An OEM (HP) is making my life difficult. Good!

When Microsoft first revealed the Surface and Surface Pro a little lust crept into my heart.  While I realize I have a ridiculous number of computers, most of them old things that serve limited special purposes, I spend most of my computing time on three.  One is a fairly recent HP Touchsmart 520 that is actually my wife’s but occupies a very convenient location in our house.  The second is a Toshiba Portege R705 that is my primary work computer.  If you see me on a consulting project that’s what I’ll have with me.  The third is an original iPad that I take everywhere with me.  Of course it isn’t getting IOS6, got painfully slow with more recent IOS5 updates, has a slower 3G radio, and the battery life is down noticeably.  My own desktop is an old Dell that I find actually painful to use, which partially explains why blog entries like this are usually written on the HP or Toshiba.  So with the exception of my wife’s HP my technology base is due for a refresh.

When Microsoft revealed the Surface it immediately went to the top of the “must have” list.  Ever since then I’ve been thinking about Surface, Surface Pro, or both?  Ok, why this dilemma?  Well I really need something extremely portable to replace the iPad and the Surface looks like it would meet that need.  I mean, I literally take the iPad everywhere with me and now feel “naked” leaving home without it.  So a replacement can’t add significantly to size or weight.  But I need a modern replacement for the R705 too.  One that can run x86 desktop apps, support Visual Studio, and let me spin up a VM or two, and be a reasonable device for writing documents and creating Powerpoint presentations.  And still be a good tablet when I’m traveling.  The Surface Pro looks like it is potentially the best compromise here.  But it also looks like it might (with the Type Cover) be a little too heavy and a little too big for a take everywhere device.  Of course without seeing them in person  it is really hard to know for sure.

Then there is the Application problem.  Out of the gate the Surface, and other ARM-based Windows devices, will be handicapped by a lack of “Modern” applications.  Meanwhile the Surface Pro and other x86 devices will always have the rich (if not touch-centric) library of desktop apps available.  So it is a bit of a leap of faith to get a Surface, and a no-brainer to get a Surface Pro.  Decisions, decisions.

Last week at IFA many OEMs revealed their initial set of new Windows 8/Windows RT devices.  I didn’t see much that reduced my lust for the Surface/Surface Pro until I saw PocketNow’s video of the HP Envy x2 convertible.  Wow, I think I’ve found a replacement for the R705!  Now my dilema is that with its larger 11.6″ screen the tablet portion of the Envy x2 is probably too big to be my take everywhere device.  So that still leaves an opening for the Surface (or maybe even the Surface Pro).  My head hurts.  And when my wife reads this serious eye-rolling will no doubt occur.

So why is the HP Envy x2 so much more exciting than previous, or other recently announced, convertibles?  It’s HP’s attention to detail.  HP has been in the convertible/hybrid business since Microsoft first introduced Tablet PCs a decade ago.    So they understood better than anyone what customers have liked and disliked about these kinds of devices in the past.  And by combining it with good observation about what users like about modern tablets like the iPad they’ve come up with something that hits the sweet spot.  For example, the docking and/or hinging mechanisms have always been the mechanical Achilles heel of this segment of the market.  The Envy x2 looks like it might have finally nailed it.  Putting a micro-SD slot in the tablet portion means it has the storage expandability needed for more serious use than is typical of tablets.  The keyboard adds a full-sized SD slot, another battery, and a good set of connectors.  And build quality is reported as being excellent.  Basically, whereas previous covertibles have either been decent notebooks with some tablet capability or tablets with a (mechanically unsound) keyboard dock the Envy x2 looks like it will be both a good notebook and a good tablet.  Maybe even great.

There will be the inevitable comparisons of the Surface Pro and the Envy x2.  My initial impression is that the Surface Pro is a tablet that is (with the Type Cover) able to reduce or eliminate the need for a notebook in many scenarios.  But it is definitely a tablet-first approach.  The Envy x2 is more balanced towards notebook usage scenarios and much more suited as an alternative to an Ultrabook or MacBook Air for someone who also wants a tablet.  So someone thinking “I want a tablet but I need to be able to create documents….” will go for the Surface Pro.  Someone thinking “I need a new notebook but it would sure be nice to have a tablet as well” will lean towards the Envy x2.

Of course until I see them in person I really won’t know what will work for me.  It’s just great to see one of Microsoft’s OEMs apparently nail a spot on the portable computing spectrum.  A point that hasn’t been well served in the past, and hasn’t been served at all by Apple or the Android ecosystem.   And what about the other announcements at IFA?  It’s too early to tell.  The PocketNow access to the Envy x2 let them show it off rather extensively compared to other devices.  It may be that when late October rolls around there will be many more devices (announced at IFA or yet to come) that I’ll actually see and consider buying.  For now though the Envy x2 lives up to its name.

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8 Responses to An OEM (HP) is making my life difficult. Good!

  1. From what I understand, making a keyboard/docking station like this HP one for the Surface Pro would be the perfect answer for you. Interestingly, Microsoft (or a third-party) may announce something like that by Jan 2013.

    • halberenson says:

      Highly unlikely if not impossible. Microsoft already introduced the Type Case as their answer. And without proper mechanical engineering of the original tablet itself no third-party (or even Microsoft itself) could create a good docking mechanism. In other words at best you’d have something really inferior to the Envy.

      Microsoft could introduce a futute member of the Surface family that was a true convertible/hybrid. But i won’t hold me breath.

      • pierrehenrik says:

        Indeed, the mechanical part would be tricky. However, I still consider it possible. For example, the hinge could be part of the docking station (which would then have an L shape), and the tablet would snap (with its magnets) on the slightly elevated part.

        For me, the key issues with having a single computing device are the screen size and raw power! The Surface Pro will be perfect when it has a Core i7-equivalent CPU, 8 GB of RAM, and this docking station. I can already connect it to an external screen.

  2. halberenson says:

    I think you are trying to invent a new device, because it isn’t the Surface Pro that Microsoft has already disclosed.

  3. Tim says:

    Thanks for confusing what I thought was going to be an easy decision for me (Surface RT). This looks quite nice. Can I presume that, when used in tablet form, the battery life is still only going to be a few hours at best since it is still running the x86 OS?

    When Surface was first announced, I was on the fence about either the RT or Pro variety. Lately I’ve been leaning more toward the RT version, as I have a decent laptop that doesn’t need to be refreshed at this point. Lower cost, longer battery life and my expected primary use as an interactive learning tool for the kids (and enjoyment by me and my wife) make me lean to RT, but it sure would be nice to eventually have one device that I could take that was light-weight and would sufficiently run Visual Studio and a VM.

    • halberenson says:

      I don’t know why everyone thinks that x86-based tablets are going to have such poor battery life. My Toshiba R705 notebook already does 7 hours (spec was “up to 8″) with a fresh battery, and that’s running Windows 7 on a first generation Core i5 Mobile processor. The Core i5 in the Surface Pro (assuming it is one of the already announced Ivy Bridge Ultra Low Power ones) uses half the power of the one in my R705. The R705 also has to spin a hard drive and has other power sucking attributes compared to a tablet design. With a Clover Trail SoC, which is what they’ve said is in the Envy x2, power consumption is much lower still and is supposed to be competitive with ARM SoCs. The new power saving work in Windows 8 applies to both x86 and ARM (though their could be some tweaks specific to each), so that shouldn’t be a major differentiator. In other words, it should be possible to build x86-based tablets that have comparable battery life to the ARM tablets. Even if we allow for the ARM world to stay ahead of Intel in power consumption I suspect the inherent different in batter life between similarly configured x86 and ARM tablets will be in the single digit percentage range.

      BUT, there may be a huge difference in usage style between x86 and ARM tablets. ARM tablets will almost (Office being the exception) exclusively run “modern” apps that are designed to optimize the low-power environment whereas people are likely to run desktop apps on x86. Those desktop apps will lead to far more battery consumption. And x86 tablets may come more richy configured, which also could draw more power. For example it appears that the Surface Pro will have a higher-end display than the Surface. So it is going to be important to make sure people are doing Apples to Apples comparisons, or at least understand that they are giving up xx% in battery life in order to get things they really want.

      Lastly, one of the ways around the battery life problem is to use a bigger battery. That may be one reason why the Surface Pro is so much heavier than the Surface.

      In the case of the Envy x2 we don’t yet know what tradeoffs HP made as a result of having the second battery in the keyboard. The scenario that they clearly targetted doesn’t require as long a battery life as a standalone tablet, but I expect they’d still try to make it into the “work all day” range when undocked. Clearly 8 hours would be very competitive with current standalone tablets. 7 hours would be acceptable. Once you get down to 6 hours I think you’ve lost anyone who will use it as a tablet more than they’d use it as a notebook. So we’ll just have to wait to see where they landed this thing.

      • Tim says:

        Thanks for the clarity provided on your battery life. I guess I’m used to my Dell laptop that gets < 2 hours under heavy work load (Visual Studio, VM running Win2K8/SQL 2012, etc).

        BTW – I also purchased the HP TouchSmart 520 for my wife about a month ago and we couldn't be happier. It is running the Win 8 release preview, so I still need to refresh with Win 8 RTM. She has a pretty small desk, and the 520 is a perfect fit. No cable mess, it's pretty quiet and is snappy. We don't use the touch capability all that much but it is nice to get a preview of how Win 8 tablet devices will feel.

        • halberenson says:

          I don’t know what kind of battery life I’d see with that workload, but that isn’t an ARM Vs Intel thing to be sure. The 10hr iPad battery life wold be down in the 1 hour range if you (could have) turned it into a heavy duty Dev platform!

          The reason battery life is good on ARM (or any other) system is because they use close to zero power for subsystems or features that are not being used and have hardware assists that use less power under constant use (e.g., viewing video). But if you start running workloads that keep all cores constantly busy, constant screen updates, etc. etc. then as edficient as they are they aren’t going to get great battery life.

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