Windows 10: The Next Version of Windows, Made for Any Device

At a small press gathering on September 30, Microsoft showed what is an early version of the next edition of Windows, and tricked everyone by calling it Windows 10 instead of the chronologically appropriate Windows 9.

As this event was catering to the enterprises, there was emphasis mostly on the features that will make existing Windows XP and Windows 7 customers not hesitate to move to the next version of Windows. Microsoft officials admitted that Windows 8, and even Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Update are too different from Windows XP and Windows 7 and customers are staying away from upgrades because they will need a lot of training hours to train their users.

Along with revealing some of the key updates to Windows, and in a big departure from the past, Microsoft also announced that technically savvy users as well as IT Pros in enterprises can enroll in a Windows Insider program which will allow them to download the Windows 10 bits starting October 1. These Windows Insiders will then have access to the latest bits and will be able to provide feedback directly to Microsoft during the preview.

Windows 10’s consumer features will be discusses in early 2015, the developer story will be discussed at //Build, Microsoft’s developer conference, in April. The final version of Windows 10 is expected to be available later in 2015.

Let’s look at what was revealed in terms of Windows 10 at the event:

Start Menu

Perhaps one of the most wanted (and missing) features in Windows 8.x was the ever-familiar Start Menu. The Start Menu is back, but instead of simply being a Windows 7-style Start Menu, it is now going to have some Live Tiles next to the list of programs and folders. In addition, the Start Menu’s “shape” is customizable so if you desire a flatter and wider Start Menu, you can simply drag its boundaries and make it flat.

Windows 10 Start Menu
Windows 10 Start Menu

Search

The search functionality in the Start Menu is back, and in addition to searching for files and folders on the local PC, the feature will search the web too, just like the main search feature that exists in Windows 8.x today.

Windowed Metro Apps

Another very highly requested feature from non-touch device users and users with large screens is the ability to run Metro apps in their own windows instead of defaulting to full screen. Despite improvements in snap mode in Windows 8.1, it wasn’t enough and by making Metro apps work seamlessly in their own windows which can be resized without affecting the usability of the Metro apps, Microsoft is taking care of the power users.

Windows 10 Windowed Metro App
Windows 10 Windowed Metro App

Snap Assist

Windows 8’s Snap mode has made incremental improvements over time. With Windows 10, it gets even better so it will now be possible to snap up to 4 apps on one screen. The screen is now going to be divided into quadrants and each snapped app can occupy a quadrant or two. In addition, Snap Assist enables the best utilization of the screen real estate by snapping apps to appropriately fill the screen space.

Windows 10 Snap
Windows 10 Snap

Task View

A new button will be present on the Taskbar which will enable viewing open apps/applications as well as any virtual desktops in use.

Windows 10 Task View
Windows 10 Task View

Virtual Desktops

In Windows 10, one will be able to create multiple “desktops” much like Mac OS X and Linux, to isolate the work based on any organizational aspect like work vs home, projects, etc.

Windows 10 Virtual Desktops
Windows 10 Virtual Desktops

One Store, One App Model

Microsoft also said that with Windows 10, it won’t be truly “one operating system” but it will be one product family with a common app development model and a common store. This way, Windows 10 will be able to run on “things” (from the Internet of Things) to ruggedized embedded systems, to phones and phablets to tablets and 2-in-1 devices to PCs up to 85″ in screen size.

Continuum

In all this discussion about Start Menu and full-screen apps, the lines between a normal non-touch PC user and a tablet user are clearly drawn. However, what happens when someone uses a hybrid or 2-in-1 device like the Surface or one of the many detachable or convertible devices? In such situations, Windows 10 will invoke Continuum. This feature detects a touch screen usage and converts the use to a tablet use and if a keyboard or mouse is then detected, it prompts to switch to a PC use (and vice versa).

This is nicely demonstrated by Joe Belfiore in the video below (courtesy The Verge):

 

Here’s Joe Belfiore from the Windows team, walking through the new features:

And here’s a walkthrough of Windows 10 provided by Microsoft to Geekwire’s Blair Hanley Frank:

The Surface Family Evolves: Where Does It Go from Here?

On May 20, Microsoft officials announced the latest entry in the family of Surface devices, the Surface Pro 3. This device is a larger form with many updates to the existing pro device, the Surface Pro 2, and comes only eight months since the launch of the Surface Pro 2. So now, Microsoft has launched three generations of Surface in the span of less than two years, being incredible for a company which only recently pivoted to devices and services from software.

Surface Pro 3
Surface Pro 3

The launch of Surface Pro 3 however raised several questions: why isn’t there a Surface 3 (the ARM-based version) to complement the Surface Pro 3? Why also, didn’t the much-rumored Surface Mini launch alongside the Surface Pro 3? What is the goal of these Surface devices, according to Microsoft?

 

Where is Windows RT?

The first two questions have a common thread, and that is Windows RT. The ARM-based version of Windows has had very little success both from OEM adoption as well as sales perspectives. OEMs have slowly been pulling out of making such devices, and with Nokia’s devices group now a part of Microsoft, Microsoft is the only company that makes Windows RT devices. The operating systems group at Microsoft is undergoing some level of consolidation and transformation, and there is a possibility of some fundamental changes coming to the Windows RT OS as it merges with Windows Phone OS. It would be somewhat silly to offer a Windows RT device that may need some major updates in a few months when the operating system makes potentially big underlying changes. Also, let’s not forget that Nokia also makes a Windows RT device (Lumia 2520) which may now become a contender to be the only Windows RT device Microsoft produces. Hence, the lack of ARM-based Surface at this point in time.

 

No room for Surface Mini

Surface Mini on the other hand, has a bigger issue. The rumors were that it would be an 8” device and regardless of whether it was going to be an Intel-based device or an ARM-based device, it would really offer no differentiation from the several other 8” Windows devices in the market today. All of the existing devices are Intel-based and as a result, are able to run old Windows desktop programs just fine. Most of these existing devices are also priced at the very low end and as a result, Microsoft would have to start competing on the low end which I am not sure they want to do. There are also rumors that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and the new devices chief Stephen Elop decided to remove that device from the announcement for precisely that reason – it offered no differentiation from whatever else is out there in the market. If that is in fact the case, I commend them for doing so since it is not easy to change directions this way and at the last moment.

 

Who is the Surface for? What does Surface mean for Microsoft?

That brings us to the last question – what is the role of Surface devices? Microsoft executives have constantly said that Surface is not meant to compete with the OEMs but instead be a reference design for OEMs. However, the huge write-off Microsoft took at the end of the past fiscal year related to excess inventory of the original Surface shows that at least someone at Microsoft expected to sell these devices in larger volumes.

The Surface Pro 3 is indeed unlike anything else in the market today, both from a Windows devices perspective as well as the competition’s devices. There are Android tablets of all shapes and sizes that are selling quite well, but they are limited to a maximum of 10” form factor, and while there have been rumors of an “iPad Pro” sporting a larger display than the current iPad, those have been simply rumors. At the launch event, Microsoft made the point that the Surface Pro 3 is aimed squarely at the laptop user (there were a *lot* of MacBook Air comparisons) rather than the tablet user. The viewpoint they provided was that most of the iPad customers also have or buy a laptop, so why not make a device that can do both the tasks well? The Surface Pro 3 specifications are obviously more “computer”-like than “tablet”-like, starting with the processor which is not an Atom variant but in fact, it is a Core processor. At the same time, it is so much lighter than a laptop – even MacBook Air that they compared to at the event – that you could see yourself using it as a tablet every so often.

The Surface Pro 3 pricing is in line with a mid- to high-end laptop, depending on the configuration you choose. You could get the entry-level model with a Core i3 processor and 64GB storage for $799 and the highest-end model with a Core i7 processor and 512GB storage for $1,949. Both the ends of that spectrum are higher than the average for a Windows laptop with similar specifications.

Another example to understand where Microsoft is going with this family of devices is the included (and completely re-done) pen. There is a deep integration built into the pen which enables the customer to launch OneNote even when the screen is locked. The OneNote emphasis shows not just the integration aspects but also the intended, or expected, use of the device.

 

Surface Pro 3 Numbers
Surface Pro 3 Numbers

The screen at an excellent 2160×1440 resolution, the aspect ratio which is a much better 3:2 than 16:9, the higher power processor and the pricing all point to a realization at Microsoft that it is better to compete with the laptop than with the iPad. Think creative professionals like artists, medical professionals, or the “information worker” in corporations. Think students on a budget, who have the funds to buy only one device which needs to be their television, book reader as well as productivity tool. These are the customers Microsoft seems to be aiming at with their Surface Pro devices now.

So Microsoft is clearly going for the laptop user and giving that user the choice of using that device as a tablet. They know that the OEMs are able to compete at the low-end, especially with the recent announcement of making Windows free for 9” and lower screens. Knowing that Apple has consistently outsold Windows in the PC sales for the past several years, it makes sense for Microsoft to address the high margin area so they don’t have to sell extremely large volumes in order to justify the business.

I still expect Microsoft to release the mini tablet, and there are multiple possibilities there too: a productivity mini tablet which would have the upcoming touch version of Office (codename Gemini); a larger phablet-style device like the Lumia 1520 and of course, a gaming-oriented mini tablet with some type of Xbox brand and tie-in. All of those have dependencies that need to be addressed before these products can come to market in order to differentiate themselves from the competition.

There is an empirical truth to Microsoft products: by version 3, they perfect the product. Surface Pro 3 surely looks like a “perfect” product, we will see if the market agrees with Microsoft or not. The Surface business has steadily grown in volume and with Windows 8.1, Microsoft may have enough to get CIOs interested in upgrading to Windows 8.1. If so, there is a large-sized market opportunity that is for Microsoft to dominate, given their past relationships and reputation in the enterprise. If that happens, it may create the virtuous cycle that Microsoft has been able to create in the past with Windows and even now with Office. Many will use these devices in school and workplace and would like to continue that experience at home.

Microsoft certainly seems to demonstrate that it is in the devices market for the long run. Naturally, mastering manufacturing cannot happen overnight. It is now up to the customers to decide if all of that is worth it, by speaking with their wallets.

Are you interested in the Surface Pro 3? Were you disappointed by the absence of the Surface Mini? Sound off in the comments below.

(All images and the video, courtesy Microsoft’s official websites)

Simplifying Windows: Windows 8, Windows RT and Windows Phone 8

Microsoft Surface
Microsoft Surface

If you were disconnected from the world for the past several months, you wouldn’t know that Microsoft is going to release the next version of their operating system for personal computers, called Windows 8. Let me rephrase that: Microsoft is going to release an operating system for mobile, highly-connected devices, with touch input at the front-and-center, and along with that operating system, it is also providing an upgrade to their existing Windows 7 operating system.

The look and feel of Windows is very different from earlier versions of Windows, and as a result there has been a lot of uncertainty and (unfair) judgement about it being circulated in the tech press. Instead of writing yet another article about how this whole thing is confusing, my goal here is to make it simple for someone who wants to know more about “The Big Launch” that Microsoft is undertaking at the end of October.

Windows 8

First and foremost, there is Windows 8. It is the operating system that will ship on most PCs and it is also something that you can upgrade from virtually any previous Windows version. This operating system runs the new “Start Screen” with Live Tiles, and will allow you to install apps (yes, there are now Windows Apps) from the Windows Store. Additionally, Windows 8 has a “desktop” environment that may seem familiar to users of Windows, especially Windows 7/Vista. Here, you can install applications outside of the Windows Store, for example CutePDF and Winrar. There is no restriction on what you can install in Windows 8 “desktop” environment. For apps on the other hand, unless you work at a company that supports it, or if you are a developer with the correct settings, you cannot install them from anywhere else except the Windows Store.

Windows RT

Windows RT is the radical new operating sytem that Microsoft is introducing for the first time along with Windows 8. It will not ship as standalone software, and instead, it will only be available as part of devices that ship with this operating system. Think of it as the software that runs your appliances like a DVD player or your car navigation system. Windows RT also has the same “Start Screen” as Windows 8 and you can install apps from the Windows Store just like Windows 8. It also has a “desktop” environment but you cannot install anything there. Yes, you read that right. Microsoft has locked the desktop environment so customers cannot install any software on the device except the apps you can get from the Windows Store.

Microsoft does ship Windows RT with a version of Office 2013 for free. It is called Office Home & Student 2013 RT which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Think of Windows RT as Windows 8 with only the Windows Store Apps along with Office. (Yes, I know there are more “desktop” applications that come with Windows RT, but at a high level, this should suffice.)

All the apps you purchase from the Windows Store will work on Windows RT devices as well as Windows 8 devices.

Windows Phone 8

Microsoft also makes operating system software for phones, called Windows Phone. The next revision of this software, called Windows Phone 8, is also due to be released at the end of October. Windows Phone 8 is built on the same core as Windows 8 so application developers can reuse their logic between a Windows 8 app and a Windows Phone 8 app.

Although the apps are not the same across Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, a lot of app developers are using the cloud to power native experiences across multiple platforms and devices. Evernote, for example, will have a Windows 8 app as well as a Windows Phone 8 app (in addition to other platforms), both delivering native experiences for the screen sizes, keeping most of the data and logic in the cloud so it is easily portable.

From a “devices” perspective, it is important to keep Windows Phone 8 in mind, but if the discussion is about “computers”, you only need to consider Windows 8 and Windows RT.

Windows takeaways

Having discussed the software at a high level, here’s the quick overview of Windows:

  • Windows RT is the new mobile operating system built for increasingly popular simpler devices like tablets and slates. It comes bundled with Office and the only way to get more apps is via the Windows Store. It cannot be bought in the store, it comes pre-installed with devices like tablets and hybrids.
  • Windows 8 is Windows RT combined with the ability to install any application that you can buy off the shelf today. It is built for more powerful computers, but retains all the advantages of mobility-focused Windows RT. It introduces many upgrades in that “desktop” environment over its predecessor Windows 7 and is generally installable on any PC that runs Windows 7 today.

Form factors

The second complexity that will come in terms of increased choice is via the increased form factors of devices that are going to hit the market. Windows 8 being a touch-focused operating system, has led OEMs to ship many PCs with touch capabilities. So in addition to the simple desktop, laptop and tablet form factors, we have touch-screen laptop, devices with detachable screens/keyboards, laptops that convert to slate with a flip or a twist, and touchscreen all-in-ones. Additionally, PC makers as well as component makers have promised much better trackpad/touchpad technology in new devices and Windows 8 gesture support.

You don’t need to worry too much about the increased choice – just know that you can take advantage of touch, via direct touch on the screen or via indirect touch on the touchpad on laptops or separate trackpads that will ship with PCs, especially all-in-ones.

What will be tricky to decide and can only be done after trying a few PCs, are the convertible PCs. An Ultrabook-sized laptop, i.e., thin and light, that flips completely to convert to a touch slate, or a similar laptop where the screen detaches and becomes a standalone slate. I happen to prefer the convertible laptop (specifically, the Lenovo IdeaPad YOGA) but those detachables also sound quite interesting. Again, since we have not seen these form factors before, it is best to try them out before making a decision. (Yes, I know these existed in the Tablet PC era, but remember, Windows XP and even Windows 7 were not touch-first like Windows 8 is, and those PCs were thick and heavy. Besides, there was no app ecosystem like the Windows Store to enhance functionality in the PC.)

Of course, if you end up buying a pure slate form factor, Windows 8 and Windows RT both support Bluetooth so you can always slap an external keyboard and a mouse if you don’t see yourself always needing them.

Final thoughts

Windows 8 is dramatically different from Windows 7. It also adds the mobile OS Windows RT. It is bound to create snap judgements from tech press used to “old Windows way of doing things” or those enamoured with anything that Apple produces. Having used Windows 8 over the past few months constantly on a very old PC with keyboard and mouse, I can assure you that for most people, it is going to be a significant ugprade over whatever else they have been using. It is fast, it is efficient and with the move towards an app-centric world, its functionality will constantly get enhanced by third-party developers building innovative apps and distributing them through the Windows Store. It will add some learning curve, especially for folks with muscle memory, but as we have seen with touch OS like iPhone/iPad’s iOS, it is much easier to learn navigating via touch than navigating via keyboard and mouse.

Don’t base your opinion on what’s being written by tech writers, especially those who have not really used the operating system. Certainly they have not used it on “Windows 8 hardware” so their opinions are either based on conjecture, or fear of change, or simply with a motive to get more pageviews because that pays the bills. I am sorry I had to create this disclaimer but having read the stuff that has been written about Windows 8, I can’t help but shake my head.

Having said all that, I must say, Microsoft’s efforts to educate what is Windows 8 and how it is different from Windows RT and which form factors are available and how to choose, has been abysmal. They may be able to train Microsoft Store employees in the last week before launch but how about the many other stores that are going to sell Windows 8 PCs and Windows RT devices? How are those employees going to guide the customers in the right direction? It would be a pity if customers see a beautiful ad on the TV showing “Windows 8″, go the store and happen to find a Windows RT tablet to be the cheapest, and go home and find out that they cannot use Quicken or Photoshop on it.

Windows 8 is too good for Microsoft to throw it off the rails like this. Hope they do enough in the “last mile” to guide customers in the right direction. They can’t rely on people like yours truly to keep demystifying and simplifying for them.

Are you sold on Windows 8? Do you plan to get a Windows RT device? Let me know in the comments!

The Phone That Refuses To Die: Windows RT Ported To HTC HD2

The HTC HD2 may be old and outdated by today’s standard, but the phone even after 3 full years after its release, just refuses to die. Up until now, the HTC HD2 has managed to run Windows Mobile 6.5, Windows Phone 7, Windows Phone 7.5, Windows Phone 8, Android 2.3, Android 4.0, MeeGo, WebOS and Ubuntu.

Joining this list today is Windows RT. Windows RT is the ARM version of Windows 8 that launched with Microsoft’s first tablet – Surface RT. Obviously, don’t expect the HD2 to run Windows RT in its full glory though. The Surface RT with a quad-core Tegra 3 processor sometimes struggles to run Windows RT properly, and the HD2 only has a single core clocked at 1GHz and half the RAM.

The above hack was made possible by Cotulla who managed to get UEFI working on the HD2, which is important for Windows RT to boot. The steps and process has not been made public by the developer, but that should happen sometime soon after he works out all the kinks.

Microsoft Minesweeper Arrives on Windows RT

When we first saw Windows RT devices like the Surface with Windows RT in the market, we noticed that Microsoft’s own games like Microsoft Minesweeper, Microsoft Solitaire and Microsoft Mahjong were not available for the ARM-based OS. It was a strange situation because the games, even though classic, are excellent to play on Windows 8, and there is no “third party” to blame. Those games are from Microsoft Studios, available on Windows 8 but not on Windows RT.

However, the first of the three, Microsoft Minesweeper is now available on Windows RT. I took it for a spin and here are some of my observations.

Live tile updates with some bits about highest score:

Microsoft Minesweeper Live Tile
Microsoft Minesweeper Live Tile

 

There are different levels, and also some daily challenges and an adventure mode

 

Microsoft Minesweeper Game Levels
Microsoft Minesweeper Game Levels

Oh, there are some ads too!

 

Microsoft Minesweeper Ad
Microsoft Minesweeper Ad

Daily challenges are mini-games

 

Microsoft Minesweeper Daily Challenges
Microsoft Minesweeper Daily Challenges

 

The more you win, the more Achievement, Medals and Badges you collect

 

Microsoft Minesweeper Rewards
Microsoft Minesweeper Rewards

There are monthly rewards, so you can go back to previous days’ challenges to get more rewards

Microsoft Minesweeper Monthly Challenge Calendar
Microsoft Minesweeper Monthly Challenge Calendar

The game is touch-friendly, but the performance is absolutely horrible. No wonder this game was not released on Windows RT on day one. Clearly, the code needed to be optimized, and it seems it is not there yet. I noticed very long refresh times for example, when I went to see the entire month’s challenge calendar view.

Besides the performance, which I am hoping gets tuned via updates quickly, the game is fun and the daily challenges keep the interest alive in this “classic” game.

It is interesting to note that those daily challenges are “sponsor-supported” and in one case I was even made to watch a 30-second commercial before I started the challenge. Some feathers were recently ruffled by ads in the Bing apps like News, Finance, etc. and I am sure this will only add to the ruffling of those feathers :-)

Have you tried this game? What do you think?

Surface with Windows RT: Dislikes

After an agonizing wait, I finally got a chance to play with my new Surface with  Windows RT, or simply,  Surface. It has been a few days, and I thought instead of writing a full-fledged review, I’d focus on some key likes and a long list of dislikes. Nits that I picked. I discussed the likes in an earlier post. This post goes into the small annoyances and issues that I have encountered in my daily use of the device.

Mind you, I really love the device. It has almost replaced my iPad and the kids love it too. With that background/disclaimer, here are the issues, in no particular order or priority:

Speakers: One of the things I have done quite a lot of on my Surface, is play music and video. Xbox Music with unlimited streaming and on-demand playback of not just my music but anything from their huge catalog is nice, but the speakers are not loud enough. Either it is their placement (they point out from the sides towards the top of the device) or just the lack of good amplification, but regardless the sound output is not good. I don’t mean the “quality” of the sound, which may actually be good, but just the volume.

Volume buttons: Speaking of volume, I have inadvertently pressed the volume button so many times as I try to type in landscape mode. When you hold the device in landscape mode, as it is clearly built to be used, the volume buttons are on the left near your index finger. As you reach out to type (or tap), there is a good chance you will hit the button by mistake. It may be that my hands are big (long is more appropriate), but still doesn’t take away from the fact that I have to constantly be aware of the buttons so that I don’t press them mistakenly.

Placing the cursor in a word: Windows Phone has a neat feature to place the cursor inside a word (to correct typos, for example) where you long press anywhere and then navigate to the letter you want to change. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a way to get to the middle of a word. A long press in Windows 8/RT results in a context-sensitive menu (copy/paste for example). Try as I might, I simply couldn’t get the cursor to be placed exactly where I wanted it to be. I am sure there is a different way, but I could not discover it myself and that is a problem.

Update: Thanks to JPG in the comments, I know how to get to a part of the word – the small arrow keys next to the spacebar. Nice. Thanks!

Screenshots: It is great that Windows 8/RT has the ability to take screenshots natively. It has helped me quite a lot when capturing what I see on the screen and share with others. However, the key combination on the Surface (Windows key + volume down button) involves a capacitive key which makes it hard to synchronize the simultaneous press of those buttons. Invariably I end up touching the Windows key before pressing the volume button, or vice versa, ending up in frustration. I don’t know how this can be fixed, to be honest, but it is a cause for unnecessary pain for me so far.

Update: As Williams mentions in the comments below, I can keep the Windows key pressed for however long I want and be able to register a screenshot by pressing the volume down button. Thanks!

Soft keyboard launch: While the Surface works quite well with the keyboard cover (I have the Touch Cover), I tend to use the device mostly without the keyboard, in a pure tablet form. So I depend on the on-screen keyboard a lot. I have noticed that in certain cases, even though it is natural to launch a keyboard for data entry, like a URL field or a text entry form, the keyboard does not launch. I have to tap in the field once before the keyboard launches. On the desktop side, the keyboard has to be forced to launch by clicking on the keyboard icon in the system tray. Both of these should be automatic when the Surface does not detect the external keyboard connection, but they are not.

Mail app: While this is not a specific “system” or “device” issue, I do use the mail app quite a lot and am extremely annoyed that the selected message automatically gets marked as read. Now, I understand why that happens – the mail is after all “opened” in the reading pane – but I don’t want that to automatically happen. In Outlook for example, there is a setting that will mark the message as read after a certain number of seconds, or when moving from one message to the other. If such a setting does get into the app in a future update, I would be a happy camper.

Grouping apps, restoring Start Screen layout, Windows Store web: These items are sort of related to the “management of apps”, so I clubbed them together. I find it a pain to group apps and keep maintaining those groups as I install new apps. I have already installed 100+ apps and especially the first time around, it is very difficult and time-consuming to move the tiles around, and set their shape (wide or narrow) on the Start Screen. More importantly, if I have done it once on one PC, I find it hard to understand why it is not a choice at least, when setting up a new PC, to replicate the layout. One of the beautiful features (as I noted in my “likes” post earlier) of Windows 8 is the ability to sync settings across PCs via the cloud and if “Start Screen layout” is added to the list of settings, it will go a long way in reducing the pain.

Secondly, whenever a new app is installed, it should offer a choice of which group to add it to, if at least one group is created (and named). That way, whenever I install an app I know I am sending it to the right group rather than drop it at the end and then make me move it.

Finally, I personally discover a lot of apps when I read about them on Twitter and websites that cover apps. It would be nice if I got a chance to remotely install these apps from the Windows Store web page that each app gets. If I am browsing the page on one of my Windows 8/RT devices, I get a chance to go to Windows Store from that web page, but I am not always at a PC with Windows 8 (my work PC, for example, is Windows 7) so it would be nice if Windows Store worked like Windows Phone Store.

I care about the device a lot, which is why I went through the trouble of listing things that need to be fixed, so that my experience with it goes from awesome to super-awesome. Do you have any suggestions or any other annoyances besides these? Let me know!

Surface with Windows RT: Likes

After an agonizing wait, I finally got a chance to play with my new Surface with Windows RT, or as I will call it for sanity’s sake, Surface RT or simply, Surface. It has been a few days, and I thought instead of writing a full-fledged review, I’d focus on some key likes and a long list of dislikes. Nits that I picked. I discuss the likes here, and dislikes in a second post.

Surface RT

Overall, I really like the device. I was determined to evaluate its use as an iPad replacement in my house. To be clear, in our house, the iPad is used for Facebook, Twitter, web browsing (between my wife and I), and some Netflix/PBS Kids/kid games (our kids, 4 and 6 years old). We are not using the iPad as a computer, or a “creation device”. It is a pure consumption device, unless you call writing a tweet, “creation”.

In that use case, the Surface has ably fit in place of the iPad for the kids. The kids have enough games that they know of, and enough games that are new, that they actually like using the Surface. My wife has not used it much, but that is because at this point of time, she considers the Surface “my baby” so she is almost afraid to some extent, of using it. However, it is only a matter of time :-)

Last night, I saw my kids fight to get to use the Surface. Mind you, we got our second iPad 2 just so they can both have their own. So, despite having two iPads, they preferred to use the Surface. Granted, it could be a novelty thing, but still, it bodes well for me that they are actually liking the device with all its oddities, like the 16:9 aspect ratio.

I replaced my iPad too, almost

As for me, the Surface has almost replaced the iPad. The big gap at this point? Twitter app! I like Tweetro, but because of their recent issue with API token limit, I was unable to sign in on the Surface despite having used it (extensively) on my Windows 8 desktop. The other two big names, Rowi and MetroTwit are both far behind what I would call a basic Twitter experience, so to me they are unusable. I am forced to use the People app and Twitter website meanwhile, and that makes for a highly sub-optimal experience for a “power user” like yours truly.

The other small issue which makes me use the iPad when the PC is not being used, is access to my work email and calendar. My work has an app which allows me to access Exchange with native iOS mail, calendar and reminders apps. They haven’t yet provisioned it for Windows 8/RT.

Besides those two missing pieces, I am extremely happy with the device. I haven’t yet experienced some of the performance issues that many others have experienced, nor have I found any major app missing. It is thin enough, and light enough for me to use it like I used my iPad. (Important to note, my iPad has a strong Speck case which makes the iPad feel heavier.)

Windows 8 (and Windows RT)

Some part of why I like the Surface so much is due to Windows 8. For example, all my settings including my lock screen image, theme, pinned websites, favorites, web history, etc. automatically came through as I signed in with my Microsoft account. This is because I had set up my account and settings on my desktop PC earlier and set it up so all those settings were synced across devices via the cloud.

Also, thanks to Xbox Music Match, a service that is yet to officially roll out but works anyway, all my music was available on the Surface as soon as I signed in with my Microsoft account. This includes some playlists I created just the day before. Again, this is because my music was matched from my desktop PC (which in turn is connected to my home server where all my music, photos and videos are stored). In addition, I was able to impress some of my family members by searching for and playing a bunch of songs on-demand via the Xbox Music subscription service. While I have the Xbox Music Pass, the unlimited streaming (with some, ahem, limits) is automatically included with all Windows 8 and Windows RT devices.

The last thing I want to mention why I love the Surface and why I replaced my iPad with it? Office. I use Excel and Word in addition to OneNote, for various purposes. Things like tracking expenses, creating birthday lists, sending formal letters, etc. are all done on Excel, Word and OneNote. Having “real” Office on my tablet with a constant sync to SkyDrive (which allows me to collaborate with my wife for some of those items) is a huge benefit. Not what I would call the #1 reason to buy a Surface, but definitely a huge plus when considering a Surface over an iPad.

Suffice to say, I really like my Surface. I think it is money well spent, for my use of such a device. Having said that, there are issues I have with the device and I list them in my next post.

Patch Tuesday: Critical Fixes and Surface Updates

It’s that time of the month again. No, not that time of the month. It’s Patch Tuesday, the day when Microsoft issues various security patches and performance updates for Windows, Office, Internet Explorer, and other products.

This time around, we have a total of six bulletins. Four are critical, one is important, and the last one is moderate in importance. The first five address remote code execution exploits in Windows, Internet Explorer, the .NET Framework, and Office.The final bulletin is for a security update that resolves an information disclosure bug with the Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS).

On top of these security patches, Microsoft has also released a slew of updates for the Surface and/or Windows RT. Makes sense, seeing that this is the first Patch Tuesday to occur since the launch of the Surface RT and Windows 8 on October 26. Tom Warren over at The Verge installed the Surface firmware update on top of a few Windows RT updates and is reporting performance gains over an unpatched device. He’s also saying that app launch times have improved, which is a good sign; app launch times (and general lag while using them) was a major criticism of the Surface when it was released.

So, if you haven’t already, fire up Windows Update.

Xbox Music – a Great Service with Some Asterisks

I hate to focus on the missing aspects at the time of the launch of a great new service, but as a fan of Xbox Music (i.e., it its original name, Zune Music), I can’t help shake my head at the things that it does not do. I really like how Xbox Music looks and cannot wait to try it, but here’s hoping Microsoft works on quickly fixing these things.

First, a quick primer on what the newly announced service: Xbox Music is an all-you-can-eat music consumption service along with a music store all tied to a cloud-based sync service to enable your music and playlists to roam across devices. For now, these devices are Windows 8 PCs (including Windows RT devices), Windows Phone 8 phones and Xbox 360. The Xbox Music Pass, which enables free streaming of the entire catalog would cost $9.99 per month for phones and Xbox, and it would be free (ad-supported) for Windows 8 PCs and Windows RT devices. Additionally for using it on the Xbox you also need an Xbox LIVE Gold account, which comes with “tens of thousands” of music videos in addition to the streaming music. See my colleague Manan Kakkar’s take on Xbox Music here.

As you can see, everything is great about the service if you live within the Microsoft ecosystem, and if you are planning to buy one of the new devices (PCs, tablets, phones) launching this Fall. iOS and Android support is “coming soon”. So is the social piece, where you can share what you are listening to (and presumably, more) with your friends. Both of the these missing pieces are big for similar reasons: adoption and viral marketing.

First of all, let me clarify that there is no single service that provides what Xbox Music provides. While Pandora provides music discovery and streaming, it does not allow on-demand play nor does it have a music store. Rdio and Spotify provide on-demand streaming and a little bit of music discovery (via social and “radio”) but they don’t have their own stores. iTunes has perhaps the world’s largest store but it does not have a subscription plan. Xbox Music has all of the combined features, so you can actually ditch multiple services and use just Xbox Music.

However, one of the reason Rdio and Spotify are so popular is the social aspect. Friends share what they are listening to, making it easier to discover new music and also share the same with others. The other major factor of their success is that they are available on pretty much all major platforms in some shape or form, which in turn helps the social features even more – I don’t need to have all my friends on Windows 8, for example, in order to share my playlists with them.

iOS and Android being the fastest growing platforms today, are almost a requirement for any service which has ambitions of getting millions of users. Not having social is not as bad, but it helps in more than one way, so it is also quite a big missing piece. There is hope that this “new Microsoft” with its rapid pace of updating their products and services, is able to get these holes filled sooner than later.

Another glaring ommision is the concept of an Xbox Music Family Pass. In order to use the service optimally, you would want to use your own Microsoft account so that it can cater the selections to your taste. However, unlike the Xbox LIVE Gold accounts, there is no Family Pass for Xbox Music Service. This is a bummer because in a household, there is very likely going to be 2, 3 or 4 individuals who may want to use the service and having to pay $40 per month is not really a trivial decision. I was really hopeful that the lack of a Family Pass for Zune Music Pass would be remediated by an Xbox Music Family Pass. Looks like it was not to be. At least, not yet.

Setting those things aside, I think bundling Xbox Music for free on Windows PCs is a huge benefit, especially for Windows RT. For those not enthused by Windows 8/RT, who end up asking “why buy a Windows RT tablet instead of iPad or Android”, this becomes yet another feature in favor of Windows RT. With Xbox Music included for (ad-supported) free and Office Home and Student RT which comes bundled on Windows RT tablets, you have the world’s most popular productivity suite and on paper, the world’s only music service of its kind, included with a Windows RT tablet. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Android tablets should be part of this discussion at all given that the two successful devices so far have been 7″ (Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire), which don’t really compete with iPad or Windows RT.

So, in hindsight, the iOS/Android presence may actually be deliberately delayed, so that the case for buying a Windows RT tablet this holiday season is clearer. I like that pitch quite a lot because even if the Windows RT tablets are priced the same as an iPad, they will end up offering way more than an iPad can offer, and that, without adding the complexity of having a “full-blown PC”.

Xbox Music is a good move by Microsoft to showcase their execution of “devices and services” strategy, which previously would have been referred to as three screens and a cloud. Beautiful-looking services being delivered on well-made hardware, with roaming features so you can enjoy them the same way regardless of where you enjoy them? Now, that may actually be magical.

Samsung Announces The Ativ Tab Windows RT Tablet

Earlier today, Samsung announced the Ativ lineup for devices based on the Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 Operating System. After unveiling the world’s first Windows Phone 8 powered smartphone, the South Korean tech giant announced the new Windows RT based Ativ Tab. This device instantly boots up without lagging and comes with Office Home and Student 2013 RT. Samsung Ativ Tab packs a 8200 mAh battery which allows you to complete your project on the go, without the hassle of charging it after every few hours.

Samsung Ativ Tab comes with a 10.1 inch HD LCD display, sporting a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels, 1.5 GHz dual core processor, Windows RT Operating System, Windows UI, 5 megapixel auto-focus camera with LED flash, HD (720p) video recording, full HD (1080p) video playback, Wi-Fi Connectivity and more.

Other features include a 3.5 mm headset jack, NFC (Near Field Communication), 2 GB RAM, 32 GB/ 64 GB internal memory, MicroSD card slot, 64 GB expandable memory, Samsung Family Story, Samsung ChatOn, Music Hub, Samsung Zone, Windows Store, Microsoft Office, SkyDrive, S-GPS, Bluetooth 4.0, USB 2.0, Wi-Fi Direct, Micro HDMI and a 8200 mAh battery.

Samsung Ativ Tab measures – 265.8 x 168.1 x 8.9 mm and weighs 570 grams. As expected, Samsung has not announced the price and availability of this device for any of the markets. This tablet is expected to go on sale from October end or early November.