BRYDGE 12.3 KEYBOARD FOR THE SURFACE PRO

Monday, June 19 - 11:04 pm

Daniel Rubino reviewing for Windows Central the Brydge 12.3 Surface Pro keyboard, a product I was intrigued by:

Everyone I showed it too was impressed with how durable and stable it feels. Part of that is the weight, which is 1.4 pounds (652 grams). That means you are effectively doubling the weight of your Surface Pro.

Dan compares it to "squishing two Surface Pros together". If you are okay with this, then you've bought the wrong Surface. There are other issues too.

Although I'm happy with my Type Cover 4, there are a couple of things that bother me:

  1. tapping on the trackpad is loud

  2. the keyboard backlighting bleeds around the keys

Both make it feel cheap. These details matter to the finish as much as the materials used. If you've got a new Type Cover, please let me know whether this has improved.


THE NEW SURFACE PRO

Monday, June 19 - 8:40 pm

There are a lot of reviews of the new Surface Pro but if you're going to pick one, go with AnandTech's by Brett Howse:

The new Surface Pro is certainly evolution rather than revolution, but considering the success Microsoft has seen with the Pro, it’s hard to argue with the company's choice. In fact, despite the older generation CPU, it wouldn't be a stretch to state that the Surface Pro 4 was still the top of its category, with the best display, good battery life, and great performance. The new Surface Pro makes more subtle improvements, keeping many of the successful attributes of the outgoing model.

As a laptop I've no big problems with my Surface Pro 4. But there's a number when it's a tablet, two of which appear to have been addressed: battery life is finally in the eight hour ballpark (i.e. all-day) and its softer edges mean it's nicer to hold. Weight is still more on the heavy side for a tablet but packing a bigger battery was probably the right decision. Despite these and many other improvements, credit must go to the Surface team that I'm okay with sticking with my 18-month old Pro 4.


MICROSOFT KEYBOARDS

Friday, June 16 - 11:50 am

Paul Thurrott, reporting for Thurrott:

Microsoft has quietly introduced a new keyboard, the Microsoft Modern Keyboard, which features a Fingerprint ID key for Windows Hello sign-ins. There’s also a new Modern Mouse coming too.

The new keyboard shares a lot in common with the Surface Keyboard that was announced alongside the Studio last year, but adds a fingerprint key and can also be used wired - sounds more like an iteration to last year's Surface Keyboard and not a new keyboard that the name suggests. A quick peek of Microsoft's other keyboards indicate Microsoft has work to do streamlining their portfolio so that customers have clear options. It feels as though this is a hardware division within Microsoft comprising of separate teams of engineers who missed Satya Nadella's One Microsoft memo.


THE PROBLEM WITH ONEDRIVE FILES ON-DEMAND

Friday, June 16 - 1:15 am

OneDrive Files On-Demand is in Insider testing now. Files can now be:

  1. Online-only
  2. Locally available
  3. Always available

It's the second and third file states that users will have difficulty differentiating between. At least one of them is an unnecessary state, and possibly even both.

So what's the difference between the two?

Locally available files

When you open an online-only file, it downloads to your device and becomes a locally available file. You can open a locally available file anytime, even without Internet access. If you need more space, you can change the file back to online-only. Just right-click the file and select “Free up space.”

Always available files

Only files that you mark as “Always keep on this device” have the green circle with the white check mark. These files will always be available even when you’re offline. They are downloaded to your device and take up space.

Both use the same icon but with a different coloured circle and check mark. Locally available files have a white circle with a green check, whereas always available files the inverse.

Firstly, I don't see how a check mark can be interpreted as a file that lives on your machine when all your files outside of OneDrive have no such visual cue. Secondly, expecting users to know the difference between two icons that are the same but only have their colours flipped is pretty optimistic; this move, to me, suggests no conventional usability testing, that is non-Insider testing, has been carried out. But neither of these points matter as much as the third and final point: Microsoft has over-engineered the design due to a misreading of the requirements.

It isn't that complicated. It's actually simple. Files are either online or offline. For an online file, the cloud icon works. When you open it, any local changes should be pushed to the cloud and once you've finished working on it the local copy should get deleted (or maybe have it cached for a limited time for instant re-retrieval in the not unlikely case you decide to reopen the file). It's worth remembering the On-Demand feature's aim is to save you hard disk space, but it appears opening an online file is taken as an implicit signal to make it available offline permanently. I don't think this is a smart assumption and it's better to leave this to the user to set explicitly. This simplified design means OneDrive files available offline look the same as local files not stored in the cloud. All you really need to know as a user is whether a file is online-only. Anything more is counter-intuitive.


SURFACE LAPTOP REVIEW ROUND-UP FEATURING WINDOWS 10 S

Wednesday, June 14 - 3:01 pm

The Surface Laptop reviews are in, and they're universally positive. But there are caveats I'll get to later. First, the good.

Wired's David Pierce's has high praise for the keyboard + trackpad combo:

The Surface Laptop, then, exists to serve people who live and die by the keyboard and trackpad. Both excel. The trackpad moves more smoothly than almost any I’ve ever used—it joins the MacBook Pro and Chromebook Pixel as my favorite ‘pads.

Devindra Hardawar for Engadget doesn't miss the speaker grilles:

You also won't find any speaker grilles on this laptop -- instead the sound comes directly through the keyboard. It's a bit odd at first, especially since you can feel vibrations as your fingers rest on the keys, but the speaker placement makes for a far better audio experience than you'd find on most laptops. The sound is enveloping and detailed, and there's even a bit of low end too. It's ideal for video watching, since it comes right at you. In comparison, other laptops have speakers off to the sides, or beneath the screen, which projects sound away from you.

Dieter Bohn of The Verge on the Alcantara mystery:

The big question is why Microsoft used this fabric in the first place. As far as I know, it's simply an aesthetic thing and makes the laptop feel nicer. It certainly makes the laptop stand out and gives you something to talk about when you open it up. That's reason enough, I suppose, and I admit I like the feel of it.

Other bits worth noting:

  • If you ever wondered what a Windows laptop designed in California would look like, this is it.

  • Although battery life isn't the claimed 14.5 hours in real-life usage, it's still all-day battery i.e. meets the threshold for what is acceptable in a 2017 laptop.

  • The screen is gorgeous, but if you're a pen user, this isn't the Surface for you. Watching the video reviews, the one word I'd use to describe the touch experience is wobbly.

  • If you keep your expectations in check, you'll be happy with its performance. But if you're a gamer or pro user, then this isn't the Surface for you either.

  • Pricing may be slightly higher than its direct competitors but it's not unreasonable.

The Surface Laptop is almost a home run. The one misstep is with ports, or lack of. If you're going to ship with a single port today, then although USB 3.0 was the sensible choice, the absence of (Thunderbolt) USB-C means the experience of using the device will become worse at some point during its ownership because dongles. No (Micro) SD slot either though means for some users the dongle becomes an immediate inconvenience; if the smaller Surface Pro has room for a Micro SD slot, then so should the Laptop. I/O aside, the Surface Laptop is comfortably the best v1 Surface, and for it to be so close to perfect is remarkable.

The hardware doesn't make up the entire Laptop story though. There's the software caveats that it ships with, and as unanimous reviewers are in their praise for the Laptop as a laptop, they're mostly critical of Windows 10 S, or as David Pierce calls it, Windows 10 Less. Yeah, he's not a fan:

All Windows 10 S ever did was drive me crazy.

Without more apps, 10 S amounts to a mediocre browser and a whole bunch of headaches.

Microsoft claims you'll get increased security as well as better battery life and performance running Windows 10 S. I accept you'll be safer, but The Verge's Tom Warren disputes the second and third wins:

I’ve not had any issue with battery life or performance using Windows 10 Pro on this machine. It really feels like the Surface Laptop was built for Windows 10 Pro and restricting what you can do with it, as Windows 10 S does, sells it short.

Dieter Bohn acknowledges the potential benefits but remains unconvinced:

But the trade-off for all those benefits isn't worth it because the Windows Store is an app desert. Many of the apps you expect are either not in the store or — if they are there — are worse than what you can get on iPads, Mac, the full version of Windows, or even on the web.

Devindra Hardawar appeared to be the exception:

I stuck with the Windows 10 S experience for most of this review, and frankly I was surprised by how much I could get done without installing any legacy software. The only real pain was being forced to use Spotify's web player and not having access to any browsers outside of Edge or Internet Explorer. Otherwise, the experience felt identical to the way I typically use my PC. It was a huge difference from Windows RT on the first Surface (Microsoft's first stab at locking out legacy apps), since there's actually a decent app selection now.

Although Spotify is coming to the Store, he eventually opted for the Pro upgrade too:

As someone who often juggles multiple browsers throughout the day, I eventually outgrew the restrictions in Windows 10 S and chose to upgrade.

That's not average-user behavior, but the average-user is a Chrome user and Chrome is highly unlikely to get on the Store anytime soon.1

For Microsoft, the Laptop reviews must be bittersweet. Hardware scores an A, whereas software a F. I accept the (hassle) free upgrade makes it a no-brainer for reviewers to recommend to their readers, but considering its reported shortcomings, I don't believe $49 would've stopped a recommendation either. The Store needs to take off in a big way in the next six months for this to change.

1. Windows 10 S first needs to have a substantial user base before Google even considers this. If the past is the precedent, then Windows Phone numbers of users won't be enough. Then there's the not-so-small matter of needing to use Edge's (much improved but still inferior) rendering engine. Although the same restriction applies on the App Store, there's a noteworthy difference in that Chrome was actually using Safari's WebKit in 2012 when it launched on iOS and its new renderer, Blink, is a WebKit fork. I can't see Google agreeing to this concession just to get on the Store. In an unlikely scenario that they do, it's actually not in users' best interest. Chrome's UI shell and sync engine isn't what generally draws users to it but it's its speed and rendering. What is still unlikely, but slightly less unlikely than the above, is Microsoft making a special exception allowing Chrome to get on the Store on terms Google is satisfied with.


THE SURFACE MOBILE - 2017'S 2007 IPHONE?

Tuesday, June 13 - 6:21 pm

Surur reporting for MSPoweruser on the latest Surface patent discoveries:

The detailed images in the recent patents, however, give us a rather good look at the device and are somewhat reminiscent of the Surface Studio patents, which were in the end remarkably true to the device which Microsoft eventually delivered.

For reference, MSPoweruser first reported on the Surface Studio patent at the end of August 2016. It was announced only two months later on October 26. For comparison, the original iPhone was announced around six months before it went on sale to avoid a patent filing spoiling the reveal. Microsoft either doesn't care about this sort of thing like Jobs used to, and/or this could be a patent for a device that they don't want to announce because it may get shelved at any point. There's already a Surface precedent for a last-minute cancellation. In the meanwhile, recent reports do support the idea that the device if released will be arriving sooner rather than later. And what it will look like can't be dissimilar to its patent design going by Microsoft's past record - this patent drawing of the Studio is the Studio.

The patents all focus on the details of the hinge, with the mechanical engineering largely going over the top of our heads, but the patents do make it clear that the device will have 3 configurations – 0 degrees closed, 180 degrees flat open and 360 degrees fully open.

Missing is a tent mode configuration enabling a kickstand-like experience. Given the apparent flexibility of the hinge, it must be possible and may have been a configuration considered not worth a technical mention.

The patent writing clarifies what the 360 degree configuration is:

Instance Five shows the device in a closed orientation (e.g., angle .alpha. equals 360 degrees). This orientation is identical to the orientation of Instance One except that the inward and outward facing surfaces are reversed.

Such a configuration would have no screen facing outward; the patent does state this orientation can also be termed a closed configuration. Keeping one smartphone screen from wear and tear isn't easy, especially if you, like me, prefer to keep the device case-free. Add a second screen, and, yeah, I can see why such a configuration exists. It may also be a byproduct of the hinge mechanism's flexibility that preventing a 360 degree rotation would have compromised. It would also give the device the Moleskine feel Panos had compared the cancelled Mini to.

The patent also notes that when at 180 degrees the inside screens will show a single user interface, while in the other configurations the device will show separate interfaces on each screen.

This design fits the phone-that-may-not-look-like-a-phone phone that Satya Nadella recently teased about. More importantly, such a device could set the mobile productivity benchmark. I say could, and not would, because it's the hardware enabler of productivity as long as the software is there to accompany it.

I don't like the idea of the phone's back being a second screen when in a conventional smartphone configuration - glass's tactility isn't as warm and inviting as other materials like Surface magnesium. However, thinking productivity, I can see it playing an effective role. It could default to OneNote re-enforcing the Moleskine metaphor. Or you could change it and temporarily pin an app for easy access - think Maps when on holiday, Twitter during a live event etc. The only other dual-screen device I am familiar with is the YotaPhone - its second screen offers a different experience though via an E Ink display. It may have not sold many, but as a proof-of-concept it got a pass.

Magnets and clever hinges would be used to hold the device in the various configurations and to create a near seamless surface when fully flat.

It's in the 180 degrees configuration when this device will get to show off its chops. This config could create a new device category that may end up being considered the successor to the phablet - not a phone with the characteristics of a tablet, but a phone that is a tablet too. As long as the two screens feel like one with imperceptible bezel. I'm optimistic this config will also allow two separate apps to run side-by-side. Considering I've unexpectedly found split-screen on my 5" Nexus helpful, the idea of two full-screen apps next to each other will feel luxurious in comparison. It's also something Microsoft has hinted at in the past.

The images also for the first time gives us a clue to the size of the device, with the scale of the camera port suggesting a smartphone-sized device rather than a book-sized tablet.

If the device in its compact form is as big as the smallest tablet, then this device immediately becomes much less interesting. That is highly unlikely considering the cancelled Mini was a 7" tablet, and Satya labelled this device as a phone. What appeals is a smartphone that can transform into a tablet (two device categories there's currently no marketed Surface for after the Pro recently started being sold as a laptop). Not a Courier-like device because for it to be your primary productivity companion, it needs to fit in your pocket.

The inventor listed on both patents is Kabir Siddiqui, who had earlier patented the Surface Kickstand.

I love many things about my Surface Pro, but the kickstand is easily in the top three. I remember a general concern when the Surface was originally announced was whether the kickstand will hold up with time. I've owned three Surface devices and the kickstand has never shown even a sign of wear.

Kabir has been at Microsoft for more than 20 years and seems to keep a low profile. Interestingly, he had nothing to do with the Surface Book hinge - that was Errol Tazbaz's patent. What I take from this is the new Surface's hinge won't feel similar to the Book's. That's a good thing as far as I'm concerned because I find the kickstand integration to be more elegant but it was an admittedly more straightforward design challenge than the Book's hinge whose design has since been one-upped by no other than Porsche.


THE WINDOWS STORE & YAHOO!

Sunday, June 11 - 8:23 pm

Joe Cieplinski, writing on improvements coming to the App Store later this year:

Apple has been known from time to time to put one or two people on important projects and expect too much from them. From what I’ve heard from little birdies around WWDC this week, App Store Editorial is getting resourced appropriately for this new increase in curated content. They are committed to it.

What this means is that there will be many more features than ever before, not fewer. And people will have more incentive to visit daily and take a look at each feature.

And it’s worth noting that you don’t necessarily need to be a giant company with insider access to get featured (though I’m sure that doesn’t hurt). Visit appstore.com/promote and tell Apple your story. Impress the editorial staff, and you have a decent shot at getting into one of these features.

Time to hone those sales pitch skills, indies.

User interface changes coming in the Fall to the Windows Store may make it easier to use, but it's the entire user experience that's in need of a refresh i.e. move away from a directory of apps reminiscent of Yahoo! in the 90s to something more thoughtfully put together that doesn't make customers feel like they're shopping in a bargain basement. They could follow the example set by the Windows Insider program: have a team of familiar faces regularly updating customers on the Store latest and working closely with developers in helping them succeed.


DRAG AND DROP. REALLY? IT'S FREAKING DRAG AND DROP!

Sunday, June 11 - 3:37 pm

Brad Sams on last week's The Sams Report commenting on the furore surrounding the iOS 11 announcement that drag and drop support is coming:

Brad is mixing up Win32 and UWP. For example, Appy Text doesn't support drag and drop because UWP dictates any file dropped into an app is constrained with a read-only permission. I decided if I went ahead and included support anyway that it's more likely to annoy and/or confuse the user than leaving it out completely.1 There's 36 votes since 2015 on UWP's UserVoice for this to change.2 As for dragging text from one app and dropping it in Appy Text, this, as far as I'm aware, isn't supported by UWP at all. But this doesn't appear to be universally supported between Win32 apps either. This may be an area that iOS actually leads the way in how naturally apps talk to each other with (I bet) little-to-no effort from devs to open up their apps. So, yes Brad, the hype is real.

More broadly speaking, the bigger mix-up seems to happen when iOS is compared to Windows and UWP seems to be conveniently sidelined with priority placed on the strength of Win32's legacy to help one-up iOS. The ability for Win32 apps to now run on ARM may mean UWP's need to be independent has been pushed back but its college years are inevitable. Remember, Windows Phone being two-something years late to the mobile story meant it never had a (fair) chance of competing. UWP has even more catching up to do considering iOS has way, way more than two years on it and, judging by WWDC 2017, won't be slowing down any time soon to make this a fair contest.


CONVERSATIONS WITH CORTANA

Saturday, June 10 - 1:38 pm

Brad Sams, reporting for Thurrott on UI changes expected to Cortana on Windows:

Cortana, like its original mockups, is currently being tested living inside the system tray. The company is placing it near the clock and action center icons and is also introducing a new UI that is conversation-like, according to sources familiar with the product.

I've been a Windows 10 user for two years, and I've never used Cortana for a non-local search orientated task i.e. never used Cortana in non-Microsoft non-la-la-land. Although it does make more sense for it to be moved to system tray and for it to change to a conversational interface, I don't see either move as making a difference. Not to me anyway. It will still be a click away, and if I've any query I'm still more likely to use the browser which I've got open all the time (and Google more specifically). What might make a difference is if Cortana was deeply integrated into either Start and/or the Desktop. Think a Live Tile for your digital-self. The beauty of Live Tiles was that you would passively extract information from them whenever you passed through Start i.e. all the time. Something similar that aggregates everything that matters to you without needing to prompt your assistant is something I'm less likely to ignore.


RUNNING FULL WINDOWS ON MOBILE SO WHAT

Friday, June 9 - 8:59 pm

Daniel Rubino, writing for Windows Central:

The idea that your OS will adapt to your environment, display, and the task at hand is a new one, but it's easy to understand. Why have to choose between a dumbed-down mobile OS and a powerful desktop? Why concern yourself with processors such as ARM or x64 when you can just run Windows?

On the other hand, there's nothing "dumbed-down" about iOS and Android. Definitely not on a phone today - I don't think there's anything people would like to accomplish on a phone that's not possible on either, no doubt thanks to their outstanding app stores.

Companies such as Google and Apple are struggling in different ways than Microsoft. Apple wants to build iOS up from phones to larger screens, while Google is trying to hodgepodge Chrome OS with Android. Microsoft is trying to go from the desktop to mobile (and everywhere else). But they all want the same thing: an OS and ecosystem that spans devices.

I see Google continuing to struggle with integrating Android into Chrome OS, but it's only a matter of time before this stops being a problem. Apple, on the other hand, are already there with iOS, if not on the iPad today then most definitely with iOS 11 later this year. As for Microsoft, being able to run full Windows on ARM without a battery or performance hit is unquestionably a technical milestone that should be commended. But without a rich ecosystem of apps to go with it, then I can't see how this changes Microsoft's mobile prospects in the short-term, and, more worryingly, Windows' general relevance in the long-term.


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