No doubt much to many people's surprise, I recently bought a Windows machine. I've used every version of Windows since 3.1 but I've always preferred Apple's offerings, both in terms of hardware and software. Before OS X, I ran a BSD variant alongside System 6 and System 7, so my Macs have always been *nix plus a nice GUI. I've found that to be a good balance for developer machines. Having moved to a powerful desktop Mac several years back, I bought a Linux netbook for $400 so I had a small, lightweight developer machine for when I was on the road. Two years later, the netbook has gotten flaky in several ways, it's always been underpowered and the tiny screen has annoyed me more the longer I've used it.
I've also become increasingly jealous of my wife's iPad for the convenience of a casual Internet device for social media, email and web browsing - coupled with an eBook reader, as I've built up a substantial library of technical books in PDF form.
So I really wanted a tablet that was powerful enough to use as a full development system, running Apache, Tomcat, Railo, Clojure, MySQL, MongoDB and a custom search engine. A 64-bit Intel core i7 with at least 8GB RAM. The obvious observation is that Apple don't make sure a device. They make a MacBook Air that satisfies some of those criteria and they make an iPad that satisfies some of the other criteria. I didn't want two devices tho' and, besides, that was going to blow my budget (about $1,500).
The new flood of Windows 8 machines appearing did satisfy my criteria, however, and having played with Windows 8 in prerelease form in a VM on my Mac, I felt it could be a reasonable touch O/S and might also be an acceptable development machine, given enough *nix utilities loaded (or, heck, I could just run VirtualBox and CentOS or Ubuntu for development).
Ordering From Dell
I'm used to buying all sorts of things online so buying from Dell wasn't really any different to buying from Apple. I ordered the XPS 12 Convertible with an Intel core i7 processor, 8GB RAM and 128GB SSD. Dell estimated delivery on 12/7, about 2-3 weeks out. As the date neared, the estimate changed to 12/14. Annoying but not unexpected - it looked like a popular machine and it was new. Then I received an email alert saying that instead of being delivered in January, it would be delivered as soon as 12/24. I replied, asking for clarification, since I had received no indication of a January delivery date. A few days later, Dell called me directly to apologize profusely for the delay and confirm that my machine would be delivered before Christmas. They assured me the website would be updated shortly to correct the delivery date. I didn't really get the clarification I wanted - it was Indian support - but the apology was sincere. In the "learn something new every day" department, if a company changes delivery date more than once, the Federal Trade Commission requires the company get permission from the customer to accept the new, delayed date, otherwise the order must be canceled. The 12/24 delivery date became a 12/20 delivery date and then it shipped on 12/14 with delivery scheduled for 12/17. It arrived just after 2pm.
I'm used to Apple's very elegant boxes and the delight of unwrapping well-designed packaging and equipment. How does Dell compare? Three layers: a plain brown outer box, a briefcase-like carrying box and inside that, a nicely designed presentation box containing the laptop, the power supply and a small box containing a simple "Getting Started" brochure. Clean and elegant. Encouraging. Time to plug in and power up.
When you first power up an Apple machine, it connects to your network, updates its software and takes you thru a personalization process, followed by an optional walk-through of basic usage, and then you're off to the races. In the past, Windows machines have been a long way behind the slickness of the Apple welcome process. With Windows 8, Microsoft has caught up and the experience is every bit as smooth as Apple's. Network connectivity, personalization and updates are all processed in a straightforward manner. It's not as flashy as Apple, but it works well. It does seem to take quite a bit longer than I'm used to with Apple tho'.
Windows 8 is going to take some getting used to for a lot of people. The tile-based start page and the standard applications are all very clean and fairly consistent. Once you've learned the basic gestures, everything works the same way. Drag from the right, you get the "charms" menu with search and settings etc for all apps. Drag from the left to return to the previous app. Drag from the left and back to the edge to get a menu of recent applications. Drag from the top or bottom edge to get the in-app context menu. The design is bare, with slabs of plain color, and simple back / forward buttons. Then there's the "Desktop" application which offers a Windows 7 style desktop with a taskbar and "regular" Windows applications. The start menu has gone but I'm a Mac guy so I don't miss it - you might. What I really do like about Windows 8 which I think is a huge improvement in usability is that when the start page is displayed, you can just start typing the name of a file, application or setting and results are displayed as you type. Changing system-wide environment variables was always a pain on Windows as far as I was concerned. With Windows 8, it's as simple as typing "env", pressing down arrow twice (applications, then settings), pressing return - which brings up two options - pressing down arrow to select system-wide environment variables and pressing return to open that dialog. No more hunting around in menus, no navigating thru the Control Panel, just obvious typing and arrow keys. Setting up my basic development environment on Windows 8 was a breeze and almost entirely keyboard-driven - I liked that a lot!
I'll blog later on the tweaks I've made, based on recommendations from folks like Matt Harrington of Microsoft and Scott Hanselman.
The Dell Hardware
What about the machine itself? In laptop mode, it's a nice, lightweight machine with a decent backlit keyboard, a reasonable trackpad with left/right clickable zones, and a 1920x1080 display (compare that to the MacBook Air - 1440x900 on the 13" model!). A gentle press on the screen releases it from its frame and it pivots so you can fold it flat, at which point you have a slim, high-resolution tablet with a responsive touch screen. The on-screen touch keyboard is a little weird - it wasn't long before I enabled the "standard" keyboard layout in order to be more productive - but mostly it works pretty well. I'd be interested to hear how touch typists get on with the split keyboard ("thumb mode") but it doesn't work for me. The carbon-fiber casing is plenty cool enough to sit on your lap all evening - an improvement on "hot" Apple laptops. It's a little heavy to hold in your hands as a tablet (no surprise) but it's still very usable in that form factor. It is substantially heavier than an iPad - but it has a much bigger screen so the trade off seems reasonable to me.
I have some basic development software installed to provide a reasonable Clojure / Haskell environment. I have some way to go before I can run my entire "work" stack locally. I'll blog about this in more detail over the coming weeks.
Overall I am very pleased with this machine (and operating system) so far!