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Hands on with Microsoft’s hardware cornucopia at tech giant’s behind-the-scenes CES booth

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Microsoft sign at CES. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

LAS VEGAS — Microsoft is typically more low key at CES than fellow tech giant Amazon, and this year Google, but every year it opens its doors to the press to check out and play with its latest in-house devices and new offerings from its many tech giant partners.

This year, Microsoft showed everything from its latest products — such as the Surface Studio, Surface Laptop and Surface tablets — to innovations from a variety of partners like HP, ASUS, Acer, Samsung, Dell and many more. This year’s offerings fit into five key areas that are guiding Microsoft’s hardware development and partnership priorities for the coming year and beyond.

“When you think of helping people and businesses around the world achieve more, it’s really at that dynamic edge where the experiences of creating, working and playing differently come to life,” said Peter Han, vice president of devices and solutions for Microsoft. “A few years ago, that really meant the PC, but obviously in 2018, it’s a whole set of experiences on a whole new set of form factors that are really starting to change the world.

(GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

PCs for all different functions

Microsoft’s PC displays showed the huge variety of products from the tech giant and its partners. Prices range from a $200 ASUS laptop to the Surface Studio, which starts at $3,000.

There were small machines and big ones, and even a laptop from Acer that bills itself as the thinnest one available. Many of these PCs have specific target audiences and functions. Low-cost devices with bare bones features make sense for schools and other learning functions that only use a few capabilities. High end machines like the Surface Studio cater to the creative class and other heavy users.

And then there were these:

“Always Connected” PCs, like this one from HP, boast long battery lives and built-in LTE connectivity. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Always connected PCs

In December, Microsoft unveiled “Always Connected” PCs, a new generation of computers with built-in LTE connectivity and extra-long battery life. The PCs, from Asus, HP, and now Lenovofulfill a promise made by Microsoft more than a year ago to work with partners to deliver computers that operate more like smartphones, getting internet anywhere there is a data signal.

We got our first look at these PCs, and the LTE and long battery life capabilities do not add a lot to the size and weight of the devices. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The Asus NovaGo is a two-in-one computer, while the HP Envy x2 can be detached and turned into a tablet.

No word yet from Microsoft on prices or release dates for its Always Connected PCs. We know that they run an “optimized” version of Office 365. The Lenovo PC runs on Windows 10 S, the streamlined version of the operating system.

Johnson Controls’ GLAS smart thermostat powered by Microsoft’s Cortana. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

AI everywhere

The Microsoft AI and Research group formed by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella as a fourth engineering division at the company grew by 60 percent to more than 8,000 people in its first year.

“Our vision is a world where we democratize AI and infuse it into all kinds of devices and form factors,” Han said. “It will not be in a single place, it will be ubiquitous throughout our lives.”

Microsoft showed off several incarnations of this philosophy. The GLAS smart thermostat developed by Johnson Controls with Microsoft’s digital assistant Cortana built in is a visually pleasing device that stands out from other smart thermostats like the Nest. The device, which will be available for pre-order in March, can set temperature, check the weather, monitor indoor and outdoor air quality and more.

Huawei’s anticipated Mate 10 smartphone comes with Microsoft Translator built-in. It can translate complex verbiage into numerous languages. At the showcase, we used the translator on one of the device spec cards, and it took the information in English, translated it into Spanish and laid the text right over the top of the card, making it easy to bridge the language gaps even with complex information.

GeekWire’s Taylor Soper and I conducted a hologram meeting on HoloLens. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Windows Mixed Reality

We already got our hands on one of Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Realty headsets this week, but Microsoft had the whole catalog out for this showcase.

The headsets come from partners Samsung, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Acer, and prices vary from $399 to $499. They give Microsoft another entry into the competitive virtual/augmented/mixed reality industry to pair with HoloLens, which is only available to developers and enterprises right now.

We also got to experience a demo of HoloBeam, a technology for HoloLens that lets multiple people with headsets pop up in each other’s field of vision as holograms captured on camera. There was no sound included with the demo, so it was impossible to get a clear picture of how well the tech actually works, and it is still being tinkered with for a planned availability toward the end of the year.

Getting my gamer on with the Dell Inspiron Gaming Dekstop. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Gaming

Gaming has long been a core piece of Microsoft’s business thanks to Xbox. The tech giant doubled down on that world when it in 2016 acquired a streaming startup called Beam and rebranded it Mixer. Microsoft has steadily been adding more features to Mixer and integrating it with Xbox and Windows 10.

Microsoft’s partners showed off some high-powered gaming computers at the event. I played some Age of Empires on a Dell Inspiron Gaming Desktop. The screen was beautiful, and there was zero lag while playing. The only noticeable inconvenience was the mouse, which was a little touchy and made it hard to click on windows.

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