During the holiday shopping season, and yes, "Black Friday," friends, family, and readers ask what they should purchase, device wise. So this year, I'm going to publish that advice here.
I've worked with a lot of different devices since the pre-release of Windows 8, and I've spent quite some time with the new batch of devices that Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, and Lenovo have recently launched.
Caveat: These are my opinions only, and they're worth what you're paying for them.
Microsoft vs. Apple vs. Samsung
The first thing that's apparent is that, from the device perspective, we're clearly in a world owned by three ecosystems.
Windows. The Windows ecosystem, owned by Microsoft, has its flagship devices (Surface and Surface Pro, XBOX, and Nokia Lumia phones). It also has a lot of support from third-party device manufacturers, like Lenovo, HP, Dell, ASUS, Acer, and Samsung.
Apple. The Apple ecosystem is, as always, Apple. You have your iPad AIr and Mini, iPods, iPhones, and MacBooks Pro and Air.
Android via Samsung. Then there's the Android ecosystem, which is increasingly owned by Samsung.
Now I'll be straight up with you: I don't like the Android ecosystem. I have philosophical concerns with an ecosystem driven by Google and what that means to my personal information.
But moreso, I just don't understand it. It seems to add a lot of complexity and necessity to tweak and modify, harkening back to DOS days, while the world is supposed to be that much simpler now.
I might be way off base, but I just don't like the ecosystem, so I'm leaving it out of this discussion. Many others will review the incredible devices from Samsung and others in this category.
The Retail Experience
You really get a feeling for the differences in the ecosystems, now, when you enter their retail experiences. The Apple store is very clean, sparse, and black-and-white. It shows off Apple's limited range of exceptionally popular devices.
It hasn't changed much since its inception and, to be fair, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." It's packed with customers, though interestingly skewing to the older demographic.
The Microsoft store is a riot of color, with displays showing off all kinds of different devices from numerous manufacturers. Phones, tablets, convertibles, all-in-ones, tabletop to pocket, game consoles, and software galore.
It's also packed. Customers are playing games, not just touching devices or waiting for geniuses to support them.
There's no single retail experience for the Android ecosystem but there are Samsung stores, and there you see the real future of ecosystems, crossing into video and still cameras, watches, and devices that Apple and Microsoft's ecosystems don't touch yet.
The demographic seems to me to be the youngest in the Samsung/Android spaces. This is where the hip energy and dollars are being spent.
For those of you in the USA, many Best Buy stores now have stores-inside-of-stores. You'll find, in a single Best Buy, Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and Amazon stores. Very cool way to experience all of the options.
My Favorite Devices
In no particular order, these are the devices I would seriously consider for 2013.
- Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus. I'm typing this on the predecessor device--my Samsung Series 9 Ultrabook--which has been my favorite laptop ever, ranking even above my MacBook Air. This is an awesome, lightweight, sexy device. The new ATIV 9 Plus ups the ante with a QHD display which--to be fair--you should experiment with to see if you really truly like it. QHD is awesome for lots of things, especially in the "new" RT/app world. But on desktop mode, some report that older applications that don't do DPI scaling well, become difficult to deal with.
- Lenovo Yoga 2. My first-generation Yoga was a beloved device. Lenovo just "gets" how to do great devices. It's a bit heavy as a tablet, but it's rock-solid as a laptop, and the option to "hide" the keyboard, or to use the device in easel mode, are great. The Yoga 2 is also QHD now.
- Microsoft Surface Pro 2. Over the last few weeks, I've used my Surface Pro a lot more, after giving my Yoga to a friend for what was supposed to be a temporary loaner but has become a permanent gift, LOL. But ya know what? I really love the Surface Pro! It "just works", it's super portable, and I'm loving the option of the stylus pen and handwriting the more I use it. The major factor to consider, I believe, is the display size. At 10.6", this display is small. Now it's full HD (1920 x 1080) and the ppi is awesome. It's great to look at. But it's SMALL. On an airplane, there's never a problem using it--unlike my laptop, which gets crushed when the person in front of me reclines, and is a bit too wide to use in a narrow seat. At home, I hook the Surface Pro up to a real display and life's good. But for long periods of time working with the 10.6" display, that might not be right for everyone.
- Lenovo ThinkPad Helix. The Helix is, in a word, what the Surface Pro really wants to be. I had the opportunity to play with one, and it was heavenly. As a tablet, it's light. As a laptop, it's ridiculously powerful. The design is awesome in that all the ports used in tablet mode disappear into the dock when docked. Potentially, it's the most perfect Windows device on the market. But it can get pricey. And the keyboard/dock, while pretty awesome, is a bit bulky. I might choose to take the tablet on the road with the Logitech tablet keyboard, and ditch the Lenovo dock. Just sayin... The display, at 11.6", is just a bit bigger than the Surface, but interestingly is not QHD, which again might be a good thing, depending on the applications you run. It does have an active stylus.
- Dell XPS 18. Several companies are making super-large tablets. The idea is that they are useful as a computer all-in-one but can be used on the table top for games, or even while lying in bed, to watch Hulu. The Dell XPS 18 gets it right. The form factor is perfect--the right size, the right weight, feels amazing in the hands. I want one of these on my coffee table just to be "cool." What kind of geek have I become?
- Lenovo IdeaCentre A730. This one is the most awseome and sexy device in the All-In-One category. A gorgeous slim display is powered by a really serious computer. Wow. Make your iMac friends super jealous when you use the HDMI IN port to switch from your Windows 8 environment to your XBox or BluRay player or cable/satellite TV. Awesome.
- Microsoft Surface 2. For a pure "tablet" experience, the Surface has come of age. Although the Windows Store isn't as rich as the Apple or Android app stores, most of the key apps are now there. And what iOS and Android can't do, Surface does amazingly well. USB devices? Check. SD card from your camera? Check. Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, and OneNote? Check. Multitasking? Check. And let me stop on this one for a second. I kind of poo-poo'ed multitasking on a tablet because I had never had the choice. Now, watching a TV show from Hulu while simultaneously checking email on Outlook or writing a document in Word? Wow!!! Awesome!
- MacBook Air. The MacBook Air is a gorgeous laptop. But that's just it. It's a laptop. So 2011. No touch, let alone multitouch. No handwriting or associated artistry. And it can never become a tablet when all I want is a tablet. If you've bought into the Mac OSX and Apple ecosystem, then, sure, it's the best choice. But as of today, unlike two years ago, I would never choose to run Windows on a Mac--BootCamp or Fusion. Just not worth it--you lose too much.
- iPad Mini. The iPad Air is glorious--love it. But for me, the only Apple device I'm probably likely to get is an iPad mini. For two reasons: First, for the foreseeable future, there will be apps on Apple that I can't get on Windows. So it's my insurance policy. Second, the size and form factor is beautiful, and fills a gap that isn't really filled yet by Windows. Only recently are smaller tablets beginning to appear, and none are, in my opinion, the caliber of the iPad. So I will fill the size gap and the app gap with an iPad Mini, probably.
Please think carefully about these things. And not just how you've done things in the past, but the benefits they might provide you in the future.
Also note these might change your perceptions about just how great the Apple ecosystem is. I have been a fan of iOS, but my support is on a steep decline.
- Stylus. I'm getting increasingly addicted to active stylus and handwriting. Makes "white boarding" a lot easier, which, for me as a consultant, is quite helpful. Do you need one? If so, the Helix and Surface Pro 2 are the devices for you.
- Built-in SSD Storage. Devices are skimping on storage, with 128GB, 64GB, and even 32GB options. Most Windows devices can take a MicroSD card, giving you 64GB or more of additional storage. BUY ONE! But also consider what you really need inside your device. When I got my Samsung ultrabook, I broke warranty and installed my own Crucial 256GB SSD. My Yoga and Surface Pro are 128GB. My Surface is half that. I'm getting used to it because...
- SkyDrive. Windows 8.1 devices come with 200GB of SkyDrive storage which is a lot of storage. And Windows 8.1 connects to that storage seamlessly. And it allows you to pick which folders you want to sync offline. So you can decide which files you need on the airplane, for example. It's a change from having everything on your 1TB laptop hard disk. I've started to make the change, and I really like it. It removes the need to worry about sync'ing across devices, now! It's all there, all the time, even on my iPad!
- XBOX Music. Far from perfect, but wow, what it does it does well, which is connect you with an incredible amount of content and let you consume that content across multiple devices. And, most importantly, to taste and test and discover content. It's so wonderful to be able to have a friend recommend a band or album and instantly listen to the album, in its full glory, "for free." (Membership fees apply, though new devices include free membership for a time). It's not like iTunes or Amazon, where you get a 30-second preview. I can listen to the album over and over until I tire of it. And there are the "Smart DJ" channels, which are equivalent of Genius or Pandora stations: full digital streaming, ad free. XBox Music is, in certain ways, what we hope and want iTunes and Pandora and Spotify to be.
- XBOX Games and Smart Glass. I am not a gamer, but for those who are, these are big deals.
I've already mentioned apps in several contexts. Surface 2, and Windows 8.1's "RT" interface, are all about Microsoft's "modern" (formerly Metro) apps, and the Windows Store is pretty respectable now.
Personally, I'll carry an iPod touch or iPad mini to fill in app gaps, but as of late there are none. I have my iPad with me now, but simply don't use it. It's an expensive "security blanket."
But there's one more amazing option: BlueStacks. BlueStacks is an Android emulator that runs as a desktop app, so that, on your WIndows 8.1 device, you can also run Android apps, to fill in any gaps in the Windows store.
There are a few apps I run in that mode--though fewer and fewer every day. Flipboard, for example, was running in BlueStacks, but now I have it, natively, on Windows.
Unfortunately at this point BlueStacks is a desktop app only, so it doesn't fill the gaps for Surface 2 (RT). But as long as you're running full-blown Windows, you can use BlueStacks. And I recommend it!
Finally, there are phones. I use my Nokia Lumia 1020 and it is the best phone I've ever owned and, yes, I was an iPhone owner.
Not only is it the best phone, it is without doubt an amazing camera. My point and shoot has been in my drawer at home since the day I got my Lumia. Well done Nokia... er... Microsoft...!
If you're going to get a Windows phone, get a Nokia. Their apps (like HERE maps and camera apps) are amazing and constantly improved. And now, of course, they'll be "official" Microsoft devices and apps.
Not to say that Samsung and Apple phones aren't great--they certainly are. But in the Windows space, there's a reason Nokia has 80-percent-plus of the market. The phones are really good, and give you a serious range of choices for price and featureset.
Happy shopping and gift giving!!!