Google and Microsoft Hardware

So I could get all schadenfreudian, but what would be the point? You all know what I’d say, he isn’t going to care, and besides, there’s no telling what new nonsense he’ll perpetrate between Tuesday night (when I’m writing this) and Wednesday morning (when I post it).

Instead, let’s talk hardware. After all, I gave Apple some airtime. It’s only fair that I do the same for Google and Microsoft, right? Right.

Google announced new hardware last week. Two phones, the “Pixel 4a with 5G” and the Pixel 5. A new take on the now-venerable Chromecast, the “Google Chromecast with Google TV”. And the “Google Nest Audio”, yet another smart speaker.

The phones are, well, whelming. Certainly not overwhelming, but not especially underwhelming. They’re there, they’re an improvement over the previous generation, but not by a huge amount. They’re arguably overpriced and underperforming–especially the 5–if you compare them with other flagship phones, but the value looks better when aligned against other phones with similar performance.

Frankly, I think a large part of the bad press they’re getting is due to unhappy reviewers who were hoping for another big step forward in camera technology. Which was, IMNSHO, a misplaced hope: Google has made it clear that they’re focused (sorry) on improving their phones’ cameras through the software, rather than the hardware.

Bottom line, I don’t think anyone’s going to be selling their current phone just to get a P5 or P4w5G. But if they’re in the market for a new phone anyway, the new Pixels are well worth considering.

The speaker is a smart speaker. Louder and with better sound quality than Google’s previous generation, but overall, it’s a forgettable entry in a forgettable category.

Then there’s the new Chromecast. The highlights here are that you no longer need to use your phone to control the playback and if you set up multiple media sources (Netflix, YouTube TV, and so on), you can see an overview of what’s available across all of them without digging into the individual apps.

That latter is a slick idea, but it’s a convenience, not a gamechanger. And if Google had come out with this device a couple of years ago, it would have been a fabulous advance over the original Chromecast family. But today it has a distinctly “me too” feel: “Hey we’ve got to keep up with the Rokus, Fire TVs, and Apple TVs.”

Moving on.

Microsoft also rolled out new toys last week.

A few accessories–keyboard, mice , wireless number pad, and a gadget to mirror your computer screen wirelessly to a TV or other HDMI-equipped display.

That last could be handy, as long as your computer supports the Miracast standard. If your phone does–and some Android phones do–that could make it very handy for both business and pleasure.

There’s an updated version of the Surface Pro X–Microsoft’s ARM-based laptop. Which has not, I suspect, sold in the kind of numbers Microsoft was hoping for. Not too surprising, since it’s not hugely cheaper than the Intel and AMD laptops it’s competing with.

The interesting device out of Redmond is the new Surface Laptop Go. As the name implies, it’s a smallish device–about halfway between the Surface Go and a cheap Chromebook–with a CPU suited to a standard laptop.

With a price similar to the Surface Go (and to a high-midrange Chromebook), it’s an easy choice if you need a highly portable machine that can also function as your main machine with a USB-C docking station.

Yes, granted, I’m still using my Surface Go as my daily machine. Beside the point. I’m talking about suitability for people who don’t have my patience for a slower computer.

I’ll be very interested to see how the Surface Laptop Go fares once people get their hands on them. If the keyboard is good and the screen doesn’t wobble unpleasantly, Microsoft might just have a winner.

Microsoft Hardware 2018

With Apple’s 2018 hardware announcements behind us, most of the tech industry’s attention has turned to October 9, when Google is scheduled to announce their own new goodies. Meanwhile, Microsoft almost escaped notice with their release party.

That’s at least partly because what they announced is, well, let’s say “underwhelming”.

The October Windows 10 release will officially start rolling out on Tuesday–though you can get it now by doing a manual check for updates. But why would you want to? The big feature is a cloud-based copy/paste function so you can copy files and data from one Windows machine to another. Which sounds nice, but how much value is it going to add over Microsoft’s existing cloud service, OneDrive? Then there are also enhancements to the Timeline feature that syncs app history across devices. It’s nice that Microsoft is opening the functionality up to non-Microsoft browsers, but–aside from the fact that Firefox and Chrome already have history syncing. Are there enough people who want to sync browser tabs between, say Edge at work and Firefox at home, to make this worth Microsoft’s time and energy?

Then there’s the big enhancement to the “Your Phone” app. Controlling your phone from the desktop sounds useful. But that’s a future feature. All the app offers now is syncing photos and sending and receiving text messages. If you have an Android phone; iOS is also a future feature.

Nor are their hardware announcements any more exciting.

The biggest plus most commentators can find for the Surface Laptop and Surface Pro updates is that they now comes in black. The speed and capacity updates are minimal, and Microsoft’s continuing refusal to adopt USB-C is baffling and vexing.

The hardware upgrades in the new Surface Studio 2 are somewhat more impressive, but despite the Studio’s cool form factor, it hasn’t taken the world by storm. It’s very much a niche product, aimed at digital artists, and the improved graphics and faster hard drive won’t change that.

Oh, yes. Microsoft also announced a pair of noise-canceling headphones. The specs look nice, and I like the idea of user-controlled noise reduction. But Microsoft is a late entrant into the headphone space, and I don’t think these phones offer enough to make a serious dent.

Bottom line: if you want cool new toys, hang loose and see what Google has for you next week. Sure, most of it has leaked already, but the odds are good there will be at least one surprise.