Dec 9, 2015
As you know I mostly write about software, like Microsoft Outlook, and how to be productive with it. But periodically I write about computer hardware since that is what Outlook and other productivity software runs on. Recently I was forced to purchase a new laptop, and it gave me a chance to study the new computers coming out. Here is my assessment of a few of the latest next-gen laptop offerings, and the adventures I had finding one that works.
My take is that many of these brand-new, next-gen laptop designs, were released to the public before they were ready—they are full of bugs, some quite serious. But they are still amazing and you might be willing to take the risk. More details below. I hope reading this helps you if you are in the market for a new laptop.
Gotta Buy a Laptop
Five weeks ago on the way to New York City to give some client presentations, my work laptop was stolen. Obviously that was a major pain, but thank goodness the laptop was locked and all my work files were in the cloud. And thankfully the laptop was insured. But I needed a laptop by the next day to present my slides, so I decided to purchase another one that evening after I landed in NYC. I planned to plug in to the Internet that night at the hotel and download PowerPoint software via my Office 365 subscription, and download the presentation-files I needed through my OneDrive account. (Both those downloads worked well by the way). Coincidentally Microsoft’s flagship store had just opened on Fifth Avenue in New York with lots of new models in stock, and the store was right near my hotel and open late.
Good Time and Bad Time to Buy New Laptop
One might say this is a great time to buy a laptop because a lot of new technologies have just come together in a number of new next-generation laptop releases. When I say next generation, I mainly mean a laptop with the latest 6th-generation Intel Skylake processor. These processors consume less battery power and generate less heat than the previous generations, and the onboard graphics are much faster. Next-gen laptops also come with Windows 10 pre-installed, so no need to hassle with upgrade pains, and Windows 10 is a vastly superior OS than Windows 8. Gorgeous 4K resolution screens are also usually part of many of these next-gen laptops, as are other interesting new hardware approaches like those featured on the Surface Book.
But in other ways this is a terrible time to buy a next-gen laptop for the very same reasons: there are too many new things all coming out at once on these new laptops, and in many cases the new elements aren’t working together very well yet. As a result, I went through four new laptops in one month, trying to find one that was defect-free, and whose design worked well. There were an enormous number of serious issues with 3 out of 4 of these laptops. My advice: if you don’t want to get frustrated, either get an older model, or wait a few more months for Microsoft and the manufacturers to sort things out. But if you are willing to endure some hassle and perhaps willing to exchange laptops a few times, there are some really cool new laptops out there that may work for you.
Surface Book Number 1
I’d been itching to try Microsoft’s brand new and first laptop, the Surface Book. The Fifth Avenue Microsoft store had a good stock of them that day I went shopping, so I thought I should give it a try. I was a bit hesitant, however, because I’d read so many stories of bugs in the Surface Book. But I thought “what the heck I can always return it” using Microsoft’s 30-day return policy, and I would at least have a computer to get through the three presentations I was making in the week ahead. It was almost a month since the Surface Book had been shipping, so I figured Microsoft must have repaired most of the problems by then, right? You’ll see the answer to that is “not.” And there are some major bugs around sleep mode in some units that Microsoft recently announced they cannot fix until next year. So did I get one and how was it?
Well, I did get a Surface Book that night, but it was definitely a lemon. It worked well enough to get through my presentations, but I recorded at least 13 major defects in it as I used it for several frustrating weeks. The main issues were that it crashed and rebooted three to five times per day, and it refused to go into sleep. It had many, many serious problems. This was true even after another three weeks of Windows updates, including the early November major Windows update and the Nov 18 major Surface Book firmware update. It was also true after working many hours with Microsoft support on the phone, with them installing new drivers and so on. Microsoft Support finally stated that the Surface Book hardware I had was defective and that I should exchange it. So when my presentation schedule settled down I finally made efforts to return it and get another one.
Surface Book Number 2
To do that, I went to a Microsoft store and traded it for another Surface Book. I spent hours setting it up with the latest Windows Updates, OneDrive file transfers, and core software installs, and I soon discovered it was defective too. This one was able to enter sleep, but it would crash or freeze immediately half the times I brought it out of sleep, (even with all the updates installed). There were many more (less intrusive but annoying) issues—too many to list. So I returned it too, and decided to stop beating my head against the wall.
Look, I’ve heard there are many happy Surface Book owners, but what are the odds of my getting two lemons in a row? From reading other’s experiences, this is part of a wider trend. I decided that there are too many new technologies in this laptop. There is the new Skylake Intel i7 processor. There’s the new Windows 10 that is still rapidly evolving. And most importantly, there is a whole new laptop design by a company that has never made a true laptop before (Microsoft).
So for now, I’ve given up entirely on the Surface Book. Maybe these are just initial-run manufacturing defects, or maybe the whole design is a bit problematic. But at this point, I’m going to wait until the things settle down quite a bit before I waste any more time with a Surface Book. I may even wait for the second generation of this laptop.
It’s too bad, because I really liked many things about the Surface Book (good full review here). The screen was sensationally sharp and bright, and I liked the screen’s taller aspect ratio. The detachable large-format clipboard/tablet surprised me on how thin and light it was, given its ample drawing area. The pen-inking experience on that tablet was sensational, I’ve never experienced such a direct, lag-free connection between the tip of a digital pen and the resulting lines on a tablet. And two-finger scrolling on the touchpad was amazingly fluid. Other than a slightly weak keyboard design and the unit feeling a bit thick and heavy for a 13-inch laptop, the whole computer felt like a top-notch physical design. It’s just too bad both of the units I got simply didn’t work and had so many defects, so I had to move on. And I did, to the Yoga 900.
Lenovo Yoga 900
It’s ironic that just a few weeks ago I was complaining in a blog about how Lenovo let me down on a tablet some years ago, and then I turned around and I chose to buy a Lenovo again. But with both Surface Books returned I still needed a laptop, and another new Windows 10 laptop making headlines in October and November was Lenovo’s Yoga 900. It’s not a perfect replacement to a Surface Book since it doesn’t have a pen interface, but I decided I really don’t use a pen on a laptop anymore these days. I really just needed a regular laptop. So I grabbed the Yoga 900 at Best Buy and went to work.
This 13.3-inch laptop is amazingly thin and amazingly light for the power it delivers. It has essentially the same high-end internals and 4K screen as the Surface Book (without the GPU), but it feels like it weighs half as much and is half as thick. And it costs half as much. Of course it’s not a pen computer, and it doesn’t have the amazing detachable screen, both of which explain a lot of the price difference. But at that point I just wanted a laptop with the new Skylake i7 CPU and Windows 10. By the way, I am already hooked on Windows 10 and cannot go back to Windows 8.1, which now feels painful by comparison.
The most important feature of this Yoga 900 laptop, given my recent Surface Book issues, was that it worked right out of the box with virtually no defects. In fact, for some reason I found it to be snappier and more responsive than the Surface Book, even though it had the same i7 processor, same RAM, same size solid state drives, and approximately the same ultra-high resolution screen. It did have a few minor out-of-box issues, but in general it has been working infinitely better than the Surface Book did.
I find that ironic since a few weeks ago I blogged that I figured Microsoft would know much better than other manufacturers about how to make a computer work with Windows 10—after all they are designing both the software and hardware and should be able coordinate the two precisely, right? But how wrong I was! This Yoga worked much better.
All that said, there was one minor defect in the Yoga 900: I found the laptop to occasionally wake up from sleep spontaneously in my briefcase, which of course impacted battery life. But I’ve only seen that a few times (and it goes back into sleep automatically per settings).
Yoga 900, Pros
Given its comparatively low price and full feature set, I really do like the Yoga 900. Here’s what I like:
- This laptop is very thin (.59 in) and very light (2.85 pounds)—it’s amazing how compact it feels for a full-power and full-sized laptop.
- This is the second generation Yoga using the practical and innovative watchband 360-degree hinge. Having it contributes to its thinness, its lightness, and of course its flexibility—like many other hybrids you can wrap the keyboard around and make a tablet out of it. That said, it is still too heavy to hold in one hand and read a book with; I am using my nice small Surface 3 (non-Pro) for that.
- I like typing on the keyboard much better than on the Surface Book keyboard—not sure why, but it just feels better to me. Others say they love the Surface Book keyboard, so this is a very personal observation.
- I also like the feel and texture of the palm rest area around the trackpad. It has a bit of a soft texture that feels good against the palms.
- Lots of USB ports (but with limits as you’ll see). Along with two USB-3 ports, and one USB-2 port, it also has one of the new USB-C/Thunderbolt ports (6-times faster than a USB-3, and tiny).
- The high-resolution screen is impressively sharp, though the colors and brightness are just okay.
- I mentioned that the performance felt even snappier than the Surface Book.
- Battery life is 7 to 8 hours, pretty good but not great.
Yoga 900, Cons
There are a number of design issues however.
- Even though I like the keyboard feel better, the Backspace key placement is just wrong. They put the Home key where the Backspace key should be, and it’s too small. I never use the Home key, so I am going to map it to the backspace key, should I decide to keep this laptop.
- I don’t like the Yoga touchpad. It’s not terrible, but I got spoiled by the Surface Book and by the Dell XPS 15 touchpads, both of which are stellar. First of all, the Yoga 900 touchpad is too small. And two-finger scrolling is a bit funky (although much better than most laptops). The most irritating point is that when I click the touchpad buttons they will occasionally not do anything till I click them a second or third time.
- There is no external monitor port. You need to buy a USB-C to HDMI adapter and run the external monitor off the USB-C port (tying it up).
- The power brick is pretty small, but Lenovo designed it with a plug on one end instead of a power cord. And the plug is in the middle of the brick, not at the edge, which means the plugged-in brick covers nearly an entire wall outlet. Easy fix: use a short extension cord.
- The laptop end of the power cord plugs into the USB-2 plug (which is just weird), making that USB port unavailable when charging and taking much more space than a simple round power plug. That said, when running on battery that gives you an extra USB port.
- The screen bezel is a bit too big.
- The entre laptop feels a bit cheaply made. Not horrible, but it’s definitely not a Surface Book or Dell XPS.
- After a recent update, the laptop now automatically moves out of sleep into hibernation after a short while of sleep, even though I haven’t made that setting anywhere. And as far as I can tell, that new config is not reversible. That makes resumption on reopening the laptop a bit slower.
So all is not perfect. But again, given the relatively low price-to-specifications ratio, given its great performance, and given how thin and light it is. It’s a good value. And you’ll see in a moment, it’s the only laptop out of the four that isn’t crashing regularly.
There is a good full review of the Yoga 900 here.
But even with the advantages of this laptop, I kept looking for another. That was partly because of the various Yoga 900 design issues I list above—primarily the trackpad. But mainly that was because the Yoga 900 that Best Buy had in stock came with only a 256 GB hard drive, which I knew ultimately would be too small for me. You see, I use my laptops as my main desktop computer (plugged into an external monitor and keyboard). That way I can grab the laptop on the way out the door to a long work trip, and everything is ready for full and unlimited remote work. But 256 GB isn’t quite adequate given all the video course creation I do. And since the 512 GB models weren’t due back in stock anywhere for weeks, I went ahead and bought what they had, knowing I might need to swap it out soon. Best Buy currently has an amazing keep-until-January-15 holiday return policy in effect right now, so there really was no risk.
Sure enough, five days later and after some extensive research, I bought yet another Windows 10 laptop from Best Buy (online): a Dell XPS 15. It had a much larger solid state hard drive, and a lot of other impressive features.
The Dell XPS 15 (2015 model)
As of this writing, the brand new Dell XPS 15 2015 laptop was just released a few weeks ago. It also has the new Skylake processor and Windows 10 and a lot more storage. But it’s main selling point for me was that it has an amazing new 15.6-inch “Infinity” screen (the Surface Book and Yoga were both 13.3-inch laptops). Why did I jump up in screen size?
The laptop that I lost was a Samsung Ativ 9, and it was also a 15.6-inch laptop, and I really liked it. The extensive screen real estate greatly helped when editing videos on the laptop screen. But in the year and half that I had it, the Samsung had aged poorly: the trackpad had gone intermittently haywire in just one year, and other physical issues cropped up. So I did not deeply morn its (insured) loss. Also, while I liked the larger screen, I did not like the large width of the Samsung—it was a hassle trying to work with it on a plane for example. And it barely fit the width of my briefcase. That’s why I was moving back to a 13-inch screen.
However, this new Dell XPS 15, even though it has a 15.6-inch screen, is about an inch less wide than other 15.6-inch laptops due to that unique Infinity screen. Dell accomplished that by eliminating the large screen bezel (border) that nearly all laptops have—the screen goes almost all the way to the edge. It also has a CPU and GPU that is superior to the Surface Book. And I found I could purchase one with a whopping 1 Terabyte solid state hard drive for many hundred dollars less than the 512 GB Surface Book. In fact, the 1 TB XPS 15 is nearly $1000 less than the 1 TB Surface Book. Given all that, I just had to try this out—but none were in the stores so I ordered online. Again, Best Buy’s current Jan 15 return policy made this trial nearly risk-free, and I ended up getting next-day delivery for free.
I have been working with the Dell XPS 15 for about a week now, and so far here are my thoughts.
Issues Force a Return
Out of the box, it seemed to work with no major defects. But I then updated to the major early November Windows 10 update, and I started noticing a number of problems:
- Seconds after initiating sleep or shutdown, the computer would immediately wake up or launch again. I couldn’t turn the darn thing off! I had to force power off (hold the power button down for a while) to get it to stay off. However, that was completely fixed a few days later by a BIOS update that Dell released; it sleeps and shuts down fine now.
- When I hook up an external monitor and watch a Netflix or Amazon movie, the video will pause for a second, sometimes quite often. Video streaming is fine without the external monitor—this is purely an external monitor issue and it is still present on and off.
- It intermittently drops Wi-Fi connections. During some periods, I have to go back in and reconnect quite often.
- The killer issue though was that after about 8 days of use the laptop suddenly started blue-screen crashing every hour or so. All I was doing was working in Office software like Word and Outlook each time this crashed. It stopped after a while, but now I don’t trust this laptop anymore.
Due to that last issue, the periods of constant blue-screen crashing, I have given up on this laptop and am going to return it, and for now I have switched back to the Yoga 900.
It’s too bad that I have to return this because I really liked the design of the XPS 15. It screams “high-quality” in so many ways and has a ton of great features. You know, the design standard that everyone compares Windows laptops to these days is a MacBook, and I really think Dell has met and exceeded that standard on this XPS 15.
XPS 15 Pros:
- The Dell XPS 15 has a glorious 4K screen. It’s not just the high resolution, but it has a phenomenal color saturation and white-point brightness that is utterly striking to look at. Combine that with the Infinity edgeless screen design and I was positively jolted every time I opened this laptop. At home I found myself ditching the external monitor and instead watching movies on the laptop screen just to enjoy the impressive color.
- The keyboard is very good. It feels great, is laid out well, and it has no trouble spots.
- I especially love the trackpad. It is as close to a perfect trackpad as I’ve ever felt. It is large. Its two-finger scroll works perfectly (similar to the Surface Book). The button pressure and click-feel is also perfect.
- I also really like the feel and texture of the palm rest area around the trackpad. It is made of carbon fiber with just a little bit of a soft texture to it that feels good against the palms.
- Overall, the open laptop looks high class given the thin screen bezel, the carbon fiber deck, and the attractive keyboard. This is a classy-looking computer.
- Quad-core. The higher-end variant that I got comes with a quad-core Skylake i7 which is a very fast processor and very useful for certain types of work. The Surface Book and Yoga 900 use only a dual-core Skylake i7. A quad-core i7 is not needed for most casual laptop use like web browsing or video viewing. But I routinely do video creation when making training materials, and the rendering times for that can be quite long on most computers. Compared to the Yoga 900 or Surface i7, this quad-core XPS is at least 50% faster at rendering (I measured it).
- The 1 TB SSD drive option (PCIe) is relatively inexpensive making it a reasonable option (especially if you buy it from Best Buy; for some reason configuring it online on the Dell site costs hundreds more than Best Buy preconfigured).
- It comes with a good GPU, one with twice the video RAM of the GPU in the Surface Book. The Yoga did not have a GPU.
- In addition to an HDMI port and two USB-3 ports, it has a USB-C port (6 times faster than USB-3), and you can use that port as either a second video out (with adaptor) or use it to attach to the new Dell expansion dock for adding many more ports. That dock is only $75 (compared to the similar Surface dock that Microsoft sells for $200)
- Very fast charging times.
- It has a battery indicator on the outer edge of the laptop that you can view without opening or activating the laptop.
- It is thin and light for a 15.6-inch laptop—the lightest in its 15-inch class. Without the touchscreen it is 3.9 pounds and the touchscreen model is 4.4 pounds (the latter is even lighter than a 15.4 inch MacBook Pro, with its smaller, and non-touch, screen).
XPS 15 Cons:
- Its weight is also a con—after using light 13-inch models that range from 2.6 to 3.4 pounds, this 4.4-pound laptop feels heavy!
- The quad-core Skylake processor runs at a much higher wattage than the equivalent dual-core Skylake, and that leads to a power brick that is twice as large and heavy as the Surface Book’s or the one with the Yoga 900. So even more travel weight.
- The touch screen and 4K screen version (which I have) has a shorter battery life that the other versions of the XPS 15. Dell claims up to 17 hours with some versions of the XPS 15, but mine gets about 6 or 7 hours, which isn’t bad, but a few more hours would be good to get through a full work day.
- A little nit: there is no light that indicates when the laptop is in sleep mode.
Overall, after going through 4 new laptops in one month, the XPS 15 was by far the most impressive and I really hoped it was going to be my keeper. The Wi-Fi and streaming video glitches were annoying, though. And the late-arriving crash issue was the full show-stopper. I suppose I could swap it out for another XPS 15, to see if that improves the problems, and I might give the model one more chance. For now, though, I am falling back on the Yoga 900.
There is a good full review of the new XPS 15 here.
Should you buy a next generation Windows 10 laptop? You can see there are quite a few issues in the ones I tested. Maybe I just got unlucky, but 3 laptops in a row that kept crashing regularly? I suppose there is a chance that some of the software I use, or hardware I plug into these, is to blame. But the online tech press reflects a generally high defect rate with a lot of these new next-gen laptops. So you will have to decide what your tolerance is.
If you are not tolerant of such issues, the other choice is to pick an older more reliable design. But the problem with buying a previous generation one right now is that if you wait just a few more months, the issues I listed above will probably be fixed in the later builds of the new models, and then you’ll be kicking yourself for having an older design. I knew about the Surface Book problems before I bought one, and if it weren’t for my laptop being stolen, I would not have bought one right now. If you can wait, I would. If you cannot wait, I’d get one of the new designs now and just deal with the issues. Just make sure you can return it (see below) in case the one you get does have problems.
If you are ready to deal with a few issues, which one should you buy? Well, per the article I linked above, Microsoft clearly has not fixed the issues with the Surface Book. Perhaps the one you get will not have the issues, but tread carefully if you want to test that; I think that’s still too risky. And the Dell XPS 15 issues were unfortunate—later I discovered online that reports of those issues were abundant. You can see that the Lenovo Yoga 900 had the least major defects, and for now that’s the one I am keeping (I may swap it for a 512K version though).
What About the Surface Pro?
You might be wondering why I did not go for the new Surface Pro 4 since that line is pretty stable now. I answered that in a blog I wrote a month ago. These are great machines but my issue with the entire Surface Pro line is its size; the 12-inch screens are just too small for me to use as a laptop. And as a true tablet, they are a bit too big. I think the Surface 3 (non-Pro) is a much better choice as a tablet. You may recall that I generally advise you not try to use a computer as both a laptop and as your only true tablet. Rather, I recommend you get 2 devices: a real laptop that is big enough for extended business use, and also a very small tablet for reading books and consuming media on the fly.
What About the Mac?
You also might be wondering why, given my praise for the Macintosh line, I just didn’t get a Macintosh, and avoid all these issues. After all, many of the features that I’m praising in these new Windows computers have been available on the Mac for a while. And Apple’s quality control is usually quite good. Well, I do think Macs are great computers, but here’s why I stick with Windows: The Windows version of Outlook is the only good one—there are too many compromises on the Mac version. A lot of other software I routinely use is only available on a PC. And 90% of my clients are Windows Outlook users, so I really don’t have a choice.
[Update 8:00 PM: Since so many comments are coming in stating to the effect “Well, I told you a Mac was better, so Just get a Mac and emulate Windows on it” let me add a paragraph about that. Running Windows on a Mac is a great thing. If I were a dedicated Mac user, and needed to on and off use some Windows applications too, I’d definitely do that. For example, it’s a great way to solve all the Outlook for Mac issues, just run Windows and run Outlook for Windows on your Mac. But if you are a dedicated Windows user, and are thinking to buy a Mac and just run Windows emulation all the time… goodness gracious noooooo! There are just way too many costs: hardware, emulation software, OS software, lost access to Windows hardware and software features, and especially performance. Regarding performance, one reviewer, who measured it all carefully, stated “you basically lose half the CPU cycles of your computer just supporting the emulation environment.” You see, the whole point of my seeking out next-gen Windows laptops was to get their extra performance. If I am going to throw it all away on emulation losses—well, I might as well purchase a last-year’s model Windows laptop, (which is only about 15% slower and works fine), and all would be good—I’d still come out way ahead compared to emulating Windows on a Mac. So again, dedicated Mac users, yes, go for emulation, it is a great solution for you! Windows users, stick with a Windows machine! end of update]
[Update Dec 11-10:00 AM: I want to thank “Pres” for correcting me (in comments below) on my above point about Windows on Mac performance. Pres reminds me that if you use Boot Camp on the Mac you can bypass emulation and launch Windows directly in the Mac hardware. If you do that, you get full CPU performance. Thanks Pres, I should have mentioned that. And that’s confirmed by tests, as in this article. That said, that same article concludes that if you intend to run Windows full time, it’s still better to buy a Windows machine–too many driver and hardware issues to deal with otherwise. I have to agree, Apple just does not support Windows as well as a dedicated Windows PC manufacturer does. There are many complications to this hybrid approach. This article seems to confirm all those concerns. Conclusion: I don’t think getting a Mac and running Windows full time is the solution to the momentary issues plaguing brand new PCs right now (unless you just want a Mac instead). Rather, Windows users, if you absolutely need a new laptop right now, I’d recommend getting a slightly older PC model whose design has stabilized a bit. Or better, just wait some months before getting a new one. I have had years of success with many, many PCs and the current PC fiasco I describe in this article will pass soon as changes settle down–it’s not the end of the Windows PC world! end of update]
Other Issues to Watch
I do have one caution on these new Windows laptop models. The 4K screens are becoming fairly standard now, and while they look great, I don’t think Windows 10 and many Windows applications are ready for the 4K resolution quite yet. This is one place the Mac hardware still excels—it has figured out the scaling thing well. But with Windows, at 4K resolution, in many instances labels on the desktop applications are so tiny as to be unreadable, and this is even after applying 250% Windows scaling. That’s because many apps still don’t recognize Windows scaling. And when you port the image from a laptop 4k screen to the typical HD external monitor, things can get very strange unless you reboot, or sign out and sign back in. Until you do that, icons often blow up to 4 inches wide or down to microscopic size. Many of the application windows become way too big or way too small and you have to manually resize all of them. And 4K laptop screens take a lot more battery power when working unplugged, even if you reduce the resolution. In many ways, a 4k laptop screen is more of a hassle than its worth for the pretty picture that you get. The good news is that you can usually find models of the same computers without the 4K screen, and at a lower price.
Also, with every one of these next generation i7 Skylake driven laptops, I experienced the following issue: several times a day the screen would freeze for a moment and then a message would pop up that said: Display driver stopped responding and has recovered. This is all over the technology press as being a common and yet-to-be solved issue with the new Intel chips. The good news is the pause is only for about 2 seconds, it only happens a few times a day, and new software drivers are coming out in the future should fix it. But this is just another example of the early state of these new laptops.
Other Next-Gen Laptops
By the way, there are of course many other next-gen laptops out there beyond what I listed above. For example, the HP Spectre x360 looks pretty good, though it has the same keyboard issue as the Surface Book (silver keys with white backlit lettering that are hard to read under certain lighting conditions). For a complete list of lightweight laptops that have Skylake inside, see this link.
Instead of the Dell XPS 15, I also considered getting its smaller cousin, the Dell XPS 13. It has many of the advantages of the XPS 15 and it is a lot lighter in weight. But I could not find one in stock anywhere with a 512 GB or 1 TB solid-state hard drive. Why didn’t I just configure that on the Dell web site? My answer to that brings me to my next point:
Buy from a retailer with a full return policy
With all the quality control problems on these next generation laptops, and with all the design issues due to the brand new internal and external components, now more than ever you need to make sure you buy your laptop from a retailer that will give you a full refund with no questions asked. And that’s why I did not try to custom configure on the Dell site, because Dell’s web site clearly says that “customized products may not be returned at any time”. Even their non-customized items are subject to a 15% restocking fee if bought directly from Dell.
Because of the buying and returning experience, I’ve suddenly become a big fan of Best Buy. They have good prices, ubiquitous store locations, quick and inexpensive shipping when ordered online, and a generous return policy.
For an example of the latter, if you order a computer online from bestbuy.com and don’t like it, you can even drop it off at your nearby store for your full refund, including tax—that removes the return shipping hassle. And currently Best Buy has a very long holiday return policy: you can keep it until January 15. Outside of the holidays, however, the return period is initially only 15 days. But once you buy a certain dollar amount on the Best Buy site you become an Elite customer and they increase the return period to 30 days.
Microsoft Store also has a 30-day full return policy for all purchases, made any time. But there’s a catch that complicated my life greatly. If you buy the computer from a physical Microsoft store you cannot return it by mail to Microsoft’s online store. You have to go in person to another physical Microsoft store to return it. As I said, I bought the Surface Book from the New York Microsoft store when I was on business there, and I then discovered that Microsoft stores are few and far between. For example, I live in Santa Fe New Mexico, and the closest Microsoft stores are in Denver and Tucson, both nearly 8 hours away. So ordering online from Microsoft makes more sense than a physical store, unless a store is right next to you; at least with the Microsoft online store you can ship it back from anywhere.
But I’m not happy with the slow shipping when purchasing from Microsoft’s online store. I recently placed an online order for a Surface 3 tablet. The site said the item was in stock, but it took nearly a week for them to even start to ship it. And then they shipped it by the slowest method, one with seven-day shipping. The resulting two-weeks delivery time is just not right these days.
Stores I would not even consider buying laptops from these days are the discount online stores that generally have terrible return policies. You save a few bucks but you take a big chance. And by the way, that goes for Amazon too. You probably know that some items on Amazon are actually sold by Amazon, and those have a great return policy. But most laptops on Amazon are sold by third-party discount marketplaces and are merely fulfilled by Amazon, and you end up with whatever (generally crappy) return policy that discount seller has. So read the fine print carefully.
Well, that’s my story. I know it was a bit long and convoluted but I learned a lot in the process, and I hope my learnings help you if you are in the market for one of these next-generation laptops. This is an interesting time with so many new technologies coming together at the same moment. It creates a great opportunity for true next-generation computing, but as you can see, purchasing one of them can lead to complications. So think it through carefully!
[Update 12/16/2015] It’s been 7 days since I published this article, and I’ve been using the Yoga 900 all that time, and it’s held up well. No major issues. So it is continues to be my keeper for now. It certainly has the internals right and it performs well (it feels like the snappiest of all the ones I’ve tested, on daily chores). And it feels light as a feather. The screen is pretty and very high res; could be a tad better, but it beats most laptops out there. I am mostly using it plugged into an external monitor and the onboard graphics are very good–it will drive a number of external 4K monitors (should I want it to). Here is another review of the Yoga 900: http://www.laptopmag.com/reviews/laptops/lenovo-yoga-900 [end of update]
I think it all comes down to carefully considering your requirements (essential and desirable) and then finding the product that most closely matches that list. My father taught me this when buying a car 50 years ago and I believe it still applies.
In my case, my essential requirements and most of my desirable requirements are met by a Surface Pro 3. I use that at least 5 hours a day and sometimes 10 – 12 hours a day. I plan and manage projects (mostly ICT based), and develop and teach online tertiary courses in business and project management, and the Surface meets all of my requirements and then some. My backup machine is an old Surface Pro 2, but I plan to replace that with a Pro 4 early next year once that model has settled down.
As my Dad said, “horses for courses”.
Thanks for your efforts in documenting your search and your results.
Thanks for documenting that.
I had a similar experience when I was looking for a Win8 laptop a few months before Win10 became available. That made me change to Apple.
They are up for more problems, if they are not able to provide a rocksolid OS on reliable hardware.
You’re right about bugs. I’ve been using a new ASUS Zenbook UX303UB for a few months. The glitches include the screen not waking up unless I force it into sleep mode then back out again; the speakers not working after using the headphones; and WIFI connection issues (it drops and doesn’t reconnect). There isn’t as much bloatware as I was expecting.
Don’t give up on the XPS 15. I have one and I have only seen one problem with it: an occasional screen flicker, which was cleared up when new drivers were released. It would appear that laptops have gone the way of computer software and components, where you need to watch for updates almost daily for the first couple of months.
first of all – am a major fan of yours, bought all your books and recommended them to clients. I am right now in the process of migrating from a PC to a new computer – and it is a Mac! I’ll be writing an e-book about it and will quote you there.
After having been a Windows user since version 3.1, I recently purchased an older 13″ MacBook Pro (2012) to test and possibly use as my main computer, both for work and personal. I also plan to do some cross platform software development. I have two questions to ask about you not using a Mac as your primary laptop. The first is Microsoft recently released Office 2016 for the Mac and it seems to be virtually identical to the Windows version, including Outlook. Have you yet had a chance to look at it?
The second is have you considered running Windows 10 in a virtual machine on the Mac under Parallels? I’ve installed it and it runs Windows quite well. So far, I have been to run Office and several other windows programs without a hitch, including Outlook 2013. The issues I’ve had up to this point are more getting used to the differences in the keyboard and the Mac environment, neither of which has been horrific.
What are your thoughts?
Terry, First, Mac Outlook 2016 is very different from Windows Outlook, and I don’t really recommend it anymore for tasks (fine for everything else). I have some blogs on this site about why, from a few weeks ago. As to Windows OS emulation on a Mac, for me personally, with all the documenting I do on software, I have to run a true copy of Windows; otherwise I don’t know if issues that come up are in the software or in the emulation. But I know that emulation can be a good choice for end users. It’s a great way to be able to run Windows Outlook on a Mac! Michael
I’m with Terry.
As a trainer I’ve had to emulate the environments of my clients, and that’s still Windows-based for the most part. However, a combination of VMWare Fusion (or Parallels) running on my 13in Macbook Pro allows me to have the best of both worlds. 3-finger swipe right on the (amazing) trackpad and I’m in Windows; 3-finger swipe left and I’m in OSX.
This laptop has seen quite a bit of travel abuse in the past two years and it’s still as new.
Thanks Michael for this excellent and pragmatic review. I wish that the trade magazines could provide useful appraisals.
Fully agree, a MacBook Pro is probably the best Windows Laptop there is (also the most expensive). You only have to get used to the Keyboard layout (no Del key). I have a 15-inch Retina and use Boot Camp for running Windows 10. It works great.
Mac has been Intel-only since 2009, eliminating the need for emulation. The current software that people still call emulators (VMWare, Parallels, VirtualBox) run virtual machines, which are different beasts, and far more efficient. You no longer lose your CPU power emulating Windows-compatible hardware, since it’s been all “Intel inside” for years anyway.
And if you just want to run Windows only and never even see Mac OS, then Apple’s native solution Boot Camp (already installed on all Macs) will do just that. It boots as a true Windows machine, because all Mac hardware runs Windows just fine. Apple handles all the drivers for their hardware for you.
The only difference is that you have to install Windows on it yourself, which is certainly not as convenient as a pre-install. (Does anybody know if an Apple Store genius would do that for you? I honestly have no idea.)
One bonus advantage might be that you’d avoid all the superfluous software that Windows machines tend to have pre-installed on them…
Might be worth a look.
Thanks Pres, my bad for not mentioning boot camp as a way to avoid CPU cycle loss in emulation. I updated my update in the body of this article to mention that very good point. But as I mention in that update to update, I still think switching to a Mac and running Windows fulltime is a rather extreme solution to the current momentary combination of issues with new Windows laptops. As the linked article in my update point out, there are just too many gotchas doing that, and I think most full-time Windows users would find it ill-advised. My point in this article was not to say that the Windows hardware environment is no longer viable. Rather, it was to say that we are in an unfortunate moment of time where it is better to wait a few months before buying a brand new latest model. So wait, or proceed but buy a slightly older model. No, I am not ready to recommend that we all jump ship and abandon ALL Windows hardware! Thanks again for your comments. Regards, Michael
Thanks for the review, Michael. Great information.
I’m curious whether or not you considered something from the Lenovo ThinkPad line. I’ve had several, and was almost always impressed. A little more than a year ago I went with a Yoga 2 Pro. Initially, I was really happy, but I’ve since ran into some issues (http://jerryfahrni.com/2015/05/im-done-with-lenovo-machines/). I’ve also had some new screen, WiFi, and Bluetooth problems since upgrading to Windows 10.
I also agree with your thoughts on tablet vs. laptop. I tried the Surface Pro 3 as my daily driver. Incredible machine that nearly checked all the boxes, but ultimately decided that I needed a better keyboard and a slightly larger screen for my day to day activities; I’m a knowledge worker/content creator. I currently carry a Toshiba Encore 2 Write to supplement my Yoga 2 Pro. The Write is large enough to meet my tablet needs, but small and light enough to go anywhere. Not to mention that it has an active digitizer with pen support that I find useful.
Jerry, you sound like me, both in experiences and in laptop preferences. I read your linked article and feel for you. You know, I’ve come to decide that laptop/tablets almost need to be considered disposable items these days. Manufacturer support is mostly terrible. When Microsoft support tried to help me fix the Surface Book issues I described above, and I granted them remote access to it to make fixes, I watched what they did and the tech support staff was making all kinds of rookie mistakes. They left the laptop in worse shape than when they started. My current thinking is get as long a full-replacement return policy as you can, probably 30-days from the retailer, and beat it up as hard as possible during those 30 days to uncover issues. And if there -is- an issue during that time, don’t even bother dealing with support, just return it. But if an issue comes up after 30 days, well, that’s where the disposable aspect comes in. My latest thinking is buy as low a cost as you can at the performance level you need, and just plan on selling on eBay if things go seriously wrong after the return period is up. I know, sounds pretty discouraging, but what else can you do? Even so-called extended warranties or insurance policies that say they offer replacements, I am seeing crappy “refurbished” units being delivered that are worse than the one turned in. I now create a fairly generous new laptop emergency budget every year and assume I may need it–I justify it as part of the cost of doing business. Sounds awful, but it’s true 🙁 Michael
BTW, apparently Microsoft recently “apologized” for all the Surface Book problems.
Well, a week later, and it looks like I am keeping the Yoga 900 for now. It keeps working, no major issues. And it has all the benefits of its next-gen internals, which still impress me–boy it’s fast.
BTW, Since there are so many comments to this article from Mac users, and since I’ve sort of settled on the Yoga 900, I thought l’d leave a link to this comparison review between the latest MacBook Air and the Yoga 900, both are 13 inch thin and light laptops, and represent the best from each camp in that size range:
Summary: the Yoga 900 wins hands-down on specs. The MacBook wins hands-down on battery life. More of course in the article.
Just read this post! I had 6 Surface books – all faulty!