good enough computing

I visited the new Microsoft store Saturday, at the large shopping mall about 60 miles from my home. It’s very much an alternate take on an Apple store; instead of cool whites and grays and wood, you get lots of bright colors, but the staff dress with the same urban hipster feel, complete with a company t-shirt under some other shirt and, of course, a lanyard.

This could have been yet another pathetic Microsoft attempt to hang out with the cool kids; the company has a rich tradition of me-too products that have not much of the charm or utility or style of the best of Apple’s or Google’s consumer offerings. And at this stage of the game, anyone who uses Windows is using the least hip imaginable operating system. While I was standing there, a young boy tugged on his mom’s arm and said (I swear this is true) “Mommy, what’s a Windows phone?”

But Microsoft has responded to the dismal mess it’s in – no foothold in either tablets or phones in the U.S., a “mature” PC market – in a really interesting way. It has slashed the price on Windows, or outright given away the licenses, while pushing hardware makers to produce cheap stuff that doesn’t suck.

And you know what? It doesn’t. I played with the 13 inch version of the HP Stream, a Win 8.1 answer to a Chromebook, and was really impressed. True, the screen was washed out, but that was the weakest part, and I could live with it. The keyboard (aka, the thing I obsess most about) was…decent. At least as good as the one on the Dell Chromebook. Trackpad? Better than the one on a Dell 7000 I tried out a few months back, though others have complained about scrolling being erratic, and right and left clicks getting confused on occasion. I didn’t see anything like that. Speed? On the apps I tried – nothing serious, just things like Notepad – acceptably quick.

And the price: $199. And that includes a year of Office 365, which is important because you’ll need to store most things in the cloud. As with Chromebooks, on-board storage is quite limited.

Over on the other side of the store, tablets, and again HP. The 8 inch unit comes with a little 4G thrown in each month, which is nice. Price: $179. Even better, I thought, was the 7 incher for $99. Both are quick and well-designed, with the Windows home button where it should be, at the bottom of the bezel. I noticed 8.1 has significantly improved on the experience of holding a tablet vertically (like a book).

Finally, the phone section, and here you could see handsets from Nokia/Microsoft, HTC and Blu on display. Unsurprisingly, AT&T continues to have the best selection of phones. Verizon, my carrier, only had one on display, though it’s a beauty, an HTC product.

But the Verizon phone is also expensive, something most of the other phones were not. If memory serves, you could get a no-contract Lumia 635, (a very competent phone) from AT&T for $69, and there were other, not-insanely-pricey phones as well.

So here’s the point: for far less than the cost of a Macbook Air, you could buy a decent laptop, a nice tablet, and a good phone – and have money left over. You couldn’t do any heavy lifting with the Microsoft products I described here, but you aren’t likely to be editing feature films on a Macbook Air either.  And here’s the other point: this stuff doesn’t suck, and neither does Windows. You can run Office on a Stream, or iTunes, though I kind of doubt Photoshop would be any fun.

Hell, any of the big operating systems works fine if you put even a little effort in, and what’s really cool is what works with an acceptable level of annoyance – all computers/tablets/phones are going to annoy you in some way, at some point – and lets you think about something other than the tech involved. By that definition, both Chrome/Android and Mac/iOS still have an edge, but price matters, and on that score it’s advantage Windows.

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