Microsoft Band – fit or flop for the software giant?

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Having slipped seriously behind in the smartphone arena it’s interesting to see how Microsoft aims to keep pace with the handheld and wearable market, one area of which – fitness tracking, resulted in the launch of the Microsoft Band. It’s a relatively new market and one that’s been flooded quite quickly with a range of varying quality competitor solutions, but despite some capable devices that appeal to both budget-conscious and more serious audiences we’re yet to be convinced it has long-term appeal.

The Microsoft Band looks to make some wiggle-room for itself by offering a flexible solution that isn’t tied to Windows phones – there’s support here for iOS 7.1 and Android 4.3 upwards. It has a 1.4” display at 320×106 resolution, Bluetooth 4.0 and a battery that’s quoted as lasting 48 hours for normal use. It’s been available for long enough to get a proper feel for how capable it really is, so let’s see if it cuts the mustard.

Wareable should know a thing or two about wearables, and this being the case it doesn’t get Microsoft off to a good start. Its review awards just 2.5/5, and pulls no punches in stating that this is “a chunky beast at best and an absolute insult to the wearable tech movement at worst.” The look and feel is a real problem here – “looks awful” and “feels awful” are two of its three criticisms in fact, with the third being battery life. All very important considerations for any new gadget, let alone a wearable, so where to go from here? Well, the things it gets right include a fairly impressive display that’s quite “Windowsy” with that familiar tile-based UI that does feel natural and helps the device to remain fairly intuitive to use. Built-in GPS is also very nice, allowing it to track location data without a tethered phone – it works well and is undoubtedly one of the big highlights, with few competitors handling this at all, let alone as well. There are a few teething issues though, such as loss of signal and GPS connection in some cases that make it difficult to rely on the accuracy.

Elsewhere there’s 24/7 heart monitoring, a UV monitor “and the sensor check-list continues with a 3-axis accelerometer, a gyrometer, an ambient light sensor, a skin temperature sensor and a galvanic skin response sensor.”  All things that are debatably useful in a real world environment, but even though the basic fitness tracking seems to work well enough, we still end up with the initial faults ruining the overall experience. Sleep tracking for example provides:

“key metrics such as duration of sleep, your efficiency percentage (time spent sleeping divided by total time), how many times you woke up, how many calories you burned while sleeping, how much of your sleep was ‘restful’ and what your heart rate was”

But that’s only if “you manage to get to sleep with the world’s most uncomfortable fitness band on your wrist.” Other features, such as the running app, are quite basic, and there’s no opportunity to install extra apps from third parties – Microsoft expects you to be happy with the lot it has provided.

So what has it provided? The Telegraph goes into some detail and talks about how the 1.4” display is:

“crisp and easy to navigate, throwing up key information including the number of steps you’ve taken that day, kilometres travelled, calories burned and heart rate within a few taps.”

Data from the wide range of sensors is fairly nicely reported on the screen itself but it’s the Microsoft Health app that will keep all this in check on a phone. This is fairly comprehensive, with the sleep monitoring capability described as “one of the more sophisticated that I’ve used.” There are also a series of downloadable workouts and short videos to watch thanks to Microsoft’s partnership with Nuffield Health, and though these have potential are described as “slightly clunky”. Elsewhere the band is quite limited though you can sync with data collated from fitness apps like MyFitnessPal, and overall “the Microsoft Health app has some way to go in presenting the data it collects in more coherent, easily-trackable ways” so this doesn’t appear to be a strong enough area to offset its flaws.

Finally, PC Pro rounds off this disappointing performance with a full review that awards the Band 3/5. It is also less than enamoured by the looks, describing the design as “a curious mixture of the functional and the downright ugly.” The display is reasonably good, with well-defined text that’s bright enough to read on sunny days, and the ARM Cortex-M4 processor helps it tick along smoothly. It’s also fairly easy to use, both from the band itself and via the Microsoft Health app, but none of these positives are enough to outweigh the bulky design, the fact that it gets uncomfortable after extended use and a few other basic but frustrating issues.

Unlike Samsung’s Gear Fit, for instance, there’s no option to switch the display to a vertical orientation. This makes it necessary to twist your arm around rather awkwardly to read onscreen messages, or to glimpse at exercise-related data such as your current running pace or heart rate.”

The small display can be awkward to read while running or cycling, it’s only splash and sweat resistant so you’ll have to watch out for water and the battery life was far from expected, never lasting longer than 24 hours. It wraps things up by saying that despite the guided workouts, simple interface and competent app, the Band “has huge potential, much of which – at least for our particular needs – falls frustratingly short of the mark”.

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The Microsoft Band is available now for £175. Visit Microsoft to find out more.

Microsoft’s Lumia 640 and Lumia 640 XL: what do the critics think?

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At last, the highly-anticipated Lumia 640 has hit the high streets and online stores. Lumia’s latest addition to its portfolio will soon be joined by the Lumia 640 XL, due to be available by the end of April.

So how are the latest Lumia handsets bearing up to the scrutinising eye of the tech press?

Lumia 640

According to Wired, Microsoft is expecting ‘big things’ from the latest ‘hero’ in its budget stable phone. In a hands-on review, Wired – notoriously not easy to impress – seemed pretty bowled over by the 640.

Claiming the 640 to be a pretty decent mid-range phone with matching mid-range specification, for Wired, what lifts the 640 out of the conundrums of the ordinary, is the fact owners get a free year’s subscription to Microsoft Office 365 Personal. This means you can have Office apps on the phone as well as an additional PC or tablet.

So asides getting the main Office apps plus Publisher, Access and Outlook, you’ll get 1TB of online storage and 12 month’s free Skype calls, a package normally worth £60  year – a nice little extra for sure.

Okay, so we all love extras, but what about the real guts of the phone?

Wired are pleased to see that the new Lumia’s screen size has been increased from 4.5 inches to 5 inches, and with an HD 1,280×720 pixels, the resolution has improved too.

The Wired reviewer is also quick to point out that the 640 runs of Windows Phone 8.1, which is “slick and functional” and requires “less grunt from the processor to deliver a quick and smooth performance.”

The voice recognition is pretty good too. The ‘Cortana’ assistant genuinely helpful, says Wired.

On the downside, the processor could be a bit more powerful, concludes Wired, but for £120, it’s a general thumbs up from techies that are not easily awe-struck.

‘The world won’t change’

In a quick play around with the 640, Tech Radar admitted that with the same design language as its predecessor, the Lumia 635, the world won’t change with the 640.

Despite its predictable design, the new handset’s bonus is, according to Tech Radar, its removable back panel, which means the SIM card and microSD slots are hidden but could prove tiresome to remove if you’re using them regularly.

On the upside, during a play through of the apps, the 640 looked beautiful and was “one of the brightest Windows Phone handset” the reviewer had ever used.

For selfie-lovers, the device’s front facing camera should be able to cope.

In its review of the Lumia 640, PC Advisor concentrated on the camera and admitted that despite taking trial shots in difficult conditions, the camera did a pretty good job.

However, PC Advisor’s net verdict isn’t too inspiring as despite being nice looking and relatively cheap, there’s no need to get excited in terms of spec, as the 640 offers little more than what’s already on offer in a crowded Lumia market.

Lumia 640 XL

So what about the yet-to-be-released 640 XL, the 640’s bigger and beefier version, what’s the word on the street so far?

According to Recombu, despite the handset’s thickness, it doesn’t come across as bulky and is in fact quite the opposite. Its matte finish is accompanied with a pillowed back for extra grip and comfort.

With vivid colours, good visibility in bright sunlight and respectable viewing angles, the XL’s display “packs a wonderful punch”, claims Recombu.

Lumia-640-xl

Retailing from £219, the XL’s affordable price is one of its plus points according to the Tech Radar review. Other ‘pros’ include its large battery, bright screen and the fact it feels good to hold. On the downside, it’s only available on Windows Phone 8.1 – for now – and is 1080p on a 5.7 inch screen.

For more information visit Microsoft.

Microsoft Lumia 535 heralds the end of the Nokia phone era

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We can’t say we’ve been blown away by Nokia’s travails in the Smartphone market, largely because of the abundance of very capable competitors, but few could question their impact on the mobile industry in general. For many, a Nokia was their first phone, and if it wasn’t it would be the second or third. Cheap, reliable, solidly built – Nokia were the most popular phones around. It was a sad day when Microsoft finally announced it would be removing the old branding for good, then, and the device with the unenviable job of heralding the dawn of a new era is the Lumia 535.

Naturally it’s a Windows 8.1 smartphone and as the first branded by Microsoft, one that the company will hope can help kick-start an assault on Android and iOS. What’s interesting here is that it hasn’t gone for a powerhouse game-changer – in fact quite the opposite. Intended to tap the sub-£100 market it has perhaps quite sensibly focused on building numbers and tapping developing markets to increase interest in the mobile OS.

The 535 has a 5” IPS display with 960×540 resolution and 220ppi that’s coated in Gorilla Glass 3, a  Qualcomm Snapdragon 200, 1GB of RAM and 8GBb of internal storage with microSD expansion. Like many recent phones it also caters for the “selfie” generation with a 5MP camera on the front and back, though there’s no support for 4G. As expected it’ll be available in a wide range of colours, so our first thoughts are that it’ll be a bit of a hit with the youngsters.

There are no full reviews yet but various sources have gone hands-on. Let’s see if there’s enough about it to have a decent go at its target market.

TrustedReviews laments the passing of Nokia (as do we all) but points out that while the new 535 is steeped in Nokia heritage, is still a significant upgrade over the uninspiring Lumia 530. Reasons include the display, with IPS and decent overall performance marking it as “an improvement over the ugly TN-based LCD screen of the Lumia 530.”  Other immediate improvements include the camera, with a front-facer that has a wide-angle lens for “group selfies”, and a noticeable upgrade in terms of focusing speed and performance compared to the 530.

This doesn’t apply everywhere though – “the Lumia 535 uses the same quad-core Snapdragon 200 processor as the 530. This sounds good, but we weren’t impressed by its performance in the 530 and it’s arguably less powerful than the dual-core processor found in the ageing Nokia Lumia 520.”

Forbes discusses Microsoft’s strategy in this market, and defends its stance to make its first branded model a relatively low powered device. “This isn’t an afterthought from Microsoft, nor is it a lacklustre attempt to crack a market it doesn’t properly understand like other manufacturers. This is Microsoft’s mobile phone business plan – its entire strategy. The 535 is the flagship of budget smartphones and its price tag of $130 is supposed to cement Microsoft’s dominance in this area.” It goes on to describe the 535 as a “slightly better than average” budget device that retains a strong identity with the Lumia range with familiar brightly covered plastic and rounded edges. Not exactly an aesthetic triumph, but factors such as expandable storage and a removable battery are important features for developing markets that prioritise functionality over form.

It also discusses Microsoft’s “five great integrated Microsoft experiences”. These would be Skype, Office, 15GB of free OneDrive cloud storage, Cortana and Outlook – an attempt to one-up the competition and establish a more box-ready device

“This is Microsoft’s main gambit – access to its other services. Where cheap Android phones might leave the user in the wilderness in terms of updates and apps that provide a connected experience, Windows Phone users will have these out of the box.”

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We’ll conclude with CNet’s wrap-up of the 535, which it generally liked while acknowledging that there’s nothing particularly outstanding about it, which at the price point is probably to be expected.

“The Microsoft Lumia 535 isn’t exactly a standout device, which is surprising, as I was hoping Microsoft would use its first phone to show off what it can do. Instead, you get more of the same, though this is no bad thing.”

The Lumia 535 and Lumia 535 Dual SIM will begin rolling out to key markets in November, and will be available in bright green, bright orange, white, dark grey, cyan and black. Pricing for Lumia 535 and Lumia 535 Dual SIM will vary by market and operator, but is estimated to be around 110 EUR before taxes and subsidies.

HP Stream preview and first look

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The “netbook” market, or whatever you want to call it, got a bit of a boost when Google launched its Chromebooks . Offering users little more power than they needed to perform such simple but important tasks as browsing the internet and working with documents, they were a popular solution for the low-demand budget-conscious. Google’s stripped-down operating system may not be to everyone’s tastes however, or at least that’s what HP decided when it came up with the HP Stream, a Windows 8.1 touting 14” device that’s also competitively priced and is aimed at the same audience.

As you’d expect you’re not going to get cutting-edge specifications – count yourself lucky if there’s enough here to do a smooth job. The 14” WLED-backlight display offers 1366×768 resolution, there’s a full size keyboard, 1.6GHz AMD A4 chip, 2GB of on board memory and up to 6 and a half hours of battery life. There’s 32GB of storage for your stuff or an alternative model that upgrades this to 64GB, but with 100GB of OneDrive cloud storage for two years as standard this should be plenty if you’re efficient with your data. If you’re a fan of music on the move you’ll also be pleased to hear that it features Beats Audio alongside quad speakers, so should offer far more on this front than your typical Chromebook – this could, in fact, be the last hurrah for the synergy that was Beat and HP.

It sounds fairly appealing so far, but CNET is quick to point out its limitations: “While probably the least expensive Windows 8 clamshell you’re likely to find, the system includes specs that might make even a very casual computer user cringe, at least if you were planning to use it as you would a standard laptop.”

PCWorld calls it a “Chromebook killer”, and starts by highlighting the fact that Microsoft drove out Linux in the netbook market and could be looking to do the same with Chromebooks. The big question, it seems, will be “how well it runs Windows. Low-end PCs are notorious for being deathly slow, although the onboard storage should help the Stream 14 run faster than hard drive-encumbered netbooks from five years ago.” This seems like it could be a deal breaker – after all, Chrome OS was designed to boot quickly and work smoothly on such meagrely specced machines. It also points out that “Chromebook also have an advantage over Windows in terms of security thanks to process sandboxing, verified boot checks, and the Web security features built into Chrome itself” so this is another area in which Microsoft might have to offer some reassurance.

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MobileGeeks has gone hands-on so can offer us a few more specifics. The display seems adequate if uninspiring: “Compared to today’s IPS screens the viewing angles, color and brightness levels are not fantastic, but considering the price point it is in fact totally acceptable and decent TN panel.”  When it comes to performance, the demo model that was tested seemed pretty nippy and capable enough of making it around the OS without unnecessary lag. The SSD undoubtedly helps here, which combined with cloud-oriented storage and a fast enough connection should give you quick enough access to your data. The keyboard also gets a mention, which is nicely sized and doesn’t flex too much under pressure. The lack of a touchscreen is a shame, though understandable at the price point, which we’d better get around to mentioning.

It’s $299, which is a bit of a shame as it was touted at being $100 less when rumours were doing the rounds a few months ago, but it’s still a tidy price and depending on how this gets translated outside the US, we can see the Stream being a popular alternative for Windows users.

Microsoft’s Lumia 530: the cheapest top-of-the-line smartphone

Microsoft announced today there will be UK availability for its new Lumia 530 smartphone. While you may be thinking “oh another Lumia, what’s new?” This one could really be a gamechanger – this is reputed to be a premium smartphone with Windows 8.1 features at the knock-off price of as little as £60.

So what’s the catch? Looking at bare bone specs, it appears there is no catch. It runs Microsoft’s handheld operating system known as Windows 8.1, granting access to the expected Lumia experience, including the latest apps and newest Windows functionality.

The phone will feature a 4” LCD display – while not particularly high quality, it is acceptable when you consider the phone’s pricing.  In addition, the battery life is less than stellar – if left on standby, the phone’s battery will last up to 22 hours – not an ideal choice for a long camping trip, but not too bad for the day-to-day, with up to 13 hours battery life when heavily used. The device sports a 5 Megapixel camera, with no front-facing camera options. The phone will be available in a number of colours as you’d expect from a Lumia, such as bright orange, green and grey.

The phone will contain the lightning-fast 1.2GHz Snapdragon processor, which delivers a super-fast, lag-free user experience of your favourite apps, gaming and internet browsing”. The phone will also support Microsoft’s Windows services like Skype and Office.

One key criticism that many harbour regarding Microsoft’s Windows Phone Store is the lack of many apps that can be found on both Android and iOS stores – this continues here, but many more apps are now being ported across to the Windows Store. Lumia-specific apps are also available, such as Creative Studio and Glam Me, which, according to Microsoft, “helps people take quality voice-guided selfies with the 5MP rear camera.” So if you’re the selfie lover who’s strapped for cash, this phone could be the ideal option.

Conor Pierce, VP of Microsoft Devices for the UK and Ireland commented on the announcement of the 530 saying “With high-end apps, features and exceptional build quality at an amazing price, the Lumia 530 sets a new benchmark for affordable smartphones”. While of course Conor’s not likely to talk the phone down at all, he’s demonstrating how keen Microsoft are to show off the Lumia 530’s scarily low price.

The Lumia 530 will go on sale on 4th September with a quoted price of £60, available a number of retailers like EE, Vodafone, and O2.

Microsoft’s latest Lumia (the 930) comes to the UK

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Microsoft’s popular smartphone range will be receiving a new addition in mid-July this year with the release of the Lumia 930 smartphone. Microsoft’s latest smartphone will be releasing in the UK with the latest 8.1 software and “the best of Microsoft and Lumia services” the Lumia 930 is promising to “deliver an unrivalled user experience”. Upon its release, featuring a lightweight but high resolution 5” Full HD OLED Screen with 1920×1080 screen resolution – similar to that you might find on a desktop computer, you can expect a sharp image delivery from this smartphone.

Microsoft also supports the smartphone’s claim to be one of the best in terms of entertainment and image delivery, stating “the crystal clear 5-inch OLED display lets you watch in full HD and your favourite shows, movies or video clips are viewable in any light conditions as the device uses PureBlack screen technology.” Having a screen that’s too dark to view properly in certain conditions has always been a personal gripe of mine so if this is improved in the Lumia, that is a definite plus.

The smartphone aims to provide “the ultimate in video and imaging smartphone capability” with a 20 Mega-pixel camera, capable of taking photos in its native 1920×1080 resolution. For dedicated mobile photographers the phone also features imaging apps such as Nokia Camera in addition to Zeiss optics will allow users to create high-quality, stunning photos in seconds. Microsoft also claims the phone’s camera will “capture HD video like never before” including directional audio and built-in support for 5:1 surround sound – both capture and playback.

Conor Pierce, VP of Microsoft Devices for the UK and Ireland, was quick to support the new smartphone’s imaging and video capabilities: delivering cutting-edge technology to create an unrivalled video and imaging smartphone experience that are instantly shareable.”

Microsoft claims the phone will provide plenty to do for its users, and promises to include “A rich suite of differentiating applications and services”. Such features include Microsoft Enterprise feature pack, Microsoft Office, OneDrive, Nokia Camera, and HERE Maps and Drive+. All this functionality will be contained within “a beautifully crafted design featuring metallic details and vibrant new colours”.

The high-res screen is handy for maps.
The high-res screen is handy for maps.

The phone also promises to keep user data safe using Microsoft’s own OneDrive cloud service, storing photos, videos and documents synced with the online cloud for free, allowing data to be carried across to other Windows Phones, PC’s, tablets, and Xbox consoles among other systems.

Microsoft is quick to assure potential customers that their new smartphone is strong in terms of its battery life – an important aspect in a phone that claims to boast a great deal of entertainment and creative capability. The Company stated: “Equipped with a high capacity 2420 mAh battery and built-in wireless charging, there is little need to worry about running out of battery”. The phone also includes a wireless battery charger.

Microsoft of course had plenty of positive things to state about the smartphone, but what do the net’s reviewers think of their new chief smartphone?

PC Advisor saw the phone largely in a positive light, stating that the phone’s performance and battery life impressed thoroughly: “Performance is great. Windows Phone 8 zips along on lesser phones, and on the Lumia 930 it runs like a dream… the 930 always feels responsive, whether switching between apps or quitting and returning to the home screen.

The 930’s battery lasts pretty well. Unless you’re hammering it by watching YouTube or playing games at maximum brightness, there’s enough juice to get you through a whole day, and probably half of the next, too.”

CNET isn’t quite as pleased with the phone’s battery life, stating that it “doesn’t impress” but is very much impressed with the phone’s camera functionality.

Microsoft is offering the phone “all from only £33 per month on contract”. However, should you wish to acquire the handset SIM-free, the phone will set you back around £435 – not a bad price for Microsoft’s flagship smartphone, but around similar cost to Samsung’s S5 now that it has been around a while.

 

Microsoft Surface Pro 3: Review round-up

 

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Microsoft’s Surface series is leading the line for Windows-based tablets, and with the latest iteration show its desire to keep things competitive in an ever-improving market. The Surface Pro 3 comes with a number of improvements to do just this, and thankfully they’re not just restricted to barely noticeable performance upgrades.

Perhaps the most important is the larger screen – there’s a 12.1 inch display here, which is a significant upgrade on the 10.6 inch Surface Pro 2. Importantly this creates a clear gap between the Surface and other non-windows tablets, underlining Microsoft’s ambitions to make it a true laptop replacement. The aspect ratio has also changed, being 3:2 rather than 16:9, which may or may not appeal depending on its intended use.

With a bigger display you need better resolution, and Microsoft pushes past the 1080p barrier with a 2,160 x 1,440 display at around 214ppi – just about enough to ensure that there’s no drop in sharpness due to the increased size. The Surface Pro 3 is also lighter than the Pro 2, and with a slightly thinner bezel around the screen makes for a more immersive user experience.

Elsewhere speakers have been improved and are allegedly 45% louder, Microsoft claims 20% better battery life which should push nine hours, and yes there should be a performance boost, albeit a small one, thanks to an Intel Core i5-4200U chip (the top-end model gets an upgrade to Core i7).

So an impressive list of upgrades then, but how does it fare when you slap it all together? We did the rounds to find out.

Anandtech provides a typically detailed technical analysis of some of new features, with a focus on the display and performance. Though it admits there’s a lot more work to do before it draws any firm conclusions, there are mixed results from the early tests. The display varies from “Max brightness drops a bit compared to Surface Pro 2, likely due to the Pro 3 having 50% more pixels to light” and “Grayscale accuracy is the biggest issue with the new display, green levels are just way too high” to “Full saturation color reproduction is excellent”, so a bit of a mixed bag. Performance improvements seem significant though, as it reported “seeing a 3 – 20% increase in performance over the Surface Pro 2.”

TechRadar’s hands-on is more focused on usability, and enjoys the new smarter cover, which “made for a much more comfortable typing experience” and “deeper travel and punchier rebound in each key, making for an experience quite close to that of a laptop”. The only problem here is that it’ll cost you an extra £76 ish. The Pro 3 also works very well with a stylus, or Surface Pen, which feels more natural in the hand and combined with the LCD screen being brought closer to the glass makes “writing feels more natural – plain and simple.” It concludes by admitting that this is still quite a pricey device, and questions the concept of a laptop-replacement tablet in general, stating “Price and barely optional accessories aside, I’m already bullish on what this hybrid device is capable of. And I’ve been skeptical bordering on critical of the category since it popped up a few years back.”

Docking station
Docking station

There’s a fairly detailed review over at CNet, who decides that while the Pro 3 is somewhat stuck in the middle of the tablet/laptop space, “it’s more successful as a tablet than a laptop replacement. “ This is largely because of design shortcomings, such as some ergonomic difficulties when balancing it on a lap and various niggles with the touchpad. It’s also a fair bit behind performance-wise, as a trial of Bioshock Infinite showed. “We gave BioShock Infinite a spin at high settings and our standard 1,920×1,080-pixel resolution, and got single-digit frame rates. Running at the native resolution on low settings, the game still chugged unacceptably.”

It does offer praise for the optional keyboard upgrade, which is beginning to sound less like an option, and the digital pen. The battery life impressed when pitting it against rivals such as the Yoga 2 Pro and HP X2 hybrid: “The Surface Pro 3 did, however, best most of the competition in battery life, even if only by a small margin”, and comments on the slim design and display were generally favourable.

We’ll sum up with MacWorld’s conclusion in a comparison between the Surface Pro 3 and iPad Air. Although there are similarities in design and size, the consensus here seems to be that the Pro 3 will score more points with professionals who don’t want to carry around a laptop and a tablet (Microsoft says that 96% of iPad owners also have a laptop) where the Air will be better for consumers who really just want a tablet. This seems to be the overriding point, and surely one that Microsoft is aware of with these new improvements. Moving away from the tablet space towards the laptop with a larger screen and strong focus on a usable stylus and keyboard could be a risky move, and only time will tell whether there’s enough interest here to make it a success.

Xbox One vs PS4: battle of the next-gen consoles

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Whether it’s Apple vs Microsoft, iOS vs Android or Facebook vs Twitter, the tech world loves a good head-to-head. In recent weeks we’ve seen one of the greatest heavyweight battles yet as both Microsoft and Sony launched their much-anticipated next-generation consoles. The reviews are in, but which machine has the edge? If you’re thinking about making a purchase in time for Christmas, or are just curious about who’s offering what, we’ve pulled together a rundown of opinion from some of the most influential sites on the Web.

Microsoft Xbox One

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Unlike Sony, Microsoft has a phone and desktop ecosystem to consider as well as a gaming one, and these other platforms make themselves felt on the Xbox One. The Verge picks up on this, saying that it’s both a games device and “a sprawling, ambitious attempt to be the most important thing in your living room for the next decade.” The review also notes the importance of Kinect: you can use voice commands to launch games, run searches and record gameplay, though it’s often frustrating to use. It’s even clever enough, in theory, to recognise your face and log you on automatically.

The digital media handling of the Xbox One is praised, though the review suggests the PS4 has the superior controller and the faster loading times. The theme running through the piece is that the Xbox One has lots of unfulfilled potential in terms of its Kinect functionality, TV integration and support for Windows apps. The article concludes:

“The Xbox One is here for a decade. If Microsoft can deliver on all its promises in that time, it will have built a console truly worthy of Input One — but that’s a big if.”

This overarching idea — lots of potential, but not there yet — is continued by Keith Stuart in the Guardian. The review compliments the Xbox One’s improved interface, advanced multi-tasking capabilities and helpful Kinect integration while lamenting the rather lacklustre selection of launch day games. Ultimately, writes Stuart, “something about the PS4 feels fresher and more seductive”.

At games site IGN, the Xbox One picks up a respectable 7.8 out of 10 score, and again the main theme is the “split focus” as Microsoft looks to please gamers and more casual users with the breadth of its offerings. According to IGN’s Fran Mirabella, the software and hardware ” isn’t totally ready for what the Xbox One’s trying accomplish.” Gameplay and Kinect integration are much improved over the Xbox 360, says the review, and there’s praise for the integrated digital media apps and television functionality.

In the end though, MIrabella comes to the same conclusion as many other reviewers, that while the Xbox One’s attempts to own the living room are laudable, the functionality isn’t quite there yet (and for the moment the PS4 beats it as a gaming machine). His final verdict:

“If you’re purely interested in gaming, you may want to wait until the platform stabilises or drops in price. However, if you’re more like me and are tired of the dumbest screen in your house being your TV, the Xbox One will change your living room forever.”

Sony PlayStation 4

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If the Xbox One is trying to broaden its appeal, then the Sony PlayStation 4 is built primarily for gamers. According to the Verge, the PS4 is an attempt to build “the game console of our dreams”. The DualShock 4 wireless controller is described as “the best gamepad Sony has ever built” and the on-screen interface is described as putting games and associated apps front and centre.

Sharing and broadcasting your exploits is also a big deal for Sony’s console — there’s even a Share button on the controller. You can capture a screenshot or video of the last 15 minutes of gaming action and even broadcast your screen live. It has its own basic Kinect clone in the form of the £55 Playstation Camera, and then there’s the £180 PlayStation Vita, the portable console that can act as a second screen and complementary controller for the PS4.

In the end, The Verge argues, the PS4’s problem may not be the Xbox One but the PS3: “The PS3 was a media powerhouse, and the PS4 goes way too far the other way.” As the wrap-up puts it:

“Right now it’s a fast, powerful console with a great controller and a mostly useful interface… For right now, though, there’s little incentive to spend $399 on a PlayStation 4. Not only are there few games worth the price of admission, the vast library of PS3 games is more compelling than anything the PS4 currently offers.”

Over in the Guardian, Keith Stuart is once again on reviewing duties. “Everything is geared towards making the technology accessible to programmers,” writes Stuart. The trackpad is more comfortable, the interface is better, and the social and sharing aspects are better than its rival, claims the review.

The PS4 earns itself an 8.2 score at IGN, putting it slightly ahead of the Xbox One. “The PS4 not only brings the PlayStation platform into a more modern era, but establishes a strong foundation for long-term evolution,” writes Scott Lowe. While the PS4 has similar specs to the Xbox One, Lowe points out that Sony’s console runs more quietly in a smaller form factor. There’s praise for the DualShock 4 controller and the “gorgeous, straightforward” operating system, while Lowe also has good things to say about the PS4’s social and sharing features. The review concludes:

“The PS4 is an exceptionally well-crafted console. It’s impressively small and attractive design sets a new bar for the industry, and its powerful hardware offers not only stunning visuals, but higher player counts, constantly connected experiences, and larger, more detailed worlds.”

In summary

It isn’t difficult to pick out the common themes from the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 reviews on the Web. Both machines have the potential to be great, but lack any outstanding titles at launch. The PS4 offers a purer, faster, more sophisticated option for gamers; the Xbox One has more strings to its bow in terms of digital media and app support. The advice seems to be wait and see, unless you’re desperate to get your hands on a next-generation console: the final verdict on these two heavyweights won’t be made for several years yet.

We’ll give the final word to Keith Stuart in the Guardian: “If you love games, PS4 is a smart choice, and if you want a progressive media hub, Xbox One is your thing.” You can pick up the Xbox One for around £430 online, with the PS4 retailing at £350 or thereabouts; don’t forget, though, that Microsoft’s console comes with a Kinect camera included, whereas the Sony equivalent is £55 extra.

PS4 image © Sony Computer Entertainment, Inc.