Lenovo Unveils Low Temperature Solder Process, a ‘Breakthrough’ in PC Manufacturing

PC and mobile giant Lenovo on Thursday announced it has developed a new PC manufacturing process making printed circuit boards (PCBs) that conserves energy and increases reliability, apart from reducing carbon emissions. Lenovo says the patent-pending Low Temperature Solder (LTS) process will effectively replace the current tin-based process that requires high temperatures, causing component stress.

Lenovo Unveils Low Temperature Solder Process, a 'Breakthrough' in PC Manufacturing

Lenovo says the LTS process is planned to be rolled out across eight surface mount technology (SMT) assembly in 2017, providing carbon emission savings up to 35 percent. It adds it expects to have 33 SMT lines with 2 ovens per line using this new process by the end of 2018, “giving an estimated annual saving of 5,956 metric tonnes of CO2”. The same year, Lenovo says it intends “to offer the new procedure for use on an industry-wide basis free of charge.” It says the process can be applied to all electronics manufacturing involving printed circuit boards.

To develop and validate the new LTS process, Lenovo says it investigated “thousands of combinations of solder paste material composed of a mixture of tin, copper, bismuth nickel and silver, specific compositions of flux material and unique profiles of time and heat temperatures that combine to enable this process.” With its LTS process, soldering heat is applied at a maximum temperature of 180-degrees Celsius, 70-degrees lower than the previous method.

The lower temperature will allow for lower heat stress during the ‘oven bake’ procedure, and in testing Lenovo says it has observed a 50 percent decrease in printed circuit board warpage and better yields. It reveals the new LTS process is already in production, being used for ThinkPad E series and the 5th generation X1 Carbon laptops that were unveiled at CES 2017.

Shadow of War for the PS4, PS4 Pro, Xbox One, Xbox Scorpio, and Windows 10 PC Confirmed

After a leak from US retailer Target showed off Shadow of War, a sequel to 2014’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, publisher Warner Bros has made an official statement confirming the same.

Shadow of War will be available from August 22 for the PS4, PS4 Pro, Xbox One, and PC. The company highlights a release for Project Scorpio as well as the Windows Store. This possibly indicates that Microsoft has secured marketing rights to the game. In the past, the likes of Dead Rising 4 and Rise of the Tomb Raider saw PC releases on the Windows Store as a part of timed exclusivity with Microsoft.

Shadow of War for the PS4, PS4 Pro, Xbox One, Xbox Scorpio, and Windows 10 PC Confirmed

Games from Warner Bros are usually in line with what you’d expect from the likes of Square Enix — Rs. 3,499 for console versions and Rs. 999 for PC. However with the game due for release after GST, we may see the price change.

“This next journey to Middle-earth will bring back Talion and Celebrimbor, who return as the Bright Lord as they go behind enemy lines to turn all of Mordor against the Dark Lord, Sauron. Middle-earth: Shadow of War expands upon the award-winning Nemesis System, introducing entirely new stories of loyalty, betrayal and revenge,” a prepared statement from Warner Bros reads.

A follow up to Shadow of Mordor should be expected considering how well the first game did. It sold around 1.9 million copies on PC alone and a performed strongly on consoles as well.

Microsoft’s Skype WiFi Service to Be Discontinued on March 31

Days after it announced an exclusive “Made for India” Skype Lite app, Microsoft said it will soon discontinue its Skype WiFi service.

The Skype WiFi app would be delisted and it would no longer function after March 31, the company noted on the Skype WiFi page.

Microsoft's Skype WiFi Service to Be Discontinued on March 31

This app gave users an option to connect to one of over two million hotspots around the world, and only pay for the minutes you use with Skype Credit.

The app, available across Windows, macOS, Linux, Android and iOS, served as a convenient alternative to signing up with different Wi-Fi providers for Skype users on the move.

The move would also help Microsoft to focus its efforts on core Skype features, the company added.

Skype WiFi users with leftover Skype Credit would be able to use any remaining funds to make calls and send text messages using the standard Skype app.

To recall, Microsoft launched Skype Lite last week – an exclusive “Made for India” app to provide seamless experience in messaging, audio and video calling even at lower bandwidths.

“Packed in a 13MB file, the new app is available only for Android devices and is especially designed to save data,” Satya Nadella, Indian-born CEO of Microsoft, told the media at the company’s “Future Decoded” event in Mumbai.

The lightweight app supports Indian languages including Gujarati, Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu.

This brain-computer interface lets paralysed people type faster than ever before

For several decades, medical researchers have been working on a way to turn brainwaves into instructions for an external device. These brain-computer interfaces, first developed in the 1970s, hold enormous promise – they could let paralysed people move again, and augment or even replace the way we interact with the world.

Unfortunately, existing brain-computer interfaces are slow and tricky to learn. But now a group from Stanford University has developed a new model designed for typing which outperforms every previous device to date.

Pill-sized

To use it, three volunteers suffering severe limb weakness disorders agreed to have a small pill-sized electrode array implanted in their brain. The array records signals from the motor cortex, which controls muscle movement, and uses an algorithm to translate them into instructions for the computer to move a cursor around an on-screen keyboard.

After a short training period, the participants were able to outperform all previous brain-computer interface tests on people with similarly impaired movement. One participant managed 39 correct characters per minute. It’s believed that with the addition of automatic word correction software, this could be boosted even further.

“This study reports the highest speed and accuracy, by a factor of three, over what’s been shown before,” said Krishna Shenoy, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator who’s been pursuing BCI development for 15 years. “We’re approaching the speed at which you can type text on your cellphone.”

No insurmountable challenges

The researchers believe that future versions of the device will be wireless, fully implanted, self-calibrating, and able to be used around the clock. “I don’t see any insurmountable challenges.” Shenoy said. “We know the steps we have to take to get there.”

Dennis Degray, one of the study participants, added: “This is like one of the coolest video games I’ve ever gotten to play with. And I don’t even have to put a quarter in it.”

Overwatch beta runs well on consoles and PC alike

Blizzard has a long history of producing high quality multiplayer games, and Overwatch isn’t going to buck that trend. Last week’s open beta gave us a representative look at how the retail version of the game will be when it launches on the 24th, and it seems to work as intended regardless of which platform you plan on using.

For the better part of a decade, Blizzard was working on developing an MMO dubbed “Titan.” It was eventually canceled in 2014, but some assets from that project still live on in Blizzard’s new first-person shooter. And it’s not just Blizzard’s legacy that Overwatch is building on. In many ways, it also takes inspiration from Valve’s Team Fortress 2. It’s a team-based shooter focusing on wildly different classes, and the lively personalities of the characters evoke very warm feelings for many of us with hundreds of hours of TF2 under our belts.

From a technical perspective, Overwatch seems to be well-built. Both the Xbox One and PS4 versions feature dynamic resolution scaling, but they’re both sitting at 1080p most of the time. Based on the comparison done by Digital Foundry, the Xbox One appears todrop below 1080p more frequently, but it’s not a widespread issue. You’ll see a slightly fuzzier image for short stretches, but that’s certainly preferable to being stuck at 720p or 900p at all times.

The game targets 60fps on consoles, and it usually delivers. The PS4 version rarely budges from 60, and when it does, it seems to happen most often when you’re watching the kill cam. Over on the Xbox One, drops are a bit more frequent when you’re actually playing. Unfortunately, you’re going to get some screen-tearing, but it’s not enough to ruin the experience.

If you have the option to play Overwatch on the PC, that’s going to be your best bet. It comes as no surprise that you’ll be able to outpace both consoles in the frame rate and resolution department. On top of that, the draw-distance, lighting, and anisotropic filtering are all improved on the PC side as well. The differences are still pretty minor though. If you only have access to a gaming console, you’re not missing out on all that much here.

If you didn’t get the opportunity to play the beta yourself, you can get a good look at Overwatch in action in the video above. Our sister site IGN played through about an hour of the open beta live on the internet, and two full hours during the closed beta.

I spent some time with the PS4 version over the weekend, and didn’t see any notable issues with the frame rate or network performance. As for the gameplay itself, I had zero trouble jumping in headfirst. If you’ve ever played an FPS before, you’ll pick up the basics quickly. Even so, there are 21 characters spread across four classes, and they all play differently. It’ll take some time to become familiar with the quirks of each “hero.”

While the developer has said that this most recent beta is exactly what we’ll see at launch feature-wise, it’s important to remember that all online games are susceptible to network issues. Even though Blizzard has an absurd amount of experience keeping servers up and running under heavy load, it’s still possible that the launch could be plagued with downtime. If that’s a concern for you, consider waiting until after launch to buy in.

New Windows 10 build kills controversial password-sharing Wi-Fi Sense

When Microsoft announced Windows 10, it added a feature called Wi-Fi Sense that had previously debuted on the Windows Phone operating system. Wi-Fi Sense was a password-sharing option that allowed you to share Wi-Fi passwords with your friends and contacts in Skype, Outlook, and Facebook. Here’s how Microsoft described the featurelast year:

“When you share Wi-Fi network access with Facebook friends, Outlook.com contacts, or Skype contacts, they’ll be connected to the password-protected Wi-Fi networks that you choose to share and get Internet access when they’re in range of the networks (if they use Wi-Fi Sense). Likewise, you’ll be connected to Wi-Fi networks that they share for Internet access too. Remember, you don’t get to see Wi-Fi network passwords, and you both get Internet access only. They won’t have access to other computers, devices, or files stored on your home network, and you won’t have access to these things on their network.”

WiFiSense2

There were security concerns related to Windows 10’s management of passwords and whether or not said passwords could be intercepted on the fly. To our knowledge, no security breaches or problems were associated with Wi-Fi Sense. According to Microsoft, few people actually used the feature and some were actively turning it off. “The cost of updating the code to keep this feature working combined with low usage and low demand made this not worth further investment,” said Gabe Aul, Microsoft’s Windows Insider czar.

These changes are incorporated into the latest build of Windows, Windows 10 Insider Preview 14342. Other changes in this build include:

  • Microsoft Edge extensions are now downloaded from the Windows Store (Adblock and Adblock Plus are now available for download);
  • Swipe gestures are now supported in Microsoft Edge;
  • Bash on Ubuntu on Windows now supports symlinks (symbolic links);
  • Certain websites can now be directed to open in apps instead, ensuring that one of the mobile Internet’s worst features will be available in Windows 10.

Microsoft has also fixed playback errors with DRM-protected content from Groove Music, Microsoft Movies & TV, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Hulu. The company fixed audio crashes for users who play audio to a receiver using S/PDIF or HDMI while using Dolby Digital Live or DTS Connect, and fixed some bugs that prevented common keyboard commands like Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V, or Alt-Space from working in Windows 10 apps. Full details on the changes and improvements to the build can be found here.

One final note:  Earlier this year, we theorized that Microsoft might extend the free upgrade period longer than the July 29 cutoff, especially if it was serious about hitting its 1 billion user target. The company has since indicated that it has no plans to continue offering Windows 10 for free after July 29. If you want to upgrade to Windows 10 or are still on the fence about whether or not to accept Microsoft’s offer, you only have a little over two months to make the decision.

Microsoft makes worrying revelations on malware and fraudulent logins

Microsoft makes worrying revelations on malware and fraudulent logins

Microsoft has published its biannual security report which contains the usual load of statistics on malware and vulnerabilities.

In terms of the current dangers from malware infections, Redmond’s latest Security Intelligence Report – which covers the second half of 2015 – found that in Q4, 20.8% of those PCs running Microsoft security products encountered threats.

And for the first time, as Ars Technica notes, the report contains data from its cloud services, and this includes picking up on fraudulent login attempts for the likes of Office 365.

Microsoft’s heuristics are capable of detecting suspicious logins based on iffy looking locations and/or login times, and the company says that over 10 million such dodgy attempts are caught every single day.

In such circumstances, accounts which are thought to have been compromised are forced into validating a second form of authentication – and obviously with the dodgy attempts, the attacker fails to clear the 2FA hurdle.

It’s also interesting to learn that Microsoft accounts have in excess of 13 billion logins per day.

Exploits aplenty

As for vulnerabilities, Microsoft observed a rise in vulnerability disclosures of 9.4% in the second half of 2015 compared to the first six months.

And the most common type of exploit encountered was by far the exploit kit, with an encounter rate quadruple that of the next most common – operating system exploits. In fact, operating system exploits actually declined considerably throughout the year, almost halving from Q1 to Q3, although they rose back up slightly in Q4.

The most prevalent exploit kit was Axpergle, and the most targeted operating system flaw was CVE-2010-2568, a vulnerability in Windows Shell.

The report also found that less malware affected managed systems, unsurprisingly, with only a tad over 10% of domain-based PCs encountering malware compared to 22% of non-domain computers in Q4 2015.

Intel may be preparing aggressive rounds of job cuts

Earlier this month, we covered the relentless shrinking of the PC market and the departure of long-time Intel executives in Intel’s mobile segments. It now looks as though these troubles are going to spark problems for the company’s employees. Intel may be considering significant layoffs that would cut the company’s headcount by double-digit percentages.

The Oregonian reports that Intel currently employs 107,000 people worldwide. It’s recently been on a hiring spree in Oregon itself, with 19,500 people there total (up 5% from last summer). Much of that work has been done on Intel’s leading-edge research firm, Fab D1X, and might not be affected by the cuts. Last year, Intel trimmed 1100 jobs; but this year’s cuts would dwarf that figure if the rumors are accurate.

“After seeing the upheaval in senior staff, it would not surprise me if structural changes are finally afoot,” Jim McGregor, an analyst with Tirias Research, told the Oregonian.

Intel’s problem is easy to diagnose and extremely challenging to fix: The company’s mobile efforts have not yielded the kind of fruit that Intel wanted. Contra-revenue shipments boosted the company’s raw share of the tablet market and gave x86 chips plenty of shelf space, but contra-revenue shipments are a short-term measure meant to build market share at the cost of quarterly or yearly profits. They aren’t a long-term solution, and Intel knows it.

Intel-Tablets

The problem here isn’t that Intel is in bad shape as such — there’s no sign that ARM is advancing in critical HPC or data center markets, and the PC market, while continuing to trend downwards, still generates tens of billions of dollars for Intel every year. The problem for Intel is that for the first time in decades, computing is advancing under banners other than its own. We’ve talked before about the challenges the company faces in reclaiming a tenable position in emerging markets and it’s still unclear how Intel will take an active role in these spaces without either overhauling its manufacturing strategies or its product development cycle — and maybe both.

Intel will announce its Q1 2016 results on Tuesday, and the figures aren’t likely to be great. The company has made a number of changes to its roster and its focus in recent years, including buying Altera last year for $16.7 billion. If it plans to announce some focus shifts or new project strategies, we may find out more about them this week. The company has previously stated that it will focus on three main pillars of growth — data centers, the Internet of Things, and memory technologies like the recently demonstrated Optane (aka 3D XPoint).

Intel’s new low-cost Apollo Lake platform: Skylake graphics, new Goldmont CPU

Last week, Intel announced its new Apollo Lake low-cost series of Pentium, Celeron, and Atom products due to launch in the back half of 2016. Goldmont, the CPU core that powers Apollo Lake, is the next iteration of the Silvermont architecture that replaced Intel’s original Bonnell architecture, which powered Atom from 2008 – 2012.

2-in-1’s have been the PC industry’s sole bright spot in recent years, and while they haven’t grown quickly enough to offset the general decline in desktop and laptop sales, they have picked up steam in retail at a reasonable clip. Intel’s low-cost Apollo Lake platform is meant to accelerate that transition by pushing a variety of ultra thin-and-light devices. What’s interesting is, Intel is explicitly targeting “Cloudbooks,” like Google’s Chromebook, and calling them out as an important segment in the $169 – $269 price band.

Apollo-Lake3

The entire point of Apollo Lake is to cut developer costs compared with previous generations, a fact made obvious by the slide below:

Apollo-Lake1

If you add up all the cost savings Intel is promising on this slide, it comes to $7.45. This should tell you something about just how thin PC profit margins are at the bottom end of the market — not only did Intel feel it was important to break these savings out by sector, but the total amount comes to the approximate total of a combo meal at a fast food chain. On the other hand, if you’re selling a device for $169, $7.45 is 4.4% of your total — and as we’ve seen, PC manufacturers often have net profit margins in the 3-4% range.

What’s inside Goldmont?

Intel isn’t talking at all about what kind of performance Goldmont will offer, and that’s a bit concerning. Prior to the launch of Silvermont / Bay Trail, Intel was more than happy to talk up the new chip’s core counts, performance, and anticipated per-core efficiency increases. Bay Trail offered a huge performance jump over Atom, competed well against AMD’s Kabini, and gave Intel a foothold in tablets and low-cost 2-in-1’s. Cherry Trail, which debuted last year in Microsoft’s Surface 3, took the Silvermont architecture to 14nm (Airmont), but didn’t really offer much in the way of battery life improvements. GPU performance increased significantly, but battery life was a wash.

Apollo-Lake2

It’s smaller. Is it faster?

This highlights a problem with modern devices that Intel may have a hard time fixing. The rush to include high-end displays at every price point can be good for consumers, but it can also shove OEMs towards devices that really shouldn’t carry such ridiculous resolutions. These resolutions require higher backlight power and there’s a baseline per-pixel power consumption rate on top of that. In short, it’s easy for laptops to soak up all the power improvements that Intel can deliver by equipping them with more powerful displays. This creates a feedback loop in which Intel builds higher-end GPUs (that can drive the higher resolution displays), which requires more power, which eats away at the CPU’s power budget.

At the same time, however, it’s hard not to see Goldmont as critical if Intel has any aspirations left for the tablet or smartphone market. Silvermont was a good chip — it hit all Intel’s internal targets and it offered a much better x86 tablet experience than Clover Trail ever could. Ultimately, however, it mostly anchored low-end Android and x86 tablets, and was outperformed by some of ARM’s higher-end offerings (Apple’s own cores remain in a class by themselves). Goldmont could change that if Intel builds a core with substantially better IPC, but it has to do so at a price point that makes sense and at a net cost that allows it to compete against Qualcomm, Samsung, and other ARM vendors.

The company’s silence on the base architecture is concerning. The GPU specs should be excellent, but GPU alone won’t win Intel mobile business.

Intel fires the equivalent of 1.2 AMDs, restructures away from PC, mobile business

Intel announced its Q1 2016 results today, and at first glance you wouldn’t think they were anything to write home about. The company missed street estimates by $30 million on sales of $13.7 billion (a rounding error, basically). While its gross margin dipped somewhat and sales were down compared with Q4 2015, the PC market always turns in a weak first quarter. The company’s operating income and net profit were both basically flat — and given the shape of the PC market as a whole, you might think that turning in modest revenue growth compared to Q1 2015 would be welcome news.

Intel-Quarterly

In this case, however, appearances can be deceiving. Intel announced that it would fire up to 12,000 people across the globe, or roughly 11% of its workforce. This works out to approximately 1.2 AMDs, just to put that in perspective. The workforce reductions are necessary, Intel said, “to accelerate its evolution from a PC company to one that powers the cloud and billions of smart, connected computing devices.”

Intel went on to reiterate exactly where it feels the growth markets of the future will be. “The data center and Internet of Things (IoT) businesses are Intel’s primary growth engines, with memory and field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) accelerating these opportunities.”

Missing, you might note, are any mention of the PC market or the company’s mobile efforts. ARM fans and general smartphone and tablet aficionados have snarked at Intel’s general failure to win positive traction for itself in these markets (at least, not without relying on contra-revenue shipments to do it), but it’s important to see the larger picture here. Intel began developing Atom all the way back in 2004, not long after it canceled Tejas, the ill-fated, Prescott successor that never saw the light of day. While it can be fairly criticized for some of its specific product decisions, clearly some of the executives at Intel saw how big mobile could be years before smartphones and tablets started eating the PC’s lunch.

More than just a down cycle

We spoke to Anshel Sag, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, for his opinion on what Intel’s layoffs and new focus on data centers, IoT, and memory technologies like 3D XPoint mean for the company. “Intel is making major cuts in their overall headcount; many people have seen this coming for years,” Sag said. “But ultimately, today’s earnings and restructuring show that Intel no longer considers itself a consumer company first and that it does not see growth for itself in the client computing business.”

Apollo-Lake3

We agree. Intel isn’t literally giving up on the PC space, but for decades the company has relied on the consumer CPU market to provide the bulk of its profits, even if other market segments were far more profitable on a per-unit basis. The company previously portrayed its client business as driven by a virtuous cycle of continuous investment that protected profits and drove engagement. Now, it’s claiming that other market segments will provide this growth.

Intel will continue to introduce next-generation CPUs, and it’ll clearly continue to market those devices as compelling upgrades. But the company is pivoting, trying to find spaces where it can earn the kinds of returns investors want to see, while cutting headroom anywhere else to prop its figures up in the meantime.

Incidentally, anyone who thinks Intel is sitting on spare PC performance it hasn’t released due to a lack of competition should take a hard look at this situation as proof for why it’s not true. If Intel could release dramatically faster hardware that consumers wanted to buy for the same reasons they kept buying in for more than 30 years, it would do so. The fact that it’s focusing on new business segments and firing thousands of people is proof that it doesn’t know how to return to the good old days of semiconductor scaling.

AMD will announce its own Q1 2016 results in several days. Don’t expect miracles or anything good.