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7 Days: A week of Surface speculation, Windows 10 wonders, and Google's "timely content"

7 Days is a weekly roundup of the Editors' picks of what's been happening in the world of technology - written with a dash of humor, a hint of exasperation, and an endless supply of (Irish) coffee.

It’s been another exciting week across the tech world, with no end of exciting news keeping us on our toes. But if you’ve struggled to keep with it all, fear not, for 7 Days is here once more with a handy walkthrough of the week’s top tech news.

"Laser beam"

Our journey begins this week on a beam of light, as researchers at the University of Michigan revealed significant progress in development efforts for “lightwave” computers, relying on ultra-fast laser impulses to get electrons firing at incredible speeds. Their discoveries could pave the way towards creating quantum computing devices.

Amazon announced that it’s bringing support for its Alexa digital assistant to iPhones – but oddly, not in the Alexa app. Instead, the functionality is being added to the Amazon app on iOS devices.

On Thursday, Apple released the seventh betas of iOS 10.3 and macOS 10.12.4 Sierra, both for developers, and testers on its Public Beta program.

A passenger on a flight to Melbourne, Australia suffered injuries when her wireless headphones ‘exploded’ on board. The incident raised fresh concerns over battery-powered consumer devices on airliners, following the ban on Samsung’s Galaxy Note7 on flights last year.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk spoke with Australia's Prime Minister, offering energy storage solutions and reliable supplies to solve recent electricity shortage issues that left 40,000 people without power in South Australia. But domestic energy suppliers criticized the government for even considering Musk’s offer, calling for a “transparent bid process” and a level playing field to give Australian companies “a fair go”.

Over in the UK, telecommunications giant BT agreed to spin off its Openreach network division into a separate company that will provide rivals with access to its domestic network. Rivals such as Virgin Media mocked the move, claiming that it will make little difference to BT’s competitors and to UK customers, as Openreach will continue to offer “the same old snail’s paced network with a new shell”.

In Russia, Apple was found guilty of price-fixing after regulators determined that it was compelling companies to sell many of its iPhones at a minimum retail price, stifling competition in the domestic market.

Several Russians were among those alleged to have been involved in major digital attacks against Yahoo, which compromised hundreds of millions of user accounts.

Image: Getty Images for Visa

Visa is considering launching - or at least supporting - wearable devices with support for mobile payments – but rather than going down the ‘typical’ route of wristbands, it’s instead trialling sunglasses with NFC support.

On Friday, Qualcomm announced that its processors will now be known as ‘platforms’, and that it's ditching the Snapdragon branding from its current Snapdragon 200-series chips, which will now be branded under the ‘Qualcomm Mobile’ moniker.

Meanwhile, rival chipmaker Intel stunned the markets by announcing its $15.3 billion acquisition of Mobileye, an Israeli company that focuses on developing technology for autonomous vehicles. The purchase is a hugely significant move for Intel, giving it a huge boost in the technology behind self-driving cars.

Intel was also a key partner in the launch of Tag Heuer’s new Connected Modular 45 smartwatch, an Android Wear 2.0 device with a diverse ecosystem of modular accessories. Promising more than a day of power, along with water resistance, the new device also comes with a hefty price tag: you’ll need to hand over $1,600 to own one.

Google has developed a new system to replace the infuriating CAPTCHA tool, which features on many websites that demand that you prove that you’re “not a robot”. The "invisible reCAPTCHA" system works in the background and uses magic and witchcraft "an advanced risk analysis engine" to determine that real humans are accessing websites.

Meanwhile, the latest version of Chrome’s web browser brings massive improvements in power usage for PCs, as well as introducing a new offline reading mode to iOS.

Google also updated its Gmail app on Android allowing users to send and request money, just as easily as sharing an attachment. Impressively, the company says that the feature is "completely free" for both senders and recipients.

Sony’s new ultra-thin Android TV, the Bravia OLED 4K HDR TV, finally got a launch date and official price tag this week – but you’ll need to be earning some serious dough to be able to afford one.

Samsung also announced details of its new QLED TVs this week, featuring ‘Quantum Dot’ technology, with the 55-inch models starting at almost half the price of Sony’s 55-inch OLED TVs.

Those who pre-order LG’s impressive new G6 flagship in the United States will get a free Google Home speaker hub worth $129.99 with the device. T-Mobile will be offering the new phone in the US, and announced its pricing this week.

Google Home is powered by the Google Assistant – but it hasn’t been a great month for the digital assistant so far. After spewing loony conspiracy theories last week, Google Assistant unexpectedly threw in ads for Disney’s new Beauty and the Beast movie a few days ago. However, Google later insisted that the ads weren’t ads at all, but rather “timely content”.

And after announcing wider availability of the Assistant on Android 6.0 Marshmallow and 7.0 Nougat devices last month, Google confirmed this week that it won’t be supported on any Android tablets.

Nougat is currently installed on just 2.8% of active Android devices. Google is believed to be planning to release the newest version of the OS, Android 7.1.2, on April 3 – but for now, its long, slow rollout continues to more handsets:

Earlier this month, Google released its latest monthly Android security updates. Some manufacturers have begun distributing the March patches quickly – but others have not:

The need for timely security updates was highlighted again this week with yet more Android malware having been discovered. Disturbingly, security researchers at Check Point found that malware had been pre-installed on 38 devices, including some from major manufacturers such as ZTE, Samsung, Lenovo, Xiaomi and ASUS.

Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and S8+ will be unveiled later this month, but there may not be much left for the company to announce by then. More details on the new flagships emerged this week:

Pricing of the new Galaxy Tab S3 was also revealed this week in the UK and US – but the new high-end tablet, which has a Snapdragon 820 chip – won’t come cheap.

Also in the UK, Sony’s Xperia XZ Premium, which it unveiled at Mobile World Congress last month, has been priced at £649.

After increasing the price of its Windows 10 Mobile flagship in the UK by 7% last week, HP is hoping to tempt people to buy the Elite x3 and Desk Dock by offering them up to £500 to trade in their existing handsets. Unfortunately, owners of Microsoft’s Windows 10 Mobile flagships will only get £125 for their devices.

Meanwhile, Microsoft cut the price of the Elite x3 and Desk Dock this week… by 2.4%. Can’t see that making a big difference in boosting sales.

Sales of Windows phones have plummeted over the last two years. Industry analysts Kantar Worldpanel wrote off Microsoft’s mobile OS this week, declaring that there’s no hope for a comeback, and that we’re now living in a “two-OS world” as far as the mobile industry goes.

Microsoft gave in to that reality a long time ago, bringing more of its software to rival platforms in recent years. It’s made huge improvements to its Arrow Launcher for Android devices over the last few months, adding new support for Android tablets this week.

There’s now less than a month until Microsoft ends support for Windows Vista, including security updates.

Microsoft has also apparently begun blocking software updates for older versions of Windows running on the newest hardware. Some Windows 7 and 8.1 updates aren’t being offered to PCs running Intel’s latest Kaby Lake (7th-generation) Core processors, along with other new-gen chips, as Microsoft is trying to force encourage users to upgrade to Windows 10.

At the same time, Microsoft is now preparing to push through certain Windows 10 updates to devices over metered connections. The company says that it will only do so for “critical fixes” and other “updates required to keep Windows running smoothly”.

Microsoft has begun the process of finalizing its Windows 10 Creators Update, ahead of its anticipated release in April. The next step for the company is to select a release candidate which is likely to be distributed to Windows Insiders next week.

Microsoft detailed new security improvements in the Creators Update this week, but it also revealed details of features being removed from Windows 10 as part of that update.

It’s been a busy week for Windows 10 development, as three new builds rolled out to the Fast ring: 15058, 15060, and on Friday, build 15061. You can find details of the fixes and known issues in build 15061 here. The latest Windows 10 SDK Preview, build 15052, is also available, along with ISOs for build 15058. The latter build is now available on the Windows Insider Slow ring too.

Microsoft hasn't yet announced a firm date for the Creators Update's release, so there's plenty of room for speculation!

Microsoft released its latest cumulative updates for all versions of Windows 10 on Tuesday, including build 10240.17319 (Version 1507 – the original release of the OS), 10586.839 (Version 1511 – the November Update), and 14393.953 (Version 1607 – the Anniversary Update).

However, the latest update for Windows 10 Mobile devices did not include a fix for a rather unpleasant bug that leaves all users’ photos available to view without unlocking a handset. That bug was revealed over a month ago, and yet Microsoft still hasn’t resolved the issue – we checked!

Microsoft did fix nine critical security issues in Windows 10 with its latest Patch Tuesday updates though.

We don’t yet know exactly when Microsoft plans to announce its second-generation Surface Book, but the device is certainly ripe for replacement. It went on sale almost a year and a half ago, but there are plenty of newer and more capable alternatives available now, including some at lower prices.

This week, a report claimed that the new Surface Book 2 will have a more ‘traditional’ laptop form factor, ditching the detachable display of the current model, and thus helping to reduce the cost of the entry-level model by as much as a third, bringing its price down to as little as $1,000. The thing is, that doesn’t make a great deal of sense unless Microsoft plans to differentiate the Surface Book 2 in some other remarkable new way.

Surface has always been dedicated to developing new product categories to lead the way for other manufacturers to follow with their own devices. Competing head-on with existing machines by launching a ‘conventional’ notebook would go against the Surface ethos, and would likely do little to help sales of similar laptops from Microsoft’s hardware partners.

Over in the UK, Microsoft is continuing to soften the blow of its recent – and massive – price increases on the Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 by extending its offer of free insurance and Office 365, along with new discounts on both devices. The total savings amount to as much as £600.

Microsoft has been working with researchers in the UK on a remarkable project, helping visually impaired children to learn coding by using physical, tangible objects.

And after several months in preview, Microsoft officially launched its Slack competitor, Teams, in 19 languages and 181 countries across the globe.

Microsoft brought its OneDrive app, developed on the Universal Windows Platform, to the Xbox One this week.

It also released Xbox Insider Preview build 15058 to the Alpha ring on Friday, bring a new feature along with a single fix, and a long list of known issues. It followed the release of build 15055 to the Alpha ring earlier in the week.

Microsoft also revealed that its Alpha Preview of the new Xbox Game Pass will end on April 7. Game Pass is a monthly $10 subscription that will give gamers access to over 100 games, and will launch this Spring.

For the first time in two weeks, Microsoft added four more titles to the list of Xbox 360 games that are backward compatible with the Xbox One.

It also introduced a new in-game chat transcription feature for the Xbox One and Windows 10, with speech-to-text and text-to-speech support.

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a recall of Energizer’s Xbox One 2X Smart Charger, following reports of potentially dangerous overheating on some units.

And after releasing its 4.50 system software update for the PlayStation 4 family last week, some owners of Sony’s consoles have reported issues being able to connect to wireless networks.

In happier news, Sony announced that it’s expanding its PlayStation Now service to include PS4 games, allowing PC gamers to enjoy those titles on their Windows machines.

Nintendo brought a range of indie titles to its new Switch console, which launched earlier this month.

But it also emerged that the Switch is vulnerable to a WebKit exploit, demonstrated through a proof-of-concept earlier this week.

Our odyssey across the tech world ends this week with an important reminder: READ OUR NINTENDO SWITCH REVIEW!

Stay tuned to Neowin in the days ahead for what’s sure to be another exciting week, filled with official news, lots of updates, and plenty of insights from around the world of technology.

For now, though, there’s lots more to read across the site – including all sorts of interesting discussions over on our forums.

From all of us
on the Neowin team,
have a great weekend!

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