Between the release of Windows 10 Fall Creators Edition and the announcement of a new Surface Book, today’s Microsoft news was firmly focused on the desktop. But as the company works to build its future ecosystem, it’s keenly aware that no play in the space is complete without a mobile strategy. What shape that strategy will take, however, has been pretty unclearin the wake of Windows Phone’s long, drawn-out death.
Earlier this month, the company appeared to pronounce its proprietary mobile platform dead for good, as one time Windows Phone proselytizer Joe Belfiore threw in the towel on Twitter, declaring that “building new features/hardware aren’t the focus” after years of trying and trying again to make a vertically integrated, Windows-based smartphone business model work.
In a conversation with TechCrunch to mark the launch of today’s news, Microsoft Windows and Devices Group EVP Terry Myerson shed more light on Microsoft’s way forward in mobile.
“Our customers are using phones with their PCs,” the executive explained. “They can start on their phones and continue on their PCs or consoles. We are focusing onscenarios with the phones people are using today […] end to end scenarios to get stuff done to participate in the gaming experience.”
Myerson would not reveal more about the company’s strategy beyond that — “I don’t want to answer more specifically,” he said when pressed — but it’s easy to begin connecting the dots of Microsoft’s new mobile road map.
Along with this morning’s new Windows 10 release, the software giant is releasing versions of its Edge browser for both iOS and Android — a tacit acknowledgement that the company needs to embrace the leading mobile operating systems in order to maintain relevance on the desktop.
With the quiet admission that Microsoft-branded smartphones are taking a back seat (or maybe more accurately, being left on the side of the road), Edge is shaping up to be more than just a simple browser for the company.
Taking a cue from the Google’s playbook, the app is a lightweight, but robust cross platform offering that also brings things like a reading mode and Cortana to the table. The new Creators Update also introduced additional Microsoft Pen compatibility for the desktop version, letting users take notes on e-books.
Speaking of Cortana, the company’s assistant will also be a key part of its mobile play moving forward. Microsoft has already released versions of the AI assistant for iOS and Android, as it attempts to give it a life outside of the desktop. That’s also seeing Microsoft work with third parties a la Amazon with Alexa to figure out what kind of mileage it could have on voice-powered devices, as with Harman’s new Cortana-powered smart speaker, and HP’s and Intel’s plans to build Cortana-powered devices.
As Surface head Panos Panay told us, “As I move from device to device and room to room, you have to make sure that they’re all connected through Cortana. We believe in that.”
Both Edge and Cortana are key pieces of this puzzle, providing key connective tissue that Windows users will almost certainly want to take with them on the go. With Windows Phone out of the equation, that will almost certainly mean syncing up increasingly with iOS and Android to make sure that Windows itself continues to stay relevant.
It’s something of a Plan B for the company. Clearly Microsoft would have preferred more control over its own mobile ecosystem (and even acquired Nokia to establish a hardware foothold), but for now, it’s going to have to rely on Google and Apple’s offerings. Not ideal, but the company has been producing software for competing platforms from its earliest days. Survival in the age of mobile means re-embracing those roots.
“Windows 10 Fall Creators Update” is a long, unwieldy name that should mean absolutely nothing to you.
Yes, I know, Microsoft is hell-bent on convincing us that this Windows is, even more than the last Windows update with the very similar name, all about Creators. And yes, it has many new tools for helping you make stuff.
But Microsoft’s almost fetish-like obsession with 3D creation tools can obscure the fact that in the last few years Windows 10 has, thankfully, changed only incrementally and in largely beneficial ways.
It is increasingly a holistic system that ferries your Windows identify and content from one app, device, and even platform to the next.
Honestly, it’s the cloud that has transformed Microsoft and Windows, not 3D. But, yes, 3D creation is in there, and I’ll get to it in a minute.
If you’ve been using or adopted Windows at any time in the last three years, Windows 10 Fall Creators Update will feel like an old friend. There have been no major feature relocations or deletions (okay, maybe one) and you should have no trouble finding your now well-organized app list under Start, Windows Settings or the updated Actions an Notifications center (a swipe in from the right edge of the screen or a tap on the icon in the right corner).
The system can still transform into a tablet interface that no one I know one who runs Windows really likes, but you can control that.
The Taskbar, which Microsoft has been refining since Windows 1.0 in 1985, gets a few small, but useful updates including the ability to pin important people to it. My wife’s contact info now resides under an icon down there. I can even drag and drop things I want to share with her. At one point I created a 3D heart and dropped it onto her icon. I still had to open the Mail app to send it. For the next Windows update, I’d like to build in a preset for, say, SMS so I can just drop something and text her all in one step.
If I used the Microsoft Edge Browser — yes, there are good reasons to do this — I can also pin favorite websites to the Taskbar. Then it only takes one click to launch the browser and open them. Naturally, I added Mashable.
Cortana, Microsoft’s digital voice assistant continues her residency in the search box next to the Start button, anxiously waiting for you to ask her a question. You can type just about anything into the box, launching a search for files, apps, images, and random information found only on the web (Bing does the searching). Cortana doesn’t care, she’s ready to deliver it all, including more complex queries like, “Can I see my photos from October 5?” The microphone icon is there if you prefer to speak to Cortana, but you probably won’t, at least until you start using the upcoming Harman Kardon Invoke, a smart speaker with Cortana built right in.
Oddly missing from this build is the nifty Timeline, which lets you jump back to whatever you were working on with a visual interface, and Clipboard, which supports copying and pasting between you PC and smartphone. These were features Microsoft teased at this year’s Build developers conference, but now Microsoft says only that they’re coming in a future Windows update.
Make something new
Where Microsoft poured most of its attention and where you’ll find some of Windows 10’s most radical updates is in Photos, 3D Paint and its nascent Mixed Reality platform.
Photos will suck in the photos and videos in any folder I point it at and it was easy to let it auto-generate movies out of entire folders of photos. If I didn’t like what it created, I just hit the Remix button and it came up with a new cut (including new music).
Some of what it created was pretty good. I could use the editor, which is the least intimidating video editor I’ve ever seen to drag an drop video segments around, trim them and add simple filters and effects, which are especially useful on photos. While it’s easy enough to trim a video clip, I do wish the editor let you split clips, as well.
Windows 10 is still built for a mouse and keyboard, but it’s equally adept at touch and ink. Windows Ink, the ability to use the Bluetooth Surface Pen to mark up apps, images and documents; take notes; draw; and create impressive art, is more pervasive than ever in Windows 10 Fall Creators Update. In addition to the Windows Ink icon in the task tray and in the Microsoft Edge Browser, you can now ink up photos in the new creator-friendly Photos app and videos right inside the video playback and in the rudimentary video editing tool.
I find inking excellent for marking up web pages to share with others, for taking quick notes, and for drawing in art apps and Windows 10’s own Sketchpad, but it does take some skill to, for instance, integrate something visually appealing in a video.
Part of the problem is that the tools and how to use them are not entirely obvious. It took me a little while to realize that the ink I drew would appear where (or should I say when) in the video timeline a drew it. In addition, pinning a doodle to an object is easy, if you realize you must tap the anchor icon on top of the doodle so it turns blue and locks the doodle to the live-action object.
Using my Surface Pro, I shot a short video of the Empire State Building. Then I opened it in the video playback app, selected draw, and drew a gorilla holding onto the Empire State Building spire. He appeared at the right moment in the video, but he also didn’t stay fully pinned and then, when the video zoomed in on the building, the doodle disappeared.
With enough practice, I bet I could get pretty good and creative with this, but I’m not certain how I’d use it.
Microsoft’s other big Windows 10 Fall Creators Update innovation, 3D Paint, is an even more powerful tool with somewhat questionable utility.
Before I go any further, I should tell you Paint is not gone. When I type “Paint” into Start, it still appears and loads instantly, but Microsoft does plan on moving
Paint 3D, the app Microsoft wants you to use is so much more powerful and cleanly designed than the old Paint. As the name suggests, it has impressive 3D creation tools that, even if you’ve never touched a 3D creation app, you’ll be able to make something.
Getting to that something, though, does require patience. Working in three dimensions takes practice and so does getting the hang of Microsoft’s 3D object tools.
I spent a lot of time simply dropping in and doodling 3D objects and manipulating them with the bounding box and 3D controls. I even figured out how to draw on top of my 3D objects so the lines wrapped around the objects, just as they would in the real world.
Yet most of what I created looked silly and rudimentary.
Objects you create in 3D paint can be exported and saved to 3D libraries. In fact, 3D Paint has access to an impressive online library of pre-made 3D objects from the Remix community. Most of them looked amazing. They didn’t look as good when I added my amateurish creations.
Much like inking capabilities, Microsoft is spreading 3D awareness across the Windows platform and into its Office productivity suite. In PowerPoint, for example, I added a 3D globe that I spun until North America faced me, tilt it up slightly and send it backward behind my text. 3D objects really add a professional-looking touch and I think business people will love them.
I’m supposed to be able to add 3D creations to video, but I could never get this to work.
Not only can you take your 3D images into other apps, you can take them out into the real world. Mixed Reality does require more specialized PC hardware. Fortunately, Microsoft has a hardware support check app you can download.
There’s a mixed reality button in 3D paint and once I selected that, it turned on my Surface Pro’s rear camera. I could see what was behind the laptop and the 3D object floating in space. I tapped on it and it dropped onto the real surface of my table or should I say close to it. The meshing of the real and 3D was somewhat imperfect. The 3D object tended to shift around a bit and float a millimeter or so above the surface of the table. Even so, it’s a cool effect and I could even pick up the laptop and move around the virtual object.
There are other useful features in the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update like annotating ebooks in Edge, the ability to continue what you’re doing on your phone on the desktop. That only works for web browsing and if you’re running the very new Microsoft Edge for iOS or Android, but it’s a handy little feature. And there’s an easy-to-access emoji list. You just have to press the Windows key and a period and it pops up right over the Start button.
I ran the final build of the Windows 10 Fall Creators Update on a new Surface Pro, hoping to give the OS a fresh start. It was, mostly, smooth sailing. However, there were some bugs, like losing the connection to my Bluetooth keyboard and the number 3 repeating over and over in an open Word document.
Restarting fixed both problems.
As a long-time Windows user, I’m pleased with the direction Microsoft is taking its venerable operating system. Windows 10 Fall Creators Update richer, faster, cleaner and, yes, more secure than ever (there are even built-in protections for ransomware). If you’re already a Windows 10 user and allow system upgrades, you really don’t have a decision to make. You’re getting this update. Whether you choose to use all that inking, 3D, and Mixed Reality creative power is up to you.
Windows 10 Fall Creators Update
Powerful • Easy to install and use • Familiar • Enormous creative power
Creative tools are not always as easy to use as they should be • Some bugginess
The Bottom Line
Windows 10 Fall Creators Update builds on an already strong platform and points toward a more creative future — if that’s your thing.
No one in the tech industry wears their heart on their sleeve quite like Panos Panay. The Windows Devices head is sometimes almost overwhelmed by his own passion for Microsoft’s Surface products. Panay’s enthusiasm bubbles over, he goes off script, and he often over-shares.
Either all that is true, or Microsoft has never had a savvier product lead. Whatever the case, Panay’s product fervor is infectious and, when he explains why he’s so excited about Microsoft’s new Surface Book 2, you believe him.
Panay unveiled the two new Surface Book 2 hybrid laptops, a 13-inch model and big-rig 15-incher last week at a relatively low-key event that, while timed as the last Microsoft media get-together before the launch of Windows 10 Fall Creators Update (Oct. 17), was squarely focused on a launching the redesigned portables.
“I just want to talk to you about these products,” said Panay earnestly. He’d been instructed to keep it low-key, stay seated, and just chat, but, as usual, Panay was prowling before the group of journalists assembled causally on couches, benches, and cushioned chairs. Behind him, under fabric, were the two new laptops.
Microsoft is aggressively pursuing the mobile-workhorse market that Apple has carved out.
Panay spoke, as he often does, with enormous pride about the growth of the Surface brand over the last five years and how, in those early days in 2012, the team would challenge each other to spot a Surface in the wild.
“Who can take the first picture?” he remembered. That first picture turned out to be a Microsoft employee on an airplane.
When I sit down with Panay after the launch to talk about his vision for these Intel quad-core, 8th generation Core i-running systems, I also note that just a week earlier, when I pulled out my Surface Pro on a recent flight to the West Coast, the woman two seats away did the same.
Panay smiles and says, “It’s indicative now. It’s happening.”
With the Surface brand now more firmly established in consumer’s minds, Microsoft continues to expand the brand across multiple mobile devices, Surface Laptop, Pro, and Book, and on the desktop with the Surface Studio. Now, with the new Book 2, especially the super-sized 15-inch model, Microsoft is aggressively pursuing the mobile-workhorse market that Apple has carved out with the 15-inch MacBook Pro.
Panay called the new $2,499 15-inch Surface Book 2 “a beast,” telling us it’s five times more powerful that the original Surface Book, claiming it’s capable of pushing a stunning 4.3 trillion math operations per second.
“No laptop has ever pushed this much computational power in this mobile a format,” said Panay.
He also claimed that the Surface Book 2 offers 70% more battery life than a comparable MacBook Pro.
For all that power, the Surface Book 2, both the 13-inch ( $1,499) and 15-inch, looks almost exactly the same as the original 13.5-inch laptop. Microsoft still puts the core processor in the 3:2 aspect ratio screen, which is essentially a touchscreen tablet that sits on the dynamic fulcrum hinge. The screen (6 million pixels with 260 ppi on the 15,; 267 ppi on the 13) still detaches with the press of a button and can be used alone or flipped around, reattached, and then folded down on top of the keyboard to an angled “Studio Mode” for drawing. The keyboard base still houses copious amounts of battery and, in some cases, a discrete Nvidia GPU.
However, as is often the case these days in mobile technology, there is very little about the Surface Book 2 that isn’t new.
There are over 1,000 new parts in Surface Book 2, Panay tells me later. Even that iconic hinge that lets you use one finger to lift the substantial screen while keeping the base firmly on the table, is all new.
Earlier that day, Microsoft Design Chief Ralf Groene told me as I lingered over an exploded view of the new hinge in the Surface Book 2 demo room that Microsoft re-engineered the entire hinge and attachment mechanism.
I noticed that when I detached and reattached the screen, the operation was quieter and surer. Groene told me that the redesign cut down on screen wobble.
It’s made out of ceramic now,” says Panay later. This has the side benefit of making the Book 2 slightly lighter.
“We have to design from inside out; we don’t design from the outside in,” says Panay as way of explaining why the Surface Book 2 is not, visually, a new design. He also notes that the design has become iconic for customers looking for a certain level of performance in a laptop.
And the Book 2 does take the Surface brand performance to some new, uncharted places.
This may be the first Intel Quad-Core i7 CPU (8th generation) running in a tablet without a fan (13-inch model, only). The tablet cools passively. Earlier, I noticed a tiny grill runs the entire outside edge of the tablet.
“When you don’t need a fan, it starts to change a lot of things. One, it takes weight out of the product. Two, passively cooling means you’re not working with any noise, any barriers from a tablet perspective… and you’re burning less battery,” says Panay.
Microsoft is promising 17 hours of battery life for the Surface Book 2. “I’m using my Book 15-inch,” grins Panay, “I can’t remember that last time I charged it. It’s just crazy and it’s so fun to me right now.”
It sounds a little less crazy when you consider this is, in the case of the 15-inch model, a nearly 4.22-pound laptop (the 13-inch weighs 3.67 pounds). The tablet alone alone gets you a still-solid 5 hours. For comparison, the Surface Pro weighs 1.73 pounds (Core i7 model) and gets you 13 hours of battery life.
If Surface Book 2 users primarily use the product as a tablet, this might be a problem, But Panay explains that the typical Surface Book user detaches the screen in relatively short, 20-to-30-minute bursts.
“Of course, the way we manage battery is, when you’re docked or back plugged into the keyboard, we push the power equally through this [to the screen and base], so it makes it easy to detach whenever you need to and you have power. It works out pretty well for our users,” he says.
Microsoft’s redesign work extends to the keyboard and mouse.
“The keyboard has got its own new feel,” says Panay, who boasts to me about the laptop keyboard’s 1.55 millimeters of travel, (the amount of movement you get when typing a key), adding that it’s significantly better than the, according to him, 0.55mm of travel found on the latest MacBook Pros.
That satisfying typing feel is a direct result of the Surface Book’s unusual design. While the MacBook elegantly squeezes virtually all its technology into the base, Microsoft gets to split at least some of it between the base and the 7.7mm-thick tablet.
“I will profess to you it’s perfect for the elegant typing experience,” says Panay, warming to his subject, “the buttery smooth feel, the make/break of being productive and typing as fast as you can… and we do a bunch of typing tests.”
Yes, USB-C, finally
There is one other notable change to the outside of the Surface Book 2: the introduction of a USB-C port (there are also two USB Type-A ports and an SD card slot).
Back in May when Microsoft unveiled its new Surface Pro and Surface Laptop, I asked Panay why the company still hadn’t adopted USB-C. Panay said that, “It’s not that it’s not great. It’s not that people don’t use it, but it’s not ready for these products yet. It’s not ready for our customers.” He did add that it would eventually show up in their products.
And now it has.
The USB-C port replaces the DisplayPort and, as such, is primarily intended to drive an external display.
“What I want to be careful of is, I don’t want to remove the Surface Connector that’s so important to people. That quick charging, that matters,” he says, still trying to qualify the introduction of this single port.
Panay admits that the USB-C port can also be used to read an external hard drive and, yes, charge the Surface Book 2.
And yet he hedges again, trying to warn people off plugging in any random USB-C-based charger.
“You can charge off of it, of course, but that’s not the goal. Because you’re going to find chargers that simply don’t work and that’s not what I want for customers,” he says.
Inside a beast
The Surface Book 2 is designed for creators and those who are building the future, said Panay during his presentation. The Nvidia GTX 1060 GPU backed by 6GB of RAM (in the 13-inch, there’s a 1050 with 2GB of video RAM) will support processor-intensive tasks like CAD, 3D and video rendering.
During the presentation Panay impishly played an unfinished Surface Book 2 sizzle video that elegantly, and with copious amounts of exquisite 3D-rendering, demonstrates how the new design came together.
Later, Panay is still beaming about going rouge and sharing the video early. “That video you saw, we are pushing renders of that video on this device. Not sure how we’ll talk about that in the future, but it just gives you that essence…We can do our video editing right on the fly. We can recreate that product, rendering the sound and the images. It’s pretty cool.”
That raw power, however, may also excite another audience: gamers. Panay called the system “amazing for gamers,” telling me later that its remarkable to have this kind of gaming power in a system this small. “This should look like a massive gaming rig,” he says.
When I tell him that my son owns one of those huge gaming laptops, Panay encourages me to bring home 15-inch review unit I’ll eventually get and “take it to your boy and let him have at it.”
Before we finish, I bring Panay back to a question I’m often asked, “Which Surface should I buy?”
Panay breaks it down:
There’s the Surface Pro, which is all about versatility. So, if you need a laptop with significant battery life but that can truly support work on the go, this is probably your pick.
The Surface Laptop is “a laptop in its truest form,” says Panay, “It’s about beauty and precision design,” and adds, “There are a set of people who want a laptop that’s performant, that’s light enough, that’s thin enough, but must be iconic or beautiful, it has to be.”
The Surface Book 2 is about pushing performance. It’s really for the creative in the 3D rendering app Maya, the engineer in CAD.
To see if that product messaging and reality come together for consumers, Panay spends a lot of time in Microsoft Stores observing customers who come into buy new systems.
“So, there’s a reality to that moment. Somebody walking in and wanting to buy a product and understand it and the reality to the marketing messages,” he says.
He wants the product truth, how the Surface feels, what its components can do, to match the marketing message so that when the customer does arrive in the store, the choice is obvious.
Announced roughly this time last year, Creators Update was Microsoft’s attempt to capture the creative types who have long been considered a core part of the Mac ecosystem’s userbase. The update brought simple 3D content creation tools to Windows 10 and additional gaming functionality, among other things. The new Fall Creators Update, which is set to roll out to all users today, builds on top of many of those advances.
Like its predecessor, the new update brings more 3D content creation and helps ready Windows for Microsoft’s vision of a Mixed Reality future. There are also a number of other additions aimed at patching holes and addressing new input devices like the Surface Pen. Here’s a rundown of some of the biggies.
Microsoft is known for maintaining a fun workplace, from its free candy to its awesome art collection. Its latest perk: treehouses.
The company announced on its blog Friday that it has created three treetop meeting spaces at its corporate headquarters in Redmond, Washington.
The treehouses were built by Pete Nelson, host of the Animal Planet series Treehouse Masters. They were constructed on the campus this summer, prompting a wave of curiosity and rumors from Microsoft employees, according to the company.
These aren’t children’s playhouses: they’re built for work. Though intended to connect employees with nature, the treehouses are, of course, equipped with Wi-Fi and outlets for charging. One of them also features an indoor cafeteria.
But while not as isolated as they seem, the spaces are certainly cute. They feature rocking chairs and fireplaces, and benches that wouldn’t be out of place on a home patio.
Let’s just hope they’re waterproof, and that nobody’s too distracted by the birds.