Scorpio, Surface, and sweet, sweet phones: A look ahead to what we're excited about in 2017

A new year is almost upon us, which means that all-new devices are around the corner. In the spring, we'll likely see devices such as the LG G6, HTC 11, and Samsung Galaxy S8, and then autumn will offer a new iPhone, a Galaxy Note8 (!), and more.

Indeed, there will be plenty of product refreshes in the coming year, but we'll also see plenty of new devices. Might we see a Surface Phone or a new, more consumer-friendly version of Microsoft's HoloLens?

Andy and I got together to discuss what products we're most excited about in 2017.

Rich: Before we get going, let’s just make clear that we’re not going through these products in any particular order.

Andy: Yes, that’s very important, or we’ll end up getting death threats from some of the readers.

Rich: …again.

Andy: Again.

Rich: So, with that in mind, the first product that I want to mention is the 10th Anniversary iPhone. It's the phone that we've been waiting for for, well, 10 years. Personally, the rumor mill has hyped this thing so much that I just really want to see if Apple can live up to it.

Andy: It won’t.

Rich: Yeah, it probably won’t, but it’ll be interesting to see what they come up with. This was kind of a lame year for Apple. The iPhone 7 Plus was a great device, but there were minimal design changes from the 6/6s. The new MacBook Pros were underwhelming, and the only new iPad was the 9.7-inch Pro in the spring.

Andy: I have to agree that Apple’s not had a great year. The products have been disappointing in many ways: the MacBook Pro with its silly Touch Bar that doesn’t really solve any problems; the lack of any new Mac desktops; Apple’s dubious quality control with all sorts of issues popping up on its new devices; the delay to the AirPods and some of the battery issues with those… oh, and the battery life complaints on the new MacBook Pros too. Almost forgot about that.

Rich: How could you forget? *slap*

Andy: I’m getting old. But for me, one of the big disappointments was the iPhone 7. Yes, it has a superb camera, and yes, it ticks all the boxes we’ve come to expect of iPhones – but that’s just it; it felt like Apple was just ticking the boxes. So I’m with you on this; next year, I really want to see what Apple can do, not just with the new iPhone, but also with the iPad, which is crying out for some fresh thinking and a ‘proper’ overhaul. And I’m really hoping Apple will do something exciting and new with its Mac desktops. If the new Macs are just the same, but slightly faster, with a keyboard that has a Touch Bar on it… well, I might just lose it.

Rich: …again.

Andy: Again.

Rich: I know what you mean though. 2015 saw a bunch of new products from the company, like the Apple Watch and 12-inch MacBook. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro was launched (and hasn't been refreshed since) and the fourth-generation Apple TV finally opened up a new App Store.

I think you're going to be disappointed if you're hoping for anything exciting on the Mac front though. The MacBook Air is all but dead, and the Pro won't be redesigned for quite some time. All I imagine happening is a new Magic Keyboard with a Touch Bar.

Andy: Eugh.

Rich: Since Apple is pretty much becoming "the iPhone company", I'm really hoping that it pulls off something cool in the iPhone 7s, or iPhone 8, or whatever it ends up calling it.

Andy: They’ve got some high expectations to live up to, that’s for sure. And that goes for Samsung too, after the Galaxy Note7 fiasco. Will we see a Galaxy Note8? I’m doubtful if we’ll see a device with that name, but Samsung has invested so heavily in stylus support that it can’t really abandon that space now. I imagine what we’ll see is a stylus-enabled variant of the Galaxy S8 family, rather than a standalone Note brand.

But I’m really excited to see what they come up with. People can make as many jokes as they like about exploding phones, but the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge are both excellent handsets - well, mostly - and I think the S8 family could be awesome. As long as they don’t explode.

Rich: I'm sure they won't explode. After all, Samsung pretty much worked out the problem with the replacement devices.

Andy: The replacement devices exploded too.

Rich: Oh, right. A Galaxy S8 with an S Pen makes a lot of sense though, as the Galaxy S and Note handsets have been nearly identical with the exception of the Pen for a couple of iterations now.

Sticking with smartphones, I'm just going to come out and say it; I think that the HTC 10 was one of the best phones released in 2016. Every time I boot it up, I'm reminded about the stunning display quality and the beautiful metal build, and I really love the latest iterations of Sense.

Andy: It is a lovely device. HTC has always known how to make good-looking phones.

Rich: Definitely. It wasn't completely flawless, though. The camera was pretty good, although images were overexposed when you'd use automatic mode, forcing the user to take some level of control over the camera. Other than some camera improvements, I'm curious as to what HTC will do for design. Its flagship handsets are really overdue for a design overhaul, and it always has some great design chops.

The HTC 10 wasn't exactly a hot seller, but I'll be keeping my eye on the company in 2017.

Andy: I know of your fondness for HTC; they have a special place in my heart too. I still miss my HTC Blue Angel. Damn, I loved that thing. But HTC is a hot mess right now.

They come out fighting with the impressive 10 flagship, but then they announce the Desire 10 Lifestyle in September with a Snapdragon 400 chip – that’s THREE YEARS OLD. Then comes the HTC 10 evo / Bolt, which doesn’t have a Snapdragon 820 or 821; it’s got the 810 from last year. Oh, and let’s not forget the new One A9s, which had weaker specs than its predecessor. Or HTC breaking its promise to upgrade the original One A9 to Nougat within 15 days of its release. Or the never-ending delays to their smartwatch.

The only thing they’re doing to impress me at the moment is the Vive virtual reality headset. Everything else just seems to be chaos.

Rich: The 810 was a strange choice, considering that HTC was one of the first companies to take the heat for that chip's original issues.

Andy: *slap* Wait, I mentioned the Vive VR headset a minute ago... and that reminds me of something else I’m really looking forward to in 2017: the rise of Windows Holographic.

Rich: Or the fall.

Andy: Well… yes, one can never be sure how these things will turn out. But I think Microsoft is taking a very interesting approach to mixed reality. What was it Alex Kipman said? Something about Microsoft being on a mission to bring mixed reality to everyone and every company on the planet?

Rich: Pretty much – and that’s quite a mission; it's right up there with putting Windows 10 on a billion devices within two or three years.

Andy: The less said about that the better... But I think they’re starting out in the right way. If you want VR these days, you need a high-end phone and a headset ‘dock’; or you need a high-end headset, and a kick-ass computer. None of this stuff is cheap. But Microsoft is expanding the Windows Holographic platform by bringing the shell, the core VR environment, to existing Windows 10 PCs as a free update, and working with partners to launch much cheaper VR headsets that buyers can use with their PCs... subject to various minimum spec requirements, of course.

Rich: I'm a bit skeptical of all of this. Virtual reality still hasn't proven that it has mass appeal, and I wonder what the performance will be like on the cheaper headsets.

Andy: Yes, there’s still a lot we don’t know, a lot of unanswered questions, but if they can bring decent VR experiences to a much wider audience at more affordable, more accessible prices, that’s a good thing. And who knows how the VR platform will develop in the future, and what new ideas and business models will emerge from it? Very exciting stuff.

Rich: It sort of bothers me that the third-party Windows Holographic focus in 2016 was on VR. We first learned about the OS as the one that powers the HoloLens, and that's what I really want to see more of.

The current iteration of the HoloLens shows a lot of potential, although the field of view isn't that great. Assuming that it doesn't change much in a possible consumer model, I'm a lot more excited about the prospect of third-party HoloLens-type devices, and what OEMs might do to differentiate themselves in this market.

Andy: I get where you're coming from. When I wrote about using HoloLens at Build in April, I made the point that it's really just a 'first step' in Microsoft's mixed reality vision, and that its current limitations – including the field of view, and its high price tag – don't represent the future that Microsoft is gradually piecing together with developers, manufacturers and other major partners.

But it would be nice to get a taste of that future soon, some further hints of what's to come, and to see what other OEMs can do with Windows Holographic as an augmented reality tool... especially as that will eventually lead to lower prices and wider availability. That future can't come soon enough, frankly; I can't wait to see that potential realized.

Rich: Lower prices sound nice. $3,000 for a HoloLens Development Edition is just crazy for any average consumer, so hopefully we'll see a consumer edition and some third-party stuff to keep it competitive.

Andy: While we're on the topic of mixed reality, Microsoft is going to be making another big VR push on a different front next year. Back in June at E3, it announced Project Scorpio, referring to it as the "most powerful console ever", with support for native 4K gaming, and VR.

Microsoft has been making all sorts of improvements to gaming on consoles and Windows 10 PCs – it even seems to be planning a special 'Game Mode' for the OS. If it can continue to develop its Windows 10 and Xbox gaming platform in the way that it has, and if it can bring that together with some truly monstrous console hardware, I think that Scorpio could be spectacular.

Rich: I can see that. Stop drooling.

Microsoft's renewed focus on gaming is refreshing. There's so much that we don't know about Project Scorpio, and that's part of what makes it so exciting. We don't even know what it will be called.

2016 saw a lot of cool Xbox news, such as the One S, UWP apps, a lot more backward compatible Xbox 360 games, and more. I'm really looking forward to seeing what they have in store for the Creators Update and Redstone 3 in 2017.

Andy: There’s lots of other stuff from Microsoft that I want to see more of, like further improvements to Cortana, more development tools, expansion of the Bot Framework, the company's huge artificial intelligence investments, and... well, I know it's not very 'sexy', but I definitely want to see how Microsoft continues to improve enterprise and cloud security too.

But there's another part of Windows that I’m very eager to learn more about: the announcement a few weeks ago about Windows 10 on ARM. Of course, the last Windows on ARM project, which didn’t go much further than the Surface RT, was–

Rich: A disaster.

Andy: Yeah, it did NOT go well. The biggest problem was obviously apps – the Windows Store didn’t have enough of them, and ARM chips could only run apps from the Store. But this time, Microsoft is bringing the full-fat version of Windows 10 to ARM, with support for 32-bit x86 desktop apps through emulation. There’s been a lot of discussion about power-efficient laptops and tablets with ARM chips running Windows 10 and desktop apps, but it also leaves the door wide open for speculation about–

Rich: The Surface Phone.

Andy: Yes. But stop interrupting me, or I’ll have to gag you again and put you back in your cage.


Image via Phone Designer

Andy: We both know Windows Phone was a commercial failure, and Windows 10 Mobile sales are terrible – what’s the market share now? 0.4%? But Microsoft is already talking up the idea of redefining the smartphone, carving out new device categories, and building "the most ultimate mobile device". A Surface Phone with a mobile interface for on-the-go, and the full PC OS with desktop app support when docked and connected to a monitor… that could be something special.

Rich: It sure could. I was one of those people that was against the idea of running x86 apps on phones, suggesting instead that Microsoft should focus on UWP and making Edge as good as Chrome, or better. After reviewing HP's Elite x3, I definitely see the potential of such a device.

HP used cloud virtualization through Workspace, which is clunky and seriously expensive. You're basically streaming apps, so there's no way to get around some level of lag, even with a fast connection. A device that could run x86 apps natively is definitely something I'd be excited about.

Andy: And that’s just the beginning. Last year, I wrote an editorial about the potential that Continuum offers for a truly mobile future of computing – with more powerful hardware, Microsoft could eventually deliver Surface Phone-type devices that not only act as your phone and your PC, but even a portable console that you can connect to your TV and wireless controllers.

Rich: Yeah, but that’s a much more long-term vision than the next twelve months. As you also wrote this year, the thing with Windows phones is that the best bits are always ‘coming soon’. There’s a long wait ahead, and we may not even see the Surface Phone next year.

But what we will see next year are the new Surface Book 2 and Pro 5. I'm really curious about what Microsoft is going to do with these devices. Obviously, they're both going to have Intel's new Kaby Lake chips, but I don't think that's all the company can do.

Andy: Agreed. The Pro 4 was a nice update to the Pro 3, but it would be good to see some more substantial changes.

Rich: Definitely. We're going into 2017 with a fairly dated selection of Surface devices. Not a single one has a current-generation chip or even USB Type-C. There has to be some level of a redesign on both devices, and I hope it's not just adding a port.

Surface Book 2 is what I'm really curious about. There are rumors of a new hinge without a gap, which sounds cool, but what I really want is a quad-core 15-inch model. I'm dreaming now, so I'll stop talking.

Andy: Speaking of which, I’ve not been really listening to you for the last couple of minutes, as I’m thirsty. Beer?

Rich: Beer.

What are your thoughts on what's to come in 2017? Are you looking forward to the same stuff as us, or are you eagerly awaiting something else? Let us know in the comments below!

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