Computers · Computers That Are Telephones · Opinions

What laptop, tablet, or smartphone to buy? It’s a complicated business

My Dad asked me recently what sort of computer he should buy to replace his ten-year-old HP laptop. And what sort of phone should he get to replace his old Nokia? And while I was at it, should he get one of those tablet things?

There are a lot of possible options at the moment, because all kinds of devices from smartphones to traditional PCs have become broadly capable of doing the same work, and because a whole raft of new Windows 8 laptops and convertibles have just arrived to clutter up the shelves.

Therefore I’d suggest mostly ignoring the nominal capability and specs of any device, and considering instead how it feels to hold and operate and what ecosystem it is part of.

Let me explain, and then give some more concrete advice.


This slightly absurd term describes a set of services and systems that work together, many of which are likely to have been provided by the company that made the device’s operating system.

Increasingly, when you buy a device, you are making a decision to participate in its maker’s ecosystem: it will make your life easiest if you are prepared to use backup, file and photo sharing, music download, email, mapping, browsing, app installation, and other services all from the same supplier.

For example, if you buy an Android device, you’ll be most content if you also use Google mail, maps, marketplace, etc. Buy a Mac or an iPhone, and you’ll have the happiest time if you use Apple services wherever they exist. Windows 8 and Windows Phone expect you to have a Microsoft account and to use it. If you have two devices, say a laptop and a phone, they’ll get on best if they’re both within the same ecosystem as well.

You can make a conscious decision to mix and match—I do that myself, somewhat, because it pains me to side with any one megacorporation more than I have to—but it can be heavy going. If the idea of understanding what you’re doing and why you’re doing it appeals to you more than having an easy life, then install Linux and subscribe to no single ecosystem; I’ll be happy to help out. But I’m guessing you don’t really want to do that.

So no, the usual thing seems to be to decide which company you dislike least, then let that one have your credit card details and as much goodwill as you can muster. And that means picking one of: Apple (with OS/X and iPhone/iPad), Google (with Android), or Microsoft (with Windows and Windows Phone).


Modern computing devices, from smartphones to PCs, are increasingly touch-driven (either through a multi-touch touchpad or a touchscreen), portable, and versatile. The way you hold and interact with them does matter.

I’d strongly suggest you start by trying out the best devices you can find from each ecosystem, hands-on, either by borrowing from a friend or in a very relaxed shop. Decide which one you enjoy the basic interactions with the most.

If the design, interaction and animation (and materials and heft, for specific devices) please you every time you pick it up, you’re probably going to be happy with it. If they annoy you, you’re not. If it’s ugly and inconvenient now, it’ll be ugly and inconvenient in five years’ time.

The options

These are the things you can buy at the moment.

Laptops you know. They run either Windows (if PCs) or OS/X (if Macs). Some of the Windows 8 ones now have touchscreens, but not all of them (and nor do any of the Macs).

Tablets such as Apple’s iPad, the Google/Samsung Nexus 10, or the Microsoft Surface are slatelike touchscreen devices in which a separate keyboard is strictly optional (there is a “virtual” one on the screen). They typically run one program at a time, full-screen, rather than having multiple separate windows side by side, and the programs are redesigned for touch rather than mouse operation (the buttons are bigger and they have fewer menus, for example). All software is installed from a central “app store” run by the operating system manufacturer.

Smartphones are small tablets that can make phone calls. Most mobile phones nowadays are smartphones.

Things to bear in mind

A modern smartphone is a computer. It can do practically anything, but it’s sometimes fiddly because of the small size, and it has amazingly awful battery life compared with a classic mobile phone—be prepared to charge it every day. If you buy a nice new phone and make use of it as a handheld computer, you’ll probably find you use your laptop less.

Tablets overlap with both smartphones and laptops. If you have a smartphone, the laptop or tablet is likely to take jobs like “reading long documents, and doing anything that needs a lot of typing”. Don’t buy both a tablet and a laptop, just make sure whatever you get has a good clear screen and you can stand it up on a desk and type with it.

Asus Transformer

Proper keyboards are available for every kind of tablet: you can always get something you can either plug in or attach wirelessly. But convertible tablets (with a keyboard stand included, like the Asus Transformer, right) are nice too. They’re very like laptops to use and can be folded up and packed away the same way, but you can also pull off the screen and sit on the sofa with it. Most run Android.

There are also small tablets, but… While the iPad, Nexus 10, Transformer series, and Surface are in the 10-11″ diagonal range, there are also several in the 7-8″ range like the iPad Mini or Nexus 7. The small ones are natty and better for carrying around, but less good for sofa-surfing and can’t really replace a laptop.

If you’re buying an Android device, look for Android 4 or newer and get a Google Nexus if you can. They sell a phone (the Nexus 4), a small tablet (Nexus 7) and a big tablet (Nexus 10) and they’re all pretty good. Being Google’s “own” devices, they have good compatibility and more updates. You can’t generally get them through mobile network contracts though.

Don’t buy an Amazon tablet. The Kindle Fire series are really designed for only one thing: consuming content from Amazon.

If you’re buying a Windows 8 laptop, get one with a touchscreen. Windows 8 makes very little sense without a touchscreen. You can still use a mouse as well.

Windows 8 is extra-confusing because of the existence of both Windows 8 and “Windows RT”. These are essentially the same, except that Windows RT can’t run any “legacy” Windows software apart from Microsoft Office: it only runs touch-optimised full-screen apps from the Windows app store, of which there are not all that many available yet. Windows RT is found on tablets and some laptops. It’s a perfectly capable operating system, but there’s a big risk of disappointment if you want to run arbitrary Windows applications from around the internet and discover too late that you can’t.

So the range of applications available matters, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. Off the top of my head: Apple’s iPhone has the most apps, then Android phones, then the iPad, then desktop operating systems (Windows, OS/X), then Android tablets, and in last place Windows Phone and Windows RT. Numerically the difference from first to last pretty big, but it can be oversold: in practice you won’t find many things you can’t do, nor run out of new stuff to try out, on any of them.

You can safely ignore any review in which the star rating appears to be correlated to how fast the computer’s processor is. That’s practically irrelevant nowadays. Do test how smoothly the screen scrolls and zooms though.

Don’t forget to check whether you use any software that absolutely must continue to run on whatever you replace your laptop with. In most cases, all you need is software that does the same sort of thing (it doesn’t have to be exactly the same software) but you don’t want to get caught out if there’s anything specific you rely on.

The whole mobile-network contract business is an extra layer or three of bafflement that I can’t really help with. I generally buy hardware unsubsidised and stick a pay-as-you-go SIM in it.

Some suggestions

Give each of the ecosystem contenders a test run, and then, from the options below, pick the phrase you most agree with and read that bit!

(Although by the time you’ve given each them a test run, you may well already know what you want. That would be a good outcome.)

I’m totally ignoring price here, although sadly the most interesting options almost always turn out rather expensive.

“I really like the way the Apple things work” Well, that was easy. If you’re dead set on having a laptop or you want as much flexibility and control as possible, then you want a MacBook Air (probably the 13″ size, although the keyboard is just as titchy as the one in the 11″). Otherwise, get an iPad and forget about the laptop. Either way, buy the laptop or tablet first, then think about phones (the phone to get is obviously an iPhone, it’s just a question of which one and that basically comes down to price).

“Windows 8 and Windows Phone appeal to me, and I don’t think of Microsoft as an objectionable enemy” You’d probably find a Windows Phone 8 phone (any one, though the Nokia Lumia 920 has the most lovely screen) and a touchscreen Windows 8 laptop a good combination. Look at the Lenovo Yoga 13, which is a fine laptop that I predict will sell half-a-dozen at best because of the weird way it’s being displayed on a stand in the shops (the screen flips back to make it resemble a large and heavy tablet, but it’s really a laptop). Or consider the Samsung Series 5 Touch laptop or possibly the ATIV SmartPC convertible. Although Microsoft’s Surface RT is a beautiful object that I’d like to recommend, it isn’t yet quite the laptop replacement it thinks it is. There’s a Pro version due out in a few weeks that might be worth a look, though.

“I use a few Google services already, and I’ve tried at least one Android device I thought was nice to use” An Android tablet convertible like the Asus Transformer series can in principle replace a laptop quite well. Try one out, but if you’re thinking “hm, maybe Android might work” it’s probably cheaper to give it a go with a phone first. Google’s Nexus 4 is the obvious choice if you can find one.

“Those touchscreen laptops and tablets are all a bit small, I like my bigger PC” There are some reasonable touchscreen laptops with somewhat larger screens, including several from HP like the Envy TouchSmart 14. I hesitate to recommend one because I’ve actually never seriously used Windows 8 with a touchscreen on a larger screen. It might be a bit tiring. Do try it though.

“This is still all too complicated” Then stick with what you’ve got. The new Windows 8 machines have only just come out, and everything will look a bit simpler in six months’ time when the disasters have subsided and the new-fangled things have got cheaper.

What would I do?

If: money was no object; I had no corporate loyalty and lacked my affection for open Unix-type systems; I wanted to be able to do anything except programming; I didn’t have a laptop, tablet or smartphone already; and I didn’t mind if my phone was too big to fit in a small pocket… I’d buy a Nokia Lumia 920 and a Lenovo Yoga 13.

That’s because I like the Windows 8 look and feel, the different Windows 8 devices work well together, and both of these are attractive well-made objects that are a pleasure to use. I’d pick the Nokia over the otherwise excellent HTC 8X because of its better screen and camera and the inclusion of Nokia maps with navigation.

But in real life, I couldn’t afford that. If I wanted to keep the price down a bit and avoid being too locked in to any one ecosystem, I’d look at a Samsung Series 5 touchscreen laptop and a second-hand unlocked Google Nexus S phone from eBay. But I would go and have a play with a Surface RT tablet in John Lewis first, just in case. It’s a nicer physical object, for all its limitations.

And if money was the object—if it was the main thing that mattered, but the other conditions were the same—I might buy the entry-level full-size iPad and nothing else. It’s much cheaper than a touchscreen laptop and has a lot of software. I don’t really go for the visual design, but it’s cheaper than the alternatives I do really like, the basic interaction and feel are fine, and having all those apps available counts for a lot.

Of course, being a typical human creature I’d really do none of the above. I’d just buy whatever I happened to like the look of on the day and rationalise it afterwards. I trust you’ll do the same!

Bits and Bobs · Opinions

Late Adopter

Although I’m pretty aware of new technology and products, and I do try to maintain that awareness, I’m not at all an early adopter.

I’ve found I have a pattern. Most of the time I learn about new things but actively resist engaging with them. I grumble about them for various minor offences, and then perhaps forget about them. Five years or so later, if they still exist, I finally get into them and discover that they were after all pretty good.

There are examples from lots of different spheres. New technology is the most obvious.

I was invited to Twitter by @clagnut around the end of 2006. I thought “why on earth would I want to use that?” and ignored it. I ignored it even when my wife invited me again early in 2008. Then finally, in May 2012—now that the interest in Twitter as a new thing has totally gone—I signed up and started using it. It’s pleasant to use. It’s undemanding. I quite like it.

I was fascinated by the iPhone when it first appeared. I could see that it was a neat device, but really, who would want to carry such a big thing with such terrible battery life? The last phone I had with such awful battery life was a Mitsubishi MT-20, which I lost in a hayloft during a good party in 1997. I couldn’t locate it the next day because the battery was dead.

So until the start of 2012 I held out with a Nokia 6303 (small, tactile, can stretch to a fortnight on one charge) before a change of mobile network forced a change of phone. Now I have a Nokia 700, which is a pretty good touchscreen phone (the most beautiful hardware with the most ordinary operating system) that at least fits in any pocket.

It works in other fields as well. In films, I’ve lost count of the number of good things I’ve actively avoided seeing at the cinema because they were too trendy, and have only learned the merits of later.

The principle even seems to have worked with books, and old ones. I’ve recently finished the two Berlin books of Christopher Isherwood, from the 1930s: a novel, “Mr Norris Changes Trains”, and a collection of sketches, “Goodbye to Berlin”. They’re really, wonderfully good. But I never bothered to read them when I lived as a student in Berlin in 1992, because other people were talking about them as settings for their own Berlin idea, and that was just too obvious.

It probably works out both ways. My ego won’t let me participate, and I miss out on things that I only later realise were worthwhile. But I also miss out on things that aren’t so great, or that I really didn’t need. Even if I do discover the wonders of the iPad later, I won’t ever regret that I didn’t buy the iPad 1 or 2. And I’ll never feel bad for having steered clear of Avatar or Jurassic Park at the pictures.

Computers · Opinions

Repairable laptops

The new MacBook Pro has prompted some argument about how repairable a laptop should be. Its screen can’t be detached from the protective glass, the RAM is soldered in, and the solid-state drive uses some sort of obscure (proprietary?) connector.

The mainstream article prompting this is here from Kyle Wiens, the founder of iFixit. I use and enjoy iFixit, and I’m broadly sympathetic to this point of view.

Dissenting views from Christina Warren, John Gruber, Nick Chaves.

There are some things in all of these that I find a bit odd.

Kyle Wiens:

The success of the non-upgradeable Air empowered Apple to release the even-less-serviceable iPad two years later: The battery was glued into the case.

I don’t think Apple were waiting to see whether people would mind not being able to upgrade the Air before releasing the iPad. This idea of testing consumer response like that doesn’t ring true to me. I think Apple knew at the outset that upgradeability and repairability were among the things people cared least about.

Christina Warren:

If you buy a car today, you can’t self-service it the same way you could in 1992… the fact that computers are now powerful enough to be built more as appliances is great news

True enough about cars, but laptops have always been harder to service than most common appliances. I’ve repaired our dishwasher, washing machine, bits of stereo equipment, and various pieces of household lighting and electricals over the years—and I don’t know anything about dishwashers or washing machines. Laptops are becoming less like most appliances, not more.

What laptops are becoming more like is TVs. Is that good? Is it also good that TVs are less repairable than they used to be?

John Gruber:

That’s the world’s tiniest violin, playing a sad song for the third-party repair and upgrade industry.

I don’t think I knew there was a third-party repair and upgrade industry. At least, not a big one. I guess it’s iFixit.

Nick Chaves:

My 2008 MacBook Pro did get a not-totally-necessary battery replacement after a year, but my 2010 has run strong for two years. I’d expect nothing less from the Airs or new MacBook Pro. So short-lived might be a relative characterization if anything

I’d expect any decent laptop to last two years, but he does also say

I don’t take enough laptops through to the end of their life to be a representative sample

I do generally take laptops through to the end of their life, or at least I seldom get rid of them. Since my youngest laptop is now over two years old, I thought I’d make a little tally of how they’ve got on and how much I’ve repaired or upgraded.

Some of these are mine, some my wife’s. In chronological order of manufacture:

Sony Vaio R600MX (2002)

Still working, but not used any more

Upgraded RAM from 256 to 384MB. Upgraded hard disc (can’t remember the figures). Replaced the battery. I loved this laptop and used it for about five years.

IBM Thinkpad T40p (2003)

Still working and still in use

This is my main machine for writing papers on at work. (It has the best screen for writing.) I bought it fairly recently, upgraded the hard drive to an SSD, installed more memory, and replaced the keyboard and wrist rest. I love the fact that these machines were built with glyphs inscribed on the bottom telling you which screws to undo to get at particular components.

There, I’ve totally revealed my bias now.

Fujitsu Amilo-A (2005)


My least-favourite laptop and the only one I’ve ever sold. I never fixed or upgraded anything on this one.

Dell Latitude D420 (2007)

Still working and still in occasional use

These were great little machines, except for the 1.8″ hard drive which was appallingly slow.

I switched the hard drive to an SSD in 2009, but it failed and I couldn’t find another supplier to replace it affordably so I put the original drive back in. I also upgraded the RAM, replaced the keyboard assembly after some keys failed, bought an extended battery, and replaced both standard and extended batteries. The replacement batteries were all unbranded.

Sony Vaio SZ-1 (2007)

Still working and still in use

My wife’s current main work computer. Upgraded the RAM and fixed a sticky trackpad button, otherwise it’s still working much as new.

Apple 15″ MacBook Pro (2007)

Still working and still in use

The silver MacBook Pro keyboard is surely the best there’s ever been on an Apple laptop. The battery on this one failed: its original battery was replaced in a recall, but the replacement failed more recently. It won’t hold more than a few minutes charge. The machine is still going fine, but we always plug it in rather than springing for a new battery.

Had to replace the power supply after the connector frayed, but that didn’t involve opening the computer.

IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad T60 (2007)

Still working and still in use

My current main work computer. This is another one I bought recently. Upgraded the hard drive to an SSD, exchanged the keyboard for a better one found on eBay. I’m typing this on it.

Sony Vaio Z (2010)

Still working and still in use

I have never had cause to open this one.

Of course, I opened it anyway. Just to see. I might replace something some time, just because I can.

Computers · Opinions

The Third Pad

I’ve become used to thinking of Apple’s product releases as falling into two categories: “outreach” or “consolidation”.

Outreach releases are new products, or products introducing features that users will be unfamiliar with or that are novel enough to be headliners in adverts.

Consolidation releases do essentially the same as the previous release, but faster or more neatly. Usually they look the same as well.

Early adopters buy and promote the outreach releases, with the “new” stuff in them. Late adopters are reassured that the product is “safe” in time to buy the consolidation release, which also has better specifications, is perhaps more reliable, and has a longer lifetime before replacement.

(I’m sure there are standard names for these two in business terminology. I’ve never had any education in business. From random things I’ve read, I’d like to say “disruptive” and “sustaining”, but I don’t think my uses really match the established meanings of these.)

Of course, there’s some room for argument about which release is of which type.

That’s what pubs are for.

In my view, outreach releases include the first iPhone, the iPhone 3G, the iPhone 4, the first iPad and the first MacBook Air.  Consolidation releases include the iPhone 3GS and 4S, subsequent MacBook Airs, and all the iPod touch models.  Roughly speaking, the release types alternate.

What about the iPad 2?

I think of the iPad 2 as the ultimate consolidation release.

Although it looked different from the first iPad, essentially every change in the iPad 2 could be seen as a deliberate elimination of a specific reason that buyers and reviewers had cited as putting them off the original.

Reviewers complained that the iPad was too heavy. (They did this so much that, when I first picked up an iPad, I was surprised by how light it was because all the reviews had got me to expect something much heavier.)  But the iPad 2 was much lighter, and it looked slighter and easier to hold.

The iPad was too hard to grip and hold: so the iPad 2, as well as being lighter, had an accessory cover that could be used to prop it up for reading.

The iPad was dismissed as being only for reading and consuming content, not for doing anything creative with: the iPad 2 launched in conjunction with dedicated versions of products like Garage Band and iMovie.

Potential tablet-producing rivals liked to talk about the inferior speed of the iPad, so the iPad 2 had a faster core. Even though it didn’t make an enormous difference to the usability of the product, the speed boost comprehensively eliminated a nominal reason to buy anyone else’s product.

Everything about the iPad 2 was an exercise in eliminating objections. Other than simply not being able to afford it, almost all of the factual objections to the iPad were dealt with in its successor.

Consolidating strength

The iPad 2 is the most impressive product, in terms of design and launch expertise, that I have ever seen from a company.

Without doing anything radically new, Apple turned a product that was brilliant, but received with some uncertainty, into a product that was almost impossible to refuse on any grounds other than cost.

The launch of the iPad 2 was the moment when it became apparent that Apple was flattening its competition. After the original iPad came out, I thought—as clearly a lot of other people did—that “the tablet” was, generically, going to be a huge thing, and I started plotting the potential fortunes of all the existing smartphone companies in terms of how well I imagined they might do in the “tablet space”.  (I own the original Samsung Galaxy Tab, and I really like it: I certainly hoped Samsung would do well with it.)  I overestimated all of them, and I certainly overestimated my own estimation abilities.

The iPad 2 marked the point of failure for anyone like me who was trying to understand the market by analogy from established PC or mobile phone manufacturers.

The “iPad 3”

The sort of historical alternation between product types I’ve alluded to suggests that the iPad 3 should be an outreach product—one that looks or feels substantially different, or that has some really novel feature to promote.

I’ve no way to know, but I suspect that isn’t really going to be the case. The iPad 2 is still so far ahead of any alternatives in the market that there is no appreciable competition to attack through novelty. There are a lot of people out there who don’t have one yet, but the iPad 2 has been so successful that it’s reasonable to expect the speed of its outflow to continue: nothing substantial has changed for the worse in the environment it has to work in.

Presumably the iPad 3 will have the double-resolution screen that many commentators have talked about, and will have voice control. Beyond that, anything new that Apple include might almost be seen as a gift to their future customers. They don’t need to do it.