Xbox 360 dashboard update beta in October

Microsoft is getting ready to launch a major update for its Xbox 360 dashboard later this fall, with beta testing to roll out in October. The revamped interface will mean easier, faster navigation, and integration of more Kinect voice commands to search for movies, music, games, and more.

VentureBeat got an early preview and had generally positive things to say: “Overall, it’s a big improvement on the user interface.” The upgrade is all about making the process of accessing content much faster and making content more discoverable. This is especially important because of the growing amount of content on the Xbox 360, which has already gone way beyond just games.

The interface redesign looks like a step towards merging Xbox LIVE with Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8. The new dashboard interface uses large tiles that are reminiscent of the Windows Phone 7 Live Tiles and the scrolling is sideways rather than up and down, similar to what we’ve seen with the Windows 8 tablet UI.

The update also brings more Kinect integration for improved speech and gesture commands, a new Beacon feature for non-expiring game invitations to friends, a more integrated and less restricted Microsoft Bing search, and YouTube support.

Microsoft SkyDrive To Offer Unlimited Photo and Office Storage

Microsoft’s SkyDrive currently offers 25GB of free online storage for all those who want to place data in the cloud and be able to access it from anywhere. It looks like Redmond is planning on offering unlimited storage for pictures and documents on the SkyDrive.

According to LiveSide, Microsoft’s SkyDrive will offer unlimited storage space for all Office documents, unlimited storage space for all photos, and 25 GB of free storage for everything else. There are no other details regarding an actual release or roll-out date but since Microsoft is preparing to launch Mango (and rumors of a SkyDrive app coming too), our guess is that it will be sooner than we imagine. How’s that for automatic uploading of unlimited pictures?

Oculus Rift Will Be a “No-Motion-Sickness Experience,” and 4K Display in the Works, CEO Says

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Oculus VR CEO Brendan Iribe pledged today that the company’s upcoming virtual-gaming headset, the Oculus Rift, will not cause people to get motion-sick when it launches.

And that still-unannounced consumer launch date definitely won’t be in 2013, Iribe noted.

Iribe, who appeared at D: Dive Into Media in February, discussed “The Future of the Rift” at the Gaming Insiders Summit today in San Francisco. He said the combination of improving screen quality and decreasing latency between motion in the game and virtual-reality vision will make the new class of games – or at least the ones not designed to cause motion sickness – nausea-free.

“It is going to work,” Iribe said. “It’s gonna work for everybody.”

The CEO used his own experience to back up the claim: His own company’s previous hardware made him sick within two minutes, every time he tried it in the past. But with the latest internal build of the Oculus Rift, Iribe said he played for 45 minutes straight with no issues.

Iribe also dropped two new notes about the Rift’s use cases: The headset will eventually have a 4K display, and it might work with big gaming consoles, as well as with PCs and mobile devices.

“You can’t imagine what it’s going to look like when it’s 4K,” he said. “It’s not now, but it’s coming.”

As for consoles, Iribe talked up the Rift’s ability to project 2-D content on an IMAX-like field of view. Curiously, the way he chose to describe that 2-D-within-3-D experience was, “You can play Playstation 4 or Xbox One on this IMAX screen at home.”

Now, that’s far off from an official announcement, but, as founder Palmer Luckey told me back in May:

There’s no technical reason that the Rift can’t work on consoles. It has standard input/outputs, it wouldn’t be a lot of work. It’s just a matter of console manufacturers deciding to license it as a peripheral. They’re the gatekeepers.

Microsoft Will Refund Some Xbox Owners’ Xbox Live Gold Fees

Xbox One Media Apps

If you have an Xbox Live Gold subscription only to access media apps such as Netflix and Hulu, Microsoft’s recent decision to remove the digital requirement may have left you feeling short-changed. After all, many consumers buy an upfront 12-month subscription to get a discount on the standard monthly fee. To make amends, Microsoft is promising to refund Xbox Live Gold subscribers who will no longer need their membership from June, when the changes come into effect. Payments will be made on a pro-rata basis, calculated from the day of cancellation to when their membership would have normally ended. “Cancellation and pro-rata refund requests must be made by August 31, 2014 and require six to eight weeks for processing,” the company said.

Read the full story at The Next Web.

Microsoft’s Sculpt Keyboard Makes Ergonomic Desktops Cool

Our keyboards are killing us.

Okay, not really. But if you sit and type at a desk for hours, you might very well feel aches and pains at the end of a long workday.

A recent survey conducted by Microsoft showed that more than 85 percent of workers complain of discomfort at work. The top three reasons cited for this discomfort? Sitting at a desk all day, staring at a computer screen and typing. Over time, these unhealthy repetitive motions can lead to more serious issues.

With this in mind, Microsoft has just released its newest ergonomic keyboard and mouse set, called the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop. Microsoft has been making a line of ergonomic products for nearly 20 years; its “Natural” keyboard is considered by many to be the leading ergonomic keyboard.

[ See post to watch video ]

At $130, the Sculpt keyboard and mouse bundle is slightly pricier than the previous set, the Natural Ergonomic Desktop 7000, but the Sculpt has a brand-new look that might make it worth the upgrade for ergonomics fans.

Separately, the Sculpt keyboard will sell for $80, and the mouse will sell for $60. The keyboard uses two AAA batteries, while the mouse takes two AAs. They connect wirelessly to your computer or laptop via a tiny transceiver plugged into the USB port of your computer.

The Sculpt's project code name was

The Sculpt’s project code name was “manta ray,” due to its likeness to the flattened fish

The set is optimized for PCs running Windows, but also works with Mac computers. I’ve been using the plastic Sculpt keyboard and mouse for the past week and a half, connecting both devices to my 15-inch Mac laptop.

It should be noted that my current desk area at home is, quite possibly, the least ergonomic setup ever. Most days I’m hunched over a laptop on a small desk while seated in a sagging, fold-up director’s chair. (“Oh no, not one of those!” an ergonomics expert said when I consulted him for this column.)

Such is life in a small New York City apartment.

In researching other ergonomic keyboards, I found surprisingly few keyboards that, like the Sculpt, can claim to be both ergonomic and stylish while not breaking the bank. Logitech has offered some popular ergonomic keyboards in the past, but hasn’t introduced a new one in a while. A company called Truly Ergonomic makes a keyboard of the same name – but it costs almost $250 dollars. The Kinesis Advantage keyboard costs $299.

The Sculpt has flat, Chiclet-style keys.

The Sculpt has flat, Chiclet-style keys.

Kinesis does have a new ergonomic keyboard called the Freestyle2 that comes close to the same price point as the Sculpt – $109 for the basic model and $129 for a slightly different configuration – and comes in both Mac and PC models.

Like the Sculpt, it has a split design (split keyboards like this are supposed to help keep your hands aligned with your shoulders and elbows, for a more natural typing position). The bulkier Kinesis keyboard actually has two separate “wings,” one for each hand, whereas the Sculpt has a split down the middle but it’s still all one piece.

The split in the Sculpt comes down to the space bar. Below that, there’s a soft cushion that acts as a palm rest. It’s wider than most standard keyboards, but not as clunky or utilitarian-feeling as some other specialty keyboards.

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Instead, it’s thin and light, with chiclet-style keys and a nice, mellow curve to it, rising up toward the split in the middle and allowing for a more natural position of the hands. Microsoft’s pre-release, internal name for this new keyboard was manta ray, and in looking at it, you can easily see why.

If the keyboard was code-named “manta ray,” the round, bulbous, right-handed Sculpt mouse might have very well been nicknamed “fat hamster,” because that’s what it looks like. A round mouse, Microsoft says, is more comfortable because your hand can rest gently on top of it, taking the strain off your wrist. (If your palm is resting behind the mouse, with your wrist bent back and your fingers curling over the top of the mouse, you’re doing it wrong, experts say.)

As fat as the mouse seemed to me at first, I liked using it. My hands and wrists felt a heck of a lot better than they normally do fighting for space on my laptop keyboard and trackpad. The mouse also has a button that takes you to the Windows 8 Start menu with one tap, provided you’re using a machine that’s running that operating system.

The Sculpt mouse has a designated Windows 8 button, for quick access to the OS's start menu.

The Sculpt mouse has a designated Windows 8 button, for quick access to the OS’s start menu.

And the keyboard comes with a separate, unattached number pad to give the other keys the full real estate of the keyboard (there’s also a number row at the top of the keyboard, per usual). I barely used the pad, but having a separate num-pad leaves more space for the rest of the keys. It can also be a handy tool for business users, accountants and other people who regularly crunch numbers.

My one gripe about the Sculpt is that there are no lights – anywhere. The keys aren’t backlit, and there are no indicator lights, such as a caps-lock light, a wireless-connectivity signal, or a battery gauge. In keeping with my trend of working in a less-than-comfortable environment, I often write late at night, in a dimly lit space, and have come to rather like backlit keys. (For what it’s worth, the new Kinesis model has indicator lights, as well as a couple additional USB ports thrown into the keyboard.)

The Sculpt keyboard comes with a separate number pad.

The Sculpt keyboard comes with a separate number pad.

Still, by the end of the week I was wondering where the Microsoft Sculpt keyboard had been all my computing life. Not only did I feel slightly less strained in my wrist and shoulders, but the keyboard, frankly, wasn’t ugly. It’s not the kind of keyboard you’d be ashamed to pair up with your new Ultrabook, your sleek MacBook Air or your high-tech, multiscreen desktop computer system.

So, if you’re in the market for a new ergonomic keyboard, I can recommend the Sculpt as a solid option.

Now, I just need to address that back-destroying director’s chair.

Titanfall’s Launch on Xbox One Marred by Xbox Live Outage

Titanfall

Now is the absolute worst time for Xbox Live to be down. Tuesday marked the debut of Titanfall, the game that could make or break the Xbox One game console. It’s a masterpiece of mechanical manslaughter, and Microsoft pulled out all the stops for its release, delivering new system updates, new peripherals and even a “fix” for the Xbox One game controller ahead of its launch on Tuesday. But now, as prospective US players return home from work to play the Xbox One’s killer app, many are finding themselves unable to sign into their consoles and actually play the game. With some games, that might not be a gigantic problem. You could simply play a single-player mode. But Titanfall is a multiplayer-only game that’s joined at the hip to Xbox Live, dependant on the service for everything from dedicated servers to AI calculations. You can’t even play the tutorial without a connection.

A later update said the situation was fixed: “The official Xbox Support Twitter account claims that Xbox Live is “good to go,” though the status page still lists service as “limited.”

Read the full story at The Verge.

Ballmer Admits What We All Knew: Microsoft Built Far Too Many Surfaces

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At an internal meeting, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer admitted that the company overproduced the Surface RT tablet, leading to its recent $150 per unit price cut. As quoted by The Verge’s Tom Warren, Ballmer plainly explained that the company “built a few more devices than [it] could sell.”

But we already knew that.

In its most recent quarterly earnings release, Microsoft took a $900 million charge relating to the Surface RT tablet line, essentially admitting that the inventory that it has on hand was not worth its previous internal valuation; you can’t cut the market price of a product that you have in a warehouse and not lower its value on your books. The write down cost Microsoft $0.07 per share. It missed expectations for the quarter.

Microsoft has been on a mission to clear Surface RT inventory for some time. As I wrote earlier this year, through a combination of giveaways and discounts, Microsoft was moving to liquidate what appeared to be mountainous superfluous unit volume of its ARM-based Windows tablet hybrid.

At that time, Microsoft released a bland statement, saying that the offers and handouts were in “response” to the “positive reaction” Surface had enjoyed since launch. That felt a bit backwards: If response had been so strong, why give away a single device or discount? Wouldn’t organic demand be sufficient? Well, as it turns out, reaction hasn’t been overly positive, so the entire argument was logically moot.

Ballmer said something else during the meeting that is a non-surprise: Microsoft is not selling as many Windows devices as it would like. We knew that, too. The figures released quarterly that describe the PC market are brutal – and dropping. Even Apple is suffering from declining Mac sales in the face of nearly insurmountable headwinds that it helped to create with its leadership of post-PC product categories.

Next-generation Surface devices are being designed and tested. I suspect that Microsoft learned its lesson regarding production volume: Prove product-market fit first, and then kick the afterburners.

Top Image Credit: BUILDWindows

Microsoft to release OneNote for Mac this month for free

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OneNote, Microsoft’s note-taking app, is coming to the Mac this month. The app will be free to better compete with Evernote, a similar note-taking service with presence across all platforms.

While OneNote for Windows is paid, OneNote for Mac will be a free app, and Microsoft will soon make the Windows version free as well. Microsoft already has iOS and Android versions of OneNote, and the app coming to the Mac will make it a worthy cross-platform alternative to Evernote, especially for users with iOS devices and Macs.

Microsoft is also working on adding features to OneNote, as reported by The Verge:

A new web clipper feature is coming to OneNote soon that will allow users to clip parts of webpages directly into a OneNote. We’re told that Microsoft is creating browser extensions to allow clipping directly from the web browsers like Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Firefox. The feature is very similar to Evernote’s own web clipper, and we understand Microsoft will also allow OneNote users to email notes to its service to be included in a notebook.

Microsoft will also release an updated version of Office for Mac this year, along with an iPad compatible Office iOS app.

Do you use OneNote on your iOS device? Let us know what you think about it in the comments.

Microsoft releases IE11 Developer Preview for Windows 7 with updated F12 tools and Modern.IE site

92142700 520x245 Microsoft releases IE11 Developer Preview for Windows 7 with updated F12 tools and Modern.IE site

Microsoft today released its developer preview version of Internet Explorer 11 (IE11) for those devices running its Windows 7 operating system. In doing so, the company seeks to show developers that apps produced for its latest browser will work across many different devices while also showing that its browser is very scalable.

While Microsoft touts IE11 s ability to offer improved browser performance such as faster page load times and new standards support for websites, this release also include a completely revamped F12 developer tools.

Opening IE11 to more people

IE11 first hit the scene at a reveal during the company’s Build conference in San Francisco. Until today, it was only available with Windows 8.1 – and only to those users who feel the risk to upgrade is worth checking out the upgraded OS. The latest version of Microsoft’s browser is billed as a platform to help create “the best experience on the Web” and the company states that browsers are no longer a simple commodity – rather, they’re key platform differentiators.

The IE11 developer preview for Windows 7 is the first time Microsoft is opening up the browser to a large audience, hopefully recognizing that there are many consumers that don’t have Windows 8 installed. Those that install IE11 will receive all of the performance, security, and “under-the-hood” changes highlighted at Build.

Microsoft tells us how great IE11 is

We’ll save you the promotional information about how good Microsoft thinks IE11 is, but in short, the company touts that the browser is the first one to integrate the W3C Resource Priorities standard, which helps to determine what should be loaded first, thereby reducing load times.

Additionally, it supports HTML5 link prefetching and pre-syncing, processes that provide a measure of predictability the browser can use to anticipate where the user wants to go next.

With this release, in order to show how powerful and adaptable IE11 is, Microsoft has revamped its in-browser developer suite of tools. Available since IE8, the F12 toolset gives developers the ability to diagnose and optimize their apps quickly and efficiently. With today’s preview version, Microsoft has added three new tools to help streamline project build times and increase its efficiencies:

IE11 Dev Preview F12 Tools 730x548 Microsoft releases IE11 Developer Preview for Windows 7 with updated F12 tools and Modern.IE site

  • User interface responsiveness and memory profiling: Developers can now look at a website and understand where pain points are in the UI, including if there’s a lag in responsiveness. It can detect where the issue is occurring and give the area to help developers make the necessary adjustments.
  • Live DOM Explorer and CSS inspection tools: A feature that lets developers iteratively understand how IE is laying out and rendering web apps.
  • Emulation tool: F12 now gives developers the ability to look at their site/app as it would appear on a variety of screen sizes, platforms, and devices – all without needing to leave the browser.

Updates to Modern.IE

On top of the the availability of IE11 s developer preview, Microsoft is updating its Modern.IE website, the suite of free tools developers can use to help them spend “more time innovating and less time testing.” These tools are a tad bit different than what developers would receive with F12.

modern.IE Updates 730x507 Microsoft releases IE11 Developer Preview for Windows 7 with updated F12 tools and Modern.IE site

Prior to today, Modern.IE offered three tools to help developers, including a ‘wizard’ to scan sites for problematic coding practices, three months of free virtual testing through BrowserStack, and an editorialized selection of best practices.

Today, the site is receiving several enhancements, including a 25 percent discount on the purchase of Parallels Desktop 8 virtualization for Mac software. The site’s virtual machine offering now includes IE11 testing on Windows 8.1 and Windows 7 and the screenshot tool has moved to be open source – its code can be downloaded off of GitHub today.

Microsoft IE11 developer preview for Windows 7

Photo credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images