Of all the changes Microsoft could have made with the new Surface Pro it introduced on Tuesday in China, adding a USB-C port was a gimme.
Except that it wasn’t and Microsoft didn’t.
The choice to leave USB-C off its flagship product puts Microsoft at odds with an industry that is rapidly swapping out micro USB, USB 3.0 and even beloved power adapters in favor of the newer and more flexible port option.
“I believe there was a headline that said, ‘Microsoft doesn’t believe in Type C.’ Actually, that’s not accurate. I believe in Type C, for sure, but right now I believe in our customers more,” said Microsoft Corporate Vice President of Devices Panos Panay.
Panay was walking me through the new Surface Pro, the long-awaited follow-up to the popular Surface Pro 4. It includes many updates (800 new parts) and design enhancements, but USB-C isn’t one of them.
“We looked hard at [USB-C],” he said, but later added, “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.”
‘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.’
Panay described USB-C as being in its “infant state” and said that it would be another three to four years before it truly catches on.
For Microsoft, it wasn’t an easy choice. “We spent iteration after iteration, thought after thought. We don’t take these decisions lightly. We don’t wake up one day and say, ‘People are using Type-C, oh my gosh.’”
However, Microsoft’s reasoning goes beyond choosing between USB 3.0 and USB-C. In fact, there’s little chance Microsoft would’ve swapped its traditional USB port for Type-C; Microsoft’s business customers simply rely too heavily on the former port.
Ghosts of Surface past
Panay, though, wanted to address the possibility of following in Apple’s footsteps and replacing the signature, magnetic Surface Connect power and data port and adapter with USB-C. After all, Microsoft had done it once before, with the Surface 3 (not Pro) when it dropped Surface Connect in favor of a tiny USB 2.0 port and adapter.
That experience taught Microsoft and Panay a valuable lesson.
“We listened, I want to say we listened to our customers, but we really listened to the noise of the fringe: ‘I want one charger.’”
However, two things quickly happened, customers started using whatever USB 2.0 charger they had lying around to charge the Surface 3 and soon lost track of the original charger.
The USB 2.0 adapter Microsoft shipped with the Surface 3 could charge it 80% in 2 hours. Since some were using phone chargers to charge their Surface 3, it took 12 hours or more. People called to complain:
“My device isn’t charging.”
“What are you plugging into it?”
“I have this USB charger.”
With Surface Pro 4 and Pro 3, no one loses their charger, said Panay. “It stays with you, it’s an important part of your life.”
“With Surface 3 the most fascinating thing happened: the minute you realized that… you could plug in any USB 2.0 device, your charger became expendable.”
In other words, having a unique, powerful and versatile (the Surface Connect charger comes with a USB port) charger and port is preferable to having ones that can work with anything.
C’ing the future
Microsoft is not ignoring USB-C entirely. Panay shows me a Surface Connect-to USB-C adapter that can be used with a Type-C charger to charge up the Surface Pro.
There will be questions about why Microsoft didn’t make the switch or even just squeeze a USB-C port in, but Panay stands by the decision.
“What I’m making sure is that customers get everything they need when they’re using this device. I’m fool-proofing it…. And when Type-C is ready it, we’ll put it in. It will come to our products. There’s no question it will show up.”
May 23, 2017 / Comments Off on Microsoft: USB-C isn’t ready
One of the highlights of Microsoft’s freshly announced Surface Pro tablet is new Surface Pen.
It looks exactly like the old pen, but Microsoft reengineered it to amp up the pressure sensitivity, add tilt awareness, and radically reduce latency so the digital ink looks as if its flowing right out of the real pen tip.
“People wanted to write as accurately and small as on paper,” said Steven Bathiche, distinguished scientist, Microsoft Applied Sciences, who showed me how all the new technology translates to a more effective pen experience.
However, nothing showcases the pen’s new capabilities like Microsoft’s new collaboration tool Whiteboard, which I saw in action at a private demo at Microsoft’s Redmond campus.
“It’s a limitless, real-time collaboration canvas,” said Ian Mikutel, Senior project manager lead, digital ink experiences.
As I watched, Mikutel opened the Whiteboard app, which look like a moistly blank white board, on a Windows 10 Surface Studio. Beside it, Mikutel had another Surface Studio and a Surface Pro. They were also running Whiteboard.
Mikutel started writing on his Whiteboard and then Bathiche did the same on the second Surface Studio and Han-yi Shaw, Group Program Manager, Office Hardware Innovation Team, picked up the Surface Pro.
What Bathiche and Shaw were writing appeared simultaneously on Mikutel’s screen. He told me the instant sharing of ink strokes is part of a new, patented technology called “Live Ink.” In addition, each participant’s lines were accompanied by tiny avatars (small, round picture of their faces). This is called “local ink identity.”
When I asked Mikutel how many people could collaborate at once he said, “up to a lot of people,” though the typical collaboration group size is between five and seven people.
‘No more taking photos of the whiteboard at the end of the meeting.’
The app is built specifically for Surface devices and the Surface Pen. In developing it, the Microsoft team focused on ink intelligence, speed and inker identity. The system also includes shape recognition. Draw a circle and it will turn into a cleaner and more manipulable one.
“No more taking photos of the whiteboard at the end of the meeting,” smiled Mikutel who added that users can output the Whiteboard image in a variety of formats.
The only issue I saw in Whiteboard is that, because the Whiteboard canvas is truly limitless, collaborators can get a bit lost in it. At one point Shaw was drawing on the same Whiteboard as Mikutel, but we couldn’t see it on the main board because Mikutel was zoomed in while Shaw’s writing was a significant virtual distance away.
I noticed that Mikutel’s drawing color was a rainbow color. It is, apparently, a very popular inking color and one that was suggested by a seventh grader. Mikutel said he was in a classroom asking, if they could have any Ink feature, what would they want. One girl piped up, “I think it would be really cool if Ink looked like a rainbow.”
May 23, 2017 / Comments Off on Microsoft Whiteboard is the virtual collaboration tool we’ve been dreaming of
I’ve been waiting for Microsoft’s Surface Pro 5 for what seems like years. Now I know that my wait will never end.
There will be no Surface Pro 5.
There is a Surface Pro.
On Tuesday in China, Microsoft finally unveiled the follow-up to its popular convertible/ultra-portable the Surface Pro 4 and, as rumored, it’s simply called the Surface Pro.
The device will be instantly recognizable to Surface Pro 4 fans, but promises a brighter screen, 20% better performance, 13.5 hours of battery life and sub-1.7-pound weight.
Plus, there’s that retired numbering system.
Microsoft didn’t invent the number drop. Years ago, Apple cleaned up its iPad product line by first calling an iPad update “The new iPad” (sort of) and eventually just “iPad.”
For Microsoft, though, the change may be more meaningful.
“It’s really important that people understand this is it — this is the product where all four generations have come together, and there’s this massive leap, this meaningful leap that comes with this product that, we think, brings to life customers’ needs, through and through,” Microsoft Corporate Vice President of Devices Panos Panay said during a private meeting at Microsoft’s Building 88 in Redmond, Washington, where he gave me a preview of the new device.
Panay, who is one of the more intense and effusive people I know, is beaming.
“I’m in this place where I get so excited about it, I think partially because Surface Pro is my baby,” he tells me. And it’s true: I first met Microsoft’s Surface device at the same time as I met Panay, and his enthusiasm for the then-nascent brand and unusual product design was off the charts. It’s one reason I started using the Surface Pro 3 (and eventually 4) as my everyday device. Panay always believed passionately in the Surface Pro, which made me believe, too.
Panay always believed passionately in the Surface Pro, which made me believe, too.
As he prepared to show me the Surface Pro, Panay reminded me of what was, for him, a key moment in the life of the Surface brand, when he spotted me, a tech reporter, using it at CES. He told me that I was one of the first in my field to jump on it, adding, “I’m 100% sure of that because I track you guys more than you think.’” Leaving aside the concern that Panay might be paying maybe a little too much attention to the tech press, I get it.
People like me try different products every day, but it’s the rare one that we invite into our everyday lives. I did it because I saw something special in, what was at the time, the Surface Pro 3. Could this eponymous update live up to its predecessors?
Panay told me the new product perfectly aligns with Microsoft’s mission of empowering every person and organization of the planet to achieve more and the conviction, shared by Panay and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, that great software must be accompanied and brought to life by great hardware.
“The new Surface Pro is the crescendo for that moment,” said Panay.
While it may seem odd to reach the crescendo in China, Panay told me that Surface is “a global brand now, and China happens to be the Surface line’s second biggest market.
Even though Panay tells me that the update to the new Surface Pro features 800 new parts, I have trouble, at first, discerning the visual differences. Perhaps that’s because most of the design changes are quite subtle.
The Surface Pro 4 vent channel, which runs around the perimeter of the display, is now so thin you can no longer see the vent grill. Also, the Surface Pro’s recognizable, flat chassis edge now has a pleasing little arc. I tease Panay that this finger-friendly curve might help Microsoft prepare for the future, long-rumored Surface Phone.
“Good, good, that’s a good thought,” laughed Panay, adding playfully, “There’s a lot of questions about that, but I don’t really remember any of the answers.”
Beyond that, though, the materials, screen size and resolution, ports (still USB 3.0, no USB-C) and other design elements are virtually the same as they were with the Surface Pro 4 and, as Panay sees it, with good reason.
“We know people love it,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want customers relearning how to use it. “My job isn’t reinventing that every time,” he said.
That’s why so many of the changes in the Surface Pro are either inside or an extension of an existing feature.
The product’s kickstand and hinge, for example, now folds almost all the way onto the back of the tablet, supporting a new “Studio Mode” — a possible reference to the easel-size Surface Studio. To do so, Microsoft had to redesign the hinge, not only to support the freedom of movement, but to ensure that someone leaning on the screen while writing or drawing wouldn’t break it.
Studio Mode, is also an effort to encourage more Surface Pen use. The other portion of that strategy comes in the Pen itself, which, like the Surface Pro, looks unchanged on the outside, but has new technology in the inside.
The battery-powered, Bluetooth Surface Pen now recognizes 4,096 levels of pressure (up from 1,024), includes tilt sensitivity, and activates with just 12 milligrams of pressure (down from 20).
Those are exciting specs for digital-pen and stylus enthusiasts, but Panay wants to show me something else. I watch as he signs his name on the Surface Pro screen. The digital ink appears to be coming out of the tip of the Surface Pen.
I’m not imagining things.
Microsoft developed a new piece of silicon that sits between the display and graphics controllers, opening a communication channel between the pen and the display that makes pen flow virtually instantaneous.
“It’s a leap in pen performance,” said Steven Bathiche, whose title is distinguished scientist, Microsoft Applied Sciences. He’s showing me research prototypes to illustrate the wizardry behind the new pen and ink technology.
Bathiche described a custom piece of silicon, which sits on the display, that decreases ink latency by 130%. “The latency is so low it’s almost ahead of the app,” said Bathiche.
To demonstrate the power of the new silicon, Bathiche shows me a display teardown where he could turn the chip on an off. On the screen was a red square. Bathiche had me touch the square and use my finger to drag it around the screen. It followed well enough but was lagging behind my digit just enough that I could always see the whole red square. Then Bathiche turned on the accelerator. Now, the square remained under my fingertip, no matter how quickly I moved it around.
“Ink is a Microsoft birthright,” said Han-yi Shaw, group program manager, Office hardware innovation team, who told me that simulating paper and pen is not new, but it’s never really been done in an accurate way. Shaw believes that’s changing with this product.
Microsoft made other adjustments to the pen technology including the new electrode near the tip that lets the operating system keep track of angle. Bathiche showed me an original, working prototype so I could see how the system keeps track of the pen tilt in real-time.
As mentioned, Microsoft also dropped the amount of pressure needed for the pen to mark the screen, to 12 milligrams. “The slightest touches, [it] captures nuances. It’s about digitizing intent and expression,” said Bathiche who encouraged me to try lightly drawing with one of the new pens on the new Surface Pro. I did and was impressed with how lightly I could draw and still get a faint line.
Microsoft is also extending the Pen utility with Windows Ink enhancements like the ability to find your favorite pen settings on any Surface device where you’re signed in. There’s also a new Whiteboard application, which is essentially a shared Whiteboard that supports real-time inking and collaboration on a virtual whiteboard for multiple Surface users.
Performance and connectivity
Microsoft is also extending the fanless design up to an intel Core i5 CPU, which means most of Surface Pro users may have completely silent systems. Core i7 systems will still need a fan. “We push the i7, we push hard,” said Panay.
It’s also worth noting that the sub-1.7 lb. weight is only for the Intel core m3. The i5 model weighs 1.7 lbs. and the i7 (all 7th Generation) weighs 1.73 lbs. Memory options range from 4G up to 16 GB of RAM and storage ranges from 128 GB SSD up to a 1 TB option. There’s also a micro-SD slot for storage expansion.
The Surface Pro will finally join the mobile broadband universe, adding an undetectable LTE antenna. Panay turned the Surface Pro over in his hands and pointed out there are no antenna lines or windows (like the LTE iPad’s distinctive strip).
A Wi-Fi only Surface Pro launches on June 15. The LTE version should arrive a few months later.
There are a handful of other noticeable changes, like an improved Type Cover keyboard with better key travel that, for me, improved an already excellent typing experience, a more precise trackpad, boosted speakers for 20% more volume and something that seemed to disappear.
Microsoft didn’t bother to upgrade the 8- and 5-megapixel back and front cameras, respectively, but it’s harder to see where the front-facing camera sits in the chrome just above the screen.
“We basically made them [the cameras] go away with new technology in our black mask that let us mute the look of the cameras a bit,” said Panay.
Any time you alter a successful brand, there’s concern that you lose or muddle the identity. The Surface Pro 4 and the Surface tablets before it all have that iconic look: the magnesium body and sharp, almost retro edges.
Is Panay concerned that, by smoothing things out and making the device a little more approachable, he’s messing with an icon?
Panay took the nearest Surface Pro and turned it so I was staring at its profile. “This is the icon, Lance. This is the icon that the product leans on,” he said gesturing to the kickstand. “That’s what the product was created on. We won’t touch that.”
May 23, 2017 / Comments Off on The inside story behind the new Microsoft Surface Pro
Microsoft came to the tablet party late, but it’s taking home the centerpiece: A J.D. Power award for U.S. Tablet Satisfaction.
Seven years into the tablet wars (which have arguably diminished to a skirmish) launched by Apple and its iPad and six years into J.D. Power’s tablet survey, Microsoft inched by Apple with an aggregate score of 855 to 849 (out of 1,000) to win the top honor, J.D. Power announced on Friday.
J.D. Power, which surveys several industries and sectors for satisfaction, surveyed tablet owners late last year. Microsoft Surface tablet owners reported higher overall satisfaction with features and “styling and design factors.”
“These [Microsoft] tablet devices are just as capable as many laptops, yet they can still function as standard tablets. This versatility is central to their appeal and success.” said Jeff Conklin, vice president of service industries at J.D. Power in a release.
Microsoft’s tablets, which most people use with the optional $129 Type Cover and included Surface Pen, earned high marks for internet connectivity, availability of supported accessories, input/output options and internal storage. Those surveyed also praised the pre-installed software, which may be good news for Windows 10, the Surface’s operating system.
“It’s an accomplishment to beat Apple at any satisfaction metric, and this just reinforces that Microsoft Surface is the real deal,” said Patrick Moorhead, President and Principal Analyst for Moor Insights & Strategy.
Apple and the iPad were not far behind in the survey. Its overall score gave Apple a “Better than most” rating (Microsoft’s is “Among the best”). Last year, Apple won best overall satisfaction for U.S. tablets, narrowly beating out Microsoft.
‘Surface also scored the best in styling and design which can’t make Apple very happy’
The company has struggled in recent years to maintain the tablet sales momentum it had in the early days of the iPad. Last month Apple introduced a more affordable iPad 9.7-inch, hoping to attract upgraders (from previous versions) and the education market (which has switched over to Chromebooks).
Close behind was Samsung, which sells the Galaxy Tab line of tablets, with 847 (like Microsoft and Apple, it landed above the survey average).
Acer and Asus were at the bottom of the survey. Around the middle, just below the average, was LG, not much of a player in the U.S. tablet market, and Amazon, which came in with an overall score of 834 (“About the average”). Amazon has sold a lot of cheap Android tablets over the last few years (remember the six pack?) but is not exactly impressing U.S. tablet consumers.
There were some other tablet trends highlighted by the survey, including U.S. consumer interest in larger tablet screens and the fact that those who opt for cellular plans (32%) are generally happier with their tablets.
The survey is interesting on many fronts, especially because people do not often pit, say, a Microsoft Surface Pro 4 tablet against Apple’s latest iPad. They might compare it to an iPad Pro, which is built to support a Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil. It’s unclear which models the survey respondents own and how long the owned them.
Clearly, though, those lauding Microsoft’s Surface put a premium on productivity. J.D. Power reported that survey respondents rated their tablets “very important” to their jobs. Tablets as productivity devices is a fairly new phenomenon, but certainly Microsoft’s sweet spot. The company only started to succeed on the tablet front when it gave up on the mobile ARM CPU version of the Surface (and Windows RT) and focused on a model that could run Windows and the desktop operating system as well as a tablet.
“The areas that Surface did well in make sense as the device supports a full-sized keyboard, Windows desktop and Store apps, and USB peripherals like mice and even external displays. Surface also scored the best in styling and design which can’t make Apple very happy,” said Moorhead.
We have contacted Microsoft and Apple for comment and will update this story with their responses.
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April 7, 2017 / Comments Off on Woah, Microsoft just beat Apple in tablet satisfaction