Microsoft Surface Book, taking the prize for most expensive laptop and running with it

Subject: Mobile | March 23, 2016 - 04:32 PM |
Tagged: surface, surface book, tablet, Skylake, notebook, microsoft, Intel

The Register is not exaggerating in the quote below, the new Microsoft Surface Book ranges from $1500-$3200 depending on the model you chose, passing even the overpriced Chromebook Pixel by quite a sum of money.  For that price you get a 3200x2000 (267ppi) 13.5" display on a tablet which weighs 3.34lbs (1.5kg), the detachable keyboard with an optional Nvidia GPU and an extra battery as well as a Surface pen.  If you want the dock which adds more connectivity options, well that is another $200 and seeing as how there is only two USB3.0 ports, a single MiniDP and an SD card reader on the keyboard you are likely to want it. 

Certainly The Register liked the looks, design and power of this ultrabook but with the competition, up to and including Apple, offering similar products at half the price it is a hard sell in the end.  Ryan expressed a similar opinion when he reveiwed the Surface Book.

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"Sumptuous and slightly absurd, Microsoft's Surface Book is the most expensive laptop you can get, short of ordering a 24-carat custom gold plated jobbie."

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Source: The Register

Just when you thought Patch Tuesday couldn't get any more absurd

Subject: General Tech | March 10, 2016 - 09:32 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, patch tuesday, windows 10

Microsoft is trying a lot of new things with Windows 10, unfortunately they seem to be things no one has asked for.  We have seen them about face on providing Knowledge Base information on updates, from hiding the actual updates which were being installed to providing a way for admins to actually see which updates were being pushed.  Then they tried out reinstalling and resetting default programs during updates, again something not particularly well received and so was discontinued.   Now Microsoft has found yet another trick to advertise the availability of Win10 to those who have not yet upgraded.  After this latest patch opening a new blank tab gives you a nice blue bar with the text 'Microsoft recommends upgrading to Windows 10.' ... because the pop up and emails were apparently not enough.

The Inquirer might be stretching it a bit when they refer to it as adware but it is certainly not the security patch it is billed as.  For a bit of added class you will never see KB3146449 in your list of installed updates, the only way you will know is if you get that message.  The hidden update is the real worry here, if a patch is released which you cannot determine is actually installed the difficulty to troubleshoot problems is vastly increased.  Advertise if you want but please don't make a habit of pushing hidden updates, OK?

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"JUST WHEN YOU thought Microsoft had stooped as low as it could with Updategate, along comes another low blow. This time it's an advertising payload hidden in a security patch."

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Source: The Inquirer

Microsoft Cancels Fable Legends

Subject: General Tech | March 7, 2016 - 11:44 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, lionhead, fable legends, dx12, DirectX 12

Officially, Microsoft has not yet shut down Lionhead Studios, but they have canceled Fable Legends. They “are in discussions with employees about the proposed closure of Lionhead Studios in the UK.” Press Play, another developer at Microsoft Studios in Europe, will be shut down as a result of this same announcement, but that studio only developed Xbox One titles, and so I'll defer to other gaming outlets to cover that part of the story.

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It's always unfortunate when jobs are cut, which seem certain given the closing paragraph of the Xbox announcement thanking them for their service. The weird part about this whole issue is how late plug was pulled in its development cycle. A closed beta has been operating for months, and a demo was shared with press as a DirectX 12 benchmark. The business model was supposed to be free-to-play, which means that it could potentially continue to bleed money after launch, but you would expect that concerns would have boiled over much earlier than now.

For our audience, this also means the cancellation of one of the expected, early implementations of DirectX 12. Lionhead Studios have also contributed to Unreal Engine 4 during the development of Fable Legends, particularly with shadow map optimization. I think their Global Illumination features, the main topic of the same article that was linked in this paragraph, were contributed upstream too, but I can't find an explicit source of that.

Microsoft Comments on UWP Games and Full Screen Capability

Subject: Graphics Cards | March 3, 2016 - 04:54 PM |
Tagged: uwp, uwa, universal windows platform, microsoft, full screen, dx12, DirectX 12

With all of the debate and discussion that followed the second release of Ashes of the Singularity's DX12 benchmark mode, questions about full screen capabilities on AMD hardware and a debate of the impact the Microsoft Store and Universal Windows Platform would have on PC gaming, we went to the source of the debate to try and get some feedback. Microsoft was willing to talk about the issues that arose from this most recent storm though honestly what it is willing to say on the record today is limited.

When asked specifically about the UWP and PC games made available on the Windows 10 Store, Microsoft reiterated its desire to work with gamers and the community to find what works.

“UWP (Universal Windows Platform) allows developers to create experiences that are easily deployed across all Windows 10 devices, from PCs to tablets to phones to Xbox One. When it comes to a UWP game on Windows 10 PCs, we’re early in our journey. We’re listening to the feedback from the community – multiple GPUs, SLI, crossfire, v-sync, etc. We’re embracing the feedback and working to ensure gamers on Windows 10 have a great experience. We’ll have more to discuss in the coming months.” – a Microsoft spokesperson

It's good to know that Microsoft is listening to the media and gamers and seems willing to make changes based on feedback. It will have to be seen though what of this feedback gets implemented and in what time frame.

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Universal Windows Platform

One particular fear for some gamers is that Microsoft would attempt to move to the WDDM compositing model not just for games sold in the Windows Store, but for all games that run on the OS. I asked Microsoft directly:

To answer your question, can we assume that those full screen features that work today with DX12 will work in the future as well – yes.

This should ease the worries of people thinking the very worst for Windows and DX12 gaming going forward. As long as DX12 allows for games to enter into an exclusive full screen mode, like the FlipEx option we discussed in a previous story, games sold through Steam, Origin and anywhere else will have the ability to behave with DX12 as they do today with DX11.

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Windows 10 Store

I have some meetings setup with various viewpoints on this debate for GDC in a couple weeks, so expect more then!

Microsoft plans to merge PC and Xbox gaming

Subject: General Tech | March 1, 2016 - 04:05 PM |
Tagged: xbox one, windows 10, uwp, uwa, universal windows platform, pc gaming, microsoft, consoles

If my editorial from yesterday didn't get you interested in this discussion, then perhaps a new line of talking from Microsoft's Phil Spencer will do the job. During its spring presser, the company's gaming lead talked about a plan to merge the PC and Xbox gaming experiences with cross platform gaming, universal applications and compatibility for upgraded Xbox consoles. I found a great write up over at The Guardian that I will pick some of the quotes from and then offer up my views.

Now it seems Microsoft’s plan is to shift the entire development model towards universal applications that run across PC and console – indeed any machine that’s compatible with the Universal Windows Platform. This could have radical implications for the console model, which so far has always been based on the idea that the hardware has to remain largely unchanged throughout the machine’s lifespan.

Much like I detailed in yesterday's story, the Universal Windows Platform and applications are the key here, with the goal of allowing developers to code a single game or program that will run on the entire gamut of PCs in the world including desktops and tablets, as well as on the Xbox One game console. 

“In other [consumer technology] ecosystems you get more continuous innovation in hardware that you rarely see in consoles because consoles lock the hardware and software platforms together at the beginning and they ride the generation out for seven years or so,” said Spencer. “We’re allowing ourselves to decouple our software platform from the hardware platform on which it runs.”

I am actually incredibly excited for the idea of more, and more frequently, updated Xbox hardware from Microsoft. Like it or not, with UWP or without it, consoles and their hardware capability have always been a somewhat limiting factor on how much effort game devs put into creating new games for the PC. If we can depend on newer console hardware, and that games will more ably handle newer, faster components, then it raises the ceiling for image quality, new features, experiences like VR, etc.

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“We can effectively feel a little bit more like what we see on PC where I can still go back and run my old Quake and Doom games, but then I can also see the best 4K games coming out. Hardware innovation continues and software takes advantage. I don’t have to jump generation and lose everything I played before.”

Expect to see some rolled eyes as you read this quote from Spencer; as PC gamers we already HAVE that capability and the move to UWP and UWAs is threatening to hinder that for us going forward. The PC has seen Steam, Origin, DRM-free gaming, an accelerated path to digital distribution, mods, overlays, benchmarking - all things that were held back or outlawed on consoles.

The Xbox chief ended his keynote by reiterating the importance of the PC as a gaming platform. He promised that UWAs will support multiple different graphics processors and that issues with V-Sync ( a setting that matches the game framerate with your monitor’s screen refresh rate) would be resolved.

Enabling support for different GPUs is a good promise, but much more important than just saying it is knowing HOW that support will be handled. As we saw based on our testing and research with Ashes of the Singularity, just supporting Radeon and GeForce cards isn't enough. What about features unique to each GPU? What about SLI and CrossFire? Variable refresh rate monitors? Enabling maximum performance with exclusive fullscreen modes? There is a lot to be answered and discussed. 

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Quantum Break will be on PC, exclusively as a Unified Windows App

This also marks the second time I have heard Spencer mention a "fix" for Vsync issues. I'd love to hear what they have in mind, and I have asked MS several times, but so far I haven't gotten any kind of solid answer. The real question is: does MS understand the problem and the gaming community on the PC well enough to even know what the problem is they are trying to fix?

The big question now is how onboard the development community is with the UWA concept. In theory, these apps should run seamlessly on top of PC and Xbox One architectures, with abstractions to exploit the graphics processors, system memory and other hardware features, as well as compatibility with Microsoft’s DirectX application programming interface (API) for enhanced graphics performance. But will the reality match the promise?

"In theory" and "in practice" are two wildly different things, and we've already seen one example of this not going as planned. I do believe that game developers would jump at the chance to have true cross compatibility as long as the hiccups and issues we are discussing can be dealt with in a reasonable way. It just makes sense: this eases development hurdles and expands the possible customer base.

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Outside of Microsoft, it will be interesting to see how studios react. “In principle UWA sounds like a good idea,” says Byron Atkinson-Jones, a veteran games programmer, now running his own indie studio, Xiotex, and working on sci-fi puzzler, Caretaker. “It offers a more unified platform or environment rather than a fragmented operating systems running on an even more fragmented hardware base. However, this is all reliant on just how hard it is to develop for and how much of a closed shop it will become.

“The best thing about PC is that anyone can make a game for it and UWA sounds like it’s going to become a curated system that will probably require some developer registration to get on.”

Exactly this. The benefit of the PC is its openness, even when running on Windows (as opposed to SteamOS or Linux, for example.) If you take that away, will developers and gamers start to walk? 

Given that Microsoft is promoting UWP as a catch-all platform for Windows 10 that encompasses Xbox one, what does this mean in terms of support for the console’s hardware specifications? “As it stands currently, if you are making an Xbox one game you can be sure on what kind of hardware it’s running,” says Atkinson-Jones. “If developers are then forced down a UWA route, is it going to be the case that this certainty is gone and we get back to the situation on PC where you have to start specifying a minimum spec – which kind of renders a unified platform redundant?”

I disagree that having a minimum spec makes a unified platform less useful, it simply sets a standard for which experience and gameplay can be measured. Even Apple iPhones and iOS implement this to some degree and they have as locked down of a software ecosystem as you can get. If it's handled correctly, Microsoft could be the arbiter of hardware classification and certification, as they kind of already are with WHQL, making sure that any PC hardware or updated Xbox hardware will pass the test for previous and upcoming gaming titles.

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But that is a very difficult task and is likely why MS would like to integrate some restrictions through the API and Windows compositing engine to help them hold that promise moving into the future.

But he will have to convince not just gamers, but the development community. “Microsoft has tried this before with Games for Windows and that was a disaster,” says Atkinson-Jones. “There will be many game developers who had to go through that monstrosity shaking their heads in disbelief that history may just be about to repeat itself.”

Oh yeah, that...remember Games for Windows Live? Remember when it cratered and we had to deal with the fallout of some games not working without GWL servers running? Or just the complication of needing a unique sign-in that often tied the game down in unwieldy ways? That's the dystopian future that PC gamers want to avoid.

All of that being said, I'm still hopeful that Microsoft can turn this into a positive movement. Removing the 7 year upgrade cycle for the Xbox One means that PC gamers will benefit from moving specs on the consoles, giving game developers the ability to target higher end hardware as the platform evolves. I do believe that cross platform games will mean an increase in innovative titles with expanded audiences and more opportunity for developers to make money for their work. But all of this has to be done with more sensitivity to the PC ecosystem than it is being addressed with currently. If nothing else, PC gamers are a loud and easily started group.

Be sure you read the full story over at The Guardian!

Source: The Guardian
Author:
Manufacturer: Microsoft

Things are about to get...complicated

Earlier this week, the team behind Ashes of the Singularity released an updated version of its early access game, which updated its features and capabilities. With support for DirectX 11 and DirectX 12, and adding in multiple graphics card support, the game featured a benchmark mode that got quite a lot of attention. We saw stories based on that software posted by Anandtech, Guru3D and ExtremeTech, all of which had varying views on the advantages of one GPU or another.

That isn’t the focus of my editorial here today, though.

Shortly after the initial release, a discussion began around results from the Guru3D story that measured frame time consistency and smoothness with FCAT, a capture based testing methodology much like the Frame Rating process we have here at PC Perspective. In that post on ExtremeTech, Joel Hruska claims that the results and conclusion from Guru3D are wrong because the FCAT capture methods make assumptions on the output matching what the user experience feels like.  Maybe everyone is wrong?

First a bit of background: I have been working with Oxide and the Ashes of the Singularity benchmark for a couple of weeks, hoping to get a story that I was happy with and felt was complete, before having to head out the door to Barcelona for the Mobile World Congress. That didn’t happen – such is life with an 8-month old. But, in my time with the benchmark, I found a couple of things that were very interesting, even concerning, that I was working through with the developers.

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FCAT overlay as part of the Ashes benchmark

First, the initial implementation of the FCAT overlay, which Oxide should be PRAISED for including since we don’t have and likely won’t have a DX12 universal variant of, was implemented incorrectly, with duplication of color swatches that made the results from capture-based testing inaccurate. I don’t know if Guru3D used that version to do its FCAT testing, but I was able to get some updated EXEs of the game through the developer in order to the overlay working correctly. Once that was corrected, I found yet another problem: an issue of frame presentation order on NVIDIA GPUs that likely has to do with asynchronous shaders. Whether that issue is on the NVIDIA driver side or the game engine side is still being investigated by Oxide, but it’s interesting to note that this problem couldn’t have been found without a proper FCAT implementation.

With all of that under the bridge, I set out to benchmark this latest version of Ashes and DX12 to measure performance across a range of AMD and NVIDIA hardware. The data showed some abnormalities, though. Some results just didn’t make sense in the context of what I was seeing in the game and what the overlay results were indicating. It appeared that Vsync (vertical sync) was working differently than I had seen with any other game on the PC.

For the NVIDIA platform, tested using a GTX 980 Ti, the game seemingly randomly starts up with Vsync on or off, with no clear indicator of what was causing it, despite the in-game settings being set how I wanted them. But the Frame Rating capture data was still working as I expected – just because Vsync is enabled doesn’t mean you can look at the results in capture formats. I have written stories on what Vsync enabled captured data looks like and what it means as far back as April 2013. Obviously, to get the best and most relevant data from Frame Rating, setting vertical sync off is ideal. Running into more frustration than answers, I moved over to an AMD platform.

Continue reading PC Gaming Shakeup: Ashes of the Singularity, DX12 and the Microsoft Store!!

Lock Screen Ads Apparently Come to Windows 10

Subject: General Tech | February 27, 2016 - 12:48 AM |
Tagged: windows 10, microsoft

I haven't seen these first hand, but several tech blogs are reporting that Microsoft has begun advertising on the Windows 10 lock screen. In this case, a full screen image from Rise of the Tomb Raider appears to be overlaid with a few links, like we used to see on the Bing homepage (except that this seems to launch the Windows Store app).

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Image Credit: David McGavern via Twitter

One key thing to note, though, is that Microsoft allows you to disable these. If you go to Settings -> Personalization -> Lock screen, you can flip “Get fun facts, tips, tricks, and more on your lock screen” to off. It also doesn't appear to be targeted based on your personal information, although that is difficult to tell with a sample size of 1. In that case, however, where the ad is located would be fairly irrelevant.

Personally, I'm not too upset. Microsoft allows an easy, safe opt-out, although the option could be better labeled. Regardless of the number of people who block the ads, the part that matters is how intrusive they are. If the setting continuously reverts, or it moves to Group Policy, the registry, or worse, then it could be a problem. (Or, of course, if it sacrifices usability, performance, or security.)

The last part is an interesting note. I've read a few comments that are concerned about it being an attack vector for malware. They seem to assume it must be, but not necessarily (relative to other theoretical attacks, like Microsoft.com itself getting hacked). It looks like everything is served directly from Microsoft, and the functionality is severely limited. It could be done right, but yes, it's possible that they could be tricked in the future into providing a malicious link (just like they could be tricked into hosting a malicious app at the Windows Store itself). They mostly depends on the volume and type of ads they plan to integrate into the OS, and where.

Windows Store brings me to my personal concern -- antitrust.

Governments have been more permissive about this issue than they were two decades ago. Back then, the integration of web browsers and media applications were cause for litigation. Now, companies like Apple are able to ship OSes that disallow third-party browsers (beyond just reskins of Safari). (Update: Feb 26th @ 8:48pm - There was a bit of confusion. I am referring to iOS, specifically. Mac OSX allows full third-party web browsers. The example was referring to how iOS is legally treated compared to how Windows XP/Vista/7 was.)  Again, Microsoft needed to put a browser ballot in Windows XP, Vista, and 7, yet, when Windows RT launched, they would completely ban any web browser unless it used Internet Explorer's Trident engine. Think about that direction shift for a moment.

I wouldn't accuse Windows Store of having a dominant stance in digital distribution market share, but it definitely has unique exposure within the OS. This could become a growing concern, especially if Microsoft progresses with their initiatives. At the same time, several other platform owners are doing the same thing (pretty much all of them). Should we place boundaries on this behavior? If so, what and how?

Microsoft Ends Project Astoria, the Windows Phone "Bridge for Android" Apps

Subject: Mobile | February 26, 2016 - 05:04 PM |
Tagged: windows phone, Project Astoria, microsoft, developers, build 2015, Android

A smartphone is nothing without a large selection of quality apps these days, and to that end it seemed Microsoft was going to follow the BlackBerry OS 10 method (injecting life into a platform barren of software by borrowing Android apps) when they announced the "Windows Bridge for Android" last year.

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(Image credit: Microsoft)

Blackberry accomplished this by adding the Amazon app store to OS 10, which gave BB users at least some of the apps an Android user has access to via Google Play. BlackBerry also provided devs tools to help them convert Android apps to run on the BB 10 OS platform, but the market share of BB OS 10 just isn’t high enough to justify many doing this.

Microsoft appeared to be headed in this direction when they introduced Project Astoria at last year’s Build conference, which was going to enable devs to bring Android apps over to the Windows mobile OS. Well, that’s over. In an update published yesterday by Kevin Gallo, Microsoft’s Director of Windows Developer Platform, this news was spun positively (of course).

“We also announced the Windows Bridge for Android (project “Astoria”) at Build last year, and some of you have asked about its status. We received a lot of feedback that having two Bridge technologies to bring code from mobile operating systems to Windows was unnecessary, and the choice between them could be confusing. We have carefully considered this feedback and decided that we would focus our efforts on the Windows Bridge for iOS and make it the single Bridge option for bringing mobile code to all Windows 10 devices, including Xbox and PCs. For those developers who spent time investigating the Android Bridge, we strongly encourage you to take a look at the iOS Bridge and Xamarin as great solutions.”

To editoralize here a bit, I will add that I own a Lumia smartphone, and in my experience Windows Phone is an innovative and extremely efficient mobile OS. However, the lack of quality apps (and the non-existent updates for those that do exist) is too great a barrier to use a Windows Phone as my primary device. It’s telling that BlackBerry's latest smartphone, the Priv, runs Android, as BlackBerry has effectively given up trying to compete with their own OS.

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BlackBerry Priv, which runs the Android 5 OS (image credit: BlackBerry)

Microsoft seems unwilling to do this, but they are a software company first and foremost and that's not surprising. But as a hardware company they have struggled with portable devices, as we saw with the ill-fated Kin smartphone, and of course the Zune music player. Android is the only realistic option if you want to compete with iOS on a smartphone, but Microsoft hasn't given up on the OS just yet. As much as I like the tiled interface, I think it's time to say goodbye to this iteration of Windows Mobile.

Source: Microsoft

Xamarin Acquired by Microsoft

Subject: General Tech | February 24, 2016 - 09:41 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, xamarin, Qt, .net, mono

Microsoft has purchased Xamarin, who currently maintain the Mono project.

This requires a little background. The .NET Framework was announced in 2000, and it quickly became one of the most popular structures to write native applications, especially simple ones. Apart from ASP.NET, which is designed for servers, support extended back to Windows 98, but it really defined applications throughout the Windows XP era. If you ever downloaded utilities that were mostly checkboxes and text elements, they were probably developed in .NET and programmed in C#.

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Today, Qt and Web are very popular choice for new applications, but .NET is keeping up.

The Mono project brought the .NET framework, along with its managed languages such as C#, to Linux, Mac, and also Windows because why not. Android and iOS versions exist from Xamarin, under the name Xamarin.iOS and Xamarin.Android, but those are proprietary. Now that Microsoft has purchased Xamarin, it would seem like they now control the .NET-derived implementations on Android and iOS. The Mono project itself, as it exists for Linux, Mac, and Windows, are under open licenses, so (apart from Microsoft's patents that were around since day one) the framework could always be forked if the community dislikes the way it is developing. To visualize the scenario, think of when LibreOffice split from OpenOffice a little while after Oracle purchased Sun.

If they do split, however, it would likely be without iOS and Android components.

Source: Microsoft

Quantum Break Will Require Windows 10 (and DirectX 12)

Subject: General Tech | February 17, 2016 - 11:47 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, windows 10, pc gaming, DirectX 12

Last week, Microsoft announced that Quantum Break would arrive on the PC. At the same time, they listed the system requirements, which included the requirement of Windows 10. It will only be available on Windows 10 (outside of Xbox One). They also mentioned that the game would require DirectX 12, which made the issue more interesting. It wasn't that Microsoft was pushing their OS with first-party software, they were using an API that is only available in Windows 10, and it had the potential to make a better video game.

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Then they announced that it would only be available on Windows Store, which swings the pendulum back in the other direction. Oh well, it was nice while it lasted.

In all seriousness, we'll probably see games begin to deprecate DirectX 11 once DirectX 12 (or Vulkan) becomes ubiquitous. These new APIs significantly change how content is designed and submit to GPU(s), and do so in ways that seem difficult to scale back. Granted, I've talked to game developers and I've yet to have my suspicions validated, but it seems like the real benefit of the APIs will be when art and content can be created differently -- more objects, simpler objects, potentially splitting materials that are modified into separate instances, and so forth.

Quantum Break will come out on April 5th, along with a few other DX12-based titles.

Source: PC Gamer