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Antec Kühler H2O 950 Review

Antec Kühler H20 950 Review

Manufacturer: Antec
UK price (as reviewed):
£65.94
US price (as reviewed): $84.99

Of all the companies that have jumped on the all-in-one liquid cooler band wagon in the last few years, Corsair and Antec have usually been the ones to beat. Antec has ruled the roost for a while with its great software suite and awesome cooling and the Kühler H2O 920 held the top spot until Corsair’s Hydro H80i and SilverStone’s Tundra TD03 turned up.

Antec Kühler H20 950 Review
With the Kühler H20 920 now going end of life, its replacement, the Kühler H20 950 looks to fill its shoes. Like its predecessor, the Kühler H20 950 is a dual fan-wielding beast with a 50mm-thick radiator. However, where the Kühler H20 950 differs from pretty much any all-in-one that’s gone before it is the location of the pump. Instead of sitting on top of the waterblock, Antec has chosen to place the pump on top of the front fan bearing.

Antec Kühler H20 950 Review Antec Kühler H20 950 Review
It’s a slightly bizarre decision as the radiator is usually the one thing that you’ll have issues installing seeing as the waterblocks on all-in-one liquid coolers are usually so small. However, it shouldn’t make much difference to cooling seeing as the coolant temperature tends to equalise fairly quickly in most liquid cooling loops anyway. That said, there’s an awful lot of extra engineering that has to go into creating a radiator with two additional ports and four tubes so we’re glad to see the price remains competitive. In fact, the Kühler H20 950 is £5-10 cheaper than Corsair’s similar H80i.

Antec Kühler H20 950 Review Antec Kühler H20 950 Review
The front fan sports directional blades at the rear (a lot like those on SilverStone’s Air Penetrator fans), which Antec claims focus air through the radiator. The radiator itself has moderately dense fin packing and is clearly designed to work best with two fans in a push-pull setup. The rear fan is a standard 120mm type but if you’re partial to removing the stock fans and using your own premium models, this won’t be possible with the Kühler H20 950 as the front fan and pump are essentially a single-piece design.

With no pump in tow, the waterblock is exceptionally thin. However, this didn’t mean it was particularly easy to fit. Antec employs a rather fiddly mounting bracket to deal with both AMD and Intel sockets with a variety of sprung pins being used to secure it to the motherboard. However, securing these was easier said than done; we’re not usually inclined to deduct too many points here for the simple reason that you only fit your cooler once even in a span of several years. Needless to say, if you struggle for patience, Corsair’s current coolers are less inclined to have you in fits of rage.

Antec Kühler H20 950 Review Antec Kühler H20 950 Review
The centre of the waterblock illuminates depending on how toasty your CPU is. As with the Kühler H20 920, there’s a bundled application that allows you to set a user-defined, extreme or silent fan profile. Out of the box, we doubt anyone with a modern system won’t be able to use the Kühler H20 950 as its compatible with everything from LGA775 upwards on Intel motherboards plus AMD Socket AM2 upwards as well, including Socket FM2.

Specifications

  • Compatibility Intel: LGA775, LGA115x, LGA1366, LGA2011; AMD: AM3(+), AM2(+), FM2(+), FM1
  • Radiator size (mm) 120 x 159 x 50 (W x D x H)
  • Water block size (mm) approx. 70 x 70 x 26 (W x D x H)
  • Tubing length approx. 300mm
  • Fan(s) 2 x 120mm, 600-2,400RPM
  • Stated NoiseNot stated

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AMD launches AM1 Kabini desktop range

AMD launches AM1 Kabini desktop range

AMD’s Kabini desktop parts represent its first ever socketed system-on-chip (SoC) designs, offering upgradability for the entry-level market.


AMD has officially launched its desktop Kabini products, in the form of AM1 Accelerated Processing Units (APUs) designed for the entry-level market and bearing the Sempron and Athlon brands.

Designed to compete with Intel’s Bay Trail, the Kabini desktop parts have been created to reflect what AMD claims is the changing face of every-day computing: an increase in the number of applications, like office suites and web browsers, that can make use of GPU acceleration to improve performance. That’s something that an APU can do well, of course, but Kabini is more than just a slightly faster version of what has gone before.

The new AM1 platform, as Kabini will be known at retail, represents the company’s first-ever socket-based system-on-chip (SoC) design, which AMD has dubbed ‘System in a Socket.’ The Kabini SoC design will be provided as a PGA-based, user-replaceable processor which fits into the new FS1b socket type. Unlike Intel’s lower-wattage Bay Trail, which is BGA and soldered to the motherboard at the factory, AM1 owners will have the option of after-market upgrades.

The Kabini chips that form AM1 all have a similar feature set: an SoC design featuring up to four Jaguar CPU cores and Graphics Core Next (GCN)-based Radeon graphics with DirectX 11.2 and OpenGL 4.3 support – no word yet on Microsoft’s as-yet unreleased DirectX 12 – and support for two USB 3.0 ports, eight USB 2.0 ports and two SATA 6Gb/s ports, all without the need for an external chipset. Manufacturers who need more are, of course, welcome to add extra chips as required.

AMD launches AM1 Kabini desktop range
The bottom of the Kabini desktop brand will be the AMD Sempron 2650: two 1.45GHz Jaguar cores, 128 Radeon cores running at 4000MHz, 1MB of cache and support for 1,333MHz memory. Moving up the ladder is the Sempron 3850: four 1.3GHz Jaguar cores, the same 128 Radeon cores but running at 450MHz, 2MB cache and support for 1,600MHz memory.

The higher-end Athlon range starts with the Athlon 5150: four 1.6GHz Jaguar cores, 128 Radeon cores running at 600MHz, 2MB cache and the same 1,600MHz memory support. The range tops out with the Athlon 5350, with four 2.05GHz Jaguar cores and the same cache, graphics and memory support. All four Kabini chips will, interestingly, come in at identical 25W thermal design profiles (TDPs) – higher, unfortunately, than Intel’s BGA-only Bay Trail designs.

AMD launches AM1 Kabini desktop range
AMD looks to be pushing Kabini on the desktop against Bay Trail on three fronts: wider software support for older 32-bit and 64-bit operating systems; higher overall compute performance; and price. The latter is perhaps the most surprising: the bottom-end Sempron 2650 will cost just $31 per unit in trays of a thousand, with the Sempron 3850 stretching to $36; the Athlon 5150 will cost $45 per unit in the same volume, with the top-end Athlon 5350 fetching $55. FS1b motherboards will cost around $25-$35, the company has confirmed, a price point reached by the Kabini SoC taking over tasks that would have previously required an external chipset.

AMD has named ASrock, Asus, Biostar, Gigabyte, MSI and ECS Elitegroup as hardware partners on Kabini, each of whom plans to launch low-cost FS1b motherboards in micro-ATX and the compact mini-ITX formats. Formal retail pricing has not been provided as yet.

According to AMD’s own internal testing, the new Jaguar cores – the same architecture found in the Xbox One and PS4 games consoles – offer considerable advantages over their predecessors. As well as boosts to low-power operation, the company is claiming a 17 per cent boost in instructions per cycle (IPC) over the E1-1500 Bobcat equivalent. Under PCMark 7, the company claims, that translates to a jump for the Sempron 2650 from the E1-1500′s 1125 points to over 1300.

Higher up the rankings, the Athlon 5350 doubles the Cinebench R15 single-core benchmark compared to the AMD E-350, while its extra CPU cores mean a quadrupling in the multi-core tests. How these will compare to the same benchmark on Intel’s latest low-power chips remains to be seen.

AMD launches AM1 Kabini desktop range
A particularly interesting aspect of AMD’s Kabini design comes from its dynamic power management. During GPU-heavy activity, the less-loaded CPU cores act as a heatsink to draw heat away from the GPU; when the CPU is heavily loaded, the GPU is used in a similar manner. When both are loaded, of course, there’ll likely be some down-clocking – but it’s a system which should allow CPU- or GPU-bound applications to run at a higher speed than would otherwise be possible.

UPDATE
The first UK retailers have gone live with AM1 parts, offering the Athlon 5350 for £39.99, the Athlon 5150 for £37.99, the Sempron 3850 for £29.99 and the Sempron 2650 for £25.99. Motherboards range in price from £26 up to £38.

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Nvidia claims Mantle-beating gains with 337.50 Beta

Nvidia claims Mantle-beating gains with 337.50 Beta

Nvidia’s latest beta drivers, 337.50, come with a claimed performance boost that can best AMD’s Mantle in some titles – and without the need for devs to go back and add support.


Nvidia has made big promises of its latest GeForce beta driver, with claims that optimisations made to its DirectX implementation can result in performance improvements that in some cases better those promised by rival AMD’s Mantle architecture, without the need to modify existing games.

Released late yesterday, the GeForce 337.50 Beta driver bundle make various optimisations to DirectX 11 titles which, the Nvidia claims, can have a dramatic effect on performance. According to the company’s internal testing, those running single-GPU systems will see a boost as high as 64 per cent in selected titles, while those on multi-GPU systems via SLI can expect gains as high as 71 per cent.

Granted, those gains apply only to Nvidia’s latest and greatest graphics cards, and even then only on selected titles: the company has measured a near-50 per cent boost in the performance of Sniper Elite v2 and Total War: Rome 2 using a pair of GeForce GTX 780Ti boards in SLI with an Intel Core i7 3960K and 8GB of RAM, just over 40 per cent in Alien vs. Predator, and just shy of 30 per cent in Sleeping Dogs. Other games highlighted by the company include Battlefield 4, with a promised 12 per cent boost, and Thief, with a 7 per cent boost.

The company also teased its DirectX 12 implementation, promising that when Microsoft’s next-generation API is ready for release it will bring even higher performance boosts for those whose graphics chips will support the standard.

Additional announcements made by Nvidia include the release of the GeForce Experience 2.0 software, offering optimisations for more than 150 games and the introduction of ShadowPlay and GameStream support for laptop users. The SHIELD hand-held console, yet to launch in the UK, has also seen a software update which adds the ability to stream games from a desktop over the internet as well as the local area network.

The company’s full performance figures for the new driver update, along with a link to download the drivers, are available on the official GeForce site.

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Intel’s 2014 line-up: It’s looking good for enthusiasts

As we reported here, Intel has announced the rest of its 2014 line-up. However, I for one am extremely excited by what the future holds for LGA1150.

With Broadwell being delayed and Haswell seemingly focusing more on power efficiency than giving anything significantly new to the enthusiast and performance user, I was pretty amazed when I read the finer details of Intel’s latest roadmap that was announced on 19th March.

In the press release, the company has announced its intentions to better-support the enthusiast and overclocking communities and has detailed a couple of very interesting products.

The first is a new Pentium that will feature an unlocked multiplier to celebrate 20 years of the brand. Could this be the first cheap overclockable CPU since the likes of the Pentium G9650, all the way back on LGA1156? If so, it could prove a huge boon to those looking to overclock on a budget and give a massive boost to overclocking and the enthusiast market.

Intel's 2014 line-up: It's looking good for enthusiasts
At the moment we’re forced to buy comparatively expensive K-series CPUs, and there have only been two to choose from for each of the last several generations too. It never used to be this way and certainly for the majority of my overclocking life, it wasn’t a case of if you could overclock a CPU, it was a question of which one out of an entire range of CPUs was the best at it.

If the Pentium retails for current Pentium prices – ie around £80-100, but you can add 500-1000MHz to the clock speed, this could potentially match the performance of a Core i5, at least in software that isn’t massively multi-threaded, and give AMD’s cheap FX-series CPUs some competition too.

The new Pentium will be supported by current 8-series chipsets and also forthcoming 9-series chipsets, presumably Z97, although we’ll have to wait and see whether it will need a BIOS update to run in current boards.

Intel's 2014 line-up: It's looking good for enthusiasts
Another gleeful bit of information is that Intel will also be launching its first 8-core desktop CPU. The monster will likely feature hyper-threading, for 16 threads in total, will also support DDR4 and will be supported by the new X99 chipset.

Ivy Bridge and Haswell CPUs meanwhile have suffered from hot-running chips, especially when you’ve overclocked them. It’s fairly common for people to de-lid their CPUs – having done so with my Core i5-3570K, I can honestly say it made a huge difference. However, Intel appears to have admitted the issue as it will be introducing ‘Improved thermal interface material’ to the expected Haswell refresh CPUs, codenamed Devil’s Canyon, due out this summer.

Intel's 2014 line-up: It's looking good for enthusiasts
As well as the expected performance boost that comes with every refresh, this could mean better overclocking too. The new CPUs are slated to be supported by a new Intel 9-series chipset, although it’s likely Z87-based boards will support them via a BIOS update too.

Finally, there was scant information on Broadwell – Intel’s 5th gen Core processor range. However, it did confirm the new CPUs would be based on a 14nm manufacturing process, will feature unlocked CPUs, and for the first time, offer its Iris Pro Graphics to socketed unlocked processors too, which could give AMD some competition in the APU department.

It looks like we could have some exciting new products just around the corner. Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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Microsoft and Intel team up for Sharks Cove SBC

Microsoft and Intel team up for Sharks Cove SBC

Intel’s Sharks Cove board, teased in this low-resolution preview, has been developed to Microsoft’s exacting specifications, allowing developers a standardised platform for writing Windows drivers for SoC hardware.


Microsoft has pledged to help support Windows developers with an officially-certified line of development boards, starting later this year with Intel’s Sharks Cove platform.

Not to be confused with Intel’s open hardware projects Galileo and MinnowBoard, the latter in cooperation with BeagleBoard and BeagleBone creator CircuitCo, the new development boards are built to Microsoft’s specifications to create an off-the-shelf development environment for creating Windows software optimised for system-on-chip (SoC) platforms.

Hardware engineers have traditionally faced challenges in creating Windows drivers for SoC platforms,‘ admitted Microsoft in a statement regarding the upcoming programme. ‘Unlike PCs, which have PCI slots and USB ports, SoC systems like tablets and clamshells use low-power internal buses that lack standard connectors, Plug and Play support, and discovery mechanisms. Often these devices are protected by secure boot and cannot be used to develop or test third-party drivers. That will soon change. Hardware engineers will be able to buy off-the-shelf boards that are designed to work with specific SoC environments.

Intel’s Sharks Cove will be one of the first, the company confirmed. A single-board computer (SoC) design, the Sharks Cove board breaks out all the functionality of Intel’s Atom system-on-chip (SoC) platform; even portions which are rarely used, such as general-purpose input-output (GPIO) connectivity, will be readily accessible using expansion connectors. The aim, Microsoft claimed, is to make the development of Windows drivers for SoCs as easy as possible.

Sharks Cove won’t be the last board, either: Microsoft has promised that several boards will be available later this year, with a number of ARM-based boards – for Windows RT development – likely to launch alongside Intel’s offering. Pricing has not been confirmed, but these are not Raspberry Pi competitors; with a professional feature set and formal Microsoft certification, these engineering boards will be priced for corporate purchases only.

Intel has not yet confirmed the specifications of Sharks Cove, with more information expected later this year ahead of a planned 2H 2014 launch.

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Intel’s 2014 line-up is looking great for enthusiasts

As we reported here, Intel has announced the rest of its 2014 line-up. However, I for one am extremely excited by what the future holds for LGA1150.

With Broadwell being delayed and Haswell seemingly focusing more on power efficiency than giving anything significantly new to the enthusiast and performance user, I was pretty amazed when I read the finer details of Intel’s latest roadmap that was announced on 19th March.

In the press release, the company has announced its intentions to better-support the enthusiast and overclocking communities and has detailed a couple of very interesting products.

The first is a new Pentium that will feature an unlocked multiplier to celebrate 20 years of the brand. Could this be the first cheap overclockable CPU since the likes of the Pentium G9650, all the way back on LGA1156? If so, it could prove a huge boon to those looking to overclock on a budget and give a massive boost to overclocking and the enthusiast market.

Intel's 2014 line-up is looking great for enthusiasts
At the moment we’re forced to buy comparatively expensive K-series CPUs, and there have only been two to choose from for each of the last several generations too. It never used to be this way and certainly for the majority of my overclocking life, it wasn’t a case of if you could overclock a CPU, it was a question of which one out of an entire range of CPUs was the best at it.

If the Pentium retails for current Pentium prices – ie around £80-100, but you can add 500-1000MHz to the clock speed, this could potentially match the performance of a Core i5, at least in software that isn’t massively multi-threaded, and give AMD’s cheap FX-series CPUs some competition too.

The new Pentium will be supported by current 8-series chipsets and also forthcoming 9-series chipsets, presumably Z97, although we’ll have to wait and see whether it will need a BIOS update to run in current boards.

Intel's 2014 line-up is looking great for enthusiasts
Another gleeful bit of information is that Intel will also be launching its first 8-core desktop CPU. The monster will likely feature hyper-threading, for 16 threads in total, will also support DDR4 and will be supported by the new X99 chipset.

Ivy Bridge and Haswell CPUs meanwhile have suffered from hot-running chips, especially when you’ve overclocked them. It’s fairly common for people to de-lid their CPUs – having done so with my Core i5-3570K, I can honestly say it made a huge difference. However, Intel appears to have admitted the issue as it will be introducing ‘Improved thermal interface material’ to the expected Haswell refresh CPUs, codenamed Devil’s Canyon, due out this summer.

Intel's 2014 line-up is looking great for enthusiasts
As well as the expected performance boost that comes with every refresh, this could mean better overclocking too. The new CPUs are slated to be supported by a new Intel 9-series chipset, although it’s likely Z87-based boards will support them via a BIOS update too.

Finally, there was scant information on Broadwell – Intel’s 5th gen Core processor range. However, it did confirm the new CPUs would be based on a 14nm manufacturing process, will feature unlocked CPUs, and for the first time, offer its Iris Pro Graphics to socketed unlocked processors too, which could give AMD some competition in the APU department.

It looks like we could have some exciting new products just around the corner. Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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GlobalFoundries rumoured to be sniffing around IBM’s fabs

GlobalFoundries rumoured to be sniffing around IBM's fabs

GlobalFoundries has been named as the strongest contender in a deal to purchase IBM’s unwanted semiconductor fabrication facilities.


GlobalFoundries has been named as a possible buyer for IBM’s unwanted chip-making facilities, although a deal is not considered imminent thanks to IBM’s high asking price.

Once a subsidiary of AMD, GlobalFoundries was created in 2008 as a joint partnership btween AMD and the Advanced Technology Investment Company (ATIC). All AMD production would continue in the fabs it once owned, but AMD would pay GlobalFoundries for the privilege. In 2012, its final financial ties were severed when its spin-off agreed terms to purchase AMD’s stake outright. Since then, AMD has continued to use GlobalFoundries thanks largely to pre-signed wafer supply agreements still in place.

IBM, meanwhile, is looking to exit the fabrication business thanks to declining interest in the company’s Power architecture for mainstream products. With its fabs sold IBM would, it is claimed, look towards service provision rather than hardware sales for its profit. The news came on the back of IBM’s sale of its low-end x86 server division to Lenovo, the Chinese technology giant which also bought the rights to IBM’s consumer PC business.

The Wall Street Journal, quoting unnamed sources ‘familiar with the matter‘, claims that talks are in progress for GlobalFoundries to buy the now-unwanted IBM plants. Another company named as a bidder for the facilities is Intel, but with the company having recently opted to abandon a fully-finished fabrication plant due to a lack of demand for its capacity, GlobalFoundries is considered to be in a stronger position.

The WSJ’s sources warn that a deal is unlikely to happen imminently, however. IBM is claimed to be looking for at least $2 billion for the facilities, while bidders including GlobalFoundries and Intel have yet to offer substantially more than half that price.

Neither GlobalFoundries nor IBM have commented publicly on the claims.

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Antec Kühler H20 950 Review

Antec Kühler H20 950 Review

Manufacturer: Antec
UK price (as reviewed):
£65.94
US price (as reviewed): $84.99

Of all the companies that have jumped on the all-in-one liquid cooler band wagon in the last few years, Corsair and Antec have usually been the ones to beat. Antec has ruled the roost for a while with its great software suite and awesome cooling and the Kühler H2O 920 held the top spot until Corsair’s Hydro H80i and SilverStone’s Tundra TD03 turned up.

Antec Kühler H20 950 Review
With the Kühler H20 920 now going end of life, its replacement, the Kühler H20 950 looks to fill its shoes. Like its predecessor, the Kühler H20 950 is a dual fan-wielding beast with a 50mm-thick radiator. However, where the Kühler H20 950 differs from pretty much any all-in-one that’s gone before it is the location of the pump. Instead of sitting on top of the waterblock, Antec has chosen to place the pump on top of the front fan bearing.

Antec Kühler H20 950 Review Antec Kühler H20 950 Review
It’s a slightly bizarre decision as the radiator is usually the one thing that you’ll have issues installing seeing as the waterblocks on all-in-one liquid coolers are usually so small. However, it shouldn’t make much difference to cooling seeing as the coolant temperature tends to equalise fairly quickly in most liquid cooling loops anyway. That said, there’s an awful lot of extra engineering that has to go into creating a radiator with two additional ports and four tubes so we’re glad to see the price remains competitive. In fact, the Kühler H20 950 is £5-10 cheaper than Corsair’s similar H80i.

Antec Kühler H20 950 Review Antec Kühler H20 950 Review
The front fan sports directional blades at the rear (a lot like those on SilverStone’s Air Penetrator fans), which Antec claims focus air through the radiator. The radiator itself has moderately dense fin packing and is clearly designed to work best with two fans in a push-pull setup. The rear fan is a standard 120mm type but if you’re partial to removing the stock fans and using your own premium models, this won’t be possible with the Kühler H20 950 as the front fan and pump are essentially a single-piece design.

With no pump in tow, the waterblock is exceptionally thin. However, this didn’t mean it was particularly easy to fit. Antec employs a rather fiddly mounting bracket to deal with both AMD and Intel sockets with a variety of sprung pins being used to secure it to the motherboard. However, securing these was easier said than done; we’re not usually inclined to deduct too many points here for the simple reason that you only fit your cooler once even in a span of several years. Needless to say, if you struggle for patience, Corsair’s current coolers are less inclined to have you in fits of rage.

Antec Kühler H20 950 Review Antec Kühler H20 950 Review
The centre of the waterblock illuminates depending on how toasty your CPU is. As with the Kühler H20 920, there’s a bundled application that allows you to set a user-defined, extreme or silent fan profile. Out of the box, we doubt anyone with a modern system won’t be able to use the Kühler H20 950 as its compatible with everything from LGA775 upwards on Intel motherboards plus AMD Socket AM2 upwards as well, including Socket FM2.

Specifications

  • Compatibility Intel: LGA775, LGA115x, LGA1366, LGA2011; AMD: AM3(+), AM2(+), FM2(+), FM1
  • Radiator size (mm) 120 x 159 x 50 (W x D x H)
  • Water block size (mm) approx. 70 x 70 x 26 (W x D x H)
  • Tubing length approx. 300mm
  • Fan(s) 2 x 120mm, 600-2,400RPM
  • Stated NoiseNot stated

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Intel announces Braswell, Cherry Trail

Intel announces Braswell, Cherry Trail

Intel’s Bay Trail architecture is to be succeeded by a low-cost system-on-chip design dubbed Braswell and a higher-priced family known as Cherry Trail.


Intel has announced its planned successors for the Bay Trail architecture, 14nm designs dubbed Braswell and Cherry Trail and aimed at low-cost portables.

Unveiled at the company’s Intel Developer Forum China last night, little is known about the new designs beyond their overall aims and the company’s use of a 14nm process node – and, Kirk Skaugen told attendees, Intel’s hopes to use the chips to help Google grow its Chromebook and Chromebox businesses.

Braswell will focus on ultra-low cost devices, Intel claimed, and use a system-on-chip (SoC) design to reduce the size of the final product as well as the number of supporting chips required. The result, it is claimed, will be entry-level smartphones and tablets boasting a full 64-bit x86 implementation and with excellent power draw.

Braswell is to be joined by Cherry Trail, a more powerful design still based on a 14nm process. Unlike the smartphone-oriented Braswell, Cherry Trail will be aimed at tablets and will offer higher performance at the cost of size and power draw. No performance figures were provided for either design, however.

Intel also told attendees of changes it plans to make to its Bay Trail design, promising new models which will reduce the cost of the processors and their supporting components still further. The aim, it is claimed, is for the company’s customers to be able to launch tablets based on Bay Trail designs for under $100 (around £60 excluding taxes) – a price point currently the exclusive preserve of ARM-based systems from semiconductor companies like AllWinner.

The announcement of the new designs comes as Intel looks to partner with software companies to develop packages exclusive to Intel’s own chips, something its rival AMD has previously investigated with projects like the AMD AppZone.

Release dates and pricing for Braswell and Cherry Trail parts were, naturally, not part of Intel’s presentation.

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Microsoft Build 2014 keynote: the highlights

Microsoft Build 2014 keynote: the highlights

Microsoft’s Build keynote this year included plenty of surprises, from universal apps that can run on Windows devices as well as the Xbox One to the impending return of the Start Menu.


Attendees at Microsoft’s annual Build summit last night were treated to a three-hour keynote speech in which the company announced some dramatic diversions from the norm – including free copies of Windows for phones and tablets, the return of the Start Menu, and Windows apps on the Xbox One.

It’s usual for Microsoft to queue up announcements for the Build event, which is the biggest in its calendar; it’s not usual, however, for it to have quite so many announcements to make as during its keynote session at last night’s opening. Some of the changes, in particular the release of free copies of Windows for mobile devices, will likely have a heavy impact on the future of the company – and it’s not hard to see new chief executive Satya Nadella, a man who has already bemoaned the company’s delayed entry into the mobile market, as the driving force behind much of what occurred last night.

Windows 8.1 Update 1
Microsoft announced the impending launch of Windows 8.1 Update 1, the first major overhaul for what was previously known as Windows Blue. Much of the changes are user experience oriented, rather than under-the-hood overhauls, and many will be welcomed by users: the Desktop and Modern UIs are to be more closely linked, with Modern UI apps being accessible in windowed form from the Desktop interface – allowing a mixing of old and new which was previously verboten.

The new update will also include faster access to the Windows Store – more on which later – by pre-pinning it to the taskbar, and the ability to power off or restart your PC, perform searches and access settings are now available on the main Start Screen instead of hidden off to the side. The update, Microsoft has confirmed, will launch on the 8th of April – the same date, coincidentally, that Windows XP enters official end of life (EOL) status.

The biggest change, however, will have to wait for a future update: the reintroduction of the Start Menu, the absence of which is many users’ biggest bugbear surrounding Windows 8 and newer. Based heavily on the Windows 7 Start Menu, the new version will integrated selected functionality – like Live Tiles – from the Start Screen in an attempt to create a hybrid that will appeal to all. No formal date has been offered for its availability, however.

Mobile Push
A large portion of the keynote was dedicated to Microsoft’s increasingly heavy push to mobile users, where is software is in a distinct minority. As well as new Windows Phone 8.1 devices from Nokia and Samsung, the company confirmed that the new release – a free upgrade to all Nokia Windows Phone 8 handsets – will include an Action Centre which appears to riff on the similar functionality available in Google’s rival Android platform.

The company also announced Cortana, its answer to the popularity of voice-activated assistants Google Now and Siri. Based on the artificial intelligence from the Halo series – which, as a major plot point, went crazy, so that’s an interesting marketing angle to take – Cortana will be a standard feature of Windows Phone 8.1.

Finally, Microsoft made what could possibly be the only announcement that could give it real impetus in the fight against Google: Windows will now be licensable at zero cost on all smartphones and tablet devices with a screen size of less than nine inches. Although Google’s basic Android OS is also free – and, in fact, largely open-source – the company has charged for access to the Google Play app store and other Google-specific functionality, while Microsoft’s impressive portfolio of patents has been used to ‘encourage’ Android licensees – including big names like Samsung – to pay Microsoft a fee for every handset shipped.

To put it bluntly: Microsoft’s free Windows for mobiles is cheaper than Google’s free Android – no mean feat.

Universal Apps
The final surprise of the event was confirmation of a long-held rumour that Microsoft’s Xbox One console will be able to run Windows applications. Using a new cross-platform runtime environment, Microsoft explained, developers will be able to build apps that can run on Windows, Windows RT, Windows Phone and Xbox One – and buyers can pay once to run the app on any of the aforementioned devices.

The move doesn’t exactly open up the Xbox ecosystem – apps available on the Xbox One will be even more heavily curated than those available on Windows Phone, with developers needing to seek Microsoft’s approval – but with promises that DirectX 12 will lead to similar cross-platform functionality for games, it’s hard to see it as bad news.

If the above summary isn’t enough for your appetite, the full keynote session featuring speakers David Treadwell, Joe Belfiore, Stephen Elop, Terry Myerson and new leader Satya Nadella is available for your three-hour viewing pleasure.

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