Microsoft shows off its shiny new toys

Windows 8: Hero or loser?
Windows 8: Hero or loser?

You can't accuse Microsoft of being lazy: in the last few days it has given us Windows RT, Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, its own tablet, Windows Phone 8, Xbox Music, Office 2013 and a new Star Wars film. Okay, not the last one - that's going to be Disney - but the rest are all real.

The biggie, of course, is Windows 8, which Mary Branscombe has been poking with her special software screwdrivers. On the right hardware it's "sleek, fast and fun," she says, noting its better battery life, "huge" security improvements, improved performance and "great" touch UI.

The new interface won't delight everyone, however, and "Windows 8 shines most on a touchscreen system" - but "touchscreen or mouse, Windows 8 undeniably shines"; it's "a faster, more secure version of Windows with a better browser that has longer battery life... we defy you not to be impressed."

In addition to the full-fat Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro, Microsoft has also created Windows RT - a stripped-down, legacy-free version of Windows 8 for ARM-powered tablets. What does ARM's rival, Intel, make of it? Well, Intel says it's absolutely brilliant and you should definitely buy it. Only kidding! Intel says that the best Windows 8 experience is going to be on Intel systems. We know. We're shocked too.

Surface ups and downs

Microsoft created its own tablet, Surface, to show off Windows RT, and we're cautiously impressed by it: it's "a lovely piece of kit, beautifully crafted, packed full of innovation" and "a welcome alternative" to Androids and iPads. However, it's also "infuriatingly buggy, overly heavy and not half as intuitive as it would like to be."

With some irony, it seems that while Microsoft isn't traditionally a hardware company, Surface's problems are due to software, which is the bit Microsoft's supposed to be good at.

With relatively few apps and some less than rave reviews, it seems that Windows RT is off to a rocky start - so much so that Acer says it's holding off on its Windows RT plans until later next year. It's important to note that Acer has a dog in this fight, however: it was clearly furious when Microsoft announced the Surface in the first place, and it isn't too keen on having Microsoft as a hardware competitor.

Office 2013

Surface comes with a free copy of Office (Office RT, a home and student version that lacks Outlook), but business users will be more interested in Office 2013, which is now complete. You can't buy it for a few more months - its release date is early 2013 - but with four and a half stars out of five, it's worth waiting for. It's "a big advance in usability, combined with some extremely clever new tools", and if you plump for the subscription version "you will keep getting more options".

Every Windows 8 and Windows RT device will have access to Xbox Music, Microsoft's music service, which offers free streaming music, subscriptions and pay-per-download tunes. It's good, and it could be a Spotify killer: "Xbox Music raises the stakes with a catalogue that's nearly twice the size, free streaming for Windows 8 users... [it's] a no-brainer if you have Windows 8, RT or Windows Phone 8."

Windows Phone 8

Did someone mention Windows Phone 8? The phone OS codenamed Apollo is ready to roll, and the first Windows 8 Phone, the HTC 8X, goes on sale today (2nd November). One of our favourite new features is Kid's Corner, which enables you to give the kids access to your phone without also giving them access to your apps, work email or Microsoft Store account.

There's an improved Start screen, SD card storage, better security, speech recognition, improved graphics and audio capabilities and VOIP (voice over IP) calling, and the new Microsoft wallet enables you to pay for things in shops by waving your phone around.

Windows Phone 8 will run existing Windows Phone 7 apps (but not vice-versa) and as Windows 8 shares significant code with Windows 8 on PCs and tablets, developers should find making new apps much easier.

However, while Windows Phone 7 users won't be able to upgrade to the new OS, the Windows Phone 7.8 update brings the new interface and Wi-Fi tethering to existing devices. The update is expected within four to six weeks.

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