For several years, I’ve watched low-cost Chromebooks chip away market share in the entry notebook segment and chomp away at the education market. In the Windows PC ecosystem, you could find notebooks within spitting distance of Chromebook costs ($200-300). Though price points were close, the actual devices were not. The notebooks were 15.6″, 6lb, 4hr battery life “portable desktops”. It was the equivalent of cross-selling a cost-reduced pickup truck against an affordable compact sedan.

Very recently, with the help of appropriate SoC platforms and Windows licensing programs, a trickle of ultraportable $199-249 Windows notebooks have come to market, and are being greeted by reasonable sales (5 out of the top 20 Amazon bestselling notebooks are PCs from this category) and good customer feedback (4.3/5 stars for those 5 bestseller models). I hope this encourages the thoughtful design compromises that are needed at this price segment. On a personal note, I like to think I had a role in these coming about; in my last weeks in the Windows PC Ecosystem team, I co-pitched a number of OEMs these SoC-eMMC-ultraportable notebook configurations in the <$250 segment. I recall consternation, from product managers, about the Windows 8.1 experience with these chipsets, 2GB RAM, and limited user storage (typically 32GB eMMC, due to cost pressures). As we’ll talk about later on, the optimizations to Windows 8.1 and efforts around WIM Boot helped make these systems possible.

I’m writing this from the keyboard of the ASUS X205, a faster, lighter, longer-lasting reincarnation of the netbook. It may be the purest form, to-date, of what the modern netbook can be, with its tablet silicon guts, optimized for consumer electronics-like, consumption-oriented usage. Its technical specs bear that out:

  • Intel Atom Z3735F – 1.33GHz base clock (HFM) and 1.83GHz Turbo clock, Bay Trail platform, tablet SoC. It has a 2.2W SDP, meaning in this chassis, it can be passively cooled.
  • 2GB DDR3L 1333MHz RAM – 1x64bit bus, 10.6GB/s bandwidth. Compared to LPDDR3, this will have a negative impact on Connected Standby battery life.
  • 32GB eMMC (Hynix) – As the perf benchmarks will show, this is a middle-to-upper tier eMMC 4.5 part, a bit slower in sequential R/W than a typical 2.5″ 5400RPM laptop drive, but easily an order of magnitude faster at <512KB random R/W. That matters a ton for system responsiveness.
  • 11.6″ non-touch display – 1366×768 TN panel, glossy, typical run of the mill
  • Broadcom dual band WiFi (up to 802.11n) – supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, which is fantastic for cramped airwaves in apartments
  • ELAN touchpad – has nearly identical dimensions to a 16:9 4.7″ display and while not a Precision Touchpad, at least exhibits a bunch of the characteristics – smooth two-finger scrolling, granular pinch-zoom, panning to the Windows 8 All Apps view via vertical scrolling.
  • Ports – 2xUSB 2.0, microHDMI, microSD slot
  • Dimensions – 286 x 193.3 x 17.5 mm (WxDxH)
  • Weight – 980g

First up, here’s what the out of box experience looks like:

  • You get a simple cardboard box containing the laptop, a charger, manuals and a redemption code for OneDrive storage.
  • Time from first power-on to having a configured system and Windows user profile was 5 minutes flat.
  • I hit a bug that prevented me from using a Microsoft Account during profile setup – I’ll have to check up on that.
  • The ~29GB of formatted storage has 8GB reserved for a recovery partition. To Windows, 17.2GB of free space remains out of the visible 20.8GB OS/data partition. This system uses WIM boot in order to shrink its required OS footprint.
  • Unfortunately, there are 600MB of Windows Updates pending; after download and installation, free storage space shrinks to  14.9GB.
  • After installing the client apps of Office 365, I have 13.1GB of free space.
  • After employing Windows’ function to create a copy of the recovery partition on a USB key, I’m mulling deleting the partition from the eMMC disk.

I’ve used the laptop as my regular couch or counter surfing machine, since I received it in early November. After a few weeks, there are already a few highlights to call out about the hardware:

  • It is very light and portable. It gets tossed around the condo, from the den to the kitchen counters to the couch to the bed. It’s a great reference/fact checker machine, since it resumes so quickly (thank you, Connected Standby).
  • What’s Connected Standby? Think of it as the smartphone or tablet-like responsive experience; your data is always up to date and system resume times are nearly instantaneous, shorter than the time it takes to open the lid to viewing position. That’s simply fabulous.
  • Quality of materials is good. Under normal typing pressure, the keyboard deck remains firm, wrist-rests don’t flex. There is some flex in the display lid, if you push on the back. There’s a bit of creaking, when picking it up from a corner, with the lid opened, which is the position of maximum leverage one can put on the device.
  • Battery life (active and standby) is stellar. I’m seeing 11.5-13 hours of real-world light usage battery life and 350-400 hours of Connected Standby (15 days). When I open the laptop and see 10% battery life left, I know I still have an hour (!) of use left.
  • Performance is sufficient, for consumption-oriented scenarios. I typically run IE with 6-8 tabs open, an Office app, and a couple Modern apps (Mail and Finance are regulars). There is no issue multitasking between them. Responsiveness is particularly high, compared to typical PCs in the price segment, given the order of magnitude advantage in random disk I/O performance.
  • Thermals are under control. With my workload, I’ve not felt any part of the device get warm, much less hot. There are no fans. Silence is golden.
  • The display is not a deal breaker, but it’s just a simple TN panel, and color-shift is evident at any viewing angle other than perpendicular. More annoyingly, due to the particularly narrow vertical viewing angles, common to TN, there is color shift across the vertical axis of the display, as the your viewing angle of incident varies down the display.
  • Physical input is nicely sized (particularly the touchpad), and again is functionally better than many larger, cheap laptops. In particular, the touchpad, for which we impressed importance time and time again with OEMs, actually does not suck.
  • The AC power adapter is a single cord segment type, providing 1.75A @ 19V (33W). The wall-wart does not have foldable prongs.

This isn’t a mobile powerhouse, nor is it a premium device, hewn from premium materials. However, for $179-199, there are a bunch of areas it exceeds expectations.

  • Input (keyboard and touchpad) quality
  • Weight-footprint-portability
  • Real world battery life
  • Responsiveness
  • Design and build quality

Don’t purchase this as a cheap replacement for the family desktop from 5 years ago. This will be slower, overall. Do purchase this, if you have tablet-like use cases and want tablet-like battery life and responsiveness, but think you need to buy a keyboard case, to make that tablet truly useful.

Another popular Windows option in this segment is the new HP Stream 11 (also $199). I mainly couldn’t accept the colour options, but you should get very similar performance with that PC. Trade off the free year of Office 365 Personal, 1TB OneDrive, and larger keyboard (Stream 11) against Connected Standby responsiveness, battery life, and portability of a smaller and 0.5lb lighter laptop (X205).

Windows 10 – Start, Settings and Multitasking

The Return of the Start Menu

The single most referred to feature of Windows 10 is the return of the Start Menu. Yes, the Start Menu has its charms and uses, but more than anything, I think this is a case of “don’t touch my stuff!” mentality (very common). There are many cases of other habituated behaviors, that people clamor to maintain, such as transmission “creep” in a transmission-less car. That’s not to say full-screen Start in Windows 8 was ideal; it wasn’t, at all.

So, yes, it’s back, and by default, it’s an amalgamation of old and new. The left 1/3 is essentially the old Start Menu, the right 2/3 is a shrunken Live Tile Start. You can change the height of the Start Menu, by resizing it, like you would an application window, from the top. While some folks say so, as they’re hidden within a menu, I’m not sure Live Tiles have become any more or less useful; on my home desktop, or even laptop, I rarely found myself sitting at Start, with Windows 8.1. I didn’t see those tiles until I invoked Start, even then. My primary use of either Start Menu implementation continues to be WinKey – appname.

At the top of the Start Menu, a power options button and user badge allow for quick system state changes (sign out, restart). That’s a nice affordance and should help with the utter disarray caused by hiding it in the settings Charm. You can click “All Apps” to get an alphabetical listing of apps on your system.

Pop-up Feedback Request – Do you prefer Control Panel to the Settings App?

Yes.

In more than a single word, the modern Settings app is missing the most important feature of any setting utility: Search. Control Panel is pretty good at surfacing what it is you want to do, via search. Want to know how to adjust display brightness? Just type “display brightness”. Running out of drive space and want options? Just type “disk space” and you’ll be presented options to clean up your drives. If I actually navigate the setting hierarchy, I find that I am surprisingly faster at finding what I want, via the Control panel, in large part due to the iconography, versus the purely textual menu system in modern Settings.

This is getting significantly mitigated, as the search function in the Start Menu deep links into specific settings. At this point, I hope there’s a significant push to get to query-based activities, making the need to memorize menu hierarchies or setting diving a thing of the past.

Multitasking

With a focus back on polishing the desktop, it makes sense to spend time enhancing its primary attribute – multitasking. Although some amount of multitasking was available in the Modern environment, flexibility to place apps side by side was in 1 dimension only, and even then, without overlays.

You can see the importance of multitasking immediately, from the new Task View button in the taskbar (alternative, you can also invoke it using WinKey+Tab). Clicking it provides a sort of more visual Alt+Tab experience, where each application is not only represented by its icon and name, but also a thumbnail view of the running application itself. The app thumbnails are also shaped the same as the actual windows, helping identification. You can switch to a different app from this view, or you can also do some app management and close some windows.

“Virtual desktops” are also now available, similar to a feature that has been available with various Linux window managers and OS X. You can group apps you frequently use together on a single desktop surface and then switch between them, as opposed to managing on a single surface what apps are first in the z-order. One tip: in the graphical Task View, if you mouse over a different desktop, you’ll see the apps change to those on that desktop. Mouse up and over one of the apps, and you can not only switch to that desktop, but jump straight to a particular app.

Windows 10 – Start and Indexing

Day 3 of using Windows 10 –

Feedback Request: How Easy is it to use the Start Menu?

I give this one a 3/5. The Start Menu is back, of course (headline feature), and the addition of Live Tiles is a nice way to combine the familiarity of the old menu with the additional usefulness of the new Tile paradigm. However, as the Start Menu is still part of the “Modern” part of the OS, its DPI scaling is separate from that used on the Desktop.

In my case, I’m using an HP Spectre 13T, with a 2560×1440 resolution 13.3″ display. On the desktop, running the DPI scaling one notch below the maximum size (150%) nicely balances readability with screen real estate (1706×960, effective). However, the Modern side of the house, in the modern settings, under Display, one can only set “Smaller” or Default. Default sets scaling to 180%, Smaller sets it to 100%. 100% is too small for comfortable reading, while 180% makes things comically large, in my opinion (about 5% more real estate than 1366×768, effective). I’d love to be able to set the Modern UI to the middle scaling plateau – 140%. Note: this isn’t a regression with Windows 10, just maintains the status quo of Windows 8.1 modern UI scaling (apps can use 140%, though).

Aside from that, I think I need to use this machine more often, to have the most-frequently-used section of the Start menu be populated with more relevant content. Currently, it is prepopulated with some unhelpful defaults: Sticky Notes, PowerShell, Help + Tips, XPS Viewer, and Notepad.

Search Indexing Activity

I’m seeing a lot of unusual activity with search indexing. The Windows Search Filter Host takes up a constant 18%+ of overall CPU resources, even while unplugged. I even let it run for an entire day, yesterday, and today, it’s running and indexing, again. It’s murdering battery life, because the CPU can’t idle. Looking at indexing status shows indexing to be essentially stopped (indexed file count is static), so it’s not clear what those cycles are going towards. I’ve paused indexing and killed the process for the time being.

Windows Feedback – Intro

The Windows 10 Technical Preview is available for download, today, and I’ve just updated my HP Spectre 13T. There’s lots to discover in this build, and since one of the biggest reasons for releasing a preview so early in development is so that feedback is not just received, but can also be actioned on, I thought I’d post regular snippets of what I’m discovering and topics the built-in Feedback Tool asks for input on.

Update

I downloaded the ISO from the Windows Preview site, mounted it, and copied contents to a USB key. I plugged the key into my Spectre, ran setup.exe and it told me it’d bring all my apps, settings, and data over. After an abbreviated out-of-box setup experience, I was thrown to the new desktop.

Just about everything appears to be working as expected, with the exception of some touchpad gestures. Not all multi-touch actions appear to work properly. Two-finger taps no longer emulate right-clicks. More annoyingly, two-finger scrolling works intermittently in Internet Explorer; more than half the time, it shows a little scroll bar icon, but doesn’t scroll.

Notifications

A feedback request popped up for the new location of notifications. Notification “toasts” now appear as fly-ins at the bottom right of the display, just above the task tray. Placement is more logical from an information grouping perspective than from the top right, before.

Feedback Tool

It’s a bit ugly, frankly. I’m not saying it should be the top priority feature to be well-designed and polished, but it could go some distance to be more inviting, with better formatting and font size selection.

Feedback tool