Toshiba will build a Cortana button into its Windows 10 laptops

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Cortana will be one of the major features to come to Windows 10, and at least one PC vendor plans to treat her especially well. Toshiba’s Windows 10 laptops will feature a dedicated Cortana button, for launching Microsoft’s digital assistant from your keyboard.

The Cortana key will be on all of Toshiba’s Windows 10 PCs—“across the board, top to bottom,” according to Jeff Barney, the general manager and vice president in charge of Toshiba America’s PC business. The key will sit in the upper left area, near the function keys, he said. Triggering it will launch Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant.

Cortana was first introduced as part of the Windows Phone platform as a way for users to interact with the operating system without using a keyboard. Tapping and holding the phone’s search key triggers the service, which can respond to oral questions, set reminders, navigate to nearby locations, and perform a number of other tasks when verbally requested. With Windows 10, Cortana will live inside desktop PCs as well as phones and tablets.

But on both the phone and the PC, Cortana’s ability to “actively listen” has been problematic, with difficulty picking up and reacting to the use of the “Hey Cortana” phrase that triggers it. In practice, it’s been far more successful when manually triggered.

The idea behind the dedicated Cortana button, Barney said, is to make sure that “Cortana is listening when you want it to.” The company has added high-fidelity array mics to its PCs to improve Cortana’s ability to understand what you say.

Why this matters: If a user wants to use the Cortana feature on Windows 10, he or she has either had to tap the Cortana icon on the screen or move the mouse to trigger the service. Placing a dedicated Cortana button on the keyboard is a smart idea, especially if the service proves to be a hit.  Frankly, I’d be willing to bet that Microsoft also releases a mouse that does the same thing. (Logitech, a rival peripherals maker, declined to comment.)

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An artist’s mockup of what Toshiba’s Cortana button might look like. (Photo illustration by Rob Schultz)

One small click for Toshiba, one giant leap for the keyboard

A dedicated Cortana key would be one of the more significant changes to the keyboard since the Windows key was added at about the time Windows 95 was introduced, in 1995. Although Microsoft added touch support for Windows 8, most external monitors still don’t support it, leaving the mouse and keyboard still as the most popular ways of interacting with your PC.

Voice commands could help change that. Even with a keyboard dock, a dedicated hardware Cortana button would be within easy reach of a PC user’s hands. (IDG News Service reporter Blair Hanley Frank also notes that the Windows key + C combination also launches Cortana.)

As Bob O’Donnell of TECHnalysis Research points out, Toshiba is a niche PC vendor—fifth in the United States, with a 6.5 percent share, according to IDC—that could use an idea like this to distinguish itself from the competition. And the company may do just that: So far, no other PC vendor, including Hewlett-Packard and Dell, have publicly indicated that they, too, plan to use a hardware-based Cortana button.

O’Donnell said he’s installed Windows 10 on a Surface Pro 3 and an HP Spectre, and found that the Cortana integration was “just OK.” O’Donnell has hardy given up on Cortana at this point, though. “It’s hard to pass judgement on that,” he said. “They’re going to keep working on it up until the last minute.”

Updated at 5:35 PM with comments from Blair Hanley Frank.

Review: The HyperX Cloud II makes the best sub-$100 headset a little better

Last year I called the HyperX Cloud “one of the best sub-$100 gaming headsets I’ve ever used.” Apparently not content with that, Kingston went ahead and released the HyperX Cloud II this year—a little pricier, a little more refined.

“Little” being the operative word here. Not much changed between the HyperX Cloud and its successor, but the two do differ in some key ways. Namely, the addition of a built-in USB soundcard.

Lateral moves

In terms of the headset itself, the HyperX Cloud II is (as far as I can tell) identical to its predecessor. The colors have changed a bit, but it’s otherwise the same premium-feeling metal-and-“leather” I loved from the first iteration. In my original HyperX Cloud review I said, “The solid metal construction gives this headset both a nice heft and a durability that’s unmatched in the sub-$100 range,” and I stand by that statement.

HyperX Cloud II

And it’s just as comfortable as before. The designation for this headset might’ve come from Kingston’s partnership with the Cloud9 esports team, but “Cloud” is equally appropriate for the feel of the device itself. It’s so cushy.

Unfortunately sticking to what worked last time means the Cloud II carries over some of the same sins as its predecessor. You can’t rotate the earcups, which is a pain if like me you have a habit of pulling your headset down around your neck. Also, the headset is fairly small—I had to extend the ears most of the way before it’d sit on my head.

Same pros as before. Same cons. Easy.

The main difference between the HyperX Cloud and Cloud II is the sound, thanks to the Cloud II’s inclusion of a 7.1-ready USB soundcard. The original Cloud, by contrast, terminated in a 3.5mm jack, with no way to adjust the headset’s sound.

HyperX Cloud II

To be honest, it didn’t really matter. Part of why I was so enthralled with the original HyperX Cloud was because it had amazing sound quality right out of the box. In my previous review I actually said “Kingston makes no attempt at a ‘surround’ experience, but the sound profile of the HyperX Cloud is better than that on a lot of the headsets touting the feature anyway,” which makes the inclusion of 7.1 support in the Cloud II kind of funny.

And out of the box, the HyperX Cloud II has the same great sound. You can still plug the Cloud II into a 3.5mm jack provided you leave the USB soundcard attachment off, though you’ll lose inline controls that way.

The inline controls are actually where Kingston’s improved most on the original Cloud. The USB soundcard features big rockers for both headset and mic volume, as well as a 7.1 toggle and mic mute. I wish the buttons clicked more distinctively, and the mic mute can be a bit hard to slide back and forth, but it’s a huge upgrade compared to last year’s tiny volume wheel and the mute button that made a loud “PING” noise when you tapped it.

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Here’s what the new USB soundcard (with in-line controls) looks like.

As for how much the soundcard improves the sound quality? Again, “a little” seems most appropriate. While it’s great you don’t need software installed to use the soundcard, that also means you’re unable to tweak the sound profile to your heart’s content like you can with other USB headsets.

The result is that using the HyperX Cloud II’s soundcard is more like a lateral move than a real improvement. Both the bass and the lower end of the mids have been boosted a bit from the original HyperX Cloud, while the highs are a bit less clear. Testing with music, especially, I noticed cymbal crashes getting lost in the mix—a clear sign that the highs are being scraped off the top.

As I said, it’s not necessarily worse than the original HyperX Cloud’s sound. I just don’t know that I’d call it better either. It’s a more games-oriented profile, whereas the original Cloud had a more rounded, jack-of-all-trades sound.

The 7.1 is, like most headsets, disappointing. I feel like I say this in every review of a 7.1 headset (probably because I do), but no headset is going to achieve proper surround sound. At best, you’re getting an awkward simulation of it. Worse, the 7.1 introduces some static to the audio that’s unnoticeable in loud situations but—to me at least—somewhat distracting in quiet, reflective moments.

HyperX Cloud II

I honestly think the original HyperX Cloud with its stereo drivers did a perfectly fine job of simulating the sort of depth and positional tracking you’d want from a surround headset—without being a surround headset. The 7.1 here is a marginal improvement, in games that support it. It’s not why you’d buy the Cloud II though.

What should make you buy the Cloud II is the fact that the soundcard also improves the microphone. The Cloud II uses the same weird detachable microphone as the original Cloud (complete with that stupid rubber piece over the jack that you’ll inevitably lose as soon as you remove it). Last year I complained that the Cloud’s microphone was a piece of junk, thanks to a ton of problems with plosives and noise pickup.

The Cloud II’s microphone isn’t perfect, but it’s complemented by noise and echo cancellation built into the soundcard. Comparing mic recordings I made last year with some from the Cloud II, the difference is immediately apparent. The Cloud II microphone sounds like an entirely different (better) piece of hardware.

Bottom line

Should you buy the HyperX Cloud II instead of the Cloud? I don’t know, to be honest. This is a pretty marginal improvement over last year—and at a slightly higher price. They’re both fantastic budget headsets though, so it’s really down to personal preference. Do an improved microphone and inline controls justify the higher cost for you?

Either way, I feel comfortable recommending the HyperX Cloud series as the best sub-$100 headset you can buy, with audio that easily compares to some higher-priced offerings by SteelSeries and Astro.

Nest Cam leak shows a slicker, smarter Dropcam

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Nest is holding a press conference next week, and it seems that a new security camera will be on the agenda.

Droid-Life got its hands on leaked images of a new product, reportedly known as Nest Cam. It looks like a revamp of existing security cameras from Dropcam, which Nest acquired nearly one year ago. (Nest itself was bought by Google in early 2014.)

Aside from a slicker design, the new camera will reportedly stream video at 1080p, whereas current Dropcam models stream at 720p. (Existing Dropcam Pro cameras record in 1080p, but stream video at a lower resolution.) The Nest Cam could also support Bluetooth, though Droid-Life doesn’t mention any reasons for this beyond a simpler pairing process.

The other big change will bring Dropcam and Nest Cam controls into the main Nest app for iOS and Android, letting users control their Learning Thermostat, Protect smoke detectors, and security cameras from a single app. Dropcam currently requires a separate app for setting up and viewing security cameras.

There’s no word on pricing or availability, and it’s unclear whether Nest will announce any other products during its June 17 press conference. While Nest has shown interest inbuilding smart home audio products, we’ll have to wait and see whether the company is ready to announce anything on that front.

Why this matters: Dropcam hasn’t released any new products since October 2013, seven months before its acquisition by Nest. Since then, we’ve seen plenty of compelling alternatives, such as Simplicam’s slick facial recognition camera and the bandwidth-saving Spotcam. It’s clearly time for a refresh on Dropcam’s part, and folding it into the Nest brand—whose key selling point is the way all of its devices work together—makes plenty of sense.

Average cost of a 128GB SSD now just $50 for PC makers

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The average price that computer manufacturers pay for a 128GB solid-state drive (SSD) dropped to $50 in the second quarter, while the average price of a 256GB SSD plunged to almost $90, according to research from DRAMeXchange.

Those prices are significant drops when compared to pricing in the first quarter of 2014, when a 128GB SSD had an average price of $77.20, and a 256GB SSD sold for $148. The decline has been steady, quarter after quarter, since then, according to DRAMeXchange data.

Of course, that’s not what you or I would pay. The average retail price that consumers pay for a 128GB SSD is $91.55, and for an SSD in the 240GB to 256GB range, the price is about $165.34, DRAMeXchange’s data showed.

Still, that’s significantly less than what you would have paid two years ago or even a year ago, according to Jim Handy, principal analyst at Objective Analysis.

“Flash prices have been in a slow decline for the past year. They have come down about 25% since last June. Flash accounts for around 80% of the cost of the average drive, but remember that it’s a higher share of higher-capacity SSDs, and a lower share of low-capacity SSDs,” Handy said in an email reply to Computerworld.

There are two components to SSD pricing, the flash memory cost and then the other components, such as the controller or integrated circuit that manages the read and write commands from the computer.

Other than increased SSD adoption, which spurs production and results in economies of scale and lower costs, there has been a conversion over the past few years from flash that stores two bits per transistor to products that store three bits. The more dense NAND flash memory is, the less it costs to produce SSDs with the same or more capacity.

The conversion from two-bit or multi-level cell (MLC) flash to triple-level cell (TLC) flashhas dropped costs about 20% over the past year, Handy said.

“Controller prices seem to be falling at something closer to Moore’s Law, or about 30%,” Handy said.

Shrinking NAND size leads to lower cost

The latest research from DRAMeXchange, a division of TrendForce, indicates prices for internal SSDs are declining at an accelerated pace as the production of NAND flash also migrates to the 15 and 16 nanometer manufacturing processes. Previously, the width of transistors were in the 19-plus nanometer range: More density, lower production costs.

Flash manufacturers have also been stacking NAND flash transistors vertically—so-called 3D NAND flash—which further adds to its density and lowers production costs.

In the third quarter), the ratio of 3D-NAND flash products in shipments will start to increase and the market penetration of notebook SSDs will speed up. According to DRAMeXchange’s projection, notebook SSDs’ market penetration will be more than 30% for 2015 and will surpass 50% by 2017, taking over from hard drives that currently dominate the notebook sector.

“The [system manufacturer] market for client-SSDs has experienced a rapid price decline due to the increasing adoption of SSDs based on triple level cell (TLC) technology,” said DRAMeXchange’s assistant vice president Sean Yang. “Among the OEMs, Samsung Electronics Co. especially has been aggressively promoting TLC-based SSDs since their memory chips and controller chips are developed in house.”

Starting in 2014, the rising price-performance ratios of Samsung’s TLC products have led to a rapid expansion of their share in the system manufacturer market for PCs.

Additionally, SSDs that incorporate both 3D NAND and TLC technologies have completed the client verification process in the first half of 2015 and are set to begin mass production and shipments in the second quarter.

Shipments of TLC products will grow faster in the second half of 2015 when Intel Corp. introduces its latest processor platform, Skylake. Hence, other SSD vendors will be in a hurry to develop their TLC-based SSD products, and this in turn will drive the transition of NAND flash production to the 15nm and 16nm processing technologies.

DRAMeXchange expects TLC-based SSDs using NAND flash from suppliers besides Samsung will be sent to PC manufacturers for testing in the third and fourth quarter.

A push for faster interfaces

Intel is also becoming more active in ensuring its processors support different SSD architectures via different interfaces.

Another bit of good news for users is that chip manufacturers are ramping up production of higher speed interfaces based on the PCIe serial bus standard. According to DRAMeXchange, PCIe SSDs are steadily making inroads in the market that is dominated by interfaces belonging to the mature SATA 3.0 technology.

Both the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptop models adopted PCIe in 2014, encouraging other PC-manufacturers to design products with the same interface and urging NAND flash suppliers to develop SSDs that match the application.

The market penetration of PCIe interfaces is expected to reach around 20% over the next year, based on DRAMeXchange’s projection.

With Skylake and subsequent Intel processor platforms supporting SSDs with PCIe interfaces, SSD controller chip vendors will roll out more related, price-competitive integrated circuits. The SSD market therefore will see a noticeable increase in the share of products with PCIe interfaces next year.

This article originally appeared on Computerworld.com.

Acer says Predator 8 gaming tablet primed for September launch

 

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Acer couldn’t keep the mystery around the launch of its highly-anticipated Acer Predator 8-inch gaming tablet bottled up for too long.

The tablet could launch sometime in September, with a big event planned for Europe, said a representative at the Acer booth on the Computex show floor this week.

The tablet was first shown on stage in April at a lavish event at the World Trade Center in New York. At the time, Acer CEO Jason Chen said during an interview that the tablet details were being finalized and more details would be shared at launch. However, no specific launch date was provided.

But details about the tablet starting trickling out much earlier at Computex in Taipei this week. It will run on Android OS and have Intel’s Atom processor code-named Cherry Trail, which has two times faster graphics than the aging predecessor chip code-named Bay Trail. The Cherry Trail chip is also used in Microsoft’s Surface 3, which started shipping last month.

For Acer, the tablet is an entry point into the growing market for mobile gaming. The company already has Predator laptops and desktops, and is launching gaming monitors under the same brand. In a stagnant PC market, gaming PCs and Chromebooks are the largest growing segments.

At Computex, the Predator 8 was shown in a glass case, and no one was allowed to play with it. There are a couple of issues yet to resolve, which is pushing the launch of Predator 8 to September, the Acer representative said.

Tablets can be dull to look at, but the Predator isn’t. It has a metal gray and red color scheme that could appeal to gamers. Wing-like contours on the four corners of the tablet house speakers.

Predator will face competition from Nvidia, whose Shield is perhaps the most popular Android gaming tablet. There are still questions around the viability of Android as a core gaming platform, and the OS will take on Microsoft’s Windows 10, which will have a graphics technology called DirectX 12 that could help mobile games look better

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

Microdia introduces microSD with laptop-sized storage

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Last September, SanDisk announced a premium SD card with an insane 512GB of storage space. Now, flash storage maker Microdia has matched that–on a microSD. The Hong Kong-based company is showing off its ultra compact storage device at Computex this week.

Such a massive amount of storage in something that’s about the size of a fingernail won’t come cheap. SanDisk’s 512GB SD card had an MSRP of $800 at launch. Microdia plans on charging $1,000 when the Xtra Elite microSD goes on sale in July, according toCNET.

That puts the microSD card in exactly the same market as other high-capacity storage cards: photographers and other professionals who need massive storage in a tiny package. Microdia’s Xtra Elite will allow for data transfer rates up to 300Mbps thanks to its Ultra High Speed (UHS) bus that features an extra row of pins.

Before Microdia’s microSD, the largest capacity we’d seen on a card that size was 200GB, which SanDisk introduced during Mobile World Congress in March. At the time, SanDisk said the 200GB card would sell for $400 and be available before the end of June. The device is currently listed on sites such as Amazon and B+H Photo for $250, although it is not yet for sale.

The impact on you at home: Microdia’s 512GB microSD is big, offering the same capacity as many laptop hard drives. It’s not cheap and the price isn’t likely to bottom out anytime soon, but that will change over time. Besides, the SDXC format allows for up to 2TB of storage, so as manufacturers figure out how to efficiently cram more storage into a microSD, cards like Microdia’s will inevitably drop in price. SanDisk’s 512GB SD card, for example, is already selling for $500 online despite an $800 MSRP at introduction in the fall. In a few years, dropping a laptop-sized storage space into your smartphone’s expansion slot may not be so expensive.

Computex 2015: The powerful, wacky, and important PC gear you need to know about

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Computex keeps it real
One of the last major tech expos of the year just took place in Taiwan, and with it came a flood of major PC news as manufacturers rush to prepare for Windows 10 and the crucial holiday shopping season.

Intel provided more Skylake details and introduced Broadwell-H chips, Microsoft dropped a Windows 10 release date, AMD revealed a new processor of its own, and crazy peripherals and gaming gear were everywhere. (How does a 128GB flash drive the size of a dime and Decepticon-like laser-projected mice sound?) Here’s all the most interesting and momentous news from Computex, compiled in one handy-dandy spot in no particular order.