Backdoors are bad Microsoft; hadn't this become very obvious already?

Subject: General Tech | August 11, 2016 - 12:48 PM |
Tagged: Secure Boot, microsoft, backdoor, security

Yes, even though this occurs on a regular occasion, we are to be shocked that another secret backdoor into a security product has been discovered, exploited and published.  In this case it is Microsoft's Secure Boot which has been unlocked and even better news is that it probably cannot be completely repaired without rendering previous backups and installations incompatible.  On the positive side, devices which are locked down even for those with administrative privileges such as ARM-based Windows RT tablets can be unlocked and you can chose a different OS to install.  The negatives will have more of an effect on businesses and system builders who relied on it to prevent modified Windows installs from booting, preventing infections and questionably sourced Windows images from being used. 

The Register has links to more information on Secure Boot and Microsoft's response and you can read some information about the group which found and released the information about this over at The Inquirer.

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"Microsoft leaked the golden keys that unlock Windows-powered tablets, phones and other devices sealed by Secure Boot – and is now scrambling to undo the blunder."

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Source: The Register

Windows 10 Rollback Period Cut to 10 Days

Subject: General Tech | August 9, 2016 - 05:21 PM |
Tagged: windows 10, microsoft

According to ComputerWorld, Microsoft has decided that their 30-day rollback period is too long, and so they reduced it to 10 days with version 1607. Honestly, 30 days seemed a bit too long to leave (in my case) 30 GB of crap laying around your main drive, especially considering a new build is dropped to the public once every six to nine months or so. They should have an interface for users to easily delete early, and maybe even a power-user tool to move it to external storage or something.

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This should not affect users who upgrade from Windows 7 and 8.x, unless the rules have changed since the November (1511) update. A non-Windows Insider machine will only install a new build of Windows 10 if the previous install was a clean install, or if the rollback period has already timed out. Also, users can still return to Windows 7 or Windows 8.x by performing a clean install with their respective product key, and Microsoft still provides ISOs on their website even if the user lost their install DVD.

That said, Microsoft still should make this much more clear in their interface, though. Looking at the Settings page, above, there doesn't seem to be any indication that my time is running out. Not cool.

Xbox One S is Compact, Power Efficient, and (Slightly) Faster

Subject: General Tech | August 8, 2016 - 11:06 PM |
Tagged: xbox one s, xbox one, TSMC, microsoft, console, 16nm

Microsoft recently unleashed a smaller version of its gaming console in the form of the Xbox One S. The new "S" variant packs an internal power supply, 4K Blu-ray optical drive, and a smaller (die shrunk) AMD SoC into a 40% smaller package. The new console is clad in all white with black accents and a circular vent on left half of the top. A USB port and pairing button has been added to the front and the power and eject buttons are now physical rather than capacitive (touch sensitive).

Rear I/O remains similar to the original console and includes a power input, two HDMI ports (one input, one output), two USB 3.0 ports, one Ethernet, one S/PDIF audio out, and one IR out port. There is no need for the power brick anymore though as the power supply is now internal. Along with being 40% smaller, it can now be mounted vertically using an included stand. While there is no longer a dedicated Kinect port, it is still possible to add a Kinect to your console using an adapter.

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The internal specifications of the Xbox One S remain consistent with the original Xbox One console except that it will now be available in a 2TB model. The gaming console is powered by a nearly identical processor that is now 35% smaller thanks to being manufactured on a smaller 16nm FinFet process node at TSMC. While the chip is more power efficient, it still features the same eight Jaguar CPU cores clocked at 1.75 GHz and 12 CU graphics portion (768 stream processors). Microsoft and AMD now support HDR and 4K resolutions and upscaling with the new chip. The graphics portion is where the new Xbox One S gets a bit interesting because it appears that Microsoft has given the GPU a bit of an overclock to 914 MHz. Compared to the original Xbox One's 853 MHz, this is a 7.1% increase in clockspeed. The increased GPU clocks also results in increased bandwidth for the ESRAM (204 GB/s on the original Xbox One versus 219 GB/s on the Xbox One S).

According to Microsoft, the increased GPU clockspeeds were necessary to be able to render non HDR versions of the game for Game DVR, Game Streaming, and taking screenshots in real time. A nice side benefit to this though is that the extra performance can result in improved game play in certain games. In Digital Foundry's testing, Richard Leadbetter found this to be especially true in games with unlocked frame rates or in games that are 30 FPS locked but where the original console could not hit 30 FPS consistently. The increased clocks can be felt in slightly smoother game play and less screen tearing. For example, they found that the Xbox One S got up to 11% higher frames in Project Cars (47 FPS versus 44) and between 6% to 8% in Hitman. Further, they found that the higher clocks help performance in playing Xbox 360 games on the Xbox One in backwards compatibility mode such as Alan Wake's American Nightmare.

The 2TB Xbox One S is available now for $400 while the 1TB ($350) and 500GB ($300) versions will be available on the 23rd. For comparison, the 500GB Xbox One (original) is currently $250. The Xbox One 1TB game console varies in price depending on game bundle.

What are your thoughts on the smaller console? While the ever so slight performance boost is a nice bonus, I definitely don't think that it is worth specifically upgrading for if you already have an Xbox One. If you have been holding off, now is the time to get a discounted original or smaller S version though! If you are hoping for more performance, definitely wait for Microsoft's Scorpio project or it's competitor the PlayStation 4 Neo (or even better a gaming PC right!? hehe).

I do know that Ryan has gotten his hands on the slimmer Xbox One S, so hopefully we will see some testing of our own as well as a teardown (hint, hint!).

Also read:

Source: Eurogamer

Microsoft Publishes HLSL Shader Model 6.0 MSDN Docs

Subject: Graphics Cards | August 2, 2016 - 07:37 AM |
Tagged: windows 10, vulkan, microsoft, DirectX 12

Update (August 3rd @ 4:30pm): Turns out Khronos Group announced at SIGGRAPH that Subgroup Instructions have been recently added to SPIR-V (skip video to 21:30), and are a "top priority" for "Vulkan Next". Some (like WaveBallot) are already ARB (multi-vendor) OpenGL extensions, too.

Original post below:

DirectX 12's shading language will receive some new functionality with the new Shader Model 6.0. According to their GDC talks, it is looking like it will be structured similar to SPIR-V in how it's compiled and ingested. Code will be compiled and optimized as an LLVM-style bytecode, which the driver will accept and execute on the GPU. This could make it easy to write DX12-compatible shader code in other languages, like C++, which is a direction that Vulkan is heading, but Microsoft hasn't seemed to announce that yet.

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This news shows a bit more of the nitty gritty details. It looks like they added 16-bit signed (short) and unsigned (ushort) integers, which might provide a performance improvement on certain architectures (although I'm not sure that it's new and/or GPUs exist the natively operate upon them) because they operate on half of the data as a standard, 32-bit integer. They have also added more functionality, to both the pixel and compute shaders, to operate in multiple threads, called lanes, similar to OpenCL. This should allow algorithms to work more efficiently in blocks of pixels, rather than needing to use one of a handful of fixed function calls (ex: partial derivates ddx and ddy) to see outside their thread.

When will this land? No idea, but it is conspicuously close to the Anniversary Update. It has been added to Feature Level 12.0, so its GPU support should be pretty good. Also, Vulkan exists, doing its thing. Not sure how these functions overlap with SPIR-V's feature set, but, since SPIR was original for OpenCL, it could be just sitting there for all I know.

Windows 10 Version 1607 Changes Driver Signing Policy

Subject: General Tech | August 1, 2016 - 06:33 PM |
Tagged: windows 10, microsoft

Remember, folks, that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions”. Microsoft has been trying to shed their stigma as a giant source of malware, but all solutions have side-effects, and those side-effects can have damaging consequences. When you believe that you or someone else is doing good, that is when you should be extra cautious, not less. It's a source of complacency.

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With tomorrow's Windows 10 Anniversary Update, Microsoft will require kernel-mode drivers to be signed by them on systems with Secure Boot enabled. This change will not affect PCs that have been upgraded from a previous version of Windows, including Windows 10 1507 and Windows 10 1511. That said, this could be a concern for those (like me) who are planning to clean install soon.

To me, this doesn't look like it will be that big of a deal. Hobbyists should be able to manage with either disabling Secure Boot, if their system allows it, or by fitting their driver around the user-mode framework. It might cause an issue with hotfix graphics drivers, though, which are pushed out before getting signed by Microsoft.

Also, if Microsoft changes their driver signing policy in the future, then this is could be (Update @ 7:30pm ET: original verbage was a little too strong) huge leverage against anyone attempting to circumvent it (such as implementing a graphics API that outperforms whatever DirectX version they have at the time -- see how Vulkan is not allowed on MacOSX). Even if you trust Microsoft now, you need to think about what Microsoft in 10+ years can do if they choose to.

Source: Microsoft

Windows 10 Free Upgrade Extended for Assistive Technologies

Subject: General Tech | July 30, 2016 - 06:37 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, windows 10

For the majority of users, the Windows 10 free upgrade period has just ended. That said, Microsoft is extending the offer for a specific group of people: those who use assistive technologies, such as text-to-speech software for those with visual impairments. They are being intentionally vague with which AT software allow users to qualify, which makes sense, because being pedantic to users with disabilities after offering it to everyone (sometimes like a hot potato) for a whole year wouldn't be the best PR.

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They haven't yet announced an end date for this new offer. They also haven't really discussed why they are making this exemption, although they do promote the upcoming Anniversary Update several times, with its new accessibility features highlighted. This makes me think that, while of course Microsoft is going to namedrop the new build whenever possible, they might have found that users were hesitant to upgrade to 1507 and 1511 because of accessibility concerns. Since the general public upgrade offer ended just before the Anniversary Update, they might be allowing those users to jump aboard Windows 10 even though their disability prevented them from using 1511.

Either way, it's a nice extension to make.

Source: Microsoft

Microsoft Converts Unreal Engine 4 to UWP

Subject: General Tech | July 27, 2016 - 08:47 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, epic games, unreal engine, unreal engine 4, ue4, uwp

The head of Epic Games, Tim Sweeney, doesn't like UWP too much, at least as it exists today (and for noble reasons). He will not support the new software (app) platform unless Microsoft makes some clear changes that guarantee perpetual openness. There really isn't anything, technically or legally, to prevent Microsoft (or an entity with authority over Microsoft, like governments, activists groups who petition government, and so forth) from undoing their changes going forward. If Microsoft drops support for Win32, apart from applications that are converted using Project Centennial or something, their catalog would be tiny.

Ridiculously tiny.

SteamOS would kick its butt levels of tiny, let alone OSX, Android, and countless others.

As a result, Microsoft keeps it around, despite its unruliness. Functionality that is required by legitimate software make it difficult to prevent malware, and, even without an infection, it can make the system just get junked up over time.

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UWP, on the other hand, is slimmer, contained, and authenticated with keys. This is theoretically easier to maintain, but at the expense of user control and freedom; freedom to develop and install software anonymously and without oversight. The first iteration was with Windows RT, which was basically iOS, right down to the “you cannot ship a web browser unless it is a reskin of Internet Explorer ((replace that for Safari in iOS' case))” and “content above ESRB M and PEGI 16 are banned from the OS” levels of control.

Since then, content guidelines have increased, sideloading has been added, and so forth. That said, unlike the technical hurdles of Win32, there's nothing to prevent Microsoft from, in the future, saying “Okay, we have enough software for lock in. Sideloading is being removed in Windows 10 version 2810” or something. I doubt that the current administration wants to do this, especially executives like Phil Spencer, but their unwillingness to make it impossible to be done in the future is frustrating. This could be a few clauses in the EULA that make it easy for users to sue Microsoft if a feature is changed, and/or some chunks of code that breaks compatibility if certain openness features are removed.

Some people complain that he wasn't this concerned about iOS, but he already said that it was a bad decision in hindsight. Apple waved a shiny device around, and it took a few years for developers to think “Wait a minute, what did I just sign away?” iOS is, indeed, just as bad as UWP could turn into, if not worse.

Remember folks, once you build a tool for censorship, they will come. They may also have very different beliefs about what should be allowed or disallowed than you do. This is scary stuff, albeit based on good intentions.

That rant aside, Microsoft's Advanced Technology Group (ATG) has produced a fork of Unreal Engine 4, which builds UWP content. It is based upon Unreal Engine 4.12, and they have apparently merged changes up to version 4.12.5. This makes sense, of course, because that version is required to use Visual Studio 2015 Update 3.

If you want to make a game in Unreal Engine 4 for the UWP platform, then you might be able to use Microsoft's version. That said, it is provided without warranty, and there might be some bugs that cropped up, which Epic Games will probably not help with. I somehow doubt that Microsoft will have a dedicated team that merges all fixes going forward, and I don't think this will change Tim's mind (although concrete limitations that guarantee openness might...). Use at your own risk, I guess, especially if you don't care about potentially missing out on whatever is added for 4.13 and on (unless you add it yourself).

The fork is available on Microsoft's ATG GitHub, with lots of uppercase typing.

Subject: General Tech
Manufacturer: Microsoft

Make Sure You Understand Before the Deadline

I'm fairly sure that any of our readers who want Windows 10 have already gone through the process to get it, and the rest have made it their mission to block it at all costs (or they don't use Windows).

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Regardless, there has been quite a bit of misunderstanding over the last couple of years, so it's better to explain it now than a week from now. Upgrading to Windows 10 will not destroy your original Windows 7 or Windows 8.x license. What you are doing is using that license to register your machine with Windows 10, which Microsoft will create a digital entitlement for. That digital entitlement will be good “for the supported lifetime of the Windows 10-enabled device”.

There's three misconceptions that kept recurring from the above paragraph.

First, “the supported lifetime of the Windows 10-enabled device” doesn't mean that Microsoft will deactivate Windows 10 on you. Instead, it apparently means that Microsoft will continue to update Windows 10, and require that users will keep the OS somewhat up to date (especially the Home edition). If an old or weird piece of hardware or software in your device becomes incompatible with that update, even if it is critical for the device to function, then Microsoft is allowing itself to shrug and say “that sucks”. There's plenty of room for legitimate complaints about this, and Microsoft's recent pattern of weakened QA and support, but the specific complaint that Microsoft is just trying to charge you down the line? False.

Second, even though I already stated it earlier in this post, I want to be clear: you can still go back to Windows 7 or Windows 8.x. Microsoft is granting the Windows 10 license for the Windows 7 or Windows 8.x device in addition to the original Windows 7 or Windows 8.x license granted to it. The upgrade process even leaves the old OS on your drive for a month, allowing the user to roll back through a recovery process. I've heard people say that, occasionally, this process can screw a few things up. It's a good idea to manage your own backup before upgrading, and/or plan on re-installing Windows 7 or 8.x the old fashioned way.

This brings us to the third misconception: you can re-install Windows 10 later!

If you upgrade to Windows 10, decide that you're better with Windows 7 or 8.x for a while, but decide to upgrade again in a few years, then your machine (assuming the hardware didn't change enough to look like a new device) will still use that Windows 10 entitlement that was granted to you on your first, free upgrade. You will need to download the current Windows 10 image from Microsoft's website, but, when you install it, you should be able to just input an empty license key (if they still ask for it by that point) and Windows 10 will pull down validation from your old activation.

If you have decided to avoid Windows 10, but based that decision on the above three, incorrect points? You now have the tools to make an informed decision before time runs out. Upgrading to Windows 10 (Update (immediate): waiting until it verifies that it successfully activated!) and rolling back is annoying, and it could be a hassle if it doesn't go cleanly (or your go super-safe and back-up ahead of time), but it might save you some money in the future.

On the other hand, if you don't want Windows 10, and never want Windows 10, then Microsoft will apparently stop asking Windows 7 and Windows 8.x users starting on the 29th, give or take.

The winnowing begins; move what you want to keep off of OneDrive

Subject: General Tech | July 15, 2016 - 01:34 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, onedrive

Starting today and wrapping up by the 27th of July, Microsoft will be deleting files from your free OneDrive accounts until you are under the 5GB limit.  If you did follow our previous coverage and grandfathered your storage you will keep your 30GB but it would not be a bad plan to keep an eye on your account over the next few weeks.  The Register reminds us that we are all suffering because of a tiny minority of users who abused the storage policy, instead of Microsoft deleting files from users such as the one who had 75TB of files stored on the service they decided to delete everyone's storage.

As I remind my users when the network drives get full, you will be much happier if you chose the files which are deleted as I am more than happy to hit CTRL-A and Delete to make space.

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"Microsoft is cutting its free 15GB OneDrive cloud storage space down to 5GB, and eliminating the 15GB free camera roll for many users. Files will be deleted by Redmond until your account is under the free limit."

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Source: The Register

Microsoft finally puts a price on the Enterprise version of Windows 10

Subject: General Tech | July 12, 2016 - 02:36 PM |
Tagged: windows 10, microsoft, enterprise

Thought that Microsoft did a poor job on the consumer side of Windows 10, you haven't being watching the absurdity which is the Enterprise version.  They took putting the cart in front of the horse to new levels but as of today we finally have a monthly price for a user.  This announcement comes several months after they removed the ability of system admins to block installation of random apps from the Windows Store for those using Windows 10 Professional.  It is also a week after they announced the removal of two popular components of the Microsoft Desktop Optimisation Pack, App-V and UE-V. 

Today we have received word that the Windows 10 Enterprise E3 version will be $7 per user per month, though we have yet to hear any pricing on the E5 version which includes Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection.  You can read more at Slashdot while you laugh about Microsoft's apparent confusion as to why businesses are not yet willing to adopt their new OS.

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"Microsoft plans to make its recently renamed Windows 10 Enterprise product available as a subscription for $7 per user per month, or $84 per year. Microsoft took the wraps off the pricing of one of the two renamed versions of Windows 10 Enterprise at the company's Worldwide Partner Conference in Toronto on July 12."

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Source: Slashdot