Tag Archives: microsoft

Microsoft Band: do you want to track your health? and with a Microsoft device?

Data on human health has immense value. At an individual level, use of that data has the potential to enhance well-being and productivity, to extend life, and in some cases to avert disaster – such as prompting early investigation into a heart condition. In aggregate, more data on human health enables deeper medical research, especially when combined with other data about lifestyle, profession, location, diet and so on. Medicine is big business, so this is a business opportunity as well as (one hopes) a benefit to humanity.

There is also a dark side to this data. The more data an insurance company has on our health, the more likely they are to exclude the conditions we are most likely to suffer (defeating the purpose of insurance) or to ratchet up premiums for worse risks. Do we trust the industry, whether that is the IT industry or the insurance industry, to safeguard our personal data from being used against us?

The value of this data goes some way to explaining the IT industry’s obsession with fitness gadgets, an obsession that seems to go beyond the demand. I tried a Fitbit for several months, a wristband version. It is a great device, and I found the data interesting, but not enough to motivate me to keep the thing charged up and on my wrist, after the novelty wore off.

The reality is that most of us strike a balance between keeping vaguely fit while not allowing health concerns to dominate our lives. Coffee may be bad for you, but it is also a lovely drink; there is no point in extending life if you cannot also enjoy it.

How much health data, then, is too much?

These questions are likely to come to the fore as increasing numbers of health-monitoring devices come our way, especially multi-purpose devices that do health monitoring as one of several useful functions.

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Enter Microsoft Band, which the company successfully kept under wraps until a couple of days ago. It’s $199, works with Windows Phone, Android and iOS, and packs in a lot of features, though its 48 hours battery life is too short for my liking (I am hard to please; my plain old watch has a 10-year battery life).

Band hooks into the Microsoft Health platform. There are apps for all three supported phones, and data goes into a cloud service which delivers “intelligent insights” for you. “The more you share with Microsoft Health, the more accurate and helpful your insights will become,” says the blurb. There seems to be a link with Health Vault, a service which provides for sharing of health information with health professionals; of course the company says privacy and security are highly protected.

If I buy one (only available in the US currently) it will be more for its non-health features. Microsoft Band (by linking to your mobile over low-energy Bluetooth) will do calendar alerts, email previews, plain old watch mode (so it is actually a smartwatch), facebook posts, Twitter messages, weather, and (on Windows Phone only), Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant.

There is a built-in microphone and you can speak to Cortana on the go. I’ve been trying Cortana since it was was announced at Microsoft’s Build conference earlier this year, and she/it is pretty good. Cortana is not just voice activated search; it is also an example of voice UI, so you can make appointments, take notes, or ask for directions. Its voice recognition and question parsing is impressive, in my experience, though of course not perfect.

As ever I have a developer’s eye on this and I think it is interesting. Voice recognition, touch screen, and semi-permanent link with a smartphone is a powerful combination, if Microsoft opens this up to developers; and I will find it surprising if it does not.

In fact, there are already third-party apps, if you count the Starbucks partnership. You can pair a Starbucks card with Microsoft Band, and pay for coffee with it. The method is rather low-tech: the Band will display a barcode which the Starbucks scanner can read, but still, it beats searching for your card or even pulling out your mobile.

And there is of course the health tracking aspect. There are a ton of sensors here:

  • GPS
  • UV monitor (detect when sunscreen is required)
  • Optical heart rate sensor
  • Gyrometer
  • 3-axis accelerometer
  • “Galvanic skin response”: probably measures electrical conductivity of the skin to assess moisture level
  • Skin temperature
  • Microphone and touch screen

Haptic vibration is used for alerts.

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Can Microsoft make a success of the Band and steal a march from Apple, whose Watch (which also does fitness tracking) is coming early next year? Apple’s device will be more beautiful, more expensive, and has more functions; but it will not work so well with Android or Windows Phone.

The big downer with Microsoft Band is that it is US only for the moment. Health Vault is already in the UK so we may see a UK release; the possibilities for global rollout are uncertain.

The Microsoft Screen Sharing for Lumia Phones HD10: silly name, nice product

How many committees does it take to come up with a name like Microsoft Screen Sharing for Lumia Phones HD10? Who knows, but the product is a nice one. It lets you project from your phone to any TV with an HDMI input, using the Miracast standard.

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Data is transferred to the device via Wi-Fi. You make the connection by tapping your phone on the separate coaster-like plate, which triggers the connection using NFC (Near Field Communication). The coaster talks to the device using Bluetooth.

The neat thing about this arrangement is that the main HD10 device will be close to your TV; it might even plug in at the back, out of sight. The coaster on the other hand can be on a table near your sitting position. You can come into the room, tap the coaster, and then view your photos and videos on the big screen in 1080p HD video quality.

At least, that is the idea as I understand it. Usability is key with this type of gadget, otherwise they do not get used, and this might just have it right.

The coaster thing can also be stacked on the main device as you can see from my blurry picture:

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Concerning the name, all your worst fears about Microsoft taking over Nokia have been confirmed. Concerning the device though, all is well. I suppose that is the right way round, but it is really so hard?

Price is $79 / 79€ with availability promised for later this month.

Microsoft’s glowing Lumia wireless charge pad can show alerts, but we get too many

Today Microsoft/Nokia made a number of announcements alongside the IFA show in Berlin, including a new wireless charging pad for its Lumia phones. Here is the new Lumia 830 while wireless charging.

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The new pad glows, with the cool feature being that the phone can send alerts to the pad which cause it to flash. This means that if your phone is charging on a table at home, you can see when there is an alert and pick up the phone to check it out.

What can send an alert? I was told that anything which can appear in the slide-down notification area in Windows Phone 8.1 can also send an alert to the pad, though the user can customise which ones are enabled.

The concept is good, but the difficulty is that we receive so many alerts (most of little real importance) that the pad will be constantly flashing, unless you manage to filter it down things that actually matter; maybe missed calls, voice messages and texts?

When Windows 8 will not boot: the Automatic Repair disaster

“My PC won’t boot” – never good news, but even worse when there is no backup.

The system was Windows 8. One day, the user restarted his PC and instead of rebooting, it went into Automatic Repair.

Automatic Repair would chug for a bit and then say:

Automatic Repair couldn’t repair your PC. Press “Advanced options” to try other options to repair your PC, or “Shut down” to turn off your PC.

Log file: D:\Windows\System32\Logfiles\Srt\SrtTrail.txt

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Advanced options includes the recovery console, a command-line for troubleshooting with a few useful commands and access to files. There is also an option to Refresh or reset your PC, and access to System Restore which lets you return to a configuration restore point.

System Restore can be a lifesaver but in this case had been mysteriously disabled. Advanced start-up options like Safe Mode simply triggered Automatic Repair again.

Choosing Exit and continue to Windows 8.1 triggers a reboot, and you can guess what happens next … Automatic Repair.

You also have options to Refresh or Reset your PC.

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Refresh your PC is largely a disaster. It preserves data but zaps applications and other settings. You will have to spend ages updating Windows to get it current, including the update to Windows 8.1 if you originally had Windows 8. You may need to find your installation media if you have any, in cases where there is no recovery partition. You then have the task of trying to get your applications reinstalled, which means finding setup files, convincing vendors that you should be allowed to re-activate and so on. At best it is time-consuming, at worst you will never get all your applications back.

Reset your PC is worse. It aims to restore your PC to factory settings. Your data will be zapped as well as the applications.

You can also reinstall Windows from setup media. Unfortunately Windows can no longer do a repair install, preserving settings, unless you start it from within the operating system you are repairing. If Windows will not boot, that is impossible.

Summary: it is much better to persuade Windows to boot one more time. However if every reboot simply cycles back to Automatic Repair and another failure, it is frustrating. What next?

The answer, it turned out in this case, was to look at the logfile. There was only one problem listed in SrtTrail.txt:

Root cause found:
—————————
Boot critical file d:\windows\system32\drivers\vsock.sys is corrupt.

Repair action: File repair
Result: Failed. Error code =  0×2
Time taken = 12218 ms

I looked up vsock.sys. It is a VMware file, not even part of the operating system. How can this be so critical that Windows refuses to boot?

I deleted vsock.sys using the recovery console. Windows started perfectly, without even an error message, other than rolling back a failed Windows update.

Next, I uninstalled an old vmware player, using control panel. Everything was fine.

The Automatic Repair problem

If your PC is trapped in the Automatic Repair loop, and you have no working backup, you are in trouble. Why, then, is the wizard so limited? In this case, for example, the “boot critical file” was from a third-party; the wizard just needed to have some logic that says, maybe it is worth trying to boot without it, at least one time.

Finally, if this happens to you, I recommend looking at the logs. It is the only way to get real information about what it going wrong. In some cases you may need to boot into the recovery console from installation media, but if your hard drive is working at all, it should be possible to view those files.

A tale of two Lumias: snaps on a Lumia 630 versus a Lumia 1020

I spent a morning in Oxford taking some snaps and thought it would be fun to compare what a budget Windows Smartphone – the new Nokia Lumia 630 – can do versus the king of photography smartphones, the Nokia Lumia 1020.

Note this is not intended as a fair comparison; the 1020 costs around four times as much as the 630. It does show what you are giving up if you use a budget smartphone for all your snaps. In each case, you can click the image to see the full resolution.

Here is the Bodleian Library on the 630:

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and on the 1020, using the 5MP version (the 1020 also stores a high res version of each image):

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Next, Pembroke College on the 630:

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and on the 1020:

 

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Some flowers at the corner of Pembroke’s Chapel Quad, on the 630:

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and on the 1020:

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The difference is more telling if you zoom in. Here is a detail taken from a picture of Broad Street on the 630:

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and on the 1020:

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What about the high-res versions of the Lumia 1020 snaps? Here is a picture of Oxford’s “Bridge of Sighs”:

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Let’s zoom in to look at the sculpture on the bridge. This is from the 5MP version, which I’ve enlarged slightly:

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Here is the same section taken from the high-res 34MP image:

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I consider the improvement well worthwhile; it does pay to hang on to those high-res images for the pictures you most value.

I snapped this on the 630 too; here is the same zoomed-in and enlarged section:

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Ouch!

Conclusion? The camera on the Lumia 630 is not too bad – for a cheap smartphone. The Lumia 1020 is something special and I am grateful to Nokia for delivering a smartphone with a camera good enough that I can leave a standalone camera out of my bag – noting that I am not a photographer, just a traveller who takes pictures. I have not used a tripod on any of the above; from my perspective, coping with camera shake is one of the characteristics I need in whatever camera I use.

The Microsoft Apartment: full of screens and an uninvited cucumber

I visited Microsoft’s “Apartment” in London, billed as a chance to see “Dragon’s Den star Kelly Hoppen’s apartment in the heart of Covent Garden kitted out with the latest Microsoft technologies,” and to include a “deep dive discussion” on Microsoft’s latest developer announcements.

How do you kit out an apartment with the latest Microsoft technologies? Apparently, you stick an Xbox One and a couple of PC screens in the living area, and upstairs in the study (a mezzanine floor), a PC, a Surface (not 3 sadly), and a Windows phone connected to a big screen.

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There were certainly lots of screens, but nothing in the way of home automation, and after watching Microsoft presenters struggling to get the Xbox One to play the right kind of music, and later a shaky Skype demo, it is hard to enthuse over this particular setup.

For some reason, we were not shown any cool games on the Xbox One, nor cool apps on the Windows Phone other than the Cortana assistant which is not yet available in the UK. There was a demo of the new swipe keyboard in Windows 8.1 which inevitably saw the word “document” rendered as “cucumber”; a shame as I know from my own experience that this keyboard works very well, but demoing this kind of thing in public is only for the brave or the very well rehearsed.

We did see collaborative real-time editing on an Office document – not something home users generally do, but to be fair this was part of a business-oriented discussion which followed.

One feature which I had not previously been aware of was the ability of Skype on the Xbox One, in conjunction with Kinect, to follow the speaker around the room automatically. If you like pacing up and down while on Skype, this is a cool feature; perhaps it would be good for talking to excitable kids as well.

Takeaways? Let me put it like this. If you thought, perhaps, that the Xbox One has potential but feels (in software terms) not yet ready; or that Microsoft has no idea how to market to consumers; then there was nothing here that would change your mind.

As chance would have it, the Microsoft apartment is a few paces away from Apple’s huge Covent Garden store, and seeing the crowds eager to try the latest iDevices put the Microsoft event in perspective.

PS for another, more positive take on the event see this Neowin report.

Review: Power Cover for Microsoft Surface tablets

I took advantage of a recent US trip to purchase a Surface Power Cover, at the Microsoft Store in Bellevue, near Seattle.

The concept is simple: you get an external battery integrated into a Surface keyboard cover. The keyboard is similar to the second version of the Type Cover, though curiously without backlighting other than a caps lock indicator. The keys are mechanical which for most people means you can type faster than on the alternative Touch cover, though it is less elegant when considered as a cover rather than as a keyboard.

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The trackpad is the same on all three second edition covers, which is to say, not good. The problem is not the trackpad itself, but the mouse buttons, which are NOT mechanical keys (they were on the first edition Type Cove). Given that you need to press and hold a mouse key for some operations, having a physical click on the trackpad buttons is particularly useful and much missed. Another annoyance is that you cannot disable tap to click, which means some mis-clicks are inevitable, though on the flip side it is easier to tap to click than to use the fiddly mouse buttons.

Having said that it is the same, I have noticed that the trackpad on the Power Cover seems a bit smoother and better behaved than the one on the Type Cover 2. This could be sample variation, or that it is new, or that Microsoft has slightly tweaked the internal design.

As you would expect, the Power Cover is heavier and more substantial than the Type Cover, though I find you notice the weight more than the bulk. Even with the Power Cover, it is still smaller and neater than a laptop. The extra rigidity is a benefit in some scenarios, such as when the keyboard protrudes over the edge of a table. The fabric hinge, which is a weak point in the design of all the Surface covers, seems to be the same on the Power Cover and I fear this may cause problems as the device wears, since the extra weight will put more strain on this hinge.

As with the other keyboard covers, if you fold it back under the tablet, the keys are disabled. In this mode the Power Cover is purely an external battery.

I used the cover with the original Surface Pro (it is compatible with all the models other than the original Surface RT). I understand that a firmware update is needed for the power cover to work; if so, it installed seamlessly though I did need to restart after connecting the keyboard for the first time. Everything worked as expected. If you click the battery icon in the notification area you can see the status of both batteries and which is charging, if you are plugged in; generally one one charges at a time.

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I boarded my flight and noticed that the Surface is smart enough to use the external battery first, and then the internal, presumably on the basis that you might want to remove the keyboard and use the Surface in pure tablet mode.

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It is impossible to be precise about how much extra time you get from the Power Cover, since it depends how you use the machine. It is a big benefit on the original Surface Pro which has rather poor battery life; extended battery life is perhaps the biggest real-world difference between the Surface Pro and the Surface Pro 2. Subjectively I have doubled the battery life on my year-old Surface Pro, which for me makes the difference between running out of battery fairly often, and hardly ever.

The Power Cover costs $199, which is expensive considering that you can get an entire spare Android tablet or Amazon Kindle Fire for less; but put in the context of the equally over-priced Type Cover, which costs $129, you can argue that it is not that much extra to pay. Prices from third-party sites will likely be lower once availability improves.

If you need it, you need it; and this must be the best way to extend the battery life of a Surface tablet.

The Surface keyboard covers are not perfect, and I still sometimes see an annoying fault where the mouse pointer or keys stop responding and you have to jiggle the connection or tap the screen a few times to get it back (I am sure this is a driver issue rather than a poor physical connection). Still, I put up with a few irritations because the Surface gives me full Windows in a more convenient and portable form factor than a laptop, and there is more right than wrong with the overall design.

Summary:

  • If you already have a keyboard and your Surface lasts as long as you need – forget it.
  • If you have a Surface that runs out of power with annoying frequency (probably a Surface Pro 1), this is worth it despite the high price.
  • If you don’t have a keyboard (for example, you are buying a new Surface) then this is worth the extra cost over the Type keyboard.

Results for Nokia’s last quarter with Windows Phone: slightly worse than flat? Over to you Microsoft

Nokia has released its fourth quarter results for 2013. They make odd reading because of the division into “Continuing operations” and “Discontinued operations”, the latter including the mobile phone business which has been acquired by Microsoft. This tends to cloud the key point of interest for some of us, which is how Windows Phone is faring in the market.

The answer seems to be that sales slightly declined, though it is not clear. Here is what we know.

Mobile phone revenue overall declined by 29% year on year and by 5% quarter on quarter, for the quarter ending December 2013.

Nokia states in its report:

The year-on-year decline in discontinued operations net sales in the fourth quarter 2013 was primarily due to lower Mobile Phones net sales and, to a lesser extent, lower Smart Devices net sales. Our Mobile Phones net sales were affected by competitive industry dynamics, including intense smartphone competition at increasingly lower price points and intense competition at the low end of our product portfolio. Our Smart Devices net sales were affected by competitive industry dynamics including the strong momentum of competing smartphone platforms, as well as our portfolio transition from Symbian products to Lumia products.

Disappointing; though in mitigation Lumia (ie Windows Phone) sales volume in 2013 overall is said to be double that in 2012.

We do know that much of Lumia’s success is thanks to the introduction of low-end devices such as the Lumia 520. That has been good for building market share, but not so good for app sales or mind share – on the assumption that that purchasers of high-end devices are more likely to spend on apps, and that aspirational devices have a greater influence on mind share than cheap ones.

That does mean though that units might have gone up even though revenue has fallen.

Still, the results do put a dampener on the theory that Windows Phone is taking off at last.

This is a moment of transition following the Microsoft acquisition. Microsoft has not got a good track record with acquisitions, and the Danger/Kin disaster is hard to forget, but Nokia comes with an influential executive (Stephen Elop) and common sense would suggest that the team which created excellent devices like the Lumia 1020, and which was able to engineer strong budget offerings like the 520, should be kept together as far as possible. Or will it be dragged into the mire of Microsoft’s notorious internal politics? Over to you Microsoft.

Update: it is now reported that Lumia sold 8.2m devices in Q4, down from 8.8m in Q3 but up from 4.4m in the same quarter 2012.

Something Microsoft has never fixed: why Windows is slow to start up

One of the most common complaints I hear about Windows is that it is slow to start up. Everything is fine when a machine is new (especially if it is a clean install or purchased from a Microsoft store, and therefore free from foistware), but as time goes on it gets slower and slower. Even a fast PC with lots of RAM does not fix it. Slow boot is one of many factors behind the drift away from PCs to tablets, and to some extent Macs.

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As far as I can tell, the main reason PCs become slow to start is one that has been around since DOS days. Some may recall fussing about TSR – Terminate and Stay Resident – applications that would run at startup and stay in memory, possibly causing other applications to fail. Windows today is generally stable, but it is applications that run at startup that cause your PC to start slowly, as well as having some impact on performance later.

I install lots of software for testing so I suffer from this myself. This morning I took a look at what is slowing down my desktop PC. You can view them easily in Windows 8, in Task Manager – Startup tab. A few of the culprits:

  • Adobe: too much stuff, including Service Manager for Creative Suite, Creative Cloud connection, Acrobat utilities
  • Intel Desktop utilities – monitors motherboard sensors
  • Intel Rapid Storage Technology – monitors on-board RAID
  • Sync applications including SkyDrive, Dropbox, SkyDrive Pro (Groove.exe)
  • Seagate Desktop, manage your Seagate NAS (network attached storage)
  • Google stuff: Google Music Manager, Google update, some Chrome updater
  • Plantronics headset updater
  • Realtek HD Audio Manager
  • Fitbit Connect client
  • SpotifyWebHelper
  • Microsoft Zune auto-launcher
  • Microsoft Lync, famously slow to start up and connect
  • Roccat Gaming mouse settings manager
  • Flexera “Common software manager” (InstallShield updater)

Many of these applications run in order to install a notification app – these are the things that run at bottom right, in the notification area of the taskbar. Some apps install their own schedulers, like the Seagate app which lets you schedule backup tasks. Some apps are there simply to check for updates and inform you of new versions.

You can speed up Windows startup by going through case by case and disabling startup items that you do not need. Here is a useful guide. It is an unsatisfactory business though. Users have no easy way to judge whether or not a specific app is doing an important or useful task. You might break something. When you next update the application, the startup app may reappear. It is a mess.

Microsoft should have addressed this problem aggressively, years ago. It did put great effort into making Windows boot faster, but never focussed on the harder task of bringing third-parties into line. A few points:

  • If Windows had a proper notification service, many of these apps would not need to exist. In Windows 8, it does, but that is little help since most applications need to support Windows 7 and even in many cases Windows XP.
  • The notification area should be reserved for high priority applications that need to make users aware of their status at all times. The network connection icon is a good case. Printer ink levels are a bad case, aside from reminding us of the iniquity of printer vendors selling tiny ink cartridges at profiteering prices. In all cases it should be easy to stop the notification app from running via a right-click preference. The Windows 7 idea of hiding the notification icons is counter-productive: it disguises the problem but does not fix it, therefore making it worse. I always set Windows to show all notifications.
  • Many tasks should be done on application startup, not on Windows startup. Then it is under the user’s control, and if the user never or rarely runs the application, no resources are grabbed. Why do I need to know about an update, if I am not running the application? Have the application check for updates each time it runs instead.
  • It is misguided to run a process on start-up in order to speed up the first launch of the application. It may not be needed.
  • If a background process is needed, such as for synchronisation services, why not use a Windows Service, which is designed for this?
  • Windows has a scheduler built in. It works. Why write your own?

Of course it is too late now for desktop Windows. Microsoft did rethink the matter for the “Metro” personality in Windows 8, which is one reason why Windows RT is such a pleasure to use. Apple does not allow apps to run on startup in iOS, though you can have apps respond to push notifications, and that strikes me as the best approach.

Update: I should mention a feature of Windows 8 called Fast Boot (I was reminded of this by a commenter – thanks Danny). Fast Boot does a hybrid shutdown and hibernation:

Essentially a Windows 8 shutdown consists of logging off all users and then hibernating.

This is almost another subject, though relevant. Microsoft has for years sought to address the problem of slow boot by designing Windows never to switch off. There are two basic approaches:

Sleep: the computer is still on, applications are in memory, but in a low power state with screen and hard drives off.

Hibernation: the computer writes the contents of its memory to disk storage, then powers off. On startup, it reads back the memory and resumes.

My own experience is that Sleep does not work reliably long-term. It sometimes works, but sooner or later it will fail to resume and you may lose data. Another issue on portables is that the “low-power state” is not as low power as it should be, and your battery drains. These factors have persuaded me to shut down rather than sleep.

My experience of hibernation is better, though not perfect. It usually works, but occasionally fails and again you lose data.

Fast boot is a clever solution that works for some, but it is a workaround that does not address the real issue which I have outlined above: third-party and Microsoft applications that insist on automatic start-up.