Microsoft recently opened a store near my home in the San Francisco Bay Area, marking the occasion with a concert in the car park by Kelly Clarkson, the first American Idol talent show winner, and an appearance by a famous American football player – Jerry Rice of the San Francisco 49ers. I had not seen such a local commotion since another famous football player, George Best, opened a fish-and-chip shop in my home town near Manchester around 1970. All this fuss, just for piles of boxed copies of Windows, I thought.
But walking around the store, I realised there was more to see. There were big TVs featuring Microsoft’s game Halo 4, playing from the Xbox 360 console. Smartphones featuring Windows Phone software were on display, along with various sleek PCs running the new Windows 8 operating system. Pride of place was given to Surface, the new Windows 8 tablet with a cover-cum-keyboard, all made by Microsoft itself.
The message was clear: Microsoft was getting serious about hardware and about establishing a more direct relationship with its customers, modelled on Apple’s success. It seemed no accident that Microsoft had bought shop space right across from the Apple Store in our mall.
Microsoft is not alone. Amazon and Google, the giants of ecommerce and search, are making their own hardware now and also looking at bricks-and-mortar retail to move beyond their virtual dealings with users.
But their gadgets face a long road to the kind of maturity and mass acceptance achieved by Apple, which has been making computers since the 1970s and also has a lead in stores, smartphones and tablets.
Microsoft has been making the Xbox for more than 10 years, but three of the consoles have died under my TV in the past five years. The company’s Zune music player and Kin smartphones were not successful and have been discontinued.
The Surface is supposed to be different – a high-specification product at the kind of premium price Apple likes to charge for its own high-quality products. I found the one I tested to be a solid product, with its Gorilla Glass toughened screen and magnesium casing. It has a 10.6in high-definition screen and HD cameras front and back. A “Touch Cover” with an integrated keyboard is recommended for an extra £100 ($120) to turn the tablet into a laptop substitute. The keyboard works surprising well and the cover has a vice-like grip on the tablet, thanks to strong magnets that also attracted all the paper clips from the bottom of my bag.
The Surface’s main weakness is the stand that snaps out of the back. It is not adjustable and was at the wrong angle for me, forcing me to crane my neck to see the screen properly when typing.
Others have criticised the price – £399 ($499) for a 32Gb version – this is £80 (or $100) less than a 32Gb iPad, but the Surface has an inferior screen, battery life and apps. It has a limited version of Windows, known as RT, but the inclusion of Microsoft’s Office suite is a bonus.
A full Windows 8 Pro version launching this month does seem expensive, starting at $899 (price to be announced for the UK) for a 64Gb version without the keyboard cover.
It is 10 years since Google introduced its first hardware product. The Google Search Appliance was a bright yellow rack server with holes in the faceplate that made it look like a slice of metal cheese. It indexed thousands of documents and carried out searches on them for enterprises. Still sold today, Dell offers a version indexing a million documents for $70,000.
Its latest hardware effort looks even odder and while it is priced at only $300, you cannot buy it in a store. The Nexus Q was unveiled in June – a swivelling, glowing orb that streams video and music to home entertainment systems.
I tried one before Google postponed the consumer launch indefinitely, saying the Q needed more work. It certainly did. The Q would play only content available through the Google Play service. It could not stream the Netflix or Hulu movie and TV services to a television for example, nor allow a photo slideshow to accompany music.
Google now owns Motorola and its latest crop of Android handsets are beginning to show the parent’s influence. I have been using the Razr HD, one of three new Razr models, and I like its edge-to-edge screen, solid construction and long battery life.
Google has also collaborated with a number of manufacturers on its Nexus smartphones, that are meant to showcase the latest version of its Android operating system and the newest hardware features.
This was expanded to tablets last year, with the launch of the £199 ($249) Nexus 7, made by Asus, and then the £319 ($399) Nexus 10, made by Samsung – the numbers referring to the screen sizes in terms of inches. Both are attractively priced for their features. I loved the lightness, long eight to 10-hour battery life and the rubberised feel of the Nexus 7’s shell. This made it comfortable to hold and easy to drop in a bag and carry around for days without worrying too much about recharging.
The screen is excellent for reading and a quad-core processor makes the 7 very responsive. The Nexus 10’s outstanding feature is its high-resolution screen – at 300 pixels per inch it is sharper than the 264 of the iPad’s Retina display. The front-facing speakers on the side of the screen are also very effective and, again, there is that rubberised feel to the casing, plus near-field communication for beaming content between compatible devices.
With Android 4.2, the Nexus 10 and the latest Nexus 4 smartphone – made by LG – can create 360-degree photos stitched together from their camera shots, in an effect similar to the street view in Google Maps.
My favourite Google hardware at the moment, though, is its £229 ($250) Chromebook, running on its Chrome operating system and made by Samsung. Google has finally got this concept right with the fourth attempt at a laptop that relies on the web browser and cloud services.
Previous attempts were too expensive for the limited functionality on offer and the hardware was unsatisfactory, with sticky trackpads and average battery life. The new Chromebook is priced right, the trackpad is smooth, response times are snappy, battery life is better at six hours and it is very light at 2.4lbs.
Amazon is also offering great value with its ever-expanding Kindle lineup. I like the new line of HD ones that improve on its original Kindle Fire tablet with a better display, audio and Wi-Fi. It has achieved full maturity in its eReaders with the Kindle Paperwhite (£109, $119). A touchscreen and built-in light have now been added, the display has higher resolution and contrast and the eight-week battery life means even a slow reader like me can get through a novel on a single charge.
Snappy apps: new ways to improve, save and share your photographs
Beamr for iPhone (free)/Jpegmini for Mac (free “Lite” version or $9.99)
The file size of smartphone photos increases as camera resolutions improve and features are added. Jpegmini, available on the Mac App Store, dramatically reduces the size of photos without any perceptible loss in quality. The technology is also incorporated in the beamr iPhone app. This allows you to select photos, add text and turn the collection into an online photomagazine that can be shared via email, Facebook and Twitter.
Pholium for iPad (free)
For more sophisticated online photobooks, Pholium lets you choose from your iPad’s photo gallery and select from a number of templates for picture layouts in the virtual book. Different fonts and colours are available for titles and captions. You have the option to record audio commentary and embed videos from YouTube. As well as keeping a library of such books on the iPad, they can be uploaded to the cloud and you can allow others to see them in a web page viewer through a shared link.
Perfectly Clear for Android and iOS ($2.99)
This app does intelligent image correction on photos, autofixing common problems and allowing a lot of manual adjustment to brighten, fix tints and sharpen pictures, as well as beautify people shots by improving skin tones and enhancing eyes. There is a de-purple correction for fixing photos affected by the camera being pointed at the sun. Before and after views can be seen with a simple swipe across the photo. The results can be saved and easily shared.