01 Dec 2015
Microsoft is aiming to make it that bit easier to upgrade to Windows 10 for existing Windows users with the Windows 10 November Update, the first major update to the new operating system since it launched in July.
The update delivered a host of updates and improvements. One of those, it seems, is a tweak to the activation process that now allows users to perform a clean install of Windows 10 and activate it using a valid product key from Windows 7, Windows 8 or Windows 8.1.
When Windows 10 launched, it was offered as a free upgrade for anyone running one of those older versions of Windows. Many expert users prefer to take a different route and do a clean install rather than an in-place upgrade, but those doing so have found that they often couldn't take advantage of the free upgrade offer, because Windows setup failed to detect an existing version of Windows.
Microsoft has now resolved that issue with the November Windows 10 update.
However, there was another twist in the tale: some users downloading the Windows 10 November update from Microsoft's site reported that installing it reset some key privacy preferences governing online tracking that they been chosen when they first upgraded to Windows 10. As these default to allowing tracking, the users were understandably concerned.
Microsoft's response to this was to withdraw the November Update as a download while it fixed the issue, which it now claims to have done. Users may continue to get it via Microsoft's preferred method of waiting for it to be delivered via Windows Update.
Windows 10 was launched at the end of July to great fanfare, and legions of users are upgrading or awaiting their chance to upgrade for free via the Get Windows 10 app (right) that Microsoft delivered as an update to Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 systems a few weeks back.
However, if you haven't got that app for some reason, or just favour a more direct approach, there is a shortcut to getting Microsoft's new operating system by using a media creation tool available from Microsoft's site.
Whichever way you choose to get Windows 10, just make sure you leave plenty of time for the upgrade as it can prove a very lengthy process.
In our tests with the release code, we used the media creation tool to download an installation image of Windows 10 onto a USB flash drive, which can then be used to upgrade multiple computers without having to download afresh.
This where you'll meet the first hurdle, as you need to download a 32-bit or a 64-bit version of the media creation tool, depending on whether the PC you want to upgrade supports 32-bit or 64-bit processing. In Windows 7, you can look in Control Panel > System and Security > System to see whether you are running a 32-bit or 64-bit version.
The second hurdle is that you need a blank USB flash drive (or alternatively a blank writable DVD) that is at least 4GB in size to hold the installation files.
The final caveat is that you need to download the correct version of Windows 10, which is available to end users in Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro editions. If you are currently running one of the Home editions of Windows 7, or the base edition of Windows 8, and you download Windows 10 Pro, Windows Setup will treat it as a first-time installation and ask for the product licence key (we know - we tried it).
Having said all this, we found that the media creation tool offers you the option of creating an installation disk, or just installing Windows 10 directly onto the PC you are using.
Once you have chosen, the tool will start the download process. The download is at least 3GB in size, so is likely to take hours depending on the speed of your connection. We found it took at least 2.5 hours.
After this, the media creation tool will kick off the Windows 10 setup, or write the files to your chosen installation media, which means another progress indicator for you to watch for a while.
Once you have the installation media, you can launch the setup program on it to begin installing Windows 10, and look forward to waiting some more. The installation can easily take another couple of hours, especially as setup will look for and fetch any vital updates and patches before beginning the actual installation.
The process itself is frustrating, as the progress indicator reaches 100 percent several times, only to start again from zero with some other process such as installing features and drivers and restarting the computer several times.
Even when fully installed, Windows 10 will ask you to confirm settings such as your location and privacy preferences, such as which of the built-in services you are happy to share data with and whether you want to permit Microsoft to collect diagnostic and use data as you use your computer.
However, this should all prove worthwhile when you finally finish and are faced with the Windows 10 home screen with the restored Start button and Start menu. For more, see our review of Windows 10.
26 Nov 2015
The imminent release of the Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL means that Windows 10 Mobile will finally launch officially after months of Windows Insider Preview builds, a couple of which we tried out earlier this year and found to be light on features and heavy on bugs.
Of course, Microsoft's plans to turn the desktop and mobile editions of Windows 10 into 'Windows-as-a-service' mean that the build found on the new Lumias isn't so much a final version as it is the first build Microsoft has seen fit for wide-scale public deployment. As such, we've tested it on a Lumia 950 XL to see how far the OS has come.
It doesn't look too far removed from Windows Phone 8.1, but Windows 10 Mobile has been tweaked to more closely resemble Windows 10. The Start screen - in other words, the home screen - is the spitting image of Windows 10's tile-based Start menu, as is the Action Centre notifications tray and quick settings menu. Many apps, ranging from the Edge browser to the camera, will be instantly familiar to anyone who's used the Windows 10 equivalents, with identically placed icons and sub-menus.
One of our criticisms of the preview builds was that they looked boring, with plain black menus and backgrounds. Fortunately, the Start screen is now a lot more colourful by default, with quaint flipbook-style animations on certain tiles. These tiles can still be moved around, resized, removed or changed to be more or less translucent, all according to the user's tastes.
Sadly, the rest of the UI is still very dull indeed, dealing largely in gloomy dark greys with tiny flashes of blue. Such colour choices are fine on a desktop OS, where menus and such only form small windows, but the whole thing just ends up looking bleak when blown up to full-screen on a smartphone.
Still, improvements over Windows 8.1 Phone remain, including the Recently Added section of the main apps list and the extremely versatile Action Centre, so that's something to be happy about.
Again, a major aspect of Windows 10 Mobile is its synergy with Windows 10. The OS and Universal Apps, which mainly comprise Microsoft programmes like Maps, News, Cortana and the Edge browser but now also include third-party offerings from The Guardian and Audible, share the same underlying code.
In theory this allows Universal Apps to look the same and perform the same functions on smartphones and desktops. We found this mostly well-realised - the only difference between the Windows 10 Mobile and Windows 10 versions of, say, OneNote, was that we were controlling it with a touchscreen instead of a mouse and keyboard, and it's the same story with many others. Differences do exist, including some which were present in the preview builds we tried. It's still not possible use Cortana to search for highlighted text in the Edge browser, as we can in the Windows 10 versions, although we could at least copy the text and paste it into the Cortana app.
More recently added features, not counting those that were broken but now fixed, include Skype integration that extends beyond its own app. For instance, we could send IMs to our Skype contacts from within the Messaging app by swapping between Skype and SIM contacts with a single press. It's a small addition and far from a killer feature, but can save a lot of fiddly switching between Messaging and Skype when holding down a conversation in each. In addition, standard voice calls can be made from within the Skype app.
Another concerning point is the amount of choice available in the Microsoft Store. All the big names are there - Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Dropbox, Skype for Business and so on - so many light users will probably be fine, but we struggled to find several that we use regularly for work, such as the Geekbench and 3DMark benchmarks and Video Looper - all of which are fairly popular on Android. In general, Apple's App Store and Google Play have a much wider selection, which is bad news for Windows 10 Mobile regardless of how frequently it receives feature updates and bug fixes.
Much more encouraging is Continuum. In the PC version of Windows 10, this referred to how the UI could dynamically switch between desktop and tablet modes; here, it's the name given to Windows 10 Mobile's ability to turn its smartphone host into a pseudo-PC.
This requires the Display Dock, which is sold separately but adds HMDI, DisplayPort and full-size USB capabilities to a connected Windows 10 Mobile device. Once a TV or monitor is hooked up to the Display Dock as well, it will display a desktop-style UI running off the handset, complete with a Start menu in the style of Windows 10 proper. It can support up to FHD resolution and a mouse and keyboard, although the smartphone's touchscreen can also be used as a trackpad.
It's a genuinely clever feature that could save the purchase of an additional computer for those who don't need a full-on PC. However, there are limitations beyond the added £79.99 cost of the Display Dock; only Universal Apps are supported, so you won't be able to, say, install the Netflix mobile app and launch it on a big screen. However, it is possible to continue using the handset for other things while it's connected, so you could run a saved movie file on the TV while checking emails and calendars on the smartphone.
Windows 10 Mobile has a pretty decent collection of security measures. These include an Android-esque built-in encryption tool, plus Find My Phone, which can remotely lock a handset - while displaying a custom message on the screen - or wipe sensitive data, in addition to the less dramatic function of forcing a lost handset to ring.
The most interesting security feature has been borrowed, once again, from Windows 10: the biometric authentication of Windows Hello. Whereas on the desktop OS, this could unlock a PC or laptop by recognising the user's face through a camera, here it needs to recognise only irises. The result is more or less the same, and simply looking at the camera should be enough to unlock the device without the need to punch in a PIN.
The bad news is that, at least on the Lumia 950 XL, Windows Hello is a lot more finicky on mobile. We frequently had to hold it, utterly inelegantly, about seven inches away for several seconds before it recognised our eyes. It would be quicker and less weird-looking to just use a passcode. It also seriously struggled during setup to register irises through glasses, although they don't appear to have much of an effect during the actual authentication process. It's also worth remembering that Windows Hello will be available only on Windows 10 Mobile smartphones with a compatible front-facing camera.
Nonetheless, we can still see occasions where this would be a viable alternative to a PIN, such as when wearing thick gloves. It just won't be as quick.
Windows 10 Mobile's biggest improvements on the preview builds are in performance and reliability. It's far less buggy, as you'd hope, and we encountered none of the previous problems with apps failing to open or downloads getting inexplicably cancelled.
Cortana, in particular, is much more capable of recognising speech. In the preview builds we'd end up half shouting into the microphone with zero response, but in the release build it picks up spoken commands with impressive accuracy, even with the ambient sound of a bustling office.
That said, the OS can still run a little on the slow side, especially when opening apps. At one point it took the better part of a minute to launch Word, and it froze for a few seconds when we tried to play a small video file. The Lumia 950 XL we were using packs a beefy octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor with 3GB of RAM, so we're fairly convinced that this sluggishness can be pinned on the software rather than the hardware.
Windows 10 Mobile is much improved, but isn't entirely devoid of bugs. We repeatedly ran into a problem where the keyboard wouldn't show up in landscape view, and even when it does show, the Clipboard icon frequently falls halfway off the screen.
There's no question that Windows 10 Mobile has done enough to stand out from iOS and Android. Unifying mobile and desktop apps, along with the ability to sync data and files between them, could be a huge help to those who use their smartphone as a work device, and the Continuum feature offers far greater flexibility than other operating systems when hooked up to a screen.
Then again, being able to stand out isn't the same as being able to compete on quality, and right now Windows 10 Mobile comes with a few too many caveats to be a truly compelling alternative. This could change if it gains better app support and continues to receive some much-needed polish, but there aren't enough reasons to opt for this work in progress when more fully formed options are available.
14 Oct 2015
The Surface Book, Microsoft's first laptop, isn't purely a laptop. The detachable touchscreen makes it really more of a convertible, albeit one with a more traditionally notebook-style keyboard than the Surface Pro 4's Type Cover.
This setup generated a few 'the laptop to replace the Surface to replace your laptop' gags at the Surface Book's unveiling, but the hardware involved is no joke: this is a top-spec, MacBook Pro-challenging productivity device with a premium price to match.
One aspect of the Surface Pro tablets inherited by the Surface Book is their relative chunkiness. At 232x312x22.8mm, the Surface Book is nearly a full 5mm thicker than the 13.3in MacBook Pro, although admirably it weighs the same at 1.58kg.
Microsoft has been keen to promote the Surface Book's unique 'dynamic fulcrum' hinge, which consists of small segments that seem to roll outward, lifting up the screen, which is attached to the final segment, rather than pivoting on a fixed point. It's a nice aesthetic touch, but honestly it's not yet apparent what, if any, advantages the hinge offers over the mechanisms used by existing convertibles.
Speaking of which, a more impressive feature is the mechanism used to hold the Surface Book's screen in place. It comprises spring-loaded wire locks, which engage or disengage electronically rather than using a flimsy lever to unclip the display. During the launch event, Surface Group corporate vice president Panos Panay demonstrated the wire lock's strength by waving a Surface Book around by its screen before effortlessly releasing it with a button press on the keyboard.
Connectivity is handled by a decent collection of two USB 3.0 ports, a full-size SD card reader and a Mini DisplayPort, as well as 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0.
Like the new Surface Pro 4, the Surface Book includes a magnetic clip on the tablet section's edge which holds a compatible Surface Pen in place - a handy addition for those with illustrative or notation duties.
A gigantic 3000x2000 resolution ensures the Surface Book has a sharp 267ppi, even with its 13.5in display. That's precisely the same pixel density as the Surface Pro 4, although the bigger Surface Book naturally has the higher resolution.
It's also much sharper on paper than the 13.3in MacBook Pro, which sports a 2560x1600, 227ppi display. Short of the most expensive 4K laptops, don't expect the Surface Book to have much competition in this department when it launches.
The Surface Book will launch with (what else?) Windows 10 Pro pre-installed. We maintain that this is the single best operating system for convertibles, as the Continuum interface can switch between a laptop-friendly desktop view and the touchscreen-optimised tablet mode on the fly. The extensive software compatibility offered by Windows 10 Pro also puts it leagues ahead of Android and iOS as a tablet-powering OS for enterprise use.
It's not perfect, as some IT managers may take issue with Windows 10 Pro's mandatory updates and potentially insecure WiFi Sense sharing feature, but these aren't a huge price to pay for its usability advantages and built-in security tools, like Device Guard anti-malware.
Microsoft is loading the Surface Book with Intel's 6th-generation Skylake chips, specifically from the Core i5 and Core i7 series - the top of the line, in other words. As with the Surface Pro 4, PC-quality performance is well and truly on the table, especially with the Surface Book's hefty 8GB and 16GB RAM options.
An Intel HD Graphics 520 chip is also included across all models, but the really high-end editions - starting at $1,899 - will be fitted with a dedicated 1GB Nvidia GeForce graphics processor as well. This will be placed in the keyboard, so the Surface Book won't be able to take advantage of the extra power when used as a tablet, but should capably handle tasks like 3D modelling and gaming while connected.
Another nice touch is that the 8MP rear-facing and 5MP front-facing cameras are capable of 1080p video capture. A pleasant bonus of this is that the front camera's broadcasting quality should be pretty high as well, making for smooth, clean video calls.
It will also come in useful for Windows Hello, a Windows 10-exclusive feature which allows the user to sign in to a device by looking at the camera. Face recognition software, which is smart enough to avoid being fooled by a photo, will verify that it is indeed the registered user and sign in for them.
With an estimated 12 hours of video playback time, the Surface Book's battery is well ahead of most laptops - but not, notably, the MacBook Pro, which also claims up to 12 hours under the same conditions. Still, that's hardly something to complain about, as both machines should easily last a working day of intensive use.
Models with 128GB, 256GB and 512GB of SSD have all been detailed. Even a 1TB storage option, unprecedented for a convertible, has been announced, although the price for it has not.
That said, 512GB will be plenty in most professional fields, and even the smaller 128GB and 256GB models still offer much more space than the vast majority of consumer tablets.
Credit where it's due: Microsoft's debut attempt at a laptop has the quality hardware and bold design choices of a much more experienced manufacturer. There's very little to dislike in terms of raw specs, from the bang up-to-date processors to the 3K display and lengthy battery life.
However, we have some concerns. Firstly, the prices are borderline terrifying: $1,699 for a middling 256GB, 8GB RAM model, and up to $2,699 for 512GB of storage and the extra Nvidia graphics processor. Secondly, there's significant overlap between the Surface Book and the new Surface Pro 4, the biggest difference seemingly amounting to which keyboard they attach to.
We can't help but wonder whether Microsoft should have settled for making a non-convertible laptop, which would be cheaper. As it stands, even the MacBook Pro is much more affordable, and less likely to trip over the Surface Pro 4 in a dash for market share. We'll have to wait until 26 October, when the Surface Book launches, to see whether Microsoft's touchscreen-heavy strategy truly pays off.
08 Oct 2015
This was no surprise as a follow-up to the Surface Pro 3 has been rumoured for a while, but Microsoft did unveil a wealth of hardware upgrades that, even at this early stage, should give Apple cause for concern.
The Surface Pro 4 is the series' slimmest model yet at 292x201x8.4mm. That's still not quite as razor-thin as the 6.9mm iPad Pro, but the Surface Pro 4's slim bezels make it a solid 13mm shorter in length and 9mm shorter in width, even with a comparable display size.
The iPad Pro is also lighter, at 713g-723g to the Surface Pro 4's 766g-786g, although again the latter remains an improvement on the Surface Pro 3.
Despite slimming down, the Surface Pro 4 keeps one of the Surface line's killer features: a full-size USB 3.0 port. Very, very few tablets include this versatile and widely used connector, so the Surface Pro 4 will have a big advantage for enterprise users as soon as it's released.
One small but potentially very useful addition is a magnetic clip on the tablet's side, to which the new Surface Pen can attach. On previous Surface Pros, the pen was carried loose or slotted into the expensive Type Cover attachment, so this kind of integrated storage is a very welcome little feature.
Microsoft has bumped up the Surface Pro 4's display in size and resolution, and it's now a 12.3in screen at 2736x1824, or 267ppi. That's not quite as many pixels as the iPad Pro boasts, but the two devices are almost identical in density: 267ppi versus 264ppi on the iPad Pro. We'd therefore expect both slates to look similarly sharp, and with Apple's effort gaining only an extra 0.6in of diagonal space, there won't be much difference in what can fit on-screen either.
One of the most attractive things about owning a Surface Pro, from a business standpoint at least, was that they ran full-fat Windows operating systems, and the Surface Pro 4 is no exception. It will launch with Windows 10 pre-installed, which makes perfect sense. The Continuum UI, which can switch between a traditional desktop view and a more touch-optimised, Windows 8-style tablet mode, is perfect for 2-in-1 devices like the Surface Pro 4. The only downside is that this will require the purchase of a Type Cover.
Plus, Windows' vast compatibility with uncountable pieces of productivity software makes it theoretically superior, in an enterprise context, to the unproven iOS 9 running the iPad Pro. The latter might be fine on iPhones or consumer iPads, but it's not hard to see why a proper desktop OS might prove more appealing than a mobile OS for getting serious work done.
Microsoft's Panos Panay claimed during the unveiling that the Surface Pro 4 would be 30 percent faster than the Surface Pro 3 and 50 percent faster than the MacBook Air. That's a bit of a wonky claim, as the Surface Pro 4 can, like the Surface Pro 3, be fitted with one of a range of processors.
That said, these chips aren't creaking old silicon; they're all from Intel's newest, 6th-generation Skylake family, starting from the Intel Core M3 and scaling up to the Core i5 and Core i7 series. The latter two in particular are desktop-grade chips and, paired with up to 8GB of RAM for the i5 and 16GB of RAM for the i7, we'd be shocked if they delivered anything other than top-tier performance.
It's also worth noting that all Surface Pro 4 models will include a Trusted Platform Module microprocessor to prevent unauthorised hardware tampering.
Let's be honest: cameras aren't the headline feature on something like the Surface Pro 4. Even so, they sound very decent by tablet standards: an 8MP rear-facing camera with 1080p video capability, plus a front-facing 5MP for video conferencing.
What's really interesting is not the cameras themselves, but the functionality they enable. Windows Hello, a face-detecting authentication tool added to Windows 10, makes it possible to sign into the Surface Pro 4 simply by gurning at the front camera.
There's been no word on specific capacity, but Microsoft said that the Surface Pro 4 can endure up to nine hours of video playback. That's not quite on par with the 10 hours supposedly offered by the iPad Pro, so that might give the Apple slate a few bonus points in the eyes of road warriors, along with its lower weight and slimmer profile.
Nonetheless, nine hours is still enough to make it through a working day without needing to reach for the charging cable. It's not an outstanding battery life, but it meets our expectations for a Surface Pro.
Incredibly for a tablet, at least one configuration of the Surface Pro 4 will include a colossal 1TB of storage, although Microsoft hasn't revealed pricing for this premium option.
Right now, models with 128GB, 256GB and 512GB solid state drives have all been confirmed. They all match, or absolutely crush, the 128GB and 32GB options of the iPad Pro, a big win for Microsoft, particularly since users in the design, manufacturing and creative industries will want as much integrated storage as possible. What's more, a microSD card means that the Surface Pro 4 can be expanded with as much storage as users can afford.
One of the few offputting aspects of the Surface Pro 4 is its price. UK RRPs have yet to be confirmed, but the Surface Pro 4 will start at $899 + tax for the 128GB, 4GB RAM, Intel Core M3 model, up to an imposing $2,199 for 512GB of storage, 16GB of RAM and an Intel i7.
Of course, these are premium machines and priced accordingly, but we can definitely see some users forgoing larger storage in favour of the cheaper iPad Pro, which will cost between $799 and $1,079 + tax. Then again, the most expensive iPad Pro has as much storage and actually less RAM than the cheapest Surface Pro 4, so Microsoft arguably offers the better deal.
The Surface Pro 4 isn't a huge leap from the Surface Pro 3, but it's clear that Microsoft has made improvements where it counts; portability, processing power and display quality have all been upped, while maintaining the best enterprise-friendly features like a full-size USB port and a PC-quality OS.
It's pricey enough to perhaps count it out as a mass rollout device, but Microsoft might not mind so much. The firm is likely to be too busy setting its sights on Apple which, on the apparent strengths of the Surface Pro 4, should be very worried indeed.
24 Sep 2015
Microsoft has launched Office 2016, the first refresh of its ubiquitous productivity software since Office 2013. Despite the time gap, Microsoft hasn't spent it making sweeping changes to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and company - instead, the Redmond firm has focused on fine-tuning, with only a handful of usability and cloud-based additions making it through.
One of our favourite new features is the ‘Tell Me' bar, which sits at the top of each application's menu bar. Broadly similar to the Cortana digital assistant in Windows 10, typing in this bar will offer a convenient list of possible actions; writing ‘symbol' in Word's Tell Me bar, for instance, creates a drop-down menu with quick access to the ‘Insert a Symbol' and 'Equation Symbol' tools.
This saves the need to dig for these options in the Ribbon UI's various tabs. Also, unlike the infamous Clippy, it never nags or intrudes, only speaking when spoken to. Our only complaint is that we can't use Tell Me in OneNote and Publisher, where it would likely have proven just as handy.
Word is also the sole recipient of the ‘Smart Lookup' tool. Using Bing, Smart Lookup can query highlighted words or phrases, displaying web results and dictionary definitions in an expanding sidebar. We don't actually see this getting much mileage; it's basically a more closely-integrated version of the ‘Search with Bing' feature in Office 2013, which always felt unnecessary when Google was a couple of clicks away. Smart Lookup also clashes with Word's spellchecker, as unrecognised words can't be queries. Sadly, this often includes proper nouns like person and company names.
While this web-based feature falls flat, other are much better. OneDrive is an even bigger part of Office 2016 than ever before, with a new Share button in Word, Excel and PowerPoint that enables document creators to invite other users to view and edit files directly from within the apps. This ties into another great addition, again specific to Word: the ability to co-author documents over the web, and see other users' edits in real-time.
This is the first time a desktop version of Word has included such capability, although a longtime staple of Office Online and Google Docs that has proved incredibly well-suited to collaborative working. What's more, Skype For Business is now built into Office, allowing for IM, calls and screen-sharing in the apps themselves - ideal for remote working.
Speaking of OneDrive, an Office 365 subscription - which is, save for the Home and Student edition, the only way to get Office 2016 on PC - remains a relatively good-value entry point to Microsoft's cloud service. the Office 365 Business plan, which includes 1TB of storage, costs £7 per user per month, compared to £3.99 per month for a standalone 200GB OneDrive subscription.
Office 2016's remaining changes are relatively minor. There are five new chart types in Excel, none of which offers much that a standard bar, line or pie chart doesn't already oofer, and user interfaces are practically identical to Office 2013's editions across the board.
While this limited innovation might not be enough to convince some firms to commit to ongoing subscriptions costs, the actual changes are benign at worst and brilliantly helpful at best. The comforting familiarity of Office 2016's consistent menu design also feels more like a wise acceptance of the software's strengths than a missed opportunity for change.
All that said, there is one major new addition to the Office family to consider: Microsoft Sway. It performs like a sleeker, more touchscreen-friendly evolution of PowerPoint, capable of creating presentations by adding building blocks of headers, text boxes and media. The resulting presentations slide smoothly between chunks of content like a horizontally-scrolling web page, rather than jumping through segmented slides.
It's a little too simplified, features-wise, to outright replace PowerPoint - which Microsoft says it isn't intended to do anyway, but since Sway does offer a more visually charming, less officious method for presenting data, we're happy to have it. The large, chunky menus are also a fine fit for smartphone and tablet use.
Curiously, Sway isn't actually part of the Office 2016 subscription deal. Instead, it's available as a free download on the Windows Store, albeit only to Windows 10 users - anyone still on Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 won't be able to use it at all. That's a pretty hefty drawback for late adopters, though we'd recommend upgrading to Windows 10 for free in any case.
Likewise, for existing Office 365 subscribers and potential upgraders, Office 2016 is easily worth a look. The changes may be not be big, but they certainly are clever.
15 Sep 2015
The iPad Pro, Apple's first foray into the business tablet market, looks familiar, not simply because it resembles a larger iPad Air but because it seems to borrow a wealth of features from Microsoft's Surface range.
Besides the hefty display, the iPad Pro is designed to work with the suspiciously familiar Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard - a Surface Pen stylus and Type Cover keyboard, essentially - to offer an enterprise-ready workhorse in a tablet body. Microsoft has successfully occupied this territory for years, and continues to do so despite losses elsewhere.
Thus, there are few better candidates for a spec-by-spec comparison with the iPad Pro than its biggest competitor and apparent inspiration, 2014's Surface Pro 3.
Dimensions and design
iPad Pro: 306x221x6.9mm, 713g/723g
Surface Pro 3: 292x201x9.1mm, 800g
The iPad Pro's sleekness is appealing. Even the LTE model is significantly lighter than the Surface Pro 3, in addition to being thinner than many smartphones. Microsoft's tablet is marginally more compact in the first two dimensions, although this is to be expected considering the smaller screen.
The Surface Pro 3 really outshines the iPad Pro in its range of connectivity options, which include a micro SDXC card reader and, crucially for business use, a full-sized USB 3.0 port. The iPad Pro, by contrast, features only a Lightning connector, which might make physically transferring data difficult if used in a Windows-heavy IT environment.
Both devices are compatible with a dedicated stylus - the Surface Pen and Apple Pencil respectively - but the Surface Pro 3 has the benefit of including the pen in the box. The iPad Pro's Apple Pencil must instead be purchased separately - for a whopping $99.
iPad Pro: 12.9in 2732x2048 resolution at 264ppi
Surface Pro 3: 12in 2160x1440 resolution at 216ppi
The iPad Pro's display wins it back some points. At 264ppi it's a touch sharper than that of the Surface Pro 3, even with an additional 0.9in diagonally. That extra real estate isn't much in the grand scheme of things, but might at least be enough fit an extra Excel column.
The Surface Pro 3's glossy screen also makes it susceptible to glare. The iPad Pro, by contrast, includes an anti-reflective and anti-fingerprint coating, although admittedly we haven't tested its effectiveness.
iPad Pro: 64-bit A9X
Surface Pro 3: 4th-gen Intel Core i5, i5 and i7 options with TPM chip
The inclusion of Intel Core chips has always been central to the Surface Pro 3's enterprise credentials, offering desktop-grade performance in a tablet form factor. These processors also work in conjunction with a Trusted Platform Module chip, a handy security tool that prevents the device booting up if it detects that a component has been tampered with.
The 4th-generation Haswell family has now been superseded by the Broadwell and Skylake lines, but we can't be sure of the new A9X chip's competitiveness until benchmarking it ourselves. Apple has compared it only with the old A8X, claiming that the new model is up to 80 percent faster in graphics tasks and up to 70 percent faster in CPU tasks. It might well need to be even faster to keep up with a decent i5 or i7.
iPad Pro: iOS 9
Surface Pro 3: Windows 10 Professional
iOS 9 introduces a number of attractive new features, including a split-screen multitasking view, an improved Notes app which can record handwriting - potentially useful with the Apple Pencil - and security additions like six-digit passcodes and two-factor authentication.
Even so, Windows 10 Pro will almost certainly be better for business use. Besides offering far greater compatibility with legacy applications and newer productivity software, Windows 10 Pro can switch between a touch-optimised tablet mode and a more PC-like desktop view. In the latter, users can open and manually resize as many different tasks as they can fit on the screen, thoroughly beating the two-app limit of iOS 9's split-screen feature.
Ultimately, this is a case of a mobile OS going up against a desktop OS, and Windows 10 Pro is just a better fit for devices that aim to be laptop replacements.
iPad Pro: 8MP rear, 1.2MP front
Surface Pro 3: 5MP rear, 5MP front
Interestingly, the iPad Pro has the higher-spec rear camera, while the Surface Pro 3 has the sharper front camera.
Which of these is ‘better' for photos and video recording will therefore depend on their intended use. The iPad Pro is clearly more suitable for those who want the most detailed images possible, but the Surface Pro 3 offers a finer quality 1080p webcam for video conferencing and Skype calls.
iPad Pro: Up to 10 hours for WiFi-only models, up to nine hours for WiFi+LTE model
Surface Pro 3: Up to nine hours
Both machines will last a full working day, but the WiFi-only iPad Pro variant wins out with a prolonged 10 hours of battery life, which should be good news for frequent travellers.
iPad Pro: 32GB, 128GB
Surface Pro 3: 64GB, 128GB, 256GB, 512GB
Microsoft claims another victory with a wider range of high-capacity internal drives. As for the iPad Pro, 128GB is good by tablet standards but we can see the 32GB option filling up fast. Both are dwarfed by the generous 256GB and 512GB drives of the more expensive Surface Pro 3s in any case, so these are definitely the models to go for in a creative or design field.
The original iPhone and iPad are proof that Apple knows how to break into a market, and yet, judging by this spec comparison, the Surface Pro 3 already has the iPad Pro outmatched.
Apple's device may look cooler and have a crisper screen, but we'd wager that the Surface Pro 3's solid processors, high storage capacities and robust operating system will make it difficult for the iPad Pro to stake a claim as the superior business tablet. We'll find out either way when the latter launches in late November.
Microsoft's testing process for Windows 10 Mobile is admirably open. The mobile OS won't launch in a finished state until later this year, but anyone with a compatible handset and a Microsoft account can sign up to the Windows Insider programme and try out pre-release builds right now.
Naturally, there's a catch. Microsoft cheerfully admits on the Windows Insider site that even the most recent Insider Preview builds are "far from being finished", going on to list a variety of missing features and non-functioning functionalities. The firm is, right from the off, very clear that the Windows Insider programme is aimed at savvy users who genuinely want to take part in the system's ongoing development.
Nonetheless, we loaded up a Nokia Lumia 635 with Windows 10 Mobile Insider Preview Build 10166, later updating it to Windows 10 Mobile Insider Preview Build 10512, to find out how the OS is progressing.
Switching from Windows Phone 8.1 to Windows 10 Mobile is fairly straightforward. After downloading and installing the Windows Insider app, we had the choice of joining the Fast ring or the Slow ring. Fast ring users receive new version updates immediately, while Slow ring users must wait a while, although by the time updates arrive they're generally more stable, having already been tested by Fast ring users.
We opted for the Fast ring, and were instructed to manually check for updates via the Settings menu. After doing so, Windows 10 Mobile immediately started downloading. About an hour later, the download had finished and all that was left was to plug in the phone to the mains and restart. This final installation took an additional 20 minutes. All in all, still a considerably speedier process than upgrading to Windows 10 on a PC.
Speaking of Windows 10, Windows 10 Mobile doesn't overhaul the UI to nearly the same extent as the PC and tablet version. Currently, it simply looks like a more modern Windows Phone 8.1; the opacity of Live Tiles can be customised, so they won't entirely obscure the user's background photo. The apps menu, which is still accessible by swiping from the right of the screen, is also partly translucent. Both touches are, cosmetically, a considerable improvement on the boring blacks and solid colours of Windows Phone 8.1.
The apps menu has been updated with a Recently Added section. It's a small addition, but good one; we appreciated that we didn't need to scroll all the way through the main alphabetical list to try out a freshly installed app.
One of the main additions borrowed from Windows 10 is the Action Centre. It's an expandable drop-down menu that incorporates one-tap access to, among other things, the brightness settings, flight mode, camera app, battery saver mode, OneNote, VPN manager, Wi-Fi, rotation lock and the full settings menu. On top of all that, it's also where notifications are stored, making it a robust and convenient tool for tinkering and everyday use.
The Action Centre is one of our favourite features in Windows 10, so it's great that it appears in Windows 10 Mobile with almost all of its capabilities intact. It also seems to be in a pretty complete state; only the Mobile Hotspot icon doesn't work, as a result of the feature being intentionally disabled in the most recent Insider Preview builds.
That said, not everything about the UI is in fully working order. One interesting feature shared by Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile is synchronised notifications. For instance, we set a reminder for ourselves on a Windows 10 tablet, and the resulting alert appeared on the tablet and our smartphone, as they were both logged in on the same Microsoft account.
However, once we cleared the notification on the phone, it continued to show up on the tablet. This wouldn't normally be a big deal, but Microsoft has repeatedly stated that responding to a notification on one device should get rid of it on others. It appears this functionality isn't ready yet.
Software and apps
Microsoft has made a lot of noise about Universal Apps that share feature parity between Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile versions. To demonstrate this, Microsoft has pre-loaded Windows 10 Mobile with News, Maps, Money, Health & Fitness, Weather and other Universal Apps that come as standard on Windows 10.
These do indeed look and operate practically the same on a smartphone as they do on a laptop, which is encouraging. We're hoping to see more complex third-party apps offer this continuity as both versions of Windows 10 mature.
Less encouraging is Microsoft Edge, the replacement browser for Internet Explorer. This is also a Universal App, but the mobile version of Edge is lacking several features that made the desktop/tablet version such a clear upgrade over IE. There's no ability to add or share annotations to web pages, no integration with the Cortana digital assistant, and the UI isn't even particularly different to IE's on Windows Phone 8.1. Whether this is a limitation of the current Insider Preview build or Edge itself remains to be seen, but it seems that Universal Apps aren't quite yet fulfilling their promise of parity.
Edge on mobile does, at the very least, keep the Hub menu of the desktop version. This incorporates the Favourites, Reading List, History and Downloads menus but, while it's still handy to have all these in one place, we're not hugely fond of how it fills up the entire screen - distinctly unlike the desktop version.
What's worse, a lot of apps and features just outright don't work. Excel and the calculator app both refused to open, photos can't be deleted (although they are automatically synced from the camera roll of a Windows 10 machine, which is nice) and it can take dozens of repeated attempts to download a new app from the Windows Store. To give a particularly egregious example, we spent two hours manually restarting the download for Microsoft Word, which would consistently and inexplicably appear to stop halfway through, only to give up, go to the apps menu and find that it had actually finished downloading some time ago without notifying us.
We're giving Cortana its own section not only because it's a key feature in Windows 10 Phone, but because we need a dedicated space to explain how utterly unusable it is in the current build.
In theory, Cortana is a virtual assistant that can set reminders, search the web and make suggestions for restaurants to eat at or music to listen to based on the user's interests. We managed to get one of these - setting reminders - to work as intended, and even that was only an occasional success. Often, we'd instruct Cortana to set an alarm and it would use our command as a search term and bring up a Bing results page.
When we actually did try using Cortana to search, such as for directions, it would complete the search then immediately close itself before we could read the results. It also seems prone to hanging on the 'Thinking' loading screen, with no visible way to cancel or otherwise close the application.
The 10166 and 10512 builds were pretty slow by mobile OS standards. Even opening menus can take a few seconds, which isn't much to begin with, but eventually adds up to a lot of waiting around. The OS got even more sluggish when we ran multiple apps and, with no multitasking view to speak off, finding and closing them individually became a pain.
Admittedly, the Lumia 635 isn't the most powerful handset around, but even Windows Phone 8.1 felt swifter and more responsive before we replaced it with Windows 10 Mobile. Hopefully, Microsoft will find the time to add some performance optimisations in between squashing bugs.
For anyone interested in taking an active testing role, Microsoft's warning that Windows 10 Mobile is unfinished may be ignored at their peril. It's clear that the smartphone OS is still a long way from being a stable and usable product, and progress isn't exactly steaming ahead. The 10512 build added over 2,000 bug fixes to the 10166 build, but we honestly couldn't tell the difference.
iOS 9 and Android 6.0 Marshmallow are fast approaching, and Microsoft will need to split its focus between mending errors and further improving the features that enable Windows 10 Mobile to interlink with Windows 10.
This synergy between mobile and desktop operating systems currently feels like Windows 10 Mobile's biggest strength, the area where it has the most potential and its best chance of offering a compelling alternative to the Apple and Google platforms.
27 Jul 2015
Windows 10 is fast approaching release, and with it comes Microsoft's first new browser in two decades: Microsoft Edge.
Internet Explorer is going into semi-retirement - it'll be included in Windows 10, though mainly for compatibility with legacy applications - so it's time to see whether Edge can succeed where its slow, insecure predecessor failed.
We sat down with Microsoft for a live demo and found a browser that, while lacking in must-have enterprise features, is already showing quite a bit of potential.
We'll say this for Edge: it looks impressively clean, a far cry from the chunky, toolbar-strangled interfaces of IE over the years. Favourites, Bookmarks and Downloads are tucked away in the drop-down Hub, an all-in-one menu accessible from one of the few icons sitting below the address bar.
As part of Windows 10's Continuum interface, Edge will optimise its layout based on whether it's running on a touch device or one with a keyboard and mouse/touchpad. When Windows 10 is in Touch view, Edge becomes a full-screen app, as we'd expect from something running on a phone or tablet.
Conversely, when a keyboard is detected, Edge will run in a resizable window, just like any other application you've ever run on a Windows 7 or 8.1 desktop.
We've been impressed by how Windows 10 can switch between these two views very near instantaneously, such as when a convertible tablet is docked with an attachable keyboard. This extends to Edge, which will quickly adjust its interface to fit the control method.
During our demo, Windows UK project manager Ian Moulster told V3 that Edge has been geared specifically towards consumers, as opposed to the more business-focused Internet Explorer. As such, Edge's headline features tend towards consuming content.
For instance, Reading View returns from IE 11, stripping away menus and adverts to leave webpage text and images in a straightforward, minimalist format. It goes even further in Edge, cranking up the text size and arranging it into a single column.
It's easy to see the appeal of a quick tool for cleaning up messy pages, on tablets in particular, even if switching in and out of Reading View will probably be too much of a bother for those who tend to bounce between multiple tabs.
Reading List, a Windows 8.1 app that recorded pages to read later, is also more closely integrated with Edge; new pages can be added in two clicks, and the List itself is accessible straight from the Hub. Like Reading View, it's not an original feature but has been reworked to become more user friendly in Edge. As far as we can tell, it has done so successfully.
One genuinely new feature is the integration of Cortana, Microsoft's attempt at a digital assistant, into Edge's search functions. Highlighting a name or phrase will enable Cortana to look it up, offering dictionary definitions and relevant web pages based on who or what is searched for.
In our demo, Cortana successfully identified the LinkedIn page of a fairly obscure geographer whose name was buried in a randomly chosen news article.
Cortana is widely integrated with Windows 10 and its key apps, and we're slightly concerned that it will become more of a nuisance than a help. But the digital assistant's presence in Edge is seldom felt unless it is asked to provide help, which is as it should be.
Regardless of Edge's lack of enterprise focus, it's worth noting that Microsoft's new browser adheres to many more web standards than IE ever did, introducing full support for media source extensions, touch events, CSS feature queries and many more specifications. This should enable more feature-rich websites to work correctly in Edge, which is good news for consumers and enterprise users alike.
That said, Edge still has a long way to go before it can match competing browsers in its web standards support. Edge greatly lags behind Chrome and Firefox in the number of specifications it currently supports, despite offering more robust compatibility than the most recent IE 11.
We haven't had Edge's security features demoed to us, but on paper they already sound like a big improvement on IE's protections.
For starters, Microsoft has ditched ActiveX, its creaking, malware-ridden framework for developing extensions, switching instead to HTML5. Support for the HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS) protocol is also built in to Edge to help ensure that certified websites can be accessed only over a secure connection.
HSTS is used for such highly sensitive services as online banking, so it's good to see Microsoft appreciating the need to keep Edge up to date with its supported protocols.
Like all Universal Apps - Microsoft-vetted apps that work exactly the same on the core and mobile editions of Windows 10 - Edge will also operate in its own Container Sandbox. This means that its processes run entirely independently from the rest of the system. So even if the Edge app is tampered with in a cyber attack, it can't be used as a launching point to access data stored on the rest of the machine.
That's the idea, anyway. Apple requires developers to implement a very similar measure in iOS apps, and seems to have found success in preventing infected apps taking over entire systems. Here's hoping that Microsoft can balance the need for secure applications with the need to maintain Windows' open ecosystem.
Speed is crucial to any web browser and, from our brief time with it, it looks like Edge won't disappoint. Pages load instantly, even when plastered with images, and navigating menus is similarly swift. Scrolling is smooth as well, which should be particularly welcome to Reading View users.
However, there was a noticeable delay before results appeared when using Cortana to search highlighted words. Since these results show up in a separate sub-window that pops out from the right, this leaves a few seconds where a fifth of the screen is filled with dead space. It's far from ruinous, but Cortana's relaxed pace is a little incongruous with how zippy Edge can be otherwise.
Despite the consumer focus, Edge's combination of new features and incremental improvements over IE already look to make it a welcome replacement as the default Windows browser.
However, Edge is entering a field that includes such fast, secure, versatile and deeply entrenched products as Chrome, Firefox and Opera. To truly make Edge a contender, Microsoft will need to stick to its ‘Windows-as-a-service' principle and provide continuous updates to the new browser's security measures and web standards support.