There are plenty of nicely designed Windows devices on the market. But because Windows and Office are the gears and the grease that keeps the machinery of international personal computing running, Dell, HP, Lenovo and other makers are motivated to make “fleet”-style computers. They’re powerful, affordable, and even have a certain amount of panache, but this kind of hardware can’t help Microsoft achieve its stated goal of transforming Windows into something people love.
Hence, the phones, wearables, tablet, and laptop that the company showed off in New York on Tuesday. To one degree or another, they all show off what’s possible in the Windows world when the device maker is motivated to go beyond providing hardware that current consumers know that they want.
HoloLens and Microsoft Band
If all HoloLens ever achieved was the assurance of at least one kickass gaming demo per Microsoft media event, it’d probably justify its development costs.
Hopefully I’ll have more to think about in early 2016, as Microsoft begins to ship $3,000 developer editions of the HoloLens, and people outside of Microsoft are free to find new sources of awesome in this self-contained augmented reality PC.
The second-generation of Microsoft Band is as real as a heartbeat. They’ve turned last year’s chunky, stiff bangle bracelet into a more flat and supple (if still a little thick) health wearable. The screen itself is curved, which helps the whole package to blend in with your wrist. I found it much more comfy.
The interface, with its larger screen and improved internals, seemed much zippier. There’s a new 11th sensor that adds barometric pressure info, so it can sense changes in elevation.
Though the demo never targeted Apple Watch directly, it was hard not to compare it to Apple’s scattershot messaging. In September, Apple demoed a Watch app that’s useful only to on-call doctors, and released a second crazy-expensive luxury edition that nobody needs. Microsoft emphatically stated Tuesday and underscored the message that Band is there to enhance, extend and improve all of the activities you perform from casual movement to the sort of focused, purposeful, data-driven athletic training that remains an Achilles’ heel of Apple Watch.
Case in point: a new golf app that can automatically keep score. Band has so many sensors that it can tell when you’re hitting balls on the course’s driving range as opposed to the course, and can even sense when you’ve taken a practice swing as opposed to one that ends with contact with a physical object.
(Here’s hoping for a Judge Smails mode. “Don’t count that one … ‘winter rules’.”)
Band is available for pre-order today from the Microsoft Store ($250) and it’ll ship at the end of the month.
New Lumia phones
For the past few years, Microsoft has had everything I want to see in a phone business except (oh dear) for developers and users. They’ve delivered beautiful, well-made hardware with desirable features and a unique UI language that feels totally relevant to the role that a smartphone plays in daily life. And, bonus: it shatters the iOS/Android mold.
Microsoft introduced three new phones but the almost exclusive focus was on the flagships: the 5.2-inch 950 and 5.7-inch 950XL, starting at $550 and $650, respectively, and shipping in November.
Both of them look, and feel, like premium devices. They spec out the same way, with a complete list of top-tier features.
Microsoft has decided to fly or fall based on a simple leap: Windows 10 runs on everything. Your phone doesn’t just get your data and your services, but also your Windows 10 apps and the W10 interface. Every iOS, Android, and Windows phone has mobile versions of desktop apps, such as Office. That’s nothing. When you connect a Lumia 950 or XL to a screen (via Miracast or the new Display Dock), your phone becomes a Windows 10 desktop PC, for all visible and performance purposes. A keyboard and mouse (Bluetooth, or use one of the dock’s USB ports) complete the illusion.
You’re limited to fullscreen Modern apps but there’s nothing mobile about the experience. Create, collaborate and present from the phone. The Lumia itself remains a smartphone, with its own display and personality.
I have a lot of affection for this approach. I keep wondering if this is what anybody wants, though. I’m a mobile warrior myself. If I were planning to carry all of the gear required in order to use a phone like a notebook, why wouldn’t I just take a notebook? Or a little tablet with a keyboard case? But there are many aspects of working in a huge office that I only understand in the abstract.
Well. The 950 and 950XL include the head-of-the-class Pureview cameras and Zeiss badging I’ve loved in previous Lumias. I’m eager to take some pictures with these.
As Apple and Google release new hardware and add new OS features to make iOS and Android tablets behave more like notebooks, it feels as if Surface’s time has come and that the forward thinking of the first Surface has been unequivocally validated.
Surface Pro 4 looks and feels as well-designed and built as any iPad. Its footprint is identical to that of the Surface Pro 3, but its screen has a larger active area and more pixels. It’s noticeably thinner and lighter, but they didn’t take away any of the Surface Pro 3’s ports or power. It’s available with up to a terabyte of storage, which is double that of the Pro 3.
And of course it’s faster (30 percent, Microsoft says) and more responsive. I felt it, particularly when I used the pen (which still has 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity).
But it’s not just a tablet; it’s supposed to be a workhorse, like a notebook. Microsoft introduced an updated flat keyboard cover that’s impressed me as much as the new tablet. It has a larger, glass multitouch trackpad and backlit keyswitches that are so good that it was hard to recall a difference between them and the ones on the MacBook Pro I’d was taking notes with all afternoon. No question: I could spend all day writing on this keyboard.
The new keyboard includes a Windows Hello-compatible fingerprint sensor, and it works with the Surface 3 as well. So does the new Surface dock, which adds a constellation of ports (USB, DisplayPort, and Ethernet).
Finally, Microsoft unveiled its very first notebook, a 13-inch model. It’s a Surface, and it’s a doozy.
Surface Book inspired the opening of this column. Only Microsoft has the freedom to design something that’s this beautiful as a static object.
The hinge between the screen and keyboard is a case in point. The simple hinges on other notebooks work great and they’re inexpensive. Surface Book’s hinge is made of three superwide keystone-shaped links, like a watchband. It makes Surface Book look like a flat sheet of clay that’s been gently folded over. The rounded thickness makes it feel terrific when you’re carrying it. It elevates the design immensely and helps justifies its $1,500 starting price, as does its full array of ports, its rock-solid all-metal construction, and its performance.
Pressing a button on the keyboard unlocks a few finger latches and allows you to separate the screen. The keyboard base contains all of the ports you’d expect on a laptop, plus an additional battery and graphics processor unit. The latter two extend the life of the Book to 12 hours, and delivers the power-hungry number crunching that high-end graphics apps and games require.
Undocked, the screen becomes in essence a Surface Pro 4 (pen included). Except it’s even thinner, because it left its thick ports behind.
I’m way too heavily invested in the Mac platform to consider switching to Windows.
This thought kept going through my mind as I tried and held Surface Book, in much the same way that the sight of an athlete jogging past you in the park on a hot summer day in the right lighting can make the phrase “I love my wife/husband dearly, and I would never cheat on them” pop into your head all of a sudden. If Surface Book were part of the MacBook line, I’d be preparing a grateful essay about Apple finally breaking free of its stoic design language and its dogmatic stance against Macs with multitouch screens. And as a consumer, there’d be zero chance I would consider buying a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air instead.
Even the Surface 4 is solid enough to make me rethink my decision to get an iPad Pro, which felt like it was already bought and in the bag. Now? Well, the cheapest Surface Pro 4 has 128 gigs of storage and it’s $899. The iPad Pro starts at $799, but only has 32G, which seems inadequate for the role I have in mind for it; $949 buys me 128 gigs, which is the only other option.
Add in the Apple Pencil and we’re at $1,100, or roughly the price of Surface 4 (free pen) plus the added keyboard cover that I liked so much. God help me.
Preorders on Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book begin now, for shipment at the end of October.
There was a time in Windows’ development (and my own emotional development) when “Windows Everywhere” would have conjured comparisons to air pollution.
We’ve both matured considerably since those days. Windows 10 just keeps on flying. I saw the same OS running on a phone, a tablet and on a laptop that converts to a tablet, all without any visible compromises or clumsiness; each time, it seemed ideally suited to its host device.
Dare I say that Microsoft seems to have located its source of joy in its work? It sure seems that way, based on the hardware I saw on Tuesday.