Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sony Vaio SVT13128CXS Review

I recently obtained a new Sony Vaio Ultrabook - the SVT13128CXS. This is a robust laptop that can easily serve as a desktop replacement while, at 3.77 lbs. and .71" thick, being small an light enough to not be a burden to carry around on a daily basis.

Specs

The Vaio SVT13128CXS has a 13.3" multitouch screen and comes with an Intel Core i7 3517U CPU running at 1.9 GHz, a 256 GB Solid State Drive, and 8 GB of RAM, and the Windows 8 Operating System. It has all the common ports: HDMI, VGA, Ethernet, 1 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, and a MemoryStick/SD card slot, and has built-in 802.11 b/g/n wireless as well as Bluetooth 4.0. It also has a 1.3 MP HD Web cam.

Design

Like most high-end Vaio laptops, the SVT13128CXS looks great. The brushed aluminum casing and sleek lines look good and resist fingerprints. It feels solid, and, while a little thicker than some of the offerings out there, at .71" it is still very thin. The ports are easy to access and are spaced well enough that there shouldn't be issues plugging in, say, an Ethernet cable and a VGA cable or two USB devices.

Performance

I am very impressed with the performance. As I mentioned above, this could serve as a desktop replacement for many users. The CPU and ample memory coupled with the SSD make it a very fast machine. A cold-boot takes about 20 seconds from totally off to working in an office app, and that includes the time it takes me to enter my password. Waking from sleep is practically instantaneous - two seconds tops. Both desktop and Modern UI apps launch quickly and run well - I haven't had any weird issues or crashes yet. So far, the computer has handled everything I've thrown at it, which is admittedly basic business use (Office apps, Web, e-mail, media playing). I hope to do some video work (editing/encoding home movies with Windows Movie Maker) as well as some Web and app coding using Visual Studio, and will post an update comparing it to my desktop once I have had more time to use the apps. The battery lasts about 4 to 5 hours, which is better than any laptop I have used previously, but about average for an ultrabook or modern laptop.

Video performance is adequate - I am not a heavy gamer, but I do use a couple that have some hi-res 3D graphics. They perform pretty well, although when I pushed all the game the settings to the max I noticed the video performance drop a little. Movies and TV shows look great in the 768p HD resolution.

Controls

The touchscreen really shows what Windows 8 can do on a well-designed system. The touchscreen is great for the modern UI, and the large trackpad is good for desktop mode. The buttons are incorporated in the trackpad - press once to click, twice to double click, and press the lower right side to right-click. The keyboard is large, but the keys are spaced a little far apart for what I am used to, which sometimes makes it annoying to use... I miss more keystrokes typing on this than I have on pretty much any other keyboard I have used (even the Surface RT's Touch cover). Additionally, the lack of backlighting is something that other reviewers have commented on, although I don't really mind that (having never used a backlighted keyboard). One thing that stands out is how natural it feels to use the touchscreen in conjunction with the keyboard and mouse/touchpad - I find myself using whatever feels most efficient at the particular time.

Software

One thing that stands out to me is that the computer did not come filled with lots of software. Typically, one of the first things I do when I get a computer is uninstall most of the vendor provided trial software, but I didn't need to do that this time. Sony does provide some software packages with the system - ArtRage Studio and PlayMemories Home - but they are relatively small and may be useful (I haven't used them much at all, but I will give them a chance before I decide what to do with them).

Sony also provides Modern UI apps for audio and photos/video which work much better for local and network files than Microsoft's apps. These apps are not pre-installed, but they are available in the Windows Store under Vaio Picks.

The system also comes with a 90-day trial of Intel Anti-Theft, but rather than have the software pre-installed, it is available as a download. It offers remote lock, allows you to track your system from a Website, and will even automatically lock your system if it does not connect to the Internet for a user-configurable number of days. I am trying it out as I use similar packages with my Android phone and iPad, and will give it a review once the trial is up.

Shortcomings

While the Vaio is a very good system for everyday use, there are a few things that I would have liked to see included. For example, while it has both USB 3.0 and 2.0 ports, only two ports is somewhat limiting... even my sub $300 Gateway netbook has three ports. Additionally, while optical drives seem to be on the way out, I miss having one included in the system (especially when using an external drive means losing use of 1/2 my USB ports).

Storage space is OK, but it would be nice if the computer came with a 500 GB SSD rather than the 256 GB - once you subtract for the recovery partition and the fuzzy GB counting that drive manufacturers like to use, the drive has about 200 GB available, and then you lose a bit of that to Windows and the pre-installed apps.

The system comes with Windows 8, however as a computer that is powerful enough for pretty heavy business use, I think it would be better if Sony offered it with Windows 8 Pro. Sony also disables hardware virtualization by default, meaning that if you do upgrade to Pro and want to use Hyper-V, you need to enter the BIOS settings and turn it on manually.

Price may also be a concern. At $1,299 list price on Amazon, it isn't cheap. The cost is in line with similar offerings from other manufacturers, but there are several lower priced ultrabooks out there that may also suit your needs.

Wrap-up

The Sony SVT13128CXS is a high-end ultrabook that makes a decent business or home use machine. I would recommend it to people who are looking for a primary machine. It's power and portability are great, and the few shortcomings aren't that bad in my opinion.




 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Surface RT for Business Travel

As someone who does light to medium office work on my business trips (creating editing Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, e-mail, skype chats) as well as wanting light entertainment (music, movies, games) while traveling, I would typically bring a netbook and an iPad on all my business trips. They both filled their niches and I was generally a happy camper.  I recently brought my Surface RT on a 10-day business trip as my only computing device. My initial conculsion was that it was working well for me after the first day and a half, and that impression didn't change throughtout the rest of the trip.

One thing that really impressed me was the battery. Not only does it have adequate battery life - I never had it run out in the middle of the day with moderate use - but it charges quickly - about 2 hours for a full charge. This meant that I could use it all day, then put it on the charger while I went out to dinner, and it would usually be done by the time I returned to my hotel room. The battery also did a great job during my flights - my trip was overseas, so I had a 7 hour flight, then 3 hour layover, then another 2 hour flight). I used the surface extensively (watched a couple of movies each way, read books, played games, used Skype and checked e-mail during my layover) and still had battery left when I arrived at my destination.

I have covered most of my thoughts regarding using the Surface for business trips in my previous post, and don't have much to add here. I also posted about some annoyances that I came across on my trip. Numbers 1, 6, and 8 are more relevant for business travel than the others. A few other items of note :
  • SkyDrive integration is seamless. The Surface was able to use the SkyDrive like a local disk drive on the computer, allowing quick access to work files from the Office applications. It had the added benefit of allowing me to share working documents with colleagues without using e-mail. The only downside is that you need an active Internet connection to access the files stored there.
  • Printer support seems robust. I was connected to a wireless network and needed to print a document. I was trying to figure out how I may go about installing a driver and clicked on Devices and Printers, and lo and behold, the Xerox multifunction printer on the network showed up on my system without me needing to do anything, and I was able to print without any issues.
  • The USB port is a really nice accessory. There were times when I had to transfer files when I did not have Internet access, and being able to use a USB thumb drive was very useful. I was also able to take a USB stick with 10 movies on it so I would have plenty of things to watch on my flights.  
  • The Surface fits well on a tray table. With the keyboard attached, it fits as well as my 10" netbook did, and it is even better when I detach the keyboard and just watch movies.
I find that, for what I need when I travel, the Surface RT is an adequate replacement for both my iPad and netbook. I think it will be accompanying me a lot in the future.
 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Building A Box - Specs

I've done a lot of thinking about the specifications of the computer I am going to build. My two main priorities are speed and storage. I use my main PC for video editing, some Web development, and as a media server for the house. I figure that whatever I build will replace it as my main desktop, and then I can give my current machine (a two-year old Dell Studio XPS 8100) to my wife.

Motherboard

Since the motherboard was a gift, there wasn't really a choice. It is an ASUS P8Z77-M Pro, which is a decent Micro ATX board that supports 3rd gen Intel  processors. It is a little light on the internal expansion ports (three total), but has decent built-in sound and video as well as support for several USB ports (front and back) in both 2.0 and 3.0. It can handle up to 32 GB of memory.

Processor

Since I have the luxury of shopping around and buying parts over time, I am looking at getting the Core i7 3770k processor. It is currently the fastest Core i7 that will fit in this motherboard, and it is factory unlocked in case I want to experiment with overclocking.

Storage

Since I want this to be a fast machine, but will need a lot of storage for video files, I decided to use two drives - a 256 GB Solid State Drive for the Operating System (OS) and my most used applications, and a 2 TB HDD for file storage and installations of either very large software packages or stuff I don't use too often. Both drives will be SATA III with 6 Gb/s data transfer speeds.

Memory

I've decided to start with 16 GB of memory, but I will use 2 8 GB sticks so that I can add more memory at a future date. At first I thought of using the maximum 32 GB, but I realized that when using my 8GB machines (even with Windows) I typically have more than 50% of the memory free most of the time.

Video and Sound

In the beginning, I am going to use the motherboard's built-in video and audio hardware, but I have not ruled out getting an add-in card in the future. Video will be first if I go that route.
 

Operating System

Since I am going to be using this as my main PC, and I need to do office work as well as my video editing and coding, I will need to install Windows. As you've seen from my earlier posts, I am fine with Windows 8, even in a non-touch environment. I also like using Linux - my current PC dual-boots Ubuntu and Windows - so I am considering a dual-boot machine again. I will need to do some planning to figure out the best way to partition my drives to accomplish this.
 
That about covers the core specs for the machine.  If anyone has any thoughts and/or suggestions, feel free to leave me a comment.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Surface RT Annoyances

I've had my Surface RT for a little over a week now. While I have generally been impressed with the device, enough to take it solo on a business trip, I have also discovered a few rough edges. Nothing that I would consider a fatal flaw, but things that bug me nonetheless.
  1. Inserting a flash drive does not pop-up a message or take me to the desktop automatically. While the system acknowledges the drive with a USB device attached sound, I am used to Windows either taking me to the drive window or popping up a "what do you want to do" window. Unless I am already at the desktop, I need to switch to see the device activities. Of course you don't need to go to the desktop in order to use a device - if you are using the Photos app and insert a USB drive with photos, it can be accessed without going to the desktop first.
  2. Some games act up when playing offline. This is not a Microsoft issue per se - it really depends on the particular game. Actually, most MS games worked fine offline, but their startup process was a little slower while the game checked for a connection to XBox Live. One game, Taptiles, worked OK offline until I completed an achievement - then it froze up while trying to save the achievement offline. Another game would download new levels as you access them, rather than have them included in the game, so I could only play levels that I had used prior to going offline.
  3. The interface has occasionally stopped working, requiring a reboot. There have been a few times where the interface, or aspects of it, have stopped working the way they should. In some cases, swipes from the sides don't work as expected... they are either ignored or don't complete. In one case, touch just stopped working for my login and I had to ctrl-alt-del and sign out to reboot. This has only happened a couple of times, and I don't think it is the OS per se - rather it seems like an app goes wonky and messes it up.
  4. When Modern apps crash they just drop you to the startscreen. I have the same issue with iPad... when an app crashes, I don't just want to be dumped back to the start screen, I would rather the system tell me that something has happened. At least my Android phone will tell me that an app has stopped responding and needs to close - why can't my tablets do the same?
  5. No battery monitor with percentage unless you go to the desktop. I don't mind that the Modern UI lacks a status bar - bringing up the Charms menu also shows a status window with the time, wireless strength, and a battery indicator - but it would be nice of said indicator would show the percentage left in the battery when it appears. Currently, I need to go to the desktop if I want to see the actual percent of battery left.
  6. Windows Desktop is not touch optimized. By that I mean that while touch works for all functions, many elements are too small for my fingers to accurately hit, and the desktop doesn't zoom like a metro app. When I try to pinch-zoom on the desktop, it invokes the active window's zoom - so a Word document zooms in, or the icon sizes in an explorer window switch from "details" to "list". It would be nice if a pinch-zoom would magnify the desktop so I could tap on options easier. This isn't too big of an issue for me since I have a touch cover and can use the touchpad to navigate, but it makes me feel that the touch cover (or type cover) is a necessary accessory. Interestingly, Office apps have an option - space commands for touch - that makes them work well for touch. This should be someting they add to the OS.
  7. There doesn't seem to be a way to change the zoom in the video app. I used Nero Recode to make a bunch of DVDs into MP4s so I could watch them on the plane. One of the movies was what I call "old school" widescreen - rather than being anamorphic, it was letterboxed in the DVD. When I watched it, I tried to figure out how I could get the video app to zoom in, like I do on my PC or TV for similar videos, but I could not find an option. If it exists, it is not easy to find. If I am just an idiot who has missed the obvious, please let me know in the comments...and tell me what to do.
  8. Send Document to E-mail Recipient is not an option in Office 2013 RT. This is due to the fact that Office programs need a MAPI client (i.e. Outlook) in order to send documents from within the program. It is also something that I use a lot at the office and miss on the Surface. Right now, I have to either save the document to my SkyDrive and share it that way, or save it to the Surface and attach it to a message manually. It would be nice if they figure out a way to have the Office program save the file and then attach it to a message in the e-mail app in future releases of Office 2013 RT.
  9. Sometimes I need to zoom in on a Web page to tap a link. I don't mean to tap the right link, as sometimes happens to me on the iPad, I mean that the tap doesn't seem to register on a link when  I am at 100% zoom. My guess is that my touch is too wide so IE 10 doesn't want to register a false click, but it's weird. This doesn't happen too often, so it isn't that big of an issue.
That's about it for now... a few annoyances but nothing that makes me regret taking it along as my only computing device on my trip. I hope Microsoft updates some of these at some point - number 8 especially. I'll update the post if I find work-arounds, solutions, or just how to do something that I can't figure out yet.
 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Putting the Surface RT through it's paces

The Microsoft Surface sitting on a hotel desk, near a Room Service menu
The Surface is at home on the hotel desk.
I am currently on a business trip and decided to only bring my Surface RT along. Since Microsoft is positioning it as a device that can be used in lieu of a laptop for business users, I figured I would see how well it does.

So far (after a day and a half), things are working well. I was able to get online at both airports (I had a connecting flight) and check/respond to e-mails. One of the airports had a walled garden, and I was able to connect without a hitch. My hotel has free wireless, so no problem here either. One thing to note - from what I read, there is currently not an official Ethernet dongle out for the Surface, but this MS community post has a potential solution.

Since my arrival, I have had to take notes in a meeting and work on a budget for a proposal for my office. Office 2013 RT has worked well for both tasks. Since I have an Office 365 business account, I can use the included Office 2013 for Commercial use, however it is something that could technically prevent someone from using the Surface RT for business without spending additional money on a commercial-use license.

I am working well with the touch cover - I've even been able to turn off the sound feedback for typing. I haven't noticed my typing speed to be any slower than usual, but I haven't done an official speed test either. The SkyDrive integration is great - it works like any other file source and my documents immediately sync to my work machine.

I have not tried VPN to my office computer - it probably won't work since I am having trouble using IE 10 to VPN on my Windows 8 laptop as well, and Chrome is not an option on the Surface RT, but with SkyDrive I haven't been needing to use VPN much anyway.

Battery life has been sufficient for my needs - I had about 4 hours of meetings today and still have power left, but I did dim the screen a bit more than I would have if I didn't need to conserve power.

I do miss Outlook - the Mail/Calendar/People apps work OK, but I do wish I could have a single app that has all that information. Maybe MS will decide to make it (or something similar) available.

In summary, I am initially impressed at how well this is replacing my old combo of a laptop and iPad for business trips. We'll see if it that changes in the coming days.

Comments fixed

The comments are now open. The initial settings for the blog (I think the default - I don't think I had changed it) required people to have a Blogger account to comment. I have removed that requirement, so feel free to comment away...

Saturday, December 1, 2012

ASUS delays release of Taichi

This is a bummer... I had been hoping to get one of these, but when they didn't come out for over a month and there was no word on how long they were delayed, I decided to get my Sony Ultrabook instead.

One Month of Windows 8

I've been using Windows 8 for a little over one month now, and have used it enough to develop some thoughts on it as an Operating System (OS) as well as on what I perceive as the broader direction Microsoft is trying to go with it. In a nutshell, Windows 8 an attempt at combining the traditional desktop OS with a tablet/touch-friendly OS. For desktops and laptops, this basically means that you get a fully-functional desktop OS (with some not-so-small performance enhancements over Windows 7) overlayed with an elegantly executed tablet OS. In some cases, this works very well, and in others it can be confusing or just weird. Personally I think that MS is headed the right way, and that as the lines between traditional computers and tablets continue to blur, we'll see more of this (such as Ubuntu for Android - a different approach to the same idea).

Where's my Start Menu?

The biggest change in Windows 8 is the addition of the start screen, which is really the tablet side of the OS. This replaces the standard start menu that MS introduced with Windows 95, and is as big of a paradigm shift as adding it to Windows was in the first place. Many people feel that removing the start menu was a bad idea. After using Windows 8 for a month, I am not so sure. Microsoft had already started down the path to eliminating the start menu with Windows Vista - rather than having to scroll through pop-up menus, users could just type the name of the program they are looking for into the search box and hit enter (or click the program). When I use Windows 7, that is how I launch programs. Windows 8 works the same way, except I don't click the start button - I go to the start screen and type, and the search happens. I do miss having the control panel available at one-click on the side of the menu, but it hasn't been that much of a problem. And if I ever want to add a start menu, there are several third party start menu apps that I can add that replace the functionality.
 

Start Screen

The start screen runs the new Windows 8 "modern" apps. These are basically the same as iOS or Android apps - typically small programs that run in full-screen mode. Several apps duplicate desktop programs, which isn't always a bad thing. If I just want to peek at my mail, I don't need to launch Outlook - I can just  open the mail app, but if I want more functionality, I can go for Outlook. In other cases, there a re programs that have both a modern mode and a desktop mode. Google Chrome can either run full screen as an app, or you can switch it to desktop mode for a more traditional browsing session. Some people talk about a lack of apps... while this is true in an overall sense, I am not an "app junkie" and have been able to find the ones I need. In general, I find the apps to be well done (at least the ones I have installed), though I have gotten a few turkeys.
 
Even though the start screen is obviously designed with touch in mind, it works well with a mouse. Functions where you would swipe the screen can be duplicated by moving the mouse to a corner of the screen (which corner depends on what you want to do). All modern apps that I have used work with a mouse without issues as well. I have even used a Wacom Bamboo tablet, which (when I loaded updated drivers), worked very well for navigating the start screen on my non-touch desktop.

Windows Desktop

The Windows 8 desktop is basically the same as Windows 7. Microsoft has changed Windows Explorer windows a bit  to provide easier access to common functions, but everything you expect to be there exists (except the start menu). It also works with touch, though it is definitely not as easy to use that eay - although I do find myself zooming and scrolling using touch more often than with a mouse now.

Cloud Enabled

Microsoft has tied Windows 8 tightly to the cloud. If you use a Microsoft account as your login, you have access to your SkyDrive from the main screen, and some apps and even desktop programs show it as a save-as location without having to install the old SkyDrive application on the desktop. Additionally, your settings are synced between devices (see below) to provide a similar experience across platforms. Other apps like Xbox Music and Xbox Video provide streaming access to your purchases on all your devices (even...gasp... your Xbox).

Tying it together

One thing that stands out to me is how Microsoft is working to bring a seamless environment to people across all devices. I currently have three devices running Windows 8: two desktops and a touch-screen Ultrabook, and I also have a Surface RT tablet, so I have experienced this first hand and see where they are coming from. When you log into a new device and set up your Microsoft account, your settings (including account picture, background, lock screen image, wireless network settings, etc.) are carried over. This is really cool, but they could have tweaked it a bit more to make it even more useful - at this point, while the settings transfer, your Modern apps and start screen layout do not - something that I think MS should provide as an option when setting up a new device.

I'll be Quirky

As I mentioned above, there are some ways where Windows 8 is frustrating or just weird. For example, updates come in to two (or three) places... Windows Update provides updates from Microsoft (including Office, etc.), but app updates come through the Windows 8 Store - even if they are Microsoft apps. Another weird (and frustrating) thing is that when you go to add a mail account to the included Mail app, Windows asks if you want Exchange ActiveSync, IMAP, or POP. If you select POP, you get a popup saying that POP is not supported - why not just list the two choices and add a note that POP is no longer supported?  These quirks (and some others I've discovered) haven't detracted from my experience, but I can see how they could drive people nuts.

Conclusion

I see Windows 8 is a decent OS with some rough edges. It works best with touch-enabled devices, but is not hard to use on traditional PCs and laptops. It won't work for all people, but then no OS does.
 
There are a lot more things I can say about my experiences and my thoughts on the good and bad, but I've already gone on for too long. I'll write some more articles delving more deeply into the OS and addressing more of the pros and cons of Windows 8 in the coming weeks.