The HP Chromebook x2 is a $599 premium tablet aimed at the iPad Pro

HP’s Chromebook x2 is more than the first Chrome OS-based 2-in-1 with a detachable keyboard and pen. Announced Monday, this $599 tablet wants to compete with the likes of the iPad Pro. If it makes any headway, the Surface Pro should probably worry, too.

While the Chromebook x2 looks affordable compared to its iPad Pro and Surface Pro rivals, it does look expensive for a Chromebook—most of its category cousins are still around $300. Its features are pretty nice, though, and Chromebook veterans may be able to appreciate the difference.

HP
HP’s Chromebook x2 is the first 2-in-1 Chromebook.

HP Chromebook x2 specs and features

The Chromebook x2 will ship in June. Here are the highlights from the specs we know.

  • CPU: Intel 7th-gen Core m3-7Y30
  • Memory: 4GB LPDDR3-1600
  • Display: 12.3-inch 2400×1600 IPS WLED backlit
  • Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 615
  • Storage: 32GB eMMC
  • Ports: Two USB 3.0 Gen 1 (5Gbps) Type C
  • Cameras: Front 5MP, rear 13MP
hp chromebook x2 lifestyle rear HP
The HP Chromebook x2 has front 5MP and rear 13MP cameras.

  • Battery: 4-cell, 48Whr lasts up to 10 hours
  • Dimensions and weight: 11.5 x 8.32 x 0.33 inches, or 0.6-inch thick with keyboard

The price also includes a digital pen and the keyboard cover. A magnetic hinge attaches the keyboard cover to the tablet.

hp chromebook x2 topdown detached HP
The HP Chromebook x2 comes with a pen for scribbling and navigating onscreen.

We haven’t seen the keyboard in person, but it looks like its exterior is a synthetic material with a leather-like finish. We also don’t know how stiff the tablet cover is and what the keyboard travel is, as these keyboard covers can sometimes be a little challenging to type on.

The tablet’s exterior surface has an Anodized Electrodeposition coating. According to HP, the coating feels like ceramic and provides extra durability and a soft, matte finish that resists scratches and is easy to clean.

hp chromebook x2 rearquarter HP
The Anodized Electrodeposition coating on the HP Chromebook x2 is a softer, matte finish compared to metal that’s also scratch-resistant.

Why this matters: Chromebook tablets are finally a thing. The HP Chromebook x2 follows the earlier April announcement of the Acer Chromebook Tab 10, the very first Chrome tablet. Now that Chromebooks run Android apps, stylus support and the tablet form factor make a lot of sense.

The Chromebook x2 is priced and positioned in a tough spot, though. Sure, it’s affordable compared to the iPad Pro and Surface Pro with which it wants to compete—but it’s expensive for a Chromebook. We don’t know how many people raised on dirt-cheap $300 clamshells will reach for a product that costs twice as much. We’ll let you know whether it’s worth the jump if we have a chance to review it.

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Watch us build an over-the-top RGB PC

Whether you love them or hate them, it’s hard to ignore the number of PC components with RGB lights. Multi-colored PC lighting has crept into almost every category out there—even sound cards and power supplies.

What’s less clear is just how easy it is to build a system entirely of RGB parts and then simultaneously control all of the lighting. So to put it to the test, we’re building a PC that houses as many RGB components as possible.

Parts list

When choosing the parts for this build—which we’ve affectionately dubbed our “Viva Las Vegas” machine—it became clear that even four years into this RGB fad, you can’t throw together whichever components you want and expect to control them through a single interface. You have to commit to an ecosystem.

The main options are Asus Aura Sync, Gigabyte RGB Fusion, and MSI Mystic Light. Each has their advantages and disadvantages: For example, Asus Aura Sync supports a wider selection of third-party coolers and fans, while you can use third-party keyboards and mice with Gigabyte RGB Fusion.

For this build, we chose Aura Sync to tie everything together, due to the availability of components we wanted. That did limit our options—we had to give up on the Corsair 570X as a case early on, for instance, because we didn’t want to run different control interfaces simultaneously.

We still found plenty of RGB components to stuff inside our rig, though we did skip two instances. Because the case will hide the PSU and storage from view, it’s unnecessary to buy RGB versions.

Overall, we’re aiming for a high-end consumer PC that puts extra money toward upgraded materials and RGB aesthetics instead of raw hardware performance.

Watch us build it live!

We’ll be kicking off this RGB PC build next Wednesday, April 11th, at 10:00am PT. You can tune in via YouTube, Twitch, or Facebook to witness the sheer face-melting glory of so many LEDs in one system. Chime in with ideas for the best color scheme to use once everything’s up and running!

After we’re done, check back for testing results and our final thoughts on the build. This time around, we’ll focus on how easy it is to control all the lights. Current top goal: Getting them to flash when a pizza delivery person shows up at our door.

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Intel 8th-gen CPU motherboards explained: Z370 vs. H370 vs. B360 vs. H310

Selecting the best Intel 300-series motherboard to fit your needs was straightforward when the initial wave of 8th-gen Core desktop processors launched in October 2017, because only the enthusiast-class Z370 chipset released alongside the new chips. That was enough to help the flagship Core i7-8700K CPU counter AMD’s Ryzen threat at the high end, but left PC users looking for more affordable options in a pickle. Buying a $100 Core i3 chip doesn’t make much sense when you’re forced to slap it in a $130, high-end motherboard, especially with AMD offering a full arsenal of Ryzen motherboards at all price points.

The disparity ended in April, 2018, when Intel revealed the full lineup of 300-series chipsets for its 8th-gen CPUs. The lower-cost chipsets don’t offer all the bells and whistles of Z370 motherboards, but they have a few fancy features up their sleeves that the swankier boards lack.

Should you buy a H370, B360, or H310 motherboard for those extras? Does it make sense to splurge on a Z370 chipset anyway? Let’s examine what each Intel 300-series motherboard chipset offers so you can make the right decision when you buy an Intel 8th-generation processor.

Z370 vs. H370 vs. B360 vs. H310

You need a new Intel 300-series motherboard if you buy an 8th-gen “Coffee Lake” processor. Older motherboards don’t work with 8th-gen chips, and that includes the recent 100- and 200-series options for Skylake and Kaby Lake chips. While Coffee Lake chips are largely based around the same architecture as those predecessors, 8th-gen chips pack in more cores, which means they have different power requirements.

Here’s a look at raw specifications for each of the Intel 300-series motherboard chipsets available to consumers. (We’re not including the Q370, a chipset that matches Z370 but with additional business features added.)

intel motherboard chart Rob Schultz/IDG

Z370 motherboards are the gold standard, built for enthusiast PCs. These are the only Intel motherboards that support CPU and memory overclocking (if you have an unlocked K-series chip), or handle gaming rigs with multiple graphics cards. They’re loaded with the most PCI-E lanes, potential USB ports (with one notable caveat—more on that after), and RAID storage options. As the flagship chipset, Z370 also offers the most high-speed I/O lanes. More HSIO lanes let board makers divvy out more features, like NVMe SSD connections and SuperSpeed USB ports, as they see fit.

Here are some of the options in Newegg’s Z370 selection. The higher you go up in price, the more extra features you receive.

evga h370 EVGA

H370 motherboards are only a notch below Z370, and perfect for people who don’t like to tinker. These boards don’t support overclocking, multiple graphics card setups, or some of the more exotic Intel Rapid Storage Technology features. Other than those niche enthusiast features, and some differences in USB 3.1 support, H370 largely mirrors Z370.

Here are some of the options in Newegg’s H370 selection:

msi motherboards MSI

B360 motherboards start shaving more off. You’ll get fewer USB ports, fewer HSIO and PCI-E lanes, and barely any RAID support via Intel’s Rapid Storage Technology. But they still pack speedy USB 3.1 Gen. 2 ports and Optane Memory support to boost hard drive speeds to near-SSD speeds. Look at these as solid-value motherboards for mainstream computers.

Here are some of the options in Newegg’s B360 selection. Once you start creeping too far north of $100, however, you might be better off opting for an H370 motherboard, unless a B360 selection includes a specific key feature that isn’t available in your budget with H370.

gigabyte h310 motherboard Gigabyte

H310 motherboards really strip things back. Far fewer USB and SATA ports are supported. It doesn’t support PCI-E 3.0, only the slower PCI-E 2.0, and you can’t use Intel’s Optane Memory technology like you can with the other options. The memory setup only supports a single DIMM per channel, reducing overall bandwidth. RAID options are nonexistent. These ultra-basic motherboards should only be considered for bargain-basement systems with simple needs. They lock you out of a lot of niftier new features that’ve blossomed in Intel’s ecosystem in recent years.

Here are some of the options in Newegg’s H310 selection. There isn’t much variety here, nor fancy gaming brands.

Intel 300-series motherboard differences explained

The Z370 chipset might have the mightiest spec set on paper, but the other options pack some features that the original 8th-gen motherboards lack, and the stripped-down H310 is the only chipset that can’t run Intel’s hard drive-boosting Optane Memory.

H370, B360, and H310 motherboards integrate support for speedy 10Gbps USB 3.1 Gen.2 ports into the chipset, which you can see listed in the comparison chart above. That should help bring the blisteringly fast tech to more affordable motherboards, as vendors will no longer need to pay for a third-party controller—this uses Intel’s own technology. Adding USB 3.1 ports eats into a motherboard’s stash of HSIO lanes, though.

asus rog motherboard Asus
All Intel 300-series motherboards except Z370 can support USB 3.1 Gen. 2 and integrated Wi-Fi.

The new boards also move a lot of the functions needed for wireless networking into the platform controller hub itself, using Intel’s CNVi wireless-AC technology. Highlights include integrated 802.11ac Wi-Fi support and up to 1733Mbps speeds with Intel’s highest-end companion RF module, which Intel says is far faster than most Wi-Fi options available.

Equipping extra hardware to fully activate the functionality can add to the cost of a motherboard, and it’s an option for motherboard vendors—not a requirement. Don’t expect to see Wi-Fi on every H370, B360, and H310 motherboard, in other words, especially as you move further down the price scale. (Gigabyte, for example, sells an optional “CNVi WiFi upgrade kit” for some of its motherboards.) If yours includes it, you’ll want an 802.11ac “Wave 2” router that can take advantage of CNVi’s full potential, like the Asus RT-AC87U.

intel desktop core platform stuff Intel

H370, B360, and H310 motherboards also include “modern standby” features that lets computers sleep to save energy, but listen for a wake word (in smart speaker-like fashion) and quickly resume. Modern standby functionality previously existed in laptops, but this is a first for desktop PCs.

Once again, motherboards based on the Z370 chipset don’t include any of this new native functionality, though hardware makers can add Wi-Fi and USB 3.1 Gen. 2 capabilities via add-in controllers. But curiously, the business-focused Q370 chipset mirrors Z370’s specifications (sans overclocking) and includes the new capabilities found in the H370, B360, and H310 motherboards. Intel hasn’t announced a successor to the Z370 chipset for 8th-gen CPUs, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see one in the future to bring the 300-series flagship into feature parity with its little cousins.

Little extras

aorus lit ram slots Gigabyte
The RGB LED-illuminated light strip and RAM slots on the Gigabyte H370 Aorus Gaming 3.

The final part of the equation is finding a 300-series board with finishing touches that fit your needs. While the information above describes the guts of every Z370, H370, B360, and H310 motherboard, vendors can tweak and configure their hardware in different ways, so two H370 boards (for example) might have slightly different port configurations and wildly different features, such as RGB lighting, fancy audio, one-button overclocking, et cetera.

[ Further reading: The best SSDs you can buy ]

But now that you know the basics of what each Intel 300-series chipset offers, you can quickly narrow down your search for the perfect 8th-gen motherboard for you.

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Microsoft plans to bring native 64-bit apps to Qualcomm-powered PCs, but it’ll take time

Windows PCs that use the battery-sipping Qualcomm Snapdragon ARM processor are just beginning to roll out, but they include some major caveats. One of them, the inability to run 64-bit apps, doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.

According to a Microsoft representative, the company will “share more details” on  a preview of its ARM64 software development kit (SDK) at its Build developer conference at the beginning of May. It’s unclear when the preview version of the SDK will be released, when a final version will debut, or when apps based upon it will roll out to end users.

“We will be sharing more details on the ARM64 SDK Preview at Build,” a Microsoft representative said in a statement. “Applications that are 64-bit only typically want to run natively for performance reasons. As a result we decided to focus our engineering investments on the native ARM64 SDK to enable developers to natively write their application for the device.”

What this means to you: As a user, not much. Developers will have to decide whether they buy into the vision of Windows PCs running for most of a day, but that use an ARM chip inside. What Microsoft is doing here is addressing one of the platform’s shortcomings, even if it will require some time before you’ll see results.

Mark Hachman / IDG
Try to install a 64-bit app on a Qualcomm-powered PC, and you’ll see this cryptic error message.

A roadblock for users

PCs like the Asus NovaGo currently include a 64-bit version of the Windows operating system, but will only run 32-bit apps.  (Virtually all of today’s PCs include a 64-bit version of Windows, and 64-bit apps.) The real difference between 32-bit and 64-bit apps concerns the amount of memory they can address; 32-bit apps are limited to 4GB of memory, meaning that some high-performance creative apps and games might not be able to run.

On one hand, that might not be a significant problem for PCs like the NovaGo and the HP Elite x2, which have been marketed as an always-connected, all-day computer rather than a performance powerhouse. But Windows also blocks 64-bit apps from being installed from the Store or elsewhere, without really explaining why. That can be disconcerting to a user who expects the “full” Windows experience. That roadblock will go away once 64-bit apps are supported on ARM.

The other sacrifice that owners of a Qualcomm Snapdragon PC have to make is to tolerate that apps written for the Intel Core chips have to be emulated, or interpreted—a translation feature that slows down the app somewhat. (Apps written for the ARM chips are processed natively, at full speed. The core Windows OS is never emulated, either, a Microsoft representative confirmed.)

The good news, Microsoft representatives added, is that as more developers check in code compiled for the ARM processor—either using the 32-bit SDK or, eventually, the 64-bit version—the Microsoft Store app will automatically download the updated apps to users. So while buying a Qualcomm-powered Always Connected PC currently carries with it several caveats, things should improve over time.

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This week in games: Free copies of Crusader Kings II, Shadow of War removes loot boxes

Did you know in Crusader Kings II you can make a horse become ruler of the Roman Empire? And if that doesn’t convince you to pick up a copy of the game for free this weekend, then I don’t know anything that will.

More details on that below, plus Assassin’s Creed: Origins adds cheat codes, Shadow of War deep-sixes loot boxes, Path of Exile temporarily goes battle royale, Lawbreakers studio Boss Key starts work on a new project, and maybe some Shaquille O’Neal news too.

This is gaming news for April 2 to 6.

Going medieval

As I said up top, this week’s freebie is a big one: Crusader Kings II, the massive and ever-popular grand strategy game from Paradox, is free (to own) on Steam until early Saturday, Pacific Time. It’s a bit of a “first hit’s free” situation, as the plan is no doubt to a) Convince people to actually play grand strategy games that otherwise would never and b) Once hooked, convince them to purchase the loads and loads of Crusader King II expansions and DLC Paradox has put out since 2012.

Even the base game is enormous though, and you could get hours of entertainment from its stories of political manipulation, backstabbing, grandstanding, and medieval wedding-treaties. Might as well grab a copy and give it a shot.

More temporary, This War of Mine is free-to-try through Sunday. That’s enough time to give its post-apocalyptic survival trappings a spin before developer 11 Bit’s new city-builder Frostpunk releases in a few weeks.

Sunless for a reason

Murder a sun. There’s a new trailer for Sunless Skies this week, and those three simple words just about got a fist-pump out of me. It’s such a ridiculous, over-the-top prospect, and that’s exactly what I want out of the game—all expressed in lovingly written prose, of course.

A long shadow

Last year’s loot box fallout continues to spread. A few weeks ago Battlefront II overhauled its entire multiplayer progression to try and fix what loot boxes broke. Now it’s 2017’s other controversial game, WB and Monolith’s Middle Earth: Shadow of War you know, the one everybody was mad about until Battlefront II exploded on arrival.

Shadow of War is yanking loot boxes out entirely, with Monolith explaining that the pay-to-play nature “risked undermining the heart of our game, the Nemesis System.” Uh…yeah. That seemed obvious before the game even released, but okay.

Anyway, the boxes are going away. At the same time, Monolith is overhauling the extremely tedious and drawn-out endgame, the “Shadow Wars,” which involved slogging through a bunch of busywork sieges to get to Shadow of War’s proper ending. It felt like a mode designed purely to get people to plop down money to bypass it, so I guess it’s no surprise that it’s being reworked now that money isn’t a factor.

Hitmanned

WB is also involved in another of this week’s big events: IO Interactive has a publisher again. Approximately a year after splitting from Square Enix, IO made the announcement that WB will now publish Hitman, and presumably any future Hitman: Season 2 or Hitman II or whatever the sequel might be called. Congrats to IO on the stability, though with WB’s track record the past few years…well, I hope this wasn’t out of the frying pan and into the raging bonfire.

Roblox Redux?

I’ve been eagerly awaiting another project from E-Line Media, the developers of documentary-slash-platformer Never Alone, but it’s not exactly what I was expecting. Called The Endless Mission, it seems to be another in a long line of game-making games, a la Project Spark, Roblox, and so on. The Endless Mission has a few different genres—a platformer, a racing game, an RTS, and so on—which you’ll be able to lift pieces from and combine into new types of experiences, like a racing game where you play as the platforming character.

It sounds interesting enough, though we’ll see whether it can draw a critical mass of users to make interesting content.

Long live…Steam Machines?

You might’ve seen my colleague Brad Chacos opine earlier this week on the demise of Steam Machines—Valve quietly pulled down the dedicated Steam Machine page, presumably signaling the end of that rather short, rather underwhelming era.

A-ha, not so fast though! A post direct from Valve’s Pierre-Loup Griffais clarifies the change was made “based on user traffic,” not necessarily because Steam Machines are dead. In fact, Griffais wrote “We’re still working hard on making Linux operating systems a great place for gaming and applications. We think it will ultimately result in a better experience for developers and customers alike, including those not on Steam.”

Later on, there’s this even more interesting bit: “We’re continuing to invest significant resources in supporting the Vulkan ecosystem, tooling and driver efforts. We also have other Linux initiatives in the pipe that we’re not quite ready to talk about yet.” Could that last bit be a second generation of Steam Machines? Hard to believe. Like, really hard. But maybe. But even if Steam Machines were DOA, it seems SteamOS lives on.

Shaq attack

Did you remember that Shaquille O’Neal helped crowdfund a sequel to infamously terrible SNES/Genesis game Shaq Fu? I certainly didn’t, and yet this trailer for Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn exists. Hell, the game even has a June 5 release date.

I fought the law and the law broke

“So here is the very real truth, which may not come as a surprise…LawBreakers failed to find enough of an audience to generate the funds necessary to keep it sustained in the manner we had originally planned for and anticipated.” No surprise indeed, though admirable that Boss Key’s latest statement pledges to “continue to support the game in its current state.”

Boss Key’s evidently looking towards the future though. No, not free-to-play—at least, not yet. Boss Key says “While a pivot to free-to-play may seem like easiest change to make, a change of this magnitude takes publishing planning and resources to do it.” Maybe one day.

In the meantime, Boss Key says it’s “been working on something new…a passion project that we’re in complete control of.” Sounds like the relationship with Lawbreakers publisher Nexon is a bit strained, to say the least.

Mud crabs, eh?

Bethesda seems to have realized that for a certain subset of people, the word “Morrowind” is like digital catnip. First it was invoked to get people to care about Elder Scrolls Online ($40 on Green Man Gaming) and now it’s being surfaced again to try and hook me into the card game Elder Scrolls: Legends with the new Houses of Morrowind expansion. There’s even this bizarre teaser with cliff racers attacking a swing set and mud crabs hanging out in a subway station.

The worst part? It might work. I’m intrigued.

God mode

I didn’t think Ubisoft would manage to turn Assassin’s Creed: Origins into a games-as-a-service style experience the way it’s done with its more multiplayer-centric titles like Rainbow Six Siege and Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Somehow the developers keep pushing out updates though, and this latest may be the most interesting of all: Cheat codes.

Assassin's Creed: Origins - Animus Control Panel Assassin’s Creed: Origins

The upcoming “Animus Control Panel” will let you tweak all manner of settings, including movement speed, character model, NPC attack speed, and so on. The preset Ubisoft showed off is titled “God Mode,” which is a fun little throwback, and the entire Animus Control Panel system will be PC exclusive (accessed through Uplay). Pretty damn cool. Look for it “later this month.”

A hundred exiles drop onto an island

Wrapping up this week: I’m pretty tired of April Fools’ jokes, mainly because so many of them are super low-effort. Path of Exile wins this year’s award though, as Grinding Gear temporarily transformed the action-RPG into a 100-person battle royale game, adding a mode called Path of Exile: Royale.

Okay, so the name needs work, but talk about commitment. Check out the trailer below:

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A 4K, HDR Dell UltraSharp monitor is $240 off, and comes with a $200 gift card

High-dynamic range displays deliver stunningly bright colors with deep, dark blacks, and the Windows 10 Spring Creators Update dropping any day now will include enhanced HDR support. But HDR is still relatively new to PCs. If you’re looking to upgrade, Dell’s UltraSharp 27-inch U2718Q 4K HDR monitor is on sale for $500 right now, with something extra to sweeten the deal.

This monitor retails for $740, so you’re saving $240 off the bat. On top of that, Dell will email you a $200 Dell eGift Card for its online store. It expires 90 days after issue, but that’s more than enough time to grab some extra Alienware gear, or a Dell Visor Windows Mixed Reality headset ($250 on Dell.com) for next to nothing.

Dell’s U2718Q monitor features the aforementioned 3840-by-2160 resolution at 60Hz, HDR10 support, 99.9 percent sRGB coverage, and an ultra-thin “InfinityEdge” bezel that’s supposed to make the monitor “virtually borderless.” All UltraSharp monitors offer brilliant IPS displays with wide viewing angles

One HDMI, one DisplayPort, one mini-DisplayPort, and two USB 3.0 ports (including one with charging capability) grace the underside of the UltraSharp U2718Q, though none support FreeSync or G-Sync. This monitor should excel at performing tasks where color and accuracy are vital—or just watching glorious HDR videos.

[Today’s deal: Dell UltraSharp 27-inch U2718Q 4K HDR monitor for $500 at Dell.com.]

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Ian is an independent writer based in Israel who has never met a tech subject he didn’t like. He primarily covers Windows, PC and gaming hardware, video and music streaming services, social networks, and browsers. When he’s not covering the news he’s working on how-to tips for PC users, or tuning his eGPU setup.

Microsoft’s new Cortana chief plans to put her smarts in more places

Cortana, where art thou? That’s what PCWorld wanted to know when we spoke with Microsoft’s recently-minted Cortana czar, Javier Soltero, late last week. The digital assistant who made a splash in Windows 10 with her snappy comebacks and silly knock-knock jokes is still offering to help you with your calendar and search. She’s even migrated to mobile apps for Android and iOS. But Cortana hasn’t talked her way into our homes like Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant have, making her staying power look uncertain.

That’s where Soltero comes in. We sat down with Cortana’s new chief in the wake of a significant management shakeup that will see senior executive Terry Myerson leave, as well as the creation of a new “Experiences and Devices” team that seemingly downplays Windows.

Does that mean Cortana has been demoted? Far from it.

If you’re used to thinking of Cortana as an assistant who lives in your search box, that’s still true to a point. But in the future Cortana will be more situational, popping up in apps where she’s never existed: Outlook Mobile, for example, or Teams. No, you won’t need a Cortana app for Cortana to appear. She just will.

Below are the highlights of our interview, excerpted and in some cases edited for clarity.

Microsoft
Meet Microsoft Cortana’s new chief, Javier Soltero.

What change, if any, will the reorg have on Cortana?

None. “The good news is that Cortana is completely unaffected,” Soltero said, who arrived at his role from heading up the well-regarded Outlook Mobile app for iOS and Android. “This represents a super important change for the company and something that I’m super excited to be a part of. For me, very little changes, and that I believe is a very good thing.”

For Soltero, his job remains the same: Lead Cortana into the future. He’s hit the ground running. “The first thing I did was go 360 degrees through the entire product portfolio: What do we have, what don’t we have, what would we like to have, what are we doing? And we coalesced the team around a very clear strategy that has been communicated to the leadership of the company, which they’re fully behind.”

Is Cortana still part of Windows?

Cortana started as a creature of Windows 10, but she was moved over to Microsoft’s AI and Research Group when it formed about 18 months ago. Soltero confirmed he still reports to the AI team, led by Harry Shum.

What is Cortana now?

If Soltero’s words are any indication, Cortana’s future will have her ranging far and wide beyond Windows. “The guiding light for us is the assistant concept, and the idea that you want to help people get more out of their time, and whether actively or proactively make the things that you do every day easier or better or more effective,” Soltero said.

Cortana continues to be her most helpful when she can keep an eye on you and find ways to help. “Part of that means looking at a person throughout their day,” Soltero explained, “looking at opportunities and the different kinds of places where…an assistant technology or product experience or whatever you want to call it can provide.”

That means Cortana will continue to pipe up when she senses a need. “What we’ve noticed, I guess, and what the world has shown us is that you can start by being convenient,” Soltero added. “There is actually a path towards earning the right to be an assistant.”

microsoft cortana on the lock screen Mark Hachman / IDG
Cortana began on Windows, but it’s evolving outward.

How will Cortana evolve?

This is how Microsoft sees Cortana’s next steps: less flash, more utility. But Soltero also said that doesn’t always play well with a user base that looks for the next big thing.

“The temptation for things involving AI and technology in general is to show things that are cool and captivating and inspiring, and we’ve done plenty of that in Cortana and a lot of other places,” Soltero said. But he doesn’t want Cortana to become a party trick. “Part of the change that I’m bringing to the discussion is an emphasis around real user value—as measured by, are we really making an impact and allowing people to achieve more, or be more successful in their endeavors.”

That might mean that Cortana is actually used less, Soltero said.

“If having a more effective Cortana experience means that you’re able to get more of your schedule and your calendar and your email, let’s say, that you are logging less minutes staring longingly at Outlook on your PC or your tablet or your mobile or whatever, that’s fine—as long as the return on your investment is there.”

clippy large Microsoft
Before Cortana, there was Clippy—the one-time Office assistant which volunteered to pitch in when the user was faced with a task. Its profound unpopularity will always haunt Microsoft. But like so many things, Clippy was ahead of its time.

What will Cortana look like in the real world?

Soltero said he’s in the process of sketching out a broad strategy for Cortana, with the goal of laying out an end-to-end experience that he can show customers. For now, though, he pointed to a recent change in test versions of the Outlook Mobile app.

“We embedded in Outlook Mobile the ability for Cortana to say you should get up, you should go, there’s a meeting,” Soltero said. “That is a way of saving people time. And it’s Cortana that’s doing that. But it’s expressed inside of that Outlook Mobile experience.”

Soltero said Microsoft will be adding Cortana to apps where Cortana has never existed before. “You should expect to see [Cortana], in places where we can help you, while you’re on the go,” Soltero said. “You’re going to see it in apps in different types, you’re going to see this in standalone experiences, you’re going to see it embedded. But it’s less about…where we attach Cortana, and more about how is having Cortana there truly helping you make more out of your time.”

The mistake that Microsoft or Apple or Google can make involves thinking of an assistant as a entity that can help users without knowing what the user is doing, Soltero said. “Most of our emphasis is going to be less about what device we’re using and more about which situation is the user in and what promise are we trying to fulfill. That’s literally how we’ve set it up internally.”

Is Cortana a mobile technology?

Soltero discouraged any definition of Cortana that was tied to a platform. Thinking of the problem on a device-by-device basis is one of the things he’s trying to change. “The imbalanced way we were doing it—certain things on mobile, certain things on Windows, certain things on speaker—there wasn’t as clear a picture of how those things fit together, is part of the job that I’m trying to address. I can tell you—as many times as you’d care to hear it—that my real goal is to show it to you.”

harman kardon invoke cortana Harman Kardon
Invoking Cortana on a Harmon Kardon speaker.

Will we see another Cortana-powered smart speaker?

As Amazon Alexa and Google Home morph into ever more sizes and shapes of smart device, Cortana still exists on only one, lonely smart speaker, the Harman/Kardon Invoke. When asked whether the Invoke would have any company, Soltero kept his cards close to the vest. “Hold that thought,” he said. “I respectfully decline to respond to that question until I can provide a more compete answer.

Soltero did provide a hint, though. “You have to assume that the market is being shaped with some form of ambient devices, and those devices will take a specific role in providing assistance throughout your day, and I’ll leave it at that.”

Is Cortana a business tool, a consumer play, or both?

Soltero thinks Cortana can make the jump from consumer to business—on the user’s terms. “I don’t think we want them [business and consumer] to be blurred, I think that’s important that people are blurring that line on their own. And I think that mobile smartphones in general is the spark that’s lit that fire.”

Soltero credited the RIM Blackberry for beginning to blur the lines between home and work twenty years ago. “If that’s where you want to help people and assist them, you help them throughout their day,” he said.

Microsoft has already talked about Cortana integration within Microsoft Teams, or helping to join Skype calls. “Because it’s just more convenient to say ‘join a call with Mark,’” Soltero said, “than it is to go hunting down buttons and so forth.”

How is Microsoft addressing the Cortana skills gap?

Skills—the integration of third-party services—are the software ecosystem of sorts for digital assistants. Skills can be a real measure of how “smart” a smart speaker is. Why should Microsoft build in knowledge of airfares, for example, if Cortana can connect to Expedia?

cortana ifftt comcast Mark Hachman / IDG
IFFTT offered Cortana a powerful avenue for integrating third-party skills.

“The skills ecosystem is very important to us,” Soltero said, while also admitting that Cortana has her work cut out for her. “The way we’re approaching that involves a journey that began before I took over the team,” Soltero continued, “a recognition that our SDKs for skills was having trouble keeping up with the difference between the types of surfaces where Cortana shows up today: the difference between a UI-less speaker, a PC, the RS3 era integration and how the proactive canvas has evolved, versus of course mobile. So we were doing multiplatform level work, but our skills layer was not suitable for that.”

Given Cortana’s catchup mode, Soltero seems to be focusing on developing thoughtfully. “I think what’s interesting is what are the right set of skills, that are most impactful, and are those skill developers, whether they’re big developers like Spotify, or even companies like IFTTT, or home automation appliance manufacturers—are they seeing a real differentiation or higher sense or result of having integrated with Cortana.”

Soltero emphasized that skills for the sake of skills won’t fly. “The quality of integrations matters quite a bit and I think if you look at the skills usage across the board, it’s not quite as deep as most people would think it is.”

Finally, Soltero said, skills are hard. “Skill discovery is a challenge. Skill activation is a challenge. Remembering that you put a skill in an otherwise headless, faceless device, also a challenge. It’s fun. It’s why this race is still going on.”

What did you take away from the recent uproar over Facebook privacy?

As Facebook struggles to recover from its Cambridge Analytica data scandal, Soltero said he was “as outraged as any other person” with the revelations and sought to differentiate his company from the social media giant. “I’m happy to say that Microsoft doesn’t operate that way at all,” Soltero said.

For Soltero, the scandal brings up questions of trust at a time when more and more companies—not just Facebook—seek to profit from mining user data. “Trusting one company…across work and life to not only access the information but modify and write that information —  that’s a super high bar,” Soltero said. “That’s a thing I don’t think people around the world are just going to grant quite readily to a number of companies that they don’t have a high sense of trust on.”

What makes Cortana better than Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, or Apple Siri?

The whole idea of trust also plays into how Soltero sees Cortana competing in the super-hot smart-assistant arena. “We are in all of the places that we need to be to fulfill this idea of providing systems throughout the day,” Soltero said, but user trust is essential to Cortana’s progress. “I think Cortana has…won the right to be trusted with a certain amount of information that’s not easy and critical to earn access to, and Microsoft has a unique understanding of the opportunity for people who love us at home, and at work, to have a cohesive experience that spans those, without taking either side for granted.”

Soltero seems invested in keeping Cortana in the game. “I use the phrase ‘meeting the unarticulated needs of the lives of people around the world,’” Soltero added. “That is the most concise and thoughtful way of expressing this idea that people have choices now.” Soltero knows Cortana has an uphill battle. “It’s not a guarantee that you’re going to be the only one they pick because you’re the only person there. You have to be better.”

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Mozilla touts Firefox Reality, browser built for AR/VR

Mozilla on Tuesday announced that it is building a browser designed especially for displaying virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) content, betting that the technology will become core to the internet.

“We believe that the future of the web will be heavily intertwined with virtual and augmented reality, and that future will live through browsers,” asserted Sean White, Mozilla’s chief research and development officer, in an April 3 post to a company blog.

Firefox Reality, the moniker for the browser White laid out, was far from ready for end-user deployment, but was available Tuesday in developer builds, and because Mozilla is an open-source developer, so was Reality’s source code. There was no hint when the browser might be polished.

“This is the first step in our long-term plan to deliver a totally new experience on an exciting new platform,” said Trevor Smith, a Mozilla reality research engineer, in a post to a different blog, signaling that there would be more to come.

The browser will be built atop the existing Firefox — which was revamped late last year into “Quantum” — and augmented by the team devoted to “Servo,” a rendering engine that Mozilla has been working on since 2013. Written with Rust, a language created by Mozilla’s research group, Servo was envisioned as a replacement for Firefox’s long-standing Gecko engine. The Servo team was recently melded with the one labeled “Mixed Reality” in Mozilla. “We took our existing Firefox web technology and enhanced it with Servo, our experimental web engine,” said Smith.

Currently, Firefox Reality runs only in developer mode on two devices, Google’s Daydream, and Samsung’s and Ocular’s Gear VR, but Mozilla’s White promised more. “Other solutions for browsing and accessing the web on stand-alone headsets exist, but they are closed and platform-specific,” noted White. “Firefox Reality will be independent and will work on a wide variety of devices and platforms.”

Mozilla has tackled other projects outside the constraints of Firefox itself, but of late, the results have been disappointing. The organization tried its hand at creating a mobile operating system, but gave up in early 2016. A year later, it shuttered what was left of that effort — an OS aimed at connected devices, the category better known as the internet of things, or IoT. Mozilla had also started, but eventually nixed, initiatives to place advertisements within Firefox.

One analyst, who had been critical in the past of moves Mozilla made to expand its presence, was less than impressed with the latest, Firefox Reality.

“[This is] pretty much grasping at straws,” said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates, in an email reply to questions. “While clearly AR/VR is a major growth area going forward, and it gets a lot of attention in the market, the actual market to date is small and the needs of the early implementers, mostly gamers, are well beyond a browser’s ability to fully deliver.”

Perhaps anticipating criticism like Gold’s, Mozilla’s White had preemptively offered reasons why his employer, its Firefox specifically, was well-positioned to jump on the AR/VR bandwagon.

“The future of mixed reality is about delivering experiences, not about building applications,” White said of a browser’s place in the new kind of content. “There shouldn’t be friction moving from one experience to another.” He also reminded users that Firefox was the first browser to support WebVR, Google’s Chrome on Android and Microsoft’s Edge.

Mozilla certainly has substantial competition, both on the browser and company resource fronts, what with rivals ranging from Google to Samsung. “[I think this is] also well beyond the limited market penetration that Mozilla has, given the thrusts from Google, Microsoft, Apple, and others,” said Gold of the company’s chances.

White “countered” that appraisal by touting the same traits that Mozilla has used to promote Firefox, ranging from the browser’s newfound speed to its emphasis on user privacy.

The Firefox Reality source code can be found on GitHub, and Mozilla encouraged users to follow its “Mixed Reality” blog, found here.

Explore the World with the Best Keyboard

The world has become one small global village. You can communicate with a person on the other side of the world and even transact business, transfer monies, and carry out a myriad of other functionalities. Innovations in gadgets such as laptops and mobile phones and laptops have aided in access to the internet and subsequently, globalization.

Getting the best laptop to aid you in transacting your business can be seen as an easy affair, but the best laptops are hard to find and though it all boils down to preference, herein are a few standard tests to carry out before buying any laptop.

Efficiency

One of the most common tests to getting the best laptops is the efficiency test. Though the term efficient is broad in its giving, it can be narrowed down to mean how well the laptop you want to buy carries out mundane commands. For instance, when you turn on a laptop, you don’t need one that will take hours of loading before it actually starts up, you want something that’s up and running at a moment’s notice.

Another key test of efficacy is how smoothly applications run on the laptop. When you open an application or software, it should be seamless to open and run.

Essentially, the market is always evolving, and while what is hot today may be history in a few days, the best laptops will always be the efficient ones. True efficiency is guided by the laptops processing power, storage, Random Access Memory et al.

Design

Have you ever looked at a laptop and just thought it was beautiful? You and seven billion other people in the world. Throughout history, computers have morphed from immobile room-sized machines with humdrum functionalities to desktops that were lighter, faster but were still immobile. The innovation to laptops was arguably one of the best in the computer world. Not only are they light, you can also carry them around and use them at any point.

There’s more to design than just the weight of a laptop, there’s also the design of the keyboard, the screen, ports, ease of connectivity and so on. Again, while design will preference will differ from person to another, one thing that seems clear across the board, is the lighter the better.

Connectivity

If you are in search of the best laptop, connectivity is one of the premises you cannot afford to overlook. The best laptops in the market will have the best and most seamless connectivity available. When handling the matter of connectivity, it’s important to break it down;

The first type of connectivity is internet connectivity. Connecting to the net has become as basic as breathing. When looking at the best laptops, look at how easy it is to connect to the internet, try a few

WI-FI spots and you could even tether your phone.

The second type of connectivity is that to a phone or tablet. Very often, you will have to transfer files from your phone or tablet to your laptop and you need the two to easily connect. Before purchasing your laptop, ensure it can connect to your phone in multiple fronts, i.e. Bluetooth and through a cable. Also, ensure your phone and laptop are compatible and you can move files to and fro any device.

The final type of connectivity is between laptops. Other than your phone, you will also need to move a file from one laptop to another. Although there are numerous apps, software, and functionalities that can assist with that, it’s also important to have a basic peer to peer connectivity, which could come in handy a time of need.

Other important connections to look at include HDMI, VGA, USB, Mouse and External Keyboards.

Price

Price is perhaps one of the most looked at factor when determining what laptop to buy. It goes without saying, the best laptops cost a pretty penny, but at the end of the day, the price should match the performance.

While looking at the best laptops, compare the price of your budget, what the laptop offers and what specific functionalities you need it for. For instance, if you need a laptop to carry out design jobs, you’ll need one with advanced graphics, and high-end RAM and ROM specs.

After sales service

When you buy a laptop –or any gadget for that matter, it’s important to consider after sales services. These will be beneficial when you have questions, queries or are just curious about particular functions of the laptop. While purchasing the laptop, ask how you can contact the product distributor, as well as the product manufacturer both online and physically.

Also, be keen about warranties, menus, and any other relevant information offered.

Top 3 Best Computers for Home Use

Computers are a common household item in this age we live in. The importance of having one in your house goes beyond doing office work and watching movies. These days, computers serve a wide range of purposes at home with some being versatile enough to replace your entire entertainment system. For those in the market for a powerful home PC, herein are three of the best home computers to consider.

1. Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA

The C3202CA has been a students’ favorite for a while, and this is attributed to its light form factor, its excellent build quality, and its affordability. However, this doesn’t mean it isn’t worthy of being listed as one of the best home computers. In a nutshell, the Asus Chromebook Flip C302CA is one of the best home computers simply because it is powerful enough to do most tasks with ease.

The C3202CA runs on an Intel M6Y30, which is neither powerful nor recent, but more than capable of handling tasks like playing videos, typing up a report, or even some casual gaming. 4GB of RAM and a basic integrated graphics card ensures that most applications run smoothly provided they aren’t too graphics-intensive.

The Chromebook Flip C302CA comes with a 12.5-inch HD screen and 64GB of flash memory, which is barely enough for home use. Additional disk storage may be needed depending on how the user intends to use the home computer. It comes with USB 3.0 and 3.1 ports which will let you transfer data quite rapidly.

For those working on a tight budget, this sub-$500 laptop could be a great addition to your home.

2. Dell XPS13

Whichever way you look at it, the Dell XPS13 is one of the best home computers in the market. Not only does it boast one of the sharpest displays ever witnessed on a laptop (it has a resolution of 3200×1080), it also comes with 128GB of SSD and 8GB of RAM, which makes it ten times faster than computers with conventional hard drives.

As admirable as the computer’s speed is, it is almost impossible to draw attention away from its incredible Infinity Edge display. Thanks to extra-slim 5.2mm bezels, the XPS13 gives you much more screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio that is rather enjoyable to look at. This elegant design continues in the laptop’s external build, making it slim, elegant, and very light (weighs only 2.7 lbs!).

Other things to look forward to in the DellXPS13 include Bluetooth 4.1 and Wi-Fi connectivity in addition to an SD slot card, two extra fast USB 3. ports, and also one Thunderbolt three port for all your peripheral devices.

3. Asus Zen AiO Pro Z240IE

When it comes to heavy gaming and playing videos in HD quality, few can compete with the Asus Zen AiO Pro Z240IE. This monster of a machine is without a doubt one of the best home computers in the world, and it is very clear why.

First off, the all-in-one powerhouse features a very attractive single form factor design because the CPU and the monitor have been integrated into one. Moving forward, a 23.8-inch 4K UHD display ensures that you can watch even the highest quality media without a hitch. To guarantee flawless functionality regardless of what the computer is used for, it runs an Intel Core i7-7700T processor clocking 2.9GHz and 8GB of DDR4 RAM. This makes it highly recommended for gaming, music production, and even 3D rendering.

Flawless graphics performance is also an added bonus thanks to the powerful NVIDIA GeForce GTX-1050 graphics card that comes with it out of the box. And with 1 Terabyte of storage space at your disposal, there are no limits as to what this powerful home computer can do.

Other features include 5 USB ports, Bluetooth 4.1, and an SD card slot.

The best home computers come in different flavors, so it is up to you to figure out what configuration best suits your needs. While the XPS13 is powerful, its power dims in comparison to that of the Asus all-in-one computer. On the plus side, both the XPS13 and the C302CA are more affordable than the Asus Z240IE, even without sacrificing power or speed.

You can get a lot of functionality from both home computers, but if you want a true powerhouse to handle anything from hardcore gaming to graphic design, your best bet would be the Asus Z240IE.