Category Archives: android

Sweetlabs Android App Services: what is it?

Margins on smartphones are thin, which is why we regularly hear commentary about how only Apple and Samsung are making any money from them. Vendors therefore look for other ways to monetize their business, though it is never easy, and there are plenty of examples of failed music stores and other premium services. Google can always make money, through Play Store revenue, ads served via Search, and monetizing the data it collects. But what of the smartphone vendors?

One obvious strategy is to pre-install applications, for which the app developer may pay. I say may because without inside knowledge its impossible to tell whether the Facebook app, for example, is pre-installed as a benefit to customers or because Facebook has paid something. Most users would probably install the Facebook app anyway; but fewer would install the Opera web browser, to take another example, so common sense says that if you find Opera pre-installed, it is more likely than Facebook to have paid for the privilege.

On Windows PCs, which also suffer from low margins, the pressure on manufacturers to make money from pre-installed applications has had a dire affect, significantly reducing the appeal of the product. At worst, you can pay good money for a PC, turn it on for the first time, and be greeted by a flurry of dialogs inviting you to install this or subscribe to that, along with warnings that your new purchase is “not protected”. Apple has never allowed this of course, which is one of the attractions of Macs. Another consequence was that Microsoft introduced its own brand of PC, Surface, and opened stores selling “signature” editions of PCs on which most of the foistware is absent.

The situation on Android should never be as bad. The operating system has a modern design, which means that applications are isolated and cannot cause as much damage as on Windows. If an application that you do not want is installed, it is easy to remove.

Even so, pre-installed apps on Android do introduce clutter and confusion, especially when combined with the constant requests for various types of permission which characterise the initial setup experience. I imagine that many users simply agree to everything, since the consequences of denying permission are rarely clear, and most want their new device to “just work.”

Sweetlabs is a company which specialises in monetizing app installs on Windows as well as Android. On Windows it is best known for the Pokki app store. Sweetlabs does not always present its brand overtly to users. Users are not its customers after all; its customers are app developers and smartphone vendors.

I reviewed a smartphone recently, and soon after switching on for the first time, I saw a notification inviting me to “Complete device setup” and to “Allow App Services to push messages to the n…” (I am still not sure what is the cut-off word):

If you tap this notification an app installer opens, presenting a small selection of apps categorised as either “Essentials” or “Entertainment”. You are meant to select the apps you want and then tap Finish to have those apps install, agreeing the terms and conditions as you do. Once you tap Finish, the notification disappears, though I noticed that the Sweetlabs service continues to run in the background:

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My understanding is that the service continues to run because at some future date more apps may become available. The Sweetlabs site talks about promoting apps through “multiple customer-facing touchpoints, including white-label apps and widgets that integrate into the out-of-box experience and persist through the lifetime of the device.” This can include a Featured Apps widget on the home screen that recommends apps “over the lifetime of the device.”

Is this a good or bad thing? The answer is nuanced. I dislike the way the notification implies that these optional app install are part of device setup; it is not, it is a marketing app. You can get all these apps through the official Play Store and App Services is consuming unnecessary system resources.

On the other hand, if you accept that pre-installing apps is inevitable given the low margins in this business, the Sweetlabs approach has advantages. Instead of simply dumping a bunch of unwanted apps on your device, you can choose which ones you want, if any. Therefore the company promotes itself as a better approach, even presenting itself as a fix for crapware. My review device had pre-installed apps on it as well, though, so it is more a case of putting up with both.

From the perspective of app developers, any service that helps get your app noticed in a beyond-crowded market is a significant benefit. Sweetlabs also offers an app analytics service focused on who is installing your app.

I wrote this post because I did not find much information about App Services when I searched for it after seeing the notification on my review device. If you are wondering whether you need it on your device, the answer is no; it does nothing essential, it is a vehicle for promoting apps, and you can safely disable or remove it. I recommend installing apps from the Play Store instead, where you can see user reviews and other information. It is not really evil though; it may have reduced the price of your smartphone as well as providing app developers another way to get their products noticed.

Honor 8 smartphone first look

I’m just back from Paris and the European launch of the Honor 8 smartphone.

Honor is wholly owned by Huawei though the relationship between the two businesses is a tad opaque. I’ve been told that Honor is run as a separate business focusing on a young internet-oriented market, though there is shared technology (it would be crazy not to). The Honor 8 represents a significant strategy shift in that it is a relatively high-end phone, whereas previous devices have been mid-range or lower.

One of the first things you notice about the Honor 8 though is its similarity to the Huawei P9, launched in Europe in April 2016, is obvious. That is no bad thing, since the P9 is excellent and the Honor 8 cheaper,  but the business strategy is a bit of a puzzle. Honor says its phone is targeting a different market, and it is true that the shiny glass body of the Honor 8, in a pleasing blue shade on my review unit, is jauntier than the grey metallic finish of the P9. The P9 is also a fraction slimmer. Yet the devices are far more alike than different, and I would happily pull out the Honor 8 at a business meeting. The Honor 8 also benefits from a few extra features, like the rear smart key.

The P9 has the benefit of Leica branding and shared technology for its camera. An Honor/Huawei PR person told me that this is a software-only distinction and that if you look at the hardware sensors the two phones are very similar. Should photographers therefore get the P9? Possibly, though for a casual snapper like myself I have not noticed a big advantage. See below for some comparative snaps.

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The Honor 8 (left) and the Huawei P9 (right).

To get a bit of context, the Honor 8 is being launched at €399 with 4GB RAM and 32 GB storage, or €449 with 4GB RAM and 64GB storage (inc VAT). That should equate to around £345 and £390 in the UK. The P9 was launched at £449 for 3GB RAM and 32GB storage, substantially more, though as ever real-world prices vary, and in practice a P9 today will likely cost only a little more than an Honor 8 if you shop around. The 8-core Kirin processor is the same, and the screen is the same resolution at 1920 x 1080. Both models also feature a dual-lens 12MP rear camera, 8MP front lens, and a rear fingerprint reader.

Out of the box

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The Honor 8 immediately impressed me as a nicely packaged device. You get headset, charger, USB C cable, SIM removal tool, quick start guide (not much use but does have a diagram showing exactly where to insert dual Nano-SIMs and microSD card) and a couple of stickers for good measure. I am not a fan of the headset which lacks any ear-bud gels so it not secure or comfortable for me, but tastes vary.

The glass body is attractive though shiny and easy to smear. Honor can supply a simple transparent case – more a tray than a case – which will offer a little protection, but most users will want something more.

Switch on and there is the usual Android palaver and confusion over permissions. Here I did notice something I dislike. I got a notification saying I should “complete device setup” and “Allow App Services to push messages”:

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Rather than tapping Allow, I tapped the notification and found an app installer and an invitation to “Choose the apps that come with your phone”. I tapped to see the EULA (End User License Agreement) and found it was a Sweetlabs app that “facilitates the recommendation, download and installation of third party apps.”

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This is horrible; it is deceptive in that it is presented as part of system setup and performs no useful function since you can easily install apps from the Google Play store; at least one of the apps offered by Sweetlabs (Twitter) was actually already installed. My opinion of which apps are “Essential” differs from that of Sweetlabs:

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I did not agree the Terms and Conditions. We have seen this kind of thing before, on Windows, and it is damaging to the user experience. History may repeat with Android.

Other than that, setup was straightforward.

Things to like

Fortunately, there is plenty to like. As on the P9, the fingerprint reader on the back is excellent; in fact, I like this feature so much that I sometimes absent mindedly tap the back of other phones and expect them to unlock for me. On the Honor 8 though, it is even better, since the fingerprint reader is also a “Smart key” which you can configure to open an app or take an action such as starting a voice recording or opening the camera. You can configure up to three shortcuts, for press, double press, press and hold.

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Another neat feature, also not on the P9, is the Smart Controller. This is a universal infra-red controller app and it seems rather good. I pointed it at a Samsung TV and after trying a few functions it declared a “best match” and seems to work fine.

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The camera

The camera is a key selling point for the Honor 8. One lens is RGB, the other monochrome, auto-focus is better with two lenses, and the ISP (Image Signal Processor) takes advantage by recording extra detail. There is also a great feature called Wide Aperture which lets you adjust the focus after the event.

When the camera app is open you can swipe from the left to select a mode. There are 16 modes:

Photo
Pro Photo
Beauty
Video
Pro Video
Beauty Video
Good Food
Panorama
HDR (High Dynamic Range)
Night Shot
Light Painting
Time-lapse
Slow-Mo
Watermark
Audio note
Document Scan

After just one day with the device I have not tried all the modes, but did take a look at Pro Photo which gives you control over the metering mode, ISO sensitivity, shutter speed, exposure compensation, focus mode (automatic or manual), and white balance.

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These same controls are on the P9 though with a slightly different UI and this causes me to wonder exactly what is the Leica contribution that is on the P9 but not the Honor 8. There are a few extra settings on the P9 if you swipe in from the right, including film mode, RAW mode and a Leica watermark option.

How is the camera in use? I took some snaps and was pleased with the results. I also tried taking a similar picture on the Honor 8 and the P9, and comparing the results:

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A Paris landmark (P9 left, Honor 8 right)

You can’t tell much from the full view, especially since I’ve resized the images for this post, so here is a detail from the above:

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Detail view (P9 left, Honor 8 right)

Much difference? Please do not draw conclusions from one snap but these support my impression that the Leica-enhanced P9 takes slightly sharper pictures than the Honor 8, but that a casual user would be happy with either.

Performance

The performance of the Honor 8 seems similar to that of the P9 which I reviewed here. The P9 features a Kirin 955 SoC versus the slightly older Kirin 950 in the Honor 8; the specs are similar. Both have 4 Cortex A72 cores, up to 2.5GHz in the Kirin 255 versus up to 2.3GHz in the Kirin 950. In each case, these are supplemented by 4 Cortex A53 cores at up to 1.8GHz and a quad-core Mali T880 MP4 GPU.

Geekbench 3, for example, reports 1703 single-core score and 6285 multi-core, one figure slightly worse, one slightly better than the P9. A run with PC mark came up with a Work Performance Score of 5799, below the P9 at 6387, with the difference mainly accounted for by a poor “Writing score”; other scores were slightly ahead of the P9, so something may be sub-optimal in the text handling and scrolling.

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Conclusion

I do like this phone; it looks good, feels responsive, and comes with some distinctive features, including the superb fingerprint reader, dual lens rear camera, smart key and smart controller. It does not seem to me to be a young person’s phone particularly, and I can see some people choosing it over a P9 not only for its lower price but also for a couple of extra features. Photographers may slightly prefer the P9, which also has a fractionally slimmer body and a more elegant, understated appearance. In the general phone market, the Honor 8 is competitively priced and well featured; I expect it to do well.

Huawei P9 smartphone launched in London: first look review

I attended the launch of Huawei’s P9 and P9+ smartphone range in London. This was a global launch from a Chinese company which, like Xiaomi with its impressive presentation at Mobile World Congress, is intent on competing at the high end of the market.

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Huawei also has an important edge over Xiaomi in that its P9 range will be available shortly; from Huawei’s vMall online store in mid-April, or from various UK operators in “early May”.

The review sample came in a smart box with charger, USB type C cable, and white earbuds/headset:

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Insert micro-SIM, switch on, and the start-up experience I would describe as “reasonable for Android”, with a flurry of pop-ups asking for various permissions and agreements to terms and privacy policies; pretty ugly and hard to make sense of, but for this review I tapped OK to agree to most things in order to get what I guess is the normal experience.

I was also prompted to set up the fingerprint reader. This requires several readings of your finger and works well for me. Just touching my right finger on the back will unlock the phone. The phone storage is encrypted by default.

Design-wise, Huawei tried to persuade of the merits of “aerospace-class aluminium”, “diamond-cut edges”, “brushed hairlines” and the like; but while it is decent enough it does not strike me as exceptionally beautiful or nice to hold; of course tastes vary. It is thin and the edges are narrow to maximise the screen space. I am impressed that the designers squeezed a 3000 mAh battery into such a slim, light device.

The camera

Every smartphone needs some differentiation. Huawei has focused (ha!) on the camera. The P9 has a dual lens and the camera is designed in partnership with Leica, a well known and respected brand among professional photographers.

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The back of the P9 showing the dual-lens camera and fingerprint reader.

Both lenses are described as “Leica Summarit”, one 12MP camera is colour and the other monochrome. Dual lenses can help with focus, and in addition Huawei say that the monochrome lens adds detail to an image. You can also take monochrome pictures of course, and this was used to good effect in some of the samples by professional photographers we were shown. Of course you can easily convert any colour image from any camera to monochrome; perhaps the results from a specialist camera are superior.

Huawei also states that dual cameras mean more light and detail in low-light conditions, which absolutely makes sense.

A hybrid focus feature uses “laser, depth calculation, and contrast” and automatically selects the best result, says Huawei.

I have not been trying the P9 for long, but did take roughly the same picture with the P9 and with the Lumia 1020 (the latter famous for its 40MP camera). All settings were default. The P9 is top, the Lumia below, slightly cropped and then reduced in resolution (click for a double-size image):

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The P9 is more vivid and probably most people would prefer it. Here is a zoomed in detail, with the P9 at full resolution and the Lumia reduced to match:

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Of course I am not a professional photographer, nor was I using a tripod; but this is how I use a camera on a phone. My feeling is that the Lumia still comes out well for close detail and I am sorry that Microsoft has not come out with a true successor to the 1020, which will be three years old in July. The sad story of Windows Phone at Microsoft is not the subject of this post however.

There is much more to the P9 camera though. Here is a look at the settings:

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When the camera is open,  there are buttons across the top to control flash, wide aperture (for close-up shots), filter effects, and switching between rear and front (8MP) cameras.

The wide aperture option enables a remarkable feature: the ability to re-focus after taking the shot. Simply take the picture with the wide aperture option. It will be then show up in the Gallery with an aperture icon overlay. Tap the image to open it, then tap the aperture icon below the image.

Now you are in “wide aperture effects” mode. Tap any part of the image to focus on that spot, and enable a slider to vary the aperture after the event.

It really works:

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Now tap the out of focus tulip…

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This is magic and a lot of fun.

You can swipe up for Pro controls:

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In order to get full use of these options (and indeed the rest of the phone) you probably want to download the manual. The Pro controls are (left to right): metering mode (how exposure is set), ISO, Shutter speed, exposure compensation (brightness), focus mode and white balance.

Swipe left for a selection of special camera modes:

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There is also some fancy stuff like voice activated shooting (say “cheese” to take a photo). You can do burst shooting to take a rapid sequence of shots, with the best couple auto-selected. You can take rapid shots (capture the moment) by pressing volume down twice; the screen does not light up immediately but the shot is taken. I got a time from press to photo of about one second using this mode.

Video resolution is a maximum of 1080p, 60 fps, with stereo sound recording.

All things considered, this is an excellent camera, which is why Huawei handed out a book of professional photos taken with the device, which look superb.

Performance

The P9 feels fast and responsive. Huawei mentioned a file system optimization which increases performance but I have not got details of this.

I got a PC Mark score of 6387.

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This is ahead of the Samsung Galaxy S7, which scores 5926. Another mobile which is to hand, a budget Cubot with a quad code 1.3 GHz Mediatek, scores 3223.

On Geekbench 3 I got a score of 1725 single-core and 6087 multi-core. This compares to 2170 and 6360 for the Galaxy S7, so it falls behind slightly.

A bit more detail:

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The biggest difference versus the S7 is in the graphics. The P9’s Mali T880 is not quite the equal of the S7’s Exynos 8890 (on UK models).

Audio

A few notes on the audio side. There are a couple of annoyances, one being that the default music app is not much use to me (I use Spotify or Google Play on Android). The supplied headset is disappointing, with no rubber gel so the fit is rather insecure, and a rather bright sound with little bass. No matter, you can use your own headset; and plugging in a high-quality headset left me with no complaints.

The other good news is that the on-board speakers are remarkable. I can put the phone down, play some music, and really enjoy it. Bass is unusually good considering the lack of a proper speaker enclosure, and clarity is excellent.

Pricing

Let’s get some pricing context. The P9 is a flagship device, though from a company not perceived as a premium brand, and is priced accordingly. At £449 for the cheaper, smaller model it is about 20% less than a Samsung Galaxy S7, and about 27.5% less than an Apple iPhone 6S. It is good value considering the hardware, but not a casual purchase. Here is a table

  RAM Storage Size Screen CPU Battery Special features Price
Huawei P9 3GB 32GB 5.2″ 1920 x 1080 8-Core
2.5 GHz
3000 mAh Dual lens camera
Fingerprint
Reader
£449
Huawei P9+ 4GB 64GB 5.5″ 1920 x 1080 8-Core
2.5 GHz
3400 mAh Dual lens camera
Fingerprint
Reader
£549
Samsung
Galaxy S7
4GB 32GB 5.1″ 1440 x 2560 8-Core
2.3 GHz
3000 mAh IP68 Water resistance
Wireless charging
Gear VR
KNOX security
Fingerprint Reader
£569
Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge 4GB 32GB 5.5″ 1440 x 2560 8-Core
2.3 GHz
3600 mAh IP68 Water resistance
Wireless charging
Gear VR
KNOX security
Fingerprint Reader
£639
Apple iPhone 6S 2GB From 16GB 4.7″ 1334×750 2-Core 1.85 GHz
64-bit A9
1715 mAh Fingerprint sensor from
£539
Apple iPhone 6s Plus 2GB From 16GB 5.5″ 1920×1080 2-Core 1.85 GHz
64-bit A9
2750 mAh Fingerprint sensor from
£619
Apple iPhone SE 2GB From 16GB 4″ 1136×640 2-Core 1.85 GHz
64-bit A9
1624 mAh Fingerprint sensor from £359

The table above comes with a number of caveats. It doesn’t cover all the important specifications, it doesn’t tell you about the quality of materials or design, and some details, like the amount of storage, vary depending on the exact offer. The prices are for unlocked phones, whereas most people buy on contract. Apple’s prices tend to be higher than shown, because who wants just 16GB non-expandable storage? With 64GB the 6Se goes up to £439 and the 6S to £619.

First look conclusion

A couple of days with this phone leaves me convinced that Huawei has come up with a true high-end device at a very reasonable price. The camera is outstanding in terms of features though having been spoilt with the Lumia 1020 I would like a bit more than 12MP; I realise though that counting pixels is no way to judge a camera.

On the software side I note that the out of box experience on Android is not great, thanks to incessant permission pop-ups and confusing alternatives for things like music and email. Samsung’s apps are a bit better I think; but if you mostly live in Google apps or other favourite third-party apps, you will not care too much. Everything I have tried so far has worked.

The usefulness of the fingerprint reader is a pleasant surprise, as is the sound quality from the built-in speakers.

For sure the P9 is well worth considering if you are looking for an Android mobile with great performance and an interesting camera. It is excellent value for price/performance.

I think Samsung should worry a bit, not just about Huawei, but about other Chinese vendors with aggressive marketing plans, such as Xiaomi. Apple? On the train back I spoke to a passenger using an iPhone and asked whether she would switch to a mobile that was both better (in hardware terms) and cheaper. No, she said, because everything syncs between my phone, iPad and computer. Of course she could switch to Android and get similar synching with apps from other vendors; but I got the impression she is happy to stay in Apple’s world where stuff (more or less) just works. In this respect, it doesn’t help that each Android vendor wants to make their mark with distinctive apps; for many users that is just additional complication (I have declined to set up a Huawei ID, despite being prompted).

An impressive device though, and a clear statement of intent from Huawei.

Why Microsoft is hard to love

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella stated last week that “We want to move from people needing Windows to choosing Windows to loving Windows. That is our bold goal with Windows.”

It is an understandable goal. Many users have discovered a better experience using a Mac than with Windows, for example, and they are reluctant to go back. I will not go into all the reasons; personally I find little difference in usability between Mac and Windows, but I do not question the evidence. There are numerous factors, including the damage done by OEMs bundling unwanted software with Windows, countless attacks from malware and adware, badly written applications, low quality hardware sold on price, and yes, problems with Windows itself that cause frustration.

There is more though. What about the interaction customers have with the company, which makes a difference to the emotional response to which Nadella refers? Again, Apple has an advantage here, since high margins enable exceptional customer service, but any company is capable of treating its customers with respect and consideration; it is just that not all of them do.

Now I will point Nadella to this huge thread on Microsoft’s own community forums.  The discussion dates from September 10 2014 and the contributors are customers who own Windows Phone devices such as the Lumia 1020. They discovered that after updating their devices to Windows 8.1 they experienced intermittent freezes, where the phone stops responding and has to be cold booted by pressing an emergency button combination (volume down plus power). These, note, are critical customers for Microsoft since they are in the minority that have chosen Windows Phone and potentially form a group that can evangelise this so far moribund platform to others.

The thread starts with a huge effort by one user (“ArkEngel”) to document the problem and possible fixes. Users understand that these problems can be complex and that a fix may take some time. It seems clear that while not all devices are affected, there are a substantial number which worked fine with Windows Phone 8, but are now unreliable with Windows Phone 8.1. A system freeze is particularly problematic in a phone, since you may not realise it has happened, and until you do, no calls are received, no alerts or reminders fire, and so on, so these customers are anxious to find a solution.

Following the initial complaint, more users report similar issues. Nobody from Microsoft comments. When customers go through normal support channels, they often find that the phone is reset to factory defaults, but this does not fix the problem, leading to multiple returns.

Still no official comment. Then there is an intervention … by Microsoft’s Brian Harry on the developer side. He is nothing to do with the phone team, but on 27 October receives this comment on his official blog:

Brian, sorry to hijack you blog again, but you are the only person in MS who seems to care about customers. Can you please advise whoever in MS is responsible for WP8.1 and make them aware of the “freeze” bug that MANY users are reporting (31 pages on the forum below). There has been NO feedback from MS whatsoever in the months that this has been ongoing and it is obviously affecting many users (myself included). If “cloud first, mobile first” is to be a success, you better make the bl00dy OS work properly. Thanks

Harry promises to raise the issue internally. On 12 Nov still nothing, but a reminder is posted on Harry’s blog and he says:

Nag mail sent.  Sorry for no update.

This (I assume) prompts a post from Microsoft’s Kevin Lee – his only forum post ever according to his profile:

I’m sorry we’ve been dark – I work closely with the Lumia engineering team that’s working directly on this. Trying to shed a little light on this…

Beginning in early September we started to receive an increased number of customer feedback regarding Microsoft Lumia 1020 and 925 device freezes. During the last two months we have been reaching out for more and more data and devices to systematically reproduce and narrow down the root cause. It turned out to be a power regulator logic failure where in combination with multiple reasons the device fails to power up the CPU and peripherals after idling into a deep sleep state.

I am pleased to pass on that we have a fix candidate under validation which we expect to push out the soon with the next SW update!

Appreciate your patience.

OK, so Microsoft knows about the problem, has sat back saying nothing while users try this thing and that, but now after two months says it has a “fix candidate”. This is greeted warmly as good news, but guess what? Phones keep freezing, no fix appears, and in addition, there is lack of clarity about how exactly the fix is being “pushed out”.

Two months later, user Shubhan NeO says:

And I broke my Lumia 1020. Not going back to Windows Phone ever ! Switching back to Android ! Here is sneak peek of my phone !

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It is not quite clear whether he broke the phone deliberately in a fit of frustration, but perhaps he did as he comments further:

Works ? Seriously ? It hangs 2-3 a day, has stupid support for official apps. So many issue.

I’m done.

Here is another:

I paid the extra £ for a better phone; with a better ’41-megapixel camera’… now to find out that people with cheaper models have not had any freeze problems. Despite peoples comments about this being an aged device, and probably the reason for lack of support, I must add that I only purchased my 1020 ‘NEW’ in July 2014 (which is only 6 months ago). For 3 of those months it has been very unreliable … I am extremely disappointed in how I and everyone else here has been treated by Microsoft.

Read the thread for more stories of frustration and decisions never to buy another Windows Phone.

What are the real problems here? The hardest thing to accept is not the fact of the fault occurring, or even the time taken to fix it, but the apparent lack of concern by the company for the plight of its customers. If Mr Lee, or others from the team, had posted regularly about what the problem is, how they are addressing it, possible workarounds and likely time scales, it would easier for users to understand.

As it is, it seems that this part of the company does not care; a particular shame, as Nokia had a good reputation for customer service.

I post this then as feedback to Nadella and suggest that a cultural shift in some areas of Microsoft is necessary in order to make possible the kind of emotional transition he seeks.

Review: Synology DS415+ Network Attached Storage

Synology’s DS415+ is a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device aimed at small businesses or demanding home users. I have been running this on my own network for the last 6 weeks or so.

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First, a note about Synology’s product range. Let us say you want a NAS with 4 drive bays. Here are the choices, with current bare NAS prices from Amazon.co.uk:

  • DS414j £252.63: Budget offering, 512MB RAM, 1.2 GHz  dual core ARM CPU, 1 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, 1 1GB Ethernet port. 90W power supply, 32.64W power consumption.
  • DS414 Slim £237.87: Smaller case designed for 2.5″ drives. All the other units here support 3.5″ drives. Given that you can normally tuck your NAS away in a corner, there is limited value in restricting yourself to these smaller drives, but there is also an energy as well as space saving. 512MB RAM, 1.2GHz single core ARM CPU, 2 USB 3.0 ports, 2 1Gb Ethernet ports. 30W power supply, 15.48W power consumption.
  • DS414 £332.83: Core product. 1GB RAM, 1.33 GHz dual core ARM CPU, 1 USB 2.0, 2 USB 3.0, 2 1Gb Ethernet ports, 90W power supply, 28.42W power consumption.
  • DS415 Play £379.99: Home oriented. Benefits from hardware video transcoding. 1GB RAM, 1.6GHz dual core Intel Atom CPU, 3 USB 2.0 ports, 2 USB 3.0 ports, 1 1Gb Ethernet port, 90W power supply, 27.33W power consumption.
  • DS415+ £460.74: Business oriented. 2GB RAM, 2.4GHz quad core Intel Atom CPU, 1 USB 2.0 port, 2 USB 3.0 ports, 1 eSATA port, 2 1Gb Ethernet ports, 100W power supply, 32.64W power consumption.

You can get a more detailed comparison of these four models in this table. Incidentally, I am guessing that in the Synology numbering scheme, the first digit represents the number of drive bays, and the second two digits the year of release.

The 415 models are the latest releases then, and the only ones to use Intel CPUs. The extra cost of the 415+ buys you double the amount of RAM, a quad core CPU, and an eSATA port.

The software is mostly the same on all the devices, Synology’s Diskstation Manager (DSM), currently at version 5.1. It looks as if some limits are lifted with the 415+, for example there is support for 256 iSCSI LUNs on the 415+, versus 10 on the 415 Play. The 415+ also has specifica support for VMWare VAAI (vStorage API for Array Integration) and Windows Server ODX (Offloaded Data Transfer); this enables some storage tasks to be offloaded to the storage system for better performance on the virtualization host.

Why buy a unit like this when you could simply get a server with plenty of drive bays, or with hardware RAID, and install Linux or Windows Storage Server? The two reasons are first, simplicity of operation, and second, low power consumption.

The distinction is not as sharp as it first appears, since a Synology device like this is in fact a server. If you require maximum flexibility and do not care about energy use, a generic server is probably better. If you require only simple network attached storage, such as a large shared folder on the network, a unit like the 415+ is overkill; just get a DS414j or some other brand. On the other hand, if you expect to install and use several apps, the extra for a DS415+ buys you a substantially more capable server.

Another way of looking at this is that the processing power in the DS415+, while still modest compared to a modern desktop PC, is sufficient for some real work, such as running web applications or even a media server with software transcoding.

Setup

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Unpack the box, and you find the NAS unit, power supply and a couple of ethernet cables. Unclip the front cover and you can see the four drive bays, with caddies which can easily be removed for drive installation.

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The drive caddies are screwless for 3.5″ drives; just remove the side panels, insert the drive, and replace the side panels to secure.

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You can also install 2.5″ drives with four screws through holes in the caddy base.

At the rear of the unit, there are dual fans, two Ethernet ports, 2 USB 3.0 ports, eSata port, and the power connector.

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I fitted four 3TB Western Digital Red drives – currently £89.36 on Amazon – attached the device to the network and powered up. You can than access the NAS management UI with any web browser. Normally, entering diskstation:5000 will find it. The initial setup downloads and installs the latest version of DSM, and offers an instant configuration which is a single large network folder backed by Synology Hybrid RAID (SHR).

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I accepted this just to try it, and then blew it away in favour of a more flexible configuration.

Diskstation Manager

Synology DSM is a version of Linux. You can access the OS via SSH, or use the browser-based GUI. The GUI is rather well done, and presents a desktop-like environment with a windowing system.

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The button at top right open a kind of Start menu:

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Applications are installed and removed through the Package Center:

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Generally, you should use only the Package Center to manage applications, though terminal access can be useful for troubleshooting, cleanup, or tweaking settings if you know what you are doing.

Since packages are only available from Synology, you are limited to those applications which are supported, unless you do a manual install:

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Even a manual install has to be in the Synology package format (an archive with appropriate metadata). Some packages, such as the Plex media server, are available for download as manual installs, though may need tweaking to install correctly.

Third party developers can create packages, free or paid, and submit them to Synology for approval.

If an application is updated, it can take a while before the Synology package is updated. This could be a problem if, for example, a critical security bug is found in an application running on a Synology device exposed to the internet. There are not a huge number of packages available. I counted 63 in the DS415+ Package Center. However, this does include everything you need for a basic business server, including a mail server, DNS Server, LDAP Directory Server, Drupal CMS, SugarCRM, web server with PHP and MySQL, Tomcat application server, and more.

On the multimedia side, there are applications for serving audio and video, a DLNA media server, and Logitech Media Server (also known as Squeezebox Server).

There are several backup applications, including one for Amazon’s Glacier service (low-cost cloud storage).

Storage management

The primary role of a Synology device is for storage of course, and this is configured through the Storage Manager. Configuration begins with Disk Groups, which represent one or more physical drives in a RAID configuration.

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There are several supported RAID configurations:

SHR: Synology Hybrid RAID with 1- or 2- disk fault tolerance. You need at least 4 drives for 2-disk tolerance.

RAID 0: disk striping, no fault tolerance

RAID 1: drive mirroring

RAID 5: 1-disk fault tolerance

RAID 6: 2-disk fault tolerance

RAID 10: RAID 0 across mirrored drives, 1-disk fault tolerance with high performance.

What is SHR? There is an explanation here. The high-level story is that SHR is more efficient with drives of varying capacity, and more flexible when adding new drives. It is not proprietary and apparently data can be recovered if necessary by mounting SHR drives in a Linux PC (provided no more than one drive has failed).

You set the RAID level when you create a disk group. Once you have a disk group, you can create volumes or iSCSI targets on that group.

I was interested in trying iSCSI. I have a desktop PC that is running out of space. I created a 1500GB iSCSI target and mounted it on the PC using the iSCSI initiator in Control Panel. It worked perfectly, and a new drive appeared in Disk Management.

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Is this sensible, or should you just use a network folder which is more flexible, since it is shared storage? An iSCSI target behaves like a local drive, which can be an advantage, but iSCSI is mostly used for servers where centralising storage is convenient. You should also use a dedicated network for iSCSI, so it is probably not a great idea for a desktop PC.

I compared performance. On simple tests, such as time taken to copy a file, there was little advantage; in fact, my iSCSI drive was slightly slower: 61.2 MB/s vs 76.4 MB/s for a shared folder.

I tried ODX, copying a file from one iSCSI drive to another. Capturing the copy thermometer was a challenge, as it was near-instant:

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In general, I have been very happy with the performance of the NAS.

Folder permissions

My local network uses Active Directory (AD), so I was keen to set up permissions on the NAS using AD. Connecting a Linux server to AD can be a problem, and at first the Synology would not play. I connected it, seemingly successfully, but it would not see any users. There are threads on the Synology forums showing users with similar problems. The fix for me was to enter my Domain Controllers as IP numbers rather then FQDNs (fully qualified domain names). Since then it has worked perfectly, though DSM shows the Domain Server Type as “NT4 Domain”, puzzling when my DCs are on Server 2012 R2.

Once connected, you can set folder permissions using the Synology File Station package. First, create the shared folder, then right-click the folder and choose Permissions.

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Apps and Applications

Aside from the storage services, the main application I run on the Synology is Logitech Media Server (LMS). This used to run on a Windows server, and actually runs much better on the Synology. Search is quicker, the server is more responsive, and it is more reliable.

I tried the Synology audio and video applications, and the media server. There are various companion mobile apps, such as DS Audio and DS Video, for media playback.

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The apps I tried worked well for me, though I am sticking with LMS for home music streaming.

Final words

I have no complaints about the DS415+, which has performed well so far. Browsing through the user forums though, I have noticed some areas of difficulty. One is that the Cloud Station service, which synchs files between your NAS, computers and mobile devices, is notorious for consuming disk space. Users find their drives filling up even though the total size of their files is much less than the available space. Currently, the best advice seems to be not to use Cloud Station.

The general issue with a system like this is that the friendly GUI is great while everything is working, but if something goes wrong and you have to dive into Linux, the ease of use disappears. That is worth noting if you plan to use this as the main server in a small business (beyond storage), unless someone there has the necessary troubleshooting skills.

The device does tick a lot of boxes though: resilient storage, excellent performance, low power consumption, flexible configuration, AD integration, and enough power to run something like Logitech Media Server without blinking.

Recommended.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Asus bets on everything with new UK product launches for Android, Google Chromebook and Microsoft Windows

Asus unveiled its Winter 2014 UK range at an event in London yesterday. It is an extensive range covering most bases, including Android tablets, Windows 8 hybrids, Google Chromebooks, and Android smartphones.

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Asus never fails to impress with its innovative ideas – like the Padfone, a phone which docks into a tablet – though not all the ideas win over the public, and we did not hear about any new Padfones yesterday.

The company’s other strength though is to crank out well-made products at a competitive price, and this aspect remains prominent. There was nothing cutting-edge on show last night, but plenty of designs that score favourably in terms of what you get for the money.

At a glance:

  • Chromebook C200 dual-proc Intel N2830 laptop 12″ display £199.99 and C300 13″ display £239.99
  • MeMO Pad Android tablets ME176C 7″ £119 and 8″ ME181 (with faster Z3580 2.3 GHz quad-core processor) £169
  • Transformer Pad TF103C Android tablet with mobile keyboard dock (ie a tear-off keyboard) £239
  • Two FonePad 7″ Android phablets: tablets with phone functionality, LTE in the ME372CL at £129.99  and 3G in the ME175CG at £199.99.
  • Three Zenfone 3G Android phones, 4″ at £99.99, 5″ at £149.99 and 6″ at £249.99.
  • Transformer Book T200 and T300 joining the T100 (10.1″ display) as Windows 8 hybrids with tear-off keyboards. The T200 has an 11.6″ display and the T300 a 13.3″ display and processors from Core i3 to Core i7 – no longer just a budget range. The T200 starts at £349.
  • Transformer Book Flip Windows 8.1 laptops with fold-back touch screens so you can use them as fat tablets. 13.3″ or 15.6″ screens, various prices according to configuration starting with a Core 13 at £449.
  • G750 gaming laptops from £999.99 to £1799.99 with Core i7 processors and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 800M GPUs.
  • G550JK Gaming Notebook with Core i7 and GTX 850M GPU from £899.99.

Unfortunately the press event was held in a darkened room useless for photography or close inspection of the devices. A few points to note though.

The T100 is, according to Asus, the world’s bestselling Windows hybrid. This does not surprise me since with 11 hr battery life and full Windows 8 with Office pre-installed it ticks a lot of boxes. I prefer the tear-off keyboard concept to complex flip designs that never make satisfactory tablets. The T100 now seems to be the base model in a full range of Windows hybrids.

On the phone side, it is odd that Asus did not announce any operator deals and seems to be focused on the sim-free market.

How good are the Zenfones? This is not a review, but I had a quick play with the models on display. They are not high-end devices, but nor do they feel cheap. IPS+ (in-plane switching) displays give a wide viewing angle. Gorilla Glass 3 protects the screen; the promo video talks about a 30m drop test which I do not believe for a moment*. The touch screens are meant to be responsive when wearing gloves. The camera has a five-element lens with F/2.0 aperture, a low-light mode, and “time rewind” which records images before you tap. A “Smart remove” feature removes moving objects from your picture. You also get “Zen UI” on top of Android; I generally prefer stock Android but the vendors want to differentiate and it seems not to get in the way too much.

Just another phone then; but looks good value.

As it happens, I saw another Asus display as I arrived in London, at St Pancras station.

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The stand, devoted mainly to the T100, was far from bustling. This might be related to the profile of Windows these days; or it might reflect the fact that the Asus brand, for all the company’s efforts, is associated more with good honest value than something you stop to look at on the way to work.

For more details see the Asus site or have a look in the likes of John Lewis or Currys/ PC World.

*On the drop test, Asus says: “This is a drop test for the Gorilla glass, and is dropping a metal ball on to a pane of it that is clamped down, not actually a drop of the phone itself.”

Soundgarden’s Superunknown in DTS virtual 11.1 surround-sound: better than stereo for your mobile listening?

A&M/Universal has released Soundgarden’s classic 1994 Superunknown album in the DTS Headphone:X format, which offers 11.1 virtual surround sound through normal stereo headphones.

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Is such a thing possible? I am sceptical of the claims for 11.1 (11 discrete channels plus sub-woofer) though the DTS Headphone X demo app is most impressive, and you hear the surround effect clearly. When I first heard this demonstrated at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, it was so convincing that I took off my headphones to make sure that the sound was not really coming from speakers positioned around the studio.

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This demo is included in a new app developed for the 20th anniversary of Superunknown. The app is free. and also includes a free sample track in virtual 11.1, Spoonman.

If you want the full 16 track album in this format, it seems that you have to buy the Super Deluxe box: 4CD plus Blu-Ray at an extravagant price. This includes a voucher which lets you download the full album in the app. Note that the Blu-Ray also includes a 96/24 5.1 surround mix, so you can think of the app as a mobile version of the surround mix, though they are different: the credits say:

Surround sound mixes by Adam Kasper at Studio X, Seattle and Bob DeMaa at DTS, Calabasas, California.

The app offers four settings for listening: In Ear, On Ear, Over Ear, and unprocessed stereo. DTS knows what it is doing: with On Ear headphones, the On Ear setting sounded best and the In Ear setting muffled; with earbuds, the In Ear setting sounded best and the On Ear setting harsh.

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But how is the sound? The odd thing about the Headphone X system is that the spectacular demo raises expectations that actual music does not deliver; the surround illusion is less striking.

That said, there is a huge difference in sound between plain stereo and virtual surround. Unfortunately switching to virtual surround significantly raises the volume, making comparison more difficult, but the surround processing does open out the sound and make it more immersive. It is easier to pick out individual instruments. Bass is more accentuated.

It is not all in one direction though; the stereo sounds cleaner and less processed.

Still, I would personally choose to hear the DTS version. It is effective technology even though I cannot honestly say that it sounds like 11.1 surround sound. Producer Kasper is quoted though saying: “The experience Soundgarden’s fans will hear over headphones is identical to how I heard the mix in the studio when producing the surround sound version.” This could be a matter of which headphones you use, or he might be exaggerating.

I am less impressed with the app itself. Tracks are slow to load and I got occasional stuttering on an older iPad. The settings menu pops up repeatedly, rather than remembering your last setting. If you switch from the tracklist to the Player menu and back you get a momentary pause in the sound. The design is basic and it looks as if the app was put together quickly.

It is also obvious that having a separate app for every album is hopeless as a long-term strategy. Space is also an issue. The app with the album downloaded is 344MB and there is no provision for storing the music files anywhere other than in the iPad’s on-board storage. It is unfortunate that once downloaded, the surround mix is only available on that device; you cannot download for both iOS and Android with one voucher.

Overall I still like it, and would like to see more surround mixes released in this format. It may not be quite as good as the real thing, but it is vastly more convenient.

You can get the new app here, on Apple iOS or Android, and try it for yourself.

On Microsoft Surface: premium hardware, declining vision

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Microsoft’s Panos Panay shows off Surface Pro 3

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 was launched yesterday, but the roots of Microsoft’s Surface project – the company’s first own-brand PC – go back a long way. There are three big issues which it attempts to tackle:

1. The PC OEM hardware ecosystem was (and to a large extent still is) stuck in a vicious loop of a price-sensitive market driving down prices and forcing vendors to skimp on design and materials, and to pre-install unwanted third-party applications that damage user experience. Most high-end users bought Macs instead. With Surface Microsoft breaks out of the loop with premium design and zero unwanted add-ons.

2. The tablet market. Windows 8 is designed for touch, at least in its “Metro” personality. But desktop apps need a keyboard and mouse. How do you combine the two without creating a twisty monster? Surface with its fold-back, tear-off keyboard cover is an elegant solution.

3. Fixing Windows. Users of today’s PCs live on a precipice. One false click and the adware and malware invades. Live in the “Metro” environment, or use an iPad, and that is unlikely to happen. Use Windows RT (Windows on ARM) and it is even less likely, since most malware cannot install.

Surface could not have happened without Windows 8. The efforts to make it work as a tablet would make no sense.

Now we have Surface 3. How is Microsoft doing?

I have followed Surface closely since its launch in September 2012. The models I know best are the original Surface RT, the second Surface RT called Surface 2, and the original Surface Pro, which is my machine of choice when travelling. A few observations.

There is plenty that I like (otherwise I would not use it so much). It really is slim and compact, and I would hate to go back to carrying a laptop everywhere. It is well-made and fairly robust, though the hinge on the keyboard covers is a weak point where the fabric can come unglued. The kickstand is handy, and one of my favourite configurations is Surface on its kickstand plus Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, with which I can be almost as productive as with a desktop (I do miss dual displays). I can also use the Surface successfully on my lap. In cramped aircraft seats it is not great but better than a laptop.

There are also annoyances. Only one USB port is a severe limitation and seems unnecessary, since there is room along the edge. For example, you plug in an external drive, now you cannot attach your camera. Not being able to upgrade the internal SSD is annoying, though I suppose inherent to the sealed design. Performance was poor on the original Surface RT, though Surface 2 is fine.

More annoying are the bugs. Sometimes the keyboard cover stops working; detaching and re-attaching usually but not always fixes it. Sometimes the wifi plays up and you have to disable and re-enable the wifi adapter in device manager. Another problem is power management, especially on Surface Pro (I gather that Pro 2 is better). You press power and it does not resume; or worse, you put it into your bag after pressing power off (which sends it to sleep), only to find later that it is heating your bag and wasting precious battery.

The key point here is this: Microsoft intended to make an appliance-like PC that, because of the synergy between first-party hardware and software, would be easy to maintain. It did not succeed, and even Surface RT is more troublesome to maintain than an iPad or Android tablet.

Microsoft also ran into user acceptance problems with Windows RT. Personally I like RT, I think I understand what Microsoft is (or was) trying to achieve, and with Surface specifically, I love the long battery life and easier (though this imperfect) maintenance that it offers. However, the apps are lacking, and Microsoft has so far failed to establish Windows as a tablet operating system like iOS and Android. People buy Windows to run Windows apps, they make little use of the Metro side, and for the most part Surface customers are those who would otherwise have bought laptops.

Incidentally, I have seen Surface RT used with success as a fool-proof portable machine for running Office and feel it deserved to do better, but the reality is that Microsoft has not persuaded the general public of its merits.

Another issue with Surface is the price. Given most Surface customers want the keyboard cover, which is integral to the concept, the cost is more than most laptops. But was Microsoft going for the premium market, or trying to compete with mass-market tablets? In reality, Surface is too expensive for the mass-market which is why its best success has been amongst high-end Windows users.

Surface Pro 3 and the launch that wasn’t

That brings me to Surface Pro 3. The intriguing aspect of yesterday’s launch is that it was rumoured to be for a new mini-sized Surface probably running Windows RT. Why else was the invite (which someone posted on Twitter) for a “small gathering”?

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Admittedly, it is a stretch to suppose that the Surface Mini was cancelled between the date the invitations were sent out (around four weeks ago I believe) and the date of the event. On the other hand, this is a time of change at Microsoft. The Nokia acquisition completed on  25th April, putting former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop in charge of devices. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has only been in place since February 4. While cancelling a major hardware launch at such short notice would be surprising, it is not quite impossible, and a report from Bloomberg to that effect seems plausible.

It is also well-known that Microsoft does not intend to continue with three mobile operating systems: Windows x86, Windows on ARM, and Windows Phone. Windows Phone and Windows RT will “merge”, though merge may just mean that one will be scrapped, and that it will not be Windows Phone.

The promised arrival of a touch-friendly Microsoft Office for Windows Phone and Windows 8 further will rob Windows RT of a key distinctive feature.

This does not mean that Microsoft will not complete in the growing market for small tablets. It means, rather, that a future small tablet from Microsoft will run the Windows Phone OS – which is what some of us thought Microsoft should have done in the first place. This is a company that sometimes takes the hardest (and most expensive) possible route to its destination – see also Xbox One.

Surface Pro 3 specs: a MacBook Air compete

Surface Pro 3 is a large-size Surface Pro. It has a 12 inch 2160×1440 screen, a pen, and a redesigned keyboard cover that has an additional magnetic strip which sticks to the tablet when used laptop-style, for greater stability.

The kickstand can now be used at any angle, supposedly without slipping.

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The weight is 800g making it lighter than a MacBook Air.

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though note that the MacBook Air has a keyboard built in.

Battery life is quoted as “up to 9 hours”. There is still only one USB port. Full specs are here.

The Surface Pro 3 looks like a nice device. In the UK it starts at £639 for an Intel i3 device with a tiny 64GB SSD (I am running out of space with 128GB). And don’t forget the cover which will be at least £110 on top (prices include VAT).

A sensible Core i5 with 256GB SSD and a Type 2 cover will be around £1200. Not a bad buy; though personally I am not sure about the larger size.

Note that Microsoft has now abandoned the 16:9 wide-screen format which characterised the original release of Windows 8, designed to work well with two apps side by side. Surface Pro 3 has a conventional 3:2 screen ration.

Declining vision

Microsoft’s Surface project had a bold vision to reinvent Windows hardware and to usher in a new, more secure era of Windows computing, where tablet apps worked in harmony with the classic desktop.

It was bold but it failed. A combination of flawed implementation, patchy distribution, high prices, and above all, lack of success in the Windows Store ecosystem, meant that Surface remained at ground level.

What we have now is, by all accounts, an attractive high-end Windows hybrid. Not a bad thing in itself, but far short of what was originally hoped.

Microsoft is moving on, building on its investment in Active Directory, Azure cloud, and Microsoft Office, to base its business on an any-device strategy. The market has forced its hand, but it is embracing this new world and (to my mind) looks like making a success of it. It does not depend on the success of Surface, so whether or not the company ends up with a flourishing PC business is now almost incidental.