Windows Defender to start removing “optimizer” scareware

Windows Defender, the anti-malware software that’s built in to Windows, is going to start removing utility software that tries to scare users into upgrading, starting in March.

The Windows software ecosystem has a large variety of software of dubious merit that claims to detect and diagnose faults. These programs often offer a free version that purports to find problems and a paid version that can supposedly repair those problems. Frequently, the problems detected by this software are either nonexistent or misleadingly described, spuriously blamed for crashes or poor performance.

Under Microsoft’s new policy, any software that the company deems to be coercive will be a candidate for removal. Coercive elements include software that’s particularly alarming or exaggerates the risks, software that says the only way to repair the problem is to upgrade, and software that tells users they must act within a limited time. Direct payments will be penalized, but so too will apps that require people to take surveys or sign up for newsletters.

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Microsoft updates Office, OneDrive iOS apps with drag-and-drop, Files support

Enlarge (credit: Microsoft)

Microsoft announced a number of updates to its suite of Office apps for iOS today, better integrating them into Apple’s ecosystem. Arguably the most anticipated update is OneDrive’s new integration with the iOS Files app and support for drag-and-drop gestures on iPhones and iPads.

OneDrive now natively supports the Files app on iOS, letting users upload, share, and save content to OneDrive or SharePoint from apps that support the Files app, which Apple debuted with iOS 11. Users can tag OneDrive or SharePoint documents in the Files app to make them easier to find as well. Microsoft also redesigned the OneDrive app with a new list view and support for more than 130 file types for previews, letting users open, edit, and share Photoshop and other file types from directly within the app.

Drag-and-drop is a popular new feature of iOS 11 and makes working with documents—particularly on iPad—much easier, and now the OneDrive and Office apps for iOS support drag-and-drop. Users can move files into various apps more easily by dragging and dropping them into the desired program, which will be especially useful while in Split View on iPad. The new support lets customers move files in between OneDrive and Office apps as well as Microsoft’s apps and other sources, such as Messages.

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Xbox marks the spot with Sea of Thieves’ amazing, pirate-filled beta test

Enlarge / Those weather, reflection, and wave effects all come from the real-time version of Sea of Thieves. It looks that good in motion, too. (credit: Rare)

After years of teases and press-only demos, Microsoft and Rare’s pirate-battling game Sea of Thieves has finally arrived in a form that looks like the online game we’ve been promised for so long. And, shiver our timbers, this week’s closed beta test has honestly been promising—and sometimes danged good.

Moreover, it lets us get closer to describing this as a living, breathing online game, as opposed to the 15-minute pirate-on-pirate battle bursts we’ve seen at early preview events. Waddle on over with that peg-leg of yours, sit ye down, and let us tell you tales about Rare’s new virtual seas—along with our hopes and concerns for the game going forward.

A pirate’s life for ye?

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New Windows patch disables Intel’s bad Spectre microcode fix

Enlarge / A closeup shot of an Intel Haswell die, with a pin for size reference. (credit: Intel)

Microsoft has released a new Windows patch to disable Intel’s hardware-based mitigation for the Spectre attack due to bugs introduced by Intel’s mitigation.

In the wake of the Spectre and Meltdown attacks that use the speculative execution behavior of modern processors to leak sensitive information, Intel released a microcode update that offers operating systems additional controls over the processor’s ability to predict branches. When paired with corresponding operating system changes, the extra controls can prevent the unwanted information disclosure.

Unfortunately, Intel discovered earlier this month that the microcode updates are causing machines to reboot. Initially this was confirmed to be the case for Haswell and Broadwell chips; Intel later confirmed that it also applied to Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge, Skylake and Kaby Lake parts. Intel’s advice was to stop deploying the microcode. A week ago the company said that it had isolated the root cause of reboots, at least for Haswell and Broadwell processors, and that it would soon begin testing a new version.

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Microsoft’s “Ink to Code” turns drawings into user interfaces

Microsoft Ink to Code.

Sketching out rough ideas—traditionally on the back of a napkin in the US, backs of envelopes being preferred in the UK—is a common and important part of the design process, with the familiar pen or pencil and paper being favored for rough mockups and outlines. Ink to Code, a new Microsoft Garage project, hopes to turn those rough sketches into usable, working code.

Ink to Code is currently itself a rough prototype of an app. The basic premise is simple: designers can sketch out the bare bones of application interfaces, and Ink to Code will turn those sketches into real code, specifically the XML markup used for Universal Windows Platform apps and Xamarin apps for Android. It uses the Windows 10 Ink APIs to recognize the objects that have been drawn, converting handwriting into text and boxes into screens, buttons, text boxes, and image placeholders.

Currently, the app is only an early prototype—a basic proof of concept rather than a fully fledged development tool. It recognizes only a few interface elements, along with rules and guidelines for aligning things, and it produces only basic code with no functional parts. The company has various ideas of how to develop it further but wants to hear from real designers and developers where to focus its development efforts. Some obvious directions are supporting a greater range of interface elements and producing more functional code; one can easily imagine how it could, for example, identify login screens and automatically plumb in authentication workflows.

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Want to see all data Windows 10 sends Microsoft? There’s an app for that

Enlarge (credit: Microsoft)

Following the publication last year of the data collected by Windows 10’s built-in telemetry and diagnostic tracking, Microsoft today announced that the next major Windows 10 update, due around March or April, will support a new app, the Windows Diagnostic Data Viewer, that will allow Windows users to browse and inspect the data that the system has collected.

Windows 10 has two settings for its data collection, “basic” and “full.” The documentation last year described all the data collected in the “basic” setting but only gave a broad outline of the kinds of things that the “full” setting collected. The new app will show users precisely what the full setting entails and a comparison with what would be sent with the basic setting.

The utility of the app will tend to vary depending on what data is being inspected. The presentation is low-level (Microsoft’s screenshots show JSON structured data using various magic numbers—numeric values that encode information but without any key to explain what information each number encodes), so straightforward reading and interpretation will remain limited.

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Windows VR headsets now available with deep discounts

Enlarge / An array of Windows Mixed Reality headsets. (credit: Microsoft)

With its Windows VR headsets, Microsoft wanted to make it simpler and cheaper to get into PC-based virtual reality.

But perhaps not quite this cheap: most of the Windows VR headsets on the market are now available on Amazon in the US for around 50 percent off: for as little as $200, you can get a headset complete with a pair of motion controllers that’ll run Windows Mixed Reality software and which has beta quality support for SteamVR titles too.

When first announced, Microsoft promised its headsets would be around $300-500, compared with the $600 or more for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Since then, both the Rift and the Vive have some big price cuts of their own, and while the Windows VR devices do still retain the pricing edge, the difference is much less pronounced than it once was. For the moment, the Windows hardware retains one advantage—it doesn’t need base stations to track movement because all the tracking is handled in the headset itself, which makes installation and setup substantially easier. But this benefit, too, is set to disappear in the near term, as this style of tracking is going to become the norm.

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