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August 19, 2014

Microsoft Goes From Cellar to Stellar in New Antivirus Test

AV-ComparativesMany independent antivirus testing labs have taken to calling Microsoft Security Essentials their baseline, separate from the products undergoing testing. If an antivirus can't do better than Microsoft, it's a poor product indeed. However, Dennis Batchelder, director of the Microsoft Malware Protection Center (MMPC), contends that lab tests don't reflect the product's actual user protection, and that in the real world Microsoft is much more effective than the tests show. A recent test suggests that just might be true.

World-Wide Telemetry
The basis of Batchelder's claim is that Microsoft's researchers know more about the actual prevalence of specific malware families than just about anybody. Why? Because every Patch Tuesday the Malicious Software Removal Tool both deletes prevalent malware and reports a raft of non-personal information back to Microsoft. The returned telemetry includes what (if any) threats were neutralized, but also tells them the Windows version, the version of any installed antivirus software, whether that software is up to date, and more.

The MMPC website offers visitors a lightweight summary of current statistics. Under the hood, they've got vastly more data, and they use that data to prioritize protection against the most dangerous and most prevalent malware threats. Or so they say.

Considering Prevalence
Microsoft commissioned the well-known lab AV-Comparatives to re-evaluate a recent test taking prevalence of samples into account. This was a simple file detection test—run an antivirus scan with each product and note how many of over 100,000 samples it detects.

The samples are selected to represent malware prevalent in the wild and to avoid over-representation of any one malware family. However, in calculating the detection rate, every sample gets the same weight. The new report takes the same data and applies weighting based on Microsoft's reported prevalence. The results were vastly different from the original, as you can see in the chart below.

Ranking Change Based on Prevalence

Weighting didn't change the top and bottom scores. Kaspersky Lab is still number one, and AhnLab is still in the cellar. But other rankings changed dramatically. Instead of being second-to-last, Microsoft ranked better than three-quarters of the competition. And aside from Kaspersky, all those ranked above Microsoft came up from lower rankings.

By the same token, most of the lowest-ranked products started off much higher. Bitdefender, Lavasoft, Kingsoft, Emsisoft, Qihoo, and BullGuard had originally tied for sixth place. After weighting for prevalence they're ranked from 15th place on down. Baidu took the biggest plunge, from second place to 22nd. Why? Because while it didn't miss many samples, the ones it did miss were extremely widespread.

The full report from AV-Comparatives describes the weighting scheme in detail and also offers country-specific analysis showing each product's performance on a global map. It states, "This report should be regarded as a prototype, the purpose of which is spark debate on the significance of prevalence data, and promote ideas for improving the method," and expresses a hope that other vendors will share telemetry data with Microsoft "in order to get a more significant and impartial customer-impact analysis."

That sounds like a good plan to me. The radically different results using Microsoft's prevalence data alone suggests that we need data from a broader set of sources.



August 19, 2014

Ballmer Resigns From Microsoft Board

Ballmer

Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer today stepped down from the company's board, though he plans to remain Redmond's top shareholder.

Ballmer, who left Microsoft in February after Satya Nadella was named CEO, pointed to a "hectic" schedule as his reason for departing.

"In the six months since leaving, I have become very busy. I see a combination of the Clippers, civic contribution, teaching and study taking a lot of time," Ballmer said in a memo to Nadella.

Ballmer is the now the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, and he greeted his new team in typical Ballmer fashion this week. Some of those civic contributions, meanwhile, include taking part in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

"I have confidence in our approach of mobile-first, cloud-first, and in our primary innovation emphasis on platforms and productivity and the building of capability in devices and services as core business drivers," Ballmer wrote. "Given my confidence and the multitude of new commitments I am taking on now, I think it would be impractical for me to continue to serve on the board, and it is best for me to move off."

"I bleed Microsoft," the former CEO insisted: 34 years and counting.

"Count on me to keep ideas and inputs flowing. The company will move to higher heights," he wrote. "I will be proud, and I will benefit through my share ownership. I promise to support and encourage boldness by management in my role as a shareholder in any way I can."

Ballmer announced plans to step down as CEO last summer after a tough period that saw Windows 8 and Windows Phone, not to mention Surface tablet, fail to really catch on. Nadella has his work cut out for him, and recently announced massive layoffs in a bid to transform the software giant.



August 17, 2014

Microsoft Issues Hotfix for Internet Explorer Slowdowns

A Closer Look at Windows 8's Browser: Internet Explorer 10 Having some trouble with your Web browser? Specifically, Internet Explorer? If you've noticed that your Microsoft browser has felt as if it's been crawling to a halt lately, then we have some good news for you: Microsoft knows about the issue and has recently issued a hotfix to correct it.

If you have no idea what we're talking about, we'll start from the top. There are two Internet Explorer updates that, when applied to any iteration of the browser between Internet Explorer 7 and 11 (yikes), could eventually cause the browser to grind to a halt. The culprit? "Web applications that implement consecutive modal dialog boxes," reads Microsoft's hotfix.

So how do you know if you have these updates installed? If your browser hasn't yet gotten sluggish, but you want to prevent it from doing so in the future, start by hitting up your Windows Control Panel. Once there, click on the icon for "Windows Update." In the windows that appears, click on the "View update history" in the left-most sidebar (and while you're here, make sure you've downloaded and installed all the latest Microsoft updates for your system!)

Within the list of updates, which we recommend you sort by name just to make the entire process easier, you're going to want to look for one of two different patches: KB2962872 or KB2976627. If you system automatically downloads and installs Windows updates, odds are good you have both—like this article's writer.

If you'd like to head off Internet Explorer's issues at the pass—or if you're already suffering strange slowdowns—you'll want to check out Microsoft's KB2991509 article. In it, Microsoft has a laundry list of update links for all versions of Internet Explorer from 7 to 11, for all operating systems. That includes 64-bit verisons; if you're not sure whether you're running a 64-bit OS, Microsoft has you covered there as well.

Simply click on the correct package for your Internet Explorer and Windows OS combination, download it, and install it. It's that easy.

It's unclear if or when Microsoft will roll out the hotfix as an automatic update, but it never hurts to fix your browser early, right?



August 6, 2014

Microsoft Squashes Rumors of Major Windows 8.1 Update

8 Things You Need to Know About Windows 8.1 Update Microsoft this week said its August update to Windows 8.1 will be modest and incremental rather than another massive package of new tools and toys like April's Windows 8.1 Update.

Call the pending Aug. 12 rollout of new Windows 8.1 features, fixes, and security upgrades a little "u" update to the operating system instead of the big "U" represented by April's massive blowout. And Redmond said Windows users should expect more of these scaled-down but regularly delivered updates in the months to come.

"[D]espite rumors and speculation, we are not planning to deliver a Windows 8.1 'Update 2,'" Microsoft's Brandon LeBlanc wrote on Blogging Windows.

Microsoft is also preparing a similarly incremental update schedule for Windows Server 2012 R2, the company said.

So if the Aug. 12 update won't have as many bells and whistles as Windows 8.1 Update provided —April's bundle of improvements included the much-requested Boot to Desktop feature, some big additions to the Start screen, smarter navigation and UI partitioning for modern apps, and more—what will it have?

In addition to the behind-the-scenes security upgrades, here are the new features in the upcoming Windows 8.1 update, as described by Microsoft:

  • Precision touchpad improvements: Three new end-user settings have been added: Leave touch pad on when a mouse is connected; allow right-clicks on the touchpad; double-tap and drag.
  • Miracast Receive: Exposes a set of Wi-Fi direct APIs for Independent Hardware Vendor (IHV) drivers or OEM drivers to develop Windows 32-bit applications that run on all supported x86-based or x64-based versions of Windows 8.1, enabling the computer as a Miracast receiver.
  • Minimizing login prompts for SharePoint Online: Reduces the number of prompts with federated use in accessing SharePoint Online sites. If you select the "Keep me signed in" check box when you log on for the first time, you will not see prompts for successive access to that SharePoint Online site.

Hey, they already gave us the Start button back, so how much more were you expecting?

As initiated with the big Windows 8.1 Update on April 8, Microsoft's next Windows 8.1 update will be pushed out automatically and for free via Windows Update (learn how to check that you're receiving automatic updates at the Microsoft Update site. You can also check in at the Windows Update landing page to download the update in advance.



August 4, 2014

Leak Teases White Xbox One

White Xbox OneThe Xbox One is currently only available in one color: basic, boring black. But it might soon be on sale in white, too.

According to a listing from the French retailer Micromania, the white Xbox One could make its retail debut as part of a new bundle with the platform exclusive title Sunset Overdrive. The now-removed listing indicated that the white Xbox One bundle will be priced at €399 ($535).

Microsoft last year gifted its employees with a free white-and-silver Xbox One, but the light-colored console has never been available to the general public. The news prompted plenty of requests for Microsoft to market the white version.

"Looks 10x better than black," NeoGAF user Aquavelvaman wrote at the time.

A handful of Microsoft employees (or their family and friends) decided to try and make a few extra bucks by selling their exclusive white and silver Xbox One gaming consoles. Ten white versions of the machine appeared on eBay in March for upwards of $3,500 from nine different sellers.



August 2, 2014

Microsoft Sues Samsung Over Unpaid Bills

New Microsoft Logo It seems Samsung may be getting a bit careless about paying its bills. At least Microsoft thinks so—the software giant is suing Samsung over unpaid patent royalty payments.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York, describes patent royalty payments Samsung agreed to pay for using Microsoft's technology in Android-based smartphones and tablets. The amount Microsoft is seeking from Samsung wasn't named.

In the lawsuit and in a blog post by Microsoft's deputy general counsel David Howard, Redmond cited a confidential agreement reached between the two companies in September 2011 to cross-license their patent portfolios for various products.

The long and the short of it is that Microsoft claims Samsung stopped living up to its end of the deal last fall when the South Korean company refused "to make its Fiscal Year 2 royalty payment on time" and further refused "to pay interest on its late payment."

Microsoft, meanwhile, says it has lived up to its end of its agreement to provide Samsung with unspecified remuneration for using Samsung IP in Microsoft products.

Howard said Samsung was claiming the 2011 cross-license agreement had somehow been rendered void following Microsoft's acquisition of Nokia's handset business for $7.2 billion, a deal announced last September and completed in April.

"In September 2013, after Microsoft announced it was acquiring the Nokia Devices and Services business, Samsung began using the acquisition as an excuse to breach its contract. Curiously, Samsung did not ask the court to decide whether the Nokia acquisition invalidated its contract with Microsoft, likely because it knew its position was meritless," Howard said.

Howard also pointed to the rapid growth of Samsung's smartphone business as a possible factor for Samsung's supposed change of heart about the 2011 agreement.

"Since Samsung entered into the agreement, its smartphone sales have quadrupled and it is now the leading worldwide player in the smartphone market," he said. "Consider this: when Samsung entered into the agreement in 2011, it shipped 82 million Android smartphones. Just three years later, it shipped 314 million Android smartphones. Samsung predicted it would be successful, but no one imagined their Android smartphone sales would increase this much."

Samsung did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, PCWorld reported Friday that a Samsung spokesperson said "the company would review the complaint in detail and determine appropriate measures in response."



August 1, 2014

Intel Core i3, i7 Surface Pro 3 Now on Sale

Surface Pro 3

Microsoft today launched the Intel Core i3 and i7 versions of its new Surface Pro 3 two-in-one tablet.

Available in the U.S. and Canada, the 12-inch device starts at $799 via Microsoft stores, MicrosoftStore.com, and retailers like Best Buy, Staples, and Tiger Direct.

The new models come in four flavors: a 64GB Intel i3 ($799), or a 256GB ($1,549) and 512GB ($1,949) Intel i7.

Unveiled in May, the Surface Pro 3 arrived sporting an Intel Core i5 processor, which is also available with 128GB or 256GB of storage for $999 or $1,299, respectively. The device is billed as "the tablet that can replace your laptop," with a 2,160-by-1,440 display with 10-finger multi-touch support, an adjustable kickstand, and pressure-sensitive stylus.



July 29, 2014

EA, Microsoft Launching ‘Netflix of Games’

EA Logo In partnership with Microsoft, Electronic Arts is launching EA Access: a smorgasbord of Xbox One games that will be available via a monthly or annual subscription.

Starting at $4.99 per month, the membership is available now in beta to a limited number of players, but will launch to the general Xbox One-playing public soon.

What's being called the "Netflix of video games," EA Access promises a 10 percent member discount on digital content purchases, as well as the Play First guarantee, which opens trials of new EA games up to five days before their release. First up: Madden NFL 15, NFL 15, FIFA 15, NBA Live 15, and Dragon Age: Inquisition.

If you love the game enough to buy it, your progress will carry over, so you don't have to start from zero.

"At EA, we are always looking for new ways to make it easier for gamers to play more EA games across all platforms, and we are excited about what EA Access will offer to players on Xbox One," the game makers said in a blog post.

EA Access membership unlocks The Vault—a collection of the company's biggest Xbox One games, ready to download and play. Beta participants will have unlimited access to FIFA 14, Madden NFL 25, Peggle 2, and Battlefield 4, with more titles coming soon.

"That's over $100 worth of games for $4.99 a month," EA boasted.

Unlimited games cost $5 each month; an annual membership is $29.99—an almost $30 savings if you intend on keeping up with EA's games for 12 months.

GameStop will offer EA Access sign-up at its stores, and Web users can also purchase a subscription on Amazon soon.

Electronic Arts has not yet revealed an EA Access launch date. Keep an eye on the company's Facebook and Twitter pages for more details.



July 21, 2014

XP Users Can Still Get Effective Antivirus Protection

XP Users Can Still Get Effective Antivirus ProtectionAs of April this year, Microsoft officially ended support for Windows XP. Those still using XP won't get any more security patches. Well, there was one in May for an egregious Internet Explorer bug, but that's not likely to happen again. An XP system without antivirus protection is a sitting duck, ripe for attack. On the plus side, the latest test results from AV-Test Institute show that many popular security products remain quite effective under XP.

Three-Part Test
AV-Test regularly releases lab test results organized into three categories: protection, performance, and usability. Products can earn up to six points in each category, in half-point increments, with a maximum possible score of 18 points. In order to receive certification, a product must achieve a total of ten points, with no category score below one point.

To measure protection, AV-Test researchers install each antivirus on a clean system and then expose that system to malware in a variety of ways. For testing, they use both very new zero-day malware and a collection of very widespread malware. Quite a few products managed 100 percent protection in both parts of this test. A few clunkers dragged down the overall average to 97 percent for zero-day samples and 98 percent for widespread samples. Microsoft Security Essentials (included as a baseline) and AhnLab both turned in scores below 80 percent protection.

Nobody wants antivirus protection at the expense of system performance. AV-Test's team measures how long it takes for a standard clean system to perform 13 actions reflective of real-world computer use, such as downloading files, running popular applications, and installing programs. They run these same tests after installing the antivirus and note any slowdown. About a third of the tested programs scored slightly worse on this test than on the previous test, which used Windows 7.

For a perfect usability score, an antivirus product must completely avoid identifying any valid website or file as malicious. At best, false positive warnings can confuse users and diminish their faith in an antivirus product's effectiveness. At worst, the antivirus might prevent installation of a legitimate application. All of the tested products scored 5.5 or 6.0 points in this test, with the exception of Comodo. Comodo's over-enthusiastic behavior-based blocking system knocked its score down to 4.0 points.

Three Champions
In all the time I've been tracking AV-Test, I've rarely seen a perfect score, and I don't think I've ever seen three at once. Yet that's exactly what happened in this test. Bitdefender, Kaspersky, and Panda all earned six points in each of the three categories. If you're stuck using XP, consider one of these three champions to protect your system.



July 17, 2014

Xbox Entertainment Studios to Shut Down

Xbox Entertainment Studios

As part of the massive Microsoft layoffs announced today, Redmond will also shutter Xbox Entertainment Studios.

As first reported by Re/Code, the shutdown will occur in the next few months, Xbox chief Phil Spencer wrote in a memo to staff.

Xbox Entertainment Studios was founded last year in order to produce original content for the Xbox platform. The L.A.-based, 125-person studio was led by former CBS television president Nancy Tellem, who remains "committed to new, original programming already in production," Spencer said today.

That includes the Signal to Noise documentary series announced in December, the first installment of which will tackle the rise and fall of Atari, and that recent Atari cartridge scavenger hunt in the New Mexico desert.

Also still on track is Halo: Nightfall, a live action series being produced by Ridley Scott, and the Halo TV series that is being developed in coordination with Steven Spielberg and is set to debut next year. Both "will continue as planned with 343 Industries," Spencer said today.

Interactive sports content like NFL on Xbox will also continue, but otherwise, Xbox users shouldn't expect too much more original content out of Redmond. Look to "our app partnerships with world-class content providers" for that, Spencer said.

Some of the original content Microsoft teased back in April included "an unscripted series about international street soccer, [and] an original drama about robotic servants in a dystopian world."

"Change is never easy, but I believe the changes announced today help us better align with our long-term goals," Spencer said today. "We have an incredible opportunity ahead of us to define what the next generation of gaming looks like for the growing Xbox community. I have a great deal of confidence in this team and know that with clarity of focus on our mission and our customers we can accomplish great things together. We already have."

Microsoft's layoffs, meanwhile, will affect 18,000 workers, about 12,500 of which will be from Nokia.