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Buy Cheap, Pay More.

27 Apr

As noted in an earlier posting, I got myself a new laptop last August. This cost me the thick end of £1,800, so was a considered purchase by all accounts.

More recently (early this year) my company, after much kerfuffle, eventually replaced my ageing work laptop with a new developer spec machine.

Developer for them…

When I asked about the possibility of getting something with a touch screen the IT department representative laughed out loud with out a hint of irony. The response was something about “There’s only two touch screen laptops in the company, and you have to be on the board to get one. They cost upwards of £2,500”, accompanied by a look that said “you’re an idiot”.

Hmmm…

“Wow!” I said (really, I said “Wow”). “That must have quite a specification.”

“They have an i7 and 32Gb of ram”

“How much do you spend on the normal laptops for developers then? What spec will I get?”

“They’re about £1,900. Core i5 with 16Gb of RAM and 512Gb SSD. You won’t need more than that.”

A good call considering he doesn’t have any idea what it is I actually do… however, I diverge,

“But I purchased this very laptop here, 4K touchscreen, Core i7, 32Gb RAM, 1Tb M2 storage, 3 year extended warranty, additional battery/charger for £1,800. I think you’re being ripped off…”

“Yes, the touchscreen laptops cost £1,800. The one you’ll get is £1,200…”

What?!!

OK. Whatever. If I’d asked for a Apple machine they only seem to supply top of the range MacBook Pro or Air models, depending on your role (not needs) so at least the money is there for them I suppose.

Still at least I got a new machine, similar to those of my peers.

Unfortunately the build time on my current project is in the region of 90 to 120 seconds with one of these machines.

Benchmarking on something more… capable… we’ve seen sub 35 seconds. It doesn’t sound a lot but multiply that by four (now over eight) developers, and add on testers, and you lose valuable time every day. That ultimately cost the client money (and now us money as we move into a fixed price project structure), and us as the users of these machines become that little bit more frustrated.

Still, it’s a step up from what I had, but I can’t help thinking will need replacing sooner than if they spent that little bit more to begin with.

Sounds like a false economy to me, but I dare say there’s some accountancy rule coming into effect here, and not just penny pinching and status protection.

Still, I look forward to when the client asks for the project to become touch aware (as they have before) and nobody is able to test this due to a lack of hardware…

As an aside, here’s the relative SSD benchmarks for the two machines:

E5470

Company Dell Latitude E5470

XPS15

Personal Dell XPS15 (9550)

Back on the Upgrade Cycle

19 Aug

 laptop-xps-15-9550-pdp-polaris-02

Once upon a time it was normal for me to upgrade a computer every two years, alternating between my desktop and laptop. As time and circumstances changed, this has fluctuated in recent years. My dates may be a little out here, but in recent years my updates have followed a cycle similar to this:

·        2006 – Convertible (tablet) HP

·        2009 – New desktop PC

·        2010 – New laptop (Acer Aspire)

·        2013 – Surface Pro 2 (October)

So I should be about due for another upgrade, right?

Well the thing is apart from the small screen size I absolutely still love my Surface Pro 2. It’s powerful enough for most of the tasks I throw at it (with the exception of video rendering, which can never be fast enough) it’s lightweight, the pen is awesome, etc. Sure there are plenty of things that were improved in subsequent models, but overall I loved the package. The point is whilst a newer model would be great and provide incremental performance gains, day to day the SP2 is still a fine device.

Apart from the fact that it started producing a lot of noise from the internal fan, and the replacement cost Microsoft quoted me was close to £600.

Dammit.

So whilst the machine is capable enough, I find I can’t use it outside the house without fear of deafening everyone around me. Essentially the SP2 has been kept safely indoors for the last several months.

I took to using my work supplied Dell laptop. A heavy clunky beast, strangely sluggish (for a mid-range machine) with less than stellar battery life. The additional weight meant that more often than not I’d just stick to using my phone and consuming media rather than creating anything.

This was all a little frustrating. My main single part of my commute to work is a 55+ minute train journey between Colchester and London totalling a little shy of two hours where I could potentially be doing something useful… even if only occasionally.

So I started looking around for my next machine. Here was a part of my wish list:

·        Something that sits on my lap better than the kickstand of the Surface Pro machines.

·        More memory, at least 16Gb. If I’m going to use this thing for work I’d like to have that stuff running in a VM and well away from my main system.

·        More storage. The 256Gb SSD of the Pro 2 was slightly constraining (you learn to live with these things), but again having the work VM would require a sizable chunk of storage for duplicate installations such as Office.

·        Bigger screen. The Pro 2 screen is beautiful to watch HD films on, but for using Visual Studio it’s quite restrictive.

·        Pen input would be nice. I used to use this extensively, although not so much in recent months. Having it there as an option is only a bonus though at it’s very useful when you do need it.

·        Touch screen. Once you start using a touch screen it can be really compelling for certain situations, and for mobile development it really gives an edge.

·        Decent trackpad. I guess I never notice this very often with the Pro 2 keyboard as I tend to either have it in tablet mode during travelling (due to that lapability issue) or connected to a mouse when sat at a desk. But on the occasions I do try to use it the touchpad experience on the Surface Pro 2 keyboard only just sufficies.

·        Something not too heavy. One of the reasons I upgraded from the Acer to the Surface was because the Acer was often being left at home due to its weight.

There were other considerations too, but these were the main things on my list.

So what to buy?

After liking my Surface Pro 2 so much and with the noted wish list, the natural contender was a Surface Book. I’ve been looking at these beautiful machines since they were announced and had they arrived on these shores around the same time as the US release I’d probably have snapped one up almost instantly (after all I got my Pro 2 on launch day).

But I’ve got three children now and that price was just too much. Looking at the 512Gb model it had everything I wanted… but at what cost. As for the model with 1Tb of storage….

Then I started looking at the Dell XPS 15. And the more I looked the more I liked:

·        Large (15 inch) 4K touchscreen.

·        Up to 32Gb memory, double the maximum currently available on the Surface Book.

·        1Tb storage with aforementioned 32Gb memory was cheaper than the 512Gb/16Mb Surface Book.

·        Faster than a Surface Book.

·        Better graphics than a Surface Book (that surprised me!)

·        Very good trackpad.

·        More ports, 2 USB 3.0 and one Thunderbolt (also HDMI and full size SD card slot)

·        Much cheaper!

Of course there were downsides too:

·        Heavier than a Surface Book

·        No pen support

·        Worse battery life than the Surface Book.

·        Supplied with Windows 10 Home only, no option to upgrade to Pro (really Dell?!!)

·        Windows install contains a little Dell Crapware (I’m looking at you McAfee) as opposed to the ‘Signature’ installation of a Surface Book.

This was going to be a hard choice… or at least I thought so.

When it came down to it the compromises of the XPS 15 seemed more than acceptable against the advantages, and the machine looked to be a little more future proof too with the additional RAM and storage I could get for the cheaper price.

I love the form factor of the Surface Book, but the Surface Pro 2 is still working should I need to do any Pen development (although I won’t be taking it to any meetings!!!)

So I ordered the Dell. Despite the order status stating the machine wouldn’t arrive for 4 weeks it actually arrived in a little over 2 weeks, not the instant gratification you hope for but not too shoddy either.

The machine actually arrived a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve been on holiday much of the time since then so I’ve only had limited time with it so far. The first thing I did was upgrade the OS to Windows 10 Pro (fortunately I had a spare key) and force installed the anniversary update (1607).

I’ve not reset the machine down to a clean state now, I figured I’d see how I get on with McAfee and the Dell software installed for a while (can I last the first year) and performance seems to be good, but I can’t help wondering how much better it could be if I did this. Start-up times in particular are acceptable, buy not as good as I’d imagined. Also there’s a strange bug where I need to restart the device after initial power on due to the ShellExperienceHost service becoming unstable.

I’ve set up a VM for work and assigned it 16Gb of memory and 4 of the total 8 processor cores, and whilst I’m yet to push it, this also seems very responsive and should be faster than the work supplied laptop without bringing the rest of the system to its knees.

That 4K screen is lovely, but frankly after the WOW moment on seeing the Surface Pro 2 screen all those years ago, it’s clearly better but incrementally so. I’ve not done anything to push it yet, with the exception of the 4K videos shot on my Lumia 950 XL, and these really do look impressive, but that’s expected isn’t it? Perhaps OLED will be my next WOW! Moment?

One bad side is that the screen is such a high resolution that some Desktop applications don’t scale properly. Surprisingly Outlook 2016 (yes, the very latest patched version) has the occasional dialog box that appears corrupt. If Microsoft can’t get its house in order it’s no wonder third party apps also fail in this situation.

Outlook Scaling Issue Example Image

The laptop is heavier than I’d like, but I’ve got used to this to some extent from carting around my work supplied laptop. Either way it’s not ideal, but at the moment I can live with it.

The keyboard, despite reviews and my pre-purchase concerns, seems OK. It’s not the best I’ve ever used, but it’s nearer the top than the bottom. I’m getting on fine with it and as I get more used to it it naturally becomes more comfortable. But then that would be the case with all but the worst keyboards out there.

Surprisingly, even in Desktop mode I used the touch on the Surface more than I’m currently doing with the XPS. I suspect there’s something wired in my brain that says Laptop = no touch, despite the fact I owned a convertible (that was closer to a laptop) back in the Vista days. Partly that may be down to the touchpad though. I’ve never used an Apple touchpad which are supposed to be the gold standard, but this is certainly the best I’ve used, and the ability to scroll using two fingers has meant that I don’t need to reach out to the screen as often as I used to. However, I still do tap the screen on occasion and would definitely choose to have touch available rather than not, that’s no contest.

One other thing I noticed quite quickly is that the matte silver back of the lid seemed to start getting scuffed almost from the first time I put the laptop into my bag. I quickly purchased a sleeve to keep the machine protected during transit so that was £30 I hadn’t counted on, but it does “complete the package” and looks quite smart.

So that’s my initial impressions of the new kit. Not perfect (weight, battery life) but I’m very pleased so far. I guess time will tell how I feel going forward. Overall though, No regrets. I think I made a good decision for my needs.

Decisions, Decisions…

7 Apr

So I’m very happy with my Lumia 550 purchased at the end of last year…

…but it is starting to feel a little slow and underpowered.

Since it looks like Microsoft won’t be releasing any new Windows Phone hardware this year, it leaves me with a difficult choice:

1. Stay with the L550 for a while
2. Get a 950 XL (shopping around I’ve seen £299)
3. Get a Nexus 6P (more expensive than the L950)

So why option 3?

Well, I like to think Windows phone is hibernating rather than dead, and that once all those lovely UWP apps have built up with the introduction of Windows 10, Microsoft will go full throttle on this great phone OS…

But that’s clearly not going to happen in the near future, if at all.

So that leaves Android as my preferred alternative, and with the recent news around Xamarin, it could be useful to have an Android phone to develop against (and I’ll still have the 550 to test mobile UWP issues)

But then the L950 will let me play with Continuum… and I do love Windows Mobile.

I need more money so I can just by both.

Aside

4K Monitors

16 Feb

I’ve not considered getting a 4K monitor.

My graphics card isn’t powerful enough to drive one on my desktop PC.

I’ve got a lovely, relatively new (1 year-ish old) 1080p monitor, which I’m very happy with.

But am I missing a trick. Should I get another 1080p monitor, as I’ve been planning to for a while, or just get a 4K monitor and future proof a little more?

I don’t know.

Any thoughts?

Cutting Edge Technology?

6 Jan

I’ve just purchased a new Windows Phone (OK, we’re calling it Windows Mobile again now we’ve hit Windows 10 everywhere, I’m sorry). It’s my third Windows phone device (I’m referring to the device, not the OS, so it’s a Windows phone – with a small ‘p’) and the ninth Windows phone device I’ve been responsible for purchasing.

This phone is for me, and it will be used for development purposes as well as a daily driver.

So what did I get?

The new flagship Lumia 950XL that I’ve had my eye on for months?

No.

I went for a SIM-Free Lumia 550 for £49.99 (plus £10 top-up).

Yep. My main phone for (at least) the next few months is about the cheapest device Microsoft is churning out at the moment. It’s also about 1/8th of the price of the 950XL I had my eye on.

I’ve had it a week, and so far I’m impressed… stunned when I consider how much it cost.

The 550 doesn’t do everything I want, the biggest omission being Continuum support that I plan to look into developing against, but I feel this functionality requires a bit more work from Microsoft before it is ready for prime time so I’m OK holding off on that for a while.

Then there’s things like the camera which isn’t a patch on the beast on the 950 variants (but surprisingly seems to be able to knock out better photos than my partner’s Lumia 640).

The speed is also nothing to write home about, but then Windows Phone/Mobile have always been very responsive so it’s quite zippy, and it’s still better than my aging Lumia 920.

Oh, and it already runs Windows 10 natively, by which I mean the device is supplied with Windows Mobile 10 out of the box, and doesn’t require the current workaround of signing up to the Insider Preview required by all the other handsets other than the 550 and 950 variants (of course, that’s likely to change in a matter of days as the rollout for prior devices should start commencing very soon).

Otherwise the phone is very good. Windows Mobile 10 is still a work in progress, but very good with only a few little gripes (why did my screen go blank for a few seconds earlier today?) which are more than outweighed by the new functionality available. I decided to start fresh with this device and not install any backups from other devices so this is probably helping the stability side, and fortunately for me I’ve not encountered any serious issues… so far.

The SD card slot is a godsend. I’ve put a 128Gb Micro SD card in the phone (Amazon Black-Friday deal), and almost all apps and data are installed on this, so even though the phone only comes with 8Gb of internal memory, I’ve still got almost 3Gb of that free (more than I typically had on my Lumia 920), with acres of space left on the SD card for me to fill up with my media, etc.

So all in all I’m impressed with this cheap little device, and can see myself using it for a while. Longer term I’ll be tempted by something a little more powerful (be that the 950 XL when some of the issues are sorted and the price has dropped) or should a Surface Phone arrive that actually offers something new (X-86 and desktop apps under Continuum? Yes please!)

Then again I should be impressed, I have just come from a handset that was released over three years ago, a lot has changed in that time.

But still, £50!!!!

It’s a steal.

Cheap as chips

5 Mar

I’ve just seen this advert on the front of a free newspaper somebody left on the train:

The Lumia 435 is the lowest specified Windows Phone available, but for £25 you are getting a stunning amount of hardware.

This would make a brilliant back up phone or a first phone for a child.

There is a catch though, you need to be an existing customer for 3 months which is the biggest downer, otherwise the phone is £60 from Carphone warehouse, in which case I’d either pay the extra for a Lumia 635, or wait for the Lumia 640 to arrive.

Still, I’m impressed with the aggressive pricing.

Miracast Woes (continued)

30 Jul

Some time ago I purchased myself a new 3D Blu-Ray player (probably over a year ago) with Miracast built in. When I subsequently acquired my Surface Pro 2 I was, as far as I was aware, ready to go.

Only the Surface couldn’t communicate with the Blu-Ray in either direction. At various points in time the two would see each other momentarily, then just disconnect for no apparent reason.

As time has passed both these devices have had numerous firmware and software updates, which leaves me in the state I’m in today.

Now, the two devices are somewhat more likely to discover each other (although not consistently) and long enough for Windows to “install” the device as a projection target, but after this the devices disconnect again.

Only once have they managed to connect long enough for the Surface to start projecting the screen contents, unfortunately this wasn’t long enough for anything to actually appear on my TV.

I thought it was just me, but reading through several unassociated reports on the web it appears that Miracast is just not ready for prime time – yet.

And this is a problem for Microsoft, even though it’s not of it’s own doing.

Unlike Apple’s AirPlay or Google’s ChromeCast, Miracast is based on open standards. Unlike the other two, Miracast is only just getting to the stage where it is starting to work reliably on new devices with new chipsets. AirPlay and ChromeCast have both been working for a while now.

So what will people choose to use?

I’ve just been sat listening to a couple of people discussing how easy it is to use AirPlay. Everything “just works”.

This almost makes me cringe, after all: What can I use as an alternative. At the moment the answer is nothing really.

I also find it ironic that the Android crowd who constantly bemoan how much better and open Android is (when it isn’t, but more on that another time) rally around their closed alternative.

But then that’s exactly why Apple and Google could get their products working first, by controlling both ends you control the fixes for any issues found and are not so heavily reliant on anyone else.

So by doing “the right thing” and going for an open standard, Microsoft have lost some ground yet again. Of course, I don’t know how much of the problem is down to Microsoft themselves, but since these issues exist with Miracast on other platforms I’d suggest there is an underlying issue there somewhere.

So now I expect the only way I’ll get Miracast working reliably is to sit out the next few months and buy a new device at some point.

Shame.