Toshiba, Vaio, Fujitsu said to be considering laptop PC merger

Toshiba HQ

Toshiba, Fujitsu and Vaio are considering a merger of their laptop PC businesses, according to a Japanese media report.

The three companies will begin specific discussions on the merger later this month with the aim of launching the company on April 1, when the new Japanese financial year begins, according to a report in Friday’s Nikkei financial newspaper.

Vaio was spun off from Sony in mid-2014 and will likely be the surviving entity, with Toshiba and Fujitsu merging their laptop businesses into the unit. Ownership will be roughly equal, The Nikkei said.

It wasn’t possible to immediately contact the three companies for comment.

Global demand for PCs is decreasing. In the third quarter, shipments dropped 11 percent year over year to 71 million units, according to IDC. Laptop computers made up the majority of those shipments at 42 million units, but they were also down on the previous year.

“I think it’s one way to survive for those companies,” said Mikako Kitagawa, an analyst with Gartner Group. She said with their smaller laptop market shares, a merger might make sense. The three also have a complementary global footprint.

Fujitsu has a good share in the European market because it used to work with Germany’s Siemens and Toshiba is stronger in North America, she said.

“We’re entering a phase in the PC industry where we are expecting some consolidation to happen,” said Linn Huang, an analyst with IDC in California.

He said price competition is hurting PC makers and the prevalence of smartphones and tablet PCs in homes is reducing the need to continually refresh machines as they get older.

The market is led by Lenovo, Dell, HP and Apple, all of which do well in enterprise laptop sales. Other brands are more focused on the consumer market, which is experiencing softer demand than the enterprise sector, Huang said. Weakness in the domestic Japan market is also hitting the three companies in question, he said.

NEC, which was a market leader in the Japanese laptop market, merged its portable PC business with Lenovo in 2011.

Why you should turn off your PC, laptop, modem, router, and other tech routinely

laptop pc on desk at night

I have yet to see evidence that leaving an electronic device on 24/7 wears it out faster than turning it off at night. On the other hand, I haven’t seen any evidence that turning it off at night hurts it, either.

Nevertheless, I vote for turning things off whenever practical.

Leaving something on when you’re not using it wastes electricity, and electricity costs money. What’s more, if your electricity comes from burning carbon, it damages the planet we depend on. I’m not saying you should move to a cave and give up all of your gadgets (I certainly couldn’t do that), but why waste power that you don’t need?

Because Rick specifically asked about networking gear, let’s look at that. I have a router, a modem, and two network printers plugged into one surge protector. When I researchedan article on vampire power earlier this year, I discovered that it would burn 12KWh over a month of absolutely no use. Without the printers, it dropped to 4.8KWh—still a lot to waste.

My wife and I now turn off that surge protector before going to bed, and turn it on in the morning, saving some power. But we couldn’t do that if our daughters were still living with us. College kids work and play late.

Computers, of course, can be put into convenient power-saving modes. But shutting them down entirely will save even more. Yes, you’ll have to wait while they boot up in the morning, but just as a good night’s sleep clears the cobwebs from your brain, a fresh boot can make Windows faster and more stable.

The peripherals around your computer (monitors, speakers, and so on) can best be controlled with a smart surge protector such as the Belkin Conserve Smart AV. Plug your PC into the surge protector’s Control outlet, and when your computer shuts down (or goes to sleep), the device cuts power to other outlets.

Horrendous PC shipment decline in 2015 isn’t going to end anytime soon


The PC business can’t climb out of the four-year hole it’s dug for itself, researcher IDC said today.

Shipments of new personal computers will drop 10 percent in the fourth quarter—which is two-thirds over—IDC announced Monday, meaning that for all of 2015, shipments will have declined by 10.3 percent from 2014. The firm now expects all OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) to ship 276.7 million PCs this year, off the 308.2 million in 2014.

If IDC’s forecast is accurate, it would represent the largest one-year contraction of the PC industry since the research firm began tracking shipments in 1996, “besting” the 9.1% record decline of 2013.

IDC blamed the latest shrinkage in shipments on a variety of factors, ranging from the strong dollar to larger-than-expected OEMs’ and sellers’ inventories, for the ongoing problem getting systems off factory floors.

The macro reason, however, remained the same as in quarters, and years, past: Consumers have simply not bothered to buy new PCs to replace their increasingly-aging machines, using dollars, euros and pounds that might have previously been spent on a personal computer to instead buy smartphones and, to a lesser extent, tablets.

That’s not to mean the PC is dead—as in no longer used—argued IDC. “Despite the substantial shift in spending and usage models from PCs toward tablets and phones in recent years, very few people are giving up on their PC—they are just making it last longer,” said IDC analyst Loren Loverde in a statement.

Microsoft’s free Windows 10 upgrade—available to the hundreds of millions of PC owners worldwide now running Windows 7 or Windows 8.1—hasn’t helped. “The free upgrade … enables some users to postpone an upgrade a little,” Loverde said.

But not indefinitely, he contended.

IDC stuck to its guns, and predicted that at least some consumers would eventually upgrade their PC hardware because of Windows 10. “Some consumers will use a free OS upgrade to delay a new PC purchase and test the transition to Windows 10,” Loverde said. “However, the experience of those customers may serve to highlight what they are missing by stretching the life of an older PC, and we expect they will ultimately purchase a new device.”

Research firms like IDC and its rival, Gartner, have maintained that consumers will refresh their home PCs at some point, but their regular predictions of that have worn thin: The buy-a-PC timeframe has been repeatedly pushed out to a later date.

The silver lining in PC shipments, if there is one, exists because businesses have not—and for the foreseeable future, cannot—relinquish their workforce machines in near the numbers, or even percentages, of consumers. Businesses still regularly upgrade systems, albeit often on a lengthier schedule than previously, typically as they migrate to a new OS.

“Once commercial adoption of Windows 10 accelerates, and in combination with upgrades to steadily-aging consumer PCs, we expect demand for new PCs to improve for several years as replacements will also be boosted by the end of support for Window 7, just as the end of support for Windows XP boosted shipments in 2014,” IDC maintained.

Microsoft has set Windows 7’s retirement date as Jan. 14, 2020.

Other analysts have opined that enterprises, having learned their lesson from the scramble to dump Windows XP in 2013-2014, will be more likely to replace Windows 7 with Windows 10 before the due date arrives. At the same time, Microsoft has been aggressively promoting Windows 10 as ready for corporate adoption, even though the operating system has been out for less than five months.

“Windows 10 could reach enterprises faster than previous releases, driving some commercial PC refreshes in the mid-term,” said Linn Huang, also of IDC.

IDC now forecasts that shipments will stabilize by the end of 2016, and grow through 2019. Even that prognostication, however, means that the bottom of the trough won’t come until next year, and the growth from that will be so minor that 2019’s shipments will remain below 2015’s.

PC shipments

PC shipmentsDATA: IDC
IDC today forecast that personal computer shipments will be down 10.3% for the year, making the current contraction four-and-counting, with little chance of it turning around in 2016.

AMD pushes FreeSync forward with support for HDMI, mobile, DisplayPort, HDR

amd radeon

Standards wars are like the game Monopoly: The one with the most property usually ends up winning.

Well, AMD just snapped up the railroads and utilities. On Tuesday, the company’s new Radeon Technologies Group announced it’ll have its variable refresh rate technology, dubbed FreeSync, working over HDMI ports next year.

A variable refresh spec for HDMI is coming, but AMD’s pushing ahead through the option of an extension to HDMI. The extension can be used in both HDMI 1.4 and HDMI 2.0 monitors.

For GPU support, AMD said any GPU that supports FreeSync over DisplayPort will be able to run it over monitors that support FreeSync using HDMI.

Why this matters: The key to spreading AMD’s FreeSync is to get it on as many monitors as possible. Today it’s available only on more expensive panels with DisplayPort, and Nvidia’s G-Sync has a similar limitation. By adding HDMI, AMD should see a big boost in adoption.

Next up: Monitor and laptop support

AMD also announced its first foray into mobile FreeSync with Lenovo’s new Y700 gaming laptop. The 15.6-inch Lenovo Y700 will feature a Radeon R9 M380 GPU and a quad-core AMD FX-F8800P “Carrizo” APU for $899.

The company said no fewer than eight new monitor models from Acer, LG, and Samsung will support FreeSync over HDMI. The company boasted that in monitor support it’s already outstripped Nvidia’s competing G-Sync by a healthy margin.

hdmi freesync 4
AMD says FreeSync isn’t even a year old but already has more monitor support than Nvidia’s competing G-Sync.

AMD claims 32 monitors support FreeSync vs. G-sync’s 17, adding that not all the announced G-sync monitors are available yet. AMD also dug at G-Sync by pointing out that every FreeSync panel has two inputs or more, while only a few G-Sync monitors do. That’s because G-Sync requires the use of an Nvidia-provided hardware scaler.

Last month, the company announced it had solved a complaint of image judder on most FreeSync monitors, using a software low framerate compensation algorithm.

Nvidia would probably just shrug

Nvidia officials weren’t available to comment on AMD’s announcement. Based on recent conversations I’ve had with the company about FreeSync, however, I’d say it would shrug and say “meh.” Using our Monopoly analogy, AMD may have more pieces of property, but Nvidia owns Boardwalk and Park Place with hotels on them.

One issue facing FreeSync is its dependence upon an accompanying Radeon GPU. Today Nvidia’s in the leadership position, with numbers from November giving it an astounding 81.9 percent share of add-in graphics cards today. Gamers shopping for a monitor with variable refresh rate technology today would probably buy a G-sync monitor, and that won’t change if AMD continues to lose ground to Nvidia in GPU sales.

AMD to support DisplayPort 1.3

The new Radeon Technologies Group also announced it will support DisplayPort in its upcoming GPUs next year. DisplayPort 1.3 HBR3 will increase the bandwidth to 32.4GBps, which is about 80 percent more than even HDMI 2.0 and almost twice the bandwidth of DisplayPort 1.2.

It may sound crazy, but it’s just keeping up with display technology. A single DisplayPort 1.2 connection has just enough bandwidth to drive a UHD 4K monitor, but a single 5K panel, such as Dell’s Dell UltraSharp 27 UP2715K, requires two DisplayPort 1.2 connectors. Higher refresh rates and High Dynamic Range content will also require far more bandwidth than today’s DisplayPort can drive. DisplayPort 1.3 could run a 1080p panel at 240 frames per section and enable HDR  down the road.

displayport 1.3 amd
DisplayPort 1.3 can drive a 5K panel using a single cable rather than two, and support HDR and higher refresh rates on lower-resolution monitors.

HDR color’s coming, too

AMD’s other aim-high announcement is its plan to enable high dynamic range gaming and movies eventually. Many games are actually already rendered in HDR today, the company said. But because GPUs aren’t made to output it and monitors don’t support it, it’s mapped to standard dynamic ranges.

hdr amd 3
Here’s what AMD said an HDR game could look like.

High dynamic range itself is the ability visualize a brightness level far outside what is “normal.” For example, you wouldn’t typically be able to see an object lit by the sun and see into the deep shadows simultaneously. With HDR, you could.

The typical color chart below shows the colors used today. The black triangle is sRGB used in PCs and Blu-ray. The blue triangle is a spec called Rec. 2020 and is considered the “Holy Grail” of color space.

hdr amd 2
AMD said its pursuit of HDR would greatly enhance color in gaming, images and movies.

The target is to enable HDR gaming and imaging using the current Radeon R9 300-series GPUs next year. Radeon GPUs introduced next year will enable HDR movie playback using HDMI 2.0 and DisplayPort 1.3, AMD says.

AMD claims 1080p with HDR will look better than a 4K image with SDR. The missing component is HDR monitors, but the company said it expects HDR monitors for the masses to be available by the end of next year.

There’s one monitor available today: Sony’s BVM-X300. It’s a 30-inch 4K OLED monitor that pushes $18,000. Obviously, for AMD’s HDR inititiave to gain steam, we’ll need cheaper HDR monitors, but the company is confident that will happen soon enough.

bvmx300 small
Sony’s BVMX300 is an OLED 30-inch monitor that will hit 4K resolution and support HDR color for a mere $18,000.

No, PCs don’t have fewer exclusive games than consoles

gaming pc

Another day, another misguided rant about the viability of the PC as a gaming platform.

In a Slashgear post that heralds Valve’s Steam Machines as being in a “quest to save PC gaming,” J.C. Torres says the following:

“Once the king of computer gaming, the PC has been steadily experiencing a decline, especially with the combine onslaught of major consoles. The new trend of mobile gaming hasn’t helped either. There just aren’t as many high quality, triple A titles for PCs as there are for PlayStations, Xboxes, and even Wiis…”

Whew. Okay. First off, PC gaming revenues surpassed consoles over a year ago while pushing more than twice as much hardware revenue than consoles, while Ubisoft’s recent PC game sales rival the PS4’s (and far outshine the Xbox One).

But there’s a more insidious point I want to focus on. While I agree with Torres’ core point that Steam Machines and the rise of Linux gaming is nothing but a good thing for PC gaming in general, this idea that PCs are too complicated to develop for and lack the strong base of exclusives that consoles supposedly enjoy has been gaining steam invarious articles and social media channels in recent months. And it’s wrong.

Let’s pick apart why.

PCs and consoles share the same bones

Here’s Slashgear again:

“PCs, especially gaming rigs, more often than not vary wildly when it comes to specs and components. Gamers are free to plug in any CPU, video card, RAM, storage type, and even display resolution on the dream gaming PC. Making sure your game works on as many possible combinations of hardware is a logistic impossibility. In contrast, there’s only one standard spec for a PlayStation 4, give or take a few variants. Same with an Xbox One. It is ultimately less stressful for a game developer to target a console, leading to poorly done ports or complete absence on PCs.”

There’s no debating that potential PC configurations vastly outnumber console setups, but at a hardware level, modern-day consoles are basically just low- to mid-end PCs with specialized operating systems designed around Sony and Microsoft’s ecosystems. I’m not saying that to stoke the fanboy fires of which gaming setup is superior; it’s a simple fact. While the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 utilized far more custom hardware designs, all modern consoles rock AMD APUs with Radeon graphics and the traditional x86 processor architecture.

 The Xbox One and PlayStation 4: PCs in console clothing.

“In the past, consoles have had very unique architectures compared to the PC,” AMD’s David Nalasco told PCWorld around the time of the PS4’s launch. “…[Now] if you’re developing a game or a game engine and want to port it over to the PC, you don’t have to start over from scratch with your optimization. You’re starting from a base that has CPU cores that are much more similar, GPU cores that are much more similar, and other feature sets that are much more comparable.”

That’s important to this conversation. At the same time, the cost of AAA game development has skyrocketed—that’s why every major publisher rushes to pump out legions of downloadable content and in-game purchases these days.

4k witcher

Witcher 3 is just one of the many AAA games available on PCs and consoles alike.

Toss those two major factors together, and developers of AAA games are incentivized to spread their titles as widely as possible. And that’s what they’re doing! While PC gamers were all-too-often neglected in generations past, virtually every major third-party game released in recent memory also landed on PC. Here’s but a small sampling:

  • Grand Theft Auto V
  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
  • Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
  • Fallout 4
  • Star Wars: Battlefront
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops III
  • Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
  • Just Cause 3
  • Rainbow Six: Siege
  • Mad Max

Pretty much all of the big-name games announced at E3 this year are coming to PC, too. Even the so-called third-party exclusives announced at the show were hedged with terms like “console exclusive” or “launch exclusive,” as games like the PlayStation’s Grim Fandango Remastered also debuted on PC, while the Xbox One’s Rise of the Tomb Raider is coming to PCs next year (as well as the PS4, eventually). Heck, even Rock Band 4 is coming to the Oculus Rift.

Home grown exclusives

Sure, Bloodborne is a PS4 exclusive, but otherwise, the list of true current-gen console exclusives is nothing short of paltry compared to previous generations. And the vast majority of those are first-party games or series with deep ties to a particular console, likeHalo 5, Uncharted 4, Last of Us, God of War, Gears of War 4, Forza Motorsport 6,Crackdown 3, et cetera. And even those walls are breaking down: Microsoft is bringing its recent Gears of War Ultimate Edition and Killer Instinct as well as the upcoming Fable Legends to PC to help push DirectX 12, which gives developers deep, console-level access to PC hardware.

fable legends

The Fable series has traditionally called Xbox its home, but the upcoming Fable Legends will debut on both Xbox One and PCs.

(First-party Nintendo games are a beast all their own, as their exclusivity is the only compelling reason to buy a Wii; the vast majority of AAA games are never published on Nintendo consoles.)

Consoles have fewer exclusives than ever before. Meanwhile, the march of PC exclusives continues strong. Here are some recent high-profile examples, some of which are among the most widely played games in the world:

  • StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void
  • Civilization: Beyond Earth
  • Sims 4
  • League of Legends
  • Dota 2
  • Heroes of the Storm
  • XCOM 2 (delayed until February)
  • Dirt Rally
  • Endless Legend
  • Hearthstone
  • World of WarCraft and its expansions
  • Pillars of Eternity
  • Europa Universalis IV
  • Crusader Kings
  • The Total War series

The list goes on and on, and I didn’t even include games that have been playable on PCs for years but will be ported to consoles in 2016—like Kerbal Space Program, Elite: Dangerous, Assetto Corsa, and Invisible Inc.—or the slew of beloved indie PC gems like Undertale (94 rating overall on Metacritic), The Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth (90 rating),Downwell (84 rating), Prison Architect (83 rating), and countless others. These twoReddit threads highlight many, many more.

xcom 2

 XCOM 2: Only on PCs.

So yes, the consoles have some true gaming exclusives—mostly action or sports titles, and far fewer than before. But if anything, the PC is home to vastly more exclusives. They just tend to be a different, slower-paced, more in-depth type of game. And that’s fine! Different strokes for different folks, and all that. There are plenty of valid reasons to prefer either PCs or consoles over the other.

But game selection isn’t one of them. Aside from a very select handful of titles, virtually every third-party AAA game makes their way to PCs these days, be it from EA, Ubisoft, Warner Bros., or whoever else, and the list of first-party console exclusives are clearly balanced out by PC exclusives. The PC absolutely, positively does not have fewer exclusives than consoles anymore.

The dark days are clearly behind us. All those cross-platform games tend to be far more gorgeous on PCs, shoddy ports aside, and offer free multiplayer too. It’s time this ugly, false rumor gets laid to rest. Please?

Meet Excel 2016: 9 of its best new features, from databases to handwriting tools

microsoft excel logo primary

I’ve just started exploring Excel 2016. As one of the tentpole applications for the newOffice 2016, it has a raft of new features for lucky upgraders. Take a closer look with me and see what you think.

1. Major database enhancements

The database enhancements alone—which include merging some of the previous Add-On programs such as Power Pivot and Power Query—more than justify the upgrade. You’ll find options for Power Queries; Data Models; Reports; Pivot Tables; One-Click Forecasting; and some new, one-button workbook sharing through Power BI for creating and using interactive reports and dashboards.

excel-2016-power-query-options

2. Quick analysis tools

Quick analysis tools are a real timesaver, nudging you in the right direction with your data. After you’ve completed your spreadsheet or table, select the entire range. Note the lightning worksheet icon at the bottom right corner of the range: Click this icon, and a popup menu appears that displays a half-dozen options for what to do with this data.

excel-2016-quick-analysis-button

Note that each icon is a button/link to a submenu that provides more options (the selected icon turns dark green and bold).

excel-2016-quick-analysis-tool-submenu

3. New charts

Excel has six new charts to show off to your clients and colleagues. It’s still an easy process to create them, too: Just highlight the database table, select Insert >Recommended Charts, then choose one from the pictured samples.

Insert Recommended Charts

Or, if you’re not inclined to use one of the recommendations, click the All Charts tab, choose a category from the list, then select one of the designs from the pictured charts in that category.

We’ll delve deeper into the new charts in an upcoming column, but here are two to whet your appetite:

Pareto sorts the bars by highest first and shows which bars have the biggest impact or highest return. Use this chart data to decide where to assign your resources.

Insert new chart Pareto

Waterfall (aka ‘flying brick’ chart) provides a visual method for viewing a series of positive and negative data, such as monthly cash flows. Because the bars seem to hover between the start and end columns, it looks sort of like a waterfall, hence the name.

Insert new chart Waterfall

4. New templates

Excel’s new templates come with sample data and charts, plus hands-on exercises that teach you how to use each template.

New template Cashflow—click Let’s Get Started button
08 New template Cashflow—click the Let’s Get Started button.

For example, in the My Cashflow template, Excel encourages you to try the Excel Data Model to manage your cash flow. Click the Let’s Get Started button, and Excel displays the My Cashflow charts. Click the buttons 2013, 2014, or 2015 to see the chart data change by year.

New template CashFlow chart
09 New template CashFlow chart

If you click the Go button, you can add some new data to the Sample Data spreadsheet, then watch the charts change based on your new input. Once you get the hang of it, just replace Excel’s sample data with some real data of your own and Excel does the rest. Other new templates include Stock Analysis and My Calendar.

5. 3D / Power Maps

These mapping tools were an add-in program in previous versions, but they’re now included in 2016. You can compare data such as temperatures, or rainfall, or populations of a given area over a specified time, rendered in three-dimensional images.

3D Maps/Power Maps

You can map data (plot millions of rows of information visually on Bing maps), discover how data changes over time and space, and create and share stories (called Video Tours) about the information you’ve collected. Stay tuned for a complete review on this excellent new feature in Excel 2016.

6. Easier collaboration and sharing

Real-time collaboration is finally here. Share ideas, data, queries, reports; and co-author worksheets, charts, graphs, Pivot Tables, databases, and more.

Click the Share button in the top right corner. When the Share panel opens, click theSave to Cloud button. The Backstage menu opens and displays the Save As screen. Choose the option that fits your situation—OneDrive, SharePoint, or another online location. Select the appropriate folder and click the Save button.

Once saved, the document reappears with the Share panel open. In the Invite People field, click the open book icon and select colleagues from your address book in Outlook. Set permissions and notifications, then click the Share button to send the document links to your designated colleagues.

Real-time collaboration and sharing

7. Smart Lookup

This feature (available in most of the Office 2016 programs) is like having the Internet on speed dial. Also called “Insights” from Bing, the information hails from various resources such as Wikipedia, the Oxford dictionary, Bing image search, and Bing Snapshot.

Just place your cursor on any word or highlight any phrase on your spreadsheet and right-click. Select Smart Lookup from the dropdown list. The “Insights” panel opens on the right and displays information and images about the subject you highlighted.

Smart Lookup features Bing Insights

8. Tell Me

Located on the right side of the Ribbon menu after the last tab, this feature provides a search box with a light bulb that says “Tell me what you want to do.” It’s like your personal valet: Ask it a question, command it to do something, or select one of the Recently Used queries, and it obeys.

Tell Me how to sort and filter data

Just click the Tell Me box and type your question. A list box drops down with your current request on top; followed by alternate choices (if there are any); followed by the most Recently Used queries; followed by an option to select and use the official Help menus; followed by the Smart Lookup feature, which adds the knowledge of the Internet to help you find the right answer.

Tell Me—show me what to do next

9. Ink Equations

This new feature converts your handwritten equations (or mathematical problems) to text, so you can insert them into your documents. You can use whatever tool works best for you—the mouse, a digital or light pen, or even your fingers—to write the math equations/problems.

Ink Equations submenu

Just select Insert > Symbols > Equation, then click Ink Equation from the drop-down menu. A Preview chalkboard box appears with writing tools displayed along the bottom.

Handwrite a math problem or an equation

That’s all for the big stuff, and Excel has a lot more surprises for its fans. Stay tuned for deeper dives into more of the great features in Excel 2016.

Windows 10 Mobile’s first worldwide update put phones on a PC-like update path

windows 10 ecosystem

Microsoft has ended 2015 with a cosmic aligning of sorts: All Windows 10 PCs and phones have aligned around a single build.

Microsoft released a preview build of version 10586.29 on December 4 to Windows 10 Mobile Insiders, and now all eligible Windows 10 PCs and phones can upgrade to this build directly from Microsoft. Although Microsoft has not pushed Windows 10 Mobile to existing Windows 8.1 phones yet, virtually all of its new Lumia 950 and Lumia 950XL phones have been upgraded to Windows 10.

Microsoft’s Terry Myerson, who runs the company’s Windows and Devices group, called attention to the synergy via Twitter late Tuesday.

In announcing the new build last week, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of engineering systems Gabriel Aul implied that more frequent updates were in the works.

“As our partners and Microsoft ship new Windows 10 mobile devices and existing devices are upgraded to Windows 10, all of our users will start to see more updates coming through Windows Update,” he wrote. “These will be addressing feedback we receive from our Windows Insiders and new Windows 10 users.”

What this means for you: If Microsoft increases the tempo of its rollouts—and without carrier interference—Windows Phone owners will receive new features and bug fixes more frequently than before. That’s a feature Android users have long prized in the Nexus line. Windows 10 Mobile phones purchased from carriers will still ship with carrier apps installed, but at least they’ll otherwise be “pure Windows.”

More frequent updates mean… more frequent updates

Microsoft reps said in May that the company was working to push software updates directly to phones, rather than migrate them through the carriers. That process can take weeks to months in the Android world—or not at all—and has significantly contributed to both the fragmentation in the Android market as well as the growth in Google’s Nexus line and its “pure Android” version of phones.

Now, however, Microsoft pushed its Lumia 950 update directly to consumers, regardless of whether or not those phones were provided by a carrier: My Lumia 950 loaner (with an activated AT&T SIM) received the 10586.29 update; ZDNet reporter Mary Jo Foley’s Lumia 950 (with an unactivated SIM) also received the update. This shows us, as Foley points out, that Microsoft has successfully bypassed the carriers with its OS updates.

That either indicates a show of strength for Microsoft, or that Microsoft’s rather minuscule share in the phone market isn’t worth the development resources to qualify each upgrade. Microsoft has also used the “minor version”—a revision number incremented after the decimal point—to show us that this update is fairly insignificant. (Aul said that the updates only include bug fixes, such as improved Bluetooth stability and better Silverlight compatibility.)

If there’s one annoyance that frequent OS updates may bring with it, that would be a Windows PC-like frequency of restarts. Windows 10 Mobile version 10586.29 rebooted my phone—not a problem, as I wasn’t using it at the time. On the PC, though, the reboot and update process takes seconds to a minute or so, depending on a few factors—the size of the update, whether or not you’re running an SSD, and so on. On Windows phones, updates can require some time both to update the OS as well the various applications.

Still, as long as that update cycle can be scheduled for a time when the phone is not in use—and hopefully won’t wake you up if it kicks off at 3 a.m.—frequent updates aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

Windows 10’s “Redstone” update promises a smarter, Office-savvy Cortana

cortana primary idge

Windows 10’s next major update, code-named “Redstone,” promises a smarter Cortana that can work within Office applications.

According to a report from The Verge, Cortana will become a contextual tool that appears within documents. She will facilitate transitioning tasks across the various smartphone platforms. Microsoft will also beef up the Notifications center, the site reports.

Microsoft launched Windows 10 this past summer (and released Windows 10 Mobile recently as well) and continues to beef up the operating system. The Redstone update will reportedly take place next year.

If the Verge is correct, the continued enhancements to Cortana appear to be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. Cortana, for example, provides contextual information when youhighlight a word or phrase in Microsoft Edge. It’s not clear how far Microsoft plans to go—although you have to imagine Microsoft has broad ambitions here—but the Cortana improvements could be as minimal as supplying that same sort of context in a Word or PowerPoint document. So far, that context is lacking from Microsoft Office.

Bing has also already launched a contextual search feature that tries to pull out the most interesting topics within a webpage. The Verge implies this will be more fully baked in a subsequent update to Windows 10 Mobile.

Why this matters: Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistant is one of Windows 10’s signature achievements, along with universal apps. Richness is a critical aspect of how Microsoft competes with Google Now and Apple’s Siri—the more sophisticated the digital assistant, the more useful it is. It seems likely that Microsoft will continue to embed Cortana deeply into its core apps—Mail, Calendar, Maps, Edge, and others—with a notable gap on third-party apps like Facebook that it doesn’t directly control.

‘Get Windows 10’ prompt adopts malware-like tactics to lure you into upgrading

new windows 10 logo primary
Do you want to download Windows 10 now or now? That’s the question I found myself faced with when I opened an irregularly used Windows 8.1 laptop last night.

Once a small box begging for a reservation in the corner of the screen, the “Get Windows 10” pop-up prompt has morphed to consume the majority of the display, and worse, it only presents users with two clear actionable buttons: Upgrade now, and Start download, upgrade later. There’s no immediate “No thanks” option whatsoever.

“It’s a particularly raw deal for people who are on metered Internet connections. Windows 8.1 users aren’t in danger there, because that OS won’t automatically download updates over a metered connection. But Windows 7 users will have to turn off automatic downloads of all recommended updates in order to avoid downloading multiple gigabytes worth of operating system.”

Fortunately, Microsoft says you’ll “be clearly prompted to choose whether or not to continue” installing Windows 10 when that automatic download happens. Here’s hoping there will be a clear “No” option displayed when that happens, at least. Windows 10 is Microsoft’s greatest operating system yet, and a clear upgrade over Windows 8.1—I have it installed on most of my PCs—but strong-arming people with forced downloads and spammer-like no-choice wording on upgrade prompts won’t win Microsoft any fans.

Sick of staring at the update prompt every time you boot your Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 PC? Here’s how to stop the Windows 10 update offer from appearing—at least until the day it’s pushed through as a Recommended update.

The most annoying behavior has yet to come for people who have chosen to stay pat with Windows 7 or 8.1, however. In 2016, Microsoft plans to push the Windows 10 upgrade through as a Recommended update. If you use the default Windows Update option and automatically install all new Recommended updates (as most home users should), that means Windows 10 will start downloading to your PC once Microsoft flips that switch, rather than asking for your permission. Here’s what we said at the time:To be fair, you can still simply close the window using the X in the upper-right corner, and if you click through the itty-bitty inconspicuous chevron on the right-edge of the window there may be a “Nope” prompt somewhere further down the line. (I closed the prompt before exploring the auxiliary pages.) But having the only two large, clearly actionable options on a pop-up page both lead to a Windows 10 download feels inherently icky—like Microsoft’s trying to trick less-savvy computer users into downloading the operating system with tactics often used by spammers and malicious websites.

Yes, you can overclock cheap Intel Skylake chips

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Budget PC builders are in for a treat: It’s been officially confirmed that you can now heavily overclock Intel’s cheap Skylake chips with a BIOS update.

Tech site TechSpot confirmed it through hands-on tests. The team overclocked a Skylake Core i3-6100 from its default clockspeed of 3.7GHz to 4.7GHz, after motherboard maker Asrock provided them with a beta BIOS that required switching off the integrated graphics.

Why this matters: Intel’s last few generation of chips have limited overclocking to pricier “K”-series CPUs. With an apparent workaround discovered, higher clock speeds and essentially “free performance” may become far more attainable for those who can’t afford a K chip.

An overview of overclocking

“Overclocking” is the term for running a CPU’s clockspeed above its rating from the factory. This may sound dangerous—and it can be if done improperly—but many CPUs are artificially limited to lower speeds by Intel at the factory to help meet prices.

Here’s a car analogy: It’s like if Ford sold a top-end Mustang that could hit 150 miles per hour, but then took the same car and set its computer to limit the top speed to 120mph. In this case, Intel’s cheapest “K” Skylake chip is the $242 Core i5-6600K with a factory clock speed of 3.5GHz. The same chip has an equivalent Core i5-6500 for $192 at 3.2GHz. If you could take that cheaper CPU and overclock it to the same speed, why buy the pricier part?

An architecture change within the sixth-generation chip that separates the chip’s “BCLK” (“base clock”) from other components appears to be the culprit behind the newly enabled overclocking. The base clock is one of the internal clocks that regulates the overall megahertz of the chip. With Haswell or Ivy Bridge, for example, the base clock was hooked up to other sections of the CPU, causing instability when the base clock was increased even in small amounts. That’s no longer the case, and after months of speculation over whether or not base clock overclocking could work, we now know it could.

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Maybe only dual-cores?

Something to note: TechSpot’s overclocking confirmation was achieved only with the dual-core Core i3 chip. Anandtech’s attempt at performing a base clock overclock of a quad-core Core i5-6500 hit a wall well before TechSpot’s dual-core would. But it isn’t known whether that’s because of the motherboard Anandtech used or because board vendors are still tweaking their BIOSes to enable the overclocking.

Skylake is overclocking-friendly

PCWorld reached out to officials at Intel for comment, but we’ve had no response as of Friday afternoon. However, since the launch of Skylake, Intel has maintained that design changes would make the new chip overclocking-friendly. What’s not clear is whether Intel intended to make the non-premium K-chips overclockable, too.

As mainstream desktop PC sales continue to decline, Intel has increasingly relied on sales to enthusiasts and gamers, who have no problem paying a premium for overclocking-friendly chips. If a groundswell of PC builders suddenly reached for the cheaper, overclock-ready chips to save a few bucks, that could impact sales of Intel’s premium K-chips.

This wouldn’t be the first time Intel had to squash such a trend. Intel’s chipset for its Haswell series included the Z-series for overclockers alongside the cheaper H- and B-series chipsets. When motherboard vendors discovered a way to enable overclocking on the lower-cost H- and B-series, Intel stopped them by updating the microcode on its CPUs, forcing buyers to move back to the higher-margin motherboards with the Z-series chipset.

It’s just as likely that Intel could look the other way. The company has truly been friendlier to overclocking. It has sponsored extreme overclocking contests using liquid nitrogen and liquid helium, and even threw a bone to budget builders with its $72 Pentium G3258 “anniversary edition” in 2014 that was ready for overclocking.