Cortana Expands Its Reach To Android Lockscreens

Cortana hasn’t been resting on its laurels. It leapt out of Halo to become a virtual assistant on Windows 10, expanded further still to Android and iOS, and now has the ability to appear over the Android lockscreen with information about the weather, upcoming appointments, and other goings-on. Updates to Windows 10 have also given Cortana the ability to find tasks in your email, for example, or proactively display apps in Microsoft Edge.

All those updates came after Microsoft removed the ability to easily disable Cortana with the Windows 10 Anniversary Update in August 2016. You still have some control over the information available to Cortana–you can opt not to let it access your email, calendar, and messages, for example–but now you have to fiddle with your registry (if you use Windows 10 Home) or group policy settings (if you use Windows 10 Pro) to make Cortana disappear.

Combine that with Microsoft’s decision not to update Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 to support Intel’s Kaby Lake or AMD’s Ryzen processors, thus ensuring all but the most resilient of Windows users will make the jump to Windows 10 in the near future, and Cortana’s expansion feels as inevitable as the parasitic Flood it helped combat in the Halo series. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on how Microsoft decides to use Cortana’s nigh ubiquity.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation criticized Microsoft for Windows 10’s data collection, especially with Cortana, in August 2016:

The trouble with Windows 10 doesn’t end with forcing users to download the operating system. Windows 10 sends an unprecedented amount of usage data back to Microsoft, particularly if users opt in to “personalize” the software using the OS assistant called Cortana. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of data sent back: location data, text input, voice input, touch input, webpages you visit, and telemetry data regarding your general usage of your computer, including which programs you run and for how long.

While we understand that many users find features like Cortana useful, and that such features would be difficult (though not necessarily impossible) to implement in a way that doesn’t send data back to the cloud, the fact remains that many users would much prefer not to use these features in exchange for maintaining their privacy.

It’s important to note that sharing information with Cortana is opt-in; you have to give the assistant permission to access your data. That isn’t true of everything on Windows 10, which by default collects plenty of information about you, but at least the virtual assistant won’t just read your email without permission. The question is whether or not Microsoft will change this in the future, just like it nixed the ability to easily disable Cortana back in August.

Cortana’s increasing availability could raise fears about the virtual assistant’s privacy settings. Microsoft continually demonstrates its commitment to Cortana with announcements like the one today, which made it even easier to use Cortana on a software platform Microsoft doesn’t even control. The assistant often gets more features with greater control over the system, such as the ability to shut down, restart, or sign-out of a Windows 10 device.

Cortana is expanding. It’s available on more platforms, it’s regularly updated with new capabilities, and soon it will be core to your Windows experience, even if you held off updating to Windows 10, simply because new hardware won’t be compatible with older versions of the operating system. If you’re skeptical about the virtual assistant’s respect for your privacy, that might not be the good news Microsoft likes to present it as.

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Samsung plans to relaunch refurbished Note 7 devices

Samsung hopes to refurbish the 2.5 million Galaxy Note 7 devices that it recalled after a battery fault led to some catching fire.

If local authorities and carriers agreed, and there was demand, it may then resell the phones, Samsung said.

It also unveiled two other proposals for recycling the devices, including detaching the components and retrieving the hardware’s precious metals.

Samsung had faced pressure from environmental campaigner Greenpeace.

The organisation had lobbied the technology giant over its plans for the devices, launching a petition and staging global protests including at the Mobile World Congress event.

“While we welcome this news, Samsung must share as soon as possible more detailed timelines on when it will implement its promises, as well as how it intends to change its production system to make sure this never happens again,” said Greenpeace East Asia campaigner Jude Lee.

Samsung said it would have to liaise with “regulatory authorities and carriers” and measure local demand before determining where and when refurbished handsets would be released.

The company is set to launch a new device on Wednesday 29 March.

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Vive X Accelerator Program Announces Second Batch Of Companies

HTC announced the second batch of companies joining its Vive X accelerator program. The companies hail from San Francisco, Shenzhen, Beijing, and Taipei and focus on different aspects of hardware and software development for VR and AR. HTC also said that the Vive X program will expand to Israel.

To say that HTC is raring to fund the next big thing in VR and AR would be an understatement. Vive X debuted in August 2016 with $100 million to invest in companies experimenting with VR and AR. Almost three dozen companies signed on between August 2016 and October 2016, when HTC announced that it was looking to support even more companies, and just a few months later the accelerator program has already signed on 60 startups.

Here’s how the company described its goal in today’s announcement:

We work with the most promising VR/AR companies to advance innovation and move the whole industry forward. We’re continuing to invest in and support the development of foundational platform services and hardware advancements, as well as expanding areas like enterprise, commerce, education, health, social, and eSports.

The companies joining Vive X run the gamut. Construct Studio is creating a VR experience called The Price of Freedom based on the CIA’s mind-control-focused Project MK Ultra. Realiteer is working on cognitive behavior therapy programs to help treat depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other mental health problems. And Limitless is developing the Limitless VR Creative Environment to let you create VR experiences while you’re in VR.

Those are just some of the companies joining Vive X from San Francisco. Aurora AR in Shenzhen is working on glass optics and device design for AR, PlusOne in Beijing is developing artificial intelligence for AR that will help companies train employees to interact with customers, and TEGway is making flexible thermoelectric devices that are supposed to let you feel temperatures and pain within VR and AR experiences. (Don’t sign us up for that one.)

You can find the full list of startups joining Vive X in this batch in HTC’s announcement. Many others are focused on VR gaming, helping enterprise companies adopt XR, and the like. We expect to learn more about them as they go through the accelerator program. And, as if that weren’t enough, we also expect to see more announcements from HTC regarding the Vive VR HMD and all the peripherals and content the company is making for it.

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AMD Ryzen Motherboard Giveaway With ASRock

Itching to upgrade to Ryzen, but not ready to make the plunge? Well, now’s your chance with the Tom’s Hardware Ryzen Motherboard Giveaway, courtesy of our fine friends from ASRock.

We’ve teamed up with ASRock to bring you two back-to-back giveaways for its all-new X370 Taichi AM4 Motherboard. This motherboard is well suited for overclockers and Ryzen builders looking for long term performance. We reviewed the ASRock X370 Taichi AM4 motherboard earlier this month and found the board to be “perfect for those wanting to jump into the deep end of Zen for a long-term system build. This board is meant to be used with LEDs, windows, swagger and posted to YouTube for the world to see”. To enter, simply head to the forums and join the raffle. We’ll be throwing two giveaways, each lasting a week long. With eight ways to enter, the more entries you complete, the more likely you are to win!

Good luck.

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HTC Releases Full Body Tracking Code, Vive Trackers Now Available For Developers

HTC is taking the Vive platform to the next level. The company is now selling Vive Trackers to developers, and it released an open source code base so devs could add full body positional tracking to their experiences.

At CES 2017, HTC revealed the next phase of the Vive platform, which includes tracked peripherals and accessories for use with the HTC Vive VR system. Some vendors are creating peripherals with Lighthouse tracking sensors embedded in them, but HTC’s Vive Tracker makes it possible to track any object in VR.

The Vive Tracker device features an array of Lighthouse IR sensors, a USB port, and set of pins that hardware vendors can use to add interactive buttons to their peripherals, as well as a standard tripod thread for mounting it to hardware.

The Vive Tracker should enable a wide variety of experiences and accessories for the Vive platform. During CES, we saw rifle and pistol peripherals and a VR camera device. HTC also demonstrated a firefighter simulation and a tracked baseball bat for a batting simulation. Other use-cases for the Vive Trackers include tracked boxing gloves and hand tracking. And, if you have three trackers, you can do full body tracking.

HTC gave away 1,000 trackers to developers over the last three months, and Cloudgate Games managed to get three of the first units. The developer started experimenting with full body tracking using extra Vive controllers late last year, and HTC quickly sent trackers to them so they could perfect the system, which they showed to us at GDC.

HTC also got to work creating its own full body tracking solution, which is now freely available. HTC released its full body tracking code base on GitHub and is encouraging developers to add it to their games. Like Cloudgate’s system, HTC’s full body tracking solution also requires three Vive Trackers to work.

HTC is rolling out the Vive Trackers in a staggered launch. There’s no point in releasing Vive Trackers to the public before hardware vendors have had a chance to create peripherals for them or before developers can make VR experiences for the trackers. Starting today, developers can purchase Vive Trackers so they can start work on those accessories and experiences. Each Tracker sells for $99, so a full body tracking system will set you back just about $300.

The Vive Tracker consumer launch is expected later this year with a range of accessories and experiences to complement the trackers.

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Intel Optane Memory looks to give traditional hard drives a serious speed boost

Hard drives are getting a much deserved kick in the pants with Intel’s new Optane Memory.

The processor maker claims its newest technology will give old-school spinning drives solid-state drive-like (SSD) speeds today and eventually transform computer storage forever. 

Intel Optane Memory might sound like RAM, but it’s actually a specialized storage product that hooks up to the M.2 storage slot (PCIe Gen 3.0×2) on a PC motherboard. You’ll find them on the latest motherboards designed for Intel’s latest 7th generation, or Kaby Lake, processors and the 200 series Intel chipset.

The connected storage drive endows you with 16GB or 32GB of Optane Memory for blazing fast cache.

Cache that can make, say, your 1TB, 7,200 rpm spinning hard drive twice as responsive in performing daily tasks and booting up or launch your browser up to five times faster. Oh, and how about 67% and 65% reductions in game app launch and game level load times, respectively?

These are the initial figures that Intel promises are possible out of a seemingly old hat, spinning hard drive when boosted by its Intel Optane Memory cache module. So, what’s the secret?

Better materials, smarter storage

Intel’s answer to that is twofold. First off, Optane Memory is built differently than traditional NAND-based storage cells used in SSDs, instead crafted using 3DXpoint. Pronounced “3D crosspoint,” this is a different kind of proprietary storage media, built using materials (the identity of which Intel is keeping to itself) in a three-dimensional pattern similar to how a processor is built – sort of like a s’more.

However, a computer’s processor has always been able to access data only as fast as the storage medium could deliver it, which depends both on how quickly it can recall the data in its stores and how quickly it can deliver that data over its connector, usually SATA (off-motherboard) or PCIe (on-board) these days.

This is why RAM, or random access memory, was developed decades ago, to keep data needed more frequently on a type of storage that could deliver it more quickly. However, RAM is expensive to build at high capacities, and thus isn’t a realistic way to store all of a PC’s data.

“We want something that brings that data much closer to the processor,” Intel Senior Fellow Al Fazio told a room of journalists when debuting the technology. “We need something that’s closer and faster to provide data to the processor.”

The crosspoint is the smallest silicon structure that you can construct lithographically and can switch 1,000 times faster than NAND flash, according to Fazio, because of the proximity. The physics of the data delivery have been changed.

Not only, as Fazio tells it, does this make it 1,000 times faster than NAND, but it provides 1,000 times better endurance than NAND and 10 times the density of conventional memory.

This technology also operates at sub-microsecond speeds, Fazio said, compared to microsecond speeds of other storage and memory. The idea is to get the capacity of NAND and the speed of RAM or better in a non-volatile solution.

Now, while Optane Memory can reach higher capacities than RAM for cheaper, it’s not quite at the point of replacing either your RAM or your hard drive or SSD. This product is architected as a memory, not a storage device. In short, you cannot dual boot an Intel Optane Memory module – sorry, savvy users.

The second piece of how Optane Memory boosts your existing storage drive is in the product’s smarts. A small processor inside the M.2 memory module runs Intel Rapid Storage Technology, firmware that allows the module to detect which apps and services you use most over time, prioritizing the files associated with those apps into its 16GB or 32GB cache.

This, in turn, serves up those apps and services much faster than if their files would have to be called from the storage drive proper and then placed into RAM. The result is faster boot times, app start times, in-app data loads and generally improved responsiveness in your most-used apps.

The fine print

Now, mind that, in order to improve the speed of functions like boot time and improved responsiveness in system services, a certain amount of the Optane Memory module’s cache is reserved for these system process files. Exactly how much, Intel won’t say.

Also, again, the Intel Optane Memory module only operates with motherboards that support both 7th generation Intel processors and Intel’s 200 series chipset. So, if you can’t spruce up your old hard drive with that 6th generation or older Intel chip and dated motherboard, who is this for?

For one, those looking to upgrade their PCs with gobs of storage that’s also fast could look to this as a more affordable route to that kind of PC build. After all, a 2TB spinning hard drive calls for a fraction of the cost of an equally capacious SSD.

To that end, Intel has worked with partners to ensure that over 130 of such supported motherboards are available right now.

We’re also told that Intel is already working with key desktop PC producers to include the option for Intel Optane memory modules in models that generally offer large amounts of spinning storage. So, otherwise hapless PC purchasers will effectively enjoy the speed of an SSD for the cost of a PC with an old hat spinning drive inside, thanks to an Optane Memory module.

Since Intel first revealed its Optane storage technology way back in 2015, we’ve dreamt of a world free of distinctions like “storage” and “RAM”. While that reality is still a ways off, Intel’s new Optane Memory module finally begins to blur those lines today after more than a few delays.

Now, whether Optane Memory is to set the computing world on fire when it launches for desktop PCs on April 24 almost entirely depends on the price of these modules, which Intel has yet to disclose. For more of Intel’s data on how an Optane Memory PC compares to systems without it, check out Intel’s website.

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Intel Optane Memory is SRT Cache…Again

Intel’s Smart Response Technology (SRT) was so successful that we haven’t talked about it since it was first introduced in 2011. We say that with a heavy dose of sarcasm, because Intel plans to bring the technology back with a faster media. Cached I/O isn’t anything new. For the last decade, Microsoft and Intel have given users several options, ranging from USB thumb drives to accelerate I/O to speedy purpose-built single-level cell (SLC) SSDs. With Optane, the technology might just catch on, but not the way Intel sees it.

Intel just announced two new products that bring Optane technology to the consumer desktop. Optane is loosely defined as the company’s products built with 3D XPoint technology, a next generation non-volatile memory structure built from the ground up to reduce latency. The new Optane Memory products will ship in two capacities (16GB and 32GB) and give users access to a whole new performance tie–as long as you have the supporting technology in place, mainly a 200-series chipset.

Pricing for Optane Memory M.2 2280 modules start at just $44 (16GB) and peak at $75 (32GB). The operating system recognizes the new products as addressable storage, just like a regular hard disk drive or solid-state drive. Intel told us that support for the drives as cache starts with the latest 200-series chipset products that feature an additional four PCI Express lanes over the older 100-series chipset.

The magic happens when you enable a “modified” version of Smart Response Technology and build a cache array with the Optane Memory standing invisibly in front of an HDD or SSD. The Optane Memory becomes a cache device that accelerates I/O for data retained in its memory structure from previous I/O requests.

Despite spending time with Intel, we have a lot of unanswered questions about all of the Optane family of products. There are a few theories about the memory technology, but almost everyone agrees that 3D XPoint is some type of phase change memory. We would like to learn more about the controller and how it communicates with the memory. The controller is quite small; to date, the only SSD controllers we’ve seen of this size are two-channel DRAM-less models used in non-performance environments, like point of sale (POS) machines. We have a few theories about this but will hold our tongues until we’ve had a chance to dig deeper.

A Pyramid Scheme

Intel re-purposed the memory latency/price graphic to show where Optane Memory fits in different system configurations. The graphic shows an Intel Optane SSD (more on that in a bit) for high-end systems like what an “eSports Gamer” would utilize. The product announced today, Optane Memory, fits in mid-tier systems as a cache device for traditional SSDs using NAND flash technology and in lower priced systems as a cache device paired with a traditional hard disk drive.

Although the media is new, the technology and the practice were introduced in the Intel ecosystem in 2011. Smart Response Technology is a feature built into the Rapid Storage Technology driver. Intel’s first attempt at “SSD Cache” used a 20GB SSD (model 311 “Larson Creek”) featuring 34nm single-level cell (SLC) technology. This was later refreshed in 2012 with a 25nm SLC SSD using model number 313 branding (Hawley Creek).

Both products worked remarkably well and spawned additional products sold as “cache SSDs” from third-party vendors. Intel took steps to retain an advantage over competing solutions. In 2014, TRIM was removed from the SRT feature list, which left the SSD to handle all collection activities without the guidance from the operating system. This left lower-priced, MLC-based products that had less advanced controllers with a severe disadvantage. Intel also limited the cache size to just 64GB. If your SSD was larger than 64GB, the additional capacity could be used as a separate addressable volume with a drive letter. The limits imposed kept users from building a large cache to place in front of the hard disk drive cold storage tier.

Third Time’s The Charm

Smart Response Technology (SRT) was introduced during a transitional time for consumer SSDs. Crucial had just released the first SATA 6Gbps SSD (the C300), and SandForce proved that in-house firmware led to increased sales. Users had a taste of flash and started to consume a lot of it. That drove the cost of the technology down. Older SSDs appeared on the secondary market for pennies on the dollar, and that started a boom that is now a thriving industry. For a few dollars, users could build a hybrid array with a little flash in front of a spinning disk; or, for a few dollars more, you could boot to a full-speed SSD. The market spoke, cache technology lost its I and was just on the way Out.

In contrast, Optane Memory reshuffles the board and starts off with an advantage over traditional NAND-based SSDs. Intel and Micron own 3D XPoint technology, and we don’t expect to see the two competing against each other. Intel has stated that 3D XPoint will not be for sale to third-party customers, so you won’t see, for example, an Adata Optane product on store shelves to drive costs down. Optane-based products are the new SLC, but this time no one plans to share the secret sauce to outside companies. If you want a 5x to 8x increase in low-queue depth performance, only two companies are in the kitchen.

Optane Memory comes during another transitional period for flash. The market has shifted to lower-cost, high-capacity products that use internal cache technology to mimic performance found in previous generations. Two-bit per cell NAND is nearly nonexistent in consumer SSDs, barring a few standout SSD manufacturers that entertain Toshiba executives. MLC will disappear within a year for all but very high-cost SSDs designed for prosumers.

Toshiba will finish the factories for 3D BiCS technology. Its partner, SanDisk, has already publicly stated that TLC is the new normal for consumer SSDs. If you thought TLC was bad, just wait for quad-level cell (QLC) flash that will certainly require an appetizer of Optane Memory to be palatable.

Intel has made several bold claims about Optane Memory technology. The new storage media reaches high speeds much faster than current NAND technology, which requires parallel reads and writes to achieve high performance. Optane Memory can surpass consumer SSD performance at high queue depths while operating at very low queue depths. This benefits users because most I/O comes at just queue depth 1 or 2. It’s rare to reach queue depth 4 even while multitasking with several applications. 

Swing And A Miss: The Cost Of Failure

Cache technology brings a set of inherit risks. Stacking cache on top of cache amplifies the penalty of a cache miss. As an analogy: In baseball, you may go through several batters to get a hit. That takes time, and you could end up on the losing side of performance when an I/O request first strikes out the Optane cache, then the SLC layer cache, and finally has to reach out to the third layer. In this case, it’s the TLC. The third batter gets a hit, but there are already two strikeouts on the scoreboard for the inning. Holding more data in the high-speed tier one cache helps to increase your chances of a hit. The more applications you use, the wider the strike zone becomes. Your core, daily use software is ready to swing for the fences, but the application you haven’t run in six months has to be flown in from the Triple-A league. If your primary media is a hard disk drive, then you see a massive 20ms delay after swinging at fast balls for most of the day.

Cache Isn’t King

Prosumers and working professionals that rely on performance consistency and use large data sets are not the core audience for Optane Memory. I’ll be one of the first to take advantage of the new 3D XPoint technology in a RAID 0 array with three 32GB M.2 NVMe drives configured in a 96GB array to test what the technology is capable of.

Intel spoke softly about an Optane SSD, which will serve as a normal boot volume, and gave us permission to acknowledge its existence. So, we can confirm that it’s going to be a Real Thing. Unfortunately, Intel didn’t give us much more than that. We can speculate that the Optane SSD will have a relationship to the just-announced DC P4800X that’s similar to the one between the DC P3700 (enterprise SSD) and the 750 Series (consumer NVMe SSD). Intel has reconfigured enterprise-class products in the past for those willing to spend the money for extreme performance. We expect an add-in card form factor but were also told that, “Optane becomes very interesting with U.2.”

The message is just as clear as it is cryptic. The DC P4800X will see two larger capacity models around the same time Intel releases the technology in a U.2 form factor.

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