Windows 10 hardware is off to a shaky start

Following the Windows 8 debacle, you'd think top-tier Windows 10 hardware vendors would be extra careful to ensure their shipping laptops actually work

Windows 10 hardware is off to a shaky start

I bought an original Surface Pro in 2013, and it's been my all-purpose computer ever since. I wanted to believe it was the long-awaited perfect union of desktop, laptop, and tablet capabilities.

But mainly I've used my Surface Pro as a desktop plugged into a large-screen monitor and a Floating Arms keyboard. As a laptop, it was problematic. The Surface Pro doesn't balance easily on your lap, and I could never get comfortable with its TypeCover keyboard. When one of its fans developed a death rattle, I decided it was time to explore the new generation of 2-in-1 PCs and ordered a Yoga 3 14 preloaded with Windows 10.

I'd used an Acer Aspire years ago and loved its flexibility. It was great, in meetings, to be able to swivel the screen, show it to others, and offer them touch selection. While it made for a heavy tablet, it was still more useful for reading on the couch than a conventional laptop.

But 2007 was early days for convertible touchscreen PCs. I unboxed the Yoga, eager to see how the category has matured.

I put it to work immediately, which in my case meant joining a Google Hangout. (We're a remote-first company, so we spend a lot of time videoconferencing.) It was a disaster! The audio and video performance was so choppy I literally could not communicate -- or multitask or even get the mouse cursor to respond without a multisecond cursor lag.

What? This machine has a Core i7, 8GB of RAM, and a solid-state drive. It should run circles around my Surface Pro. Instead, it was limping badly.

Naturally I suspected driver issues, so I updated whatever I could to no avail. Then I called Lenovo and invited a support tech to remote into my machine and check it out. We agreed that it was a fully up-to-date installation of Windows 10 and no relevant driver updates were available from Lenovo. He had no idea what was wrong. Meanwhile, I needed a working machine. I transferred to Lenovo's post-sales department, had it authorize a return, and went to the Apple Store determined to take the plunge.

It's been a while since I had used a Mac. In my circles that makes me an outsider. Mine is often the only PC in a roomful of Macs. Monocultures of any sort make me nervous, and I resist them on principle. But I was ready to relent until I picked up a MacBook Air and thought about not being able to fold it into a tent or touch its screen. Those are compelling features. I went to Best Buy, picked up an HP Spectre x360, brought it home, unboxed it, and -- unbelievably -- ran into the same problem!

It took a bit of Googling, but I finally found the answer on an independent forum:

I found the issue! It was related to a Realtek Program named FMAPP.exe. Stopping it in Task Manager and excluding it from starting at Boot solved my issue and it leads to no Sound issues or similar things, so it's no problem to exclude it from boot.

I found different versions of that Realtek software on both the Lenovo and the HP. Eliminating it solved the problem on both machines.

I'm gobsmacked. How many customers are suffering choppy video and multisecond cursor lag? How do Lenovo and HP not know this is happening? How much damage does this do to an already endangered ecosystem?

For now I'm keeping the HP. It's nicer hardware than the Yoga. After all these years, though, I'm still not ready to declare the 2-in-1 category ready for prime time. The shotgun marriage of conventional and touch interfaces is still awkwardly consummated -- and drivers struggle to keep up with the evolution of hardware. Maybe the Surface Book will finally show the way.

Meanwhile I'll use the Spectre x360 with Windows 10, which, despite flaws, is a sweet combination. But the smug superiority I was planning to unleash on my hipster Mac friends will have to wait.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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