Not Yet Much Beneath The Surface

12/1/2012 6:23:44 PM

We’re cynical about Microsoft’s surface announcements, and is impressed by the new Macbook pro’s retina display.

We're in what was supposed to be a calm before the storm-surge of the Windows release, but it's nevertheless been extraordinarily busy on the hardware front. Where to start? Well there was much cooing and swooning at the Surface news, mostly because Microsoft isn't known for making hardware - if you're prepared to ignore the mouse and keyboard marketplace, that is. Oh, and let's not forget the custom-built servers it's made for its data centres.

Alright, so no hardware apart from those three. Did I mention the Xbox? And the Kinect controller? Actually, when you look at it closely, PCs and laptops are one of the few areas where Microsoft doesn't currently sell its own hardware. Mobile phones is another, although one might argue that Nokia has become a quasi-dependent subsidiary through its commitment to Windows Phone. But if you leave aside all these areas, it's apparently big news that Microsoft is going to do a tablet.

Perhaps Microsoft has only itself to blame. As I tweeted at the time: "Apple announces. Apple ships. Google announces. Google ships. Microsoft announces. Can't even tell you the battery life, QED", which, although harsh, is fair. Apple always has products ready to ship, often on the same day as the announcement. Google announced its new tablet PC and was shipping it within a week or two. Microsoft announces Surface, but can only commit to shipping the ARM RT version somewhere around the release date of Windows 8 itself, with the Intel version following around three months later.

The OEM hardware manufacturers have come under intense criticism, too. It's been claimed that Microsoft may have decided to do the Surface tablet because of disappointment with the OEM's offerings. I've heard this from various sources, and while it may be true, it also seems incredibly unfair. You might recall that back in January, I reported from the CES in Las Vegas that there was nothing there for Windows 8 - nothing from Microsoft, and no hardware of significance from any OEM vendors. This was entirely to be expected, because what company would want to unveil designs in January for a product that it couldn't ship until October? Remember that hardware has a shelf life of some six to eight months at best nowadays, so that's a generation in hardware terms.

Roll forward to Computex in Taipei and a few vendors showed hardware, but mostly in a tentative way, and the commentators still blasted them for not showing more despite the shipping date for Windows 8 remaining a great unknown. Worse still, Intel had only just started shipping the Ivy Bridge chipset, which is arguably a necessary piece of the puzzle required for Intel- based touchscreen devices to achieve half-decent battery life. And now here we are, months before the official Microsoft release date, when vendors finally have the tools to build devices for an October release.

Description: Most companies are ready to ship their tablets straight after the announcement - not Microsoft.

Most companies are ready to ship their tablets straight after the announcement - not Microsoft.

But no, Microsoft isn't happy with that timescale - that would be far too easy. It has decided to go with what's effectively an early-2013 hardware ship date for its Intel product. Why would it want to do that? Well, there's a rumour doing the rounds that Intel's next- generation chipset will be ready by then and that this will significantly improve battery life - which, as I've just said, is a major problem area for Intel- based tablets and Ultrabooks. That's why Microsoft won't give us battery life figures today for Surface because if it did, they'd be based on Ivy Bridge and it wants to quote next-generation hardware lives if at all possible.

Never mind those poor OEMs that have signed up to have hardware ready for the Windows 8 launch this autumn. The ones that now can't wait to see whatever Intel has up its sleeve next. Worse still, they know that businesses, which are the prime target for the Intel version of the Surface product, will probably hang on to see what Microsoft itself will deliver. After all, a Microsoft operating system running on a Microsoft device leaves no wriggle room for Microsoft - it will be judged ruthlessly on what it ships. I do hope Microsoft has pulled the best people together at Pegatron, which is rumoured to be the ODM (original design and manufacture) partner.

Who'd want to be an OEM hardware vendor in the middle of this perfect storm? According to some reports, the heads of certain OEMs weren't told by Microsoft about its plans until minutes before the announcement. I can imagine how well that news was received.

Surface tension

Now let's consider the whirlwind of spin that surrounds the name "Surface". You might recall this term was originally used for a large interactive table-top display, where the whole table surface was the working area. Designed for multi-user input, or for large areas such as hotel check-ins, this concept has gone through several generations of hardware realization, with Samsung creating a large, custom TFT panel that can "see" upwards at pixel level to detect what objects have been placed on it.

This whole project has now been unceremoniously kicked out of the pram by Microsoft, its name taken away and plonked down as branding for the Windows 8 project. The older project has been renamed "PixelSense" and parked under its own domain name of www.

Description: The Surface’s clip-on keyboard features some interesting technology inside.

The Surface’s clip-on keyboard features some interesting technology inside.

Is there anything particularly interesting in the design of the Surface devices as shown so far by Microsoft? To be honest, not really. They make big claims about the material from which its case is made, but you can tell this is scraping the barrel. Of particular significance is its clip-on keyboard, using a technology Microsoft first used for a gaming keyboard, There's definitely interesting stuff going on inside this keyboard, because it has to be very fast and responsive, and has to present a good touch and feel despite having almost zero key travel. I'd discount comments made so far by people who claim to have felt it: let's wait to see what actually ships from the factory in production form.

But it's the whole need to have a keyboard attached at all that I find quite fascinating. The reality is that Windows 8 running on a touchscreen device is actually quite a horrible typing experience, far worse than an iPad. Why is this? Well, because iPad applications have all been designed from scratch to work with a defined size and layout of system keyboard, whereas Windows applications haven't, With Windows 8 things are better, but not by much, On the classic desktop, the old problems still occur despite efforts to cater for various alternative designs of keyboard, including one that's designed for landscape mode using both thumbs, The problem is still present on RT applications.

In truth, I find operating my Microsoft Build conference Samsung tablet awkward, even using the latest builds of Windows 8, because of this keyboard. Hence my interest in seeing that Microsoft appears to have recognised this and decided to build a keyboard into the Surface's cover. It's almost as if, yet again, Microsoft can’t decide what it wants Windows 8 to be, and rather than focus on doing one thing well has decided to try to satisfy everybody, all of the time. This runs a significant risk of ending up with a camel when you were aiming for a racehorse, as the old saying goes; Microsoft's Surface announcements should be viewed with cynicism.

Microsoft itself, and its online apologists, cheerfully claim that all of this has been underway for years, that nothing about Surface was a panicked reaction to a sudden and crippling fear that the initial launch success of Windows 8 might be stymied by OEMs that would actually prefer to keep going with Windows 7 on laptops and Ultrabooks. Talking of which, I hear that the Windows 8 demonstrations at TechEd Europe run on Ultrabooks had some problems with the multifinger gestures. Here's how it was reported by our very own Barry Collins: "Demonstrations during the day had seen two Microsoft presenters struggle to make gesture controls work on laptop trackpads, with the Start screen intermittently failing to scroll when the presenters swiped two fingers across the trackpad, for instance. [Chaitanya] Sareen insisted that the touchpad drivers were still 'very, very early' and were 'still being refined'."

Description: Trackpad support in Windows 8 appears to have been mostly forgotten about, being left as an exercise for the third-party OEMs

Trackpad support in Windows 8 appears to have been mostly forgotten about, being left as an exercise for the third-party OEMs

"Very, very early"? In the final preview version of a product that's about to go gold in a few weeks' time? No sir, that excuse will not do. Trackpad support in Windows 8 appears to have been mostly forgotten about, being left as an exercise for the third-party OEMs.

Yet more hardware

In contrast to Microsoft's announcement without shipping, Apple decided to launch a significant refresh of many parts of its desktop and laptop hardware ranges during its WWDC (Worldwide Developers Conference) event in June. The highlight wasn't really this refresh of various bits and pieces but the arrival of the MacBook Pro with Retina display.

Naturally I ordered one on the spot and have now spent several weeks playing with it. Be in no doubt that a 2880 x 1800 pixel display on a 15in laptop is utterly staggering. In the same way that the iPad B's high-resolution screen has made all other tablets look foggy, low resolution and second-rate, the new screen on the MacBook Pro makes all other laptop screens seem lit by gas. It isn't only that it's sharp, it's the incredible clarity and crispness of every item on screen that's utterly compelling.

To make this happen, Apple pushed the capabilities of graphics chipsets and GPUs to the very edge of what's possible. Indeed, it can now be seen that much of the work Intel has been doing on graphics chipsets and GPUs has been driven by the requirements of its close friend and partner Apple.

But this isn't all that's new in this laptop. Apple has made a brave but correct move by increasing the baseline RAM complement to 8GB, with a 16GB option. There are no spinning disks either, and you can only choose from various sizes of SSD. The reason for this follows on from the work done on the MacBook Air: by repackaging the RAM and SSD chips as motherboard-level components, a great deal of space can be saved.

This approach has its critics. A number of people have complained that it means you're fully locked into Apple's choices, with no real room for any third-party device options. That would become an issue if the prices charged by Apple were old-school rapacious, but that simply isn't the case anymore.

I went with the faster 2,7GHz processor speed and the 16GB of RAM, but stayed with the 512GB of SSD. It's a true powerhouse of a laptop and the new screen will really require Mountain Lion OS X 10.8 to make best use of it.

Description: The Retina display makes other laptop screens seem lit by gas.

The Retina display makes other laptop screens seem lit by gas.

One final item that caught my eye on the Retina MacBook Pro is the provision of not one but two Thunderbolt ports, a most unexpected and welcome development. My experiments with the previous-generation MacBook Pro driving two 27in Thunderbolt displays and two 12TB Promise arrays has clearly shown that even with the amazing throughput of Thunderbolt, it's possible to run out of bandwidth quite easily. Providing a second Thunderbolt port will enable power users to spread the load between two buses - maybe one 12TB array on one bus for primary workload and a Thunderbolt display, and a second 12TB array on the second port for display and backup, or some such arrangement. I've rejigged my desktop now to be based around my current 27in iMac. To this I attached a second Thunderbolt monitor and the two 12TB arrays.

The new MacBook Pro has one other feature that must be considered: it has no Ethernet port. As you might expect, most of the connectivity of these laptops is done now over 802.11n, especially at the vastly superior 5GHz spectrum slot. Plugging in an Ethernet cable is worth doing, but I suspect not many people do.

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