26 Nov 2015
The imminent release of the Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL means that Windows 10 Mobile will finally launch officially after months of Windows Insider Preview builds, a couple of which we tried out earlier this year and found to be light on features and heavy on bugs.
Of course, Microsoft's plans to turn the desktop and mobile editions of Windows 10 into 'Windows-as-a-service' mean that the build found on the new Lumias isn't so much a final version as it is the first build Microsoft has seen fit for wide-scale public deployment. As such, we've tested it on a Lumia 950 XL to see how far the OS has come.
It doesn't look too far removed from Windows Phone 8.1, but Windows 10 Mobile has been tweaked to more closely resemble Windows 10. The Start screen - in other words, the home screen - is the spitting image of Windows 10's tile-based Start menu, as is the Action Centre notifications tray and quick settings menu. Many apps, ranging from the Edge browser to the camera, will be instantly familiar to anyone who's used the Windows 10 equivalents, with identically placed icons and sub-menus.
One of our criticisms of the preview builds was that they looked boring, with plain black menus and backgrounds. Fortunately, the Start screen is now a lot more colourful by default, with quaint flipbook-style animations on certain tiles. These tiles can still be moved around, resized, removed or changed to be more or less translucent, all according to the user's tastes.
Sadly, the rest of the UI is still very dull indeed, dealing largely in gloomy dark greys with tiny flashes of blue. Such colour choices are fine on a desktop OS, where menus and such only form small windows, but the whole thing just ends up looking bleak when blown up to full-screen on a smartphone.
Still, improvements over Windows 8.1 Phone remain, including the Recently Added section of the main apps list and the extremely versatile Action Centre, so that's something to be happy about.
Again, a major aspect of Windows 10 Mobile is its synergy with Windows 10. The OS and Universal Apps, which mainly comprise Microsoft programmes like Maps, News, Cortana and the Edge browser but now also include third-party offerings from The Guardian and Audible, share the same underlying code.
In theory this allows Universal Apps to look the same and perform the same functions on smartphones and desktops. We found this mostly well-realised - the only difference between the Windows 10 Mobile and Windows 10 versions of, say, OneNote, was that we were controlling it with a touchscreen instead of a mouse and keyboard, and it's the same story with many others. Differences do exist, including some which were present in the preview builds we tried. It's still not possible use Cortana to search for highlighted text in the Edge browser, as we can in the Windows 10 versions, although we could at least copy the text and paste it into the Cortana app.
More recently added features, not counting those that were broken but now fixed, include Skype integration that extends beyond its own app. For instance, we could send IMs to our Skype contacts from within the Messaging app by swapping between Skype and SIM contacts with a single press. It's a small addition and far from a killer feature, but can save a lot of fiddly switching between Messaging and Skype when holding down a conversation in each. In addition, standard voice calls can be made from within the Skype app.
Another concerning point is the amount of choice available in the Microsoft Store. All the big names are there - Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Dropbox, Skype for Business and so on - so many light users will probably be fine, but we struggled to find several that we use regularly for work, such as the Geekbench and 3DMark benchmarks and Video Looper - all of which are fairly popular on Android. In general, Apple's App Store and Google Play have a much wider selection, which is bad news for Windows 10 Mobile regardless of how frequently it receives feature updates and bug fixes.
Much more encouraging is Continuum. In the PC version of Windows 10, this referred to how the UI could dynamically switch between desktop and tablet modes; here, it's the name given to Windows 10 Mobile's ability to turn its smartphone host into a pseudo-PC.
This requires the Display Dock, which is sold separately but adds HMDI, DisplayPort and full-size USB capabilities to a connected Windows 10 Mobile device. Once a TV or monitor is hooked up to the Display Dock as well, it will display a desktop-style UI running off the handset, complete with a Start menu in the style of Windows 10 proper. It can support up to FHD resolution and a mouse and keyboard, although the smartphone's touchscreen can also be used as a trackpad.
It's a genuinely clever feature that could save the purchase of an additional computer for those who don't need a full-on PC. However, there are limitations beyond the added £79.99 cost of the Display Dock; only Universal Apps are supported, so you won't be able to, say, install the Netflix mobile app and launch it on a big screen. However, it is possible to continue using the handset for other things while it's connected, so you could run a saved movie file on the TV while checking emails and calendars on the smartphone.
Windows 10 Mobile has a pretty decent collection of security measures. These include an Android-esque built-in encryption tool, plus Find My Phone, which can remotely lock a handset - while displaying a custom message on the screen - or wipe sensitive data, in addition to the less dramatic function of forcing a lost handset to ring.
The most interesting security feature has been borrowed, once again, from Windows 10: the biometric authentication of Windows Hello. Whereas on the desktop OS, this could unlock a PC or laptop by recognising the user's face through a camera, here it needs to recognise only irises. The result is more or less the same, and simply looking at the camera should be enough to unlock the device without the need to punch in a PIN.
The bad news is that, at least on the Lumia 950 XL, Windows Hello is a lot more finicky on mobile. We frequently had to hold it, utterly inelegantly, about seven inches away for several seconds before it recognised our eyes. It would be quicker and less weird-looking to just use a passcode. It also seriously struggled during setup to register irises through glasses, although they don't appear to have much of an effect during the actual authentication process. It's also worth remembering that Windows Hello will be available only on Windows 10 Mobile smartphones with a compatible front-facing camera.
Nonetheless, we can still see occasions where this would be a viable alternative to a PIN, such as when wearing thick gloves. It just won't be as quick.
Windows 10 Mobile's biggest improvements on the preview builds are in performance and reliability. It's far less buggy, as you'd hope, and we encountered none of the previous problems with apps failing to open or downloads getting inexplicably cancelled.
Cortana, in particular, is much more capable of recognising speech. In the preview builds we'd end up half shouting into the microphone with zero response, but in the release build it picks up spoken commands with impressive accuracy, even with the ambient sound of a bustling office.
That said, the OS can still run a little on the slow side, especially when opening apps. At one point it took the better part of a minute to launch Word, and it froze for a few seconds when we tried to play a small video file. The Lumia 950 XL we were using packs a beefy octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor with 3GB of RAM, so we're fairly convinced that this sluggishness can be pinned on the software rather than the hardware.
Windows 10 Mobile is much improved, but isn't entirely devoid of bugs. We repeatedly ran into a problem where the keyboard wouldn't show up in landscape view, and even when it does show, the Clipboard icon frequently falls halfway off the screen.
There's no question that Windows 10 Mobile has done enough to stand out from iOS and Android. Unifying mobile and desktop apps, along with the ability to sync data and files between them, could be a huge help to those who use their smartphone as a work device, and the Continuum feature offers far greater flexibility than other operating systems when hooked up to a screen.
Then again, being able to stand out isn't the same as being able to compete on quality, and right now Windows 10 Mobile comes with a few too many caveats to be a truly compelling alternative. This could change if it gains better app support and continues to receive some much-needed polish, but there aren't enough reasons to opt for this work in progress when more fully formed options are available.
13 Nov 2015
Apple has an eye firmly on the business market with the iPad Pro, which has launched this week in the UK. The tablet is a honking great 12.9in slate, with stylus and keyboard accessories suspiciously similar to those of the Microsoft Surface Pro series.
This is very much a device that Apple wants you to carry into the office instead of a laptop, but how well does it compare against one of the US firm's own? To find out, we've compared the iPad Pro's key specs against the 11in MacBook Air.
iPad Pro: 12.9in 2732x2048 264ppi
MacBook Air: 11.6in 1366x768 135ppi
The iPad Pro picks up an early lead, beating the MacBook Air on size and pixel density. 135ppi is passable for web browsing and document editing, but the iPad Pro is easily better for making films and photos look suitably sharp.
Design and dimensions
iPad Pro: 306x221x6.9mm, 713g
MacBook Air: 300x192x17mm, 1.08kg
The downside of the iPad Pro's gargantuan display is its increased size; it's taller and deeper than the MacBook Air, although it more than makes up for it in slimness and weight. As one might expect from a tablet, even a 12.9in one, it's less than half as thick as the MacBook Air and weighs nearly 400g less.
It's difficult to make this particular laptop seem chunky, but that's exactly what the iPad Pro has done. However, that comes at the cost of connectivity. The MacBook Air has the benefit of two USB 3.0 ports and a Thunderbolt 2 port, whereas the iPad Pro makes do with a single Lightning connector.
iPad Pro: A9X
MacBook Air: 1.6GHz dual-core Intel Core i5
The 64-bit A9X processor in the iPad Air is a brand new design, so we don't know exactly how well it performs. Apple said that it runs 1.8 times faster than its predecessor, the iPad Air 2's A8X, and that was certainly no slouch.
Speaking of the A8X, we know that was a tri-core 1.5GHz chip. If the A9X is notably quicker, as Apple promises, the iPad Pro should have a very good chance of outperforming the 1.6GHz dual-core i5 in the MacBook Air.
iPad Pro: iOS 9
MacBook Air: OS X Yosemite
The iPad Pro will be loaded with the new iOS 9, which introduces several security, performance and power efficiency improvements. Other interesting additions include handwriting support for the Notes app, a battery-saving Low Power mode and a multitasking view that places two apps on screen at once.
Naturally, the MacBook Air runs the latest OS X version, Yosemite, and will be upgradable to OS X El Capitan when it rolls out on 30 September.
iOS 9 sounds like a fine mobile OS, but we're more inclined towards the versatility of OS X for an everyday device. Apps run in windows rather than at full-screen, making them even easier to multitask with than iOS 9's split-screen view. What's more, these apps will be part of a much greater range, from AAA games to the full-fat versions of work software like Microsoft Office.
iPad Pro: 8MP rear-facing, 1.2MP front-facing
MacBook Air: 720p FaceTime
The iPad Pro's 8MP iSight camera is the best individual snapper in this comparison, a victory marred only slightly by the fact that taking photos with a vast two-handed tablet looks and feels utterly ridiculous.
The front-facing cameras on both devices are equally underwhelming - decent enough for the odd Skype call, but not for serious recording - so we'll move on.
iPad Pro: 32GB, 128GB
MacBook Air: 128GB, 256GB
None of these are spectacularly spacious options, although the MacBook Air's relatively generous 256GB drive earns it the win. And it's worth remembering that this can be expanded via USB too.
With the iPad Pro, 32GB is forgivably small by tablet standards, although anyone who follows Apple's wishes and makes it their main work computer will find it getting full fast.
iPad Pro: Up to nine hours (WiFi+LTE), up to 10 hours (WiFi only)
MacBook Air: Up to nine hours
The WiFi-only iPad Pro is the most enduring model here. Apple said that it can survive up to 10 hours of web browsing on a single charge, compared with nine hours for the MacBook Air and the WiFi+LTE iPad Pro variant.
To be fair, all of these are strong showings, and the tablet and laptop are both capable of lasting through a full work day or a reasonably long flight.
With a higher-res screen and more portable proportions, the iPad Pro does have a certain sleek appeal which the older MacBook Air doesn't quite share.
That said, it falls short as an outright laptop replacement. There's little reason to use something with a mobile OS as your main work machine, and we doubt that many will prefer the feel of the flat ‘Magic Keyboard' cover over the MacBook Air's actual keys.
11 Nov 2015
The iPad Pro goes on sale this week, with Apple hoping that its debut Surface Pro rival will appeal to the enterprise with its 12.9in screen, optional keyboard, and Apple Pencil stylus.
Apple isn't looking only to businesses, claiming that the iPad Pro's display is perfect for watching films and its upgraded processor perfect for gaming.
With that in mind, those in the market for a new Apple tablet are no doubt considering whether the new iPad Pro, or the more manageable iPad Air 2, is the best to suit their needs.
iPad Pro: 12.9in 2732x2048 264ppi
iPad Air 2: 9.7in 2048x1536 264ppi
The iPad Air 2 has a 9.7in IPS display with a 2048x1536 resolution and pixel density of 264ppi. This is the same pixel density as the iPad Pro's 12.9in screen, but Apple said that the iPad Pro is the sharpest and most pixel-dense iOS device yet, having crammed in 5.6 million pixels on the 2732x2048 resolution display.
Design and dimensions
iPad Pro: 306x221x6.9mm, 713g
iPad Air 2: 240x196.5x6.1mm, 437g
Renowned for its skinny profile, the iPad Air 2 is 6.1mm thick and weighs a very portable 437g. The iPad Pro, on the other hand, is a beast at 713g, the same as the original iPad. However, it's just 6.9mm thick, ensuring that even those with small hands won't struggle too much.
The iPad Pro and iPad Air 2 look similar in terms of design. Both are made from premium aluminium and are available in the same gold, space grey and silver colours. Getting one up on its little brother, the iPad Pro comes with four speakers integrated into the case.
iPad Pro: A9X
iPad Air 2: A8X
The iPad Air features the latest 64-bit A9X processor with an M9 motion co-processor, a newer chip than the A8X inside the iPad Air 2. The A9X offers 1.8 times the power of the processor before it, according to Apple, along with better GPU performance and power efficiency.
iPad Pro: iOS 9
iPad Air 2: iOS 8, upgradable to iOS 9
There's not much of a contest between the iPad Pro and iPad Air 2 when it comes to software. Both run iOS - the iPad Pro will ship with iOS 9 on board, while the iPad Air 2 can be upgraded for free, equipping it with Apple's new multitasking features and upgraded Siri virtual assistant.
The iPad Pro does offer some features not seen on its smaller brother, however. Companies have begun developing apps that take advantage of the optional Apple Pencil stylus, including Adobe and Microsoft, which showed off a Pencil-optimised version of Office during Apple's launch event on Wednesday.
The iPad Pro ships with an optional Keyboard Cover, which the iPad's software automatically registers when attached and adjusts accordingly.
iPad Pro: 8MP rear-facing, 1.2MP front-facing
iPad Air 2: 8MP rear-facing, 1.2MP front-facing
The iPad Pro and iPad Air 2 feature identical camera set-ups. Both offer an 8MP rear-facing sensor, and a 1.2MP FaceTime camera on the front.
iPad Pro: 32GB, 128GB
iPad Air 2: 16GB, 64GB, 128GB
The iPad Pro doesn't offer as many storage options as the iPad Air 2, which is available with 16GB, 32GB or 128GB. Instead, it is available in 32GB and 128GB versions only, Apple having seemingly decided that 16GB simply isn't enough for the power user it has its sights set on.
iPad Pro: 38.5 watt-hour, 10-hour life
iPad Air 2: 27.3 watt-hour, 10-hour life
The iPad Pro and iPad Air 2 are evenly matched when it comes to battery life, and Apple promises 10 hours of internet browsing on each model.
The iPad Pro and iPad Air 2 are fairly evenly matched on paper, with similar designs, identical cameras and matching battery life. However, those in the market for a big-screened powerhouse of a tablet will no doubt be won over by the iPad Pro, thanks to its enormous 12.9in screen and improvements in performance.
Toshiba's Tecra line of laptops has long offered a selection of reliable, if unexciting, business notebooks.
The new Tecra A40-C, then, could probably have gotten away with being more of the same. However, with a feature-packed, enterprise-friendly design and a new Intel Skylake processor, this machine - a rare addition to Toshiba's under-represented 14in lineup - was quick to grab our attention. Although this latest Tecra won't be out to buy until early 2016, and pricing has yet to be revealed, we got a sneak preview.
Besides some chunky bezels around the screen, we're quite fond of the Tecra A40-C's looks. It measures 340x244x23.8mm and weighs 1.8kg, which for a traditional notebook isn't too bad at all. Plus, despite being thick enough to accommodate an optional DVD R/W drive, it's surprisingly sleek, and there's a lovely matte black finish throughout. This is all on top of a sturdy, rigid build quality, particularly around the lower keyboard segment.
Speaking of the keyboard, it's more than capable for full-time typing. The keys are a bit shallow but spaced well apart, allowing for accurate but quick strokes, and there's enough room for extra Delete, Home, Page Up, Page Down and End keys in a column along the far right.
There are plenty of connection options as well: three USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader, VGA and HDMI connectors and an Ethernet port. That's a good range for a device of this size, with more than enough space for multiple peripherals or removable storage while allowing for an external display to hook up.
Like Lenovo's ThinkPad series, the Tecra A40-C also includes a little textured mouse nub in the keyboard's centre as an alternative to the trackpad. While it does enable cursor control without moving hands away from the keyboard, it's quite unwieldy without practice, and can be safely ignored if so desired. A much more enticing inclusion is the fingerprint scanner, which sits near the bottom of the chassis, just below and to the right of the trackpad.
We didn't get a chance to test battery life but it's commendable that the Tecra A14 includes a removeable battery while staying reasonably slim; many lightweight notebook keep their batteries integrated, making them impossible to quickly replace if they run dry. The Tecra A14, on the other hand, can be kept going with a spare pack.
The 14in display runs at 1920x1080, with a pixel density of 162ppi. That means decent, if unspectacular, clarity - there can be fuzziness around small text and images, but we had to actively search for it before noticing.
Colours, on the other hand, are spot-on; balanced without looking dull, vibrant without looking garish. They aren't compromised by the anti-glare coating, either. Some devices, like the HP ProBook 455 Ubuntu, use coatings which add a mildly distorting, grainy effect to the display, but the Tecra A14 successfully avoids this while minimises reflectivity.
Operating system and software
The Tecra A40-C will launch with Windows 10 Pro pre-installed, or with Windows 7 Pro pre-installed plus upgrade media for Windows 10 Pro included in the box.
Our particular demo model was running Windows 10 Pro, which, if at all possible to fit into existing IT environments, we'd sooner recommend. Besides being due for more frequent content, security and performance updates than previous Windows editions, Windows 10 Pro includes useful tools like BitLocker encryption, Universal Apps and the Action Centre - an extremely convenient combination of notifications tray and quick settings menu. Windows 7 Pro, as long and illustrious as its service has been, has none of these things.
Toshiba has added over a dozen proprietary applications, which is bad news for anyone who likes their Windows clean, but other than a redundant video player, these do lean towards utility rather than frivolity. A good example is HDD Protection, which employs a built-in sensor to detect if the laptop has taken a jolt. If so, it automatically moves the HDD head to a safe position, reducing the risk of it taking damage. Opting for an SSD instead of an HDD makes this addition moot, but it could potentially save a lot of data.
We're seeing more and more enterprise notebooks with integrated fingerprint scanners, including the Tecra A40-C, and that's entirely a good thing. Biometric systems are both more time-efficient and less prone to theft than conventional passwords, making them ideal for business use.
We're also glad that Toshiba opted for the Pro versions of both Windows 7 and Windows 10, which boast additional security features over their Home equivalents. Windows 7 Pro, for instance, supports native filesystem-level encryption and the ability to create, though not enforce, AppLocker policies to determine which applications can and can't run on a company network. Windows 10 Pro, meanwhile, adds the aforementioned BitLocker drive encryption and the Group Policy Management console for IT managers.
We tested a mid-range configuration of the Tecra A40-C, comprised of a 2.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i5-6300U processor from Intel's latest Skylake family and 8GB of RAM. Models with beefier Core i7 chips will also be available.
That i5 still produced some nimble performance, though, with the generous RAM allowance maintaining responsiveness when multitasking. We didn't get the chance to run benchmarks or try truly punishing tasks like photo or video editing, but the speed with which the Tecra A40-C opened programmes and ran straightforward tasks like text editing gave us confidence in its general office work capabilities.
Battery and storage
Toshiba claims that the Tecra A40-C will last for up to eight hours off a single charge. Since manufacturer estimates are almost always on the optimistic side, that means it probably won't last a full work day without charging, which is a shame - though to be fair, we've used notebooks which conk out before half a day, let alone a whole one.
The choice of storage options is pretty good as well. SSDs max out at 256GB, but forgoing their speeds in favour of a larger HDD allows for up to 1TB of internal storage.
It's clear that Toshiba has built a highly respectable, well-featured business laptop, and one which is especially suitable for users who prefer larger screens but don't necessarily want to deal with the bulk of a 15in or 17in device.
Being able to squeeze multiple ports, a removeable battery and even a DVD drive into this form factor is impressive, and we're hoping that the Tecra A40-C's performance and battery life do the design justice in everyday use.
28 Oct 2015
The newly refreshed HP Envy 15 is a big, chunky clamshell laptop that was utterly overshadowed by the flashy Spectre X2 hybrid when they were announced earlier this month.
But the two devices have more in common than one might think, as both are Windows 10-powered productivity machines with a CPU taken from Intel's latest 6th-generation Skylake range. Business tablets are on the rise, so can the revamped Envy 15 prove an exemplar of what traditional laptops can do? We got our hands on one to find out.
The problem with laptops as vast, thick and heavy as the 2.36kg Envy 15 is that they're usually better parked on a desk than carried around for lap use. Indeed, having picked up this demo unit, we certainly wouldn't want to lug it over our shoulders for more than a few minutes at a time.
That heft does come with benefits, though. There's enough room for an optical drive (a DVD/RW in this case), that oft-forgotten but frequently useful casualty of the shift towards tablets and ultrabooks, as well as four USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI port, an SD card reader and an Ethernet port for plugging into a wired LAN connection.
There's even enough room for a full-size keyboard, with numeric keypad. It makes for very comfortable typing, but we almost immediately managed to jam the ‘O' key, leaving it permanently pressed in. It's not a good sign of a product's build quality, and disappointing from a veteran manufacturer like HP.
To be fair, the rest of machine seems fairly sturdy, with a solid case and a firm screen hinge. We also appreciate the inclusion of a fingerprint sensor for an extra layer of security. It looks very much like the same design as that of the HP Elite x2 1011 G1 hybrid so, although we didn't get to try it out ourselves, it should be suitably fast and accurate.
As the name suggests, the Envy 15 features a 15.6in display at 1920x1080 resolution and 141ppi. This is far from the crispest display on the market, but it looks fine in practice and we had no problems reading small text or admiring the details in images and videos. An anti-glare coating dealt capably with overhead lighting, reducing reflections without suffering a grainy or oily effect overlaid on the screen - a sadly common problem with such coatings.
That said, colours generally looked a bit flat and washed out, even on a high brightness setting. This is an interesting, if somewhat annoying, contrat with the many convertible and 2-in-1 devices which have brilliantly vibrant colours but are problematically reflective.
Operating system and software
Fans of the Start menu will be pleased to know that the new Envy 15 runs Windows 10 Home, which brings back the famed UI element after Microsoft ditched it in Windows 8.
It would also have been nice to have, say, the BitLocker encryption features of Windows 10 Pro, but the Home version is still a very good all-round OS. Plus, Microsoft has committed to releasing more frequent content updates for Windows 10 than with previous versions, so it could get even better over time.
HP isn't as bad as others in loading its products with bloatware, but there were still a few pieces of trivial or useless software on the Envy 15 when we checked. These are mostly redundant utilities, but since the Envy 15 includes a fingerprint scanner it's a shame that it doesn't also ship with HP Client Security.
This has shown itself to be a very powerful and versatile tool on other scanner-equipped HP machines, like the Elite x2 1011 G1, and we'd definitely liked to have seen it here as well. True, it's designed for enterprise use, but it's also user friendly enough for most consumers to get to grips with it.
The combination of an Intel Skylake Core i5-6500U processor, dedicated Nvidia GeForce graphics and a huge 12GB of RAM sounds like HP has equipped the Envy 15 for intensive design and creative work. We were able to test video editing on it, and the good news is that the Envy 15 copes with this task cleanly and smoothly.
It's hard to beat the colossal 2TB hard drive in the Envy 15. This doesn't offer the speed of an SSD, but should provide plenty of space for working with big image and video files even if only 1.75TB is available to use after accounting for the OS and pre-installed software.
We suspect that some large applications and files were loaded onto the HDD for the benefit of a demonstration, rather than because they're included at launch, so it's likely that 250GB won't have entirely gone missing on the final product.
Our mishap with the ‘O' key has us eyeing the Envy 15 with a certain suspicion and, although it isn't quite as bulky as a lot of budget notebooks, our ultrabook-softened shoulders would still prefer it on a desk rather than in our bag.
Nonetheless, this big beast has the power to serve as a respectable pseudo-mobile workstation. Until we see tablets of which we can say the same, laptops will continue to find a home - and deservedly so.
27 Oct 2015
It's been only 10 months since the original launched, but Dell has already refreshed the XPS 13 ultrabook. Revealed alongside a new XPS 15 and the XPS 12 2-in-1, the updated XPS 13 adds Intel Skylake processors, more storage, extra memory and a Thunderbolt 3 connector to the so-called "smallest 13in laptop in the world".
We had to chance to try some of these upgrades for ourselves at a recent hands-on event.
The XPS 13's claim to moderate fame was, and still is, that it squeezes a 13.3in display into an 11in-sized body thanks to the screen's minuscule bezels. This hasn't changed, and the new XPS 13 still looks distinctly classy while being slightly more satchel-friendly than most 13in laptops.
However, we're not sure why the screen is touch-enabled; this isn't a convertible and dangling our hands over the keyboard and trackpad felt pretty silly, as well as uncomfortable. Luckily, the touchscreen is optional, and the keyboard itself is wonderful, with tactile, nicely spaced keys and a bright backlight.
This is a very well built laptop in general. It includes the same matte materials and attractive carbon fibre-lookalike finish as the previous XPS 13, and the entire bottom half feels sturdy and strong. The screen can flex very slightly if enough force is applied to the corners, but this is an acceptable price for its being so thin.
As for connectivity, it's equipped with two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader, and a newly added Thunderbolt 3 connector. Based on the USB-C platform, the Thunderbolt 3 port can be used to charge the XPS 13 and transfer data faster - theoretically, anyway - than USB 3.0. We didn't get to test this, but overall that's a very decent combination of connectivity options.
One benefit of the touchscreen option is that at 2560x1440, it's much higher-res than the 1920x1080 standard screen.
Indeed, we had no complaints about the XPS 13's sharpness. The clarity of text makes for some extremely wide viewing angles, and images and videos look excellent - helped in no small part by the spot-on colour accuracy that isn't bland or oversaturated. Blacks are deep and rich, too.
Operating system and software
Windows 10 Home is missing some useful security features from Windows 10 Pro, but it's still a good choice of OS for the XPS 13. The return to a more desktop-focused UI, complete with a traditional Start menu, makes it much better suited to laptops than Windows 8/8.1 was. Things like the Action Centre - a combination of notifications tray and quick settings menu - and the general shift towards a more frequent update model also make us glad that Dell has gone for this up-to-date OS.
Dell has, however, seen fit to pre-install a number of applications. Some of these don't make much sense - if you buy a £1,000+ laptop to play Candy Crush Saga you've done something wrong - but the good news is that they're relatively few in number. In fact, not all of them are entirely unwelcome. Dell Command Power Manager, for example, offers a more in-depth tool for tweaking battery use than Windows 10 Home does by itself.
Despite its size, the XPS 13 put in the kind of benchmark scores we'd expect on a hulking gaming laptop: 110.2ms in Sunspider and 1,038.4ms in Kraken.
That's seriously fast, and can be attributed to the high-end Intel Core i7-6600U processor with 8GB of RAM. That's not even the most powerful configuration - Dell announced models with 16GB of RAM, as well as titanic 32GB editions coming later.
Of course, the headlining hardware here is the Intel chip, a 2.6GHz dual-core from the latest Skylake line. These 6th-generation processors offer minor performance gains and better power efficiency than the previous Broadwell generation. We can't speak for all Skylake-powered devices, but the XPS 13 certainly coped well with every task we gave it. Applications open incredibly quickly, and multitasking doesn't seem to slow it down one bit.
We'd like to have tried the 1TB SDD model, but sadly the demo unit contained only a 256GB drive. This turned out to be more of a 215GB drive as that's how much free space was useable.
The XPS 13 should have a bit more room to work with at launch, as this one seemed to include a few files and programs for the sake of demonstration. Still, 256GB isn't a great deal of storage space for a premium laptop, especially considering how tablets like the Surface Pro 4 have not only caught up with, but surpassed such capacities. However, even a small SSD will fetch data and boot Windows faster than an HDD, so there is that.
Dell said that the new XPS range, including the refreshed XPS 13, is built for "prosumers", i.e. those who produce and consume. Normally we'd have thought this would warrant, say, a dedicated graphics processor to drive video and image editing.
Nonetheless, the sheer speed of the XPS 13's shiny new Skylake chip is very encouraging. Combined with the great screen and a highly mobile form factor, this looks like it could be a very good choice for mobility-inclined professionals.
23 Oct 2015
The concept of the 360-degree convertible is still relatively new, and Lenovo has quickly become one of its biggest proponents. The firm's Yoga series now encompasses an array of back-flipping laptops, spanning a multitude of prices and target markets.
The Yoga 900, announced in mid-October, is very much a high-end addition to the range and UK pre-order listings price it at £1,400. To find out whether it's worth it, we went hands-on at an Intel-hosted event in London.
The Yoga 900's flexing abilities come from the 'watchband' hinge, an intricately segmented, outward-rolling mechanism first seen on 2014's Yoga 3 Pro and quite possibly an inspiration for the Microsoft Surface Book's Dynamic Fulcrum hinge.
It's surprisingly sturdy for a hinge only several millimetres thick, while enabling the screen to slip around without needing to apply much force. The screen can wobble if poked and prodded too hard, though. It's a common problem with convertibles that Lenovo has seemingly yet to solve.
Indeed, the Yoga 900 feels at its best in a standard laptop configuration. Despite slightly shallow key travel, the keyboard and trackpad are comfortable and responsive, and we've never really been fond of using a fully-rotated convertible as a handheld tablet anyway; they're just too big and heavy compared with a regular slate.
That said, the Yoga 900 is impressively slim even after managing to fit in three USB 3.0 ports and a full-size SD card reader. It's noticeably lighter and more portable than, say, the Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 12 although, unlike on that device, the keys aren't physically locked from depressing, resulting in a disconcerting amount of key-mashing when using the tablet mode.
At 3200x1800 resolution and 276ppi the Yoga 900's touchscreen is beautifully sharp, and text, images and videos all look crisp and clear. Colour balance is mostly fine as well, although blues and purples sometimes aren't as vibrant as the rest of the spectrum.
This might worry designers and artists who require full colour accuracy, but for most people the Yoga 900 is very well suited for general content viewing. That high resolution is especially impressive, as many laptops and convertibles don't even break the 200ppi mark.
Operating system and software
Lenovo will launch the Yoga 900 with Windows 10 Home, the ‘basic' version of Microsoft's latest operating system. This means that it won't benefit from the security enhancements of Windows 10 Pro, such as AppLocker and BitLocker encryption, but Windows 10 Home is still a fine fit, mainly for the Continuum feature.
This allows the Yoga 900 to switch between a traditional desktop view and a tile-based tablet view, based on whether it's in a laptop or tablet configuration. What's more, it can be set to change automatically as soon as the screen is sufficiently rotated, and seems to detect configuration changes very near instantly.
Unfortunately, Lenovo couldn't resist tossing a few of its own pre-installed programs onto the hard drive. These include dubiously useful additions like SHAREit, which is effectively just an app for emailing files, and REACHit, a fairly basic cloud storage service that doesn't offer anything that more established commercial services don't.
The model we tested included a fairly beefy Core i7-6500U from Intel's 6th-generation Skylake family. It's a dual-core chip clocked at 2.5GHz - 100MHz faster than the Broadwell Core i7-5500U it replaces - and has been partnered with 8GB of RAM.
A Samsung-built SSD supposedly provides 512GB of storage, but a quick jaunt into Windows Explorer revealed that only 400GB of a 432GB partition was free.
Hands-on events aren't great for judging capacity, as vendors will often add software and files for demo purposes even if they won't appear on the device once it hits the market. Even so, that's a solid fifth of the maximum drive capacity out of use, which is a lot for what should just be the operating system and some firmware.
Still, 400GB is quite a lot, especially for those who mostly work with small files. The speed benefits of an SDD, as opposed to an HDD, shouldn't be underestimated either.
The £1,400 remains intimidating, but the Yoga 900's sharp screen, speedy performance and skinny profile has gone a long way towards winning us over.
It's certainly a cooler, trendier alternative to the ThinkPad Yoga 12, although this comes at the cost of the latter's business focus. At best, this is a solid consumer device that might suit SMBs, but doesn't include the management and security tools of the ThinkPad series. That may prove more offputting than the cost.
22 Oct 2015
HTC certainly knows how to make a smartphone, and over the past few months we've given the One M9, Desire Eye and One M8 four-star reviews. The Taiwanese firm's real problem, if its crumbling revenues are any indication, is making smartphones that can snatch sales from Samsung and Apple.
We'd wager that this was in HTC's mind when designing the One A9, unveiled earlier this week as a cheaper alternative to the One M9. Even with a still-steep starting price of £429.99, it's not tackling high-end rivals directly but it is an absolute dead ringer - almost comically so - for the iPhone 6 and the new iPhone 6S.
Fortunately, there's more to the One A9 than suspicious aesthetic similarities, as we discovered when we went hands-on with the handset.
Yes, the One A9's rounded corners, antennae lines and aluminium unibody do appear to have been borrowed from the more recent iPhones, but that's not entirely a bad thing. The unibody feels incredibly tough and unyielding, while the edgeless shape is pretty to look at and comfortable to hold, especially with a deceptively expensive-feeling matte finish.
The One A9 is also pleasantly low-profile. It measures 146x71x7.3mm, making it a mere 0.2mm thicker than the iPhone 6S, and at 143g it weighs exactly the same. That means it floats around the lighter end of the smartphone market in general.
There are some other nice touches, like the textured lock button and NFC support for Android Pay, but the really big inclusion here is the fingerprint sensor, which is mounted on the front like a faux home button. It's discreet but responsive and can be registered with five different fingerprints, making it good for businesses with a shared device pool.
Our only complaint is that there's no real home button; in fact, all the navigation buttons are digital. This is a decent cost-saving measure but it can be a pain to have to bring up the buttons every time they're needed, which also causes them to take up a section of the screen.
To be fair to the One A9, the 5in AMOLED display offers a good amount of space, so the on-screen icons don't intrude too much. We were actually very impressed with this screen overall. It's bright, bold and very, very sharp thanks to a high pixel density of 441ppi achieved through a 1920x1080 FHD resolution.
The AMOLED tech produces vibrant colours and deep blacks, very nearly on a par with the priciest devices we've tested. It hasn't been announced in the specs, but we believe that the Gorilla Glass 4 screen is treated with some sort of anti-fingerprint coating, as it seemed to resist our thumb marks quite well.
Operating system and software
Outside Google's Nexus range, the latest Android 6.0 Marshmallow operating system is rolling out at quite a slow pace, and even then only to major smartphones. That's why it's great to see that the mid-range One A9 will launch with this up-to-date OS already installed.
In addition to taking advantage of Marshmallow's biometrics and Android Pay support, the One A9 benefits from the various upgrades over 5.1 Lollipop. For instance, Google Now has become Google Now on Tap, which displays relevant web results based on which app is open without requiring the user to search for anything. We could hold down the home button while in the Play Music app, for example, and immediately view YouTube and image links for artists in the library.
Marshmallow's battery-saving Doze mode and more privacy-friendly app permissions model should also strengthen the One A9, but we're not so sure about the HTC Sense custom skin. It doesn't meddle with stock Android's UI and features too much, but it is absolutely teeming with frivolous bloatware, even on the pre-release model we tested. We can also expect it to delay future OS updates, like all custom skins.
In exchange, HTC Sense does at least offer some useful features. The camera UI has been reworked into a greatly simplified, user-friendly form, while the Home widget can change which apps appear on the homescreen according to whether the user is at home, at work or outside. We can definitely see this proving useful for anyone who uses a single handset for work and leisure.
Our test model included the Qualcomm Snapdragon 617, an octa-core processor made up of four 1.5GHz cores and four 1.2GHz cores, plus 2GB of RAM. A 3GB RAM model will also be available.
Frankly, these are scores are what we'd expect to see on entry-level smartphones, not on a £400+ cousin of the mighty One M9. For that much, we have expected significantly faster performances than what the One A9 achieved in these initial tests.
That said, the One A9 isn't exactly sluggish when it comes to everyday tasks. We could open, run and switch between dozens of apps without any noticeable slowdown, although we weren't able to run any 3D games, which would make for a good test of the One A9's true capabilities. Those, as well as other benchmarks like Antutu and Geekbench, will have to wait until our full review.
HTC is clearly fond of its smartphones' cameras, often showering them with bonus features such as timelapse modes and the ability to capture RAW image files. The One A9 is no different, sharing both these capabilities as well as being able to process RAW files without the need for a PC.
Specs-wise, the One A9 pairs a 13MP rear-facing camera with a 4MP Ultrapixel front-facing camera, both able to capture 1080p video. HTC claims that its proprietary Ultrapixel tech can improve quality by capturing up to 300 percent more light than standard sensors, but we couldn't tell much of a difference. The stills we took were pretty sharp by secondary camera standards but still somewhat grainy and desaturated in low light.
The main camera fared much better, providing highly detailed shots with a more vivid colour balance. Sharpness falls off dramatically over distance, but the One A9 is perfectly adequate for occasional snaps. Other than some slight blurriness when moving, video capture is clear and colourful as well, and the simplified UI made it easy to create 'Hyperlapse' videos that can speed through up to 45 minutes of footage.
Battery and storage
HTC has cut back a bit on the One A9's battery, down to 2,150mAh from 2,840mAh on the One M9. The firm says this will still result in 12 hours of video playback, but we're sceptical as the One M9 managed just under eight hours. Again, this is something we'll take a closer look at when we get the One A9 in for a full review.
With apps, photos and videos to contend with, 16GB - and perhaps even 32GB, the largest option available - will be very little storage indeed. However, both models can be expanded via microSD up to a faintly ludicrous theoretical maximum of 2TB.
Expandable memory feels like a particularly wise inclusion for a device like the One A9, where its lower price compared with high-end handsets is one of its key draws. We've seen on the likes of the iPhone 6S and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ how additional onboard memory can vastly inflate the price, compared with how little it would cost to just make up the difference with a microSD card.
The One A9's quality design and excellent screen are encouraging, but its underwhelming benchmark performances have us worried that it won't be able to keep up with competitors like the Honor 7 and the Nexus 5X.
This is especially concerning as the One A9 is priced significantly higher than those smartphones; in fact, the £429.99 price tag is within spitting distance of the Samsung Galaxy S6, easily one of the most powerful devices on the market. More aggressive pricing would have made this a much more attractive prospect, but as things stand, the One A9 may look like the iPhone 6S but seems exceedingly unlikely to sell like it.