Microsoft offers $200 off Surface Pro to celebrate its fifth anniversary

Enlarge / Surface Pro with a Cobalt Blue Type Cover.

Microsoft’s first x86 PC, then known as the Surface with Windows 8 Pro, hit the market five years ago. The first version was a little strange—a bit too big for a tablet, a bit too small for a laptop—but with its third iteration, the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft’s hardware hit its stride. From its first version, the device was an x86 tablet with an integrated kickstand and a detachable keyboard, but the third version changed the screen resolution to 12 inches with a 3:2 aspect ratio (up from 10.6 inches and 16:9) and used a kickstand that could be set to any position from about 20 degrees to 150 degrees.

This third version of Surface Pro spawned a number of copycats from companies like Samsung, Dell, and HP, and arguably it made Microsoft’s concept—the laptop-like tablet—a permanent fixture of the PC landscape.

To celebrate this fifth anniversary, Microsoft is offering $200 off two configurations of the current model Surface Pro. The Core i5 with 128GB SSD and 4GB RAM is available for $799, and the Core i5 with 256GB SSD and 8GB RAM is $1,099.

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Microsoft’s compiler-level Spectre fix shows how hard this problem will be to solve

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

The Meltdown and Spectre attacks that use processor speculative execution to leak sensitive information have resulted in a wide range of software changes to try to limit the scope for harm. Many of these are operating system-level fixes, some of which depend on processor microcode updates.

But Spectre isn’t a simple attack to solve; operating system changes help a great deal, but application-level changes are also needed. Apple has talked about some of the updates it has made to the WebKit rendering engine, used in its Safari browser, but this is only a single application.

Microsoft is offering a compiler-level change for Spectre. The “Spectre” label actually covers two different attacks. The one that Microsoft’s compiler is addressing, known as “variant 1,” concerns checking the size of an array: before accessing the Nth element of an array, code should check that the array has at least N elements in it. Programmers using languages like C and C++ often have to write these checks explicitly. Other languages, like JavaScript and Java, perform them automatically. Either way, the test has to be done; attempts to access array members that don’t exist are a whole class of bugs all on their own.

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Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection coming to Windows 7 and 8.1

(credit: Jerry Raia)

Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection (ATP), Microsoft’s security software that combines end-point security and data collection with cloud analytics, has hitherto been unique to Windows 10. But no longer; Microsoft announced today that it’s bringing the same features to Windows 7 and Windows 8.1.

Coming this summer, the Endpoint Data and Response (EDR) portions of ATP will be available for these older operating systems, allowing their health and status to be managed through the cloud interface. This will be paired with either third-party anti-virus for endpoint protection or Windows Defender/System Center Endpoint Protection.

This move shows the contradictory position Microsoft finds itself in. On the one hand, Microsoft wants enterprises to deploy and use ATP, as it continues to build its cloud-based device management and monitoring software. On the other hand, Redmond wants those same companies to upgrade to Windows 10. This creates a tension: having ATP as a Windows 10 exclusive feature makes Windows 10 more attractive—Microsoft says that security is one of the major reasons enterprises cite for moving to the new operating system—but with many organizations still having Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 systems that they need to support, the inability to monitor those machines makes ATP less attractive.

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Windows 10 S becoming a mode, not a version, as Microsoft shakes up its pricing

Enlarge (credit: Microsoft)

With the next big update to Windows 10, version 1803, Microsoft is making some big changes to how it sells the software to OEMs. The biggest casualty? Windows 10 S—the restricted version of Windows that can only run apps from the Store—is going away.

Currently, Windows 10 S is a unique edition of Windows 10. It’s based on Windows 10 Pro; Windows 10 Pro has various facilities that enable system administrators to restrict which software can be run, and Windows 10 S is essentially a preconfigured version of those facilities. In addition to locking out arbitrary downloaded programs, it also prevents the use of certain built-in Windows features such as the command-line, PowerShell, and Windows Subsystem for Linux.

For those who can’t abide by the constraints that S imposes, you can upgrade 10 S to the full 10 Pro. This upgrade is a one-shot deal: there’s no way of re-enabling the S limitations after upgrading to Pro. It’s also a paid upgrade: while Microsoft offered it as a free upgrade for a limited time for its Surface Laptop, the regular price is $49.

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Microsoft adds new, cheaper versions of the Surface Laptop and Surface Book 2

Enlarge / Surface Laptop (credit: Justin Wolfson)

Perhaps in response to the lower volume of Surface systems sold, Microsoft today introduced two cut-price Surface models.

For $799, there’s a new Surface Laptop. This has a Kaby Lake Core m3 processor, 4GB RAM, and 128GB storage. The previous cheapest model had the same RAM and storage with a Core i5 processor, and it sells for $999. This new system’s a lot cheaper, and we’d suspect that most people, most of the time, won’t notice the reduction in processor performance relative to the $999 version, making it much better value.

The big sticking point is the RAM; 4GB isn’t much, and there is, of course, no provision to add any more later. If you can live with that amount of memory, the new cheap model is very compelling.

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Windows 10 servicing extended for a few months; Office 2019 won’t get 10 years of support

Enlarge / Licensing is not really the easiest topic to illustrate. (credit: Peter Bright)

In the olden days, Microsoft’s support policy for Windows and Office was simple. Each release had five years of mainstream support, during which it received security updates, feature improvements, and stability fixes. That was followed by five more years of extended support, during which time it received security updates only.

With Windows 10 and “Windows-as-a-service,” that policy got all shaken up. After a period of refining the details, Microsoft settled on the current scheme. Mainstream Windows, Office, and Windows Server users are on the Semi-Annual Channel (SAC). They get two major servicing updates each year, with each version named with a two-digit year, two-digit month; the current version is 1709 because it was built in September 2017. Its successor will be built in March 2018, hence named 1803. Each of these releases receives 18 months of security updates, and each Office SAC release is only supported on supported Windows SAC releases.

For organizations that can’t or won’t use the SAC, there is also a Long-Term Servicing Channel (LTSC). Windows, Office, and Windows Server LTSC releases are made every three years and receive the traditional five years mainstream plus five years extended support policy.

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Microsoft 2Q18: Trump tax hit turns strong quarter into $6.3B loss

(credit: Julien GONG Min)

Microsoft has posted the results of the second quarter of its 2018 financial year, running up until December 31, 2017. Revenue was $28.9 billion, up 12 percent year-on-year, and operating income was $8.7 billion, a 10 percent increase. Net income was, however, a loss of $6.3 billion, with a loss per share of $0.82. The cause of this was a $13.8 billion tax bill courtesy of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), signed into law by President Trump late last year. Absent that change, net income would have been $7.5 billion, up 20 percent year-on-year, with earnings per share similarly up 20 percent to $0.96.

The TCJA imposed one-time tax rates of 15.5 percent on foreign-held cash and cash equivalents, and 8 percent on non-cash, as if that foreign money had been repatriated to the US and hence subject to US corporate income tax. Many firms with large foreign-held cash piles are going to be taking big tax hits this quarter as a result; Citibank claimed a $22 billion charge, and Apple is expected to take a hit as big as $38 billion.

Microsoft currently has three reporting segments: Productivity and Business Processes (covering Office, Exchange, SharePoint, Skype, and Dynamics), Intelligent Cloud (including Azure, Windows Server, SQL Server, Visual Studio, and Enterprise Services), and More Personal Computing (covering Windows, hardware, and Xbox, as well as search and advertising).

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