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Microsoft’s giving power users a turbocharged version of Windows 10

Image: miles goscha/mashable

Microsoft’s Windows 10 runs on everything from powerful desktop gaming PCs to laptops to the Raspberry Pi. And later this fall there’s going to be a new edition with better support for power users running server-grade PCs.

The new OS, which comes alongside the Fall Creators Update, is simply called “Windows 10 Pro for Workstations” and according to Microsoft is designed to “meet the needs of our advanced users deploying their Workstation PCs in demanding and mission-critical scenarios.”

There are four key areas where Windows 10 Pro has been made better for professionals using beefy workstation PCs.

First, it comes with ReFS (Resilient file system) to protect your data from corruption, which is especially important when you’re handling large storage volumes on a server. ReFS can detect when data’s screwed up on a mirrored hard drive and then use another non-corrupt backup to automatically fix the bad one, ensuring your data’s always undamaged.

Second, the special version has “persistent memory” using non-volatile memory modules (NVDIMM-N) so you can read and write files lightning-quick. Your files remain stored in the RAM even when you turn your workstation off so you can resume your work quicker than before.

The four pillars where Windows 10 Pro for Workstations is better than regular Windows 10 Pro.

The four pillars where Windows 10 Pro for Workstations is better than regular Windows 10 Pro.

Image: microsoft

Third, Microsoft says it’s added faster file sharing using a feature called SMB Direct. Using network adapters with Remote Direct Memory Access (RDMA) support, users can transfer large amounts of data quickly without using much CPU processing power. This means the CPU can be freed for other tasks.

And lastly, the new update works with Intel’s and AMD’s server-grade hardware. It supports workstations using Intel Xeon and AMD Opteron processors that can be configured with up to four CPUs and up to 6TB of memory. Previously, workstations only supported up to two CPUs and 2TB of memory.

Windows 10 Pro for Workstations is a solid update to look forward to if you’re a professional with a workstation or manage servers for a living. For us normals, though, it’s nothing we need to bother with. The Fall Creators Update will bring lots of new consumer-friendly features like Pick Up Where You Left Off, which lets you start a task on a Windows PC and then resume on your iOS or Android phone.

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Microsoft’s hardware boss explains the strangest thing about the Surface Pro

Panos Panay, Microsoft’s Windows device lead, is not just the face of the Surface brand. He’s essentially its father, too.

Panay, who joined Microsoft 13 years ago to work on the Device Group (which was mainly keyboards and mice at the time) was part of the initial team tasked with building a Surface Tablet for Windows 8.

The Surface brand predates Microsoft’s first tablet. It already existed as a giant tabletop touchscreen, meant primarily as a kind of interactive kiosk for retail businesses, restaurants, and hotels. It was the opposite of a mobile device.

During this week’s MashTalk podcast, Panay recounted how he and his team spent years in, essentially, a bunker-like existence, unable to tell even their families what they were working on.

The real relief came not so much during the surprise 2012 unveiling in California, and afterward Panay and his team were able to go home to their families and finally reveal what they’d been working on for two years.

Many Surfaces

Panay has also overseen the transformation of the Surface product line: It began as a tablet that lived somewhere between Windows and Android (remember Windows RT?) and has become the sharp point at the tip of an aggressive hardware strategy — to make Surface one of the premier consumer-technology brands in the world.

That’s been done through a steady refinement of the product and a broadening of the Surface ideal into all-in-ones, performance convertibles and now traditional laptops. On Thursday, Microsoft’s latest Surface devices, the Surface Pro and the Surface Laptop, launch to the public. 

The Surface has also been supported by the opening and expansion of Microsoft Stores, where Surface products own the prime real estate.

Panay told Mashable that those stores serve an important purpose. 

Surface devices feature prominently in Microsoft Stores.

Surface devices feature prominently in Microsoft Stores.

Image: Jhila Farzaneh/Mashable

“They’re critical,” he said. Panay explained that in a world that values stories and storytellers, having stores with smart sales people who care about the product makes the story of the Surface “more functional, emotional, relatable. You can talk to someone who really cares about the product, understands what it’s there for.”

Now, with five different Surfaces to choose from (including the gigantic Surface Hub digital “whiteboard”), this kind of in-person guidance, and the ability to touch and try the products, can make all the difference.

“So that point where you walk in and, ‘Hey, which one do you want, which laptop? The versatile one, the performant, or the personal one?’ and they can sit there and tell you a story for each one.”

“In the element of our brand-building across Microsoft, it’s where you will see all the hardware and software come together and somebody able to put it together for you,” said Panay.

The high end

In those stores, though, Surface customers may notice that most of Microsoft’s tablet and touch computers are more expensive that third-party Windows 10 counterparts. For this, Panay is unapologetic. He acknowledges that, much as Apple has done, Microsoft is building a premium brand.

“It is about pride and craftsmanship. It is about premium fit and finish,” said Panay.

The new Microsoft Surface Pro has an improved hinge capable of "studio" mode, which puts the screen almost flat.

The new Microsoft Surface Pro has an improved hinge capable of “studio” mode, which puts the screen almost flat.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

Essentially, Surface products are now intended to reflect the apex of what’s possible with Windows 10 products and to sell millions of those products direct to customers.

“We’re not here to make tradeoffs to hold costs down,” he added.

There are, though, issues to deal with on the pricing and packaging front. Right now, a Surface Pro sells for $799 without the Type Cover ($129.99) and the Surface Pen ($59.99).  Buy them all and you pay full price. For consumers, there are no bundle pricing options.

Panay attributes the lack of bundle options to the need to maintain as much choice (color options, basically) as possible across the keyboard and pen lines.

However, Microsoft rarely refers to the Surface Pro as a tablet. “We believe you need a keyboard with this product, believe you should use a pen with this product,” he told us.

When we suggest that there could be a $100 discount for buying all three, Panay called it “good feedback.”

The newest Surface

We also talked about recent criticism of the new Surface Laptop, which ships with Windows 10 S, a restricted version of Windows that will only run apps from the Windows Store (that’s right, no Google Chrome). Microsoft says this is to protect users (primarily students) from malware and to ensure the maximum possible battery life (Microsoft claims up to 14.5 hours for video playback).

The new Microsoft Surface Laptop, in burgundy.

The new Microsoft Surface Laptop, in burgundy.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

As for those who want a more unfettered experience, they can upgrade, at no cost until the end of the year (and for $50 afterward), the Surface Laptop to Windows 10 Pro, but can never go back to 10 S.

Panay is not concerned about the reception to this restriction.

“It’s a little different than anything we’ve talked about in the past, where it’s like, ‘Here it is, and we know it’s good for you, so, enjoy’ and then it’s not. In this case, if you don’t think it is, you just switch out and you move to Pro.”

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Razer’s new MacBook Pro slayer has no gimmicky Touch Bar

Razer, the company behind that crazy triple-screen laptop concept, will not stop until all other PC makers are its dust.

At this year’s E3 gaming expo, Razer refreshed its littlest laptop, the Blade Stealth, with the latest specs, and announced a new, toned down version with a larger screen (but the same dimensions) that ditches the brand’s neon green.

Is Razer finally growing up and shedding its gamer badge? Heck no. But at least you’ll be able to take your Stealth Blade to class or a meeting without looking like a total douchebag.

The Blade Stealth wowed us immediately with its stealthy compact aluminum design, 12-inch 4K-resolution IGZO touchscreen, solid Chroma-glowing keyboard and trackpad, and myriad ports.

It wasn’t much of a gaming laptop, but if you bolted on the Razer Core external GPU enclosure, you could definitely get desktop-class gaming performance out of it.

The new Blade Stealth has all of the things that made the original great, but now it’s got the latest seventh-generation Intel Core i7-7500U processors, better Intel HD Graphics 620, 16GB of RAM, up to 1TB of PCie SSD storage, and up to nine hours of battery life. All these specs will also hit your wallet kinda hard; a 512GB machine costs $1,599 and a 1TB $1,999.

If the 12.5-inch Blade Stealth screen’s a little too cramped for your liking, you might want to consider the more affordable 13.3-inch Blade Stealth, which starts at $1,399. It’s got a larger screen, but the body’s the exact same size as the 12.5-inch model, thanks to its slimmer bezels.

No glowing green logo on the gunmetal 13.3-inch Blade Stealth.

No glowing green logo on the gunmetal 13.3-inch Blade Stealth.

Image: LILI SAMS/MASHABLE

The 13.3-inch Blade Stealth has the same processor, RAM, and graphics as its smaller-sized brother, but it comes with one big difference: screen resolution. Whereas the 12.5-inch has a 3,840 x 2,160 (4K) touchscreen, the 13.3-inch only has a 3,200 x 1,800 (QHD+) touchscreen. Will you see much of a difference? Not at all.

It's also a touchscreen.

It’s also a touchscreen.

Image: LILI SAMS/MASHABLE

The larger-screened laptop also comes in two colors: black and gunmetal. 

Black comes with your standard Chroma-lit keyboard capable of glowing in 16.8 million colors per key, glowing green triple-headed snake logo, and green-colored USB ports. 

One Thunderbolt 3 port (USB-C), USB 3.0 port, and headphone jack.

One Thunderbolt 3 port (USB-C), USB 3.0 port, and headphone jack.

Image: Lili Sams/mashable

USB 3.0 port and full-sized HDMI port.

USB 3.0 port and full-sized HDMI port.

Image: lili sams/mashable

Gunmetal, however, is boardroom and classroom-ready. The backlit keyboard only lights up in white, the Razer logo on the lid is a more subtle polished gray, and the USB ports are standard silver. 

Some might find the gunmetal version dull (if you’re buying a Razer laptop, you’re not afraid to shout from rooftops you drink the green glow), but I personally prefer it over the standard black and green version. It’s too bad about the keyboard, though. I really wish it still had the Chroma keyboard.

Image: LILI SAMS/MASHABLE 

I’ve only had a few days to poke around with a pre-production gunmetal version, and so far it’s been pretty speedy. 

You just don’t realize how convenient it is to have full-sized USB and HDMI ports on your laptop until you’ve used laptops, like the new MacBook Pro, that don’t have them. That said, it’s also great to see a Thunderbolt USB-C port on the Blade Stealth, so you still get the best of both worlds.

Based on first impressions, I’d say the new 13.3-inch Blade Stealth is a better buy than the 12.5-inch version. The larger screen, despite its lower resolution, is roomier than the 12.5 despite having the same dimensions, and you get the same performance. Plus, no gimmicky Touch Bars.

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HP’s new Elite x2 might as well be the Surface Pro 5 that Microsoft won’t sell

With Microsoft seemingly uninterested in releasing a new 2-in-1 Surface Pro, other PC makers like HP are stepping in to fill the void.

HP’s Elite x2 1012 G2 (yeah it’s a mouthful) is the latest Surface Pro clone and it packs quite the punch.

You want premium looks in a thin and light package? The Elite x2’s got it. The aluminum tablet’s thinner than a Surface Pro 4 at 0.36 inches thick.

You want a bright and sharp screen? The Elite x2’s got it. The 12.3-inch touchscreen is larger than its 11.6-inch predecessor and the resolution’s identical to the Surface Pro 4’s: 2,736 x 1,824.

You want lots of power? Good, because the Elite x2’s got that as well. Powering Windows 10 are seventh-generation Intel Core i5 or i7 processors with Intel HD Graphics 620, 16GB of RAM, and up to 512GB of SSD storage.

You want lots of ports? Perfect, because the Elite x2’s got all the ones you need, including a USB-C 3.1 Thunderbolt port, full-sized USB 3.0 port (because nobody likes being in #donglehell), a SIM card slot for cellular connectivity, microSD card slot, and a headphone jack.

You want to take photos with a tablet? Hey, we’re not gonna judge you. The Elite x2’s got a 5-megapixel shooter on the front and an 8-megapixels camera on the back with LED flash.

You want nice sound? Compared to the previous Elite x2, the new one’s got front-facing stereo speakers that direct sound towards you and not away from you. HP says the speakers are also designed to enhance bass.

What about top notch security to lock down all your precious memes work documents? You guessed it, this baby’s got a fingerprint sensor on the back and an IR camera on the front for face authentication.

Add on the sturdy Collaboration Keyboard with its backlit keys and loop for the Active Pen stylus and you’ve got yourself a solid laptop replacement to bang out that term paper, compile that quarterly report, or create the next Deviantart masterpiece.

HP’s new 2-in-1 sounds like a whole lot of win. That said, we’ve gotta wait to see how much it’ll cost before we hand out any awards.

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With the Surface Laptop, Microsoft leads the PC industry back into the light

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Microsoft’s new Surface Laptop isn’t the $300 education system we were expecting, but then that’s not Microsoft’s role in the PC industry.

It’s the hero of this story.

A decade or more of darkness. Average products. Poor builds. The computer as a commodity. Once dominant computer manufacturers couldn’t figure out how to make eye-catching products that weren’t more form than function. 

This was, in part, Microsoft’s own fault. It built the Windows operating system and basically handed it to OEMs with a “Do with this what you will.” Obviously, there’s always been collaboration between Microsoft and hardware partners, but the OEMs always led the way on system design and, I guess, Microsoft always hoped for something better.

In the meantime, Apple’s Steve Jobs and then CEO Tim Cook tried to usher the world into the Post-PC era, even as that company built and sold its own personal computers.

The PC industry and, quite honestly, the PC, felt dead.

As we know, hardware revival came from an unlikely source.

Microsoft took its partners and really the entire Windows PC industry by the hand and showed them the way. A computer could be beautiful and functional. Design elements could serve capabilities. And what started with the Surface computer five years ago, a computer that straddled the line between tablet and ultra-portable, has culminated in this, the Surface Laptop, Microsoft’s first true clamshell computer, which Microsoft unveiled on Tuesday in New York City (along with the education-friendly Windows 10 S).

Like all the Surface computers that have come before it – Surface Pro, Surface Book, Surface Studio – the $999 Surface Laptop seeks to redefine a category with brash and unusual design choices, like a 3.6 mm-thin touch screen and a fabric-covered keyboard, that combine to make the portable more, not less, functional. My only quibble is that the wedge design makes the screen can’t fold all the way over onto the system’s back, which would, obviously, make it a convertible.

And to understand why today, a day in which Microsoft did not wow the world with a sub-$300 education laptop, is still a win for Microsoft, you need to know what Microsoft is doing in the PC space in the first place.

Form and Function

Microsoft’s plan with the Surface brand is not to, so to speak, flood the zone, covering every possible permutation of the venerable PC. Its all-in-one Surface Studio only arrived last year and it’s literally taken them years to build a non-convertible version of a laptop.

It’s also not building systems purely as a technology showcase. Yes, the Surface Book’s dynamic fulcrum hinge was unusual, but it was designed to help balance a system that split the battery and, in some cases, the discrete graphics and core CPU (and other components) into two slabs.

What Microsoft’s Surface design choices prove is that Microsoft focuses as much attention on industrial design as Apple does on each generation of the iPhone. Part of this is to show consumers and partners what’s possible, but most of it is to inspire current and future Windows customers. 

Microsoft has never had an issue with operating system name recognition. Everyone knows, if not loves or likes, Windows. Microsoft has never had a recognizable hardware brand — until Surface.

A fabric-covered keyboard is a better idea than you think it is.

A fabric-covered keyboard is a better idea than you think it is.

Image: lili sams/mashable

Surface is now as well known as Dell, Acer and Asus. But like the Apple brand, it carries a certain cachet. One that Microsoft won’t trade to fill a “value” niche, even if it’s trying to attract education buyers. Doing so would only harm the brand and its design leadership position.

Much of this became clear to me as I peppered the Surface Laptop design team with questions about the keyboard and mostly screw-free design. 

Easily the mostly startling aspect of the Surface Laptop is the keyboard. It’s a one-of-a-kind melding of aluminum, plastic and nylon.

As good as it looked, I couldn’t help but think that Microsoft has unnecessarily carpeted a computer.

“Why fabric?” I asked Microsoft Senior Designer Rachael Bell.

“First, why not?” said Bell, adding that a fabric-like material on keyboards has long been part of the Surface identity. While similar to Surface Touch Keyboard fabric, this material is different. I’d call it “feltier” but Bell told me it’s a non-woven, pressed nylon with a special polyurethane covering for durability, including water and chemical resistance.

Bell also reminded me that it’s “soft and beautiful to interact with,” and I had to admit that it felt good to the touch and comfortable when my palms rested on the spaces adjacent to the spacious touch pad.

That's a clean edge.

That’s a clean edge.

Image: lili sams/mashable

However, she added, there’s utility and value here, too. A fabric covering allows Microsoft to hide the speaker under the keyboard. Yes, there are precision holes cut in the fabric for the speaker grill, but you really can’t see them. If the keyboard cover were plastic, you’d see the holes.

Still, I worried about how the covering would hold up to wear and tear. What if it peeled off?

Mechanical engineer Mohammad Haq explained that Microsoft developed a lamination process, using heat, pressure and a specially formulated adhesive, to bind the fabric to the chassis.

As I held the Surface Laptop in my hands, I examined that bond, looking for a lip, a place where some middle-school kid could gain purchase and peel the fabric right off. I couldn’t find one. 

That perfect cut comes by way of an optical laser. The fabric cover starts out larger than the keyboard and then the laser trims away the excess leaving what looked like a one, clean edge.

During the Surface Laptop unveiling Microsoft Corporate VP Panos Panay said “When you hold the Surface Laptop, you will find no reference to how these parts came together.”

It’s true. I couldn’t see a screw anywhere. How did Microsoft do it? What’s holding this laptop together?

Where are the screws?

Where are the screws?

Image: lili sams/mashable

“There’s a considerable amount of adhesive, including heat activated pressure sensitive and liquid dispense (or hot melt),” said Haq. 

The only place you’d find screws are in the three-element hinge and on the motherboard.

All this attention to detail comes together in a laptop that I could literally open and close with a fingertip.

It’s not a $200 or $300 laptop and that’s by design. Microsoft has poured an insane amount of detail and expertise into crafting its perfect ideal of a traditional laptop. It’s a product consumers will probably want and partners can learn from. 

Ultimately, Microsoft will leave it to OEMs to build systems at the prices and variety consumers, especially education customers, demand, while it focuses attention on lust-worthy devices that remind people that Windows can live in cool hardware, too.

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