Hardware Upgrade Decisions Not Simpler In Post-PC Era – The ‘Book Mystique

Last July, when Microsoft first unveiled its new Surface tablet computer, I have to concede that I was more seriously tempted to switch to the Windows platform then probably ever before — albeit with the reservation that I’d have to wait until the device was in consumer hands before passing judgment.

I like my iPad, and I love my Mac laptops, but the iPad in particular frustrates me because of several arbitrary decisions Apple made for its tablet, notably, no USB port, no ability to display more than one application on-screen simultaneously and all full-screen views, no user access to the file system, and lack of driver support for mouse input, even with Bluetooth, which is supported.

Fixes for for all of these would not be impossible, or even terribly difficult, but they are the way they are because of philosophical determinations by Apple and not technological limitations, so it is what it is, and banefully Apple is working toward more (or perhaps eventually even complete) convergence of OS X with the iOS.

So what excited me about Microsoft’s Surface was that it appeared to address all of those aforementioned iPad shortcomings, in a package that at least apparently could match the iPad in terms of attractiveness and build quality. However, how that promise would manifest in reality remained a question mark, this being Microsoft after all.

Now at least part of the question has been answered, alas so far disappointingly.

I think Microsoft made a major error in choosing to roll out its touch-centric Windows RT version of the Surface several months before the Surface Pro variant, which will be able to run the full desktop version of Windows 8.

While Windows RT does address some of the issues fore-noted, reports indicate that the RT version of Windows 8 is hardly compelling enough to entice an Apple fan from the iOS. You will note that I didn’t include no support for Microsoft Office in my iOS grievance list. I don’t use Office, opting for either the Open Source LibreOffice in OS X or just Google Docs when I need to open or write Office formatted documents.

However for many users direct Office compatibility on a tablet seems to be a somewhat huge issue, and that desire is catered to, sort of, by Windows 8 RT, with which a considerably watered-down Office Home & Student 2013 RT comes bundled, and incidentally whose EULA states can’t be legally used for “commercial, nonprofit, or revenue-generating activities” unless the user organization has a volume license for Office 2013, or the user has an Office 365 subscription with commercial use rights. The Surface Pro will support full desktop Office of course, but it’s not available yet.

There are other disappointments. Nominally, Microsoft will sell you a 32 GB capacity Surface RT for the same $500 that Apple charges for its entry-level 16 GB fourth-generation iPad. That sounds like the base model Surface has a significant value advantage over the iPad, but it’s largely illusory. Windows RT and its associated bundled software eats up roughly half of the 32 GB capacity, so you get only about 16 GB of free hard disk space for data storage, while Apple’s IOS operating system and software are much more compact, so the actual usable space for your data is about 14 GB, which isn’t much less than you effectively get with a 32 GB Surface. If you pony up for a 32 GB iPad, you get about 28 GB of usable storage capacity. Aside from the capacity issue, The evident Windows 8 software bloat is not an encouraging indicator, borne out by reports that the OS is both slow and buggy, again not qualities anyone would consider desirable compared to be generally solid and satisfyingly quick iOS.

As for another Surface marquee feature, availability of covers incorporating either touch or movable key action keyboards, unfortunately, early reports are that the Surface keyboard covers are not terribly robust, with serious quality issues.

The Apple Core’s Jason D. O’Grady pre-ordered a Surface with Windows RT at launch because he says he was super-excited to use Microsoft’s answer to the iPad. As it had to me, for him it looked like an ideal second machine to his MacBook Pro and a way to get some exposure to Windows and Windows apps.

However, while O’Grady says the Surface is a credible device with a lot of potential, it’s not ready for the big leagues, and he’s returning his. Some of the reasons why are:

1. It’s slow.
2. Lack of apps
3. Wi-Fi only
4. It’s rough around the edges

However, O’Grady did like Windows 8, which he says is very customizable and user-friendly, and while die-hard Windows users may not like the (formerly-known-as) Metro UI, it’s simple, clean and a total departure from everything before it and also the first mainstream mobile OS that’s not a complete ripoff of iOS.

The Surface Pro, to be rolled out in 2013, should be a much more compelling machine functionality and software support wise, at least in a Windows context, but the way Microsoft is structuring its Surface pricing, it seems probable that the Pro will sell for as much or more than a MacBook Air, and with Windows’ characteristic angularities a given, personally I would prefer the Air.

As 2012 draws to a close, I find myself on the horns of a bit of a dilemma in terms of hardware upgrades. Buying the iPad 2 in June, 2011 allowed me to squeeze another year out of my late 2008 aluminum unibody MacBook, but while that machine continues to provide smooth and trouble-free operation, the 160 GB hard drive is nearly full, and I’m finding that the 2 GB Core 2 Duo processor with 4GB of RAM is beginning to breathe a bit heavily at times, although I’ll add here that upgrading to OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion both enhanced speed and lowered the MacBook’s usual operating temperature enough that the internal cooling fans now very rarely cut in during normal use.

This coming year is looking like time for me to upgrade to a newer, faster Mac laptop. My short list of candidates is basically either an Ivy Bridge 13-inch MacBook Pro or a 13-inch MacBook Air, both of which are priced the same, so it comes down to a choice between lightweight and a fashionably slim form factor with SSD versus much better connectivity and upgradability, an internal optical drive,and the high storage capacity afforded by a conventional spinning hard drive.

However, my iPad is now a year and a half old, with two later model generations introduced since I bought it. It’s still very fast, but the camera, which I use more than I had thought I would, is mediocre, to put it kindly, and the new fourth generation iPad with Retina display, a five megapixel camera, and a much faster a 6X system on Chip beckons beguilingly.

What may happen there is that my wife, who still has misgivings about tablets, may take over the iPad 2, while I upgrade to an iPad 4.

We happened to be in a Walmart on Black Friday, and saw new iPad 2s offered for $374.95 Canadian, or not much more than half what I paid for mine a year and a half ago, but we decided that paying an extra $125 for an iPad 4 would be well worth the extra capital outlay. My wife needs a laptop upgrade as well, but we’re thinking that the iPad 2, once she gets used to it, could probably tide her over for a year or two yet, with her 17-inch G4 PowerBook taking up the slack for chores the iPad doesn’t perform well.

I think that my wife will probably like the iPad better than she thinks she will. She’s a touch typist, so can to use an external Bluetooth keyboard with the iPad for typing, which is one of her main activities on the PowerBook. However, like me, she isn’t a fan of touchscreen input, so how she gets along there remains to be seen.

However, another alternative we’re considering is for her to replace the PowerBook with a PC laptop. She is obliged to use a Windows box at work anyway, so there would be some compatibility advantages with switching to a Windows machine at home as well. I don’t find it any mystery why some 90-odd percent of personal computer users worldwide choose Windows PCs. Specifications-wise, you can get a lot more bang for your buck. Excluding Apple MacBooks, notebook computer average selling prices (ASPs) are about currently about US$530. The cheapest MacBook starts at $999.

In a newspaper ad this week I see that Dell will sell me an Inspiron 15R Special Edition laptop for a list price of $999.99 which happens to be just 99 cents more than Apple Canada wants for that cheapest laptop model, the 64GB MacBook Air.

For your thousand bucks, Apple gives you an 11.6-inch 1366 x 768 resolution 16:9 aspect ratio display, a 1.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor with Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz and an integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 graphics processor 4GB of RAM and a puny 64GB flash storage drive.

However for the same thousand bucks, Dell will provide you with that Inspiron 15R Special Edition, equipped with an Intel Core i7 processor, an AMD Radeon HD 7730M discrete graphics processor with 2GB of dedicated VRAM, 8 GB of system RAM, a whopping 1-terabyte hard drive, a built-in combo BlueRay/DVD/CD optical drive, and a 15.6-inch full High Definition (1080p) 1980 x 1020 display.

And for $449.99 — fifty bucks less than Apple wants for its entry-level 16GB WiFi iPad 4, Dell will sell you a plain vanilla Inspiron 15 with a Core i3 processor, 6GB of RAM, a 500 GB HDD, and an 8x DVD/CD optical drive. That would be plenty of power for my wife, since she’s not a power user by any means.

Of course, with those Dells you’re going to get plastic enclosures (the 15R Special Edition’s display back and palmrest are Stealth Black Anodized Aluminum), and Dell doesn’t typically do as well in service and reliability surveys as Macs do. And of course, you don’t get a razor-thin form factor, SSD speed, or OS X. But an awful lot of people seem to manage reasonably well with Windows.

A few even make the transition from OS X to Windows fairly happily. Gravitational Pull blogger Aaron Pressman reports that he’s ended a decade plus of using a Mac as his main computer and switched to the Windows side, lured by the all-black, super-lightweight Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon. Pressman says he loves the feel of the X1’s carbon fiber body, nicely grippable and an attractive matte black, and that it reminds him of his all-time favorite Mac laptop, the Powerbook G3 he had in the late 1990s, though it probably weighs less than half as much.

Pressman also notes that the X1’s screen is gorgeous, clear and bright at 14″ diagonally with 1600 x 900 pixels resolution, that the keyboard works great and the touchpad is also among the best. Compared with his erstwhile 13-inch MacBook Pro and a Macbook Air he used as his main machine on the road last summer, Pressman says the Thinkpad has a better screen and keyboard as well as superior battery life., and he also much prefers the Thinkpad’s carbon body to the Air’s slippery, sharp aluminum shell. However, he rates the Airs trackpad better and notes that it had fewer of the Thinkpad’s software hiccups running Windows 8.

However, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon won’t save you any money to speak of compared with a 13-inch MacBook Air, since the base model X1 sells for $1,249, which is 50 bucks more than the entry-level 13-inch Air. Both machines have a roughly comparable spec. With Core i5 CPUs, Intel HD Graphics 4000 integrated graphics, 4GB of standard system RAM, and 128 GB of SSD storage.

I do share Adam Pressman’s preference for the tactile feel of the old PowerBook G3 Series ‘Books, which is fresh in my mind since I still have a couple of G4 upgraded Pismos in active service, but you can’t beat Apple’s unibody aluminum construction for fine watch type precision and solid feel. I still expect my next laptop will be a Mac, but my wife may get a Dell or other PC equivalent.

The post-PC (so to speak) era has its advantages, but less complex hardware upgrade decisions isn’t one of them.

See our price trackers for up-to-date Apple prices