Original Xbox Games Potentially Emulated on Windows

Subject: General Tech | June 13, 2017 - 04:08 PM |
Tagged: xbox, pc gaming, microsoft

Before we begin, the source of this post is a PC Gamer interview with Microsoft’s Phil Spencer, who leads the Xbox team. The tone seems to be relaxed and conversational, so, for now, it should be taken as something that he, personally, wants to see, not what the division is actually planning, necessarily.

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Still, after it was announced that the Xbox One would get emulation for original Xbox titles at the Xbox E3 2017 Press Conference, PC Gamer asked whether that feature, like so many others lately, could make it to the PC.

His responses: “Yes.” and “I want people to be able to play games!”

He also talked about Xbox 360 emulation on PC, specifically how it would be difficult, but he wants games to run across console and PC. “I want developers to be able to build portable games, which is why we’ve been focusing on UWP for games and even apps that want to run on multiple devices.”

You might know my personal opinions about UWP by now, specifically how it limits artistic freedom going forward through signed apps and developers, which is a problem for civil rights groups that either need to remain anonymous or publish expressions that governments (etc.) don’t want to see public, but cross-device is indeed one of the two reasons that it’s seductive for Microsoft. Content written for it (unless it finds an unpatched exploit, like how Apple iOS jailbreaks work) cannot do malware-like things, and they should be abstract enough to easily hop platforms.

But you won’t see me talk ill about preserving old content, especially if it could be lost to time based on a platform decision they made fifteen years ago. I hope that we do see original Xbox games on the PC. I also hope that we develop art in a medium that doesn’t need awkward methods of preservation, though.

Source: PC Gamer

Project Scorpio Unveiled as "Xbox One X," Lands November 7th for $499

Subject: General Tech | June 11, 2017 - 04:56 PM |
Tagged: Xbox Scorpio, xbox, microsoft, E3

At its E3 2017 keynote Sunday, Microsoft finally unveiled the official details for its upcoming "Project Scorpio" console, now called "Xbox One X." The console, surprisingly smaller than even the Xbox One S, will launch November 7, 2017 and, as expected, will be priced at $499, the same launch price of the original Xbox One in November 2013.

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With a maximum 6 teraflops of GPU horsepower and a class-leading 326GB/s memory bandwidth, Microsoft is hoping that its significant performance advantage over Sony's $399 PS4 Pro, as well as its ability to play UHD Blu-ray discs, will help justify the $100 price difference for consumers.

  Xbox One X PS4 Pro

CPU

2.3GHz 8-Core 2.16 GHz 8-Core
GPU 6 TFLOPS 4.2 TFLOPS
Memory 12GB GDDR5 8GB GDDR5
Memory Bandwidth 326 GB/s 218 GB/s
UHD Discs Yes No
Storage 1TB HDD 1TB HDD
Price $499 $399

One of the criticisms of the PS4 Pro is that many of the games "optimized" for the system do not utilize 4K assets or run at true 4K resolution. In response, Microsoft clarified repeatedly throughout its keynote that many games designed for Xbox One X will indeed run at 4K/60fps. While Microsoft will likely ensure that its own house-published titles and those from close partners will hit this mark, it remains to be seen how well cross-platform games from third parties will fare.

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As for those who don't have 4K displays, Xbox One X will use supersampling to increase perceived resolution and quality at 1080p. The popular Xbox 360 backwards compatibility feature (which will soon include original Xbox games) will also benefit from the Xbox One X's increased horsepower, with Microsoft promising faster load times and improved anti-aliasing.

As with the PS4 Pro, all games will support both console generations, with many titles going forward "enhanced for Xbox One X." One of Sony's biggest problems is the lack of games that truly take advantage of the PS4 Pro's unique features, so Microsoft's ability to bring third party developers on board will be key to the Xbox One X's success.

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We'll need the console to hit the market to get a more detailed look at its technical specifications, but based on Microsoft's claimed performance numbers, the Xbox One X looks like a relatively good deal from a hardware perspective. The console's 6 TFLOPS of graphics processing power compares to an NVIDIA GTX 1070, which currently retails for just over $400. Add in the 1TB hard drive, custom 8-core CPU, and UHD Blu-ray player, and the price is suddenly not so unreasonable. Of course, newer cards like the AMD Radeon RX 580 also hit around 6 TFLOPS for ~$220, but you won't be able to find one of those these days. At a $100 premium over the PS4 Pro, however, it's unclear how the console community will value the Xbox One X's hardware advantage.

One thing that is clear is that Microsoft's Xbox team wasn't too happy to be the source of mockery based on performance and sales for the past four years, and they're highly motivated to come out swinging this fall.

Preorders for Xbox One X have yet to be announced, but you'll find the Amazon pre-order page here when orders go live.

Source:

AI to the rescue? Microsoft assimilates the security company Hexadite

Subject: General Tech | June 8, 2017 - 12:42 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, hexadite, windows defender, security

If you have never heard of Hexadite you are not alone, the online security company was formed in 2014, headquartered in Boston but based in Tel-Aviv.  As it was just purchased by Microsoft for around $100 million so they can integrate Hexadite's Automated Incident Response Solution into their Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection.  AIRS is not antivirus software, instead it is a tool that integrates with existing software and monitors for any alerts.  Once an alert is detected the tool automatically investigates that alert and searches for solutions, in theory saving your security teams sanity by vastly reducing the number of alerts they must deal with directly.  It will be interesting to see if this has an effect on the perception of companies and users as to the effectiveness of Windows Defender. 

More over at The Inquirer.

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"Hexadite's technology and talent will augment our existing capabilities and enable our ability to add new tools and services to Microsoft's robust enterprise security offerings."

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Source: The Inquirer

Skype Deprecates Several Platforms

Subject: General Tech | June 6, 2017 - 02:27 AM |
Tagged: skype, microsoft

Microsoft has just announced that they will be retiring several Skype apps in about a month’s time (July 1st). The affected platforms are Windows Phone 8, Windows Phone 8.1, Messaging for Windows 10 Mobile, Windows RT, and Skype apps for TV. It’s important to note that Skype for Windows Phone still works, although it requires the Windows 10 Mobile Anniversary Update or later. This was originally announced last year, but no date was given at the time (just "in the coming months").

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Some sites are noting a workaround for affected users: Skype for Web. Unfortunately, this is probably not a viable option in most circumstances. Specifically, Skype for Web does not officially support mobile browsers, which means that Windows RT users might be in luck, but every other affected device is without options come July 1st.

Source: Thurrott

Rumor: New Edition of Windows 10 Pro Planned

Subject: General Tech | June 6, 2017 - 02:07 AM |
Tagged: microsoft, windows, windows 10

The Verge is reporting on an allegedly leaked slide from Microsoft that announces a new edition of Windows 10 Pro. It is given the placeholder name “Windows 10 Pro for Workstation PCs” and it has four advertised features: Workstations mode, ReFS, SMBDirect, the ability to use up to four CPUs, and the ability to use up to 6TB of RAM.

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Image Credit: GrandMofongo (Twitter)

If this rumor is true, I don’t believe that it will behave like Windows 10 Enterprise. Because it unlocks the ability to address more RAM and CPU sockets, I doubt that users would be able to switch between Windows 10 Pro and “Windows 10 Pro for Workstation PCs” with just a no-reboot login to an Azure Active Directory. This is just speculation, of course, and speculation on a rumor at that.

The Workstation mode is kind-of interesting, though. The Windows 10 Creators Update introduced Game Mode, which allowed games to be prioritized over other software for higher performance (although it hasn’t been a hit so far). Last month, they also announced power management features to throttle background apps, but only when running on battery power. It makes sense that Microsoft would apply the same concepts wherever it would be beneficial, whether that’s optimizing for performance or efficiency for any given workload.

It does seem like an odd headlining feature for a new edition, which I’d assume requires an up-sell over the typical Windows 10 Pro SKU, when they haven’t demonstrated a clear win for Game Mode yet? What do you all think?

Source: The Verge
Subject: General Tech
Manufacturer: The Khronos Group

An Data Format for Whole 3D Scenes

The Khronos Group has finalized the glTF 2.0 specification, and they recommend that interested parties integrate this 3D scene format into their content pipeline starting now. It’s ready.

khronos-2017-glTF_500px_June16.png

glTF is a format to deliver 3D content, especially full scenes, in a compact and quick-loading data structure. These features differentiate glTF from other 3D formats, like Autodesk’s FBX and even the Khronos Group’s Collada, which are more like intermediate formats between tools, such as 3D editing software (ex: Maya and Blender) and game engines. They don’t see a competing format for final scenes that are designed to be ingested directly, quick and small.

glTF 2.0 makes several important changes.

The previous version of glTF was based on a defined GLSL material, which limited how it could be used, although it did align with WebGL at the time (and that spurred some early adoption). The new version switches to Physically Based Rendering (PBR) workflows to define their materials, which has a few advantages.

khronos-2017-PBR material model in glTF 2.0.jpg

First, PBR can represent a wide range of materials with just a handful of parameters. Rather than dictating a specific shader, the data structure can just... structure the data. The industry has settled on two main workflows, metallic-roughness and specular-gloss, and glTF 2.0 supports them both. (Metallic-roughness is the core workflow, but specular-gloss is provided as an extension, and they can be used together in the same scene. Also, during the briefing, I noticed that transparency was not explicitly mentioned in the slide deck, but the Khronos Group confirmed that it is stored as the alpha channel of the base color, and thus supported.) Because the format is now based on existing workflows, the implementation can be programmed in OpenGL, Vulkan, DirectX, Metal, or even something like a software renderer. In fact, Microsoft was a specification editor on glTF 2.0, and they have publicly announced using the format in their upcoming products.

The original GLSL material, from glTF 1.0, is available as an extension (for backward compatibility).

A second advantage of PBR is that it is lighting-independent. When you define a PBR material for an object, it can be placed in any environment and it will behave as expected. Noticeable, albeit extreme examples of where this would have been useful are the outdoor scenes of Doom 3, and the indoor scenes of Battlefield 2. It also simplifies asset creation. Some applications, like Substance Painter and Quixel, have artists stencil materials onto their geometry, like gold, rusted iron, and scuffed plastic, and automatically generate the appropriate textures. It also aligns well with deferred rendering, see below, which performs lighting as a post-process step and thus skip pixels (fragments) that are overwritten.

epicgames-2017-suntempledeferred.png

PBR Deferred Buffers in Unreal Engine 4 Sun Temple.
Lighting is applied to these completed buffers, not every fragment.

glTF 2.0 also improves support for complex animations by adding morph targets. Most 3D animations, beyond just moving, rotating, and scaling whole objects, are based on skeletal animations. This method works by binding vertexes to bones, and moving, rotating, and scaling a hierarchy of joints. This works well for humans, animals, hinges, and other collections of joints and sockets, and it was already supported in glTF 1.0. Morph targets, on the other hand, allow the artist to directly control individual vertices between defined states. This is often demonstrated with a facial animation, interpolating between smiles and frowns, but, in an actual game, this is often approximated with skeletal animations (for performance reasons). Regardless, glTF 2.0 now supports morph targets, too, letting the artists make the choice that best suits their content.

Speaking of performance, the Khronos Group is also promoting “enhanced performance” as a benefit of glTF 2.0. I asked whether they have anything to elaborate on, and they responded with a little story. While glTF 1.0 validators were being created, one of the engineers compiled a list of design choices that would lead to minor performance issues. The fixes for these were originally supposed to be embodied in a glTF 1.1 specification, but PBR workflows and Microsoft’s request to abstract the format away from GLSL lead to glTF 2.0, which is where the performance optimization finally ended up. Basically, there wasn’t just one or two changes that made a big impact; it was the result of many tiny changes that add up.

Also, the binary version of glTF is now a core feature in glTF 2.0.

khronos-2017-gltfroadmap.png

The slide looks at the potential future of glTF, after 2.0.

Looking forward, the Khronos Group has a few items on their glTF roadmap. These did not make glTF 2.0, but they are current topics for future versions. One potential addition is mesh compression, via the Google Draco team, to further decrease file size of 3D geometry. Another roadmap entry is progressive geometry streaming, via Fraunhofer SRC, which should speed up runtime performance.

Yet another roadmap entry is “Unified Compression Texture Format for Transmission”, specifically Basis by Binomial, for texture compression that remains as small as possible on the GPU. Graphics processors can only natively operate on a handful of formats, like DXT and ASTC, so textures need to be converted when they are loaded by an engine. Often, when a texture is loaded at runtime (rather than imported by the editor) it will be decompressed and left in that state on the GPU. Some engines, like Unity, have a runtime compress method that converts textures to DXT, but the developer needs to explicitly call it and the documentation says it’s lower quality than the algorithm used by the editor (although I haven’t tested this). Suffices to say, having a format that can circumvent all of that would be nice.

Again, if you’re interested in adding glTF 2.0 to your content pipeline, then get started. It’s ready. Microsoft is doing it, too.

Windows Git gud

Subject: General Tech | May 29, 2017 - 02:41 PM |
Tagged: git, windows, microsoft

Microsoft have moved their huge collection of source code from an internal proprietary tool to Git.  The repository is 300 GB and is very popular with The Register reporting 8,421 pull requests and 1,760 official builds a day.  To help people access the repository they have developed their own Git Virtual File System, which present Git as a FAT file system to users.  This has not been viewed as favourably as they had hoped, the popularity is causing the service to process requests slowly, however it is still generally faster than going straight to Git.  If you want to give it a shot, read through this blog post over at Microsoft.

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"Redmond's certainly feeling pleased with itself about the move, in particular stroking itself about being able to move the whole 2,000-strong Windows OneCore team from the Source Depot internal tool to Git over a weekend."

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Source: The Register

Win-ning friends in the workplace and hoping you hate group policy

Subject: General Tech | May 23, 2017 - 03:08 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, Win 10, enterprise

Microsoft is continuing with their policy of self inflicted hurdles for Enterprise adoption of Windows 10.  We have known for a while that Group Policy no longer works as expected on the new version of Windows and today The Inquirer posted more exact information this particular issue.  A security researcher locked down a machine using Group Policy settings and found that even with policies in place to prevent certain protocols and services, the machine continued to attempt connections.  The most damning proof of all was on a machine set to extreme security, with all but connections to Microsoft Update blocked, that still happily attempted to connect to advertising servers.  The marketshare of Win 10 devices in the workplace does not look to be on the rise any time soon.

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"On Monday, we revealed that a security researcher had used a packet sniffer to show that many settings designed to prevent access to the internet were being ignored with connections to a range of third party servers including advertising hubs."

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Source: The Inquirer

Microsoft Announces New Surface Pro Featuring Kaby Lake and Optional LTE

Subject: Mobile | May 23, 2017 - 10:24 AM |
Tagged: Surface Pro, surface, microsoft

As part of its Shanghai Event this morning, Microsoft announced a long-overdue update to the Surface Pro. While the new device retains the design and form factor of its predecessor, the Surface Pro 4, it still packs a few new features that Surface users have been waiting for.

new-surface-pro.jpg

First off, Microsoft has used this revision to officially drop the numbering scheme from the product lineup. Rather than the expected "Surface Pro 5" moniker, Microsoft is now calling the product simply "Surface Pro," and will presumably use release year to differentiate models going forward.

Internally, the new Surface Pro finally makes the jump to Kaby Lake, with processor options including the Core m3-7Y30 on the low-end, the Core i5-7300U for the mid-range model, and topping out with the Core i7-7660U. These CPUs offer Intel HD 615, 620, and Iris Plus 640 graphics, respectively. The move to Kaby Lake, coupled with Microsoft's battery design improvements, also brings a nice boost to battery life, with the new Surface Pro offering an advertised 13.5 hours of video playback (the only usage scenario that Microsoft has thus far revealed). While we're interested to see other battery-life tests, the new Surface Pro's running time bests its predecessor by an impressive 50 percent, as the Surface Pro 4 was rated for only 9 hours of video playback.

In terms of connectivity, the new Surface Pro offers all of the same ports and I/O as the Surface Pro 4, with one big exception: LTE. Although not available at launch, new Surface Pro models with built-in 4G LTE will be available "later this year." This isn't the first Surface device to feature built-in LTE -- Microsoft offered limited availability of LTE-enabled non-Pro Surface 3 models back in 2015 -- but this is the first time that the feature will be available for the Pro lineup.

new-surface-pro-studio-mode.png

Other design and functionality changes include a redesigned kickstand that will tilt back 165 degrees for a "Studio Mode" experience (Surface Pro 4 only had 150 degrees of tilt), support for the Surface Dial directly on the Surface Pro's screen (it had previously been limited to desktop use), and a new optional "Signature Type Cover," with improved key travel, higher-resolution glass trackpad, and featuring the same Alcantara fabric found on Microsoft's recently-released Surface Laptop.

On the downside, this new Surface Pro doesn't offer any improvements or changes to its display, port selection, RAM and storage capacities, or cameras. Even more disappointingly, the Surface Pen is no longer included, requiring users interested in pen functionality to shell out an extra $60.

The new Surface Pro starts at $799 and is available for pre-order now. It is expected to ship mid-June. Check out the Microsoft Store for pricing and specs on all Surface Pro configurations.

Source: Microsoft

Pot, meet kettle. Is it worse to hoard exploits or patches?

Subject: General Tech | May 16, 2017 - 01:27 PM |
Tagged: security, microsoft

Microsoft and the NSA have each been blaming the other for the ability of WannaCrypt to utilize a vulnerability in SMBv1 to spread.  Microsoft considers the NSA's decision not to share the vulnerabilities which their Eternalblue tool utilizes with Microsoft and various other security companies to be the cause of this particular outbreak.  Conversely, the fact is that while Microsoft developed patches to address this vulnerability for versions of Windows including WinXP, Server 2003, and Windows 8 RT back in March, they did not release the patches for legacy OSes until the outbreak was well underway. 

Perhaps the most compelling proof of blame is the number of systems which should not have been vulnerable but were hit due to the fact that the available patches were never installed. 

These three problems, the NSA wanting to hoard vulnerabilities so they can exploit them for espionage, Microsoft ending support of older products because they are a business and do not find it profitable to support products a decade or more after release and users not taking advantage of available updates have left us in the pickle we find ourselves in this week.  On the plus side this outbreak does have people patching, so we have that going for us.

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"Speaking of hoarding, though, it's emerged Microsoft was itself stockpiling software – critical security patches for months."

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Source: The Register