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Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Why cross-platform gaming is Microsoft's secret weapon

Why cross-platform gaming is Microsoft's secret weapon

Microsoft has taken major heat for its recent reinvention efforts, but amid public lambasting of Windows 8 and the Surface tablets, a critical new development has largely been ignored: The company has both the hardware and software to dominate the four most important gaming screens in your life.

Your PC. Your tablet. Your phone. Your TV. Microsoft can offer a consistent gaming experience across all of them, thanks to Windows 8, Windows RT, Windows Phone 8, and Xbox—four platforms that are uniquely glued together by our omnipresent Microsoft Accounts, and, by extension, the personal profiles and credit card numbers locked within.

Indeed, if you own multiple Microsoft devices and want proof of the gaming synergies that Microsoft can deliver, look no further than Skulls of the Shogun.
Released in January across Windows 8, Windows RT, Windows Phone 8, and Xbox 360, Skulls is a turn-based strategy game that takes full advantage of Microsoft's cross-platform gaming hegemony. Players on disparate devices can go head-to-head in multiplayer combat, breaking down the historical barriers among the various hardware types. It's an excellent feature in an excellent game, as well as a harbinger of how gaming will evolve.

So why isn't Microsoft making a bigger deal about cross-platform play? Xbox consoles and Windows PCs are already powerful gaming platforms, so using these assets to promote the greater Windows ecosystem would help sell a lot of smartphones and tablets, right?

In theory, yes. But if Microsoft is to rule the gaming universe, it will need a big assist from the architects of the gaming universe: developers.
Skulls of the Shogun is fantastic in Windows 8 (shown here) but you can also play it on any Microsoft hardware.

Tapping developer talent

To help entice developers to create games for Windows 8, Microsoft trucked out shiny new software development tools at the 2012 Game Developers Conference. Senior Xbox Live Product Marketing Manager Peter Orullian says Microsoft has had great success convincing developers to develop games for Windows 8 with the new Xbox Live SDK, but that’s not surprising. After all, marketing Xbox Live is part of his job description.

What is surprising is his promise that Microsoft is going after mobile gaming in a big way, pushing developers to take advantage of Xbox Live’s servers to build cross-platform games with asynchronous multiplayer elements and cloud storage.

During a recent phone conversation, Orullian confirmed that at least two more cross-platform games are coming to the Windows Store. You'll be able to start each game on one device, pause it when life intervenes, and then start again right where you left off on a completely different device.
Hopefully 2013 is the year Windows Phone gaming becomes more than a convenient way to keep track of your Xbox Live friends list.

While I couldn't get Orullian to share any details on the new Microsoft home console that's likely to be announced later this year, he was happy to talk at length about how Microsoft's new Windows development tools are designed to help studios port their titles to different Microsoft devices with minimal effort.

"For example, when you build a game for Windows 8 with our new tools, the additional work required to bring it to Windows Phone 8 is fairly incremental,” said Orullian. “So, if I start playing a game of solitaire on my desktop, I can leave for work and pick up right where I left off on my Windows Phone."

Orullian points to the Music, Video, and Games apps that come preinstalled with Windows 8 as proof that Microsoft is committed to unifying digital entertainment across devices in the new Windows ecosystem. But while these apps allow you to share your media and keep tabs on your Xbox Live account across Windows 8, Windows Phone, and Xbox 360, they aren't actually games.

Indeed, Microsoft must start rolling out great cross-platform games for all its sundry hardware as soon as possible. Right now. Before the competition has a chance to eat its lunch.

Competition from all corners

Before we go any further, let's acknowledge that cross-platform play isn't a new development. Ever since the iPad's release, Apple has supported universal apps that play equally well on iPhones and iPads. Then there's Valve, which made it easy to play PC games on our TVs when it added Big Picture mode to Steam last year.
The Wii U tablet can stream select games and movies right from the console, allowing you to enjoy your digital entertainment without hogging the TV.

As for Nintendo, its Wii U console system, while struggling, literally comes packaged with a separate screen a tablet-slash-controller with remote play features. The upshot is that you can play some of the very same games on either the bundled handheld or your TV screen.

For its part, Sony doubled down on the multiscreen bandwagon last month when it announced the Playstation 4. In Sony's vision of multiscreen gaming, you can play PS4 games on either your living room TV or your Playstation Vita handheld (assuming you paid for that device as well). But it gets even weirder: The PS4's new DualShock controller will also include a "share" button that displays real-time video of your game play on another person's screen.

And finally we have Microsoft. Between Xbox consoles, Windows Phone handsets, and the venerable PC, Microsoft has homesteaded on three of the four most important gaming screens for years. The new Windows regime, however, puts Microsoft on tablets as well, providing an entry point to do interesting things that are (for the moment) beyond the reach of competitors.

Games for Windows Live: a cautionary tale

Microsoft has actually dabbled with cross-platform gaming in the past via Xbox Live. First there was Games for Windows Live, a PC client that allows players to log into their Xbox Live accounts and earn Achievement Points in select PC games. Later came a handful of Windows Phone games, which also hooked into Xbox Live.

Unfortunately, most of the games failed to use Xbox Live as anything more than a dumping ground for Achievement Points. The few games that did offer true cross-platform play often failed spectacularly because players on dramatically different hardware devices were pitted against each other in fast-paced, real-time competition.

Perhaps the worst offender was Shadowrun, a first-person shooter released in 2007 that allowed Xbox 360 players to go head-to-head against mouse- and keyboard-wielding PC gamers.

Fast-paced Shadowrun multiplayer matches favored mouse-and-keyboard PC players over Xbox 360 players.

Players and critics lambasted the game for a variety of reasons, but the multiplayer disparity between PC and console players was always front and center. PC gamers on mice and keyboards simply had a speed advantage over Xbox gamers sadled with their handheld controllers. Similarly, PC gamers playing with the highest resolution settings could see more of the game environment, and this too gave them an advantage over console competitors.

The upshot? Fast-paced games that reward accuracy and quick reflexes simply aren't fun to play in cross-platform multiplayer matches. Slower, asynchronous, turn-based multiplayer games, however, are much better suited to Microsoft's cross-platform approach.

Significant challenges lay ahead

Borut Pfeiffer, an independent developer who worked on Skulls of the Shogun, says the game's multiplayer element succeeds across multiple platforms because it's anchored by turn-based strategy, and challenges players' wits instead of reflexes. What's more, the Skulls Anywhere cross-platform multiplayer mode lets you play on any type of Microsoft hardware. You can start a game on your Xbox 360, playing against someone on a PC. Then three hours later, both you and your competitor can switch to playing on a Surface RT and Windows Phone.

Skulls is a successful cross-platform game because it's turn-based with a beautiful, simple 2D art style that looks great on screens large and small.

Pfeiffer says supporting asynchronous multiplayer across four platforms gives Skulls an edge over other games because it can draw from a much larger and more diverse pool of players. That edge, however, came at a price: Coding the game for cross-platform multiplayer required extra development time and caused extra frustration. Likewise, the kind of cross-platform multiplayer employed in Skulls is only feasible for games with touch-friendly interfaces that can be paused and resumed at will.

"It’s a tough design challenge, building a cross-platform game,” wrote Pfeiffer in an email. “While it looks like there’s definitely demand for it, as a developer you really have to solve a lot of problems at once.”

Microsoft must champion multiscreen gaming

Despite the challenges, Pfeiffer predicts we'll see a slew of new asynchronous games entering the Microsoft ecosystem in the next few months. If he's right, Microsoft Surface tablets (and mobile gaming in general) are going to get a lot more exciting this year. Our tests suggest the Surface Pro isn't great for hardcore PC gaming on the go, but it might just be the perfect device for staying up-to-date in your favorite cross-platform games when you're away from home.

Microsoft's Surface Pro is a decent PC gaming platform, but it could be so much more.

Bottom line

Microsoft needs to step up to the plate and champion cross-platform gaming across the new Windows ecosystem. It's already got the desktop, tablet, and phone components in place, and a new Xbox console is waiting in the wings. So what we need to see now is concerted forward movement with or without the support of third-party developers.

Microsoft needs a big, showy, game-changing title, and if someone won't build it independently, Redmond needs to strike out on its own. Indeed, if the company can marshal a veritable army to build the Surface tablets, it can surely assemble a highly focused team of commandos to deliver a title that gets the whole world talking about cross-platform game play.

In a perfect world, the game would be good enough to create a franchise with all the star power that Zelda and Mario delivered for Nintendo in the '80s. But even something simple and elegant along the lines of a cross-platform Angry Birds would work wonders in giving people a reason to care about Microsoft's unique four-screen proposition. Windows-based cross-platform game play offers Microsoft a powerful competitive advantage in 2013, but the window of opportunity won't be open forever.
Review: Razer Edge Pro tablet insane performance that's completely impractical

Review: Razer Edge Pro tablet insane performance that's completely impractical

PC gaming is poised to break free from the desktop. It just needs a device that delivers fast frame rates and lush graphics in an affordable, portable package. Enter the Razer Edge Pro, a Windows 8 tablet built expressly for playing PC games on the go. The hardware even comes with an optional controller accessory that turns the tablet into a handheld game console.

But Razer's pitch goes way beyond gaming. The company is marketing the Edge Pro as a multi-purpose machine that can replace your laptop, desktop, tablet, and, yes, even your Xbox, PS3 and Wii. After using the premier version of Razer's new tablet as my primary device for a week, I think it comes close to delivering on its multi-disciplinary promise, if you're willing to make some compromises.

In terms of raw processing performance, sure, the tablet can do everything.
 First, the good news: It works. Thanks to a Core i7 processor and discrete Nvidia graphics, the tablet is powerful enough to run Far Cry 3 and Dishonored at decent frame rates. And thanks to Windows 8 Pro, it can run legacy desktop applications, including essential gaming utilities like Steam, uPlay and the launchers for World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2. The Edge Pro also easily chews through productivity applications, handling the processor-intensive Photoshop with aplomb.

The bad news: Whether you’re playing games, watching movies, editing images, or writing tablet reviews, the Edge Pro requires significant compromises. In terms of raw processing performance, sure, the tablet can do everything. But in terms of ergonomics, convenience, display quality and price, the tablet falls short of more specialized, cheaper devices. We reviewed the highest spec'ed version of the Edge Pro, and at $1450, it proved to be a luxury product for hardcore PC gamers only.

But at least it's a luxury product that solves a nagging PC gaming problem: Finding killer performance in a reasonably portable package.

Durable chassis with a disappointing display

Compared to the Surface Pro, Razer’s matte black Edge Pro feels chubby. It weighs roughly 2.25 pounds and measures just over 20 mm thick, whereas Microsoft's high-end tablet is just 2 pounds and 13.5 mm thick. Razer’s tablet is durable: it doesn’t have the advantage of Gorilla Glass or a fancy VaporMg chassis, but it survived a week gallivanting around San Francisco in my crowded messenger bag without so much as a scratch. Its composite aluminum body feels cheap to the touch, yet holds up under significant wear and tear.

Even when using the Edge Pro as a regular Windows 8 tablet, sans accessories, the weight of the hardware is noticeable.

While certainly functional, the Edge Pro's 10.6-inch, 1366-by-768 pixel screen is a letdown when watching movies, playing games or doing pretty much anything that’s predicated on visual fidelity—in short, everything that the Edge Pro is designed to excel at. It’s a serviceable platform for playing Skyrim, but I can’t help but envy the iPad's Retina display or even the bright, 1920-by-1080 screen on the Surface Pro. The Edge Pro looks shabby by comparison, and it’s just not bright enough to use in direct sunlight. This is hardly a deal-breaker, but it does mean you’ll need to draw the shades during daylight gaming sessions.

Razer earns respect for cramming so much processing performance into a tablet chassis. But with PC power comes PC problems.
 The 10-point capacitive touchscreen is big enough for playing games, as long as you run them full screen. I had no issues browsing the web or using Windows 8 apps, but I felt cramped while trying to manage multiple desktop applications on the Edge Pro’s limited real estate. It’s a problem that’s easily solved by hooking up the tablet to an external display, but you’ll have a difficult time doing so without purchasing the dock accessory, as the Edge Pro tablet itself sports just a single USB 3.0 port.

Bottom line: To use the Edge Pro as a full-fledged desktop PC replacement, an HDTV gaming console or a mobile gaming machine, you must invest in Razer’s portfolio of pricey peripherals.

If you choose to shell out $99 for the Edge docking station which packs three extra USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI out port, a mic jack, a stereo port, and a jack for the power adapter you won’t have any trouble outputting to a full 1080p display. I connected the tablet to both a 24 inch Gateway monitor and a 40 inch Mitsubishi HDTV via HDMI, and it effortlessly drove each display at 1920-by-1080. To this extent, the Edge Pro actually doubles as a decent desktop gaming PC if you’re willing to pay for the docking station and deck it out with a keyboard, mouse, monitor and headset.

Razer earns respect for cramming so much processing performance into a tablet chassis. But with PC power comes PC problems. Play a processor-intensive game like Dishonored for more than a minute, and you’ll feel the heat literally.

Despite the integration of heat-dissipating grilles along the top-rear edge of the tablet chassis, the tablet consistently became almost too hot to handle during gaming sessions. I passed it around to a few friends and nobody found it painfully hot, but we all agreed that the Edge Pro is uncomfortably warm to the touch while running PC games. It’s not a deal-breaker, but Razer might consider adding “lap warmer” to the Edge Pro’s already lengthy list of functions.

As far as fan noise, the Edge Pro emits a noticeable hum during processor-intensive use. I found it inoffensive and easy to ignore, but your tolerance may vary.

Best-in-class performance

The Edge Pro’s go-for-broke hardware helped the tablet earn top marks in PCWorld's suite of performance benchmarks. Razer sent us the premium version of the tablet, so our tests were able to tap into a 1.9GHz Core i7 CPU, 8 GB of RAM, and a discrete NVIDIA GT 640M LE GPU alongside the standard Intel HD 4000 graphics chip.

Our review unit, which you can order now on Razer’s website for $1450, also came with a 256GB SSD. The standard $1300 Edge Pro comes with a more modest 128GB SSD. And if you want to spend even less money, a cool $1000 will get you the basic Edge tablet, which sports the same discrete Nvidia GPU, but comes with a Core i5 processor, a 64GB SSD, and just 4 GB of RAM.

The top-of-the-line Edge Pro tablet runs contemporary PC games like Crysis 3 at playable framerates.

The premium-priced Edge Pro delivers fantastic performance that helps justify its $1450 price tag. For one, we saw 73 frames per second running Dirt Showdown at native resolution. That’s more than twice what Microsoft’s Surface Pro was able to deliver in the same test, and confirms that the Edge Pro is the best gaming tablet on the market.

Razer’s beast also outperformed the Surface Pro, The Acer W700 and the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 in our PCMark 7 suite of productivity tests, including our Photoshop CS6 image editing tests and the 3DMark11 graphics rendering tests. Granted, the Edge Pro has a lower native resolution that the competition, and this makes it easier for the tablet to deliver high frame rates in games. But when you view all the benchmark results together, it's clear the machine is purpose-built for performance.

The flipside of all this fantastic performance is poor battery life. The Edge Pro was pitiful in our battery rundown test, burning through a full charge in just under four hours six with the extended battery attached. Of all the Windows 8 hybrids we’ve tested, only the Lenovo ThinkPad Twist fared worse. And that’s just in our lab tests, which are actually a little forgiving because they rely on looping video playback and automated PCMark 7 tests to drain the battery. While running demanding PC games on the Edge Pro, I routinely ran the battery dry after two to three hours of continuous play.

This presents a significant problem for real-world use: The utility of a portable gaming machine that can only run for a couple of hours is dubious at best. The brief battery life isn’t an issue if you’re just puttering around your Steam library from the comfort of your couch, but it’s a complete deal-breaker if you’re on a long plane trip or otherwise isolated from a power outlet for more than a few hours.

The 256GB SSD in our review unit was more than spacious enough to install Windows 8, a few productivity programs, benchmarking software, and a handful of games with large storage footprints (Skyrim, Far Cry 3, XCOM and Sleeping Dogs) with plenty of space left over. Even the 128GB SSD in the basic version of the Edge Pro seems spacious enough if you don’t load it up with an excess of music, movies and games. The 64GB SSD in the base Edge tablet concerns us, though, given the storage requirements of Windows 8 and most modern PC games.

Accessories required

It’s impossible to discuss the Edge Pro without delving into its accessories, which Razer sells separately at premium prices. Three are available at the time of this review: a $99 Docking Station,  a $249 Gamepad Controller, and a $69 Razer Edge extended battery, which inserts inside the Gamepad Controller. Razer's engineers are also working on a keyboard dock, which should be available by the holidays. Its price is still unknown, but it's slated to support the extended battery.

The docking station resembles a sleek USB hub. Along the rear are three USB 2.0 ports, audio out and mic jacks, an HDMI 1.4 port, and a power jack for the Edge power supply. The idea is to set up the station next to your PC or TV, plug in all the requisite cables for your display, mouse, keyboard, and so on, and then just plop the Edge into the dock when you get home and use it as your desktop PC or gaming console.

Plug the tablet into the docking station (sold separately) and use it's suite of ports to hook up three additional USB devices and drive external hardware via HDMI and audio out.

I did both, and I’m happy to report the Edge Pro performs very well in either capacity. It’s a little challenging to find decent PC games that support multiple players using gamepads, but my friends and I had a fantastic time playing through Double Fine’s The Cave on a 40-inch HDTV. The Edge Pro performed equally well when docked with my mouse, keyboard and 24-inch monitor the extra screen space and input control make the Edge Pro shine as a desktop replacement.

Of course, if you’re away from the docking station and want to play anything other than simple touch-based games on the Edge Pro, you’ll need to either plug a controller into the tablet’s sole USB 3.0 port, or jack into the optional $249 Gamepad Controller, which cocoons the tablet in a considerable amount of extra hardware.

The Gamepad Controller gives you console-style button controls a welcome feature when playing many PC games. But the accessory is also a hefty investment in terms of both price and poundage: When you slot in the extended battery, the machined aluminum chassis adds more than two pounds and almost four inches to the tablet. This expanded form factor is manageable, but I needed to curl up on a couch when using the Edge Pro in all it’s mobile gaming glory for more than 15 minutes at a stretch. The ergonomics are challenging, and many seating positions just won't work.

The Edge Pro is at its best and heaviest when jacked into the gamepad chassis (which conceals a slot for an extended battery.)

The chassis is sturdy there’s no danger of snapping the thin supports that link the hand grips to the shell and conceals motors that deliver surprisingly satisfying vibrational feedback during game play. Razer’s design clearly duplicates Microsoft’s Xbox 360 for Windows gamepad, with two analog joysticks, a directional pad, four face buttons (A, B, X, Y), and the requisite Start and Select buttons.

Six triggers crown the two cylinders three on either side and all are within comfortable reach of your index fingers. Using the directional pad and face buttons isn’t as comfortable, because each button cluster is nestled about an inch beneath an analog stick. This is a cramped arrangement, and when you're quickly moving your thumbs back and forth between the controls, fatigue sets in quickly. Given how much real estate is available on each cylinder, it’s hard to understand why Razer built the buttons and sticks so close together.

Can a tablet really fulfill all your gaming needs?

The Razer Edge Pro is the most powerful Windows 8 tablet PCWorld has ever seen. Sure, it’s not as sleek as the competition, but the extra girth is an acceptable compromise in exchange for the power of an Nvidia GPU and a Core i7 processor.

More importantly, it’s solid proof that Razer can successfully build a Windows tablet that runs the latest PC games at playable frame rates. The Edge Pro is expensive and cumbersome, but it works: It lets you play Skyrim in bed, and that alone makes it a must-buy for a subset a very, very rich subset of PC gaming enthusiasts.

My biggest problem with the Edge Pro is that it’s so clearly a luxury product. Razer built a Windows 8 tablet that only gamers could love, and even then only if they shell out almost two grand for the premium model with all the optional accessories. For that price, you could pick up an Xbox 360, a Nexus 7 and enough hardware to build your own gaming PC, and still have a little cash left over for games. The Edge Pro simply isn’t a practical replacement for any device save perhaps a Windows tablet, and even there it can’t match the price, portability or convenience of the Microsoft Surface Pro and its Type keyboard covers.

The Edge Pro is an amazing piece of kit, but it's hard to recommend it to anyone but a hardcore PC gaming enthusiast. If you want a Windows 8 device for any other purpose, you'd be better served by a Surface Pro or a Windows 8 hybrid, at least until Razer improves upon the Edge Pro's design shortcomings. It's just a few ounces, inches and dollars from being a game-changing product.
Lenovo ThinkPad Twist review: A great business tool

Lenovo ThinkPad Twist review: A great business tool

Lenovo’s ThinkPad Twist is the latest in a string of Windows 8-running tablet-laptop hybrids, and it’s a little different from the competition. Mainly, it’s a business-oriented tablet-laptop (excuse me, tablet-Ultrabook) hybrid that stays true (sort of) to the ThinkPad line’s traditional, if somewhat boring, aesthetic.

Like other tablet-Ultrabook hybrids, the Twist has a unique way of converting itself from a tablet to a laptop and back again. This time the screen is attached to the bottom of the laptop with a single, sturdy rotating hinge. You can rotate the laptop’s screen 180 degrees, and then fold it backward to use it as a tablet. This isn’t a new concept – we actually first saw this style of convertible tablet-laptop way back in the early 2000s when Microsoft was trying to make pre-iPad tablet computers a thing – but it’s implemented much better than what we’ve seen before.

The Thinkpad Twist mounts its display on a rotating hinge.
Our review model, which costs $899.99 as configured, has a third-generation Intel Core i5-3317U processor, 4GB of RAM (3.82GB usable), and a 500GB HDD spinning at 7200rpm alongside a 24GB SSD caching drive. The Twist also has built-in Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, and a slot for a SIM card, for users who want to be connected


In PCWorld’s WorldBench 8 tests, the ThinkPad Twist scores 47 out of 100. This means that it’s 53 percent slower than our testing model, which is no surprise – our testing model has a third-generation Intel Core i5 desktop processor, 8GB of RAM, and a discrete Nvidia graphics card. The Twist’s score isn’t great – it’s on the lower side of the systems we’ve tested that have the same processor. For example, Lenovo’s IdeaPad Yoga, which has the same i5-3317U processor and 4GB of RAM, scores 60 out of 100 on WB8. Likewise, the Dell XPS 12 Convertible Touch, another convertible tablet-laptop hybrid, score 64 out of 100. The score differentials are probably because those other systems ship with SSDs instead of rotating hard drives.

The Twist also falls short in our individual performance tests. For example, in the PCMark 7 productivity test, the Twist scores 1099, which is just a little behind the Yoga’s 2115 and the Duo 12’s 2187. Although the Twist does have a 24GB SSD boot drive, it takes longer than other convertible Ultrabooks to start up – 13.4 seconds, which is almost twice as long as the Yoga’s 7.9 seconds and the Duo 12’s 8.8 seconds. It is faster, however, than laptops that do not have SSD boot drives, such as the Toshiba Satellite P854t-S4310 (22.7 seconds) and the Acer Aspire V5-571P-6499 (21.3 seconds).

Graphics performance on the Twist is right about where we expect it to fall, considering it’s an Ultrabook with no discrete graphics card. In our Dirt showdown test (maximum quality settings, 1366 by 768 pixel resolution), the Twist managed 28.8 frames per second, which is on par with the frame rates of both the Yoga (30.1fps) and the Duo 12 (33.3fps) in the same test.

We managed to eke out just three hours and 15 minutes of battery life with the Twist, which is not very good considering the class. Other tablet-Ultrabook hybrids typically get at least five hours (the Yoga got five hours and 37 minutes, while the Duo 12 got four hours and 39 minutes), and some, such as the Samsung XE500T1C-A01, get as much as nine hours.

Design and Usability

The Lenovo ThinkPad Twist looks like a sleeker, sexier version of traditional ThinkPad laptops. Lenovo has been careful to keep its ThinkPad line visually similar, keeping the traditional matte black finish and red accents, though it has been updating the look in subtle ways.

The Twist has a flat, smooth cover made of soft, rubbery material. In the lower left corner there’s a silver Lenovo logo, and in the lower right corner there’s a traditional ThinkPad logo. The ThinkPad logo’s “i” has a red dot, which is actually a light that pulses when the computer is turned on. The cover is very simple, and there’s a thin silver line around the edge.

Inside, the Twist looks a little cluttered. There’s another ThinkPad logo (with another pulsing, red-dotted “i”) in the lower right corner of the wrist rest, which is made of the same soft, rubbery material as the cover. The glossy 12.5-inch touchscreen is surrounded by a thick bezel, and there are a couple of buttons located below it: the Windows 8 button for switching back to the home screen, and volume controls.

The laptop sports a full-size, spill-proof, island-style keyboard with small, rounded keys. The keyboard is comfortable to type on, though the keys are a little slippery. In the middle of the keyboard there’s a small red TrackPoint. The TrackPoint’s corresponding three buttons are located directly below the keyboard, above a small matte touchpad. The touchpad has no discrete buttons, and is instead clickable itself. Both the TrackPoint and the touchpad are comfortable as input devices, and offer up smooth, accurate pointing and easy clicking.

Like other tablet-Ultrabook hybrids, the Twist can be used in several different ways. You can open it up and use it as a laptop, or you can twist the screen around to use it as a tablet. The screen, which is attached to the bottom of the laptop by a small, sturdy hinge, only twists one way, and only 180 degrees. In tablet mode, you can tilt the screen backward and use the bottom of the laptop as a stand, or you can tilt the screen all the way back (flat), and use the Twist as a typical tablet.
The Thinkpad Twist in tablet mode.
The Twist is a bit heavy at 3.48 pounds to use as a tablet, so you probably won’t be using it like that very often. But still, it’s a nice option to have.

Lenovo also advertises a “tent” mode, which is when you twist the screen, tilt it back, and then stand the laptop on its edges to make a tent-like structure. While this mode works well with the Yoga, which has balanced parts, it’s not very effective with the Twist. The Twist’s screen is much slimmer and lighter than the bottom part of the laptop, and so propping it up in tent mode does not seem very sturdy.

The Twist offers up decent port selection, considering it’s a tablet-Ultrabook hybrid. It has a Gigabit Ethernet port, which is very useful for business travelers and not something you usually see on Ultrabooks. It also has two USB 3.0 ports, a Mini-DisplayPort and a Mini-HDMI port, a 4-in-1 card reader, and a Kensington lock slot. There’s a combined headphone/microphone jack, and the power button is located on the right side of the screen, along with a screen lock button for when you’re in tablet mode.
Screen and Speakers

The Twist sports a glossy 12.5-inch IPS touchscreen with a native resolution of 1366 by 768 pixels. This resolution can look a little dated on larger screens, but it’s just fine on the Twist’s screen, and images and text look sharp and crisp. Overall, the Twist’s screen is nice-looking: it’s bright, at 350 nits (the average screen brightness for a laptop is between 200 and 250 nits), which means that you’ll be able to use it outside or in bright situations. Extra brightness is ideal, since the Twist is meant to double as a tablet.

The Twist’s screen offers up excellent contrast and off-axis viewing angles; the only small issue I had with the screen was that colors sometimes seemed a little off. For example, whites occasionally looked a little yellowish, especially when the brightness wasn’t pumped up.

As a touchscreen, the Twist’s screen works very well. It’s responsive and accurate, and multi-touch gestures are smooth – more on par with a tablet than with a laptop. It’s similar to the Yoga’s touchscreen, which is also responsive and smooth.

Video looks and sounds pretty mediocre on the Twist. HD streaming video plays back fairly smoothly, but I did see a lot of artifacting and noise in just about every part of every scene – whether I was watching the animated My Little Pony series, or the dark, action-packed Arrow series.

Audio on the Twist is…interesting. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard laptop speakers that are just kind of blah – not outright awful, but also not in any way good. Here’s the thing: first, the speakers seem to be located in the keyboard, which is just kind of weird. Second, though the sound gets pretty loud (and doesn’t distort, even at the highest volume), it’s just very flat. There doesn’t appear to be any bass or treble happening, and so all audio sounds flat, and a little echo-y. This isn’t too much of an issue if you’re just watching a quick clip, but it’s definitely an issue if you want to listen to music.

Bottom Line

Although the Lenovo ThinkPad Twist has its flaws, it does what it’s designed to do very well. That is, it’s a fantastic business-oriented tablet-Ultrabook hybrid, and it’s a great choice for a business user.

The Twist’s performance is a little on the low side for systems in its class, but it’s nothing to be too concerned about. The twisty screen is particularly useful if you’re working with someone and you want to quickly show them what’s going on on your screen (assuming they’re sitting on your left – the screen only twists one way). And of course, the spill-proof keyboard and mobile data option are great for traveling businesspeople.

Don’t get me wrong – the ThinkPad Twist has some issues, and it’s not designed for entertainment. But if you’re just looking for a business tablet-Ultrabook hybrid, then this laptop is definitely worth a look.
Deep inside Windows 8.1's hidden new features

Deep inside Windows 8.1's hidden new features

After months of teasing and torture, the Windows 8.1 Developer Preview is finally here, ready to deliver us from many of Windows 8’s glaring flaws. You’ve no doubt already heard about Windows 8.1’s biggest new features: The Start button is back, Bing owns the Search charm, the split-screen Snap feature is customizable, yada yada yada. You know the drill.

What hasn’t been talked about much are the subtler changes—the hidden secrets tucked away in the dark corners of Windows 8.1, whispering and waiting for a turn to shine rather than shouting their proverbial presence from the proverbial rooftops.

No, these gems aren’t as flashy as Windows 8’s newfound ability to sync apps and Internet Explorer 11 tabs across multiple devices, but they’re arguably just as (if not more) handy. And there’s no way you’ll find them unless you dig deep...or read this enlightening guide.

Shut down from the Start button

Let’s start with something basic, but far from obvious.

Yes, the Start button is back...but the Start menu isn’t. So you still need to swipe through a multiclick process involving the charm bar if you want to shut down your PC if you don’t know about the Start button’s secret menu, that is.

Right-clicking the Start button that appears when you hover your mouse cursor in the lower-left corner of the screen brings up a bevy of powerful options, including quick links to deep stuff like Disk Management and Command Prompt tools.

Now, the menu itself isn’t new to Windows 8.1. What is new is the addition of a Shut Down option to said menu. Hovering over it for a second gives you options to shut down or restart your PC right then and there, no fiddling with hidden menus required.

Boot to desktop or All Apps, and more

The Taskbar Properties option is another old friend with a subtle new look and a crucial one for desktop diehards. Did you hear that Windows 8.1 lets you boot directly to the desktop on start up? It does, but Microsoft clearly doesn’t really want you to do it, since the option is buried in this obscure corner of the OS.

Head to the desktop, right-click the taskbar, select Properties, and then open the brand-spankin’-new Navigation tab. There, you’ll find new options for disabling the uppermost hot corners. Those options are also available in the modern-style PC Settings, but many Start screen options can only be found here.

And how handy-dandy they are! Want to boot directly to the desktop or the All Apps screen? Here’s your chance, and the other selections are just as useful. (Show the desktop background on the Start screen? Yessssssss.)

Open the Metro version of IE 11 in multiple windows

While you’re busy taking advantage of all the hot resizable Snap size action in Windows 8.1, don’t forget that you can now have a single app open in multiple Snapped windows something you couldn’t do in the original Windows 8 release.

Well, kinda.

Despite a lot of effort, I haven’t been very successful in getting that feature to function in the Windows 8.1 Developer Preview. Trying to open an app twice or Snapping an app to one side of the screen and attempting to open a second instance simply doesn’t work.

You can open multiple instances of the modern version of Internet Explorer 11, though. If you have multiple tabs open, you can long-press one of them and select Open tab in new window in the resulting pop-up box. Alternatively, long-pressing a link on a webpage brings up several options at the bottom of the screen, including that ‘Open tab in a new window’ dialog.

Selecting that option causes the page to appear in another IE 11 window, and Windows 8.1 helpfully Snaps both windows into a 50/50 split.

The great gigs in the Sky(Drive)

SkyDrive takes on a much bigger role in Windows 8.1, driving Microsoft’s vision of a seamless, cloud-connected world even further.

In fact, SkyDrive is so vital an underpinning to Windows 8.1 that Microsoft dedicates an entire section to it in the modern-style PC Settings. A vast number of settings now sync and follow you from device to device by default—including modern apps, woohoo! But if you really want to live in the cloud, you’ll need to enable some options buried three or four levels down.

Open the charm bar, and select Settings > Change PC Settings. From there, open the SkyDrive options and select Files in the left-hand menu bar.

Here you can acquire the ability to save documents and snapshots from your Camera Roll folder to SkyDrive by default, a downright awesome new option if you want to be able to sit down at virtually any Windows 8 computer and have it feel like your own.

Hush, my darling

Relaxing ain’t easy if your gadget blasts alarms throughout the day. Windows 8 has joined Apple and Android in embracing notifications, which make sounds and light up your lock screen even if you’re not holding your tablet in your hand. Fortunately, Windows 8.1 lets you silence the cacophony with its new Quiet Hours setting.

This one’s buried, too. Open the Settings charm, and navigate to Change PC Settings > Search and apps > Notifications. Scroll down the page a bit until you reach Quiet Hours. By default, Windows 8.1 is set to go silent from midnight to 6 a.m., but you can change the window to any time frame you desire.

Get a grip on your apps

Something really irked me about the modern apps in the vanilla version of Windows 8. No, I’m not talking about their seas of wasted space (Windows 8.1 didn’t fix that!). I mean the fact that they were incredibly pesky to manage from anywhere except the Start screen. Modern apps don’t show up anywhere obvious in the desktop File Explorer’s folder structure, and you can’t eliminate them from the Control Panel’s Programs & Features interface, either. Bleh.

Windows 8.1 changes that. Huzzah!

Navigate to the Search & Apps section once again, and select App sizes in the left-hand menu. The screen populates with a full listing of all your installed modern apps, complete with the file size of each app. If you’re looking to free up some hard drive space, you can click an app to bring up an uninstall option.

Wireless Miracast pairing

People don’t likes wires, and neither does Windows 8.1. Like Android 4.2, Microsoft’s OS update includes full support for the fledgling Miracast wireless display standard, which basically acts like Apple’s AirPlay technology. It’s your PC screen, beamed to your TV or monitor as if by telecommunications magic!

Miracast is so new that you might have trouble finding compatible television sets at stores near you, but you can pick up Miracast receiver dongles that transform any TV with an HDMI port into a Miracast-compatible display. Even better, when Microsoft’s Xbox One console lands in time for the holidays, it’ll be a fully capable Miracast receiver, further deepening the synergies between Windows 8 and Xbox.

If you want to connect your Windows 8.1 device to a Miracast receiver, you can dig deep into the modern-style PC Settings. But the easier option is to open the Devices charm and select Project > Add a display. If there’s a Miracast display nearby, Windows 8 should find it.

A whole lotta printing going on
Windows 8.1 brings a bevy of improvements to the way it handles the more exotic printers popping up these days. For one thing, Windows 8.1 packs 3D printer support in the form of a driver and a native API, and hopefully—hopefully—that will make the 3D printing process as simple as the traditional 2D printing process, rather than the complicated export-filled mess that it is now.

The idea is to allow you to kick 3D printers to life using the Print option under the Devices charm, so you can print from directly within that oh-so-fresh modern interface—assuming the printer’s software takes advantage of Microsoft’s support. 
Check out the image below to see Windows 8.1 printing to a MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printer.

But the cutting-edge printing action doesn’t stop there. Windows 8.1 also includes support for NFC printers. If both your Windows device and your printer are members of the (currently rare) NFC-enabled breed, simply tapping one against the other can automatically pair the two devices for hassle-free printing action.

And if NFC or 3D printers are just a bit too adventurous for you, you’ll be happy to hear that Windows 8.1 also includes Wi-Fi Direct printing capabilities. What does that mean? Simple: You can connect directly to a Wi-Fi Direct-enabled printer without having to jump on a Wi-Fi network or fuss with installing software, though the exact method will depend on your printer and device.

What else?

We’ve only just started to dig into Windows 8.1’s nooks and crannies. Did you find any particularly interesting gems hidden in Microsoft’s OS preview? Share ’em with your fellow geeks in the comments below!
Bringing brains to computers

Bringing brains to computers

For decades, scientists have fantasized about creating robots with brain-like intelligence. This year, researchers tempted by that dream made great progress on achieving what has been called the holy grail of computing.

Today, a wide variety of efforts are aimed at creating intelligent computers that can progressively learn and make smarter decisions. Millions of dollars this year were poured in efforts to create “silicon brains,” or neuromorphic chips that mimic brain-like functionality to make computers smarter.

The new chips could give eyes and ears to smart robots, which will be able to drive, identify objects, or even point out rotten fruit. This chip technology could let humans get mind control over machines, mobile devices anticipate actions by users and wearable devices like Google Glass to diagnose diseases. In the long run, neural chip implants could boost mental, visual, and cognitive capabilities of humans.

Scientists are looking to create advanced computers with these neural chips, which replicate the brain’s circuitry and can retain information and make decisions based on patterns discovered through probabilities and associations. Projects funded by the U.S. government, the European Union, and private organizations are attempting to re-create the manner in which the brain’s neurons and synapses work by redesigning the memory, computation, and communication features of traditional circuitry.

[Related: Biologically inspired--how neural networks are finally maturing]

The brain has 100 billion interconnected neurons, nerve cells that process and transmit information via electrical and chemical signals. These neurons compute in parallel and communicate via trillions of connections, which are the synapses. Connections among neurons in the neural network are either strengthened or pruned as the brain learns more. Today’s processors are wired and regulate voltage differently than the brain’s neural network, but researchers are keen on exploiting the parallelism of the brain which, among other things, also reduces power requirements.

Researchers hope neural chips will accomplish cognitive tasks and respond to a wide range of stimuli. Computers can already see and hear; robots have already been built to respond to sensory input. Within five years, computers could get smell and taste, and this sort of sensory information could be fed to chips for processing.

If we only had a brain (to simulate)

To be sure, most of the chip-development efforts are in early experimental phases. Brains of small insects and worms have been simulated on prototype neural chips, but human brains operate on a different scale. While it could be decades until chips simulate the human brain, the groundwork is bring laid by new models of computing that are now being established.

Among other things, new data-processing techniques are needed that allow more information to be fed to computers, researchers said. Helping this effort, the physical limits of manufacturing techniques for the chips that power today’s computers could fall within a decade, opening the door for new computing designs and chip architectures, said Robert Colwell, director of the microsystems technology office at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), in a speech earlier this year.

Currently, computers don’t have the capacity to learn from past experiences. Instead, they rely on pre-programmed code to make decisions. On the other hand, brain cells do not require programming, are high tolerance, can regenerate, and can draw conclusions that computers are not able to reach, said Karlheinz Meier, professor and chair of experimental physics at the University of Heidelberg.

Traditional computers won’t go away, meanwhile, as some activities don’t require intelligent processing, said Meier, who is also co-director of the European Union-funded Human Brain Project.

“You will always do your text processing and email,” Meier said.

But like the brain, neural chips will excel at certain things, like cutting through “noisy” data to make intelligent decisions, said Nabil Imam, a computer scientist and researcher at Cornell University.

The neuromorphic chips will complement, not replace, other processors in a computer, Imam said.

Chips modeled after the human brain have electronic neurons that can dynamically rewire the connections among them, blast information at each other, and forage for relevant data—a process more power efficient than throwing lots of data to CPUs and other coprocessors like GPUs. IBM’s Watson supercomputer made history when it beat participants at the game of Jeopardy, but it threw lots of data at processors to find answers.

“Our brains were wired to do certain things very well like pattern recognition. Computers can’t do that. These processors have a different class of applications,” Imam said.

Imam is involved in the development of neuromorphic chips as part of the multiphase Synapse (Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics) project funded by DARPA. The Synapse project, initiated in 2008, involves IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Cornell, Stanford University and other universities.

Neuromorphic chip from DARPA DARPA
Neuromorphic chip from DARPA

The first tangible results for Synapse came in early 2011, when IBM demonstrated a prototype chip with 256 digital neurons running at slow speeds of 10MHz. The chip was able to demonstrate navigation and pattern recognition abilities.

One chip core had 262,144 programmable synapses, while another core had 65,536 learning synapses. The connections between digital neurons got stronger depending on the number of signals sent. If an electronic spike from one neuron affects the voltage of another neuron, the two are synaptically connected. In chips, spiking neurons communicate with other neurons when triggers, such as certain values, are reached.

The next big thing

The next big Synapse announcement will come next year, when a new neural chip system that mimics a “very big brain” will be announced, Imam said. The chip will have a novel design of memory arrays so that large numbers of connections can be made among digital neurons. An asynchronous design will ensure communication signals are organized by local circuits. The chip will be made using a new manufacturing process.

“It’s the largest neuromorphic system that’s been built to date,” Imam said.

IBM, one of the lead researcher companies in Synapse, this year said that it ultimately wants to build a “chip system” that has 10 billion neurons and a hundred trillion synapses but draws just 1 kilowatt of power.

Another research project drawing interest is Qualcomm’s Zeroth chip, which the company calls a “neural processing unit.” By analyzing patterns of human behavior, the chip could make interaction with mobile devices easier by anticipating user actions, said company CEO Paul Jacobs during a speech last month.

Qualcomm has already demonstrated a robot based on Zeroth that can make navigation decisions. The company wants to expand Zeroth’s capabilities and is researching possibilities, said Sameer Kumar , director of business development at Qualcomm.

The Synapse and Qualcomm research efforts are based on digital neurons, but one neuromorphic system due in Europe will be based on analog circuitry, which keeps it truer to the brain. The system, located at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, is part of the Human Brain Project, a 10-year, $1.6 billion effort backed by the European Union to understand the brain’s inner workings.

The university already has a neuromorphic computing system operational with a silicon wafer containing 200,000 neurons and 50 million synapses. In two years, researchers hope to offer a 20-wafer system with a combined 4 million analog neurons, said Meier, who is spearheading the project.

The highly parallel chip design has configurable electronic neurons, and the goal is to understand the dependencies, synchronization and communication among neurons and synapses, and adopt them to computing.

The project’s intent is not to develop the best neural chip, but to understand architectures, Meier said. That could pave the way for neuromorphic computing models.

Other neural chip research efforts include Stanford’s Neurogrid and the University of Manchester’s Spinnaker, which is part of the E.U.’s Human Brain Project. HP is developing memristor memory technology, which could bolster a computer’s decision-making ability by understanding patterns from previously collected data, much like human brains collecting memories of and understanding a series of events.

It’s easy to create theories, but what’s important is to make the chips usable, said Guy Paillet, who holds a 1995 patent on neural circuit design, along with IBM and others. Paillet is the executive chairman of General Vision, which sells a chip called CM1K, based on a neural network design.

Research efforts under way are focused on so-called spiking neurons, which Paillet said are “close to biology to replicate the synapse model.”

Copying features of the way the brain works and applying them to chip technology is easier said than done. Neuron behavior is hard to predict, and making a chip that rewires millions of connections is a challenge. Morever, the brain is yet to be fully understood, and neuroscience researchers are uncovering new facts everyday.

But neural chip researchers are sharing data and taking complementary approaches, Meier said, adding that a little competition among peers doesn’t hurt.

“This is a chance to produce a new way of computing and we have to do whatever we can,” Meier said.
Biologically inspired: How neural networks are finally maturing

Biologically inspired: How neural networks are finally maturing

More than two decades ago, neural networks were widely seen as the next generation of computing, one that would finally allow computers to think for themselves.

Now, the ideas around the technology, loosely based on the biological knowledge of how the mammalian brain learns, are finally starting to seep into mainstream computing, thanks to improvements in hardware and refinements in software models.

Computers still can’t think for themselves, of course, but the latest innovations in neural networks allow computers to sift through vast realms of data and draw basic conclusions without the help of human operators.

“Neural networks allow you to solve problems you don’t know how to solve,” said Leon Reznik, a professor of computer science at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Slowly, neural networks are seeping into industry as well. Micron and IBM are building hardware that can be used to create more advanced neural networks.

On the software side, neural networks are slowly moving into production settings as well. Google has applied various neural network algorithms to improve its voice recognition application, Google Voice. For mobile devices, Google Voice translates human voice input to text, allowing users to dictate short messages, voice search queries and user commands even in the kind of noisy ambient conditions that would flummox traditional voice recognition software.

Neural networks could also be used to analyze vast amounts of data. In 2009, a group of researchers used neural network techniques to win the Netflix Grand Prize.

At the time, Netflix was holding a yearly contest to find the best way to recommend new movies based on its data set of approximately 100 million movie ratings from its users. The challenge was to come up with a better way to recommend new movie choices to users than Netflix’s own recommendation system. The winning entry was able to improve on Netflix’s internal software, offering a more accurate predictor of what movies Netflix may want to see.

Neural networking vs. computing
As originally conceived, neural networking differs from traditional computing in that, with conventional computing, the computer is given a specific algorithm, or program, to execute. With neural networking, the job of solving a specific problem is largely left in the hands of the computer itself, Reznick said.

To solve a problem such as finding a specific object against a backdrop, neural networks use a similar, though vastly simplified, approach to how a mammalian cerebral cortex operates. The brain processes sensory and other information using billions of interconnected neurons. Over time, the connections among the neurons change, by growing stronger or weaker in a feedback loop, as the person learns more about his or her environment.

An artificial neural network (ANN) also uses this approach of modifying the strength of connections among different layers of neurons, or nodes in the parlance of the ANN. ANNs, however, usually deploy a training algorithm of some form, which adjusts the nodes to extract the desired features from the source data. Much like humans do, a neural network can generalize, slowly building up the ability to recognize, for instance, different types of dogs, using a single image of a dog.

There are numerous efforts under way to try to replicate, at high fidelity, how the brain operates in hardware, such as the EU’s Human Brain Project (see accompanying story: “Bringing brains to computers”). Researchers in the field of computer science, however, are borrowing the ideas from biology to build systems that, over time, may learn in the same way brains do, even if their approach differs from that of biological organisms.

Evolution of neural networking
Although investigated since the 1940s, research into ANNs, which can be thought of as a form of artificial intelligence (AI), hit a peak of popularity in the late 1980s.

“There was a lot of great things done as part of the neural network resurgence in the late 1980s,” said Dharmendra Modha, an IBM Research senior manager who is involved in a company project to build a neuromorphic processor. Throughout the next decade, however, other forms of closely related AI started getting more attention, such as machine learning and expert systems, thanks to a more immediate applicability to industry usage.

Nonetheless, the state-of-the-art in neural networks continued to evolve, with the introduction of powerful new learning models that could be layered to sharpen performance in pattern recognition and other capabilities,

“We’ve come to the stage where much closer simulation of natural neural networks is possible with artificial means,” Reznick said. While we still don’t know entirely how the brain works, a lot of advances have been made in cognitive science, which, in turn, are influencing the models that computer scientists are using to build neural networks.

“That means that now our artificial computer models will be much closer to the way natural neural networks process information,” Reznick said.

The continuing march of Moore’s Law has also lent a helping hand. Over the past decade, the microprocessor fabrication process has provided the density needed to run large clusters of nodes even on a single slice of silicon, a density that would not have been possible even a decade ago.

“We’re now at a point where the silicon has matured and technology nodes have gotten dense enough where it can deliver unbelievable scale at really low power,” Modha said.

Harnessing processors
Reznick is leading a number of projects to harness today’s processors in a neural network-like fashion. He is investigating the possibility of using GPUs (graphics processing units), which thanks to their large number of processing cores, are inherently adapt at parallel computing. He is also investigating how neural networking could improve intrusion detection systems, which are used for detect everything from trespassers on a property to malicious hackers trying to break into a computer system.

Today’s intrusion detection systems work in one of two ways, Reznick explained. They either use signature detection, in which they recognize a pattern based on a pre-existing library of patterns. Or they look for anomalies in a typically static backdrop, which can be difficult to do in scenarios with lots of activity. Neural networking could combine the two approaches to strengthen the ability of the system to detect unusual deviations from the norm, Reznick said

One hardware company investigating the possibilities of neural networking is Micron. The company has just released a prototype of a DDR memory module with a built-in processor, called Automata.

While not a replacement for standard CPUs, a set of Automata modules could be used to watch over a live stream of incoming data, seeking anomalies or patterns of interest. In addition to these spatial characteristics, they can also watch for changes over time, said Paul Dlugosch, director of Automata processor development in the architecture development group of Micron’s DRAM division.

“We were in some ways biologically inspired, but we made no attempt to achieve a high fidelity model of a neuron. We were focused on a practical implementation in a semiconductor device, and that dictated many of our design decisions,” Dlugosch said.

Nonetheless, because they can be run in parallel, multiple Automata modules, each serving as a node, could be run together in a cluster for doing neural network-like computations. The output of one module can be piped into another module, providing the multiple layers of nodes needed for neural networking. Programming the Automata can be done through a compiler that Micron developed that uses either an extension of the regular expression language or its own Automata Network Markup Language (ANML).

Another company investigating this area is IBM. In 2013, IBM announced it had developed a programming model for some cognitive processors it built as part of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) SyNAPSE (Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics) program.

IBM’s programming model for these processors is based on reusable and stackable building blocks, called corelets. Each corelet is in fact a tiny neural network itself and can be combined with other corelets to build functionality. “One can compose complex algorithms and applications by combining boxes hierarchically,” Modha said.

“A corelet equals a core. You expose the 256 wires emerging out of the neurons, and expose 256 axioms going into the core but inside of the code is not exposed. From the outside perspective, you only see these wires,” Modha said.

In early tests, IBM taught one chip how to play the primitive computer game Pong, to recognize digits, to do some olfactory processing, and to navigate a robot through a simple environment.

While it is doubtful that neural networks would ever replace standard CPUs, they may very well end up tackling certain types of jobs difficult for CPUs alone to handle.

“Instead of bringing sensory data to computation, we are bringing computation to sensors,” Modha said. “This is not trying to replace computers, but it is a complementary paradigm to further enhance civilization’s capability for automation.”
$38 tablet computer coming to U.S.

$38 tablet computer coming to U.S.

London-based Datawind said it will begin selling its $38 UbiSlate tablet computer in the United States early next year.

The company, which claims its tablets outsell Apple's iPad in India, plans to sell three models in the United States, ranging in price from $38 to as much as $149 with varying specs and capabilities.

Suneet Singh Tuli, Datawind’s CEO, said the company's goal is to bring the least expensive computers possible to schools and low-income communities. He said he especially wants to reach children who have limited access to the Web, or no connectivity at home.

"Affordability shouldn't be the reason people can’t get on the Internet," Tuli said in a press release. "We want to specifically reach a customer base that right now is not on the Internet."

Prodution costs are likely lower because the tablets don't have the most updated components.

The $38 7-inch touchscreen UbiSlate 7Ci tablet runs on Google's Android 4.0 and features a 1-gigahertz, single-core processor. It has 4 gigabytes of storage with microSD card slots for additional storage. The 7-inch display offers a resolution of 800×480 pixels.

Datawind’s $38 tablet is available now on the company’s website and it will be available through more retailers next year after the Consumer Electronics Show in January

Datawind will also sell a $100 version of its tablet, called the UbiSlate 7C+, that ships with 1 year of freeWweb browsing over old Edge networks.

At the top of the company’s lineup will be the UbiSlate 3G7, that runs on 3G networks with free unlimited Web browsing, for $150. The UbiSlate 3G7 features a dual-core processor and will run Google’s Android 4.1.
Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

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