New Windows 8 Laptop - Part III

So, after considering buying a Mac laptop, I decided to stick with Windows one more time, even though it meant switching to Windows 8. I tried out the Windows 8 pre-release on a virtual machine last summer. The forced tablet interface on the desktop was just too painful to deal with when my real machine was running a perfectly good Windows 7 install, so eventually I just ended up deleting the Windows 8 virtual machine.

There are a number of reviews and opinions of Windows 8 out there. There are two points of view in particular that I connected with. One is Philip Greenspun's blog posting and this article by Jakob Nielson. The second article sums up much of the experience by saying that "Windows" is now a misnomer and should be called "Microsoft Window". Indeed, many of the tasks I try to perform, like reviewing a PDF or looking at an image, will switch to a full-screen only view of the content. If I'm doing something else, say like editing a blog entry, and I want to reference content from a PDF, I cannot view them side-by-side on the screen. I have to switch back and forth between the PDF and editing the blog.

Probably the most frustrating thing is that the "old Windows" is still in there, and many programs (like Chrome) will flip you back to the familiar Windows Desktop mode. I say that it's frustrating because you can't have that as your default environment, and triggering simple tasks (once again, like viewing a PDF) will flip you back into the new tablet-style interface. You then have to use awkward gestures or keyboard shortcuts to get back to whatever it was you were doing on the traditional desktop.

One other application now under Microsoft's care is Skype. The Y580 actually included a Skype Premium account, which is nice. Unfortunately, the version of Skype for Windows 8 is far less usable than the version you find on virtually every other platform. As an example, you cannot edit the name of a contact in Skype for Windows 8. The solution? Use "Skype for Windows Desktop". I can do this incredibly simple task on my two-and-a-half year old Android phone, but somehow this wasn't viewed as important for Skype for Windows 8.

Not everything about Windows 8 is terrible. There are some great technical changes that do improve some aspects of Windows, particularly performance-wise. Start-up time with an SSD as the boot drive is incredible. I am not exaggerating when I say that Windows cold-boots faster than my Nexus 7 or 3rd-gen iPad. I was stunned. I know that in the long-term Windows has a habit of taking longer and longer to boot as new applications push their way into the startup process. I have already installed some applications that do that, but my total boot time from off to "desktop" is less than 15 seconds. If the laptop is just in sleep mode, it is virtually instant-on, just like my tablets. Sadly, these improvements are over-shadowed by the poor user interface experience.

Overall, I am trying to adapt to the new Windows. So far it hasn't interfered too much with what I do with my computer on a regular basis. I will also not fault the Lenovo Y580 for Windows' shortcomings. It is a great laptop that plays my games very well, manages virtual machines with ease, converts videos faster than my old desktop, and has a really nice display.

And if Windows 8 really gets to me, at least I have the option of looking at Linux, or maybe even trying to use the Y580 as a Hacintosh.

New Windows 8 Laptop - Part II

In the previous post, I mentioned the shortcomings of the Lenovo Y580 Windows 8 laptop, but didn't go into detail. There were a few issues, almost exclusively software related. To start, I will talk about the hardware because finding something negative to say about the Y580 from a hardware perspective is difficult.

There are only two things that immediately come to mind. The first is that the Y580 does not have a Thunderbolt port. While this isn't an issue right now, it would be nice to have the port for potential expandability down the road. I have not yet found any Thunderbolt accessories that interest me in the least. Most Thunderbolt devices right now seem to be monitors or external storage. The Y580 has a really nice 1080p display and an HDMI port, so a Thunderbolt display is irrelevant. It also has three USB 3.0 ports, so fast external storage isn't a problem either.

The second issue with the hardware is the weight. The Y580 has impressive hardware, but weighs in around the 6 pound mark (about 2.8Kg). I am not a small person, nor did I buy this laptop to constantly carry around, so this is a non-issue for me, but could make a big difference for others.

The only other remotely negative thing I have to say at this point is that the brushed aluminum design is a fingerprint magnet. Everything else about it seems okay so far. It doesn't feel remotely fragile. The display is fantastic. It was unbelievably easy to get access to the RAM, hard drive, and mSATA port. The backlit keyboard is good. I wish the left Shift key was longer, and that the shape and placement of the Enter and backslash keys were slightly different, but I know that's more of a personal preference thing.

Overall, I am very happy with the hardware. The software, both from Lenovo and from Microsoft, is where the Y580 stumbles, and will require some patience.

I'll start with Lenovo's software decisions. First, there are no recovery disks included. You have to purchase them for $60. Apparently it used to be possible to burn your own recovery disks, but that feature isn't there anymore. The installed hard drive does have a separate 40GB partition with all of the device drivers, and a folder named "Applications", but in that folder you only find the highly undesirable McAfee anti-virus install. The one pre-installed application that would be very useful but isn't on that partition is PowerDVD BR. That is the software that enables playback of Blu-Ray disks.

Lenovo also includes a utility called OneKey Recovery (OKR). This tool can be used to make a backup of your system to restore later. This sounds useful, but is ultimately quite useless. You cannot use it to restore your system to a new drive (like an SSD). In fact, even if you decide to re-partition the installed drive to get rid of the previously mentioned 40GB drivers/applications partition, you will completely break OKR. There is a dedicated button next to the power button to get quick access to the system BIOS and to OKR, but even that functionality gets broken if you make any changes to the layout of the hard drive.

The best advice to using an SSD along with the installed hard drive is to install Windows fresh on the SSD, and simply reformat the 950GB system partition on the hard drive (reformat only, do not delete the partition). Unfortunately, re-installing Windows means losing PowerDVD BR and other pre-installed applications. There are a number of complaints about this on the Lenovo forums. It also means searching online for a Windows 8 ISO in order to install Windows on the SSD. The reason for keeping the partition layout on the hard drive is so that the OKR hardware button continues to work, giving you quick access to the system BIOS. If you have an external drive, you could use OKR to make a backup of the system before you format the 950GB partition, just in case you ever want to restore the laptop back to factory default.

I'm not sure why Lenovo felt the need for OKR when Windows has built-in functionality for making system backups, and I'm not sure why Lenovo doesn't put all of the application installs on that 40GB partition. Throw in a Windows 8 install disk, and I would have had just as much difficulty finding issues on the software side as I did with the hardware. A couple of very minor changes can significantly improve the user experience here, and reduce the number of complaints on the forums.

Finally, we get to the Microsoft side of the software issues. I think I'll save that for another post.

New Windows 8 Laptop - Part I

So I recently decided to replace my home desktop system with a laptop.

My home desktop was also a media center PC, and it had worked quite well for a couple of years. Unfortunately, the cable company made some changes to their analog service, and my PC was only tuning in up to channel 30. I tried a few methods to get my PC to record the digital channels, but none of the information I found seemed to work.

Ultimately, it was just easier to get a digital DVR from the cable company and retire my media center PC. I had already been thinking about switching to a laptop for some time, so I started researching my options.

My home systems have always been Windows-based. Windows 8 had recently been released. I had tested out the pre-release on a virtual machine, and even read a few reviews and opinions. It really wasn't looking promising for Windows 8. The user interface was going to be a significant change from previous versions, and for the first time in my life I looked at switching to Apple. Honestly, it seemed as though switching to OSX would actually be easier than switching to Windows 8.

After looking at the MacBook Pro options, I discovered the "Apple Tax" was alive and well. In fact, it seems like it's higher than ever before. I was eyeing the 15" MacBook Pro. The Retina model starts at $2200! Ouch! I looked at the regular 15" model with the optional high-res (1680x1050) screen. Even that starts at $1800. Configuring it the way I wanted pushed it up over $2500 (8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, and a VGA adapter).

Needless to say, I started looking at my Windows options. After some digging, I came across the Dell Inspiron 15R Special Edition, a laptop with a powerful processor and a 15" 1080p display. I wasn't too sure about the video chip (Radeon 7730M), but otherwise things looked quite good. While reading reviews of that model I saw a reference to the Lenovo Y580. Some research into that model revealed a machine with good reviews, good specs, and a good price.

The Y580 has the Intel Core i7 quad-core processor, 8GB of RAM, a 1TB 5400rpm hard drive, Nvidia GTX660M 2GB video chip, Blu-ray drive, HDMI and VGA, bluetooth, and more. It is also very easy to open up to access the hard drive, add RAM, and even add a mSATA SSD. Just a few days before Christmas, the price went down to $950! I added a blue Lenovo laptop bag to the order for another $35. A couple weeks later, I found a Crucial M4 256GB mSATA SSD for $180. I even ordered 16GB of high-speed RAM for $60. The total price, including taxes, for everything was less than $1400!

I know that someone will get defensive about build quality or other aspects of the MacBook, but honestly, I'm getting a laptop with better specs for over $1000 less! I don't know about you, but I can forgive some shortcomings for $1100, and in the next part I will endeavour to be honest about those shortcomings. Also, I have already shared my own opinion about the tired, age-old Mac vs PC argument.