It has been about twenty years since I sent my last newsletter, which I sent way back on Friday, March 13th. Since then, the coronavirus pandemic and various governmental responses to it got very real and this week it’s likely going to get more intense. As always, you can find our coverage on this page.
But as the global economy has a look in the mirror and tries to decide if it’s going to shut down or what, tech companies are moving forward with announcements they would have otherwise made at their big tech conferences and/or press briefings.
The clearest example of that is Microsoft, which has revealed significant new details about the Xbox Series X’s specs and how it will support 1TB expansion cards yesterday. Tom Warren has all the details in this post, but the one that stands out to me is how easy it will be to add storage expansion.
The Xbox Series X will allow for removable storage, but only with proprietary cards. At first I bristled at the idea of proprietary removable storage. Actually, I’m still bristling, but not as much as you might expect. That’s because Microsoft at least has a good reason — to get load times and gaming performance up to where it wants on the Series X, it needs to ensure storage meets the spec. Seagate has the exclusive, which is fine but also I would like to see other companies involved if only to make me feel better that this won’t be overpriced over time. In the meantime, standard USB 3.1 drives will be compatible for older games.
A lot of what the Xbox Series X is promising is beyond the capabilities of your television: 8K and variable refresh rates are definitely things you’ll be looking for the next time you want to buy a high-end set. So beyond “our graphics, they’ll be fancy,” Microsoft needs something else to lure new customers in.
Normally, that thing would be exclusive games. But Microsoft is already on record saying that the Xbox Series X won’t have exclusive games at launch.
Which leaves load times. Microsoft has a demo showing them to be radically faster than on the Xbox One X — though to me it’s more of an indictment of how games are designed to force you to wait through them. Anyway, it’s a boring demo because half of it is just watching a loading screen, but that’s kind of the point.
I’m also interested in the Quick Resume feature, which as I’ve mentioned before allows multiple games to be resumed instantly, even after a restart. I like to bounce between a few different games in a given week, and so this would be important to me. Here’s how it works:
Microsoft simply caches whatever is used in RAM by a game straight to the SSD, allowing the console to resume titles instantly. Microsoft isn’t saying exactly how many games will be able to Quick Resume in total, but a minimum of three will be supported. As each game has different RAM requirements, the actual number could vary depending on how much space the Quick Resume feature takes up.
Microsoft has assured Xbox fans that the Series X is, in fact, smaller than a fridge. I don’t trust the image, could be photoshopped. Gotta see it for myself in person. More importantly, I want to know how hot this thing runs in its box, how effectively airflow moves through it from the bottom up through the vent on the top, and how loud it all gets.
Basically, I hope that Microsoft has carefully thought through the thermals for all of this. The original “VCR” Xbox One X was a loud, hot, gigantic box. A big-ass fan may be able to move a lot of heat out the top, but I hope it doesn’t do so at the expense of noise.
This all sounds great, but it also sounds not all that differentiated from what Sony has promised for the PlayStation 5 — notably when it comes to load times. So as with a lot of consumer tech these days, the real answer to what you’ll get when you buy an Xbox isn’t going to be about the hardware, it’ll be about this: Microsoft’s ecosystem of services.
More Microsoft news
┏ Bill Gates steps down from Microsoft board. End of an era.
┏ Microsoft to hold Office press event on March 30th. Don’t expect new hardware.
We’re expecting to hear more about Microsoft’s future Office 365 plans, including some new apps and services that are focused on productivity. This will likely involve consumer subscriptions for Microsoft 365, under a potential “Life” branding. Microsoft has been working on a “for life” version of Microsoft Teams, which includes features like sending locations, shared family calendars, and document sharing. Previous rumors have also suggested the subscription may include a password manager and Office.
┏ Microsoft hits its goal of 1 billion devices running Windows 10. This took way longer than I expected, another sign (if you needed one) that so much of the action is on phones. I do wonder what percentage of this number is Xbox consoles. Also Microsoft’s Insider program — essentially an ongoing beta testing program — is low-key one of Microsoft’s best assets.
This number includes PCs, laptops, Xbox One consoles, and HoloLens devices running Microsoft’s latest operating system. It means Microsoft has now hit its original goal of a billion devices running Windows 10, albeit two years later than it originally expected. Microsoft is also revealing that it now has 17.8 million Windows Insider testers.
Apple has closed US retail stores and all others outside China until March 27th, which means you’ll get a grace period for returns. Of course, Apple announced an online-only WWDC 2020 due to coronavirus spread. The leaks are coming out for the products we’ve long been awaiting for the spring, though.
┏ Apple is reportedly making a 5.5-inch entry-level iPhone. Color me surprised Apple is making a Plus model of the rumored iPhone 9/SE2/whatever it’ll be called. There is a large market for big yet inexpensive phones, but I would have assumed that some version of the iPhone XR or 11 would fill that gap.
┏ Apple hit with record $1.2 billion fine by French antitrust authorities. That’s not a small fine!
French authorities say that Apple is guilty of a series of anti-competitive practices. First, Apple and two of its wholesalers agreed to not compete with each other. Second, it stopped its premium resellers from being able to lower their prices, meaning that pricing was identical across almost half of the Apple retail market. Finally, Apple is accused of unfairly treating its premium resellers, in some cases limiting their supply compared to its own stores. These practices are said to have applied to products like the iPad, while the iPhone was unaffected.
Product launches and near-launches
┏ Beats Powerbeats review: reliable wire. Good review from Chris Welch. Not gonna lie: this made me break out my old BeatsX neckbuds. Since I’m working from home, it’s awfully convenient to have headphones at the ready at all times — and since I’m at home nobody cares how silly I look with them dangling around my neck. Well, one person cares but she accepts me for the nerd that I am. Of course, they mysteriously stopped working, which is the fate of all BeatsX headphones.
┏ AMD announces Ryzen 9 4900H and 4900HS mobile chips. AMD going hard at Intel on laptops this year. These chips are gaming laptop-focused and we need to see if these results are really real, but this fight is one to keep an eye on.
┏ Motorola Edge’s curved display shown off in leaked images. Yeah, I don’t think the lack of a curved display is what people have been waiting on there, Motorola. It’s camera and build quality. Hopefully those are just as fancy and advanced as this screen.
┏ LG’s new V60 ThinQ 5G launches on March 20th for $799.99 on T-Mobile. Similar specs to the S20, but for less money. Can’t wait to see the camera.
┏ Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a chill, charming life sim that puts you in control. There’s been a half-jokey movement to ask Nintendo to release this game a week early now that so many people are on lockdown. Okay maybe quarter-jokey. Okay I am so serious Nintendo release this game now I cannot wait to be in hock to Tom Nook the evil capitalist mastermind of Animal Crossing who is actually maybe beneficent because he never seems to actually do anything about your loans.
Stuff to do when you’re sheltered in place
A few services are offering free or reduced access to their content. Movie studios are rushing to change their plans with regard to when you can stream their films. Here’s a small sample:
┏ There is hope for Westworld, but you’re going to have to stick it out. I hated season two. I sort of felt like I was hate-watching much of season one, if I’m perfectly honest. There’s just something self-congratulatory about shows that are complicated and mysterious for the sake of being complicated and mysterious that I find completely off-putting. I’m sure I’ll hate-watch season three anyway: this HBO subscription ain’t gonna justify itself.
┏ Universal will release films currently in theaters as $20 rentals starting Friday. Historically, every attempt to charge this much money for a rental has basically bombed. I think it’s because people just think that a rental should cost less than six bucks. But maybe this time, in today’s context, it could work.
┏ This website lets you relive Apollo 13 in real time through historical transcripts, footage, and audio.
┏ Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is available to buy now, a few days earlier than expected. Wow they really rushed this out without really thinking through much because they were so worried about fan service. I’m referring to the purchase date moving up, of course. What did you think I was referring to?
Online services during the pandemic
I spent much of the weekend trying to untangle just what kind of website Verily was making (and getting attacked for it alongside other journalists) — we know now and it’s starting out as something relatively modest. Last night literally as I was writing this paragraph I had to pause to write the story that Google is delaying the launch of its informational website.
I have very little desire to rehash it all again other than to say that if anybody is promising a quick, easy fix for this situation, they’re surely lying. I’m glad big tech is working to engage the problem but, as my colleague Casey Newton wrote in his newsletter, “None of it is a replacement for a competent government, and the hardest days are surely ahead.”
As everybody begins working from home, the pressure is on for online services to meet the increased load. Not all of them have maintained their uptime. Microsoft in particular had a rough go of it, with the Xbox Live service going offline for a couple hours and Microsoft Teams going down just as Europe logged on to work remotely. Not Great Microsoft Bob.
Discord had a service hiccup, too. I hope everybody figures it out real quick. Steam seems to have, at least!