You have to hand it to Microsoft for picking a theme and sticking with it. The company took a technology-helps-you-create theme today and pummeled it into the ground with a bevy of announcements ranging from a niche new Surface to a big Windows update to virtual and augmented reality. The event's highlight, the new Surface Studio all-in-one PC, is the least consumer-focused and most, well, creator-focused Surface to date.
In a way, the Surface brand has been a story of Microsoft taking a touchscreen computer line of thinking and applying it, one-by-one, to key members of Apple's product lineup. The Surface Pro series simultaneously took on the iPad and MacBook Air. The Surface Book was an obvious answer to the MacBook Pro. And starting today, Surface Studio is the lineup's foil to the iMac.
The US$3,000 Surface Studio is a thin all-in-one (AIO) PC with a huge 28-inch touch-friendly "4.5K" display. Applying the brand's touch-first theme, using Surface Pen and a new Surface Dial accessory, to an AIO makes it not just a modern take on the desktop PCs of old, but also a digital canvas for artists and – here it is again – "creators."
When you want to switch from typical desktop PC tasks to "Studio Mode" (above), you slide the screen down to a 20-degree angle (which Microsoft says is the same angle as a standard drafting table) and use the combination of Pen and Dial to have a visceral experience that, at least in theory, intuitively blends the worlds of technology and artistry.
The $100 Surface Dial (below) is a small, wireless and cylindrical accessory that you twist to do things like bring up different menu options in apps like Photoshop, pan through color options and gradations, or rewind/fast-forward your history in a document. From the perspective of content-creation, this kind of tool has the potential to marry with the pen to allow artists to cut the traditional mouse/keyboard combo out of the equation altogether: Microsoft envisions this two-handed approach to be the artist's toolset of the future.
Surface Studio launches later this year as one hardware counterpart to the upcoming Windows 10 Creators Update, with an emphasis on making the creation of 3D content something that's simple and accessible to the masses. A new version of the age-old Microsoft Paint, Paint 3D, will be the pinnacle of this angle.
Why the focus on 3D content? That would be because the company is still going all-in on AR and VR – a la HoloLens – as the future of computing. And if that future is to be a Microsoft-friendly one, the company needs not just developers making games and apps, but regular folks digging into other 3D content they can create and share. So we have demos like the one we saw today, where Microsoft uses a smartphone to scan a sand castle, which a company rep then inserts into a 3D Word doc, and a HoloLens user then puts a virtual version of on a stand next to the real, physical one (though Microsoft failed to illustrate that the HoloLens user probably only saw about 2/3 of the castle, with the headset's piddly field of view).
One of the most enticing points of today's announcements was little more than a tease: Microsoft made a quick mention that, as part of the Windows 10 Creators Update, partners including HP, Lenovo, Dell, Asus and Acer (that's a rogue's gallery of predictable, often-unsexy Microsoft partners if we've ever seen one) will be releasing PC-tethered VR/AR headsets with inside-out tracking that start at just $299.
Details beyond that appear to be not just scant, but nonexistent. But if these companies can nail both the VR and AR aspects, without any need for external sensors and at those price points (keeping in mind the Rift starts at $599 and the Vive at $799), this could be a big development in the virtual space. Those are big "ifs," though, and the brevity of Microsoft's mention suggests they likely aren't anywhere near ready for prime time.
The classic Surfaces, the Surface Pro and Surface Book, didn't receive any full-generational updates today, but the company did launch an incrementally-upgraded Surface Book – though only at the highest-end (Core i7) model. Now dubbed "Surface Book with Performance Base," the new model has 30 percent extra battery life over the previous model, along with 6th-gen Intel Core processors and more powerful graphics. It starts at $2,399 and skyrockets all the way up to $3,299, further emphasizing today's focus on creator-focused hardware, software and content. A consumer-y shindig this was not.
The Surface Studio, new Surface Book and Surface Dial are up for pre-order today. The updated Surface Book and Dial both ship November 10 and Surface Studio will begin "shipping in limited quantities this holiday with broader availability in early 2017."
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