7 Days: A week of Windows previews, Microsoft branding, and why 99 iPhones doesn't equal love

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 another week packed full of exciting news from across the tech world, but it was Microsoft that stole the lion’s share of headlines, with new products, a range of updates for many of its existing ones, and insights into some of what’s still to come. But we begin our look back on the last seven days at the most affordable end of the market.

Image: Raspberry Pi Foundation

The Raspberry Pi Foundation announced the launch of a new model of its tiny PC on Monday. The A+ is a new version of the Model A, with a smaller board, improved power consumption and better audio circuitry, as well as another 14 GPIO pins and a microSD slot, rather than the larger full-size SD slot from the Model A. Priced at just $20 USD (£20 GBP in the UK), the new device is available now.

Image: giffgaff

Budget-conscious mobile users in the UK now have a new option to choose from in the 4G market, as giffgaff has now launched its new 4G ‘goodybags’. Priced from £12 a month, which includes 500 minutes of talk time and 1GB of data, the new rolling monthly plans can’t match the carrier’s own 3G plans, though. While £18 a month will get you 2000 minutes and unlimited 3G data, the same price will restrict you to just 5GB of 4G data, and only half the minutes.

Image: E FUN

Bargain hunters over in the US have plenty of promotions and deals to look forward to with the approach of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season. E FUN – which describes itself as “the fifth largest tablet supplier in the US” – will be selling its 8-inch Nextbook Windows 8.1 tablet for just $99 on Black Friday at Walmart.

The device also comes with a free one-year Office 365 Personal subscription (which also includes unlimited OneDrive storage), and a free 16GB microSD card.

Microsoft is joining in on the Black Friday action too, offering its Surface 2 tablet with $150 off the normal price at Best Buy. That means that you’ll be able to grab a 32GB model for just $299.99, rather than the $449.99 that it usually costs.

We took a closer look at another Microsoft device this week, with our full in-depth review on its Band fitness-focused wearable. We liked its cross-platform compatibility, the range of sensors that it features and the new Microsoft Health platform – but it wasn’t all perfect. The ergonomics need some work, and the software could do with some polish too, and we weren’t terribly impressed at how easily the Band scratches.

Neowin editor Anthony Tosie, who enjoys a good run, also put the Microsoft Band to the test this week. He lamented in particular the lack of customizable workouts, along with little things like the absence of even a simple feature like an interval option on the watch’s running mode.

While Microsoft’s wearable device may be focused primarily on health and fitness, there are some areas in which it’s lacking – so if you’re considering a Band to help with your health monitoring and workouts, be sure to check out Anthony’s article before you buy.

As Microsoft embraces a cross-platform future – with its products, software and tools being made as widely available as possible – speculation continues over whether one particular Microsoft product might make its way to other platforms. This week, Microsoft’s chief experience officer (and former head of Windows) Julie Larson-Green spoke up on the subject.

She was asked if Cortana would be made available on other operating systems, to which she replied: “The short answer is, yeah.” So it seems that the Windows Phone digital ‘personal assistant’ – which will soon make its way to Windows 10 – could soon be made available on other platforms too. We imagine there are a few Microsoft fans who are less than happy at that prospect.

Image: Microsoft

Microsoft showed off a new concept this week, in the form of a lamp that glows and blinks to indicate notifications from a paired Windows Phone. The lamp is inspired by Microsoft’s new DT-903 Wireless Charging Plate, which also glows and blinks in the same way, to indicate new Facebook updates, missed calls, new emails and more. It even glows to invite you to charge your phone when its battery is running low.

On Tuesday, Microsoft announced that, from next year, its Lync communications suite will be rebranded as Skype for Business. None of Lync’s features will be dropped, and access to Skype’s user directory will be available from within the new app for the first time.

The rebranding is the latest example of Microsoft’s strategy recognizing that devices and services work best when they are designed to accommodate the needs of both work and play.

Image: Microsoft

In fact, on the same day, Microsoft also launched a new ‘Work & Play Bundle’, designed for those who use Microsoft services both for entertainment and for getting stuff done. The bundle is priced at $199, and includes a year’s subscription to Office 365 Home (which also includes unlimited OneDrive storage), Skype with Unlimited World + WiFi access, Xbox Live Gold and Xbox Music Pass.

The promotional bundle will be sold only until January 4, 2015 – and, to the surprise of no-one – it’s available only in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, so if you live anywhere else and you want to get your paws on the new bundle, bad luck.

For those who like to be productive, Microsoft introduced a new feature this week designed to help keep your inbox organized. ‘Clutter’ is available for Office 365 subscribers, and uses machine learning to understand the types of emails that you tend to ignore, and segregates those into other folders to be sorted later, keeping your main inbox filled only with the stuff you really need to see.

If it works as promised, it could be a big help for those who struggle with overflowing inboxes every day. Still, that’s a big ‘if’ – we’ll have to wait and see how Clutter performs in the real world.

Microsoft unveiled Visual Studio 2015 this week, which includes a range of new features and improvements over the previous version. The company has released a preview version of the new suite, which is available to download now.

Microsoft also announced that it is launching a new free version of Visual Studio to virtually anybody, as long as it’s not used for the development of enterprise applications. Visual Studio Community 2013 is fully featured and intended for the development needs of students, open-source contributors, small companies, start-ups and individual developers.

As if that wasn’t enough, Microsoft also revealed that it is releasing a new Android emulator for Visual Studio 2015, which is intended to make it easier for developers to build Android apps. Visual Studio Emulator for Android Preview is now available to download, but you’ll need to install the VS2015 preview in order to be able to use it.

Image: Hardware.info

On Wednesday, Microsoft sent out emails to developers to let them know that they will no longer be able to unlock Windows Phone 7.x devices for app testing after December 31, 2014. It’s now been two years since Windows Phone 8 launched, giving owners of earlier devices no path for upgrade.

Even so, it’s unclear how many developers this will actually affect, since few are now creating apps for the dead-end Windows Phone 7.x platform.

Image: Microsoft

We knew that a new Lumia device was on the way this week, and on Monday, we exclusively revealed the full specs of the handset. Sure enough, we were proved right the next day, when Microsoft announced the Lumia 535 – the first Windows Phone to feature not the Nokia logo, but Microsoft’s own logo instead.

The low-cost device features much better specs than the entry-level Lumia 530, and is better even in some ways than the more expensive Lumia 630. We took a look at whether the new Lumia 535 makes any sense in Microsoft’s Windows Phone range.

As Microsoft continues to phase out the use of the Nokia brand from its smart devices line-up, Nokia itself is exploring options to license its brand to other companies. Nokia said this week that it will be able to license its brand for use on smartphones from Q4 2016, but the more intriguing revelation was that the Nokia brand can already be licensed for use on “other devices” right now, raising the prospect of new Nokia tablets or Android TV boxes on the way, built by third-parties.

On Thursday, Microsoft rolled out an update to its Preview for Developers with a new Windows Phone 8.1 release. The ‘critical update’ brings the latest preview build up to 14203, and includes new support in the OS for the Battery Saver feature.

That wasn’t the only new preview release that Microsoft had up its sleeve this week. The company also pushed out build 9879 of its Windows 10 Technical Preview, which introduced a range of new features and improvements. Among them are new minimize and restore animations, the ability to hide the Search and Task View buttons on the taskbar, new three-finger trackpad gestures and improvements in MKV support throughout the OS.

Build 9879 also includes a new ‘Insider Hub’ app, which will deliver information and updates on new future builds, along with other details related to the Windows Insider Program.

Microsoft confirmed this week that “there will be Windows 10 upgrades for all Lumia Windows Phone 8 devices”, which will no doubt come as a huge relief to owners of these handsets around the world.

Windows 10 will bring the end of Windows Phone as we know it; the mobile OS will be replaced by a new version of Windows 10 optimized for handset and small tablet use. The last time Microsoft made such big changes on the Windows Phone front was when it launched WP8 and left all of its WP7.5 users behind. Users will surely be delighted to hear that that won’t be the case this time around.

It emerged this week that the Windows and Windows Phone Stores now have over 525,000 apps combined. Approximately 340,000 of these are in the Windows Phone Store, with the remainder comprised of apps for Windows 8.1/10.

Speaking of big numbers, Microsoft announced this week that its Xbox One is about to pass an important milestone. The company said that it is nearing sales of 10 million Xbox Ones – although that figure applies specifically to sales made to retailers, and not through to customers. In fact, it’s not clear at all how many of those 10 million consoles are still sitting on store shelves or in warehouses, rather than with users.

It’s also worth noting that Sony’s PlayStation 4 passed 10 million sales to customers three months ago. Still, Microsoft remains upbeat, noting that sales of the Xbox One have been rising considerably in recent months (thanks in no small part to those price cuts, no doubt).

Still, while Microsoft’s success on the Xbox front has been modest, the success of its Bing ‘prediction engine’ has been much more worthy of celebration. On Monday, the company announced that it had correctly predicted 95% of the winners in the recent US elections. Not bad at all – but there’s clearly room for improvement.

Image: Xataka

Google has donated $10 million to help efforts to fight the spread of Ebola, and announced that it will donate up to $5m more, by matching $2 for every $1 donated by the public to various not-for-profit organizations, up to $2.5m of public donations. Google’s corporate gift is separate to the $15m that its CEO Larry Page’s Family Foundation has already given to non-profits fighting against Ebola in Africa.

Image: Google

On Monday, the LG G3 became the first device to receive an official update to Android 5.0 Lollipop, but it was closely followed on Wednesday by the start of the update’s rollout to Google’s Nexus devices. The Nexus 4, 5, 7 (2012 and 2013) and 10 will all be updated, but older Nexus devices will be left behind.

Google finally launched its long-awaited ‘Music Key’ subscription streaming service this week, which includes unlimited access to the 30 million songs on Google Play Music, along with ad-free music videos on YouTube and the ability to download videos for offline viewing. Users can sign up for $7.99 a month for a limited time, after which it will cost $9.99 a month.

Image edited from a video screenshot via Heml.is

The launch of Google’s Music Key will surely be welcomed by many across the music industry, who would much rather people pay for a monthly subscription than downloading music without paying for it at all. Still, despite the rise of such services, sites like The Pirate Bay continue to thrive for those who prefer to enjoy their entertainment without charge.

Peter Sunde, co-founder of The Pirate Bay, was released from prison this week, having served a five-month sentence after being found guilty of charges related to copyright violation. He spoke on Monday about his time in jail, but said that he is eager to get back to work, on projects like the Heml.is encrypted chat app.

Image: Slashgear

Gameloft staff in Indonesia might well have been wondering if they would be locked up too, as police raided their offices after local residents had reported it to officials as an ‘online gambling den’. Of course, it all turned out to be a misunderstanding, but one of the building’s security guards was reportedly struck in the face by police attempting to gain entry to the building.

But we end our look back on the last seven days on a note of sympathy, for the poor Chinese guy who tried to impress his beloved on the country’s national Singles’ Day.

He bought 99 Apple iPhone 6 handsets at a cost of around $82,000 (roughly two years’ wages for the man), and arranged them in a heart shape in a parking lot at which his friends, and other curious bystanders, were watching. He then asked his girlfriend to marry him, surrounded by his nearest and dearest and, for reasons unknown, standing in the middle of a bunch of iPhones.

She wasn’t impressed, turning him down before walking away. Perhaps she’s more of a Samsung Galaxy girl.

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