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Mobility

Mobile has been a disruptive technology for almost a decade now. It shifted the fortunes of a number of companies; turning some into kings while making others paupers. Mobile devices have overtaken personal computers as the way most people compute.

Think about it; all the task we have associated with computing; gaming, doing bills, watching movies; is now done on devices we keep in our pockets. The mobile market grew exponentially faster than the PC market and has in many ways made the PC look like the mainframe; a relic for the back office.

Given the changes it becomes clear why Microsoft did a reboot with Windows Phone and also why despite failing to catch on Windows Mobile is still with us.

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Continuum Machine

Back at the beginning of Windows 10, Continuum was a feature that simply described modal use; tablet mode/pc mode and mobile/desktop-like experience. The Phone side of Continuum was always more intriguing because it was an adrenaline shot to a platform that had/has been given up for dead.

However as a feature Phone Continuum  lacked features to make it’s desktop truly functional. The feature resembled Windows RT; only one app can be seen at a time along with the additional restriction to apps built to UWP guidelines. This changes with the next update for Windows 10. The Creator’s update will allow for windowing so multiple apps running on screen along with improvements for wireless connections. Add to this new reports of x86 emulation, allowing users to natively run desktop applications, and the idea of a phone replacing a computer for periods become feasible.

I have to say these latter features have shown up faster than expected given the last update to Continuum was around the Xbox controller. I should also note this makes the case for accessories like HP’s Lap dock for the Elite X3.

Design in Neon

Right after the Thanksgiving holiday it was reported that Microsoft was working on a new design language for Windows 10 codenamed Neon. While details are scarce Neon appears to a effort to improve and streamline the overall look and behavior of Windows.

For Mobile this will most likely mean improvements to the Start Screen and Continuum desktop experience. Neon may also pave the way for new devices like tablets and Chromebook style notebooks.

Focus on the Enterprise and Services

The last two years have seen Microsoft retrench its mobile efforts (much to the acrimony of users). It has been a period of slumping sales and write offs as Microsoft moves the mobile focus toward enterprises. Much of the announced and known information around Windows Mobile drives this home; x86 emulation and Continuum are primarily feature sets businesses probably asked for.

Microsoft is also continuing to push UWP to be the replacement for .exe and pure x86. Initiatives like Project Centennial are trying to put Windows developers on a platform path toward the Universal Windows Platform. They are also working on features to make UWP as powerful as x86 without too much baggage.

So what does all this mean?

Well right now little.

The Continuum features will arrive sometime in the next year and a little before for those using the Windows Insider program. Any additional features, especially something like Neon, are coming in another update codenamed Redstone 3 in late 2017. And with what we know there are still questions. For example what will be the consumer facing features? Will there be new partners for hardware and software?

According to reporting done by Mary Jo Foley Microsoft is working with Qualcomm on getting the emulation feature working on their newer chipsets. Which is fascinating and proves the company is still committed to mobile. However this work is happening on a platform with no real pull in mobile (and statically no real share of the market). So where does it go from here?

2017: The Slow Return of Windows Mobile

Recently both Microsoft’s CEO and it’s head of Windows have been asked about mobile. The questions follow the usual script in which Microsoft acknowledges it missed mobile and that yes, they are committed to Windows Mobile and mobile hardware. Now Ms. Foley asked the million dollar question: Why bother?! I mean Windows Phone is dead and most want Redmond to follow the list of the former mobile leaders on the path to wherever Android is going. Or why not quit and restart like Nokia.

“When you stop investing in these things, it’s super hard, super, super hard to restart. And at Microsoft, we have a few of those examples where we stopped.” This was the response from Windows chief Terry Myerson. He also cited the ARM chipset and cellular as additional reasons for mobile continued existence.

In my opinion I think Microsoft understands where it is in mobile. I remember an interview done with Microsoft’s Chief Marketer in which he talked about needing to create something that would be truly compelling for phone buyers. His statement was echoed by Myerson and Nadella. This acknowledgement that whatever is coming needs to be truly compelling and groundbreaking to overcome Windows Mobile shortfalls.

So in 2017 expect to see features and functionality added that 1) closes some feature gaps with iOS and Android 2) Bring parity between mobile and pc 3) Entice more hardware partners to join and 4)Provide better user experiences. This will occur alongside updates for the PC so don’t look for a mobile specific update, yet.

Now beyond that I feel like long term Windows mobile’s future will be in helping Microsoft define the future of mobility. I’m talking about something that may go beyond the best guest work around mobile’s future form; or maybe just move the needle to where most think its going. This includes Windows mobile finally running on tablets and possibly laptops similar to Chrome OS. And even then this is leaving out aspects like AI, bots, mixed reality, and inking.

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Yesterday’s Windows 10 event left a lot of information on the table to parse through. Amongst the news provided was around upgrade paths for users on Windows 7, 8, and Windows Phone 8.1 devices. For the first year anyone wanting to move up to Windows 10 can do so for free. And that upgrade will include upgrades and support for the lifetime of that device.

Cool right? But what about devices running Windows RT? This is where it gets complicated.

Now as I write this at least two articles, one by Kevin C. Tofel GigaOM and one by Tom Warren The Verge, are writing the obituaries for the Windows version built for ARM devices. The reason is it wasn’t listed on the board when Windows chief Terry Myerson talked about pricing. When asked specifically about Windows RT a Microsoft spokesperson said, quoting the Verge,

We are working on an update for Surface, which will have some of the functionality of Windows 10. More information to come.

Now on the face of it this does mean ARM based Surfaces and other Windows RT devices (from Dell, Lenovo, Asus, and Samsung) won’t get the Windows 10 we saw on Wednesday. But they are getting an update, so what does it all mean?

I am going to take the  contrarian view on RT’s death; partly because it got combined essentially into Windows Phone. However another reason is that the device running Windows RT are outliers in the dividing line of Windows 10. Let me explain, Windows 10 splits the version a user gets depending on screen size; the version that ran on RT devices has now been reassigned to small tablets under 8 inches and phones. Most RT devices in the market are mid size (10-11.6) making the new ARM SKU a no go.

My best guess based on what has been said is Microsoft is preparing a SKU that will fit RT devices. It won’t be Windows 10 but close enough to get said features. However if I am right this version will probably feel like Windows Phone 7.8; the stop gap provided when Windows Phone made the cut from Windows CE.

Now Microsoft could well kill it off but I’m not sure they want to leave these users hanging.

I just don’t want to hear the bitching.

UPDATE 1/23/2015: So Paul Thurrott has posted his own opinion on the matter (he asked the question about the update during the Q&A afterwards). Also Microsoft added this to the Windows 10 page:

It is our intent that most of these devices will qualify, but some hardware/software requirements apply and feature availability may vary by device. Devices must be connected to the internet and have Windows Update enabled. ISP fees may apply. Windows 7 SP1 and Windows 8.1 Update required. Some editions are excluded: Windows 7 Enterprise, Windows 8/8.1 Enterprise, and Windows RT/RT 8.1. Active Software Assurance customers in volume licensing have the benefit to upgrade to Windows 10 Enterprise outside of this offer. We will be sharing more information and additional offer terms in coming months.

I also wanted to add something to my earlier post. With Windows 10 Microsoft is ending Windows RT as it is now which is as the locked down version, tablet version of Windows. In my opinion the update planned to bring Windows 10 functionality to RT devices will be one where RT users can run Universal apps and access Cortana and Project Spartan. But it’ll be a one off.

With the release of Windows 10, Microsoft has announced (whether they want to admit it or not) the end of Windows 8 and in many ways a period of uncertainty for users who like and use it. While the heads of Windows were assuring they were not retreating from touch or hybrid devices many are in a mode of wait and see.

Others are openly saying Windows 10 is a major step backwards in terms of mobility.

Right now, I feel like we are too early into Windows 10 to say it’s a retreat. Realistically it is an acknowledgement that Windows 8 didn’t move every Windows user toward the mobile promised land. I hate saying it but Microsoft had to address the wants and desires of its customers that wanted a desktop in the traditional Start menu mold. Not having the menu was an issue hampering progress; in fact the debate between mobility, touch, and mouse and keyboard was a serious distraction.

So now we find ourselves on the march to Windows 10 and it begins by addressing the desktop. We also now are facing a reverse situation in which people who have embraced 2-in1s, hybrids, and Windows tablets wondering what is in it for them. People like technology reporter Mary Branscombe have been vocal on Twitter about the pull back and the seeming reduction in functionality of Windows 10 for Windows 8 users. It is an issue that is not only coming from enthusiasts but also developers who adopted the new Modern environment.

Right now we know little about Microsoft’s plans for touch in Windows 10. We know they will be overhauling the Charms bar (replacing it with an unknown new UI). We know that the designers at Redmond will be introducing Continuum which will switch a users’ device between being a laptop and being a tablet. Lastly, we know the gestures instituted in Windows 8 are being changed. Beyond the Charms bar, swiping from the left will bring up a new task switcher which will show all open apps and desktops.

I don’t know what to make of what we are seeing in Windows 10 from the perspective of a tablet fan. Windows 10 will make the changes from 8 palatable for some diehard keyboarders but not all. It could also alienate users who have come to embrace the benefits of Windows tablets and hybrids. People who have found benefit in having mobile devices that can be workhorses. The whole thing makes me concerned, only in so far, as I think the idea of the tablet being another form factor and not totally divorced from the PC is solid. It is just the execution that needs fine tuning.

Windows 10

For the last few months one of the big discussions in Microsoft circles has been about the next release for windows codenamed Threshold. The next release has been greatly discussed because if the mixed reaction to Windows 8. With 8 the focus was on touch and mobile and this alienated (hand air quotes) traditional keyboard and mouse users. So with the next release a lot of people’s hopes have been pinned on this being the Windows release.

So on Tuesday of last week Operating Systems chief Terry Myerson along with Windows UX head Joe Belfiore talked about the next release of Windows…Windows 10.

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No one was expecting the name. Most assumed it would be Windows 9 or Windows One or even simply Windows, but it is Windows 10. It’s funny because during the small press event Myerson had to say he wasn’t joking. The first showing for Windows 10 was for the Enterprise.

Now it has been days since the announcement and the release of the first Technical Preview. Given that stretch of time I wanted to give my impressions of the release more so than a simple repeat of the event. I should also not there have been numerous posts written about what you can expect downloading the beta software which are miles more helpful than what I could tell you. Having said that I do want to put in my two cents.

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During the hour long presentation I got the clear impression that the team in charge of Windows knew what the headlines would say; that Windows 10 was a backtrack from Windows 8. It was something Belfiore addressed directly when discussing the future of touch. In so many ways this is a retreat from the aggressive stance took by Windows 8. Windows 10 is an acknowledgement that people wanted something familiar, so the Start menu has been returned. It is not the same Menu it’s a little flatter in terms of design and also includes changes started in Windows 8 such as Live Tiles and controls. Windows 10 also adds search (Windows 8.1) and new for 10 Task View (virtual desktop similar to Linux and OSX). There have been visual tweaks for Windows adding shadow effects new icons, and Windowed apps. The cumulative effect of the features in the Technical Preview is something to appeal to users of Windows 7 or older. In fact a lot of time was spent on making the case that Windows 10 was suited for users of Windows 7.

I think something that also should be noted while everyone else is talking about a return to a Windows of old is how they mentioned Windows 8. In the presentation neither man shunned Windows 8 or pretended that the audience that adopted it didn’t exist. In fact the goal of Windows 10 seems to be a better merging of desktop (Windows 7) and touch/mobile (Windows 8). And this idea is represented by Continuum. Continuum is a future feature of Windows 10 in which the operating system transitions itself between desktop and tablet scenarios.

The big takeaway I had was the thing Windows 8 brought to the PC, such as touch and mobility, were not going away with the reintroduction of the Start Menu. That going forward the plan for three screens and a cloud was still the goal. Now having said that there are still questions but I want to discuss those in my next post.

If you want to download the Windows Technical Preview go HERE. Understand this is a beta; don’t use it if you don’t want to experience bugs or issues. Also this is a BETA and Microsoft wants feedback so signing on means you agree to them gauging your usage to make a better system.

images: Microsoft

Today, or Tomorrow take your pick, Neowin.net wrote of a possible update to the Surface/Surface 2 to be shown off in October. The news follows on the heels of Microsoft canceling the Surface Mini and the premier of the Surface Pro 3.

The Neowin article citing DigiTimes claims the Surface 3 will be thinner and lighter than the Pro 3 and be a 10.6 inch device. Neither site said whether what operating system the device could run, however Neowin seems to lean heavily toward the ARM based Windows RT.

If this is the case Microsoft will have to have certain things ready before they even think of scheduling an event. Because while I and handful of others will be happy to see it, a lot of people will not be.

For those that don’t know Windows RT is the version of Windows rewritten to run on ARM chips. The best way to think of ARM is that it is the chip use to run tablets and smartphones. ARM has the benefit of mobile capability (LTE) and also lower power (ARM devices run longer on a charge). Windows RT devices have longer battery life and, unlike the x86 version, is largely immune to viruses. Windows RT also doesn’t run legacy applications or programs built for the Intel/AMD x86 platform. This means the things people usually do on a PC won’t run on an RT device (Chrome, Firefox, iTunes). Like iOS or Android you can only run tablet apps.

The lack of legacy support on RT has made it a bit of a pariah in some circles. It has found some success as the application market has grown and amongst those who like its low maintenance styling. Much like the Google Chromebook, Windows RT devices have found a home in education (especially amongst students looking for a complimentary device).

If the Surface 3 is indeed real and comes out it will need to do something to differentiate itself from comparable devices running full Windows (x86, usually a low powered Intel or AMD chip); not to mentioned the iPad and various Android devices. According to the above sources, the Surface 3, or 3, will come with a stylus like the Pro model. We can assume this pen will be N-Trig and thus compatible with the Pro 3. I hope it means the 3 uses the same aspect ration for its screen. The Surface Pro 3 uses a 3:2 screen which makes it easier to use in portrait orientations than previous models that used the widescreen 16:9. If the 3 uses 3:2, it will be better aimed at its target audience.

Another factor that will make the Surface 3 palatable is new apps. A best case scenario is the 3 is the premier for Office Gemini (tablet/touch version of Office for Windows) or a new book service. Given the Redmond giant’s move toward productivity as a sales hook, the Surface 3 will need something that highlights it as a mobile workhorse of merit. So things like ports will be needed; also a kickstand that resembles the Pro 3. Microsoft will need to show it has the applications to sell the Surface 3. One of the big issues that faced the Surface RT (One) was a lack of apps; this needs to be different with the 3.

The Last thing this rumored device will need is to be THIN. While the Surface Pro 3 has been met with a lot of praise, its still a PC. It requires ventilation for the Intel processor. The Pro is also larger, sporting a 12 inch screen which could be too large for some. There is also the price; the Pro 3 is $799 with an i3 and goes up from there. The Surface 3 would be smaller, run cool, and be cheaper. Hopefully it is also cheaper including the TypeCover (which it will need).

Now I could be wrong and the Surface 3 could run a Baytrail chip from Intel. Doing that will make PC diehards happy (Its REAL Windows), but it would signal Microsoft was done with Windows RT. The Surface 3 could be an interesting product, if it sells its strengths. It will need to signify Microsoft’s productivity mantra (the productivity tablet) along with providing the apps. And it has to be thin.

No Pressure.

So I had planned on writing about the future of Microsoft branded hardware and its PC partners when Neowin reported a possible refresh to the Surface ARM lineup.

So I guess it’s a sign.

With the accession of Satya Nadella to Iron Throne of Redmond many wondered what he would do with the hardware Microsoft has accumulated. Many analysts have argued the margins and costs for hardware are not worth the time and effort the software giant has invested. Unlike Bing (the other money pit) many investors cannot see the benefit to Microsoft in any way. The hope was Nadella would jettison hardware (and in turn the entire consumer market) and move the company firmly into enterprise software and services. The anti-devicers were buoyed by Bloomberg news revealing Nadella’s hesitation in buying Nokia’s Hardware group. I mean Nadella comes from the Cloud/Enterprise side and hates buying Nokia; devices out in 3..2..1..

Not So Fast

Satya Nadella has been said to have been against the Nokia deal, but he also came around to it (though this is often left out). Also with recent pronouncements he has made clear he will keep Microsoft producing first party hardware. Like his predecessor, Nadella will walk the tightrope that is the Surface and Lumia.

As of now Microsoft seems intent on positioning its branded hardware as to not compete with its third party hardware partners. So don’t expect fire sales or prices that undercut HP or Dell. With the Surface, Lumia, and Xbox Redmond is working on building brand name, aspirational products. There is a reason Microsoft compared the Surface Pro 3 to the MacBook Air and not a PC. There is a power in the Apple logo and a prestige in owning one. Its like wearing a limited addition pair of Air Jordan’s or Adidas; you’re buying more than just the shoe.

To date there is no Apple equivalent in the PC space. And I’m not talking about a Samsung, which is close, but something that truly can/does represent the best of the PC. The PC market doesn’t have a brand that is lusted after; that is aspirational to own. 

And that is the deal with Microsoft’s first party brands.

So no the Surface Pro 3 isn’t the Yoga or the Zenbook, or the Series 9; its not something most techies would consider. But it is attractive and it makes you imagine that place you’d put it if you did have it.

On a more basic level, having branded hardware also ensures you have devices running your software in a NICE package. Think about Windows Phone and the lack of interest paid to it by HTC and Samsung and its former partners in Windows Mobile. Imagine trying to build a platform with no physical representation of it, then tell me to rely on third parties.

 

The Third party OEMs, Microsoft’s partners in crime, are not to be left out. The emergence of Microsoft branded hardware has changed the partner model; as has the emergence of Google as an OS provider. If you check out the Laptop and tablet section you will see this shift.

The last decade has seen PC makers shift from just Windows to multiple operating systems (basically Goggle’s Android and Chrome OS). With the appearance of the iPad and the predictions of a tablet takeover hardware makers began experimenting with anything that could move them in the Post-PC age. Hewlett-Packard bought Palm and put out the TouchPad while others flocked to then still young Android platform. All of this was met with mixed results but it all changed the PC market. And lest someone thinks I’m biased, there is also the fact Microsoft created the Surface brand (which must have caused all kinds of grief). There was, likely still is, animosity about the software vendor moving into their hardware domain. Some cite the Surface as the main reason OEMs went in on Chrome OS.

Despite the emergence of the Surface and devices running things other than Windows, PC makers still partner with Microsoft.

 Now having discussed a bit a background on first and third party hardware, what’s in it for you the buyer? With competition from Google and Apple along with the growth of mobile computing, Microsoft has had to make changes. For one thing, Redmond is now offering Windows and Windows Phone for free or reduced cost.

They also offer a discounted version of Windows (Windows with Bing) for zero dollars on laptops. Microsoft is also working with certain manufacturers on tablets and laptops in the $99-199 range, taking on low cost Android and Chrome devices. Specifically noted is the Toshiba Encore 7, a seven inch tablet going for $99. Hewlett-Packard is also getting into the game with the HP Stream; a 11 or 13 inch laptop costing $199. The Stream is interesting because it will include tablets and looks like it will be rebranded Android and Chrome devices. On the Microsoft side, indications are clear that the Surface and Lumia lines will be concept designs we can buy. I expect the Lumias will showcase imaging and the Surface line to be about covering new form factors and experiences.

So a nerd walks into the BestBuy….

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For the last two days I have had hands on with the Surface Pro 3. This is latest device from Microsoft’s nascent line of branded hardware. Up until now I have only seen videos and read the early reviews which were nice but aren’t substitutes for a nice test drive. Now this is a review, this is a hands on and even that is being generous. (At Staples the display unit kept buzzing as soon as you even touched it)
Now for background I was at a nearby Staples and a nearby BestBuy. The BestBuy had the TypeCover 3 for the Pro 3 attached, while Staples had the smaller TypeCover 2. Both had the redesigned Surface booths which honestly the devices need and they were also on (which is sometimes a gamble when going tech shopping). In addition to the device itself I also checked out the exclusive dark blue Cover which is exclusive to BestBuy.
The Device
As a product line Surface has always been nice. No the lineup doesn’t include hybrids, 2in1s, or even a pure laptop (because this would bring Ragnarok) but they are a lot nicer than most PC offerings. Now for those that aren’t following technology like the FIFA World Cup, the Surface Pro 3 is 12 inch tablet PC running an i5 Intel processor with a resolution of 2160×1440 (means it’s a nice screen).
Right of the bat this device is thin. I knew it was thin from reviews, but in person this thing is as thin as its ARM cousin the Surface 2. It’s a surprising feet given that this is an Intel based device. And its light, maybe not iPad Air light, but amazingly light for what its packing. In many ways the Pro 3 is more like the ARM based Surfaces than its predecessor the Pro 2.

Like the Surface 2, the Pro 3 has the expandable storage under the kickstand and is using the natural color of the VaporMG magnesium process. The Pro 3 has ventilation across the top of the device but it blends into the body well (the vents are or the Intel chip which needs cooling unlike ARM chips). If no one is going to give like a slow clap, standing ovation to the Surface team for this design, let me do it. This device reminds me why I think Microsoft should do laptops; I mean I this is what we get for tablets imagine a PC with this much attention given.

The Screen

Every Surface device has had a decent screen (including Surface RT you HATERS) and the Pro 3 continues this. While not as pixel dense because of the larger screen, both images and video are sharp. Now I played a video during both hands on the colors to my untrained eye were bright and true.

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The Surface Pro 3 now sports a 12 inch screen which I wish I had more time to use. In landscape, the extra real estate is liberating. You get to see more on the Start Screen and the desktop. In portrait the Pro 3 feels a bit more natural than the Pro/Pro2’s 10.6 screen which were 16:9 (think tall and narrow).

I would need to really live with a Pro 3 to have a better grasp though, but Microsoft deciding on the 3:2 screen ratio brings it closer to iPad which is I think has set the standard. One other thing about the screen that I like is the thinner bezel. A lot of tablets often have more bezel than screen; it makes them easier to hold but does take away form the visuals.

The Pro 3 has a nice balance between having the needed bezel but also having a decent amount of screen. It would be interesting to compare the screen to the Dell XPS 12 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 12.2, the other 12 inch tablets. For my money I like the Pro 3 because it’s a nice balance between screen, add-ons, and portability. The Samsung feels heavier even though its lighter and is using an ARM chip. The Dell is unwieldy because it’s a clamshell (laptop) with a swiveling screen and wasn’t designed to be terribly light.

The Pen

I tried the new Pen at both Staples and BestBuy. I do wish they had a better setup as BestBuy had the pen connected to the device where you could write with it. Neither had signed onto OneNote with the store setup account so demo fail there. I did use the pen with a Sudoku game and it worked well. As of right now writing with the Pen feels weird because of the rubberized tip (the Pro/Pro2 had plastic styluses which were solid). Again this is one of those things for which I’d want a longer hands on with.

The Kickstand

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One of the interesting things about Windows tablets has been observing how each OEM has handled designing them. Very few PC makers opted to make large, pure slates; most make hybrids (designed with attachable keyboards or laptops that fold backwards) or small ones.

Unlike their PC partners, Microsoft has offered the Surface lineup as pure tablets. However unlike other tablets the Surfaces come with an integrated kickstand. The Kickstand has over the 3years evolved from a one position mode with the Surface RT and Surface Pro to the resistive 150 degree hinge of the Pro 3. From my brief hands on the hinge offers enough resistance to stay in place and offers better viewing angles.

The Keyboard

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Keyboards are important to tablets. Whether some like it or not people will turn these keyboard less things into mini laptops come hell or high water. For the larger Pro model, Microsoft has released a new TypeCover. The new cover matches the screen size of the Pro 3 adds a second magnetic layer that connects the keyboard to the bottom of the screen. This lifts the keyboard up and gives you a new position.

The new TypeCover also comes with an improved touchpad. The touchpad isn’t much larger than the previous ones, but its responsive and feels a lot nicer than most other PC trackpads. The new cover’s keys are cramp but that’s sort of expected from something that serves as a screen cover. Typing on the new cover was as horrible as some reviews made it seem; but mileage varies.

The Covers come in five colors with BestBuy and Microsoft Stores both having exclusives. The BestBuy has a dark blue TypeCover which is nice (hint: I want) and seemed to be sold out. If you already own one of the previous covers you’ll be able to use it on the Surface Pro 3 (the Type 2 was attached to the Pro 3 model at Staples).

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All in all the Surface Pro 3 continues the Surface line’s growing reputation as some of the best Windows devices out.