and the large-business/government user class where you are talking of a large fleet of computers handling highly-sensitive data.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon press image courtesy of Lenovo

Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon has been refreshed to newer expectations

The new ThinkPads come in the form of a newer ThinkPad Yoga business convertible, a refreshed ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook and a refreshed ThinkPad X1 Yoga convertible. For example, the ThinkPad Yoga 370 has the 13.3” Full HD screen, the classic ThinkPad TrackPoint button as a navigation option but is driven by Intel Kaby Lake horsepower. This machine can be specified up to 16Gb RAM and 1Tb solid-state storage and has a Thunderbolt 3 connection along with 2 USB 3.0 ports. Lenovo even designed in protection circuitry for the USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 port to protect the ThinkPad against those dodgy non-compliant USB-C cables and chargers. Like the rest of the new ThinkPad bunch, this computer comes with the Windows 10 Signature Edition software image which is about being free of the bloatware that fills most of today’s laptop computers. The computer will set you back US$1264.

Other ThinkPads will also come with either a USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 connection depending on their position in the model range. For example the T470 family and the T570 family will be equipped with the Thunderbolt 3 connections. Let’s not forget how the ThinkPad X1 Carbon and Yoga have been refreshed. The Carbon implements horsepower in the Intel Kaby Lake Core i family, a 14” Quad HD display, 16Gb RAM and 1Tb SSD storage, and an expected battery runtime of 15 hours along with Thunderbolt 3 connectivity. The X1 Yoga has been given the similar treatment with similar RAM and secondary-storage capacity but can be outfitted with an LTE-A wireless-broadband modem as an option.

Lenovo Legion Y720 gaming laptop - press picture courtesy of Lenovo USA

Lenovo Legion Y720 gaming laptop with Dolby Atmos sound

Gamers can relish in the fact that Lenovo has premiered the Legion range of affordable high-performance gaming laptops. The Legion Y720 is the first of its kind to be equipped with Dolby Atmos sound. The Y520 has a Full HD IPS screen driven by NVIDIA GeForce GTX1050Ti dedicated graphics chipset, the choice of an Intel Core i5 or i7 CPU, 16Gb RAM and hard disk storage between 500Gb and 1Tb or solid-state storage between 128Gb and 512Gb, and network connectivity in the form of 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Gigabit Ethernet. Peripheral connectivity is in the form of 1 x USB-C, 2 x USB 3.0 and 1 x USB 2.0 and an audio jack, with this computer asking for at least US$900. The better Y720, along with Dolby Atmos, has a bright IPS screen either as a Full HD or 4K resolution and driven by NVIDIA GeForce GTX1060 graphics chipset with 6Gb display memory. Lenovo was also offering a MIIX 720 creative-arts mobile workstation that eats at the Apple MacBook Pro and Microsoft Surface Pro lineup.

Dell XPS 15 Notebook press image courtesy of Dell USA

Dell XPS 15 ultraportable in a 15″ size

Dell had refreshed the XPS 13 lineup of Ultrabooks, known for offering the right combination of features, durability, comfort and price. But they also offered a convertible 2-in-1 variant of the XPS 13, again offering that right combination of features, durability, comfort and price. They also released the XPS 15 which is the smallest 15,6” laptop with Intel Kaby Lake processors, NVIDIA GeForce dedicated graphics and a fingerprint reader.

Dell XPS 27 all-in-one computer press image courtesy of Dell USA

Dell XPS 27 all-in-one computer with best bass response in its class

The XPS and Precision all-in-one desktop computers have had their sound quality improved rather than having it as an afterthought. This has led to audio quality from the XPS 27 and the Precision business equivalent being equivalent to that of a soundbar, thanks to the use of 10 speakers working at 50 watts per channel, including two downward-firing speakers to make the work surface augment the bass. Two passive radiators also augment the system’s bass response. Both have a 4K UHD touchscreen  while the Precision certified workstation can work with AMD Radeon graphics and Intel Xeon CPUs.

Like Lenovo, Dell had exhibited their business-grade computers at a trade fair typically associated with goods targeted at the consumer. This could underscore realities like people who use business-tier computers for “work-home” use including those of us who are running a business or practising a profession from our homes. Dell have been on a good wicket here because of themselves selling computers direct to the public and to business users for a long time.

Here, Dell had refreshed their XPS, Inspiron, Optiflex, Latitude and Precision computer lineups with new expectations. They would come with Kaby Lake horsepower under the bonnet, USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 connectivity depending on the unit along with newer dedicated-graphics options from NVIDIA or AMD. The business machines would be equipped with Intel vPro manageability features to work with business-computer management software.

Dell Latitude 5285 business detachable 2-in-1 - press picture courtesy of Dell USA

Dell Latitude 5285 business detachable 2-in-1 – the most secure of its class

In the case of business computers, Dell had underscored a desire to integrate the aesthetics of consumer-tier ultraportable computers with the security, manageability and productivity wishes that the business community crave for. For example, the latest Latitude Ultrabooks and 2-in-1s show the looks but come up with the goods as a business “axe” computer. One of the systems in the Latitude lineup is the Latitude 7285 detachable 2-in-1s which implement WiTricity wireless charging and WiGig docking while the Latitude 5285 detachable 2-in-1 sells on a highly-strong security platform with Dell-developed data-protection / endpoint-protection software and the option for a fingerprint reader or smartcard reader.

Samsung had shown some Windows 10 tablets but they also presented the Notebook Odyssey gaming laptop, available as a 15” variant or a 17” higher-performing variant. Both of these implement “dual-storage” with a solid-state drive in the order of 256Gb for the 15” variant or 512Gb for the 17” variant along with a 1Tb traditional hard disk. RAM is in the order of 32Gb or 64Gb for the 17” variant while these are driven by Intel Core i7 CPUs. Graphics is looked after by NVIDIA GTX dedicated GPU with 2Gb or 4Gb display memory but the 17” variant also has a Thunderbolt 3 connection for external graphics units.

There is also the Notebook 9 which implements a 15” HD display driven by NVIDIA 940MX graphics processor and Core i7 processor. Of note, the Notebook 9 implements a Windows Hello fingerprint reader along with a USB-C port which is its power socket thanks to USB Power Delivery.

HP was not silent but had fielded the Spectre x360 15” convertible Ultrabook, one of the few 15” portable computers that can be a tablet or laptop. It is driven by Intel Core i7 Kaby Lake horsepower and has the quota of 16Gb RAM and either a 256Gb or 512Gb solid-state storage. The 15” 4K IPS screen is driven by an NVIDIA GeForce 940MX graphics processor with 2Gb display memory, but the sound-reproduction has been tuned by Bang & Olufsen while there is an HP-designed noise-cancelling microphone array. The Webcam is an HP infra-red type which is Windows Hello compatible for facial recognition login. Connectivity is in the form of an HDMI socket, 1 USB-C socket, 1 Thunderbolt 3 socket, 1 traditional USB Type-A socket and an SD-card drive. Expect this convertible’s battery to run for 12 hours and be ready to go after 90 minutes of quick charging. The expected price is US$1299 for the 256Gb variant and US$1499 for the 512Gb variant.

Another interesting trend highlighted at CES 2017 has been an increase in the number of “Next Unit Of Computing” midget computers.  This is thanks to use cases like augmented-reality / virtual-reality gaming and an emphasis on aesthetics for desktop-based computing and has been brought about by the likes of the Intel Skull Canyon NUC. One of these was a range offered by Elitegroup with computers powered by Intel Braswell, Apollo Lake and Kaby Lake processors.

Zotac Mini PC press photo courtesy of Zotac

The latest Zotac Mini PC that is the hub of a “hi-fi” approach to computing

But Zotac approached the NUC trend in a manner not dissimilar to the “micro component” hi-fi systems, especially some of the premium offerings that emerged from Japan through the early 80s. These premium “micro-component” systems offered for their amplification needs a control amplifier and a power amplifier so as to provide more power output, along with their source components being a tuner and a cassette deck. In the case of Zotac, they offered the C-Series NUC midget computer which could be powered through its USB-C port thanks to USB Power Delivery. It came with the Intel Kaby Lake processors, NVIDIA GeForce dedicated graphics, a Thunderbolt 3 connector along with a few other features. The C-Series even has corporate manageability and security abilities such as Intel vPro and AMT system management along with the UNITE secure conferencing feature.

But Zotac offered an external “card-cage” graphics dock with a PCI Express x 16 expansion slot for graphics cards, 3 standard USB 3.0 ports and one USB 3.0 port supporting QuickCharge, but being able to supply power to the host computer via the Thunderbolt 3 port using USB Power Delivery. The graphics module’s power supply has a power budget of 400 watts and the module is known to be compatible with NVIDIA and AMD graphics cards.  They even offered their own NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 Mini graphics card as a partner card for this dock.

The goal here was to supply a two-piece high-performance computer setup with a system unit and a module that can serve as its graphics subsystem and power supply. But users still had the ability to install better equipment when they felt like it. Or the graphics module could be purposed to provide extra graphics horsepower to portable, “all-in-one” and other small computers that are Thunderbolt-3-equipped as well as supplying necessary power through this port to host computers that honour USB Power Delivery.

Mobile Devices

Even though Samsung had suffered a deep blow with the exploding Galaxy Note 7 phablets, the mobile-computing platform has not died yet. It is although we may be hanging on to our smartphones for longer than the typical two-year contract period in order to save money.

At the moment, the phones that are being given an airing are the mid-tier Android smartphones like the Huawei Honor 6X with a dual camera and the ASUS Zenfone 3 Zoom which is one of the first to have an optical zoom on the rear camera’s lens.

Samsung launched their Galaxy A3 and A5 Android smartphones which are still positioned in the mid-tier segment. This is while Sony came to the fore with the XPeria X2 premium smartphone which has a 5.5” 4K display and 5Gb RAM, just above the baseline expectations for RAM capacity in a desktop computer.

LG had launched a range of low-tier Android smartphones that are equipped with user-replaceable batteries. The K3 is a compact unit with a 4.5” display while the K4 comes with the standard 5” display. There is the K8 5” selfie smartphone which has a highly-optimised front camera for taking those selfies to appear on Instagram or Facebook. Then LG brought the 13 megapixel camera featured in the G series lineup to the K10 5.3” smartphone. They also offered a Stylus 3 phablet with an integrated fingerprint scanner.

The next in the series will cover high-resolution monitors, computer accessories and the home network including the distributed-WiFi trend.

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Dell’s XPS 13 convertible laptop underscores value for money for its class

Article

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 convertible Ultrabook press picture courtesy of Dell USA

The convertible 2-in-1 variant of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

Why The Dell XPS 13 2 In 1 Is The Best Convertible Laptop | iTech Post

Laptop Mag CES 2017 Awards: Best Mobile Tech | Laptop Mag

My Comments

Previously, I had written an article about Dell underscoring value for money with their XPS 13 Ultrabook laptop. This was about choosing the right mix of functions and features that represent what most users are after when they are after that kind of product and offering it at a price that won’t bring “sticker shock” to most potential customers.

Initially I had a chance to review the first generation of the XPS 13 Ultrabook, finding it as a valid secondary notebook computer option for those of us who have a desktop or large laptop but want something to use while “on the road”. But Dell had consistently improved the computer over the subsequent generations, factoring in the newer features that would improve the user experience while keeping a highly-durable compact product that runs for a long time on its own batteries.

In the article, I drew an analogy to most if the mid-tier Panasonic (National) VHS home videocassette recorders offered in Europe, Australia and New Zealand through the mid 1980s, and the Sony mid-tier MiniDisc decks like the MDS-JE520 offered through the mid-to-late 1990s. Both these product ranges came with the features that were considered important for their end-users but at a price that was affordable to them.

But Dell went further when they released the Kaby-Lake-based iteration of the XPS 13 Ultrabook. Here, they issued a convertible variant of this model alongside the traditional clamshell variant. But they didn’t just attach “convertible” hinges to the XPS 13 Kaby Lake laptop. Rather they made sure it had the proper features and specifications associated with the XPS 13 lineup and for a similarly-affordable price.

For example, a baseline “secondary-computer” variant with Intel Core i5 horsepower, 4Gb RAM and 128Gb solid-state storage could set you back US$999. The limitation with the Intel Core i5 and i7 processors offered with the 2-in-1 is that they are based on the Kaby Lake equivalent of the Core M processors and are really targeted and tuned for “on-the-road” use with emphasis on power efficiency and reduced heat output, but wouldn’t perform well for advanced computing tasks.

With this model, there will be a need to buy extra accessories like a USB-C expansion module to connect most USB peripherals, external displays or digital-camera SD cards. But this is more engineered as a highly-portable computer and who knows what the next iteration of the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook or convertible computer could be like.

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Investing in an external graphics module for your laptop

Razer Blade gaming Ultrabook connected to Razer Core external graphics module - press picture courtesy of Razer

Razer Blade gaming Ultrabook connected to Razer Core external graphics module

Just lately, as more premium and performance-grade laptops are being equipped with a Thunderbolt 3 connection, the external graphics modules, also known as graphics docks or graphics docking stations, are starting to trickle out on to the market as a performance-boosting accessory for these computers.

The Thunderbolt 3 connection, which uses the USB Type-C plug and socket, is able to provide a throughput similar to a PCI-Express card bus and has put forward a method of improving a laptop’s, all-in-one’s or small-form-factor computer’s graphics ability. This is being facilitated using the external graphics modules or docks that house graphics processors in the external boxes and link these to the host computer using the above connection. What it will mean is that these computers can benefit from desktop-grade or performance-grade graphics without the need to heavily modify them and, in the case of portable computers, can allow for “performance” graphics to be enjoyed at home or in the office while you have battery-conserving baseline graphics on the road,

Acer Aspire Switch 12S convertible 2-in-1 - press picture courtesy of Microsoft

Acer Aspire Switch 12S convertible 2-in-1 – can benefit from better graphics thanks to Thunderbolt 3 and an external graphics module

The devices come in two classes:

  • Integrated graphics chipset (Acer Graphics Dock) – devices of this class have a hardwired graphics chipset similar to what is implemented in an all-in-one or small-form-factor computer.
  • Card cage (Razer Core, Akitio Node) – These devices are simply a housing where you can install a PCI-Express desktop graphics card of your choice. They have a power supply and interface circuitry to present the desktop graphics card to the host computer via a Thunderbolt 3 connection.

What will they offer?

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

Akitio Node Thunderbolt 3 “card cage” external graphics module

All these devices will have their own video outputs but will yield what the high-performance graphics chipset provides through the host computer’s integral screen, the video outputs integrated with the host computer as well as their own video outputs. This is in contrast to what used to happen with desktop computers where the video outputs associated with the integrated graphics chipset became useless when you installed a graphics card in these computers.

I have read a few early reviews for the first generation of graphics modules and Thunderbolt-3 laptops. One of these was Acer’s integrated graphics module kitted out with a NVIDIA GTX960M GPU, known to be a modest desktop performer but its mobile equivalent is considered top-shelf for laptop applications. This was ran alongside an Acer TravelMate P658 and an Acer Aspire Switch 12S, with it providing as best as the graphics would allow but highlighting where the weakness was, which was the mobile-optimised Intel Core M processors in the Switch 12S convertible.

Simplified plug-in expansion for all computers

Intel Skull Canyon NUC press picture courtesy of Intel

The Intel Skull Canyon NUC can easily be “hotted up” with better graphics when coupled with an external graphics module

Another example was a manufacturer’s blog post about using their “card-cage” graphics dock with one of the Intel Skull Canyon “Next Unit Of Computing” midget computers which was equipped with the Thunderbolt 3 connection. This showed how the computer increased in graphics performance once teamed with the different graphics cards installed in that “card-cage” module.

It opened up the idea of using an “AV system” approach for enhancing small-form-factor and integrated computers. This is where you connect extra modules to these computers to increase their performance just like you would connect a better CD player or turntable or substitute an existing amplifier for something more powerful or plug in some better speakers if you wanted to improve your hi-fi system’s sound quality.

This usage case would earn its keep with an “all-in-one” computer which has the integrated monitor, the aforementioned “Next Unit Of Computing” midget computers or simply a low-profile desktop computer that wouldn’t accommodate high-performance graphics cards.

Software and performance issues can be a real stumbling block

What I had come across from the material I had read was that as long as the host computer had the latest version of the operating system, the latest BIOS and other firmware to support graphics via Thunderbolt 3, and the latest drivers to support this functionality then it can perform at its best. As well, the weakest link can affect the overall performance of the system, which can apply to various mobile system-on-chip chipsets tuned primarily to run cool and allow for a slim lightweight computer that can run on its own batteries for a long time.

At the moment, this product class is still not mature and there will be issues with compatibility and performance with the various computers and external graphics modules.

As well, not all graphics cards will work with every “card-cage” graphics module. This can be due to high-end desktop graphics cards drawing more current than the graphics module can supply, something that can be of concern with lower-end modules that have weaker power supplies, or software issues associated with cards that aren’t from the popular NVIDIA or AMD games-focused lineups. You may have to check with the graphics module’s vendor or the graphics card’s vendor for newer software or firmware to be assured of this compatibility.

Multiple GPUs – a possible reality

A situation that may have to be investigated as more of these products arrive is the concurrent use of multiple graphics processors in the same computer system no matter the interface or vendor. The ability to daisy-chain 6 Thunderbolt-3 devices on the same Thunderbolt-3 connection, along with premium desktop motherboards sporting this kind of connection along with their PCI-Express expansion slots, will make the concept become attractive and easy to implement. Similarly, some vendors could start offering Thunderbolt-3 expansion cards that plug in to existing motherboards’ PCI-Express expansion slots to give existing desktop PCs this functionality.

Here, the goal would be to allow multiple GPUs from different vendors to work together to increase graphics performance for high-end games or multimedia-production tasks like video transcoding or rendering of video or animation projects. Or it could be about improving the performance and efficiency of a multiple-display setup by allocating particular graphics processors to particular displays, something that would benefit larger setups with many screens and, in some cases, different resolutions.

Highly-portable gaming setups being highlighted as a use case

A usage class that was always put forward for these external graphics modules was the teenage games enthusiast who is studying at senior secondary school and is ready to study at university. Here, the usage case underscored the situation where they could be living in student accommodation like a college dorm / residence hall or be living in a share-house with other students.

The application focuses on the use of a laptop computer that can be taken around the campus but be connected to one of these modules when the student is at their home. I would add to this the ability to carry the graphics module between their room and the main lounge area in their home so that they could play their games on the bigger TV screen in that area. This is due to the device being relatively compact and lightweight compared to most desktop computers.

That same application can cover people who are living in accommodation associated with their job and this is likely to change frequently as they answer different work placements. An example of this would be people whose work is frequently away from home for significant amounts of time like those who work on ships, oil rigs or mines. Here, some of these workers may be using their laptop that they use as part of their work during their shift where applicable such as on a ship’s bridge, but use it as a personal entertainment machine in their cabin or the mess room while they are off-shift.

What could be seen more of these devices

Once the external graphics modules mature as a device class, they could end up moving towards two or three classes of device.

One of these would be the integrated modules with graphics chipsets considered modest for desktop use but premium for laptop use. The expansion abilities that these may offer could be in the form of a few extra USB connections, an SD card reader and / or a higher-grade sound module. Perhaps, they may come with an optical drive of some sort. Some manufacturers may offer integrated modules with higher-performance graphics chipsets along with more connections for those of us who want to pay a premium for extra performance and connectivity. These would be pitched towards people who want that bit more “pep” out of their highly-portable or compact computer that has integrated graphics.

Similarly, it could be feasible to offer larger-screen monitors which have discrete graphics chipsets integrated in them. They could also have the extra USB connections and / or secondary storage options, courting those users who are thinking of a primary workspace for their portable computer while desiring higher-performance graphics.

The card-cage variants could open up a class of device that has room for one or two graphics cards and, perhaps, sound cards or functionality-expansion cards. In some cases, this class of device could also offer connectivity and installation options for user-installable storage devices, along with extra sockets for other peripherals. This class of device could, again, appeal to those of us who want more out of the highly-compact computer they started with or that high-performance laptop rather than using a traditional desktop computer for high-performance computing.

Portable or highly-compact computers as a package

Manufacturers could offer laptops, all-in-one and other highly-compact or highly-portable computers that are part of matched-equipment packages where they offer one or more external graphics modules as a deal-maker option or as part of the package. These could differ by graphics chipset and by functionality such as external-equipment connectivity or integrated fixed or removable storage options.

This is in a similar vein to what has happened in the hi-fi trade since the 1970s where manufacturers were offering matched-equipment packages from their lineup of hi-fi components. Here they were able to allow, for example, multiple packages to have the same tape deck, turntable or CD player while each of the package was differentiated with increasingly-powerful amplifiers or receivers driving speakers that had differing levels of audio performance and cabinet size. It still was feasible to offer better and more capable source components with the more expensive packages or allow such devices to be offered as a way to make the perfect deal.

Conclusion

Expect that as more computers equipped with the Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C connection come on the market the external graphics module will become a simplified method of improving these computers’ graphic performance. It will be seen as a way for allowing highly-compact or highly-portable computers to benefit from high-performance graphics at some point in their life, something that this class of computer wouldn’t be able to normally do.

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Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake ultraportable–check for software updates for best performance

Article

Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook - press picture courtesy of Dell

Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook – keep this running at its best with the latest downloads from Dell’s Website

Dell XPS 13 (9360) with Kaby Lake gets a suite of new drivers and fixes | Windows Central

From the horse’s mouth

Dell

New XPS 13 Ultrabook

Product Page (Buy Here!) – currently AUD$2299

Support Page

My Comments

You may be pestering your boss about a new ultraportable computer for your work or perhaps your old laptop has been showing the dreaded doughnut for a bit too long and you have enough money set aside for one of the latest and greatest Ultrabooks. Dell has the latest XPS 13 Kaby Lake variant just released with a price of AUD$1899 (Intel Core i5 Kaby Lake CPU, 8Gb RAM, 128Gb SSD, Windows 10 Home) but keep an eye on the Dell website for specials where the machine may be offered cheaper.

This “portable-typewriter-size” Ultrabook will have the latest Intel processor and chipset, Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C connectivity and other niceties with the ability to exploit 802.11ac Wi-Fi network segments with a strong reliable signal thanks to Rivet Killer Wireless technology. But are you sure you are getting the “best bang for the buck” once you order it from Dell?

Because this Ultrabook has just been released with drivers and firmware “just out the gate”, you may find that it may not cut the mustard as expected like with equipment that has just been released. But Dell have answered this reality by issuing the latest drivers and patches for this system that have been “tuned up” to bring out the best performance from this Ultrabook.

The article recommended that, as part of getting your new “toy” ready for its full-on use, you make sure it is running the latest drivers and support software for its hardware functionality. Most likely, you will spend time making sure it works with your home and/or business network and peripherals; installing the software that is important for your work and play activities; verifying you can get to your online hangouts from this new device, as well as enabling the features that are so important to you. But you would need to factor in spending time checking for newer drivers so the computer performs at its best.

They may not show up on the Dell Update utility software packaged with this system as “critical” but are more likely as “recommended” downloads. You may find it more reliable to hit up the support page and download the necessary updates here. Some of the drivers listed may be about assured stability with the “expansion-module” docks that Dell has available for this system. Here, you may not think of them as being relevant for you if you didn’t purchase any of those accessories from Dell, but they can be as relevant for any adaptors or “expansion-module” docks that appear under a different brand but use the same electronics as Dell’s accessories for one or more of their functions.

The same situation will also apply to whatever new computer you have purchased especially if it has just been released, whereupon you may have to use the manufacturer’s software update utility to pick out the drivers and support software for your system’s hardware. Similarly, you may have to visit the manufacturer’s support or downloads page to find the latest downloads for your computer such as to update the supplied software to newer and better standards.

A similar situation had crept up when I was doing some support work for a friend of mine who had problems with his laptop not associating with his home network since he upgraded it to Windows 10. Here, it required the installation of drivers and firmware from the manufacturer’s support Website in order for it to work properly under that newer operating system and take advantage of what it had to offer. Again, you may have to use the manufacturer’s software update utility or visit their support or downloads page after you perform a major update on the computer’s operating system.

The same thing can happen if your computer is equipped with a subsystem like a wireless-network chipset or audio chipset which implements software-defined behaviour. This is where the subsystem’s functionality is evolved under the command of driver and support software – newer software could improve the subsystem’s existing functionality, make the subsystem honour new standards and become more compatible, or add extra capabilities to that subsystem.

One of the issues that was raised in the article was whether Dell, like the rest of the computer manufacturers, will make these drivers available through the Windows Update mechanism that Microsoft provides or not rather than having to write and furnish an update utility of their own.

A reality that may be seen more is that the OEMs who supply the chipsets or other electronics that look after a particular function, such as Intel, Qualcomn or other wireless-network chipsets that are furnished with newer laptop computers, is that these OEMs may provide the updated drivers for the electronics concerned and you may find that these drivers haven’t been updated as far as the computer manufacturer is concerned. Here, if you know whom the OEM is for that chipset, something you can identify in Device Manager which will list the the extant software drivers installed on your system for its hardware. This same situation also faces desktop computers that you build or upgrade yourself or have built up by an independent computer store.

Similarly, for computers that implement a recovery image for the operating system and supplied applications, you may find that updated versions of the drivers and supplied software may not make it to the recovery image. This can be annoying if you have to “strip” your computer back to ground-zero and reinstall everything during situations like rectifying faults or preparing to hand the computer over to someone else. This could be improved with the ability to amalgamate newer versions of the same software in to the recovery image.

Paying attention to Windows Update, the software-update software delivered by your computer’s manufacturer or the computer manufacturer’s support / download pages can allow you to keep your computer like the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook to the expectations that its manufacturer placed on it.

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A Surface Book variant is actually a portable gaming rig

Article

Should you buy the Surface Book with Performance Base for gaming? | Windows Central

My Comments

Microsoft Surface Book press picture courtesy of Microsoft

A performance variant of the Microsoft Surface will show up as the stealth gaming rig

There have been the rise of gaming-grade laptops that have enough CPU and graphics-processing acumen to handle the latest games on the market with the full performance expectations. Here, most of the manufacturers are releasing at least one model with these abilities but most of these are styled like a muscle car or street rod.

But a few manufacturers are approaching this by offering performance computers that have a “stealth” look where their looks don’t betray the performance under the hood. Microsoft has now joined the party with a performance variant of the Surface Book which works with a “performance base”. This uses a keyboard base with the same graphics ability as the baseline variant of the Surface Studio all-in-one PC.

As with other Surface Book variants, the tablet detaches from the keyboard base so it can simply be a Windows 10 tablet but, when attached, it becomes a convertible laptop. Microsoft could provide the Performance Base not just as part of a system variant for how you wish to order the Surface Book, but as an upgrade option for existing Surface Books for those of us who want to upgrade them as a full-bore gaming or multimedia PC.

It is very similar to what can be done with Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C where manufacturers can offer a graphics module that connects to portable, all-in-one or low-profile computers to enhance their graphics performance. But this idea could be taken further with the use of coprocessors that are part of “performance modules” that could improve existing computers’ performance for gaming and multimedia tasks.

Personally I would find that the trend for portable and “all-in-one” computing is to offer gaming-rig performance as a model variant in one or more product lines rather than as its own product line. This is even though the manufacturer will offer a dedicated premium product line or brand that is focused towards gaming. Such products would appeal to those of us who value the performance angle for multimedia creation or gaming but don’t think of it like owning a “street-machine” car.

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Dell now offers the first 17” 2-in-1 convertible laptop

Articles

Dell announces new Windows 10 2-in-1 laptops starting at $249 | Windows Experience Blog (Microsoft)

Dell Debuts World’s First 17-inch 2-in-1 | Laptop Mag

Laptop Mag Video – Click or tap to view

Dell zeigt 2-in-1-Geräte mit 17-Zoll-Display | Netzwoche.ch (Switzerland – German language / Deutsche Sprache)

From the horse’s mouth

Dell

Computex 2016 Press Release

My Comments

Dell Inspiron 17 (Model 7778 Starlord B) 17-inch Touch notebook computer.press image courtesy of Dell

Dell Inspiron 17 (Model 7778 Starlord B) 17-inch Touch notebook computer.

Dell took advantage of Computex 2016 in Taipei to launch the Inspiron 17-7000 which is the first 2-in-1 laptop to have a 17” screen. It is a 360-degree Yoga-style convertible with a Full-HD (1920×1080) wide-angle display and backlit keyboard. Dell also offer 13” and 15” variants of this computer which would also suit most peoples’ needs and are part of their high-end laptop computer lineup.

The question that would often be raised about a 2-in-1 computer with a 15” or 17” display is whether these screen sizes are considered too large especially when used as a tablet. This is because most of us are used to the 10”-13” tablets like the iPad or the small 2-in-1s. Personally, I would see them earn their keep in a tablet form whenever you are in a chair, couch or bed and are using the system by yourself or with someone else. But the Yoga-style convertible approach also opens up other usage arrangements like a “tent” view or a “viewer” arrangement with the keyboard facing downwards, which can appeal to activities like viewing photos, videos or presentations with the computer on the table

Dell Inspiron 17 (Model 7778 Starlord B) 17-inch Touch notebook computer.press image courtesy of Dell

Dell Inspiron 17 (Model 7778 Starlord B) 17-inch Touch notebook computer.

It also ticks the boxes for a computer having newer expectations like USB Type-C connectivity and the ability to work with an 802.11ac Wi-Fi wireless network segment while having an expected battery runtime of 6 hours. The horsepower behind these computers is mostly of the 6th-generation Intel Core variety and you can spec it with an NVIDIA discrete-graphics setup fit for gaming or video editing.

What is happening with Windows 10 and our exposure to the mobile-platform tablets of the Apple iPad ilk is that we are becoming more accustomed to the idea of touch-based computing and the tablet computer style rather than thinking of a clamshell style just for content creation. As well, the “Continuum” style of multi-faceted computing which shows up in the Tablet Mode on a Windows 10 computer underscores the ability to work between those modes.

Who knows whether more of the 2-in-1 laptops at the 15” and 17” will show up on the market as a way to challenge the likes of the Microsoft Surface range.

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HP gives the convertible 2-in-1 the Ford Mustang treatment

Article

HP’s Pavilion x360 affordable convertible comes in 15-inch version now | The Verge

HP’s new Pavilion PCs include a 15-inch hybrid laptop | Engadget

From the horse’s mouth

HP

Press Release

Video – Click or tap to play

My Comments

When Ford launched the Mustang in 1964, they used a strategy where they could pitch it as a car affordable to young Americans yet something that would appeal to them. Here, they offered a reasonably-equipped baseline model at an affordable price but provided a litany of options that they could “buy on” such as powerful engines, transmissions that suited their needs, air-conditioning, radios with different capabilities and the like. This tactic followed through across Detroit with most of the vehicle builders offering youth-focused “pony cars” that were designed and offered in a similar vein to the Mustang.

HP have taken this approach when they launched the latest range of Pavilion x360 convertible 2-in-1 computers for this model year. Here, they offered the fold-over convertible computers in different screen sizes including the 15” variant which some would consider as too big for a tablet but big enough for a mainstream laptop. This may appeal for the common activity of viewing photos and video content on portable computers, but it could allow you to make best use of the touch-enabled apps and games which are filling up the Windows Store. This range would also come with differing colours like silver, gold, red, purple or blue

As for processors, there would be variants that have horsepower ranging from Intel Celeron to Intel Core i7. You can have your system with up to 8Gb RAM and up to 1Tb hard disk or 128Gb solid-state storage capacity. There are the expected features like 802.11ac Wi-Fi and B&O sound tuning and connectivity in the form of 3 USB sockets, SD card reader for your “digital film” and an HDMI video port.

The 15” model is being pitched as an alternative to the traditional mainstream 15” laptop that most students would end up with. As I have seen in the video clip, I see the newer HP Pavilion x360 being pitched also as an alternative to, guess what, the 15” Apple MacBook Pro especially when it comes to creative work or to be seen in the DJ booth at the trendiest nightclubs.

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Acer uses liquid cooling in their latest 2-in-1

Article – From the horse’s mouth

Acer

Switch Alpha 12

Press Release

My Comments

Acer Switch Alpha 12 tablet press image courtesy of Acer

Acer Switch Alpha 12 tablet

Acer has raised the bar in the face of the Microsoft Surface Pro when it comes to releasing the Switch Alpha 12 “Surface-style” 2-in-1 tablet. The baseline model of the pack is being pitched at prices like US$599 or EUR€699 which makes for something that is keenly priced amongst its peers.

You might consider it to be an ordinary 2-in-1 that tries to copy the Microsoft Surface product range but this raises the bar through the use of a regular Intel Core series CPU. These processors will show up with cooling problems if they are used with a thin-and-light portable computer design like a detachable-keyboard 2-in-1 or tablet so Acer addressed this issue using a closed-loop liquid cooling system which works in a similar way to your car keeps its engine cool or how your fridge keeps the food or drink inside it cold and fresh. But this cooling setup is designed to obviate the need for a fan, thus allowing for quiet operation.

Acer Switch Alpha 12 2-in-1 with keyboard press image courtesy of Acer

With keyboard – as a laptop

Of course, it ticks the boxes when it comes to what is expected for a current-issue “2-in-1” detachable including the use of a standard USB Type-C connector for charging and data transfer rather than a proprietary connector which the Microsoft Surface uses, as well as being supplied with the basic keyboard cover. The 12” (2160×1440) touchscreen along with a full-size keyboard makes for a system that appeals to creating content rather than a glorified iPad. As for the kickstand, it has the same look as the kind of handle that an “old-school” portable radio-cassette was equipped with – the U-shaped metal handle with a rubberised grip in the centre. This allows for the tablet to be kept stable on a desk or table when you are using it with the keyboard.

Acer Switch Alpha 12 2-in-1 tablet rear view press picture courtesy of Acer

Acer Switch Alpha 12 2-in-1 tablet – rear view

You can purchase the Acer Switch Alpha 12 in various configurations that have either 4Gb or 8Gb of RAM and a secondary-storage option of either a 128Gb, 256Gb or 512Gb solid-state storage device. The removeable storage option for this computer is a MicroSDXC card slot and, as I have mentioned before, you have a USB Type-C port and a USB Type-A port for connecting thumbdrives or SD card adaptors.

The wireless-connectivity options come in the form of a Bluetooth 4.0 link or an 802.11a/g/n/ac dual-stream Wi-Fi network link. This will allow for high throughput data transfer when you are on the go.

Acer have pitched the Switch Alpha 12 at both the consumer market and the business market by making business-focused variants of it available through its value-added resellers and independent computer stores who court the business market. Here the business variants come with the Trusted Platform Module along with being loaded with Windows 10 Pro as the operating system.

They have also provided a range of accessories such as an optional backlit keyboard along with two “expansion-module” docks. The first one is the USB Type-C dock that connects via USB-C to DisplayPort and HDMI video ports along with two USB 3.1 Type-C ports and 3  USB Type-A ports. This is in addition to an audio-in and an audio-out jack to serve its own sound module. There is also the Acer ProDock Wireless that connects to the computer via the 802.11ad Wi-Fi short-range peripheral wireless to an 802.11ac Wi-Fi network segment, along with video displays that have either HDMI, DisplayPort or VGA connections as well as USB devices.

From what I have read about the Acer Switch Alpha 12 2-in-1, it underscores the role where it could ideally serve as the “all-purpose” work-home-travel portable computer including the ability to use it as a tablet for reading content. This is more so if you are thinking of using a system that doesn’t use either an entry-level or mobile-focused CPU but uses a laptop-grade processor.

What is happening is that the battle-lines are being drawn when it comes to the kind of computers that represent the multipurpose 2-in-1 product class. Here, I would see some of these computers implementing the mainstream Intel or AMD processors with a goal to achieve long battery runtime while software developers write the kind of programs that exploit the touchscreens that these computers offer. As well, I would see some of these computers appear at a price that isn’t stratospherically expensive.

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What needs to be answered about school-supplied technology

Lenovo ThinkPad Helix 2 connected to Wi-Fi hotspot at Bean Counter Cafe

Many questions need to be raised by knowledgeable parents about school-based IT programs

Parents often face a question when their child starts secondary school concernimg the technology that is being used as part of their education. This is more so with laptop computers that well be used at home to complete homework assignments and at school to take notes and do research.

Increasingly schools are supplying the families with the appropriate technology, typically with government and private-sector assistance. These computers may be supplied at a heavily-subsidised price so there isn’t much effect on the parent’s hip pocket.

But schools see this technology as part of their realm of control in your student’s life in a way that they see what the student does at home or away from school activities as bearing on the school’s name. This may be more so with privately-funded and similar schools where the school places a strong emphasis on their name and reputation.

These questions are worth raising during information nights or parent-teacher meetings that you will be engaging in during your child’s enrolment.

Is the technology sold or leased to your family by the school?

If you are acquiring the technology through the school, it is worth enquiring whether you are buying the computer so that you own the computer or whether you are leasing it or renting it on an annual basis where the school or school district has legal ownership over the equipment. This may include situations where you may borrow the computer for the duration of your child’s enrolment or for certain years but you may have to pay a bond on the equipment.

This can help with further issues regarding whether you can retain the computer to be used for the younger children or as a utility computer. On the other hand, it can also affect issues regarding maintaining the system and what happens in case of loss, theft or damage.

As well, it is worth finding out whether a technology-buyout program does exist where parents or students can purchase leased or rented computer equipment that they currently use from the school. This is important for equipment supplied to senior high-school students because most of the school-supplied technology programs require that the senior students relinquish their computers once they graduate from their senior years.

Such a buyout option can benefit both the school and student in different ways. The student benefits by being able to keep the computer as a personal computer through the years between their high-school graduation and their entry to tertiary or trade studies. The school also benefits because they aren’t keeping rapidly-depreciating assets on their books but can turn them over for cash which can be used to buy newer technology.

Who provides support in case of equipment failure or accident

Ask the school whether they have a maintenance programme for the school-supplied equipment. This includes what kind of minimum turnaround time exists if the equipment needs to be serviced. As well, does the maintenance programme cover for accidental equipment damage because students can easily end up being accident prone.

It may also include whether you have to pay to replace failed or damaged parts and whom you buy the replacement parts from.

Insurance coverage for theft and damage

To the same extent, it may be worth looking at your home-contents insurance policy to find out whether they provide coverage for equipment that is damaged or stolen while away from your home, including overseas. This may be of importance when your children go on the many field trips and school camps that will be part of their education; or when they engage in social activities with their friends.

Exchange-student programs

Your school may participate in an exchange-student program where one or more local students travel to another area, typically another country while the school hosts and teaches the students from one or more other areas. This is typically to encourage awareness of different cultures and increase knowledge of different languages.

Such programs typically will include overseas travel and having the participants stay in private households that are part of the participating school’s community. There are questions that will be raised if you end up hosting an exchange student or your child becomes an exchange student themselves.

If the school facilitates this program whether by itself or with a third party, you may have to find out where you or the school stands if the equipment belonging to your child who is overseas or the student you are billeting was stolen or damaged.

Similarly, your child or the student you are hosting may need assistance with connecting to different networks such as the host’s home network in the case of your child or your home network in the case of the guest student.

For that matter, it may be a good idea for schools, student-exchange agencies and students participating in exchange-student programs to read an article I wrote on this site about testing Skype across separate networks to make sure it works properly. This is because the videocall functionality in these programs can be used as a way for an exchange student to keep in contact with home and show what the “other” culture is about.

Can I configure the system myself?

An issue that is also being raised regarding school-supplied technology is whether you can configure the system yourself or perform remedial repairs on the system.

This may be to get the laptop to work with your home network, or to install any drivers to get it to work with the network-capable printers in your home. As well, you need to be sure that the school-supplied computer can gain access to other network resources and the Internet in a similar manner to other devices that exist on the home network.

Similarly, there is the issue of keeping the operating system and applications on these computers updated and patched to avoid these computers and the rest of your home network’s computers being the target for malware. Here, the kids’ computers could be updated with the latest patches whether they are at school or at home.

Different operating platforms

This issue of configuring the school-supplied laptop yourself also extends to coping with different computer platforms and operating systems. For example, you may find that the school supplies your kids a MacBook Pro as part of one of Apple’s education-technology programmes that the school is benefiting from, while you are more comfortable with the Windows-based computer you use at home. Similarly, the school may have all the computers running Windows 10 but you are pushing the barrel with Windows 7 on the work-home laptop that you normally use.

Here, you may be able to find out whether you can learn about the computing platform and operating system your school uses and how to configure it to work with your home network and peripherals.

How does the school handle a “bring-your-own” computer?

Another situation that is appealing to parents is the ability to buy their kid’s computer from a third-party retailer and have that as the computer thay use for school. This is typically due to the ability to purchase the system at a cost-effective price through a “back-to-school” special run by a major retailer or online and some governments may provide a benefit to families to assist with purchasing this education-related technology.

This concept is being facilitated also by the fact that the “bring your own device” concept is in full swing at workplaces and newer operating systems and software allows for a level of manageability in these situations.

Minimum standards for this computer

You should find out what the minimum standards are for a computer you supply yourself. The standards for the hardware should be based on the kind of CPU the computer must have, the amount of RAM and storage space the computer has, and the graphics subsystem and display resolution that the computer has to have. This also includes the minimum standard for the Wi-Fi interface for schools that implement a Wi-Fi network.

As for the software, you need to find out the minimum version and edition of the operating system along with the application software you need to have installed.  You may find that application vendors may supply a “student edition” of their software which is licensed for personal and education use only and some of these programs may be licensed for a small number of computers that are in the same household.

Use of a school-supplied disk image?

Some schools may require the use of a disk image that is managed by the school themselves in order to assure better control of the computer on the school premises. Here, you may find out whether you need to install this image and if you can get away with a dual-boot setup where you have a “home” operating environment and a “school” operating environment.

The better solution would be a USB stick or optical disk full of any courseware that is necessary for the curriculum, including any software that is required for the studies. The Internet use at the school environment can be controlled using the network hardware that runs the school’s network.

Can the system be maintained by the school’s IT staff?

It may also be worth inquiring whether the school’s IT staff are willing to provide maintenance and support for equipment that is brought to school on a BYO basis. Here, it may be about rectifying a system failure that occurs on that day or adding support for student-accessible peripherals that the school owns such as printers or sensor devices used as part of science experiments.

Computer-education courses for adults

In a lot of households where one or both parents aren’t computer-literate is that one or more of the teenage children end up providing assistance to the parents when it comes to personal-computing issues. This is typically due to the children learning many concepts regarding personal-computing through their school years.

It may also be worth finding out if your child’s school runs adult-focused courses about computer education. This may be of importance for those of you who haven’t had much education-based or workplace-based exposure to personal computing and will be of importance for people who do work that is primarily blue-collar.

Typically, the mode of delivery for these short courses would be evening classes taught by one of the school’s computing-science teachers. The school will usually charge for the courses and the students’ parents may pay a cheaper fee due to the fact that their child is attending that school.

Here, the courses should teach the essentials about knowing your way around your computer such as file management; along with safe computing practices. This should also include learning about keeping your computer system in top order like backups and keeping your software up-to-date. As well, such courses should highlight making effective use of the Internet and its online resources in a safe manner.

Some of the courses may offer tuition in other computing platforms like the Macintosh platform which may benefit adults who are used to, say, Windows learning about the other platforms and would come in handy if the school works on that different platform.

Conclusion

Once you ask the right questions from your child’s school’s staff, you can end up being an active participant in your child’s IT-focused education without fearing as though the school “owns you”.

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The Microsoft Surface Pro becomes another of personal computing’s Holy Grails

Apple MacBook Pro running MacOS X Mavericks - press picture courtesy of ApplePreviously, all the laptop vendors were trying to design their products to have a similar look to Apple’s MacBook product lineup. This ended up with the Apple MacBook product lineup along with the Apple iMac product lineup being seen as personal computing’s “Holy Grail” when it comes to design, construction and specification. This was involving computers that have the same slimline look to the Apple MacBook Air series along with some media-capable laptops like the HP Envy 15-3000 having a similar styling and capability to the Apple MacBook Pro.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 press image courtesy of Microsoft USA

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 – considered to be the Holy Grail for Windows-based detachable-tablet 2-in-1s

But what has just been happening at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was a run of detachable-tablet 2-in-1 computers that have a very similar look to the Microsoft Surface Pro.  For example, when the keyboard is attached to the Surface Pro and the kickstand is brought out so it is used as a notebook computer, the setup raises the keyboard at a slight angle; while the tablet part is very much a glass-covered slate.

This ended up with the Microsoft Surface Pro, especially the latest generation, being considered the “Holy Grail” whein it comes to detachable-tablet 2-in-1 computers.

All of the contenders have the detachable keyboard supplied with the tablet even if you purchase the baseline variant in their product lineup. This is while they achieve that slimline look that the Microsoft Surface has attained as a tablet.

They also offer features that Microsoft wouldn’t provide as part of the Surface Pro’s spec like use of common “open-frame” connectors such as the USB Type-C connector. HP’s Spectre x2, for example, even adds an Intel RealSense camera for Windows Hello facial recognition.

As I have noticed over the last year, the Microsoft Surface Pro lineup has also been aggressively targeted at those of us who would buy the Apple MacBook Air or own one of these computers. This is through the use of style to woo these customers along with TV commercials that show you what you can do on the Surface Pro but can’t do on the MacBook Air and pages on Microsoft’s Website giving instructions on how to move off Apple’s Macintosh platform to the Surface.

Could this be another trend for computer manufacturers to achieve “Holy Grail” products for their product class which which other comptuer designers aspire to? But on the other hand, the desire to imitate can ruin the desire to innoviate and make products that carry their unique look and design characteristics.

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