Final Fantasy Trading Card Game Crowns First North American Champion, Opus III Cards Now Available

As the Final Fantasy Trading Card Game gains wild momentum in the states, US fans were elated to see the crowning of the first North American champion. Joseph Leszczyski of Milwaukee, WI emerged victorious in the inaugural Final Fantasy Trading Card Game Opus Series North American Championship. He and the other four finalists have been invited to participate in the World Championship Finals in Japan this November, where they’ll compete with the world’s top players. In a recent press release, Square Enix shared a picture of Leszczyski receiving his crystal trophy from FFTCG producer Taro Kageyama:

final fantasy tcg

At the top of this article you can watch a video showcasing some of the featured matches from the Championship semi-finals. You’ll notice most of the stream stars finalist Nathan Perez dominating the play mat until Leszczyski shows up at the end to begin his run. Watching the pros play can be a great way for beginner and intermediate players to get an insider’s look at how to properly build a competitive deck.

With the recent launch of the Opus III series of cards, there’s never been a better time to jump in. Opus III features cards and characters from Final Fantasy IX, which just released for the PS4, and Final Fantasy Type-0. While those cards are featured, the Opus III starter pack and booster packs will contain cards with characters and summons spanning the entire Final Fantasy series. Opus I and II packs are also readily available, and can be found at your local game stores or through Amazon (link here).

We recently got our hands on the Opus III starter deck and a few booster packs, and I found many fantastic new forwards to compliment and synergize an aggressive Wind elemental deck I’ve been working on. If we’re speaking another language, and you’re looking for a more basic introduction, Square Enix has put together a fantastic set of beginner’s tutorials here. You can also read our Final Fantasy Trading Card Game review right here to find out why we love it so much!

NVIDIA Rumored To Launch Pascal GeForce GTX 1070 Ti Graphics Card

So NVIDIA GeForce has been a silent bunch since the launch of the highly successful GeForce GTX 1080 Ti but rumor is that a new card may possible be in the works. Posted over at Chinese sources and caught by Videocardz, this new card is rumored to be known as the GeForce GTX 1070 Ti.

NVIDIA Rumored To Launch a Pascal Based GeForce GTX 1070 Ti Graphics Card With 8 GB G5 Memory

First of all, I would like to state that there’s no official confirmation of any sorts regarding this SKU so all of the details are rumors at best. The details allege that NVIDIA is working on what is to be a brand new Pascal graphics card. The card will be known as the GeForce GTX 1070 Ti and feature a Pascal GP104 silicon.

Technically, this card will be similar to the GP104 based GTX 1080 and GTX 1070. The differences will lie in the configuration of the chip itself. It is stated that the GTX 1070 Ti will come with 2304 CUDA Cores and 8 GB of GDDR5 memory along a 256-bit bus interface. Now this looks to be an interesting graphics card as it will be sandwiched in between the GTX 1070 and GTX 1080.

To be honest, that gap isn’t too huge to begin with. Also worth noting is that the GeForce GTX 1080 is retailing for $499 US while the GTX 1070 has an official MSRP of $349 US. The only price point I can think in between them is $399-$449. The former is too close to a GTX 1070 while the latter is close to a GTX 1080. And let’s just not talk about the GTX 1070 custom models which fall in the same price segment.

So maybe we are looking at a price drop on the GTX 1070 to around $299 US and a sudden intro of the GTX 1070 Ti after that. I know it sounds really weird but the only reason this rumor was worth a post was due to a picture a guy took with his mobile showing what seems to be ASUS’s GTX 1070 Ti STRIX OC (8 GB) model. Whether that’s true or not is yet to be confirmed but we will have a word with our sources if they have more details on the card. And no, Volta isn’t coming this year.



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Western Digital Launches SanDisk iXpand SD Card Reader for iPhone with Backup Capability

Western Digital has introduced its new SanDisk iXpand Base storage solution for Apple iOS-based devices. Just like the SanDisk iXpand flash drive launched several years ago, the new device can backup photos, videos and contacts from iPhones, iPads and other devices to free some space and/or make a redundant copy. Internally, the iXpand base uses SD cards, essentially making it a card reader for Apple’s devices.

As the name implies, the SanDisk iXpand Base is a base for iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch that holds an SD card and has a power adapter to charge iOS devices. To back up photos, videos and contacts, users have to connect the product to their mobile device using a Lightning cable (not bundled) and a special application will activate automatically. The software transfers content (including content from apps and located in the iCloud) to the card, which may then be removed and read on other devices. Moreover, the SanDisk iXpand Base itself can be connected to a computer using a Micro-USB to USB Type-A cable and used like an SD card reader.

SanDisk will offer multiple versions of the iXpand Base with pre-installed SD cards ranging from 32GB to 256GB. The company does not disclose which SD cards it uses and whether the Xpand Base supports aftermarket memory cards. If it does (most likely), then the device is upgradeable too and once an owner runs out of space, they can simply swap the card with a new one

Apple’s iPhones are often criticized for not having a memory card slot, which requires owners to clean up their photos from time to time and/or delete rarely used apps to free some space. To a large degree, the SanDisk iXpand Base solves this problem as it acts like an external card reader for Apple’s smartphones, which automatically backs up their photos and videos when used for charging (as opposed to the iXpand drive, which has to be connected separately). Afterwards, the content may be deleted from the phone to free up some space.

The SanDisk iXpand Base will be available shortly in the U.S. from such stores as Amazon, BestBuy.com, B&H Photo Video.com and other major retailers. The most affordable model with a 32 GB SD card will cost $49.99, whereas the one with a 256 GB card will carry a $199.99 price tag.

SanDisk iXpand Base at Glance
  32 GB 64 GB 128 GB 256 GB
P/N SDIB20N-032G-AN9AN SDIB20N-064G-AN9AN SDIB20N-128G-AN9AE SDIB20N-256G-AN9AE
Fast Charge Yes, 5 V, 3 A (15 W)
Materials Rubber and plastic
Dimensions 25.36 × 101.00 × 107.00 mm or 0.99 × 3.98 × 4.21 in (HxWxL)
Warranty 2 years
Price $49.99 $99.99 $129.99 $199.99

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The Elder Scrolls Legends and card master Pete Hines face the dragon | VentureBeat | PC Gaming

Daenerys Targaryen wishes her dragons had an iota of the power that my draconic minions show in The Elder Scrolls: Legends. Of course my wyrms are beefy and fiery and soar over the battlefield. But they also make my foes quake in fear, reducing their power or shackling them to the battlefield upon which they stand. They buff my troops, giving them amazing powers. And they even destroy every other soldier in play.

Even mighty Drogon looks weak in comparison.

Dragons came to Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls-based card game, Legends, in June with the Heroes of Skyrim expansion, and it didn’t take long before they “wrymed” their way into many players decks. They are powerful, as are many of their companion cards. I’ve been playing nearly every day since the set’s release, and I’m enjoy how Legends presents a different take on “wizard poker” than what we see from Blizzard Entertainment’s Hearthstone, another game I play almost daily.

But I wondered if why all these dragons were coming to Legends now. This is the first expansion set, after all. Bethesda’s Pete Hines, its vice president of public relations and marketing and a passionate collectible card player, said that the Skyrim set was a natural fit.

“Well, it was the only one where we could do dragons, because it’s Skyrim, and in the other ones dragons don’t exist in those timelines,” he said.

But then he got serious about the design decisions behind this parade of dragons. Along the way, we also broke down The Elder Scrolls Legends’ recent debut on smartphones, card design, and how Bethesda approaches changes (aka nerfs) — how, and when, do the needs of the many outweigh the fun of the few.

Here is an edited transcript of our interview.

GamesBeat: Why was this expansion the one for dragons?

Pete Hines: Skyrim as a setting was something we talked about doing a lot, even before the core set, when we were talking about the timeline and setting and mechanics and creatures and all of that. This is years ago. We kicked around Skyrim a bit and ultimately decided we were going to do something that was a little less specific to a particular game, and do deeper, game-focused dives as part of stories or expansion sets. This was the one we were most excited about doing, not just because of dragons, but because of shouts and some of the other things we could do: Imperials versus Stormcloaks. We targeted this one for a long time as the first one we wanted to do to really mix things up.

Above: The Stormcloaks are part of the flavor of Heroes of Skyrim.

Image Credit: Jason Wilson/GamesBeat

GamesBeat: When you talked about Imperials versus Stormcloaks, it’s funny, as I’ve approached this set with my decks, I haven’t even started mixing and matching those. It’s been all about dragons.

Hines: Right. It’s not a main theme. It’s one of the underlying themes going on. Like the werewolves. There’s not 50 different werewolf cards, but it’s a subtheme going on in the set as we support some of these different tribal themes. Stormcloaks and what their mechanic is, obviously Imperials were a thing in the main set. But we want to continue to explore some of these. You probably noticed there are some more orc tribal things going on. A whole bunch of smaller sub-themes going on.

But obviously, dragons and shouts is the big one, because it’s cool and fun and different. It not only brings new card types, but also deck types. There’s a lot more graveyard matters decks now than there used to be, for example.

GamesBeat: I was going to ask about the graveyard. It’s one of my favorite mechanics in the game.

Hines: It’s pretty heavily influenced, I think. I haven’t specifically asked this question of the design team, but if you look at who’s on our design team, between—after Paul Dennen, you look at guys like Kevin Spak and Matt Nass. A whole host of guys who are known for playing Magic. The graveyard mechanics in Magic have been pretty big over the years, and I think probably had some amount of influence around them doing those kind of mechanics in the game. We now have a card that’s essentially the Magic scry mechanic — look at the top card of your library and either decide to keep it on top or discard it, then draw a card. Again that’s not an exact mechanic from Magic, but it does feel like “scry one, draw one.” There’s some carry over and influence there.

GamesBeat: I know part of it just comes from the interests of your designers, but is it also a way to help Elder Scrolls Legends stand out from other card games that don’t play much with the graveyard, like Hearthstone?

Hines: We’re always looking for additional ways to distinguish ourselves, No. 1, and highlight the things we do that other games don’t do, for sure. But it’s also — and this is a bit more subtle — if you know the story of Skyrim and dragons and how all that works, that’s what was taking place in Skyrim. Dragons being raised from the dead, coming out of the graveyard. It wasn’t just dragons being born all over the place. Someone was going around raising them from the burial mounds and bringing them back to life. That plays into it as well.

GamesBeat: I’m not the best player. I’m Rank 7. I’ve reached as high as Rank 5. But more than a month into the expansion, I’d go a day of playing two or three hours and not see a dragon in an opponent’s deck. Are you disappointed that you don’t see more opponents playing with dragons?

Hines: No, I think it’s just down to people playing around and trying different things. At different ranks, you’ll see more or fewer dragons. Right now one of the decks I’m playing — if you had played me, you would have seen lots of dragons, because I have a dragons matter green-purple ramp deck. I used to love to play the green-purple scout ramp deck, and I completely morphed it and changed it.

Above: Alduin is one of the most powerful dragons in Heroes of Skyrim.

Image Credit: Jason Wilson/GamesBeat

I talked to a guy, Frank Lepore, who’s a very good Magic player. He’s done some content for us. He was telling me about his new version of it that he really liked, and it’s all about dragons. You’re ramping up to Alduin and Paarthurnax, playing ramp cards and lots of dragons and trying to get to high amounts of magicka to dump dragons on the board. You play Midnight Snack, because I care about making the dragons cheaper. Inevitably I have at least one of them in my hand. I can spill them out and not even care if I trade off and they die, because I’m trying to get them in the graveyard anyway, so Alduin is cheap enough to cast. He gets a lot cheaper if I’m really throwing dragons out there.

I’ve had a lot of success and a lot of fun with that deck, but I also play an Action-Assassin deck that Sam Pardee built. He’s another designer who’s also a terrific Magic player. He built this really interesting deck around zero-cost cards. It doesn’t have a lot of anything that anybody’s playing. I’m playing the stupid 1/4 Merchant’s Camel, but it’s all built around this idea of the market card that drains your opponent for one every time you play a zero-cost card.

I did it on the stream two weeks ago and people were like, “This is really cool and different. I haven’t seen anyone play Legends this way.” Usually they’re trying to play really cool action spells or big creatures, but I’m doing something completely different. I’m not going to do what you’re doing. I’m doing my own thing over here and making really interesting decisions about cards that I want to keep or throw away.

That’s the thing about our game that I really like. If everyone is playing dragons, dragons get less cool. What’s healthy about our game is how much variety and diversity you get. You’re not seeing any dragons, but yesterday all I played was dragons. I think that speaks well to—I’m not seeing the same decks. I’m not playing the same matches. I’m not always trying to deal with the same cards. That’s good for us.

GamesBeat: That’s one of my favorite things about ESL. I’m not always playing the metagame same decks against the same decks, which I get really tired of in Hearthstone.

Hines: Beyond that, it’s actually something I debated with Paul Dennen for a long time. As usual, he’s always right. I asked him about deck size, because I was worried about inconsistency there. You’re just not seeing your cards. He said, look, that’s what I’m going for. I want it to be the case that you can’t just build a deck around a card you have three copies of and reliably hit it all the time, in every match. That makes for much for predictable, boring matches. I want it to be less likely. I want you to have to play more cards, to add more variability in terms of what you’re going to draw.

Above: When this card works, it can be devastating.

Image Credit: Jason Wilson/GamesBeat

The card I was thinking of at the time was Dres Tormentor. It’s the 3/4 blue card, when a creature gets shackled–I tried to build a Dres Tormentor teck, but if you don’t get Dres Tormentors on the battlefield, the deck did almost nothing. He said, that’s the point. Your deck can’t just be, I draw this card, and I go off. Because of the size of the deck, you have to put more cards in and have more than one way to win.

It turns out that was a smart decision, as usual from Paul, and something that makes our game really healthy.

GamesBeat: How challenging was it to design dragons for this set that fit all of the colors?

Hines: That’s not something I’m as intimately involved in. By the time it gets to me they’ve figured out a lot of that stuff in terms of what they’re doing mechanically. But when you look at what the dragons are doing, they fit nicely into the themes you expect in those colors. The blue dragon, the Lookout, it’s not just about dragons, but it’s also about cards that care about dragons. In blue you have Ghost Sea Lookout, which is part of this cycle of cards that are Lookouts, creatures that are looking out for dragons. Each one does something different. Green does life gain when a dragon is played because that’s a mechanic you’re used to seeing in green. Blue does ward because blue has a lot of ward in it. Or a card like Dragon’s Fury, the action that does additional damage for each dragon. Blue is used to have actions that deal damage. That’s the color that has lightning bolts and fireballs.

I don’t think the balance part of it was tricky. Each color lends itself pretty well to what dragons would be about and be doing. The Lookout in purple spews out guards because purple is known for having guards and getting in the way and clogging up the board. Each of them fits nicely with what’s going on in those colors. The purple dragon helps you gain magica and the Lookout puts down guards, which leans more toward control decks and ramp decks, which makes sense, because that’s what you see in those colors.

GameBeat: What’s been your favorite dragon to play with so far?

Hines: The Shearpoint Dragon, the 4/4 for 6 magicka, and it gives a creature -2/-2. If you reduce a creature’s power or health because of some other effect, it reduces by an additional one. A 4/4 for 6 is not a great deal. You can get much bigger creatures for 6. But coming in and being able to immediately get rid of something with ward, a lot of times that shrinks down another creature such that you can trade with it. The fact that it stacks with other Shearpoint Dragons and can take something and reduce it even more when you have reducing effects – which green tends to do, with cards like Curse that give -1/-1 – that’s been a really fun, interesting.

Above: “Your powers are weak, old man.”

Image Credit: Jason Wilson/GamesBeat

Truthfully, the most fun one is Alduin, because he’s a 20 magicka giant thing. He’s the top end of my dragon ramp deck. Dropping a 12/12 that blows up the world and starts randomly summoning dead dragons from your graveyard — there’s a reason why he’s a unique. More than one of him would be broken.

GamesBeat: Yeah, he’s the favorite card in my blue/gold deck.

Hines: Dropping him down and having him do stuff—it’s not like he’s invincible. There’s any number of ways to kill him. But Soul Tearing, the action that lets you draw a creature from your discard pile—going and getting him back and doing it again is just such a groan test from your opponent. Oh my god, I just killed that thing and it’s coming again. Summon more dragons. It’s pretty great.

Bitcoin Boosts Nvidia, AMD Graphics Card Sales

Makers of the world’s most advanced graphics cards — the hardware that lets gamers experience photorealistic action and immersive virtual reality — have had a hell of a year. In August, market leader Nvidia announced a 56% rise in year-over-year revenue. Competitor AMD’s revenue saw an 18% rise over the same period.

But neither company has been eager to crow about what’s driving all that growth, and investors haven’t exactly been overjoyed about it.

Why? The answer is one word long: Bitcoin.

Actually, it’s a little longer than that. Graphics cards (also known as GPUs) were once used to ‘mine’ Bitcoin, or solve the cryptographic riddles that effectively secure billions of dollars worth of virtual currency in exchange for digital cash. That’s no longer true, with Bitcoin now mostly mined using a more specialized chipset known as an ASIC — and on an increasingly industrial scale.

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But, as Bitcoin’s price has skyrocketed this year, dozens of lesser-known cryptocurrencies have also become more and more valuable. And those blockchains – including Litecoin, Monero, and, especially, Ethereum – can still be profitably mined by part-timers using off-the-shelf graphics cards. In locales with cheap electricity, a single card can generate roughly a hundred dollars in profits per month.

That has led to huge demand for graphics cards. Nvidia said it made around $150 million last quarter off miners. Analysts speaking to CoinDesk estimated that a sizable proportion of AMD’s revenue is also now coming from miners.

On the consumer side, prices for graphics cards have surged, frustrating consumers who want to use them as intended – for playing games.

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But investors haven’t been eager to pile into the stocks, precisely because of their dependence on cryptocurrency. Despite the rising value of Bitcoin and others, the space is still very speculative, with actual working applications for blockchain tech relatively rare.

To put the risk in perspective, CoinDesk looked back to 2013, when the bottom dropped out of Bitcoin’s price. Miners, still using GPUs at the time, quickly dumped their hardware on eBay. AMD’s sales slumped drastically in the following year, before slowly recovering in 2015.

Though the cryptocurrency ecosystem is much more robust today than it was in 2013, the bubble could certainly pop again, making mining unprofitable and putting chipmakers against a wall. An even clearer mid-term risk is that Ethereum, the second most valuable cryptocurrency, is trying to move away from hardware-dependent security.

But there’s potential upside, too. If and when cryptocurrency becomes truly widely adopted, AMD and Nvidia may have lucked into a large new market. The potential is suggested by a thriving traffic in guides and tools to help new would-be miners set up rigs in their bedrooms, calculate their potential profits, and manage their digital assets.

When exactly to fully embrace that market, at the risk of appearing too bubble-dependent, will be a tricky question for GPU makers.

How Valve could change the card game genre with Artifact

The biggest surprise so far out of The International wasn’t a wild play or a surprise upset, but the first game announcement from Valve since 2013. Artifact is a digital Dota card game coming in 2018, and we know almost nothing about it. But from our experience with Valve and tons of other card games on the market, we can make informed guesses about what form Artifact will take. 

Digital card trading and selling

This has to be the huge one. Though there’s for a digital TCG in Magic Online that allows players to swap cards, the likes of Hearthstone, Gwent and the other leading digital CCGs don’t. (Also the Magic client is so bad—it’s less a fantasy battler than an Excel fever dream—that it can be pretty much discounted from the discussion. At least until we find out what – Arena actually is). 

Whatever your thoughts on in-game items, Steam Market is the most established and trusted exchange for moving cosmetics and other virtual goods between strangers and friends. aside, it’s supported millions of players trading skins in CS:GO, H1Z1, PUBG, and, yeah, Dota 2.

Few of us enjoy opening packs just to earn enough crafting material for the one legendary card we need. As Hearthstone caster Dan “Frodan” Chou noted on Twitter last night, Valve’s ability to leverage the bustling Steam Market potentially makes for a very different experience for players looking to build a collection quickly, with an obviously incredibly lucrative upside. Some form of limited trading would add to the current crop of card games. Bigger brains than ours can work out the exact restrictions needed, but it could be that you can only trade a certain amount of cards per calendar month, or only to people who’ve been on your friends list for a predetermined amount of time. 

Or Valve could just flip the tables and let players go hog wild. Either way it would be exciting, and would eliminate one of the core complaints existing CCG players have which is that your collection retains no value given the rules against account selling. Being able to trade would also open up scope to create especially rare cards, limited promotional runs with alternate art and so on, which would potentially add richness to the scene during the quieter times between expansions.

It might actually use your GPU

Although Elder Scrolls: Legends debuted on PC, sitting on our platform for more than a year before coming to mobile recently, it and other card games are built with all platforms in mind. They make major compromises in order to run on touchscreen devices that don’t have an expensive GPU.

There’s a real possibility that Artifact will a PC-exclusive game. One of the benefits of this decision would be having the freedom to take better advantage of PC hardware. As things stand in Hearthstone, the state of the art in terms of animation is stuff like the . Blizzard’s artists have to consider how their work will be crammed into mobile phone apps, which must limit the pyrotechnics. (And also explains why many effects, such as Hellfire, Abyssal Enforcer and so on) just use different colourways. Given that phone users already about the size of the app, it seems unlikely that Hearthstone (or other CCGs designed for phone and tablet) will ever be able to go truly ham with the visuals. 

But what if Artifact did? Truly spectacular graphics would make for quite the point of differentiation, but the obvious counterpoint is that this is genre made for mass consumption, and Valve sure does like money. But the counter-counterpoint is that the company has never made a mobile game before. It may not be in a hurry to start now given the vastness of the audience on its own proprietary platform. 

…and your mouse and keyboard

We’ve actually seen several on card games over the past couple of years, from games like Faeria where you and your opponent build a hex-tiled board as you play, to Gwent, which takes health points, mana, and combat out of the equation.

It’d be nice if Artifact was more than Gabestone: Heroes of Dota with an item economy. Valve could push the genre forward by taking advantage of keyboard and mouse in unexpected ways, like, I don’t know… hotkeys? Manual shuffling? Real-time elements? Base-building? Whatever happens, it won’t be the first card game . 

It could be the first CCG to seriously take on Blizzard 

The CCG genre has never been more fertile on more PC, and is arguably already . But there’s a good reasons why none of these games—despite many being mechanically excellent—have take a serious bite out of Hearthstone’s market share, and that’s Blizzard’s big ol’ chequebook. Few publishers can compete with the depth of those pockets, and as we’ve seen even Bethesda has struggled to make a significant dent despite what looks like serious investment. Valve is one of the few companies who can afford to take a real crack at this. And as we’ve seen from CS:GO and Dota, the model it prefers is to have games that are open to everyone but come with a potentially high skill cap. Again here’s Frodan pondering the idea of low barriers to entry… 

It’s a chance to take esports seriously from the start 

Notwithstanding the let’s say from the audience of MOBA fans when Artifact was announced, it’s reasonable to assume that if the game takes off it’ll eventually become a big part of future iterations of The International. Obviously, without having seen anything of the actual game beyond some animated crystals yet, there’s no sense in predicting how competitively Artifact will be balanced. But equally I’d be amazed if Valve hasn’t paid close attention to the biggest complaint about Hearthstone being it’s reliance on wacky RNG effects. And while Blizzard has put on plenty of tremendous tournaments, the esports scene also sees a lot of grousing from the pros about how things are structured and managed. 

The list of complaints runs from having to grind ladder on New Year’s Eve for HCT points, through playing restaurants, to the Chinese contingent being given the before a recent major event. None of which is to say Valve hasn’t made mistakes, or been involved , with how it has handled CS:GO and Dota as esports—but what can’t be denied is that those are games have massive, built out, competitive scenes that are taken seriously by viewers. The question is whether the same could be done for any digital CCG, and indeed whether that’s a route Valve even wants to go down. But again, it feels like there’s huge potential here if they get it right, and the fact the Dota brand is being used has to heavily hint the goal is serious competition.   

Valve could take the concept of ‘Twitch Drops’ to the next level

The Elder Scrolls: Legends saw significant success from a new scheme which randomly rewarded players with in-game currency in exchange for watching streamers playing the game on Twitch. these Twitch ‘Drops’ were insanely generous, helping new players to build their collections fast. Unsurprisingly, they’re also hugely popular, dominating chat on most channels. But the idea itself isn’t new, and was in fact pioneered by Valve, which was giving viewers ‘Souvenir Packages’ for watching CS:GO way back in 2014. You can bet that in Bellevue the Artifact design team will have been watching Bethesda’s Drops experiment with interest, and working out how the system can be improved upon for their own game.

Windows 10 after two years: Microsoft’s mixed report card

Windows 10 celebrated its second anniversary this week.

By historical standards, this upgrade has been relatively free of drama, especially coming on the heels of Windows 8, an unqualified flop. The fact that we haven’t seen any major meltdowns in the Windows 10 rollout is even more impressive when considering just how big this product cycle is.

Unlike in previous releases, Microsoft worked hard to get this upgrade on old PCs, giving away the new OS for the first year (in fact, that free upgrade offer never ended) and pushing it with the aggressive Get Windows 10 program.

There were equally unprecedented changes in the Windows development process, collectively called “Windows as a Service.” Instead of saving new features for a major upgrade two or three years after the launch of Windows 10, Microsoft has been releasing those new features incrementally, with three so-called feature updates already delivered and a fourth in the pipeline for this fall.

Also unprecedented (and somewhat more controversial) is the change in the way Microsoft delivers security and reliability updates. Instead of releasing individual updates and giving customers the opportunity to pick and choose which updates to install, the Windows engineering team is now delivering cumulative updates that can be briefly deferred but not skipped.

Microsoft’s revamped user interface, with a new Start menu that successfully mashes up the best of its Windows 7 predecessor and the Windows 8.1 Start screen, has been well received. The Cortana feature, which embeds an intelligent assistant into the search box to the right of the Start button, has improved dramatically since the Windows 10 debut and is arguably its killer feature.

For the past two years, it’s sometimes felt like Microsoft was rushing to keep up with its own aggressive schedule. Indeed, that breakneck pace caught up with the company when it had to postpone a key feature called Timeline that had been scheduled for inclusion in the upcoming Fall Creators Update.

When your installed base is well north of a billion PCs, even a tiny problem can affect a large number of people. No Windows release has ever been trouble-free, but this one has been remarkably less dramatic than its predecessors. Here’s my two-year report card.

Adoption rate: A-

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced that the Windows 10 installed base had hit 500 million. That’s a solid number and arguably the fastest rate of adoption for any Windows version ever, but it’s also a slight disappointment. After all, the original goal a mere two years ago was to be installed on 1 billion devices within two to three years.

After that frantic first-year push ended, Microsoft adopted a much more relaxed upgrade pace, relying on new PCs (including the surprisingly successful Surface family) to help Windows 10’s share of the market grow as older PCs are retired.

Usage data from the United States Data Analytics Program offers a good measure of how successful Windows 10 has been. As of June 30, 2017, nearly 40 percent of visits to U.S. government websites from Windows PCs were from devices running Windows 10, but Windows 7 still remains the most popular Windows version.

windows-10-momentum-mid-2017.jpg

Source: analytics.usa.gov

Although enterprise customers are generally positive about Windows 10 and are showing signs of accelerating their adoption of the new OS, its predecessor continues to be enormously popular. As the January 2020 end-of-support date for Windows 7 approaches, look for Microsoft to become increasingly more creative at cajoling and coercing customers into moving on.

Upgrades and updates: C+

This whole “Windows as a Service” thing has taken a while to settle into its rhythm, hasn’t it? Even the terminology around it has been in flux, with the Current Branch and Current Branch for Business morphing into the Semi-annual Channel.

Windows 10 users can now count on two free feature updates per year, in March and September, as part of what Microsoft is now calling the “Semi-Annual Channel.” That cadence replaces the decades-old practice of delivering a new Windows version every three years or so.

Each feature update is supported for 18 months, which means you can no longer stick with an older version of Windows indefinitely. An equally consequential change is the move to cumulative quality updates in place of an endless assortment of individual updates.

The end game for the new update system is an installed base of Windows PCs that are more alike than different. In theory, with fewer variations to support, the patching process becomes less disruptive, with fewer glitches. In practice, there have been some hiccups, notably the sudden end of support for relatively young PCs based on Intel’s Clover Trail chips.

The biggest remaining challenge is shrinking those feature updates so they require less bandwidth and install more quickly.

Privacy: B

The flip side of “Windows as a Service” is a major change that Microsoft made in the amount of diagnostic information (aka telemetry) it collects from PCs running Windows 10. The company was clearly blind-sided by the initial response to Windows 10’s increased data collection information, which resulted in wild (and inaccurate) accusations that Windows 10 was spying on its users.

The company didn’t help its case by responding with dry, legalistic, and unconvincing explanations.

This year, we’ve finally seen some substantive responses to privacy fears. The company cut the amount of data collection in half, in response to enforcement action by French data-protection authorities. In addition, it published a detailed list of diagnostic data that the telemetry service collects.

Collectively, those actions have turned the heat down to a low simmer. And after more than two years under the microscope, there’s still no evidence from credible security researchers that that data is being used for anything other than its stated purpose of product improvement.

Security: A-/B-

I’ve assigned two grades to this category, reflecting the two very different groups of customers that use Windows.

Microsoft has delivered an impressive assortment of security features for its enterprise customers, earning an A- on my report card. Many of those security features aren’t available yet for the consumer and small business segments of the market, which is why I’ve assigned a B- for that category.

All the baseline features are present in every Windows 10 edition, including support for biometric authentication in Windows Hello, pervasive disk encryption, and built-in antimalware protection. The Creators Update adds a useful console called Windows Defender Security Center, making it easy to check security status and manage those features.

But the list of enterprise features is more impressive, with Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection at the top of the list. This feature, which is currently available only for subscribers to Windows 10 Enterprise E5, is designed to detect threats that have made it past other defenses, providing corporate customers with tools to investigate breaches and offer suggested responses.

In addition, a slew of features designed to protect enterprise PCs from attacks are either available now or coming this fall, with Exploit Guard (the successor to the Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit) and Windows Defender Application Guard at the top of the list. Hopefully those features will work their way into consumer editions sooner rather than later.

Apps: Incomplete

After two years, it’s remarkable that the Windows Store still feels like a work in progress. It certainly works well enough, but the selection of apps is hardly compelling.

Part of that “meh” response is a natural reflection of Windows 10’s success in extending the lifespan of the traditional PC. Even a device like the Surface Pro, which is nominally a tablet, gets far more use as a laptop than it does as a handheld device. That’s why the biggest software hits on Windows 10 are still traditional desktop programs like Microsoft Office and Adobe’s Photoshop and Acrobat.

Microsoft’s response, courtesy of a software tool called the Desktop Bridge (previously code-named Centennial) is to move those desktop apps into the Store, with some high-profile apps, including Office, iTunes, Slack, and Spotify, coming this year.

Meanwhile, the Office mobile apps are barely adequate and almost impossible to find in the Store on a conventional PC. Microsoft seems to be betting that if it can convince customers to find desktop apps in the Store, they’ll pick up some of the more modern apps at the same time. It will probably be another year or two before we know how successful that strategy is.

Tablets and phones: F

Microsoft is still cranking out Windows 10 Mobile builds alongside its desktop releases, but I’m not quite sure why. The company’s capitulation in this category is nearly complete, after it sold off its Nokia division and took a massive writedown. Even the most diehard supporters appear to have given up on the long-rumored Surface Phone, and Microsoft’s occasional hints about upcoming mobile devices are so cryptic as to be indecipherable.

I have no doubt that a new Windows mobile product strategy will emerge someday, but when it does it will be starting from scratch against well-entrenched competitors. Good luck with that.

AMD shows Radeon RX Vega graphics card with a mysterious ‘Holocube’

AMD shows Radeon RX Vega graphics card with a mysterious ‘Holocube’

radeon rx vega
Credit:
AMD

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Popular tech YouTuber Linus Sebastian of Linus Tech Tips is infamous for dropping pricey PC hardware, but at the channel’s LTX2017 event in Canada on Saturday, he dropped an exclusive first look at AMD’s hotly anticipated Radeon RX Vega ahead of the graphics card’s promised launch at Siggraph this weekend.

Even more interesting: The card revealed comes with a mysterious “Holocube,” as the Radeon Twitter account called it. It’s the nifty-looking red and black box below.

radeon rx vega AMD

Radeon RX Vega with AMD’s Holocube. (Click to enlarge.)

We have no idea which version of Radeon RX Vega this is, but the sleek silver card uses a blower-style air cooler similar to what you’d find on virtually all reference cards (or the Radeon Vega Frontier Edition.) 

Another post by the Radeon Twitter account shows RX Vega running inside an Alienware Area-51 system with AMD’s Threadripper processor. (Area-51 Threadripper PCs start at $2,999 on Dell’s website.) That glimpse reveals that RX Vega uses a pair of 8-pin power connectors and includes the fancy “GPU tachometer” LED lighting feature (also found in the Radeon Fury X and Vega Frontier Edition) to show you how hard you’re pushing the GPU at a glance.

radeon rx vega threadripper AMD

Click to enlarge this Radeon RX Vega image – it’s easier to see the power connectors if you do.

AMD hasn’t formally revealed many detailed hardware specs for these consumer gaming cards aside from the high-level Vega architecture preview at CES earlier this year. But with the expensive “prosumer”-focused Frontier Edition already available ($999 on Newegg), PC gamers can puzzle out a lot of what’s inside Radeon RX Vega—though I’m almost as interested in that Holocube now, personally.

We won’t need to wait long for official confirmation though. AMD CEO Lisa Su promised Radeon RX Vega will launch at the Siggraph 2017 event, and that starts tomorrow. Stay tuned.

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