Whether the world will notice this is quite a different matter.
Yesterday, like a bolt out of the blue, Microsoft unveiled the Surface 3. The latest in the Surface line, it is silent, like a tablet should be. It runs a full version of Windows 8.1, unlike the Surface 1 and 2. It is also much lighter, and at 8.9 mm should be slim enough to please most people. It is available to pre-order now starting at £419, and will be shipping in early May.
Also, although you would be forgiven for not noticing, next Tuesday Microsoft will begin shipping the Lumia 640 and 640 XL. Forget about iPhones, these are the smartphones you want! At between £169.99 and £219 SIM-free, they may be mid-priced, but still capable of giving you almost everything that you need from a smartphone. Things that until now necessitated purchasing a flagship device. Change is good!
Microsoft Surface 3
The hardware package is great; powered by the latest Intel Atom x7 processor, which according to credible observers (including Intel) kicks arse like a mule! Its graphics performance should be at least 20% faster than the iPad Air 2, and it will be faster than any Android tablet too. For regular computing tasks that up until now you might have wanted to do on a computer, it will be a whole lot faster than the aforementioned tablets, perhaps up to twice as fast.
The software package is great too. The Surface 3 ships with a full version of Windows 8.1, you get a one year upgrade to Windows 10 when it is available. With the Surface 3, Microsoft also throw in a one-year Office 365 subscription which includes 1TB of OneDrive cloud storage. This is available immediately.
And guess what, the design is great as well! As the Surface 3 is a proper tablet it is fanless, and looks stunning and modern. There is a choice of Type and Touch Covers available for the Surface 3, including our new favourite, the red one (or rather very, very, orange, similar to the kit the England T20 Cricket team briefly used last year). We are sure the Type Cover will perform better than the England Cricket team, and not block 30 deliveries before snicking one to slip!
The price is insanely great too! From what we can tell so far, any configuration will be about £20 cheaper than the equivalent Apple iPad Air 2. Unlike the Apple device, the Surface 3 ships with:
- Windows 8.1 to be followed by Windows 10
- A full version of Office 365
- 1TB of OneDrive cloud storage
- SSD based storage rather than eMMC Flash (according to Windows Central). This may sound geeky, but it makes a huuuuge difference!
- Twice the memory (4 GB) on the 128 GB SSD version
Compared to the Apple iPad Air 2, it also has one more hour of battery life, 10 instead of 9 hours. Nine hours is the time that Apple have determined that you deserve whatever product you buy, unless it is the Apple Watch where they graciously doubles that to 18 hours. By contrast, my watch which has been in a drawer for most of the last three years, still has plenty of juice, and when the battery dies I can get the battery changed for free for life because I paid an extra £5 when I last visited Timpson’s to have the battery replaced.
If you want to pimp your Surface 3, you can add on the exact same stylus that comes with the Surface Pro 3, which is simply brilliant. At $49.95 (UK price TBD), this is not too pricey, and certainly better value than the $99.95 that Apple will charge if you want to be able to charge their otherwise excellent new MacBook whilst having one USB peripheral plugged in.
The only obvious sacrifice you make for having such a desirable, well-built, non-Apple device is that it is still a bit heavier and thicker than the iPad Air 2 or premium Android tablets, but at 622 g versus the 438 g of the iPad Air 2, the weight difference is smaller than ever, and is partly explained by the bigger, no doubt amazing, if slightly lower resolution screen.
Besides, to paraphrase the well-known limerick:
There was a young woman from Kew
Who remarked as the Bishop withdrew
I prefer the Vicar
He is wider and thicker
Besides he boots quicker than you
Lumia 640 & 640 XL LTE
Both Lumias deliver up to about 98% of the full smartphone experience that flagship phones, whether Windows Phone, Android or iOS, but at between 20-40% of the price. This is a very attractive proposition. The phones are very attractive too, they are light and bright, available in a lot of attractive colours to suit just about anyone except, rather conspicuously, fans of Champagne Gold.
Windows Phone is, although you are unlikely to have noticed this, already the best mobile operating system in the world. Only iOS comes anywhere close in terms of technical usability and low memory footprint, but the big shiny icons coupled with the Windows 3.0 design paradigm that still suffuses the launcher makes it functionally a lot less usable.
You may also suffer from the misconception that Android and iOS are the only mobile operating systems that have apps. The reality is that Windows Phone is already almost as richly blessed with apps, and the OS integrates very well with many of them, making them an integral part of the experience of using the device, including voice commands. The only app I am still desperately waiting for is the official Sonos controller, which is in development. Windows 10 for Phones will probably improve the OS in a lot of ways, including with software availability, as all Windows Apps will be Universal Apps, when it arrives late summer. Your Lumia 640 or 640 XL will get a free upgrade to Windows 10, as indeed will all other Lumia phones.
Like Microsoft, we have realised that the smart in smartphones increasingly comes from the services that run on them. It does not matter whether these are Microsoft services, already great and steadily improving, or services from other providers; Windows Phone caters for them all!
Apple charge an entry fee of at least £400. This is surely way more brazen than any “adult” bar, although to be fair the former offer experiences that are longer-lasting and incomparably more satisfying. Apple make the bizarre claim that this is democratic, which is obvious clap-trap. You will never hear a mainstream politician, certainly not a Democrat or Social Democrat advocating a flat tax.
By contrast, Microsoft serve up a menu that appeals to all, whether fishermen in war-torn regions, aspirational professionals in Asia and Africa, Western teenagers and their mothers (whose desires are surprisingly similar to as the rising professionals in what used to be referred to as the third world), corporate warriors, or even über-trendy hipsters living in lofts in gentrified urban areas.
- A top quality screen with brilliant image quality. Do not worry if the resolution falls short of the frankly deluded specs-driven PPI games engaged in by the likes of LG and Samsung. The resolution is plenty good enough.
- A fast enough processor (Quad-core 1.2 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400) with 1 GB of RAM. Both of these are good enough to deliver a great experience on Windows Phone (or indeed iOS), whereas you would have to be certifiably insane to buy an Android phone with the same configuration
- A good-looking, modern, well-designed phone that is light, sturdy and makes you stand out in a crowd. This is particularly true if you surround yourself with users of the iPhone 5S or 6 or any-generation Samsung Galaxy.
- NFC including secure NFC for payments
- 4G LTE connectivity – offering up to 300 Mbps download and 50 Mbps upload. In practice, when you are in a 4G area you will experience up to half of these speeds, which is still faster than if you have the fastest fibre broadband generally available in the UK.
- Great cameras – I will have lots more to say on this below.
- SensorCore – This is Qualcomm’s name for the smart sensor package that requires very little power to know where you are, where your phone is pointing, how you are moving it, as well as whether you are walking, running, cycling or possibly skydiving. This feature, which also exists on other, generally more expensive smartphones, makes “smart” watches almost completely pointless. I say almost, because of the existence of neurotics and/or fitness freaks who want to make sure their hearts are still beating.
- Dual-Band Wi-Fi N (up to 300 Mbit/s, we believe), Wi-Fi Direct, Wi-Fi hotspot for sharing your 4G connection with tablets or PCs
- Content sharing via DLNA, as well as screen projection using Miracast.
Whichever model of Lumia 640 you go for, it will also deliver a few features you will not get from an iPhone and definitely not from any Android device, no matter how premium:
- Far better actual battery life – If like me, you have been a compulsive high-end smartphone user, you probably cannot even imagine how free this will make you feel. I know, because I have had a Lumia 535 for a while. The 640 series should have even better battery life.
- Excellent control over notifications and excellent interactions with the notifications you do get. This is impossible to achieve on Android, and believe me, I have tried and tried! This pretty much hammers in the final nail on the coffin of the coffin of smartwatches, or Watches as Apple call them. Windows Phone will not subject you to an endless barrage of pointless notifications, so there is no need to get a “smart” watch to avoid constantly taking your phone out of your pocket, or more likely glancing at it at the table next to you.
- Cortana, the personal assistant that is both smart and personal. Cortana can understand and deliver on complex commands such as “Next time I go to Sainsbury’s, remind me to buy Chilli Barbecue Sauce”. Siri, from what I have experienced from listening to my co-bloggers valiant attempts at using him, excels at delivering smarty-pants non-answers in an annoyingly superior tone. Siri is also incredibly keen, and activates when it hears any word that does not sound anything like Siri, like “summer”. Sadly the answers are seldom useful, even when Siri has an answer. The only thing I really like about Siri is the option for a male voice, even if I dislike its sneering tone of voice.
Even though I am not a phablet fan, I am extremely likely to buy a Lumia 640 XL LTE which has a 5.7” screen. This is because it does not merely have a very good camera, like the eight megapixel camera of the Lumia 640 (the same resolution as the camera iPhone 6 and 6 Plus), but a really great one. At 13 megapixels, it may not reach the lofty heights of the 20MP camera of the Lumia 930 or the 1520, or indeed the next flagship Lumia which is credibly rumoured to have a 30MP camera as well as the number 940. Megapixels matter less than the optics, sensor and imaging processor, all of which are top flight. Lumia Camera is the best piece of camera software to be bundled with any phone, and makes full use of the brilliant imaging processor.
For neurotics, an added benefit is that you there is no need to defile the great looks of your Lumia 640 by purchasing and fitting some hideous case contraption to protect your precious phone from being smushed, scrunched or scratched. The case of the Lumia 640 series is not only made from brightly coloured, tough, precision-engineered, near scratch-proof polycarbonate, with the front of the phone being covered with the requisite Corning Gorilla Glass 3. Still, if your phone should still experience a freak accident, you can afford to replace it without needing to sell a kidney, unlike the iPhone 6 Plus or Samsung Galaxy 6. You would have be terribly clumsy to break three of them in the 12-18 months it used to take flagship smartphones to become so last year.
The Microsoft Surface 3, the Lumia 640 LTE and Lumia 640 XL clearly demonstrate just how far ahead Microsoft is of the curve in delivering the features that people actually need and want, without charging an arm and a leg for them. They all combine cutting-edge industrial design, brilliant build quality with smart hardware choices. Most importantly they are firmly connected to the services that makes devices really smart. Unfortunately they also need to be connected by micro-USB Type B cables when charging, so you still remain shackled to the wall for some of the time as well as have to make two or three attempts every time you need to connect the cable. Ah well, at least the battery life is great!
If you can live with these minor inconveniences, and sadly there are not many devices that allow you to live without them, the Microsoft Surface 3 and either version of the Microsoft Lumia 640 will service all your real requirements in an engaging and stimulating manner.