Opinions

How Full Windows 10 running on ARM CPU will affect computing future

So it finally happened! I have been predicting x86 emulation on ARM CPU ever since Intel stopped product development for Atom for mobile SoC.


@WinHEC 2016, Microsoft showed Windows 10 running on ARM

A few major things happened over the year to make this happen.

  1. Windows 10 Mobile Continuum
  2. Intel ending development of Atom SoC
  3. Qualcomm adding virtualisation support for SnapDragon SoC
  4. Various bridges for developers to easily port their apps to Windows 10
  5. Windows 10 Common Core (or why there’s no 64bit mobile Windows 10)
  6. Some special sauce from the brains @Xamarin
  7. Microsoft letting go of the last vestiges of Nokia

Let’s look at this point by point.

First point. Windows 10 Mobile Continuum feature has always been this dream of making your smartphone act more like a PC when connected to a large display + keyboard/mouse. However, people quickly notice far too many icons don’t work because the developer hasn’t written their app in Universal Windows Platform (UWP) format or their mobile app isn’t optimised for a larger display yet.

Rather than waiting for mobile developers to get around to adding UWP support, why not ask PC developers to scale their apps down? And at the same time, support legacy Windows program through the Desktop to UWP bridge so it’s possible for Windows 10 to run these UWP on ARM64 SoC.

Second point. (This is my speculation.) Intel has made a terrible mistake in ending Atom SoC development. They pushed Microsoft to seek an alternate SoC and they are the probably the reason Qualcomm added virtualisation support. I don’t remember Google/Android asking for x86 capability.

Third Point. Despite how fast Snapdragon (SD) SoCs are, the Atom X7 can keep up with it easily & in fact outperform it, albeit using slightly more power. The reason is every core of Atom can process SIMD (DSP) SSE instructions which gives it an advantage in terms of mathematical calculations. The letdown of Atom is in the GPU. Unlike Qualcomm, Intel obviously doesn’t want to put a flagship class GPU to compete with their Core CPU.

Recently, Qualcomm announced DSP & Virtualisation support for their next-gen SD835 SoC with an even faster GPU. This allows Microsoft to enable many of the desktop class features that required DSP to accelerate their functions. Many of Windows 10 Mobile functions like its User Shell & Cellular functions will be integrated into full Desktop Windows 10 as shown in the video. Finally, full Windows 10 can compete with IOS & Android for Tablets.

Fourth point. Microsoft is a software company at its core. Their oldest and strongest products are their OS and Visual Studio development environment. It comes as no surprise they can create conversion tools to directly take other platform codes and make it work on theirs. It’s also no surprise when you consider the fact that Windows NT (which Windows 10 is based on) was created to run on multiple CPU architectures.

Fifth point. For the longest time, Windows Phone fans had been wondering why Microsoft refused to create a 64-bit version of Windows 10 Mobile. I have always argued that mobile platforms don’t need 64-bit at all because no single mobile app will ever use 4GB of memory. Now we know the reason is because Microsoft has been concentrating in making full Windows 10 even more mobile.

We already know that Windows 10 shares the same kernel & some of the hardware stacks between PC, Xbox, Mobile, Hololens and IoT. However, what most people don’t realise is Microsoft has been breaking their Service Stacks into smaller and smaller pieces with every new revision of Windows 10.

Just look at your Services manager in Computer Management, there’re more and more Services running in the background. However, RAM usage hardly increase. The reason is to allow more services to be compartmentalised so Microsoft developers can pick the services relevant to that particular platform and reuse as much code as possible. This isn’t possible if the services are large and monolithic in nature.

My prediction is, instead of emulation, Windows 10 will run natively in ARM64 mode. Not surprising since Surface RT IS running an ARM version of Windows 8. This means all (desktop) Windows 10 services AND first-party apps will run at full speed since they’re compiled for ARM64.

All UWP apps can run in either native ARM or virtualised x86 mode depending on the developer. Also not surprising because when you run a 32-bit program in 64-bit Windows, Windows will launch the program in Windows on Windows 64-bit mode (WoW64). So now, instead of apps running in an x64 sandbox, it’s a Windows app running in an ARM64 sandbox.

Sixth point. I bet the brilliant minds at Xamarin had been cross-pollinating with the minds at Visual Studio to create the most powerful x86/x64/ARM cross-compiling toolkit possible! I’m guessing these are the people convincing Qualcomm to add virtualisation support for the latest SD. The power of software!!!

Seventh point. I’m guessing former Microsoft staff of formerly Nokia mobile division still have a static mindset about the future of mobile and smartphones. It’s probably good they’re let go to work on other worthwhile projects like the new Nokia-branded smartphones ODM by the China firm that bought over from Microsoft, or SailFish for the Russian bloc.

However, we also know that certain key ex-Nokian went to work at Microsoft Research. I wouldn’t be surprised if these are expert in camera and cellular tech.

The future. This part is my speculation about Microsoft’s strategy moving forward.

If Intel had continue to invest in Atom SoC, we’ll probably have the mythical “Surface Phone” by now that can run UWP & Legacy programs through Continuum.

Qualcomm seem to have fill that gap but I’m still skeptical over the emulation performance. However, if the Adobe Photoshop presented by Terry Myerson in the video is running in emulation mode and the video wasn’t edited, then I’m cautiously optimistic. The “Surface Phone” can now get back on track but don’t expect it to ship until end of 2017.

This is also the first time desktop Windows 10 gain cellular radio stack and mobile-context specific features related to voice calls and sms. The Skype Preview app is already hinting at the direction Windows 10 is taking so it’s more proof of mobile features added to Windows 10, rather than more desktop features added to Windows 10 mobile. Microsoft is moving in the opposite direction as IOS & Android.

With a Cellular stack built into Windows 10, Windows will finally become a full fledge mobile OS. With ARM’s more simple RISC architecture, power management should be easier to manage and Windows 10 should have much better standby time. Intel Atom (Enhanced SpeedStep) has great running time but the standby time still lacks far behind Qualcomm’s Snapdragon high/low-power cores. It’ll be interesting to note how Windows 10 handles the ‘big.LITTLE’ Kryo 28x Cores.

Windows 10 Continuum will also have a combined dual-shell or a morphable shell (called CShell) that switches interface depending on the screen (not device) context. Maybe now we’ll finally have a Landscape mobile Start Screen, and of course, multi-screen is naturally supported. It better support dock-able Windows for larger 5-7″ screens too!

Ultimately, the “Surface Mobile” can be your only computing devices. So what kind of a device is this Surface Mobile? Well I think it’ll be running a SD835 clocked at 1.9Ghz on battery, and 2.45Ghz when plugged into the Microsoft Display Dock. It should have 4GB of RAM and has a 5.5″ – 6″ display to allow adequate space for heat spreading. A 1440P display is good enough, a 4K display will be a waste of battery and GPU cycles. Now, Windows 10 requires a lot of space, so 64GB of eMMC 5.1 Storage is required.

Where does that leave Intel or even AMD? Well, Intel has abandoned Atom because they have probably figured out how to make a Core series based SoC hit the 2W TDP but their 10nm fab is having yield issues, which is why CannonLake is postponed. AMD has also announced new APU that can step through the clock at 25Mhz increments thus providing more aggressive power management but being fab on a 28nm process, I reckon power consumption will be higher than KabyLake.

What this means is, Intel is trying to make their Core m CPU fit into a mobile environment so the CPU wouldn’t fry your smartphone. And AMD new Ryzen CPU isn’t ready for mobile.

Qualcomm just released information on their latest Snapdragon 835 SoC.

Based on the information released, SD835 supports new 3D audio processing and enhanced camera image processor. It looks like a future Microsoft Hololens 2 could be powered by the SD835! The Surface 4 could also be based on a SD835!

In the meantime, you can check up my past predictions which has come true below.

How Windows Phone 8 & Windows 8 can share software

OEMs can’t do it, so Microsoft DID IT!

Samsung losing patent case is Good for consumers!

Update 03 Feb 2017: Updated with the product codenames for future Windows features I have corrected predicted, like CSHELL and clearer explanation of CPU terminology.

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Solutions

Recovering a Windows 8 laptop without DVD & Product Key

Disaster! My Laptop Harddisk has crashed! How many of you had this happened to your laptop or your child’s laptop?

This is a very nice looking laptop!
This is a very nice looking laptop!

You were happily using your new Core i7 laptop which you got it cheap during Black Friday or Cyber-Monday, or during one of the 4 IT shows in Singapore. But after using for a year, the harddisk crashed right after the warranty expires? Sounds familiar?

That's what I thought. A cheap, slow & not so shock resistant harddisk.
That’s what I thought. A cheap, slow & not so shock resistant harddisk.

No problem, you tell yourself, Windows 8/8.1 has a “Recovery” function that will restore the laptop to factory condition! So you booted to the Recovery section of Windows 8 where you can “Refresh” or “Remove everything & Reinstall Windows”. Neat!

Windows 8 Recovery Page. Great for software rescue!
Windows 8 Recovery Page. Great for software rescue!

Except it takes forever to do the “Automatic Repair” or “Remove everything” fails at some point due to a head crash or media degradation and all because the laptop was moved around while in use! Or worse, the laptop simply don’t recognise the harddisk anymore!

Behold the inside of an Asus laptop.
Behold the inside of an Asus laptop.

OK, never mind! You (hopefully) have a backup of the important data, let’s just change the harddisk to something more resilient, like a Solid-State Disk (SSD)! You can get a Samsung EVO 850 256GB at $220+ these days and reviews are great for these SSDs, 10x faster than harddisk, no moving parts to crash, useful lifespan of more than 10 years & uses half the power! Why didn’t you buy a laptop with an SSD in the first place? Oh, that’s right. Cheaper models don’t come with an SSD option.

This is the battery resting on the Aluminium shell.
This is the battery resting on the Aluminium shell. The 2 silver oval you see either sides are the B & O speakers in their bass chambers!

The Recovery nightmare continues!

Alrighty! You bought your SSD, replace the failed harddisk yourself, which was easy enough, let’s open the laptop box for the recovery DVD & Windows 8 Product Key. Except your new Ultrabook doesn’t come with a DVD-ROM or Recovery DVD & maybe even without a Windows 8 Product Key! Faintz!

OK, don’t panic, let’s go to the maker’s website for support! What? You have to pay extra for a Recovery Disc to create a special thumbdrive because you didn’t do it the FIRST time you switched on your laptop? What is this daylight robbery?!?!

Now what? Try cloning from the old harddisk? Can’t do that. It’s bigger than the SSD & it’s full of bad sectors!
Get someone to do it? Will they do a good job & what are the charges?
Download the Recovery disc from Torrent? Is it infected with virus?
Search Forums? Most of them don’t have a clue.
Ask Microsoft for help in their forums? Moderators ask you to look for your OEM/laptop maker…

The solution for new laptops with UEFI BIOS

Lucky you! You’ve come to the right website! The solution with many recent (last 3 years) laptops is so simple that I’m amazed no one’s got it! Or at least publish it widely enough that a simple Google or Bing search will find it. There’s no need to extract the encrypted product key from UEFI, no need to create Bootable thumbdrive & mount the Windows 8 Rescue ISO. No need to mess with Linux Bootloader like Grub or syslinux. I’ve tried so many different methods and they don’t work due to some incompatibility here or there. It was a massive waste of time! Argh!

Microsoft has published the solution starting from Windows 8.1! Why they don’t publicise is a great mystery! Anyway, many newer laptop have the new UEFI BIOS instead of the old IBM-PC BIOS. Without going into details about how great UEFI BIOS are, one of the features these new BIOS allows is for laptop makers to embed a Windows 8 Product Key into the BIOS itself! This is why there is no DVD or Product key or License sticker included in the laptop box!

So the next question is, how do you install Windows 8.1 onto your new SSD? Just get a fast 8GB thumbdrive or SD card, go to this Microsoft website and follow the instructions!

* For your convenience, I’ve included the steps & things to watch out for below.

Windows Installation Media Creation Tool

Why do Microsoft like to use such LONG names for their stuff?

Are you at the Create installation media for Windows 8.1 page?

Windows 8 Installation Media Creation Tool
Windows 8 Installation Media Creation Tool
  1. Click the “Create Media” button & run the downloaded file
  2. Select your Language
  3. Select the Edition. Most consumer laptops are running “Windows 8.1”. Business laptops will likely be “Windows 8.1 Pro”.
  4. Select the Architecture. If your laptop will NEVER EVER be installed with more than 4GB of RAM, chose “32-bit (x86)”. If you have more than 4GB of RAM or you’re planning to install more in the future, you MUST choose “64-bit (x64).
  5. Click Next and you’ll see this.
  6. Choose USB flash drive
  7. Select USB flash drive and click Next.
  8. Make sure to select the correct drive!
    Make sure to select the correct drive!

    Select the correct drive before clicking Next!

  9. Click OK if you're sure.
    Click OK if you’re sure.
  10. Click “OK” at the dialog box if you’re sure you have the right drive.
  11. Download starts...
    Download starts…
  12. Wait for download to complete & for it to check the files & getting the files ready & creating the USB…
  13. Once it’s completed. You should click “What’s next?” which will take you to a Microsoft website that guide you on using this Thumbdrive to install Windows 8.1. Print it or open it on your phone or something! This is the link for Boot from the media you created to install on a partition.
  14. Insert the thumbdrive into your laptop & boot from the thumbdrive instead of the SSD. Different laptops has different keys to enter the Boot Manager. Search for your brand online. It’s usually ESC or DEL or ENTER key.
  15. Install Windows 8.1 even though your laptop came with Windows 8! It’ll even auto-activate if you’re online! There’s no need to key in any Product Key! This thumbdrive has now become your Rescue/Recovery drive as well! Keep it safe!

Well I hope this help you. Leave comments, subscribe and like my posts!!! 🙂

Solutions

Solving problems with Nokia Lumia Wireless charging shell

Overview

The Nokia Lumia 1020 is a fantastic smartphone & camera at a reasonable price. However, Nokia removed the wireless charging coil from the phone to keep it slimmer & lighter. In order to use the wireless charging pad I got from the Lumia 920, I had to buy the Wireless Charging shell for Lumia 1020.

For the first 2-3 months of owning the phone, I always have the Wireless Charging shell on, so that it’s easier to hold. Without the shell, the edge of the camera protrusion is quite uncomfortable to touch due to its sharp edge. This made me hold the phone lower & made it unbalanced. Every time I held it, it wanted to leap off my hand!

The Wireless charging shell improved the Lumia 1020 by giving it the capability to charge wirelessly & also made the phone a lot more comfortable to hold & use.

Problem

Unfortunately, as I suspected when I first got the Wireless Charging shell, problem started on the 3rd month of using it. I say as suspected because looking at the design of the connector, I know from experience it’s going to have contact issues in the future.

Nokia Lumia 1020 external power connector (inset)
Nokia Lumia 1020 external power connector (inset)

The symptom is straight forward. The Lumia 1020 wouldn’t charge when positioned correctly. When the induction coil is not aligned, the Wireless charging pad will blink white. I tried many positions & orientations & the LED simply wouldn’t turn white & charge the phone.

As you can see from the above picture, one of the terminal (probably – ) is blackened. This is caused by oxidation, especially when the copper contact points move around due to improper fit or insufficient pressure on the terminals. Guess what? The Wireless charging shell can move around when jiggled.

When the oxidation builds up, it insulates the terminal & can no longer conduct electricity. No electrical current, no charging, no white LED. Duh!

Solution

The solution is also very simple. You just need to clean the contact point & ensure it doesn’t oxidise again.

Little bottle of wonder.

Just take a cotton bud. Shape it such that the tip has a bit more cotton. Spray it with a little bit of WD40 or your favourite non-conductive lubricant.

Use the oiled cotton bud to clean the blackened terminal until it is mostly shiny.

Wipe off the excess oil from the polycarbonate body using blotting film or microfiber cloth & that’s it!

* Do Not wipe off the oil on the copper contact. Leave a thin film of oil to prevent future oxidation.

* Avoid using tissue or toilet paper as they may be abrasive & make micro-scratches on the phone surface!

Conclusion

This works & my Lumia 1020 is charging like normal. 😀

Man Matter, Reviews, Solutions

Solving Denon AVR-3808 DLNA repeating problem

Update 04 September 2014: New solution! Click here to skip to the solution!

 

Audiophile delight

That’s a mighty fine AVR with some seriously sweet sound!

Anyone who’s using a Denon Audio Video Receiver (AVR) can tell you how good it is.

Beside above average sound quality & a superior video upscaler, the last few generations of their AVR are also Cloud connected for firmware upgrades & streaming radio station management, amongst other benefits.

Their Audessey automatic EQ & room acoustic adjuster makes it SO easy to tune & optimize a room’s audio characteristics to get the best sound possible. And its menus are accessible via webpage, Onscreen, On-remote & even in WP/iOS/Android Apps.

Generally the higher the series, the better the fidelity in audio output + the more options you have in surround.

Anyway, I think you get the idea that Denon AVR are geared towards Audiophiles as well as catering for the movie buffs who only need the amp to pump out enough power so explosions & metal clashes can vibrate the sofa.

(OK, movie buffs also need low channel crosstalk to ensure good channel separation but with today’s digital technology, that shouldn’t be an issue for all Hi-Fi equipment.)

One of the most useful feature of an AVR is the support for DLNA.

What is DLNA?

Yup! I need ALL that connectivity!

Seriously if you’re reading this & you have no idea what DLNA is, you’re REALLY underutilizing your Denon AVR!

I bought a decent AVR-3808CI in 2008 as it had enough inputs for all my AV sources & a single HDMI output since I only have a Samsung LED TV as my monitor. I also own quite a few audiophile HDCDs but times have changed & it’s becoming a bit of a hassle to insert a CD into my player.

Ever since I got the 3808, I’ve ripped all my CDs into WMA-lossless (so they can play in Windows Media Player) and use DLNA to push CD quality (but not HDCD quality) music from my PC or NAS to the AVR. It was (almost) audiophile heaven.

* if anyone knows how to rip HDCD & play it back on the 3808, please leave a comment!

After using it for a year or so, the DLNA function broke. I believe it was after a firmware upgrade. When playing music, the 3808 will keep playing the same song over and over and over again. It was damn irritating & frustrating because nothing I did helped.

I tried to switch off Repeat & Random on the 3808, tested different versions of Windows Media Player on different OS like Windows 7, 7 SP1, 8, 8.1, and all with 32bit & 64bit. I even tried using it on my Windows Phone & only my HTC Trophy 7 played through the playlist.

When I upgraded to the Lumia 800 or 920 or 1020, it’ll also get stuck playing the same song over in a loop.

Searching the web, I discovered that there were MANY people who had the same issue & most of them have given up. I tried emailing Denon & got no respond. I tried many forums over the years and no one could answer me until yesterday.

The SOLUTION!!!

Updated & easier solution!

Unfortunately I can’t remember which forum I saw this. I’d update the article when I find out & give proper credit.

Just enable "Allow Remote Control of my Player". That's it!
Just enable “Allow Remote Control of my Player”. That’s it!

For those of us using WMP to stream DLNA, just enable “Allow remote control of my Player…” It’s THAT simple!

If you’re using another device or software, you can still use the original method below.

I can’t thank “Alki” enough! His/her 4 posts to the AVS forum about 1/2 year ago solved my 3 year old problem!!! Here’s the link. I’d give credit where it’s due. 😉

“Alki” was using an AVR-4308 and I have confirmation from Microsoft support forum that this works for the Denon AVR-5308CI as well. It seems like many of the AVR-xx08 in 2007-2008 have this problem.

The solution is while the song is playing, change the “Repeat” (to ALL) and “Random” (to ALL or ON).

By the end of the song, the next song should play. Yay!!!

Depending on which model you’re using, you may have to manually set both the Repeat & Random settings to “NO”.

It is that simple & no one had stumbled on the solution for 3 years. Worse, Denon hasn’t given any support or updated the firmware in the past 3 years as well! I wish these makers will support their products longer like how Microsoft support their OS for 10 years! Yes, I know it’s wishful thinking…

Right-click on an Album or a Song & choose Play To to activate DLNA
Right-click on an Album or a Song & choose Play To to activate DLNA

Anyway, there you have it! I can now wirelessly stream my music from my smartphone anywhere in the house, or use the AVR to stream music from my PC or NAS like it was supposed to.

I’m in musical bliss again! 😀

Solutions

How Windows 8/RT tablets can teach newbies navigation gesture QUICKLY!

I am replying to a forum post when it struck me that one of the reasons why people have so much problem with navigating Windows 8 with touch gestures is the fact that there are simply no instructions or hints for you to swipe from the edges.

I’ve watch a few unboxing videos & those Windows tablets came in clear cling film which protects the screen & other surfaces, and sometimes indicate what the various hardware buttons do.

There is supposedly an animated tutorial when you first setup your Windows 8 tablet but I believe you can skip it. The problem is, after skipping it, it’s almost impossible to find that tutorial again.

So why can’t vendors (including Microsoft) just print additional instructions on the cling film or affix clear stickers at the bezel to indicate how edge swipes work in Windows 8/RT tablets, or even laptops with touchscreen.

It’ll go a long way in assuring new users of Windows 8/RT has the basic knowledge on the most important swipes needed to successfully navigate the Start Screen without a lot of fumbling & frustrations.

Opinions

Creative Technologies, missed opportunities or lost cause?

Ancient History

Update 1 27/2/2014: Thanks to Arthur for new info
Update 2 09/3/2016: New info/insights from FY15 financial report + clearer grammer. I’m still getting regular hits to this old and rushed article! What do you, the reader, hope to learn? Share with me in the comments!

Creative Technologies (CT) became famous for their SoundBlaster soundcards in the 1980s. They were the first company in the world to combine FM Synthesizer (MIDI music) & PCM Codec (Voice/Sound effects) + a MIDI/Game port in a single ISA peripheral card. The all-in-one card was sold at a price that basically undercut the competitions at that time. From my memory, their main competitors were Adlib card (also an ISA card) & Covox Speech Thing, which is an external device that plugs into the parallel (printer) port.

Perhaps more importantly, the driver support was open to all PC & games developers, who started the multimedia revolution. This got a huge kickstart when Microsoft announced plans for the Multimedia PC (MPC) and SoundBlaster was the only card in town to meet those specifications.

From there, enhancements were made rapidly as new components (Integrated Circuits) with new capabilities became available from chip suppliers. CT was also very smart in ensuring new hardware and drivers were 100% backward-compatible so every new generation of soundcards provided an almost irresistible urge for gamers and enthusiast to upgrade! Even if the games at that time didn’t yet support the new features.

There were many competitors from Singapore & abroad but an aggressive marketing campaign + aggressive product roadmap soon see them to the pole position. Needless to say, CT became a darling on NASDAQ & SGX. Every new product launch will see a corresponding spike in share price & a nice dividend payout.

They were doing very well in the Soundcard industry in the 90s, especially with the acquisition of E-MU & then Aureal, which turned their soundcards so powerful, it can be used in industrial applications due to the E-MU DSP. Games were specially written to take advantage of all these 3D positioning sounds as Aureal APIs allow game and multimedia developers to place sound/music at specific spatial locations relative to the listener. Games written for Aureal 3D sounded truly immersive!

For music/video playback, only QSound encoded audio sounded more convincing with distinctive sound playing in and around your head. SRS & CMSS-3D extracted audio cues while stereo audio is streamed so these algorithm only expanded the soundstage and was not suitable for gaming. Aureal 3D was not suitable for music/video playback because you have to tell the algorithm where to place the sound.

DirectSound actually heralded the downfall of CT’s dominance. Microsoft introduced DirectX for multimedia & game developers to standardise on the PC platform. Intel also released reference motherboard designs to OEMs to copy. Microsoft followed up with Direct3D & DirectSound3D which brings arcade level gaming to PCs.

Being in pole position for so long, CT became so big & bureaucratical that they fail to notice the development of inexpensive soundchips being built & integrated into motherboards. Granted these early generation soundchips sounded horrible due to multiple issues like the inability to play & record at the same time + grounding issues on motherboards causing all sorts of noise & interference on the audio output & unstable drivers causing crashes.

CT was still selling SoundBlasters like hotcakes & everyone would switch off the onboard sound. They didn’t realize that after just a few generations of soundchips, these ICs were gaining in capability fast, like the ability to support multiple DirectSound3D streams + 24bit sound output + 108db sound quality + 7.1 sound output.

With each generation being less than 9 months, motherboard makers quickly learnt from their mistakes by isolating the sound circuits with better grounding & by moving high noise data pathways from the North & South Bridge chipsets away from the soundchips.

Windows drivers also got much better with Microsoft support. DirectX was also rapidly improving in capabilities, so much so that in less than 3 years, integrated sound became good enough to compete with SoundBlaster! $0 vs $300+ for a high-end Audigy Gold card or $100+ for a AWE32.

Consumers flocked to the cheaper solution of course, driven not just by price but the irrelevance of the main feature of the AWE-32 & Audigy. That feature is wavetable-synthesized music. With the Audigy, you can get studio quality music from a PC Soundcard that cost $300+ versus a professional card/deck that cost thousands. CT was slow to respond to this trend, probably blindsided by the professional market so it wasn’t till it was too late that CT has integrated Soundblaster in a few select motherboards. But due to cost from integrating the much larger Soundblaster IC, most OEMs didn’t support it. The market just dried up and now the Taiwanese company, Realtek is the undisputed leader.

In the past, if you wanted music in your software or games, the only way was through FM synthesizers. These chips modulated a base frequency into a shape that somewhat resembles real instruments. The best early example is the Nintendo Entertainment System. A simple script called a MIDI file has information on when to play a note and for how long on a selected channel. Every MIDI file has multiple channels each assigned an instrument. When all these channels were played together, a surreal synthesized music is heard. The main advantage of MIDI is these files were extremely small so were favoured due to disk & memory constrains in the past.

With 16-bit CD quality sound becoming the norm, the music portion needed to keep up and Wavetable Synthesis was brought over from the professional audio equipment market. Instead of a frequency modulated waveform being generated, the note from the MIDI file being played actually comes from a pre-recorded sample from a real instrument, called a patch.

At that time, if you wanted the most compatibility for wavetable sound, you had to go for the SoundBlaster AWE-32. But if you wanted the BEST music, you got the Gravis Ultrasound, which also supported a newer even more powerful music scripting format called the MOD(ule). This allowed more reverb, variation, cross-channel mixing, patch manipulation and unlimited patch size.

In the past, Voice & Sound effects were stored in PCM wave format whose file size was huge in comparison to MIDI. As with all inventions, necessity was the main driver of innovation. People wanted to compress CD-quality wave files to make them easier to transport & work with in games & multimedia applications, especially over the new media called the Internet. MP3 was quickly adopted & formed the basis of all music in games, media & movies over the Internet. This basically spelt an end to all synthesized music (both MIDI & MOD) in the consumer realm, rendering all Soundblaster AWE/Audigy & competitor standalone cards overkill. The integrated soundchips with their ability to handle 64 channels of PCM sounds were all that’s needed by consumers. From my memory, the first local casualty of this was Aztech Singapore with their Sound Galaxy range.

Unfortunately, CT’s trouble didn’t end there. A few misstep along the way soon confounded their recover. First was the CD-ROM drive. In the 90s, there were quite a few companies in Singapore making CD-ROM drives. However, once again, cheaper alternatives from overseas (Taiwan mainly) soon convinced consumers to buy those white-box OEM drives instead of the nicely boxed CT drives, which always seem to be a generation slower than these white-box drives. Wearnes Technology was almost wiped out during that episode. CT had a much better balance sheet so they were able to secure Singapore government assistance in the ensuing write-off.

However, the assistance comes with unintended consequences. According to (unverified) insiders of the deal, the agreement was for the Singapore government investment branch, Temasek Holdings, to take over a majority stake of the equitable shares of CT basically nationalizing it, & Sim Wong Hoo in effect lost the company he fought so hard to build. It could be this reason that CT was forced to delist from NASDAQ. The fund was injected through the Economic Development Board of Singapore. Sim Wong Hoo did eventually bought back much of the shares but at great costs.

Now, we all know that government top-down bureaucratic management style doesn’t work in a hi-speed hi-tech industry & that may be what happened to CT, where bottom-line was the overwriting concern rather than taking risks by pumping millions of dollars into R&D to create new products.

CT did have a second-wind with their Zen MP3 players which looked nice, had different form factors/colours, supported all common music formats, can be expanded with external memory & had great software that can transcode one format to another easily. However, Apple came along & stole the thunder with the iPod. CT’s lawsuit against Apple only secured a lifeline, not a victory.

CT’s foray into the 3D graphics card industry also met with poor results. The 3D GPU industry moved at an even faster pace than the soundcard industry. I’m not sure why CT acquired 3Dlabs, but I doubt it’s for their PC potential since CT used nVidia chips before calling it quits.

CT bought Cambridge Soundworks in 1997 with the hopes that the resulting synergy can reinvigorate the company but the gaming surround speakers failed to take off & CT had to sell the division away.

Along the way, they also acquired some gaming peripheral companies which didn’t work out and had to be divested. At this point in the 2000s, CT was completely off my radar and I no longer tracked any of their product range.

In 2009, CT launched a well-publicized but poorly executed (in consumer-space at least) campaign for their (poorly-name) StemCell CPU with “a 100-fold increase in supercomputing power over current technology”. No one understood what the fuss was about. CT’s only real showcase of the technology was an Android powered tablet that few people had a chance to try & a backplane-like cascade of ZMS-05 modules doing 1-teraflop but rendering something rather mundane.

As far as I can tell, the ZMS-05 platform is simply a dual-core ARM-based CPU with 3DLabs GPU component capable of performing 100 concurrent streams. The only difference may be the development platform allows the GPU to handle general programming tasks rather than simply graphical tasks. This may be similar to OpenCL for PC GPU. At that time, this capability was not available for the ARM architecture.

Unfortunately, it was not marketed enough & competitors like Qualcomm (Snapdragon), Samsung (Exynos) & NVidia (Tegra) soon signed up all the tablet OEMs leaving very little for CT.

CT did have a design win when Intel acquired the Ziilabs team for the StemCell architecture in 2012, probably to bolster Intel’s inadequate GPU. I wonder if it was integrated in the new Haswell Core-i CPU thereby giving that CPU the graphics boost it demonstrated in 2011. Haswell chips were eventually released in 2013.

However, for CT, it may not be a good deal because all the best engineering minds from 3DLabs have gone to Intel. Even though CT still owns the IP & Intel is technically licensing it, an IP that doesn’t generate new IP and/or products will be obsoleted in just a few years.

Lastly, CT also have a “Hanz” line of Chinese language hardware platform & software education system but those didn’t really help the bottom-line as shown in the Financial Report 2015.

So what’s left?

Not much actually. They probably ODM certain products, ship the design to China for manufacture & probably rebrand China products for sales elsewhere. Their revenue and R&D spendings have been reducing YoY & they posted a USD $33m loss in FY2015. Their longtime Creative Store at Marina Square is gone. CT is still holding on to USD $99m in cash + cash equivalent down from USD $140m in FY2013.

Where did it go so horribly wrong?

Like the fall of Rome, the collapse did not happen overnight. There must have been many events that lead to disaster. We could point to the failed investments in the past or the lack of direction or even top-level mismanagement. Some may even blame the Singapore Government in meddling in the private section.

I think it’s because CEO Sim Wong Hoo is 61 this year. With no succession plan in place (that I heard of), there’s not likely to be any change in CT’s direction nor will there be a change in their fortune or share prices.

Whatever it is, CT is a pale shade of what it used to be.

Is it a lost cause?

It really depends on whether they have someone to succeed the CEO position and bring fresh perspective & fresh blood into a still pond. It’s currently trading at SGD$1 on SES.

They’re trying to sell a high-end soundbar called X-Fi Sonic Carrier, which admittedly looks good and support Dolby Atmos 15.2 sound but carries a $2800 Pre-order price tag and ships towards the end of 2016. Most sound-bars comes bundled with a mid-range SmartTV so I’m not sure how well this will sell, especially since the launch price is an eye-watering $7000! I believe I can get an LG 50+” OLED UHD SmartTV with sound-bar + sub-woofer for that price!

Is Creative trying to do high-end audiophile market like Bang & Olufsen?

What can they do now?

In 2013, I thought AV Receivers may be worth investing in. I don’t think so anymore, what with most young people abandoning huge TV for huge phones with hundreds dollar headphones. For older folks who still prefer huge TVs, the AV Receivers & box speakers are replaced with a SmartTV coupled to a multi-directional sound-bar with a powerful sub-woofer.

The only gadget trends that’s big right now, with sustained interest for the next 3 years, is Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR) goggles and Internet of Things (IoT.)

I doubt they have the engineering talent left for VR/AR, so maybe CT can start with small IoT projects based off ZMS-05?

They have a lot of great IP which they seem unable to tap. Soundcards (both PCI-e & USB) are essentially dead. With ARM CPU makers integrating DSPs inside their SoC, the DSP cores from E-MU are no longer special.

Without an aggressive marketing strategy like Beats (Apple) or Sonos, I’m not sure how much the Sonic Carrier can add to the bottom-line, even if the sound is awesome. CT really needs to find a niche where they can sell/bundle truckloads of these sound-bars. Maybe small auditoriums or lecture halls?

With that in mind, I have always wonder why CT never went into the AV Receiver market. That’s a market that people are willing to spend on great sound & video, including speakers!

The 3DLabs GPU can be put to great use by upscaling lower res video source from RCA or Component and outputting through HDMI 1.4 for HDTV. The streaming engine can easily be programmed to do deblocking, de-interlacing, Motion interpolation & sharpening of digital video, or 3D-comb filtering, smoothing of TV & other analog signals. Then to top it all off, perform a 3D-conversion!

For Audio, just couple that ZMS-05 module with a ton of balanced Class-AB OP-AMPs and they’re good to go!

The Android OS can be used for onscreen navigation with integrated apps for things like YouTube, Vimeo, Netflicks etc., similar to media boxes from Western Digital & A.C. Ryan.

Conclusion

As a Singaporean, it’s sad to see CT fall from grace but at least they’re still around. I hope someone takes over CT or let CEO Sim Wong Hoo retire from daily running. CT definitely needs a direction so they can recover soon before the cash runs out.