7 Days: A week of tiny computers, Windows Phone woes and Microsoft's new Groove

7 Days is a weekly round-up 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 a week of ups and downs across the tech world, with exciting revelations and juicy rumors, but also some shocking announcements. If you’ve struggled to keep with all that’s happened, we know how you feel – but fear not, for 7 Days is here once again to guide you through the week’s top tech news.

We begin this week in the US, where T-Mobile announced its new ‘Mobile Without Borders’ initiative, dropping roaming charges for visitors to Canada and Mexico – the latest example of T-Mo’s customer-focused ‘Uncarrier’ efforts.

Over in the UK, the BBC unveiled its new Micro Bit, a tiny computer that will be given free to children across the country to help them to learn how to code. Developed in partnership with Microsoft, ARM, Samsung and other tech giants, the Micro Bit follows in the footsteps of the BBC Micro, the highly-regarded microcomputer that helped make computers a familiar sight in UK classrooms in the 1980s.

On Thursday, the UK’s largest mobile operator – for now – announced the Rook, which it says is the country’s most affordable 4G handset ever. Priced at £49 off-contract (£39 for existing customers), the device runs Android 5.1 Lollipop, but its specs are pretty basic – unsurprising, given its low price.

Samsung UK said this week that it would not update its Galaxy S III or Galaxy Note II with Android 5.x Lollipop. While that’s perhaps not surprising, given that these devices aren’t exactly new, it is perplexing given that both of these handsets are getting Lollipop in some other markets.

Meanwhile, in India, the very latest Android 5.1.1 Lollipop update began rolling out to Samsung’s newest flagships, the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge. Along with the improvements in Google’s mobile OS, Samsung has also made some additions of its own in this newest update.

It looks like Samsung’s next flagship-class handset could arrive in a matter of weeks. A report this week claimed that the Galaxy Note 5 will launch in August – a little earlier than its usual release window in September.

Some users who recently updated their HTC One M9 have noticed that the battery now drains unusually quickly, and that it takes a lot longer to charge as well. HTC acknowledged the issue this week, and offered an unusual workaround, which appears to place the blame for the problem with the Google Photos app.

OnePlus is continuing to milk the announcement of its new handset for all it’s worth, with a slow drip of information being released over the course of several weeks. This week, we learned that the OnePlus 2 will cost less than $450, have 4GB of RAM, and will be smaller than its predecessor, with a slightly larger battery.

Google rolled out the second Developer Preview of its next major Android update, currently known as the ‘M’ release. Android M remains on track for release later this quarter.

Microsoft is now giving away 12-month subscriptions to the EA Access gaming service with its Xbox One in the UK. That deal isn’t yet available in the United States, but Microsoft is now selling EA Access subscriptions on its US store.

Microsoft also released its latest Xbox One update, preparing the console for Windows 10 game streaming, and new backward compatibility support for Xbox 360 games.

The company delivered a significant update to its Xbox Music app on iOS and Android too, with a range of improvements, including the addition of support for music streaming from OneDrive.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently stated that the company is facing some ‘tough choices’ in its near future, and it was widely believed that its Xbox Music service might be facing the chop. However, on Monday, Microsoft announced that it is relaunching the service with a new name: Groove.

Microsoft explained the thinking behind the new name, and also confirmed that it has dropped the Xbox brand from its video service, which is now named ‘Movies & TV’. (Of course, it's worth noting that separating these services from existing Microsoft branding would, theoretically, also make them easier to sell off in the future.)

But as Neowin editor Anthony Tosie explained this week, a rebrand can’t hide the fact that these apps still aren't very good.

But while Microsoft’s entertainment services escaped the swing of its axe, its phone division wasn’t so fortunate. The company announced a major ‘restructuring’ of its phone hardware business on Wednesday, taking a $7.6 billion write-down on assets related to its $7.2 billion Nokia acquisition last year. It also revealed that 7,800 jobs will be cut from its workforce.

Microsoft also revealed that it will now focus its smartphone efforts on three key market segments, and it later emerged that the company plans to release no more than six new phones per year. Given that it’s released seven new phones in the last eight months, and all of them have been aimed at the low end of the market, it certainly seems that Microsoft could do with focusing its product range a bit.

Further cuts were announced on Friday, as Microsoft revealed that its MSN Food & Drink, MSN Health & Fitness, MSN Travel and Photosynth apps are all being discontinued.

With the devastating cuts to its mobile division, a huge reduction in its handset range, and the scaling back of its first-party apps, some people are questioning whether Microsoft is truly committed to the smartphone market. In our latest poll this week, we asked if you intend to buy a Windows 10 Mobile phone given these recent developments – be sure to cast your vote and have your say!

Given the extent of Microsoft’s mobile restructuring, it would be easy to dismiss the company’s Windows 10 Mobile efforts as all but irrelevant. But on Friday, I explained how Microsoft’s new mobile OS lays the foundations a truly ‘mobile-first’ future, potentially helping the smartphone to become a far more versatile device – perhaps one day even replacing PCs and consoles.

It seems that one of Microsoft’s Windows 10 Mobile phones may include a feature that will surely appeal to the selfie-obsessed. According to semi-retired leaker @evleaks, an upcoming Lumia device will include a front-facing camera flash.

It also looks like Microsoft is planning to launch a range of new mobile accessories, including updated versions of the Treasure Tag NFC tracker and MD-12 wireless speaker, along with a new mobile dock for Windows 10 phones, codenamed ‘Munchkin’.

Windows 10 Mobile is still months away from its launch, but its development continues to proceed with the help of those on its Windows Insider program. Mobile Insider Preview build 10149 made its way to those on the Slow ring earlier this week.

But on Friday, Microsoft rolled out a new Windows 10 Mobile preview, build 10166, to the Fast ring, promising significant “improvements to core quality” in this latest update.

The launch of Windows 10 for PCs is now less than three weeks away, but Microsoft is continuing to make improvements to the OS. On Monday, build 10162 was released to the Slow ring.

On the same day, Microsoft promised that it would release another new build later in the week, and on Thursday, it did:

That official release was followed on Friday by the emphatically unofficial leak of build 10176.

On Monday, we got confirmation from reliable sources that Microsoft planned to sign off on its Windows 10 code this week, finally reaching the all-important RTM milestone ahead of its launch later this month. However, a few days later, it emerged that the company’s planned July 9 deadline for RTM had slipped, and it now intends to finalize Windows 10’s code by next week instead.

Mozilla revealed this week that it’s working on a version of its Firefox browser for Windows 10, and said that it’s coming “soon”. Maybe they’ll surprise us and make good on that promise – but don’t hold your breath.

Let’s not forget that Mozilla originally announced a Windows 8 version of Firefox in February 2012. It took them two years to finally release that product, only to then abandon its development a few weeks later.

Microsoft unveiled a new version of Bing Maps on Monday, a few days after announcing that it will no longer collect its own mapping data for the service. Featuring a redesigned interface, the new Bing Maps Preview is available to try out now.

While most people agree that Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality headset is an impressive piece of kit, the company has attracted some criticism for not doing a better job of communicating how limited the headset’s field of view actually is. HoloLens demos have so far given the impression that the experience is completely immersive, encompassing your full range of vision, including the peripheral areas, when the reality is far more limited than that.

But this week, Microsoft released a video which more realistically demonstrates the actual field of view that HoloLens offers.

The company also rolled out a new SDK for its Band wearable device, opening up data to developers, and introducing new ‘Band Web Tiles’. This new feature can be used to deliver ‘glanceable’ information, pulled from the web, and displayed on the device’s tiny screen.

Battery life is a big issue for wearable devices, and it’s a problem that Microsoft is trying to solve. On Thursday, Microsoft Research announced WearDrive, a new project that uses RAM, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to offload certain tasks from a wearable to a smartphone.

WearDrive has yielded astonishing results so far – using an Android Wear device and smartphone, Microsoft tripled battery life on the wearable, along with a dramatic improvement in performance, while battery life on the smartphone was barely impacted.

Microsoft said on Friday that its Power BI tools for business will exit preview later this month, with general availability beginning on July 24. It has also released a new Power BI app for Android, which is available now.

Another major product that emerged from its preview phase this week was Office 2016 for Mac. The full official release of Microsoft’s new productivity suite is now available for Apple’s OS X in 139 countries and 16 languages. However, only Office 365 subscribers can get it now – those who prefer to pay outright for the product suite, rather than by subscription, will have to wait until September.

Speaking of Apple, the company released its first public betas of OS X El Capitan and iOS 9 this week, bringing the new preview versions of these operating systems to a wider audience, beyond its developer community.

Amazon is celebrating its 20th birthday next week, and it plans to mark the day with some big discounts for its Prime subscribers. The company announced on Monday that Amazon Prime customers in nine countries will have access to an entire day of special offers on July 15, promising even more deals than its Black Friday sale.

But we end this week on a slightly unusual note, as Logitech – purveyors of keyboards, mice, remotes, and… other stuff – has decided to reinvent itself with a new brand identity, and an entirely new secondary brand, called ‘Logi’, which will focus on design and bright colors for its new products. Unfortunately, what those products will be remains rather unclear, but hey, at least they’ll be pretty.

Before we wrap things up, check out two of our latest articles, in which we shared five things we love about Lumia Windows Phones, and five things we hate about them. Let us know what you think, and if you have any suggestions of your own!

And finally, make sure you tune in to The Redmond Report, our new weekly podcast where the week’s Microsoft news all comes together and finally makes sense. This week, Neowin’s Brad Sams considers Windows 10 RTM, the Surface Pro 4, what’s happening with Windows Phone, and more!

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And as ever, there’s plenty more to read across the site – including loads of interesting discussions over on our forums. From all of us on the Neowin team, have a great weekend!

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