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The three screens

SmartphonesLast year Microsoft was trumpeting the concept of ‘three screens and a cloud’ to inspire its customers to look for money-making opportunities beyond desktop PC culture. (Remember, Microsoft’s main customers are not really consumers, but the PC hardware manufacturing companies that it persuades to preinstall its Windows software.)

This mantra, coined by Microsoft’s former software architect, Ray Ozzie, illustrates how the world of personal computing is changing. As well as the PC screen, computing technology is now moving up into the TV screen at one end of the size spread, and down to our mobile phones at the other. And the cloud? Try finding software that doesn’t tout interaction with online social networks these days.

Microsoft will remain dominant in the middle ground of the PC screen for a while yet, but don’t expect it to make up much business elsewhere. It recently launched Windows Phone 7 to a roar of indifference, with previously bitten users proving twice-shy of Microsoft’s albatross. And few people rely on Windows Media Center to serve up their daily telly.

On the smartphone front, today’s market is sewn up by Apple and Google, with even BlackBerry maker RIM losing ground now. Google’s Android is the safer bet for future expansion, helped along by its newest version 2.2 software, aka Froyo. We've reviewed two Froyo-equipped handsets made by Motorola and Huawei. The latter may prove especially appealing, if only by virtue of its bottom-drawer price.

In the TV space, the latest push remains primarily towards HD, with some interest in 3D. If you want ‘proper’ 1080p HD video, one route is through Sony’s Blu-ray Disc format. Look out for our reviews of two external BD drives that connect easily via USB 2.0 - the Buffalo BR-PX68U2 and Plextor PX-B120U. Another route is Freeview HD, for which we've looked at the TechniSat HDFV. And we have 3D covered too, with an in-depth look at a 23in PC monitor from Asus that serves double-duty for 3D entertainment.

PC coverage includes a round-up of affordable Windows laptops, a modestly sized yet powerful desktop in the form of the Cryo PC Pico XS, and Apple’s cheapest iMac.

If Microsoft is to keep up, it could do worse than realise that designing products for the humble user rather than its hardware partners could give its offerings more credibility in a three-screen cloudy world.

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