Category Archives: reviews

Samsung Galaxy S7 Review

I’ve had the Samsung Galaxy S7 for just about three months. During that time, it’s not only supplanted my Windows Phones, but also an iPhone 6. It’s that good, but also unexpected, for me.

I haven’t exactly been a Samsung fanboy or even proponent to date. I’ve always thought the hardware designs uninspiring, physical quality lacking, and the TouchWiz (what a name) software glaze amateur. That perspective is why I’ve not owned a Samsung device, aside from the very first Windows Phone 7, the Samsung Focus. All my Android devices have been some early devices from HTC (remember the One M7?) or Nexus devices from the likes of LG and Huawei.

Form Factor

Ironically, it was the iPhone 6 that led to me to the Galaxy S7. After years of using pants pocket-busting devices, including the Lumia 1520, 950XL and the Nexus 6P, the iPhone 6 form factor was a breath of fresh air. My hands are relatively small; the 5.7″+ devices were largely 2-handed affairs. Always a delicate balancing act, I just wanted a phone I could hold securely. The iPhone 6 fit the bill.

I used the iPhone on and off, interspersed with Windows Phones and the Nexus 6P for much of the past 6 months. When the GS7 was released, I was intrigued. On first impressions, the step between the GS6 and the GS7 isn’t significant. Both are metal sandwiches, bounded by glass, with a 5.1″ QHD display. However, in comparison to the iPhone 6, with its 4.7″ display, the footprint is only marginally larger: 142.4 x 69.6mm versus 138.1 x 67mm, while fitting in a 0.4″ larger display, with nearly 4 times the resolution.

But, it isn’t just the footprint that’s important. The iPhone is a smooth bar, with no sharp edges. Swiping across the slightly curved display (at the edge) and fingers curling around the back and sides make it feel smaller than it actually is. Contrast that with the Nexus where a flat slab of glass and sharp edges makes it feel every bit its 5.7″ size. The GS7 is a close relative of the iPhone 6 design. The front glass tapers towards the edges, flowing into the metal frame around the phone. The rear glass panel curves, providing a surer grip. In-hand, the GS7 feels similar to the iPhone, although there is more of a perceptible transition between glass and metal. Perhaps the GS8 will address that.

profile

Things feel sturdy enough. Construction quality is great, weight and density lend an aura of quality, and the glass back’s penchant for picking up too many fingerprints and hand-grease ends up helping with grip, particularly compared to the slippery-as-a-bar-of-soap iPhone 6/S. On the downside, unless it was just plucked out of my jean’s pocket, the fingerprint-riddled back is bit gnarly to look at.

Unfortunately, after a few of months of use, the rear glass has picked up a number of rubs/scratches around the corners. I don’t drag it on tables, spin it around or jingle it with keys in my pockets, so that’s disappointing. Get a case, if you really care about maintaining its pristine condition.

On the plus side, the GS7 is rated IP68 without any port covers (impressive), which means an Ingress Protection level of “dust-tight” and complete immersion in water. For water immersion, Samsung specifies this means 5 feet of water for up to 30 minutes. Combined, this means the GS7 should survive considtions from a gusty sand dune in Death Valley all the way to an accidental plunge into a freshwater lake. It’s a nice peace of mind, for an expensive gadget.

Display

The display is a 5.1″ 2560×1440 (Quad HD – QHD) Super AMOLED panel. It’s covered with slightly curved Gorilla Glass 4 and generally looks good. It also performs well in sunlight, with the lower-reflectivity AMOLED panel shining through nicely.

By default, colors are oversaturated and vibrant. Samsung provides a Display option to change this. You can choose a setting called “Basic”, which does a much better job of mimicking an LCD panel’s color profile, but then what is the fun of having an AMOLED display and its crazy qualities? I have the phone set to AMOLED Photo, which is a reasonable middle-ground Basic and the full-fat default mode.

Aside from that, there’s not much else to say. The sub-pixel structure is still Pentile, I believe, but at these resolutions, it really doesn’t matter. You’ll not see any color fringing, much less the pixel structure itself. The panel itself is mounted very close to the surface glass (love the display stack-up afforded by AMOLED panels), so there’s little-to-no parallax when looking and poking at the display.

display

Battery and Charging

The GS7 comes with an integrated 3000mAh battery. It throws together a dichotomy of microUSB and Qi for fast charging. I’m sure no one at Samsung liked the idea of including microUSB on a flagship 2016 device, but I suspect that had much to do with compatibility with the existing Gear VR headset, which supports only microUSB. It also supports Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 2.0 protocol, and in practice, charges just over 1% per minute until close to full.

Marshmallow includes a number of features to improve battery life, mitigate runaway apps, and quiesce the system when it doesn’t appear to be in use. Despite this, battery life is still quite variable. Some apps just suck the life out of the phone (Outlook, Snapchat). After monitoring the battery usage charts for a couple of weeks, I’ve weeded out the culprits, and now I get (typically) very good battery life. I get through a day of use, with typical 2-2.5 hours of screen on time and heavy background email sync, now using the built-in client. In a typical off-charger at 8am through 11pm day, I end with 33-40% battery left. The wireless chargers I have sprinkled around my work and home make battery life even less of a concern.

Software

TouchWiz (is that really short for Wizard?) is apparently toned down with the GS7 generation. Awesome, because I don’t even want to imagine what it was like to use before. Things are “flat”, which perhaps translates from the Material design language that Google is using throughout its properties. However, Samsung has made unnecessary changes to the core Android experiences, such as changing the settings page and notifications shade, as well as including numerous redundant apps, such as email, phone, contacts, messaging, clock (really?), calculator (really x 2??) and gallery. And because some apps are “Nexus-only”, such as Contacts and Phone, you can’t easily get to a better stock experience. Absolute rubbish.

I’m dredging my mind for positive things to say about the software additions, but they’re hard to come by. Even the icons Samsung uses are a weird approximation of what iOS used 2-3 generations ago, but more cartoon-y.

I ended up purchasing the “pro” version of the Nova Launcher and the Elta icon pack, so I could theme away as much of the TouchWiz experience as possible. It’s what you see in the photos, here. (Also, I’ve since purchased the Toca UI icon pack, which feels even better.)

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Camera

Samsung went back to a 12MP sensor (from 16MP in the GS6), while maintaining the same sensor size. It also kept the optical image stabilization capability while growing the aperture by approximately 1/3 stop. The pixel size plus aperture growth should mean, shutter speed and ISO equal, the GS7 can capture around 2x the light as the GS6, at their respective maximum apertures.

The second huge improvement of the GS7 module is its PDAF capability. Samsung coins the sensor a “Dual Pixel” one. It means there’s both a light-capturing sensor as well as a phase-detect sensor in each pixel. The result is autofocus performance (both speed and accuracy) approaching that of a DSLR.

And, to further reduce pocket-to-capture latency, you can double tap the home button to launch the camera app. It works well, the camera module initializes quickly, and the app is ready to go. I’ve definitely captured moments I’d have otherwise missed.

It also helps that image quality is fantastic.

Performance

The GS7 is equipped with a high-end SoC, 4GB LPDDR4 RAM, and at least 32GB UFS storage. In North America, the SoC is a Qualcomm MSM8996 (Snapdragon 820 series, in marketing-speak); across many other markets, Samsung uses their home-grown Exynos 8890, which has twice the CPU cores and a Mali GPU, but otherwise similar CPU and GPU performance.

I don’t play games, so I can only comment on day-to-day productivity and system responsiveness. Both are fine, although there are occasions where the phone stutters, piles up a series of inputs, then finally catches up, to my dismay, as now-random touch inputs or buttons issue in short order. I’m not sure if it’s Samsung’s TouchWiz customizations mucking things up; however, by comparison, the Nexus 6P on the average feels more responsive, despite the generation-older SoC (Snapdragon 810). It’s not bad, per se, but clearly not as good as it could be, considering the silicon that powers the device.

Extras

Everything above already makes up a solid smartphone. But, this is Samsung, so there are extras:

  1. Fingerprint Reader – It’s built into the home button. When it works, it works extremely quickly. However, it’s not as accurate as the TouchID I’ve used on my iPhone 6 or iPad Mini 4. It’s occasionally so inaccurate that, along with Microsoft’s Exchange device management policy to wipe the device after 5 failed login attempts, I worry I’ll accidentally reset my phone. (update: this happened once)
  2. Always On Display – The GS7 also supports an “always-on” display mode, where a bit of device information along with date-time can be displayed, even when the phone is in standby. It takes advantage of the AMOLED panel to only illuminate the necessary pixels, so it should consume less power than a typical backlit LCD. It’s been hit or miss, for me. The always on data is useful, I like to know what time it is, but it also seems to consume far more than the 1%/hr quoted by Samsung. Those sessions may have simply be correlated with other poor power scenarios.
  3. Samsung Pay – This “extra” might be the one I’m most impressed with. The GS7 supports secure NFC, so supports Android Pay. But that pales in comparison to the magnetic stripe-supporting Samsung Pay feature. Magnetic Secure Transmission uses a similar tokenization service as secure NFC payment services, e.g. Apple Pay and Android Pay, but also works with payment terminals that only have a magnetic stripe reader. It is awesome and reduces the number of cards I put into my wallet. A recent update that adds support for membership cards means I can remove even more!
  4. Gear VR – I purchased the GS7 early enough that I received a Gear VR headset,  otherwise $99, for free. It’s a fun gateway drug to VR. 360 videos and photos appears to be the most compelling, ocassional use scenario, for now.

Conclusion

The Samsung Galaxy S7 is a truly impressive piece of technology. It’s the first Samsung phone I’ve used that has that special feel about it, made up of just the right materials, formed in just the right way, with just the right feeling of density.

Couple that with an impressive display, pretty good performance, great battery life, and excellent camera and you have a great all-round smartphone.

Not all is perfect; the fingerprint sensor is markedly less accurate than the iPhone, for me, the glass back isn’t very resistant to scratches, and despite some seriously powerful silicon, responsiveness is occasionally poor. Slathered on top are the less-than-tasteful TouchWiz customizations, which I could do without.

That said, there are two simple statements that sum up my feelings about the Samsung Galaxy S7: I’ve not longed to switch back to my iPhone and I’ve also not felt gear-envy for any of the flagship Android phones that have launched since. In a world of relativity, that’s the highest praise I can give.

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ASUS X205 – First Impressions

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).

iPhone 6 – First Impressions

I’ve been using an iPhone 6 as my primary device since launch day, 9/19, and iOS, at length, for the first time since the iPhone 3G-era. That was during the days of iPhone OS 2.0, which brought along the App Store, officially supporting third party apps for the first time. For the past 9-10 months, I’ve used a Lumia 1520 and Nexus 5 interchangeably, getting to know their hardware, software and ecosystems. At this point, I understand what each Windows Phone and Android have to offer, and surprisingly, after nearly a year, neither device feels outdated (a sign of slowing generational leaps in smartphones, surely?). However, I’ve been itching to see where Apple is and experience the “just works” commentary I hear from users and the top-rated app ecosystem. Here are my early thoughts in two sections, Hardware and Features.

Hardware

  • It looks less “distinctly-iPhone”, with its larger size, rounded and curved corners and nondescript back. The Apple logo and the round home button on the front remain, so don’t worry, folks will still know you’re using one. Given so many phones are using the chamfered-chrome-band look, recently, perhaps this move to less glamorous accoutrements will, ironically, make it more distinctive.
  • First impression upon taking it out of the box was one of amazement of its thinness and lightness, having come from primarily Lumia devices over the past couple years.
  • My second impression was that it’s hellishly slippery. The very finely anodized aluminum contributes, as does the fact that it’s so thin (and rounded). I don’t even have clammy hands to help; it’s like holding a wet rock.
  • Apple barely met the competition on display resolution this generation (and undershot a bit with the iPhone 6). However, the selection of in-cell touch (LCD display + capacitive sensors being one and the same) and cover glass make displayed contents appear to be splayed directly on the glass’s surface. Contrast is also very good, maximum brightness very high, meaning viewing quality, both indoors and outdoors, is relatively high.
  • When the rumored iPhone 6 chassis first leaked, I was convicted that they were fakes, due to the unsightly plastic antenna domain dividers. Unfortunately, that’s not the case; they were the real thing, and the lines remain ugly. I specifically picked the color variant that I thought would make it show up the least, Space Grey.
  • The aesthetic problem with the antenna lines are two-fold, in my opinion: first, they’re too thick to look well-integrated, and second, the way they wrap around the top and bottom curved portions of the phone make them appear less like a deliberate part of the design. Instead, it’s as if the phone was designed without them, then realized, shoot, antenna performance sucks!
  • I picked Space Grey, and the curved black display and bezels blend together into a smooth, monolithic mass. From the front, it’s nice and minimalistic. I like it.
  • The camera bump is a non-issue (thus far).
iPhone 6 - DisplayiPhone 6iPhone 6 - Camera

Features

  • I’m now addicted to unlocking my phone with Touch ID. One lazy press of the home button, with my thumb, and I’m taken to the home screen, even though I have my work Exchange connected and corporate security policies applied. It’s also a fantastic way to skip typing passwords. It might be my single favorite feature, because it’s fast and reliable (camera performance rivals for this prestigious award).
  • Regarding display resolution, mentioned above, one way Apple makes up for no-longer-class-meeting specs is in font rendering. In apps that are updated for the display resolution of the iPhone 6 (largely the first party apps, at this point), text is incredibly narrow, smooth, and clear. Reading web content maintains this crispness, while fitting more content onto the display, now that it’s larger.
  • The rear image sensor remains 8MP in resolution, but optics and processing have been marginally improved (see this wonderful comparison of iPhone family camera IQ). Most significantly, phase-detect autofocus (on-sensor) has been added, helping in two regards: faster autofocus and more reliable focus tracking (with continuous autofocus). The second benefit supports grabbing in-focus, fast action, 240fps video.
  • The practical benefits, for me, (I care largely about stills) are insanely quick and accurately focused photos. The focus and shot-to-shot performance difference versus my Lumia 1520 (which, albeit isn’t known for quick autofocus) is similar to a DSLR versus a point and shoot camera. And though the final image quality isn’t as good as what the Lumia 1520 can achieve, it’s more consistent, giving me more confidence I can get at least a shot. Additionally, taking panoramas is an incredibly smooth experience, and the stitching speed and quality are top tier, as I discovered first-hand at Mount Rainier, the first weekend out with it.
rainier_ios_pano
  • I’ve become unfamiliarized with iOS since I last used it many, many years ago. I’m still a huge kludge, not yet habituated with the information and interaction hierarchies, particularly, as some common actions are quite different from Windows (Phone) or Android. For example, I constantly look to the bottom of apps for more options, settings, only to have to remind myself that they’re largely in the central settings store. I’ve not yet decided whether one is worse or better, just different, at this point.
  • Most interactions in iOS are highly polished, though. At least on latest-generation hardware, all the animations and transparency effects are smooth, menus well thought out, and a general air of cohesiveness and consistency is found throughout. The icons and colors haven’t grown on me, yet (it feels a bit… amateur?), but at least they’re everywhere. A few head-scratchers and complaints do exist:
    • In the notification drop-down, I really want a single gesture to dismiss items. Instead, you swipe to the left, then hit a small (x) target.
    • In the same area, app notifications are not cleared after visiting the app directly and viewing the reason for the notice in the first place (a very common example of this is email). Instead, one must manually dismiss the notification.
    • Speaking of notifications (:)), if I step away from my phone for a while, during which time, I receive a notification, no indication is made in the status area that I have pending notifications. It’s a surprise every time – ooohh, do I have notifications? Ahhh, not this time!
    • The little bubbles atop app icons indicating the number of missed items does not get dismissed after entering the app; only when your email inbox is clean, clean, clean, will that number go away. So, it’s a perpetual reminder that I’m very bad at triaging my inbox.
    • I’ve been spoiled by Windows Phone’s amazing handling of contacts, intelligently linking them if you have multiple input contact services, (such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Lync, etc.) and reducing clutter in your contacts list. iOS does nothing of the sort. Not only is the contact list a bee’s nest to navigate, it also complicates other apps that use your central contact list. For example, I ended up with 2-3 duplicate “favorite” entries for many, many contacts in WhatsApp. I went from 99 suggested to 43 real.
    • I’ve also been spoiled by the fantastic inbox productivity apps in Windows Phone, particularly as it pertains to supporting Exchange (the reason might be a no-brainer). Neither iOS nor Android do as a good of a job of exposing rich options for managing email-calendar invites and neither do a job at all of displaying Information Rights Managed email. I’m pretty sure there’s an app for that, though…
  • Top tier apps are impeccably polished, not to mention anything you’ve heard of is available, of course. They’re all fast and fluid, use reasonable layouts (although very, very few take advantage of the increased screen real-estate of the iPhone 6, much less the 6+), and I haven’t seen app crashes, thus far.
  • I’m not blown away by having so many apps at my fingertips, though. I don’t seem to have the urge to explore a bunch of apps. Perhaps that’s what using an app-deprived ecosystem does to you. You don’t know how to behave in the presence of them anymore. Assuming battery usage is a good indicator of what I use on my phone and how frequently, my iPhone is where apps go to die: 39% Email, 22% Safari, 11% Home & Lock Screen, 6% Messenger, 4% Stocks, 2% Calendar, 2% Gmail, and nothing else creeps above 1%.
iOS Utilization

Summary

There’s generally much to like about the iPhone 6, and while I’m not certain I’m any longer a representative smartphone user, I’ve had my memory refreshed as to why so many people prefer iOS and the iPhone hardware ecosystem. They generally look nice, developers put the most effort into their iOS app manifestations, and there are some genuinely excellent capabilities that many people care about, from a consistently good camera to simplifying security with Touch ID (and I’m looking forward to Apple Pay, as well). It’s also interesting to note that it’s been the first time in many generations since Apple’s hardware industrial design prowess has been questioned, with both the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch questioned for the camera bump, antenna lines, indistinctiveness or gaudiness of design.

It will bear watching whether this is a temporary bump in the road, one smoothed out by the evolution of tastes over time, or something more persistent, an indication of a missing filter in Steve Jobs. iPhone 6iPhone 6iPhone 6 - Curved DisplayiPhone 6

Lumia 635 Review

The rise of the smartphone has been meteoric, and while many have been designed and priced in the image of the aspirational iPhone, sold in developed markets, it’s the entry price segments, in developing markets, that have powered the vast majority of expansion in the past couple years.

Windows Phone has faced massive adoption challenges, but one area where it has seen some success is in the entry segment, sub-$150 devices, often sold in developing markets or other markets where subsidies are not a major part of the telecom ecosystem. Take a look at the Lumia 520, a ~150USD open market device. It holds approximately 1/3 of the entire Windows Phone market. And that’s not simply in emerging markets; in significant parts of the EU and the United States, the same holds true.

Lumia 635

For Windows Phone 8.1, Nokia is in the midst of refreshing its series of phones, and appropriately, they’ve started with the entry segment. The Lumia 635 is one of the lowest cost LTE devices on the market (189USD open market) and its triplet siblings, the 630 and 630 dual SIM, are even lower in price, trading off LTE support for a lower price point. In North America, the Lumia 630/635 has shown up on a number of carriers at very reasonable price points. Having a soft spot for cheap and cheerful smartphones and wanting to see how things were in the budget Windows Phone world, I purchased one. They’re $99 and 129 at the Microsoft Store, no-contract, on AT&T and T-Mobile, respectively. I got the T-Mobile version. Here are some thoughts on how things are looking for the future of smartphones.

Lumia 635

I currently use a Lumia 1520 as my primary device. There have been many times where I wished for a smaller phone. The Lumia 635 has a 4.5″ display, with okay bezel sizes, wrapped in a polycarbonate casing. From a dimensions perspective, it doesn’t stand out either positively or negatively. Reaching to the corners of the display, with a single hand, isn’t a problem. The corners are rounded and the sides taper, so in-hand, it’s comfortable. It slips into pockets without any issue. Physical buttons are arrayed on the right-hand side, per usual for Lumias. Missing, from the usual complement, is a dedicated camera button.

The back cover, on the T-Mobile version, is a pleasant matte white. The shape and design are unassuming, but in person, look clean and simple. And, if you want a dash of boldness, you can buy colored covers (I’ve seen yellow, green, and orange). Even better, as the casing wraps around the edges and front of the phone, you could do quite a lot of damage to and then easily refresh it. The covers are priced reasonably – $15 each. The cover is a bit challenging to remove, until you get the hang of it, after a few tries. The benefit is a tight fit, with no creaking nor flexing. The replaceable battery, microSIM and microSD slots are hidden beneath the cover; in all cases, the battery must be removed to swap SIMs or microSD.

Lumia 635 back

Compared to another budget phone I’m familiar with, the Moto G, the in-hand feel is a trade-off – the G has a better form-fitting shape, but the materials feel cheaper (smoother and slipperier).

The display is adequate for the price, with an 854×480 resolution. The additional vertical pixels are used for on-screen soft-keys, a first for Windows Phones, but part of a strategic bet to close the gap with Android phone hardware requirements. Gorilla Glass 3 protects the display, and Nokia’s ClearBlack technology helps reduce reflections and increase contrast. It’s not hard to see some pixelation at normal viewing distances, but in typical use, the UI elements are not filled with so much fine detail to expose the issue, and forgivable at its price point. More challenged is the display’s ability to render text on a full website, zoomed out (or otherwise fine text and details). You really can’t read it, without zooming in. The 720p display of the Moto G would obviously be preferred, but I suspect we’ll soon see something in the Moto G LTE’s price range with a similar display from Windows Phones.

There is no front camera (unfortunate for selfi-ers and those who want to use Skype) and the rear 5MP is nothing to write home about. It takes adequate photos in good lighting, and quickly falls off after that. Nokia’s excellent camera app is still preinstalled, so you can tweak and tune every setting as you could on a higher-end PureView device. Take a look at the result.

Lumia 635 camera sample

Capabilities and Experience

I won’t ramble too much on the rest. The software experience and feature set is as you’d expect to find on most Windows Phones, with a few things to note:

  • It ships out of the box with Windows Phone 8.1 and the Lumia Cyan feature pack from Nokia (Microsoft)
    • Given it’s a Lumia, it comes with a number of useful inbox apps, including Here Drive+, providing free offline navigation in many countries
  • It includes a trio of soft-keys for Back, Windows Home, and Search
    • However, the nifty capability to show/hide them on the Windows Phone HTC One is missing here. Hopefully this changes in future 8.1 updates.
  • It’s missing several hardware-driven features:
    • No front-facing camera
    • No ambient light sensor to automatically adjust display brightness (means you need to leave display brightness as 1-of-4 shortcuts in Action Center)
    • No proximity sensor to turn your display off during calls (uses the capacitive touchscreen, instead to do the same)
    • No physical camera button
  • It supports SensorCore, which is a new SDK that enables very low power sensor data collection, particularly while the display is off.
    • One basic capability is to report steps, providing pedometer functionality, but has many other use cases, as well, such as identifying when the user is near a well-known location.
    • The step-counter in the Bing Health and Fitness app is pretty accurate. It’s within +/- 5% of what my Fitbit Flex reports, on an average daily basis.
  • It supports WiFi calling on T-Mobile
    • My apartment doesn’t get a strong T-Mobile signal, so WiFi supplements
    • While I’m traveling internationally (such as right now, to Canada), calls and texts back to the United States are free on WiFi – nice
  • It has 8GB of internal storage, expandable via a microSD card, and 512MB RAM
    • Approximately 3.3GB are used for system files and another ~500MB are taken up by inbox apps
    • The device starts with ~3.5GB of free space on the internal storage

I can live with almost all these trade-offs, to get to this price point (adaptive display brightness, supported by an ALS, is greatly missed). However, the single most significant factor contributing to its budget-phone experience is the inclusion of 512MB RAM. There are a number of apps in the Windows Store (particularly in the games category) for which 512MB RAM does not meet minimum requirements, and hence cannot be installed on the 635. I don’t play any serious games on my phone, so that means little to me.

The more impactful, day-to-day, symptom is the number of “Resuming…” messages you’ll see, as you multitask across apps. With 512MB RAM (versus 1GB+ on the higher end Windows Phones), fewer apps can be kept in the backstack, warm in memory, before critical limits are hit and app contents needs to be ejected. This means a rehydration is needed, when you go back to that particular app. The app platform and apps themselves have done a pretty good job of maintaining state, even across rehydrations, but it still results in an extra second or two to load most apps. Many of the inbox experiences are, thankfully, relatively resource friendly, and launch quickly.

Summary

In a vacuum, there are a few compromises I would not have made, 512MB RAM, lack of an ALS, but hitting a ~$170 transfer price for an LTE phone, in North America, is non-trivial. Even more so, the $99-129 end-user price on pre-paid service is nearly irresistible. It’s a well-built, well-featured, simply designed phone that delivers all the smartphone a basic user needs. It’ll look fresher, while offering similar or better capabilities than the equivalently priced Android prepaid phone around most carrier stores. It definitely meets the bar of a cheap-and-cheerful, tossable phone, and should do well, both on prepaid service in developed markets, while providing a quality option for developing markets, moving towards LTE deployments.

Good

  • Looks simple and sleek, feels nice to hold
  • In-app experiences are smooth and fluid
  • SensorCore support provides a free and accurate pedometer (amongst other capabilities)
  • 8GB internal storage will be enough for many, and good support for microSD expansion makes it a complete non-issue
  • One of the better (best?) combinations of form factor, build quality, performance, feature set and LTE support for the price

Bad

  • Not an ideal choice for heavy multitaskers with 512MB RAM and “Resuming…” pauses
  • No ambient light sensor for auto display brightness adjustments
  • No front-facing camera for Skype
  • Display resolution is a bit below average, especially depending on regional pricing (in the US, it’s average)
Lumia 635 and 1520 Comparison

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.

HP Spectre 13T

Since giving my Lenovo Yoga 13 to my parents (a great machine, by the way, and v2 looks even better), I’ve been on the lookout for something to replace it. My primary considerations were battery life, display (inc. touchscreen), touchpad, weight, build quality and reasonable future-proofing for the machine to last 2-3 years. I’ve really liked the 12-13.3″ range, since it usually results in a laptop in the 3-3.5lb range, which is highly portable, while providing enough display real estate to be truly productive.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I considered several MacBooks, particularly the MacBook Air 13 (gosh, the 10-12 hours of real-world battery life is mind-blowing) and the MacBook Pro Retina 13. The build quality, battery life, and touchpads are absolutely fantastic, and frankly, even pricing isn’t outrageous, when looking at comparable options across the ecosystem.

However, I landed on the HP Spectre 13T, because:

  • Nice build quality, aluminium used throughout and positioned as a premium Ultrabook, so I hoped for the best in terms of manufacturing tolerances and the visceral feel in-hand
  • Great display options (in both colour gamut and resolution)
  • Includes both a gigantic touchpad and a touchscreen; most importantly, the touchpad is smooth and tracks well, almost as well as the MacBooks
  • Approximately 3.2lbs with 8-9 hours of real-world battery life
  • Configured with a Core i5 4200U, 8GB memory, 128GB SSD, 2560×1440 touchscreen, and included 2 year warranty was just under $950 (cheaper than a base MacBook Air 13)

I’m only a week in, so more detailed thoughts will have to wait. Initial impressions are positive; it feels reassuringly sturdy, the design is simple, but the aluminum colouring makes it a bit less generic than every other black or silver laptop out there, and the display is stunning in both colour as well resolution. Given how close it is to a melange of the right elements of each of the MacBook Air and Retina, in a package that cheaper than either, is a very good thing.

Lumia 900 (mini) Review

On the eve of Nokia’s expected launch of Windows Phone 8 devices, I thought it’d be fitting to briefly review my past several months with a Lumia 900.

Chassis

The Nokia N9 ushered in a new design direction for Nokia’s smartphones, with its unibody, polycarbonate design. The Lumia 800 took that design, nearly as-is, and applied the Windows Phone treatment. Then, before bringing it to North America, Nokia expanded the display to 4.3″, to cater to this demographic. The design is unique, especially in the two less frequently seen colours on other phones, magenta and cyan, and feels extraordinarily solid and high quality in-hand. The chassis wraps around the internals and display in an elongated oval shape, pinched off squarely at the top and bottom. Taking the most conservative route, I chose a black copy.

The combined large sheet of glass and relatively thick polycarbonate shell makes the Lumia 900 relatively heavy. Compared to a Samsung Galaxy S II, also a 4.3″ display smartphone, the Lumia 900 is nearly 40% heavier (albeit also including a larger battery). The battery is not removable, and there’s no back cover at all. Buttons protrude from the right side of the device and headphone, micro-USB, and micro-SIM adorn the top. FCC and other certification notices dot the bottom, leaving the back a smooth landscape, aside from the camera surround brightwork.

It’s not perfect (but nearly is). The bezels (both top/bottom and sides) are wide, so the footprint of the device is larger than it could otherwise be. I’ve become accustomed to it, but picking up the Samsung Focus (4.0″) recently was surprisingly positive, for both size and weight. Furthermore, unlike the Lumia 800’s absolutely stunning curved display, which flows effortlessly from the curved chassis, the display on the 900 is flat, and furthermore, it’s bordered by a raised, plastic edge, which appears to be needed to help hold the display in place, within the chassis. For the side-to-side flicking that’s a significant part of Windows Phone (the panoramic apps), it makes itself painfully apparent.

Here’s to hoping the future phones trim the bezels and, at the very least, remove the protrusions around the display.

Display

The Lumia 900 has a 4.3″ ClearBlack AMOLED display. It’s a WVGA (800×480) panel, with a standard RGB subpixel structure. Compared to the multitude of high end phones with 1280×720 displays recently, it’s not as sharp, but the regular subpixel matrix helps sharpness, and I prefer it over the same resolution, but Pentile 4.0″ AMOLED display of my Samsung Focus. Perhaps once we have 720p displays, it’ll be a case of trying to go back to an iPad 2 from the new iPad’s display (i.e. you cannot), but for now, I’m content with the display quality.

The polarizer that plays a part in the “ClearBlack” naming makes outdoor use more than tolerable. However, as a result, it appears to impact how close the panel itself is to the surface of the glass. Especially since I have a Lumia 800 to compare against, the 900 doesn’t showcase the same effect of the picture nearly “floating” on the surface of the glass. Thankfully, it has some resistance to fingerprints and only requires a quick wipe (or some time riding in a pocket) to be cleaned.

Overall, the display is pretty nice, colours are oversaturated, but, as a result, make the Windows Phone tiles pop, and the AMOLED nature makes the blacks meld into the bezels, creating a nice, seamless display effect.

Camera

I’m a photo junkie, so I’m always interested in the photography capabilities of the cameras in these smartphones. The rear one in the Lumia 900 isn’t so impressive.

Part of that has to do with the sensor itself. While I haven’t been able to dig up the actual part number to take a look at its exact characteristics, empirical evidence shows that it’s likely a fairly small one, replete with poor high-ISO performance (and even noisy shadows at low ISO). It’s apparently not backside-illuminated, like the iPhone 4S’s, for example, and despite the Carl Zeiss branding, the lens (no matter how good) can’t elevate the sensor’s performance to above average.

With the recent 8779 Windows Phone update and the associated Nokia update, two issues are fixed. 1. exposure is now weighted around the focus point, during touch-to-focus. 2. white balance seems to be significantly improved.

However, several issues remain. Autofocus accuracy tends to be poor in difficult lighting conditions. For example, when photographing a peach on a tree, with a shadow across it, I could not get a single in-focus shot, after trying perhaps 5 or 6 times, instead, focusing on the leaves well behind it (both normal and macro modes attempted). Dynamic range is limited, so taking photos in bright conditions usually results in blown-out skies or very dark foregrounds. If you’re careful with the direction of the photo (versus the sun) and now that exposure can be weighted around the focus point, it’s possible to get some pretty good shots.

This is one area I’d love to see improved on future iterations of Nokia’s WP lineup. If the PureView rumours have any grounding in reality, I will be extremely excited.

Performance

Windows Phone isn’t setting any benchmark records, and its hardware is now a couple generations behind leading edge. That said, Windows Phone has a penchant for making good use of the hardware at its disposal, producing fluid animations, little delay in action-reaction, and enables a good experience on reasonably-priced hardware.

The Windows Phone soft keyboard consistently remains one of the best typing experiences I’ve ever had on a touchscreen. Autocorrect is active, but not overwhelming, unintentionally “correcting” words. The IE web browser is good, but sometimes get tripped up by headers, paragraph styling. You can sometimes see this in odd-looking font sizes, for example.

Compared to my Samsung Focus, which uses a Qualcomm QSD8250 1GHz SoC, the Lumia’s QC MSM8255 at 1.4GHz (and not to mention a GPU nearly twice as quick) is noticeably faster, especially when it comes to loading applications and scrolling through lists in some applications (e.g. Facebook).

While the day to day operations of phone are rarely hampered by the quick single core SoC, the generational leap to something quite a bit more powerful with this first generation of Windows Phone 8 devices will unblock the few remaining obstacles to a completely fast and fluid experience.

Wrap Up

No, the Lumia 900 (nor any current generation Windows Phone) will not get an upgrade to Windows Phone 8. It’ll be stuck on WP7.8 for the foreseeable future. However, at its current $49 price on contract, it simply represents a solid phone with a unique design and quality. Windows Phone’s guidelines and closer software-hardware integration means you’re getting a high quality smartphone experience.

Next for Nokia, whatever they launch on September 5 (looks to be a Lumia 820 and Lumia 920), I’m hoping they add a bit of polish to a solid product. The unibody design is fantastic to hold, lends durability, and looks great (not to mention, can be made into all sorts of wacky colours). Simply by the capabilities enabled by Windows Phone 8, a number of hardware features will reach at least parity with other operating system (multi-core SoC’s, high resolution displays). Hopefully the PureView rumours pan out and the smartphone camera reaches new heights of photography.

Not much longer now.

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

Sandisk Cruzer Contour USB Key

Costco had a sale on recently for the Sandisk Cruzer Contour USB key, and upon reading some good reviews, I picked up two 8GB sticks for about $25 each. The following image is really all you need to know.

Sandisk Cruzer Contour transfer speed

The drive is very speedy, especially on reads, achieving 25MB/s and 20MB/s in reads and writes, respectively, with large files. That’s very impressive for a drive at these prices. Plus, it feels very sturdy, with a durable, metal shell, and an interesting sliding mechanism. You push and pull the entire top part (black portion) of the key to extend the USB connector.

Sandisk Cruzer Contour

All in all, a very good buy! Should be on until June 20 at your neighborhood Costco (Canada).