TAG | microsoft
Microsoft has recognized that people appreciate the chance to make their own stuff, possibly due to the success of PlayStation exclusive LittleBigPlanet, and that’s why it created Project Spark, previewed back in June at E3. Spark is an even more free-form game creation engine with a focus on simultaneous game playing and building, which also encourages sharing among friends and family.
The beta for Project Spark kicks off today on Windows 8.1, which means if you’re one of the still quite small crowd on that latest desktop OS, you can take part – so long as you’ve also signed up for the beta over at the Project Spark website. The closed beta will extend to Xbox One users beginning in the new year, however, and that’s where I expect the software to really start to shine, given Microsoft’s sizeable user pool based on early sales numbers of the next-gen console. Microsoft also says cross-platform support is coming eventually, too.
Microsoft is touting Spark as a way to create collaborative, effectively unending games with your friends and connections, which is an interesting take on gaming as a social medium. Games have always had social aspects, to be sure: alternating turns or watching your friend who was lucky enough to own a PS1 play through Final Fantasy is no doubt an experience common to many of my particular vintage. Then of course came split-screen gaming, culminating the pure joy that was Goldeneye 007 for the N64, and the modern era of shooting and tea-bagging that is the Call of Duty series.
Now, Microsoft wants you to do something even more participatory, creating worlds as you explore them. At its most basic, Spark does most of the heavy lifting for you, with you specifying simply a scenario, setting and character before being thrown into a randomly generated game provided by the engine. But you can get much more granular, building different genres of games, using various different inputs including Kinect and the Xbox One controller, and even incorporating motion capture and voiceover using the Kinect for custom animations and dialogue. The Spark engine seems insanely flexible, so it’ll very interesting to see what a legion of brand new amateur game devs can do with this in their hands.
Grab the Spark beta app from the Windows Store, but you might have to wait a little while to use it if you haven’t yet got a beta key, and it’s not going to be available in all regions immediately. This is potentially the most interesting thing Microsoft has done for a long time, so it’ll be great to watch how this progresses, even if you’re not that interested in becoming an auteur yourself.
Oh, Amazon. You’re silly. But also very right.
In Amazon’s latest assault on the gadget establishment, the Kindle HDK 8.9 takes on the iPad Air, correctly pointing out that Amazon’s offering has a better screen and is lighter than its Apple counterpart. Plus, the Kindle HDX 8.9 is cheaper.
With this advert, Amazon joins Microsoft in selling their wares directly against Apple’s. This commercial, like some of the Windows tablet tv spots, is rather blunt, right down to a mocking tone of the voice-over narrator. But, arguably, unlike the Microsoft attacks, Amazon’s selling points are valid and worth considering for some buyers.
The Kindle HDX 8.9 is a worthy competitor against the iPad. The screen is more dense and generally higher quality. The HDX is lighter and cheaper. For a good chunk of buyers, as in, those looking to watch YouTube videos, play some older games, and shop Amazon, the HDX is a great option. The only thing the HDX lacks is access to Apple’s iCloud ecosystem that brilliantly syncs commonly used communication and productivity tools across Apple computers and mobile devices.
Amazon has steadily grown into a legitimate consumer electronic company. From humble starts with the original Kindle, the retail giant knows how to start small and scale into a major player. Is the Kindle HDX better than the iPad? Not really, but the gap is quickly closing. Plus, drones.
Another contender for smart(en)ing up your home has taken to Kickstarter to raise funds. The Beijing-based startup behind Plugaway has put together Wi-Fi connected plugs and LED lightbulbs which, used in conjunction with its Android or iOS app, can remotely switch your appliances on or off, or dim or kill your lights.
The system can also be used to monitor electricity consumption, schedule and time appliances, and set up device alerts and notifications. Or it will, assuming it hits its Kickstarter goal and transitions from the current prototype stage to commercial product (Plugaway is aiming to ship kit to backers next April). It’s very close to making its funding goal at least, with more than $47,500AUD raised of a $50,000AUD target and still 34 days left on their crowdfunding campaign.
Updating standard electrical household objects, such as your trusty old desk lamp, to turn them into smart app-controlled objects – by augmenting them with tech such as Philips Hue’s psychedelic Wi-Fi bulbs – can be an expensive business. It can also, frankly, be a bit of a faff. In the case of Hue a Wi-Fi bridge is required to plug into your router to link the bulbs to your broadband. And that bridge is pricey (and, in my experience, the connection between app and bridge can be flaky – or, at least, it was on an earlier iteration of the tech).
Plugaway’s aim is to reduce the costs of hooking your old school household appliances into the tap-happy convenience of apps. They’re doing this by offering two pieces of kit: smart plugs, so you can plug any appliance in and remotely switch it on or off; and smart LEDs, so you can remotely control lights.
Their Wi-Fi-enabled smart plugs cost $30 a pop – which means Plugaway is undercutting Belkin’s WeMo plugs. And their LED lightbulbs are also priced cheaper than LIFX’s similar kit (which starts at just under $90 a pop – or will when it goes on general sale in retail stores in January).
Plugaway has also decided it needs to embrace openness to get under the skin of big name competitors in this space – so, for instance, it’s going to let users customise its app:
We have decided to let everyone, including small firms, interior designers, developers, restaurant owners, even hobbyists, build an app in their own style with limitless functionality, share their skins on our website and brand the software with their logotypes. In short – to give it your personality.
Its openness also extends to interoperability with other apps and services, such as IFTTT, or other open smart home devices & systems.
Our open software means two things. Developers are able to integrate other devices into the app and share their add-ins. The other is that Plugaway will also be compatible with other systems, so you don’t even need to use our app unless you absolutely want to! Provided your existing system is open, you may use the Plugaway app’s API to connect with your current home-automation system.
Plugaway’s project is also an interesting study in how to polish the gem of an idea into something with more commercial potential with the help of the Kickstarter community. Its original Kickstarter for the Plugaway smart plug concept, kicked off back in May, but it subsequently decided to cancel the project to rethink the design of the plug (1960s orange wasn’t proving too popular with backers), and to make being an open platform more of a focus.
It also evidently spent some time polishing its Kickstarter pitch, as the before and after videos show. Here’s the earlier one, and below is the new pitch:
Here’s a noodle-scratcher for you: you have an iOS device and love playing games on it, but you’ve grown weary of effetely pawing at a touchscreen. What do you do? Well, now that iOS 7 is out on and has already been installed on a veritable crap-ton of devices, the answer is to explore the wild and woolly world of iDevice game controllers like the one Logitech just officially unveiled this morning.
It’s called the PowerShell and the general thrust of the thing will look pretty familiar if you’re an avid @evleaks follower (much like our own Matthew Panzarino). A leaked image of the device first made the rounds back in early October, and very little seems to have changed between now and then. The same textured d-pad sits to the left of the screen, the same A, B, X, and Y buttons rest to the right, and a pair of shoulder buttons round out the package. Thankfully, said package doesn’t appear to add too much heft to the iDevice ensconced within and Logitech has tucked a 1,500 mAh hour battery in there to keep the action going. Just be warned – it’ll only latch onto a iPhone 5s, iPhone 5, or 5th gen iPod touch, so 5c owners should apparently look elsewhere.
Now in fairness, the folks at Moga (who themselves are no stranger to smartphone gaming gadgets) pulled back the curtain on its first iOS 7-compatible controller doodad just the other day. It’s a far more complex affair, replete with dual joysticks and a layout that’s more than a little reminiscent of Microsoft’s venerable Xbox 360 controller. Oh, and Moga’s take even sports a slightly more robust internal battery to go with its identical price tag – on paper it looks like Logitech’s already running in second place. Still, even though it was the first to publicly tout its iOS-friendly controller, Moga hasn’t mentioned a specific release date for the thing, and Logitech is gunning to lock up the first mover advantage by peddling its own version today.
Then again, one could argue that being first is overrated. It’s being the first to really nail a formula that really matters and Logitech has remained relevant all these years because they usually manage to do just that. That’s not to say this competition is already over though – the floodgates are only now beginning to open and I’d wager gewgaws like this are going to be everywhere within a few months. May the best controller win!
Nokia’s Lumia 2520 tablet will set you back $500 if you want to buy it flat out. AT&T is more than happy to sell you one at that price. Pick it up with a wireless contract, and AT&T will knock $100 off that sticker.
But pick up a Lumia 925, 1020, or 1520 at the same time, and the price of the Lumia 2520 drops to $200. That’s an incredible decline in cost. I confirmed with AT&T that the phone itself would be subsidized, but subject “to a second agreement,” or contract, so the deal only works if you are ready to pony up for two devices and requisite plans.
So, for the sum of $300 ($100 for the Lumia 925, $200 for the Lumia 2520), you can buy into the larger Windows ecosystem of Windows 8.x and Windows Phone. Why would Nokia do this? You can’t really view Nokia’s hardware choices as independent anymore, but for kicks, the reasons would be simple: Device volume is key to the health of the Windows (et al. form factors) platform. This means that Nokia does more than help its short-term revenue when it moves devices, it sets up its future by supporting the platform that it needs to stand upon.
But Nokia’s hardware division is now all but part of Microsoft’s hardware business, making the above all the more muddled in the best possible way. Let’s do this in pieces:
- Nokia lashes its tablet and smartphone hardware together, using carrier subsidies for consumers to bear the brunt of its margin pressure, to sell more units and help launch it into new hardware categories.
- Windows and Windows Phone benefit from larger unit volume, which brings more users, more downloads, and thus more developer satisfaction.
- Developers then in theory build more applications, which leads to happier customers, and therefore more customers, creating a virtuous loop.
- Microsoft buys Nokia’s hardware business, which it wants in order to sell more smartphones.
- Its new smartphone business is being used to sell tablets that compete with its own Surface line of devices.
So that’s fun, but the real issue here is that Microsoft (Nokia) has compiled a hardware package that it can presumably vend not at a loss that brings consumers onto its platforms (platform, depending on how precise you want to be), in twos instead of ones.
This is only a good for Microsoft if the Lumia 2520 is worth a damn. Early prognostications appear to be in its favor, though I can’t see why I’d prefer one to a Surface 2. But that doesn’t matter; Microsoft merely wants more RT devices sold, period. And that’s why the later points I think don’t matter to Microsoft: In the Game of Platforms, you either win or you become BlackBerry.
So to Microsoft, shaving Surface revenue in the short-term to bolster the somewhat tenuous Windows RT piece of the Windows empire probably makes sense.
Stepping back, moving units is Microsoft’s current problem, which is of course part of the same app problem that we endlessly discuss. The two are directly entertained. And Windows is bigger than Surface, meaning that it takes precedence.
Can Nokia (Microsoft) keep the deal up and not end up in a cold bath whilst ripping up hundred-dollar bills? (Margin pressure is a bitch). I don’t know, but I bet that Microsoft does. We’ll see if it keeps the gambit alive once the deal closes.
The PS4 is a lovely gaming kit. It’s sleek. Monolithic. And relatively small in comparison to the Xbox One. Sony did its 4th generation console right. iFixit found in its teardown that the gaming system is nearly as beautiful on the inside as it is on the out. But that shouldn’t be a big surprise. It’s a Sony product and Sony knows how to build things. However, iFixit did find something somewhat shocking: The latest PlayStation is very user serviceable.
On iFixit’s scale of 1 to 10, the PS4 scored an 8 meaning most users can expect to rip the system open and tinker away. Most importantly, the hard drive is very easy to access, giving owners options to upgrade to a larger or faster option. The hardest thing to service, per iFixit, is apparently the fan which is buried deep the system’s innards.
iFixit and others have yet to teardown the upcoming Xbox One. That should be in the coming days. Hopefully Microsoft designed it with the same thought as the Xbox 360E, the last model of its generation. That model was simple to open up. In fact, all of Microsoft’s gaming systems from the start have been trivial to crack open and tinker around. The original Xbox’s modability was a significant factor in its widespread adoption. Let’s hope Microsoft hasn’t forgotten that.
With the gaming world entering the 7th generation, there is hope that hardware makers, namely Sony and Microsoft, have learned from past mistakes and gamers shouldn’t have to fear a red or yellow light of death caused by shoddy hardware design.
Alas poor Zune, you are dead. Microsoft has stretched out the end of Zune over such a long time that I feel that we have called it RIP for years. Here’s what I consider the last domino: By November 22, Zune’s Marketplace will stop selling and renting content, and won’t allow users to browse TV content.
This means that the only remnants of Zune will be the hardware that is still in the market and the Zune desktop software. I presume that you can keep using both with music that you outright own, and I have asked Microsoft to confirm the fact.
If you have leftover Microsoft Points (yuck), you can convert those to local currency, and spend them in the Xbox Video and Music stores.
I bought the first generation device the day it came out, if I recall properly, and this is all a bit sad. Microsoft did some really neat things with its music project, and in the end made one of the best pieces of MP3 hardware, the Zune HD. In its heyday, the Zune music software was, and remains, the best piece of tune-playing software released in my view. Darn you, current Spotify edition.
Ultimately, Zune was caught trying to catch up to Apple’s iPod line at a time when Apple was hitting its stride with the iPhone, a device that would break the back of the standalone music player market. And then streaming services such as Spotify caught on, ending the potential for the Zune Pass, with its rental downloads and “keep” option, to become even a modest hit.
It was all too late, but still quite nice in its bright autumnal senescence. Zune is over. On we move.
The days are getting shorter, friends, and that can only mean one thing: winter is coming, and so too are the holidays. We here at TechCrunch like to think of ourselves as a gaggle of technological bon vivants, so we’re starting our Gift Guide a little early this year.
First up: my picks for the digitally savvy bookworms and writers in your life. For whatever reason, these people just can’t tear themselves away from their endeavors – after all, the lure of taking in or laying down words can be too much to resist, so why fight it?
Kindle Fire HDX 8.9″ ($379)
Our own John Biggs offered his in-depth impressions of the 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX some weeks ago (TL;DR he likes it quite a bit), but when it comes to earnestly consuming media, I happen to prefer the next size up.
Part of that is because of a handsome 8.9-inch display running at 2560 x 1600 that lends itself equally well to both video playback and devouring ebooks. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the 8.9-inch HDX feels like one of the nicest Android tablets in recent memory, either. It’s clad in a soft-touch plastic finish, noticeably lighter than the model that came before it, and is just a hair slimmer than the 7-inch version we already reviewed.
Throw in a surprisingly competitive spec sheet to drive everything (there’s a 2.2 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 chipset and 2GB of RAM humming away in there) and features like Mayday to help troubleshoot issues on the fly and you’ve got a package that’s capable of dealing with just about anything you throw at it. Just know that by buying into the vast Amazon ecosystem, you’re also limiting yourself when it comes to the selection of apps you can install without additional cajoling.
Kindle Paperwhite ($119) vs. Nook Glowlight ($119)
If Amazon has the best honest-to-goodness tablet for immersing yourself in tomes, surely it stands to reason that its e-readers are on top of the heap, right? That’s long been the case and Amazon dutifully churns out updated models pretty frequently, but Barnes & Noble isn’t ready to wave the white flag just yet. Case in point: it just pushed the new Nook Glowlight onto store shelves in time to give the folks at Amazon another run for their money
With the new Glowlight, BN traded the dreary blacks and grays for a more buoyant white finish… sort of like the one Kindles use to have in the early days. It’s awfully light, too (which is a very good thing), and while the redesigned body looks just a bit dopey, the rounded edges and wider bezels mean it’s more comfortable to hold. To top it all off, the Glowlight’s e-Ink display has been configured in such a way that the mildly annoying “black flash” of a screen refresh that usually occurs every few page turns is almost completely gone.
Meanwhile, the new Paperwhite looks nearly identical to the model that came before it – the only big visual difference is that Amazon managed to fix most of the uneven lighting issues that plagued the first one. Most of Amazon’s innovation here is on the software front, as users can now
In the end there are more than enough reasons to justify whichever direction you take. If the thought of ads on your e-reader is just too much to bear and you prefer a cleaner, more handsome UI, consider the Nook. On the other hand, if you’re already somehow locked into the Amazon ecosystem, the newest Kindle Paperwhite comes out ahead once again.
Livescribe 3 ($149)
What happens when the time to read has passed and you’re itching to let the words building up inside of you out? The Livescribe 3 is a smartpen that aims to help you tap your metaphorically lexical keg by automatically transmitting a copy of whatever you write to a smartphone or tablet that’s connected via Bluetooth 4.0.
But let’s back up a minute. The first thing you’ll probably notice about the Livescribe 3 is that it’s actually much more like a pen than the unrepentantly geeky models that came before it – to hear CEO Gilles Bouchard tell it, the team that designed this thing went through scads of iterations before settling on a final design.
The only bummer? Thanks to the inconsistent proliferation of Bluetooth 4.0 across Android devices, only iPhone and iPad users will be able to watch their words magically make the leap from paper to app for now.
Scrivener ($40 for Windows, $45 for OSX)
I have a confession to make – between dashing off paper after paper in college and blogging for years, the actual act of putting pen to paper and scrawling out words for any considerable period of time seems alien to me. No, all of my writing these days results from the furious pounding of keys, and Scrivener is an invaluable tool for when idle thoughts give way to bigger concepts that need to be written about.
That’s because Scrivener isn’t just a text editor. It’s just as much an organizing system that helps to track, highlight, and organize all the little snippets, references, and half-formed ideas that ultimately give way to a larger work. Sure, minimalist writing interfaces like Draft and iA Writer seem to be all the rage (and I’m awfully fond of them, too), but I’d like them to wrangle and display the sheer amount of stuff that Scrivener can. And better yet, it’s available for OS X and Windows users.