Posts tagged PCs

Vision-correcting display nixes your need for eyeglasses

Your reading glasses will be so yesterday with UC Berkeley’s new technology

What would it be like if you didn’t need your eyeglasses to clearly see your laptop screen or a text message on your smartphone?

Scientists at the University of California Berkeley are working on computer screens that would adjust their images to accommodate individual user’s visual needs. Think of it as a display that wears the glasses so users don’t have to.

“For people with just near sightedness or far sightedness, life isn’t so bad,” said Fu-Chung Huang, the lead author of the research paper on the display project at Berkeley. “But as you get older, your lenses lose elasticity and you cannot read things close to you, like a cell phone or tablet. You need another pair of reading glasses, which can be quite inconvenient.
Scientists at the University of California Berkeley are developing a vision-correcting display that would mean users wouldn’t need their eyeglasses to see it clearly. (Video: UC Berkeley)

“With this technology, in the future, you just need to press a button and the display will accommodate to your vision,” he said in an email to Computerworld.

Users would input their vision prescription into their individual desktop, laptop or mobile device. Then when the user logs on with a password, the computer recognizes the user and automatically adjusts its display.

Researchers at Berkeley, working with scientists at MIT, are developing algorithms that will compensate for a user’s specific vision needs to adjust the image on a screen so the user can see it clearly without needing to wear corrective lenses. The software will create vision-correcting displays.

The researchers have been working on the technology for three years.
Computer screen
Researchers place a printed pinhole array mask, shown here, on top of an iPod touch as part of their prototype of a visually corrected display. (Image: Fu-Chung Huang)

A user who, for instance, needs reading glasses to see or read anything clearly on his laptop or tablet screens wouldn’t need to wear the eyeglasses if the displays adjust themselves for his vision needs.

If a user who needs one pair of glasses to see things at a distance and another pair for reading, would not need to put on reading glasses to read her emails or Facebook posts if the display could adjust itself for her near-vision needs.

The displays, according to Berkeley, also could be used for people whose vision cannot be corrected with eyeglasses or contacts.

“This project started with the idea that Photoshop can do some image deblurring to the photo, so why can’t I correct the visual blur on the display instead of installing a Photoshop in the brain?” asked Huang, who now is a software engineer at Microsoft. “The early stage is quite hard, as everyone said it is impossible. I found out that it is indeed impossible on a “conventional 2D display.” I need to modify the optical components to make this happen.”

The university said that the hardware setup adds a printed pinhole screen sandwiched between two layers of clear plastic to an iPod display to enhance image sharpness. The tiny pinholes are 75 micrometers each and spaced 390 micrometers apart.

The algorithm, which was developed at Berkeley, works by altering the intensity of each direction of light that emanates from a single pixel in an image based upon a user’s specific visual impairment, the university reported. The light then passes through the pinhole array in a way that allows the user to see a sharp image.

Huang, who has not yet talked with computer monitor or smartphone and tablet manufacturers about the research, noted that the display technology could be developed into a thin screen protector.

“The current version is still quite fragile,” he added. “It requires precise calibration between the eye and the display and it took some time to find the sweet spot for my own eye. But remember that Amazon just announced the Fire Phone with the super fancy dynamic perspective to track your eye. This technology can solve my problem … so I’m pretty optimistic about the overall progress.”

However, he said that at this point in their work, the technology wouldn’t work on a shared display such as a television screen.

“In the future, we also hope to extend this application to multi-way correction on a shared display, so users with different visual problems can view the same screen and see a sharp image,” he said.


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Chromebooks’ success punches Microsoft in the gut

Chromebooks’ success punches Microsoft in the gut
Amazon, NPD Group trumpet sales of the bare-bones laptops in 2013 to consumers and businesses
Chromebooks had a very good year, according to retailer Amazon.com and industry analysts.

And that’s bad news for Microsoft.

The pared-down laptops powered by Google’s browser-based Chrome OS have surfaced this year as a threat to “Wintel,” the Microsoft-Intel oligarchy that has dominated the personal-computer space for decades with Windows machines.

On Thursday, Amazon.com called out a pair of Chromebooks — one from Samsung, the other from Acer — as two of the three best-selling notebooks during the U.S. holiday season. The third: Asus’ Transformer Book, a Windows 8.1 “2-in-1″ device that transforms from a 10.1-in. tablet to a keyboard-equipped laptop.

As of late Thursday, the trio retained their lock on the top three places on Amazon’s best-selling-laptop list in the order of Acer, Samsung and Asus. Another Acer Chromebook, one that sports 32GB of on-board storage space — double the 16GB of Acer’s lower-priced model — held the No. 7 spot on the retailer’s top 10.

Chromebooks’ holiday success at Amazon was duplicated elsewhere during the year, according to the NPD Group, which tracked U.S. PC sales to commercial buyers such as businesses, schools, government and other organizations.

By NPD’s tallies, Chromebooks accounted for 21% of all U.S. commercial notebook sales in 2013 through November, and 10% of all computers and tablets. Both shares were up massively from 2012; last year, Chromebooks accounted for an almost-invisible two-tenths of one percent of all computer and tablet sales.

Stephen Baker of NPD pointed out what others had said previously: Chromebooks have capitalized on Microsoft’s stumble with Windows 8. “Tepid Windows PC sales allowed brands with a focus on alternative form factors or operating systems, like Apple and Samsung, to capture significant share of a market traditionally dominated by Windows devices,” Baker said in a Monday statement.

Part of the attraction of Chromebooks is their low prices: The systems forgo high-resolution displays, rely on inexpensive graphics chipsets, include paltry amounts of RAM — often just 2GB — and get by with little local storage. And their operating system, Chrome OS, doesn’t cost computer makers a dime.

The 11.6-in. Acer C720 Chromebook, first on Amazon’s top-10 list Thursday, costs $199, while the Samsung Chromebook, at No. 2, runs $243. Amazon prices Acer’s 720P Chromebook, No. 7 on the chart, at $300.

The prices were significantly lower than those for the Windows notebooks on the retailer’s bestseller list. The average price of the seven Windows-powered laptops on Amazon’s top 10 was $359, while the median was $349. Meanwhile, the average price of the three Chromebooks was $247 and the median was $243, representing savings of 31% and 29%, respectively.

In many ways, Chromebooks are the successors to “netbooks,” the cheap, lightweight and underpowered Windows laptops that stormed into the market in 2007, peaked in 2009 as they captured about 20% of the portable PC market, then fell by the wayside in 2010 and 2011 as tablets assumed their roles and full-fledged notebooks closed in on netbook prices.

Chromebooks increasingly threaten Windows’ place in the personal computer market, particularly the laptop side, whose sales dominate those of the even older desktop form factor. Stalwart Microsoft partners, including Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard and Dell, have all dipped toes into the Chromebook waters, for example.

“OEMs can’t sit back and depend on Wintel anymore,” said Baker in an interview earlier this month.

Microsoft has been concerned enough with Chromebooks’ popularity to target the devices with attack ads in its ongoing “Scroogled” campaign, arguing that they are not legitimate laptops.

Those ads are really Microsoft’s only possible response to Chromebooks, since the Redmond, Wash. company cannot do to them what it did to netbooks.

Although the first wave of netbooks were powered by Linux, Microsoft quickly shoved the open-source OS aside by extending the sales lifespan of Windows XP, then created deliberately-crippled and lower-priced “Starter” editions of Vista and Windows 7 to keep OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) on the Windows train.

But Microsoft has no browser-based OS to show Chromebook OEMs, and has no light-footprint operating system suitable for basement-priced laptops except for Windows RT, which is unsuitable for non-touch screens. And unlike Google, Microsoft can hardly afford to give away Windows.

But Microsoft’s biggest problem isn’t Chrome OS and the Chromebooks its ads have belittled: It’s tablets. Neither Microsoft or its web of partners have found much success in that market.

Baker’s data on commercial sales illustrated that better than a busload of analysts. While Windows notebooks accounted for 34% of all personal computers and tablets sold to commercial buyers in the first 11 months of 2013, that represented a 20% decline from 2012. During the same period, tablets’ share climbed by one-fifth to 27%, with Apple’s iPad accounting for the majority of the tablets.

“The market for personal computing devices in commercial markets continues to shift and change, said Baker. “It is no accident that we are seeing the fruits of this change in the commercial markets as business and institutional buyers exploit the flexibility inherent in the new range of choices now open to them.”

But when you’re at the top of the personal computing device heap — as Microsoft was as recently as 2011 — words like “change” and “choice” are not welcome. From the mountaintop, the only way is down.


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Why Microsoft should make its own tablets (and phones and PCs)

It looks like Microsoft plans to build and sell its own tablets, competing with its own partners. Great idea!

Computerworld – The All Things D site reported this week that Microsoft on Monday intends to announce its entry into the tablet hardware business.

While Microsoft does make hardware — mice, keyboards, Xbox, Kinect, Zune, Surface and other products — it has not yet made desktop PCs, laptops or tablets, opting instead to embrace a partner strategy of third-party OEM manufacturing.

Pundits will no doubt say that Microsoft has a case of Apple envy and suggest that the company is finally embracing the highly successful “Apple model,” in which the operating system maker also makes its own hardware.

In fact, Microsoft’s announcement will be more in line with the “Google model.”

The Google model is to have it both ways — making hardware, but also licensing your OS to hardware partners who make products of their own. Google partners with OEMs for smartphone handset and tablet hardware. But it also acquired Motorola, which makes Android hardware.
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The Motorola acquisition isn’t Google’s first foray into hardware sales and direct competition with hardware vendors. Google launched its Nexus One smartphone handset in early 2010. Although that phone was technically manufactured by one of Google’s partners, HTC, it was sold by Google and branded as a Google phone. As it turned out, Google didn’t like the support part of the hardware business and decided to exit that line of work for a while, but it had let its partners know that it was willing to compete with them.

Traditionally, the assumption has been that you must either partner with hardware companies to manufacture systems for your operating system (the Microsoft model) or not allow other companies to make hardware for your platform (the Apple model).

A hybrid approach has been considered suicidal because competing with your partners puts you in a gray area where you have hardware competition and fragmentation, but you also have a smaller number of partners who are also less committed and more distrusting.

But times are changing.

Microsoft’s application of the Microsoft model to mobile hasn’t worked out. A big partnership with Nokia has been a flop. The software vendor has fared badly in the mobile market, far outpaced by Apple, which uses the Apple model, and Google, which uses the Google model.

When Google announced its bid to acquire Motorola — effectively declaring its intention to compete with its hardware partners — many pundits predicted disaster for the company. But the disaster never happened. Google is getting away with it. Android OEMs are continuing to churn out more innovative and exciting hardware, and they don’t seem vexed by the prospect of competing with the company that makes the operating system they use.

Instead of the worst of both worlds, Google appears to be enjoying the best of both worlds, gaining the benefits of a hardware company (control and patents), while also gaining the benefits of an operating system company that partners with hardware OEMs (a thriving ecosystem, broad innovation and market choice).

Apparently, Microsoft wants the same thing. And why not? Microsoft has succeeded with a variation of the Google model in some areas. The company’s mice and keyboards, for example, have sold well, even though third-party hardware makers have offered similar products for the larger Windows PC marketplace. Admittedly, it’s a little different because we’re talking about peripheral devices that don’t run Microsoft operating systems directly. But still.

Microsoft has also succeeded with the Apple model. For example, one of Microsoft’s most successful products is the Xbox gaming console. In that case, Microsoft sells the operating system and the hardware, and it even created and runs the associated Xbox Live online service. Like Apple, Microsoft goes it alone, not seeking partnerships with third-party manufacturers to make competing Xbox hardware systems.

And, of course, Microsoft succeeds with the Microsoft model. Microsoft Windows can’t be described as anything but a major business success story. The model is to make the operating system software and rely entirely on partners for PC hardware.

But that’s the past. The future looks less rosy for Microsoft Windows and the Microsoft model.
Why the Microsoft model won’t work in the future

There are two reasons why Microsoft needs to move to the Google model for all of its product lines.

First, the world is becoming increasingly mobile. The so-called PC market is simultaneously becoming more mobile (more laptops, fewer desktops) and increasingly obsolete. Apple’s post-PC world is clearly the future of all computing. That’s why Windows 8 is so heavily optimized for tablets and touch.

The Microsoft model worked great for the old-and-busted desktop PC world, but it doesn’t work so well for the new-hotness mobile and touch-tablet world. With computing “appliances,” seamless integration is the highest virtue.

The world has changed, and the model that works is also changing.

Second, Microsoft can’t rely on its OEM partners anymore. If you go to, say, BestBuy, to shop for a low-cost laptop, as I did recently, it’s clear that Microsoft Windows systems on the low end (sub $1,000) are garbage.

These devices are bloated with crapware (cheap software loaded on the systems by OEMs as part of negotiated deals that offset price discounts), covered with ugly, sloppily applied stickers, and made from flimsy, cheap-feeling materials like plastic or wobbly metal. They look like junk.

The Apple table at BestBuy is 10 feet away, and for $1,000 you can buy a MacBook Air with zero crapware, no stickers and the highest quality materials (unibody aluminum). Their screens look far better, and their performance is shockingly superior. They’re displayed in an appealing and uniform way, with Internet running and everything ready to go and available to try (I spent 20 minutes trying to escape from a Dell system’s “demo mode” so I could try the machine out myself. I eventually gave up.)

Nobody washes a rented car. Likewise, discount PC OEMs don’t treat Windows machines with love and respect, as Apple does with Apple machines.

Higher-end Windows PCs offer a better experience than the low end models, but the cheap systems are destroying the Microsoft brand in the minds of consumers.

That’s why Microsoft has launched its own retail stores. Microsoft is willing to invest in retail stores as a way to gain some control over its brand image. But that’s not enough.

Microsoft needs to create its own premium, high-quality desktops, laptops, tablets and phones for the same reason that automakers like to have high-end car models in their lineups. The upscale models create a “halo effect” for the brand — an aura that extends to even the cheapest vehicles.

It’s a new world. Rather than viewing Microsoft as a competitor, Microsoft’s OEM partners should and, I believe, will welcome Microsoft’s participation in the hardware end of the business, because the company can create a halo effect that extends to the entire platform and benefits everyone. Nobody in the Windows world would benefit from an Apple takeover of the market.

There is absolutely no way Windows can compete as a tablet operating system against Apple’s iOS — unless Microsoft takes direct control by making its own integrated tablets, as Apple does with the iPad. And even then, it’s a long shot.

In general, though, Microsoft appears to be waking up to the new reality. That reality is that nobody except Apple can succeed with the Apple model. And the Microsoft model is yesterday’s news.

That leaves the Google model as Microsoft’s one hope for success in the post-PC world.

Windows 8 touchscreen devices to cost more, Dell says

Windows 8 PCs and laptops with touchscreens will cost a bit more to buy, Michael Dell says

IDG News Service – Touchscreen laptops and tablets with the upcoming Windows 8 OS will be priced higher than their non-touchscreen counterparts, Dell’s CEO said on Tuesday.

Dell will offer a full complement of Windows 8 products when Microsoft launches its new OS, CEO Michael Dell said during the company’s quarterly earnings call. The touchscreen Windows 8 products will occupy higher price bands, which could mean higher profit margins for Dell, he said.

“Unlike other Windows transitions, this is a transition where you are going to need a new PC,” Michael Dell said, adding that touch capabilities could drive more people to buy Windows 8 tablets and PCs.

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Microsoft hasn’t provided a release date for Windows 8 but analysts expect its release later this year. Lenovo has said it will sell a ThinkPad tablet with Windows 8 when the OS is launched.

Despite excitement around the touch interface, however, the upgrade cycle to Windows 8 won’t match that of Windows 7, especially in the enterprise, Dell said.

“Corporations are still adopting Windows 7, so we don’t think there will be a massive adoption of Windows 8 early on,” he said. It also remains to be seen if buyers will prefer tablets over PCs, he said.

The computer maker has been trying to reduce its dependence on sales of consumer PCs, where profit margins are lower, and is trying to sell more higher-priced systems, such as its XPS PCs. Dell’s mobility revenue in the quarter just ended declined by 10 percent, while desktop revenue declined by 1 percent.

Its PC business underperformed as demand slowed down and more consumers opted for tablets and smartphones, Brian Gladden, Dell’s chief financial officer, said during the call. Dell has shelved its consumer tablets and smartphones over the past few quarters, keeping only its enterprise tablets.

Dell’s PC revenue also dropped below expectations because it didn’t participate in the market for low-margin, entry-level PCs, which were a big chunk of PC sales for the industry overall, especially in emerging markets such as China.

Falling prices for memory and LCDs, and the normalization of hard drive supplies, favored companies selling those low-end systems, which in turn put pricing pressure on Dell’s business.

The hard drive issues caused by flooding in Thailand last year have been resolved and drive prices will fall as the year progresses, Gladden said.

“That’s behind us,” he said.

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