Microsoft Surface Book 2, Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus, nVidia Shield TV 2017: A trio of disappointment for the very same reasons

Introduction: 

On my way to updating my hardware I had a small detour to the world of Windows because I’m a sucker for punishment? Na, more like a person who likes to wade in the shallow end of the pool to see what I’m missing and what I found was a repeat of what I found with the Samsung S8 Plus – great hardware let down by atrociously bad software which is then compounded by companies who know that the problem exists but would sooner keep kicking the can down the road than to actually put their foot down (like what Apple did back in 2001 with the release of Mac OS X) and make the changes necessary. When it comes to evaluation a product it is important not just to look at the software or hardware in isolation but how the two of them work together and whether a coherent experience is delivered for the end user or whether it is wall to wall misery. What I hope to try and give a balanced account of why I went back to the Mac, iPhone and Apple TV along with what the respective organisations need to do to fix their products – not for my sake (because I’m staying in the Apple ecosystem indefinitely) but if they want to win customers over to their product offerings when one consider that Apple is closing in on double digit marketshare.

Hardware:

Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus: The feel of the device is very enjoyable in the hand although I am rather paranoid about the idea of having a ‘naked phone’ so I put a Otterbox but it didn’t take away from the fact that the screen is gorgeous – from edge to edge resulting in a large screen but a comfortable size. The OLED screen really does a great job with brightness with the blacks really black which is the reason why so many iPhone users had been demanding OLED for so long and why Apple finally made the change with the launch of iPhone X (rumour has it that it’ll appear in a future iPhone ‘classic’ design). The battery size is significantly larger than an iPhone but keeping in mind that Android isn’t as efficient as the iPhone hardware thus it is needed to have a big battery to offset inefficiencies. The SoC itself has great performance – there is a performance gap between the two but I don’t think it is enough for end users to notice.

Surface Book 2: The laptop feels solid and I loved the keyboard – a lot more travel distance when typing when compared to the MacBook but not as much as a traditional keyboard like one would see with a Thinkpad. From a structural point of view it is a solid device – pick it up with one hand and you’ll hear no ominous creaking or noises. The feel of feel of the device is great when typing for long periods of time – it is definitely up there with the MacBook Pro that I own (which has the second generation butterfly keyboard). The touch screen I never used although I am disappointed that Microsoft no longer includes the stylus like they did in the first generation of their devices because it was a great way to show off the productivity potential of the screen beyond just the usual ‘touch the screen and manipulate the UI’ but actually showing people how they can sign documents and send them back electronically rather than printing it out, signing it then scanning it then sending it off. There is one part I do like about the recharger though which is the USB charging that is built into the power brick along with the mag-safe like connector which Apple removed in favour of USB-C.

nVidia Shield TV 2017: I was disappointed that when I opened up the box I found that it lacked an HDMI cable but what made matters worse is that the power brick didn’t even bother to include a swappable plug (it is one of those ones where you can ‘slide’ in a new plug)  so after spending $299 to get it to New Zealand from Amazon I then had to spend another $50 (no, I didn’t choose name brand cables/converter). The remote was awkward and unresponsive – whether it is the hardware itself or the underlying operating system (the problem still remained even after upgrading to 6.3 of their software) but from an end users perspective – whether it is software or hardware the conclusion drawn will still be the same. It makes me wonder whether the hardware isn’t capable enough which therefore makes me ask the larger question regarding product longevity given the focus for nVidia these days is providing television manufacturers the software and hardware so that the ‘set top box’ is in the actual television itself (aka ‘smart television’) rather than an after market add on which might explain the minor improvement over the previous years release.

Software:

Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus: Although Samsung does a better job than say Huawei, Oppo or LG when it comes to providing updates, that benchmark isn’t very high when you consider that as of 12 February that the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus is still stuck on Android 7.0 Security Patch Level November 2017. I’m not an advocate for pure Android in the sense of what Nokia is doing because although it has some perks such as a simplified update and deployment roadmap, equally I don’t want to jump to the opposite extreme which is where Samsung is where it almost as though they’re hell bent on trying to convince themselves that end users choose Samsung because of the ‘uniquely Samsung experience’. The reality is that the vast majority of people who use Android also tend to use Google services then to compound that further, even though Samsung does have its own range of cloud services the problem is that you cannot access them via a web browser or a native application so even if you wanted to go ‘all Samsung’ you’re pretty much shit out of luck if you have other devices and you want to be able to access the Samsung cloud services from those devices. If you go ‘pure Android’ it isn’t just about customisations you miss out on but pretty essential things like exfat support which isn’t present in pure Android for example or if you want Miracast support (which is the default for many smart televisions). The ideal situation between Samsung and Nokia would make the situation better but as so long as carriers call the shots instead of treating a phone like a computer where updates and upgrades from straight from the OEM then these sorts of delays will keep happening.

The defaults are a bit strange and power savings buggy at best such as setting the ‘Display Sleep’ timer to 10 seconds, how is that even practical? Then there is the power saving where I kept finding that text messages wouldn’t come through or come through very late if I was connected to my wifi network so I’ll be siting there waiting for the 2FA authentication message come through and never receive it or receive it so late that it is next to pointless. It got so bad that 2FA became more of a burden than something that benefited me. Btw, this occurred whether I had carrier services installed or not, I tried it on Spark as well as Skinny (Skinny is owned by Spark but has its own SIM cards) and the same problem occurred.

When it came to the software library I was disappointed – I wanted to avoid Chrome on my Surface Book 2 because of the bloated nature of the browser but I still wanted to retain the ability to synchronise between my computers and mobile phone so that involved using Microsoft Edge on Windows 10 and Microsoft Edge on Android (which is a browser which utilises the Chrome rendering engine and javascript engine) but the problem is that Microsoft hasn’t made it available in New Zealand resulting me having to do set up Opera VPN, clear my Play Store Cache/Data, login and then have access to Edge – really, should it be that difficult to get software? Is Microsoft trying to make it super-duper exclusive? Edge on iOS is available immediately on the New Zealand iOS App Store so what is the excuse for it being so difficult to get Edge on Android? I originally thought it might been Google using dirty tactics but nope, it is a decision that Microsoft made themselves. You’d think that Microsoft would want to get their software into as many hands as possible but nope – they want to make it as difficult to get as if it were an endurance test that only the worth survive with the prize being Edge.

To make matters worse you have the bluetooth implementation completely broken – incompatibility issues with Windows, macOS, other Android vendors etc. where as Nokia which has pure Android never has single problem either when running Android 7.x or 8.x (as I have tried out with Nokia 8). I’m sure with enough time spent I can find plenty of other things that are broken because of Samsung’s customisation.

Surface Book 2: Comes standard with Windows 10 Pro but it as released with an older version even though the newer version of Windows 10 Pro was announced before the Surface Book 2 was announced. Updating was simple enough but just thought it would be best to note that and keeping in mind that it didn’t give me a mutative perception given how minor it was in the grand scheme of things. What was disappointing is that almost 2 years after giving the Surface Book 1 a try and the problems relating to high DPI screens still remain and although third parties do share some of the blame the biggest culprit isn’t just Microsoft failing to provide the adequate API’s for developers (when compared to how easy it is on the Mac platform) but the lack of care and attention by Microsoft regarding their own software not to mention inconsistencies in their operating system where they’ve had 2 1/2 years and it is still very much a disappointment when you consider that Microsoft and evangelists had promised so much yet delivered so little in the 2 1/2 years.

Why does this matter? Because it is all very and good having multiple inputs but if the system lacks a unified way of dealing with that not to mention a unified way in which the application also deal with it then you end up with unreliable behaviour such as scrolling not always working reliably on all applications. Then there is the lack of scaling resulting from the operating system moving forward with a new UI library being developed but the various components (applications, shell, system tools etc.) of the operating system not being updated as the system moves forward resulting in multi-generations of UI toolkits existing and each with a different way of doing things and each with different limitations resulting in policy settings, such as the one relating to the MAX_PATH limitation, cannot be applied uniformly across the whole operating system resulting in the shell still being incompatible with long path names (as one example). As for the rumoured Polaris, rumours like that have been floating around for years and I’m sceptical as to whether long term given that the only thing keeping people on the Windows platform is the compatibility – once you take that out of the equation there is very little left to keep the user in the ecosystem (as one YouTuber pointed) especially when you consider that their services and software (client side) is available on alternative platforms.

The fundamental problems also remain with Windows 10 – the ever expanding registry that grows at the mere suggestion of installing an application, third party software vendors who insist of ramming down 400mb ‘driver bundles’ which are little more than 10mb of drivers with 390mb of OEM shovel ware that no one wants nor needs. Then add on top of that the additional crapware that is included that sit in the background (in the system tray) that bogs down the system and churns up CPU cycles resulting in the CPU unable go into a low power state thus battery life suffers. Nutshell: Windows 10 has all the warts of previous releases and in the context of the Surface Book 2 it is an example of great hardware that is undermined by horrible software.

nVidia Shield TV 2017: The device runs on Android 7.x and version 6.3 that was released at the end of January 2018 which has all the latest security updates and fixes so the evaluation is based on. The setup was relatively easy although it did offer the ability to use my Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus as a virtual keyboard but I found that it never actually worked – either during the setup/configuration or afterwards when doing various tasks such as searching for apps in the Play Store or providing login information when setting up individual applications such as Netflix. There is also the lack of responsiveness when it comes to navigating the UI with the problem made worse as the application became more complex such as the case with Kodi with it’s sophisticated plugin framework – the UI freezes and lack of responsiveness made for a bad experience over all. If the experience with the Shield TV 2017 a glimpse into what smart televisions will be like in the future then Apple with their own set top box offering should feel pretty safe that their strangle hold on the market will remain for quite some time especially when you consider the relationships that Apple have built up with third parties.

Conclusion: 

All three devices suffered from the same issue – great hardware undermined by shoddy software. In the case of the nVidia Shield TV 2017 I could almost guarantee you that if you put on QNX on there rather than Android that the UI would be buttery smooth so if nVidia are going to stick with Android then they need to throw more hardware at the problem or otherwise if they lose the evanljistis and ‘friend or family member who is good with computers’ then the ability to spread your brand (studies show that people are influenced more by advice from friends and family than advertisements). The net result is that if someone like me has a negative experience then it is highly unlikely that I’m going to suggest it to friends and family – my reputation as an adviser is on the basis of giving out advice that I can stand by.

When it comes to the Surface Book 2 – it has so much untapped potential that is squandered by software that, almost 3 years after release, still isn’t properly optimised and is still hauling around 30 years of crap with no long term path forward. The Windows shell is still the same mess, the UWP frame still suffers from the same limitations because of it sitting on top of Win32, you have the development in a state of flux – now the big trend is PWA so where does native applications fit into the equation? Then add on top of that the next generation of Chrome Book and Chrome Boxes coming out this year the combine it with the work being done regarding Android applications and greater integration between Android applications and the underlying ChromeOS the net result has been a gradual eating away at the desktop. Then there is the overlay of Chrome Books being the standard for devices at school in New Zealand and many other countries resulting in hearts and minds for a whole generation being lost with Microsoft gradually retreating back into the enterprise but even then the safety isn’t guaranteed. The organisation I work for is end to end Chrome Book, Chrome Boxes, Chrome Cast etc. along with Google App Suite powering it all. What it proves, if anything, that even established organisations can migrate when there is the determination to make it possible so the safety that Microsoft felt that established players wouldn’t leave because it would be too much of a PITA to make it work but as things move into being web applications and away from customer written locally running applications the compelling argument to stay with Windows suddenly disappears with small to medium businesses along with start ups that are devoid of legacy issues to chart a different course.

The Samsung phone – great hardware undermined by a company that seems to be hell bent on customising where there needs to be none and replacing standard Android components with their own for no other reason than ‘because I can’ (see Bixby and me being confused as to why it is even happening). When bugs such as the text messaging one (as outlined earlier) rear their ugly head and I see so much time and money wasted on customisations that need not happen I have to ask whether Samsung has their priorities straight when compatibility is broken (as shown by the bluetooth example) and text message bugs along with many others I’m sure you can find on various forums and subreddits.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s