Read An eBook Day

Read an ebook dayJust in case you were going to miss it, Thursday is “Read an a eBook Day“, a celebration of modern storytelling. Surprisingly, it’s not sponsored by Amazon on behalf of the Kindle but rather OverDrive whose apps let you borrow library books for free. Yes, for free.

It’s probably one of the best keep secrets in the whole tablet and ereader business. Contrary to what Amazon would  have you believe, you don’t have to buy ebooks from them as there are plenty of up-to-date novels available from your local library. The downside is that transferring books isn’t that slick and you need an ereader that’s not tied in to the Amazon ecosystem. I have a Nook, but ereaders from Sony and Kobo are supported as well, and you need to load the books via a PC rather than downloading across the Net.

If you have tablet, it’s much easier as the OverDrive app is available for iOS, Android, Kindle and Windows Phone, as well as for Windows and Mac desktop platforms. Check the appropriate app store or else try OverDrive‘s web site. Once you have the app, all that’s needed is a membership of a library and you can download directly from your library to your tablet.

Instead of “Read an eBook Day”, Thursday should be “Read a Free eBook from your Local Library Day”.

Will we see a stand-alone Kinect for Xbox One in October?

XBox One Game Console

XBox One Game Console

When the Xbox One debuted in the latter part of last year it came with a Kinect by default. There are many good reasons to have that feature, as well. It brings voice control and facial recognition to the gaming console, not to mention enhanced play on some games.

However, Microsoft relented under the weight of  a ew, but loud, naysayers and released a version of the box that doesn’t include the Kinect. There was a reason — it also saves buyers $100, which isn’t small change when you’re shopping.

Now, for those who chose to spare their wallets and purchase the console without the Kinect, Microsoft may have a solution, just in case you regretted the decision. A stand-alone Xbox One Kinect is rumored to be going up for sale in October of this year. According to CVG the device will be priced at $149, meaning it will set you back a bit more in the long run than if you had just bought the bundle.

The rumor, which is likely a possibility, brings Kinect to those who somehow thought they didn’t need it, only to discover that the device actually makes the console, and the games, more useful.

Panasonic 7″ Windows Toughpad

Panasonic LogoPanasonic’s Toughbooks are legendary for their ruggedness and are used by armed forces world-over. Panasonic have now turned their attention to tablets with a line of Toughpads and on show here is a new 7″ Windows 8.1 tablet. Panasonic’s Toughpad Product Manager Dan Diliberti takes Todd and Don through it.

Running the latest Intel Core i5, the FZ-M1 is currently the only 7″ Windows 8.1 tablet on the market. As you’ll see from the video, there’s a dockable keyboard and there is also a pile of expansion options including desktop dock, bar code scanners and smart card readers.

Devices like the FZ-M1 don’t come cheap, with a base price of US$2099, but if it’s the kind of device you need, it’s worth every penny.

Interview by Don Baine, the Gadget Professor and Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central for the TechPodcast Network.

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HP Goes Large with the Z1 at CES

HP logoHP has announced the second generation of its Z1 high performance all-in-one workstation, with a 27″ ten-point touchscreen running Windows 8. The Z1 G2 is aimed squarely at power users, featuring 4th Generation Intel Xeon and Core processors, and RAID storage options paired with the latest NVIDIA Mobile Quadro GPUs for the best graphics performance. It also comes with Intel Thunderbolt 2 ports.

Since its launch in 2012, the highly acclaimed HP Z1 has opened the eyes and ears of customers hoping to solve business problems no longer being met by current vendors,” said Jim Zafarana, vice president and general manager, Commercial Solutions Business Unit, HP. “Today’s professionals demand high-performance products that are serviceable and easy-to-use, all wrapped in a sleek and elegant design.

HP Z1 G2

The Z1 G2 comes equipped with Thunderbolt 2 connectivity, for data transfer speeds four times that of USB 3.0. That’s nippy. To round out the high spec, the Z1’s audio capabilities aren’t too shabby either with dual-tone, front-facing speakers and DTS Studio Sound Audio. Overall, this is a beast of a machine.

The new HP Z1 G2 workstation is expected to be available in late January, with prices starting at US$1,999.

Kurt DelBene to Manage HealthCare.gov

Microsoft logoIt has been reported, many times, that the HealthCare.gov website has problems. Perhaps a former Microsoft executive can help fix it! The Obama administration has tapped Kurt DelBene to manage HealthCare.gov.

He will serve as an unpaid senior advisor. DelBene will serve in this role starting December 17, 2013, and will continue until the end of June of 2014. There is potential that he could stay on for a longer period of time.

According to the Microsoft website, Kurt DelBene retired from Microsoft effective December 16, 2013. He was president of the Microsoft Office Division. Previous to that, he was the senior vice president for the Microsoft Business Division. He joined Microsoft in 1992.

The Department of Health and Human Services announcement states that Kurt DelBene will be working closely with United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. He will also work with the White House and the teams and senior leadership that is in place at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

Microsoft Loses Top Engineer as they Scramble for CEO Closure

MicrosoftLast week I was at Ford for a press event. I got to talk directly to Ford CEO Alan Mulally (he was interested in my Google Glass). I didn’t ask about the Microsoft offer because that was covered in the press bombardment earlier — which he side-stepped the answer. But now, Microsoft is facing a new issue as a top Microsoft engineer Blaise Agüera y Arcas has announced he is joining Google. Will more follow?

Blaise has been with Microsoft since 2006 when his company (Seadragon) was acquired. Arcas was a lead software architect on Bing Maps photosynth software. In a blog post confirming his departure, Arcas said this was “The hardest decision of my life.”

Writings on the Wall?

Alan-Mulally-FordIf Mulally doesn’t head to Microsoft, the company will be in a very bad spot for the start of 2014. Most other CEO avenues have been closed up – most recently Steve Mollenkopf of Qualcomm as he accepted the CEO role there. With Microsoft being the world’s largest software maker, you don’t want to have an unidentified road map coming into Q1.

Add to that the bad year that Microsoft had. Windows 8.1 was lack-luster, the Surface tablet was not what they expected in sales, and phone sales are not even competing with the iPhone. Even the XBox One is having a hard time catching up to PS4 sales.

So with all this data, how will other employees react? Will we start to see a ship jump as the month goes on?

If Microsoft can’t get a CEO that can handle the job by January, we could start seeing employees sprucing up their resumes. Other names in the CEO hunt are former Skype CEO Tony Bates and former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop.

Some have even suggested Bill Gates come back and help in these questionable times. If the other avenues turn to be dead ends, would Gates come back?

In the meantime, reports of Ford hosting their own analyst meeting to figure out the direction if Mulally steps down. There are rumors he could step down as Ford CEO even if he doesn’t take the role at Microsoft. CFO Bob Shanks will address those issues next week.

Third of Desktops Still On Windows XP

Microsoft Windows LogoThe team at Net Market Share have released their statistics for November and shockingly, over 30% of desktop Internet users are still using Windows XP. The 12-year old OS will lose all support from Microsoft in four month’s time, after which XP machines will not receive any further security updates and will become vulnerable to newly discovered exploits. XP’s market share is dropping, albeit slowly, with about 8% loss in the last year, but it’s clear that there is still going to be a large XP presence on the Internet come April 2014.

Windows 7 desktops make up the bulk of browsers with over 46% and the total for Windows 8.x clocks in at a little under 10%. Windows 8.1 only accounted for 2.6% which isn’t entirely unsurprising given that it was only released in mid-October. Here’s the top 5 desktop OS, courtesy of Net Market Share.

  1. Windows 7: 46.64%
  2. Windows XP: 31.22%
  3. Windows 8: 6.66%
  4. Windows Vista: 3.57%
  5. Windows 8.1: 2.64%

On the tablet and smartphone front, iOS and Android are pretty much the only shows in town, with 55% and 34% respectively. All the other OSes scored less then 5%, with Symbian still showing 3%. Windows Phone is at 0.67% but it is up from 0.50% in October. Blackberry continues to fall, down to 1.65% from 2.55% the previous month.

Here’s the top 5 mobile OS.

  1. iOS: 55.17%
  2. Android: 33.89%
  3. Java ME: 4.49%
  4. Symbian: 3.12%
  5. BlackBerry: 1.65%

If I read the accompanying information, these figures are gathered from approx 160 million visitors per month from Net Market Share’s network of clients and customers so it should be a fair reflection of the real world. There’s more detail here.

Logitech m560 Wireless Mouse Review

Logitech LogoThis is the era of the touch user interface with smartphones and tablets present in large percentages of households in the US and Europe. Microsoft has taken touch to the heart of Windows 8 which is great if the device has a touch screen but an exercise in frustration if it doesn’t. However, all is not lost, as a mouse such as the Logitech m560 can take away a good chunk of the Windows 8 pain. Hurrah!

The Logitech m560 Wireless Mouse is a full size mouse primarily aimed at desktop users, though it will work with any USB-equipped computer, whether desktop, laptop or tablet. The m560 is sold in two versions, one black and one white, and obviously the one reviewed here is the white one. The mouse is packaged in an easy-to-open blister pack and inside there’s a mouse, nano receiver, AA battery and instructions, which are worth a quick glance to understand the considerable capabilities of the m560.

Logitech m560 Mouse Blister Pack

Once freed from the packaging, the nano transceiver must be slotted into an empty USB port. Once that’s done and the mouse has been turned on via the underside button, the m560 is good to go. The battery is even pre-installed. As usual with the Logitech mice, the nano receiver can be stored in the battery compartment for safe-keeping.

Logitech m560 mouse

The Logitech m560 is a 5 button mouse with a scroll wheel. There are the standard two buttons on the unbroken top surface, a third button behind the click wheel and the two buttons the left side of the body. The scroll wheel can switch between a click mode and and a free-wheeling mode, which allows super fast scrolling. The overall shape of the mouse is symmetric so will suit both left and right handed users, though the extra two side buttons are best used by the thumb on the right hand.

The m560 is designed to overcome the main irritations of using Windows 8 on a non-touch device. Pressing the middle button behind the scroll wheel initiates a swipe in, so pressing the button then moving the mouse to the right will bring up the Charms bar. The same button and moving to the left will bring up the Apps bar. The button towards the front toggles between the new Windows 8 Start menu and the traditional view. The other button clears the current windows away and shows the desktop. When the Windows 8 Start menu is shown, the scroll wheel shifts the menu left and right. All of these actions make Windows 8 easier to use.

The m560 works well too with Windows 7 and Vista, though clearly the actions will be slightly different.

How does it feel? I really liked the Logitech m560. The white surface has a matte, almost egg-shell finish to it and I loved the way it fitted in my hand. The free-wheel mode for the scroll wheel was a revelation as I had never previously used a mouse with this feature and, boy, you can whizz through long documents. The additional buttons make Windows 8 a pleasure to use on a non-touch device so the m560 is highly recommended under these circumstances. Overall, if we did product ratings on GNC, I’d give it 5 stars.

The Logitech m560 wireless mouse is available from all good retailers with a list price of GB £34.99 or US $39.99.

Thanks to Logitech for the loan of the review device.

A Microsoft Future

Microsoft Windows 8Last week’s “Microsoft Fantasy” here on GNC suggested that Microsoft was in danger of fading into irrelevance; that it should retreat to servers and gaming; that it should re-orient its mobile strategy around Android. I suggest that Microsoft is now very well positioned to offer far more than its competitors. And to negate any ad hominem attacks, I’m no Microsoft fanboy – I’ve a Linux desktop, Android tablet, Nexus smartphone and a Chromebook – but I can see a better strategy in Microsoft than defeat and retreat.

There are three players in the OS space – Microsoft with Windows, Google with Android and Apple with iOS. Each of these pairings has strengths and weaknesses. Microsoft is strong in servers, PCs and gaming. Google is good in mobile. Apple’s strength lies in PCs, entertainment and mobile. Obviously there are other players, such as Sony who are strong in gaming, but they can be discounted without OS aspirations.

Microsoft is a large organisation. It can be slow to respond and doesn’t always identify and embrace future technologies as fast as it should. The internet and Internet Explorer is a pretty good example. Other times, it moves into new markets, starting slowly and building up: look at the Xbox – it’s the market-leader. Certainly Microsoft has never been strong in the smartphone market being overshadowed previously by Blackberry and Palm, but it has a track record of trying tablet-type devices. Anyone remember Windows XP Tablet Edition? No, you probably don’t, but it existed.

But let’s think about how Microsoft’s competitors can realistically move in on their turf. For all the rise of BYOD, most large organisations use Windows on the desktop, Exchange for email, Ms Server on the tin. Google is trying hard to offer software as service in the cloud but there’s still lots of nervousness about the cloud and the leaks about US snooping aren’t going to help. Apple isn’t big in business by any stretch of the imagination and this is unlikely change. Both Apple and Google are into entertainment but neither have expressed much interest in hardcore gaming. It’s certainly not impossible for a hot Android or iOS console to come out but for now I think we can discount that.

Accepting then that Microsoft is reasonably unassailable (without being complacent) in gaming or business, let’s look at mobile and tablets in particular. Both Apple’s iPad and Android-based tablets are great devices, but even the most ardent fan will admit that tablets are generally best for consumption rather than production – it’s watching videos, surfing the web, listening to music. For creation, most people return to the keyboard and mouse on a desktop or laptop. Looking at business, while opportunities exist for tablets in business without a doubt, the bread and butter is still going to orient around Word and Excel.

The trend to mobile has been going on for years: from the desktop to the laptop to the tablet. But it’s extension to new devices, not extinction of the old. When laptops came out, did all the desktops go away? No. And it will be no different with tablets. We can see the rebalancing in the slow down of PC sales but this is entirely to be expected.

And this is Microsoft’s killer advantage – a potentially seamless suite of devices and form-factors from servers, through desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones. Business in particular want to use what they have already invested in – ActiveDirectory, Group Policies, Sharepoint. Microsoft and its partners are responding to this with devices that offer both a touch interface via the Modern UI and a traditional desktop for legacy applications where a keyboard and mouse is needed. The bottom line is that there’s no longer any need to shoehorn in Apple or Android onto the infrastructure at extra cost.

But what about the consumers? They’re not businesses, they’ve no investment, they’re not going to be swayed by ActiveDirectory concerns. They want apps! Absolutely, but let’s be honest about apps – most key apps and popular games are available across all platforms, and the relative low cost of apps means that it is easier to jump ship to a different OS.  Windows 8 isn’t perfect, but I would lay good money that if a 7″ Windows-based tablet was available for Nexus 7 money, they’d sell shed-loads. A similar argument follows for smartphones and Windows Phone has actually been doing quite well recently with solid gains according a recent IDC survey.

Microsoft is ahead of the game in recognising that the future is not a tablet future, but a touch future, and building touch into the core of Windows is a winner. For me, all Microsoft needs to do it get the prices down, tweak the usability of Windows 8 and continue with the “Windows Everywhere” advertising. It’s a Microsoft future.

Dig out your wallet — white Xbox One on Ebay

In ten days Microsoft will launch the next generation game console, the Xbox One. The $500 device is designed to take over the living room, bringing just as many entertainment options as it does games. If you have pre-ordered one, or plan to grab one later, then you can expect it to come in black.

However, if you have some spare money sitting around, and wish to support a good cause, then you can grab an ultra-rare white build of the console.

Xbox Live chief Larry Hryb, AKA Major Nelson, has one up for auction and the money goes to benefit Wounded Warrior Project. “The winning bid will not only receive the extremely limited edition white Xbox One (console, Kinect and controller) but will also receive one year of Xbox Live, and a copy of each of our first party launch titles including Forza Motorsport 5, Ryse: Son of Rome, Dead Rising 3, Killer Instinct and Crimson Dragon”.

As of this writing, the bid stands at $11,300, but at least the shipping is free. Of course, the money also goes to a good cause, so that is the real benefit in spending the the rather hefty fee.

white xbox one