It has been a strange year for Microsoft. Not necessarily in a negative way, but definitely unusual by their standards. Microsoft have continued to struggle in the mobile phone market since buying Nokia and have seen their market share fall. This has been compounded by the dissatisfaction from the Windows faithful with the cheap, mid-range phones that have been released.
They have however had unprecedented success with the Surface Pro 3, leading the way in the 2-in1 market and dragging their OEM partners along in creating well-built devices that have successfully competed with the Pro 3 and MacBook range. Even more surprisingly, they also became innovative and ‘cool’ with the HoloLens. This year’s event then was always going to be interesting.
Despite going on for almost 95 minutes, the event was extremely well presented with awesome new stuff being presented with well-executed stage performances from Panoy Panay, who is now in charge of the Lumia and Surface Devices, and Bryan Roper, Executive Demo Lead.
The event began with some positive statistics; 110 million Windows 10 activations in 10 weeks following release, an impressive start to the target of reaching 1 billion Windows 10 users within two years. More interesting stats followed including developer revenue which increased four-fold and the intriguing announcement that more time is being spent on the Netflix App than Netflix.com. This was an attempt to get more developers to create universal apps alongside companies like Facebook which has promised to make new apps for all of their services (Facebook, Instagram and Messenger)
October promises to be a very busy month for Microsoft with a range of OEM events happening. These include Dell’s conference where they are expected to show the Surface-like Dell XPS 12 and the successor to the XPS13. This “internal competition” is a new experience for OEMs like Dell and Microsoft.
So, to summarise the key parts of the event:
- Microsoft updated us on the future of the HoloLens with a new demo demonstrating “Mixed Reality Entertainment” and revealed that applications will be open for Developers to secure a kit for $3000 in Q1 2016.
- An upgraded Band 2 will be released on the 26th October with a new barometer sensor installed for hiking as well as a new design to feel much more comfortable to wear.
- The new flagship Lumia phones 950XL and 950 were announced with “tablet-class” cooling for the Snapdragon 810 and 808 processors respectively and a demo of Continuum on an announced Lumia. These will be available in November for $649 and $549.
- The Surface Pro 4, upgrade with a new higher resolution display, more sensitive pen and Skylake processors. Most of the upgrades however were around the better Type Cover with a larger trackpad and better typing experience and the improvements made to the Surface pen that comes with the Pro 4.
- Brand new product line from Microsoft; the Surface Book which is “the ultimate laptop” with a 3000×2000 pixel display and a detachable keyboard. It can contain a i7 processor and a dedicated GPU.
The ‘interesting’ parts
Maybe calling the HoloLens and the Band the interesting parts of Microsoft is a bit dismissive to the other ‘regular’ announcements. But I feel they are suitable terms given that the former represents the future of Microsoft in terms of both devices and services.
HoloLens is not necessarily new having been shown off already in the beginning of the year. Since then however, it has become an example of innovation and the ambition of Microsoft going forward. The second round of hands-on demonstrations however dampened the optimism as the limited Field of View became apparent, resulting in a less immersive demonstration than what people had hoped for.
The HoloLens was given a quick demonstration here at the event. Microsoft ran through a new example of holographic demo which they were calling ‘Mixed Reality Entertainment’; as the generic name suggests it’s about merging the virtual reality created by the HoloLens with your reality and creating a game out of it.
This new demo (Project X-Ray) included an unknown controller, which is something that we haven’t seen before with HoloLens demos but probably an expected inclusion. However, it is unclear whether the form of the controller might vary according to the experiences that game developers want to create. In terms of what we saw, it definitely looks very interesting and ambitious, especially when the holograms interacted with the environment like the couch. Developers will be able to apply for a HoloLens kit in Q1 2016 for $3,000, so it will be some time before consumers can lay their hands on it. But the dream of good, augmented reality is definitely alive and kicking.
The second product in this category is the Microsoft Band. the first generation band was a success especially considering you could only pick it up in Microsoft stores and the level of marketing invested into the product was virtually non-existent. The real success of the product however was the huge push on the metric figures and the accuracy of the data accrued that has proved very useful in the development of other applications.
Microsoft has continued to focus on the health and fitness market with this second generation of Band. There is a new curved display with Gorilla Glass 3 on top of an OLED display in order to make the Band a lot more comfortable to wear. The band continues to have in-built GPS tracking, UV monitoring, sleep tracking, calorie tracking and notification support.
The only new sensor to be introduced is a barometer to order to more accurately track elevation during hiking, cycling and “walking up-stairs”. Microsoft were keen to emphasise that the amount of data and accuracy that the Band can process and display is unmatched by any other fitness tracker on the market. All this data is then pushed onto the Microsoft Health app/service in order to create a personalised set of ‘Big’ data which includes “firsts” such as VO2 max (max. volume of oxygen that you can take in).
Microsoft’s plan for the Band isn’t to become the biggest fitness tracker on the market, but to become the service behind the biggest companies such as MyFitnessPal and Runkeeper. If you want the new Band, it will be available to pre-order in the US today and available on the 30th October for $249.
These two products best sum up the possible future of Microsoft, the dream of new forms of computing and the backbone of new services that Microsoft seeks to provide.
The mobile device strategy under Microsoft since the Nokia acquisition can be summed up by the range of their phones; the 640XL and all the similar phones released have been targeting the low cost smartphone market and whilst they have had some success in the emerging markets and Europe, it hasn’t gone down well in the US with consumers or fans of Windows Phones. The new 950 family consists of the Lumia 950 and the 950XL, the latter being the first flagship phone released by Microsoft. Speculation remains however as to Microsoft’s own expectations of these products given rumours that “Surface phones” are in-progress.
The 950 and 950XL have the following specs; all of these specs were well known going into the event due to the leak around these devices, so no surprises here:
|Lumia 950||Lumia 950XL|
|Resolution||2560 x 1440||2560 x 1440|
|Processor||Snapdragon 808||Snapdragon 810|
|Storage||32gb with expandable microSD slot|
|Rear Camera||20MP with triple LED flash|
|Common Features||Windows Hello support (Iris scanner)
One of the features that Microsoft were touting during the event was the use of adaptive antenna technology which basically means that the phone is constantly going to be searching for better connections. I would take this with a pinch of salt…
The next feature announced was the “Tablet class liquid cooling” that came from the team that worked on the Surface Pro 3. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 has had a chequered past due to rapid heating issues, thereby reducing the CPU usage in order to control the temperature. This reputation, and the fact that the Continuum is available on this phone, meant that Microsoft made a big deal out of their cooling system which doesn’t typically happen at events like this.
The camera has historically been a strong point for Nokia. There was a shout-out to the Lumia 1020 with its 41MP setup. These phones look to be strong contenders for the best smartphone camera around. They have a 20MP sensor, with a triple LED flash on the back and 5th generation optical image stabilization. This should lead to a very quick camera that is able to produce realistic colours and the OIS should lead to less blurry images on moving images but also allow the camera to take better images in the dark since the lens should be able to open for longer.
The other feature that could end up being a lifesaver for anyone that quickly runs out of battery but needs to check for a quick notification with a quick glance is the switch to an AMOLED screen. Glance is an old Nokia feature where the lock screen will give you information on your latest emails that have come in or if you have a calendar event coming up soon. When you combine this with the fact that AMOLED screens are able to light up individual pixels as needed instead of the whole screen you can predict that for users who ‘glance’ a lot, they should be able to get much better battery life out of their devices.
The other new hardware features are the fact that the port on this phone is now USB Type-C which is a massive improvement to the typical micro-USB ports found on smartphones at the moment. As a result of its reversibility, it now has higher data bandwidth and the ability to transfer power more efficiently means that these phones can take advantage of Qualcomm’s quick charge to go from 0-50% within 30 minutes.
There is a nifty new sort of camera at the front of the phone which enables Windows Hello, allowing you to unlock your phone by just looking at it. Little information however was given on this feature so we aren’t sure how quick it is or whether it works in all conditions.
Microsoft’s intent is clear; to promote these phones as your single major device. In doing so, they have included two very important things:
The inclusion of a microSD card slot which ‘unofficially’ can support up to 2TB capacity, and the introduction of Continuum.
Continuum works because the underlying operating system on the phone is the same as the desktop, therefore all universal apps that are on your phone will be able to “transform” to their desktop counterparts once you connect to phone to a dock. The dock that Microsoft were showing off, and ones that we expect to be bundled in certain shops, was a little small back box similar to an NUC. It will also contain connectors for USB Type-C, HDMI/DisplayPort and 3 USB ports for accessories.
This is one dock however. Microsoft have plans to allow Continuum work with wireless docks so the possibility of just sitting down at your desk, placing your phone on a Qi enabled dock and start working is a now a very real one.
The dream that these devices and Microsoft are pushing is one where you have a single device that is the brain of all the different screens that you interact with and where the UI just naturally adjusts. Whether this dream is appealing enough to get consumers to start buying these phones and get developers to start building apps for it is yet to be seen but Microsoft clearly, with its support for IOS/Android, is hedging its bets.
A new Microsoft
Microsoft’s surface line has had a roller-coaster ride with the downs of the Surface RT, (an ill-fated ARM tablet that looks like a Windows tablet but didn’t have any of its advantages) to the highs of the successful Pro 3 which has grown in three years to become a $3.5 profitable billion business which has caused unease amongst its OEM competitors HP/Dell who are obliged to offer the product alongside their own. With the rising competition from its internal partners like Dell and HP, and new competition from Apple and Google, Microsoft needed to innovate once more and create a new and unique worthwhile selling point. The answer? Surface Pro 4 and the Surface Book.
Surface Pro 4
The dream of the Surface Pro is to be “the most productive device on the planet”. This has been achieved internally with the Pro 3 powering the creation of the Pro 4 and through customer stories that Microsoft showcase. In this case, the story of Bob who used a Pro 3 for creating CAD models of his customer’s designs in his machining shop, was used as testament to the way the Surface Pro can become an integral part in anyone’s life. The Pro 3, Microsoft claimed, has “Apple level” customer satisfaction with “98% of people who use Surface Pro 3 recommend it to friends and family.”
The major changes made to the successful Pro 3 have been:
- the display of the screen has been increased from the 12” inch display to a new 12.3” reducing the bezel all around the Surface in order to allow it to fit into the Surface Pro 3 Docks which should be good news to anyone that already has a dock.
- the new Intel Skylake processors to the Surface Pro range which enable features like Windows Hello with new biometric methods, also enables up to 16gb of ram and 1TB of storage in a slightly reduced thickness of 8.1mm.
- there is a boost to the resolution to 2763 x 1824 (267 PPI) which is just over 5 million pixels but that isn’t the only improvements to the display; it is now covered with 0.4mm Gorilla Glass 4™ cover which in combo with the 1.1m backlight unit should mean that it will be even more natural to note and draw on the Surface Pro than ever before.
- key improvements to key accessories; the type cover and the Surface pro pen which was always included. The new Surface pen now has 1024 points of pressure which should be that artist should be able to make full use out of professional software to Photoshop to draw naturally in digital without the need for a Wacom tablet, the tips on the pens will be interchangeable for different feels and use cases i.e. for a pencil width or one that is a bit thicker for markers.
- The ends of the pens have also gotten a small upgrade. They can be used as an eraser so just naturally turn your pen around and rubbing out your mistake is a quick step away and the button at the top of the pen can be long pressed to launch Cortana.
- The new Type Cover has gotten an improvement as well. Now it is slightly thinner with more spacing between the keys better so less accidental presses should happen. The big improvements to the cover have been the increased trackpad size ( up 40%) which should make scrolling a lot more pleasant.
- Optional introduction of a fingerprint sensor which allows you to securely login in with a quick press of your finger as used to iOS device with TouchID.
Microsoft quite clearly have been targeting a group of MacBook Air users with the Pro 3 with their advertising and they were consistent with their targeting again. The Surface Pro 4 is “30% faster” than a Surface Pro 3 and “50% faster” compared to the MacBook Air. Whether these feel genuinely that much faster we will find out on the 26th October. The prices start at $899 for the lowest base model all the way up to $2699 for the i7, 16gb ram and 1TB SKU.
Microsoft; it could be argued only created a reference design for their OEM for an emerging form factor of Windows devices however they might go into proper competition with their OEM partners by announcing their surprise product; which is the Surface Book which by their own words is “the ultimate laptop”. It will be an interesting couple of months especially seeing as Microsoft will be at plenty of OEM events.
The Surface Book has a very unique hinge which is a bit hit-and-miss but one that I find very appealing. It is called the Dynamic Fulcrum hinge and it effectively increases the length of the base when the screen is up and open, and shrinks when the lid/screen is closed. This means that the weight of the laptop should be perfectly balanced when it is open and on your lap.
The screen is larger than the Pro 4 and is the typical 13.5-inch screen that you would expect to see on a laptop. However it retains the 3:2 ratio of the Surface Pro display so it has the extremely unique resolution of 3000 x 2000. Powering that display are a combination of the 6th Gen Intel Core i5 or i7 and a dedicated GPU from NVIDIA which has been tuned by the Xbox hardware team. All this in a 1.6lb package.
The other feature that Microsoft were touting was the experience of typing on the keyboard with “Best in-class key stroke”. In terms of specs, the keys have 1.6.mm of travel and are backlit. Microsoft have used the 25 years of experience in making keyboards to make this one their best ever. It is claimed that is “Ounce-for-ounce the fastest 13-inch laptop ever made” and is twice as fast as the Macbook Pro. All this whilst supposedly to lasting a full 12 hours of battery life. If that claim is true; it is going to be one special product.
In true fashion of “one more thing”, the very last feature shown by Microsoft was the fact that you could disconnect the screen from the keyboard and use it as a tablet. Most of the internal components are within the screen. However the GPU is in the keyboard so if you want to take the keyboard off and start noting then you could, making this the thinnest and most powerful windows 10 device Microsoft have ever made.
The Surface Book is available from $1499 on the 26th October, with pre-order starting tomorrow in the US however one quick to note about both the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book is that each SKU of each model is quite different so I would suggest all possible owners take a proper look at the models.
If the Surface Book is nearly as successful as its Pro 3 counter-part was, I think OEM, who have started stepping up their game, might be fearful because it seems like Microsoft the hardware manufacturer might be here to stay this time and compete with Apple for the High-End PC market.