Author: simonmackay

Spotify now ported for the Windows 10 Store

Articles

Spotify Windows 10 Store port

Spotify – now fully part of Windows 10

Spotify is now available in the Windows Store – The Verge

From the horse’s mouth

Spotify

Press Release

Microsoft

Windows Blog post

Get Spotify from Microsoft Store for your Windows 10 computer

My Comments

One of the first Windows apps to be ported to the Windows 10 Store as a “Universal Windows Platform” app is Spotify. This port, facilitated with the Centennial “desktop-to-UWP” toolkit, is primarily to have it available for computers running the Windows 10 S variant of the Windows 10 operating system, which can’t accept anything other than what is available at the Windows Store.

Another feature that will also be par for the course will be that the Spotify Windows 10 client will be updated through Windows Store rather than always polling Spotify’s servers for software updates. But further versions of this client could exploit Windows 10’s features like using a Live Tile or showing notifications in the Action Center. As well, when Microsoft opens up more relevant API hooks in subsequent major Windows 10 updates that opens up newer functionality, it will be easier for the Spotify developers to take advantage of it.

I installed the port on my desktop computer which is running Windows 10 and found that this was a simplified installation routine which carried my Spotify account and other details across. It was really a simplified installation process for a crossgrade from the standalone package that Spotify offered.

Some reviewers had criticised some other Windows Store ports of existing Windows programs due to them enforcing the installation of the new software alongside the extant software or requiring the user to re-establish themselves with the services the software was a part of. But they appreciated the “one-touch” deployment process when drawing it down from the Windows Store whether this was a new installation or to upgrade the existing client.

What is being called out by Spotify is how a software developer can make a program available via the Microsoft Store for Windows 10 computers but cater to those users who have an existing desktop version of the program but want to take advantage of the new port.

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Product Review–Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 laptop

Introduction

I am reviewing Dell’s attempt to achieve a popularly-priced large 2-in-1 laptop that can appeal to all users. There is the Del Inspiron 13 5000 variant of this 2-in-1 which omits the USB-C and Intel RealSense camera and is sold for $200 cheaper normally. It is a system that reminds me of the first 13″ Dell Inspiron laptop that I had reviewed where there was a sense of value for money along with the durability in that product.

The model I am reviewing is equipped with the Intel 6th Generation Core processor which is the previous generation CPU. You may be coming across these computers through the sales and may want to see this as a chance to assess the bargain that is being offered. But I have quoted prices for the newer models that have been refreshed with the 7th generation (Kaby Lake) hardware.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop at Rydges Melbourne hotel

Price
– this configuration
Current generation:
AUD$1699 (Intel i5)
AUD$1899 (Intel i7)
Market Positioning Mainstream consumer laptop
Form Factor Convertible laptop
Processor Previous Generation
Intel Core i7-6500U
Current Generation
similar option:
Intel Core i7-7500U
cheaper option
Intel Core i5-7200U
RAM 8 GB
better option:
12 Gb
Secondary storage Previous Generation
256 GB SSD
similar option:
256 Gb SSD
better option:
512 Gb SSD
SDXC card reader
Display Subsystem Intel HD Graphics 620
Screen 13” widescreen touch display (Full HD) LED backlit LCD
Audio Subsystem Realtek HD Audio
Audio Improvements MaxxAudio
Network Wi-Fi 802.11ac dual band
Ethernet
Bluetooth 4.1
Modems
Connectivity USB and Thunderbolt 3 1 x USB-C with Power Delivery
1 x USB 3.0 with Sleep and Charge
1 x USB 2.0
Video DisplayPort via USB-C
HDMI 1.4
Audio 3.5mm input-output jack
Authentication and Security RealSense camera
Operating System in supplied configuration Windows 10 Home

The computer itself

Aesthetics and Build Quality

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop in presentation-viewer mode at Rydges Hotel MelbourneI have found that the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 convertible laptop is well built and uses an aluminium keyboard surround and palmrest that feels cool to the touch.

It has the similar weight to the typical recent-issue 13” mainstream laptop computer thus not being too heavy to carry around. To convert it between a tablet or laptop setup, I have found that it requires the right amount of effort for this process and it works smoothly. The experience would be similar to opening or closing most of the conventional laptops.

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop in tablet modeAn issue that I keep an eye out for with laptops is how they keep their cool. Here, the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 uses vents located near the hinges to disperse waste heat. Here, it also allows the computer to be comfortable to use in all modes. As well, I had not noticed that there was excessive overheating even with playing video content through the computer.

User Interface

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop in tent modeThe Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1’s keyboard is easy to work with even if you are touch-typing. This illuminated keyboard has the right spacing but also has just enough tactile feedback so you can type quickly. But some users may find that they have to have the illuminated keyboard on to make it easy to see the letters.

The multi-touch trackpad works as expected and isn’t prone to being hair-trigger. Let’s not forget that the touchscreen works properly although it is glossy like on other consumer laptops.

Audio / Video

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop - Left-hand side - Power, USB-C, HDMI video, USB 3.0, 3.5mm audio jack

Left-hand side – Power, USB-C, HDMI video, USB 3.0, 3.5mm audio jack

The Intel integrated video system even could handle video playback from something like a Facebook home video without underperforming. This was even with the Dell 2-in-1 laptop running on its own batteries and sipping the current.

Although this laptop implements the Waves MaxxAudio sound tuning, the sound quality is very typical of most computers of its size. Here, it would be good enough for personal content viewing but don’t expect much especially if you want good-quality music playback whereupon I would prefer to use it with external sound systems.

Connectivity, Storage And Expansion

Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 laptop - Right-hand side - USB 2.0, SD card reader

Right-hand side – USB 2.0, SD card reader

The complement of connections on this computer allows for it to be future proof without requiring you to buy extra accessories.

Here, all the variants of the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 have a USB-C socket with Power Delivery both ways, but I would like to see a top-shelf variant of this model offering the Thunderbolt 3 connection rather than the standard USB-C connection. It would then open up the path towards external graphics modules and similar devices as a performance-improvement path. Of course there is the support for connecting monitors using this connection thanks to the DisplayPort alt support the connection has.

This is in addition to a standard HDMI port along with two USB Type-A connections – one being a 3.0 variant for external hard disks and the like and another for larger keyboards and mice. Dell still offers a USB-C expansion module that adds on another HDMI port, a VGA port for that old data projector they continue to use, a Gigabit Ethernet port that can work if your place is wired for Ethernet or with a HomePlug powerline network and a spare USB 3.0 port. This is something I would consider if I was valuing extra connectivity and can be tucked in to your backpack or messenger bag.

The Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1s offer the right mix of RAM and storage even in their baseline variants. This would be 256Gb for SSD storage and 8Gb RAM which means that you aren’t being starved when it comes to performance and data storage. Here, the SSD on the review sample had lived up to its performance expectations.

For those of you who have digital cameras, the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 comes with an SD card reader so you can easily and quickly download your pictures or footage on to the computer’s storage.

Battery Life

In most situations, the battery was able to last a day of regular computing without the need for me to have the power adaptor connected to the computer.

Other Usage Notes

Most people impressed by the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 as being a representative of the convertible 2-in-1 class of computer.  This is although these computers are not often purchased and once someone buys a touchscreen laptop or a 2-in-1, they will miss these features when they go back to a traditional design.

There are some users, typically those who moved to the Apple environment, who expressed worry about the keyboard on these computers ending up being damaged if the computer is used as a tablet or presentation-viewer setup. It typically represents a staid expectation amongst users when it comes to mobile personal computing where they are comfortable with a traditional clamshell laptop and a mobile-platform tablet.

Personally, I found that if I wanted to browse the Web at a table, I could simply have the computer in the “presentation—viewer” mode so that I am not taking up much room on the table.

I showed the Dell Inspiron 13 7000 2-in-1 computer to a representative from InfoXchange who visited the Melbourne Men’s Shed as part of a digital-literacy survey amongst its members. Here, they were impressed by the touchscreen in the context of older computer users and the use of a tablet as a personal computing device for this user class but liked the idea of the detachable form factor for those who have back issues. She  tried the fold-over aspect but may not have noticed it as offering the same advantage. They appreciated the idea of a keyboard so that these users can also do document-creation work but also liked the idea of the tablet or presentation-viewer modes being suitable for Web browsing or video viewing (think Netflix or catch-up TV).

Subsequently I met up with a new friend of mine who is of an older age group and they were impressed with the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1’s form factor including the touchscreen. Here, one of the features that intrigued them was the ability to zoom in to text with their fingers, something that appealed to them as they didn’t have the full vision that we take for granted.

Limitations And Points Of Improvement

One way that Dell could improve on the Inspiron 13 2-in-1 family would be to offer a Thunderbolt 3 connection as an option for the premium variants like the 7000 Series. This is while they use a USB-C with full Power Delivery for the affordable variants like the 5000 Series. It is alongside maintaining the commonly-used connections like the USB 3.0 connections or the HDMI video connection.

But I would still want to see Dell keep the Inspiron 13 2-in-1 family as a value-priced “Yoga-class” convertible computer with the right mix of features that pitches towards what most people want. Here, they need to focus on a well-built affordable machine that can survive a lot of use but can appeal to most people without being the ultra-cool computer that answers Apple’s products.

Conclusion

A well-built 13″ 2-in-1 convertible notebook that represents value for money

Like I have seen with most of the Dell Inspiron laptop computer lineup, I have found that the Dell Inspiron 13 2-in-1 convertible laptops have represented something that offers value for money in its product class.

This is something that is durable but is light enough to carry and is priced in a manner to have you think of it as a main or sole computing device which you can purpose as a large-screen tablet. The RAM and storage capacity offered in the available configurations underscore something that befits this use case whether you choose to run with the package based on the value-priced Intel i5 processor or the one based on the performance Intel i7 variant.

If more of those apps that appear on most iPads could be ported to Windows 10 and made available on the Windows Store, then the 2-in-1s like this Dell could be a viable alternative to the iPad that is kept at home.

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A four-horse race for voice-driven home assistants

Articles

Apple Homepod smart speaker press picture courtesy of Apple Inc.

Apple Homepod smart speaker – a competitor to Amazon, Google and Microsoft

Apple readying Siri-powered home assistant: report | Yaho 7 News

From the horse’s mouth

Apple

Press Release

My Comments

The voice-driven home assistant has approached a point of competition where there are four different actors involved.

This class of computing device is based around a speakerphone-type device that can respond to your voice by answering questions you put to it cause certain actions to occur at your command. It was initially brought on by Amazon with their Echo speaker and Alexa voice assistant, but was subsequently answered by Google with their Home speaker based on their Google Now platform.

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

The Amazon Alexa platform now faces some healthy competition from Apple as well

Very recently Microsoft touted one of these speakers that is based on the Cortana voice-driven personal assistant platform. Not to be outdone, Apple just announced a smart speaker and voice-driven home assistant based on their Siri voice-driven personal assistant.

All of these companies have positioned themselves in a highly-competitive manner by using the same approach to how they present their devices. Here, they allow independent hardware vendors to license these technologies to use in their own “smart-speaker” or similar products. In the case of Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana, these systems can even show information in a visual manner on screen-equipped devices, whether that be in the form of a listing or a graphical “at-a-glance” display.

Harman Invoke Cortana-driven smart speaker press picture courtesy of Harman International

Harman Invoke Cortana-driven smart speaker

Similarly, they have extended their voice-driven assistant platforms by allowing third parties to add “skills” to them whether in the near term or later. These are additional abilities that users can add to their voice-driven assistant to make it perform additional tasks or interface with other devices. It also underscores the activity that these platform vendors are undertaking to integrated their voice-driven home assistant with home-automation and allied devices, allowing for things like dimming the lights or adjusting the heating at your command.

Let’s not forget that Amazon, Microsoft and Apple have over-the-top communications platforms equipped with videocall and messaging abilities that either are or will be integrated to their voice-driven home-assistant platforms. Amazon created their Alexa-based IP-telephony platform from scratch, adding it to the crowded sea of IP-communications platforms so it can tie in with their Alexa home-assistant platform. It could allow for you to ask Alexa, Cortana or Siri to immediately “drop a line” to someone using Alexa Messaging, Skype or iMessage / Facetime respectively. You could even use this to instantiate a videocall between yourself and your correspondent if both of you are using suitable equipment.

What do I see of this? Personally, I would find that hardware manufacturers such as the respected audio-equipment names may offer smart speakers and similar equipment that works across multiple platforms, requiring the user to determine which platform they want to use during setup or at a later time. Similar software developers who write interfaces for online service may be required to write “skills” for each of the platforms.

I also see it as being very similar to 1989 when there were multiple graphic-user-interfaces on the market with each computer platform having its own mouse-driven interface. Hello to “Hey Siri”, “Hi Cortana”, “OK Google” or “Alexa” to dim those lights, close that garage, start Spotify or whatever as you talk to that speaker.

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USB Audio 2.0 now supported in Windows 10 Creators Update

Article

HP Elitebook 2560p playing through Naim DAC-V1 USB DAC

Windows 10 Creators Update now provides native support for USB Audio 2.0 to allow these devices to run at their best out of the box when connected to a Windows PC

Confirmed: Windows 10 now supports USB Audio Class 2.0 | GadgetGuys

My Comments

For those of you who run highly-strung USB audio hardware like pro-quality USB analogue-digital interfaces or those audiophile-grade USB digital-analogue converters, the latest version of Windows 10 offers something for you.

It is to provide native driver support for USB Audio 2.0, the second version of the USB Audio device class that handles sound over the USB bus. These audio devices work independently of the USB physical connection type therefore they could work with a USB 2.0 connection, the higher-speed USB 3.0 connection or the USB-C connection. This version can handle higher-definition master-grade audio beyond the 24-bit 96kHz digital-audio specification. It also can natively handle the DSD files that started off with SACD discs and are another way of distributing high-definition master-grade audio content.

This improvement to the USB Audio standard was supported natively by MacOS and Linux but wasn’t supported by Windows. Instead, people who wanted to get the most out of their USB DAC or USB audio studio hardware had to install a driver file that was supplied by the USB audio device’s manufacture, either through a CD or USB stick supplied with the device or something to download from their Website.

Now if your computer is running Windows 10 Creator’s Update, it will be a simple plug-and-play install process to have Windows Media Player or Tidal coming through that USB DAC. But this is facilitated through the Windows DirectSound or WASAPI software-hardware audio paths.

The drivers that will come with your device may offer a highly-strung experience such as to work via higher-performance audio APIs other than the two previously-mentioned paths. As well, they may offer a control panel that allows you to better manage how the sound is handled.

Similarly, there may be other drivers that map the USB audio device’s control surface to Windows 10 in a manner more consistent with the manufacturer’s functionality expectations for that device. Examples of this may include mixing desks and DJ consoles with media transport buttons.

For manufacturers who design highly-strung USB audio devices, there is less of a requirement to write up and maintain software drivers for these devices. This can same them money and focus their R&D efforts on improved sound quality.

Hooray! Your Windows computer now can work out of the box with that USB-connected premium audio device with the full sound-quality expectations.

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Supporting hubs and repeaters in the Thunderbolt 3 standard

Thunderbolt 3 USB-C port on Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook

The same connector being used for Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C may lead to confusion in more sophisticated setups

Increasingly Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 very-high-speed data connection standard has come on the scene as a product differentiator for computer products.

This standard works over the USB-C physical connection, thus allowing for a logical Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C data transfer setup.

But USB-C, like the preceding USB connection standards allows for a “tree-like” connection from the host computer device. This is facilitated through self-powered or bus-powered hubs which allow multiple device to be effectively connected to the same physical connection on the host computer or previous hub, subject to certain conditions like power budget.

On the other hand, the Thunderbolt connections can only be connected in a “daisy-chain” manner where only one device can be connected to another. This is also limited by the fact that you can only have six devices connected in a Thunderbolt data bus.

A situation that can easily crop up with the Thunderbolt 3 connection is the fact that there could be an expectation to run a connection setup for multiple devices in a “tree-like” approach. This is along with an expectation to have more than six devices on a Thunderbolt 3 data bus. It is aggravated through some of the devices that have their own power supplies being expected to be USB hubs along with these devices being equipped with Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C connections.

The classic example would be a Thunderbolt 3 RAID direct-attached-storage array along with an external GPU module and, perhaps, a Thunderbolt 3 dock (expansion module) as part of a workstation setup.

But there can be the desire to hang off more than six Thunderbolt 3 devices or establish a “tree-like” approach. This can happen where there is a desire to connect multiple storage or interface devices or you are dealing with low-tier Thunderbolt 3 devices that only have the one connection for the host computer.

In the audio recording studio environment, the Thunderbolt 3 connection can appeal with analogue-digital interfaces or digital mixers where there is the desire to connect many microphones, musical instruments and speakers to a digital-audio workstation. This can extend to the video sphere with ultra-high-definition cameras connected to a suitable AV interface for digital video production.

Similarly, Thunderbolt 3 offering support for a virtual “PCI Express” card bus may appeal to computing users running with multiple “card-cage” devices like the external graphics modules. Here, it may be about increased input-output abilities or working with high-performance graphics cards. Such a setup will become relevant with portable, all-in-one and small-form-factor desktop computers which don’t have the necessary support for the traditional interface cards that were the norm for regular computers.

A situation that can easily crop up with these devices is attempts to connect Thunderbolt 3 peripherals to other USB-C connections on upstream peripherals. This can lead to error messages and the whole setup not performing as expected.

What needs to be looked at is an extension to the Thunderbolt 3 specification to cater towards different bus layouts. This is more so to allow a peripheral to effectively reiterate one or more Thunderbolt 3 buses as if it is the equivalent of an Ethernet switch. It can also lead to the possibility of implementing active repeaters for a Thunderbolt 3 connection, something that could appeal to longer connection runs like the obvious stage-based applications.

It could be simply facilitated through a hardware-software device class for this specification that addresses “hub and repeater” behaviour. This can also include the ability for these devices to work as USB-C hubs including support for different power-supply paths and power budgets for the Power Delivery device class.

The same issue also includes a requirement for the host computer to identify where each Thunderbolt 3 peripheral is and map the bandwidth in a similar way to a city’s road system.

But it will be something that Intel will have to approach when they revise Thunderbolt 3.

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Do the large 2-in-1 convertible laptops still earn their keep?

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 courtesy of Lenovo

This style of 13″ or 15″ 2-in-1 convertible notebook is becoming more common in computer manufacturers’ product ranges

Increasingly most computer manufacturers are supplying at least one 2-in-1 convertible laptop that has a screen size of between 13” and 16” in their product lineups.

These work in a similar vein to the Lenovo Yoga range which made this concept more cost-effective. Here, the computer has a hinge that swivels through 360 degrees so that it changes between a laptop and a tablet, with the ability to be angled to be a viewer with the screen on a slant or to be set up in a “tent” mode that looks like an A-frame signhoard.

Some manufacturers like Dell, HP and Lenovo are offering a range of these computers with some models offering the kind of performance and storage expectations akin to most mainstream laptop computers for a price very close to one of these computers. This is while they offer the premium Ultrabook variants like HP’s Spectre X360 along with business-rated variants like HP’s Elitebook X360 that have all the security features desired by enterprise IT.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook - tablet view

A large screen tablet for video viewing or e-book reading

These large convertible laptops have a screen size that appeals to regular laptop use which would underscore a lot of content-creation activity. But a significant number of people will consider them to be too large for use as a tablet, especially if the idea is to use it as something that takes over the iPad’s or Android tablet’s role. This is because these tablets have a screen size of between 10″ and 11″ that that yields a highly-portable device best suited to personal media consumption.

Some people may appreciate the large screen for these computers while used as a tablet compared to the conventional 10”-11” size pitched for tablet devices. For example older people and those who don’t have good eyesight will appreciate the large screen especially when it comes to reading or casual gameplay. It can also appeal to people who find the traditional laptop as their “comfort zone” but want to dabble with the tablet feel with that same screen size.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook - image-viewer view

The viewer position that appeals for watching video content or flicking through photos on the sofa

Similarly, you could easily share the screen between two people.This is augmented by the use of that “presentation viewer” position which has the screen at that comfortable viewing angle while the keyboard serves as a base. In some cases, the larger area allows the weight of the base to be spread more easily. A classic example could be for the two of you to relax on the couch or in bed and watch that online video, or you to read through that PDF recipe file with the computer resting on the kitchen bench.

The large size screen in these tablet-based modes also allows us to see more text-based context without needing to zoom in and out or scroll the text. This can be useful for those of you who are presenting from material like notes stored on one of these computers.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook - as a tent card

The tent view that can also appeal to use on the dining table or kitchen bench

The limitation with these larger convertible 2-in-1s regarding their size is that it may not appeal as something that is light enough to be pocketed away. Here, these computers would end up being transported in the same manner as the traditional laptop.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook at Phamish St Kilda

Yet it still can be a laptop for writing up what you want to write up

Similarly, there hasn’t been much effort taking place to port the mobile-platform games and apps to Windows 10, which just about all of these computers run. Here, a lot of these games that exist on the mobile platforms are optimised to exploit the touchscreen user experience which this class of computer offers as well. There is also the practice amongst a large number of “catch-up TV” and similar video-on-demand providers to expect the user to use the Web browser to visit their Web presence, but Windows 10 native apps written for these services can make for improved performance from these computers along with a sleek user experience.

I still see this class of computer earning their keep as a viable alternative to the traditional clamshell laptop computer and the 10” mobile-platform tablet that is always just used at home. Here, the large 2-in-1 convertible laptop can appeal to a large class of people who use a laptop or iPad just for the typical computing tasks such as video and photo viewing, word processing, Web browsing and online communications but who appreciate the large screen. As for the cost, even if the sticker price seems to be expensive, you are effectively buying two devices in one housing and are likely to end up likely to make heavy use of these computers rather than thinking of dealing with the two separate devices.

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Security flaw found in HP laptop audio driver software–how to fix it

Article

HP Elitebook Folio laptop press picture courtesy of HP

Check that your driver software is up to date on these HP business laptops.

HP issues fix for ‘keylogger’ found on several laptop models | ZDNet

Keylogger Found in Audio Driver of HP Laptops | BleepingComputer

From the horse’s mouth

Hewlett-Packard

Download site – identify your computer’s model number in the form on this site to obtain a list of the relevant software

My Comments and further information

Just lately, a security weakness had been found in the Conexant HD Audio driver software that was delivered to a large number of recently-issued HP business-tier laptop computers. It may also affect some of their consumer-focused laptops that run this driver. Let’s not forget the reality that some of you may have one of the affected HP business laptops as a consumer-tier computer, perhaps due to buying an ex-lease or surplus unit. This weakness affects driver versions 10.0.46 and prior versions.

The problem manifests with the MicTray64 program that comes with this software package. Here, it is a keyboard monitor that listens for particular keystrokes in order to allow the user to control the computer’s integrated microphone. But, thanks to debug code being left in the production release of this software, the software becomes a keylogger, writing keystrokes to a cleartext logfile (MicTray.log) in the Users\Public folder on the computer’s system drive.

But what is a monitor program for those of you who want to know? It is a program that “listens” to activity from or to a peripheral for a particular event then instigates a pre-defined activity when a particular event occurs. In most cases, you see these programs in operation when you use a printer or scanner with your computer and they show up a print-job status message when you print or catch scan jobs you started from your scanner’s control surface.

If you have this version of the Conexant HD Audio driver software on your HP business laptop, you may have to use Task Manager to kill the MicTray64 keyboard-monitor process, as well as removing it from the Scheduled Tasks list. It may also be worth moving the MicTray64.exe file out of the Windows\System32 folder and the MicTray.log file out of the Users\Public folder on the system disk to somewhere else on your computer’s file system and see if the computer is still stable and, if so, delete those files.

An update that rectifies this problem has been made available on the HP.com driver download site but should also be made available through Windows Update. This will be available on Wednesday 10 May 2017 (US Pacific Time) for those machines made since 2016 and on Friday 12 May 2017 (US Pacific Time) for systems made during 2015.

HP may have software installed on these systems to check for newer versions of the software drivers, which may simplify the process of updating your computer’s drivers and firmware.

This is endemic of a situation where driver software and system firmware is rushed out the door without being checked that it is production-ready and good-quality software. This software ends up as part of the distribution software image that comes with newer computer equipment, including appearing on the recovery partition of your computer’s system disk.

A good practice is to regularly check your computer manufacturer’s Website for newer drivers and firmware for your computer at regular intervals and install this software. This practice will allow you to have a computer that runs in a more secure and stable manner, perhaps gaining some extra functionality that answers current requirements along the way.

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Cortana gets skilled up to fight Alexa

Articles

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

The Amazon Alexa platform now faces some healthy competition from Microsoft

Here’s What Cortana Will Do in Devices | Tom’s Guide

HP and Intel are building Cortana-powered devices | Engadget

HP is also building its own Cortana speaker | The Verge

More Cortana-powered devices are on the way from HP and Intel | Windows Central

Harman Kardon’s Invoke speaker is a Cortana-powered take on an Amazon Echo | The Verge

Microsoft shows how Cortana will work in speakers and cars | The Verge

From the horse’s mouth

Harman-Kardon

Invoke speaker

Product Page

Microsoft

Cortana Skills

Catalogue Page

Development Kit Web page

Windows Developer blog post (Skills Kit and Devices SDK)

Windows Developer blog post (Skills Kit)

My Comments

Amazon Alexa is now facing real competition from Microsoft’s Cortana.

More devices with Cortana

This is coming about through Microsoft making it easy for device manufacturers to add the Cortana voice-driven personal assistant to their designs, including allowing vehicle builders to integrate her in to their vehicles’ infotainment systems.

Harman-Kardon, now part of Samsung, have premiered the Invoke smart speaker which is driven by Cortana while HP and Intel have registered interest in building Cortana-driven devices. Even BMW and Nissan have registered interest in integrating Cortana in their vehicles’ infotainment systems, most likely something that will be offered as an option.

The Creators Update build of Windows 10 IoT Core edition will have integrated Cortana support, but Microsoft has released the Cortana Devices SDK to make it feasible to have Cortana on more devices from other device manufacturers. It is also worth knowing that this functionality also extends to providing Skype IP telephony support to these devices, placing Cortana and Alexa on an even footing.

Microsoft are taking this concept further by making it feasible to “carry” an action between Cortana-equipped devices. The example cited in the press coverage highlighted a situation where an email comes in while you are driving. Here, you could instruct her to read a summary of this email to you or to remind you about it when you log in to your Windows-equipped regular computer at the office so you can read and reply to it there.

Ability to develop more Skills for Cortana

As well Microsoft have made available a development kit so that online services and Internet-Of-Things vendors can add “skills” to Cortana as they could with Alexa. But these will allow the Skills to run on multiple devices and cater to devices that implement different user interfaces. For example, you could implement a restaurant-recommendations Skill in to Cortana and ask her for a list of local eateries of a particular cuisine kind. In this case, if your device has a screen, you would see a list of these eateries with a name and address while she reads out the names. Or she could simply read out their names in the order of locality and star-rating so you can simply book a table there.

Of course, there is the ability for those of us who have created Skills for the Amazon Alexa ecosystem to easily port them to the Cortana ecosystem. Here, a developer could get things going so that their voice-driven online-service or device interface program can run on both an Amazon Echo or a Cortana-based device.

The question that is yet to arise is how Alexa and Cortana will compete with each other on the capabilities, user interfaces, number of Skills, number of devices supporting each platform and other aspects.

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Amazon positions Alexa as the landline phone replacement

Articles Amazon Echo Show in kitchen press picture courtesy of Amazon

Echo Show

Amazon officially unveils touchscreen Echo Show | The Verge

Amazon launches Echo Show smart speaker with touchscreen and video calling | The Guardian

Alexa Calling And Messaging

Amazon now lets you make hands-free calls on all Alexa devices | Mashable

Amazon enables free calls and messages on all Echo devices with Alexa Calling | TechCrunch

From the horse’s mouth

Amazon

Product Pages

Echo Show

Alexa Calling And Messaging

My Comments

Amazon is treading in hot water here by taking the Alexa voice-driven home assistant platform further as an IP-telephony platform.

This has come about with the arrival of the Echo Show videophone which is equipped with a 7” colour LCD touchscreen. For its audio, it is equipped with a pair of Dolby-optimised speakers and an eight-microphone array.

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

The Amazon Echo with the Alexa platform now expected to be an IP telephone

The video functionality allows it to be an IP videophone that is part of the Alexa Calling And Messaging IP-telephony platform but be able to show Daily Flash news reports which I would see as being similar to those “newsbreaks” you see on TV. There is also the ability to run YouTube videos including those many cat videos, but Amazon is adding to the Alexa API the ability for any of the Skills to show visual information on the screen when you summon her. It can also show vision from network security cameras that are compatible with the Amazon Alexa ecosystem.

But the driver feature behind this device is that Alexa platform is running its own IP-telephony system that is driven by your voice. Here, you can place free calls or send voice messages to others who have any Amazon Echo device or the Alexa iOS or Android mobile-platform app, with the ability to place videocalls between Amazon Echo Show devices. There is a “Drop In” functionality where you can speak through to another Alexa-platform subscriber during a time window that the subscriber specifies without the subscriber doing anything to answer the call.

Social networks and mobile messaging

Amazon to become part of this crowded space of IP-messaging and social networking platforms

This service is another IP telephony platform that is competing with Skype, Viber, Facebook Messenger, Apple iMessage/Facetime and others. Here, I see this as the start of a highly-crowded field where your smartphone will end up with many IP-telephony apps and you will have to decide which one to use to call your friends.

Some of the computer press also see it as a virtual landline telephone which may be seen as superfluous in the iPhone age. But there is a reality where these services are seen as a “catch-all” connection for a household or business. Similarly, a significant number of the older generation of telephone users place importance on these services due to these people relying on them for most of their lives. I also see it as being similar to various “smart landline telephone” efforts like the Telstra T-Hub and the Archos 35 Smart Home Phone, something that telcos are pushing as part of offering multiple-play consumer telecommunications services.

Using the common household phone

But do we expect Amazon Echo to serve a similar role to the traditional household telephone

What Amazon could do is either use one of the established over-the-top IP-telephony services for their Alexa Calling And Messaging service and say that it is powered by that platform. Or they could offer “gateway functionality” to one or more of these platforms so users can call people who are on these platforms for free. It would allow for a consolidated user experience for people who have contacts existing across one or more platforms. Similarly, Amazon could provide an on-ramp that telcos can exploit to allow Alexa users to place calls to landline or mobile telephony users including leaving messages on the telephony-service users’ voicemail services.

It is showing that a crowded marketplace is starting to exist for over-the-top IP-telephony services with customers having to place themselves on multiple IP-telephony platforms to be able to be reached in this manner.

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You don’t need to use an iOS or Android smartphone to manage Amazon Echo

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Dell XPS 13 Kaby Lake Ultrabook

You can set up an Amazon Echo with just this kind of computer

How to set up a smart home using Windows 10 and Amazon Echo | Windows Central

My Comments

If you are dabbling with the idea of a voice-controlled smart-home assistant, you may find that some of these setups are dependent on you running an app on an iOS or Android mobile device to set them up or manage them. There are some users out there who may not be able to or want to use a mobile device that works on those two platforms.

For example, there are people like a lot of the older generation who prefer to work with a baseline mobile phone or a landline phone service as well as a regular computer for the communications and personal IT needs. There are also some of us who run a smartphone that is based on Windows 10 Mobile or a similar platform.

This is not so with the Amazon Echo and most other devices that work on the Amazon Alexa platform. When they are in action, they are not dependent on you running a mobile-platform app to have them work properly, rather you just talk to Alexa, the voice-driven home assistant. It is also underscored by the fact that you could purchase the Amazon Echo Dot module which works with a set of powered speakers or a stereo system equipped with an AUX or similar line-level input for US$49.

Most of this interaction in managing your Amazon Echo devices is through the Alexa website (http://alexa.amazon.com), which you can visit using any Web browser.

Adding Amazon Echo devices

Amazon Echo on kitchen bench press photo courtesy of Amazon USA

This Echo doesn’t need to be managed by an iPhone or Android smartphone

Other Alexa-based devices may work through a different setup procedure, perhaps through an on-device Website, Android / iOS mobile app or the device’s control surface.

  • If you are adding an Echo device, you just need to log in with your Amazon account credentials. Then plug in and turn on your Amazon Echo device.
  • The ring light on your Amazon Echo device will glow orange while it is listed on the abovementioned Web site. This is also because the Echo device is pre-registered to your Amazon account when you bought it through Amazon.
  • You may then have to click the “Set up a new device” option to start enrolling it with your home network. On the other hand, you may just need to proceed to the next step.
  • Then you hold down the Action button on the Echo device for five seconds. This is whereupon you will see a list of Wi-Fi networks that the Echo can connect to.
  • Here, you select your home network’s SSID (Wi-Fi network name) and click Connect. You may be asked for your network’s Wi-Fi password which you subsequently enter to come on board. There is an option for this to be saved securely to your Amazon account, which can come in handy if you are dealing with multiple Echo devices.
  • Once the ring light is blue, feel free to talk to Alexa.

Managing Skills and Smart Home devices

The Amazon Alexa Website is also where you can manage what your Amazon Echo or Alexa-compliant device does.

The Skills option allows you to add “skills” which provide an audio-based link to various smart-home hardware and online services. This can also include the ability to book a Uber or other taxi/hire-car service that has a suitable Alexa Skill for example.

As well, some smart-home devices that you add to your home network whether directly or via a hub cam be detected by the Amazon Echo through the “Smart Home” option in the Alexa Webpage.

To get the best out of this resource, create a Favourite / Bookmark in your Web browser or a desktop or similar shortcut in your operating system to the Amazon Alexa Website so you know where to go if you want to manage that Echo or add that Alexa Skill.

But you are not needing to use a mobile-platform app to have your Alexa-based devices how you want, rather simply using your favourite Web browser on your favourite computer device.

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