My 30 minutes at the new Microsoft Store

The Valley Fair Microsoft Store opened last week. I intended to go for the opening, but saw the long lines being reported, and decided not to bother.

So finally, today I went to check the store out. It is almost exactly opposite the Apple Store in Valley Fair, but I didn’t care about that too much. My idea was the check out the Microsoft Store and see if there is anything to like, and then compare the experience to that of being in an Apple Store.

The store is big, and has a lot of open space. The first thing you see from the outside is a bunch of people playing Dance Central on the Kinect. That is clearly the crowd-puller, both to get the people to come in, and also to get people to gather around.

As you enter, you notice the red color like the new Windows Phone theme across the entire store. You also notice video running on the giant screen that wraps the store. It has videos of Windows Phone, Xbox games, PCs, etc. showing in a loop.

Another thing I immediately noticed was the familiar fonts from Windows Phone and elsewhere, identifying the various sections in the store, like Windows Phone, Xbox and accessories, Service, Business, Cloud Services, etc. The middle of the store had a few tables with various laptops. The all-in-one PCs and tower desktops were lined up along the side. Xbox games and accessories were on the back and so was boxed software on the other side at the back.

The Windows ecosystem has a huge benefit in terms of choice it offers customers when it comes to buying a PC. I saw several laptops, from the regular and boring types to ultrabooks/ultralights and large-screen, gaming type of machines. I saw slates running Windows 7 from multiple providers, all-in-one PCs of different sizes and desktop PCs with large monitors set up for gaming and high-end graphics work.

I saw the new Windows Phones (and in fact, witnessed a regular guy buying a Windows Phone!), many custom Xbox consoles including a Stanford themed box and of course the “Service” desk which imitates the Genius bar from Apple Store. I saw a lady who had brought what seemed like at least a 5 year old laptop, trying to get something addressed there.

The very back of the store had a giant (~70 inches easily) screen hooked up to Xbox (I think). Since I went so early (almost at the time of store opening), I didn’t see that area being used.

I settled down at the Samsung slate and was playing with it when Foo (seriously, his name tag said that!) came by, introduced himself and started a casual conversation about tablets, technology, etc. No sales pressure, mostly consulting/advice and product stuff (“yes, all these PCs are upgradeable to Windows 8”). After a few minutes of discussion I went over to see the other PCs. I was actually impressed with the various ultrabooks on display. I liked them a lot and can’t wait for one of my PCs to die so I can replace it with an ultrabook.

The other PCs I liked included an HP laptop with red accents (seemed like a gaming machine?) and the Samsung Series 9 laptop, which I saw for the first time. After seeing those ultrabooks, the Series 9 seemed just-ok.

Finally, the had Windows Phone placed in multiple places and I especially liked the HTC Radar and the Samsung Focus S. The Focus Flash, which looks chunky (to me) in pictures, is actually quite cute. Speaking of the Focus Flash, as I entered the store, I overheard one of those consultants talk to a customer and the thing I heard was the customer saying “what? it’s only $50??”. Later, I saw him buying the phone. I guess the hard cost of the phone is in fact important sales factor, never mind that the cost of the phone with the 2-year contract includes a $15 data plan for 24 months.

Finally, the “Service” area, aka Genius Bar for the Microsoft Store. I did not actually interact with them but while I was waiting for closing out my transaction I saw a lady who had got her old (seemed VERY old) laptop with keyboard, extra battery, power, etc. and was talking to the consultant about the problem. Compared to the Apple Store, these “geniuses” have to understand/handle such a large variety of software and hardware combinations. Wonder what kind of quality of service they provide.

I ended up buying a Nyko Kinect accessory (to reduce the distance requirements in my house) and the 320GB Xbox hard drive.

I typically don’t go to Apple Store, and I don’t see myself going to the Microsoft Store much either. However, I do see that the store becomes a place where Microsoft can show off their consumer-related stuff like Windows Phones, Xbox, Kinect and also a place where they can aggressively sell “pure” PCs with the Signature image. In my limited experience with the Apple Store in the same mall, I felt the Microsoft Store was more cheerful, happier, colorful and generally, more fun.

These things will not be making money for Microsoft anytime soon, but will definitely help in increasing awareness among the non-tech crowd, brand recognition, and hopefully for them, therefore, sales.