Microsoft Separates Cortana and Search in Latest Insider Build

Subject: General Tech | January 16, 2019 - 06:08 PM |
Tagged: windows insider, windows 10, search, microsoft, cortana, build 18317

In their announcement of the latest Windows 10 insider preview build (18317) Microsoft has revealed their separation of Cortana from Search. The news was posted on the Windows Blogs site this morning:

Search_Cortana_Separation.png

Yes, this is Microsoft's official graphic from the announcement

"Going forward, we’ll be decoupling Search and Cortana in the taskbar. This will enable each experience to innovate independently to best serve their target audiences and use cases. Some Insiders have had this update for a few weeks now, and we appreciate all the feedback we’ve received about it so far! For those new to this update, when it rolls out to you, you’ll find clicking the search box in the taskbar now launches our experience focused on giving you the best in house search experience and clicking the Cortana icon will launch you straight into our voice-first digital assistant experience.

Other available Search and Cortana settings have also now been split between the two, along with the familiar group policies."

Whether or not this change means that Cortana can be removed entirely without removing Search remains to be seen, though the known processes for completely disabling/removing Cortana are currently more involved than just unchecking a box in settings, to say the least.

Source: Microsoft

Windows Sandbox Virtual Environment Coming to Windows 10 in 2019

Subject: General Tech | December 19, 2018 - 12:00 PM |
Tagged: windows insider, Windows 10 Pro, Windows 10 Enterprise, windows 10, windows, VM, virtual machine, microsoft, build 18305

Windows Sandbox is a new virtual machine environment coming to Windows 10 Pro and Enterprise versions in 2019, which will be available as an optional component within Windows. Microsoft details the upcoming feature in a blog post published yesterday, describing it as "a new lightweight desktop environment tailored for safely running applications in isolation".

Windows Sandbox Screenshot.jpg

"How many times have you downloaded an executable file, but were afraid to run it? Have you ever been in a situation which required a clean installation of Windows, but didn’t want to set up a virtual machine?

At Microsoft we regularly encounter these situations, so we developed Windows Sandbox: an isolated, temporary, desktop environment where you can run untrusted software without the fear of lasting impact to your PC. Any software installed in Windows Sandbox stays only in the sandbox and cannot affect your host. Once Windows Sandbox is closed, all the software with all its files and state are permanently deleted."

Microsoft lists these features for Windows Sandbox, outlining the secure and non-persistent "disposable" nature of the environment:

  • Part of Windows – everything required for this feature ships with Windows 10 Pro and Enterprise. No need to download a VHD!
  • Pristine – every time Windows Sandbox runs, it’s as clean as a brand-new installation of Windows
  • Disposable – nothing persists on the device; everything is discarded after you close the application
  • Secure – uses hardware-based virtualization for kernel isolation, which relies on the Microsoft’s hypervisor to run a separate kernel which isolates Windows Sandbox from the host
  • Efficient – uses integrated kernel scheduler, smart memory management, and virtual GPU

Optional Windows Features Dialog Box.png

The environment requires a sytem with an AMD64 architecture running Windows 10 Pro or Enterprise build 18305 or later, with the rather slim minimum requirements of just 4GB of memory, 2 CPU cores, and 1 GB of free space (with 8GB RAM, 4 cores, and SSD storage recommended). 

The full blog post goes into further detail with a full "under the hood" look at Windows Sandbox, which among other things offers graphics hardware acceleration "with Windows dynamically allocating graphics resources where they are needed across the host and guest".

As to availability, ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley had reported that while the feature was originally "expected to come to Windows 10 19H1 early next year" it could be available to Insider tester as early as this week with Build 18301 of Windows 10 - but this 18301 and earlier 18292 build referenced in Foley's post have apparently been removed from the Microsoft blog post, which now exclusively lists Build 18305.

Source: Microsoft

Windows 10 Game Mode Gets Benchmarked, Still Needs Work

Subject: General Tech | February 4, 2017 - 11:54 PM |
Tagged: windows insider, Windows Game Mode, windows 10, pc gaming, creators update, beta

Last month Microsoft confirmed that a new "Game Mode" would be part of the upcoming Windows 10 Creator's Update planned for a spring release ("early 2017"). Microsoft has recently started rolling out the Game Mode to its beta testers in the latest Windows Insider preview build (for those on the fast track anyway, I am currently on the slow ring and do not have Game Mode yet). Now that it is rolled out in preview form, gamers have naturally started benchmarking it, and PC Games News has posted an article on their testing of the new feature and their findings on two Win32 and one UWP game. Not to spoil the results, but at this point Game Mode does not appear to offer anything and can even result in less frames per second with it turned on with its only saving grace being that in some situations it does offer increased performance when the Game DVR feature is also being used to record gameplay. They tested both a NVIDIA GTX 1060 and an AMD RX 480, and Game Mode in it's current preview software on a preview OS appears to have more benefits for NVIDIA while the AMD card PC Games News tested mostly just did it's thing regardless of whether Game Mode was turned on or off (heh, not necessarily a bad thing). 

microsoft-2016-win10-event-groovemusicmaker.jpg

With Game Mode now rolling out to Windows Insiders, there is more information on how Microsoft plans to implement it. Rather than hiding it in the Xbox app, Microsoft has thankfully put it in the main settings app under the Gaming category and users access it by bringing up a Game Bar menu in-game for those games that support it (PC Games News noted Doom and GTA V did not work). Game Mode is an OS-level feature that will dedicate a certain amount of CPU threads to the game when it is turned on and leaves the remaining threads to be used by background processes (which themselves are reportedly minimized). Currently, this seems to work better with multi-threaded games and older games that were coded to only use one or two threads may not see any benefit in turning Game Mode on (and it may actually result in lower FPS). To Microsoft's credit, they are not over promising with Game Mode and note that it should be good for around 2% better performance when enabled with Game Mode having a bigger impact on UWP titles.

I encourage you to check out the PC Games News article where they have their benchmark results presented in a number of bar graphs. Most of the tests saw little to no benefit from using Game Mode, but not a negative effect. Some games like Hitman saw a 6% increase in average frames per second on the GTX 1060. On the other side of things, Forza Horizon 3 (ironically, a UWP game) performance actually drops when Game Mode is turned on to the tune of 13% to 23% less FPS with the RX 480 and 9% to 15% less with the GTX 1060. As far as Tomb Raider, things are more in the middle and things stay the same or get slightly better minimum frames per second when Game Mode and Game DVR are both turned on (though oddly there is a result in there that shows a performance drop with Game Mode on and Game DVR off).

It ia also worth noting that overall, the trend seems to be that Game Mode is going to be most beneficial at increasing the minimum frame rates on games with the Game DVR feature is being used moreso than getting overall maximum or average FPS out of a game. The biggest hurdle is going to be game compatiblity, especially for older games, and Microsoft tweaking things so that at worst Game Mode won't tank performance (like it currently does with Hitman minimum frame rates when Game Mode is on but DVR is off) and things will stay the same as if Game Mode was not on at all and at best gamers will get slightly smoother gameplay.

gamemode1.jpg

Source: PCGamesN.com

Right now Game Mode is not compelling, but it is still a work in progress and if Microsoft can get Game Mode right it could be a useful addition (and incentive to upgrade to Windows 10 is probably why they are interested in pursuing this feature) and could come in handy especially on gaming laptops! I am not writing off the feature yet, and neither should you, but I do hope that compatibility is improved and the performance hits are reduced or eliminated when it is enabled. My guess is that the games that will work well with Game Mode are going to be almost all newer games and especially games that are developed post Creator's Update final release with Game Mode in mind.

Hopefully we can use our frame rating on the final product to see how well it truly works as far as user experience and smooth gameplay. What are your thoughts on Windows 10's Game Mode?