Broken Windows patched with tweaks, tablets
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Yasuyuki Higuchi, president and chief executive officer of Microsoft Japan Co., speaks during a launch event for Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 8.1 operating system in Tokyo.
Microsoft's Windows 8 and Surface tablet computers haven't exactly been roaring successes.
Personal computer sales have slumped industrywide since the new operating system was released a year ago, while the company had to take a $900 million charge in July to account for unsold Surfaces.
Now it's trying again, with revised software and new versions of the two Surface models. All are notably improved, though not really enough to change many minds.
From the beginning, Windows 8 has suffered from schizophrenia. The Start screen, with its big, colorful tiles designed to bring Windows into the era of touch-friendly tablets, is largely disconnected from the more traditional desktop, where most productive work actually takes place.
There are two versions of some applications, like Internet Explorer, while others will run in one environment but not in the other.
Provided as a free download, Windows 8.1 introduces a few welcome tweaks that make moving back and forth a little less jarring.
One is the return of the familiar Start button on the desktop. Pressing and holding it brings up a menu of tasks you can perform directly — including, saints be praised, shutting down the computer.
It isn't as flexible as the menu in Windows 7 — there's no way to add shortcuts to often-used programs, for instance — but it addresses a common complaint of non-touch-screen users and people who do most of their work in desktop applications.
You can, if you locate the deeply buried setting, now order the operating system to launch directly into desktop mode. And you can choose the same background for both it and the tile interface — a seemingly small thing that subtly reduces the discombobulation.
Windows 8.1 also incorporates a host of enhancements that add flexibility and address previous user pain points. You can play with the size of the tiles on the Start screen, for instance, and — depending on your screen size and resolution — display four apps running side by side in adjustable windows. The search functionality has been improved, and there's deeper integration with Microsoft's SkyDrive for storing your documents and data online.
The changes are for the most part good ones. They simply don't come close to addressing the underlying problems.
The changes to the Surface tablets are also welcome but similarly modest.
Far and away the most important one is under the hood of the Surface Pro 2, the full-fledged Windows PC version: the inclusion of Intel's newest microprocessors, dubbed "Haswell." These chips, which debuted on the most recent version of Apple's MacBook Air, provide much better power management than previous generations.
The impact of the new chips plus a bigger battery is readily apparent. I used barely half the power on a four-plus hour flight between San Francisco and Atlanta, even with the screen brightness cranked up and the in-flight Wi-Fi going constantly. I could get eight hours between charges without using the power-saving mode or taking any extra steps to conserve battery life. By contrast, it took heroic efforts to coax more than five hours from its predecessor.
Beyond extending the battery life — and a new, second position for the built-in kickstand that finally allows the computer to be used on a lap — the changes are few. The Surface Pro 2 retains the same dimensions, approximate weight (two pounds) and bright, beautiful 1920-by-1080-pixel 10.6-inch display. And there's still no place to stow the included stylus.
It also costs the same as the previous model before a recent price cut, starting at $899 for a model with 4 GB of memory and 64 GB of storage. But that's just the beginning.
You'll almost certainly want the backlit Type Cover 2 snap- on keyboard ($130), which converts the tablet into a true laptop — unless you opt for the new $200 Power Cover, which includes a battery that Microsoft says more than doubles longevity. And more memory and greater storage can push you toward the stratosphere.
If you're looking for something a little less pricey and are willing to make compromises, Microsoft would like to introduce you to the Surface 2. It's the successor to last year's Surface RT, the attempt to be a combination iPad-killer and lightweight PC that ended up failing at both.
The new Surface, which starts at $449 for a model with 32 GB of storage, physically resembles the Surface Pro 2, especially since its screen has been upgraded to the same resolution.
But it's thinner, lighter — 1.5 pounds — and doesn't have an Intel microprocessor. Instead, its brain is an Nvidia Tegra of the kind most often found in tablets and smartphones.
As a result, it doesn't run the millions of programs written for earlier versions of Windows, just the far smaller number — Microsoft says about 110,000 — written specifically for the tile interface.
It does have one major asset: a full, built-in version of Microsoft Office that for the first time includes Outlook for e- mail and calendaring. Of course, to take full advantage of Office you'll need either the Type Cover or the $120, pressure- sensitive Touch Cover 2.
I generally liked the previous Surface for lightweight productivity tasks, and generally like this one too. That said, the first one was a flop and there's little here to make users revise their opinions.
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