Migration Contemplation Part 4: Riding The Crazy Train

Previously we discussed possibilities for migrating my work laptop to other platforms, concluding with an idea fresh off the crazy train. Well circumstances arose that let us take a ride on a train that wasn't exactly like the proposed crazy train, but still pretty crazy.

One of our clients has an in with HP, and as a result HP has loaned them a bunch of hardware in order to encourage them to buy more HP gear. And a co-worker saw a piece of hardware that he thought we should be seriously considering instead of the Surface. We called up one of our vendors and asked if we could get a demo unit of our own, and they said yes, so as a result I got to spend a few days with this hardware to see if I liked it and could be productive with it.

The hardware in question is the HP Elite X2 1101 G1, admittedly a mouthful of a name. This is a laptop that sports modern mobile processor technology along with a tablet format. The killer feature, when compared to a Surface, is the optional real keyboard which is about a million times better than the Surface's TypeCover thing. And just to confirm the benefit, the keyboard also sports battery of its own, yielding a combined estimated 11 hours of battery life for this unit.

I had the computer for three days or so. One of those days was a loss because I was at home all day and had left the power adapter at the office, which made it difficult to charge. But the third day I used it exclusively as my mobile computer at two customer sites, so I think I got a good feel for how it would work for me in the real world.

The nature of my job is a systems/network administrator. I use ssh, a RDP multiplexor, VNC, web browsers (I am a heavy browser user -- I have 15 tabs open right now), various VPNs, Office tools like Word/Excel and Outlook, as well as local unix type tools including perl in my day-to-day work.

The form of the computer is, as you'd expect, a bit odd. When docked, the "ultrabook" size format is nice compared to the tank I use now. The device feels heavier than you think it should when you look at it. When it is docked with the keyboard it is decidedly top-heavy, something you'd expect since all the brains are in the tablet/display portion. One button press is all you need to undock the keyboard and go into tablet mode, and re-docking is just as easy. In tablet mode t is big enough that I would prefer to use it in portrait mode; it is too heavy to be comfortably held one-handed in landscape mode. Unfortunately I didn't figure out how to change the computer to portrait mode, as the iPad method of "tilting the tablet sideways" didn't work.

The display is gorgeous, a 1920x1080 display. Naturally the touch-screen attracts fingerprints.

The keyboard is ok to use. It feels a little cramped to me, like it is a 9/10ths scale keyboard. Even so it is totally usable. I missed the proper pgup/pgdn keys almost immediately, and think that I would occasionally miss the numberpad.

I hated the trackpad almost immediately. After a couple of days with it I hated it less, but still hated it. I think I would much rather have real buttons over this "forcepad" thing. Double-click, click-drag, and right-click were all hit-and-miss and made the machine frustrating to use, even after I watched all the introductary videos. For the most part I got around the problem by attaching a wireless USB mouse to the keyboard and using that instead.

The device came with a stylus. I played with it for all of five minutes. My scrawls were pretty incomprehensible, although I'm sure with practice they would get better. I didn't manage to do anything "real" with it, but I see the potential.

Despite having the computer in a real-world situation, I didn't get a genuine opportunity to "go tablet", I ended up using it in Ultrabook format for the entire time I had it. In playing with tablet mode, I reinforced my impression that "tablet mode is for information consumption, not creation." The tablet's on-screen keyboard is predictably terrible.

Speaking of the keyboard, the tablet mode also taught me something about Domain Security. If your tablet is a member of a Windows Domain, when you log in you get to "type" your password on the on-screen keyboard. This is predictably terrible. You might be able to bully your IT department into letting you use a PIN instead of a password, but that does terrible things to your domain's security profile.

Now that said, the keyboard component also has a fingerprint scanner. While fingerprint scanners are not the greatest idea on their own, it would make more sense for the scanner to be on the tablet portion instead of the keyboard portion. That way when you didn't have the keyboard you would at least have the option of a less-insecure method of getting into your tablet.

In general, having a touch screen and a tablet format made the whole Windows 8 Metro interface more reasonable, I probably used it more over the three days than I have in the years I've had a Windows 8/8.1 laptop in front of me.

As far as my experience with the battery life goes, I can only describe it as mixed. The first day I had the device I was not the first one to play with it, and I suspect that another user was still "logged in" and had processes running. So battery life was not what I expected, and since I left the power adapter at the office I knackered my chances for playing with the device further.

Also irritating was the default power plan that the device used, putting the device to sleep after only four minutes of being idle. Since my usage model involves making connections to lots of computers, having them all dumped every time the computer went to sleep was not useful.

The last day with the device, though, I did a long charge (which was slow -- four hours didn't fully charge either the keyboard or the tablet) and then used it all day,and the next morning the combined charge was still over 50%. Changing the power plan to be a more laptop like sleep-after-30-mins-and-never-on-charger made the usage more convenient too.

As far as evaluating this device as suitable to me, I have to say I have new doubts. While doing research on the Surface I took a hard look at the CPU and RAM options available. The options on this device are similar to what is available on the Surface, so the same reluctance applies: will this CPU be suitable three or more years in the future? Will 8GB of RAM be enough, especially since it is non-upgradable in these devices? I do end up doing some virtualization, as some customer environments need to be kept separate from my main one. Now that XP has been end-of-lifed I have to use Win7 and that really isn't usable without 4GB of RAM in a VM.

There is also the issue of connectivity. This device would require a USB-to-GB ethernet dongle, and it is limited in the number of USB connections it has. I'd end up needing a USB-to-dock type thing to connect my monitors and keyboard, and would probably need a bluetooth mouse so that I wasn't using up a valuable USB port.

The fact that I didn't find an opportunity to "go tablet" tells me that I might be better off not going with a device that suffers the tablet trade-offs and get a more traditional ultrabook instead, one with a more powerful CPU and options for RAM up to at least 16GB.

This was a worth-while experience, and I think it may have saved me a whole lot of future trouble. I am definitely off the Surface Pro train for right now.