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    In Brief: Satya Nadella on the Future of Microsoft

    At the first re/code Code Conference (which is basically the rebranding of the All Things D Conference), Walk Mossberg and Kara Swisher grilled Microsoft CEO about the path of the software company and how he plans to make Microsoft competitive against the likes of Apple, Google, and Facebook. Nadella, who has been frank about the company's missteps (while championing its successes), lamented Microsoft's inability to capitalize on the rise on tablets and mobile devices. Nadella talked about the need for Microsoft to build apps and platforms that are not device-specific, which is why the touch-capable version of Office was released on iPad first, and has still yet to make it to Windows. It won't be the last time Microsoft launches products on other hardware platforms first, either. As for Surface, Nadella called the latest version "promising," which was an acknowledgement that the product line is not a hit--yet. The tone of the conversation was largely defensive, but Nadella did use his time on stage to announce a new product: real-time translated conversations in Skype. The explicit references to Star Trek make it clear--Microsoft sees more value in competing with Google in cloud services than just with Apple on hardware platforms. Bing, Cortana, and moonshots--it's all about Microsoft being less risk-averse and trying to build the next "big thing."

    Norman
    Microsoft Announces Surface Pro 3

    Only eight months have passed since Microsoft announced the second-generation Surface devices, and Panos Panay once again took the stage at a press conference in New York to unveil a Surface Pro refresh. This time the differences and upgrades feel a little more meaningful, or at least more focused for Surface's intended users (students and professionals). Surface Pro 3 was the only new product announced today, and it's not just a spec bump from the Pro 2. This is still Microsoft's laptop replacement--an x86 device (running Windows 8.1 Pro, natch) meant to compete with Apple's MacBook Air. To that end, its LCD screen is now bumped up to 12 inches, with a 3:2 aspect ratio and a native resolution of 2160x1440. That's a pretty significant bump from the 10-inch 1080p screen of the previous Surface Pros, with the change in aspect ratio the most meaningful difference for multi-window and portrait orientation use. The capacitive Windows Start button is now moved to the short edge as well to encourage portrait orientation when used without a keyboard.

    Speaking of the keyboard, Microsoft has also updated the Type Cover with magnets so it can stick to the screen when, you know, used as a cover. It also has a larger trackpad. The Surface kickstand gets not just one new angle, but is now "continuous", meaning it can stay rigid at many more angles--the example Microsoft gave was a "canvas" mode for drawing. It's reminiscent of the flexibility of Lenovo's Yoga laptop, but hopefully with more stability at low-angled orientations. What will also help is the weight of the Surface Pro 3, now reduced to 800 grams (1.76 pounds) without any accessories. Decidedly a two-handed device, if used as a tablet. Battery life is pegged at 9 hours for web browsing, according to Microsoft.

    This Surface Pro still includes a pressure sensitive digitizer pen, as well as a USB 3.0 port and microSD slot. Microsoft also chose to stick with Intel's 4th-gen mobile Haswell chips, with the Core i5 model being the Core i5 4300U processor with HD4400 graphics. The entry-level Surface Pro 3 will run on the Core i3 processor (as yet unspecified), which allows Microsoft to set the base price to an attractive $800. My guess is that this was a last-minute decision to respond to Apple's MacBook Air price slashing earlier this month, and would recommend that you look closely at the specs. The $800 Surface Pro 3 has 64GB of storage and 4GB of memory, with the 128GB SSD model bumping the price to $1000. People who are going to use the Surface Pro 3 as their primary computer will likely want the Core i5 model with 256GB of storage and 8GB of RAM--which starts at $1300. Ad is the new Type Cover ($130) and that's $1430 for a well-spec'ed system before tax. That's the one I would get if I was in the market for a Surface Pro 3 as my daily carry.

    Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 goes on sale tomorrow online and at Microsoft stores. We're most interested with what users can get with the starting price of $800, and will likely be testing that model. Clarification: Pre-orders for the new Surface begin May 21, and only the i5 models will start shipping on June 20th. The other configurations, including the $800 i3 model, will ship in August.

    In Brief: Start Menu returns to Windows 8, Cortana Is Real

    During the epic three-hour keynote presentation at BUILD, Microsoft's annual developer conference, the company highlighted a handful of tidbits that will be of interest to normal users, in addition to the developers in the audience. The biggest announcement highlighted updates to Windows 8.1, which leaked earlier this year. The update will be available on April 8th, and will feature better integration between traditional desktop apps and Modern-style apps that were introduced with Windows 8. You'll be able to run Modern apps in a window on the Desktop, they'll shop up in the taskbar, and you'll be able to minimize and maximize them. I haven't been able to confirm details, but it also sounded like traditional desktop apps would be available for purchase and download in the Windows Store. Also, later this year Microsoft will quietly bring the Start Menu back to Windows 8.1.

    Microsoft also demoed Cortana, which is Windows Phone's answer to Siri and Google Now's voice search. While the extended on-stage demo was repeatedly plagued by flubbed recognition, it appears to fall somewhere between Siri and Google Now in terms of functionality. With APIs for third party apps to tie in and more granular support for personalized information (your inner circle, your interests, etc) than either Google or Apple give right now, Cortana could offer unique benefits for Windows Phone 8.1 users if it works better than it did on stage at BUILD. We won't really know how it fares in the real world until we have phones with our info on them to test, but I'll have a chance to spend some time with Cortana later this week.

    Will 8
    The Best Budget Laptop Today

    If I had to buy a Windows laptop for $600 or less, I'd get the ~$550 configuration of the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 14 or something very similar. But first I'd think long and hard about whether I needed a full-sized Windows laptop at all.

    Who Should(n’t) Buy This?

    If you have regular access to a full Windows or Mac computer and want a secondary machine for web browsing, email, and basic document editing (i.e. something more than a tablet but less than a full-sized Windows computer), don’t buy a $600 Windows laptop as your secondary machine. Consider a $250 Chromebook or a $400 Windows convertible tablet instead. Neither can do quite as much as a full Windows laptop, but they often give a better experience in the things they do than a more expensive general-use machine.

    But if you do need a real computer—if this is your primary, do-everything computer—and you need the best all-around thing you can get for under $600, you should get something like the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 14.

    Our Pick

    We like the $550 configuration of the Lenovo IdeaPad Flex 14 (listed on Lenovo’s site as the “Flex14-59393810“). It’s not perfect, but for its price it hits “pretty good” levels in a lot of important areas while managing to avoid deal-breaking flaws. It is powerful enough for day-to-day tasks, portable enough to bring with you without breaking your back, and has enough battery power to last all day. It also has a hinge that bends back around 300 degrees, just in case you wanted to use it like that.

    Tested In-Depth: Microsoft Surface 2 Review

    Microsoft's second generation Surface is faster, more capable, and has a much better screen than last year's model. We sit down and discuss what's changed on the hardware and software sides and whether the improvements are enough to make this a competitive tablet.

    Testing: Microsoft Surface 2 as Tablet

    If you were to show a random person on the street Microsoft's Surface 2 and ask them what kind of computing device it is, their likely answer would be a tablet. And that wouldn't be wrong--Surface 2 is a one and half pound slab of metal with a glass touchscreen taking up the entire face of one side. But Microsoft would want that person to think of Surface 2 as more than just a tablet--at least in the iPad sense--and imbue it with the qualities people typically associate with a laptop. Slap on a Touch of Type Cover, and you've got some productivity capabilities. Like other Windows 8-based convertibles like Lenovo's Yoga, Asus's Transformer T100, or even Microsoft's Surface Pro 2, Surface 2 leads dual identities. But unlike those computers with x86 processors and run Windows 8 Pro, Surface 2 should be thought of as tablet first, laptop second--not the other way around.

    Last week I wrote about the Surface 2's capabilities as a laptop alternative (it's better than a ChromeBook, much more limited than an Ultrabook) so today we're going to discuss the experience of using it as purely a tablet. That means using it without the keyboard cover attachment and primarily for content consumption. It means using it in a mostly lean-back positions, like on the couch or in bed. (And a few lean-forward scenarios, like, yes, in the bathroom.) It also meant thinking about what most tablets mostly are good for, when not used as replacements for desktop or laptop computers. For the purposes of my testing, I focused on web browsing, e-book reading, watching video, listening to music, and staying on top of social media. Let's start with the all-important web browsing.

    Testing: Microsoft Surface 2 as a Laptop

    It's no secret that we weren't fans of Microsoft's first generation Surface RT. Not many people were. As a weird tablet-laptop hybrid, it didn't excel at being either type of device; as a platform to showcase Microsoft's then just-released Windows 8, it called more attention to the dearth of useful apps available on that ecosystem. And one year later, everyone's learned a little bit from the great Surface RT experiment. OEM partners have all but abandoned the ARM version of Windows (bless Nokia), consumers are much more aware of what they're getting into with the big three tablet OSes, and Microsoft is more determined than ever to prove that Surface is a viable computing concept.

    We've already gone into detail about the technical differences between this year's Surface models, and I've been using the Surface 2 as a secondary computer for the past week. In testing the Surface 2 (Microsoft has not yet sent us a Surface Pro 2), I approached it from two logical perspectives: how well it works as a tablet and how well it works as laptop alternative. Those two use cases have different design and hardware requirements, some of which are complimentary, and some we know to be mutually exclusive. A touchscreen suits both scenarios, for example, but a keyboard does not. Today, I'm going to go over my experience with the Surface 2 when used as a laptop alternative.

    That means starting off with the biggest design change in Surface 2--the addition of a 40-degree angle to its unique kickstand.

    Surface Pro 2 and Windows Battery Life with Haswell

    Programmer Jeff Atwood, who runs the blog Coding Horror, has a loaded question to ask about Windows and Microsoft's new Surface Pro 2 tablet. It's also an important question: "Why does Windows have terrible battery life?" Before getting around to the why, it's worth confirming that Windows actually has terrible battery life. Does it? After all, Intel has been pushing for 10+ hour battery life from every system wearing the Ultrabook name, and Haswell chips just dramatically cut power draw compared to last year's Ivy Bridge processors. Things should be looking pretty good for Windows right now.

    In the grand scheme of mobile technology, Windows battery life is terrible. Atwood's claim draws heavily on extensive testing performed by Anandtech, and that testing shows the Surface Pro 2 lagging far behind virtually every other tablet in battery life. With 6.8 hours of battery life, the only tablet it beat was the first-gen Surface Pro, which got only 4.7 hours.

    In a way, comparing the Surface Pro 2 to the iPad or a Samsung tablet is unfair. It's a fully-powered x86 machine in tablet form, running much more powerful hardware than a more power efficient ARM chip. But the discrepancy remains. The iPad 4 gets nearly 10 hours of battery life. The Nexus 7 passes 12. The Nvidia Shield hits 13.5.

    Even if you accept that the Surface Pro 2 is more laptop than tablet, its battery life isn't much to write home about. Then Atwood compares the Surface Pro 2 to Apple's 2013 MacBook Airs, with more data from the 11-inch and 13-inch models courtesy of Anandtech. They achieved over 11 and 14 hours of runtime, respectively.

    "Let's see how the 2013 MacBook Air does, which spec-wise is about as close as we can get to the Surface Pro 2," Atwood writes. "The screen is somewhat lower resolution and not touch capable, of course, but under the hood, the i5-4200u CPU and LPDDR3 RAM are nearly the same. It's a real computer, too, using the latest Intel technology.

    Image via Anandtech.

    "The Surface Pro 2 has a 42 Wh battery, which puts it closer to the 11 inch Air in capacity. Still, over 11 hours of battery life browsing the web on WiFi? That means the Air is somehow producing nearly two times the battery efficiency of the best hardware and software combination Microsoft can muster, for what I consider to be the most common usage pattern on a computer today. That's shocking. Scandalous, even."

    Anandtech wasn't alone in finding the Surface Pro 2's battery life relatively lackluster. Under heavy usage, Gizmodo found that the tablet performed little better than the first Surface Pro:

    "We were able to squeeze three and a half hours of generating internet for Gizmodo dot com out of a single charge, juggling some 10-15 open Chrome tabs and pushing video out to an additional monitor. This is almost the same as we got out of the original Surface Pro, which is a little odd considering Intel's Haswell is such a battery saving monster. Likewise, the Pro 2 performed almost identically to the Pro in a 10-hour YouTube video test, giving up at just over two and a half hours, despite fairing better in situations that seem like they should be more intense."

    But this makes sense. Haswell's strength lies in its idle power usage, and constantly running video, a dozen Internet tabs, and outputting to a secondary display is not going to show off battery longevity. This doesn't seem like a problem with Windows battery life. Other tests tell a different story.

    Nokia Announces $499 Lumia 2520 Windows RT Tablet

    Nokia's finally done it. They've taken the taken the trend of larger and larger smartphone screens and seen it through to the very end, making a 10.1-inch Windows device called the Lumia 2520. Technically, it's a tablet, running Windows RT, but you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a really, really big smartphone. The Lumia 2520 sticks to the design Nokia has used in most of its devices over the past few years, with a colorful, rounded polycarbonate shell and a strong black bezel around its screen. Nokia's first Windows RT tablet even has a built-in LTE radio for mobile data. In other words, if you wanted to use it as a 10.1-inch VOIP phone, it wouldn't be too tough.

    Nokia unveiled the Lumia 2520 at Nokia World on Tuesday, and the new tablet bears some similarities to Microsoft's own Windows RT device, the Surface 2. Instead of Nvidia's Tegra 4, the Lumia runs on Qualcomm's quad-core 2.2GHz Snapdragon 800. Both tablets use 1080p displays, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage, and offer microSD slots for expandability. The Lumia 2520 is a touch lighter at 1.35 pounds, compared to the Surface 2's near-1.5 pounds.

    With cameras, there's a small trade-off. The Lumia 2520 has a 6.7 megapixel camera around the back, with a 1.9 aperture and Carl Zeiss lens. On the front, it has a simple 2 megapixel webcam. The Surface 2's webcam is 3 megapixels, but it's rear-facing camera is only 5 megapixels, and without the lens quality Nokia is known for in its mobile devices.

    According to The Verge, Nokia's 1080p display looks fantastic, and navigating Windows 8.1 on the device is snappy as can be. They also tested out the Lumia 2520's keyboard cover--the device isn't compatible with Microsoft's Surface covers--which folds up into something resembling a leather binder. Unfolded, the case gives the Nokia tablet a kickstand to sit upright and a physical scissor keyboard and trackpad for laptop emulation. The backside of the cover even has two full-size USB ports for docking.

    Nokia's keyboard cover even includes an extra battery, which Nokia says will add about five hours of juice to the tablet's existing 8000mAh, 11 hour runtime. No word on an exact release date for the $499 tablet, but Nokia plans on releasing first in the US, UK, and Finland.

    Our Favorite Keyboard Shortcuts

    The Keyboard and Mouse make for a great team, but productivity is sometimes best when you don't have to switch from one to the other every few minutes. Here are the keyboard shortcuts for Windows, Mac OS, web browsing, and even watching YouTube that we use regularly, distilled in picture form. What are some of your favorite keyboard shortcuts?

    Surface Strategy: A Conversation with Microsoft's Panos Panay

    Last night, at the Microsoft store in San Francisco's Westfield Shopping Center, Microsoft's Panos Panay held a meet and greet to show off the company's upcoming Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 devices. For about an hour, Panay talked about and showed off the tablets to Microsoft store employees and attendees, answering questions and giving away goodies to the crowd. Beginning in Seattle and making his way back to New York--where Surface 2 was announced--Panay is stopping by Microsoft stores around the country to personally spread the word about the new computers, a two week tour accompanied by Surface engineers leading up to the October 22nd product launch.

    But to hear Panay describe the trip, it's not a tour, at least not in the same sense as a band going on a cross country victory lap after the release of a new album. The point of these visits is to meet Surface owners face to face, both to answer their questions and address their concerns. It's not about making himself a visible champion for Surface--which as its creator he certainly has been--but to be more transparent about the development and goal of the products. And it's in that spirit on transparency that we were granted a half hour conversation with Panay to talk about all things Surface.

    A little bit of Inside Baseball before we dive into the specifics of the chat. Having an on-record interview with anyone representing a product or company is not like having a normal conversation. Product reps are well media-trained; they are very aware of what they can and won't talk about when it comes to current and future products. There's not much reason to straight-up ask questions for answers we're never going to get. Case in point, tech sites made a big deal on Monday about Panay's fielding of a question about smaller Surface tablets. And his response--that his team are thinking about and are working on different size Surface models--isn't particularly insightful or revealing. Of course Microsoft is exploring different Surface sizes, and of course they're aware of Intel's Bay Trail and other available hardware when they're already working on the next three generations of Surface. When I asked about potential collaborations with future Microsoft family member Nokia, it was no surprise that Panay would only say that he's excited by the opportunity.

    Product reps--especially Corporate Vice Presidents of Microsoft--are going to be on message no matter what you ask them. (One fun thing to notice--how long can someone talk about a competitor's product without mentioning its name. With Panay, iPads and Android were named only 20 minutes in.)

    So what's the point of this kind of interview? This wasn't a product briefing--we got that back when attended the Surface 2 announcement event in New York. We know about the hardware specs and new accessories and didn't need that demoed to us. There was also no point in grilling Panay about the critical reception and disappointing sales of the first Surface. This isn't an interrogation, after all, and it's not like Microsoft isn't well aware of the uphill battle facing Surface in the marketplace.

    We didn't set out to get Panay to unearth any Microsoft secrets or get any admission of failure. What I wanted to do was get a better understanding of how Surface's designers see their products strengths and weaknesses, how they view the tablet and computing landscape, and how their strategy for competing in that market is reflected in the devices they have on hand. It'll be up to users to decide with their wallets whether that's the right strategy. And to Panay's credit, he was frank about almost everything we asked about.

    Microsoft Doubles Down On Surface Tablet Strategy

    They're really sticking with this thing, huh. That's the prevailing thought that ran through my mind during Microsoft's Surface 2 announcement event yesterday morning in New York. Even though many of the hardware details had already been leaked well ahead of the briefing on Redmond trackers like Paul Thurrott's WinSuperSite, I had hoped for a surprise or two. Maybe a different form-factor. Maybe a more sturdy keyboard cover design. But nope, what we got was Microsoft staying the course with its Surface hardware lineup. Two tablets, one running Windows RT and one running Windows 8.1 Pro. Both still sporting 10.6-inch displays. And both still almost exactly the same size and form-factor as the existing models.

    There are notable hardware improvements, to be sure, but the paradigm of large productivity tablets that can be used as pseudo laptops remains the same. These were products in development before the launch of the first Surface last October, Surface lead Panos Panay tells us. This is part of a multi-year roadmap in which his team is already designing the next three generations of Surface, we're reassured. So even though the tablet business cost Microsoft $900 million last year in unsold hardware, Surface is to stay. Devices and services, the Microsoft way.

    So let's go over what was announced yesterday--including all the hardware details that weren't explicitly mentioned on stage. Let's talk Surface as a strategy, what challenges it still faces, and why the biggest hurdle to Surface adoption isn't hardware--it's Windows RT.

    Hands-On with the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro

    I've had an up and down relationship with Lenovo's Yoga line of laptops since I first saw them over a year and a half ago now at CES 2012. Back then, I was enamored by the Yoga's unique bendy form-factor, and was frankly still pretty optimistic (naive?) about the potential of Windows 8. Then the Yoga came out at the end of the year, and while I really liked my time with it, it became clear that you couldn't think of it as a laptop-tablet hybrid, but more of a laptop with a keyboard that doubles as a stand. Trying to use the 13-inch Yoga like a tablet didn't work well--it was too heavy and bulky for the tasks that tablets are good at. The same applied even to smaller Yoga 11S, which I again liked a lot but couldn't get past its unfortunate use of the Ivy Bridge chipset and its dim screen. The unfortunate timing of the Yoga 11S (which I write about in-depth here) made it difficult to recommend without pause, especially since a Haswell refresh was likely impending. I've never felt so conflicted about a laptop.

    Well the Haswell Yoga is finally announced, and Lenovo is once again sticking with its 2012 launch strategy of releasing the 13-inch model first before any other formfactors. I got a chance to check out the new Yoga 2 Pro at a briefing a month ago and compare it to last year's Yoga. And once again, I walked out of that meeting feeling optimistic, though after thinking about it for a while, am once again left with mixed feelings.

    Let's start with what's stayed the same between generations. Like last year's Yoga 13, the new Yoga 2 Pro is a 13-inch laptop running Windows 8 that can bend its screen a full 360 degrees so that it can be used in different "poses." These include a traditional laptop orientation, propped up like a tent (as in the photo above), the keyboard flush on a table as a stand, or flattened to simulate a (thick) tablet. Of those positions, the laptop and stand ones are the most useful for normal users, especially on airplane rides or anywhere with cramped table space. The Yoga 2 Pro will also come in the same fetching Clementine orange as the Yoga 13, and its starting price stays at a reasonable $1100. But those are basically the only things that have stayed the same. Almost every other attribute about the Yoga 13 has been improved in the Yoga 2 Pro--at least on paper.

    This new Yoga is half a pound lighter than last year's model at 3.06 pounds. It's thinner too with a maximum thickness of .61 inches (15.5mm). I say maximum thickness because unlike last year's Yoga, this year's model is slightly angled so the thickest point is at the rear of the chassis. Its edges are also slightly more tapered than the Yoga 13. These little details add up to make it feel less bulky when folded up and carried around. Not quite as thin and light as the MacBook Air 13, but getting there. Another truly welcome change do to the new angled shape--the placement of the power button on the right side of the laptop as opposed to the front lip, which was awkward to get to.

    And the keyboard gets a backlight. Sweet.

    Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro on top of last year's Yoga 13

    But let's get to the spec that everyone seems to be clamoring about, and that's the new 3200x1800 resolution panel. When Lenovo's reps told me this unexpected detail at our briefing, you could tell that they were bracing for my eyes to widen in surprise. Have to confess that I didn't disappoint. 3200x1800 (276 PPI at 13.3-inches) is an insane resolution for a laptop, especially when 30-inch desktop monitors still top out at 2560x1600. This immediately positions the Yoga 2 Pro as a competitor to Apple's MacBook Pro Retina (2560x1600 panel) as opposed to the popular MacBook Air 13. But my shock has given way to a bit of cautious skepticism, and I now have three questions: Do laptops really need that kind of screen? Is Windows 8.1 scaling adequate enough to make that resolution actually usable? And is the hardware inside the Yoga 2 Pro powerful enough to drive that panel at graphics-intensive tasks? I can't confidently answer yes to any of them.

    Microsoft and Nokia: Cui Bono

    Microsoft is going to buy Nokia's entire smartphones business for $7 billion. It's the biggest piece of tech news on a day that's already packed full of surprise announcements from Google, Amazon, and even Apple. But you know this already, whether it was through Twitter, Facebook, or every single technology blog and news site. You didn't need us to report on it too. But that doesn't mean we don't have anything to say about it--believe me, we'll have plenty to say on this week's podcast. I've been thinking about Microsoft and Nokia all day, reading and digesting all the facts, speculation, and analysis from some pretty smart people. And the question that everyone seems to be trying to answer, despite Microsoft addressing it directly in a PowerPoint (natch) presentation, is "why?" But maybe the more important question, which I'm still wrapping my head around, is "who benefits?" Let's go through all the parties involved and evaluate what they have to gain from this acquisition.

    Nokia: The Finnish handset maker seems like the big winner here. At least if you're looking at its short term market value. Nokia's stock jumped almost 40% in value after the announcement, though at closing yesterday it is still only worth one tenth of its value a decade ago. And despite the "Microsoft Buys Nokia" headlines, Nokia is still a separate entity--minus a smartphone business--that holds onto ownership of its patent portfolio. According to Reuters, this allows the remainder of Nokia to keep receiving royalty payments from Apple and to go after Android OEMs for patent royalties as well.

    Another piece of speculation is that Nokia forced the deal, given that its Windows Phones were not selling as well as hoped, despite holding some 85% of that market and making good hardware. Ben Thompsom writes that Nokia was on the path to bankruptcy or switching to another mobile OS, like Android. That would have put Microsoft in a position where it had no choice but to salvage Nokia sinking ship or be left on its own without any serious Windows Phone OEMs. At least this way, both Microsoft and the Lumia phones are both on the same ship, staying afloat for now. It's just not a very crowded ship.

    Stephen Elop: The Trojan Horse reasoning for Stephen Elop taking the helm at Nokia three years rings louder today than ever before, especially with the timing of Steve Ballmer's retirement announcement just two weeks ago. Elop was at Microsoft for three years before Nokia, embedded in the Microsoft way while running the Office business division, and honed his leadership and hardware chops launching good phones at Nokia. He returns to Microsoft (and Redmond, where his family never left) as an Executive Vice President of Devices and Services. Going from CEO to EVP may sound like a demotion, but it places Elop as the most visible and bookie-favorite candidate for becoming Microsoft's next CEO. In an interview yesterday, Ballmer only commented that Elop was now an internal candidate for the board instead of an external one. Trojan Horse or not, Elop has put himself in a good--though not necessarily enviable--position with this deal.

    Steve Ballmer: What's Ballmer's stake in this? His position at Microsoft is in lame duck territory, with the clock ticking down until all eyes become fixated on Microsoft's next CEO. But it's likely that the Nokia deal was in talks and in motion before Ballmer's decision to retire--acquiring a multi-billion dollar handset business not only is in alignment with Ballmer's "Devices and Services" strategy, but locks down the rudder on Microsoft's direction for the foreseeable future. Legacy is what's at stake here, which is a big deal for business-minded billionaires. And as of right now, that legacy is another b-word: a blunder.

    Tested In-Depth: Leap Motion Controller

    Will and Norm test the Leap Motion, a small USB device that sits on your desk that can sense hand motions and gestures with a claimed precision of 0.01mm. We explain how the controller works, show what you can do with it in games and Windows, and discuss whether desktop computers need gesture controls.

    Forced Retirement For Ballmer?

    Was Ballmer's retirement announcement the planned smooth transition he and Microsoft claimed? All Things D is reporting that Microsoft's board, including Bill Gates, agreed that it would be better for him to pull the retirement ripcord earlier than initially planned.

    Will
    Microsoft Demos 3D Printing in Windows 8.1

    How about another 3D printing time-lapse for this Friday? In this video, Microsoft's Gavin Gear gives a light demo of how 3D printing support is integrated into Window 8.1, using a 3D Systems Cube 2 printer and the Windows 8.1 Preview build. 3D printing in Windows is built on the same print infrastructure as traditional 2D printing, using Microsoft's new 3MF file format. In the demo, a model designed in Solidworks is sent to the printer using a standard print dialog menu, with options to change "quality", print model density, add supports, and add a base raft. (The three print quality settings are pretty nebulous, and Microsoft doesn't show what's under the "more settings" dialog.) Those settings are processed and bundled with the model mesh review in the XML-based 3MF format, which supported printers will be able to read. MakerBot's Replicator and 3D Systems' Cube are so far the only announced printers that Windows 8.1 will support. Read more about 3D printing integration in Windows here.

    Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer to Retire within 12 Months

    After 13 years at the helm of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer is retiring. The Microsoft CEO announced that within the next year, he will leave the company he has worked at for 33 years after a successor is found. This news comes just over one year after the launch of Windows 8, the departure of Windows lead Steve Sinofsky, and a major company reorganization last month. Here's who Microsoft-watcher Mary Jo Foley thinks is on the short list for the next head of Microsoft. (No it won't be Elon Musk, Marissa Mayer, or Ben Affleck.)

    Norman 2
    Samsung Puts 3200x1800 Display in $1400 Haswell Ultrabook

    Samsung has a new laptop on the way, and it's taking aim squarely at Apple's Retina MacBook Pro. Or the MacBook Air. It's actually hard to tell--the 13-inch Ativ Book 9 Plus adds a 3200x1800 pixel display to what is otherwise a fairly standard Ultrabook, although, at $1400, it's a bit on the pricey side for Intel's thin-and-light laptop series.

    The Ativ Book 9 Plus measures only 0.54 inches thick, nearly a quarter of an inch thinner than Apple's 13-inch Retina MacBook, and weighs in at 3 pounds. Both laptops start with 128GB of solid state storage. But that's about where the similarities end. Instead of a full-voltage processor like the Pro, the Ativ is running on a Haswell ULV processor. It packs 4GB of RAM to start, as opposed to 8GB. And instead of the higher performance Intel HD Graphics 5000 found on the new Haswell-model Air, Ativ will ship with Intel HD Graphics 4400.

    The laptop ends up in a bit of a middle ground between Apple's 13-inch systems--$100 cheaper than the more powerful Pro, but $300 more expensive than the starting point for the Air.

    Those integrated graphics may struggle to run anything intensive on such a high resolution display. Battery life, too, will take a hit, though Haswell's low power usage will help offset that. Samsung claims 7.5 hours of battery life, though The Verge notes they were promising 12 hours back in June.

    The Ativ Book 9 Plus is, of course, running Windows 8, and supports capacitive touch. With few Haswell Ultrabooks actually available to purchase, the Ativ doesn't have too much competition from the PC field. It stacks up fairly well against Sony's 1080p Vaio Pro, released just a few weeks ago, but it's also $150 more expensive in its base configuration. 3200x1800 pixel displays don't come cheap.

    Samsung's putting the laptop up for pre-orders on August 18, with no word of when, exactly, it's being released.