Review

Hands-on review: four Windows laptops tested from Dell, Fujitsu, Microsoft and Lenovo

Four fine laptops, one slightly dodgy reviewer: first impressions of the Dell XPS 13; the Fujitsu Lifebook U series U938; the Microsoft Surface Book 2 and the Lenovo ThinkPad P52s and P1.

For me, computers can often be defined by their bad behaviour rather than how good they are. The perfect machine becomes virtually invisible if it is doing everything correctly and the application being run becomes the star of the show. A bit like a referee in a football match. More often than not, of course, it is down to the IT or the software if a computer is misfiring, but it is the computer that gets the blame.

Proper computer analysts will be able to test the performance of computers and in fact there is some useful free-to-use benchmarking software for the more thorough amongst you – SPECviewperf, for example, is aimed at graphics-heavy applications like CAD and is free to use on a personal basis. However, lack of experience on the application software and of migrating licences around made such a test unfeasible for me, leaving this as a simple test by the layman - a starting point for those considering making a change to their hardware.

Nor does this article set about comparing apples with apples - in fact, no fruit-named computers whatsoever were looked at in this batch, so it wasn’t comparing Apples with anything. Also, to make direct comparisons between the notebook-sized Fujitsu and the new Microsoft Surface Pro would be unfair. There is also the point that the reason computers chug to a halt is typically after being clogged up with unfriendly software and massive files. All these computers came fresh out of the box and were unhindered by such user misuse, so should have been at the top of their game. Anyway, enough of my blurb.

Dell XPS 13

Already Dell has stolen a march in the funky stakes by deploying a woven glass-fibre white finish to the working surface of this laptop. It’s also available in rose gold and a black version with a carbon-fibre keyboard surround. It immediately lifts the machine from the ordinary whilst adding to its robustness.

It’s a smart looking machine and is quick enough off the blocks, too, booted up from the box within 10 seconds and a new Word document opened within four seconds. Really bright and colourful screen that loses little of its performance at an angle or when in potential ‘glare situations’. The 13-inch version has been around for a year, but the 15-inch iteration is new for 2018. Keyboard and touchpad both have a good feel to them.

This is even slimmer than the Fujitsu, with a height of only 11.6mm. Other vital statistics include a width of 302mm and 199mm depth, which cuts inside the Fujitsu and is made possible by the virtually borderless screen. At 1.21kg it is 30 per cent heavier than the Fujitsu machine, but is still clearly a very portable device.  Although there are a number of variations, most come with the 4GHz 8th-generation Intel i7 8550U processor, 8 or 16GB memory and 256 or 512GB of solid state storage. All versions include Intel UHD Graphics. There is a lot going on in such a small box.

One of the tricks to achieve such performance, Dell told me, is in the thermal performance. It claims to be the first laptop to be built using Gore Thermal Insulation (better known for lining high-performance jackets). The thermal conductivity of such materials drains the heat away and reduces the need for more air cooling with fans and pipes. 

This laptop was put in the hands of Michael Tomas, a London-based photographer, time-lapse cinematographer and Instagram influencer, which apparently is something that people can be these days. On a brief tour around London’s Southbank, he outlined the virtues of the XPS. He told me: “What this machine gives me is the perfect balance of high power and performance, combined with portability. Highlights include the bright display and I can easily carry it around in my man bag.”

Tomas shoots his camera files in Raw format and so is often manipulating 80Mb files. He likes to view his photos on the hoof along with doing some limited editing, giving him the opportunity to establish whether or not he has captured the images he needs for his days’ work. While the more intensive editing takes place back at base, his laptop needs to have a bright screen that can cope with the glare of outdoor lighting conditions and be able to cope with some fairly meaty graphics processing. He says: “Changes are almost instant. When exported as a Jpeg it’s still a big file, but I easily can move around the picture without lag. And it’s very fast for rendering.”

This is a laptop that will appeal to those doing creative work, like architects and engineers, and also for data-heavy apps used in such sectors as utilities and finance.

Lenovo ThinkPad P52s and P1

There’s something decidedly minimalist about the Lenovo design that looks deliberate and appealing rather than uninspired. However, it doesn’t leave much to say about first impressions of the ThinkPad P52s, other than that it looks purposeful.

In all truth, I have hardly spent any time with the latest ThinkPad P1, which comes out this week and apparently represents quite a step up from other members of the family, including the P52s that I have had a proper look at. As the two models can be of similar price, although both vary enormously depending on configuration, it probably makes more sense to concentrate on the new introduction. Configurations at the lower end of the budget put it in the same price bracket, or below in the case of the P52s, of the two 13-inch laptops also in this review series.

Firstly, the brightness, sharpness of image and vitality of colours is great on the 15.6-inch screen of the P52s and is even better on the P1’s 4K UHD (3840 x 2160) touchscreen display. To keep your audio senses equally aroused, the P1 offers Dolby Atmos technology, so when you plug in your headphones or earbuds you get the full surround-sound treatment. It’s a proper working tool, the P1, but if you want to watch movies or play games at your leisure then it offers a pretty good immersive experience.

Certified for key ISV applications, the ThinkPad P1 features 8th-gen Intel Xeon and Core processors, including support for the Core i9 CPU, and delivers ECC memory support and clocks speeds up to 4.6GHz. The ThinkPad P52s had perfectly capable Intel UHD Graphics 620 plus Nvidia Quadro P500 (2GB), but it could still be slightly slow on graphics heavy applications. The P1 offers a boost in performance courtesy of the latest Nvidia Quadro P1000 and P2000 graphics cards, the sort of cards that would be at home in a good quality desktop.

While the P52s has 512Gb of SSD storage, which is more than most these days, the P1 tops out at 4Tb – more than enough to even cope with my habit of hoarding unnecessary digital photos.

I seem to be reaching the same conclusion with each of this set of laptops, but it does seem to be a lot to squeeze into a small package. This package is 362 x 246 x 18.4 mm and has a starting weight of 1.7kg (1.95kg for the P52s), not far off double that of the super lightweight Fujitsu Lifebook. Apart from the bigger screen it does obviously offer a lot more in terms of power and ports and is a fully functioning portable workstation. Mike Leach, Lenovo’s workstation product manager, says: “It’s thinner and lighter, but it still needs to be capable. It doesn’t need to be a trade-off.”

One area that is often traded off is in the power performance. Shrinking the power adaptor is important – it needs to be as portable as the computer – but Lenovo has also beefed up the charging operation. The spec sheet claims battery life for the P1 is 13 hours, but even Leach admits that this is not the case if it is doing anything meaningful, with 8-10 hours being more realistic. However, rapid-charging capabilities allow 80 per cent of battery capacity to be reached in just half an hour, giving 6-7 hours of useful operation from one quick blast.

Microsoft Surface Book 2

Clearly, I am a simple lad and easily pleased. Having taken my new computer out of the box, the first thing I do is plug it in and the Surface Book 2 has a delightful magnetic clip to suck the power connector into position. It probably saves about a second of time in peering round the back of an ordinary laptop and in as much is completely irrelevant – but it isn’t, because the first thing I did was start to like this computer. That clip is one of those delightful touches that used to be solely in the domain of Apple, but Microsoft appears to be challenging the accepted format of the laptop.

Starting on the power side, since its launch there do appear to have been a couple of issues with the Surface Book 2. One is that the battery appears to drain quickly if the machine is used for highest-performance gaming on certain high-performance games. This is not my world and so wouldn’t affect me and I am inclined to think that engineering applications could be reined back by a few per cent without noticeably affecting performance, to prevent triggering this battery drain effect when central and graphics processors are both being fully utilised. The other issue is that it sometimes seemed reluctant to switch on. This was not a widespread fault, but appeared to be resolved by keeping the power switch depressed for over 15 seconds.

Teething issues with the power aside, users are justified in expecting a lot from a laptop that is not cheap. The specification I had, with its 15-inch screen, 16Gb Ram and 512Gb SSD costs the thick end of £2,500. Ostensibly, this is more money for less oomph than our other laptops under review, so why should someone pay the premium?

Mainly, because they would want to. The Surface Book 2 has that appeal that Apple has so successfully captured for the last decade across its range and while competitors’ smartphones have (arguably) caught up, it has remained dominant in certain areas of the computer market.

Its trick has been to make the human interface as intuitive as possible. In my opinion, they spoiled it by assuming too much familiarity with Apple products, incrementally increasing the sophistication until it becomes not user-friendly to the newcomer. However, they have recently become the world’s first trillion-dollar company, so they could probably argue they know best. This is relevant because of the path now being trodden by Microsoft, as it too tries to create computer hardware that users instinctively warm to.

Starting with the touchpad and keyboard, both are slick and not sticky. My one gripe would be that the @ and the “ keys are unaccountably transposed. Not much to get used to, but why?

Then there is the precision mouse. It looks like it has been left on a car dashboard for too long in very hot weather such is its irregular shape, but it fits in hand snugly and feels satisfyingly solid. A click of the Bluetooth switch and it was instantly working wirelessly away. It has a micro USB port for charging and for wired operation, but I’m not sure why anyone would need that, as there appeared to be no latency at all. The mouse has four programmable buttons.

Over-riding the mouse is the smart pen and further to that is the Surface Dial. For those who haven’t seen it, it looks like a device you might use to either crack a safe or defuse a bomb. It can be placed anywhere on the screen and using spin and click controls adds a further interface option. Being honest, I failed to get much in the way of productive results from it whilst using it on a graphics package, but I have seen it demonstrated in a CAD environment and it is ideal for very accurate drawings – it doesn’t require as steady a hand as a mouse.

These interface devices also lend themselves to both drawing board and collaborative scenarios which can be facilitated by unclipping the screen and using it in 15-inch tablet mode.

Unlike the other three reviews in this series, I have concentrated on the interaction with the computer, rather the numbers behind the computer itself, and that probably is a good indicator of where the market for Surface Book will come from.

However, it’s far from being all fur coat and no undergarments. The processor is an 8th-gen Intel Core i7-8650U with up to 4.20 GHz and it has the Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 discrete GPU w/6GB GDDR5 graphics memory. Its vital statistics are: 343 x 251 x 15–23mm and it weighs in at nearly 2kg - heavier than the other offerings in this batch, but far from heavy.

Moreover, I can’t help feeling that the Microsoft Surface moves the industry on in terms of combining styling and capability, to produce a very desirable product.

Fujitsu Lifebook U series U938

As a folding black rectangle, a laptop can suffer from being already of optimal design. There’s only so much you can do with a screen and a keyboard and, according to one of my colleagues, Fujitsu didn’t try too hard to make this one stand out. So much so that he wasn’t even inspired enough to put it through its paces, despite it being the slightly jazzier metallic red version.

However, it is something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing and is very much targeted as a machine for the professional, rather than the run-of-the-mill notebook that it might at first appear. It is powered by an 8th-generation Intel i5 processor supported by Intel UHD Graphics 620, which is capable of running most engineering software at reasonable speeds. The model I played with had 8Gb of installed RAM and the storage comes in the form of a 256GB SSD, removing the bottleneck of an HDD.

Powering up took only a couple of seconds and from a standing start I was in a new Word document within seven seconds. To give an idea of processing power I downloaded a free graphics application, Chasys Draw IES. Fiddling around with a 10Mb picture by changing contrast, brightness, sharpness and adding a few effects resulted in having a file-saving time of just eight seconds. Not instant, but reasonably rapid.

Using the keyboard was perfectly comfortable and had the right amount of haptic feeling to it. The touchpad also had a nice tactile feel to it without being ‘sticky’.

There’s also a bright 13.3-inch full HD (1920 x 1080) display that doesn’t diminish with more acute viewing angles. Its anti-glare finish helped as my desk is by the window! The suite of connectivity options is comprehensive. It’s all very competent, as you would expect from a machine that costs (depending on configuration) around £1,500.

What makes this machine stand out to me is that such a powerful unit is packaged so compactly – a feat of engineering in itself.

It has vital statistics of just 309.3 x 213.5 x 15.5mm and while the screen dictates the size of width and height, it is its slimness that seems barely feasible. The weight is just 920g and so this performance laptop truly is portable, as opposed to something that can be carried but will give you backache. It is also optimised for touch in tablet mode.

In the box there are also a couple of power adaptors, the slimline version being 135 x 32 x  28mm, so there is no compromise on the portability with that. Battery life is claimed to be between 9 and 11 hours.

I would suggest that you don’t be put off by a laptop that doesn’t thrill to look at: this really appears to be a powerful portable friend! 

Conclusions

As said at the beginning, despite being a constant computer user I am not an expert reviewer – this set of reviews is intended as no more than a few things to think about when starting a laptop search. I also reiterate: these are not like-for-like products. In the interests of fun, though, these are my layman conclusions. The Fujitsu is a powerful little package that makes up for in functionality and portability what it lacks in style. The Lenovo, particularly the new P1, is a great workhorse, a real workstation in laptop format, and is a good bit cheaper than the Microsoft Surface Book 2, which is the most desirable and a real step forward in laptop design. This leaves the Dell XPS as something of a compromise between all of them – stylish without being the best looking, fully functional without being the most powerful. And it would probably be, for me, the most useful and therefore the one on which I would spend my hard-earned money.

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