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A new era in business computing.

SOONER OR LATER YOU WILL NEED TO INVEST IN NEW BUSINESS TECHNOLOGY. THERE'S A STRONG CHANCE THE DEVICE YOU CHOOSE WON'T BE YOUR PARENTS' IDEA OF A COMPUTER.

BILL BENNETT LOOKS AT CURRENT PC TRENDS AND OPTIONS FOR BUSINESS OWNERS WHO WANT TO WORK SMARTER.

Laptop sales overtook those of desktop PCs about ten years ago. For most users being able to pick a computer up and move it to where it is useful trumps any hardware advantages a static box offers.

But now, it seems, laptops are on the way out. At least, laptops as we've come to know them. The change is dramatic for computer makers like HP and Dell. Personal computer sales have fallen every year since 2012. In January there were reports saying 2015 PC sales were down 10 percent on 2014 sales. That's a sharp drop and there's little sign of a recovery.

The best most industry insiders hope for is that the slump tails off.

There are many reasons for the falling sales. Phones, especially smartphones with large screens, have taken up much of the slack. For many people, especially in the third world, phones are their personal computers. The arrival of tablets coincided with the start of the PC's decline--yet, tablet sales are also falling.

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For a while computer makers hoped a new version of Windows would kick-start sales. That didn't happen with Windows 8, 8.1 or 10. That's because we no longer need upgraded hardware to run new operating systems or newer, more demanding apps. In part this is because a lot of the 'heavy lifting' is now done by cloud apps.

It's also because developers write more efficient software; you can keep lots of apps open at once without overloading a modern computer.

And, put simply, we have all the computer power we need. Today's upgrades are often more about replacing clapped-out, end-of-life hardware than doing new things.

However, that's not to say we're not doing new things. Nor does it mean the industry isn't innovating. Something big is happening to the personal computer; we're moving to a new model.

Four modern computers illustrate this shift. Microsoft's Surface Pro 4, Apple's 2015 MacBook, Apple's iPad Pro and Google Chromebooks. There's a good chance your next device will be one of these. Each takes a distinct, different approach, but they have things in common.

All four devices are optimised for cloud and omit less necessary features that people once thought essential. Some argue you can't do real work on these devices, that depends what you mean by real work. In truth unless you have a specialist custom-made application, you'll get by fine. Let's look at these new era computers in more depth and see what they have to offer business owners:

MICROSOFT'S SURFACE PRO 4

In theory, you can buy just the Surface Pro 4 and use it as a tablet. In practice, almost everyone who chooses it also gets the Type Cover keyboard. Most use the computer as a lightweight touchscreen laptop.

It has a kickstand, decent speakers and a beautiful large 13-inch display. There's also a pen in the box for writing notes on the screen. It works well with Microsoft OneNote.

Every Windows business application that runs on a PC will work on the Surface Pro 4. It's a safe, wise choice if you've invested in other Microsoft products and services. If you like that world, you'll love the Surface Pro 4. My only gripe is that the battery life is on the short side. Microsoft tells me a software upgrade is coming soon that will fix that. It may even be ready by the time you read this.

The Surface Pro runs Windows 10 and it feels a lot like a laptop, the key is that it can double as a tablet when needed. It's not cheap. Prices start at $1600 plus another $200 for the keyboard. That money buys 128GB of storage, 4GB of RAM and an Intel m3 processor.

I recommend finding another $200 and getting the Intel Core i5 processor. If you're rich choose the $4000 model with an i7 processor, 512GB of storage and 16GB RAM.

APPLE MACBOOK

Apple took the basic laptop model, then threw away the rarely used parts to make a lighter, simpler MacBook. It's light and small. It weighs little more than a tablet and takes up the same space. At 920g, it's so light I had to check it was in my bag when carrying it.

There's not a lot of computing grunt here, the processor isn't powerful. Instead the emphasis is on portability. You'll find every OS X business application will work fine and if you need, it can run Windows too. The keyboard isn't as great as a standard laptop, but beats most tablet keyboards. The Retina display is beautiful to look at and displays clear text.

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GOOGLE CHROMEBOOK

Chromebooks are different to the aforementioned computers in a number of ways. You can buy them from a number of brands: the best one I've seen is from HP. Chromebooks cost far less than other cloud-focused computers, often less than $500. This means you can hand them out to even the clumsiest staff members without worrying.

Obviously you get less raw computer. The screens aren't as great--they're less flexible and often far heavier with less battery life. Yet what might sound like negatives can be strong points--there's less scope for user error for a start. You can keep costs under control and stay largely safe from conventional security woes.

APPLE IPAD PRO

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Geeks might sneer, but Apple's iPad Pro is finding favour with some business users. The attraction is its simplicity when compared to, say, Windows laptops. Because it's an iPad it runs the same iOS touchscreen software as the iPhone. There's a lot of great software already tweaked for the bigger screen. Microsoft's apps are among the best and handle most of the tasks a business owner needs. It works great with web apps like Xero or Google Apps.

The iPad Pro is much bigger than existing iPads, roughly twice the size of the iPad Air 2. Prices start at $1400, but budget another $320 for the matching keyboard. Like everything else mentioned so far it has a beautiful display, is light and portable, and has batteries that last all day. If you already use an iPhone for work, adding this means you won't have to learn anything new--you can use already familiar apps.

THE OTHERS

PC makers like HP, Dell and Lenovo are all jamming with the various computer formats as they struggle to deal with falling PC sales. They offer Chromebooks, Windows laptops and tablets. They also have hybrids--Windows devices that combine tablet and laptop features in a single package. Hybrids have been around in one form or another for five years, but now Microsoft and Apple are making headway they're getting more attention. Some analysts say hybrids will soon make up half of all computers sold,

Older and more conservative users may want to stick with familiar formats such as laptops. It may be counterproductive trying to force your 'old dog' employees to learn 'new tricks'.

But if they see more adventurous colleagues winning productivity gains from the newer types of computer, they will soon want to follow.

BILL BENNETT IS AN AUCKLAND-BASED BUSINESS IT WRITER AND COMMENTATOR. EMAIL BILL@BILLBENNETT.CO.NZ
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Title Annotation:TECH STUFF
Author:Bennett, Bill
Publication:NZ Business
Date:Mar 1, 2016
Words:1236
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