Category Archives: tablets

Microsoft Surface 2: still a hard sell at retail

I am a fan of Microsoft’s Surface 2; but looking at the display at Dixons in Heathrow’s Terminal 3 it is obvious that Microsoft has work to do in terms of retail presence.

There are no clues here as to why anyone might want to buy a Surface, and no indication that Surface 2 runs anything other than standard Windows 8, other than the two letters RT which you can read on the spec summary.

Windows RT is both better and worse than Windows on Intel. It is worse because you cannot install new desktop applications, but it is better because it is locked down and less likely to suffer from viruses or annoying OEM add-ons and customisations that usually result in a worse user experience.

Why did Microsoft not come up with a distinctive brand name for RT, such as AppWindows or StoreWindows or WinBook? I am open to negotiation should Microsoft wish to use one of my brand ideas :-)

Surface 2 has excellent performance, Microsoft Office is bundled including Outlook (though without the ability to run Visual Basic macros), and it is expandable using Micro SD cards or USB 3.0 devices, all features I miss when using an Apple iPad.

I do use the desktop a lot on Surface 2. Simple applications like Paint and Notepad are useful especially since they have, you know, cool resizable and overlapping windows so you can have multiple applications on view.

The Apple iPad is better displayed and I am sure its greater prominence is more than justified by relative sales.

 

Brief hands on with new Asus Windows 8.1 T100 tablet – or should that be netbook?

Asus has launched two new tablets in the UK.

This one is the 10.1″ T100 has an Intel Atom “Bay Trail” Z3740 quad-core processor. The display is 1366 x 768 and supports capacitive multi-touch.

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You press a release button under the display to detach it from the keyboard, whereupon it becomes a tablet. This approach, it is now generally agreed, is better than a screen which twists over, since it gives you a reasonably thin and lightweight (550g) tablet rather one that is bulky and odd to hold. However, there is still the question of what you are going to do with the keyboard once detached, and I have a suspicion that these machines are likely to be almost permanently attached to the keyboard making them similar to netbooks.

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Microsoft’s Surface overcomes this to some extent, especially with the Touch keyboard cover that folds underneath and adds little weight or bulk.

On the other hand, the T100 strikes me as good value at £349.99 (which includes the keyboard dock), especially bearing in mind that Office Home and Student is bundled (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, but no Outlook).

The T100 comes with 2GB RAM and 32GB eMMC storage. Connectivity includes Bluetooth 4.0, Micro-USB, Micro-HDMI, MicroSD slot, and a USB 3.0 port in the docking keyboard.

I tried the T100 briefly. I was impressed with the performance; Word and Excel opened quickly and overall it feels quick and responsive. I did not like the keyboard much; it felt slightly spongy, but at this price a few weaknesses can be forgiven.

The tablet Windows key is not under the screen as with most Windows 8 tablets, but a button on the side. What looks like the Windows key in the above snap is inactive, and that logo will not show on the production units.

Surface 2 has a decent camera, unlike Surface RT

Who cares about cameras on a tablet? Not many perhaps, though I regularly see iPads held aloft. Microsoft’s Surface RT has two cameras, both 720p (1280 x 720 or about 0.9MP). Surface 2 also has two cameras, the rear 5MP and the front 3.5MP.

I found the Surface RT rear camera so disappointing that I never used it, but the one on Surface 2 is rather good. Here is a quick snap of a similar scene taken with each device.

Surface RT:

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Surface 2:

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or zooming in for some detail

Surface RT:

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Surface 2:

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First thoughts on Surface 2

After a day or two with Surface 2 and the Touch 2 keyboard, a few thoughts.

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First, I am typing this on my desktop PC. I would have used the Surface 2, as I like to match the tool to the review, but no Live Writer on Surface (my favoured blog authoring tool) and no, Word is not as good for this.

That neatly demonstrates the app issue on Windows RT; but despite that I expect to use Surface 2 frequently in the coming months. It is an excellent tablet, with its chief advantages over the older Surface being performance and Windows 8.1, which includes Outlook.

Performance on Surface 2 is around 4 times faster for graphics – see previous post – and more than twice as fast in general.

The touch keyboard, now with backlighting, is also much improved.

I know I am in a minority here, but to me the Windows RT concept makes good sense. A locked-down version of Windows that is almost legacy-free, though it is still Windows and capable of throwing up mystifying dialogs and hiding settings in strange places.

It seems to me that if there is any hope for the Windows 8 app ecosystem, then it will be driven by tablets like this one, and Nokia’s new Lumia 2520 which also runs Windows RT. Desktop users are mostly ignoring the app platform. There are a few signs of life, like the new Facebook app, and things like Xbox Music are now decent. MediaMonkey, which I like for its Flac support, runs nicely on Surface 2.

Isn’t an iPad Air better? In some ways for sure. Usability, performance, size and weight, and rich app availability are all in the iPad’s favour, and price is similar. The reason you might get a Surface though is for Office, USB 3.0, HDMI out, SD card, and the clever keyboard cover. I also like having more than one app to view, whether that is Word and Excel on the desktop, or Word and Caculator, or the split view that works in the new app world.

I’ve hit a few snags with Surface 2. Sound is less good than on Surface RT, tending to be thin and reedy, unless you use headphones or external speakers. The Touch 2 keyboard sometimes stops responding, which I hope is a driver issue (perhaps the update downloaded this morning will fix it).

I also suspect that build quality on Surface 2 falls short of Surface RT. It is still “Vapor Mg” but I already have a slight dent in the bezel on mine whereas on my old RT it is still perfect and I wonder if it is thinner.

The extra price for the 64GB vs 32GB SSD is absurd. Why not make them all 64GB and increase the price by a fraction?

Is Microsoft serious about selling Surface 2? There does not seem to be much stock around, and it is not yet listed on Amazon.co.uk, although it has been on sale since yesterday.

Those that do discover it will like it, provided they understand the difference between Windows RT and Windows x86, something which – bizarrely – Microsoft still seems keen to disguise.

FutureMark graphics benchmark: Surface RT vs Surface 2

We know that the new Surface 2 (Nvidia Tegra 4) is faster than the old Surface RT (Tegra 3) but by how much?

I came across the FutureMark 3D Benchmark for Windows RT in the Windows Store and tried it on both.

I could see this was going to be a wipeout from the off. The first test saw a frame rate of 12.9 FPS on RT versus 59.9 on Surface 2. Surface RT first:

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Then Surface 2:

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Surface 2 reported “Maxed out” on the scores. However, on the next test, Ice Storm Extreme, I got a result.

Surface RT: 2065

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Surface 2: 8577

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3D Mark RT says my score is “low for this device” on Surface RT, but “a great score for this device” on Surface 2. Maybe the impact of Windows RT 8.1?

Bottom line: on these tests Surface 2 is around 4 times faster. No wonder it feels snappier to use.

Nokia Lumia 2520 Windows RT tablet announced

Nokia’s former CEO Stephen Elop has announced the Lumia 2520 tablet ($499) running Windows RT, at an event in Abu Dhabi.

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The 10.1″ tablet comes with Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 (quad-core 2.2 Ghz) chipset and LTE connectivity – unlike Microsoft’s Surface, which is wifi only. It will ship this year.

The screen has high brightness and low reflectivity, which apparently enables reading or videos in bright sunlight as well as in low light.

The camera hardware includes Zeiss optics, 6.7MP rear camera, 2MP front camera.

Fast charging gets it to 80% charged in one hour, according to Nokia.

The Nokia Power Keyboard accessory offers up to 5 hours added battery life and two USB ports. It forms a cover as well as a keyboard, and includes a trackpad.

As with other Windows RT devices, Microsoft Office is included.

On the app side, Nokia showed two of the same apps just announced for its Lumia Windows Phones, the Nokia Camera app and the Storyteller app.

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The Storyteller app integrates photos and mapping so you can see where your photos were taken.

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Nokia also announced that a Flipboard app is coming to Windows RT.

Now there are two new Windows RT devices: Microsoft’s Surface and Nokia’s Lumia. However Nokia is being acquired by Microsoft and it will be interesting to see how the different product lines are managed by the combined company.

Nokia announces huge Windows Phones, new apps, new Asha models, Instagram, Twitter Vine apps

Nokia’s former CEO Stephen Elop has announced the Lumia 1520 at an event in Abu Dhabi.

The 1520 ($749) has a 6” screen which takes it into “phablet” territory. The larger size enables a 3rd column of live tiles, enabled by Microsoft with an update to the Windows Phone 8 operating system.

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Camera-wise the 1520 lacks the 41MP of the 1020 but does have a 20MP PureView camera.

A new app called Nokia Camera has three camera modes including Still, Video, and Smart Mode which takes a burst of pictures.

The app has a night mode optimised for low-light, and a sports mode for quick action shots. There is also a Pro Camera UI with all available settings and manual focus.

A new Storyteller app integrates photos, images and maps.

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The killer feature here is that you can zoom out of a photop to see where it was taken on a Nokia Here map:

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The 1520 also sports four microphones for “directional stereo”.

Also announced is the 4G Lumia 1320 ($339):

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This is also a large-screen model but with a 5MP camera and a more affordable price.

An update to the OS called Lumia Black is coming to all Windows.

With Windows Phones getting bigger, how is the OS differentiated from Windows RT? Well, one is a Phone OS and the other a tablet OS, but convergence cannot come soon enough.

Elop also announced improvements to the Asha range of budget phones aimed mainly at emerging markets.

The new models are the Asha 500 ($69, dual sim available, 2MP camera), 502 ($89, dual sim available, 5MP camera with flash) and 3G 503 ($99, dual sim available, 5MP camera with flash).

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You can share photos to social media including newly announced WhatsApp Messenger support from next month.

Of course there was also the 2520 tablet, but that is the subject of a separate post.

Review: Surface Touch Cover 2

Windows tablets present a design challenge because they include desktop applications which are designed for keyboard and mouse, rather than touch – not least Microsoft Office, which for some of us accounts for a significant proportion of the time spent using the device. So far there has been consensus therefore that Windows tablets need some easy way of using a keyboard and mouse or trackpad. How to achieve this without losing the benefits of a tablet  is not easy. Bluetooth is one solution, but means three devices rather than one in your bag. Screens that twist over to form tablets are another, but the devices tend to be heavy and the twisting action inconvenient. Detachable keyboard/trackpads are the favoured solution, but leave you the problem of a loose keyboard to look after once you have detached it. If it stays always attached, perhaps you should have bought a laptop.

Microsoft’s Surface tablet has the most elegant solution I have seen. When it was launched a year ago, it included two optional keyboard covers. The Type cover is a thin keyboard with real clacky keys.  The touch keyboard is almost flat, though the keys are slightly raised. You can detach them, but they fold back behind the device, automatically disabling the keys, at which point they are unobtrusive.

Many people liked the idea of the touch keyboard, but found typing frustrating with more errors than they normally make. For this reason, the Type keyboard is more popular among Surface users. It is possible that more Touch keyboards were sold, since they are slightly cheaper and more often bundled with the device, but in actual use I see more Type keyboards.

That is a shame, because the Touch keyboard is design-wise a better solution. It adds very little bulk to the Surface, and when folded back under the device for tablet use, it feels perfectly natural, whereas the Type keyboard feels odd because of the keys that are then on the underside.

When Microsoft announced the Touch Cover 2, it said that by adding more sensors (14 times as many apparently) and more intelligence to the cover and its drivers, it had improved the typing accuracy. As a Surface user I was excited to try the Touch Cover 2 and see if it lives up to these claims. If it does, I will happily ditch the Type cover.

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The Touch Cover 2 is the same price as before, £99 in the UK or $120 in the US. It is compatible with every Surface, including the original Surface RT. It is also fractionally thinner, 2.5mm as opposed to 3mm. Third, it is now backlit, which makes a big difference on those odd occasions when you are typing in dim light, such as on an aircraft when the cabin lights are dim.

Looking at old and new side by side though, you would be forgiven for thinking not much has changed – the new one is the lower of the two, and note that my original is a US layout and the new one UK:

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Here are a few more points of detail:

  • The new keyboard has function key labelling F1-F12. As is now common, the default is the non-Fn meaning, and you have to press Fn first to get the function key. The old keyboard also has an Fn key, but you have to work out which top key to press. The right Alt key is now labelled Alt Gr.
  • The purpose of two of the special keys has changed. The new keyboard no longer has volume keys, though it does have a volume mute. In their place are two keys controlling the brightness of the backlight.
  • The design of the trackpad has changed slightly. On the old touch cover, the left and right “buttons” are on the edge of the keyboard outside the etched area that represents the trackpad. On the new cover, these buttons are within the etched area, which means that the trackpad seems slightly bigger, but in reality is not.
  • The underside of the touch cover used to have a fabric finish. On Touch Cover 2 it is now smooth plastic. This is one detail where I prefer the older cover, though maybe it helps to get it that 0.5mm thinner.

The following picture shows the backs of the old and new keyboard covers side by side, with the new one on the left:

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Touch cover 2 in use

Now for what really matters. How is the Touch Cover 2 in use?

My first thought was to try a speed test. I went along to this online test and tried it several times with the old touch cover, then with the new one. The results favoured the new cover, perhaps by around 20%, though how you evaluate it depends on the weighting you give to errors versus speed.

Then I sat down to write this review. This is where my opinion of the new Touch Cover began to swing in its favour. I find real-world typing on the Touch Cover 2 substantially more pleasant than with the earlier version. Measuring words per minute does not fully represent the improved experience. Of course this is a personal thing and your experience may vary.

The backlighting is low key (ha!) but improves usability. The way this works is that the white lettering on the keys is illuminated so it stands out more.

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Note that if you think it is not working, you probably just need to increase the brightness using the special keys.

Is it as good as a real keyboard, or even a Type Cover? I doubt it ever will be, especially if you are someone who does not look at the keyboard while you type. The problem is that the slight etching round the keys makes it harder for your fingers to know where they are, though typing with audible key clicks helps.

Another factor is that if you are not at a desk, the lightness and thinness of the touch cover counts against it, since it flexes slightly on your lap.

That said, with practice you can get good speed and accuracy. As a cover, it is so much more elegant than the Type Cover that overall I might just prefer it, even though I still rate the Type Cover slightly better for typing.

One caveat though: I used the Touch Cover 2 with both Surface RT and Surface Pro, and had an annoying problem. If I stay typing in one app everything is fine, but if I switch apps than sometimes the keyboard stops responding. Oddly, opening Device Manager and pressing the up and down arrows a few times seems to fix it. Perhaps my Touch Cover 2 is faulty, but I suspect a driver issue, which means hope for a fix soon. I will be trying it soon with a Surface 2 and will be interested to see if the problem remains.

The keyboard also seems to mark easily. I have only had it for a day, but can already see slight fading of the black finish on the keys I type most often.

Mobility always involves compromise. If you want the very best keyboard for typing, it won’t be a touch cover. In fact, for best productivity I prefer a high quality Bluetooth or USB keyboard to either of the Type or Touch covers.

That does not detract from what Microsoft’s engineers have achieved with the Touch Cover 2. Flip it back, and you have a tablet; flip it forward, and you protect your screen; place it on a desk and you have a productive typing machine.

Glitch aside, I recommend the Touch Cover 2 as a good option with a new Surface and a worthwhile upgrade from the first Touch cover.

Microsoft should have made a separate Windows for tablets say critics – but it did

David Pogue at the New York Times expresses a common view in his take on Windows 8.1:

The more you work with Windows 8, the more screamingly obvious the solution becomes: Split it up. Offer regular Windows on regular computers, offer TileWorld on tablets. That way, everyone has to learn only one operating system, and each operating system is suited to its task.

Simple, eh? One of several flaws in this argument though is that Microsoft did exactly that.

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What is Windows RT? It is a Windows tablet OS where only Windows Store apps can be installed. Admittedly the presence of the desktop in Windows RT, in order to run Office and to access settings that would otherwise be unavailable, is a sign that Windows RT is not quite done; but you can ignore it if you want. If you are looking for Windows 8 for tablets only, here it is.

Did the market love Windows RT? No, on the contrary, Microsoft had to write down $900 million on excess Surface RT inventory and OEM partners have pretty much abandoned it, leaving Surface 2, which also runs RT, alone in the market.

What was wrong with Windows RT? While you can identify missteps in naming and marketing, the fundamental reason is the weak app ecosystem, which limits what you can do.

There is no reason to think that some other variant of Windows RT – for example, one without a desktop at all, or renamed “Surface OS” – would have fared any better. It would probably have been a bigger disaster, lacking even the benefit of Microsoft Office.

Personally I like Windows RT and I think it is strategically important, though rumours suggest that it will be absorbed into a future Windows Phone OS:

Right now, Microsoft has two ARM-based Windows operating systems: The Windows Phone OS and the Windows RT OS. The thinking is these will be one by Spring 2015. Because it tends to be easier to take a “smaller” OS and add to it than to take a larger one and remove features from it, it’s likely that the Windows Phone OS is the one on top of which the new operating systems group will build.

The reasoning, incidentally, does not altogether make sense, though I do not doubt Mary Jo Foley’s reporting. Windows Phone itself is based on a cut-down version of a larger operating system, with the Windows 7 range built on Windows CE and the Windows 8 range built on the full Windows NT kernel. What we will get, I suspect, is unification of the app platform in Windows Phone and Windows 8, and the question will be what happens to the desktop and ability to run full Office in this ARM Windows vNext.

Aside: of all the gadgets I carry around, it is Surface RT that draws the most approving comment from non-technical friends, thanks to its small size, excellent screen, long battery life, and ability to run Word and Excel as well as tablet apps. Of course it is too expensive and too slow, in its first release, and while Surface 2 may fix performance, it will not fix the premium price.

7 types of Windows 8 users and non-users

When I was in Seattle earlier this month I visited the Microsoft Store in Bellevue. I nearly bought a Nokia Lumia 1020, but also observed an enthusiastic salesperson showing off Surface 2 (a pre-launch demo unit) to an older customer. She watched patiently while he showed how it handled pictures, SkyDrive, Office, Email, Facebook and more. At the end she said. “I don’t need any of that. Show me your cheapest laptop.”

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Yes, it’s tough for Microsoft. The incident got me thinking about computer users today and whether or not they are in the market for Windows 8 (or the forthcoming Windows 8.1).

Here is a light-hearted at some categories of users. And yes, I think I have met all of them. For those that are saying no, what would change their minds?

1. The Apple fan.

Switched to Mac from Windows XP around 2007. Has Mac, iPhone, iPad. So much easier, no anti-virus nags, boots quicker, less annoying, always works smoothly. Occasionally runs a Windows app on Parallels but nothing non-nuclear would persuade them to switch back.

Buying Windows 8? No.

2. The Enterprise admin.

In latter stages of migration from Windows XP to Windows 7. Still a few XP machines running awkward apps or run by awkward people. Last holdouts should be gone by year end. Job done, won’t even think about another migration for 3-5 years. Next focus is on BYOD (Bring your own device); will be mostly iPhones and iPads with the occasional Android or Windows 8 tablet.

Buying Windows 8? Mostly no.

3. The older Windows user

Son thinks a Mac would be better, but Windows works fine, is well understood, and does all that is needed. No desire to upgrade but when PC conks out will look for the most familiar looking machine at a good price. Would prefer Windows 7 but may be forced into Windows 8 if those are the only machines on offer.

Buying Windows 8? Maybe reluctantly.

4. The PC guy

This is the guy who understands PCs back to front. Never saw the point of Macs, overpriced, fewer apps, and little different in functionality. First thing to do with a new PC is either spend 3 hours removing all the crapware, or reinstall Windows from scratch. The Windows 8 user interface took some adjustment at first but fine with it now, likes the slightly better performance, and even uses a few Metro apps on the Surface Pro tablet.

Buying Windows 8? Yes, best Windows yet.

5. The tablet family

Used to update the family PC every few years, but mum got an iPad, son got an Android tablet, then dad went Android too, and now they spend so much time doing email, games, web browsing, YouTube, Facebook and BBC iPlayer on the tablets that the PC gets little use. It’s still handy for household accounts but it won’t be replaced unless it breaks.

Buying Windows 8? Not soon, and maybe not ever.

6. The tried it once never again person

It was embarrassing. Used Windows for years, then a friend brought over a Windows 8 laptop. Clicked on desktop, but with no Start button how do you run anything? Clicked around, right-clicked, pressed ESC, pressed Ctrl-Alt-Del, but nothing doing. Friend was laughing. Now the sight of Windows 8 evokes a chill shudder. Never, just never.

Buying Windows 8? No way.

7. The “Make it like 7” person

Windows 8? No problem, it’s just like 7 really. Installed Start8, got the Start menu back, set it to boot to desktop, set file associations for PDF and images to desktop apps, and never sees the Metro environment.

Buying Windows 8? Kind-of, but will never run a Metro app.