Microsoft beat their Californian tech giant rivals at their own game yesterday by holding a decidedly Applesque live event in which they unveiled a veritable cornucopia of new devices, each of which they seem to be using to push Windows 10 as the definitive, cross-platform operating system. Of course, news of the new Surface Pro 4 and Lumia phone range was leaked prior to the event, and we were already familiar with the HoloLens device, but Microsoft were able to keep a lid on the biggest news to come out of the event; the introduction of the company's first bespoke laptop.
Let's get the relatively minor announcements out of the way first. The event began with a quick overview of the upcoming Xbox One game line-up, but that was the one and only time the console was mentioned, and there was not even a hint of the rumoured slim console, so we can probably put that one to bed now (for the immediate future at least). The first piece of tech to be announced was an updated version of the Microsoft Band fitness tracker. Similar in design and execution to a Fitbit, only with a few more bells and whistles (not to mention a heftier price tag), the new Band is curvier, more responsive, and scratch resistant. It will be available on October 30 and will retail for $250 in the US (which will probably mean about £200 over here).
Surface Pro 4
Microsoft's first-party, next generation tablet is (of course) going to be more powerful than the exiting Pro 3, but many of its headline features will actually work on the older device, such as the new keyboard and finger-print sensor. Touting the device's pen, Microsoft said that over 50% of Surface Pad 3 users regularly use the stylus. In response, Microsoft has created a range of new pen tips to give them the feel of different several different, real-world pens, so users can now go from a ballpoint pen, to a felt-tip pen, to a pencil. So potentially exciting for designers and artists who frequently use their tablets for sketch work, but for the rest of us. Snore.
Two new Microsoft (yes that's Microsoft, not Nokia) Lumia phones were also unveiled at the event, both running Windows 10. The Lumia 950 and 950XL are 5.2 inch and 5.7 inch phones that feature OLED screens, Hexacore (950) and Octacore (XL) processors. Both phones feature a 20MP camera with optical image stabilisation and the ability to record 4K video. The phones also include a new glance-screen technology, which doesn't require any battery power to operate. They look decent, but there's very little to set them apart from the raft of similarly powered Android phones on the market, aside from the fact that these phones are running Windows 10.
Now we're getting into the exciting stuff. The HoloLens is Microsoft's crack at the virtual reality market, and has set itself apart from the competition (your PlayStation VR's and your Oculus Rift's) by apparently being about more than just video games. Which is why I was genuinely surprised to see the company using the event to show off a new game called “Project X-Ray,” which effectively turns any room in your house into a “Personalised video game level.” Microsoft used a second camera rigged to see HoloLens content in the real-world and demonstrated its proof-of-concept game in which robotic aliens invaded the real world. Literally. It looked impressive, but limiting. What really floored me though, was the underlying potential. Microsoft seem more interested in AR than VR, which is an interesting approach I look forward to seeing them expand upon in the near future.
Considering how Windows 10 is being mooted as the ultimate cross-platform device (though it remains to be seen how well it works in practice on a smartphone), Microsoft was always going to need a technology that made integration between devices simple and effective. That technology is Continuum. The event showed the technology off by having a Lumia phone plugged into a Display Dock, which was able to output 1080p video and sound to a desktop monitor with no latency. Given that the UI between Windows 10 devices is nearly identical, it makes sense that the transition between the two devices would be seamless, but seeing it in practice really drove home Microsoft's commitment to a cohesive, singular Windows 10 experience.
Easily the most exciting piece of news to drop at the event was a laptop that Microsoft obviously see as a direct competitor to the Apple MacBook Pro, though the Surface Book supposedly runs up to 50% faster than Apple's flagship thigh-warmer (indeed, it was touted as being “Ounce for ounce the fastest 13 inch laptop ever made). Flat-out copying Apple's “But wait, there's more” strategy, by leaving the reveal until the very end of the event, the device came as a genuine surprise. It boasts a removable 13.3 inch touch-screen with 267 PPI resolution, a GeForce GDDR5 graphics card and an Intel core processor. Specifics weren't given for either GPU or CPU though, which was more than a little surprising, and suggests it's still being refined, even though it's set to launch in a few weeks (October 26) in the US. Pricing starts at $1500, and pre-orders for the device are available now. I'm semi-tempted, but will be holding my trigger finger until more definitive information is revealed.
Benjamin Hiorns is a freelance writer, musician and tech monkey, who uses both Apple and Microsoft products (unbiased in other words) and honestly thinks Mr Gates and co might have hit it out of the park with Windows 10. But it is early days yet.