Saturday, 29 June 2013

Today, during the keynote for the Microsoft Build conference in San Francisco, the company announced the preview version for Windows 8.1 (download the preview here). As a point upgrade to Windows 8, there are few sweeping changes to the operating system, but Microsoft has thankfully made some tweaks to the interface, along with upgraded apps and other enhancements that users will appreciate. But it's important to note that if you were hoping for a return to a Windows 7 layout, you're going to be disappointed; Microsoft is sticking to its guns on the Modern UI (the tiled Start screen interface), and you'll still be using it as your main launching point. With that said, Microsoft has added a few features that make it a bit more palatable to keyboard-and-mouse Windows desktop users.

New apps and features in Windows 8.1 (pictures)

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In developing Windows 8.1, Microsoft says it listened to feedback from users and tried to solve the problems people were having with the new interface. In our time with the updated OS, we think the company has done a good job on a lot of fronts and has added a lot more to like, but we suspect that some people will still find the OS' reliance on touch off-putting.
The Start menu returns! (sort of)
One of the biggest complaints for Windows 8 was the removal of the Start (or Windows) button in the lower-left corner of the desktop. Microsoft's move toward touch-screen computing made it rethink the way people use their computers in Windows 8, but those who spent years clicking the Start button to navigate the OS weren't pleased with an entirely new way of doing things.
The new Start button gives you many of the old features back, but not all of them.
(Credit: Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET)
As a compromise of sorts, Microsoft has reintroduced the Start button in Windows 8.1 in the lower-left corner of the screen. Clicking on it brings up the Start screen, where you can type a few letters to find and open apps, just like in Windows 8. While you still don't get the exact same pop-up menu you had in Windows 7, Microsoft has added the ability to right-click the new Start button to get to common Control Panel settings, open the Task Manager, perform a search, and other useful system tools. At the bottom of the pop-up menu you have the option to shut down or restart your computer -- a function that was previously found in Windows 8 by mousing to the top-right corner of the screen, dragging downward, clicking Settings, clicking Power, then clicking Shutdown or Restart.
There's obviously nothing groundbreaking about bringing a widely used interface element back from a previous OS, but we had hoped Microsoft could bring it back completely. We use Windows 8 every day, but we still miss the convenience of having recent files, the Control Panel, and everything else from Windows 7 in one spot, whereas you now need to drill down in multiple different areas when using Windows 8. Nevertheless, we're glad the company has made the menu more easily accessible for mouse-and-keyboard users at the very least.
Boot to Desktop
A change that many users will appreciate is the capability to set up the Windows machine to boot directly to the desktop from within the OS. It seems that Microsoft has heard the outcry from users, or perhaps the company is finally admitting to some extent that the tiled Modern UI is not necessarily ideal for mouse-and-keyboard setups. In any case, we're happy it's been added.
Search for an artist and Xbox Music will create a radio station with songs from that artist and similar music from the genre.
(Credit: Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET)
Xbox Music gets much more intuitive
In Windows 8, Xbox Music allowed you to stream free music from a huge library of more than 30 million songs. In Windows 8.1, the app has been redesigned to make it easier to move around the interface. A left navigation pane lets you start a radio station, explore artists, play songs from your collection, or create and manage playlists. On the right side of the screen you can view artists, explore content, watch videos, and more. We noticed this is a theme in Windows 8.1: many of the interface elements include a left-side nav with content on the right, and we think it's much better than the sideways scrolling found in earlier versions of Xbox Music. You can create Pandora-like radio stations by entering an artist to get a stream of similar music, and you can create playlists of music you choose. The process is a little involved, but when you're finished you can listen to a custom playlist in exactly the order you want. There are obviously other services like Spotify that let you choose songs to play, and Pandora, which does free streaming, but the new layout in Windows 8.1 makes it much easier to use and might be your new go-to app instead of third-party options.
The Search charm produces better results from several different sources.
(Credit: Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET)
Search gets an upgrade
The search charm in Windows 8.1 does a little more than it did before. Now when you perform a search, you'll get global results from several sources including files, SkyDrive, apps, and the Web. All your search results are displayed horizontally, with more results from other sources when you scroll to the right.
When you search for popular actors, musicians, sports figures, and other well-known people, Windows 8 displays what it calls a Hero screen. On a search for Kanye West, for example, you get a large photo, related songs and videos, movies, and -- as you scroll further -- more-basic Web search results to Web sites and images. When a person isn't as famous, you get standard Web search results with links to Web sites and photos.
More flexibility with Snap views
In Windows 8.1 you'll now be able to run more apps simultaneously on one monitor by resizing app windows and using the Snap function. Now, you can have up to four running apps on one screen simultaneously, as long as your screen has a high enough resolution: 2,560x1,440 pixels is required to display four simultaneous apps. With a dual-monitor setup, you could have eight apps running at once. On the Surface Pro that Microsoft loaned us for testing, we were only able to get three apps on one screen (Surface Pro features a 1,920x1,080 resolution), but it was easy to see how it could be useful.
Microsoft has added some personalization features with both the Start screen and lock screens so people can add a bit of their own style to desktops and tablets. There are more colors to choose from for backgrounds, and you can display a slideshow on your lock screen with photos currently on your hard drive or from those stored on SkyDrive.
The new camera app has a ton more useful features, including editing tools, color enhancement, and filters.
(Credit: Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET)
Much-improved camera app
The camera app has been improved significantly in Windows 8.1. In Windows 8 your only option was to crop photos, but in 8.1, you get a full set of photo-editing tools to enhance color, adjust brightness and contrast, and red-eye, and pick from six different filters.
Our favorite part of the app is the color enhancement tool, which lets you pick a color on the photo, and enhance just that color to make it stand out. Where the camera app was almost useless before, in Windows 8.1 people will be more likely to use it with all the new features.
The new Windows Store has a cleaner layout with bigger images.
(Credit: Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET)
Windows Store
Part of this week's Microsoft Build event is about getting developers excited about making new apps for the Windows Store. A redesign in Windows 8.1 might be a step in the right direction with a cleaner look, larger images, and an overall more refined and sophisticated layout. Microsoft also made it so your current apps are now auto-updated, ensuring that you'll always have the latest versions.
One of the complaints of the Windows Store was that it didn't have a robust catalog of apps. While it's slowly grown since Windows 8 first arrived, hopefully a new look and auto-updates will make developers take a new interest in it.
Do the changes make Windows 8 better?
The short answer appears to be: yes. Windows 8.1 streamlines much of the touch interface, while adding many cosmetic and tangible, utilitarian features.
We think the real question, however, is: does 8.1 do enough to sweeten the bad taste left in the mouths of many Windows 8 users? That’s a much more difficult question to answer and one that will require much more time spent with the new OS.
Windows 8.1 probably still relies a bit too much on touch and may not do all it needs to repair damage caused by its predecessor; however, it’s a much-needed and in some cases impressive step in the right direction.
Google Reader will cease to exist after July 1. If you haven't migrated to another news reader yet, you only have a few days left before it's too late to export your data out of Google Reader.

If you're still hanging onto Google Reader, it's time to let it go. After Monday, Google Reader will no longer be available. People with only a few subscriptions will be able to migrate to another service without much hassle, but users with more than just a few will want the option to bulk import the subscription data. Even if you don't import the data to a new service right away, it'll be nice to have for future reference.
To export your Google Reader data, follow the steps below:
Step 1: Go to Reader settings, then click on the Import/Export tab.
Step 2: Under "Export your information," click on the "Download your data through Takeout" link. You can also go to directly.
Step 3: Once Takeout shows 100 percent and provides an estimate on the number of files and size, click on the "Create Archive" button.
Google Reader create archive(Credit: Screenshot by Ed Rhee/CNET)
Step 4: At the next screen, click on the Download button to download your Google Reader archive as a ZIP file.
Google Reader download archive(Credit: Screenshot by Ed Rhee/CNET)
When you open the archive, you'll see several JavaScript files (JSON) and a "subscriptions.xml" file. The XML file is what contains your list of subscriptions and is what you'll import to your new news reader.
Google Reader acrhive(Credit: Screenshot by Ed Rhee/CNET)
Keep in mind that some Google Reader alternatives, like Feedly and Digg Reader, don't support importing subscriptions -- at least not yet. If you think you'll want to try either of those services, you might want to use their Google Reader import options while you still can.
The good: The Motorizers feature distinctive Motorhead branding and a very rock-friendly sound; lack of a bass bump also makes them suited to most styles of music; detachable cables.
The bad: Build quality is a little cheap-feeling; the presence boost can make the headphones a little tiring to listen to after a while; they don't fold flat and so are less portable than other DJ headphones; they're plasticky and the earcups attract lint. Would you buy a pair of headphones named after a group of hearing-impaired elderly men?
The bottom line: The Motorheadphones Motorizers look and sound very rock-and-roll, but need a little more attention to the build quality.

While the pop and R&B world is littered with stars who slap their names upon the latest piece of plastic to land on the wharf, the roster of rock musicians willing to do the same is more an addendum to a footnote. We have Lou Reed, and we now have Motorhead. That's right, the one-time "loudest band in the world" Motorhead and its -- admittedly hearing impaired -- leader Lemmy Kilmister have released a range of headphones.
Consisting of both earbuds and on-ears, the top of the new range is the Motorizer -- named after the band's nineteenth album. It is a faux DJ set of cans which features interchangeable cables and a "specially tailored sound for punchy bass, clear mids and distinct high frequencies." It's too late for Lemmy Kilmister, but this product proclaims that "If it's too loud, you're too old," daring you to destroy your hearing in the same way. Are these headphones therefore deadly weapons? I call them "Lemmy 'nades."
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Design and features
The Motorizers are distinctive-looking headphones with the band's mascot on the earcups and little details like the ace of spades on the 3.5mm connector -- in honor of the band's most recognizable song.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The headphones feature velvet earpads, which feel a little cheap and pick up a lot of lint. Attached to the earcups is a detachable cord that lets you choose between two different woven cables: a 1m cord with a three-button mic remote, and a longer 3m cord without the remote. Unfortunately, the plug is terminated with a male connector at the headphones end, which means it will be a little more difficult to buy a third-party replacement.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
As Motorhead's top-of-the-range headphones it would have been better to see a higher build quality. While they look like they're partially constructed from metal, they are actually different colored plastics; even the wire brace appears to be plastic. Where most headphones allow you to adjust the fit by flexing the headband, the Motorheads don't feel like there's any flex in them at all.

Compared with the almost bombproof Marshall FX Major 50s, which are now the same price online, the build quality suffers. The Marshalls feature pleather cups, real metal, and a greater attention to detail. They also fold up for greater portability, unlike the larger Motorizers.
The Motorizers sport a sound that could be called exciting, and it's quite different from the sound of the Beats clones out there. Gone is the exaggerated bass and treble; it's replaced by a smoother response, albeit with a considerable presence push. This little bump between 5k and 9k adds a little intelligibility to vocals and some crispness to percussion, but depending on the recording this can become tiring and make you wish for something more neutral. Take as an example the ethereal vocals of "The Beekeeper's Boy" from Mew: on a normal headphone or speaker the breathiness is kept in check. On the Motorizers this track got so breathy as to be borderline asthmatic.
However, this extra intimacy can be welcome on some tracks -- unsurprisingly metal, including Motorhead, is best. Turn the volume up on a sibilant recording such as Metallica's "Wherever I May Roam" (HD tracks), and though the headphone's extra presence doesn't quite push over into distortion there is a lot of high-frequency energy in there! I actually turned my head when James Hetfield whispered into the left channel. But the bass response can be deep, too, when the music requires it -- it's not quite as effortless as on true monitor headphones like the Audio Technica ATH-M50s but neither is it bloomy like a Beats headphone can be.
But could an exciting headphone such as the Motorheads make a silk purse out of a sow's ear? The National's "Trouble Will Find Me" is one of the most blandly produced albums of 2013, but though the Motorheads tried, they simply couldn't bring the rock to this joyless record.
If you you're a fan of Motorhead, then odds are you have a pair of these already. They give off a very dirty, rock vibe and they sound much better than expected. The only drawbacks are the build quality and the overly active presence that can turn speech into shouty sibilance. I do wonder if Lemmy has heard these, though -- least of all because it's hard to wear headphones with a cowboy hat.
The good: The Olympus PEN E-P5 renders extremely good photos for its class, and has a streamlined shooting design. Plus, it's fast.
The bad: The navigation button/dial is annoyingly awkward, and I wish the flash tilted.
The bottom line: An excellent entry in the Micro Four Thirds universe, the Olympus PEN E-P5 should please a lot of folks, but it's also expensive given that it doesn't deliver best-in-class photo quality.

Normally a two-year product cycle isn't that much for a camera targeted at advanced photographers. But in a field where technology mutates as quickly as it does for advanced interchangeable-lens cameras, that's a long time. So at two years since the Olympus PEN E-P3, it feels like it's taken just a little too long for the PEN E-P5's debut. But in addition to incorporating the sensor, autofocus, and image stabilization systems from the E-M5, the E-P5 gains a tiltable touch screen; broader scene analysis in auto mode; 1080/30p video; and other features. All the changes add up to what feels like a completely different camera, with better photo quality, a more streamlined design, faster performance, and a broader feature set.
You can buy the camera either as body-only or as a kit that includes the 17mm f1.8 lens plus add-on electronic viewfinder. The latter configuration is expensive, but I'm quite partial to the EVF. It's humongous, but it's a lot more stable to shoot that way. If you do opt for the body only, resist the impulse to pair it with the cheap 14-42mm lens; a camera like this really cries out for a sharp, high-quality lens.
Image quality
The E-P5 delivers the best image quality I've seen from a Micro Four Thirds camera, finally ratcheting up my image quality rating, but it's still not quite as good as APS-C competitors. The camera's JPEGs look good up through ISO 400, and OK through ISO 800; by ISO 1600 the noise suppression gets aggressive. I really wouldn't shoot at ISO 3200 or higher with the E-P5. As it is, at ISO 1600, only the precisely sharp areas look good viewed at 100 percent, though 13x19 prints look OK. You can gain a little latitude by shooting raw, though you're generally exchanging mushiness for graininess. Olympus' image processing has gotten better since the O-MD E-M5, with less sharpening and less of the crunchy look.

Olympus PEN E-P5 photo samples (pictures)

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The camera clips a little more in the highlights than I like, and there isn't a lot of recoverable detail in the raw files on bright areas. I did have some luck reclaiming detail in clipped areas of bright, saturated reds, however, as well as bringing up dark shadow areas. Olympus defaults to a Natural color preset that still pushes the saturation a little more than I like, but color accuracy in raw files looks good. 
Automatic white balance is slightly cool but acceptable.
Click to downloadISO 100
ISO 800
ISO 1600
Video looks fine for vacation clips, but isn't great. There are edge artifacts, like moire, aliasing, and haloing, and low-light video is mushy. I also had some playback problems; clips played fine in QuickTime, Adobe Premiere, and VLC, but Windows Media Player had decoding issues.
The E-P5 is really fast; it's one of the fastest non-dSLRs I've tested, and faster than a lot of dSLRs. It powers on, focuses, and shoots in 0.8 second, and time to focus and shoot in good conditions runs just 0.22 second, rising to an excellent 0.25 second in dim light. Two sequential JPEG or raw shots clock at 0.23 second, which becomes 0.7 second with flash enabled. (Note that I usually report these numbers rounded to 0.1 second, but the differences are so minor that rounding would overemphasize their significance.) Shooting simultaneous JPEG+raw feels as fast as shooting JPEG alone, though there's a slight processing overhead that may slow down your photo reviewing.
Continuous shooting is seriously zippy as well. With a 95MBps card it can sustain a JPEG burst at 9.6 frames per second for about 18 frames before it slows to a still-quite-respectable 6.3fps. (Though it's rated to drop without fixed AF, I didn't notice any significant change with tracking AF.) Raw bursts at about 10fps for 16 shots, then drops to about 3.7fps.
The camera incorporates the same AF system as the OM-D E-M5, with some more performance optimization with Four Thirds lenses. I had no problems with the autofocus system for still photos; it generally snaps decisively to the subject. For video, though, it was a little disappointing. It pulses on still objects, and there's no way to have it ease into focus from one object to another via the touch screen -- it just snaps decisively.
The screen fares pretty well in direct sunlight, and the tilting helps, plus it's bright and shows contrast well. Still, I prefer the tilting EVF.
Shooting speed (in seconds)(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot  
Raw shot-to-shot time  
Typical shot-to-shot time  
Shutter lag (dim)  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Olympus PEN E-P5
Sony Alpha NEX-6

Olympus OM-D E-M5

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