Category Archives: tech

Breaking it Down: Console Evolution

I am likely somewhat biased, but I thought the E3 Xbox briefing was well done. Not only was there a nice mix of hardware and software announcements (with launch dates!), but more clarity was provided on the vision and roadmap for console hardware.

But wait, that’s been the focal point of much hand-wringing and teeth gnashing. Here’s one from Engadget, speculating that Xbox One sales will dry up, because something better will appear next year.

At the macro level, here are the critical take-aways on where the industry is headed:

  1. Expect console hardware to iterate more rapidly.
  2. Expect great developers that make great games to tune for the few “click-stops” of consoles and their respective capabilities, not unlike supporting N and N-1 console generations or cross-platforms, today.
    1. Consoles and PCs are becoming more and more alike, so assets and content should be sharable, but with an extra layer of closer-to-metal API access and specific settings to be tuned for consoles.
    2. Over time, the top-of-line AAA games will raise the min-bar, but expect studios to support N, N-1 and possibly N-2 iterations, to hit the experience-install base sweet spot.
  3. And, like nearly all other industries (TVs, phones, even your toothbrush and home furnishings), potential customers will have a cost-benefit trade-off to make. A novel concept.

For the Xbox family, specifically, the One S is the natural cost and form-factor reduction version of the original One. This time, the deal has been sweetened with additional functionality and hardware (UHD Blu-Ray). The change for next year is that both the One S and Project Scorpio will exist, side-by-side, and unlike compatibility breaks of some previous generations, there won’t be one here.

Some may postpone purchases until next year, for Scorpio, but given the S is incremental and a year earlier than the typical mid-cycle refresh, I doubt there will be significant overall sales cannibalization due to the Scorpio announcement. Instead, the S maintains the new entry-$299 price-point and entices new users with a smaller, nicer-looking console, riding the wave of 4K marketing. There isn’t remotely close to 100% TAM overlap, as some allude to, nor the even more outlandish claim that someone eying an Xbox will now suddenly buy a PS4. Because, why?

Change is challenging for most to accept. So while one might question why console gaming is the anomoly in consumer electronics (recall all those bemoaning that smartphone GPUs were more capable then previous-generation consoles), the fact that it’s about to change is the most anxiety-inducing part.

(Th)Air and Back Again – A MacBook’s Tale

What 13″ laptop is 1.1″ thick and weighs 5lbs?

An Apple MacBook, from 2008.

Why is that relevant? To put the MacBook Air into context. When the MacBook Air was released in 2008, its svelte 3/4″ “thinness” and 3lbs was a revelation, showing what mobile productivity could feel like. Today, nearly every consumer 13.3″ notebook >$500 is 3/4″ thick and less than 3.5lbs, touchscreen included. Even the MacBook Pro, which is a distinctly more capable machine, than the Air, is hardly thicker at all and only 0.5lbs heavier.

Meanwhile, the new 12″ (retina) MacBook is 25% thinner and 1/5 lighter than an 11.6″ MacBook Air and provides 12.5% more screen area (not to mention a drastically increased resolution). In comparison, the new MacBook is once more a mobility revelation. Importantly, the form factor size and weight reductions did not come at the expense of solidity, much performance (within 15% of a latest generation MacBook Air) or battery life. I played around with a co-worker’s MacBook, recently, and it is mind-boggling object to behold.

And it’s because of this progress that I believe we will soon see the MacBook Air, as we know it today, go into retirement. I’m guessing two versions of an “all new” MacBook will take its place, one with the same 12″ size as the current MacBook, and another in the 13.5-14″ range and 1/3 pound heavier, to give it some distinction from its smaller counterpart. Similar to the original announcement, the release should happen in late Q1, in time to address the college graduation season and continue to be fresh, going into back-to-school.

Skylake-Y seems like a shoe-in, with its performance profile very similar to Broadwell-U, in all but the most intensive, long-running operations, where the limited thermal headroom will crimp performance. In order to hit the psychologically and advertising-important “starting at $999″, I think the smaller, 12″ version will come with 8GB RAM and 128GB storage. The larger ~14” version likely starts at $1299, with an upgraded processor and 256GB storage.

The odd-duck MacBook Pro with optical drive notwithstanding, Apple hasn’t long carried 3 notebook line-ups for long, so unless one believes instead the new MacBook or the MacBook Pro line will disappear, it’s only natural that the in-between MacBook Air merges into the more distinctive option, shortly. It’ll also help with the naming, back to good old Pro and non-Pro.

Surface Book/Pro 4 Sleep Battery Drain (Skylake IGP edition)

If you have a Surface Pro 4 or a Surface Book, chances are, you’re experiencing pretty awful sleep (Connected Standby in particular) battery drain. This power state is designed to enable connectivity and near-instantaneous wakes, while consuming extremely little power think 10 days of battery life, in this state).

In order for this state (Intel calls the system state S0ix, or an active-idle state) to work, a combination of operating system, system firmware, and device drivers need to all act appropriately. The Intel integrated graphics devices appears to be a common cause of battery drain in sleep for Skylake-based systems. Sleep study reports (you can view them by running “powercfg sleepstudy” from an elevated command prompt) indicate the graphics device is active on the order of 15-17% of the time, while in sleep, causing 1W+ drain.

However, an updated Intel graphics driver, released December 22, 2015, version 15.40.14.64.4352, has improved that somewhat for my Surface Pro 4. Check it out – can you guess when I installed the driver?

sp4_sleepstudy

Power draw is still not where I’d like to see it (from my work on various SoC platforms, within Windows, I’d expect these Core-based systems to consume in the range of 100-150mW, on average), but it’s still a 40-50% improvement from where it was. This high drain is also likely why the Surface team implemented a rather short doze-to-hibernate timeout of 2 hours. It means I’m frequently resuming the device from hibernate (~12 seconds) instead of from Standby (<1 second).

The driver is currently only for 6th generation (Skylake) Core graphics and with a Surface, you’ll need to install it manually via Device Manager (great installation guide, at Windows Central), until Microsoft pushes it to this particular device ID via Windows Update. It seems to work just fine, though. If you’re seeing similar (better) results, let me know!

The Last March of the PC

With the holiday shopping season upon us, in earnest, my attention is drawn to the hordes of <$400 laptops on the market. A couple years ago, within Windows, we were cringing at the onslaught of Chromebooks, to which we had no better answer than the continued race of the behemoth desktop-replacement laptops to match at least on price. Think driving the price of a last generation Toshiba C55 down to $249.

Two years on, the Windows value-entry ecosystem is in a much more competitive place. In large part, this has been triggered by licensing changes, designed to stem share loss at the low-end, not dissimilar in concept to the Windows “Starter Edition” driving Linux-based netbooks from the market. Well, the differences are myriad; Windows with Bing is not a limited OS, like Starter was, and performance, even at the low end of the laptop market, is finally sufficient, for typical consumer use.

But, I wonder what this is accomplishing. We’re all just fighting for an ever shrinking pie that is the PC market – and I draw the circle around what constitutes the “PC” market liberally, including OS X and Chrome OS. PC penetration in most regions of the world has peaked. And because even the lowest options on the PC totem pole are increasingly “good enough” for typical use, the upgrade cycle has lengthened. There are literally over half a billion PCs, in use, over 4 years old. It’s not clear there are any further “killer apps” in the PC sphere that will drive a significant portion to upgrade. Likely not, with the technology ecosystem’s focus elsewhere.

So, yes, Windows will continue to drive new features into the PC, to limit the decline of the market. Windows Hello is magical (similarly, ask iPhone users if they’re willing to forego their fingerprint readers), but it’s still making its way to mass market. Look at the shelves this holiday, and you’ll find Windows Hello is still few and far between, mostly on >$700 devices. It will come down, but it’s not a Hail Mary that rejuvenates the entire market. That said, Hello and other features are part of a holding pattern, while “the next thing” is cultivated (cloud? services? “IoT”?).

In the meantime, enjoy what is likely to be a last generational hurrah for PC innovation. We will drive it, because we need it to support the privilege of being able to invest elsewhere. Budget PCs will get much better and a more definitive premium tranche, carved out by Apple, and increasingly joined by Surface, will be sustained.

Microsoft 10 Devices Event

HoloLens

Band 2

Lumia 950/XL

Surface Pro 4

Surface Book

110 million Windows 10  devices

All that, plus swagger. For the first time, in a very long time, Microsoft showed some serious swagger, and boy, do we have a portfolio of aspirational products  to lead the way through the current and future frontiers of computing technology.

The Verge put together a great summary video of this morning’s announcement. Check it out here. If you want to experience the entire 1:47, it’s over at Microsoft.com.

There is deep, burning desire across the Internet nerdom for many of the products shown today. It’s been 3 years in the making, from the first Surface experiments to an ever-more complete portfolio of Windows devices, today. This is one critical piece of Satya’s goal to move people from using Windows to choosing Windows to loving Windows. It’s the beginning of what the Xbox has, a fanbase of users, who are deeply satisfied and recommend the products, without prompting.

I have no illusions of sudden grandeur or sentiment shift. I am well aware products need to crush it, many times in a row, before that goodwill is established and users start trusting the family of products (enough to pre-order, sight unseen, like others!). We’re just about there with the Surface lineup. Lumia is taking the first step in a multi-step journey. It’s also going to take a few iterations of purposeful and flawless execution to build the same position. And HoloLens, that’s even more nascent, but we know where we want to be and will drive relentlessly to deliver the vision, in its entirety.

I am excited about the products, awfully proud to be a part of the groups delivering them, and look forward to taking all these next steps.

Windows 10 – Start, Settings and Multitasking

The Return of the Start Menu

The single most referred to feature of Windows 10 is the return of the Start Menu. Yes, the Start Menu has its charms and uses, but more than anything, I think this is a case of “don’t touch my stuff!” mentality (very common). There are many cases of other habituated behaviors, that people clamor to maintain, such as transmission “creep” in a transmission-less car. That’s not to say full-screen Start in Windows 8 was ideal; it wasn’t, at all.

So, yes, it’s back, and by default, it’s an amalgamation of old and new. The left 1/3 is essentially the old Start Menu, the right 2/3 is a shrunken Live Tile Start. You can change the height of the Start Menu, by resizing it, like you would an application window, from the top. While some folks say so, as they’re hidden within a menu, I’m not sure Live Tiles have become any more or less useful; on my home desktop, or even laptop, I rarely found myself sitting at Start, with Windows 8.1. I didn’t see those tiles until I invoked Start, even then. My primary use of either Start Menu implementation continues to be WinKey – appname.

At the top of the Start Menu, a power options button and user badge allow for quick system state changes (sign out, restart). That’s a nice affordance and should help with the utter disarray caused by hiding it in the settings Charm. You can click “All Apps” to get an alphabetical listing of apps on your system.

Pop-up Feedback Request – Do you prefer Control Panel to the Settings App?

Yes.

In more than a single word, the modern Settings app is missing the most important feature of any setting utility: Search. Control Panel is pretty good at surfacing what it is you want to do, via search. Want to know how to adjust display brightness? Just type “display brightness”. Running out of drive space and want options? Just type “disk space” and you’ll be presented options to clean up your drives. If I actually navigate the setting hierarchy, I find that I am surprisingly faster at finding what I want, via the Control panel, in large part due to the iconography, versus the purely textual menu system in modern Settings.

This is getting significantly mitigated, as the search function in the Start Menu deep links into specific settings. At this point, I hope there’s a significant push to get to query-based activities, making the need to memorize menu hierarchies or setting diving a thing of the past.

Multitasking

With a focus back on polishing the desktop, it makes sense to spend time enhancing its primary attribute – multitasking. Although some amount of multitasking was available in the Modern environment, flexibility to place apps side by side was in 1 dimension only, and even then, without overlays.

You can see the importance of multitasking immediately, from the new Task View button in the taskbar (alternative, you can also invoke it using WinKey+Tab). Clicking it provides a sort of more visual Alt+Tab experience, where each application is not only represented by its icon and name, but also a thumbnail view of the running application itself. The app thumbnails are also shaped the same as the actual windows, helping identification. You can switch to a different app from this view, or you can also do some app management and close some windows.

“Virtual desktops” are also now available, similar to a feature that has been available with various Linux window managers and OS X. You can group apps you frequently use together on a single desktop surface and then switch between them, as opposed to managing on a single surface what apps are first in the z-order. One tip: in the graphical Task View, if you mouse over a different desktop, you’ll see the apps change to those on that desktop. Mouse up and over one of the apps, and you can not only switch to that desktop, but jump straight to a particular app.

John Legere @ Geekwire

John Legere, the outspoken, humorous, cocky, intelligent, empathetic and, thus far, successful CEO of T-Mobile US. It’s natural, then, that his bravado and antics put people into two camps, one believing him to be a farce, inappropriate to run a Fortune 500 company, the other looking to him to continue to shake up the stagnant wireless telecom industry, forcing progressive changes by example.

Here’s a recent 45 minute interview at the Geekwire conference, where he shares his view of M&A rumors, competing with the other major carriers, and how he listens to customers. Beware that lots of swearing ensues.

Personally, I find his attitude refreshing, and while he is cocky, he’s also manages to be down to earth. He listens (almost to a fault) to customers, he rejects the idea of old-style business-making, and confronts and verbalizes things that we often either avoid thinking about or have the balls to say. I particularly like his comment that the higher up the corporate ladder you find yourself, the less candid and factual feedback you get from your directs (too much sugar-coating; I see this too often).

iPhone 6 – First Impressions

I’ve been using an iPhone 6 as my primary device since launch day, 9/19, and iOS, at length, for the first time since the iPhone 3G-era. That was during the days of iPhone OS 2.0, which brought along the App Store, officially supporting third party apps for the first time. For the past 9-10 months, I’ve used a Lumia 1520 and Nexus 5 interchangeably, getting to know their hardware, software and ecosystems. At this point, I understand what each Windows Phone and Android have to offer, and surprisingly, after nearly a year, neither device feels outdated (a sign of slowing generational leaps in smartphones, surely?). However, I’ve been itching to see where Apple is and experience the “just works” commentary I hear from users and the top-rated app ecosystem. Here are my early thoughts in two sections, Hardware and Features.

Hardware

  • It looks less “distinctly-iPhone”, with its larger size, rounded and curved corners and nondescript back. The Apple logo and the round home button on the front remain, so don’t worry, folks will still know you’re using one. Given so many phones are using the chamfered-chrome-band look, recently, perhaps this move to less glamorous accoutrements will, ironically, make it more distinctive.
  • First impression upon taking it out of the box was one of amazement of its thinness and lightness, having come from primarily Lumia devices over the past couple years.
  • My second impression was that it’s hellishly slippery. The very finely anodized aluminum contributes, as does the fact that it’s so thin (and rounded). I don’t even have clammy hands to help; it’s like holding a wet rock.
  • Apple barely met the competition on display resolution this generation (and undershot a bit with the iPhone 6). However, the selection of in-cell touch (LCD display + capacitive sensors being one and the same) and cover glass make displayed contents appear to be splayed directly on the glass’s surface. Contrast is also very good, maximum brightness very high, meaning viewing quality, both indoors and outdoors, is relatively high.
  • When the rumored iPhone 6 chassis first leaked, I was convicted that they were fakes, due to the unsightly plastic antenna domain dividers. Unfortunately, that’s not the case; they were the real thing, and the lines remain ugly. I specifically picked the color variant that I thought would make it show up the least, Space Grey.
  • The aesthetic problem with the antenna lines are two-fold, in my opinion: first, they’re too thick to look well-integrated, and second, the way they wrap around the top and bottom curved portions of the phone make them appear less like a deliberate part of the design. Instead, it’s as if the phone was designed without them, then realized, shoot, antenna performance sucks!
  • I picked Space Grey, and the curved black display and bezels blend together into a smooth, monolithic mass. From the front, it’s nice and minimalistic. I like it.
  • The camera bump is a non-issue (thus far).
iPhone 6 - DisplayiPhone 6iPhone 6 - Camera

Features

  • I’m now addicted to unlocking my phone with Touch ID. One lazy press of the home button, with my thumb, and I’m taken to the home screen, even though I have my work Exchange connected and corporate security policies applied. It’s also a fantastic way to skip typing passwords. It might be my single favorite feature, because it’s fast and reliable (camera performance rivals for this prestigious award).
  • Regarding display resolution, mentioned above, one way Apple makes up for no-longer-class-meeting specs is in font rendering. In apps that are updated for the display resolution of the iPhone 6 (largely the first party apps, at this point), text is incredibly narrow, smooth, and clear. Reading web content maintains this crispness, while fitting more content onto the display, now that it’s larger.
  • The rear image sensor remains 8MP in resolution, but optics and processing have been marginally improved (see this wonderful comparison of iPhone family camera IQ). Most significantly, phase-detect autofocus (on-sensor) has been added, helping in two regards: faster autofocus and more reliable focus tracking (with continuous autofocus). The second benefit supports grabbing in-focus, fast action, 240fps video.
  • The practical benefits, for me, (I care largely about stills) are insanely quick and accurately focused photos. The focus and shot-to-shot performance difference versus my Lumia 1520 (which, albeit isn’t known for quick autofocus) is similar to a DSLR versus a point and shoot camera. And though the final image quality isn’t as good as what the Lumia 1520 can achieve, it’s more consistent, giving me more confidence I can get at least a shot. Additionally, taking panoramas is an incredibly smooth experience, and the stitching speed and quality are top tier, as I discovered first-hand at Mount Rainier, the first weekend out with it.
rainier_ios_pano
  • I’ve become unfamiliarized with iOS since I last used it many, many years ago. I’m still a huge kludge, not yet habituated with the information and interaction hierarchies, particularly, as some common actions are quite different from Windows (Phone) or Android. For example, I constantly look to the bottom of apps for more options, settings, only to have to remind myself that they’re largely in the central settings store. I’ve not yet decided whether one is worse or better, just different, at this point.
  • Most interactions in iOS are highly polished, though. At least on latest-generation hardware, all the animations and transparency effects are smooth, menus well thought out, and a general air of cohesiveness and consistency is found throughout. The icons and colors haven’t grown on me, yet (it feels a bit… amateur?), but at least they’re everywhere. A few head-scratchers and complaints do exist:
    • In the notification drop-down, I really want a single gesture to dismiss items. Instead, you swipe to the left, then hit a small (x) target.
    • In the same area, app notifications are not cleared after visiting the app directly and viewing the reason for the notice in the first place (a very common example of this is email). Instead, one must manually dismiss the notification.
    • Speaking of notifications (:)), if I step away from my phone for a while, during which time, I receive a notification, no indication is made in the status area that I have pending notifications. It’s a surprise every time – ooohh, do I have notifications? Ahhh, not this time!
    • The little bubbles atop app icons indicating the number of missed items does not get dismissed after entering the app; only when your email inbox is clean, clean, clean, will that number go away. So, it’s a perpetual reminder that I’m very bad at triaging my inbox.
    • I’ve been spoiled by Windows Phone’s amazing handling of contacts, intelligently linking them if you have multiple input contact services, (such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Lync, etc.) and reducing clutter in your contacts list. iOS does nothing of the sort. Not only is the contact list a bee’s nest to navigate, it also complicates other apps that use your central contact list. For example, I ended up with 2-3 duplicate “favorite” entries for many, many contacts in WhatsApp. I went from 99 suggested to 43 real.
    • I’ve also been spoiled by the fantastic inbox productivity apps in Windows Phone, particularly as it pertains to supporting Exchange (the reason might be a no-brainer). Neither iOS nor Android do as a good of a job of exposing rich options for managing email-calendar invites and neither do a job at all of displaying Information Rights Managed email. I’m pretty sure there’s an app for that, though…
  • Top tier apps are impeccably polished, not to mention anything you’ve heard of is available, of course. They’re all fast and fluid, use reasonable layouts (although very, very few take advantage of the increased screen real-estate of the iPhone 6, much less the 6+), and I haven’t seen app crashes, thus far.
  • I’m not blown away by having so many apps at my fingertips, though. I don’t seem to have the urge to explore a bunch of apps. Perhaps that’s what using an app-deprived ecosystem does to you. You don’t know how to behave in the presence of them anymore. Assuming battery usage is a good indicator of what I use on my phone and how frequently, my iPhone is where apps go to die: 39% Email, 22% Safari, 11% Home & Lock Screen, 6% Messenger, 4% Stocks, 2% Calendar, 2% Gmail, and nothing else creeps above 1%.
iOS Utilization

Summary

There’s generally much to like about the iPhone 6, and while I’m not certain I’m any longer a representative smartphone user, I’ve had my memory refreshed as to why so many people prefer iOS and the iPhone hardware ecosystem. They generally look nice, developers put the most effort into their iOS app manifestations, and there are some genuinely excellent capabilities that many people care about, from a consistently good camera to simplifying security with Touch ID (and I’m looking forward to Apple Pay, as well). It’s also interesting to note that it’s been the first time in many generations since Apple’s hardware industrial design prowess has been questioned, with both the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch questioned for the camera bump, antenna lines, indistinctiveness or gaudiness of design.

It will bear watching whether this is a temporary bump in the road, one smoothed out by the evolution of tastes over time, or something more persistent, an indication of a missing filter in Steve Jobs. iPhone 6iPhone 6iPhone 6 - Curved DisplayiPhone 6

Moto 360 – Crippling Battery Life

I was looking forward to the Moto 360, very much, and thought it could replace my analog wristwatch, which recently broke. But, the reviews are in, and battery life looks like a deal breaker, at well under a day.

Even this big, honking model had to be charged twice a day. Most days, after charging it overnight, I had to put it back on its wireless charging cradle by 4 p.m.

How is that, in any way, acceptable for a watch?