Tag Archives: xbox

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.

Microsoft’s Xbox One almost invisible at Gadget Show Live

I looked in on London’s Gadget Show Live this morning. It was the usual frustrating experience: the things that were interesting were surrounded by hordes of visitors so you could barely get a look.

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Here is what I found curious. Microsoft is the lead sponsor, but the Xbox One was shown only on a tiny stand near the back of the hall. Here it is – all of it.

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By contrast, Sony had a huge stand for PlayStation 4. Apologies; my snap does not show the scale well.

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That said, Microsoft had its own massive stand, but for Windows, with a strong push for Surface tablets and a reasonable presence for Windows Phone.

However, if you look at the demographic of the show, with lots of kids even on a Friday, it is better suited to gaming consoles than to relatively expensive tablets – though to be fair, the Windows tablets seemed to be attracting a fair amount of attention.

I had a chat with a guy from Sonos at its stand. Will Sonos support high resolution formats (better then CD quality)? This is almost a trick question as I’m not sure you can hear the difference; but there is nevertheless strong demand for it in the slightly crazy world of high-end audio. Apparently there are ways to do it now, but the Sonos engineers are working at bringing full support into the range.

Sonos has apps for iOS and Android; what if I have a Windows Phone? No support yet but again I got the impression that this is being looked at. There is a public API so third-party support is also possible. They appear also to be considering a Windows 8 store app though nothing is confirmed.

Panasonic had a rather lovely 4K display running full resolution video – only £5,499 – as well as a 3D display which looked great though it requires glasses. Don’t bother with 4K unless you have a 42″ or bigger screen, I was told by a Panasonic guy.

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I also watched a bit of Gadget Show Live in the Super Theatre. Sorry, but I thought it was dreadful. Little innovation on show, slightly risqué humour despite the presence of many kids in the audience – “I’ve got a new girlfriend, you should see her Nokias” said a robot comedian, for example. I may be in a minority as the show overall seemed to go down OK.

Talking of the robot comedian, it was controlled by a Windows 8 tablet strapped to its back. After three or four jokes something went wrong and it had to be controlled manually, reducing the robot to little more than a fancy powered loudspeaker. Never mind.

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?

Keyboards, consoles and living rooms: Trust Thinity reviewed

Computers are for the study, consoles for the living room, right? Kind-of, but we are seeing some convergence. The box under your TV might actually be a Mac Mini or a PC, or you might be browsing the web on your Sony PS3. From time to time you hit a problem: game controllers are lousy for text input.

I was an early adopter for Microsoft’s Media Center PC, and hit exactly this problem. Microsoft’s media center remote was good in its way, but sometimes I needed a keyboard and mouse. I ended up getting a wireless keyboard. However I also discovered that a keyboard, while great for a desk, is an awkward thing to have lying around in a living room.

This is the problem Trust is trying to address with its Thinity Wireless Entertainment Keyboard. This is a small keyboard – think netbook-sized – with an integrated trackpad. It comes with a USB wifi adaptor and a stand/charger.

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When sat in its charger it is reasonably stylish as these things go, but still looks like a keyboard.

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The Thinity is compatible with Windows PCs – why not Mac? – Sony PlayStation 3, and Microsoft Xbox 360. There is no need to install drivers, just plug in the USB device and it works. That said, there is no caps lock indicator on the keyboard, so you can download a software indicator for Windows if you want.

The trackpad is actually multitouch, and as well as having hardware left and right buttons,  tapping with three fingers makes a right button click, and it behaves as a scroller if you drag with two fingers.

How is it then? Well, it does the job and is easier than using a game controller to type URLs and passwords. I cannot rate it highly though, since it is not a particularly well-designed keyboard. The keys are close together and it is hard to type at speed. I would not enjoy using it as a main PC keyboard; I wrote most of this review with it but found it a struggle.

It is also a shame that there are no configuration options for Windows. I would like to turn off tapping, which I personally find a nuisance because of accidental clicking though I know others who love it.

Although the Trust brand is associated with budget gear, I get the impression that the company set out to make at least a mid-range product, with multi-touch keypad and a long-lasting li-ion battery. Unfortunately it needs a bit more design effort, making it seem over-priced for what it is. There are little annoyances, like the fiddly on-off switch, the support tabs on the back that are hard to prise open, and the fact that the keyboard flexes a little more than it should.

Logitech’s Google TV, the Revue, has a keyboard/trackpad that is only a little larger, but is more usable.

But do you want a keyboard in the living room at all? Personally I am doubtful. They are a transitional necessity. I am a fan of apps rather than remotes. The virtual keyboard on an Apple iPad does all that is necessary for occasional text input in a more elegant and living-room-friendly manner. Nintendo is taking this same direction with the Wii U, which has a touch controller with its own screen.

Of course these devices cost more and do more than a simple wireless keyboard, but they are inherently better suited to the task. One factor is that when you type, you do not want to be 12 feet away from where the letters are appearing on a screen. With a screen-equipped remote, they are right in front of you.

That does not solve the immediate problem with a PS3, Xbox or Media Center PC, so you will still need something like the Thinity, though I would suggest you check out the competition too. Long term though, I do not think we will see many keyboards in the living room.

Xbox Kinect has sold 8 million since launch, and is driving more controller-free features

At CES in Las Vegas today, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced that Microsoft has sold 8 million Kinect sensor devices since its launch late last year.

He also announced an AvatarKinect feature for Xbox Live subscribers, which enables your avatar to mimic your movements and expressions, and controller-free selection of movies from Netflix and Hulu as well as the Zune marketplace, using gestures and voice.

I got Kinect at launch and have mixed feelings about it. It has not had much use because the games we have so far are not particularly exciting.

The device itself is exciting though; and given its rapid adoption it seems reasonable to expect that the next batch of games will be more compelling.

The evidence is that the controller-free concept has caught people’s imagination. It has also done something important for the Xbox: rescued it from the niche of hardcore first-person shooters in which it was to some extent trapped.