Hundreds of thousands of digital devices flooded into American students' hands in recent years.
Some went directly to students in the Aiken County Public School District in South Carolina. The district's 41 schools, which serve about 22,500 students, include North Augusta High School. North Augusta expects to welcome about 1,800 students this academic year.
At the height of the pandemic, Aiken County school leaders decided to embrace 1:1 technology. 1:1 technology, or 1:1 computing, means every student has a personal computing device to support their learning. Supporting over 22,000 devices is a big task for any organization.
It was an ideal opportunity for North Augusta High students in Dell's Student TechCrew program to step in, Michelle O'Rourke told ZDNet. She's the school's business education and computer repair teacher. She also facilitates the TechCrew program.
Dell's Student TechCrew program offers pro-level hardware repair training and certifications for high schoolers. Students earn a Dell TechDirect certification. They also get hands-on learning experience repairing their peers' devices.
The program's flexibility allows schools and teachers to offer TechCrew as a standalone program or integrate it into the academic curriculum as a for-credit class. That's the approach that North Augusta uses. It's part of the school's computer repair and service program.
"So in the two years in the course, the first thing that they do is they get their Dell certification. And then the next year and a half, they're repairing laptops and they're also working through getting their CompTIA A+ and their TestOut PC Pro certifications," said O'Rourke.
That means students can graduate with three industry-standard tech certifications and two years of experience in hands-on device repair, which is "a really cool thing to do."
SEE: Five tech jobs for someone without a college degree
O'Rourke said she expects 140 students in the TechCrew program at North Augusta this fall. About a dozen will be new to the program. The rest will be second-year students in the program, which is mostly comprised of 10th and 11th graders.
North Augusta students must take a prerequisite course in the fundamentals of computing before enrolling in TechCrew.
Students get lots of practice repairing cracked LCD screens, faulty power ports, and keyboards. Screen bezels and device cases also take a lot of abuse when they're in students' hands, explained Kim Boutwell. She created Dell's TechCrew program and continues to run it today.
Students start with about 40 hours of training to earn Dell's TechDirect certification.
"Once they finish that, they're certified. They know what they're doing. I shouldn't be able to tell the difference [between] a 9th grader and a 20-year veteran tech at that point," Boutwell said. "They know what they're doing, and they are also certified in our portal, our self-maintenance portal at Dell."
TechCrew's in-school adult facilitators complete an eight- to 10-hour course to lead the program. Boutwell said the facilitators usually hold other roles at school. They may be teachers, librarians, parent volunteers, or even a principal.
Boutwell stressed that TechCrew students don't have to piece together a working device by cannibalizing the remains of old devices stacked up in a closet. Instead, they use the online self-maintenance portal to order new parts, just like a regular enterprise customer.
"They're in the same tool. We didn't make a fake tool. They're in the industry tool," Boutwell said. "They are industry certified. Within that tool, they put in the serial number of their friend, they have been trained to run diagnostics, then they're given a parts list. They know which parts to ask for. And they're sent to them overnight."
In terms of repairs, Boutwell said LCD screen replacements are pretty common in schools.
"Kids will put their pencil on the keyboard and close it when the bell rings. …Or they're walking down the hall and they reach out to say hi to their friend and the laptop slips out. Or they're running to get to class and they go to open the door and they forget they've got their laptop in their hand."
Boutwell said school-issued devices also fall victim to spills and water damage. This might happen if a student walks somewhere or rides a bike home in the rain and their digital device unintentionally gets wet.
Existing service contracts cover repair costs. The program itself is also free for schools. Boutwell said Dell funds it through an annual grant agreement with each school.
But mastering the technical aspects of digital device repair is only half the program, said Boutwell.
"The focus of this program is 50% technical and then 50% what I call career skills," Boutwell told ZDNet.
The career aspect includes aspects like customer service and communication — valuable skills for anyone, regardless of what kind of career you pursue.
"And that's where the soft skills part of the program comes in," O'Rourke said, "and that's something that I think is more important than knowing how to repair a laptop, is knowing how to start up a conversation with someone. Or how to keep a level of professionalism when someone is not listening to what you're telling them. These kids are learning how to do that."
"The career skills [aspect], that one's hard to get kids into," Boutwell said. "They don't want to read 'Chapter three: communication, how to communicate effectively with your team.' Gen Z is like, 'Can you put that in a TikTok for me?' I had to find a way to make that career skills [component] cool and fun.
Students helped shape a newly revamped TechCrew curriculum that launched last month.
"It turns out they don't like videos more than a minute and a half long," Boutwell explained. And, she added, students don't like to read long passages of text before having an opportunity to go hands-on with what they're learning.
The updated course also takes into account another important point of student feedback: Kids like learning from each other. So as part of the revised curriculum, students in the program created videos that help other students learn important ideas.
Dell has also partnered with the Conrad Foundation to help students learn and connect.
Boutwell established the TechCrew program to address an issue she experienced firsthand.
She's a former middle school teacher. In 2015, she was also a Dell customer. That year, her district decided to move to a 1:1 technology model. Back then, the idea — and the ability and best practices to implement it — was still new.
I was so excited to provide out 35,000 devices to kids in my community and transform education that I forgot a little piece of it, and that is that high schools are crowded, kids run really fast, they ride bicycles, they forget to tie their shoe strings. Things happen, and they drop their devices.
She realized potential hardware repair technicians were in the classroom: The students.
Boutwell later began working for Dell and pitched the idea to the company. It officially launched in the 2019-20 school year. The pilot program proved successful even with the introduction of an unexpected variable — the COVID-19 pandemic — which accelerated remote learning.
"It was an interesting time to have piloted a hardware support program, and I honestly didn't know how it would be affected," Boutwell said. "It turned out that more than ever, schools needed that support and kids needed that place to belong. It's gotten more successful since that."
Boutwell said she likes the path her career has taken so far. "It's been an amazing journey. And I think my path from education to corporate helps me stay relatable to both people from the corporate world and people from the classroom. I like not being one or the other."
Even without the pandemic, Boutwell said, school systems were still moving toward a 1:1 technology model for students. As a result, "we knew that education was still transforming. And we knew that the opportunity gap was closing for the students who didn't have their own devices."
Right now, there's a big push to get kids into coding. That's a valuable skill. But O'Rourke said it's important students get to learn about the hardware that software and apps will live on.
"Coders' laptops break too. Their hard drives go out too," she said.
The 2021-22 school year was the North Augusta TechCrew program's first.
"I had all 25 students get their Dell certification before Thanksgiving," O'Rourke said. "My goal was to have it done in the first eight weeks of school, but with quarantines and Covid was still happening, a few of them took a little longer."
By Christmas break, the students were handling 98% of repairs "not just for our school but our two feeder middle schools and the elementary schools around us," she said.
Taking care of devices is a big responsibility for the district's full-time, adult technicians. On some Monday mornings, the crew would arrive to find a dozen or more students whose laptops needed repairs.
"And that is a lot for one person to do, especially when some of our school technicians support more than one school and the 1:1, the laptops, is just one part of their job," O'Rourke said.
"They still have to take care of the teachers, and the other things that are going on. So those [full-time] technicians were able to scoop up those laptops and bring them in to us. My kids would take them in, troubleshoot them, order the parts, get the parts the next day, repair the laptops and then I'd send the technician a text and say, 'Hey — you got laptops ready,' and they'd come and get them."
O'Rourke said students had repaired more than 500 devices by the end of last school year.
Boutwell said she expects that 175 schools in the U.S., Australia, and Ireland will participate in TechCrew this year. The students connect virtually to share their experiences and insights.
Aiken County students at three other high schools can also enroll in TechCrew.
As the program's creator and leader, Boutwell also stays connected. She acknowledges it's sometimes a challenge with students in so many different time zones. Sometimes she starts her day by connecting with students in Ireland and ends her day by connecting with students from Australia.
"As a teacher, talking about all this is fun, but I really like talking about the kids," Boutwell said. "That's what gets me really excited. We're changing their trajectory, and it's exciting to be a part of their opportunities."
Since an outcome-based approach requires innovation, enterprises are adopting this strategy for enhanced performance.
With a team of more than 60,000 employees spread across 170 countries, Dell Technologies Inc. is committed to delivering outcomes for enterprises by leveraging the power of technology, according to Doug Schmitt (pictured, right), president of Dell Technologies Services.
“When I talk about outcome-based services, it’s not managing just the IT infrastructure; you have to modernize and transform,” Schmitt said. “So we have a great suite of services, and it’s bringing all that together for the customer — everything from consulting to deployment, support, managed services, security, education services, residency services, and asset sustainability and recovery.”
Schmitt and Alex Barretto (pictured, left), senior vice president of emerging services and technology at Dell, spoke with industry analysts Lisa Martin and Dave Vellante at the Dell Technologies World event, during an exclusive broadcast on theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s livestreaming studio. They discussed how Dell delivers outcomes, flexible consumption, and life cycle services to enterprises for optimal returns. (* Disclosure below.)
Having recently created an emerging services group, Dell is committed to addressing customer needs and preferences under one roof, according to Barretto.
“So APEX, telco, edge, data management, and all the things our customers are asking for, and we are convening new solutions and services to meet their needs — all that is housed in one unit,” he stated.
Since enterprises are looking for life cycle services, flexible consumption and a trusted adviser, Dell has stepped in to fill the void, Schmitt added.
“Determining what they need to deliver their outcomes, Dell can bring that trusted adviser status to them … they can choose the way they want to consume the technology. You consume it by usage. We allow our customers clearly the choice to say what pieces of the services they need,” he said.
Emerging services enable organizations to radically transform so they remain competitive and thrive in the new economy, according to Barretto.
“If you look at Dish, they’re actually launching one of the first Open RAN networks, leveraging the power of 5G. We’re working very closely with them on the services and solutions to enable them to deliver that service to their customers,” he said.
With the primary objective of Dell’s partner ecosystem being co-delivering, meeting customer needs is a top priority, according to Schmitt.
“We’re very open with our partners about if they want to be prime and then leverage those same life cycle services we have. This is about getting this transformation and technology into the hands of the customers in the best way possible,” he stated.
When it comes to assisting enterprises in their modernization journey, Dell helps by addressing professional services, security and sustainability, according to Barretto.
“We have a whole slew of roadmap with high-performance computing to be announced soon. And machine learning operations — all that is to meet the customer needs. Whether you want to go cloud-based, on-prem, or hybrid, we’re there to solve your needs,” he said.
As managed services continue to grow, improving operational performance is becoming vital, because it enables enterprises to spend more time on their business outcomes, according to Schmitt.
“One of the things that they like the best about doing that management is bringing kind of the AI and the BI to it … we’re actually able to help manage those environments much better,” he said.
Here’s the complete video interview, part of SiliconANGLE’s and theCUBE’s coverage of the Dell Technologies World event:
(* Disclosure: TheCUBE is a paid media partner for Dell Technologies World. Neither Dell Technologies Inc., the sponsor for theCUBE’s event coverage, nor other sponsors have editorial control over content on theCUBE or SiliconANGLE.)
Back to school sales are starting to crop up at major retailers, even though we're still in the middle of summer.
This is good news if you could use a new laptop, because major retailers like Amazon and Best Buy are going to be running some big back to school sales with savings on some of the best laptops from companies like Apple, Dell and Lenovo.
To help you figure out which laptop will be best for your needs, we've compiled this list of quick tips for finding the perfect school laptop based on both conversations with parents and my own experience reviewing dozens and dozens of laptops. Keep this advice in mind as you browse the best back to school laptop deals and sales this summer.
Here at Tom's Guide we work hard to help you find the right tech for you at a great price, and you can check out our ultimate back to school guide for the latest deals on laptops, tablets, phones and more.
While more students than ever are participating in remote learning arrangements these days, there's still plenty that find themselves schlepping a backpack to a classroom or lecture hall on a regular basis. If there's a chance you'll need to carry this laptop for long periods around campus or to various classrooms, make sure you consider how much it weighs before clicking the Buy button.
In my experience, anything around 3 pounds is pretty easy to carry for hours, at least for a grown adult in reasonably good health. Go much beyond 3 pounds though, and you'll start to notice when you're lugging the thing around. This is a common problem with the best gaming laptops, which can be great for demanding engineering coursework but murder on the shoulders when toted around.
If you really prize light weight in a laptop, you can even get some that are as light as 2 pounds. Lenovo has some really lightweight models that are great for coursework, like the 2.5-pound Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Titanium Yoga (which also folds into a tablet, if you'd like a 2-in-1 laptop for school) or the 2-pound Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano.
Again, if there's a chance you'll need to rely on this laptop all day you'll want to make sure you buy one with great battery life. There's nothing worse than getting to your last class of the day, only to find out your laptop is dead and you forgot to bring the charger.
Ideally you don't want to be lugging a charger, a power bank or anything more than you have to, so make sure to vet a laptop's battery life before you buy. Don't trust the manufacturer's advertised battery life, either; while some laptops (mostly MacBooks) do last as long as claimed, the vast majority do not.
We know that because here at Tom's Guide we put each laptop we review through a gauntlet of performance tests, including a battery rundown test that tasks the laptop with endlessly surfing the web via Wi-Fi with the screen brightness set to 150 nits.
While you shouldn't take our battery test results as a promise that you'll get the same use time between charges (because you'll likely have the screen set brighter than we do in our test, for one thing), you can use it as a more accurate general estimate and use it to compare laptops to see which last the longest. In fact, we've compiled a list of some of the longest-lasting laptops we've ever tested, which you can see below:
|Laptop||Battery life (tested)|
|Dell XPS 13 OLED||7:59|
|Asus Zenbook 13 OLED||15:00|
|MacBook Pro 13-inch (M2, 2022) review||18:20|
|M1 MacBook Air||14:41|
|MacBook Pro 2021 (14-inch)||14:09|
|Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio||10:30|
|Microsoft Surface Laptop 4||10:46|
|Acer Swift 3||11:09|
|Microsoft Surface Pro 8||9:06|
|Dell XPS 15 OLED||6:58|
|MacBook Pro 2021 (16-inch)||15:31|
|Lenovo Yoga 9i||11:15|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Nano||12:00|
|Alienware m15 R4||4:01|
|HP Elite Dragonfly||12:25|
|Asus Zenbook Duo 14||10:37|
|Lenovo IdeaPad Chromebook Duet||12:47|
|Google Pixelbook Go||11:29|
|Acer Chromebook Spin 713||11:54|
As you can see the Dell XPS 13 lags a bit behind the rest, and I include it only because an 8-hour tested battery life is really the minimum you should expect from a good laptop. It's a little short for a full day of classes though, so I recommend you go with something lighter and longer-lasting like the MacBook Air (2020, M1) or the Asus Zenbook 13 OLED.
There's a smorgasbord of laptops out there waiting to be bought, and they range from barely powerful enough to run Chrome to beefy enough that you could play the best PC games with all the settings maxed out. But you generally get what you pay for, so make sure you don't pay too much (or too little) for a laptop with components that don't match your needs.
Specifically, try to stay away from anything with less than an Intel Core i5 (or AMD Ryzen 5) CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB storage drive. The afore-mentioned Asus Zenbook 13 meets these requirements and is pretty affordable.
You'll get even better performance if you get something with a newer or more powerful CPU, more RAM, or a discrete graphics card, but unless you're planning to do more than browse the web and write papers you won't have much need for the upgrade in power.
That said, if you do want something powerful that's still relatively easy to carry around all day, I recommend the Asus ROG Zephyrus G14. It's a gaming laptop, but unlike most gaming laptops it's relatively light and compact, has decent battery life (when you're not playing games), and packs enough horsepower under the hood to tackle serious engineering, video editing and game development work. Apple's MacBook Pro 13-inch M2 is also a great investment if you need something powerful that excels at photo/video editing, with great battery life.
Conversely, if you get something with less impressive specs you may find yourself handicapped by poor performance. Laptops with an Intel Core i3 CPU or anything less powerful tend to labor pretty hard with demanding apps, and if you get less than 8GB of RAM you may find your laptop has a hard time multi-tasking or takes a long time to load things.
256GB of storage is less important to have, especially if you're planing to mostly do homework and surf the web on this laptop, but if you get much less you'll likely need to spend time regularly cleaning out your hard drive to make room for new stuff. Remember, the operating system (Windows or Mac, usually) itself takes up a fair bit of space on your drive, so you won't get to use all the storage you pay for. If you buy a laptop with 128GB or even (God forbid) 64GB, you'll quickly see how painful this juggling act can be.
Laptop designs are no longer limited to the traditional clamshell, and there's now a slew of great laptops out there with touchscreens designed to fold down onto the laptop, turning it into a heavy tablet.
Such functionality may be superfluous if you're planning to use the laptop purely for writing, but if you want to do any kind of digital artwork a convertible 2-in-1 is a great choice. Personally, I like them simply because you can "tent" them at different angles for more comfortable viewing, which is great when you're relaxing between classes and streaming movies.
I've also heard from parents that some schools require their students to have laptops with touchscreens that support a stylus. If that's what you're after, check to make sure whatever laptop(s) you're considering have touchscreens and offer USI (Universal Stylus Initiative) support. That means you'll be able to buy a USI-certified stylus and be confident it will work with your new laptop.
I remember one parent in particular mentioned their child was attending an engineering program that suggested students bring laptops that had both a discrete GPU and an active stylus (an active stylus is one with power that connects via Bluetooth, while a passive stylus does not). Few laptops meet that requirement, but the Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio does, and it happens to be a great 2-in-1 ultraportable to boot.
You'll likely want to plug more into your laptop than the power charger, so make sure it has the right ports for your needs before making a purchase. Headphone jacks, for example, are great for when you want to listen to music while doing homework in a study hall, but nowadays some ulaptops have ditched the headphone jack (looking at you, Dell XPS 13 Plus) in the name of being as thin and light as possible. Of course, you could always use Bluetooth headphones, but then you're having to worry about keeping another device charged all the time.
Likewise, if you want to use accessories like a keyboard or mouse with your laptop you'll want to make sure it has the right USB ports in enough quantity to satisfy your needs. These days most modern accessories connect via USB-C (which looks like a flat, wide oval), but there's still piles and piles of gadgets out there than connect via the older USB-A (which looks like a rectangle). Check out what gear you plan to plug into the laptop, then vet it to make sure you can hook everything up without too much trouble.
If you make a mistake it's not the end of the world, as you can still use dongles and adapters to connect your accessories. However, that again means you'll be carrying around more bits of tech in your bag that could easily be lost.
If you keep these 5 tips in mind, you should be well-equipped to find the perfect laptop for you during the back to school shopping season. For more recommendations on great laptops for students, check out our guide to the best college laptops.
Emma Okonji in Las Vegas, US
Dell Technologies, which provides the essential infrastructure for organisations to build digital future, transform Information Technology (IT) and protect information, on Monday, disclosed that since 2012, Dell Technologies Capital, the companyâ€™s venture arm, made 81 investments focused on early-stage startups that span a broad range of technology areas across the world, including Africa.
In Nigeria, efforts have been made by government agencies and private sector organisations to promote young startups with brilliant ideas that could address societal needs.
The disclosure on investments deal was made during the opening ceremony of the Dell Technologies World 2018 in Las Vega, US.
Dell Technologies Chairman and CEO, Michael Dell, who kicked off the industry premier event, which was attended by over 14,000 visitors, said the Dell Technologies businesses would continue to play a fundamental role in helping organisations envision and realise their digital future.
“In the past year, a third of new investments focused on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) and the remaining investments focused on security, next-gen infrastructure and other technology areas strategic to the Dell Technologies family of companies,” Dell said.
“When the first calendar quarter 2018 industry market share numbers are final, we expect to increase our worldwide PC market share for the 21st consecutive quarter, and gain share in servers and storage. We have exciting announcements planned across our portfolio at this yearâ€™s event that are driving this leadership and our customersâ€™ digital transformation, ultimately resulting in better business outcomes,â€ he added.
According to him, “Dell Technologies World is our opportunity to share our vision of technology as the driver of human progress in every corner of the world.
â€œWe will showcase ways, big and small, our customers are using technology to change the world for the better, whether through a reimagined process or a reimagined industry. We talk often about technology solving our greatest challenges, and weâ€™re making more progress more quickly than ever before.â€
Dell’s IPOs had a collective market valuation exceeding $11 billion, highlighting the teamâ€™s ability to identify early investment opportunities and to help build successful startups. The Dell Technologies Capital portfolio includes several startups currently experiencing growth rates of more than 100 per cent and several exceeding $50 million in revenue.
President of Dell Technologies Capital, Scott Darling, said: â€œSince coming out of stealth at Dell EMC World last year, weâ€™ve had a very busy, and very successful, year. We are delighted with our continued strong performance and the market reception to the Docusign, MongoDB and Zscaler IPOs. The real value we bring to Dell Technologies and our startup portfolio companies is through our joint work, which allows us to deliver best-of-breed solutions for our customers faster, especially in emerging tech areas, which the Nigerian technology market belongs to.â€
The Dell Technologies Capital investment team is comprised of experienced industry professionals with a strong mix of both operational and investment expertise, providing not only the insight to identify promising technologies and teams but also the knowledge and skill to help their portfolio companies achieve scale. The team focuses on early- stage investments in several emerging technology areas including Internet of Things (IoT), AI, ML, developer-led Infrastructure, next-gen infrastructure, server-less computing and security.
Year in and year out, the XPS 13 is consistently one of our highest rated laptops, but not content to rest on its laurels, Dell undertook a forward-looking redesign of its flagship ultraportable. The result of this project, the XPS 13 Plus (starts at A$2,599), certainly looks the part. At just a glance, its edge-to-edge flush keyboard, LED function row, and seamless touchpad appear futuristic. The device is, simply, super-sweet eye candy.
Most of these elements work, but between a somewhat finicky touchpad and the removal of the headset jack, the XPS 13 Plus isn’t necessarily an improvement on all fronts. Still, its pricing for the base model is reasonable, given the unique super-slim build, and the Core i7 CPU and so-called "3.5K" OLED display in our model make for a well-performing beauty. The traditional XPS 13 (and some competing alternatives) still take our top spots and will continue to be sold separately, but this attempt at innovation is both intriguing and a qualified success.
The traditional XPS 13’s design is something we’re well familiar with at PCMag, having reviewed many iterations of it over the years. If you’re less well acquainted with it than we are, the highlights are a slim build with a metal lid, a carbon fiber keyboard deck, and a nearly borderless display. All combine for a highly portable, premium feel. In short, it’s as close as Windows machines get to the Apple MacBook Air.
That makes a rethink of the same base design exciting, and it’s immediately clear what the XPS 13 Plus has changed versus the “standard” XPS 13. As I wrote in my initial hands-on with the Plus back in January, it strives to look like a laptop beamed in from the future. The fully flat wrist-rest strip, with no visible touchpad, the flush keyboard with no lattice between the keys, and the LED function row are all elements that tweak our traditional expectations of laptop design.
Before getting into the details and function of these alterations, I should emphasize: The design is striking, especially the first time you see it. It may wear off on subsequent views—none of those changes truly reinvents the use or purpose of these elements, mostly just the appearance—but the XPS 13 Plus remains a sleek eye-catcher. Our unit is the platinum color, but it also comes in a much darker graphite option.
Despite the differences, the signature slim build is still intact. The XPS 13 Plus measures 0.6 by 11.63 by 7.84 inches (HWD) and weighs 2.77 pounds. (The non-OLED model is a few feathers lighter, at 2.71 pounds.) This is extremely similar to the existing OLED XPS 13 (9310), which comes in at 0.58 by 11.6 by 7.8 inches and 2.8 pounds. The design changes have not altered the footprint or weight much, leaving this system as a slick little ultraportable.
Now, let’s dive in to each of the major design changes.
The most different aspect is the touchpad, embedded in a single piece of glass running across the whole wrist rest. There is no demarcation of where the active area actually is, which is likely to be divisive (though it does look and feel cool to use). When you first open the box, a paper insert marks where the sides of the touchpad lie, but after you remove that, you’re on your own.
Generally, I didn’t find this to be an issue. The touchpad boundaries are pretty much directly under the spacebar, which is where I naturally put my hand and where I expect the touchpad to be, anyway. Now and then, my hand moves or starts too far beyond the boundaries, but rarely. Right-clicking is probably what suffers most from this lack of a border, as I occasionally pressed too far to the right (that is, off the pad) while trying to find the right corner without looking.
I generally found the touchpad’s responsiveness to be good, but making presses and clicks were more troublesome than the location-finding. There were times where I didn’t mean to, say, click-to-drag on the desktop, but was apparently exerting enough pressure to register a held press. The opposite happened, as well.
It worked most of the time, but if a touchpad can’t match the 100% hit rate of a traditional one, it’s going to be noticeable. The line between pressing and dragging when you only intended to pan is just a bit too fine. Overall, this aspect looks cool and mostly works well, but it isn’t a functional improvement over the ordinary XPS 13.
Next, the keyboard and function row. The fully flush keys and LED row forward of it add to the futuristic look of this laptop, something like a prop computer you may see in a sci-fi series. The upside of having that row for the keyboard is that the key caps are larger, providing more typing area. It takes some getting used to—the positioning is slightly different from standard laptops, because the lack of a lattice between the keys changes the spacing—but I found the extra room to be a positive after adjusting to it.
As for the typing feel, I can see that aspect being more divisive. Myself, I find it oddly satisfying, and I say "oddly" because the feedback falls somewhere between a click and a soft press that may not be to everyone’s liking. The feeling and relatively shallow travel may be too mushy for some users, and it’s no replacement for mechanical key switches, but I found it pleasant overall.
The LED row also feels cool to use. By default, these backlight symbols show up as screen and media-control keys, including volume, mic control, and brightness. Expect no physical buttons or textures here to mark the keys; they’re completely flat and flush with the keyboard deck. But they still respond to my finger taps every time I press them. If you have any concerns, you don’t need to worry—unlike the touchpad, they work as intended every time.
You’ll notice, though, that the layout lacks dedicated function ("F") keys. If you hold the physical “Fn” key in the bottom left corner of the keyboard, the LEDs up top will switch to the traditional numbered function row, so you can tap F-keys as needed. If you’d rather this behavior be the default for the LED row rather than the media keys, you can tap the persistent “Escape” LED button while holding Fn to lock the LED row to that view instead, and vice versa. (Whenever you’re holding the Fn key, a lock symbol appears next to the “Esc” icon in the LED row to indicate this feature.)
One small negative is that the lighting on this row is always on. Even when running on battery, and even when you turn the keyboard backlighting off, these LEDs stay lit, which can be intrusive in the dark.
The main concern with making major changes to classic UI elements is making sure they still work, and in that, the XPS 13 Plus is mostly successful. It may not have the best laptop keyboard we’ve used, but it provides a roomy typing experience on a compact laptop—and, hopefully, future revisions will make it even better.
The LED row looks cool and works perfectly well, but it’s the no-boundaries touchpad that stops the input-device rework from being a full success. While I don’t want to overstate it—panning and pressing work the vast majority of the time—any crucial component on a laptop acting even a little finicky is a negative.
Part of the XPS 13’s top-notch design is its nearly edge-to-edge display, called InfinityEdge in Dell parlance. That’s maintained on the XPS 13 Plus, too, and if it hadn’t been, the streamlined look would have been greatly diminished. The bezels are tiny, making this 13.4-inch display look as big as possible on the compact form. The aspect ratio is such that the resolutions are not what you’re used to, meaning the 4K and the full HD equivalents, for example, are 3,840 by 2,400 pixels and 1,920 by 1,200 pixels, respectively.
There are naturally a few panel options, and we were sent the most stunning of the bunch, a “3.5K” (3,456 by 2,160 pixels) OLED touch panel. The display is vibrant, crisp, and fairly bright. It’s rated at 500 nits, though we found it measured 354 at maximum brightness in our testing (formatted results are in the testing section below). Colors pop to an extreme degree with OLED, and you’ll probably be hesitant to go back to a non-OLED panel after using one; this is no exception.
The other panel options include the FHD equivalent in both touch and non-touch variants, as well as the 4K touch display. The 4K panel is DisplayHDR 400 compliant, the 3.5K panel is DisplayHDR 500 compliant, and all panels feature Dolby Vision and Eyesafe technology.
What remains is one of the more divisive aspects of the redesign. The laptop has only two physical ports, both USB-C connections, one on each side, both with Thunderbolt 4 support. A small, easy-to-lose USB-C-to-A adapter is included in the box.
I do mean that these are the only two ports of any kind: The laptop uses USB-C for charging, and there is no headphone jack. That choice is a bold one, and a consequence of the super-slim design. Recognizing this, Dell also includes a USB-C-to-3.5mm-headset adapter in the box.
The lack of a jack for the slimmer design is a conscious tradeoff; Dell figures that the type of shopper the XPS 13 Plus is aimed at is the same shopper already embedded in a world of wireless earbuds and jackless iPhones. This may be true for some, but a headphone jack is something you’d really like at least the option to use.
If your earbuds die, or you need to be charging them rather than using them for when you get on the road again, there’s no replacing a wired option. I personally do own wireless earbuds (mostly for commuting and travel), but prefer wired sets when I’m at a computer—I know I’m going to be sitting for a long period draining the battery, and prefer to save juice for the road.
Some people may be able to overlook this (as many do with their phones these days), while others may find it a deal breaker. While I can see the logic in embracing this modern design, I don’t think the compromise is worth what it adds to the build. Super-slim laptops like the standard Dell XPS 13 and even the Apple MacBook Air still manage to include a headset jack. The adapter will have to do, but it’s more of a pain to carry with you, and it takes up one of two ports.
Outside of the ports, connectivity includes Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.2, a fingerprint reader in the power button, and a 720p webcam. Both the fingerprint scanner and camera are Windows Hello enabled for fast sign-in.
I can’t help but feel the camera should be 1080p at this price, whether paired with the higher panel SKUs or by default, to drive home the premium, forward-looking concept. That said, not all 720p cameras are created equal, and the video quality is better than average. The picture is sharper than most others (even if still well short of a 1080p camera's), though it doesn’t handle especially bright or dim lighting super well.
The XPS 13 Plus is configurable in a number of ways, starting with the A$2,599 base model. That unit comes with Intel's 12th Generation Core i5-1240P processor, 16GB of memory, a 512GB SSD, and the full HD non-touch display. From there, you can jump to a middle-of-the-pack Core i7-1260P, 16GB or 32GB of RAM, a 1TB or 2TB SSD, and the various display options outlined before. Integrated graphics are the only option for this laptop—no discrete GPUs here, so you’ll need to check out a gaming or creator system for more graphics power, if that's what you're after.
Our configuration is toward the top end, and includes a Core i7-1280P processor, 16GB of memory, a 512GB SSD, and the 3.5K OLED touch display mentioned earlier. This is the top CPU option, a 14-core chip (with six Performance P-Cores and eight Efficient E-Cores, per the Alder Lake platform). So, apart from bumping up to 32GB of memory, this should be the top-performing SKU.
Now, to put these parts to the test. To judge the XPS 13 Plus’ benchmark results, we collected a group of similar laptops—all ultraportables of some kind with roughly similar specs—to compare against. Their names and components are listed below…
The Lenovo IdeaPad Slim 7 Carbon is a chic OLED competitor, while its ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 10 counterpart is a great ultraportable business machine (and one of the best overall laptops we’ve reviewed in recent memory). The VAIO SX14 is a sleek, similarly priced competitor, while Apple’s iconic MacBook Air (this the new M2-based model) is the obvious foil. The IdeaPad is the sole AMD representative, while Apple’s M2 has its own complexities, but can run some of the same tests as these machines.
The main benchmark of UL's PCMark 10 simulates a variety of real-world productivity and content-creation workflows to measure overall performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet work, web browsing, and videoconferencing. We also run PCMark 10's Full System Drive test to assess the load time and throughput of a laptop's boot drive.
Three other benchmarks focus on the CPU, using all available cores and threads, to rate a PC's suitability for processor-intensive workloads. Maxon's Cinebench R23 uses that company's Cinema 4D engine to render a complex scene, while Primate Labs' Geekbench 5.4 Pro simulates popular apps ranging from PDF rendering and speech recognition to machine learning. Finally, we use the open-source video transcoder HandBrake 1.4 to convert a 12-minute video clip from 4K to 1080p resolution (lower times are better).
Our final productivity test is workstation maker Puget Systems' PugetBench for Photoshop, which uses the Creative Cloud version 22 of Adobe's famous image editor to rate a PC's performance for content creation and multimedia applications. It's an automated extension that executes a variety of general and GPU-accelerated Photoshop tasks ranging from opening, rotating, resizing, and saving an image to applying masks, gradient fills, and filters.
The results from these laptops are all generally solid, and you can see the XPS 13 Plus is near the top of most tests, and even leads at Geekbench. As slim ultraportables, these won’t push the boundaries of laptop performance compared to larger machines, but the baseline has risen so much over the years that even these compact machines are generally quite proficient at these tasks.
In short, the XPS 13 Plus—despite its new design that stresses the new elements and thin form—doesn’t provide up much in the way of performance relative to its class. If you need a pro-grade editing or content creation laptop, you’ll want to look a tier above these laptops, but generally this system can handle moderate home and office workloads of different kinds.
It's worth noting that the system does come with optional performance modes, somewhat buried in the "power" section of the My Dell application. The default mode is called "optimized" meant to balance cooling, heat, and performance, and on this the fan noise was minimal, while heat was focused on the bottom under load. This is the setting we tested the laptop on, but the other modes allow you to run the laptop cooler, or quieter, or in an "ultra performance" mode. The latter did provide a moderate boost to results (PCMark 10 didn't change much at all, but Cinebench improved to 9,724 points, Handbrake down to 8:23), but is probably not worth the added effort from the laptop unless you're crunching through a dataset or media workload.
We test Windows PCs' graphics with two DirectX 12 gaming simulations from UL's 3DMark: Night Raid (more modest, suitable for laptops with integrated graphics) and Time Spy (more demanding, suitable for gaming rigs with discrete GPUs). We normally run two more tests from GFXBench 5.0, but they persistently failed to run properly on this system for reasons unknown.
As previously noted, the XPS 13 Plus employs only Intel Iris Xe integrated graphics (that is, part of the processor handles the graphics load, rather than shunting the work to a dedicated GPU). All of the competing laptops in our charts here use Iris Xe or a similar integrated solution. A discrete GPU requires more thermal headroom and brawnier cooling solutions, beyond the scope of these slim machines, so you should expect this level of performance in most of these laptops.
These two scores demonstrate roughly average graphics performance for this class, which is to say it’s capable of some light gaming (think simpler 2D titles, slower strategy games, or some more demanding titles with the visual settings turned way down). We previously tested a variety of games on a batch of integrated-graphics systems to see, generally, what to expect. You can complete some 3D work on here if you really need to, but wait times will be long; again, invest in a pro creator laptop if that’s something you will do often. Again, ultra performance mode did Strengthen results, with Time Spy and Night Raid jumping to 1,955 and 18,399 points respectively.
We test laptops' battery life by playing a locally stored 720p video file (the open-source Blender movie Tears of Steel) with display brightness at 50% and audio volume at 100% until the system quits. We make sure the battery is fully charged before the test, with Wi-Fi and keyboard backlighting turned off.
We also use a Datacolor SpyderX Elite monitor calibration sensor and its Windows software to measure a laptop screen's color saturation—what percentage of the sRGB, Adobe RGB, and DCI-P3 color gamuts or palettes the display can show—and its 50% and peak brightness in nits (candelas per square meter).
The battery life result is the first bit of disappointment outside expectations in the test results. Roughly eight hours of battery isn’t bad in the grand scheme of all laptops, but for this category, it’s pretty underwhelming. You can see that the others all clear at least 12 hours, the older XPS 13 we tested ran for 11 hours, and the MacBook Air is an extreme battery performer.
In that context, this result is mediocre, and undermines the ultraportable concept. You’ll be able to take the XPS 13 Plus with you easily, and it will even charge pretty quickly, but it’s not a system you can leave unplugged and use through a full day without worrying about the battery.
I should say that our particular display configuration is no doubt culpable here, at least in part—the full HD panels likely run for much longer, and 3.5K is draining. OLED technology should actually help battery life, though, so we really wish this were a longer result. But several repeat runs of our battery test to "check our work" reinforced these findings.
The XPS 13 Plus is an interesting effort. On one hand, there wasn't much wrong with the XPS 13 (or most standard laptop design) that needed a radical overhaul. A few of the aspects, notably the touchpad, ultimately weren't changed for the better (even if it looks cool). So, to some extent, the XPS 13 Plus is a solution without a problem.
On the other hand, innovation keeps us moving toward improvement, and this premium device has a distinct forward-looking feel. The differences are obvious at a glance while still functioning in a familiar way, which is commendable. Redesigning several well-known laptop elements in a way where they're still functional isn't easy. Dell gets points for taking the plunge.
Still, while we can praise those efforts (the keyboard, LED key row, and chassis design get a thumbs up), it’s hard to completely endorse the full package if it isn’t an improvement on the existing version. The touchpad can be finicky, the lack of ports and especially a headphone jack is a minus, and the battery life (at least on our super-high-res model) is shorter than we'd like.
Ultimately if you love the new look, you’ll enjoy this shiny new device, even if it can’t replace the XPS 13 (still offered in its traditional form), the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, or the Apple MacBook Air. Hopefully, some of the positive new elements will make their way onto other laptops or an improved XPS 13 Plus. And we wouldn’t be surprised if some future laptops took cues from this machine. The future has to start somewhere. Why not today?
Processor - Intel Xeon Bronze 3204; GPU - AMD Radeon Pro WX 3200; 16GB memory, 256GB solid-state drive; Ports - 2x USB-C, 8x USB-A, 2x Gigabit Ethernet, 1x SD card slot, 1x headphone, 1 microphone, 1 line-out, 2x PS/2, 1x Serial; Dimensions - 433x218x566mm, 20.4Kg
As well as its attractive OptiPlex all-in-one systems, Dell also makes a range of workstations with more conventional designs. The recently updated Precision 7920 sits right at the top of the range, is available in either tower or rack configurations, and is aimed at virtual reality, 3D graphics and AI applications.
Customers in the US get five pre-built tower configurations (with some recent price cuts), starting at $2,219 for an entry-level 1.9GHz Xeon Bronze 3204-based system with 16GB of RAM, a 500GB 7,200rpm hard disk and an AMD Radeon Pro WX 2100 graphics card with 2GB of dedicated video RAM. The top-end pre-built system in the US runs Ubuntu Linux on dual 3GHz Xeon Gold 5217 processors, with 192GB of RAM, 256GB of SSD storage and an Nvidia Quadro RTX 6000 graphics card with 24GB of dedicated video RAM. This 'science'-oriented variant is considerably more expensive -- $13,809 to be exact.
Dell's UK website lists one primary Precision 7920 configuration, which costs £2,602.82 (ex. VAT; £3,123.38 inc. VAT). This has a six-core 1.9GHz Xeon Bronze 3204 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 500GB 7,200rpm hard drive, and an AMD Radeon Pro WX 2100 graphics card. The dual-Xeon 'science' model costs £9,186.02 (ex. VAT; £11,023.22 inc. VAT) in the UK.
These configurations are just the starting point, though: in both the US and the UK, Dell provides dozens of build-your-own options for customising the Precision 7920. Max these out, and you can easily end up in six-figure territory.
“It’s being there for each other as a team. Not only do we just say it, we recognize it and we reward it. Every single thing in our culture is around being there for each other as team members, and we are all equal. Like I can be the CEO but I may have to mop the floor. I lead by example. It‘s about really helping each other create a bigger future and being there for each other.”– Sunny Kaila, ITBD CEO, on the culture of his company.
In the last year IT By Design brought on 200 new team members (now totaling 600), 200 new MSP partners, two new partnerships and multiple new platforms. They’re scaling so fast that they’ve outgrown their own conference venue and are moving to a larger space.
Although the company is scaling up, the Jersey City, N.J.-based master MSP wants to remain community based. Company leadership wants to focus on their team, their culture, the MSP and the end user, the SMB.
“The bigger companies were always there, Microsoft and all the other companies like Dell, and there were different changes with time,” Sunny Kaila, ITBD CEO, told CRN. “What I believe is that when these companies are getting bigger, I already see it, their target market is changing. Their ideal customer profile is changing to a little bigger. Their target market is expanding to midmarket. So this space will always be available: small businesses. They don’t do business with corporate. They want that boutique experience and they’re always going to want a boutique experience.”
He said as companies consolidate platforms, it creates more room for entrepreneurship.
“MSPs will always have the opportunity to serve under-100 people small businesses, that‘s how I see it,” he said. “Consolidation will make companies bigger and those bigger companies’ ideal customer profile will change in terms of who they want to go after and who they want to serve.”
ITBD continues to focus on the smaller MSP and its people. In the last year, ITBD launched both Team GPS and IT CoPs (Communities of Practice).
Team GPS is an employee and client engagement platform that measures a team member’s job satisfaction and performance, recognizes and rewards them, and provides avenues for them for grow with the company. IT CoPs (Communities of Practice) is a peer group experience that challenges individual and leadership development through collective problem solving.
CRN sat down with Sunny Kaila and his wife Kam, president and chief community officer, at their Build IT Live conference in New Jersey last week to discuss the M&A market and their thoughts on the Kaseya/Datto deal, employee culture and the future of ITBD.
Sunny, you talked about moving to the U.S. from India and driving a taxi. Now you run a successful technology company. What inspired you to go from, as you coined it, taxi to tech, and how did that inspiration and your journey translate to how you lead a company?
Sunny: It was the American dream to come here and to make some dollars. After a year or two year I told my father that I really wanted to complete college. I had to choose a major and the first visit to a community college had me connected with someone from India who could speak my language. It was January of 1996 and that person gave me a little bit of guidance that computers are up-and-coming and said that’s one field that I would want to really explore.
I was good in math and science and because of that guidance, what drives me to pay it forward is that guidance. I had to work hard and go to college as well but that guidance really is what transformed me. I finished my computer engineering [degree] in 2000 and that‘s when I started working for a company. But I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. After working for two or three years, I started knocking on doors of some law firms and said, ‘I can be the tech [expert] for some small businesses.’ That gave me an entry into something I didn’t know was called an MSP. I was just there to help some people, small businesses, with their technology problems and there happened to be this space that turned out to be a great space for me.
As an immigrant, when you come you leave everything behind, your family, your siblings, your respect, your reputation. Everything is back there. You start fresh. When you start at 17-and-a-half, then you have nothing to lose. That is the rock bottom. Your tolerance level for frustrations, pain, everything goes up. That humble beginning gives you more humility, and how I lead is with that humility. If you do lifelong learning then the sky‘s the limit. You can break all the barriers. It’s a result of [driving a] taxi to having that educational drive and hunger for learning. It made me be that tech and the hunger for learning made me go find [ConnectWise] IT Nation and others which gave me a lot more of these friends. It was the drive to go somewhere and learn. It’s always that drive.
Kam: And his fearlessness. I think it also made him just not scared.
Sunny: It‘s really that courage to be uncomfortable.
Kam: That‘s important when you’re a CEO and that‘s important when you’re leading a company.
Sunny: That courage to do something bigger than what I think I can gives me a challenge. It gives me that sense of pride and progress. Then when I start doing the bigger thing, it becomes normal. That courage builds a new capability and that new capability gives me more confidence to go to the next, bigger level.
You shared data that said 25 percent of MSPs are losing money or breaking even. How is that, especially during the pandemic when we all went remote and automation and technology is at the forefront of every business?
Sunny: It‘s because of growing labor costs. Every single person out there wants at least 50 to 60 percent more. It’s really labor costs increasing, inflation in general increasing - from their rent to everything else that they pay for and their tool costs going up - it’s really shrinking margins. Customers are resisting price increases and it‘s the only thing that can happen between revenue and the bottom line, your margins. Even your profit gets impacted. So 25 percent of MSPs is a very conservative number that are losing money, especially in the last few years. The problem is even bigger because a lot of people don’t even know that they‘re losing money.
You announced two partnerships, one with N-able and the other with Vijilan Security. What was the idea behind those partnerships?
Sunny: To solve the profit problem and the talent problem. The problem is missing, or lack of, a unified NOC [network operations center] experience. A unified NOC means that NOC requires manpower and technical talent to deliver service. NOC requires technology to monitor and manage servers, routers and switches. Technology and service had to marry to create that one center of responsibility and accountability. When NOC problems are happening, sometimes MSPs are calling the NOC provider and they’re thinking, ‘It’s not our fault. It’s the tool.’ It’s the finger pointing and the blame game that happens. Who is suffering is the MSP and the end customer. So what we are saying is that we are accountable and responsible for the technology that is being used for [the] NOC and we are responsible for any delivery issues as a result. Now people, process and technology is with one company and that‘s why we call it unified NOC.
You expanded offices into the Philippines in the last year and you also mentioned Costa Rica.
Sunny: That‘s another roadmap. We are planning to create at least one additional talent market every year, geographically. There are a lot of other markets that we have been studying and we just want to take it a step at a time. We have been building the Philippines [team] since last year and now it’s totally self-managed. As a visionary for the company I have to go find another market, another product, another partnership. My next stop is somewhere in South America and Costa Rica: From our recent feasibility study there a lot of universities there and a lot of tech talent. A lot of technology companies are setting up business there. That‘s a natural location for us to expand, but one market a year.
What made you choose the Philippines?
Sunny: They‘re born service people. It’s in their DNA. They want to really care for people. So when we have been studying markets, the Philippines can be defined in one word: service. That is the core value of the country: family and really helping others. The Philippines used to be an American colony, and because of the American culture and influence it is culturally very integrated with the US. So when Filipinos are talking to our American business customers, they can talk baseball. There’s much better alignment in terms of customer experience.
What is the biggest challenge you're facing right now?
Sunny: Our number one challenge always is going to be scale. How do you scale without compromising your culture? Because we’re a people company.
What are your partner's biggest challenges right now?
Sunny: Profit, because of talent cost, talent availability and price increases. When it comes to talent it’s the speed-to-hire and the hybrid work model. It’s people‘s resistance to come back to the offices. How do you keep your culture strong in the hybrid workplace or the modern workplace?
And then cybersecurity, it’s the risk that these businesses have. There‘s so much going on in the cybersecurity space and, then, as a small business, it’s not having enough resources for them to protect themselves and their customers.
You guys emphasize people and culture at ITBD. What makes your company fun?
Sunny: My wife Kam. She‘s very creative. Her personality comes out in these videos [shown at Build IT Live]. She keeps us all bubbly. And making engineers do those types of dances…the fact that she’s able to really think about these ideas and have a team behind those videos is really amazing.
Kam: They enjoy it now. It was hard the first time we did it but we‘ve done so many of them. I remember the first time they were like, ‘You want us to do what?’ We were upstairs and we did (a video) to Justin Timberlake and it was cold but we had such great feedback from it. People started to love it. We’re creative and we want to have fun. Everything we do are in-house productions. From the music to everything else, the entire team gets behind it. The reason I mention that is because it‘s a community effort. They all love being a part of it. That just shows you the spirit of the team. They’re all so happy and engaged to be part of this. They‘re all so invested in this because they see how important it is not just to us, but how important it is to our community and the give-back initiatives that we’re doing.
Sunny, you said during your keynote that you design your company culture. How would you describe the culture at ITBD?
Sunny: It’s being there for each other as a team. Not only do we just say it, we recognize it and we reward it. Every single thing in our culture is around being there for each other as team members and we are all equal. Like, I can be the CEO but I may have to mop the floor. I lead by example. It‘s about really helping each other create a bigger future and being there for each other.
When I talked to you both a year ago you said your challenge was talent shortages and retention. Are you still dealing with that?
Sunny: When the challenge was bigger last year we built a better recruitment capability, so we added a lot more fuel to our recruitment team in terms of the people and process. From the retention point of view, we are laser-focused on career development. Why people leave, normally, is to find a better future and a better quality of life. What we have done is we had those conversations and we call it culture by design, which is basically a pipeline for every individual. We look at the bigger picture of the individual. What are your desires in terms of your health? What are your desires in terms of your career? What was your desires in terms of your family? What are your desires in terms of your legacy? So we created these four plans because that‘s what everyone wants. They want to know how you can support them with a bigger future.
In the last year you launched Team GPS and IT Communities of Practice, how do these programs help MSPs?
Sunny: It helps you align your people strategy with your business strategy, that’s Team GPS. When your talent is well aligned with your business objectives, then they are more productive, they produce better outcomes. If you’re creating better outcomes from the business point of view, then the profit problem is solved, there’s well-aligned talent and it brings a lot more value creation for the business and for the customer.
Kam: The CoPs (communities of practice) are about educating your leaders, helping them do their jobs better and helping them grow as individuals. It‘s really about being intentional about your own professional growth and that lifelong learning. These are courses that last a year, where we have 10 people in a class where we’re teaching them. Everything is very geared towards the MSP. We‘ve had the leadership group where we partner with organizations and we tailor the content so it’s specific and relatable to the MSP. Then every quarter we assign homework that is going to be implemented in the MSP, so they‘re learning, but the MSP is also gaining value. You’re learning and then you’re doing the practice work. CoPs are really people who are investing back in themselves. They‘re owners, but it’s them being able to groom those next layers of leaders.
Sunny: One of the business outcomes, from an MSP perspective, is retention. They don‘t have the training internally, so they need to be able to partner up with someone. In a recent survey we found that the biggest thing an employer can do for the people to retain them, at the top, was helping them learn. If a person is having that sense of learning and growing within the organization, they don’t go somewhere else to grow and learn more. MSPs being able to leverage CoPs, they are giving their investment, their growth, their learning to the person, and the outcome there is retention and more loyalty from that person, more love from that person to the company, and they produce more. The overall business productivity goes up. These people are happy and engaged, they are paid, they are well trained, they create a better value for their MSP customer, which means customer retention, as a result of their employee happiness.
What are your thoughts on the current M&A market. Have you ever thought about acquiring a company or even being acquired?
Sunny: Here‘s my general thinking on this: We’ve changed in the last two, three years. We all have to have some kind of exit plan, but as long as IT By Design…the way we are growing, it‘s really giving us joy and happiness and a sense of pride and progress. Pride due to progress. Progress means how many lives we are impacting, the community of practice, doing it not only in the U.S., but we are changing lives in India, we’re changing lives in the Philippines and other countries.
I don’t have to be Mother Teresa and go to Calcutta to change lives in India. I can be sitting here as an entrepreneur and create that opportunity in India to be the hero for someone. When money is not the main driver, your ‘why’ of getting up every day and being useful, being helpful, having a sense of progress, having that sense of growth keeps you young. If we sell, what are we going to do? I love it so much. I enjoy this so much that I never want to retire.
As an entrepreneur my work type will change, but then I can have a CEO and still be the chairman. I want to stay productive and busy and useful every day. This is our purpose and we‘re living our purpose and when you’re living your purpose it‘s not work.
Kam: Build IT Live is not a money maker. Build IT University, Communities of Practice, this is our gift back. It makes us feel good. Putting it together and the time and effort…it gives us that purpose. And the one thing I do want to stress as well is that it‘s important for us, we take the responsibility of the 600 families very seriously. It’s why we are still privately held, and people are quite astonished, that there‘s no PE (private equity) money. It’s all 100-percent us. There‘s no debt. This is us and every single office is owned and operated by us, every single employee is an IT By Design employee full time. We take a lot of responsibility for those families. And so when you say, ‘Do you think about being acquired?’ Those families are very, very important and their futures are very, very important to us. So no, we enjoy what we’re doing. We enjoy the satisfaction that it gives us and the difference that we‘re making not only in those 600 families, but the 500 attendees that are here.
Sunny: It’s that impact. Here‘s the advice to MSP entrepreneurs: A bored entrepreneur will die. A failed entrepreneur will not die because a failed entrepreneur will have a challenge in the next day. Entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs because they can navigate uncertainty every day. That’s what keeps them alive and happy. So a failed entrepreneur will have something to solve the next day and they will grow. They will continue to go about their life. When you are a bored entrepreneur you have nothing, no purpose.
What are your overall thoughts on Kaseya acquiring Datto and all the buzz it has stirred in the channel?
Sunny: We are tool agnostic and work with all companies. I think it‘s a clash of value systems. Datto’s core values and culture was very different than Kaseya. I’m not saying which one is good or bad, I don‘t have that insight or knowledge. But what I know for sure is, it was different and those differences just take time for human beings to reconcile things. It’s that value system difference and they have to just figure it out. Once they are very clear in terms of who they want to be, what their identity is as a company and the culture, I think the sooner they figure that out it‘s better overall for the companies.
I talked about a controllable list and a non-controllable list. What’s not in our controllable list is who Kaseya is going to buy, what companies are going to provide them money to buy, that’s not in our control. But what‘s in our control is what Kam said in terms of keeping this ecosystem alive. We need to encourage more on startups. Those startups will stay small.
Kam: My only concern is there‘s so much consolidation. There has to be freedom of choice. When there’s more competitors, that inspires creativity and invention and more technology and better, faster, efficient. When there‘s less people in the space, and right now it just seems like everybody’s gobbling everybody up…we‘ve gone from this big of a channel down to this big of a channel because everybody is just getting bigger and bigger and bigger. I feel bad for the small MSP. There was such a good community feeling before.
When Arnie [Bellini, ConnectWise founder] was at ConnectWise…people have compared that to us, that passing of the baton of what it used to feel like where it was community and helping and everybody knew everybody. Now, as companies are growing and they‘re consolidating…I get it as a one-stop shop type, I just worry about how important are we [that are] left. Everything has now become so corporate. And I value the community. Maybe that’s just me wanting to stay in my little community bubble, I want everybody to be friends and we‘re on this little ship and we’re all together. And that could be me just being naïve. But it‘s important that those value systems stay in this and it doesn’t become Wall Street. We are a channel and it‘s been a small channel because we are a tight-knit community and I don’t want us to lose that tight-knit community.
Move over, Center Stage. Insta360, a company that has staked its reputation on 360-degree cams, is revolutionizing the humble office webcam market with its latest addition, the Link. Like the Apple-branded Center Stage, Insta360’s Link aims to put creators, professionals, and streamers at center stage with features never seen before on personal video conferencing cameras, like a large 4K image sensor and three-axis gimbal.
Insta360’s foray into the webcam space overcomes the limitations of today’s webcams by taking inspiration from both action and larger conference room cams. Hardware is only part of the equation for the Link. Insta360’s existing webcam challenges the rule of physics with A.I.-driven software to bring HDR video, smooth object tracking, quick focusing, and noise cancelation tech to keep you looking sharp and sounding your best. This delightful balance of advanced software algorithms combined with the best-in-class hardware propels newcomer Insta360 to the forefront of the webcam space with the Link.
Insta360 Link is available through Insta360’s web store for $299. Given that the Link is geared towards creators and professionals, the webcam’s color option is limited to a lone black hue, unlike other consumer-oriented webcams like the Lumina.
Insta360 also sells a tabletop tripod accessory for the Link on its website, which could come in handy if you're using some of this camera's more advanced modes.
Insta360’s Link does miniaturization right. Hardware features such as the three-axis gimbal were once the exclusive domain of much larger and significantly more expensive conference room cameras. But by taking inspiration from action cameras, like rival DJI’s Osmo Pocket 2, Insta360 was able to democratize complex PZT (pan-zoom-tilt) conference room cams and bring this technology to everyone in a package that costs just $299.
This focus on advanced features, like a three-axis gimbal, means that the Insta360 Link isn't as compact or as minimalist in its design when compared to the Lumina A.I. 4K webcam or Dell's UltraSharp 4K camera. Still, it packs in a lot of features in a package that measures just 2.71 x 1.61 x 1.77 inches (69mm x 41mm x 45mm). And at just 106 grams, the Link feels solid, and the camera's dense weight makes it feel premium despite the heavy use of plastic compared to the Lumina AI camera's all-metal housing.
At $299, the Link comes in at a $100 premium compared to standard 4K webcams, like the Lumina A.I. webcam, which is considered one of the best options on the market today. That camera, however, lacks the PZT mechanism of the Link. Logitech’s PZT 2 (opens in new tab) conference solution comes in at $849, making the Link appear like a bargain for what you’re getting.
The gimbal-mounted PZT package on the Link allows this camera to pan, tilt, and zoom into your face as you move around. While this may be overkill for standard video calls; for creators, it’s like having your own AI-powered cameraman. When object tracking is enabled and the Link can lock onto your face, the camera will swivel and follow you around as you move out of the frame.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because hardware manufacturers like Apple, HP, and Lumina have been doing this with software. Apple’s Center Stage, for example, relies on a wide-angle camera on the iPad Pro and MacBook Pro to track and follow you around. Unlike the Link’s PZT camera, the built-in Apple camera hardware is stationary, which means that software is utilized to crop in to your face as you move around, resulting in some image compression.
|Features||Insta360 Link hardware specifications|
|Audio||Dual microphone with noise canceling|
|Video resolution||4K (24/25/30 FPS); 1080 (24/25/30/50/60 FPS); 720p (24/25/30/50/60 FPS)|
|Fixed FOV||DFOV 79.5°, HFOV 67°|
|Minimum autofocus distance||10cm|
|Video coding format||H.263, MJPEG|
|A.I. tracking||Supports with and without AI zoom|
|Modes||Portrait, Whiteboard, DeskView, Overhead|
|HDR||Supported for 1080p@24/25/30 FPS and 720p@24/25/30 FPS|
|Dimensions||69mm x 41mm x 45mm (2.71 x 1.61 x 1.77 inches)|
|Weight||106g (3.73 ounces)|
On the other hand, by relying on a PZT camera, the Insta360 Link can effortlessly track you, with the camera swiveling smoothly on the three-axis gimbal to deliver stunning image quality.
“During our research into webcams, we saw a lot of benefits of a gimbal design to provide better stability, a wider range of motion for AI tracking, and more diverse viewing modes,” Insta360’s team informed Windows Central. “We think the future for the webcam industry lies in AI technology and versatile designs like our 3-axis gimbal.”
While both Apple and Insta360 rely on AI to help drive the camera, the Link’s hardware-based approach means you’re going to get a clearer, less compressed image, as the camera doesn’t have to digitally crop into your face.
To use the camera, you’ll need to get and install the companion Insta360 Link Controller on your PC or Mac, and the software provides plenty of customization options. The Link is compatible with major video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, and Google Meet, and Insta360 claims that even more are supported. A single USB-C port is located on the rear and a tripod screw is found on the underside of the monitor clip for flexible mounting options.
Tracking on the Link works exceptionally well, and the camera will pan as you move around. I was in the kitchen over the weekend, demonstrating to a friend on the opposite coast how to prepare a dish over Google Meet. The Link panned around and followed me as I traversed my galley kitchen, grabbing ingredients, and prepping dinner. My friend was impressed with how accurately the Link could track my movement as I moved forward and back, side to side, and as I stood up and bent down to find supplies and ingredients stored in cabinets.
With the Link, you can change the speed of tracking — how quickly the camera will respond and pan around as you move outside of the frame — with three settings: normal, slow, and fast. In my cooking tutorial, I used normal, which resulted in responsive but smooth tracking. Cranking it to fast was also impressive, as the camera speedily kept up with me like a robotic sidekick. But if you’re moving around too much, the results could be jerky and nausea-inducing. Slow was perhaps the smoothest experience, though it could appear to the viewer on the other end of the stream that there is lag.
With the Link, the camera can pan around (side to side) and tilt (up and down) to frame you when you have tracking enabled. Additionally, if you need to zoom in, the camera can apply digital zoom to crop in to your head, your upper body (head and chest), or keep your whole body in frame. The last one could be great for yoga and fitness instructors who need to demonstrate specific whole-body poses.
For more advanced users, the Link Controller software gives granular controls to features like image setting, AI zoom, manual focusing, HDR, and other settings. For example, you can rely entirely on the software’s intelligent AI chops for exposure, white balance settings, brightness, contrast, saturation, and sharpness, or you can dial up or down any of those settings to your liking. In my test under LED light bulbs and in more harsh lighting conditions while working in front of a bright window, I had no problems with the automatic AI adjustments. Users can also turn on HDR mode as well when working under more challenging lighting conditions, as I do, but the feature is not supported at 4K resolution or with 60 FPS.
The HDR limitations aren’t so worrisome at present. Most video conferencing platforms still limit upload feeds for videos at 1080p to conserve bandwidth and deliver a stutter-free experience when ISP speeds may be poor. As such, dialing down to 1080p to gain HDR isn’t a compromise, at least at this time, but it does make the Insta360 feel a little less futureproof than I’d like, given that the rest of this camera’s specifications are so bleeding edge.
But given how advanced the Link’s camera hardware is, HDR and some of the image processing seem superfluous to the experience. Because Insta360 uses a significantly larger 0.5-inch image sensor on the Link — compared to a smaller 0.3-inch sensor on traditional webcams — the camera can capture more light. This is particularly beneficial when you’re trying to take a video call in a dimly lit room.
“When it comes to using a bigger sensor, we believe that a flagship webcam should be able to deliver superior image quality, which requires a larger size sensor to achieve,” Insta360’s team communicated to me via email about the camera’s unique features. “Link's industry-leading 1/2" sensor offers best-in-class 4K Ultra HD resolution at 30fps. The larger sensor size means it captures far more details, has a better dynamic range, and has stronger low light capabilities. This ensures a consistently perfect image in any room or environment.”
I found low-light capabilities on the Link superb. I escaped to the laundry room, which was only lit by some light coming through the door at one end and my MacBook Pro’s display on the other end, and the Link was still able to keep my face brightly lit. In dimmer conditions, you’ll notice some skin softening — akin to Beauty Mode on Samsung smartphones — and additional sharpening to minimize noise. The result is that your face will look slightly artificial — a bit of texture was lost in favor of skin smoothening and noise reduction — but the overall result is very much usable. My face was still bright and lit in frame, and my meeting audience didn’t even realize I was in a darkened laundry room without my disclosure at the end of the call.
In general, I’d say that low light aesthetic is very similar to images captured with Night Mode enabled on some modern smartphones. The low light image quality is night and day apart when compared with my Dell Latitude 5420 work computer under the same challenging conditions. The potato cam image on the Latitude was full of noise and was extremely pixelated. For reference, the Latitude 5420 is a fairly recent laptop, as it was equipped with Intel’s 11th Gen processor.
It should be noted that with the Link, you’ll want to turn off HDR when you’re using the camera in dimmer environments. The sensor is very capable without requiring HDR processing, and with HDR enabled the Link’s image was darker and noisier — but it was still nowhere near as bad as that captured by the Latitude’s built-in webcam.
I appreciated the level of fine-tuning that the Link Controller software provided, including the ability to manually focus if needed. I never really had to use manual focusing, as the camera’s phase detection autofocus (PDAF) was very fast. It could quickly focus into an object I bring into the frame and then switch to focusing on my face as I remove the object from the frame.
But appearing present on camera is only part of collaboration. Sharing documents, brainstorming on whiteboards, and outlining plans all help contribute to a productive, dynamic meeting experience, and the Link will help you do that and more with three smart modes.
The first mode is called Whiteboard mode. The Link comes with four corner stickers that you can attach to a large notepad mounted on an easel or a whiteboard, and the corners help guide the camera’s focus on the content, delivering a cleaner, crisper view of your board to all remote meeting participants.
Desk View is the second mode, and it’s similar to the software feature that Apple introduced on macOS Ventura, which is still in beta. With Ventura, you’ll mount your iPhone to the top of your monitor, and your Mac will use your phone’s ultra-wide camera lens to focus on what’s on your desk. For creators, this could allow you to, for example, record a masterclass on sketching and drawing without having to buy expensive camera equipment or tripods and stands.
On the Link, Desk View mode works similarly to Apple’s implementation, but the camera requires a small tripod stand instead of a monitor mount. The accessory is not bundled with the Link, but it’s available as an optional add-on. Desk View angles the camera downward 45 degrees, and like the Continuity Camera method of Apple’s device, it uses AI software to correct distortion given the viewing angle.
The result is good, and the software corrected the angle so i didn’t have any awkwardly long or fat fingers in the brief testing I performed with this mode. It’s great for creators, and for YouTubers who film unboxing videos, this could be a great setup.
The third mode works in a similar way to Desk View and it’s called Overhead mode. Instead of a 45-degree tilt, the camera is angled 90 degrees so it is now facing completely downward. It’s like old overhead projectors of yore, and this could be a great tool for modern educators. Math teachers, for example, could use Overhead mode to focus down on a piece of paper as they show distance learning students how to solve complex mathematical equations.
Like Obsbot's competing Tiny cam, many of these features can be activated via gesture, so you don't have to click around in the Link Controller software. For example, you can hold your thumb and pointer fingers up to form an "L." The camera will alert you that it recognized the gesture by switching the LED color on the base to blue from green, and you can move your hand up or down to zoom in or out, respectively. Similarly, Whiteboard mode can be activated by forming a "V" with your pointer and middle fingers.
For privacy-obsessed users, the Link will automatically go into privacy mode when it isn’t active for about 10 minutes. This means that the camera will swivel and angle itself downward.
The Insta360 is a solidly built camera, and there’s little to complain about in terms of its software and function. Out of the box, a quick firmware update on the camera helped to Strengthen image quality and HDR processing, so you’ll want to update the Link Controller’s software and the camera’s firmware whenever new updates are available to get the best experience.
That said, for such a premium camera, we wish that the Link shipped with some more protective accessories out of the box.
Since the pandemic has vastly changed where we work — homes and hotels are now the new conference rooms — it would be nice to have a lens cover, for instance, for the camera. That’s not to say that any part of the Link’s construction felt inadequate, but more of a compliment to the fact that I’d want to take this portable camera everywhere I go, and I’d like to have it protected. A padded, molded protective carrying case would also be an excellent addition for those who may be rougher on their gear, and this would keep the Link safely protected inside a stuffed laptop bag.
Elsewhere, the Link has checked off the essential qualities a webcam should have: Superb image quality, responsive tracking, and outstanding audio capture. Thanks to a combination of intelligent software with bleeding edge hardware, the Link delivers.
Insta360’s Link not only has to compete against other 1080p and 4K webcams on the market but also against very agile built-in cameras that ship with most laptops and some all-in-one desktops. Many of these solutions, like the webcam on Apple’s iPad and MacBook Pro, come with artificial intelligence that can help track and frame a subject as they’re moving around. And the best part about built-in cams is that they don’t cost extra, and no additional hardware is required.
On the accessories front, Lumina’s A.I.-powered 4K camera is an excellent alternative to the Link. Both cameras achieve similar end results with software, but the Link pulls ahead with its larger image sensor for better low light performance and a PZT design that allows panning without digital cropping. These benefits come at a $100 premium compared to Lumina’s $199 cost.
Neither of these solutions, however, come with support for Windows Hello. If you desire 4K image quality and need Windows Hello support, you’ll have to look for solutions like Dell’s UltraSharp 4K cam and Logitech’s BRIO 4K.
The closest competitor to the Insta360 Link is the Obsbot Tiny 4K, a compact $269 AI-powered 4K webcam with a similar gimbal design. Unlike the Link, the Tiny 4K uses a two-axis gimbal, making panning less smooth.
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While it's competitors who rely solely on software to smarten up their camera experiences may run into the challenges of physics, Insta360 expertly marries advanced hardware with intelligent AI to deliver the best consumer webcam experience to date. Taking inspiration from gimbals, action cameras, and significantly more expensive conference room video conferencing solutions, Insta360's Link delivers an AI-powered camera that comes with a built-in camera operator inside to pan, tilt, and zoom as you move about the room.
Designed for professionals and creatives who have transformed their living rooms and homes into conference rooms, it's as if Insta360 planned for the global health pandemic. But the Link isn't just a webcam. This advanced camera is a collaboration tool designed to share documents and whiteboards. It's a tool for virtual brainstorming. It's a tool for creators whose mantra is show and not tell. And for that, the Insta360 is worth every penny for the productivity it inspires.