Tag: microsoft

How Microsoft embraced ‘messy’ creativity with Windows Ink

Windows Ink isn't Microsoft's first stab at bringing stylus support to PCs -- that would be Windows XP Tablet Edition -- but it is the company's most successful. It made stylus support a core part of Windows 10, and it's a big reason you're seeing so many computer makers shipping digital pens of their own. While the company's renewed push into the space with its hybrid Surface tablets seemed baffling at first, it's ended up looking like a prescient move. It even convinced Apple to compete with the iPad Pro's Pencil.

With the Surface Pen and Windows Ink, Microsoft found a way to let PC users do something completely new: It gave them a way to break free from the constraints of the keyboard and mouse.

"I think it's [Windows Ink] the first time that technology has embraced 'the messy,'" Aaron Woodman, general manager of Windows Marketing, told Engadget. "For me, seeing Pen come to life in a way where you don't have to go from top to bottom, from left to right, you can create in a way before your thought is really complete. I don't think there's a ton of technology that's really embraced that fluidity."

He's got a point. The way we interact with computers hasn't changed much over the years. If you learned how to use a PC with a keyboard and mouse, you'd have no trouble using a modern machine. The advent of smartphones and tablets, with their capacitive touchscreens, was the biggest change over the past few decades. But what if you want to draw a detailed picture, jot down notes in your own handwriting or write out mathematical equations? You'd turn to one of our earliest writing tools: the stylus.

"We're embracing that, yes, [stylus support features with Windows Ink] are hardware-driven; yes, they require a platform that has to be broad in reach; and yes, for part of that, you need ecosystem partners," Woodman said. "That really starts to get people to understand it and see themselves using it in applications like Office. To see that come through in a way that customers don't feel like they're jumping over walls, I think it's really satisfying personally."

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

In particular, Woodman credits Microsoft's close partnership with Wacom, a company best known for its stylus tablets and displays, for the progress with Windows Ink so far. That allowed the two companies to build a sensor that "essentially allows you to go between pen protocols." For computer makers, that's helpful since it lets them choose between different pen protocols. Basically, it let Microsoft open up the market for styluses, just like Windows did for PCs decades ago.

Now, Woodman says retailers are selling twice as many pen-capable machines, compared to those that don't have them. 43 percent of consumers with stylus machines are also using their pens monthly, according to Microsoft's stats. Given just how well they're taking off, though, it's surprising that Microsoft chose to make the Surface Pen an additional $100 purchase for the Surface Laptop, Pro and upcoming Book 2.

Windows Ink's integration with Microsoft Office is a clear example of how stylus support can breathe new life into programs we've used for years. In Word and PowerPoint, you can use a stylus to edit documents as if you were marking up paper. And, as you can imagine, having a more natural input mechanism is a big help for OneNote. It's not only useful for jotting down your thoughts, but you can also use it for recording complex math equations — the sort of thing that would be tough to type out on a keyboard. OneNote can also convert your handwritten equation into something formatted for a computer, and you can then have it evaluate an equation, factor it and graph it.

It was a long road getting here, though. The first "Tablet PCs" powered by Windows XP (like the Compaq on the right) were woefully underpowered, heavy and generally just hard to use. It was difficult enough to get them to do basic Windows tasks, so there wasn't much chance consumers would spend time with their styluses. There were also some early digital pens available for Windows 8. Really, though, it took the launch of the Surface 2 and Pro 2 for us to really see what a stylus could do in Windows. The Surface Pen was light, responsive and simply felt good to use. Microsoft steadily refined it with future Surface models, giving us better tips and more pressure sensitivity.

Even after the launch of Windows 10, it took over a year for Microsoft to make stylus support truly meaningful with last year's Anniversary Update. That introduced Windows Ink and its accompanying software, including built-in sticky notes and a sketchpad. More importantly, it also gave Microsoft's partners more of a reason to bundle styluses with their computers. Apple entered the fray with the iPad Pro's Pencil in 2015, which is a decent stylus, but is only useful in a few creative apps. And you can forget about seeing it in MacOS anytime soon -- Apple is focusing its touchscreen efforts entirely on iOS.

Embracing a new type of computing creativity seems a bit out of character for Microsoft — at least, the pre-Satya Nadella Microsoft. But the timing for the company's change of heart makes sense. Thanks to faster and more efficient computing hardware, it's finally turning its stylus ambitions into a reality. And more importantly, consumers and computer makers are finally paying attention.

"On some level, we have a responsibility to solve the challenges customers are facing," Woodman said. "Now, watching 3D objects in Powerpoint [via the Fall Creator's Update] is mind boggling. Not because you see it in 3D, but because it saves you infinite steps. I think Pen has the same type of promise. It's more about just feeling like you have that permission to go beyond the boundaries of how people have defined the products so far."


Tech companies unite to fight for Dreamers

In September, President Trump announced that he would phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which offers protections to undocumented immigrants who came to the US at a young age. This week, Reuters reported that Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, IBM and other large tech companies plan to lobby Congress to pass legislation that will continue to protect these so-called Dreamers. The total number of companies involved is around two dozen, though that could change before the coalition launches.

After the president announced his decision, tech company executives expressed their disappointment in numerous ways, including on Twitter and via email. Hundreds of CEOs signed an open letter from pro-immigration group FWD.us (co-founded by Mark Zuckerberg) urging the president to continue the program.

It's likely that some action will happen on the DACA front as the holidays approach. In December, Congress will hopefully pass a spending bill (or face a US government shutdown). Reuters reports that Democrats may use this opportunity to pass legislation to protect Dreamers, trading their votes to avert a shutdown in exchange for promised protections.

Via: Business Insider

Source: Reuters


Harman Kardon Invoke review: The first Cortana speaker sounds amazing

Smart speakers are everywhere this year. So far, we've seen new entries from Apple, Amazon, Google and Sonos. Now, Microsoft is finally ready to join the party. The Harman Kardon Invoke is the first speaker to feature Microsoft's Cortana virtual assistant. Since it's coming from a brand known for audio gear, it promises better sound than the competition. And for the most part, it succeeds. The Invoke is miles ahead of Amazon's original Echo and Google's Home when it comes to audio quality. But Cortana still has to mature a bit before it can successfully take on Alexa.

Hardware

The Invoke is a large, cylindrical speaker that bears a striking resemblance to the Echo. It's just as tall as Amazon's, except wider toward the bottom. There's also a huge difference in build quality: The Echo is made entirely of plastic, while the Invoke features a more premium feeling metallic case, with only a bit of plastic around the base. Even the control dial feels much better than the Echo's; it's turns more smoothly and seems like you're controlling a piece of high-end audio gear. Don't forget, Harman Kardon has been building things like receivers and speakers for years.

There's a touch-sensitive area at the top, as well as a frosted display that shows you when Cortana is listening and the volume level. That top portion also houses the seven far-field microphone array, which lets the speaker hear you no matter where you are in a room. Overall, it's a pretty streamlined device. There are only two buttons in the back, which let you mute and pair the speaker with Bluetooth devices. There's also a diagnostic micro-USB port nestled near the power connection (which could be used for upgrading firmware or troubleshooting issues). My only real issue with the speaker is its ridiculously short three-foot power cord. You can easily augment that with an extension cord, but would it have been that hard include something longer?

Under the hood, the Invoke features three tweeters and three woofers that fill up most of the case. In comparison, the new Echo has just one woofer and tweeter. The Invoke even has more speaker hardware than the Sonos Play 1, which only has a single woofer and tweeter as well. Apple's forthcoming HomePod, meanwhile, has four small tweeters and a woofer. I'll admit, it's tough to compare speakers when you're just looking at what they're made of. What's more important is how they sound, and this speaker sounds great.

In use

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

To set up the Invoke, you'll need Cortana's iPhone or Android app. Alternatively, you can use a Windows 10 PC. The speaker shows up as a device in Cortana's settings, and it takes just a few seconds to connect to it. After that, all you need to do is say "Hey Cortana" and start issuing commands. You could ask about the current weather, the latest news, or for directions. For the latter, it'll read off basic navigation instructions and send a copy to the Cortana app on your phone. These are all things Cortana has been able to do for years on PCs and smartphones, but having it available in a standalone speaker is quite useful.

I started out testing the Invoke by doing just about everything I do with my Amazon Echo. It played New York City's NPR station from TuneIn when I asked it to "Play WNYC." And it had no trouble relaying the weather when I asked. (That might sound dull, but it's something I end up asking my Echo several times a day.)

The Invoke's biggest weakness at this point is the limited selection of audio streaming services that Cortana works with. So far, the list includes, Spotify, Tunein, and iHeartradio. There's no Pandora support yet, which is a big disappointment considering this is being positioned as a music-first device. Still, Microsoft says it's in talks to sort that out. The company also intends to work with other services like Soundcloud and Deezer, but it's unclear when we'll see those available on the Invoke. In Spotify, the speaker found my Discover Weekly playlist when I asked for it, and it also easily played music from specific artists and albums. It's also a Spotify Connect device, meaning you can control what the Invoke is playing from any of the service's apps, either on your computer or mobile.

I've mentioned this already, but it's worth repeating: The Invoke sounds fantastic. Music from every genre sounded immersive, with detailed mid-range, crisp highs and some decent low-end thump. It can easily fill a room -- but more than that, it does so in a way that's enjoyable. It sounds more like a decent bookshelf speaker than a mere smart gadget. The better sound quality also makes radio shows and podcasts sound more natural. The Invoke simply blows the original Amazon Echo away. I haven't tested out the new model yet, though, which is supposed to sound better.

I've listened to the Echo daily for years, and generally I've found it good enough for casual listening, but that's it. The difference between Amazon's speaker and Harman Kardon's is readily apparent when you switch between the two back and forth (which is pretty easy using Spotify Connect). With Flying Lotus's tracks in particular, the difference between the two is stark. The Invoke's audio is much richer and nuanced, while the Echo sounds cheap and flat by comparison.

Cortana's voice also sounds much more natural than Alexa at this point. When I asked her to tell stories and jokes, it was difficult to notice that I was listening to something completely artificial, and not lines read by her voice artist. Alexa is getting steadily better, but it still sounds vaguely robotic.

Amazon's voice assistant wins out when it comes to controlling smart home devices, though. Cortana works with Wink, Nest, Smartthings and Hue, but it doesn't integrate with devices from Sonos or Logitech's Harmony platform like Alexa does. I was also disappointed at how unreliable Cortana was when it connected to my Philips Hue smart lights. At first, it had no problem turning lights on and off, or changing scene colors. Several hours later, though, it stopped working entirely. Resetting my Hue Hub and all of my settings didn't help; it's as if Cortana got into a fight with Philips and refused to talk to my lights anymore. I'll chalk this up to growing pains for now, but I hope Microsoft irons out these issues soon.

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

Since Amazon has had a head start in the smart speaker arena, it's managed to get developers aboard faster. Altogether, they've built more than 20,000 Alexa skills. Microsoft only opened up Cortana's Skills API in May, and it launched with just 46. That number is growing, but it has a long way to go before it catches up to Alexa.

One unique feature the Invoke offers is Skype calling. You can call other Skype users directly, along with normal phone numbers in your contacts and local businesses. When I asked it to call my friend, it found the appropriate contact and dialed the number without issue. He was able to hear me clearly, but he noted that it sounded like a speakerphone. While you can make calls to other Alexa users with an Echo, that's not nearly as convenient as ringing a normal phone. Amazon's Echo Connect changes that a bit, but it requires a landline. Unfortunately, while you can pair your devices with the Invoke over Bluetooth for music playback, you can't use it as a speakerphone when it's connected to your smartphone. (But that's something the Echo can't do either.)

Pricing and the competition

The Invoke's $199 price puts it at twice the price of the new Echo, and $50 more than the smart home hub-equipped Echo Plus. It's also significantly more than the $129 Google Home. Still, it's cheaper than Apple's $349 HomePod, which is also aiming for high-quality sound.

Really, though, your choice with all of these smart speakers really comes down to which ecosystem you want to be a part of. If you want something that works with the most services possible, than Amazon's Echo line makes more sense. Android fanatics might be better off with Google Home and its integration with that company's virtual assistant. Logically, you can assume the Invoke works best for Windows users. And while that's true, it's also a compelling option for anyone who values music quality. With Cortana available on iOS and Android, you don't need a Windows PC to take advantage of this speaker.

Wrap-up

The Invoke is great piece of hardware hamstrung by Cortana's fledgling ecosystem. It could get better over time, but most consumers would likely be better off with a competing smart speaker that might not sound as good, but can do much more. But if Cortana catches up and the Invoke's price goes down, it could end up being a truly compelling smart speaker for music lovers.


Google and Microsoft troll each other over software vulnerabilities

Google has a history of not playing nicely with Microsoft. The company has previously posted publicly about their competitor's software vulnerabilities, and understandably, Microsoft hasn't been very happy about it. But now, the company has turned the tables on Google. Microsoft found a vulnerability within the Chrome browser, and while Google patched it in beta versions, it wasn't fixed in the public release for roughly a month.

However, Google posted the fix on GitHub instantly, before it was applied to the public release. While the fix for this issue doesn't out the vulnerability, according to Microsoft, that hasn't always been the case. Microsoft believes that a fix should be applied before they are public knowledge.

Microsoft does have a point here. It took Google a month to patch this particular Chrome vulnerability; that's plenty of time for a hacker to examine it and exploit it. It's probably not the best judgment to put fixes for vulnerabilities on GitHub before they're patched in a browser.

That being said, though, are we really benefitting from this one-upmanship between Google and Microsoft? Sure, the issues are being identified and corrected, which is always a good thing. And a bit of friendly competition can certainly be helpful. But this may have veered beyond "friendly" territory and started endangering users' security in the process. Perhaps it's time for both companies to rethink their approach when it comes to these issues.

Source: Microsoft


The Surface Book 2’s secret weapon is ceramic, says Panos Panay

With the Surface Book, Microsoft delivered yet another way to rethink traditional computers. It resembled a laptop more than the earlier Surface devices, which were basically tablets with keyboard covers. But it also packed in one new trick: a large screen that you could easily remove at the touch of a button and use as a tablet. At the heart of that feature was a unique hinge that looked unlike anything else on the market. It had one big problem, though: it wasn't very stable.

It was something that was hard to ignore when you used it on your lap; the screen would shake as you typed, as if the display was barely holding on for life. It made the Surface Book feel more like a prototype than an expensive high-end laptop -- not exactly inspiring. So when it came time for the sequel, it was one of the first things Microsoft addressed.

Inside The Microsoft Corp. Hardware Lab As Company Presents $999 Laptop

"The hinges are completely redesigned; it's all from the learnings of the first one, because you want more stability," Microsoft's Panos Panay, the creator of the Surface line and its VP of devices, said in an interview with Engadget. "We redesigned the connection mechanism, we went to ceramics, we lightened the whole product."

Yes, ceramics. That's not something you'd typically find in a notebook, but it's ability to deal with high temperatures better than metal made it the ideal material. Specifically, the notebook uses a small ceramic part [above] that works together with muscle wire to attach and detach the screen, as well as keep everything steady.

"We didn't invent muscle wire. But we went and found it and thought, how would you include it with a hinge that could lock these two together, with a mechanism that felt robust and premium," Panay said. "You had to hear it when it was open. You had to know when it was locked... That disconnect moment should be emotional, it should be connected to you, you should understand it."

The ceramic (center) and muscle wire hinge mechanism in the Surface Book 2.

Devindra Hardawar/Engadget

Based on my hands with the Surface Book 2, it's definitely much more stable than the original. And, oddly enough, removing and reattaching the display to the keyboard base felt easier than before. It makes a satisfying click when it connects to the base, but it also smoothly detaches. It might sound like a small change, but it's a truly meaningful one for Surface Book users. We were promised the laptop of the future -- and the future shouldn't have screens that wobble like a bobble head on a dashboard.

Naturally, the Surface Book 2. It's more powerful than before, and there's a new 15-inch model joining the family. But is that enough to take on Apple's MacBook Pro, not to mention other powerful laptops?

"With the [Surface Book 2] hardware, we redesigned everything on the inside, period," Panay said. "To get to that next level of performance we needed -- it's three times more powerful -- we put in a quad-core Intel 8th generation CPU. Now you're in a totally different class of computing from gen 1 to gen 2."

Even though the Surface Book was generally well reviewed, early users were plagued with a variety of issues, including screen flickering, power problems and bouts of instability. We talked with Microsoft representatives about those problems shortly after the laptop's launch, and, for the most part, they acknowledged that they still had work to do.

"When we launched the Surface Book, we had some challenges from the silicon through the software," Panay said. "This is why the Surface Book 2 is so important... Right now we look at Surface Book quality and it's off the charts. Did it take some learning to get it to where we needed to be? Absolutely."

While he wouldn't point to any specific changes that helped stability, Panay noted that they have a better understanding of how they're pushing the CPU, GPU and hinge components. The Surface Book design is unique among laptops: it houses its CPU in the display, but holds its graphics hardware (and additional battery) in the keyboard base. In particular, dealing with those early issues strengthened Microsoft's relationship with Intel, which was essential as they developed Surface Book 2.

Panay didn't say much about what his team is cooking next, after reinventing laptops three times, as well as all in one desktops with the Surface Studio. But, not surprisingly, he's excited about the vision of seamless computing Microsoft is pushing to consumers.

"There was a point in time where you had to switch between your pen, your touchscreen, and your keyboard," he said. "There was literally a break in flow... The most inspiring thing about our categories today, whether its Cortana with the dual array mic, or interacting with Office with a Pen and touch... As they continue to evolve into a seamless way, we're going to get the best out of people... We're now in a generation where, if you want to get something done: Start. Go. Move."

Photo credit: Mike Kane/Bloomberg/Getty Images (Panos Panay)


Adobe Photoshop adds support for Microsoft’s Surface Dial

As part of its Creative Cloud 2018 rollout, Adobe has revealed that Microsoft's Surface Dial, seemingly made for Photoshop CC, is finally supported by the app. Adobe notes that for now, it's shipping as a "tech preview," meaning you'll have to first turn the feature on and it's not production-ready, so there may be a few bugs. You'll need to have a Bluetooth-capable PC running the latest version of Windows 10, and functionality is limited to the brush settings for now. As shown in the image below, you can use the Dial to adjust the brush size, opacity and other parameters.

It's unclear why it's taken Adobe and Microsoft so long to get together on the Surface Dial, nor why the functionality is so limited. As Microsoft has just released its Surface Book 2, however, there may have been some pressure for Adobe to at least do something to help motivate creative folks to look at the dial, which remains a niche product so far.

I've had a chance to use other physical dials -- notably the Palette Gear -- with multiple functions on Photoshop CC and other Adobe apps, so it doesn't seem like it's that hard to implement. Hopefully, the device will be fully functional by the time Microsoft releases its next Surface Studio desktop, whenever that might be.


Microsoft resurrects its most iconic mouse

The Surface Precision Mouse isn't the only new input device in Microsoft's arsenal. The company's Surface site has quietly teased the Classic IntelliMouse, a wired peripheral directly inspired by the legendary IntelliMouse Explorer 3.0 you might have used in the early 2000s -- yes, this is the second time Microsoft has brought back the iconic design. The company isn't saying too much about what this revival will entail, but it'll have more precise tracking (up to 3,200DPI) while preserving the "firm" scroll wheel you knew from the days when Windows XP was still hot stuff.

The listing only mentions that the Classic is "coming soon," with no price to be seen. We've asked Microsoft for more details and will let you know if it can shed more light on the situation. However, it's safe to say that the relative lack of bells and whistles on this IntelliMouse (that we know of, at least) should keep the price in check.

Via: The Verge

Source: Microsoft


Greenpeace blasts Amazon over poor environmental practices

Greenpeace has made a tradition out of raking companies over the coals when their environmental practices fall short of its standards, and that's truer than ever in the activist group's latest electronics report card. The organization didn't list any major company whose environmental stances (including renewable energy, sustainable products and toxin-free materials) were good enough to merit an "A" grade, and four companies earned an unflattering "F" -- including internet giant Amazon. According to Greenpeace, Jeff Bezos' brainchild falls well short on most marks.

Most notably, Greenpeace accuses Amazon of being opaque when it comes to discussing its environmental practices. The company publishes virtually no data on its energy use, its materials or whether or not it limits the use of hazardous chemicals. It tends to offer only the info required by law. Outside of its adoption of solar powered data centers and support for eco-friendly government policies, it hasn't made public commitments to lessen the environmental impact of its products. This isn't to say that Amazon hasn't taken steps to help the planet -- it's just impossible to know without more transparency. We've asked Amazon for comment.

As it stands, Amazon isn't alone. Some Chinese phone makers are also less-than-kind to the Earth, including stablemates Oppo and Vivo as well as Xiaomi. Not surprisingly, it's again chalked up to a lack of transparency and public commitments. If they're doing anything to improve the environment, they're not talking about it.

Only two companies fare well in the guide. Apple gets a "B-" through its strong transparency and very open commitments to eco-friendly technology, and it's mainly hurt by its reliance on hard-to-fix devices as well as its opposition to Right to Repair laws. The top performer is Fairphone, whose emphasis on easily-repaired, sustainable tech got it a "B" marred only by some unclear commitments. Whatever you think of Greenpeace or its verdicts, the guide at least serves as a useful goalpost. If companies want to prove that they're taking care of Mother Nature, they have to demonstrate in everything they do.

Source: Greenpeace


Hulu’s VR content is now available on Windows Mixed Reality headsets

With its latest OS update, Microsoft has officially begun to support VR headsets from companies like Lenovo, Acer and Dell and today, Hulu announced its VR content will now be available across the lineup of Windows Mixed Reality headsets. The company has also added its VR app to the Microsoft Store.

Along with this announcement, Hulu also revealed that with Microsoft, it has developed two new VR projects -- The Driver, which follows NASCAR driver Jeffrey Earnhardt and lets viewers experience what it's like to be on a racetrack, and A Curious Mind, a pop science show hosted by Dominic Monaghan (The Lord of the Rings, Lost) that explores our planet. For the next 30 days, both The Driver and A Curious Mind will be available exclusively to Microsoft Mixed Reality headset users. Afterwards, they'll become available on Hulu's other supported platforms including Gear VR, PSVR, Daydream and Rift.

The Hulu VR app is available for free and users can access over 85 pieces of VR content. For those with a Hulu subscription, they can also view the streaming service's entire 2D library in immersive 3D environments. You can watch trailers for The Driver and A Curious Mind below.

Source: Hulu


Microsoft’s internal bug database was hacked in 2013

Over four years ago, Microsoft's internal database for bug tracking was apparently breached by hackers. It was discovered in 2013 but never disclosed to the public, according to five former employees of the company who spoke with Reuters.

This is a serious issue because of what exactly was hacked. Microsoft's internal database of bugs contains secret security flaws and possible exploits within its widely used software that need to be fixed. With this information, hackers and foreign governments had a road map on how to breach vulnerable systems.

Microsoft was able to fix the stolen vulnerabilities within a few months after the hack was detected. The company also checked to see whether the leaked information had been used in other breaches around that same time, before Microsoft was able to patch them. The company was unable to link their internal hack to any other breaches.

According to the former employees, Microsoft has since put more of an emphasis on internal security. Still, the fact that Microsoft didn't disclose that the breach occurred isn't a great move. It's not hard to follow their line of thinking -- that bringing publicity to it might encourage the group responsible to exploit these vulnerabilities more quickly because they knew the breach had been noticed and an eventual fix for these issues was coming. But the fact remains that computer systems around the world were even more vulnerable than usual because of a security breach. Had it been public, the organizations could have taken preventative measures to ensure their security.

Source: Reuters