What PC should you buy?

Having been in the technology industry for so long, and specifically Microsoft for the last 10+ years, I often have friends, family or even random encounters at social gatherings asking me about which device they should be buying. With the launch of the new Surface 3 this is even truer than ever.

So, if you are in the same situation, here is the types of questions (and my answers) I usually ask people to help them make their choice.

Disclaimer: I’m talking here about Windows devices. Although Macs are actually really good Windows machines, my focus will be on the Windows ecosystem, although, as you will see, my guidance is more about form factors than actual devices.

To help them chose I usually start with the following questions. Unfortunately, there are too many of them that a simple 2-D graph could be used to directly map the answers to a particular device. Still, answering these questions should help get someone to the best possible answer.

  1. What is your budget?
  2. What apps do you plan to run on it? How much storage would you need? (I bundle these because apps –like video editing- will influence storage needs)
  3. Do you think your needs will evolve quickly in time? (particularly useful to go either the cheap and change often or more expensive and keep routes, or to go for all-in-ones vs. desktop one) 
  4. How do you plan to use your device? (in % time for each usage)
    • At a work desk (when you know you’ll have access to (a) large display(s), keyboard and mouse, maybe wired Ethernet connection)
    • On a table (be it in your kitchen, at Starbucks, on a touch-down space at work)
    • In a plane – working
    • In a meeting (presenting and/or taking notes)
    • On your coach at home, on a plane entertaining yourself, on a treadmill – all types of “content consumption” scenarios.
    • Other modes?

I will use this framework applied to a particular scenario to show how I come to my conclusions. No rocket science here, just a bit of structure.

But first, let me list what are the devices form factor options:

  • Traditional desktop machine, whether a low, mid or high-end one.
  • All-in-One integrated Display+PC
  • Traditional Laptop (touch or not)
  • 2-in-1 Laptop (that can convert from Laptop to Tablet either by folding or removing the keyboard
  • Surface-like device: a Tablet with an good Laptop-like keyboard and stand experience
  • Tablet (of various sizes, 8” to 12” mostly)


Usually, question 4) is the one to get started with: how will you use your device the most?

Here are a few scenarios:

  • A: A typical knowledge worker, I’m working most of the time on my work desk with my big display but I regularly go to meeting where I present and/or take notes. I also need to be able to works for several hours from my laptop when I travel. Finally I seldom use it as a passive consumption device, except maybe in the plane. I don’t really run CPU-intensive apps (like CAD, Video Editing, development tools…) but I often have multiple apps open and running such as Outlook, OneNote, several Browser tabs, Skype or Skype for Business (or both!), PowerPoint, etc. I have a typical corporate budget for this machine.
  • B: I mostly work at touch-down spaces or at Starbucks. I do lots of my email and prep-documents reading while on my treadmill or watching TV in the evening. I don’t want to spend much on this device.
  • C: I’m a stay at home mom. I don’t really have a desk so I need to bring my machine from a place I put it away to the dinner table. I don’t really use it for any content consumption, mostly to take care of kids and house stuff so my typical apps are m browser, Word, Outlook, Skype and I love to have some music playing in the background (Pandora, Spotify, etc.) while doing this.
  • D: I travel a lot, use my “free” time (such as plane rides) to code some new cool tools for my product, and like to watch Netflix in bed on my device. I can spend around $1,500, give or take a few hundred dollars.

I could probably come up with another dozen examples but these should suffice to explain the thinking and decision process.

Scenario A:

Assuming I have a decent budget (~$1,500-2,000) in this case I would advise a mid to top of the line (i5 or i7, 4-8GB RAM) 14” touch laptop, with a SSD drive, with a USB 3.0 port replicator and large displays. Here is the rationale:

  • I’m working most of the time on my work desk with my big display => Need (a) large display(s) and a PC with a graphic card powerful enough to drive this/these display(s), maybe even multiple displays.
  • Regularly go to meeting where I present and/or take note => Avoid laptops with display sizes >14” else it will be too cumbersome to walk around with.
  • Need to be able to works for several hours from the laptop when I travel => Need good battery life (so SSD definitely better than regular HD), and a display large enough that it is not too strenuous on the eyes. I personally find 13.5-14” to be a good size/legibility compromise.
  • Seldom use it as a passive consumption device, except maybe in the plane. => Don’t really need a Tablet mode. Therefore, 2-in-1, Surface-like and Tablet computers are therefore not necessary. However, if I do use it to consume content on a plane I definitely don’t want a display larger than 14” (unless I can convince my boss to always fly me business Smile)
  • I don’t really run CPU-intensive apps (like CAD, Video Editing, development tools…) but I often have multiple apps open and running such as Outlook, OneNote, several Browser tabs, Skype or Skype for Business (or both!), PowerPoint, etc. : Lots of editing, so I want a real full-fledge keyboard for my travels (for meetings a Surface-like keyboard could suffice but if I do a lot of data entry I’d rather go for a real keyboard), and enough memory and CPU power to have all the apps opened at the same time.


Scenarios B: Mostly work from my laptop

A 13-14” 2-in-1 would be probably the best option for this person. Alternatively, depending on the budget, (s)he could also go the 2-devices route with a cheap 8-inch tablet (such as the Dell Venues) for content consumption, and a regular low to mid-end laptop for the rest.

  • I mostly work at touch-down spaces or at Starbucks => A real laptop is needed to get a decent sized display and a real keyboard. However it should not be larger than 14” for portability reasons.
  • I do lots of my email and prep-documents reading while on my treadmill or watching TV in the evening => 2-in-1 to be in Tablet mode for your treadmill/TV, or buy a second, inexpensive, 8” tablet.

The beauty of this 2-devices solution is that even a cheap $200 Windows 8/10 tablet supports all your PC apps and can be used as a spare device (in case of problem with the first one), or for “just in case” times when you don’t want to carry your main machine (weight, size, risks of being broken or stolen) but where a 8” tablet, maybe with a small mobile keyboard, can work good enough for a little while. You can even plug this tablet at home or work to an external display, a keyboard and a mouse and use it as a full featured –though not very powerful- desktop PC!


Scenario C: Stay-at-home mom

A 14” to 15” low to mid-range laptop is probable the best bet.

  • I don’t really have a desk so I need to bring my machine from a place I put it away to the dinner table. => Need a laptop/Tablet/2-in-1, not a desktop or all-in-one, to be able to use it around the house then store it when done.
  • I don’t really use it for any content consumption => No real need for a Tablet or 2-in-1.
  • mostly to take care of kids and house stuff =>  No need for high-end device CPU, RAM and HD-wise
  • I don’t want to spend a lot => An inexpensive (<$500) laptop would be sufficient here. 14” or 15” will provide her with enough screen real estate to work comfortably and as weight and size is not an issue, would cover her needs from a mobility standpoint.

Scenario C’: What if she does want to do the same plus lots if content consumption (web, videos, etc.) while not on her kitchen table?

In this case, as content consumption becomes important, a device like the Surface 3 (not Pro 3) would be a good bet if the display size (10.5”) is sufficient. Affordably priced ($500), she could use the nice type-cover keyboard, or if she wants a cheaper/better one use any $20-$40 Bluetooth keyboard. This Atom-powered Surface 3 and its small display could be the best compromise in this case. However, this won’t work if the 10.5” display size is too small.

The alternative in this case, for probably a total budget of $100 more or so than a Surface 3 + keyboard, she could also find both an inexpensive Laptop and an 8” tablet and buy both. The obvious advantage of the 1-device (Surface 3) solution being that if she also plan to carry the device around this is a much more convenient (keyboard, weight…) solution than the 2-devices one.


Scenarios D: The road-warrior

For this scenario, depending on the user, either a 2-in-1 or Surface Pro 3 device would be the best bets.

  • I travel a lot => Has to be a light device with good batter life.
  • Use my free time (such as plane rides) to code some new cool tools for my product => Powerful (i5, i7) machine. Not an Atom processor. Also a real keyboard. I can’t use an onscreen one only.
  • Like to watch movies in bed on my device => should be able to easily go into tablet mode.

Depending on the person own preferences or priorities (including budget), the scale will tilt towards the 2-in-1 (potentially larger display, better keyboard, potentially lower cost) or the Surface Pro 3 like device (weight, width, ratio consumption/production of content). Either one of them could them have a docking station/USB 3.0 port replicator at home or work for desktop-like usage. A nice icing on the cake.


There is no one-size-fits all device. That’s one of the reasons I prefer the Windows ecosystem to the Mac one. Scenarios, budgets, etc. all have influence on what the best device is. Hopefully the framework above and the examples I gave will help you find you “perfect” device(s).

If you have a specific scenario not covered here and you can’t figure out what to buy using the framework above, leave me a comment and I’ll try to help you figure this out. Just answer the questions 1 to 4 above first.

La valeur n’attend point le nombre des années

I recently witnessed some great leadership behavior from our 10 years old and thinking about that the next day this 400 years old quote from Pierre Corneille, “la valeur n’attend point le nombre des années » came to mind.

In a nutshell, it means that you don’t need be all grown-up to display your ability to impact the world around you, i.e. to display your ability to lead.

Let me rewind a bit to explain myself here.

A few months back our family started an informal “family game night” where we would spend an hour or so playing different fun games (cards, board…) together. Our youngest loved it the most and, as other day-to-day priorities took over in the new year, she started to remind us that we were late for our monthly game night.

What came after this, while not earth-shattering, was to me a display of leadership skills that our daughter intuitively demonstrated on a topic close to her heart:

  • First, she gave herself a clear goal: get these family game night back on track => goal setting
  • Then, she decided to come to us with a choice of possible dates for the game night on little cards for us to fill. => strategy definition (made us chose the date but not whether we’ll do it), hard work (made those hand-crafted voting cards), communicate (went around giving them and explain what was expected from us)
  • When several of us did not reply she came back, and went out of her way (such as picking the card I had left on my desk upstairs) to ensure we were filling them out => determination, focusing on getting what she needed even if it meant going the extra mile
  • She then tallied the results => Did the grunt work
  • Called-up a “family meeting” to discuss the results and offer 2 options for the night (once again, not doing it was not an option) => results and action oriented, communicate directly
  • When we pushed back on length, hour and day, she took all our inputs in without missing a beat and then adapted to offer a new option => listening to feedback and focused on a pragmatic solution to reach the goal not on her particular way to reaching it.
  • And finally got us to agree on the day and hour => drove to decision and action.

Thinking about this as I wanted to praise her on this great work she did leading this to resolution I realized she had been intuitively going through steps many leaders take years to recognize:

  1. Decide on your goal
  2. Select and build your strategy to get to this goal
  3. Communicate and get feedback
  4. Work hard
  5. Come with a clear action plan
  6. Get feedback and drive to decision
  7. Execute.

Interestingly enough, two days later I stumbled on this article and found several similarities with what she displayed: www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130822180103-15454-a-short-story-about-leadership

I quote the beginning of this article: “The Less Simple Formula for Assessing Leadership = Identify the Problem, Find a Solution, Develop a Workable Plan, Inspire Others, Deliver the Results”


The secret of success in 3 min 30 seconds?

This great (and short!) 2005 TED talk from John St. John about what many successful people told him over 7 years of research and 500 interviews.

Nothing earth-shattering per-se but a great summary in less than 4 minutes.

In short here are his 8 points:

  1. Have passion for what you do: Do it for love of it not of money
  2. Work hard, but on something you like doing and have fun doing
  3. Good: become really good at things through practice, practice, practice.
  4. Focus on the one or few things that you can really move
  5. Push: push yourself. Physically and mentally.
  6. Serve something of value to others
  7. Ideas : be creative, listen, observe, be curious, ask questions, make connections…
  8. Persist: never give up, even through failure or naysayers.


ps: Once you’re there, you might want to watch his 2009 follow-up TED talk on how to remain successful (tip: don’t fall asleep at the top!)

The promises of Brain science

In the last 15 years (or so), brain science has significantly improved our understanding of how the brain really works and is capable of from an adaptability standpoint.

One of the most interesting discovery, I think, was that what used to be thought as a fixed-capabilities organ, always getting worse after 18-20 years old, is actually an extremely plastic one. Recently again (December 2013) an Ideacast episode (the Harvard Business Review podcast) on reducing stress with mindfulness – i.e. mediation-, and how it can also help in business settings, was highlighting how mediation can physically changes how the brain is wired.

It would have been thought as heresy to think the brain could have such plasticity even 20-30 years ago. At least for the non-specialists.

For those interested in learning more, here are a few books I read on the topic the last 5 years that are definitely worth reading.

For instance, Brain Rules, talks extensively about how the brain works and how this could be used to change the way classrooms and office are designed. The key elements I got from this book were that:

  • The brain is wired to work better when exercising (think about our ancestors walking in the savanna for hours to find a prey to hunt), hence exercise is good for the brain… and we should be working at our computers while being on a treadmill! You can even buy these workstation treadmills on Amazon now
  • It takes up to a decade for short-term memories to become genuine long-term memory
  • Emotions and feelings heighten our learning and memory capabilities (do you remember where you were and what you were doing on 9/11? I certainly have a vivid recollection of this meeting room in Eindhoven I was in when I learned the news).
  • and many more interesting facts

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School
ISBN: 0979777747
ISBN-13: 9780979777745

Another one, Management Rewired, although a bit long winded and going through many detours, uses what has been learned about how the brain works to come with interesting points about why feedback and praise don’t actually really work and then contributes some thought-provoking ideas. For instance, it advises to let someone do something we know is a wrong approach or idea, then cut the reward associated with it thereby indirectly demotivating the person to do this again.

Or, on the flip side, that the best way punishment works is by not giving it. That the positive impact of not giving it when the person expects it was much more important that the one coming from a praise or reward (unless the reward keeps on increasing, which is a tough one to achieve!).

Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science: Charles S. Jacobs: Books
ISBN: 159184262X
ISBN-13: 9781591842620

A third one, Buyology,  examine the human brain mechanics as it applies to the science of selling and advertising. Also based on the latest research on brain science and a little bit scary sometimes as advertising and manipulation can easily become close cousins in the wrong hands.

Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy: Martin Lindstrom, Paco Underhill: Books
ISBN: 0385523882
ISBN-13: 9780385523882

Finally, moving from books to marketing consultancy, a company like Studio B, also leverages these developments in brain science to help company develop better white papers, leaflets or even PowerPoint presentations.

Interestingly enough many of the points they advocate on their website, match with the philosophy of presentations that Jerry Weissman has been teaching for 20 years. The difference being that his teaching are based on experience as a TV producer not brain science. Still the conclusions are very similar in many aspects.

I find this change from a “computer” modeling of the human brain I grew up with, to the re-discovery of its very special way of functioning fascinating. I can’t wait to see what the next 20 years we teach us in that front. What I’m sure of is that Ray Kurzweil and his assumption (in his book “The singularity in near”) that within 20 to 30 years computers will be able to simulate a human brain, and even the whole humanity, in a computer the size of today’s laptops is totally unrealistic.

Should you empty your inbox?

With the advent of powerful search tools for emails, be them web ones (a-la Gmail or Outlook.com) or client based (MS Outlook), many people believe it’s OK to leave all incoming emails in their inbox and to stop filing them in folders. The thinking is that you always can search whatever you need to find it your 10,000 emails filled inbox.

There are “pilers” (people that pile-up and search) and there are filers (people that sort and file in structured ways). I get this. It’s more a question of personality than sheer right or wrong approach.

That being said…

I stumbled onto this WSJ 1’30” video from Ritz Carton’s Simon Cooper where he talks about email and how he uses it. There are a couple of nuggets that I believe make lots of sense from a personal productivity perspective:

  1. Don’t leave your office without emptying your inbox
  2. Being on top of your inbox is a key aspect of keeping in control of your business (or responsibilities)

Many time have I been waiting for people looking for an email they wanted to share with me or, worse, telling me they had not received my email or had forgotten about it because it’s somewhere within their 10,000 emails, including 1,500 unread ones.

With such a “system”, how can you know that:

  • Things you should be on top of, are being followed up as expected?
  • You are not letting people down by dropping the ball somewhere?
  • You are not wasting your and other people’s time by permanently looking for this email somewhere in your inbox? (“wait I’m sure it’s here – I recall seeing yesterday – of maybe if I sort by name, or by date- oh let me do a search….”)

By cleaning your inbox and leveraging a process a-la GTD (or a simplified version of it) you will be much more in control of your life and deliverables. By allowing your inbox to explode in size you won’t. At least not fully. This is a simple as that. At least for the vast majority of people.

The simplest and lowest hassle way is to have a “reference” folder where you would put ALL your emails (the ones you don’t want to delete from your inbox) and, in an “Action” folder all emails that require you to do something. This is not forcing a piler to become a filer. It’s about being sure that:

  • Nothing is left in your inbox that you have missed: The Inbox is always empty when you’re done.
  • You have one folder with all the emails that require action
  • You have one folder with your 10,000+ emails you did not want to delete for various reasons.

Image resizer tool for Windows

Windows XP had a useful photo resizer tool that would not work with Vista and later versions of Windows.

A new version of this tool is available on www.codeplex.com and works with all Windows versions from Vista onward. It has been in “Preview 3″for almost 2 years but still works great. It allows you to quickly right-click on one or more pictures in file explorer, click “resize picture” and select the size you want to get. Great for emailing for instance.

And of course it’s free.


Quick device shutdown with Windows 8.1

With Windows 8.1 (for ARM or x86), there is rarely the need to shutdown a device anymore. Most of the time I just come in and out Standby and that’s about it.

However, when one want to shutdown (e.g. to preserve battery even more) the “default”  Windows 8 mechanism is neither obvious nor simple:

  • Swipe from the right/click bottom right/Windows key + C to show the charm bar
  • Click/tap on Settings
  • Click/tap on Power
  • Click/tap on “Shutdown”.

Of course there is always the old CTRL+ALT+DEL which bring up the screen that allows you to hit shutdown in the bottom right, but it’s not intuitive either.


Here are 3 other options for quicker shutdown menu access.

1) Easy – no set-up – 3 clicks: From the Start Menu

Windows 8.1 adds a quicker (though not an obvious one for most user) way to do this by right-clicking on the start menu icon and selecting the “Shutdown or sign out” menu:


2) Fairly easy – limited set-up – 2 clicks: Add a link to a little know old “Windows Phone like” feature

In the c:\Windows\System32 you will find an app called “SlidetoShutDown.exe”. Just add it to your taskbar and/or start menu (right-click in file explorer). When you click on it (start it), it will show a “slide down to shutdown” Window.

3) More complex – shortcut creation needed – 1 click: use a shortcut with the right parameters to call the shutdown app and pin it on the start/taskbar.

In the same Windows/system folder you will see an app called “shutdown.exe”. Easy enough Smile. To use it as a way to shutdown in  one click you need to

  • Create a shortcut to the app wherever you want (e.g in your My Documents folders).
  • Right click and select properties and add (without the “) the following after the “.exe”: ”/s /t ss” (ss = a number in seconds between 0 and 10 years before the shutdown is effective.
  • You can use the “change icon” option to select the icon you like, such as below with the “old” shutdown symbol.
  • Add a link to your Start Menu and/or Taskbar through the same process as 1) and 2)

You can use /r instead of /s to restart the computer versus just shutting it down. The /l parameter will log you out.