Monthly Archives: May 2013

What’s coming in Windows 8.1?

Microsoft is now talking in detail about Windows 8.1, essentially a service pack for the original release.

Windows Vista SP1 used the same core OS as Windows Server 2008 R2, so you might reasonably expect a similar relationship between Windows 8.1 and an updated Windows Server 2012.

So what’s new? My quick summary, with importance rating from 1-10:

You can make your lock screen a slide show (1)

You can set new animated backgrounds for the Start screen (1)

Start button always visible on the desktop. (6) since many struggle with this.

You can choose your desktop background as your Start screen background. This gets a (4) since it reduces the dissonance between desktop and Metro a fraction.

New super large tiles and new super small tiles in the Start screen. Rated (6) since it will help make the all-import initial view more comprehensive on large displays.

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The Start screen view is now a “favourites” view. Apps do not add themselves by default (I am not sure if this applies to desktop as well as Store apps, but I hope it does). The All Apps view by contrast has everything. And you can set Apps view as the default if you want. All good changes. (5).

Easier grouping and rearranging of tiles. Rated (5) since this important feature is hard to find in Windows 8.0.

New combined web and local search in the Search bar:

In Windows 8.1, the Search charm will provide global search results powered by Bing in a rich, simple-to-read, aggregated view of many content sources (the web, apps, files, SkyDrive, actions you can take) to provide the best “answer” for your query.

I like the idea but I’m not optimistic about how useful it will be. Hedging bets with (5).

Improved built-in apps. Detail not given. Rated (6) as this is badly needed but the extent of the improvements are unknown.

Variable and continuous sizing of snapped views and support for multi-tasking Store apps across snapped views, multiple displays, and multiple windows of the same app. Fascinating. Handy improvements, but is Metro now re-inventing the desktop but with non-overlapping Windows as in some early windowing systems? What challenges are posed for developers who now have to deal with resizable apps almost as on the desktop? (7).

Improved Windows Store with related apps, automatic background update, on-screen search (no need for Charms). (5) but what we really need is better apps.

SkyDrive app supports offline files and “Save to SkyDrive”. (5) but the desktop one already supports this.

PC Settings more comprehensive so less need for old Control Panel. I’m sceptical though when Microsoft’s Antoine Leblond says:

The updated PC Settings in Windows 8.1 gives you access to all your settings on your device without having to go to the Control Panel on the desktop.

Internet Explorer 11, the “only browser built for touch.” (5) as features unknown.

Hmm, I have got to the bottom of the list and rated nothing higher than 7/10 Then again, I have not had hands-on experience yet. If Windows 8.1 fixes my annoying Samsung Slate unresponsive screen, that will be (9) of course.

The total update may be more satisfying than the sum of its parts. For my general take though on why this will not “fix” Windows 8 see here.

Tip: finding Start menu groups in the Windows 8 Start screen

The Windows 8 Start screen, which occupies the full screen and uses large tiles instead of a hierarchical menu, is a contentious feature which many dislike (though there are ways to get the old Start menu back, or something very like it).

Personally I like the new Start screen, though it does require learning new habits.Instead of clicking a button and navigating a hierarchy of menus, you tap the windows key and type a letter or two matching the app you want to start. You can use the same technique with the Windows 7 Start menu, though not many do.

A complaint I have heard though is that the Start screen loses the group structure of the Start menu. What if you want “that Visual Studio tool that inspects window handles and messages” but cannot remember what it is called? In Windows 7, you go to the Microsoft Visual Studio group, then Visual Studio Tools, and there it is:

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How would you find it in Windows 8? Here’s how:

1. Press the Windows key to open the Start screen

2. Right-click and click All apps in the menu

3. Scroll right. Once you get past the alphabetical listings, the group listings appear.

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Somewhat long-winded, but I doubt it is worse than clicking down through the hierarchy in the Start menu, and it is not something you need to do often. Next time, just type “Spy”!

Fixing an unresponsive screen on a Samsung Series 7 Slate with Windows 8

I currently travel with a Windows 8 slate, the slate being the retail Samsung Series 7 model (similar but not the same as the one given to Build attendees in 2011).

It is a decent machine with good performance, but has one considerable annoyance. From time to time, when waking the device from sleep or even turning on from cold, the screen stops responding to touch. The crude fix is to reset it by turning it off, then holding down the power button so it reboots. Open documents may be lost of course.

I do not have a cure for this behaviour, though I would love to know. However I have discovered the cause, which is that one or both Intel USB host controllers fails to start. You can see the problem in Device Manager:

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How do you even get to this screen? Well, on my machine, if the top Intel host controller has a problem, then pen input fails but touch works. If the second Intel host controller fails, touch input fails but pen input works. If both fail (which also happens) you are sunk unless you can remote desktop in from another machine on the network.

Once you are in – via pen, touch, or remote desktop – right-click the offending controller and choose Disable. Then right-click again and choose Enable. This will fix the problem until next time.

A likely fix would be an updated driver for the host controller. The current driver dates from 2006.

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However I cannot easily find anything more up to date.

Update: I have succeeded in updating the driver to one from February 2013 but it does not fix the problem. My conclusion is that the error in the USB Enhanced Host Controller is the symptom and not the cause of the issue. It is a resume or power-on problem; such as something happening too quickly or in the wrong order. Again, suggestions welcome!

Windows in Xbox One: a boost for Windows 8 apps?

What if the just-announced Xbox One runs Windows 8 apps? Could this be the boost that Microsoft’s store and app platform needs?

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Microsoft has yet to describe the app story for the One in detail, but it would make sense. Here is what we know, as I understand it, though it is no doubt an over-simplification.

Xbox One is described as having three operating systems: a virtualisation host, a Windows OS for general purpose use (including web browsing, Skype, and I would guess the management app), and a dedicated games OS. The games OS runs in parallel, so you can do instant switching between a game and other activities like watching TV, or have a Windows 8-style snapped view where both are visible.

The Apps element on the One will, I presume, be part of the Windows OS. There is considerable commonality between the demands of a touch UI and that of a TV UI (where you are sitting well back from the screen). A touch UI demands large targets so you can hit them with fat fingers, while a TV UI requires large targets so you can see them from a distance. It could be that the tendency towards large, chunky controls in the “Metro” Windows 8 UI is partly driven by planned support for Xbox, even though this tendency is frustrating for desktop users sitting close-up to large screens.

It is unlikely that Microsoft will introduce a completely new app model for Xbox One. Rather, I would expect to see some compatibility between Windows Store apps and Xbox One apps, with differences to account for the different platforms. No accelerometer or touch control on the Xbox One, for example, though you have Kinect which enables a touch-like interaction though hand detection.

What about the OS partitioning? This may mean that the powerful One GPU will not be available to app developers, or that game apps follow an entirely distinct development model.

If developers can easily share code between Xbox One apps and Windows Store apps, with Windows Phone 9 added to the mix at some future date, will that be enough to get some momentum behind Microsoft’s app platform?

Keep your 360 – Xbox One not backward compatible

Microsoft says that the newly announced Xbox One is not backward compatible with the 360:

Xbox One hardware is not compatible with Xbox 360 games. We designed Xbox One to play an entirely new generation of games—games that are architected to take full advantage of state-of-the-art processors and the infinite power of the cloud. We care very much about the investment you have made in Xbox 360 and will continue to support it with a pipeline of new games and new apps well into the future.

This contrasts with the considerable compatibility effort made in the 360, which runs some (but not all) original Xbox games despite having an equally different architecture and a switch from Nvidia to ATI for the GPU. The way this works on the 360 is that when you put in a compatible original Xbox game, it downloads a patch to enable it to run. I am not sure of the details, but there is some kind of compatibility or emulation layer combined with game-specific code to fill any gaps.

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This may not seem a big deal to Microsoft, but in a family context it matters. Space in the living room is at a premium in many households, and lack of compatibility means a difficult decision. Replace the old 360 and abandon all that investment in existing games? Have both side by side, adding complexity and clutter? Or pass on the new Xbox and rely on your iPad or Android tablet for fun new games, as the 360 fades from view?

What will happen to classic games as the consoles which run them crumble? Emulation is the answer, and enthusiasts have come up with solutions for many obsolete consoles. In other words, we will end up running those games on PCs. For example, check out Cxbx for an ongoing effort to run original Xbox games, though progress is slow.

Nokia 925: smart camera and metal band design continues Windows Phone 8 and Lumia effort

Nokia has announced the Lumia 925, a high-end Windows Phone which will go on sale in Europe in June from Vodafone and others. The price is around €469 + VAT, presumably without a contract. Vodafone customers will be offered an “exclusive 32GB version” according to the press release.

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So what’s special about the 925? It sports a 4.5″ AMOLED 1280 x 768 display, which is decent, along with 1GB RAM and 16GB storage. Battery life is a claimed 440 hrs standby and 12.8 hrs talk time. No SD card slot, presumably for the same reason as for the 920: it would have “defiled it” according to Nokia VP Kevin Shields.

A big attraction is the camera, or rather cameras, including the main 8.7 MP PureView which also offers 1080p 30fps HD video, and the front-facing 1.2MP wide angle camera. The magic is said to be both in the lens and the software, especially the Smart Camera update (coming shortly after the launch) which enables the camera to take ten images in one shot, giving the user options for which one to keep (sounds similar to Microsoft’s Blink app which is already available for Windows Phone).

There is also Nokia’s HERE mapping suite which the company says offers “the world’s only fully integrated and true offline maps experience.”

Another Lumia innovation is the metal frame which is for “antenna functionality, appeal and robustness”. Presumably Nokia has ensured that it does not kill the signal when touched in the wrong place, as happened with the metal band for Apple’s iPhone 4.

Seemingly every mention of a Nokia phone has to ask the big questions. Can Windows Phone succeed against iPhone and Android? Can Nokia survive?

Whatever is the answer to those questions, this phone is unlikely to change it.

I will say that after a shaky start with the 800 (nice phone, terrible battery life and unfortunate bugs) the Lumia range has evolved into something excellent, that spans from good budget smartphones like the 620 to devices like the 820 and 920 which are a pleasure to use.

Windows Nokia Lumia 510 Phone just £70 at Tesco

In Tesco this morning I noticed the Nokia Lumia 510 on offer for £70.

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Quick spec: Windows Phone 7.5, 4″ display, 800 x 480 screen, multipoint touch screen, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, 256MB RAM, 4GB storage, 5MP camera, 480p video camera. Full details here.

256MB is minimal these days and there is no SD memory card slot or front-facing camera. For battery life, Nokia quote 653 hours of standby or 8.4 hours talk time on a 3G connection.

Sill, at £70 Windows Phone is no longer an expensive option.

If you want Windows Phone 8, you can get the Lumia 520 for £99.95 on Orange pay as you go, according to Nokia’s chart.