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.

Ecosystems

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).

“Feel”

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!

I quite like the Surface RT. It must be doomed

The Surface RT is the device Microsoft must hope will cause their Windows 8 strategy to start making sense to the world at large. It’s a tablet along the lines of the iPad, with an optional flappy felt keyboard cover and a cut-down version of Windows 8 on it. Microsoft Office is included, but it won’t run any other software from any prior versions of Windows.

I’ve been using one that we’ve acquired at work, and I rather like it.

The basic interface design is lovely and far more tasteful than iOS which, although very nicely executed, has always been a bit on the cheesy side.

Although Windows 8 on the desktop is made a bit awkward by the need to coexist with “legacy” Windows software, the RT version doesn’t bother with that: its classic desktop mode only exists for running Office and for carrying out the odd hack that you can’t readily do in the new interface, like installing fonts or mounting a network drive to play audio from.

The Touch Cover keyboard isn’t wonderful as a keyboard, but it’s good enough. Its main virtue is that it makes a good cover, so you always have it with you: a keyboard that won’t take up half of your on-screen space. And you can flip it back if you want to put the device on a soft surface (see picture, above) or prop it at a shallower angle than the built-in kickstand will allow.

Available software is very limited and even the included stuff doesn’t always work very well. It’ll often linger for ages over network accesses or even give up completely. It’s great to see my Flickr account as an integrated source of photos in the photo app, but most of the time it seems to give up while synchronising and just tell me “something went wrong”. Plug in a camera with a pile of photos on it, and you get a photo-picker app that spends a tedious age trying to load the photos into a preview pane before giving up and offering you 600 grey rectangles instead.

At the moment this thing seems most useful as a business accessory, good for pushing across the table to illustrate a point from a website or spreadsheet during a meeting. It’s nice to use, and I don’t find myself wishing we’d bought the full Windows 8 version instead (to be released in January, apparently). Rather, it makes me want to work out how to program it.

Microsoft have apparently tried to accommodate everyone in their development environments, allowing apps written in XAML/C#, XAML/C++, HTML5/JavaScript and probably some other things as well, with the result that nobody I talk to seems confident about how best to approach it. The C++ dialect has some extra Microsoft-isms in it as well, just to appease those programmers who feel there isn’t enough of C++ already.

But the tools are available, friendly, and free; a truly impressive stack of example code is available; and at least you don’t need to pay for developer deployments. With a free developer cert you can send your test builds from Visual Studio on a C++ to a Surface across wifi, and do “live” (but slow) interactive testing remotely. Promising then, if you can find the time, but given Microsoft’s record of changing their mind on the developer tools to use here it’s not surprising that uptake might be a bit slow.

(What’s even less clear is where this leaves the type of GPL-licensed open source software I’ve worked on. GPL software certainly wasn’t allowed in the Windows Phone 7 marketplace, the predecessor to the Windows 8 store–though I realise I haven’t checked the terms again recently–and open source has little meaning if the distribution channel is so locked down that nobody could do anything with the source anyway.)

But on the whole, I rather like it. The only thing I really wish for is the ability to uninstall the Arial font.

That I like it is probably a bad sign. I don’t have a history of going for wild commercial successes. If I like it, it’s probably a pointless bagatelle that the public generally won’t get on with. I praise the interface design because it isn’t cheesy, but what I think of as cheesy any normal person would find reassuring and comfortable: Apple know this and have sold stacks of stuff on the basis of it. And even I don’t really like the Surface all that much–I feel generally fond towards it, but I can’t imagine spending all that money on it myself. I’d like to have one, but not yet to the extent that I’d actually pay for it.

(I wrote this post, including importing and cropping the images, on the Surface. It was pleasant enough. I felt it took a bit longer than it would have on a laptop, but not that much longer.)

(p.s. This post feels like it might be in contradiction to my previous one, which was my response to using Windows 8 on a PC. What do you think?)

iPads in schools

Fraser Spiers remarks, in a review of the Google Nexus 7 tablet:

My experience with two years of iPad in school is that the iPad can cover 99% of everything we want to do with a computer in school… the iPad can replace the computer suite

I think the radical nature of his observation has to do with the replacement of the desktop computer in dedicated labs—the iPad is already widely proposed and increasingly adopted as an assistance to learning for pupils outside the computer suite.

Viewed close-up, this seems like a good thing. iPads are generally cheaper,  more reliable, and easier to get to grips with than traditional PCs, are portable enough to be used across teaching disciplines, and make a wide range of software very easily available.

But imagine that, ten years ago, someone had proposed:

  • that in future, schools in the UK and elsewhere would buy all of their computer hardware and most of their software from a single American company;
  • that software for these computers could not be used with hardware made by anyone else, never mind with other operating system platforms;
  • that software for these computers could only be obtained through the company that made the computers, and that installing it would require entering a contractual relationship with them;
  • that these computers could not be programmed natively using the computer itself: prospective application programmers would first need to buy another, more expensive computer from the same company, enter another contractual relationship with them, and in most cases also pay them;
  • that GNU-style Free Software would be forbidden from running on them;
  • that the company in question was known to have designed this environment quite deliberately and had a record of squashing attempts to work around its limitations;
  • and that these computers would be used as a standard teaching platform across all disciplines, and would also be the platform on which computing as a subject was taught to children.

How would that have sounded?

Updating into oblivion

I updated my Nokia 700 today. It’s an unlocked, unbranded phone running Symbian Belle, that was advertised as having OS updates in February and April this year—but those updates never arrived. I eventually lost patience, and made the updates using underhand and possibly illegal tools. iPhone 4 (with bumper), Galaxy Nexus, Nokia 700

In an earlier post I said that I wasn’t too bothered about OS updates. For the most part that’s true. I don’t mind that my Android tablet (the original Galaxy Tab) hasn’t had an update since Android 2.3. I appreciate that Samsung gave some sign of having actually looked into whether an update would run well on it and decided that it wouldn’t. That puts me in a better position than friends with the iPhone 3 who had their devices rendered into sludge by an iOS update too far.

But Nokia—they really worked hard at winding me up. The February update didn’t just piddle about with the core OS, it also added some applications that I was genuinely interested in trying and that couldn’t be installed any other way. The April update didn’t mess about either, it actually increased the phone’s CPU clock speed. (How? Why was it lower to begin with?)

And for UK unlocked devices, they had two product codes: evidently the good and the bad. The good got the updates, and I had the bad. The bad didn’t get the updates.

So having waited until late July, I lost patience and re-flashed the thing.

I’m a bit cross about it because of, well, being put to such lengths and made to feel like I actually cared, about something so trivial.

On the other hand… a Nokia 700 with the latest Belle FP1 is a really nice phone. It’s hard to stay cross for long.

Neat, thin form factor, excellent screen, expandable storage and replaceable battery, physical buttons all well placed. Yes, it’s immaculately built… in Hungary, where Nokia laid off most of their workers at the end of last year.

With Belle FP1 and the faster clock speed, it’s smooth, straightforward and enjoyable to use. Sure there are some extra things I could still do with (integrated notifications of new email for example) but it’s for the first time a phone I could actually recommend to friends who liked the size and construction… running on an operating system cut adrift in February last year and effectively canned with Nokia’s last round of layoffs.

There aren’t as many good apps as on other platforms, but it does have a number of smooth Qt-based ones, including a few very slick and useful apps from Nokia, and it’s an attractive device for a Qt developer like me to think of developing for… if only there was an ecosystem around it and if only future devices were compatible… and if Nokia hadn’t abandoned Qt in their platform strategy twice, once with the switch to WP7 and again when refocusing on S40 a month ago.

Yep, the 700 is a wonderful example of what might have been.

I’m tempted to buy another as a spare, just because I like it so much and its future is so plainly bleak. I wonder how many of the services on it would stop working if Nokia went under?

Windows Phone 8 and Nokia

Microsoft formally announced Windows Phone 8 yesterday.

There were some interesting technical details in the announcement: it permits running native code, will apparently support individual app distribution centres for corporate users, and has a less boring home screen.

They also confirmed, as expected, that there will be no upgrades from Windows Phone 7.

I’m not sure this will be such a big deal for existing users. I think it’s easy to overstate how much users generally care about updates, and at least this way there is certainty—in contrast to Nokia’s update mechanism for Symbian which involved announcing the update first, then rolling it out to devices over a period of months or in some cases not at all.

It can’t help the sales potential of current devices though.

What are Nokia trying to sell?

Looking at Nokia’s UK site now, it shows 24 phones (that’s down from 105 phones and a laptop, just before the February 2011 reshuffle).

Of those 24, four run the Windows Phone 7 whose non-upgradeable successor was just announced.

A further four, I think, run variants of Symbian. The most up-to-date (Belle) was recently effectively canned. But hey, only one phone ships with that anyway—the rest come with even more out-of-date variants.

The remaining 16, if I’m counting correctly, run the S40 Java-mobile feature phone platform and are presumably sold at pretty thin margins.

Nokia are I suppose hoping to have WP8 phones out by Christmas. That’ll be nearly two years after their “burning platforms” strategic reset, and they’ll be pretty much back where they started: abandoning three legacy platforms, pinning their hopes on a new one starting from zero market share. How much cash have they got left?

This could be bad news for games consoles

Rumours abounding (nice example here from John Gruber) that Apple may be about to announce an updated Apple TV operating system with apps support, possibly integrated into an Apple-branded TV set rather than being available only as a separate box as at present.

(How would you control it? Through a separate iOS device like an iPad?)

This sounds potentially very bad for the traditional games console, a market that seems to be already waning.

If I could only have one secretive, obsessively proprietary company making integrated hardware and software products, with a history of approaching product design a bit differently from its competition, of favouring customer pleasure over technical advantage, and of treating third-party developers in unpredictable and capricious ways… I’d choose Nintendo rather than Apple.

But Nintendo don’t really seem to know what to do at the moment. A pity.