Tag Archives: windows 8

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.

Microsoft announces the return of the Start menu to Windows 8 – again

Just announced at Microsoft’s Build conference in San Francisco: a new desktop Start menu:

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Note that this is not part of Windows 8.1 Update 1 (about to become available) but rather a future Windows 8.1 update. It will be free to all users.

The Start button was re-introduced in Windows 8.1, but only takes you to the Start screen. This new one runs entirely on the desktop.

Another key new feature in this future update is the ability to run universal Windows apps (which are Store apps) in a window on the desktop.

The plan to make Windows 8 a more compelling update for desktop users, and to promote Store apps to users who use keyboard and mouse and mainly desktop apps.

Toshiba ships DVD media with laptop without DVD drive

One day you will be able to buy a Windows device and have a smooth and delightful experience getting started.

To be fair, something like a Surface tablet can give offer a reasonable experience if you are lucky.

Not so a Toshiba Portege Z930 ultrabook – at least, not if you buy one with Windows 7 pre-installed, and want to run Windows 8, as a contact of mine has just done.

Why would you not buy one with Windows 8 pre-installed instead? With hindsight, that is what I would recommend; but since it says on the box, “This system is pre-installed with Windows 7 Pro software and also comes with a license and media for Windows 8 Pro software,” he did not think it much mattered.

The problem: The Z930 has no optical drive, but Windows 8 is supplied in the form of two recovery DVDs.

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I thought that was pretty silly, but luckily I know all the tricks about creating a bootable USB drive from a DVD. I even spotted the note in the box that instructs you to go into the BIOS and change it from CSM Boot to UEFI Boot.

No go. It would not boot from the USB drive in UEFI mode, and in CSM mode (which is also meant to work for Windows 8, with a few limitations) it boots, starts a Toshiba recovery wizard, and then bombs out.

I spoke to support. The first thing they told me, unprompted, was to make Windows 7 recovery disks, since not everyone likes Windows 8.

Next, the support guy was surprised that a model without a DVD drive ships with DVDs. Had the machine been tampered with? Then he looked it up, and admitted that they are all like that.

After a little more investigation, he said there is no way it will work from a bootable USB drive, because it is coded to look for the DVD. The only way is to buy an external DVD drive and attach it via USB.

The behaviour began to make sense to me. The scripts must be hard-coded to look on the optical drive for the files. I’d guess you can fix it by modifying the scripts if you know where to look, but life is too short and I went out and bought a DVD drive.

Smooth after that? Not brilliant. Recover Windows 8, go to Store for Windows 8.1, remember that you have to apply updates before it appears, apply 80 Windows updates, remove McAfee trialware and a few other unwanted applications, back to Store, do large Windows 8.1 download, and done.

In an era where usability is king, it is remarkable that Toshiba thinks that shipping DVDs with a computer that cannot read them is a smart thing to do. That said, I have a few more observations.

  • If you got a product key for Windows 8 and could download the media from Microsoft, that would work. But OEM Windows 8 is now pre-pidded so you don’t get a key.
  • If Microsoft were not still making so much money from businesses paying for Windows licenses, it could give Windows away and offer users a more Apple-like upgrade experience.
  • If Microsoft had not come out with a Windows upgrade which many of its customers do not like, companies like Toshiba would not be selling so many laptops with Windows 7 pre-installed.

As for the Z930, it is a lovely light, fast laptop if you do not need touch. But when will Windows OEMs, and to some extent Microsoft itself, learn the importance of out-of-the-box user experience?

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.

Sunspider JavaScript Benchmark on 4 models of Microsoft Surface

Today I got my first sight of Microsoft’s new models of Surface, its Windows tablet, on display at the Microsoft Store in Bellevue.

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I ran the Sunspider JavaScript benchmark on the new models, and then on the old ones for comparison.

  • Surface RT 1.0: 922ms
  • Surface 2.0 (RT): 397ms
  • Surface Pro: 127ms
  • Surface Pro 2.: 114ms

No surprises; but what this confirms is that Surface 2.0 RT, which has an NVIDIA Tegra 4 chipset, is substantially faster than the earlier Tegra 3 model; whereas Surface Pro which has an updated Intel Core i5 processor is only a little faster on this particular test.

Microsoft is attempting to continue selling Surface RT alongside Surface 2.0 RT, at $349 vs $449 for the 32GB model. However the new one is a better buy and I imagine the price of the earlier model will fall further, given that Microsoft appears still to have substantial stocks.

Fix screen dimming unexpectedly in Windows 8

Symptom: you are working away on your laptop or tablet, and suddenly the screen dims. Moments later, it brightens. Annoying and distracting.

The reason is the ambient light sensor. Someone thought it would be smart if the brightness of the screen varied according to the level of ambient light. If the room is more dimly lit, your screen does not need to be so bright. Microsoft’s Surface Pro, for example, has this enabled by default.

The idea is reasonable, but the implementation is lacking. Instead of the brightness gradually varying so you do not notice it, it dims and brightens like a mad thing.

You can fix this in Windows 8 through the power options – no it is not in display options so don’t bother looking there.

If you have a battery/mains icon in the notification area in the task bar, you can right-click and choose Power Options. Otherwise, open Control Panel (desktop version), and search for Power options.

Now click Change plan settings for the currently selected power plan.

Then click Change advanced plan settings.

Now scroll down to Display and expand the tree.

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The setting you want is Enable adaptive brightness. You can set this separately for mains and battery power. It does slightly extend battery life, so you might want to leave it On for battery and Off for when plugged in.

Then click Apply and close the dialog.

Dragon Notes Review: quick voice to text for Windows 8, but is it good enough?

When I saw that Nuance had released a Dragon Notes app for Windows 8 I was intrigued for two reasons.

First, I am interested in tracking the health of the app market for Windows 8, and an app from a company as well respected as Nuance is worth looking at.

Second, I have great respect for the Dragon Dictate application for speech to text. Dragon Dictate is superb; indispensable if you cannot use a keyboard for some reason, and valuable even if you can, whether to fend off RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) or to help transcribe an interview. If Notes is based on the same engine, it could be very useful.

I installed it for review and was intrigued to find that it is not a real Windows 8 app, installed from the Windows Store. Rather, it is a desktop app designed to look superficially like Metro, the touch-friendly user interface in Windows Store apps. That said, the effect is rather odd since it does not run full screen or support the normal gestures and conventions, like settings in the Charms menu.

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Still, it is mostly touch-friendly. I say “mostly” because occasionally it departs from the Metro-style user interface and reverts to something more like desktop-style – like these small and ugly buttons in the delete confirmation dialog:

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This is sloppy design; look at the lack of margin around the button captions, the childish “No Way!”, and the fact that these buttons are smaller than they should be for comfortable touch control.

In the main part of the user interface the design remains poor. The font size is too small and there appears to be no way to change it. “Settings” lets you access Help, select language, connect to Twitter and Facebook, and register the product. That is all.

The big question though: how well does it work? Dragon Notes is different from Dragon Dictate, in that there is no voice training; it just does its best with whatever voice it hears.

Notes are easy to make; just tap Record, and tap again (or stop talking) to finish. You can transcribe for a maximum of 30 seconds, though you can also append to an existing note.

My initial results on a Surface Pro tablet, using the built-in microphone, were dire. Hardly any words were recognised. Before giving up though, I had a look at the microphone settings and made a recording using Sound Recorder. The result was a distorted mess, and I do not blame Dragon Notes for making no sense of it. I changed the levels in Windows, reducing the “Microphone Boost” until the level was reasonable but not distorted.

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The improvement in Dragon Notes was dramatic. Speaking a simple note slowly and carefully I could get almost perfect accuracy.

I attached a high quality Plantronics headset and tried Wordsworth’s Daffodils:

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Not bad, but not perfect either. (I did dictate “over” rather than “o’er” as the latter is just too difficult for Dragon).

Here is one of my efforts with the built-in microphone:

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Again, not that bad, but not something you could use without editing.

And that could be a problem. In the full Dragon Dictate you can use commands like “Select Fattening” and then select a correction, or repeat the word, or spell it. The only commands in Dragon Notes are for basic punctuation, posting to Facebook and Twitter, sending in an email, or searching the web.

This last is fun when it works. Tap to record, speak a word or phrase, then when it is recognised say “Search the web”.

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Summary: simple voice to text that works somewhat, terrible user interface design but basic enough that you will not struggle to use it.

Imitating a Metro user interface is a mistake; it is neither one thing nor the other. It is a shame Nuance did not do a proper Windows Store app.

That aside, how useful is this? It all hinges on the quality of the voice recognition, which will vary according to your voice, your microphone, and the quietness of your surroundings.

In the worst case it will be useless. In the best case, I can see some value in dictating a quick note rather than struggling to type with the on-screen keyboard, presuming you are in fact using a tablet.

It would help though if Dragon would record your voice as well as transcribing it, so that if the text is not intelligible you can later refer back to the recording.

A lot of the time you will end up having to edit the note with the keyboard to fix problems, which lessens its value.

Plenty of potential here, but with sloppy fake Metro design and features that are too limited it cannot yet be recommended.

More information on Dragon Notes is here.

Bing Maps app on Windows 8: rubbish compared to Bing Maps on the web

I have been looking at the Bing Maps app on Windows 8 and 8.1 (it is the same).

It is surprising how poor it is. The web version is better, which is odd because you would have thought they used the same data.

Here is what I get from the app if I search for public transport between Derby and Birmingham (on a direct rail route):

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Bing Maps on the web has no problem with this:

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Here is another random example. Bing maps app cannot find Dubrovnik airport. A search only finds Dubrovnik.

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Oddly, if you know where the airport is, it is in fact marked on the map.

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Web app: no problem:

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If Microsoft wants Windows 8 tablets to succeed, glaring problems like this need fixing. Before the release of Windows 8.1 later this year.

Acer announces 8.1” Windows tablet – but will desktop Windows work in this format?

Acer has announced an 8.1″ Windows tablet, the Iconia W3:

  • Intel Atom 1.8Ghz dual-core Z2760 CPU
  • 8 hr battery life
  • 1280 x 800 screen
  • 2GB RAM
  • Front and rear 2 MP cameras
  • Micro HDMI
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • GPS
  • 32 or 64GB storage
  • Micro SD
  • Bundles Office 2013 Home and Student
  • Optional keyboard $79.99
  • $379.99, available this month

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Anything wrong with this picture? Certainly it could be handy for using Windows on the go, being more compact than a Surface (though how much more, if you include the keyboard?) and much cheaper than Surface Pro.

There are some snags though. This device runs full Windows 8 rather than Windows RT, the ARM version, so you can run all your desktop apps; but many will be no fun to use on an 8.0″ screen, or without keyboard and mouse. The Modern – that is, Metro-style – apps should be fine, but the Windows 8 app ecosystem is still weak so you may struggle to get by on those. There is Office – and it is smart of Acer to bundle Home and Student – but will you be squinting to use it on such a small screen?

My hunch is that Windows will not sing on small tablets until there is a version of Office for the Modern UI.

Tip: finding Start menu groups in the Windows 8 Start screen

The Windows 8 Start screen, which occupies the full screen and uses large tiles instead of a hierarchical menu, is a contentious feature which many dislike (though there are ways to get the old Start menu back, or something very like it).

Personally I like the new Start screen, though it does require learning new habits.Instead of clicking a button and navigating a hierarchy of menus, you tap the windows key and type a letter or two matching the app you want to start. You can use the same technique with the Windows 7 Start menu, though not many do.

A complaint I have heard though is that the Start screen loses the group structure of the Start menu. What if you want “that Visual Studio tool that inspects window handles and messages” but cannot remember what it is called? In Windows 7, you go to the Microsoft Visual Studio group, then Visual Studio Tools, and there it is:

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How would you find it in Windows 8? Here’s how:

1. Press the Windows key to open the Start screen

2. Right-click and click All apps in the menu

3. Scroll right. Once you get past the alphabetical listings, the group listings appear.

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Somewhat long-winded, but I doubt it is worse than clicking down through the hierarchy in the Start menu, and it is not something you need to do often. Next time, just type “Spy”!