All posts in “Windows”

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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The Microsoft ‘CloudBook’ could be Chromebooks’ worst nightmare

The Microsoft Surface Book. Microsoft is rumored to be planning an inexpensive, cloud-based PC called a "CloudBook."
The Microsoft Surface Book. Microsoft is rumored to be planning an inexpensive, cloud-based PC called a “CloudBook.”

Image: Jhila Farzaneh/Mashable

Over the past couple of years, Microsoft has made a real name for itself in the high end. The Surface Pro and Surface Book are powerful-yet-portable PCs that have found real momentum in the market. And last fall the company made a convincing play for creators with its impressive—and expensive—Surface Studio all-in-one PC.

Now Microsoft appears to aiming at the other end of the market. It’s rumored that the company will be debuting a new kind of PC at its education-focused event on May 2: an inexpensive computer designed to primarily run apps from the cloud, a device that will finally directly respond the rapid rise of Chromebooks.

It’s called a CloudBook, according to reports, and it’ll run a new variant of Windows 10 called Windows Cloud. The main thing separating Windows Cloud from regular Windows? Machines running it will only be able to run apps downloaded from the Windows Store.

If this is starting to sound familiar, you’re not crazy. That restriction is very similar to what separated the old Surface tablets, the Surface RT and Surface 2, from regular Windows machines. But that was because they ran Windows RT, the now-defunct version of Windows designed for ARM-based devices (as opposed to Intel/AMD x86 machines). Today, Windows RT is long dead, and older, Win32-based apps are even available in the Windows Store.

The Surface 2 was the last Windows RT device from Microsoft

The Surface 2 was the last Windows RT device from Microsoft

Image: Christina Ascani/Mashable

All that said, two qualifiers: Although Windows RT is gone, Windows 10 can still run on ARM devices—all Windows mobile phones have ARM chips and run it. So, theoretically, Microsoft could debut a Windows PC with an ARM chip whenever it wants. And that brings us to the second qualifier: Even though the Windows Store now offers some Win32 apps, that doesn’t necessarily mean the CouldBook will run them.

At least one report says it will run Win32 apps, though, so a more likely scenario is this: The CloudBook will indeed have an Intel chip, but Windows Cloud will have a setting where you can restrict apps to Windows Store only, which will be the default. After all, if the whole idea is to take on Chromebooks, the OS will need to offer robust management tools.

A build of Windows Cloud appears to have leaked out back in February, and those who tried it out say it’s essentially Windows 10 with some modified settings and warnings to steer the user toward lighter, cloud-based apps. That should be a relief to users, though it may not bode well for cost. If these machines need a full, or close to full Windows license, they might end up being a notch more expensive than Chromebooks, which start at about $200.

Windows once tried going down the route of cheap machines barely worthy of the label “PC,” and the world rejected the result: the netbook. Times have changed, though: The cloud is now king, and Chromebooks have proven the viability of the model, which will go a long way toward convincing OEMs to get on board. In 2017, it should be possible to create a cheap Windows machine that performs well at a few cloud-based tasks (browsing, email and Office apps, mainly).

The main challenge Microsoft will have with such a machine would be managing expectations. People tend to expect a certain amount of versatility from any PC under the Windows umbrella. Even if Windows Cloud and the CloudBook give Chromebooks a run for their money, it could face an even tougher comparison: Windows 10 itself.

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Goodbye forever, Windows Vista

The end has finally come for one of the world’s most hated pieces of software, Windows Vista. 

As of Tuesday, April 11, 2017, Microsoft will no longer be supporting Windows Vista, the company announced in a support article. Often called the worst version of Windows, Vista was released just over a decade ago in 2007, five years after Windows XP and two years before Windows 7. 

After the incredibly popular Windows XP, Vista had a lot to live up to but fell flat. Windows 7 was received with much relief from Vista users looking to switch and XP users looking for a true upgrade.

Vista brought with it the distinctive “Aero Glass” theme, “Windows Search” and many other useless features that saw users revert back to Windows XP as soon as they could. Vista has a market share of less than 1% per NetMarketShare, but if you’re somehow still running Windows Vista, this means that you will not receive security updates or support from the company. 

Adios, Vista. You won’t be missed.

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Report: Android overtakes Windows as the internet’s most used operating system


Mobile is today as important, if not more important, than desktops when it comes to the internet and apps. A clear reminder of that comes with news of a report claiming that Google’s Android has overtaken Windows as the internet’s most used operating system.

Research from web analytics company StatCounter found Android now accounts for a larger share of internet usage than Windows for the first time. During March 2017, Android users represented 37.93 percent of activity on StatCounter’s network versus 37.91 percent for the Microsoft operating system. It’s a small gap for sure — and it refers to usage not necessary users — but it marks a notable tipping point that has been inevitable for the past couple of years.

StatCounter — which bases its findings on 2.5 million websites that it claims generate more than 15 billion monthly page views — tracked the gradual converge of usage for the two operating systems over time. The chart highlights Microsoft’s failure to challenge with its ill-fated Windows Phone platform.

StatCounter: Internet usage based on operating systems Match 2012-March 2017

Interestingly, for Apple, the switch happened some time ago. During March 2017, Apple’s mobile users (iOS) were close to three times more active on the internet than users of its desktop machines (OSX).

StatCounter: Internet usage based on operating systems during March 2017

The wider Android-Windows trend has been evident for some time. Windows dominated, and continues to dominate, the desktop landscape, but worldwide PC sales have declined for the past five years to reach the same levels as 2008. In contrast, sales of smartphones continue to grow, and Android is the operating system for the lion’s share of internet users worldwide. Growth is highest in emerging markets like India. There, Apple has increased its sales but remains a niche player, with Android accounting for upwards of 90 percent of smartphones.

While the balance between iOS and Android is more level in Western markets like the U.S., the influx of new internet users from regions like Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America has tipped the scales in favor of Android. Indeed, a StatCounter report issued last week showed that mobile accounts for the vast majority of internet usage in countries like India (79 percent), Indonesia (72 percent) and China (57 percent), while desktop remains king in markets such as the U.S. (37 percent), U.K. (35 percent) and Germany (30 percent).

Those numbers have seen some shift in global revenue for developers, with China overtaking the U.S. as the most lucrative market for iOS apps worldwide, but Android continues to lag despite a larger base of users.

A recent App Annie report found that iOS accounted for just over 25 billion of the 90 billion app downloads made in 2016, with Android taking the remainder. Yet iOS apps pulled in the majority of the $35 billion paid out to publishers across the iOS and Android app stores.

That might change soon, though. Thanks again to its vast dominance in the emerging world, App Annie is predicting that 2017 could be the year that Android app earnings overtake iOS for the first time. That would be another important milestone.

Let’s all pour one out for Vista, the worst version of Windows

RIP Windows Vista (lol not really.)
RIP Windows Vista (lol not really.)

Image: S. Warren/AP/REX/Shutterstock

If by some unfortunate twist of fate, you have the misfortune of still using a PC with Windows Vista, I have some bad news for you. 

Microsoft just revealed that it’s finally ending support for the much-maligned operating system next month. Actually, on second thought, that’s actually pretty good news.

If you’re still using a PC with Vista it will continue to work, but as of April 17, 2017, the OS will become an even more useless pile of garbage than it already is. At that time, the company will stop pushing security patches and other software updates and will end technical support of any kind.

On the formal announcement on its support site, even Microsoft sounds more than ready to forget Windows Vista ever happened. 

“Microsoft has provided support for Windows Vista for the past 10 years, but the time has come for us, along with our hardware and software partners, to invest our resources towards more recent technologies so that we can continue to deliver great new experiences.”

The post also comes with the extremely helpful advice of “get a new PC,” if you’re still using Vista (the vast majority of older PCs aren’t compatible with Windows 10). 

What’s most surprising is that Microsoft has supported the operating system this long in the first place. Launched in 2006, Windows Vista became so universally hated the company even ran an ad campaign that tried to trick random people into thinking Vista was actually a different, less shitty, operating system. 

Now, thankfully, we’ll never have to think about it again.