Microsoft to shut down HockeyApp

Microsoft announced plans to shut down HockeyApp and replace it with Visual Studio App Center. The company acquired the startup behind HockeyApp back in 2014. And if you’re still using HockeyApp, the service will officially shut down on November 16, 2019.

HockeyApp was a service that let you distribute beta versions of your app, get crash reports and analytics. There are other similar SDKs, such as Google’s Crashlytics, TestFairy, Appaloosa, DeployGate and native beta distribution channels (Apple’s TestFlight and Google Play Store’s beta feature).

Microsoft hasn’t really been hiding its plans to shut down the service. Last year, the company called App Center “the future of HockeyApp”. The company has also been cloning your HockeyApp projects into App Center for a while.

It doesn’t mean that you’ll find the same features in App Center just yet. The company has put up a page with a feature roadmap. Let’s hope that Microsoft has enough time to release everything before HockeyApp shuts down.

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Microsoft could release a disc-less Xbox One

According to a new report from Thurott, Microsoft has been working on a new console in the Xbox One family. This cheaper model could play regular Xbox One games, but there would be no Blu-Ray drive.

This move would lower the price of the entry-level Xbox One. An Xbox One S officially starts at $299 but you can currently find it for around $250 on Amazon. The disc-less Xbox One could start at $199.

If you already have an Xbox One and physical games, you could imagine going to an official retailer to trade your discs for a digital download code. Let’s hope that this new Xbox comes with a big hard drive for those who have a slow internet connection.

Back when Microsoft first unveiled the Xbox One in 2013, the company wanted to make a big push toward digital games. The original plan was that you would associate your physical games with your Xbox account. After that, you could play the game even without inserting the disc. Microsoft also planned a way to lend a digital game to a friend for 30 days.

After some backlash, Microsoft gave up on this plan and switched back to a more traditional system. But it’s been five years, digital games are more popular than ever and internet connections are faster than ever.

Microsoft also thinks the future of games is based on subscriptions. With the Xbox Game Pass, you can access dozens of games for $10 per month. You can also subscribe to EA Access on the Xbox One. Eventually, you could imagine replacing the Xbox altogether with a subscription for a streaming service. But we’re not there yet.

According to Thurott, Microsoft is also working on an updated Xbox One S that could be a bit cheaper. This one would have a traditional disc drive.

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Microsoft briefly tested ads in the Windows 10 mail app


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It’s bad enough when your email inbox gets inundated with subscriptions and promotions you forgot you ever signed up for, but now Microsoft is thinking about injecting advertisements right into your inbox. According to Windows news site Aggiornamenti Lumia, the beta version of the company’s Mail client for Windows 10 has been placing ads right at the top of the inbox — though the company has since turned off the feature and claims that it was just an experiment.

In a now-removed FAQ page on Microsoft’s support website (archived here), the company explains that it was running pilot program testing ads in Mail. The test countries included Brazil, Canada, Australia and India. Per the support document, the ads were visible on Windows Home and Windows Pro but not Windows Enterprise or Windows EDU. Ads were served to “non-work accounts” set up through the mail, including Outlook.com Gmail, and Yahoo Mail accounts. Users who have an Office 365 subscription — which costs $7 per month or $70 per year — linked to their email address were not shown ads.

Despite the pretty detailed plan laid out in the support document, Microsoft’s head of communications Frank Shaw tweeted today that the ads were “an experimental feature that was never intended to be tested broadly” and have now been turned off completely. The FAQ has also been removed from the company’s website.

It’s unclear if the company will revive this plan to serve ads to people not paying for Office 365, but it’s clearly put some thought into it. The company does need to pay the bills, and it did promise that it wouldn’t scan the content of email to generate the ads, which sets it apart from Yahoo and AOL in that regard (Gmail no longer scans emails for ad purposes). That said, no one wants ads in their inbox.

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Microsoft’s new experimental app is all about imitating emojis


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Microsoft has released a new app that aims to demonstrate how its Windows Machine Learning APIs can be used to build apps and “make machine learning fun and approachable.” Emoji8 is a UWP app that uses machine learning to determine how well you can imitate emojis. As you make your best efforts to imitate a random selection of emojis in front of your webcam, Emoji8 will evaluate your attempts locally using the FER+ Emotion Recognition model, a neural network for recognizing emotion in faces. You’ll then be able to tweet a gif of your top scoring images.

Emoji8

“This app will give you a great end-to-end example of how you can use the Windows ML APIs to create simple yet magical experiences,” the company said. And it has made Emoji8’s code open-source on GitHub.

This isn’t the first time Microsoft has built an app to show off its machine learning services. Back in 2015, it released How-Old.net to demonstrate how its Azure APIs could be used. The site let users upload a picture and from there, it would try to guess their age.

You can download Emoji8 from the Microsoft Store now, just make sure you’re using Windows 10 with the October 2018 update.

Image: Microsoft

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The next Xbox One will reportedly be disc-less

Image: Mat Hayward / Getty Images for Taco Bell

Microsoft is working on a new Xbox One console for 2019 and it’s not going to have a disc drive, according to a report from tech blogger Paul Thurrott.

This disc-less Xbox is going to be a part of Microsoft’s current generation of Xbox consoles, not a part of the upcoming Scarlett family of consoles that are expected to hit the markets at a later date. It will be a lighter-weight option for folks who still haven’t purchased an Xbox One or are interested in a newer console.

If you do already have a collection of physical games for your Xbox One, Microsoft will have a ” disc-to-digital” program, according to Thurrott, in which owners will be able to trade in their discs for download codes. It’s a good way to save space if your collection is getting a little unwieldy.

The disc-less Xbox will reportedly cost $200, about $100 less than the current model, but there is an expected price drop of as much as $100 for the consoles, Thurrott reported. So really it comes down to whether you want discs or not.

While Thurrott didn’t name any specific names in his report, his Microsoft scoops are unparalleled and very reliable.

This new spin on the Xbox One falls in line with Microsoft’s current outlook on the console market, which focuses on digital games and cloud-streaming games — the ability to play games over an internet connection without needing to download it on your own console. Microsoft was all about it at E3 2018. 

The only downside to streaming games from the cloud is if you don’t have a strong internet connection. And for the disc-less console, you’ll need a pretty sizable hard drive if you want to have a decent collection of games.

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Microsoft may release a disc-free Xbox One in 2019


Timothy J. Seppala/Engadget

Microsoft is no doubt pouring much of its energy into the next-gen Xbox, but it might give the current generation one last hurrah. Thurrott sources understand that it’s planning new Xbox One configurations in 2019, including one without a disc drive. This would lower the cost for people who aren’t attached to physical game copies or Blu-ray movies, potentially by as much as $100. And no, you wouldn’t be hosed if you already have a disc-based game library. Reportedly, there would be a “disc-to-digital” exchange program where you could visit a store and turn in your tangible games in return for download codes.

The second system, meanwhile, would be a “revised” Xbox One S that would lower costs but still include a disc reader. It’s fully aware that some people still prefer physical games and wants to cater to them, according to the insiders.

Microsoft declined to comment to Engadget on the rumor.

It wouldn’t be outlandish to axe the disc drive. Cost-cutting notwithstanding, optical drives just aren’t as vital as they used to be. If you rarely visit the local game store and prefer Netflix or Amazon for your movie viewing, why pay for hardware that will largely go unused? The question is whether or not console makers will ditch discs altogether. That isn’t certain even for Microsoft’s future Scarlett consoles, the sources said, and they may not completely go away until it’s virtually guaranteed that gamers around the world have reliable broadband.

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Xbox's Black Friday deals start early for Live Gold members


Rockstar Games

Microsoft’s Xbox Black Friday sale is kicking off early for Xbox Live Gold members, and you can grab discounts on some of the biggest titles around right now. Red Dead Redemption 2 was only released a few weeks ago, but you can save 10 percent in the sale.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is 20 percent cheaper, and if you’re eager to explore Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, you’ll get up to 35 percent off, depending on which edition you pick up. You can grab FIFA 19 for a 40 percent discount, or Madden NFL 19, NBA 2K19, WWE 2K19 or NHL 19, all for 50 percent off.

The discounts also include Forza Motorsport 7 (50 percent), Sea of Thieves (50 percent), Destiny 2: Forsaken (up to 40 percent), Far Cry 5 (50 percent), Shadow of the Tomb Raider (50 percent) and The Witcher 3 (50 percent). Other big titles you can save on are Grand Theft Auto V (up to 50 percent), Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege (70 percent) and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (40 percent).

The deals are available until 5AM EST on November 27th, and if you don’t have Xbox Live Gold, you’ll have to wait until Monday to access them (or sign up for a subscription, which is $1 for the first month). Meanwhile, if you’ve been in the market for an Xbox One X, now might be the right time, as Microsoft is selling the 4K-ready console for $400 from November 18-26th.

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With keyboard and mouse support on Xbox, Microsoft closes the gap on PCs

After years of unfulfilled promises and a few weeks of build-up, the Xbox One family finally supports keyboards and mice. Alright, so it’s still a feature reserved for members of the beta-esque Xbox Insider Program and few games actually work with the different control scheme, but it’s here nevertheless. Keyboards, mice and consoles aren’t an abnormal pairing. I remember playing Unreal Tournament on the Dreamcast with keys and clicks, and the PS4 has supported the alternative peripherals for years, even if developers have largely ignored them. It’s a slightly bigger deal on Xbox One, though. After all, it technically runs Windows 10, the OS of choice for PC gamers, albeit with the clunky Xbox UI on top. The line between console and computer, then, becomes ever blurrier.

In the immediate future, the impact of keyboard and mouse support on Xbox One is negligible. Games that work with the control option on day one or within the next few weeks include Bomber Crew, Children of Morta, Deep Rock Galactic, Minion Master, Moonlighter, Strange Brigade, Vigor, War Thunder, Warface, Warframe, Wargroove, Warhammer: Vermintide 2 and X-Morph Defense. I know little to nothing about any of these titles. DayZ on the other hand, I am familiar with, but that’s been a dead game for a while now.

Adapters that trick the Xbox One into accepting keyboard and mouse inputs have existed since the console launched, but official support is something different. There’s going to be a special Designed for Xbox program for approved peripherals that include an Xbox home button, for instance — the first product of which is likely to come from well-known gamer brand Razer early next year. More importantly, developers will have to actually consider the control scheme when creating or updating games, rather than simply translating inputs into pad-speak as adapters do.

SKOREA-ESPORTS

Five years since the Xbox One launch seems like a long wait for such a feature to be implemented, but it’s a touchy subject. Particularly in the first-person shooter world, a keyboard and mouse is considered essential for high-level play. Not only do you have more buttons available for switching between weapons or using abilities but a mouse offers the speed and precision a thumbstick can’t match. And yes, I’m aware that some Fortnite pros can build, edit and aim with a pad just as well as their keyboard warrior friends and foes. Aside from these exceptions, though, it’s a fact: A keyboard and mouse gives you a competitive advantage over pad players.

If you’re Microsoft then, you have to consider alienating players that don’t want to spend on additional peripherals. Then there’s the further risk of this contingent getting forever stomped every time they jump into an online lobby. This could affect not only morale but the bottom line. Some people could just stop playing games, stop buying games and cancel their Xbox Live subscriptions. There’s further complications in that some games are balanced differently across consoles. In popular team-based shooter Overwatch, for example, the turrets some characters can place do less damage on the console versions of the game, making up for the fact they are harder to take out with less accurate aiming on a thumbstick.

Most games are identical across platforms, though, like Fortnite, which is the same game on mobiles, through consoles and all the way up to PCs. It’s also by far the highest-profile Xbox One title to support keyboard and mouse control from the offset. Developer Epic Games is preemptively avoiding any complaints of unfair advantages before they occur. Like on PS4, Xbox One players using keys and clicks will be matchmade with each other, leaving pad players to duke it out in their own, controller-specific lobbies. Unfortunately, it won’t weed out the punks that use adapters that mimic controller inputs, but these few bad apples have always existed and will continue to.

Aside from the console games we all know and love, official keyboard and mouse support could theoretically open the door to ports of games that live only in the PC realm. Sure, I’m impressed with how tight the controls are on PUBG Mobile, and I don’t feel limited playing the MOBA Arena of Valor on the Nintendo Switch. Games that seem like they shouldn’t can work on different platforms, but let’s not pretend Starcraft II is playable on a pad.

The Xbox One runs a version of Windows 10, and Windows is the gaming OS. I’m no developer, but I don’t believe it’d be impossible to lock in a standard graphics setting and port something like a complex real-time strategy over to Xbox One. Of course, this comes with its own problems. If you start launching games made specifically for keyboard and mouse controls, you automatically estrange people without those peripherals.

Gamescom 2018

The Microsoft Store is also hardly a big gaming destination. Between Steam and developer-specific ecosystems like Origin and Battle.net, distribution is all sewn up. Would Microsoft want too big a cut from sales of these Xbox One ports?

That said, the distance between consoles and computers has been shrinking at a rate, particularly within this generation of living-room hardware. Many games these days support crossplay, allowing you to match with friends and randoms despite your platform differences. You can play Fortnite on a PC with a pad, or stream the game from your PS4 or Xbox One to your PC. With the Xbox Play Anywhere program, you buy a game once and can play it on your PC or Xbox, with saves and achievements persisting across platforms. Even mid-generation hardware upgrades like the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X feel geared towards closing the graphical gap between consoles and PCs. And with PSVR, you don’t need a proper gaming rig to experience something better than 360-degree videos on your phone.

Keyboard and mouse support on its own seems minor, but it’s another small nudge towards making the Xbox One a more viable and appealing PC alternative. In the end, though, it’s key that developers actually make use of the new control option. I reached out to a bunch of the big studios to get their thoughts, but they’re keeping cards close to chests. Of those that responded, EA said: “As developers, we’re excited about crossplay, mouse and keyboard support. We’re always researching new ways we can make our games better in the future.”

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343 Industries, developer of the most recent Halo games, told me: “We’re always exploring the best player experiences for Halo and are excited for mouse and keyboard support on Xbox; we don’t have any further comments to share.” I also asked Microsoft about what it means for the company and Xbox gamers, but the response was basically along the lines of ‘it’s up to developers now,’ shrug. The wait-and-see reaction was expected, but it does feel like we’re approaching a natural end-game for Xbox. Microsoft has something Sony doesn’t: Windows. And leveraging that could help Microsoft fare better in the console war’s next reboot, having lost this round convincingly to Sony.

Being all things to all people isn’t necessarily a winning formula, mind. Valve has famously failed to put gaming PCs in the living room with the now legendary but easily forgotten initiative that was Steam Machines. These mini-PCs were built by third parties based on Valve’s reference design and ran the Linux-based SteamOS. There was no single box to get behind, and Steam Machines were underpowered compared with Windows counterparts. What’s more, the controller that sat in limbo for years didn’t end up translating PC controls to pads quite as promised. Combine all this with a lack of developer support, and you get a good idea of why they never took off.

Microsoft is in a slightly different position, of course. It has Windows and the Xbox brand. Perhaps next console generation, they’ll encroach even further on the dominion of PCs. And eventually, we won’t think about the distinctions at all.

Images: Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images (LAN cafe); Christian Petersen / Getty Images (Fortnite tournament); Franziska Krug / Getty Images (Xbox controllers); Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images (Master Chief helmet).

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Microsoft’s Surface Headphones are a good first try

Microsoft is a software giant first and foremost. It’s where it earned billions of dollars and created an empire that permeated almost every aspect of the corporate office. But it’s also been diving head first into hardware from mice to the Xbox to the Surface tablets and laptops — the tech company is no slouch when it comes to tangible items. So it should come as no surprise that it launched its own noise-canceling headphones.

Gallery: Surface Headphones review | 5 Photos

The $349 Surface Headphones are aimed squarely at category leaders like Bose and Sony. It’s a herculean task to take on two companies that have decades of experience. Microsoft (never one to shy away from a new market) is trying its best to unseat the kings of ignoring the world while listening to music. It’s a bold gambit and a good start, but the headphones don’t quite reach the heights that the best Bose and Sony products have to offer.

That’s not to say the company hasn’t done a good job. For a first outing, the Surface Headphones are a solid pair of cans. The sound is satisfying if a bit neutral in its tuning for my taste. The low end is there, but it’s not accented as much as, say, Beats headphones (which, like it or not, has done well for the brand). The mids and highs don’t sound muddy, but they are also not as crisp as I would like for cymbal crashes.

Surface Headphones Review

Overall, the sound feels slightly subdued and not as crisp and warm as I like from my audio equipment. I listen to a wide range of music, but mostly I listen to bands with actual instruments, and I really like hearing the ringing of a cymbal. Neutral might be what you’re looking for, but in that tuning, the high end loses some of its magic. At least to me. The low end is better represented, but even that is slightly squelched. It feels like Microsoft was going for a happy medium hoping to appeal to as many people as possible.

Making the headphones appeal to a large swath of the population has also resulted in a comfortable wearing experience. The flexible band has been engineered to fit most heads without putting undue pressure on the wearer’s ears or skull. I have an extra-large head and even after a few five-hour stretches, I didn’t have any headphone fatigue. Even when wrapped around my giant noggin, the cans had plenty of give for someone with an even larger skull (possibly a bear) to wear the headphones.

The soft memory-foam materials made it feel like I was wearing tiny pillows on my ears. Which is nice. The band also has smooshy material that caresses the top of your head. The headphones are comfy and they should be great for long plane rides.

Unfortunately (and surprisingly), I was not traveling while reviewing the headphones. It would have been nice if I had time to try these on a plane to fully appreciate their nois- canceling capabilities. In the office, though, the feature completely cut out the rather loud HVAC system. It also made my coworkers sound really far away when trying to get my attention.

Surface Headphones

For those times when I actually had to pay attention to my coworkers and boss, Microsoft added the ability to adjust the strength of the noise-canceling. The headphones have 13 levels of ambient noise, including one that actually slightly amplifies what’s going on around you. This is helpful when walking around the city or when your boss is yelling at you, asking where the hell that headphone review is at.

It seems like a weird feature to actually enhance the noise around you, but it’s actually a great way to listen to music while still being able to interact with others. It’s also something others in the market are adding to their headphones. Bragi had it at launch, and Nuraphones added it a while back. Turns out we all have situations in which being able to actually hear what’s going on and manufacturers are filling that need.

While interacting with humans is great, the Cortana interactions are a weird inclusion. Yes, it works. You can ask Cortana questions using the iOS and Android apps or via a Windows machine and she answers them without much bother. You can also add things to your calendar, start phones calls, send emails and generally do the things you expect from a voice assistant. The rub is that Cortana robs the headphones of precious battery life.

Surface Headphones Review

The Surface Headphones will last up to 15 hours on a charge. That time could be longer if Cortana wasn’t always listening for the “Hey Cortana” wake words. Microsoft is mulling an update that would allow users to turn off Cortana to get more battery life. Meanwhile, the Bose QuietComfort 35 IIs will last up to 20 hours, and the Sony Sony WH-1000XM3s will keep you rocking for 30 hours. That’s almost as long as a Phish concert!

Also, any smartphone you connect these headphones to will already have a voice assistant that you can use. Siri, Google Assistant — they’ll work with any Bluetooth headphones with a mic. You just use the wake word while wearing the headphones and your Apple and Android devices react. I understand Microsoft wants to push Cortana, but if it needs an app or a Windows machine to work and it sucks up battery life, what’s the point?

Even with the weird inclusion of Cortana, Microsoft has built a very nice pair of headphones for its first try. It pulled together people from within the company from a bunch of different departments to make this happen. And while the first Xbox was a triumph and the first Surface tablet was less so, the Surface headphones land somewhere in the middle. A great first start, but they’re not going to unseat the reigning headphone champions Bose and Sony. But they’re in the running, and that’s a good start.

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