When you think of Microsoft, you, like most of us, may instantly get mental images of the windows platform, as well as its cloud-based software packages that are used throughout the world both on a personal and professional level. What you probably don't do is immediately visualise the firm as being a hardware business.
Granted, the company has made its name, and most of its current revenues for that matter, on selling software and cloud services, but there's something "sexy" about designing and manufacturing cutting-edge hardware and physical products that people make emotional connections to. Hardware may be a very small part of Microsoft's proposition, but its recent event shows that while there is still a very strong software focus, there's also a growing importance being placed on computers, virtual reality headsets, and extremely impressive accessories.
We're going to take a quick look at the more notable announcements to come out of Microsoft's most recent press event.
We all remember using a Windows-based PC to create extremely amateur images using the iconic Microsoft Paint package, and now, it's back with a significant facelift built for the modern era. It may come equipped with the same name, but it's very much a different experience, thanks to a focus on 3D. This new experience lets users doodle and draw in 3D, turn photographs into 3D "memories", and even create fantastic three-dimensional Minecraft models if that's your thing.
It may seem like purely a revamp of Paint for the modern age, but clearly Microsoft is placing a large importance on the potential for Paint 3D users to interact and view their creations using hardware such as Microsoft's HoloLens.
Windows VR Headsets
The HoloLens has been an exciting product on the radar for a while now, but Microsoft clearly isn't happy to just sit and develop its augmented reality propositions. This latest event witnessed the Redmond company's first foot into virtual reality with a number of units announced with compatibility with Windows 10.
The tech is essentially built on the same Windows Holographic platform that powers the HoloLens, and prices will start from as little as $299. No official release or availability date has been given my Microsoft, but it has been made known that manufacturing partnerships will be in place with Dell, Lenovo, ASUS and Acer.
Windows 10 Updates
It was only going to be a matter of time until Microsoft took the opportunity to introduce large updates to the Windows 10 platform. We've already had the impressive "Anniversary Update" which celebrated twelve months of Windows 10 existence, and coming early 2017 we will have another large update dubbed the " Creators Update".
The name makes a lot more sense when you consider that the update will include the integration of a number of 3D creation tools, which once more highlights the importance that Microsoft is placing on the future of AR and VR. The Creators Update will also bring impressive changes to the native Xbox app by introducing live streaming and the ability to create custom tournaments, as well as new features that look to propel people to the very forefront of the Windows experience.
We briefly touched on the importance of people as part of the Creators Update above, but it will be something that is front and centre come 2017. Microsoft wants to show just how important it believes people and friendships truly are, so to that end, the aforementioned Creators Update will look to make communications with important people a lot easier by having it embedded in the taskbar for easy and uncluttered access.
This is by no means something revolutionary, and in all honesty, the company showcased a part of the new focus on people that looks a lot similar to Facebook's old Poking system, which Microsoft is calling Taps, but there's also the fact that Microsoft is jumping on the stickers bandwagon by allowing images and 3D objects to be instantly sent to important people via the taskbar.
Xbox Live Streaming
Once again, this integration really belongs to the Windows 10 Creators Update, but such is its importance for Xbox console owners and hardcore gamers that it really deserves its own mention as one of the standout talking points of the event. When the Creators Update goes live, live streaming will be built into the Xbox app, meaning that gamers can integrate with Xbox Live to allow people to follow along with their gaming sessions, and even handle comments and suggestions from those who are acting in a voyeuristic role.
With this update, gamers will also be provided with the functionality to create their own challenge and custom defined tournaments rather than simply interact with ones that may or may not be baked into gaming experiences. All in all, it's a solid update that will impact many frequently used areas of the Windows 10 offering.
And this is where really start to get interesting by propelling Microsoft into a league of its own from a desktop hardware perspective. Surface Studio was the latest piece of tech to be introduced as part of the Surface hardware range, and it's an all-in-one, fully capable and highly performant touchscreen desktop computer. Staggeringly, it's only 12.5mm thick, comes with a simply, stunning 28-inch PixelSense display, as well as being powered by an Intel i7 processor.
The base level machine is expandable to include up to 32GB of RAM to compliment that raw processing power, with consumers also able to have the hardware ship with an optional up to 2TB hard drive. Specification wise, the Surface Studio is impressive, but it's really the engineering magnificence of the "zero-gravity" hinge system that makes this piece of kit a work of art. With a simple move, the desktop can go from a standard machine to almost functioning as an old-school drawing board with absolute no fuss or effort whatsoever. Those excited creatives can expect to part with $2999 for ownership.
It's simply not good enough for Microsoft to upgrade the main Surface hardware by introducing the Studio without bringing a gorgeous little accessory into play at the same time. To that end, allow us to introduce you to the Surface Dial. This simple, but beautiful, little accessory works as an input device for the latest Surface products by using a haptic engine to provide feedback, and gestures to select items from a contextual menu relevant to the app or software platform being used. A perfect working example of this would be using the Dial in conjunction with 3D Paint to scroll through and select a new color from a color wheel on display
The Dial looks like a really fun and innovative piece of kit, but gets taken to a whole new level when used directly on the screen in conjunction with the stunning Surface Studio to provide a wholly interactive software/hardware experience. The Dial will start shipping in November for a very reasonable $99.99.
Surface Book i7
This one could be construed as a little bit misleading as Microsoft didn't actually use this latest event to unveil a new Surface Book. Instead, the company took the opportunity to upgrade the existing model to ship with Intel's latest i7 processors. The Redmond-based company has also taken the opportunity to embed a larger battery into the laptop, which should be capable of delivering up to 16-hours of battery life. This revamped hardware should start shipping next month for $2,399.