This is the second of several 'resource' reviews that will be appearing as part of my Week with Windows 8 series of blog posts.
My Current Hardware
I've looked at Windows 8 twice before now - first in its 'Build 2011 release' beta form around this time last year, and then again when the Consumer Preview was issued, which I think was about six months later. For those early releases I didn't want to screw up my main laptop, so I used an HP DV-2 netbook. I had regretted buying this PC within weeks of getting it - an impulse purchase made just before a trip to the States for a Microsoft conference when I wanted something small and portable to take. It was small and pretty, but was seriously overpriced (just under £700, at a time when most other netbooks were more like £300-£400). I paid that high price because it was one of the few netbooks available with 4GB memory at the time I got it, which made it potentially usable for running Visual Studio. Also HP had announced they would be releasing an optional Blu-ray player for it. I work away from home a lot during the week and like to be able to take new Blu-ray movies with me to watch so this seemed ideal. HP totally reneged on the promises they used to get the sale (no Blu-ray drive was ever released) and to add insult to injury the 64-bit AMD Athlon Neo chip is dog slow, the battery life was terrible (2 hours at best), and when connected to an external 'touch' HD monitor I'd purchased specifically to test Windows 8 I discovered the graphics card can't go high enough resolution-wise to make the touch screen in any way usable.
By the way, this was the PC that made me scoff at all the Microsoft echo chamber iPad nay-sayers when it was first announced because as I said at the time: I used my iPad more in the first two weeks I had it than I'd used this more expensive 'netbook' in a year!
Initially Windows 8 looked like a way to make this slow hardware a useful bit of kit again, but the lack of touch support and the horrible user experience of endlessly being thrown between the 'Metro' interface and the desktop interface killed both it and any interest in Windows 8 for me. Windows 8 DID make it slightly more usable than Windows 7 had done in a couple of ways: startup was MUCH faster, and overall performance seemed slightly better. But the hardware was still a dog and the software and inability to find things killed my productivity rate. Most independent reviewers have pointed out that Windows 8 has a 'steep learning curve', and in my experience most end users just want their new PCs to work out the box like their old one did.
At the start of the year I bought a Dell XPS 17 (pictured above), maxed out to 16GB memory, with 256GB solid state drive and all the extra's (digital TV card, Blu-ray player, backlit keyboard, 3D screen etc). I love this PC and it's by far the best I've ever owned. It oozes quality. Ideally I'd have gone for a MacBook Pro, but that was limited to 8GB memory, had no Blu-ray player and would have cost over £1000 more so I had to pass on that. I don't regret it in any way. The only thing I'd change is maybe ordering the non-3D option. Not that the 3D option isn't great with Blu-ray, but that the screen is artificially boosted in brightness to make the most of 3D and I prefer to work with a properly color-calibrated monitor (the XPS 17 can be calibrated but then 3D would become pretty much unwatchable, and I found the calibration process a confusing mess - a Windows issue rather than a Dell one).
I've only had one problem with the XPS 17. After moving house the 'i' key started playing up - it would 'stick' or randomly repeat. With terror in my heart I had to contact Dell Support. They are a very different company from the one I dealt with 10 years ago. The support call was all dealt with in about 5 minutes, and the next day an engineer arrived at my home and fitted a brand new keyboard at no cost and with minimum fuss. Dell get a lot of bad press but I'm VERY happy with the service I received on the laptop.
The XPS 17 is my main work machine. There is no way I want to 'break' that work machine with Windows 8. The whole point of taking up Tim Anderson's challenge to exclusively use Windows 8 for a week is to see if I really can cope with having to live with my workhorse PC running Windows 8. There are some horror stories about people installing Windows 8, hating it and finding it impossible to go back to Windows 7, so there was no way I was going to risk my 'bread and butter' work horse on this one week challenge. I needed to get a new PC.
Why Did I Choose the Dell XPS All-in-one
I didn't want another laptop. I have my 'large' Dell XPS 17 'workhorse' laptop PC, my 'test' HP netbook laptop if I really do just want something more portable, and an iPad3 with the Logitech keyboard cover for when I'm away from home. My main home office is already cramped with these PCS (and secondary monitors) a Mac Mini, two HP Proliant servers and a ridiculously large HP Colour LaserJet. I've been meaning to replace a desktop machine that went to the recycling dump for the last 3 years but somehow never got round to it, and the trouble is my office is already 'full' and I don't want anything 'ugly' in my main lounge/dining area which is where the new PC would have to go. An all-in-one PC that looked 'sexy' seemed like a good idea.
Googling Windows 8 PCs the Dell XPS One kept coming up in the results list. HP make an all-in-one but were out of the running just because of my recent experiences with them: don't buy from a company you don't trust! Reviews for the Dell All-in-one were universally enthusiastic, describing it time and time again as being 'great value for money'. It even included a Blu-ray player as standard!
Even better, the day I decided this was probably the new desktop PC I should buy I saw a tweet from Quidco (the discount scheme company), offering an 11% discount (for 2 days only) on the advertised online price for any Dell XPS PC, with an additional 15% cashback from Quidco 30 days after purchase. Wow! This brought the price down to not much over a grand. The XPS One was already getting rave reviews on pricing that assumed it would sell for about £1500, and here was an opportunity to save an additional 26% if I acted quickly.
I acted quickly!
The big worry with the XPS One was that it would be in high demand, since there seemed to be so few other PCs around boasting Windows 8. When I ordered my XPS 17 laptop earlier this year there was a 'build' time of several weeks and a week before the advertised delviery date I was told there would be an additional 2 week delay (until I got on the phone to cancel the order, when it miraculously reverted to its originally promised delivery date!) At this week's Build Conference Steve Ballmer boasted that demand for Windows 8 PCs was '20% higher than expected' - a figure he later explained as having been supplied by Dixons in the UK. It seems odd to me that a big US corporation would use a UK-exclusive retail chain to show high demand for a product rather than a big US chain, and to be brutally honest I think what Ballmer said was total spin and the use of Dixons was cynical and deliberate. If Dixons could see what was coming and set 'expected' demand way lower than is usual for a new Windows release then it would make sense to quote their figures rather than anybody elses! My suspicions seemed to be confirmed when I ordered the Dell XPS One only to be told its delivery date would be THE NEXT DAY!!! In the event UPS let me down and it was a day late, but nevertheless two days for a new Dell PC is unprecedented in my book. Especially for a machine where 'demand is 20% higher than expected'!
There is ONE big disadvantage to ordering the Dell XPS One that's available today: There is only one configuration available, despite the fact all the published reviews are based on a second, higher-specced configuration. The unit currently available has just 6GB memory and uses an Intel i5 processor. The reviews I found appear to all be based on an 8GB model with an i7 processor, and in fact Ballmer showed the Dell One at the Build conference keynote with the 'i7' badge proudly displayed on the video title bar - more 'spin' for a machine that he claimed was 'available today' but isn't. If you go to the Dell web site the i7 model is listed but there is no 'Customise' button for that option and the 'Purchase' button is greyed out and unclickable. One review indicates that Dell have stated the i7 processor model won't be shipping until December so presumably they're having some teething problems with it. I wasn't prepared to wait until December as I have some down time right now that I can't guarantee I'll have in December. Hence the lower-specced model.
The first thing that needs to be said is the packaging used to ship the Dell XPS One is not good. I would be surprised if Dell don't find they're getting damaged returns because of the weak packaging. The shipped package weighs 24kg and is encased in cardboard that is easily bent or torn. Four plastic "bolts" are used to try and keep the bottom cardboard section holding the bulk of the weight to the top section, with a single 2" band of sellotape added as backup. In my case one of the plastic "bolts" was missing and the others were lose with the cardboard around them crushed and bent. This meant that the top half of the box had a good 5 to 6 inches of height movement and you could feel the PC shaking about inside as you carried the box, which just added to the box damage.
Stripping off the outer packaging, youa re faced with a polysteirine cage which again I felt was insufficient for the weight of the unit enclosed within.
Aside from the PC itself there are two cardboard boxes. One contains the small keyboard and mouse with two AAA batteries for the keyboard and two AA batteries for the mouse, and diagrams showing how to fit the batteries printed inside the box lid. The other contains a disc of drivers and utilities, presumably just in case you decide to reinstall Windows 8 from scratch using a disc that isn't supplied with the PC, a safety sheet and an 8 page colour pamphlet 'Getting Started' that basically tells you what to do to turn on the PC and gives you some links to get to grips with Windows 8. Two pages give an annotated diagram of the top side and various plug sockets to familarise you with where the microphone, camera (which comes with a handy flip cover switch), power button and various plug sockets (HDMI, USB etc) are.
The PC itself is heavy but manageable. It feels solid. Unlike other Dell Touch monitors it can't be laid completely flat, which is a weakness for a touch monitor, but the angle of rotation is otherwise quite generous. The resolution of 2560x1440 is stunning and the display is bright and colourful.
The keyboard is small - not cheap and nasty but not exactly exuding luxury either. However it's certainly better than the God-awful Apple wireless keyboard that is not only smaller but has horrible 'chiclet' keys. The mouse is extremely basic but does its job. Both keyboard and mouse are wireless and 'just work' when tiny switches that turn them on are used.
The power switch for the PC is, rather oddly, placed on the right hand side of the unit rather than the front. I found this to be a pain when adjusting the monitor angle - twice I accidentally shut down the PC when all I wanted to do was change the monitor angle. It's far too easy to hit the button by accident. There is a one inch bevel around the main display area and then a further dead inch of plastic at the bottom of the display. I don't understand why the Power button wasn't placed here where it wouldn't be so prone to accidental exposure.
I'm working in a very quiet environment and am aware of the system's fan running as soon as the unit is powered on. It's not loud (certainly much quieter than the fan on my Dell XPS 17 laptop) but I am aware of it in the background, where I'm not aware of the fans on my 65" Panasonic plasma TV next to it and which has received some criticisms for being 'too noisy'.
The supplied Cyberlink DVD/Blu-ray player software works well. The drive itself is on the thin right-hand side of the monitor. The software requires you to set a Region Code (which can be changed up to five times before being locked) and then modifies the screen resolution to fit the 1920x1080 (1080p) standard. Remember that the native resolution of this monitor is ordinarily higher than HD! I thought the audio was more than acceptable for a unit of this size. I own a couple of Dell ST2220 21.5" touch screen monitors and for the price they're fantastic displays, but the audio on them is terrible - a gnat would struggle to hear the audio even at maximum volume. The XPS One is MUCH better.
On top of the unit is a simple slider switch to cover the in-built webcam. When you buy the XPS One as part of the customisation process you'll be offered a Logitech HD webcam as an available accessory. Shame on Dell for offering an accessory you don't need! Oddly the delivery time on the Logitech webcam is 4 weeks as opposed to the 2 days for the '20% higher than expected demand' Windows 8 PC! Like I said, I'm finding the whole 'demand for Windows 8 PCs is 20% higher than expected' very hard to swallow!
The specs of this 'entry level' all in one (the only one available at the time of writing) include a 32GB Intel SRT SSD, a 1TB SATA 7200 rpm hard drive, 6GB 1600Hz DD3 memory, a Blu-Ray/DVD combo drive (Blu-Ray is read only, DVD is read/write), a 2GB NVIDIA Geforce GT 640M graphics card and Dell 1703 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth v4.0+LE wireless. There is no TV card. Software includes the 64-bit version of Windows 8 and a copy of Cyber Link's Power DVD BD to enable DVD and Blu-ray movies to be played as the in-built Windows DVD player included in Windows 7 has been removed from Windows 8.
Initial Windows 8 Set-Up
On power on you are asked to set the language and keyboard, which annoyingly default to US, despite this being a UK-shipped unit with UK keyboard. You are then asked to select a colour scheme (a single colour which defaults to yellow - pretty pointless since you have no idea at this stage what this single colour will actually affect but fortunately it is easy to change later via the Metro 'Settings' charm). I didn't have a wired connection in my lounge, which is where I want my All-In-One to sit, but the next setup screen correctly identified my wireless network with a strong signal, as well as several others in the area and it was a very simple case to select the network, enter my network password and move on. The next screen offered an 'Express Setup' or 'Custom Setup' for what essentially looked like a bunch of privacy settings. Those which would be set by selecting 'Express Setup' were listed and I went with this option. I was then prompted for my email address to set up my Microsoft account. I'd already done this when playing with the beta version and consumer preview on my netbook, and this is where the magic started to happen. I was asked to confirm my email address and previously entered phone number and then the Windows Start screen appeared with a very obvious live tile that switched between photos of some of my friends and a group of strangers. Very scary! How did that happen?
I say 'scary' because most of the pictures were marked with a small LinkedIn logo! I hadn't explicitly said 'Use my Linked In contacts' but the software had found them and was displaying them the first time I logged in.
One other thing that impressed me, but also confused me, was the Weather app. This defaulted to London, so I clicked on the application and it asked if I wanted to share location information and I said 'yes' at which point it automatically switched me to Bursledon, the Southampton suburb/village where I live. This impressed me because my iPad and iPhone which have 3G connectivity as well as router connectivity always show my location on Facebook posts as "Sholing" which is quite some way from here. I have no idea why the two different ecosystems (Apple and Microsoft) should show different locations and I would have expected the Apple devices which have 3G connectivity, which the PC doesn't have, to have been more accurate.
Confirming the new PC's authorityOne of the nice touches to the account registration process was that I got an automatic SMS text message on my phone asking me to confirm that I wanted this new PC to be trusted with my Windows account, giving me a URL to visit and a confirmation code to enter. Entering the code confirms that the PC is now fully trusted.
However after I'd done this an email also arrived asking me to click on a link to confirm the PC was trusted. This actually gave an error, presumably because the SMS phone message had already done what was needed. I think the registration process should probably have asked me if I wanted to use my email address OR phone number to confirm the account rather than use both, which would have avoided confusion.
I haven't done extensive tests on performance but the PC feels slick and fast. Start-up time for Windows from a cold power-up is currently about 15 seconds which is very nice if you're used to Windows 7, Vista or XP startup times. The interface feels fast and fluid, and the multi-touch screen supports up to 10 points of articulation and seems responsive. So far as the disk space is concerned I'm not sure why the SSD isn't showing unless it's somehow RAIDed in with the SATA hard drive. All that shows up in File Explorer is a single C drive (together with the DVD/BD drive) listed as having 885GB of 918GB free after the 'important' Windows Updates available as of 1st November 2012 were downloaded and run. I know figures for hard drives get rounded up using some nasty 'let's pretend 1000 bytes is really 1024 bytes' algorithm but I'm still struggling to understand how 1TB plus 32GB can equate to 918GB!
Dead In The Water
So Windows 8 installed and was activated with my account details in less than 15 minutes. All seemed good. Unfortunately I then left the PC for 10 minutes ... and returned to find it powered off.
Powering it on again just sat on the Dell startup logo. Powering off the device and leaving it a few minutes made no difference. Suddenly I had a dead paperweight whose only job was to display the Dell logo. And I hadn't installed a single bit of software or even a hardware driver of my own!
Fortunately Dell Support proved as good this time as they had been the last time I had to use them. My call was promptly answered (no 'Please hold due to unexpected demand' nonsense here!) but it took the best part of 90 minutes to get the PC working again, and it's still not clear what the problem is/was or whether it might recur again. Dell firmly pointed the finger at Windows 8, trying to imply that once activated Windows 8 applied updates and these could cause a temporary glitch in the BIOS setting for SATA. However watching the remote debugging session where by flipping the BIOS SATA setting from its default 'RAID' setting (presumably needed to present the 32GB SSD drive and the 1TB hard disk as a single C drive?) to each of the other two settings after numerous frownie "something went wrong" Windows 8 screens the engineer was able to get Windows 8 desktop up and running and apply six important Windows updates via the usual Control Panel 'Windows Updates' window. However the Windows Updates screen clearly showed no updates had yet been applied, with the last time update was run showing as 'never' so the Dell engineer explanation, repeated several times, didn't hold water. When I pointed this out I got an explanation that 'Windows 8 is very new software. It's less than a week old. There are problems with it'. Wow!
I started this exercise cynical about how robust the new O.S. was, minimised risk by ordering a new PC with the software preinstalled and here I was with a 'dead in the water' piece of kit and the hardware manufacturer was insisting it was because of the software. Not good! To pre-empt the 'It must be Dell's hardware or drivers that are broken' in any comments to this post I can only repeat the answer the Dell engineer gave me: 'Everything is working fine now, so it's not the hardware'. I have no idea why faffing around with the BIOS SATA settings (which finally had to be reset to their original RAID setting) and putting a few Windows updates on should have fixed a 'dead in the water' PC. But it gives me little confidence in the underlying O.S. Buying a new PC was supposed to avoid exactly this sort of problem, and it makes me VERY wary of attempting to upgrade my workhorse laptop PC.
Someone Moved The Cheese
With Windows 8 finally up and running I had a little play and was reminded of what I'd hated about the O.S. when playing with the early beta's. I wanted to check the display resolution. I right clicked on the desktop which works in Windows 7. In Windows 8, regardless of whether you're in Metro mode or desktop mode, that doesn't do what it normally does. There's no Start button to get to Control Panel and if I wend my way to it using the 'Charms' in the Metro interface I get what looks like a drastically cut down version with no option telling me the resolution anywhere to be found. I'm sure this is just part of the 'steep learning curve' that will get resolved when I read some guides, but it's symtomatic of why I think Joe Public will get frustrated and ranty with it. The only thing keeping many from moving to Apple Mac is the new learning curve. Now that learning curve is just as bad if they want to stay on Windows but run the most current version.
Getting Started Videos
On the Metro desktop there is a tile for 'Getting Started with Windows 8 on Your Dell', with videos for touch (confusingly showing a tablet rather than this All In One PC) and for mouse and keyboard. These are cartoony videos and just a minute or two long and are almost content free. They basically say "swipe from one of the sides of the screen" or "touch one of the corners of the screen with your mouse" and not much else! The idea that you would be 'good to go' after viewing these videos is beyond laughable, and reminds me of this joke about computer documentation:
Final Verdict on the Dell XPS One
Although this post is headed 'Review of the Dell XPS One With Windows 8', I don't feel it's safe to give a final verdict at this stage. The poor packaging and the fact that the machine died before I had the chance to do anything other than register my account and connect to my wireless network gives me great cause for concern, although touch wood it seems to restart just fine at the moment. The 'auto-sleep' mode is very unpredictable. Sometimes I leave the PC for 10 minutes and return to find it in 'sleep' mode where a simple press of a key on the keyboard brings it back to life, other times I leave it for an hour and it's still all lit-up and displaying live tiles on the Start screen. I hate inconsistent and unpredictable behaviour!
More importantly, a new user should not have to phone Support and spend the best part of 2 hours trying to revive the machine within 10 minutes of starting it up, and it's unclear at this stage whether the problem's the hardware (the Dell XPS One) or the software (Windows 8). I'll try and give a final verdict on the PC itself at the end of my 'Week with Windows 8' but for now the jury's definitely out.
Verdict on Windows 8 at the end of 'Day 0'
I think Windows 8 is going to be a frustrating exercise for most who will try and use it without proper support resources. Tomorrow is officially my first 'exclusive' day with Windows 8, although I suspect I'm going to be hopping back to my workhorse laptop for mail, Twitter and Facebook until I'm more comfortable with finding my way around the O.S. and have got all my basic software installed under Windows 8 which will more likely be on Day 2.
I'll be using the PC Pro Ultimate Guide to Windows 8 to try and get over these frustrations and initial hurdles of working out precisely what's moved where. If the PC Pro Guide doesn't give me enough confidence to get on and install all my core applications I'll move on to the 800 page (really?!! To explain just how to use the O.S.? Wow!) Windows 8 Step-by-Step book I've purchased from Microsoft Press.
Expect an update 'Week with Windows 8: Day One' blog post tomorrow!
Update (One Week Later)
Having lived with the Dell XPS One for over a week now, using it (almost) exclusively I thought I should add a post script to the above review
Firstly the machine has had no reboot problems since the initial one and has performed flawlessly. That's the good news.
The bad news is that 32 GB SSD. A Dell engineer confirmed that this is not accessible for user data or programs, which is why it doesn't show in Explorer. He claimed that it is used 'for caching' and that this makes the performance of the machine much better. That may be true, but nothing on the web site advertising the product and not one of the reviews mentioned the fact that this 32GB SSD is not in any way directly accessible by the end user. They all imply you're getting a PC with two drives - one, the traditional 'rusty' type, the other an SSD. I think that is misleading if not downright lying!
I should also add that although I love the high resolution of the screen and the 10 touch points seem to work well MOST of the time, there is discoloration in all four corners of the monitor and along two edges where on white backgrounds (which are used heavily throughout Metro) the 'dark blue/black' tinge is extremly distracting. This is not a set-up I'd recommend for someone wanting to do good colour work. It's reminiscent of the old CRT monitors and the problem you'd get if you put a pair of speakers or something with a strong magnet near them, and in this day and age is not really acceptable. For a so-called competitor to the Apple Mac all-in-one this is a glaring weakness in the product.
Those quibbles aside, I'm generally happy with the All-in-One. At the price I paid for it (with the various quidco discounts) it's good value for money. At the full recommended price I'm not as enthusiastic as the other traditional print reviewers have been. The price implies luxury. The actual product falls just a little short of that promise.
Update (Two Weeks Later)
On trying to run the Windows Phone 8 emulator inside Visual Studio 2012 I got a message saying I needed to 'purchase additional Windows 8 features' in order to be able to run the emulator, and advised I would have to pay £49.99, which subsequently turned out to be £58 once some VAT had been added (no I can't make it add up either, given UK VAT is 20%). This is nothing short of a rip-off given that I can buy a full copy of Windows 8 Pro from BT Business Direct for £42, or from Amazon for £49. It seems Dell have cut corners in the version of Windows installed and short of doing a complete reinstall using an existing license key (the update dialog insists on payment BEFORE offering you the chance to enter an 'upgrade' license key) I'm forced to pay through the nose if I want to do Windows Phone 8 Development. To say I am not best pleased to discover this late surcharge is putting it mildly. Another cost to factor into your likely purchase costs!