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Intel introduces ‘best ever’ processor

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Intel took the wraps off a family of computer brains code-named “Skylake” Tuesday, calling them “best ever” processors that will usher in the next generation of personal computers.

 By enabling longer battery life, better graphics and low power consumption, the chips are expected to bring new thinness to laptops and notebook-tablet hybrids without sacrificing computing ability.
 “The industry has been talking for a long time about having PCs that have the characteristics of tablets,” said analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights and Strategy. “I feel like for the first time we are there.”
File: Exterior view of Intel headquarters in Santa Clara on April 16, 2007.

He said the new chips mean that manufacturers will be able to make laptops that are very thin and light — with all-day battery life and touch screens — that are priced between $499 and $699. “Before, you would have had to pay $1,000 to $1,500 to get this level of capability,” Moorhead said.

The degree of Skylake’s success should show where the PC business is headed, he and other analysts agreed.

 Intel is hoping that the combination of the new chips — officially called 6th Gen Intel Core — and Windows 10, which was released this summer, will reignite the slumping PC market.
 The Santa Clara chip giant noted that there are an estimated 1 billion PCs that are 3 years old, and 500 million 4 to 5 years old, or even older, that need replacing. That’s assuming their owners want something newer.
 Analyst Alex Guana of JMP Securities said his company remains in the “show me” camp. “It would be nice for a change to see a demand-driven PC environment where the combination of Windows 10 and Intel excites the consumer imagination,” he said.

Skylake probably won’t turn PC sales around, but could help level off an expected 9 to 10 percent decline in PC sales this year, one analyst said.

“I wouldn’t expect Skylake to bring growth in the PC category, but it will stabilize what has been a PC decline,” said Tristan Gerra, a chip industry analyst with Robert W. Baird.

Technology analyst Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates said Skylake “should help” PC sales, “but it’s not going to turn them around. You can’t avoid economics — China’s tanking and that’s a huge marketplace. But this will give the vendors, the Lenovos of the world, the ability to do some things they weren’t able to do before — lighter, thinner, all of that.”

Selling chips for PCs is Intel’s biggest business, although it is dominant in computer servers and also has been diversifying into products for the Internet of Things and services for the cloud.

Last fall’s Broadwell processor and this year’s Skylake are designed with 14 nanometer technology. By comparison, a human red blood cell is 6,000 to 8,000 nanometers across.

Skylake is being released late by historical standards, said Mark Hung, an analyst with Gartner. “Typically, when Intel launched a new platform, it was usually available by back to school. The last couple of years it slipped to being available for the holiday season. This year, it looks like in the holiday season, not everyone is going to get it.”

Intel said there will be Skylake-powered computers of all types — desktops, laptops, notebook-tablet hybrids — available for the holidays. But store shelves will feature a mix of computers, some with the older Broadwell chip and some with Skylake.

“Not every device that hits the holidays is going to be Skylake,” Intel spokesman Scott Massey said.

Massey said the new chip “is getting out ahead of the holidays, which is really the prime buying season. We’re opening the door to some pretty awesome stuff for consumers. We think we’re going to make people get off the couch and go check out what’s out there and buy a new PC,” he said.

Compared to a 5-year-old laptop, a new laptop with Skylake can be half as thick and half the weight, and will offer three times the battery life and 2.5 times the performance, with vast improvements in graphics and security. Another new feature is wireless docking and display for laptops.

“They are trying to get excitement back into the PC market,” said analyst Moorhead. “I think this will have been their best shot at doing this in the last five years.”

 

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No matter who you are, Amazon wants you to be using Alexa

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SEATTLE — Amazon really wants us all to be talking to its smart assistant, Alexa. The company announced a half-dozen new products that make clear that the tech giant wants you to be talking to its assistant at every point in your day, in every room of your house, no matter who you are.

The company introduced four completely new products to its smart-speaker category: the high-end Echo Plus that doubles as a smarter home hub; the Echo Spot which is a smart alarm clock with a video screen; a set of button accessories aimed at making the Echo more of an entertainment device; and the Echo Connect — a $35 speakerphone box that plugs into the traditional landline connection and uses your home phone number.

Amazon also revealed updates to the Echo, which hasn’t seen an upgrade since its 2014 launch, and decreased the size of the Fire TV so that it’s no longer its own set-top box. Though it still offers 4K streaming, it now plugs entirely into the back of a TV. BMW also announced it will put Alexa-friendly microphones and the voice assistant in select BMW and Mini models in 2018.

The aggressive push to make Alexa as ubiquitous as possible may substantially raise expectations for others in the space, such as Google and Apple — which has yet to even launch its dedicated smart home speaker, the HomePod.

(Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post.)

Amazon’s senior vice president of devices, Dave Limp, said that the company dedicates 5,000 people to Alexa and Echo alone to help with this efforts — a huge effort, given that reports place its competitors’ teams at dozens or hundreds of employees. Limp said, however, that Amazon saw demand for development with Alexa from all stripes: products, services and hardware. That focus may explain how Amazon has been able to tackle one of the biggest obstacles facing the smart home: how difficult it is to set up. 

The complexity of setting up a smart home — downloading apps, figuring out which devices work with which services, even naming each individual bulb — has proved a major hurdle to smart appliance adoption even as companies aggressively pursue the space.

But Limp showed off how Alexa — using the $149 Echo Plus — can now make smart home setup as easy as, well, screwing in a lightbulb. After the bulb was twisted into the socket, the Echo Plus picked it up in a scan for smart devices in the room, named it and was able to control it within 15 seconds.

Every version of the higher-end Echo will also ship with its own Philips Hue lightbulb, as a very transparent push to get more people to try out the smart home for themselves.

Adding the Echo Plus puts Amazon’s speakers, price-wise, on either side of Google’s $130 Home.

Amazon showed off the Echo Spot, which could work for those more comfortable with the idea of smart home technology. About the size of a compact clock radio, the Spot features a video screen that can play video, display a watch face and be used for video calls. The $130 Spot is essentially a more compact riff on the Echo Show, the video-enabled Echo that debuted earlier this year.Amazon is also making a new push to style the Echo as a more active entertainment device. Echo Buttons, which would look at home on any game show set, connect to an Echo device via Bluetooth; the firm showed off a trivia game demo, where players buzzed in when they knew the answer. Toy giant Hasbro will make a version of Trivial Pursuit that uses the buttons, Limp said.

The traditional Echo saw a price drop, to $99, and a redesign that makes it more compact, a little shorter and a little squatter. A new “routines” features allows Echo to trigger multiple actions — turning on lights, opening the blinds, starting the coffee maker — from a single phrase such as “Alexa, good morning.” Both the Echo and Echo Plus will get free outbound calls to any number in the United States, Canada and Mexico, pulling contacts from your smartphone.

The forceful push on hardware — at relatively low prices — dovetails exactly with Amazon’s hardware strategy in the past, analysts said.

“For Amazon, hardware is a means to drive more consumption be it media or washing powder,” Geoff Blaber of CCS Insight said in a note following the event. “Amazon has the momentum in the smart speaker and voice assistant space. It’s clearly determined to maximize that advantage and use it to spearhead its move deeper into the home.”

 

 

© 2017, Paul Umoh. All rights reserved.

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Microsoft is determined to make virtual reality work for everyone

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For a while, virtual reality has seemed stuck in neutral for the nongaming audience, with companies struggling to make VR appealing to everyone. But firms keep trying — and they’re starting to make a better case as prices continue to drop. Microsoft on Tuesday showed off a slew of new high-end virtual reality headsets for Windows 10 PCs from a number of partners to show off the breadth of its ecosystem, including a new $500 set from Samsung.

I had around 10 minutes to try out Samsung’s HMD Odyssey which works on Windows 10 and is set to hit store shelves on Nov. 6.And it’s pretty good. The graphics were immersive enough to activate my fear of heights in a demo set high in the mountains. The headset also has a design that curves snugly around the face. That makes the immersion feel pretty complete, even if the graphics aren’t quite as striking as what you’d see on a high-priced headset hooked up to an equally pricey gaming computer

Having tried out a few versions of virtual reality headsets over the past several years, I was surprised by how comfortable this one was. It weighs about a pound and a half — on the heavy side for a headset, but the weight is distributed well.

Above all, the price of the HMD Odyssey is notable, as it’s in line with the fast-descending price of virtual reality headsets. Both computer-based virtual reality headset makers, Oculus and HTC, slashed their prices this summer to $500 and $600 respectively — down from their original price tags of $700 and $800. Other previously announced sets from HP, Dell, Acer and Asus are launching for Windows 10 on Oct. 17, and their prices go as low as $350 or so.

Those still aren’t quite impulse-level prices — at least for me. But at least the price of good VR is down significantly from when the hype began.

Which is to say: This may be the beginning of the beginning of VR for the average person. Microsoft showed off some appealing applications, such as being able to watch video on the virtual equivalent of a 300-inch television or being able to easily teleconference. Outside of entertainment, the promise becomes murkier. The idea of editing a spreadsheet or writing an article using those VR controllers makes me queasier than any VR-related motion sickness.

 

© 2017, Paul Umoh. All rights reserved.

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Net ‘not ready’ for vital security update

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A plan to update the security around some of the net’s core address books has been delayed.

Net administrative body Icann put its plans on hold after it emerged that some ISPs and large firms were not ready to make the change.

It feared that tens of millions would lose net access if the change went ahead as planned on 11 October.

Icann said it was working with ISPs to update software and ensure everyone is ready to switch next year.

“It would be irresponsible to proceed with the roll [out] after we have identified these new issues that could adversely affect its success and could adversely affect the ability of a significant number of end users,” said Goran Marby, head of Icann.

Trusted information

Since early 2017, Icann (The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) has been preparing to update the cryptographic keys used to ensure that information about web domain names can be trusted.

The Domain Name System Icann oversees can be thought of as the net’s address books and they help to turn the written names for websites that humans use into the numeric equivalents that computers prefer.

Many organisations have turned to a secure version of DNS, known as DNS SEC, because it helps them avoid many attacks cyber-thieves use to hijack traffic to popular sites. About 750 million people browse the web using information provided by DNS SEC servers.

Icann has been distributing new keys to DNS SEC users for months. It planned for all of them to start using the new keys on 11 October.

But an investigation by the net admin body found that many organisations were running versions of DNS SEC that had not updated properly or did not have the new keys in place ready to use. It said it was not clear why some versions of DNS SEC had not been updated as expected.

Icann has now started contacting ISPs and firms that were not ready to ensure their software is updated as expected. No fixed date has yet been given for when the new keys will be used but it said it hoped it would be completed by the end of March 2018.

© 2017, Sunday Emmanuel. All rights reserved.

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