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A Windows 8.1 survivor's guide: Hardware

Wanted: Windows 8.1 wrapped in slick hardware.
Wanted: Windows 8.1 wrapped in slick hardware.
(Credit: CNET)
Here are some handy survivor tips for the Windows hardware camp as the traditional PC continues to decline.
With Microsoft's upcoming release of Windows 8.1, devices will need to be cooler, lighter, and...Well, let's just leave it at cooler.
The consensus seems to be that Windows 8.1 is, at the least, a modest improvement over 8.0.
There's a "Start tip" that sends you to a more customizable Start screen; you can make the app view the default in the Start screen; and new settings can send you directly to Desktop, among other tweaks.
But software alone won't improve the odds for Windows 8.1 in a world populated with Apple and Android mobile devices.
Hardware that could make Windows 8.1 more relevant, viable:

  • Small tablets sans so-so me-too: Microsoft is now making sure Windows 8.1 works well on smaller screens. Enter the 8-inch Acer Iconia W3 and Lenovo MiiX 8. But Acer's tablet doesn't appear to be a game changer, i.e., consumers aren't going to drop their iPad Minis and pick up a W3. "The 7.9-inch tablets like the iPad Mini and Galaxy Note 8...[weigh] well under a pound. The W3 weighs 1.10 pounds and its surplus of girth is immediately palpable. That is to say: for an 8.1-inch tablet it feels heavy and is noticeably thicker than either aforementioned tablet," said CNET Reviews.
    That's not a good start. With all of their collective design experience and expertise, you would think that Acer, Asus, HP, Dell, Lenovo, and Sony could consistently trump Apple on tablet design. A potentially bigger problem: companies like Asus and Samsung -- which straddle the Windows and Android worlds -- could throw their weight behind Android. That would be a game changer.
    Here's one suggestion. More products like the HP Android-based SlateBook x2 need to appear on the Windows side of the ledger. The SlateBook sports a IPS (1,920x1,200 display) screen, a fast new processor, and, with a keyboard dock, is priced under $500.

    And Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 running Windows 8.1 would be more than welcome. CNET Reviews says it's "a stunning tablet" with a great screen. It would be equally stunning on Windows 8.1.
  • Surface makeover: Back in May, CNET learned that Microsoft is eyeing a 7.5-inch-class Surface. If this comes to fruition, this is good news. While Surface hasn't sold in huge numbers, Microsoft is on the right track. So, a sleek, light, inexpensive yet well designed Surface tablet packing fast silicon and a high-resolution screen could sell in greater numbers.
  • More touch laptops like Acer's new Aspire S7: CNET Reviews gave the S7 high marks, saying it's a premium-looking ultrabook, with great performance, strong battery life, and a high-res touch screen. It's definitely a looker. The more great looking Windows laptops, the better.
  • I'll have that tablet in large, please: Dell's XPS 18 is interesting because it's relatively lightweight for its size and combines the novelty of a large tablet with an all-in-one.
  • New Windows players with fresh ideas: This is a wild card. Something revolutionary that emerges from a Skunk Works project or a garage. Probability of it happening? Less every month as Windows PCs lose momentum.

Bluetooth blues: Wired speakers sound better than the best BT speakers

Back row, from left, Peachtree Audio Deepblue, Klipsch KMC3, Cambridge Minx Air 200; front Bowers & Wilkins Z2
(Credit: Steve Guttenberg/CNET)
The continuing popularity of Bluetooth speakers mystifies me. The under $50 ones sound pretty weak, but they have a good excuse: they're cheap! Sadly, the $100 models aren't much better: they sound undernourished next to my $52 Dayton Audio B652 stereo speakers, powered by my $25 Lepai LP-2020A+ stereo amplifier. Before we go any further let's put aside for a second the question of how BT sounds; the biggest problem with BT speakers is that it's just one speaker, and can't fill a room as well as two speakers, spread five or more feet apart. Then consider that each B652 has a 6.5-inch woofer and a 5/8-inch dome tweeter; I've never heard a BT speaker, even a $500 one, that has two 6.5-inch woofers; some don't even have tweeters! Yes, the Lepai/Dayton system takes up more room and has wires, but if you want decent sound for a rock-bottom price, there's absolutely no comparison. Plug in a phone or iPod, and you're good to go for $77.
Obviously, more upscale BT speakers sound better than cheap ones, so for this blog I listened to four higher-end models, the $400 Peachtree Audio Deepblue, $400 Bowers & Wilkins Z2, $599 Cambridge Minx Air 200, and the $400 Klipsch KMC3. The Deepblue was my favorite; it made the deepest and most powerful bass and sounded fairly clear in the midrange, but I found the treble grating and harsh. The Minx Air 200 was easier on the ears, it was the most refined-sounding of the four BT models. The Z2 was a lot smaller than the others, and still sounded OK.
My iPod Classic, with the left Audioengine A5+ speaker
(Credit: Steve Guttenberg/CNET)
Some are quick to blame BT compression technology for BT speakers' less than stellar sound quality. They're right; the speakers sounded a little better when I didn't use BT and ran a $5.30 cable between my iPod Classic and the speakers. With the wire inline, sound quality improved, but the BT speakers still left me cold, especially because there are better-sounding alternatives for the same or fewer dollars. I hooked up a pair of $399 Audioengine A5+ speakers, placed six feet apart, plugged my iPod into the left A5+ with the 25-foot cable, sat on the couch, and enjoyed my tunes. The Audioengine speakers have built-in amplifiers, 5-inch woofers, and 1-inch tweeters. One by one I compared the A5+s with the BT speakers. Technically, the BTs are stereo speakers -- they have two sets of drivers -- but since they are 12 inches or so apart, the sound was essentially mono. So they can't fill a room as well as a pair of speakers. That's a very significant limitation that even the highest-priced BT or AirPlay speaker can't overcome.
The BT speakers play loudly, no problem, but the Audioeninge A5+s sound better playing loud. The Peachtree Audio Deepblue made more bass than the A5+s, but the Deepblue's bass sounded muddier than the A5+s. Frankly, the best BT speakers sound like powerful table radios; the A5+ is closer to the sound of a decent hi-fi system.
Now sure, if you don't have the space for two speakers, or need the wireless connection, go BT. But if you care about what your music sounds like, consider Audioengine, Emotiva, or Adam Audio speakers.

The brains behind BitTorrent get on TV's good side (Q&A)

Flingo's algorithms recognize what's happening on live television and, if viewers opt in with their remotes, can pull up information about what's up and offer ways to interact.
(Credit: Flingo) For years, Ashwin Navin ran BitTorrent, the peer-to-peer technology company that many people associate with pirated entertainment. Now he's flipped to the other side. He and a contingent of BitTorrent engineers are playing on the same team as television broadcasters at his current venture, Flingo.

Flingo is to video what Shazam is to music. They're both so-called "automatic content recognition," or ACR, software programs. Where Shazam can recognize a song simply by listening to it, Flingo can recognize actors who walk on screen during a TV broadcast -- and it can offer information and ways to interact related to them.
Flingo raised $8.5 million in its first round of venture capital backing, attracting the likes of billionaire Mark Cuban and August Capital, whose David Marquardt was the sole investor in Microsoft.
Navin, the co-founder and chief executive of Flingo, talked with CNET about what's changing (and what's not) in television, and how Flingo is approaching it differently than others in Silicon Valley. The following is an edited Q&A.
Q: Talk a little about your history and how that brought about Flingo.
Navin: I ran BitTorrent for four years, and most of Flingo's co-founders are engineers from BitTorrent. BitTorrent continues, and is doing better than ever, but we were intrigued by television. We were interested in figuring out how to use digital rights to make a TV service, but when cable operators saw smart TVs and consoles bring connectivity into the living room, the cost of digital content went sky high. We pivoted and got away from that quickly.
Some in Silicon Valley thought cable would die a quick death, but the buying power they have will keep them in business for another decade or two. We've pivoted to the opposite opinion, and now we're thinking of how to use the Internet to deliver the content but in a different way.
What is Flingo's technology?
Navin: Our tech sits within the televisions and in the phones and tablets themselves. Our software is ACR -- think of Shazam -- when you're trying to think of the name of the song, it will grab audio from the room. That, in industry jargon, is ACR: automatic content recognition. We fall into that group, as a company that makes ACR technologies. Basically, Flingo does the same thing but for video not audio.
What can Flingo do?
Navin: The most common thing is having instant access to cast and crew information. If you see an actress walk on a screen and can't remember her name, Flingo can recognize her and bring up information about her. That metadata lives either in a TV overlay that the user created or in a phone app or tablet app. It can do other things, too. The most natural extension of reality programming would be the ability to interact with viewers, such as voting with your TV remote for "American Idol" rather than with a phone. Other examples are the likes of a CNN or Fox News having the ability to take polls with TV remote. We've built up a bunch of building blocks for networks to use.
Flingo's Ashwin Navin.
(Credit: Flingo)
How can viewers use Flingo?
Navin: With a show, regardless of whether it comes from Netflix or Comcast, you're able to unlock clips or behind-the-scenes content, for example. You can do that in a tablet, but also we came up with a really simple interface for televisions themselves, where you get a Shazam-like icon in the corner of the screen that you can click on. For the creators, it doesn't matter how they choose to bring their content to market, the intelligence is in the device.
It's called Samba -- the underlying tech -- that synchronizes a Web browser, and it will become ubiquitous. Right now, it requires people to buy devices that have this technology in them. Last year, that population was nonexistent. It's small this year, but next year it will get bigger [The company is in talks with manufacturers to have its technology shipped in TVs later this year.] The software we've written over the history of our company is sitting in 30 million devices. We've always been focused on the TV devices or Blu-ray players, now we're turning our attention to phones and tablets.
What has been the response from the hardware makers and television companies?
Navin: The thing we get asked a lot from device manufacturers and from broadcasters is, "How does this make money?" The answer is that all the things that make content more engaging also apply to ads. So, for example, if you're watching a Volkswagen ad, maybe it piques your interest, maybe you can find the nearest dealership with the click of a remote. We're having those conversations now. In a world where Hopper is stripping the ads, this is very timely. TV ads will have to transform into something more personalized and multiscreen. And it leverages the fact that people are viewing broadcast content about 5 hours a day, if you believe Nielsen.
How does Flingo itself make money?
When we create an experience both on a television and on a second device, those are monetized with ads. We anticipated, and this is starting to get proven out now, those screens will be sponsored by a brand. A whole new category of programming is emerging that's synchronized with television. We're acting as execution of the commitments made by ad sales teams at networks.
If you add up all of Google's revenue, all of Yahoos' revenue, all of Facebook's revenue, it still doesn't even get you to half of the up-fronts every year for TV ad business. We would love to make that system more efficient and more engaging. Every startup's business plan is that if it can take X percent of television ad dollars, then it'll be a success. We said, "Hey, why don't we try to make the TV ad budget bigger rather than smaller?"


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