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October 22, 2013 at 10:09 AM
Here are highlights from Apple’s press event in San Francisco today, which I followed via a webcast.
It’s a critical rollout for the company that has seen sales of its iPad fall in the face of growing competition, including lower priced devices based on Google’s Android software.
Apple highlighted the momentum of its new iPhones and revealed a new, thinner version of its iPad, which it’s now calling the iPad Air. Chief Executive Tim Cook also took several swipes at competitors, mocking efforts by PC makers to produce tablets, such as the new Microsoft and Nokia tablets that debuted today.
The company declined to lower prices of its iPads to compete with cheaper Android tablets that are selling faster. Instead it raised the price of its new iPad mini by $70, to $399.
But Apple slightly lowered the price of its new laptops and will begin giving away some apps, including its iWork productivity software.
Here it is:
October 7, 2013 at 12:13 PM
It’s a little odd when a company selling a new gadget says one of the most exciting features is its “help” button.
How many carmakers talk up their new models’ emergency brakes? Do airplane makers call out state-of-the-art oxygen masks?
But Amazon.com tries to think differently about the Kindle tablets it began selling five years ago. It may be on to something with the “Mayday” button that’s a highlight of its new Kindle HDX tablets.
August 28, 2013 at 9:31 AM
Don’t write off Nintendo just yet.
To boost its standing in the three-way battle with Sony and Microsoft this holiday season, Nintendo today cut the price of its “Deluxe” Wii U by $50 and announced an entry-level DS handheld gaming system with two screens on a wedge-shaped tablet.
At just $130, the new 2DS looks like it will be a hit this holiday season. At the least it will give Nintendo a quasi tablet to compete against the iPad, Kindle Fire and other Web tablets that are luring buyers away from dedicated gaming systems.
April 24, 2013 at 10:52 AM
Amazon.com may be preparing to release a new gadget to stream digital video content, posing a challenge to Roku, Apple TV and consoles such as the Xbox, PlayStation and Wii U.
February 8, 2013 at 7:08 PM
In some ways Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet, going on sale Saturday, is a radical new device.
It’s the first full-blown PC made by Microsoft and one of the most potent tablet computers on the market now, especially at a starting price of $899 for a 64-gigabyte model. I’ve been testing a 128-gigabyte model that lists for $999.
It’s a strong debut for Microsoft’s PC-making efforts, especially for a company that usually takes three tries to really nail a new product.
With its usual naming panache, Microsoft is officially calling it the Surface with Windows 8 Pro. Everyone else calls it the Surface Pro.
The 2-pound, half-inch-thick slab contains an Intel Core i5 processor, a solid-state hard drive and 4 gigs of RAM. That’s faster and more powerful than most new desktop and laptop PCs. Yet the tablet still starts up in about 12 seconds, which is less than half the time it takes my iPad.
The Surface Pro also has a memory-card slot, USB 3.0 port and a digitizer that lets you use a stylus for more precise input on its 10.6-inch, high-def touch screen, which also tracks 10 contact points at once.
Then there’s the ability to install and run most PC applications — from iTunes to business apps — as well as the growing selection of apps built just for Windows 8.
For business users, the list of features and computing capability make the Surface Pro a more logical choice than an iPad or Android tablet.
For everyone else, it’s liberating to have a decent, modern tablet that you can use like a PC, without being tethered to a restrictive app store.
Yet in other ways the Surface Pro is a little underwhelming, especially if you’ve seen the parade of Windows tablets that have been released over the past decade.
The Surface Pro may be the latest and greatest, but it also shows why it has taken so long for the PC industry to get this far: It’s hard to build a device that’s an open platform — yet secure — and uses standard Intel hardware still not ideal for mobile computers.
Battery life is a challenge with the Surface Pro. It doesn’t last a full workday without recharging, unlike tablets that are based on less powerful, phone-type processors, such as the Surface RT tablet Microsoft began selling for $499 in October.
Microsoft is sensitive about the battery life issue, and I suspect that’s why the company declined to build in cellular radios to connect Surface tablets directly to 4G wireless networks. LTE radios are battery hogs, but Microsoft needs to add them anyway for road warriors who are coming to expect built-in broadband in their mobile devices.
The Surface Pro looks nearly identical to the lower-powered Surface RT. It’s a handsome, modern design with a sturdy magnesium case.
Some may be turned off by the new device having a design they’ve seen before. Others may enjoy knowing that with the pro model they’ve got more horsepower hidden under the hood, like driving a sedan with a supercharged V-8.
The pro version is a bit thicker than the RT version, a half-pound heavier and has its memory-card slot in a more convenient spot on the side of case, instead of hidden under the built-in kickstand. It has full 1080p, compared with the RT’s 720p resolution, but it’s hard to notice the difference on an 11-inch screen.
The pro also comes with a stylus that snaps into the battery-charging slot. The stylus is a nice addition and works with Wacom inking technology built into the tablet. But I didn’t trust the magnet to keep the stylus attached, and grew tired of unsnapping it several times a day to plug in the charger. Microsoft needs to offer a docking station that lets you leave the stylus attached while you charge.
That extra half-pound was noticeable when toting the pro on the bus or holding it up in bed, for an extended period, but it still weighs less than a laptop.
Also noticeable were the fans required to cool that Intel processor.
Microsoft cleverly designed the fans to blow heat away from you, depending on how you’re holding the tablet, but it couldn’t eliminate the fans’ noise. At my office this low whirring was imperceptible, but when I played Solitaire late at night on the tablet it sounded like a tiny UFO was hovering over my bed.
One thing that was not noticeable was the amount of disk space on the device. There has been a flap over the available space on Surface Pro devices, which have large system recovery partitions.
This might be a concern for some on the 64-gig model. On the 128-gig version that Microsoft loaned me, there are 78 gigs available plus a 7.8-gig recovery partition. If you need massive storage on your tablet you may need to change the partition, use the memory-card slot or consider another device.
Of bigger concern is the dual-mode desktop. To me, the Surface Pro suffers more from the split personality of Windows 8 than its little brother, the Surface RT.
With the RT, Microsoft followed the Apple model and created a “walled garden” device like a smartphone, that only runs only preapproved apps designed for its new tiled desktop. There are trade-offs: You give up some liberty and privacy in return for convenience and simplicity.
It’s convenient to sign in once on an RT or iPad, for instance, and have your signature apply to all the apps loaded on the device.
Microsoft is taking all PCs this direction with Windows 8, which prompts users to sign in. On the Surface Pro, I signed in to Windows, then still had to repeatedly sign in to Xbox Live, Office and various other apps and services. I prefer the open-platform approach of a PC, but on a tablet I expect the convenience of a single sign-on.
The Surface Pro, like other Windows 8 systems, straddles the old and new Windows modes in other ways. It runs new Windows 8-style apps that you get from Microsoft’s app store on the modern, tiled desktop. You can also tap the screen and flip to a traditional Windows desktop.
You do an awful lot of flipping back and forth, especially if you’re using the Surface Pro mostly for PC apps. This back and forth is almost instantaneous, but it gets tiresome.
It’s also disorienting for people trying to figure out what’s a PC and what’s a tablet. This is getting harder now that we have two flavors of Windows 8 tablets on the market– one that’s a “real PC” and one that’s just a Web tablet.
The constant flip-flopping between tablet and desktop modes in Windows 8 mirrors this confusing state of affairs, and makes it harder for people to figure out what’s going on. Eventually it may not matter – categories will blur together and every surface may be a computer. Meanwhile Windows 8 will remind us that we’re in a transition period.
The Intel processor in the Surface Pro is powerful. I was able to run games from Valve’s Steam service, even though it warned me that the system may not have enough graphics oomph, and output them to a TV set.
But it runs hotter than the RT; after five minutes playing a game its case felt like it had been sitting in the sun.
I mostly used the Surface Pro with the $130 “Type” cover with a thin keyboard. A keyboard is almost mandatory for people who type a lot, which brings the entry-level price to $929. The thinner, colorful, $120 “Touch” covers for Surface tablets are neat, but I can’t type fast on them.
The covers work well when the Surface is set on a flat surface. On a lap they flex a bit and can partly separate from the tablet, losing connection.
This raises the question: Are you better off buying a Surface Pro or a laptop? There are some exciting $800 to $1,100 laptops available now that are just as thin as the Surface; some even convert into tablets.
But if you’ve been waiting for a powerful tablet that works like a PC, Microsoft delivers with the Surface Pro.
November 21, 2012 at 6:00 AM
The 47 percent and 1 percent are yesterday’s news.
This week it’s all about the 37 percent — the hordes of Americans who will brave outrageous crowds in search of a deal on Black Friday, the craziest shopping day of the year.
This year 37 percent of American adults will go shopping for deals on Black Friday, according to new research from the Consumer Electronics Association, one of multiple reports this week attempting to quantify the frenzy.
CEA expects the long weekend — through Cyber Monday — will see 60 percent of American adults do gift shopping. It’s predicting that consumers will spend an average of $218 over the four-day frenzy, up from $159 over the Thanksgiving weekend last year.
Through the full holiday season, retail sales should grow 11 percent, with an average of $842 spent on gifts, the group predicts.
Of the gift budget, $252 will be spent on consumer electronics, up slightly from the $246 average spending on gadgets predicted last year.
Altogether 76 percent of gift-giving adults plan to buy consumer-electronics products this year, according to the group’s annual holiday study.
Tablets are the most desired gifts this holiday season. But people are more likely to receive a smartphone instead.
Pity the poor consumers..
They’ll still do pretty well, though, according to CEA’s research.
It’s predicting that smartphones will be the most popular gadget given as a gift this this year, followed by tablet computing devices, laptop computers and DVD/Blu-ray players.
People are so enchanted by tablets, they’d rather have one than money or even peace and happiness.
Here are the most wanted gifts overall by adults, according to CEA’s research:
– Tablet computer
– Notebook/laptop computer
Adults’ most wanted gadgets are:
– Tablet computer
– Notebook/laptop computer
But they may have to settle for something less — perhaps an iTunes or Amazon.com gift card?
Some 77 percent of adults plan to give a gift card this year, including 26 percent planning to give cards for digital music and 20 percent for electronic books. They’re hoping someone else bought you a tablet or e-reader.
November 19, 2012 at 9:55 AM
With Sunday’s launch of the Wii U, Nintendo is once again disrupting the rec room with an unusual new machine designed to advance the notion of video entertainment.
Exploring its capabilities will keep buyers and game developers engaged for years.
The Wii U’s signature feature is its GamePad controller, a wireless tablet with a 6.2-inch touch screen flanked by buttons and joysticks.
Having this second screen can add a fun new dimension to games.
But after trying the console with a stack of launch titles over the past week, I think it will take time for some developers to figure out the right mix of what to display on the TV and the auxiliary screen.
In the meantime, the Wii U is still a nice option for people looking for a high-definition game console that will appeal to a broad range of players. Nintendo gave the system enough horsepower to run most premier games, whether or not they take full advantage of the GamePad.
The Wii U starts at $300 for a white model with 8 gigabyte of storage. A $350 deluxe version has 32 gigabytes of storage and comes with “Nintendo Land,” a collection of a dozen starter games.
All versions of the Wii U support 1080p video, which finally gives Nintendo parity with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3. There are 29 packaged Wii U games available at launch, including top-tier action titles such as “Assassin’s Creed III” and “Call of Duty: Black Ops II.”
The Wii U is the first in a new generation of consoles that will arrive over the next year, including new models of the Xbox and PlayStation. All are likely to use multiple screens, and the next wave of games will be designed with this in mind.
On the Wii U, some games keep you focused on the GamePad screen, and others are mostly played on the TV. Most have you glance back and forth, using the tablet to navigate, aim or select weapons, for instance.
This new approach reflects the way people tend to have a phone or tablet at hand while watching TV nowadays. At work, in the car, everywhere you turn there are multiple displays to navigate and monitor the flow of information in our lives.
Including a tablet with the console may help Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft stem the loss of players who are turning toward inexpensive games on mobile devices and social networks.
The addition of touch screens will help consoles continue their evolution from game machines to hubs of entertainment and communication in the living room. A tablet with an on-screen keyboard works better than a game controller or TV remote if you want to send a text message or choose a movie from an online video store.
For Nintendo, this may be a more radical interface than the motion-controllers that debuted with the original Wii in 2006. They were quirky, but generally tracked familiar motions like swinging a bowling ball, a bat or a sword.
I found the Wii U to have a notable learning curve because it doesn’t feel as natural to divide your attention between the GamePad display and the TV. This might be because I was trying multiple games with different screen mixes.
As a guy who juggles the remote, a tablet and a phone while watching TV, I thought I was pretty good at multitasking.
But Wii U action games such as “Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge” and “Madden NFL 2013″ put my advanced couch-potato skills to the test as I tried to focus on the TV and the GamePad while madly pushing buttons and tapping the display. My technique — or a software bug — caused “Madden” to completely freeze the Wii U at one point.
Among the action games I tried, Ubisoft’s “ZombieU” and Warner Bros. “Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition” made especially good use of the small screen to display maps and sonar for locating enemies and manage collections of tools and weapons.
Nintendo, with its own games for the Wii U, has done the best job so far of figuring out how to have fun with multiple screens.
On its “New Super Mario Bros. U,” the player using the GamePad can help other players get through the game. Tapping the pad can add bridges or bump aside enemies, for instance.
This is a great way to even things out between players with different skill levels, as long as they don’t fight over who gets to use the GamePad. For now the system only works with a single GamePad; other players use standard Wii remotes.
“Nintendo Land” introduces a variety of GamePad controls. You blow on the microphone to activate an elevator in “Donkey Kong’s Crash Course,” you flick the screen to shoot throwing stars at targets on the TV in “Takamaru’s Ninja Castle,” and you simply rotate the tablet to steer a car in “Captain Falcon’s Twister Race.”
In “Luigi’s Ghost Mansion,” one player uses the GamePad to guide a ghost through a haunted house. Other players use Wii remotes to navigate through the house displayed on the TV set.
Multiplayer games require a combination of the GamePad and Wii remotes. Remotes have to be paired with the GamePad, which can be a little tricky, and I never could get a remote to work properly on “The Legend of Zelda: Battle Quest” game in the “Nintendo Land” suite.
A big promise of the Wii U is its ability to play some games and watch streaming video on the GamePad, separate from the TV.
Unfortunately, the Wii U’s wireless system wasn’t strong enough to let me roam with the GamePad beyond the room with the console. It lost signal in the adjacent room, so I couldn’t continue a game in the kitchen or bedroom. Maybe that’s just as well.
The GamePad has the potential to be a truly great TV remote control, especially for navigating online video services. Apps for Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube and Amazon.com are preloaded on the system.
But Nintendo wasn’t able to finish these features in time for the console’s debut, and it will activate them through software updates over the next month. (UPDATE: The Netflix app was activated over the weekend and works very well, with full search of the catalog via the GamePad and smooth 1080p output from the console.)
I wish Nintendo had gone a bit further and enabled the Wii U to also play DVD movie discs, so the device could replace the DVD player. Instead the Wii U uses proprietary discs with a thick, durable-seeming coating.
Another cornerstone of the platform is a new social network called Miiverse, which connects players online. It will be used to set up multiplayer games, share hints and tips on games and chat while watching TV shows and other video content.
Miiverse was not activated in time for my review, but Nintendo said it will be running at launch.
Assuming the video and networking features work as promised, Nintendo has produced an exciting successor to its groundbreaking Wii that should thrill buyers and inspire game developers to explore the GamePad’s potential.
UPDATE: Miiverse, the web browser and other connected features went live as promised over the weekend.
It takes a little time to set up Miiverse accounts for users of the system, which are linked to Nintendo accounts, each of which require handles and passwords. Then you can participate in online forums where games are being discussed and send messages or doodles drawn on the GamePad to others.
During activation there’s a lengthy advisory message encouraging people to be respectful and not post inappropriate material. We’ll have to see whether the Miiverse maintains the positive, family friendly vibe that Nintendo has cultivated with its brand, and how aggressively the company moderates the network.
It’s also an opportunity to activate parental controls, which are simple to manage though there aren’t many options to tailor controls. You can set access to games based on their ratings, but access to video services and the browser is either on or off.
The Mii U’s browser is fast and easy to use and is a handy way to display web pages on the TV. You control the browser on the GamePad and outputs the page on the TV in full screen, without any browser controls visible.
Both the basic and deluxe versions of the Wii U come with an HDMI cable. They can also use the original Wii’s sensor bar – that receives remote signals – which is a nice touch and means Wii owners upgrading to the Wii U don’t have to peel the old one off their TVs.
Here’s a look at a few of the parental control screens:
Here’s the TV remote control capability that’s launched with a “TV” button on the pad. Still to come are interactive TV features and the ability to control a DVR; the Wii U will initially work with TiVo boxes but Nintendo’s hoping to get other set-top box companies on board:
Here are the system specs, as listed by Nintendo:
Price: $299.99 for Basic Set, $349.99 for Deluxe Set.
Size: Approximately 1.8 inches high, 10.6 inches deep and 6.75 inches long.
Weight: Approximately 3.5 pounds.
Wii U GamePad: The GamePad incorporates a 6.2-inch, 16:9 aspect ratio LCD touch screen, as well as traditional button controls and two analog sticks. Inputs include a +Control Pad, L/R sticks, L/R stick buttons, A/B/X/Y buttons, L/R buttons, ZL/ZR buttons, Power button, HOME button, -/SELECT button, +/START button, and TV CONTROL button. The GamePad also includes motion control (powered by an accelerometer and gyroscope), a front-facing camera, a microphone, stereo speakers, rumble features, a sensor bar, an included stylus and support for Near Field Communication (NFC) functionality. It is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and weighs approximately 1.1 pounds (500 g).
Other Controllers: The Wii U console supports one Wii U GamePad controller, up to four Wii Remote (or Wii Remote Plus) controllers or Wii U Pro Controllers, and Wii accessories such as the Nunchuk, Classic Controller and Wii Balance Board. In the future, the Wii U console will support, depending on the software, two Wii U GamePad controllers.
CPU: IBM Power-based multi-core processor.
GPU: AMD Radeon-based High Definition GPU.
Storage: Wii U uses an internal flash memory (8 GB with the Basic Set; 32 GB with the Deluxe Set) for data storage. It also supports external USB storage.
Media: Wii U and Wii optical discs.
Video Output: Supports 1080p, 1080i, 720p, 480p and 480i. Compatible cables include HDMI, Wii Component Video, Wii S-Video Stereo AV and Wii AV.
Audio Output: Uses six-channel PCM linear output via HDMI connector, or analog output via the AV Multi Out connector.
Networking: Wii U can be connected to the Internet via a wireless (IEEE 802.11b/g/n) connection. The console features four USB 2.0 connectors – two in the front and two in the rear – that support Wii LAN Adapters for a wired Internet connection.
Wii Compatibility: Nearly all Wii software and accessories can be used with Wii U.
Energy Efficiency: Wii U utilizes specially designed power-saving features to lower its energy consumption.
Wii U Retail Set Options:
Basic – $299.99
8 GB internal memory for storage
Wii U™ console (white)
Wii U GamePad (white)
Wii U AC adapter
Wii U GamePad AC adapter
High-speed HDMI cable
Deluxe – $349.99
Nintendo Land game
32 GB internal memory for storage
Wii U console (black)
Wii U GamePad (black)
Wii U AC adapter
Wii U GamePad AC adapter
High-speed HDMI cable
Wii U GamePad cradle
Wii U GamePad stand
Wii U console stand
Here’s a close-up image of the GamePad provided by Nintendo. We’ll have to see if it ships the TVii capability shown in the rendering before football season ends:
November 7, 2012 at 2:23 PM
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is enthusiastic about Windows 8 tablets but a new entertainment app he’s releasing this week is coming first to Apple’s iPad.
Allen is releasing an app called Fayve, which helps users choose movies and TV shows by sorting through recommendations generated by streaming-video providers and Facebook friends.
The free app is scheduled to be released on iTunes on Thursday. Versions for Windows and Android devices are being developed and should be released soon.
Allen has invested in many entertainment ventures, including Ticketmaster, Dreamworks and independent movies. He also restored the Cinerama theater in Seattle.
A spokesman said Allen isn’t trying to make money at the moment with the app. The first priority is “to get it in the hands of movie buffs and TV hounds and get their feedback on it.”
“This is connected primarily to Paul’s interest in media. He is a huge media consumer and has always enjoyed keeping a large collection of a wide variety of media,” spokesman Erik Davidson said via email. “He realized it would be useful to have a tool that could filter through the masses of content and find good content based on a person’s existing preferences. He thought this would be useful for himself and decided to build something others could use as well.”
October 29, 2012 at 2:11 PM
Apparently there has also been a storm in Cupertino, Calif.
Apple today abruptly announced a reorganization of its executive ranks that includes the departure of Scott Forstall, head of its iOS mobile software group.
Forstall will be an adviser to Chief Executive Tim Cook until he leaves the company next year.
Forstall — who grew up in the Silverdale area, interned at Microsoft and still has family in the area — was a close protege of and possible successor to Steve Jobs before Cook’s ascendancy.
A BusinessWeek profile in 2011 called Forstall “the sorceror’s apprentice” and said he “may be the best remaining proxy for the voice of Steve Jobs, the person most likely to channel the departed co-founder’s exacting vision for how technology should work.”
The story noted that Forstall is named on about 50 Apple patents, including a key one in 2009 that named him, Jobs and other employees as co-inventors of a touchscreen device controlled by finger commands.
More recently Forstall’s group has come under fire for glitches with the launch of iOS 6, including a faulty mapping program that led to a rare apology by Apple.
Apple chose to release the news on a day it would have the least effect on its stock, which has lost some of its momentum since September and following the launch of the iPad mini last week. It announced Forstall’s departure and the executive shakeup during the storm-related closure of Wall Street.
Also leaving in the shakeup is John Browett, head of Apple’s retail business, after less than a year in the position. Cook will directly lead the group while a replacement is sought. Browett was hired in January from British consumer-electronics retailer Dixons.
Executives Jony Ive, Bob Mansfield, Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi are being given additional responsibilities.
Ive, head of industrial design, will now also lead human interface design, a position giving him more authority over software as well as hardware.
Federighi will lead iOS in addition to OS X software development. Cue will add Siri and Maps to his online services group. Hardware engineering chief Mansfield will lead a new “technologies” group that will work on wireless products and semiconductors.
“We are in one of the most prolific periods of innovation and new products in Apple’s history,” Cook said in a release. “The amazing products that we’ve introduced in September and October, iPhone 5, iOS 6, iPad mini, iPad, iMac, MacBook Pro, iPod touch, iPod nano and many of our applications, could only have been created at Apple and are the direct result of our relentless focus on tightly integrating world-class hardware, software and services.”
The release didn’t provide any information about Forstall’s next career move and the company has not yet responded to a request for more details.
Forstall, a Stanford graduate, joined Apple in 1997 through the acquisition of NeXT, a computer company that Jobs founded after he resigned from Apple in 1985. Forstall was one of the original architects of the OS X operating system and its Aqua user interface.
Forstall rose to become senior vice president of iOS software and part of the small circle of executives that guides the company. Last year he was paid a salary of $700,000 plus a 100 percent bonus of $700,000, plus stock awards, and received a raise to $800,000 for 2012.
Here are a few images I took of Forstall at the side of Jobs during the iPad 2 launch in March 2011:
October 29, 2012 at 9:54 AM
Microsoft really is shaking things up with Windows 8. It’s a remodel down to the foundation, a monumental effort to start a new era of personal computing.
The showcase of this work is the Surface tablet, the first computer made and sold by the company.
Simultaneously, Microsoft overhauled all of its major programs and services, from servers to spreadsheets to Skype.
Some may see this as a sharp turn by a lumbering aircraft carrier to avoid running aground. Others may see a superpower launching a new fleet, in tandem with allies around the world.
Either way, it’s an overwhelming show of force by Microsoft and the PC industry, a duo that’s been less than dynamic in recent years and largely written off by Apple-loving media, investors and gadget aficionados.
The best way to see what’s coming is through the 11-inch screen of the Surface tablet, the magnesium fighter jet in Microsoft’s new arsenal.
With its minimalist design built around a set of online services, the device epitomizes the way we’re using computers mostly as consoles to stay connected to our personal collections of people, programs and media.
You can do this on a PC or phone, but many prefer a slim tablet that starts right up and runs a full day without recharging. Until recently the best option was an Apple iPad, but most every major tech company offers models in different sizes.
After a few days with Microsoft’s Surface, I think it’s a decent alternative, especially for people who haven’t yet added a tablet to their computing mix or have yet to strongly embrace the online realms of Apple, Google or Amazon.com.
The Surface is a refined and elegant combination of hardware and software with a distinctive style and feel that make it stand apart from any other tablet on the market. It feels fast and smooth and is simple enough for my kindergartner to navigate.
Starting at $499 for models with 32 gigabytes of storage and a bundled version of Office 2013, the Surface pricing compares favorably to the latest iPad, which costs $599 for a 32 gig model and doesn’t come with Office.
Shoppers will have to do their own math to decide which is a better deal. More important, though, is feeling each device and trying out their very different software interfaces.
The Surface’s case feels sturdy and purposeful, almost Teutonic, with a metal kickstand that sharply snaps into place. The charging cord also snaps firmly into position, held by magnets, as do the accessory covers with built-in keyboards. It’s slightly heavier than an iPad and feels more dense.
Those covers are pricey but dramatically boost the usability of the tablet, particularly the $130 “Type Cover” with a physical keyboard that’s just a quarter-inch thick. The $120 “Touch Cover” is remarkable. Even with slightly raised keys, it’s just an eighth-inch thick, but I couldn’t type fast on it.
On a single charge, my Surface ran through a workday of heavy testing, including streaming part of a movie to my TV via an HDMI cable. It was still going the next morning when I used it as a platter to carry coffee to my wife, read the news on it in bed and then played music and checked my fantasy football team at breakfast. The battery held out through this brutal regimen until midmorning at work.
Unlike the iPad, the Surface has a memory-card slot. It also has a USB port that worked fine with an ancient mouse, but not my Verizon LTE wireless stick, which isn’t yet supported on the platform. Microsoft should have offered a Surface version with 4G wireless built in.
A big question for many tablet buyers is the selection of apps. Apple’s numerical advantage is misleading. There are 275,000 apps specifically for the iPad, but many are duplicative and most people use only a handful.
That said, Microsoft’s Windows 8 app store is still strikingly bare, even with some 10,000 apps at launch. This is a particular concern on the Surface and other new tablets running Windows RT, a special mobile version of Windows 8 that runs only new apps offered through Microsoft.
Not everything needs an app. Facebook and Twitter don’t have Windows 8 apps yet but you can use them through the browser.
But there are notable holes. Barnes & Noble has yet to release a Windows 8 Nook app, despite Microsoft’s investing $605 million in the company last spring.
“Angry Birds” was missing at launch; the “Space” version has since been added though it’s $4.99, versus 99 cents for the iPad version and there’s no free, ad-supported version like there is on Apple’s platform.
But the most shocking absence is Microsoft Solitaire, which doesn’t run on Windows RT devices. Thus, buying a Surface requires a leap of faith that your favorite apps will come to the platform or that you’ll be fine with what’s there so far.
I’m surprised so few companies have Windows 8 apps since it’s a free opportunity to put dynamic billboards in front of hundreds of millions of people around the world. Companies used to spend a fortune for a piece of Windows desktop real estate and now they’re mostly shrugging and pointing to the iPad.
It remains to be seen whether the quality and style of the Surface and Windows 8 can overcome this bias and restore Microsoft’s reputation for bringing innovation to the masses.
Microsoft knew for years there was a huge market for handheld displays filling the gap between the phone and the PC. It pounced too early, though, with its Tablet PC software in 2002 and other projects in the twilight of Bill Gates’ tenure as chief software architect. Then the company lost interest until Apple showed that the hardware and market for tablet computing had ripened.
Now the larger opportunity is beyond gadgets and in online services where people live their digital lives, connecting from whatever device is at hand.
Windows 8 is Microsoft’s attempt to build a new interface not just for PCs, but for this kind of computing.
When you first set up a Windows 8 system, you’re encouraged to sync it with online services such as email and Facebook. Windows 8 comes preloaded with Microsoft’s online suite, including Skype and the SkyDrive online storage locker. Files are saved online, and accessible from other devices you log in to.
Once it’s all connected, the big tiles on its home screen display constant updates, as well as news headlines, weather reports and other sources you select.
The idea is to be able to see at a glance what’s happening, then easily choose which program or service to launch. It works especially well for email, weather and news. The steady flow of images from social networks doesn’t provide usable information; it’s more of a shiny lure, pulling you back to the services.
Reinforcing the personal feeling of the software is the conversational tone used in its messages. When you first open the music or photos applications, it says “it’s lonely in here” and suggests you “open or play something.”
The flip side of all this personalization, of course, is that Microsoft knows more about you and binds you tighter into online services that it may use for marketing products to you.
Windows 8 system controls fade into the background to maximize the display space, which is a nice concept, especially on devices with smaller screens like a tablet.
But it requires an extra step to activate the controls, and you have to learn how they work or you may get stranded.
With a Surface tablet, these controls feel more natural than on a Windows 8 desktop or laptop.
A slight brush of your right thumb calls up the “Charms” controls, including search, settings and “Start,” a button that takes you back to the home screen. Flicking the left thumb scrolls you through recently opened applications.
Sweeping a finger up from the bottom of the screen reveals additional controls. A downward swipe closes the open program.
You can do all this with just a mouse and keyboard, but it feels less intuitive.
The mandatory minimalism has its limits. Microsoft shouldn’t have followed Apple in eliminating the physical “back” button. As a result, you end up going to the start screen often to “back up” or exit applications.
You frequently have to toggle to the software back to an “old fashioned” Windows 7-style PC desktop to get things done, such as configuring a tricky wireless connection.
Even the key Microsoft program on the Surface — the new version of Office that comes with the device — has to run in old-fashioned “desktop” mode. When you click the Word 2013 tile, it launches the program and switches the desktop back to circa 2009.
You can use the new “search” feature to find files or programs in the new interface.
But I prefer to use Windows Explorer, so I “pin” the trusty old app to the Windows 8 desktop.
Windows 8 is a fresh and fun new operating system, but it will take a while for people to fully embrace Microsoft’s vision of the future. Ready or not, here it comes.
Here are the Surface specs as provided by Microsoft:
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