Well, it's done. I got home from North Devon late afternoon yesterday, and by mid-evening I had the old Dell PC fired up and was looking critically at those laptop reviews that seemed the least gung-ho, and the most knowledgable on real-life usability. I watched hours of hands-on, in-depth video examinations and comparisons. I gleaned a lot of information on what each of the three machines still shortlisted would be like in my hands, doing what I personally would want to do with them.
I actually got to bed around 2.00am. By then I'd pretty well made up my mind, but still wanted to sleep on it. And just now - before breakfast! - the deed was done: I actually ordered the laptop that I judged, on all the evidence seen, to be best for me.
The three still shortlisted were, in ascending order of cost at the online Microsoft Store:
Dell XPS 13 at £1149
Microsoft Surface Book at £1599
Dell XPS 15 at £1649 (the Signature Edition at the MS Store)
All three were very good laptops, indeed flagship models in their particular 13-inch or 15-inch classes. Of course all were expensive, even the little XPS 13, but then these were high-grade devices, a world away from all the sub-£500 laptops around. All were robust and likely to wear well. All had the latest Intel Skylake processors. All had high-resolution screens to give a very crisp and very colourful rendition. I had myself (at various shops, while on holiday) handled and photographed the Dell XPS 13 and MS Surface Book. So I knew what these models felt like, as well as what they looked like. But the videos added much to my shop experiences. I played some of those videos twice over, to make sure I'd got the full impression to sleep on.
One of my friends had given me some great advice by text while I was away, and I kept it much in mind. The thrust of it was to go for the most powerful machine, with the largest RAM memory, that I could afford. As technology advanced over the coming years, an extraordinarily well-specified machine would stay cutting-edge for a long time. In processor terms, this suggested going for the top-rated of the three Intel Core processors: the 'slow' i3, the 'half-fast' i5, and the 'super-fast' i7. Two of the laptops on my list would have an i7 processor, one having an i5, and all would be helped out by some kind of separate graphics card to cope with demanding visual requirements, such as working with photos en masse, or gaming.
But of course there were many other design features to consider, not just the processing power. For instance:
Close-up on my lap, or on a table in my study or in the caravan, a 13-inch screen was not too small at all. My elderly Asus laptop had a 14-inch screen and that was fine for everything when just an arm's-length away. A 15-incher might in fact be overwhelming at arm's length, especially if it was blazing light at my tired eyes in semi-darkness. All three machines had gorgeous colour, but the two Dells were stuck with screens that had 'hot whites', that tended to give the screen a bluish tinge that was a characteristic of the screen and could not be completely eliminated with calibration software (even if you tinkered with the greyscale). The XPS 15 was particularly bad for this. I liked nice, bright photos; but with the white tones in my photos already over-accentuated - this is a very usual problem with compact cameras - then I most certainly did not want the whiteness turned up even more on the laptop screen. It would blow all white detail. The Surface Book had a different make of screen, and no such 'hot whites' issue.
What about the shape of the screen? The XPS 13's was 16:9, TV-shaped, and while this suited many activities, it was rather long and narrow for documents and web pages. Ditto the XPS 15, although the larger screen was distinctly helpful. The Surface Book's 3:2 screen had the height of the XPS 15's screen, but was more A4-shaped, as if a 16:9 screen had had its sides trimmed. I liked the 3:2 shape, preferring height over width. I often took photos in 'portrait' orientation rather then 'landscape', and had long thought that the 16:9 screen shape made it harder to work on a 'portrait' picture.
The Surface Book came with a pen, and I realised that when photo-processing much if not everything could be done with this pen alone, and precisely. And when dealing with text and spreadsheets, making selections and so on with this pen might well be easier and faster than using the on-screen pointer controlled from the touchpad. Nevertheless, for many things a smooth and very accurate touchpad was essential. Nowadays indeed, in Windows 10, there were two and three-finger strokes and taps one could make with a touchpad optimised for them. All three machines had good smooth touchpads, but the very best was on the Surface Book.
I'd confirmed in-shop that the XPS 13 keyboard was nice to use, if just a little on the small side. The XPS 15, though a larger device, surprisingly used the very same keyboard. Dell hadn't spaced it out more, although there was ample room. This keyboard had keys that had only a shallow travel. They were firm and positive, but short key travel might mean battered finger-tips after a very long hard typing session. And not only did I do a lot of typing for the blog, and my various kinds of daily note-making, I still had my best-selling novel to write! The key travel on the Surface Book's significantly more spacious keyboard was greater, promising an easier time for my fingers and probably more fluid typing.
The vents on both the Dells were so placed that my knees would get very cosy. I didn't do any gaming, so they would never actually be cooked. But the venting on the Surface Book, most of it around the circumference of the screen, was going to radiate the warmth generated out into the air, and not onto my limbs. It wasn't going to treat my body as a heat sink.
I don't currently do Skype nor any form of video conferencing, but who knows, one day I might have to. Supposing I sell licenses for a whole batch of photos, but while the deal is being done, or before it is clinched, the client wants to speak with me as if face-to-face? Hah! In my dreams! But what if, as I get older, I get less inclined to make personal visits on long-range caravan trips? A video chat might be some kind of poor substitute.
Both Dells have an oddly-positioned webcam, low down to one side, because there is no room for a camera at the top of the screen. The image produced is up-your-nose, and exaggerates the size of your chin. The Surface Book has its camera where it should be, so that the video experience will be normal and flattering.
There is also a useful bonus connected with the webcam position. Although all these machines run Windows 10, only the Surface Book can offer the Hello method of logging on. This is where the camera - if it can get a proper look at who is in front of the screen, and if it has been set up to recognise that face as an Authorised User of the laptop - will log the person on forthwith, no password being necessary. It just looks at you as you open up the laptop, and if satisfied it's really you, launches forthwith. How slick is that? Better than fingerprints! What a boon.
This is not really a deal-breaker. The venerable Asus laptops's battery pack died years ago, and for years I've been accustomed to plugging the thing into the mains. That's always possible at home. And nearly always in the caravan - it's so unlikely that I'd stay on a site that didn't have an electric hookup. I'd want electricity for heating, for instance, and for easy charging up all kinds of device, mobile phone and Ladyshave razor included. Still, I might occasionally have to do without. I mean, you can't plug in when parked at a motorway service area. And I remember how it was when, on a damp and chilly night in the Lake District - far from my Sussex home - I blew a switch on my caravan consumer unit, and was deprived of mains electricity for the rest of my trip. Stone-age stuff. (Grunts and lumbers around Neanderthally)
So a laptop that can do hours of work for me, or entertain me, or inform me, on its own batteries when I'm out and around (perhaps in a library or a lunchtime pub) and sitting too far from a socket, is a laptop worth having. The big-screened, i7-booted XPS 15 apparently drinks power like a gas-guzzling Yank Tank of old. The smaller-screened XPS 13, also i7 in its topmost configuration, is somewhat more parsimonious. But the Surface Book (i5) beats both by some margin. Most of the time, with my sort of modest low-intensity use, I'd expect to get ten hours out of the Surface Book's batteries. I'd be lucky to get half of that from the XPS 15, even if I resisted the temptation to put it through its paces.
And even at home, I'd rather avoid a trailing power cable.
I'm not forgetting that mobile phones can do an awful lot to help out a laptop. Much ordinary web-surfing can be done very nicely with a phone. I'd always prefer to use my phone as an organiser and note-taker, rather than fire up the laptop all the time for that kind of thing. And unless Wi-Fi is available, the phone will be the device that accesses Dropbox and make changes to documents and spreadsheets. So a good smartphone can take a lot of pressure off a laptop, and help eke out the laptop's batteries. This would be vital in the case of the XPS 15. Less so with the XPS 13. Almost unnecessary with the Surface Book.
So what did I buy?
The MS Surface Book.
You can view all four of the Surface Book configurations here: http://www.microsoftstore.com/store/msuk/en_GB/pdp/productID.332604800?icid=en_GB_Homepage_Hero_Surface_Book_15042016.
I've plumped for the Intel Skylake Core i5 version, with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD storage. It also has a separate Nvidia graphics card, quite good enough for all my photo work and documents and spreadsheets, though not really for gaming (but then, as I've said, I don't game).
The cost? £1,599, plus £10 for express delivery. And I didn't gulp at all when I confirmed the purchase. I felt I'd done my research, weighed my options, and this was the right thing to do.
It's Tuesday morning. I'm hoping that I'll have my new laptop sometime on Thursday.
Tonight I was mentioning my purchase to a Brighton friend, Kim, and she looked up what Which? had to say about it - she was a subscriber. Well, Which? reckoned the Surface Book was an easy 'Best Buy'! Isn't that nice to know? (Smirks horribly)