Category Archives: computers

(Th)Air and Back Again – A MacBook’s Tale

What 13″ laptop is 1.1″ thick and weighs 5lbs?

An Apple MacBook, from 2008.

Why is that relevant? To put the MacBook Air into context. When the MacBook Air was released in 2008, its svelte 3/4″ “thinness” and 3lbs was a revelation, showing what mobile productivity could feel like. Today, nearly every consumer 13.3″ notebook >$500 is 3/4″ thick and less than 3.5lbs, touchscreen included. Even the MacBook Pro, which is a distinctly more capable machine, than the Air, is hardly thicker at all and only 0.5lbs heavier.

Meanwhile, the new 12″ (retina) MacBook is 25% thinner and 1/5 lighter than an 11.6″ MacBook Air and provides 12.5% more screen area (not to mention a drastically increased resolution). In comparison, the new MacBook is once more a mobility revelation. Importantly, the form factor size and weight reductions did not come at the expense of solidity, much performance (within 15% of a latest generation MacBook Air) or battery life. I played around with a co-worker’s MacBook, recently, and it is mind-boggling object to behold.

And it’s because of this progress that I believe we will soon see the MacBook Air, as we know it today, go into retirement. I’m guessing two versions of an “all new” MacBook will take its place, one with the same 12″ size as the current MacBook, and another in the 13.5-14″ range and 1/3 pound heavier, to give it some distinction from its smaller counterpart. Similar to the original announcement, the release should happen in late Q1, in time to address the college graduation season and continue to be fresh, going into back-to-school.

Skylake-Y seems like a shoe-in, with its performance profile very similar to Broadwell-U, in all but the most intensive, long-running operations, where the limited thermal headroom will crimp performance. In order to hit the psychologically and advertising-important “starting at $999″, I think the smaller, 12″ version will come with 8GB RAM and 128GB storage. The larger ~14” version likely starts at $1299, with an upgraded processor and 256GB storage.

The odd-duck MacBook Pro with optical drive notwithstanding, Apple hasn’t long carried 3 notebook line-ups for long, so unless one believes instead the new MacBook or the MacBook Pro line will disappear, it’s only natural that the in-between MacBook Air merges into the more distinctive option, shortly. It’ll also help with the naming, back to good old Pro and non-Pro.

Surface Book/Pro 4 Sleep Battery Drain (Skylake IGP edition)

If you have a Surface Pro 4 or a Surface Book, chances are, you’re experiencing pretty awful sleep (Connected Standby in particular) battery drain. This power state is designed to enable connectivity and near-instantaneous wakes, while consuming extremely little power think 10 days of battery life, in this state).

In order for this state (Intel calls the system state S0ix, or an active-idle state) to work, a combination of operating system, system firmware, and device drivers need to all act appropriately. The Intel integrated graphics devices appears to be a common cause of battery drain in sleep for Skylake-based systems. Sleep study reports (you can view them by running “powercfg sleepstudy” from an elevated command prompt) indicate the graphics device is active on the order of 15-17% of the time, while in sleep, causing 1W+ drain.

However, an updated Intel graphics driver, released December 22, 2015, version 15.40.14.64.4352, has improved that somewhat for my Surface Pro 4. Check it out – can you guess when I installed the driver?

sp4_sleepstudy

Power draw is still not where I’d like to see it (from my work on various SoC platforms, within Windows, I’d expect these Core-based systems to consume in the range of 100-150mW, on average), but it’s still a 40-50% improvement from where it was. This high drain is also likely why the Surface team implemented a rather short doze-to-hibernate timeout of 2 hours. It means I’m frequently resuming the device from hibernate (~12 seconds) instead of from Standby (<1 second).

The driver is currently only for 6th generation (Skylake) Core graphics and with a Surface, you’ll need to install it manually via Device Manager (great installation guide, at Windows Central), until Microsoft pushes it to this particular device ID via Windows Update. It seems to work just fine, though. If you’re seeing similar (better) results, let me know!

The Last March of the PC

With the holiday shopping season upon us, in earnest, my attention is drawn to the hordes of <$400 laptops on the market. A couple years ago, within Windows, we were cringing at the onslaught of Chromebooks, to which we had no better answer than the continued race of the behemoth desktop-replacement laptops to match at least on price. Think driving the price of a last generation Toshiba C55 down to $249.

Two years on, the Windows value-entry ecosystem is in a much more competitive place. In large part, this has been triggered by licensing changes, designed to stem share loss at the low-end, not dissimilar in concept to the Windows “Starter Edition” driving Linux-based netbooks from the market. Well, the differences are myriad; Windows with Bing is not a limited OS, like Starter was, and performance, even at the low end of the laptop market, is finally sufficient, for typical consumer use.

But, I wonder what this is accomplishing. We’re all just fighting for an ever shrinking pie that is the PC market – and I draw the circle around what constitutes the “PC” market liberally, including OS X and Chrome OS. PC penetration in most regions of the world has peaked. And because even the lowest options on the PC totem pole are increasingly “good enough” for typical use, the upgrade cycle has lengthened. There are literally over half a billion PCs, in use, over 4 years old. It’s not clear there are any further “killer apps” in the PC sphere that will drive a significant portion to upgrade. Likely not, with the technology ecosystem’s focus elsewhere.

So, yes, Windows will continue to drive new features into the PC, to limit the decline of the market. Windows Hello is magical (similarly, ask iPhone users if they’re willing to forego their fingerprint readers), but it’s still making its way to mass market. Look at the shelves this holiday, and you’ll find Windows Hello is still few and far between, mostly on >$700 devices. It will come down, but it’s not a Hail Mary that rejuvenates the entire market. That said, Hello and other features are part of a holding pattern, while “the next thing” is cultivated (cloud? services? “IoT”?).

In the meantime, enjoy what is likely to be a last generational hurrah for PC innovation. We will drive it, because we need it to support the privilege of being able to invest elsewhere. Budget PCs will get much better and a more definitive premium tranche, carved out by Apple, and increasingly joined by Surface, will be sustained.

Surface Book: GPU Deep Dive

The Surface Book. It was an exciting moment to watch Panos unveil a premium laptop (finally!) and, shortly thereafter, pull the display off its keyboard base. With only a few weeks between launch and hard availability, anticipation and excitement has been maintained. I even stayed home to await delivery, the morning of October 26.

There are 3 important aspects that drew me to the Surface Book:

  • All the trappings of an excellent laptop (weight, size, battery life, display)
  • Form factor versatility
  • Discrete GPU for light-medium gaming

I have lots to say about the Surface Book, but I wanted to dwell on the last point, first. I’m not a heavy gamer, but I do enjoy some strategy games, occasionally. I’ve compromised that capability in my laptop choices, to date, as I value weight and mobility more. So, needless to say, I was eager to see how the Surface Book would handle those gaming scenarios.

Microsoft (and NVIDIA) continue to remain mum on the particulars of the discrete GPU. It was announced as a Maxwell-based part, with 1GB GDDR5. Now, this is a combination that has never been seen before and, interestingly enough, Panos spoke to its use primarily as an accelerator for professional content-creation applications, such as AutoCAD and the suite of Adobe tools. Yes, some light gaming was also mentioned, such as League of Legends, but with the Surface Book’s hardware and price points targeting prosumers and content professionals, no effort was made to match, performance-per-dollar, gaming laptops.

With Surface Books in the wild, we know that it’s a GM108-based part, with 1GB GDDR5 @ 5GT/s. The 940M-equivalent GPU disappointed some, but I also expected the GDDR5-enabled bandwidth to improve performance, not insignificantly, over the standard DDR3 configuration. Here’s a spec comparison. Note the 940M core and memory speeds vary, based on design implementation.

gpu_table

With 2.5X the memory bandwidth, we should see some substantial improvements. I’ve compared game performance, across a few titles, using an 840M (from which the 940M is rebranded), the Surface Book’s integrated Gen9 HD 520, and the discrete Surface Book GPU. Framerates are average and game settings are as follows:

  • Bioshock Infinite – 1080p, Medium setting
  • Total War: Attila – 1440×900, Performance setting, Shadows – Max Performance, Texture – Medium
  • Shadow of Mordor – Surface Book @ 1500×1000, 840M @ 1536×864, Low setting
surface_book_gpu_benchmarks

Across these three games, all of which have built-in benchmarking tools, the Surface Book dGPU is 2X faster than the integrated and anywhere between 20-33% faster than the 840M/940M, from which it is derived. It does stand that in many games, like Shadow of Mordor and Attila, in the tests, 1GB VRAM limits you to lower texture fidelity, compared to 2GB; in practice, the GM108 isn’t fast enough to drive those higher textures at sufficient framerates for a good experience, anyways.

While all of this pixel-pushing is going on, the fans (both in the clipboard and in the keyboard base) spin up to varying degrees. They make their presence known primarily by a rushing, whooshing sound, and limited amount of high-pitching whine, which makes the noise more bearable than most caused by small-diameter fans and blowers.

So, you can play some games on a Surface Book, as well as it use it as a pretty slick multi-use productivity machine, otherwise. But, I as found out over the subsequent couple weeks of use, it has its share of teething pains.

HP Stream

A number of stories popped up about the HP Stream, this week, primarily focused on its bargain-basement $199 price point. While a head-turning price, particularly for the 14″ Windows notebook, I’m more interested its execution and how it may make or break the perception of whether Windows PCs can compete successfully against  Chromebooks in the ultra-value segment.

I spent an inordinate amount of time, during my last days in the Windows Ecosystem team, working with the marketing teams to define and pitch great-for-the-money, highly mobile, value notebooks. All the OEMs had something “Value” in the pipeline. You see these popping up at Best Buy, Amazon, and even the Microsoft Store. Intel’s Bay Trail-M chipset increased the level of system integration on-die, and various marketing and business programs from Microsoft provided more attractive Windows license pricing. Hitting a permanent 249USD transfer price became achievable with Windows notebooks.

But, as you see with these devices, they are, for the majority, 15.6″ notebooks, 5lbs in weight,  have <=5hr of real world battery life, 1-1.2″ thick and have spinning platter drives. They’re all existing entry notebook designs, ones that were conceived with an optical drive and thermal capacity to support anything from 15-35W TDP processors. Removing the optical drive and reducing the cooling capacity help shed up to 10% weight, but the chassis and materials all remain otherwise the same. They weren’t designed from the ground up to be mobile; they were designed to be value desktop replacements, for the upgrade cycle, when the thought of some mobility pushed you over the edge to buy a laptop instead of a desktop.

So, you see, the HP Stream will be more important than yet another cheap Windows notebook. It was designed from the get-go with the purpose of producing a value, yet highly mobile notebook. As far as I can tell, it’s the first one of its kind, in the Windows notebook ecosystem. A quick peek at the specs proves this: a 4.5W TDP processor, memory-on-board, eMMC storage, no provisions to add an optical drive, 0.7″ thin, a 14″ display at less than 4lbs. The HP Chromebook 14, an extremely similar design, starts at $279.

Comments on the HP Stream rumors, thus far, appear to run primarily in two camps: 1. Wow, a Chromebook-killer! or 2. My nightmares, about netbooks, have returned! Let’s look at the hardware and software components that’ll make or break the experience.

The first thing to do is to select a hardware configuration that has a hope in hell of actually running Windows, well, in a light-medium multi-tasking environment. While it’s not explicitly called out,  the fact that there’s a 4GB memory configuration indicates this device will ship with 64 bit Windows, which impacts both memory and storage requirements. With the improvements in memory utilization in Windows 8 and 8.1, with the 2GB configuration, users should be able to run Office and similar weight desktop applications, well, or maintain 5+ average-sized Store apps in the backstack, without incessant app reloads. Furthermore, 32GB and 64GB eMMC parts are used, very different from the more typical 500GB platter disks in other value Windows notebooks. These parts should have an order of magnitude better random read/write performance, vastly improving the perceived responsiveness of the system.

The Stream’s CPU performance is a more interesting exercise in estimation. The AMD A4 Micro-6400T is from the new Mullins SoC family, designed to support fanless form factors, including tablets and ultraportables.  Starting from a known comparison point, the new Puma CPU cores are very similar to the Jaguar ones, found in the A4-1450 (Temash), except, power has been reduced and peak clock speeds increased. The A4-1450 had 1.0GHz base and 1.4GHz boost clocks, the 6400T maintains the base, but increases the boost, to 1.6GHz, while fitting into a 4.5W TDP (compared to the 8W TDP of the A4-1450). All in all, the 6400T should perform a bit better than the A4-1450, but last longer on battery.

A4-1450 performance data indicates the CPUs perform slightly worse than a Bay Trail (-T Z3770, Silvermont cores). Given the 6400T should be marginally faster, its performance should be similar to a Z3770, or to that of a Celeron N2920 (quad core Bay Trail-M). The Celeron N2920 is in turn essentially a quad core variant of the Celeron N2815, found in many of the new value Windows notebooks, listed earlier. In short, the CPU shouldn’t be a major bottleneck in the workloads expected of general users. The GPU should be significantly (50%) faster than a Bay Trail-T.

Atom Z3770 Celeron N2815 A4-1450 A4 Micro-6400T
Silvermont – 4C Silvermont – 2C Jaguar – 4C Puma – 4C
1.46-2.4GHz 1.86-2.0GHz 1.0-1.4GHz 1.0-1.6GHz
1.5X 1X CPU perf 1.3X 1.4X

A bunch of work was done in the Windows 8.1 Update to support wimboot, booting from a compressed Windows image file. The runtime image and the recovery image are the same, with only deltas, as the systems was used and updated, stored in the traditional “data” partition. This saves many gigabytes of user storage, particularly significant with small eMMC/SSD devices. In the case of a 64 bit client configuration, the totality of the install and winre wims runs on the order of 7-8GB. Combine that with the 1.5GB hiberfile (for a 2GB RAM system, which could be removed) and several hundred megabytes of the EFI System Partition and Microsoft Reserved partition, and total system used space is ~10GB. With the smallest storage configuration for the Stream, 32GB (represented in Windows as ~29.8GB – binary), the user should be left with just under 20GB of free space. Now, that estimate may be a bit optimistic, given there’s bound to be some number of preloaded applications and utilities.

Traditional Layout:

Partitions: System, MSR, WinRE, Windows, Recovery

WIMBoot Layout:

Partitions map: System, MSR, Windows, Images

Which brings us to potentially the make-or-break portion of the system configuration, software. It will depend so much on how HP loads the system with preloaded utilities, anti-virus/malware tools, and other value adds. I’ve seen so many hardware configuration that should be so capable, get brought to their knees by brutal anti-malware software (a Windows Explorer window taking more than a second to launch, with this particular anti-malware utility scanning the exe, taxing the CPU 35%). With very compressed margins, it’ll be more tempting than ever to try and make some money via software monetization and subscription conversions.

I’m very excited about the HP Stream. The combination of price, portability, and flexibility of Windows should make it popular, and if my predictions turn out to be true, a pretty well-performing option, as well. I see it as a good general purpose college laptop or a tossable machine around the home. I have to believe that with the stand-out price point and hence the amount of attention and marketing that will be placed on it, the combination of HP and Microsoft have worked hard to ensure that the experience is a good one. Otherwise, we’ll only restart the netbook flames, hotter than ever.

Surface Pro 2 Review

Note: I originally wrote this past last November, but for some reason never published it. As we’re so close to Surface Pro 3 launch time, I thought it worthwhile to publish this now and reminisce.

Disclaimer: I work for Microsoft, but did not and do not work directly on any of the Surface projects. My opinions are my own, but obviously shaped by my experiences at the company.

When the first generation Surface Pro was launched, you could see the vision laid out before the device pretty clearly. It was supposed to be the most performance one could reasonably pack into an ultra-mobile form factor, for on-the-go power users. Unfortunately, those on-the-go power users also needed the ability to actually be on-the-go. The approximately 4 (maybe 5) hours of productive battery life from that device were too few to be able to take full advantage of the mobility factor.

Fast forward not quite a year and we saw the potential of Haswell, not in pushing the performance envelope, but rather the power consumption one. Packing that update into what was otherwise a great device would make Surface Pro 2 a more complete realization of the original vision. At launch, the Surface Pro 2 was touted to have 75% better battery life than v1. Compared to the 4-5 hours of real world battery life in v1, you’d expect somewhere in the 7-8.5 hour range with v2.

Early reviews came close to that range, CNET and The Verge hitting 7-7.5 hours, but Engadget and AnandTech were down closer to the 6.5 hour range. While not bad, it certainly wasn’t up to par (battery life/wh capacity) to some of the better Ultrabook-class machines. Shortly after launch, a firmware update was released to address some power consumption bugs. Anand’s since run some additional testing, showing web browsing is now up to 8.3 hours. My daily use also bears the improved battery life out. In a domain-joined, heavily saturated wireless environment at work, battery report (cmd: powercfg /batteryreport on Windows 8+) shows that I’ve been getting on average 7.5 hours out of a full charge. That’s just about all-(working)-day battery life.

At one point, I questioned the choice of the Haswell-U (15W TDP) processor line for this type of form factor. After all, the higher power consumption part would require more cooling, a bigger battery and thus make the device thicker and heavier than if it were otherwise equipped with, say, a Haswell-Y part. However, with the story all told and the support of the accessory line up, it’s clear the goal was to create a unique device, capable of being your main productivity machine in the smallest reasonable form factor. Compared with something like the Sony Tap 11, which uses a Haswell-Y processor, the Surface is 0.3lbs heavier and 3.5mm thicker, but it lasts much longer on battery and performs significantly better, even when comparing the ~$1000-1100 SKUs. This is intended to be mobile enough to do everything you need to on the go, but then dock seamlessly into a desktop environment.

I’ve been using the Surface Pro 2 for long enough at both work and home to have a good read of where it shines and scenarios where it needs improvement. The short of it is that I’ve been sufficiently impressed that I’m considering buying myself one as a Christmas present. 🙂

All the basics and critical bases are covered. The display is a nice, crisp, and color-accurate 1080p 10.6″ one. Battery life, as previously mentioned is in the 7.5 hour-range, sufficient for a day of meetings or an intercontinental flight without a charger. Performance is always snappy, little to no hiccups. Wifi connectivity is up to good laptop class, with a 2x2n dual band solution. The new two-stage kickstand is welcomed for both in-lap usage and while standing at the kitchen counter. Type Cover 2’s backlit keys are useful in dim settings and the key actions are a bit nicer, a bit quieter than Type Cover v1. Lastly, while I’ve always felt styli are a bit gimmicky when it comes to interfaces, I’m loving the pen+OneNote. I’m not using even 10% of the pen and digitizer’s capabilities; however, diagrams while note taking and OCR for pen-to-character conversion with OneNote is a “wow” scenario. I really wish I had this thing while I was in university. Oh, and I almost forgot, the thing has a fan, but it’s so quiet, I’ve not heard it spin up. It’s one of those things that’s best not noticed.

Okay, but there are areas for improvement.

My first piece of feedback not so much a feasible “improvement”, but rather a fundamental change to the device: the screen size. The 10.6″ form factor makes a near full-sized keyboard a possibility, which is great, but with so much horsepower and potential, I want to use it as my only productivity machine, on the go. The screen size is cramped, especially when you’re trying to write a document while referencing a source in a web browser, for example. It’s a natural trade-off for an ultra mobile device, but nevertheless, limiting when it comes to serious productivity on the move. With the docking station and external monitors at a desk, it can really stretch its legs.

My second concern is pricing, or rather the configurations available for sale. The $999 SKU comes with 4GB RAM and 128GB of storage. I don’t particularly care to upgrade to more storage (plus, it comes with 200GB of SkyDrive for two years!); however, I would like more than 4GB memory. Unfortunately, you cannot have one without the other and the associated $300 adder. That said, after including a Type Cover, the Surface Pro 2 ends up being approximately $100 more than an equivalently spec’d MacBook Air 11, but adds a higher resolution touchscreen and is more versatile (tablet mode, pen).

Lastly, while the Type Cover 2 is generally an improvement over v1, I do miss the first gen’s touchpad, which had both a slicker surface and a depressible click mechanism. In both cases, I wish there was more space for a larger touchpad. Especially given the small display compared to more laptops, precision tasks (e.g. placing the cursor in Word) are challenging with the touchscreen and made only marginally better by the small touchpad. Alas, next gen.

So, the thing is certainly not perfect, and in particular, the small and relatively stubby form factor makes it look and feel like an oddly dense tablet, that isn’t quite large enough to replace most folks’ laptops, with keyboard attached. However, it’s getting mighty close with the battery life and stand angle issues solved. For me and my use cases, I find the combination pretty ideal as a program manager, at work, and I’ve been using it as my primary machine there.

IFA 2012

A major wave of computing products launching with Windows 8 was announced this week, at IFA. It’s exciting, not only because the PC ecosystem is demonstrating its belief in a renewed selling cycle, but also that, for perhaps the first time, we’re seeing hardware designed from the get-go to be tailored to the operating system at its heart. Touch-first devices are everywhere, but so is the emphasis on content creation and productivity, in addition to content consumption.

The focus on making SoC systems work great in Windows 8 has manifested itself in the various Windows RT and Windows 8  PCs, based on Intel’s latest SoC product. Traditional clamshells are taking advantage of the resolution scaling work as well, and then adding touch. And perhaps best of all, PC makers are starting to build brands and awareness around their suite of products. Samsung ATIV, ASUS Vivo. It’ll certainly be easier to remember and associate than (ASUS) Tablet 810.

We also saw the very first commercial Windows Phone 8 device, the ATIV S from Samsung. It seems to have taken the Galaxy S III’s components, for the most part, and slipped them into a nicer, more premium shell. I’m looking forward to more Windows Phone announcements next week, with Nokia’s Wednesday event.

ASUS UX21 – A Few (Critical) Mistakes from Great

It was all looking so good. The feel of cold, smooth, brushed aluminum. The solidity of a thin form factor. Beautifully sleek design. Keys painted to match the brushed aluminum chassis. A large clickable trackpad. Good build tolerances all around. Sub-2.5lb weight.

And then I turned the thing on, and everything went downhill.

I’m writing about the ASUS UX21. I really wanted to like this fantastic looking “Ultrabook”, and it’s a really convincing rendition of a Windows-based MacBook Air-compete. However, a few critical components crippled the user experience of this unit in particular. Here are the specs of the version I picked up at the Microsoft Store.

  • ASUS Zenbook UX21E-DH52
  • Intel Core i5-2467m, dual core HyperThreading (1.6GHz – Turbo 2.3GHz)
  • 4GB DDR3
  • 128GB ADATA XM11 SSD
  • 11.6″ 1366×768 (TN)
  • Intel HD 3000 integrated video
  • Atheros AR9485 802.11b/g/n
  • 1 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, mini-VGA, micro-HDMI, 3.5mm headset
  • Trackpad – Sentilic
  • 35WHr battery

As I alluded to at the beginning of the post, the design of the UX21 is gorgeous. Although the dimensions and components used in this machine are almost exact replicas of the 11.6″ MacBook Air, the build quality is as good, if not better, and the execution of the design makes this a striking laptop. The radiating circular brush design on the lid works well, and even the two tones of aluminium for the lid and chassis complement each other, very well. The keyboard deck is firm, is nicely coloured to match the rest of the visual style, and even the display bezel seems to be aluminum. Closing the laptop produces a confident “thunk”. Once closed, the entire laptop feels like a solid chunk of metal, with little-to-no flex anywhere. Overall, the PC is stunning to look at and hold.

The first hints of trouble are seen when setting the machine up, for the first time. The trackpad isn’t sensitive all the way to the bottom edge – I think this is so you can rest your thumb/other finger on the “click-area”, without impacting cursor movement. But that’s a lazy way of getting around the real issue; other than in a MacBook, we still haven’t seen a good driver implementation of a clickpad, which can parse the difference between contact for moving the cursor and contact intended for clicking. While the trackpad looks awfully large and feels like one contiguous surface, you can’t tell at what point the trackpad will no longer be sensitive to your finger, as you move around. In that sense, ASUS would have been better off with separate buttons. ASUS says an updated trackpad driver should solve most issues, but I have the latest version they recommend (9.1.7.7), and there are still problems.

Fortunately, performance, even with a low-voltage Core i5 is very snappy, and the solid state drive (which uses an SF-2281 controller) is extremely quick. Boot up times are astronomically low. From a cold boot, the Windows 7 start up orbs don’t even have time to group together before we’re off to the Windows desktop. Resume from sleep is essentially instantaneous. It’s a superb experience. Given ASUS’ claim that this will last 1 week+ on standby, we’re getting pretty close to consumer-electronics experience.

After setting up Windows in the first boot, I connected to my home wireless network and opened up Internet Explorer and waited for the homepage to load. And waited. And waited.

Sure, MSN is not exactly the lightest-weight page in the world, but on a 20mbps downlink internet connection, it really shouldn’t take upwards of 20 seconds. I flipped over to Engadget, only to find that it loaded just as slowly. I thought it might be a temporary slowdown in my internet connection, but everything was still very speedy on my desktop. Speedtest.net showed I had download speeds below 2mbps. Fortunately, with a USB wireless N adapter lying around, I had an easy way to isolate the issue. I plugged that in and tried browsing again. Everything was near instantaneous and Speedtest.net showed ~16mbps down.

I searched the web for issues with Wifi on the Zenbooks and quickly found numerous users having the same problem with the built-in Atheros solution. For some, installing an older version of the Wifi driver helped. For me, it didn’t. Transferring files from my Windows Home Server became absurdly slow, to the point of unusable. This is a deal-breaker.

And the rest is mostly history. The laptop is, for the most part, pretty quiet. The fan rarely spins up (although my UX21 came with the 206 BIOS – some folks have said the update to 207 runs the fan more often: bad). The display is mediocre, but gets the job done; viewing angles aren’t great, but neither is the likelihood that I’ll be sharing an 11.6″ display with several other people or needing to fit it in some crazy angle on an economy seat tray table. Battery life is right around ASUS’ advertised mark. I get in the range of 4-5 hours of browsing, before the computer wants to hibernate.

The keyboard, which some have complained about, is okay – it’s a bit stiffer and has shallower travel than most keyboards, but you quickly get used to that. The keys seem smaller than a full-size though, particularly in the length dimension, so sometimes I overshoot. I’m typing this review on the UX21, and I’m already pretty used to the layout and firmness.

This laptop is going back, and with the combination of wifi (deal-breaker), touchpad (nearly deal-breaker) and a number of smaller issues, it’s not something I’ll try another unit of. The external design and construction of the UX series is phenomenal. Now they just need to choose the right key components for a good user-experience. The UX21 is a almost a great PC, but a few mistakes were made on critical components, which completely undermined the potential of the system.

HP EliteBook 2540p

I’ll get some photos up next week… I seem to have lost the few I took when I first got the machine.

Microsoft provided me a generous budget for my work laptop, which I used on an HP EliteBook 2540p. Specs:

  • Intel Core i7 640LM (2.13GHz – turbo 2.93GHz)
  • 4GB DDR3
  • Intel 160GB SSD
  • 12.1″ WXGA LED
  • Intel integrated graphics
  • 6 cell battery (62Whr)
HP EliteBook 2540p

I also had the option of larger, 14″ and 15″ laptops, but I knew I’d also have a desktop with plenty of grunt for running VMs. My laptop would to take to meetings, work on the road, at home, etc. I wanted something small and light, with good battery life. It really came down to the 2540p and the Lenovo X201. However, only the 2540p could be had with an SSD within budget, and knowing the difference one makes with my personal laptop and desktop, I had to have one for my work machine as well. One note: if you want an optical drive in this laptop, you’re stuck with 1.8″ form factor drives. Fortunately, Intel makes a 1.8″ SSD – otherwise, I would have been saddled with some slow as molasses 1.8″ spindle drive. That’s just no fun. Then again, I now have an optical drive I haven’t used yet.

Build and Design

Business machines haven’t exactly prioritized aesthetic design, but the EliteBook doesn’t do a horrid job here. It has a nice brushed metal texture on the lid and a two-tone color scheme when open. Brushed metal also adorns the palm rest. The combination of a standard 16:10 display, thick top and bottom bezels and thin side bezels could make one mistake it for a standard 4:3 laptop, but who makes those nowadays, right? Even the 6-cell battery protrudes out the back about 2/3rds of an inch, but ends being a fair hand-hold when the laptop open or closed. (I end up walking with my laptop open, reading email more than I’d like.) Overall, it’s a little more sprightly looking than a ThinkPad, but there’s certainly also something classic about the ThinkPad look. We’ll see if the EliteBook design wears well over time.

In terms of build quality, the thing is tank-like. The lid feels very good, the heavy-duty metal display hinges are tight as day one, there’s no flex anywhere you’d touch. The lid is held in place by a strong clasp, which is disengaged by a large metal button on the front. Unfortunately, it’s a bit easy to push it and open the lid. ThinkPad’s sliding lid mechanism is much more fool-proof. The chassis is supported by a magnesium alloy shell underneath metal (or plastic around the keyboard). The laptop also meets some military standards for environmental conditions, tested for a wide range of temperature, vibrations and shocks, and moisture. Long story short, this thing is designed to survive in the elements, so surviving a typical office workday probably isn’t asking much of it. After 6 months, the only sign of use is a slight bit of a mark on one of the left mouse buttons. There’s absolutely no marks anywhere else, and I certainly haven’t babied it in the least. Not bad.

On the downside, the laptop is nearly 3/4lb heavier than an equivalent (6-cell) Lenovo X201. I’m okay with the near 4lb weight overall.

Input/Output

The keyboard is one of those hybrid-chiclet types, with flat keys. It feels pretty good to type on, although not as good as the ThinkPad keyboards or the Logitech Illuminated Keyboard I used with my desktop (quite possibly the best keyboard I’ve ever laid hands on). There’s a slight bit of rattle when typing quickly, but no flex is evident. I think the travel distance could be a bit longer. Above they keyboard are touch-sensitive buttons for volume, wireless and some quick-boot options. Personally, I’d be just as happy with tactile buttons. Touch-sensitive buttons are always a bit fidgety, not 100% responsive.

The touchpad is small, but acceptable for a 12″ laptop. Nice rubbery-textured touchpad and pointer buttons have good travel. The pointer comes with an indented cap that I’ve become very accustomed to. In fact, I simply never use the touchpad anymore. When I’m home with my MacBook, my hand defaults to where the track pointer should be, only to realize there isn’t one.

The display is of the 16:10 variety, matte, with typical viewing angles for a TN panel (e.g. decent horizontal, terrible vertical). It can be turned up pretty darned bright and colors seem fine. Then again, I use it for web, email, Word, and the occasional training video. The display doesn’t have the most stressful job to perform in my day to day.

There’s a smattering of ports – 3 USB 2.0, DisplayPort, VGA, SD card reader, FireWire, single headset 3.5mm, gigabit ethernet and (importantly!) a smartcard reader built in. That last input is fantastic for working remotely, as I don’t need to carry around an external card reader.

In Use

I’m not going to run the laptop through a gauntlet of performance benchmarks, since no, I don’t spend my days running PCMark or calculating the x millionth digit of Pi. However, I do launch Outlook quite often and that’s essentially instantaneous now. The combination of four threads of Intel Core i7 power and the Intel SSD does wonders for system responsiveness and performance. There are no hesitations between action and response, except for the human ones. It’s generally a pleasure to use.

Here’s what happens during a normal day. I get into the office, pull the laptop out of my backpack, plunk it into the dock and snap in the dock connector. My Logitech MX Anywhere’s mini-receiver is perpetually plugged into the left-hand side USB port of the laptop, so once the 2540p resumes from sleep (about 2 seconds) I’m ready to go. The dock is connected via DisplayPort and VGA to two 20″ 4:3 Samsung displays, one in portrait and one in landscape mode. I have Logitech Z-5 speakers connected to the dock and a Microsoft Natural 4000 keyboard. Outlook fires up and I’m ready to start with my morning email browsing.

A couple hours later (or perhaps immediately, depending on the day), it’s meeting time, and I simply pop the dock connector button and my laptop’s good to go. I sit down at the meeting, open up my laptop, and a few seconds of the laptop figuring out that it’s no longer connected to two desktop monitors ensues. Then I’m back at my desktop, except with a 1280×800 resolution desktop. Doing the regular tasks at work, writing, emailing, browsing SharePoint, gives me 5 hours or so of battery life on the 6 cell. That’s plenty to get me through the day, since I rarely sit through any string of meetings longer than that (in which I’m actively using my laptop, especially).

I come back to my office, plug the 2540p back into the dock and my monitors pick up the picture again, without any input required on my part. It’s all really pretty seamless. My mouse and keyboard haven’t left their original positions and I’m ready to work again.

And really, that’s how a business laptop should be, in my opinion. Portable, good battery life, easily able to survive being bumped around and virtually invisible (from a reconfiguration point of view) to the user. I don’t want to think about reconfiguring my multi-monitor setup every time I get back to my desk or need to explicitly ask to undock my laptop before I do so (which, from what I understand, you need to do with the ThinkPad docking solutions).

Conclusion

As you can probably tell by now I’m pretty happy with my choice of the EliteBook 2540p. It’s built well, performs great, has good battery life, and fits seamlessly into my day-to-day use cases. It’s a bit heavier than the equivalent from Lenovo (X201), looks a bit nicer as well (in my opinion), and has a fantastic docking solution. It should easily last me our typical hardware upgrade cycle.

Pros

  • Built like a tank (essentially no signs of use after 6 months)
  • Blazing fast with the SSD
  • Portable and good battery life
  • Full-size keyboard
  • Looks pretty nice for a business machine
  • Great, seamless docking experience

Cons

  • Keyboard is only good
  • Heavier than the competition (X201)
  • Display is middle of the road in terms of quality (but bright)
  • If you don’t get an SSD and want an optical drive, you’ll be stuck with a slow 1.8″ hard drive

ASUS UL20A 12.1″ CULV Laptop Review

Introduction

Even at a time when I was looking for maximum performance out of every computer I purchased, ultraportables always caught my eye, for one reason or another. Perhaps it was their cuteness, or perhaps it was the jet-setting lifestyle that they were associated with. Whatever the reason, they’ve held a soft spot in my heart, but prices have always been a hard knock for my wallet.

Intel became a victim of their own success in the Atom processor. Although margins on the product are pretty high, they cannibalized sales of more expensive processors, especially during the economic downturn of late. Sure, they’re still making money from Atom, but less revenues equals (=) bad for most companies.

Intel launched the Consumer Ultra-Low-Voltage (CULV) lineup of processors to help combat falling ASPs, starting with single core SU2700 and SU3500 processors. Since then, they’ve broadened the lineup to include dual core Celeron SU2300, Pentium SU4100, Core 2 Duo SU7300, and more. I always thought it would be AMD that forced ultraportables into my price range; it’s ironic that Intel’s own upselling strategy put the ultraportable within my budget.

ASUS launched their CULV notebook products in early September 2009, and a couple months later, the UL20A began shipping in North America. The smallest of the bunch, the 12.1″ UL20A brings decent dual core performance down to something not much bigger than the larger netbooks, which range all the way up to 11.6″. In fact, one of the “netbooks” I’ll compare the UL20A to, the Atom + ION powered HP Mini 311, is less than 0.1lbs lighter and 0.4″ narrower and shorter.

ASUS

Purchased configuration

Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 (1.3GHz)
1x2GB DDR2-800 RAM (1 open slot)
250GB 5400RPM HDD (Hitachi 5K500.B)
12.1″ LED-backlit display (1366×768)
Intel GMA X4500MHD
10/100Mbps Ethernet
0.3MP webcam
Intel WiFi Link 1000 802.11bgn
6-cell battery – 4400mAh (47.5Whr)
Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions:  11.8″ (W) x 8.4″ (L) x 1.0″ (H)
Weight: 3.3lbs (6-cell battery)

Price: $599 CAD

Reason for purchase

My choice of laptop would paint a pretty accurate picture of my interests and hobbies over the last five years. When I entered university, I went for a desktop replacement for power and gaming, an ASUS Z71V. Two years later, I downsized to a Dell XPS M1330, albeit with the discrete NVIDIA graphics, as I realized absolute performance was no longer the most useful asset of a laptop, with portability starting to trump. And now, as I wrap up my university career, I’m moving further down the size and performance food-chain with the ASUS UL20A. Without space limitations, a powerful desktop takes care of all my high-end photographic work.

Despite some drama around the time of the Dell-NVIDIA GPU issues, the M1330 has served me quite well for 2.5 years. That’s about as long as I’ve held onto any one piece of technology. The combination of portability and performance is not lost on me, and it served its purpose quite well. However, 2.5 years is a long time for the lithium-ion batteries, and both the 6 cell and the 9 cell started to wear out. To maintain portability away from power outlets, I needed to look for something new.

With a desktop holding down the performance fort, I went on the lookout for a small laptop, with good battery life. Cheap was also a bonus, as my place of employment would provide me with a laptop for business use. Really, this would be a toss-around for trips and lounging at home. Think netbook, but marginally more powerful.

I wanted something smaller than the M1330, so I juggled the Acer 1410T, 1810T, the ASUS UL20A, and the Dell Inspiron 11z.

  • The Dell was struck from the list, after I found out even with the tumorous 6-cell battery, it only gets slightly over 5 hours of battery life.
  • I’m still a sucker for aesthetics and design, and well, the Acer isn’t exactly a pretty face.
  • The Acers all come with bilingual keyboards in Canada, which I haven’t had much luck adapting to in the past.
  • The 1410T (SU4100) was $50 less than the UL20A, with similar battery life
  • The 1810T (SU7300) was $50 more than the UL20A, with better battery life.

In the end, I compromised with the prettier option, an English keyboard, and decent battery life in the UL20A. The laptop was purchased from NCIX.com for $599.95.