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The ‘New’ Galaxy Fold Is Still Extremely Fragile

ExtremeTech

When Samsung pulled the Galaxy Fold from launch this year, it rescued itself from the brink of a self-inflicted disaster. It was clear that the phone had too many defects to launch, including a hinge design that allowed foreign objects and material to penetrate behind the display. Samsung has spent months repairing its hardware — and the final result may still be a trainwreck.

YouTuber Zack Nelson, of JerryRigEverything, has posted a video evaluation of the new Samsung Galaxy Fold. His findings do not inspire confidence.

When evaluating the hardness of an object, scientists use the Mohs scale. A Mohs rating of 1 corresponds to talc, a mineral that can easily be scratched by a fingernail. A Mohs hardness of 10 corresponds to diamond. The front screen of the Galaxy Fold is normal, scratching when tested with an object with a Mohs of 6 and with deep indentations left behind at a Mohs of 7. This is more-or-less what you’d expect from a standard smartphone. If you want to do better, you need an alternate material like sapphire glass. The Galaxy Fold’s interior folding screen has a Mohs hardness of 2, which means you can mar it with a fingernail. Nelson shows this at one point, drawing deep grooves in the display with nothing but an index finger.

“The Galaxy Fold Has a Screen Hardness Comparable to Play-Doh, Soggy Bread, or a $2,000 Stick of Chewing Gum”

That’s a direct quote from the video, and it’s significant enough that it needs to be pulled out and emphasized. A Mohs scale of 2 means that your fingernails can literally damage this phone. Women with certain fingernail designs or art may not be able to use it safely. The screen is so fragile, Samsung explicitly tells you not to use any kind of screen protector.

That’s not the only problem with the device. The folding design allows material to fall “out” of the phone in a folded position (rather than keeping it trapped against the screen), but it also allows material to fall into the phone as well. The hinges are not dust resistant in any fashion and it’s still trivially easy for grains of sand to become permanently jammed inside the hinge mechanism, as Nelson also demonstrates.

Reports like this do not show that Samsung has solved the problems that plagued the first iteration of the Galaxy Fold. I’m not going to claim the product will fail, but it will need to be treated with kid gloves, and in a manner that’s entirely opposite from how these devices are typically handled by their owners. When Samsung announced the near-$2,000 price tag people fixated on it, but honestly, I think fragility is the larger issue here. There are plenty of people (relatively speaking) who will pay top dollar to own a truly unique piece of kit, and there’s no arguing that the Galaxy Fold isn’t unique. But far fewer people are willing to pay for a product that’s so easy to break — and the Galaxy Fold looks as if it’ll only remain in pristine condition if you literally wear gloves when handling the thing while storing it in dust-free hermetically sealed bags.

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September 20th 2019, 4:55 pm

ET Deals: Dell Curved 38-Inch 4K IPS Monitor $955, Apple iMac 27-Inch 5K AiO Desktop $1,599, AMD Ryz

ExtremeTech

Today’s best deal is a high-end productivity monitor from Dell that features a 4K resolution and 10-bit color support with a 37 percent discount.

Dell UltraSharp U3818DW 38-Inch 4K Curved IPS Display ($955.49)

Dell’s UltraSharp U3818DW features a large curved 38-inch IPS panel with 10-bit color support and an ultrawide resolution of 3,840×1,600. This makes the display exceptionally well suited for professional image editing and office work. Right now you can get one from Dell marked down from $1,499.99 to $955.49 with promo code MONITOR9.

Apple iMac AiO Intel Core i5 27-Inch 5K Desktop ($1,599.00)

Apple’s iMac AiO desktop is remarkably thin measuring just 5mm thick. The system’s built-in display features a resolution of 5,1290×2,880 and can recreate a billion individual colors with a max brightness of 500 nits. Right now you can get it from Amazon marked down from $1,799.00 to $1,599.00.

AMD Ryzen 7 2700X w/ Wraith Prism LED Cooler ($197.99)

AMD’s Ryzen 7 2700X comes with eight SMT enabled CPU cores with a max clock speed of 4.3GHz, which gives you exceptional performance for multitasking and running power-hungry applications. Currently, you can get it from Amazon marked down from $329.00 to $197.99.

Amazon Fire HD 8 8-Inch 16GB Tablet ($49.99)

Amazon’s Fire HD 8 tablet features an 8-inch display with a resolution of 1,280×800 that is suitable for watching HD videos. The tablet also features 1.5GB of RAM, a 1.3GHz quad-core processor and 16GB of storage space. It also has a battery that’s rated to last for up to 10 hours on a single charge. Right now it’s marked down from Amazon from $79.99 to $49.99 for Amazon Prime members.

Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL 64GB Smartphones ($475.99 / $598.97)

Google’s 5.5-inch Pixel 3 features an aluminum frame with a hybrid exterior coating that’s made up predominantly of Corning Gorilla Glass 5. At the heart of this phone rests a powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 SoC that has access to 4GB of RAM. Right now it’s marked down on Amazon from $799 to $475.99. You can also get the larger 6.3-inch Pixel 3 XL model with similar specs for $598.97.

Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K ($24.99)

As its name suggests, Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K is capable of streaming 4K content to your smart TV from a wide range of sources. It also comes with a remote that features Alexa, which is able to hear and obey voice commands. Right now you can pick up one of these media streamers marked down from $49.99 to $34.99. Select customers can get it marked down to $24.99 with promo code 4KFIRETV. This code doesn’t appear to work for everyone though.

Note: Terms and conditions apply. See the relevant retail sites for more information. For more great deals, go to our partners at TechBargains.com.

September 20th 2019, 3:09 pm

AMD Delays 3rd Gen Threadripper, 16-Core Ryzen 9 3950X Until November

ExtremeTech

When AMD launched its 7nm Ryzen CPUs in July, it promised that there was another high-end chip still to come — the Ryzen 9 3950X, a 16-core processor with a 3.5GHz base clock and a 4.7GHz boost. In the intervening months, however, it’s become clear that the company was quite supply-constrained. We’ve been watching the overall supply situation with Ryzen 7nm CPUs, and while it’s improving, it hasn’t yet been all that good. The 3900X, in particular, has been difficult to find.

AMD has now notified us that it will be delaying the launch of both third-generation Threadripper and the 3950X while it continues to improve yields and part availability. The company writes:

We are focusing on meeting the strong demand for our 3rd generation AMD Ryzen processors in the market and now plan to launch both the AMD Ryzen 9 3950X and initial members of the 3rd Gen AMD Ryzen Threadripper processor family in volume this November. We are confident that when enthusiasts get their hands on the world’s first 16-core mainstream desktop processor and our next-generation of high-end desktop processors, the wait will be well worth it.

AMD’s promo shot for 7nm Threadripper. I debated whether or not to use it — it’s just marketing fluff — but it’s pretty good chip pr0n, if you like that sort of thing.

As annoying as this might be for anyone hoping to get their hands on a sweet 16-core chip or planning a near-term Threadripper upgrade, it’s the right call. Paper launches serve no one in the long term. They create frustration and distrust between a company and its customers, who feel that the availability of a product has been misrepresented, particularly if the only samples available are on eBay for 2-3x base retail price.

We don’t know anything about Threadripper clock targets yet, but the high boost clock on the Ryzen 9 3950X could be responsible for this delay. AMD has set an extremely aggressive target for itself and yields at TSMC may not have improved enough over the past few months to make the company certain of a launch. Overall demand for 7nm is high and lead times for hardware have reportedly been rising at the foundry manufacturer.

Waiting a couple more months to straighten out volume is the right move for AMD to make. Reports from retailers indicate the company is selling every 7nm CPU it can ship out the door already. Now it just needs to build more of them in absolute terms.

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September 20th 2019, 1:53 pm

IBM Preps 53-Qubit Quantum Computer for Launch in October

ExtremeTech

IBM plans to make a 53-qubit quantum computer available to clients of its IBM Q Network next month. The new system, which should go online by the middle of October, will be the largest universal quantum computer that’s available for general commercial use. Google announced a 72-qubit quantum computer in 2018, but IBM’s machine will be available for use by commercial clients. Google continues to explore quantum computing as a testbed and hasn’t commercialized the offering.

The new 53-bit quantum computer will join the array of devices available through IBM’s Quantum Computation Center, which currently offers 10 quantum computers — five 20-qubit systems, one 14-qubit system, and four 5-qubit systems. Within a month, it’ll have 14 systems running, including the new 53-qubit machine.

IBM Quantum Computation Center. Image credit: IBM

The new system is expected to be significantly faster than the 20-qubit systems IBM had previously shown. Both IBM and Google are working towards demonstrating so-called “quantum supremacy,” defined as “discovering which version of Schrödinger’s cat would win a vicious, all-out knife fight.”

pause

I have been informed that this is not the appropriate definition of quantum supremacy.

Actual, non-felid-related quantum supremacy will be achieved when a quantum computer has solved a problem that a classical computer like the one you’re reading this story on cannot solve. There are classes of problems that are too complex for classical computers to solve, or that would take longer than the currently projected heat death of the universe to compute.

The 53-qubit count stems from the hexagonal lattice used to connect the processing elements to minimize unwanted noise. IBM is arguing in favor of a metric known as quantum volume as a measure of overall quantum computing performance and claims that it can offer a QV of 16 on five systems in its Quantum Computation Center. Overall uptime is said to be 95 percent.

Pushing the qubit count and lowering the overall noise of quantum systems is critical to making them work effectively, and companies like IBM, Intel, and Google have been demonstrating various tactics for improving both aspects of quantum computers. The only way for a quantum machine to outperform a classical one is for it to scale up to a certain number of bits. And the only way for those bits to be used to demonstrate quantum supremacy is if the noise can be driven out of the system. IBM’s 53-qubit machine is a significant step towards that goal.

One final note: Universal quantum computers are not the same thing as the D-Wave quantum annealer. Quantum annealers are a specific implementation of a type of quantum computing but are not considered to be the same thing as a universal quantum computer.

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September 20th 2019, 1:23 pm

Amazon Buys 100,000 Electric Trucks from Rivian (Total EV SUVs, Pickups Built to Date: 0)

ExtremeTech

Talk about a startup coming out of nowhere: Amazon this week announced it’s buying 100,000 electric delivery vans from startup Rivian. Prototypes may reach Amazon next year, with deliveries from 2021 to 2024.

The Amazon order rockets Rivian from amusing curiosity (“hey, one more EV startup, like Fisker for trucks?”) to a company getting considerable attention at the November 2018 LA Auto Show (with SUV, pickup prototypes unveiled) to being taken seriously by bankers ($700 million Amazon investment in February, $500 million Ford investment in April plus announced Ford plans to use the Rivian platform in a Ford vehicle) to Player-with-a-Capital-P this week (at $100,000 a truck, Amazon’s order equals $10 billion).

This is the kind of trajectory WeWork was hoping for.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos revealed the electric-truck order Thursday in Washington as part an announcement that Amazon will meet the terms of the Paris climate accord a decade earlier than previously stated. Amazon now gets 40 percent of its energy from renewable resources now; that will climb to 80 percent by 2024 and 100 percent by 2030, Bezos said.

Prototype “Amazon Powered by Rivian” delivery truck in an urban setting.

Investments in Rivian Total $1.5 Billion

Rivian’s backstory is impressive. It was founded by RJ Scarange, an RPI and MIT grad, in 2009 with initial plans — sort of like the initial plans of Elon Musk — to build an electric sports coupe. Its focus shifted in 2011 to autonomous EVs, and the company relocated to Michigan to be closer to the bulk of US-based automobile components suppliers. It then shifted toward electrification, de-emphasizing but not dumping the autonomous aspect.  In 2017, Rivian bought a manufacturing plant in Normal, IL, previously used by Mitsubishi and effectively a near-production-ready facility, much as Tesla purchased the former NUMMI car plant in California.

At the end of 2017, Rivian announced its first two vehicles: a five-passenger pickup (R1T) truck and seven-passenger SUV (R1S). They were shown publicly at the November 2018 Los Angeles auto show. Rivian says they’re designed for Level 3 autonomy, meaning hands-off driving on some roads (typically interstates), but the driver must be ready to take over.

Rivian R1T pickup truck prototype. Rivian says it ships next year. One model gets a 180 kWh battery (take that, Tesla) with a range over 400 miles.

Rivian has had good luck with investors: $200 million in in 2018 from Standard Chartered Bank, $700 million in February 2019 from Amazon, $500 million from Ford in April (GM was also seeking to invest in Rivian), and $350 million this month from Cox Automotive, bringing total investments in the company to $1.5 billion. The company is currently privately held, with more than 1,000 employees and facilities also in San Jose and Irvine, CA, and in the UK, as well as Michigan and Illinois. So while it’s something of an unknown to the general car-buying public, investors and VCs know about Rivian, and they like the focus on pickups and SUVs where other automakers primarily are working on sedans, and smaller ones at that.

All this investment, plus tax abatements and credits from Normal, IL, have come on the promise that Rivian will begin shipping its SUVs and pickups. The company says that happens in 2020. Perhaps feeling the heat from a comparatively small (for now) company, Tesla is projecting a November reveal for its electric pickup.

Bezos: Same-Day Delivery Helps the Climate

Bezos says Amazon’s push to two-day, one-day and now same-day service counter-intuitively benefits the climate. Read this excerpt from USA Today’s Nathan Bonney, who covered the announcement and deserves credit for staying awake during a climate change press conference:

Jeff Bezos in Washington Thursday.

Bezos said he remains optimistic that the world can successfully confront climate change despite dire scientific projections of sea-level rise, environmental catastrophes, health epidemics and extreme weather. “You can invent your way out of any box – and that’s what we humans need to do right now,” he said. “I believe we’re going to do it. I’m sure we’re going to do it.”

Asked how Amazon’s move to one-day or same-day delivery affects the environment, he defended the company’s business model, saying that short delivery times require local warehouses and often can’t be done by carbon-heavy planes. “It actually turns out that as you increase the speed of delivery, you have less carbon,” he said. “That is counterintuitive.”

In other words, quick delivery times force Amazon to have lots of local warehouses, with freight delivered to the warehouse by truck, and also going out by truck, not plane, to customer homes and businesses. It also means: You have to be big to pull this off.

The above tweet is by Amazon SVP of operations Dave Clark after Bezos spoke. Click to see the entire Twitter thread, replies, and thread drift: rants about treating employees better, fast delivery being bad for the climate, attacks on President Trump, and questions on whether the vehicle “can be converted to a mini-camping van.” It’s good reading if there’s nothing going on at the office. 

Amazon’s climate accord logo.

Amazon and the Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement, or climate accord, is a 2015-2016 negotiation among 196 countries to limit the increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. President Trump in June 2017 said the US would withdraw from the accord. That doesn’t stop US or US-headquartered global companies from following the Paris Agreement because it’s good for the company’s image, good for the globe, or that it might actually save money.

Amazon is exactly the kind of company suited to using electric vehicles. The stop-start urban/suburban nature of the majority of its business is ideal for vehicles that regenerate energy through braking. With combustion-engine vehicles, that energy is instead dissipated into as heat, which is why brakes are also called friction brakes.

Amazon has been under pressure from activists and employees (Amazon Employees for Climate Justice) to do more for the environment. Shareholders have not been quite as supportive; many want Amazon to do good, but perhaps not if it keeps AMZ share prices from their ever-upward march.

It remains to be seen how Amazon handles rural deliveries after 2024. Some 97 percent of America’s land area is rural but less than 20 percent of Americans live there and only 3 percent are on farms. Currently, all Amazon delivery vehicles use combustion engines. (Actually, Amazon’s delivery trucks now are typically UPS and some USPS trucks.) It costs Amazon more to deliver those packages out in the sticks, and an electrified truck might not make it through the day. (And if it doesn’t, where does it recharge in 30 minutes?)

One solution might be, as Amazon does for some of its rural and urban-areas deliveries today, is to hand some packages off to the US Postal Service. The mid-term solution may be to continue with combustion-engine trucks, perhaps using plug-in-hybrid drivetrains, for ex-urban deliveries. Amazon’s commitment to being carbon-neutral could involve buying offsets or using strategies that overcome any carbon emissions of combustion engine vehicles. Electric vehicles may also be part of Amazon’s plan to shift more deliveries in-house.

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September 20th 2019, 11:23 am

Samsung PCIe 4 ‘Never Die’ SSDs: Machine Learning, Built-in Virtualization Support

ExtremeTech

Samsung has announced new PCIe 4.0 SSDs, with a trio of new, baked-in technologies that could represent a significant improvement for drive features and reliability. The company is debuting 19 models based on the PM1733 and PM1735, with transfer speeds of up to 8,000MB/s.

According to Samsung, both of these drive controllers include new fail-in-place (FIP) technology. The company claims this is a true milestone in storage technology “by ensuring that SSDs maintain normal operation even when errors occur at the chip level, enabling a never-dying SSD for the first time in the industry.” SSDs outfitted with FIP software can detect faulty chips before they fail, scan for any data in the damaged sectors, and relocate that data into other chips. Samsung cites the example of a 30.72TB SSD with 512 NAND chips detecting an error and moving data out of these sectors before problems can occur.

Next up, the company’s new virtualization technology. SSDs can now be subdivided into smaller drives (up to 64 per physical SSD) and allocated for independent, virtual workstations. This new virtualization implementation allows the drive to take over functions like single-root I/O virtualization from the host CPU.

Finally, Samsung claims to have implemented machine-learning tools to predict cell characteristics and detect variation in its circuit patterns through big data analysis. According to the company, this improved level of error control and analysis is required by the increasing layers of 3D NAND (we’re up to over 100) and the move from three-bit to four-bit cells. The implication of this phrase is that these new PCIe 4.0 products are TLC and QLC-derived, not MLC. Other manufacturers have been bringing up QLC as well or are already shipping it to customers.

The two drive families in question are based on the PM1733 and PM1735 controllers and will be available in a variety of form factors and mounts. The U.2 drives are capable of 6.4GB/s and 3.8GB/s, while the HHHL card-type drives are capable of 8.0GB/s and 3.8GB/s. Exact specs were not provided for various drives beyond the chart shown above. Drive endurance is defined as being either 1 drive write per day (DWPD) or 3, for a five year period in both cases.

For now, PCIe 4.0 is a feature that’s only available on AMD systems as far as the traditional x86 market is concerned. These drives will still work on Intel systems at reduced speeds, of course, and none of the additional features that Samsung has added appear to be tied to PCIe 4.0, which means they’ll all work equally well on Intel servers. As you may have guessed from the size capacities and references to virtualization, these drives are explicitly intended for the enterprise and server markets — though we’re curious about how long it’ll be before the AI and possibly the never-dying capabilities start to show up in consumer products as well. If AI can be used to reduce variability and improve yield we’ll likely see it across both enterprise and consumer products given enough time. Other capabilities, like the ability to divide the drive into 64 virtualized sub-drives, are likely to stay in the enterprise segment.

I should note that we also have questions about ‘Never dying’ SSDs and would really like to see additional materials on how this technology works, when it works, and how much additional protection it practically offers. Unfortunately, Samsung doesn’t seem to have written any publicly available materials on the topic.

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September 20th 2019, 9:36 am

Master the Basics of Web and App Development for Just $35 With Rob Percival

ExtremeTech

It’s no secret that learning how to develop websites and apps is one of the best things you can do if you want to enjoy a lucrative career in tech. But most people don’t realize that you don’t need to invest an exorbitant amount of cash into a traditional computer science education in order to go down this path.

The Complete Web & Mobile Developer Bundle Ft. Rob Percival can get you to where you need to be, and it’s available for over 95% off at just $35.

With six courses and over 120 hours of content led by famed coding guru Rob Percival, this bundle will teach you how to build pro-level apps and websites from scratch.

You’ll learn how to integrate Facebook and Amazon platforms into your builds in order to increase their functionality, how to create best-selling apps for Android, how to design UX-friendly apps and services, and much more.

There’s also instruction that teaches you how to use languages like C# in order to tackle a wide range of complex coding challenges quickly and efficiently.

Get the skills you need to launch a career as a developer with the Complete Web & Mobile Developer Bundle Ft. Rob Percival for just $35—over 95% off its usual price.

Prices are subject to change.

September 20th 2019, 8:18 am

How to Troubleshoot Your Slow PC

ExtremeTech

Credit: Cody Berg/Pexels.com

Speeding up a slow PC can be a challenge, particularly when dealing with older hardware that may be on the cusp of needing an upgrade or replacement anyway. Sometimes, a system simply needs a fresh OS install or driver update to perform significantly better. In other cases, upgrade or wholesale replacement are necessary.

This article is designed to help you troubleshoot a slow machine. Specifically, it walks through the process of determining whether your problem is more likely to be caused by software, hardware, or simply the age of the machine. I’ll address the topic of what to upgrade (and when a machine is worth upgrading) in a separate article.

Top Level Questions

Whether you are doing this for someone else or for yourself, here are a few “big picture” questions to consider:

I ask these questions even before I ask for the make and model of the PC or specific information about its components. Knowing the age, model, and intended purpose of the machine are all important. But age, especially in desktops, just doesn’t mean what it used to. My media center PC downstairs is built on a Core i7-920. It’ll turn 10 this year and still works perfectly.

It’s not enough to say that the system is running slowly. Where it’s running slowly (or displaying other issues) tells us something about why these things are happening.

How Do I Tell if My PC Is “Just” Slow?

A PC that’s “just slow” shouldn’t have any other real problems apart from the lack of performance. You should have a feel for how long it’ll take to open a webpage or launch a game, and you shouldn’t see any unexplained variation in those times or particular instability when performing them. A slow PC may thrash the hard drive if you ask it to open too many browser tabs simultaneously, but there should be a reasonable and predictable (to you) relationship between how much work you are asking your PC to do and how quickly it can do it. A machine that’s “just” slow shouldn’t have problems with pop-ups or persistent trojan and malware infections, and it shouldn’t be unstable.

If you’re a gamer on an old gaming PC, said system should still run the same games you bought it to play back then (with allowances for OS compatibility or driver issues). If you could run BioShock Infinite at 60fps on your current computer in 2013 you should be capable of running it today. If BioShock Infinite (or any other old game or application) plays and runs perfectly, but newer software doesn’t, you may be looking at a situation where you need to upgrade as opposed to dealing with an underlying hardware or software problem.

Any PC still using a magnetic HDD is going to feel slower than a PC equipped with a SATA or M.2-based SSD. Any PC with less than 4GB of RAM is going to struggle at least some of the time under even moderate workloads. Dual-core CPUs without Hyper-Threading or SMT and CPUs based on Intel’s Pentium, Celeron, or Atom product lines are more likely to “feel” slow, even if the system is well-configured. Systems based on old AMD CPUs from the Phenom II era or the Bulldozer/Piledriver product families do not offer particularly high performance.

A system that was brand-new in 2013 and hasn’t been upgraded since shouldn’t feel like the latest-and-greatest in 2019 — but it shouldn’t be riddled with unexplained performance drops or errata, either.

Hunting Software Problems

Performance problems are more likely to be software-related if they are associated with an underlying change to the OS or target application. If you’ve been gaming with no problems but recently bought your first new title in months, your GPU drivers may need to be updated to play it appropriately. It’s never a bad idea to check the minimum specifications for a new title to make sure you meet them: If you’ve got a GTX 480 and the game recommends a GTX 770 as a minimum card, you may well have found the cause of your problem.

Similarly, if you have an older system and you are having issues related to a specific subsystem (networking, sound, video), it may be worth updating your chipset and component drivers as well. The chance of this solving a problem is much higher if there’s an actual identified issue with what you’re using already, but I’ve had reinstalls clear up issues before from seemingly unrelated causes. It’s rare, but the chance isn’t zero.

Tools like Task Manager can sometimes be used to troubleshoot basic software problems with responsiveness and performance. Consistently high CPU usage may indicate a problem with an application, especially if it’s a browser and especially if killing the process improves system responsiveness. Some browser extensions can cause higher CPU usage under certain circumstances.

When you check Task Manager for CPU usage, you can also check the Startup tab. Make sure you recognize the applications that are loaded and running. You may not recognize every process listed in the “Processes” tab, but look for suspicious names or random, nonsense strings of text. In some cases, this may be a sign you’ve been infected by malware — and malware can steal CPU and GPU time for cryptocurrency mining and harm overall perf.

Event Viewer may contain data related to a performance issue or slowdown, but honestly, it’s a crapshoot and interpreting Event Viewer isn’t all that easy for the common user. I’m not touching on it much here as a result.

If you are concerned that old 3D drivers might be hanging around on your rig and cluttering up its performance, tools like Display Driver Uninstaller can be used to completely remove these traces. I use DDU for reviews when testing AMD and Nvidia cards. Booting into Safe Mode, running the tool, and then booting back to Desktop adds some steps compared with just installing a newer driver. But if you’re trying to troubleshoot performance issues, DDU is a good way to ensure you’ve cleansed your metaphorical palate. If you are having issues with your sound card or network solution, it may be worth visiting your motherboard vendor to see if they’ve released updated drivers for these components, for example.

When all else fails, a full Windows reinstallation will almost always nuke any software-related problems and let you determine if a hardware upgrade is necessary. I try very hard not to take this step for obvious reasons — “Just reinstall Windows” is the kind of advice that cost US citizens’ millions when deployed as part of a scheme to lie to people about the state of their software. Most people do not want to go to the hassle of reinstalling Windows and losing their current data installations in the process. But if you are facing weird performance issues that you can’t lock down any other way, and you’ve tried the other steps discussed here, it’s one way to deal with the problem.

There is an exception to this. Sometimes, a Windows Update is responsible for changes to user systems that cause high CPU usage or break Start Menu functionality. Upgrading components or an entire PC is no guard against these sorts of failures. In these instances, even a full Windows reinstall may not fix the issue.

We’ve discussed the software side of the equation. Let’s talk about what which hardware issues are most likely to slow a PC. I’ve tossed in a fair bit of discussion about what component failure looks like in each case to illustrate the difference between the problems that sap performance and the problems that turn your computer into an expensive paperweight.

Hardware Failure Characteristics (and Which Ones Hurt Performance)

RAM: Failing RAM can make a game run more slowly, but only if the CPU is still having some luck pulling data out of it at all. More commonly, applications just crash. The distinguishing characteristic of RAM failure is that there isn’t automatically a distinguishing characteristic. If the failure has occurred at a high memory address, you may only see the issue intermittently when you have a lot of programs loaded. It may happen mostly in games if games are what you typically run, but a RAM failure will pop up anywhere given enough time. Applications like MemTest86+ can be used to test RAM. MemTest86+ is the only RAM test I recommend — I’m not saying it’s the only good application available, but I’ve seen other RAM testers claim that memory was good when it actually wasn’t. I’ve never seen MemTest86+ throw a false positive or false negative.

GPU: A failing GPU may display odd colors and textures whenever you run a 3D application, or function perfectly for basic desktop work but fail if asked to render a video or play a 3D game. Using a third-party utility like MSI Afterburner may allow you to resolve the issue by either lowering the GPU/RAM clock or increasing the chip’s voltage, but these fixes tend to be temporary. Games may crash at load or may run for short periods of time. The problem may begin in a specific title, but it probably won’t stay isolated. A failing GPU may also refuse to install its own driver.

A GPU that runs perfectly for a long period of time before you start seeing errors or texture flickering may be overheating, but may not be damaged yet. Dust the system and see if that improves things. Many games offer benchmark modes for testing GPUs, and running these tests in a loop will often produce a failure, though it may take multiple loops through the test to see it happen.

GPU failures typically will not slow down the system, unless lowering the clocks yourself (temporarily) fixes the problem.

CPUs: CPU failures are difficult to categorize because CPUs almost never fail. If your CPU’s performance is dropping, chances are it’s a thermal issue — either a mismounted heatsink or a thick build-up of dust. Make certain that your heatsink is properly mounted with an appropriate amount of TIM (thermal interface material) between the CPU and its heatsink.

Power Supply: One way to discover your PC PSU needs replacement is for it to burst into flames without warning. (Ask me how I know!) A far less terrifying method is for your machine to simply flip off or reboot during a gaming session or rendering run. In some cases, your motherboard may warn you that power delivery from the PSU was disrupted. Power supply failures can superficially resemble RAM failures, but MemTest86+ won’t return errors and the PSU won’t trip while running basic desktop tasks unless it’s truly having issues. In these cases, your motherboard may also report that one or more of the power rails is low. Bad PSUs often don’t cause slowdowns; they cause shutdowns.

Hard Drives: Mechanical spinning drives may click quietly and repeatedly when attempting to access certain parts of the drive, or I/O performance may drop badly when attempting to access data. Event Viewer may also log hardware failures if the OS can’t read data across the bus properly. SSDs will not click (no moving parts), but they may display the same longer-than-expected access times or sharply reduced performance as the CPU tries to read data from damaged parts of the drive. In many cases, these types of failures will kill the drive altogether rather than leaving it limping along at a lower level of performance.

Low Storage Space: Not a “failure” as such, but it’s a hardware issue, not a software one. Windows generally does not like to run without hard drive space. The less free space you have, the less the OS likes it. This can lead to errors, application crashes, and cache thrashing, all of which harm performance.

Heat: I’ve decided to list “heat” as a common characteristic of hardware instability and lost perf, rather than breaking this out by CPU and GPU. Dust is an amazing insulator. Pack in enough of it and fans won’t even spin. I’ve lost count of how many gamers and readers I’ve met who were afraid they needed to buy new hardware, only to discover that dusting what they owned restored the performance they were missing. Laptops can be a little trickier to dust than PCs, but if you have a desktop and are experiencing instability while gaming, pop the side of your case off and see if things don’t improve. It’s no guarantee — but it’s not a hard thing to test, either.

A PC with issues in just one game or a handful of games may only need a driver update, especially if the titles are newer. A machine that never crashes during desktop or browser work but slows down and crashes during gaming may need to be dusted. When I run into people who are suffering PC crashes while gaming, one of my first pieces of advice is to take the side panel off their computer. The growing popularity of laptops for gaming has made this fix a little less applicable than it used to be, but you’d be amazed how many “unstable” PCs become stable if you just improve airflow. Dusting is obviously the best way to do this, but you can’t always take time from a raid instance or Fortnite game to hunt down a can of compressed air. Just taking a side panel off is a quick way to test this theory.

Systems are less likely to crash outright from high temperatures than they used to be, but throttling can still play merry hell with game performance. I always check thermals when I’m evaluating system behavior.

Of all the issues here, I’d say dust, driver updates, and low disk space are the three most common factors likely to cause slower-than-desired performance in the absence of hardware failure. Broken software can absolutely cause all manner of problems, but these cases tend to be specific and particular to the user in question (or the hardware in question) and are much harder to resolve in a general-purpose guide like this.

Questions? Tricky cases? Got a machine with an issue you can’t seem to fix? Drop it below.

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September 20th 2019, 8:18 am

Battle Lines Drawn Over California Auto Air Rules, EVs

ExtremeTech

As promised, President Trump this week announced he’s revoking California’s right to set its own auto emissions standards. And as promised, California Gov. Gavin Newsom is headed to court because he doubts the President’s standing to unilaterally undo an act of Congress, the Clean Air Act passed in 1970 and signed by then-President Richard Nixon. So much is riding on the outcome that the case is almost certainly headed to the Supreme Court.

California says its authority to set stricter emissions and fuel economy standards is well-established and, besides, automakers have world standards to meet that will be tougher than US standards. The President says California rules raise costs across the rest of the country, a 2009 Obama administration waiver allowing California to also regulate greenhouse gases was over-reaching, and buyers of combustion-engine cars in all 50 states will pay more in order to subsidize money-losing EVs that (critics say) cost $12,000 more than a comparable gasoline-powered vehicle.

Wednesday President Trump said a single emissions standard would lower car prices. Outside of this week’s orders, federal regulators have been working on easing tailpipe emissions rules set in motion by the Obama administration in 2012. Pollution levels would continue to decrease, but not as dramatically as the slope dictated in 2012.

Trump also said uniformity of standards would create jobs and make for safer cars. The latter claim is especially in doubt because it assumes automakers will producer lighter cars that will fare less well in collisions with heavier cars. Some experts say the difference in big-versus-small-car safety is less of an issue, and that as more cars downsize, there are fewer big cars to collide with smaller cars.

The 13 states where President Trump intends to undo their emissions rules were not (except Pennsylvania) his supporters in the election.

How Much Is Politics?

There are 12 states, including California, that use California’s emissions rules, with Colorado set to make it 13 in 2021. Many of the states are coastal (Atlantic and Pacific, not Gulf). All but one of the 13 went for Clinton over Trump in the 2016 election (Pennsylvania went for Trump by 0.72 percentage points), so the administration’s actions aren’t alienating his voter base. The 13 states represent 26 percent of the 50 states, but 36 percent of the vehicles sold last year. Because many are densely populated, they’re more likely to have more small, high-mpg vehicles and fewer big pickups.

President Trump tweeted Wednesday “revoking” California’s emissions permission granted by the 1970 Clean Air Act. The multi-part tweet (with the first part above) continued:

…advantage, and also due to the fact that older, highly polluting cars, will be replaced by new, extremely environmentally friendly cars. There will be very little difference in emissions between the California Standard and the new U.S. Standard, but the cars will be…. [third tweet:] ….far safer and much less expensive. Many more cars will be produced under the new and uniform standard, meaning significantly more JOBS, JOBS, JOBS! Automakers should seize this opportunity because without this alternative to California, you will be out of business.”

The Clean Air Act of 1970 was expanded by Congress in 1977 to allow other states to legally adopt California’s standards. But they couldn’t set their own standards; they had to choose the US or the California standard. Even then, there was some automaker unhappiness with having dual standards, so the Obama administration set in a glide path toward a single set of standards that would result in a 54.5 mpg target — the corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standard — by model year 2025. Which all of a sudden is not that far off, given that automakers are starting to lock in the 2021 models.

It should be noted that 54.5 miles per gallon as a standard is a formula that involves more than how far the average car goes on a gallon of gas. It equates very roughly to about 40 actual miles per gallon, which is still a big step forward. The Trump administration is likely to push mpg and clean air standards higher, but more slowly than the regulations currently call for.

Also note that when it comes to controlling carbon dioxide, CO2 emissions are a proxy for higher mpg. Unlike carbon monoxide or nitrogen emissions, CO2 emitted directly relates to how much gasoline or diesel is burned. If you get a vehicle to emit half as much CO2, it’s because the car used half as much fuel.

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have their say. One supports the President, one doesn’t.

What Others Say

Congress and the media are weighing in. Fans of the President and of less federal (or state) regulation support him and want a single US standard; supporters of cleaner air and alternatives to the combustion engine want to stick with the option of a higher standard for states that need to deal with pollution or congestion.

The New York Times (“Mr. Trump Muddies the Air”) editorialized that

President Trump finds himself arrayed against the plain language of the Clean Air Act, California’s historical role as a laboratory for tough new environmental rules and the express wishes of several major automakers and two-thirds of the American people. …

Over time, strategies adopted in California to control smog-producing pollutants became standard across the country. So, too, with carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. California’s decision in 2002 to add greenhouse gases to the list of pollutants it wanted to control — a decision approved by the Obama administration seven years later — arguably accelerated the push for zero-emission and low-emission vehicles like plug-in hybrids. (Tailpipe emissions are now the nation’s single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Over at The Wall Street Journal (“California Can’t Go Its Own Way,” with the headline probably annoying Fleetwood Mac), the focus was whether the 2009 Obama administration waiver is as soundly rooted in law as the 1970 legislation:

The Trump Administration now has strong economic, regulatory and constitutional reasons to revoke the waiver. California has used its waiver to impose electric car quotas that will raise costs for consumers across the country. Manufacturing an electric car costs $12,000 more than an equivalent gas-powered vehicle. Despite generous federal and state consumer subsidies, auto makers will probably have to sell EVs below cost in California and raise prices on gas-powered cars everywhere else.

The state’s EV mandate doesn’t even account for all CO2 emissions since it awards more credit for longer-range batteries, even though they require more energy (and fossil fuels) to manufacture. A Tesla Model S, for instance, receives almost twice as much regulatory credit as a Nissan Leaf. It also provides credit for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles that derive energy mostly from natural gas. This scheme encourages regulatory arbitrage.

Fair-weather liberal federalists are complaining that the Trump Administration is running over states’ rights. Yet the Commerce Clause prohibits states from burdening interstate commerce, and the California rules discriminate against consumers in other states. If California’s waiver is allowed to stand, its rules would become the de facto national standard. …

Are EVs Getting a Free Ride?

This next part may not wind up in court, or at least may not figure into the ultimate reasoning behind the rulings, but conservatives are unhappy with what they see is the current huge cost of creating EVs and their batteries. Nor will the case hinge on Gov. Newsom’s claim: “California will prevail because we’re leaders in this space.”

EV opponents say the cost-adder for an EV is about $12,000 per vehicle. They’re deathly opposed to extending the EV tax credit of up to $7,500 from 200,000 cars per automaker to 600,000. They also say, as the WSJ notes, “Most auto makers are already increasing investment in electric cars to comply with regulations in China and Europe. The Trump Administration isn’t prohibiting them from manufacturing more fuel-efficient and electric cars.”

The discussion outside the court case may continue along the lines of how clean do we want our air, how much greenhouses should be emitted given the vast-majority opinion that greenhouse gases from transportation are hastening global warming, and how long should the government underwrite subsidies to encourage alternative cars — plug-in hybrids and pure EVs — and whether certain parts of the country should have tougher standards — California for sure, but also places ringed by mountains such as Denver, or the densely packed BosWash corridor.

There certainly will be uncertainty for the next year as the issue winds into and through the courts. Depending on how quickly or slowly it moves, a non-Trump President in January 2021 might back away from the lawsuit, but it also might be stuck with a partly unfavorable lower-court ruling.

It was uncertainty about future rules that led four automakers to go directly to the state of California to establish known standards for fuel efficiency and emissions regardless of what happens at the federal level. The agreement by BMW, Ford, Honda, and Volkswagen (and their subsidiaries such as Mini, Lincoln, Acura, Audi, etcetera) also angered the President and perhaps led him to advance the plans to revoke, if it’s in his power, the existing California mileage and emissions rules.

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September 19th 2019, 5:08 pm

ET Deals: Apple iPhone 11 Pro BOGO $700 Off, Samsung Galaxy A50 + Galaxy Fit $349, Apple Watch Serie

ExtremeTech

Tomorrow’s going to be a big day for the smartphone and gaming industries. Not only does Apple’s new iPhone 11 and Apple Watch Series 5 launch tomorrow, but so does Samsung’s Galaxy A50 and Nintendo’s new Switch Lite console. If you are eager to get your hands on this new tech and to take advantage of the limited-time pre-order deals currently available on them, then today is your last day to order.

Apple iPhone 11 Pro 64GB ($999.99)

Right now if you pre-order one of Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro smartphones from AT&T you can save $700 on the purchase of a second iPhone 11 Pro. This drops the price of the second phone down to $299.99, which makes it an exceptional deal if you need two of these phones for your family. Alternatively, if you just need one, you can trade in your old phone to Verizon Wireless to save up to $500 on your purchase. These offers are also available on purchases of the iPhone 11 and the iPhone 11 Pro Max.

Samsung Galaxy A50 6.4-Inch 64GB Smartphone + Samsung Galaxy Fit ($349.99)

Samsung’s Galaxy A50 is a powerful mid-range smartphone with an octa-core processor, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage space. The phone also features a large 6.4-inch FHD+ Super AMOLED display and a 4,000mAh battery that Samsung claims can last for up to 35 hours. The Galaxy A50 is set to launch on September 20, but if you pre-order it now from Amazon you will also receive a free Galaxy Fit with your purchase.

Apple Watch Series 5 GPS 40mm ($384.99)

Apple’s newest smartwatch will be the company’s first to feature an always-on display, which will remain illuminated and provide on-screen information for the entire time the watch remains on. Apple said that like last year’s model, the new Watch Series 5 will continue to offer up to 18 hours of battery life on a single charge. You can pre-order it now from Walmart for $384.99. The watch is set to ship on September 20.

Nintendo Switch Lite Pre-Order ($199.99)

Nintendo’s new Switch Lite console is a smaller and less-expensive version of the company’s popular Switch console that is able to play all of the same games. There are some noteworthy differences between the two systems; the Switch Lite has a smaller 5.5-inch display and cannot connect to an external display. The device’s controls are also hardwired into the system and cannot be removed, but the Lite features better battery life than the original switch console. The system is set to launch on September 20 for $199.99, but you can pre-order it now from Amazon.

Logitech MX Master 2S Wireless Mouse ($66.38)

Logitech’s MX Master 2S mouse can last for up to 70 days on a single charge and has a high-performance optical sensor that can work on essentially any surface including glass. This mouse also features a total of eight buttons and two scroll wheels to make using your system easier. Right now you can get it from Amazon marked down from $99.99 to $66.38.

Dell Vostro 15 5490 Intel Core i5-10210U 1080p 15.6-Inch Laptop w/ 8GB DDR4 RAM and 256 M.2 NVMe SSD ($586.46)

Dell upgraded this laptop with one of Intel’s new 10th generation Core i5-10210U processors that has four CPU cores clocked at 1.6GHz. The system also comes with a fast NVMe SSD storage device and a 1080p display, which makes it well suited for just about any type of work or any non-gaming activity. You can get it now from Dell marked down from $1,081.43 to just $586.46.

Note: Terms and conditions apply. See the relevant retail sites for more information. For more great deals, go to our partners at TechBargains.com.

September 19th 2019, 3:52 pm

Valve Hands Out 19-Year Bans to Abusive DOTA 2 Players

ExtremeTech

Valve has launched a wave of bans against abusive DOTA 2 players, including players who attempt to cheat the game’s matchmaking system. The news was rolled out as part of a DOTA 2 update blog post. Regarding the ban wave, Valve notes that several different groups of various bad actors will now be banned, including players with low behavior scores and players who are detected buying and selling Steam accounts. Anyone using exploits or cheats will also be banned.

These bans will go into effect without advance notice or warning, and Valve isn’t just going to ban people — it’s going to lock out phone numbers. While ordinary Steam users don’t have to associate a phone number with their devices, Valve requires players to provide one if they want to engage in ranked matchmaking. The blog post from Valve is currently offline, but a copy is available from Google Cache.

Smurf accounts — accounts created by the same player to deceptively present themselves as less experienced than they actually are — are also being cracked down on. First, Valve has closed loopholes that allowed players to dodge the phone number verification system. Players will not be allowed to queue for ranked matches until and unless they attach a unique number. Second, access to ranked matches will now require at least 100 hours of playtime in DOTA 2. This should help cut down on the smurfing problem.

Finally, Valve has made changes to the way DOTA’s rank adjustment algorithm behaves, with the goal of assigning players to their correct rank more quickly. If players attempt to game the system but demonstrate a level of skill that indicates they clearly belong in a different group, the game will adjust their matchmaking rating (MMR) more quickly, to line them up against the right players. Because access to ranked is now gated by time played, Valve will also use account history to determine where you should be placed, and hopes these changes will result in players hitting their appropriate rankings more quickly.

Image by Redditor YeezyReseller

DOTA 2 players have not been particularly sympathetic to players getting banned for excessively low community scores or account shenanigans. When Redditor YeezyReseller posted complaining about his treatment, the response from the player community wasn’t very warm or fuzzy.

The player in question had a 509 conduct score. DOTA 2 generates conduct scores in an attempt to inform players that they are being abusive or trollish, and to let them know how to adjust their own behavior. A 509 is… bad. The account in question was also a boosted account based on the win rating, as sniffed out by Redditor Loss35.

I’m mostly a single-player gamer myself, but I’ve been a longtime World of Warcraft player and I’ve dabbled in other online games. Striking a balance between what game mechanics players can and can’t abuse has always been critical to the health of online titles. Put simply, game developers can assume that a certain percentage of their playerbase will choose to maximize their own enjoyment, even at the expense of everyone else playing the game. For some people, that’s the whole point. They don’t want the game to be balanced and they don’t want a fair fight.

Banning players like this is the only way to keep the game running smoothly for everyone else — and banning them for 19 years is infinitely funnier than just slapping people with a forever ban. As for why Valve is banning certain users, the company didn’t mince words: “Users that reach this low level of behavior in the game are too big of a tax on the rest of the community and are not wanted.”

Feature image by R5on11c. Find him on Instagram.

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September 19th 2019, 3:52 pm

AMD Unveils Epyc 7H12: A 280W 7nm Server Core to Rule the Roost

ExtremeTech

When AMD launched Epyc in August, it unveiled a top-to-bottom product stack that was set to challenge the best Intel had to offer on the Xeon side of its product family. The highest-end CPU previously announced, the Epyc 7742, is a 64-core chip with a 2.25GHz base clock, 3.4GHz max, and 225W TDP for $6950.

Now, for its European launch, AMD has unveiled a new high-end 64-core part. This is a specialty chip, intended for liquid-cooled environments. AMD is partnering with Atos to deploy these principally in 1U solutions, but the company has said that the chip will be available to other customers as well.

The new Epyc 7H12 (I have no idea where the name came from) is a 280W part with 64-cores and the same 256MB of L3 cache. Clocks, however, bump up significantly — from a 2.25GHz base to 2.6GHz, an increase of ~1.15 percent. Boost clock is a touch lower than the 7742, at 3.3GHz — but these chips are unlikely to run at full boost clock all that often in any case. If you’re buying 64-core CPUs, it’s probably with the goal of loading them and making use of all those extra cores. The fact that the base clock is so much higher, however, suggests the all-core turbo is probably quite a bit higher as well.

AMD is projecting an increase in Linpack performance of roughly 1.11x for the 7H12 over and above the 7742. Pricing on the new chip wasn’t disclosed, but given that the 7742 starts at $6,950, we can assume the 7H12 is going to be priced at a fair bit more. Interestingly enough, AMD is “paying” for the base clock increase with a relatively modest TDP jump. Pushing the base clock up from 2.25GHz to 2.6GHz increases clock by 1.15x and increases TDP by 1.24x. TDP is not the same as power consumption and cannot be considered to be equivalent to power consumption, but it is not unusual for TDPs to rise much faster than the linear increase in clocks.

AMD made a number of announcements at the show emphasizing its own performance and partnerships with companies like Dell and TSMC, which will be deploying its own IT infrastructure on Epyc 7nm CPUs. It’s also partnering with Nokia’s cloud service to improve aspects of 5G performance and launching new hardware with OVHCloud. The company has broken over 100 benchmark records with Epyc according to what it claims are third-party results run by independent organizations.

We haven’t reviewed all of those claims ourselves, but a recent Linux comparison of Epyc versus Xeon performance illustrated that these chips are top performers against Intel in a huge range of tests and dominate comparisons in terms of performance-per-dollar. Intel has promised to retaliate with Cascade Lake chips that are a much stronger offer, but we don’t know more than that about these parts yet.

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September 19th 2019, 11:17 am

Did Tesla Just Set an Electric Car Speed Record at the Nürburgring?

ExtremeTech

Tesla is attacking the race track. It claims to have a set a lap record at the famed Laguna Seca Track in California and now appears to be taking on the most famous track for sports cars, Germany’s Nürburgring. There are also reports a modified Model S lapped the Nürburgring this week in 7 minutes, 23 seconds, which would be 19 seconds faster than a Porsche Taycan EV prototype got around the 12.9-mile circuit.

With the advent of the Taycan, Tesla is feeling the heat and is preparing a “Plaid Mode” performance Model S that is able to accelerate hard, brake, and run all out for extended periods. A year out from its likely launch, Tesla appears to be testing prototypes at famous racetracks. Some of the lap times Tesla is reporting are based on Tesla’s say-so, which is good enough for barroom bragging or tweets, if not enough to alter the record books.

Instead, what Tesla wants to alter is the perception that the Model S is no longer a show pony. And: If you have a fast car, part of the marketing plan involves a trip to the ‘Ring and a YouTube video.

Tesla claimed a 1:36.6 lap time at the demanding Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California: 2.238 miles / 3.602 km long. At 1:04 of the video: the Corkscrew, the track’s infamous, blind, diving left-hander followed by a quick right. You don’t see the turn until you’re in it. 

What Tesla Did at Laguna Seca, Nürburgring

Last week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted (below) that Tesla set a record for “fastest 4-door ever” at the Weathertech Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, CA. The video above shows a lap just under 1 minute, 37 seconds. Apparently “fastest” is in comparison with a Jaguar XE SV Project 8 car in 2018. But there’s much about the Laguna Seca Tesla that’s unknown: what modifications to the suspension, drivetrain, tires, cockpit, etcetera. Also, “record” can mean different things. Most typically it means the speed runs are done with the help of a sanctioning body. That group, and not the automaker, does the timing, and they inspect the car thoroughly to see what modifications have been done. Auto racers can make Russia look like the Boy Scouts when it comes to messing with outcomes.

In many cases, there are separate records for EVs; in other cases, none have been established. The Jaguar XE SV Project 8 is a combustion engine car, which is actually good for Tesla because it shows an EV can keep up with a gasoline V8, at least for the purpose of one or two record-testing laps.

Word is bubbling out of the Nürburgring, especially from our friends at Autoblog who had a spy photographer onsite (although with a racetrack that big, it’s impossible to keep people out). Tesla has several modified Model S Plaid cars there. Plaid refers to a series of performance enhancements Tesla said would be applied to the upcoming new Tesla Roadster, the Model S sedan, and the Model X SUV.

So far this week, one Tesla has recorded a very unofficial Nürburgring 7:23 lap time, versus a recorded lap time of 7:42 by the Taycan Turbo. Things might well be different if Porsche ran the Taycan Turbo S, which is the name (“Turbo”) Porsche uses since Tesla already uses “Ludicrous.” (Even if there’s little more ludicrous that putting “Turbo” on an EV.)

Reports have the Model S modified with the bigger wheels and tires, higher performance semi-slicks (tires with minimal tread), an enlarged front grille, and quite possibly different — meaning enhanced — motor and battery cooling algorithms. The Plaid mod also has three, not two, electric motors.

For Tesla to claim any Nürburgring “record,” it would need certification — although come to think of it, none is needed to send a tweet — from a sanctioning body that would be all over the car and in charge of timing. And then Tesla would have to decide what record it wants. Possible records would be for midrange cars held by the Jaguar XE SV Project 8 (7:23) or for executive cars held by the Mercedes-Benz AMG GT S 4Matic+ (7:30).

There are also effectively unattainable records: 6:05 for an electric sports car set by the Volkswagen ID.R, and 5:20 for the Porsche 919 Evo, the fastest lap, of any car, at the Nurburgring’s 12.9-mile layout to date. The very quickest sedans/coupes/two-seaters from BMW, Chevrolet (Corvette and Camaro, not Cruze), Nissan, Lexus, and Mercedes-Benz get around in 7:25 to 7:40. A $35,000 Honda Civic Type R and Mercedes station wagon (well, E63 AMG) got around in roughly 7:45.

Why Tesla Took to the Track: Match Porsche (Also Jaguar)

Teslas are pigs at the track. At least, they have been and will be until 2020 and the arrival of Plaid. The stock Model S’ ludicrous 0-60 times under 2.5 seconds and standing-start quarter-mile times under 11 seconds can’t be done repeatedly. None of this keeps Tesla from being a great if aging sports sedan that’s amazing on public roads. But to lap repeatedly for the half-hour it takes to run a showroom stock race event — no way. A current Tesla would last a lap or two. But the Model S sedan in its 2012-2019 configuration was okay because there was no serious competition in high-performance EVs that could run balls out at the track. Bragging rights were about street driving and single, not repeated, acceleration runs.

Jaguar I-Pace EV running flat out at the Portimão Circuit (used for Formula 1 testing) in Portugal last summer. Unlike current stock Teslas, a stock I-Pace happily runs lap after lap at speed.

Actually, there was competition a year ago in the Jaguar I-Pace EV. That it’s an amazing two-row passenger car (described as an SUV), electrified, and at home on Portugal’s Formula 1 circuit made it ExtremeTech’s Car of the Year. The I-Pace also won the 2019 World Car of the Year award, the World Car Design, and World Green Car titles. But sales are soft at less than 1,000 units sold worldwide in August, and never more than 250 units a month in the US since arriving here in quantity last November. So Tesla has effectively ignored Jaguar.

The Porsche Taycan got around the Nurburgring fast. Tesla apparently got around faster (than Porsche’s base model Taycan, that is).

But now comes the Porsche Taycan EV. That car, Tesla can’t ignore, because Porsche is the benchmark for sporting cars just as Tesla is for high-end street-going EVs. It may be that Tesla for years had a plan to build a track-capable Model S and coincidentally went public with plans now, along with semi-official performance testing. Or Tesla now hears footsteps.

The Porsche will likely cost more because a) it’s a Porsche and b) nobody knows how to price options and upgrades like Porsche. But that’s okay because early on, the fact that a Taycan Turbo costs $150,000 is a status symbol even if it causes grumbling among the po-folk buyers of $60,000 Boxsters.

Tesla is talking about bringing out the Tesla Model S Plaid around October 2019 EDT. As in Elon Discretionary Time.

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September 19th 2019, 8:48 am

Become a Full-Fledged Excel Data Master with This Training That’s 90% Off

ExtremeTech

If you’ve worked in an office at any point in the past thirty years, chances are you’ve at least dabbled with Microsoft Excel—that number-crunching powerhouse that can be found at the heart of small startups and Fortune 500 companies alike.

But it’s also likely that you’ve only scratched the surface of what this powerful program can do, especially when it comes to data analysis and reporting. The Microsoft Excel Data Analysis & Dashboard Reporting bundle will get you up to speed with this increasingly valuable skillset, and it’s available for 90% off at just $19.99.

With lifetime access to three hours of content led by best-selling Excel instructor Kyle Pew, this instruction will teach you how to take advantage of everything that Excel has to offer.

You’ll learn how to build dynamic, interactive Excel dashboards through instruction that teaches you how to identify the principles of data analysis, use effective design methods in order to create and present data, mine for data using specific functions, and much more.

You’ll also learn how to streamline your workflow by using PivotTables and charts.

Become an Excel data pro with the Microsoft Excel Data Analysis & Dashboard Reporting bundle for just $19.99—90% off for a limited time.

Prices are subject to change.

September 19th 2019, 8:30 am

If You Have a Smart TV or IoT Devices, Your Home is Leaking Data

ExtremeTech

It’s been obvious for years that consumer devices cannot be trusted to secure user data, but there have been relatively few studies into exactly how poorly the modern ecosystem actually is. Researchers at Northeastern University and the Imperial College London have recently conducted a thorough analysis of 81 different IoT products to characterize what services they attempt to connect with, what communications can be inferred from these connections, and the degree of encryption used to protect customers.

The highlights of our research findings include the following. Using 34,586 controlled experiments, we find that 72/81 devices have at least one destination that is not a first party (i.e., belonging to the device manufacturer), 56% of the US devices and 83.8% of the UK devices contact destinations outside their region, all devices expose information to eavesdroppers via at least one plaintext flow, and a passive eavesdropper can reliably infer user and device behavior from the traffic (encrypted or otherwise) of 30/81 devices.

The set of products used for this survey were drawn from the US (46 devices) and UK (35 devices) with 26 devices commonly overlapping between the two data sets. Devices are classified as cameras, smart hubs, home automation, TVs, audio (smart speakers), and appliances (connected appliances and the like).

What they found varied. Virtually every TV contacted Netflix to report information about itself, even when none of the devices were outfitted with a Netflix account. Non-first party destinations (Akamai, Google, and Amazon) are often contacted by IoT devices, allowing them to log data profiles on customers. US devices tend to contact more third-party services than UK devices, possibly because of more stringent privacy requirements on the UK side of the pond. Using a VPN had a minimal impact on the type and number of attempted connections.

The encryption analysis performed by the team had issues; Wireshark wasn’t able to recognize many of the proprietary protocols used by these devices. The stronger takeaway seems to be that many products continue to share at least some data in the clear, and this may well represent security issues related to specific products, but the team did not conduct an in-depth analysis into exactly which information was being leaked or only partly encrypted at the per-device level. It wasn’t possible to do so with the tools they had.

As for what was being leaked over unencrypted channels, the team found instances of PII and other sensitive information being leaked in plaintext, though there’s evidence of improvement in this area compared with past evaluations.

Nonetheless, we found notable cases of PII exposure. This included various forms of unique identifiers (MAC address, UUID, device ID), geolocation at the state/city level, and user specified/related device name (e.g., John Doe’s Roku TV). A notable case that we found in our US lab is the Samsung Fridge sending MAC addresses unencrypted to an EC2 domain, which is a support party in the best case. The implication is that it is now possible for an ISP to track this device.

In both our labs we found that Magichome Strip is sending its MAC address in plaintext to a domain hosted on Alibaba. Interestingly, the Insteon hub was sending its MAC address in plaintext to an EC2 domain, but only from the UK lab. We did not find similar behavior in the US lab. Interestingly, each time the Xiaomi camera detected a motion, its MAC address, the hour and the date of the motion (in plaintext) was sent to an EC2 domain. We also noted that a video was included on the payload.

Finally, the team investigated unexpected behaviors — and found some. Ring doorbells record every time someone moves in front of them. This is only disclosed in the privacy policy and you have to pay a monthly fee to access the recordings. ZMondo takes a photo any time someone moves in front of the doorbell. Alexa cameras activate on the wrong words far more often than any other type of voice assistant.

The team writes that it identified “notable cases” of devices unexpectedly sending audio and video. The authors feel their highlights show that “concerns about information exposed by IoT devices is warranted, as is further investigation into more accurate device-activity classifiers and the root causes for the inferred behavior.”

There is no single smoking gun incident here, no specific and particular damning behavior. But there’s an awful lot of dubious connectivity, third-party services, and devices that can be monitored and tracked based on how they authenticate and what they transmit in the process. The devices we bring into our home can serve this sort of function, too, and companies are endlessly hungry for the data it represents.

The only solution to these issues, at present, is not to bring these devices into your home. If you own a smart TV, don’t connect it independently to the internet.

Feature image credit: IoT Test Lab

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September 19th 2019, 7:48 am

Facebook’s New Portal Lineup Includes a Creepy Camera for Your TV

ExtremeTech

Facebook launched its Portal smart displays almost a year ago, following a lengthy delay in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Now, there’s a new generation of Portal hardware. For anyone who still inexplicably trusts Facebook enough to put one of its cameras in their homes, there are two new Portal displays, plus a TV accessory that adds video chat to the biggest and best screen in the house. 

The new smart displays are called simply Portal and Portal Mini. The Portal has a 10-inch display, and the Portal Mini is only a little smaller at 8-inches. As before, Facebook’s main pitch is video chat. You can place calls to other users via Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, and the cameras use facial recognition to follow you around the room. It is, by all accounts, effective if you want to place video calls with a stationary device rather than your smartphone. 

When you’re not using the Portals, they look like digital photo frames, capable of showing you images from Facebook. They can also stream video from Facebook Watch. Otherwise, they’re much less full-featured than smart displays from Amazon or Google. There’s little to these devices unless you’re deeply committed to the Facebook ecosystem. The Portal and Portal Mini will cost $129 and $179, respectively. That’s vastly cheaper than last year’s $350 Portal Plus. 

Facebook’s other new Portal device has no analog in last year’s lineup. The Portal TV connects to your TV via HDMI, adding Facebook video calls to the living room. The device looks like a smaller Microsoft Kinect, and it has the same smart tracking technology as the Portal displays, allowing you to wander around the room while on a video call. 

In addition to video calls, the Portal TV acts as a media streaming box with support for services like Amazon Prime Video, CBS All Access, and Showtime. Facebook says more services are on the way, but it’s unknown if Netflix is among them. It would really have to be for the Portal TV to be a viable streaming device. 

Of all the companies looking to get cameras and microphones in your house, Facebook is probably the least trusted. However, all the new Portal devices have a button to disable the camera and microphone, as well as a physical camera shutter. Portal TV will cost $149 when it ships on November 5th. That’s several weeks after the new Portal smart displays, which come out on October 15th.

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September 18th 2019, 4:49 pm

Google Reportedly Killed Pixel Smartwatches in 2016 Because They Were Bad

ExtremeTech

We’ve all wondered if Google will ever decide to release its own smartwatch as the Wear OS platform has continued to flounder. According to a new report, Google already tried to do that once, but it canceled the effort at the last minute because the experience wasn’t good enough. The Pixel Watch hardware eventually debuted as LG-branded Wear OS devices, and indeed, they were not good. 

The story begins in 2016 as Google was gearing up for the Pixel launch under the stewardship of its new hardware czar Rick Osterloh. The Pixel phones would replace the company’s Nexus devices with a new focus on elegance and ease of use. The October 2016 unveiling of the Pixel and Pixel XL was originally supposed to feature a pair of Pixel Watches as well. However, Osterloh pulled the plug at the last minute. 

According to a former member of the Google hardware team, some basic features of the watches simply didn’t work correctly. For example, syncing between the shiny new Pixel phones and the Pixel Watches was spotty at best, and Osterloh was wary of mediocre wearables casting a pall over his first major hardware launch. 

Google allegedly had branding, product photos, and marketing plans ready for the watches when Osterloh canceled the project. Google announced the Pixel phones soon thereafter, and the rumored Pixel Watches were nowhere to be seen. The hardware, which was manufactured by LG, didn’t go directly in the bin, though. LG salvaged the designs to launch two smartwatches under its own brand several months later. 

The first-gen Pixel was supposed to have a smartwatch counterpart, but Google backed away at the last minute.

The LG Watch Style and Watch Sport launched in early 2017 to largely lukewarm reviews. Google gave the devices some promotional attention as they were the first with the new Android Wear 2.0 update (this was before the Wear OS re-brand). Neither device sold in significant quantities. 

The report also notes that the current state of Wear OS is abysmal, and no one seems to know how to address it. Google still is not working on its own smartwatch because of the continued issues with the platform. So, don’t expect any wearable devices at next month’s Google hardware event. For now, Google seems content to let Fossil release mediocre smartwatches generation after generation while Apple gobbles up more of the market.

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September 18th 2019, 4:34 pm

ET Deals: Seagate 14TB NAS HDD $439, Dell XPS 4K Intel Core i7 Gaming Laptop $1,449, Roku Premiere+

ExtremeTech

Today’s top deal is a Seagate NAS HDD that’s able to hold an enormous amount of storage and is currently marked 23 percent off.

Seagate IronWolf Pro 14TB NAS 7,200RPM HDD ($439.99)

Seagate built this 3.5-inch hard drive to hold an unusually large amount of data. With a storage capacity of 14TB, this drive is one of the largest 3.5-inch drives commercially available and it’s currently marked down from $569.99 to $439.99.

Dell XPS 15 9570 Intel Core i7-8750H 15.6-Inch 4K Laptop w/ Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti, 16GB DDR4 RAM and 512GB SSD ($1,449.99)

Dell’s XPS 15 9570 features a fast Intel Core i7-8750H processor with six Hyper-Threaded CPU cores and a 4K IPS touch-screen display with support for 100 percent of the Adobe RGB color spectrum. This causes images on the screen to look more vivid and makes this system well-suited for photo editing. It also has an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti GPU for running modern games. Typically priced at $1,918.99, you can currently get this system for the reduced price of $1,449.99.

Roku Premiere+ 4K HDR Media Player ($39.00)

Roku’s Premiere+ media player features 4K an HDR video support and competes directly with Amazon’s Fire TV 4K. It’s able to stream content from numerous sources including Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, and Sling TV. Right now you can get it from Walmart marked down from $49.00 to $39.00.

Overpowered DTW3 Intel Core i7-8700 Gaming Desktop w/ Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti, 32GB DDR4 RAM, 512GB SSD and 2TB HDD ($1,199.00)

Marked down from $2,099.00 to $1,199.00 at Walmart, this desktop offers exceptional power and performance relative to its price point. The system is known to have problems with insufficient ventilation and you may want to move the parts to a new case or install some additional case fans, but for what you get for the price few systems can match this one.

Amazon Fire TV Recast Over-The-Air DVR 1TB ($209.99)

Amazon’s Fire TV Recast is a type of DVR device with 1TB of storage space that can hold up to 150 hours of video. It allows you to record up to four shows simultaneously, and this content can then be played back on a wide range of supported devices. Right now Amazon Prime members can get this device from Amazon marked down from $279.99 to $209.99.

Apple AirPods w/Wireless Charging Case ($169.95)

This set of Apple’s AirPods comes with a wireless charging case. Simply set the earbuds into the case whenever you are finished using them and they will automatically start charging. They also have support for Siri to quickly access your iPhone, and they can last for over 24 hours while listening to music. Amazon is offering these AirPods currently marked down from $199.00 to $169.95.

Note: Terms and conditions apply. See the relevant retail sites for more information. For more great deals, go to our partners at TechBargains.com.

September 18th 2019, 3:01 pm

HP Unveils Super-Light Elite Dragonfly Laptop for Business Users

ExtremeTech

Business laptops tend to be heavy and not particularly stylish. HP is trying to buck the trend with the Elite Dragonfly, a thin and light laptop aimed at business users. HP added a raft of premium features, along with refined styling that borrows from some of HP’s competitors. It all adds up to a slick notebook with a hefty price tag. 

The laptop sports a 13.3-inch display that comes in three different flavors (all IPS LCD with touch support). There’s a low-power 1080p display with a respectable peak brightness of 400 nits or a high-performance 1080p option with 1,000 nits. The brighter display would be very usable even in direct sunlight, but the low-power display uses just one watt of power. That gives you up to 24 hours of mixed usage with the larger of two battery options. There’s also a 4K display option with 550 nits of brightness. The display covers 86 percent of the device, and HP even managed to get the webcam in the right place above the screen. There’s also a small physical camera shutter mechanism for added peace of mind. 

Inside, the Elite Dragonfly has the latest Intel processors, plus support for Wi-Fi 6 and LTE connectivity. There’s an old USB-A port on one side, but the opposite edge offers a pair of USB Type-C ports with Thunderbolt 3. The B&O speakers next to the keyboard also use recycled plastic extracted from water. Speaking of the keyboard, HP says it’s crafted a special microphone array that tracks your keystrokes and cancels the sound in the audio driver. Thus, you can type during an online meeting without anyone hearing it. 

The Elite Dragonfly is HP’s first fully magnesium chassis, following in the footsteps of Microsoft’s Surface products. It comes in a dark blue color, which HP calls “Dragonfly Blue.” It also has a multi-layer anti-oil coating to reduce fingerprint buildup. That magnesium frame also helps keep the weight down. The computer is only 2.18 pounds; less than one kilogram. It’s not the lightest computer in the world, but it’s an impressive feat for convertible notebooks, which are usually a bit bulkier. 

HP will release the Elite Dragonfly on October 25th starting at $1,549. However, if you want the upgraded screen, more storage, a larger battery, and other goodies, the price will quickly creep up over $2,000. Still, people might be willing to pay that for a business laptop with these features.

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September 18th 2019, 2:31 pm

Steam Library Overhaul, ‘Events’ Page Both Coming Soon

ExtremeTech

The launch of the Epic Game Store has provoked a great deal of frustration and unhappiness from gamers who have felt forced to use a store with far fewer features than what Steam offers. At the same time, however, the EGS is forcing Steam to compete in ways the company has previously ignored. Valve has announced that it will be overhauling the way games are displayed in Steam, improving discoverability options, and making it easier for users to discover in-game events they’d like to participate in.

Steam has used more-or-less the same library layout since its inception:

You get a list of titles in alphabetical order (you can display icons next to each title if you want, but it’s never been very useful). The list is difficult to parse if you have tons of titles and a high-resolution monitor. Contrast that with the Epic Games Store:

The Epic Game Store offers a different layout with larger images for each game, as shown above. (It also offers the option to list titles in the same way Steam does, albeit centered and with a larger font.) Either way, fewer titles are displayed on-screen at any given point, but the list is easier to parse overall.

Steam’s new layout is shown below:

Going forward, Steam will have a new library experience for players to use, as shown above. The open beta launches September 17. “The goal here is overall just to help players find the next game that they might want to play,” Valve designer Alden Kroll told Polygon. “This is a number of different ways of surfacing things that are in that player’s library that might give them a reason they may want to play that game right now.”

There are new ways to organize games into collections. You can drag and drop titles into collections and create filters to classify and categorize them. You can organize by play order, by store tags, genre, and various features. You can create dynamic collections to filter games according to your own decided-upon criteria, and PC games you buy will be added to your library in accordance with whatever categorization scheme you’ve defined.

Developers will also have new event tools to notify gamers of in-game events. While Valve has offered these tools before, they’ll be centralized and standardized now, to hopefully improve their visibility. The events tab will also include certain changes that prevent developers from abusing it, however — no repeatedly changing your launch date to keep a game in ‘Coming Soon,’ for example. Which updates you see will be linked to which games you play already, to avoid players simply being buried in game spam. With some players owning hundreds to thousands of games, even occasional events could wind up burying players in spam if they were simply transmitted without some type of filtering.

Polygon has additional details on changes coming to Steam, including new experiments intended for Steam Labs. While not all players have been happy with the Epic Games Store, it’s no accident that we’re finally seeing Steam make changes to its sclerotic UI after the EGS debuted. Competition in a market almost always leads to better outcomes and experiences for customers in a host of ways, though it can take time for those advantages to appear. Hopefully, the long-term impact of the EGS will be better gaming experiences for players and storefronts competing to carry developer products.

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September 18th 2019, 12:16 pm

Astronomers May Have Spotted the Most Massive Neutron Star Yet

ExtremeTech

The universe is filled with almost incomprehensibly bizarre phenomena, but astronomers may be a step closer to understanding the life cycle of stars. Astronomers observing a distant star system have identified what may be the most massive neutron star ever discovered. This could help shed light on the murky division between black holes and neutron stars

Neutron stars like the newly discovered J0740+6620 are the remains of dead stars. While stars burn for millions or billions of years, they all eventually run out of fuel. Some stars, those between eight and 29 solar masses end up as neutron stars. Smaller stars like the sun become white dwarfs, and larger ones collapse into black holes. 

A neutron star is extremely dense, with a mass greater than the sun in a sphere measured in tens of kilometers. The rest of the star’s mass is blown away in a supernova explosion, leaving just the dense, iron-rich core. It has so much mass that it collapses inward until all the protons and electrons merge into neutrons. Some neutron stars like J0740+6620 rotate and emit flashes of radiation from their poles — we call these pulsars. This pulsing is the key to characterizing J0740+6620. 

J0740+6620 is not alone in its solar system. It’s in a binary arrangement with a less massive white dwarf. Luckily, the pulsar’s pole is pointed at Earth, sweeping us with radio frequency signals that we can measure from 4,600 light-years away. Using the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, the researchers monitored the signal from J0740+6620, which rotates on millisecond scales. When the white dwarf passes in front of the pulsar, its gravity causes tiny disruptions in the regularity of the pulses known as a Shapiro time delay. The team measured these delays, which amount to a difference of about ten-millionths of a second. 

Your average neutron star compared to New York City.

The Shapiro time delay gave the team an important piece of information: the mass of the white dwarf. If you know the mass of one object in a binary system, it’s comparatively simple to determine the other’s mass. Based on that, the team determined that J0740+6620 has a mass of 2.14 solar masses, which is tantalizingly close to the theoretical upper limit of 2.3 solar masses for a neutron star (based on gravity wave analysis). 

Some other studies have pointed to neutron stars that might be 2.4 or 2.5 solar masses, but they weren’t measured as accurately as this one. We don’t know exactly how massive neutron stars can get, but we’ve never spotted a black hole less than five solar masses. What happens in between is still a mystery, but studying J0740+6620 could shed light on how stars live and die.

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September 18th 2019, 10:27 am

Meet Dragonfly: The Diminutive Drone Set to Soar Across the Skies of Titan

ExtremeTech

When NASA’s new drone Dragonfly arrives on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, it won’t roll across the surface like Curiosity, Spirit, and Opportunity have on Mars. Instead, Dragonfly is a dual-rotor quadcopter that will fly from point to point, using a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) system. It leverages existing drone technology we have on Earth to make the system work.

Titan is, in many ways, an ideal spot to try this kind of deployment. That moon’s combination of low gravity and a thick nitrogen-dominated atmosphere make it easy to fly in — or, at least, easy as things go when you’re flying a remote drone from nearly 800 million miles away and can’t make any mistakes.

XKCD addressed this concept in a substantial “What if” that evaluated all of the planets and moons in the solar system according to how well they’d support the flight of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. In most cases, the plane would crash; sustained flight on Mars, for example, requires a ground speed of over Mach 1 just to take off. For Venus, XKCD author Randall Munroe notes, “Your plane would fly pretty well, except it would be on fire the whole time, and then it would stop flying, and then stop being a plane.”

But Titan? Titan is a different story. Munroe writes:

When it comes to flying, Titan might be better than Earth. Its atmosphere is thick but its gravity is light, giving it a surface pressure only 50 percent higher than Earth’s with air four times as dense. Its gravity—lower than that of the Moon—means that flying is easy. Our Cessna could get into the air under pedal power.

In fact, humans on Titan could fly by muscle power. A human in a hang glider could comfortably take off and cruise around powered by oversized swim-flipper boots—or even take off by flapping artificial wings. The power requirements are minimal—it would probably take no more effort than walking.

Designing a drone to fly remotely on a world where humans could take off under their own muscle power isn’t as difficult as engineering the same feat on Earth. Dragonfly will be an octocopter capable of surviving the loss of at least one rotor or motor. The aircraft should have a speed of ~36km/h (21mph) and can fly at up to 4km in altitude, in temperatures as low as 94K (-180C). It uses a combination of batteries and a radioisotope thermal generator to provide power. At night, the generator will recharge the batteries, which can then be used for another day of flying.

Solar power wasn’t an option for this mission; Titan only receives about 1 percent as much sunlight on its surface as Earth does, once the combined impact of distance and its thick nitrogen atmosphere are taken into account.

“Almost everyone who gets exposed to Dragonfly has a similar thought process. The first time you see it, you think: ‘You gotta be kidding, that’s crazy,’ ” Doug Adams, the mission’s spacecraft systems engineer, told NPR Tuesday. But, he says, “eventually, you come to realize that this is a highly executable mission.”

You can see a video of how Dragonfly will land below.

Dragonfly will have to fly autonomously; the delay between Earth and Titan is too large to allow for direct remote control. The aircraft won’t fly during Titan’s night (night on Titan is ~8 Earth days long).

During these periods of time, Dragonfly will collect and analyze samples, study seismology, monitor Titan’s weather, and perform local microscopic analysis with LED lights. It will carry a mass spectrometer, a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer, meteorological sensors and equipment, and both microscopic and panoramic cameras for imaging. The mission is intended to allow Dragonfly to sample the materials at many different sites, scattered over far more terrain than the Martian rovers have been able to cover even after years of work.

Each NASA probe has expanded our understanding of the universe and given us a bigger, better window into the worlds that make up our solar system. Each new generation of probe has improved and expanded on the scientific capability of the one that came before. The Cassini-Huygens probe already vastly expanded our understanding of Saturn and its moon, Titan. Now, Dragonfly may tell us whether the chemical soup on Titan — which resembles Earth in its earliest days, albeit at a much lower temperature — is capable of producing any analogs to life, or chemical processes we can identify as part of the expected series of events for how life arose on Earth.

Even if we don’t find anything biological, however, Titan is still the only other world with sustained liquid on its surface. There are hydrological systems on Earth that may only be mirrored on Titan (albeit via liquid methane, not water). In some ways, it’s the closest thing to a mirror of our own planet that we know of, and the only one we can reach with current rocket technology.

Dragonfly is set for a 2026 launch and will arrive at Titan in 2034.

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September 18th 2019, 8:56 am

There’s a Lost Continent 1,000 Miles Under Europe

ExtremeTech

Lost continents have always fascinated people. From fictional lands like Mu and Atlantis, to the actual “lost” lands and microcontinents like Zealandia (now almost entirely beneath the waves) and Doggerland (sunk by sea level rise at the end of the last ice age), humans have researched and theorized about how these lands came to be lost to us and the animals and civilizations that may have lived upon them. But continents don’t just vanish beneath the ocean — they also disappear into the Earth itself.

Surface crust is created by mid-oceanic rifting, as tectonic plates separate, and subducted in zones where it slams into other plates, forcing one plate under the other. More than 200 million years ago, a chunk of crust nicknamed Greater Adria broke free from the supercontinent Gondwana. A team of researchers studying mountain ranges from Spain to Iran for the past decade has discovered that a strip of this crust running from Turin to the heel of Italy’s “boot” still exists today, even though the rest of Greenland-sized island has since vanished. As the island subducted, pieces of it scraped off against mountain ranges that are now part of the Apennines and the Alps. Remnants also exist in the Balkans, Greece, and Turkey.

“Most mountain chains that we investigated originated from a single continent that separated from North Africa more than 200 million years ago,” says principal researcher Douwe van Hinsbergen, Professor of Global Tectonics and Paleogeography at Utrecht University. “The only remaining part of this continent is a strip that runs from Turin via the Adriatic Sea to the heel of the boot that forms Italy.”

Geologists refer to that area as “Adria.” Van Hinsbergen has therefore called the lost continent “Greater Adria.”

The Mediterranean is an extremely complex geological structure, which is scientist-speak for “There’s an awful lot of smashed-together geology all over the place.” The video below shows how the Mediterranean formed over millions of years.

The reason the southern mountain ranges of Europe are derived from Greater Adria when virtually all of the rest of the continental crust is now buried beneath the Earth is that these sections of crust literally scraped off as the plate was crushed. There are exceptions; the Western and Northern Alps are not derived from Greater Adria, and neither are the Carpathians. The rest of Greater Adria now lies more than a thousand miles below the surface of the planet, in Southern Europe. Scientists have been mapping sunken sections of continental crust for years now, and have detected remnants of crust that were once on top of the Earth’s surface in previous expeditions. There are buried remnants of our own past now locked away far inside the mantle.

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September 18th 2019, 8:12 am

Google Fi Adds Unlimited Data Plan

ExtremeTech

Google launched Project Fi (now just Google Fi) at a time when unlimited mobile data was a rarity. Now, all carriers have a nominally “unlimited” service tier, and some only offer unlimited. Google is getting with the times today, adding an unlimited service option to Google Fi. It’ll cost you more than the pay-as-you-go standard service, but it could be perfect for frequent travelers who use a lot of data. 

Google calls the standard Fi plan that launched in 2015 the “Fi Flexible” option. You pay a flat $20 monthly fee for a single line (it’s less if you have more lines) and then $10 per gigabyte of data used. However, Google instituted a “bill protection” feature recently that stops charging you after 6GB of data. That ensures your bill won’t go over $80 for a single line. Fi is an MVNO, and your signal hops between T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular to maintain the best signal. 

The new unlimited Fi plan looks a lot like what you could get from Verizon or T-Mobile. It starts at $70 per month for a single line.. If you’ve got more than one, the cost per line goes down. That gets you “unlimited” data along with the same carrier-hopping capability. This plan also includes free calls to more countries than the Flexible option, and you get a base Google One membership. That means occasional deals and 100GB of cloud storage in Google Drive. 

The unlimited data on the new Fi plan is, unsurprisingly, not really unlimited. You get 22GB of data per month on each line, and then Google reserves the right to throttle your bandwidth for the remainder of the billing cycle. So, it’s still sort of unlimited, but very slow unlimited. Google Fi’s unlimited plan also throttles video to roughly 480p resolution. That alone will make it much harder to hit the 22GB threshold. 

In some ways, this is an admission that Google’s MVNO wholesale approach to mobile data didn’t work. The deal is really not much different than what you get from the carriers themselves. Perhaps the most unique feature of Fi remains, though. You can still keep using your data at full speed without fear in most countries. The big four US carriers either throttle your speeds in other countries or require expensive international add-ons for full LTE speeds. Google Fi, both Flexible and Unlimited, include full-speed LTE in almost every country.

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September 17th 2019, 4:42 pm

Amazon Pulls the Rug Out From Under Tidal With New HD Music Streaming Service

ExtremeTech

There are numerous music streaming services, most of which have largely similar offerings. Amazon has just rolled out a new version of its own with ultra-high fidelity audio. For as little as $12.99 per month, you can get access to millions of songs at higher quality than other services, but that won’t matter much unless you’ve got the audio gear to truly enjoy it. 

With most music streaming services, the “high” quality options are around 320kbps. So, we’ve sacrificed some quality in exchange for having easy access to almost every song in the world. For many music listeners, that’s a fair exchange. Tidal, and now Amazon, cater to the few consumers who want more. There’s even a 90-day free trial. 

Amazon Music HD is tied into the company’s Prime offering, but it’s not included like Prime Video. Amazon Prime subscribers pay $12.99 per month for Amazon Music HD, and non-subscribers can get access for $14.99 per month. Existing Amazon Music subscribers pay an additional $5 per month to get HD audio. Compare that with Tidal, the other major player in Hi-Fi streaming, which runs $20 per month. That puts Amazon in a position to siphon away much of Tidal’s already small subscriber base. 

Amazon’s HD audio offerings come in two flavors. There are already more than 50 million songs in what Amazon calls “High Definition.” That means something approaching true CD quality at 16-bits with a 44.1kHz sample rate (up to 850kbps total). Then there’s “Ultra HD” tracks, of which Amazon has several million (but no exact count). These songs are 24-bit with sample rates ranging from 44.1kHz to 192kHz (up to up to 3,730kbps total). Both types of HD audio will stream as uncompressed FLAC rather than the MQA format used on Tidal. 

To experience Amazon’s HD music streaming, you’ll need at least 1.5Mbps of download bandwidth, which isn’t a problem these days. A more vexing requirement is hardware support for 16-bit/44.1kHz playback. Not all devices will manage that, and you also need headphones or speakers that can do the same. 

Amazon’s Music HD is an ambitious offering that will probably draw in audiophiles. However, you shouldn’t upgrade your Amazon subscription just because you can. Most people are listening on cheap headphones and speakers that won’t take advantage of the extra quality. Even Amazon’s Echo speakers will be left out.

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September 17th 2019, 3:43 pm

ET Deals: Samsung 970 Evo 2TB NVMe SSD $399, Dell Vostro 14-Inch Core i7 Laptop $649, AMD Ryzen 7 27

ExtremeTech

If you’re ready to do away with hard drives and switch to an all SSD solution for your storage needs, then you may want to pick up one of Samsung’s 970 Evo 2TB SSDs. Not only does this drive offer a large storage capacity, but it also features a fast data transfer rate and a $200 discount.

Samsung 970 Evo 2TB M.2 NVMe SSD ($399.99)

Reading data at 3,500MB/s, this SSD hits the limits of what the M.2 interface is capable of when connected using PCI-E 3.0 lanes. With a total of 2TB of storage capacity, this drive removes any need to have a second drive to store files as it can hold more data than the average user typically needs. The drive was built using Samsung’s V-NAND 3-bit MLC NAND, which offers excellent performance. The drive is also rated to last for up to 1.5 million hours before failing. Right now you can get it from Amazon marked down from $599.99 to $399.99.

Dell Vostro 14 5481 Intel Core i7-8565U 1080p IPS 14-Inch Laptop w/ 16GB DDR4 RAM and 512GB M.2 NVMe SSD ($649.00)

Dell designed this system with a built-in fingerprint sensor to help keep your system safe from unapproved users. The notebook also has a capable Core i7 quad-core processor and a 1080p IPS display. Currently, it’s marked down from Dell from $1,590.00 to $649.00 with promo code BIZLTSAVE450.

AMD Ryzen 7 2700X w/ Wraith Prism LED Cooler ($199.00)

AMD’s Ryzen 7 2700X comes with eight SMT enabled CPU cores with a max clock speed of 4.3GHz, which gives you exceptional performance for multitasking and running power-hungry applications. Currently, you can get it from Amazon marked down from $329.00 to $199.00.

Apple iPad 2019 10.2-Inch 128GB ($399.99)

Apple’s 2019 iPad is set to launch on September 30, but if you pre-order it now, you can get the 128GB model marked down from $429.00 to $399.99. The new 2019 iPad features the same A10 processor and it is in general quite similar to its predecessor. This new tablet comes in a larger form factor, however, and it is now compatible with iPad Air accessories including the iPad Air’s keyboard.

Samsung Galaxy A50 6.4-Inch 64GB Smartphone + Samsung Galaxy Fit ($349.99)

Samsung’s Galaxy A50 is a powerful mid-range smartphone with an octa-core processor, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage space. The phone also features a large 6.4-inch FHD+ Super AMOLED display and a 4,000mAh battery that Samsung claims can last for up to 35 hours. The Galaxy A50 is set to launch on September 20, but if you pre-order it now from Amazon you will also receive a free Galaxy Fit with your purchase.

Dell Vostro 14 3000 Intel Core i3-7020U 14-Inch Notebook w/ 8GB DDR4 RAM and 1TB HDD ($299.00)

Dell’s Vostro 14 3000 is a solid well-made notebook computer that’s currently selling at a dirt-cheap price. The dual-core Intel Core i3-7020U processor paired with 8GB of DDR4 RAM offers plenty of performance for everyday tasks like web browsing. As configured this system originally cost $780.42, but its price has been slashed well below the 50% off mark, down to just $299.00 with promo code BIZLT299.

Note: Terms and conditions apply. See the relevant retail sites for more information. For more great deals, go to our partners at TechBargains.com.

September 17th 2019, 2:12 pm

Astronomers Capture Image of Second Known Interstellar Object

ExtremeTech

Astronomers around the world were elated in 2017 when ‘Oumuamua appeared in the sky, becoming the very first confirmed alien object to visit our solar system. Sadly, ‘Oumuamua was already on its way out of the solar system before its discovery by the Pan-STARRS observatory, and we couldn’t capture an image. Now, astronomers have successfully snapped a photo of the second known interstellar visitor, called Comet C/2019 Q4 (Borisov). 

Unlike ‘Oumuamua, this new object was spotted by amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov. The Minor Planet Center has confirmed the tentative discovery of the second alien object, noting that Comet C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) is on an extreme hyperbolic orbit. Therefore, it has enough velocity to escape the solar system. That strongly suggests that it did not originate in our solar system. 

Follow-up observations of Comet C/2019 Q4 have proven more fruitful than expected. Astronomers using the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph instrument at the Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii captured the above image of our potential alien visitor. The team made preparations to image the object even before the final coordinates were available. Those figures didn’t come in until 3 AM September 10th, and the team completed its observation about two hours later. The image consists of four 60-second exposures in bands R and G. The blue and red streaks in the background are distant stars that appear to stretch due to the motion of the comet. 

This artist’s impression shows the first interstellar object, `Oumuamua.

You might notice everyone seems comfortable calling this object a comet. There was a lot of back and forth about what ‘Oumuamua was. At first, we assumed it was a comet, but there was no detectable coma. So an asteroid? Later examinations confirmed there was light out-gassing from ‘Oumuamua, so astronomers decided it was actually a very old comet. Comet C/2019 Q4, on the other hand, has a very bright coma and tail caused by its proximity to the sun. 

Luckily, astronomers have homed in on Comet C/2019 Q4 early during its transit of our solar system. It’s currently near the sun, and it’s going to swing closer to Earth before it heads out into deep space. Astronomers will be able to get even better images of Comet C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) in the coming months. These observations will help nail down the object’s orbit and confirm that it is indeed from beyond our solar system. Presumably, someone will also check to make sure it’s not a cleverly disguised alien spaceship

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September 17th 2019, 1:01 pm

Will Drone Strike, Oil Shortage Fears Move Us Toward EVs, High-MPG Cars?

ExtremeTech

Oil refinery at Sunset - factory - petrochemical plant

When a drone strike knocked out a Saudi Aramco oil facility producing 5 percent of the world’s oil supply, the shockwaves were nearly instantaneous. Crude oil prices jumped almost 20 percent Monday and could spike higher, depending on how fearful the markets are that the strike could be replicated this week, this month or this year.

In the overlapping worlds of automobiles and energy conservation, there are questions about whether this will move buyers to smaller cars and/or highly fuel-efficient battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids. Transportation uses a quarter of the world’s energy. Here’s our analysis on how we’ll be affected.

What Happens to Big-Car Sales?

Near-term, sales of big vehicles may soften once the news sinks in, which it will the next couple times you refuel you car and you see gasoline that cost about $2.50 a gallon (US average of all blends, all regions the week before the strike) climb above $3 a gallon: a 20-gallon fill-up becomes $60, not $50. Look for softer buyer demand for pickup trucks not used in commercial work — you can’t downsize from a Ford F-350 to a Ford Ranger if you’re towing a 15,000-pound backhoe — as well as big SUVs and mainstream-priced performance cars. High-end cars will be affected less (at least if the buyer still has a job and a year-end bonus). That a 2019 Ferrari GTC4Lusso gets 13 mpg (and requires premium gas at that) is immaterial when you paid $250,000 and drive it 2,500 miles a year at most.

Sales will come back unless there are ongoing oil price shocks. Americans over time build higher energy and fuel costs into their budgets unless gas hits $4 a gallon and that same 20-gallon fill-up reaches $80. In the short term, through year’s end at least, this is a great time to buy the full-size SUV or pickup of your dreams while dealer lots are awash in big vehicles and factories may kick in $5,000-plus incentives.

The average US gasoline price, according to AAA, was $2.564 per gallon (9/16/2018), an average of all regions and all formulations. Costliest-gas states are in the West, plus New York State, with lowest prices in the South and Southeast.

What Happens to Gasoline Prices?

Gasoline prices will rise, quickly. Eventually, they’ll fall back unless there are new price shocks (more oil field attacks, attacks on tankers at sea, attacks on pipelines). President Trump Monday ordered the release of oil from the US’ strategic petroleum reserve to make up for the Saudi shortfall. He also expedited agency approvals for Texas and other oil pipelines now in the permitting process stage. That will be resisted by environmentalists and (mostly) Democrats who see this as an end-run around longstanding procedural safeguards, which in some ways it is.

A cynic and perhaps a realist will note oil prices fall more slowly than they shoot up. You may notice your airport car-rental has a shuttle bus “energy fee” of a dollar or two that was probably tacked on in 2012 when gasoline (the US average price, in current prices) topped $4 a gallon, the highest gas price in US history, and it just never went away.

(AAA photo)

By AAA calculations, the average price of gasoline in the US at the start of the week, a day after the Saudi Aramco attacks, was $2.56 per gallon. That’s a meaningless figure to an individual motorist because fuel prices depend on state taxes and in some states (such as California) special formulations to reduce volatility and creation of gasoline vapors. Summer formulations have 1.7 more energy content while winter fuels and cost more.

The average gallon of gasoline, says the Institute for Energy Research, has 52 cents per gallon of federal, state, local and fee taxes, while diesel has an average tax burden of 60 cents a gallon. The national government charges 18.4 cents a gallon for gas, 24.4 cents a gallon for diesel. The average state gasoline tax is 23 cents a gallon. Alaska, Virginia, Missouri, Mississippi, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana are all at about 15-20 cents a gallon, while New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Washington (state) and Pennsylvania are at 41-58 cents a gallon.

In the past 30 years, the US has been through the most dramatic gas price shifts since it started tracking gasoline consumption and prices circa 1920. The late 1990s were the cheapest time to buy gas, with the price dropping to $1 a gallon in some parts of the US in 1998; that’s equal to $1.55 in today’s prices. In the past decade, prices have ranged — expressed in 2017 dollars — from $2.20 a gallon to $4 a gallon. There were twin historical peaks of $4 a gallon in 2012 ($3.85 at the time) and $3.80 a gallon in 2008 ($3.65 at the time). Because of the recent-era swings, from a dollar a gallon to $4 a gallon inside 15 years, drivers over age 30 may look back at recent history and conclude that what goes up must come down, and vice versa. Regardless, all of this is cheap compared with what most of the world pays.

Will the US Encourage the Sale of Efficient Cars?

Expect demands for more efficient cars from some political quarters. The reality: There will be demands but probably little action. The opposite may happen: President Trump wants to undo, by executive action, the longstanding agreement that California can set its own, tougher, emissions standards. Lower emissions generally mean less fuel consumption and vice versa. Carbon dioxide emissions are directly related to how much fuel a car burns, and CO2 is a cause of greenhouse gases that the overwhelming majority of scientists say is causing global warming, which they also say is real.

Trump’s plans to unilaterally undo the California exemption may or may not pass court scrutiny. Legislation that would increase (not relax) fuel economy standards might pass the house (controlled by Democrats), but it wouldn’t pass the Senate (controlled by Republicans), and if it did, it might well be vetoed by the President. It will become an election issue, probably framed as protecting the environmental future for our children versus keeping America safe, strong, and energy-independent.

Representatives from automaker states such as Michigan and the New South (Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi) would like to see tax credits for EVs extended from 200,000 cars per automaker to 600,000. Tesla and GM already hit the cap; Nissan will get there in a couple of years, then Ford. That, too, faces uncertain prospects. The majority of EVs and PHEVs getting tax credits are sold in the dozen states are Democratic-leaning; only Pennsylvania among those states voted for Trump in 2016.

Last week’s Frankfurt Motor Show had lots of electric-vehicle announcements, but the private talk among automakers was a concern that European market car-buyers are not fully on-board with the idea that EVs are their near-term future. Europe is better suited to EVs than the US because its population, larger than that of the US, is more evenly distributed geographically. So there’d be fewer public charging stations necessary for long-distance travel, but seldom used. Europe is also more on edge about the Saudi oil field attack because they are more dependent on outside oil that comes from less-stable countries. Europe is also more dependent on other countries, including Russia, for natural gas.

Freefly Systems’ Alta 8 drone: 20-pound lifting capacity for $18,000.

The US Benefits in Some Ways

Much of America’s most recent success finding new energy sources within its borders involves fracking — or hydraulic fracturing, as Big Oil calls it, as most people have mixed emotions about fracking. Pumping chemicals — or liquids, or water solutions, as the oil industry prefers — into rock formations until they give up their oil and natural gas is higher cost than pumping oil out of underground reservoirs in West Texas or the now-burning sands of Saudi Arabia. That puts more (mostly) Americans to work in the energy business, as well as in Canada’s oil territories. Mostly because of shale oil production/fracking, the US this year produces more oil than anyone else at 18 percent of global oil production, with Saudi Arabia at 12 percent and Russia at 11 percent.

The coming price shock will encourage some Americans toward smaller and more efficient vehicles. Energy consumption, pollution, and climate change may be more of an issue in the 2020 election and is likely to show up as a significant division between Republicans and Democrats. It will probably benefit Democrats more.

More Rules for Drone Users

“Black Sunday” (1977): Bomb-laden blimp attacks the Super Bowl.

It was not initially clear what was the delivery mechanism that landed 10-17 separate strikes at the at Saudi Aramco oil plant in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia, and two at the nearby Khurais oil field on Saturday. Government and intelligence sources initially said it was drones launched but without specificity, whether it was a long-range military drone or a shorter-range civilian/commercial drone; some sources said cruise missiles.

Large civilian/commercial drones with battery-powered electric motors carry 10-20 kg, or 22 to 44 pounds, which can be a lot of explosive and concussive force. By Tuesday, reports indicated the weapons-platforms were military-style drones (and a cruise missile can be called a variant of a drone). But the scary prospect remains of weaponized drones disrupting a sporting event, outdoor concert, parade, or state fair. In the 1977 movie Black Sunday (made the year Tom Brady was born), a blimp loaded with explosives attacks the Super Bowl. (This is fiction, not a documentary.) A drone could re-create the terror of Black Sunday for $25,000 or less.

The upshot is governments around the world may think about how freely drones should roam. They may restrict flight in more areas, or require more licensing, especially of drones able to lift more than 5-10 pounds. This is at the same time drones are doing more useful things, such as search and rescue, geological mapping, and replacing helicopters for newsgathering (for the price of a couple of hours of helicopter time, you can own a drone that shoots 8K video). In other words, government’s desire to clamp down on things it worries might be dangerous bumps up against individuals’ and businesses’ interest in using drones to make products and services more useful and more affordable. Not to mention those hypothetical Amazon deliveries.

Top image credit: Getty Images

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September 17th 2019, 9:08 am

Amazon Changed Its Search Algorithms to Boost Its Own Products, Despite Internal Pushback

ExtremeTech

If you’ve ever tried to search Amazon for anything, you’re aware that the website has long been an utterly confusing muddle. For years, trying to rank products by anything other than relevance resulted in a complete mishmash of non-results being inserted into your pages. Attempting to search for a TV and ranking by price might produce results for TV stands and dinner trays — products completely unrelated to your original search query, in other words.

Last year, Amazon changed its search behavior without communicating the change to end-users. Instead of simply ranking items by “Relevance,” it began to rank them with an eye towards which items would make Amazon the most profit. According to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, Amazon made this change against the advice of multiple employees assigned to work on the project. The changes were made as part of a struggle between the A9 team that works on Amazon’s algorithms and the marketing executives in charge of the retail side of the business. As the WSJ notes, the reason this is such a potential problem is that Amazon resells its own goods, not just those manufactured by others — and most people buy from the first page of search results.

The question of which products customers are seeing first, therefore, is of critical importance to any question of whether those customers are being well-served. Amazon’s algorithm development team were concerned that these changes violated their pledge to do what was best for the customer. “This was definitely not a popular project,” one employee told the WSJ. “The search engine should look for relevant items, not for more profitable items.”

If you didn’t look carefully, you might not realize that all of the products in the top row are made by Amazon. From a search for “dish soap.”

Amazon’s response to the WSJ was to refute that any changes had been made. “We have not changed the criteria we use to rank search results to include profitability,” company spokesperson Angie Newman said in a statement. Amazon refused to answer questions about why its A9 employees believed the change had been significant, or what the response from company lawyers had been (an early version of the algorithm that added profit as a direct calculation was allegedly nixed for being too similar to behavior that might upset antitrust regulators).

The WSJ reports that Amazon’s A9 algorithm team has been under pressure from the retail side of the business to improve sales results by surfacing Amazon’s own products more readily than those of competitors. Amazon sells more than 10,000 of its own products, but it also makes sales recommendations that are completely unclear. Its “Amazon’s Choice” program has come under heavy fire of late for being completely obtuse and recommending products that shouldn’t have been sold to anyone.

These algorithm changes started happening after a change to Amazon’s internal structure left the A9 algorithm team, which had been an independent unit, reporting directly to the retail side of the business. After the Wall Street Journal inquired about these changes, Amazon took down the A9 website that had stood for ~15 years. That website previously contained statements like “One of A9’s tenets is that relevance is in the eye of the customer and we strive to get the best results for our users.”

Disallowed from factoring profits directly, the retail side of the business ordered the A9 team to find business metrics that could include such calculations indirectly, designing the algorithm to promote factors that correlate to profitability without precisely capturing it. The A9 engineers spent months working up a model that would capture this data and help the team recommend products that would boost profits. From the WSJ:

Amazon’s A9 team has since added new variables that have resulted in search results that scored higher on the profitability metric during testing, said a person involved in the effort, who declined to say what those new variables were. New variables would also have to improve Amazon’s other metrics, such as unit sales.

A review committee that approves all additions to the algorithm has sent engineers back if their proposed variable produces search results with a lower score on the profitability metric, this person said. “You are making an incentive system for engineers to build features that directly or indirectly improve profitability,” the person said. “And that’s not a good thing.”

Amazon has made visible changes to its search engine already. After ranking results based on “Relevance,” for years, the site has removed that option altogether and now ranks products based on “Featured.” No information is provided on what, exactly, “Featured” means. The shift, however, isn’t particularly subtle. If you promise people that sales results are relevant, they’re going to assume “Relevant to me.” Simply making results “Featured” means they could be featured for any reason.

We can’t speak to the exact changes Amazon may have made, but the site behaves strangely in any number of ways. In some cases, Amazon presents its own brands at the top of the page, as shown above. In others, it moves where it shows its branding.

While I cannot show you a before-and-after, you have my word on this. The first time I ran a search for “silverware,” the HOBO Silverware and associated row of products were the first results. The Amazon’s Choice recommendation you currently see at the top was the second result. I moved on to searching for other products, only to return to this page and find that the rankings had shifted. I was unable to restore the original page for screenshotting.

But if you search for various types of products, you’ll find that Amazon’s own brands are presented inconsistently. Sometimes they are the top option, sometimes they are presented lower on the page. Sometimes the top option is “Amazon’s Choice,” or “Amazon Basics” or “Amazon Essentials,” and sometimes it is not. In some cases, if you do not take particular care to check, you might not realize that all of the product options you are being shown are for products Amazon manufacturers.

Amazon’s behavior has been increasingly under a microscope of late, as various practices of it and other tech companies have met gimlet eyes in Congress and from the larger public. Amazon and Apple both wield tremendous power to influence what customers buy simply by how they rank merchants and which results are shown on the front page. Like Amazon, Apple stands accused of manipulating search rankings to favor its own products (the NYT has an interactive graphic showing how Apple will seed results for up to 14 of its own software apps, many completely unrelated to your original search query, before displaying results for third-party applications). Multiple Apple executives have acknowledged that the company gamed its own rankings in this way, though the behavior has supposedly decreased since the experiment was done.

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September 17th 2019, 8:27 am

Wi-Fi 6 Officially Launches Today, With Up to 3x the Performance of 802.11ac

ExtremeTech

The Wi-Fi 6 standard has officially launched today and the Wi-Fi Alliance is now handing out Wi-Fi 6 certifications to manufacturers with qualifying hardware. We’ll start seeing devices and equipment with Wi-Fi 6 support hitting the market in the near future.

Wi-Fi 6 has several features that make it advantageous compared with 802.11ac (aka Wi-Fi 5). First, for those of you who may not remember where this “Wi-Fi 6” moniker came from in the first place: The Wi-Fi Alliance has defined certain specific Wi-Fi levels (4, 5, and 6) as corresponding to certain levels of technology. Wi-Fi 4 is 802.11n, Wi-Fi 5 is 802.11ac, and Wi-Fi 6 is 802.11ax.

802.11ax is designed to pack far more Wi-Fi signals into the same crowded space — specifically, your home/business/local NFL stadium. The standard shines in dense deployments, with throughput up to 4x higher than 802.11ac, even though nominal data rates have only improved by 37 percent, best-case. 802.11ax uses OFDMA (Orthogonal frequency-division multiple access) to subdivide spectrum for allocation to many users simultaneously (802.11ac lacked this feature). It can use both multi-user MIMO and OFDMA simultaneously, and it has features that allow for more efficient spectrum-sharing and re-use between devices.

Image by TP-Link

According to the Wi-Fi Alliance, all of these improvements are necessary to support the dense deployments of current homes. In the early days of Wi-Fi, the only enabled device might be a laptop or two. Today, a household might have 3-5 computers, 3-5 phones, a smart TV, and a smart speaker. Device manufacturers, however, have to plan for a future in which one router might be asked to juggle connections from 3-5 computers, 3-5 phones, 2-4 smart TVs, 4-6 smart speakers, and 20-30 various IoT devices and appliances deployed throughout the house. Stack up that many products, and you’ll start running into local interference from your own network, to say nothing of anything your neighbor might deploy.

New Security Standards of Uncertain Value

The other major feature being introduced with Wi-Fi 6 is WPA3. Unfortunately, WPA3 has already been confirmed to suffer from some of the same security flaws that WPA2 had. Earlier this year, security researchers published results demonstrating these vulnerabilities and called the development approach used to certify WPA3 fundamentally flawed. “In light of our presented attacks, we believe that WPA3 does not meet the standards of a modern security protocol,” the authors’ wrote. “Moreover, we believe that our attacks could have been avoided if the Wi-Fi Alliance created the WPA3 certification in a more open manner.”

There are multiple ways to force WPA3 into a downgraded mode that exposes network information in an unsafe manner, and the standard, as a whole, does not seem to be as strong as either WPA2 or WPA were perceived to be when they finally deployed. There’s evidence that it may be possible to patch WPA3 devices in some cases, and we’re not trying to imply that there are no security improvements in WPA3 versus WPA2 that haven’t been compromised, but the situation does not seem to be as strong as in previous product life cycles.

In all honesty, this is not necessarily surprising. A major review of device firmware over the past 15 years conducted back in August found essentially zero security improvements in that time period. According to Sarah Zatko, the chief scientist at the Cyber Independent Testing Lab (CITL), “Nobody is trying. We found no consistency in a vendor or product line doing better or showing improvement. There was no evidence that anybody is making a concerted effort to address the safety hygiene of their products.”

In theory, WPA3 should be a major selling point for a product like this, but the overarching security issues around these devices make it clear that truly securing them is of secondary importance to their various designers. It is perhaps unsurprising that WPA3 would have issues as well.

Early devices that support Wi-Fi 6 include the Galaxy Note 10, the Galaxy S10, and all three of Apple’s just-announced iPhones. Most, if not all, flagship devices will likely include support from this point forward.

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September 16th 2019, 4:58 pm

Borderlands 3 Is a Rocky Mess, Gearbox Promises ‘Final’ DX12 Update

ExtremeTech

Image by Gearbox

Borderlands 3 launched last week, and the game is in wretched condition. Reviews of the title have been good on the merits, though pretty much everyone agrees that Borderlands 3 is, at best, a retread of previous titles. Whether that’s a good thing depends entirely on how much you enjoyed those previous games, but the consensus seems to be that the game doesn’t do a great job with expanding on core gameplay mechanics or reinventing the wheel.

Unfortunately, the merits of the execution have been swamped by technical issues. Borderlands 3 players have been unhappy enough with how the game plays to swamp various online forums, including Steam’s forums for Borderlands 2. Borderlands 3 is an Epic Games Store title, not a Steam game, but that hasn’t stopped players from opining on the game. But there are performance issues galore, on both consoles and PCs. Digital Foundry recommends playing the game in 30fps locked mode on the Xbox One X because frame rates are too erratic to justify unlocking them. Players have also reported heavy lag.

PC gamers often like to crow about how superior components lead to superior gaming experiences, but that’s not proving to be the case here. The situation with DX12 has proven to be so bad, some gamers are reverting back to DX11 in order to improve stability. Gamers who want to shift the title back into DX11 instead of DX12 may find that the game performs better that way.

In some cases, there are reports that Borderlands 3 won’t even boot in DX12 mode. If you’re having that problem, you can manually set the game to DX11 by heading for your Documents folder in Windows 10. From Documents, navigate through “My Games,” “Borderlands 3,” “Saved,” and “Config.” There’s a “GameUserSettings.ini” file in this directory. Open it using Notepad and locate the “PreferredGraphicsAPI” setting. It’s probably set to DX12. Change this to DX11, and the game should boot in that mode instead.

AMD has said that its latest driver is supposed to improve performance by up to 16 percent, and the company has introduced support for Radeon Image Sharpening on its Polaris GPUs with the new 19.9.2 driver release. But the performance issues we’re seeing crop up are dwarfing these improvements overall, and the problem seems to be the overall state of the game — Nvidia users aren’t being spared. AMD told Overclock3D that “2K and Gearbox are planning to release a final DX12 implementation in a future patch,” which raises serious questions about why the game was kicked out the door with a non-final implementation of its renderer. The answer, of course, is that it had to be on store shelves by such and such a date. When a game has this many issues at launch, it’s not as if the dev team didn’t know about them. It’s always the case that the dev team didn’t have time to finish fixing them before a must-ship deadline.

At this point, it might be wise to wait a few weeks before diving into Borderlands 3, even if you’re a longtime fan of the series. It definitely sounds like Gearbox has plenty of work to do to bring the title into some kind of playable condition, and even AMD’s just-launched drivers don’t seem to be fixing the problem for everybody. Again, the issues don’t seem to be hitting any specific GPU vendor or CPU configuration — the reports thus far suggest the game is buggy for everyone.

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September 16th 2019, 3:44 pm

ET Deals: Dell XPS Intel Core i9-9900 $854, Acer 15.6-Inch AMD Ryzen 3 3200 Laptop $309, Apple Watch

ExtremeTech

AMD’s new Ryzen 3000-series processors are here, and today you can save on a new laptop that utilizes one to provide plenty of performance for everyday tasks.

Acer Aspire 5 Slim AMD Ryzen 3 3200U 15.6-Inch 1080p IPS Laptop w/ 4GB DDR4 RAM and 128GB NVMe SSD ($309.99)

Acer builds this laptop with one of AMD’s new Ryzen 3 3200U processors. This efficient chip has two SMT-enabled cores that can operate at speeds up to 3.5GHz. The 3200U also has a small integrated GPU with 192 streaming processors. This GPU is too weak to play modern games, but it is able to run many games from the Windows 7 era with acceptable frame rates. Other key features of Acer’s Aspire 5 Slim laptop include an LED-backlit keyboard and a 1080p IPS display. Currently, you can get this notebook from Amazon marked down from $349.99 to $309.99.

Dell XPS 8930 Intel Core i9-9900 Desktop w/ 8GB DDR4 RAM and 1TB HDD ($854.89)

If you aren’t a gamer but still want a fast computer for work and everyday tasks, then this model of Dell’s XPS 8930 desktop is perfect for you. It features an exceptionally fast Intel Core i9-9900 processor that has eight CPU cores that can hit a max speed of 5GHz. This makes well suited for running any number of high-performance applications. You can get this system marked down from $1,079.99 to a more affordable $854.89 from Dell with promo code SAVE17.

Apple Watch Series 5 GPS 40mm ($384.99)

Apple’s newest smartwatch will be the company’s first to feature an always-on display. Apple said that like last year’s model, the new Watch Series 5 will continue to offer up to 18 hours of battery life on a single charge. You can pre-order it now from Amazon for $384.99. The watch is set to ship on September 20.

Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K ($24.99)

As its name suggests, Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K is capable of streaming 4K content to your smart TV from a wide range of sources. It also comes with a remote that features Alexa, which is able to hear and obey voice commands. Right now select customers can get the Fire TV Stick 4K marked down to $24.99 with promo code 4KFIRETV. This code doesn’t appear to work for everyone though.

AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1920X 12-Core SMT Processor ($199.99)

AMD’s Threadripper 1920x features a dozen CPU cores with SMT technology, which allows the processor to handle a whopping 24 threads simultaneously. This gives it exceptional performance while multitasking. The processor also operates at 4.2GHz and has an enormous 38MB of cache. Originally priced at $799.00, you can now get this processor from Amazon for the remarkably low price of $199.99. At this price, they are practically giving it away.

Amazon Fire HD 8 8-Inch 16GB Tablet ($49.99)

Amazon’s Fire HD 8 tablet features an 8-inch display with a resolution of 1,280×800 that is suitable for watching HD videos. The tablet also features 1.5GB of RAM, a 1.3GHz quad-core processor and 16GB of storage space. It also has a battery that’s rated to last for up to 10-hours on a single charge. Right now it’s marked down from Amazon from $79.99 to $49.99 for Amazon Prime members.

Note: Terms and conditions apply. See the relevant retail sites for more information. For more great deals, go to our partners at TechBargains.com.

September 16th 2019, 3:44 pm

Master the Tech Behind Cryptocurrencies with This 50+ Hour Training Bundle

ExtremeTech

Although the future of Bitcoin may be in doubt due to its seemingly-endless volatility, financial experts seem to agree that cryptocurrencies are here to stay—whether we like it or not.

As the driving force behind virtually every type of cryptocurrency on the market, blockchain technology is an increasingly important and powerful platform that’s playing a growing role in multiple sectors of the financial industry, and the Mega Blockchain Mastery Bundle will teach you everything you need to know for over 95% off at just $39.

With over 50 hours of content led by industry pros, this training will get you up to speed with the technology that’s fueling some of the most exciting cryptocurrencies in the world.

You’ll learn both the fundamentals and more advanced elements of how cryptocurrencies are created and traded, how blockchain technology acts as the driving force behind the development of new cryptocurrencies, how to build new trading platforms using JavaScript, and more.

You’ll also gain valuable insights into the latest investment strategies and tools.

Don’t get left behind during the cryptocurrency revolution. The Mega Blockchain Mastery Bundle will get you up to speed for just $39—over 95% off for a limited time.

Prices are subject to change.

September 16th 2019, 10:58 am

Rumor: Microsoft Will Tap AMD, Not Intel, for Upcoming Surface Laptop

ExtremeTech

In early October, Microsoft will unveil the latest hardware for its upcoming Surface products. In the last few years, these updates have mostly been modest, with a few new product introductions (Surface Studio, Surface Laptop) to fill out various market niches. There are rumors that Microsoft will announce a major change at its October event — a Surface Laptop with an AMD chip in it, rather than an Intel microprocessor.

WinFuture writes:

[D]ue to a series of corresponding entries in non-public databases of European retailers, we are confident that the new Surface Laptop 3 15-inch model will definitely be equipped with AMD CPUs… According to the current state, we have encountered three AMD-based models of the Surface Laptop 3 with a 15-inch display.

If true, this would represent a major marketing win for AMD. Surface might not have the marketing cachet of Apple, and Microsoft’s PC business isn’t nearly as large as a major OEM, but it would still be a visibility-raising move for the company’s APUs. At the same time, however, it would be a little surprising. AMD’s current mobile APU lineup may label the Ryzen 7 3700U and Ryzen 5 3500U as 3000-class CPUs, but they are built on the company’s 12nm Zen+ designs — not the 7nm mobile APUs currently under development. Given how much AMD improved its CPU performance and power consumption with 7nm, we expect the company’s actual 7nm mobile products to be a strong leap forward. But those parts aren’t here yet.

Intel’s Ice Lake and Coffee Lake CPUs are still generally faster than the 3700U in a number of head-to-head comparisons, though readers should be aware of two important factors there. First, these systems may have significantly different price points (PC Perspective compares a $1300 Lenovo AMD-powered system against a ~$1900 Ice Lake). Second, the AMD systems may be designed in ways that hold their performance back. Lenovo AMD systems hold clocks up to 60 percent higher than HP AMD systems equipped with the same APU, according to a comparison by NotebookCheck.

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop

Now, this type of OEM-driven stupidity doesn’t necessarily weigh on Microsoft’s product plans in any fashion. But it’s interesting to see Microsoft rumored to be using AMD at a junction like this. About eight years ago, there was a persistent rumor that Apple had seriously considered using AMD’s Llano for an iteration of the MacBook Air. Rumors like this aren’t uncommon, but this one was stronger than most. According to sources we spoke to at the time, one reason Apple didn’t move forward with the product was that it had concerns about AMD’s long-term roadmap and ability to deliver iterative editions of the CPU family that would improve on the Air’s thermals and performance.

It’s possible that Microsoft’s interest was piqued by the reverse this time around. Ryzen 7 3700U and Ryzen 5 3500U are solid parts to start with. While this story is a rumor and deserves to be treated as such, it’s not impossible that the Ryzen family on 12nm hits a series of price/performance balances that Microsoft found attractive, particularly on the GPU side of things, where the Ryzen family offers strong performance (Ice Lake has a faster integrated GPU, but is also still comparatively hard to find). What would be more interesting is if Microsoft felt confident building out a product line based on Ryzen because it believes the 7nm APU family from AMD will continue to deliver excellent performance scaling.

Even if that’s true, we probably won’t hear about it on October 2, and we don’t even know if this first rumor is true. I’m assuming Microsoft won’t be a surprise launch product for AMD’s new 7nm APUs. It’s not impossible, but I suspect we would have heard already if this was happening, and there’s been no word to-date. Either way, winning space in a Microsoft Surface product would be a major victory for AMD in either a 12nm or a 7nm product. Absolute sales volume may not be huge for any given Surface device, but the marketing win would be significant.

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September 16th 2019, 9:43 am

At a Glance: Acer Nitro 5 (2019) Review

ExtremeTech

Acer designed its Nitro 5 gaming laptops as affordable midrange solutions for gamers. These systems are available in both 15.6-inch and 17.3-inch form factors with various hardware configurations. In this article, I will focus on a larger 17.3-inch model. Acer equipped its Nitro 5 gaming notebooks with a relatively modest feature set compared with other gaming laptops, but that doesn’t stop them from being solid values overall.

Design

The Nitro 5’s exterior is entirely made of plastic. The system’s 1080p display just has a common 60Hz refresh rate and 6-bit color depth. The 17.3-inch model is also rather heavy at 6.6 pounds.

Our sister site PCMag benchmarked a system with an Intel Core i5-9300H processor that has four CPU Hyper-Threaded CPU cores, as well as an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 graphics processor with 4GB of RAM. Acer tossed in 8GB of RAM and a 512GB NVMe SSD. This notebook also has a second M.2 slot that is unoccupied, and there’s room inside the notebook to add a 2.5-inch drive, which makes it easy to add more storage if you feel adventurous enough to take apart the system.

PCMag noted that the laptop’s speakers sounded clear even with the volume maxed out, but like most laptop speakers the ones in this laptop are lacking in bass. Acer opted to mount the Nitro 5’s speakers on the bottom, however, which means that your audio experience will vary greatly depending on how the notebook is positioned and on what type of material. Personally, I absolutely hate it when laptop manufacturers opt to use bottom-mounted speakers, as speakers mounted beside the keyboard offer a significantly better and more consistent audio experience.

Benchmarks

PCMag tested this notebook against four other systems. Acer’s Predatory Helios 300 is easily the fastest system tested here and easily holds the lead in every test. Walmart’s Overpowered Gaming Laptop 17+ should have been an easy winner for second place, but, as you will see in a moment, it struggles to outperform the remaining systems in the test group.

The Acer Nitro 5 and the Dell G5 15 SE closely match each other with identical CPU, GPU, and RAM configurations, whereas the Lenovo Legion Y530 is just slightly behind with a slower GPU.

Kicking off the tests with Cinebench R15 sees the Acer Nitro 5 fall into last place. As the Dell and Lenovo systems here use the same CPU, their performance lead over the Acer is likely due to superior cooling. Surprisingly, the Overpowered laptop with its Core i7 processor just barely stays ahead of the slower Core i5s. We see essentially the same results when testing with Photoshop CC.

Things continue to look bleak for the Acer Nitro 5 when we look at the synthetic gaming benchmark results. The Acer Nitro 5 is no longer in last place but instead sits in fourth when tested with Unigine’s Superposition 1.0 test, with the competing Dell system narrowly edging out the Nitro 5.

The results from 3DMark are more mixed with the Acer Nitro 5 and Dell G5 15 SE vying for 3rd place.

In real-world gaming tests, the Acer Nitro 5 performs somewhat better. It claims a clean win for 3rd place in Far Cry 5. It also stays in third place and maintains a healthy lead over the Dell G5 15 Se on Rise of the Tomb Raider when tested with very high graphics settings.

Conclusion

Although the Nitro 5 gaming laptops can’t quite compete with Acer’s more powerful Predator 300 notebooks, it clearly offers fierce competition against Dell’s G5 15 Se. Not only is it competitive in terms of performance, but the Acer Nitro 5 discussed in today’s review sells for $879.99, whereas the Dell G5 15 Se typically retails for $1,018.99.

The Dell is on sale right now for $919.99, but even after that, it’s an extra $40 for a very similar product. As such, I’d recommend the Acer Nitro 5 over its competition based on the current market conditions and performance.

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September 16th 2019, 8:27 am

Pre-Order Samsung’s Galaxy A50 Smartphone Now and Get A Free Galaxy Fit

ExtremeTech

The Galaxy A50 is a new mid-range smartphone designed by Samsung that offers excellent performance and features for just $349.99. The phone is set to launch in just one week, but you can pre-order it now from Amazon and get a free Samsung Galaxy Fit along with it as a bonus.

Samsung’s Galaxy A50 smartphone comes equipped with Samsung’s Exynos 9610 SoC that features an octa-core processor with four Cortex-A73 CPU cores that operate at 2.3GHz and four Cortex-A53 cores clocked at a more reserved 1.7GHz. This SoC also sports an ARM Mali-G72 MP3 graphics processor, which is a few years out of date at this point. Compared to the modern flagship phones available today this GPU is relatively slow, but it should offer plenty of performance for casual use and maybe even a little light gaming.

Samsung rounded out the phone with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. Probably the best feature of this phone is its 6.4-inch Super AMOLED display that has a resolution of 2340×1080. This is the same type of high-end display technology we see incorporated on almost all high-end smartphones today, but it’s an unusual for mid-range smartphone like the Galaxy A50 and it gives the phone a leg up over the competition.

This phone was also designed with a total of four cameras similar. The front camera and the main camera on the back of the phone utilize 25MP optical sensors. The back of the phone also sports a 5MP depth camera and an 8MP camera that’s designed to take ultra wide photos.

The Samsung Galaxy Fit smartwatch included in this deal also features an AMOLED display that remains on always for as long as the watch remains powered. The watch itself supports several functions including a heart rate monitor and a fitness tracker. Regularly this watch retails for $99, but it’s included free of charge when you pre-order the Galaxy A50.

The Samsung Galaxy A50 is set to launch on September 20, which gives you just seven days to order if you want to take advantage of this deal.

September 13th 2019, 8:03 pm

Top 10 Cars, SUVs of the 2019 Frankfurt Auto Show

ExtremeTech

Audi AI:TRAIL quattro

It’s a pity the world’s most important auto show is only held every other year. The Frankfurt Motor Show 2019 — IAA, or Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung (International Auto Show) to the locals — had a laser focus on the future. In particular, all-out electrification, and the stepping-stones: hybrids, 48-volt hybrids, plug-in hybrids.

How big is the Frankfurt auto show? It’s CES times two. Messe Frankfurt comprises 12 buildings and 400,000 square meters of exhibition space, or 4.3 million square feet, equal to 75 football fields and end zones. The again-expanded Las Vegas Convention Center is now up to 2 million square feet of exhibit space. Here’s our take on the most important vehicles of this show of shows.

Yes, there are a lot of electrified cars in the slideshow. It’s not because we’re Tesla-Rivian-Leaf-Bolt EV-worshipping robots. It’s because that’s where the world, give or take the US, is headed: toward electrified vehicles with 2-3 times the energy efficiency as gasoline or diesel burned in a combustion engine.

Volkswagen, for instance, has said its last new internal combustion engine design will come out circa 2026. That doesn’t mean Vee-Dub is all-electric in 2027. Rather it means VW will drive into the future with existing combustion engines, and refinements, but no new engines. Recall that GM got half a century out of the small block Chevy V8 engine, 1954-2003.

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September 13th 2019, 8:03 pm

ET Deals: Apple iPhone 11 Pro BOGO $700 Off, New Apple iPad 128GB Pre-Order $399, Apple Watch Series

ExtremeTech

Apple’s new iPhone 11 is set to ship on September 20, but if you are anxious to get your hands on the new iPhone then you can pre-order one now and save yourself a bundle at the same time!

Apple iPhone 11 Pro 64GB ($999.99)

Right now if you pre-order one of Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro smartphones from AT&T you can save $700 on the purchase of a second iPhone 11 Pro. This drops the price of the second phone down to $299.99, which makes it an exceptional deal if you need two of these phones for your family. Alternatively, if you just need one, you can trade in your old phone to Verizon Wireless to save up to $500 on your purchase. These offers are also available on purchases of the iPhone 11 and the iPhone 11 Pro Max.

Apple iPad 2019 10.2-Inch 128GB ($399.99)

Apple’s 2019 iPad is set to launch on September 30, but if you pre-order it now you can get the 128GB model marked down from $429.00 to $399.99. The new 2019 iPad features the same A10 processor and it is in general quite similar to its predecessor. This new tablet comes in a larger form factor, however, and it is now compatible with iPad Air accessories including the iPad Air’s keyboard.

Apple Watch Series 5 GPS 40mm ($399.00)

Apple’s newest smartwatch will be the company’s first to feature an always on display, which will remain illuminated and provide onscreen information for the entire time the watch remains on. Apple said that like last year’s model the new Watch Series 5 will continue to offer up to 18 hours of battery life on a single charge. You can pre-order it now from Walmart for $399.00. The watch is set to ship on September 20.

Apple MacBook Air Intel Core i5 13-Inch Laptop w/ 8GB RAM and 128GB SSD ($899.99)

Apple’s MacBook Air was designed to be exceptionally lightweight at 2.75 pounds. It also has a high-quality 2560×1600 display, and Apple built the system out of durable 6000 series aluminum. If you would like to buy one of these systems with the larger 128GB SSD, you can get it marked down from $1,099.00 to $899.99 at Amazon.

Apple AirPods w/Wireless Charging Case ($169.99)

This set of Apple’s AirPods comes with a wireless charging case. Simply set the earbuds into the case whenever you are finished using them and they will automatically start charging. They also have support for Siri to quickly access your iPhone, and they can last for over 24 hours while listening to music. Amazon is offering these AirPods currently marked down from $199.00 to $169.99.

Apple Mac Mini Intel Core i5 Computer w/ 8GB DDR4 RAM and 256GB SSD ($929.00)

Apple’s Mac mini is a compact computer with a quad-core Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM. The system also has 2568GB of storage space and it’s small enough to make it easy to take with you and plug up and use anywhere. It’s available from Amazon marked down from $1,099.00 to $929.00.

Note: Terms and conditions apply. See the relevant retail sites for more information. For more great deals, go to our partners at TechBargains.com.

September 13th 2019, 8:03 pm

Microsoft Files Another Patent for a Dual-Screen Device

ExtremeTech

Conception of what Microsoft's never-launched "Andromeda" device might have looked like, by Thurrott.com

Dual-screen devices have never made much sense to me, as far as computing is concerned, but it’s clear that more than one company is preparing to bring these kinds of products to market. The latest news from Microsoft suggests that we’re going to see more of these products in the future — the company has just been granted another patent on dual-screen devices, and it’s not the only company applying for them.

Microsoft’s latest patent concerns an application for a dual-screen device that uses a single flexible display. The description states:

A flexible display can be secured to both the first and second portions. The hinge assembly can provide several features that facilitate the use of a single flexible display. During rotation of the first and second portions, the hinge assembly can change the length of the device that lies beneath the flexible display to reduce stresses imparted on the flexible display. This aspect can be achieved with a cord that connects the first portion to the hinge assembly. A length of a pathway of the cord can change during the rotation so that the cord draws the first portion toward the hinge assembly and/or allows the first portion to be biased away from the hinge assembly depending on the orientation.

Many of the patent drawings are extremely detailed examples of how such hinge joints would fold together and function, like so:

There’s a great deal of discussion about how to interface the hinge design with the mechanics of an OLED panel. In and of itself, it’s just further evidence that the company has been working on dual-screen devices. We’ve known that for a while, with rumors about both Centaurus and a newer dual-screen Surface device that could pop up at Microsoft’s unveil event. But MS isn’t the only company getting in on dual-screen patents. News surfaced earlier this month of a Dell patent on these types of devices as well. Lenovo has demoed its ThinkPad X1 Foldable PC.

Not all of these devices are exactly the same, to be sure. Some of them, like Lenovo’s, have a folding screen — similar to the folding phone prototypes that both Samsung and Huawei were already supposed to have launched. Some of them, like Microsoft’s patents and Dell’s, describe a device with multiple displays that fold, but not a so-called “foldable PC.”

Just because companies are patenting technology doesn’t necessarily mean they intend to bring devices to market. It’s not unusual for companies to engage in so-called “defensive” patenting, in which they preemptively file for patents to ensure other companies can’t sue them, or to have a war chest of competing licensable patents in the event that they find themselves in a patent licensing war. Dig around a bit, and you’ll find plenty of tech stories discussing how companies buy other firms solely for their patents.

But this feels different. It’s one thing for companies to strategically position themselves with regard to patents in an area like mobile, which is heavily patent-encumbered to start with. Dell, Microsoft, and other firms are taking out patents on specific types of hinge designs and other facets of construction — the sort of protection you’d want if you invested in a great deal of money to build concrete products. As Mehedi Hassan notes, the author of this specific patent has written several similar documents and the design drawings are incredibly detailed. This isn’t a vague idea Microsoft is trying to patent in order to corner the market on a broad class of devices, it’s obviously a specific design intended for a particular product.

Intel Honeycomb Glacier prototype.

The interesting dual-screen devices we’ve seen thus far have been desktop-replacement-style laptops, with a secondary screen used for displaying information during gaming. Dual-screen devices that could be used as books or with a second display serving partly as a keyboard have been shown, but there have always been more questions than answers regarding UI and how software would (or more likely, wouldn’t) be updated to take advantage of this functionality.

Either an awful lot of companies are pouring funds into secret dual-panel devices they intend to start shipping over the next 12-18 months, or we’re seeing the results of a lot of skunkworks R&D that may ultimately come to naught. It wouldn’t be the first time that a company dumped months or years of effort into products that never came to market, but the buzz around folding (or foldable PCs) is hovering in that liminal space between “Definitely a major product trend,” and “Testing the waters to see if there’s a market.” Companies may be hoping that new form factors would rejuvenate the PC market, which is generally expected to continue declining for the next few years. High-end boutique systems and 2-in-1s have been some of the only bright spots in the space, so it makes sense that companies would be searching for profitable niches that might ignite consumer interest.

Feature Image: Conception of what Microsoft’s never-launched “Andromeda” device might have looked like, by Thurrott.com

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September 13th 2019, 8:03 pm

Best Apple iPhone 11 Smartphone Offers Available Now

ExtremeTech

The iPhone 11's multi-colored hues.

Starting today you can officially pre-order Apple’s upcoming iPhone 11 smartphones. Currently, there are several pre-order deals available that make these premium-priced smartphones more affordable. Among these, the offers available from AT&T and Verizon stand out as particularly strong deals.

If you plan to buy two of the upcoming iPhone 11 smartphones, then the best option for you is to purchase them from AT&T. Buying the base model iPhone 11 from AT&T you will get a second one completely free, which effectively makes the phones cost $350 each. By purchasing an iPhone 11 Pro or iPhone 11 Pro Max from AT&T you will also be able to save $700 on a second one.

It may be difficult to take advantage of AT&T’s current promotion, however, as their website was temporarily offline today. This is likely due to heavy traffic from people shopping for the new iPhone, and while the website is back online now it could possibly go down again.

If you just want to purchase one of the new iPhone smartphones, then Verizon is probably your best option. They are offering up to $500 off the purchase of any iPhone 11 smartphone when you trade-in your old phone.

If you don’t have an older phone to trade-in, however, then you can still save up to $100 on the purchase of any of the new iPhone 11 smartphones by pre-ordering them from Walmart.

Apple’s iPhone 11 is set to ship on September 20, which means if you want to take advantage of these pre-order deals then you will need to act fast.

September 13th 2019, 8:03 pm

Latest Microsoft Patch Breaks Windows 10 Desktop Search, Start Menu, Audio

ExtremeTech

Microsoft’s efforts to tame the problems in Windows 10 1903 continue to backfire for the company. Earlier this month, we discussed how a cumulative update patch had broken Cortana and SearchUI functionality more generally, causing high CPU usage spikes and sometimes breaking Windows Desktop Search. On Tuesday, September 10, Microsoft distributed a new patch intended to resolve these problems.

That fix, KB4515384, is now confirmed to have its own set of problems. There are reports that Windows 10’s Start Menu may now stop working with one of two error messages, either: “We’ll try to fix it next time you log in,” or “Critical error — Your Start Menu isn’t working.” Meanwhile, Windows Desktop Search may continue to display blank results to any query.

“Microsoft has received reports that some users are having issues related to the Start menu and Windows Desktop Search,” the company said. “We are presently investigating and will provide an update when more information is available”.

There are also reports of audio issues hitting this update as well. There are various reports of audio either missing from games or being drastically reduced. Windows Latest notes that one way to fix these problems is to reduce Windows Audio to 16-bit DVD quality. This can be done by clicking on the ‘Sound’ icon in Control Panel, clicking on your Speaker/Headphone solution to change its properties, navigating to the ‘Advanced’ tab, and selecting the 16-bit 48000 Hz (DVD Quality) option.

If none of that works, you can always uninstall the update.

And that’s where we are these days with Windows 10. The truth is, I don’t even know how big these issues are. That they exist is a given, but how many people are they impacting? I don’t feel as though Microsoft has created a more stable product with Windows 10 — I don’t trust updates not to screw things up — but is that actually what most people experience? The fact that Windows gets updated so much more often now makes it easier to track the various hiccups hitting the OS, but it doesn’t tell us how many people are being impacted by them.

At the same time, Microsoft continues to have some pretty objectively big issues, at least as far as how many people they impact. Not being fully compatible with Microsoft’s own Surface products is pretty embarrassing. Windows also shouldn’t need to block its own updates on systems with external storage solutions — we’d expect that kind of issue to be fixed before any update goes live.

Microsoft has made a lot of meaningful changes to how it approaches privacy in Windows 10 and those changes have generally been good. It collects less data now and has better explained what it does with what it collects. But the much-promised improvement to the OS update model? Hasn’t really happened, at least not to the degree they promised it would. There are still a lot of issues getting through the cracks that don’t seem as if they should be. I’m tired of using pithy images of used car salesman and poorly designed airplanes. Could you just fix the operating system?

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September 13th 2019, 8:03 pm

A Second Interstellar Visitor Is Approaching Our Solar System

ExtremeTech

This artist’s impression shows the first interstellar asteroid, `Oumuamua. Observations from ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and other observatories around the world show that this unique object was travelling through space for millions of years before its chance encounter with our star system. It seems to be a dark red highly-elongated metallic or rocky object, about 400 metres long, and is unlike anything normally found in the Solar System.

In 2017, an interstellar object named ‘Oumuamua shot through our own solar system. It was the first time we’d ever detected an interstellar object passing through the solar system, and its unusual shape recalled the artificial vessel in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama science fiction novel. Now, an amateur Ukrainian has spotted an object zooming through our solar system that’s been confirmed as a comet — and one unlikely to be captured by the sun.

GIF by NASA / JPL / Caltech

Comet C/2019 Q4 (Borisov), discovered by Gennady Borisov, is probably our second interstellar visitor after ‘Oumuamua. Scientists can already detect the coma — the fuzzy trail of ice and dust that spins off the comet as it approaches the sun and begins to melt. And unlike ‘Oumuamua, C/2019 Q4 is still on approach to Earth. While it won’t get closer than 180 million miles, it won’t reach that point until December 7. We’ve got more time to observe this ancient visitor, and there are hopes that we may detect clues about its origin from the coma of debris it sheds. We didn’t detect ‘Oumuamua until it was already on its way out of our solar system, but C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) got picked up on earlier approach.

“This is the first highly active object that we’ve seen coming in from something that formed around another star,” Michele Bannister, an astronomer at Queen’s University Belfast, told National Geographic.

We should be able to monitor C/2019 Q4 for a year as it makes its way into and out of the solar system. The eccentricity of C/2019 Q4 suggests that it’s a one-time visitor to our solar system. While comets can exist on the outside of the solar system until nudged into orbits that fling them sunward, the eccentricity of these orbits tends to be low. According to Davide Farnocchia, of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at JPL:

The comet’s current velocity is high, about 93,000 mph [150,000 kph], which is well above the typical velocities of objects orbiting the sun at that distance. The high velocity indicates not only that the object likely originated from outside our solar system, but also that it will leave and head back to interstellar space.

Comets like C/2019 Q4 aren’t really unique — there are an estimated 10,000 pieces of interstellar debris in orbit between here and Neptune at any given time — but this material is tiny and extremely difficult to see. Identified pieces of incoming interstellar objects are far rarer. We don’t have detailed photos of the comet yet because the current nucleus is so small, between 1.2 – 10 miles in diameter. It should be visible with mid-powered telescopes through April 2020, but will only be observable with professional telescopes after that date. By October 2020, C/2019 Q4 should fade from view — assuming, of course, that it isn’t something altogether different.

Remember: The Ramans do everything in threes.*

* – But seriously, it’s just a comet.

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September 13th 2019, 8:03 pm

You can kickstart a new career in cloud computing with this Microsoft Azure training

ExtremeTech

Cloud services and platforms are playing an increasingly important role in businesses spanning virtually every industry. Companies ranging from small startups to Fortune 500 conglomerates all rely on the cloud in order to innovate new products and reach more clients, and their reliance on these tools is growing every day.

The Essential Microsoft Azure Certification Bundle will get you up to speed with one of the world’s most powerful and relied-upon cloud platforms, and it’s available for over 95% off at just $29.99.

Featuring 30 hours of training, this bundle will introduce you to both the fundamentals and more advanced elements of this ubiquitous cloud computing tool.

You’ll learn how to use the Git control system in order to create three-stage workflows and repositories, how to build playbooks and manage an entire cloud region, how to configure network devices across both Windows and Linux operating systems and more.

There’s also instruction that teaches you how to create branches and track files in order to cut down on your work time and streamline your workflow.

Get the skills and certifications you need in order to succeed in a cloud-based world with the Essential Microsoft Azure Certification Bundle for just $29.99—over 95% off for a limited time.

Prices are subject to change.

September 13th 2019, 8:03 pm

Titan’s Lakes May Have Been Formed By Underground Explosions, Not Erosion

ExtremeTech

There are only two objects in the solar system with sustained pools of liquid on their surface: Earth and Titan. On Earth, we have a well-understood water cycle that keeps liquid water flowing on the surface of our planet. On Titan, the process is believed to be conceptually similar but based on liquid methane rather than water. There are signs that Titan has an alkanological cycle similar to the hydrological cycle on this planet. But how Titan actually got its lakes has been something of a mystery until now. Researchers are suggesting that the lakes may actually have formed as the result of explosions, not erosion.

Many of Titan’s lakes are what is known as Sharp Edged Depressions (SEDs). They have circular or irregular shapes that are generally not thought to be impact craters. On Earth, many of these types of lakes are karstic, meaning they form when liquid (water on Earth) undermines the geology beneath an area and it collapses, forming a depression that then fills. However, there aren’t many substances in Titan’s crust that are believed to be susceptible to dissolution in the first place. The organic material that rains out of Titan’s atmosphere and collects at the poles is insufficient to create an erodible organic sedimentary layer. The researchers write:

The presence of raised rims in SED basins undermines the karst lake model for SEDs with raised rims. According to the karst model, the lake basins on Titan should be produced as dolines formed by collapse, dissolution or subsidence of the terrain; such processes do not produce rims. While SEDs with raised rims are not formed by a karstic process, their presence in a karstic-like environment is not excluded.

The team has an alternate proposal for how the lakes may have formed — nitrogen bombs. On Earth, certain characteristic structures are produced by phreatic or phreatomagmatic eruptions. When seawater comes into contact with magma, the result can be a substantial steam explosion. Maars and other forms of tuff produced by this kind of explosion have characteristics that fit the observed characteristics of Titan’s lakes. We see that many Titan lakes have ramparts of material built up around them, and this could correspond to debris ejected from the newly formed crater as a result of a nitrogen explosion.

The theory isn’t perfect, because there’s not as much debris around the various lakes as might be expected on Earth — but this could be explained by differences in Titan’s natural composition and its planetary evolution. One theory is that at some point in the distant past, Titan’s atmosphere was dominated by nitrogen, not methane, and the moon was much colder. This could have been the case if the level of methane in Titan’s atmosphere was lower than it is today. As the amount of methane increased and the planet warmed, small temperature variations could have produced an extreme pressure rise in the nitrogen-dominated aquifers. There may even be evidence of this kind of event occurring on Neptune’s moon Triton during the Voyager 2 flyby.

Scientists are still studying the characteristics of Titan’s geology to determine whether this is a plausible hypothesis, but we could know more in fairly short order. The NASA Dragonfly mission to Titan is set to gather an unparalleled amount of information about this distant moon, shedding new light on its history and continued evolution.

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September 13th 2019, 8:03 pm

Researchers: ‘Simjacker’ Attack Silently Tracks Your Phone’s Location

ExtremeTech

Both Apple and Google spend a great deal of time and energy strengthening the security of their mobile platforms. No piece of software is perfect, but Android and iOS are overall very secure these days. That doesn’t matter when an attack can completely bypass your operating system. Researchers from AdaptiveMobile Security say they’ve uncovered an attack method dubbed Simjacker that can track users by sending a text message

While sending a text message sounds simple, AdaptiveMobile says SimJacker is a very complex and sophisticated attack. The attacker can initiate Simjacker from any smartphone capable of sending SMS messages. These messages include a hidden Sim Toolkit instruction package that interacts with the S@T Browser. That’s an application residing on the SIM card inside many phones, not on the phone itself. Therefore, none of the security features of Android or iOS can block the attack. 

The S@T Browser doesn’t exist on all SIM cards of mobile carriers, but it can be used to perform actions like launching websites or playing sounds. These are rarely used anymore, but carriers used to push ads and billing information via the S@T Browser. Simjacker abuses this system by telling the phone to provide the phone’s IMEI and network-based location data. Again, none of this happens in the operating system, and the message doesn’t even appear in the SMS app, so there’s no indication to the user anything is wrong. Next, Simjacker sends that data to another phone number where the data is harvested. 

AdaptiveMobile says the attack works on devices from Motorola, Apple, Google, Huawei, and more. It’s all about the technology inside the SIM card, and this isn’t an attack that just popped up. AdaptiveMobile says it has found evidence that Simjacker has been active in highly targeted attacks for up to two years. 

AdaptiveMobile has not revealed the company or government that is using Simjacker, but says it’s not a mass surveillance operation. Instead, the perpetrator is tracking a small number of targets multiple times per day. Some numbers investigated by the researchers were pinged for location hundreds of times per week. 

The good news is that mobile operators should be able to quickly put a stop to Simjacker. It relies on sending binary code to devices in the form of an SMS rather than a normally formatted SMS message. That should make it easy to filter at the network level.

Now read:

September 13th 2019, 8:03 pm

Apple Unveils iPhone 11, Pro, Pro Max, With Heavy Emphasis on Cameras, Battery Life

ExtremeTech

Apple unveiled its upcoming trio of new iPhones today, covering the iPhone 11 and the new iPhone Pro product family. The company is retiring the confusing “XR” and “XS” brands that it deployed last year, in favor of a simplified structure. The iPhone 11 is just the iPhone 11, while the professional model will come in two flavors: iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Pro Max.

As expected, these devices make camera features and technology a major component of their own value propositions. But the iPhone 11, at least, subtly nods to the fact that Apple’s price increases were anything but well-received last year. The base model iPhone 11 will be priced at $699, $50 less than last years’ iPhone XR. While this doesn’t make the device ‘entry-level,’ (new or not, $699 is not an entry-level price), it at least shows the company is responding to consumer’s refusal to buy its higher-end devices — at least, a little. The iPhone 11 Pro still starts at $999, while the iPhone 11 Pro Max is a $1,099 device. Pre-orders begin on September 13, with shipments to start on September 20.

The iPhone 11’s multi-colored hues.

The iPhone 11 has a 6.1-inch screen and will be offered in a variety of colors, including black, green, purple, red, white, and yellow. Features like haptic touch, a True Tone LCD, and a dual-camera are all standard. According to Apple, the new A13 Bionic will offer up to an hour of increased battery life over the iPhone XR, which already had the best battery life in the iPhone family.

As for the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max, these two devices are 5.8-inch and 6.5-inch, respectively. They have what Apple is calling a “Super Retina XDR” OLED display with support for the P3 color space, which is a wider color gamut than a standard SDR monitor or phone display. Dolby Vision and HDR10 are both supported on the iPhone Pro family, and the display can handle up to 1,200 nits of brightness. Both the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro advertise features like Dolby Atmos support and supposedly offer better spatial audio performance.

The iPhone 11 Pro’s triple camera. It’s the best a man can get professional-quality camera ever integrated into a smartphone (according to Apple)

All of these new devices run on Apple’s A13 Bionic SoC, about which relatively little is known at this juncture. Apple claims the new chip offers up to 20 percent faster performance and its neural engine is supposedly more efficient as well. Apple claims the iPhone 11 Pro will get four hours more battery life than the iPhone XS, while the iPhone 11 Pro Max will last five hours longer than the iPhone XS Max. These claims seem unusually large, and I’m wondering about the workloads Apple used to test them. Battery life on smartphones is highly situational depending on what, exactly, you are doing. We’ve absolutely seen these kinds of battery life improvements before — but they’ve typically arrived when a workload that was previously being handled in software (like video decoding) is transferred to fixed-function hardware blocks (like a GPU’s onboard video decoder).

We’re not saying Apple can’t deliver a 4-5 hour battery life improvement, but that improvement may be very workload-dependent. A 4-5 hour improvement in battery life in all heavy use scenarios would be the equivalent of a major leap forward in battery technology. That’s a bit farther than we’re willing to go until device characteristics have been thoroughly tested.

Apple is clearly staking the iPhone 11 on its camera tech. When you visit the landing page for the iPhone 11, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d actually dropped into a product page describing the advances in Apple’s camera technology as opposed to the general landing page for the phone. The iPhone 11 has a new camera system with one 12MP wide camera and a 12MP ultra-wide camera. The first supports optical image stabilization, while the latter has a 120-degree field of view. The Camera app has been updated to allow you to you see outside the framing of the photo for when you need to take a shot in tight quarters.

Now with 4x more scene. Bangs, bracelets, and skinny jeans not included

The iPhone 11 Pro includes a triple-camera system with a 12MP wide camera with an equivalent focal length of 26mm and an f/1.8 aperture. There’s also a 12MP ultrawide camera (13mm focal length, f/2.4 aperture) and a 12MP telephoto camera with a 52mm focal length and an f/2.0 aperture. Much of Apple’s live event and its webpages are filled with glossy demonstrations of the kind of photos you can take with the new iPhone Pro and professionals extolling the benefits of the new device compared with previous models.

David Cardinal is our resident photography expert, so I’m going to defer to him as far as any professional comparison between professional DSLR cameras and the integrated models present in phones. I expect that this focus on the iPhone’s camera technology will at least help the device close the gap between itself and standalone DSLRs in some cases, particularly thanks to the new Night Mode, but that there will continue to be specific times and places where there’s an advantage to having a standalone professional product. It has been my observation that smartphones have gotten steadily better at providing a very good default, but there are intrinsic challenges to matching the benefits of a DSLR in such a limited amount of space.

The iPhone Pro, at least, includes a fast charger in the box. The iPhone 11 continues not to do so. All of these devices are rated for IP68 water-resistance, commonly referred to as being waterproof.

The iPhone may make photo and video editing on a small device easier, but you != Stanley Kubrick. Don’t feel bad. I am also != Stanley Kubrick.

The iPhone 11 Pro’s landing-page is even more photo and video-centric. It’s basically devoted to a demonstration of all the new device’s photo and video-editing features, or shots that claim to show the benefits of the new cameras. These sorts of claims will have to be evaluated to see how they hold up in objective testing, so I don’t actually have a lot to say about them, other than observing the fact that Apple is trying to push customers towards new products almost entirely on the basis of camera tech.

This may not be the worst approach. There are rumors that the company is planning a fairly major overhaul for the iPhone next year, with new features like 5G support set to be introduced at that date. Customers, meanwhile, tend to respond well to visual improvements — the original introduction of Retina displays was a huge win for Apple, and smartphone cameras are one of the few areas that have continued to improve at a fair pace even as overall device performance and battery life improvements have slowed.

There have been rumors that Apple will re-launch a new iPhone SE in 2020. If it intends to unveil such a device, it will do so at a later date. There was no mention of a new lower-end product. The iPhone 7 has been removed from sale; the iPhone 8 is now Apple’s lowest-end entry-level model at $449.

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September 10th 2019, 6:25 pm

Apple Announces New 10.2-inch iPad, Apple Watch Series 5, and More

ExtremeTech

Apple’s annual product refresh has just wrapped up, and it was a big one. Apple announced new online services, and updated versions of several mobile devices. We’ve already got a full rundown of the new iPhone 11, but here’s everything else Apple announced including the new iPad, Apple Watch, and more. 

The new iPad

Apple’s fall event usually focuses on the iPhone and Apple Watch, but the company also squeezed in a new tablet: the 10.2-inch iPad (above). Surprisingly, this device keeps the physical home button and larger bezels than the current iPad Pro models. 

Apple is notoriously bad at providing details and specifications in events, so it’s unclear if the new iPad has a Lightning port, but that seems likely. The device will have a Smart Keyboard case and support for the first-gen Apple Pencil. The new one charges wirelessly on the iPad Pro, so it won’t work with this tablet. Inside, the new iPad has the A10 Fusion chip, which is just a bit less powerful than the A10X Fusion in the iPad Pros. 

This device will replace the current 9.7-inch entry-level iPad, which sold for $329. This tablet will cost the same, but education customers can get it for $299. It will sit between the iPad Mini and the iPad Air in Apple’s lineup. It’s also the first iPad made from 100 percent recycled aluminum. You can pre-order the new iPad today, and it will ship at the end of the month. 

In addition, Apple announced its redesigned iPadOS (above) will launch on Sept. 30. Original revealed earlier this year, iPadOS will add tons of new features to make Apple’s tablets feel more like a “real” computer. There’s a desktop version of Safari, a more power files app, and better multitasking. iPadOS will launch on the new 10.2-inch iPad, but it will come as an update to all iPads from the iPad Air 2, iPad Mini 4, and fifth-gen iPad or later. 

Apple Watch Series 5

Apple might have been late to the wearables game, but the Apple Watch has effectively crushed the competition year after year. The Series 5 has the same measurements as the Series 4, but it adds an always-on display mode. So, you can see the time without lifting your wrist. This is one of the few features that the Apple Watch lacked compared with its competitors. 

Apple says the Series 5 watch has the same 18-hour battery life rating as the Series 4, and that’s with always-on mode activated. This substantial battery life improvement is apparently thanks to a new low-temperature polysilicon and oxide display and low-power display driver. 

This is also the first time Apple has offered an Apple Watch made from recycled material. You can get the device in recycled aluminum or titanium, in addition to the stainless steel and ceramic options carried over from the Series 5. 

The Series 5 starts at $399 for the standard model and $499 for LTE. They go on sale Sept. 20. The Series 3 will stick around at a lower $199 price, and the Series 4 is going away. 

TV and games

Everyone seems to be launching their own streaming service lately, and Apple is no different. Today’s event also included the final launch details for the company’s Apple+ streaming video platform. It’s launching on November 1st for just $4.99 per month. 

Apple TV+ focuses on original content like Jason Moma’s See and Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston’s The Morning Show. The catch, however, is that you’ll need an Apple device like the Apple TV, iPhone, iPad, or a Mac at launch. The Apple TV+ app will come later to Samsung TVs, Amazon Fire TV, Roku, and others. If you buy a new Apple device, it will come with a year trial of Apple TV+ as well. 

The event also included more information about Apple’s iOS game subscription service, known as Apple Arcade. The service launches on Sept. 19 worldwide and includes more than 100 games, all of them exclusive to iOS. It too will run you $4.99 per month. There will be no ads, and you can share a subscription with up to six family members. 

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September 10th 2019, 6:25 pm

ET Deals Apple Sale: Apple MacBook Air $899, Apple iPad Pro $799, Apple AirPods w/ Charging Case $16

ExtremeTech

If you’re a fan of Apple products then today is your lucky day. You can take advantage of ongoing sales to save on several of Apple’s products, including one of its MacBook Air laptops. If you aren’t an Apple fan, there is also a strong deal on a Dell laptop and AMD processor.

Apple MacBook Air Intel Core i5 13-Inch Laptop w/ 8GB RAM and 128GB SSD ($899.99)

Apple’s MacBook Air was designed to be exceptionally lightweight at 2.75 pounds. It also has a high-quality 2560×1600 display, and Apple built the system out of durable 6000 series aluminum. If you would like to buy one of these systems with the larger 128GB SSD, you can get it marked down from $1,099.00 to $899.99 at Amazon.

Apple iPad Pro 12.9-Inch 64GB Wi-Fi Tablet ($799.99)

Apple designed this version of its iPad Pro with its in-house designed A12X Bionic processor that offers excellent performance. Right now it’s marked down from $999.00 to $799.99 on Amazon.

Apple AirPods w/Wireless Charging Case ($169.99)

This set of Apple’s AirPods comes with a wireless charging case. Simply set the earbuds into the case whenever you are finished using them and they will automatically start charging. They also have support for Siri to quickly access your iPhone, and they can last for over 24 hours while listening to music. Amazon is offering these AirPods currently marked down from $199.00 to $169.99.

Apple Mac Mini Intel Core i5 Computer w/ 8GB DDR4 RAM and 256GB SSD ($929.00)

Apple’s Mac mini is a compact computer with a quad-core Intel Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM. The system also has 2568GB of storage space and it’s small enough to make it easy to take with you and plug up and use anywhere. It’s available from Amazon marked down from $1,099.00 to $929.00.

AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1920X 12-Core SMT Processor ($199.99)

AMD’s Threadripper 1920x features a dozen CPU cores with SMT technology, which allows the processor to handle a whopping 24 threads simultaneously. This gives it exceptional performance while multitasking. The processor also operates at 4.2GHz and has an enormous 38MB of cache. Originally priced at $799.00, you can now get this processor from Amazon for the remarkably low price of $199.99. At this price, they are practically giving it away.

Dell G3 15 Intel Core i5-9300H 15.6-Inch 1080p Gaming Laptop w/ Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti, 8GB DDR4 RAM and 512GB NVMe SSD ($813.39)

This laptop is packed full of fast processing hardware, which enables it to run modern games with high-end graphics settings. The system is also heavily discounted from $1,218.99 to $813.39 with promo code SAVE17. At this price, it’s almost too good to be true.

Note: Terms and conditions apply. See the relevant retail sites for more information. For more great deals, go to our partners at TechBargains.com.

September 10th 2019, 2:05 pm

Upcoming AMD UEFI Update Will Improve Ryzen Boost Clocks

ExtremeTech

One ongoing question reviewers have been digging into for the past few weeks is the expected behavior of AMD 7nm Ryzen CPUs at high boost clock versus the actual, measured behavior. AMD promised to update the user community today, September 10, as to the expected behavior of its CPUs and what changes would be incorporated in upcoming UEFI revisions.

To briefly recap: Reports in late July showed that some AMD CPUs were only reaching top boost clock frequency on a single CPU core. Last week, overclocker Der8aurer reported the results of a user survey showing that only some AMD 7nm Ryzen CPUs were hitting their full boost clocks (the exact percentage varies by CPU model). Late last week, Paul Alcorn of Tom’s Hardware published an extensive test of how different AMD AGESA versions and UEFI releases from motherboard impacted motherboard clocking. AGESA is the AMD Generic Encapsulated Software Architecture — the procedure library used to initialize the CPU and various components. Motherboard vendors use the AGESA as a template for creating UEFI versions.

What THG found was that different UEFI versions and AGESA releases have shown subtly different clocking results. Later releases have hit slightly lower boost clocks compared with the earlier versions that were used for reviews. At the same time, however, these later versions have also frequently held their boost clocks for longer before down-throttling the CPU.

There’s also evidence that the throttle temperatures have been subtly adjusted, from 80C initially down to 75 before creeping back upwards to 77. These changes would not necessarily impact performance — the CPU is boosting a bit lower, but also boosting longer — but it wasn’t clear what, exactly, AMD was trying to accomplish. During its IFA presentation last week, Intel argued that these subtle variations were evidence that AMD was trying to deal with a potentially significant reliability issue with its processors. THG was unwilling to sign on to that explanation without additional information.

AMD’s Ryzen Master tweaking and monitoring utility

While all of this was unfolding, AMD notified us that it would make an announcement on September 10 concerning a new AGESA update.

AMD’s Update

The text that follows is directly from AMD and concerns the improvements that will be baked into updated UEFIs from various motherboard manufacturers. I normally don’t quote from a blog post this extensively, but I think it’s important to present the exact text of what AMD is saying.

[O]ur analysis indicates that the processor boost algorithm was affected by an issue that could cause target frequencies to be lower than expected. This has been resolved. We’ve also been exploring other opportunities to optimize performance, which can further enhance the frequency. These changes are now being implemented in flashable BIOSes from our motherboard partners. Across the stack of 3rd Gen Ryzen Processors, our internal testing shows that these changes can add approximately 25-50MHz to the current boost frequencies under various workloads.

Our estimation of the benefit is broadly based on workloads like PCMark 10 and Kraken JavaScript Benchmark. The actual improvement may be lower or higher depending on the workload, system configuration, and thermal/cooling solution implemented in the PC. We used the following test system in our analysis:

AMD Reference Motherboard (AGESA 1003ABBA beta BIOS)
2x8GB DDR4-3600C16
AMD Wraith Prism and Noctua NH-D15S coolers
Windows 10 May 2019 Update
22°C ambient test lab
Streacom BC1 Open Benchtable
AMD Chipset Driver 1.8.19.xxx
AMD Ryzen Balanced power plan
BIOS defaults (except memory OC)
These improvements will be available in flashable BIOSes starting in about two to three weeks’ time, depending on the testing and implementation schedule of your motherboard manufacturer.

Going forward, it’s important to understand how our boost technology operates. Our processors perform intelligent real-time analysis of the CPU temperature, motherboard voltage regulator current (amps), socket power (watts), loaded cores, and workload intensity to maximize performance from millisecond to millisecond. Ensuring your system has adequate thermal paste; reliable system cooling; the latest motherboard BIOS; reliable BIOS settings/configuration; the latest AMD chipset driver; and the latest operating system can enhance your experience.

Following the installation of the latest BIOS update, a consumer running a bursty, single threaded application on a PC with the latest software updates and adequate voltage and thermal headroom should see the maximum boost frequency of their processor. PCMark 10 is a good proxy for a user to test the maximum boost frequency of the processor in their system. It is expected that if users run a workload like Cinebench, which runs for an extended period of time, the operating frequencies may be less than the maximum throughout the run.

In addition, we do want to address recent questions about reliability. We perform extensive engineering analysis to develop reliability models and to model the lifetime of our processors before entering mass production. While AGESA 1003AB contained changes to improve system stability and performance for users, changes were not made for product longevity reasons. We do not expect that the improvements that have been made in boost frequency for AGESA 1003ABBA will have any impact on the lifetime of your Ryzen processor. (Emphasis added).

Separately from this, AMD also gave information on firmware changes implemented in AGESA 1003ABBA that are intended to reduce the CPU’s operating voltage by filtering out voltage/frequency boost requests from lightweight applications. The 1003ABBA AGESA now contains an activity filter designed to disregard “intermittent OS and application background noise.” This should lower the CPU’s voltage down to 1.2v as opposed to the higher peaks that have been reported.

New Monitoring SDK

Finally, AMD will release a new monitoring SDK that will allow anyone to build a monitoring tool for measuring various facets of Ryzen CPU performance. There will be more than 30 API calls exposed in the new application, including:

Current operating temperature: Reports the average temperature of the CPU cores over a short sample period. By design, this metric filters transient spikes that can skew temperature reporting.
Peak Core(s) Voltage (PCV): Reports the Voltage Identification (VID) requested by the CPU package of the motherboard voltage regulators. This voltage is set to service the needs of the cores under active load but isn’t necessarily the final voltage experienced by all of the CPU cores.
Average Core Voltage (ACV): Reports the average voltages experienced by all processor cores over a short sample period, factoring in active power management, sleep states, VDROOP, and idle time.
EDC (A), TDC (A), PPT (W): The current and power limits for your motherboard VRMs and processor socket.
Peak Speed: The maximum frequency of the fastest core during the sample period.
Effective Frequency: The frequency of the processor cores after factoring in time spent in sleep states (e.g. cc6 core sleep or pc6 package sleep). Example: One processor core is running at 4GHz while awake, but in cc6 core sleep for 50% of the sample period. The effective frequency of this core would be 2GHz. This value can give you a feel for how often the cores are using aggressive power management capabilities that aren’t immediately obvious (e.g. clock or voltage changes).
Various voltages and clocks, including: SoC voltage, DRAM voltage, fabric clock, memory clock, etc.

Ryzen Master has already been updated to give average core voltage values. AMD expects motherboard manufacturers to begin releasing new UEFIs with the 1003ABBA AGESA version incorporated within two weeks. As we wrote last week and despite rumors from Asus employee Shamino, AMD is not portraying these adjustments to clocking behavior as being related to reliability in any way.

As for AMD’s statements about the improved clocks, I want to wait and see how these changes impact behavior on our own test CPUs before drawing any conclusions. I will say that I don’t expect to see overall performance change much — 25-50MHz is only a 0.5 to 1 percent improvement on a 4.2GHz CPU, and we may not even be able to detect a performance shift in a standard benchmark from such a clock change. But we can monitor clock speeds directly and will report back on the impact of these changes.

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September 10th 2019, 1:05 pm

Rock Samples From Impact Crater Reveal Details of Dinosaur Extinction

ExtremeTech

About 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs and countless other creatures were going about their business on Earth when a space rock dropped out of the sky and brought about the end of the Cretaceous Period. But what was that fateful day like? We have a better idea today thanks to the International Ocean Discovery Program, which collected a pristine sample from the impact site

The asteroid struck near the present-day Yucatan Peninsula, producing the Chixculub crater. Most of the crater sits under the Gulf of Mexico, so that’s where the researchers collected their samples more than 1,600 feet below the seafloor. The rock cores taken from the crater paint a bleak but fascinating picture of that day 65 million years ago. 

The object was probably no more than a few miles wide, which isn’t much compared with a planet. However, its high relative velocity caused a devastating release of energy. At the time of the impact, the region was a shallow sea, probably no more than 100 feet deep. The impact produced a tsunami more than a thousand feet tall, and at the same time gouged a massive crater of melted, deformed rock known as shocked rock. 

Based on the core samples (see below), the team estimates the impactor hit with the force of 10 billion Hiroshima atomic bombs. The blast ignited trees thousands of miles away, and the tsunami reached as far inland as present-day Illinois. The water flowed back into the crater several hours later, bringing with it soil and materials like charred trees picked up from the surrounding land.

The team was perhaps most interested by what wasn’t present in the samples: sulfur-rich rocks. The geological area around the crater has large deposits of sulfur, suggesting that the impact vaporized sulfur-bearing minerals and released the sulfur into the atmosphere. The team estimates that 325 billion metric tons of sulfur ended up in the atmosphere after the impact, which is orders of magnitude higher than what escaped during the 1883 Krakatoa volcanic eruption. That event lowered global temperatures by 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The sudden high concentration of sulfur resulted in massive temperature drops across the globe, ensuring almost all dinosaurs perished. The only survivors among the dinosaurs were avian species, which eventually became modern-day birds. More research on the sample could reveal even more details about this tumultuous period in Earth’s history.

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September 10th 2019, 12:35 pm

Pour One Out for the Dreamcast, Sega’s Awesome, Quirky, Gone-Too-Soon Console

ExtremeTech

Image credit: Evan-Amos

On September 9, 1999, Sega launched the Dreamcast in North America — it’s last, best hope for relevance in the console market. The console, which was intended to put Sega on a more even footing against competitors like Sony, wound up being the company’s hardware swan song. Sega never launched another console — the company’s Genesis Mini, which releases on September 19, is the first Sega-branded hardware to ship in 20 years (not counting the products Tectoy produces in the Brazilian market).

The Dreamcast is a rare example of a platform that failed despite having relatively few weaknesses or flaws relative to other consoles at the time. The N64 wasn’t as popular as Nintendo hoped because the cartridges of the day had limited storage capacity and therefore limited space for detailed textures. Despite these limits, they were also quite expensive compared with CD-based media. The previous Sega console, the Sega Saturn, was difficult to program and had been rushed out the door in an attempt to beat Sony’s PlayStation to market. The original Xbox One was less powerful than the PlayStation 4 and debuted with a confused, half-baked marketing strategy that saw Microsoft attempt to launch a new game console by focusing on everything it could do besides gaming, and pour substantial resources into a camera add-on rather than the actual machine.

The Dreamcast, in contrast, was a solid piece of kit. It used a 32-bit two-way superscalar RISC CPU designed by Hitachi, the SH-4, rated for 360 MIPS and clocked at 200MHz. The CPU offered an 8KB instruction cache and 16KB data cache and interfaced with a GPU designed by NEC, the PowerVR2. While reportedly not as powerful as the 3dfx hardware that Sega had originally planned to use for the Dreamcast, the PowerVR solution was an affordable option and an effective one. The Dreamcast was designed to use off-the-shelf components to make it an easier target for developers, but the platform was ahead of its time in several respects.

The Dreamcast controller, with Video Memory Unit (VMU)

The Dreamcast shipped with a modem at a time when 80 percent of the US population was still using dial-up to get online. It used a GD-ROM format that could hold up to 1GB of data — not as large as DVDs, but more capacity than a typical CD-ROM offered. It offered a memory card that doubled as a miniature gaming device, the Visual Memory Unit. Sega’s overall goal with the Dreamcast was to build excitement around its products in the months before the PlayStation 2 would debut, to give it a leg up on the next-generation competition.

From the beginning, however, the console faced an uphill battle. Retailers who had been burned by short-lived Sega products like the Sega CD or 32X (not to mention the Sega Saturn) were unhappy with the company. Sega had initially intended to use hardware from 3Dfx, but when 3Dfx filed for its own IPO it revealed the Dreamcast before Sega had been prepared to make the announcement. Meanwhile, EA decided not to support the Dreamcast, despite having been a major partner on previous Saturn systems. According to a retrospective on the console, this decision was driven by a host of factors, including the specific component choices Sega made, the company’s indecision over whether to make a modem standard on the entire console range, and Sega’s hardball tactics during licensing may have killed EA’s interest in the platform. A different source in the same article, however, claims that EA walked away from Dreamcast because Sega wouldn’t give it a guaranteed exclusive on all sports’ titles for the console, given that Sega had just purchased a development studio, Visual Concepts, to build these titles.

Sony’s PS2 Marketing Blitz

The other factor that has to be factored into the Dreamcast’s demise is the absolute torrent of marketing Sony unleashed. In September 1999, all eyes were on Sony’s PlayStation 2, still over a year away. In theory, this should have opened a window for the Dreamcast to establish itself. In practice, that didn’t happen. Sony put an all-out marketing blitz behind the PlayStation 2, with its “Emotion Engine.” Sony’s reputation, by this point, was also better. The company had shipped one massive hit, the original PlayStation. Sega, in contrast, had shipped a number of half-baked, expensive flops. The Sega Saturn debacle was only part of the problem. The Sega CD and Sega 32X — both Genesis / Mega Drive add-ons — had failed to impress the market. Handheld products like the Sega Nomad had flopped.

If you were on the fence between Sega and Sony in the late 1990s, Sony looked like the safer bet. Sega’s Dreamcast enjoyed a very strong North American launch, but sales dropped off as the PS2’s launch date approached. Sony had the deep pockets to dramatically outspend Sega in terms of marketing dollars, while Sega was losing money despite brisk hardware sales. It cut Dreamcast prices to boost demand, but that meant taking a loss on the platform. While the attach rate for games was reportedly high, the install base wasn’t large enough for the company to achieve profitability this way. By the time the PS2 actually launched, Sega was hemorrhaging cash. Unable to compete with the PS2, Sega threw in the towel on hardware manufacturing altogether.

Image credit: TheDreamcastJunkyard, which has additional screenshots of comparisons between PS2 and Dreamcast visuals in Ferrari F355 Challenge, for the curious.

Compare Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 games today, and it’s clear that the gap between them wasn’t as large as Sony wanted it to seem. Sega Retro notes:

Compared to the rival PlayStation 2, the Dreamcast is more effective at textures, anti-aliasing, and image quality, while the PS2 is more effective at polygon geometry, physics, particles, and lighting. The PS2 has a more powerful CPU geometry engine, higher translucent fillrate, and more main RAM (32 MB, compared to Dreamcast’s 16 MB), while the DC has more VRAM (8 MB, compared to PS2’s 4 MB), higher opaque fillrate, and more GPU hardware features, with CLX2 capabilities like tiled rendering, super-sample anti-aliasing, Dot3 normal mapping, order-independent transparency, and texture compression, which the PS2’s GPU lacks.

Today, the Dreamcast is remembered for the uniqueness of its game library. In addition to absolutely stunning arcade ports like Soul Calibur, the Dreamcast had Phantasy Star Online, which was the first online console MMORPG. Games like Shenmue are considered to be progenitors of the open-world approach favored by long-running series like Grand Theft Auto (which itself began life as a top-down game, not a 3D, open-world, third-person title). Games like the cel-shaded Jet Set Radio and Crazy Taxi established the Dreamcast at a platform willing to take chances with game design. Titles like Skies of Arcadia offered players the chance to be sky pirates. Games like Seaman were… really weird.

Really, really weird.

Sometimes, the issues that sink a console are technical. Sometimes, the hardware is fine and it’s everything else that goes wrong. Here’s to one of the short-lived champions of a bygone age — and a more daring era in gaming, when developers and AAA publishers took more chances with quirky titles than they do today.

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September 10th 2019, 8:46 am

Tesla Pushes Pickup Truck Unveiling to November

ExtremeTech

Tesla has made incredible headway when it comes to selling electric sedans and sports cars, and the company is going to launch its first hatchback next year. However, Tesla’s next major vehicle will be a tougher sell. The company was expected to show off its upcoming pickup truck this summer, but now the company is looking at a November reveal at the earliest. 

Tesla launched its first electric vehicles in 2008, but things didn’t accelerate for the company until the Model S hit the roads in 2012. While the Model S is no budget offering, it was the first electric vehicle that offered solid performance and a price tag that consumers could justify in significant numbers. The Model 3 launch in 2017 has Tesla on the verge of mainstream acceptance — it has even run through its government tax credit allotment. 

CEO Elon Musk has long teased the company’s all-electric pickup truck, and Tesla even showed an early concept when it revealed the Tesla semi a while back. The vehicle, seen above, has a definite sci-fi vibe. It looks like the most significant departure from the “traditional” vehicle designs of anything Tesla has yet made. The final design could be entirely different, though.

Musk is an unusual CEO in a number of ways. He talks about financing deals that never happen, goes on podcasts to smoke marijuana, and always, always offers unrealistic timelines. That said, Tesla and SpaceX routinely come through on their promises. They just don’t do it as quickly as Musk’s exuberance would lead us to think. In the case of the Tesla pickup truck, Musk now says November is the new target. 

Sadly, that’s all the information Musk is willing to provide at this time, and that came as a reply on Twitter. Come to think of it, that’s another thing that makes Elon Musk a not-so-typical CEO; he loves to announce product news five replies deep on Twitter. In a previous teaser (yes, on Twitter), Musk said the pickup will have a “cyberpunk” vibe. In an interview last year, he said the design “stops [his] heart.”

Whenever the cardiac effects of the Tesla pickup truck might be, the company is running out of time to make good on its promises. Ford is spinning up plans to launch an electric version of its industry-leading F-150 pickup. That vehicle could hit dealers as soon as 2021. While Tesla will probably start taking reservations for the pickup as soon as it’s announced, it’ll probably be at least a few months before any of them are delivered.

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September 10th 2019, 7:46 am

EA Receives Guinness World Record for Most Downvoted Comment in History

ExtremeTech

Most heroes were initially going to be locked behind significant grinds to even play them.

The Guinness Book of World Records has given EA a prestigious award in its annals of history. A sharp-eyed Redditor noticed the award, given to the video game publisher for one of its initial responses to the Star Wars Battlefront II loot crate controversy.

Redditor Amsha posted the following image, taken from the latest version of the book:

The original comment in question is reprinted below:

The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes.

As for cost, we selected initial values based upon data from the Open Beta and other adjustments made to milestone rewards before launch. Among other things, we’re looking at average per-player credit earn rates on a daily basis, and we’ll be making constant adjustments to ensure that players have challenges that are compelling, rewarding, and of course attainable via gameplay.

We appreciate the candid feedback, and the passion the community has put forth around the current topics here on Reddit, our forums and across numerous social media outlets.

Our team will continue to make changes and monitor community feedback and update everyone as soon and as often as we can.

On its face, this comment doesn’t deserve to have 667,821 downvotes (the next-most downvoted comment on Reddit, to give this some scale, has just 88,892 downvotes). A little context is in order.

This comment was dropped in a thread where players were expressing unhappiness about the amount of time it was going to take to unlock heroes in Star Wars Battlefront II. Players who had bought the Deluxe Edition of the game were angry that certain core heroes like Darth Vader were going to be locked by default and require a long grind to purchase. Players calculated that it could take up to 40 hours of play to unlock a single hero under EA’s proposed loot crate system.

Battlefront II’s loot crate system was infamously bad. Players earned currency at a snail’s pace and virtually all game advancement was tied to loot crates. The contents of loot crates, however, were entirely random. There was no way to spend time in a specific game mode to unlock features, weapons, or abilities — you might spend 12 hours playing in one mode and earn rewards for a class you didn’t use or a game mode you didn’t play. EA’s defense of this system as “providing heroes with a sense of pride and accomplishment” was seen as a slap in the face to the community and a laughable insult to its intelligence.

They weren’t wrong. EA tried to hold the line on these decisions until Disney executives forced the company to pull the loot crate system just hours before launch. Now, the entire event — and EA’s worst-in-class loot box system — are recorded for posterity.

Hopefully, the executives in question get complementary copies of the tome. They could keep them on their desks as a reminder of what happens when greed and hubris overpower good game design. The reason I’m willing to frame the issue so bluntly is specifically that the entirely randomized nature of the loot crate system EA was poised to implement was obviously terrible to anyone who spent even a few minutes contemplating the question. Making your loot random and tying all loot into a loot crate mechanism is a terrible way to reward players. Most games tie at least some rewards directly to the core gameplay loot because players like to be rewarded for content they are running as opposed to receiving rewards that may have nothing to do with the parts of the game they enjoy playing.

EA hasn’t stopped trying to argue that its conduct in these events was blameless; the company took substantial heat earlier this year for describing its game mechanisms as ‘Quite ethical surprise mechanics.’ Thus far, neither the public nor legislators investigating whether loot boxes are equivalent to gambling have been willing to buy what the company is selling.

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September 9th 2019, 7:51 pm

Apple Says Google Blew iPhone Hacking Report Out of Proportion

ExtremeTech

Apple talks up iPhone security, but Zerodium says it's falling behind.

Apple is used to promoting the security of its products in comparison to the competition, but it was on the defensive last week following a report from Google’s Project Zero. According to Google researchers, iOS was the target of a sophisticated attack for two years until Google alerted Apple in early 2019. However, Apple is now seeking to downplay the severity of the attack, claiming Project Zero has blown the whole thing out of proportion

The news of Apple’s iPhone vulnerability broke recently with an in-depth report from Project Zero, a group at Google that specializes in uncovering zero-day hacks that threaten internet users. According to the team, a number of websites had deployed hacks that could install malware with root access on the iPhone. The operators of the sites could steal data, monitor phone locations, and even access the user’s on-device password storage. Google said the attacks operated “over a period of at least two years” and covered almost every version of iOS active during that time. 

Apple issued a press release late last week disputing part of Google’s findings. The iPhone maker strenuously objects to Google’s claim that the attacks operated for two years. In fact, Apple says it was closer to two months. Furthermore, Apple says it already knew about the flaws and was conveniently already working on a fix. It’s impossible to verify that claim, but it does sound suspect. Google’s Project Zero researchers are cited in Apple’s official changelog from February as reporting the flaws. 

The timeline of iOS hacks from Project Zero.

Apple also says the attack focused on the Uyghur community, a group of ethnically Turkic Muslims living in western China. Uyghurs have been targeted for persecution and imprisonment by Chinese authorities for years. The government often uses technological means like the iPhone hack to track and investigate the Uyghur population. 

Apple seems to be suggesting that Google wanted to make the flaws look more severe than they were, but Project Zero has traditionally conducted its business in without favoritism. In response to Apple’s criticism, Project Zero has issued a statement standing by its “in-depth research which was written to focus on the technical aspects of these vulnerabilities.”

Google is used to getting publicly chastised for security vulnerabilities — Android is open source, but Apple has the benefit of quietly patching exploits as it finds them in its closed software. Perhaps the iPhone maker is just a little overly sensitive with its new iPhone unveiling this week.

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September 9th 2019, 4:50 pm

Life, the Universe, and Math: 42 Proven to be the Sum of 3 Cubes

ExtremeTech

Image credit: Martinultima/Wikipedia 

The problem of 42 — at least as it relates to whether the number could be considered the sum of three cubes — has finally been solved. The question of whether every number under 100 could be expressed in this fashion has been a long-standing puzzle in the world of mathematics. Now, two mathematicians, Andrew Sutherland of MIT and Andrew Booker of Bristol, have jointly proven that 42 is indeed the sum of three cubes.

For years, mathematicians have worked to demonstrate that x3+y3+z3 = k, where k is defined as the numbers from 1-100. By 2016, researchers had demonstrated that this theory held true in all cases except for two unproven exceptions: 33 and 42. The formal theory, as expressed by Roger Heath-Brown in 1992, is that every k unequal to 4 or 5 modulo 9 has infinitely many representations as the sum of three cubes. By closing this particular gap, we’ve now proven that all numbers below 113 fit this theory.

Earlier this year, Andrew Booker of Bristol was inspired by a Numberphile video to begin working on a solution. We’ve embedded that video below:

Booker came up with a new, more efficient algorithm to search for a solution to the problem for these two values. The solution for 33 took about three weeks to find once the problem was run through a supercomputer at the UK’s Advanced Computing Research Centre. 42 proved a tougher nut to crack, so Booker paired up with Andrew Sutherland, who is an expert in massively parallel computation in addition to being a mathematician. The two enlisted the help of the Charity Engine, a distributed computing project that allows PCs to make money for charities through the donation of computing time.

Over a million hours of computation later, the team had its solution. In the equation x3+y3+z3 = k, let x = -80538738812075974, y = 80435758145817515, and z = 12602123297335631. Plug it all in, and you get (-80538738812075974)3 + 804357581458175153 + 126021232973356313 = 42. And with that, we’ve found solutions for all the values of k up to 100 (technically, up to 113).

“I feel relieved,” Booker said. “In this game, it’s impossible to be sure that you’ll find something. It’s a bit like trying to predict earthquakes, in that we have only rough probabilities to go by. So, we might find what we’re looking for with a few months of searching, or it might be that the solution isn’t found for another century.”

It may not prove that 42 is the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, but Douglas Adams clearly made the case for that solution in the mathematical and philosophical textbook, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Efforts to understand the Ultimate Question remain mired in disgruntled physics equations regarding the intrinsic difficulty of building planet-sized supercomputers with molten iron for a central core.

Top image credit: Martinultima/Wikipedia 

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September 9th 2019, 4:02 pm

ET Deals : Seagate IronWolf 8TB NAS HDD $189, iRobot Roomba i7+ $769, Ring Alarm 8-Piece Kit + Echo

ExtremeTech

Today you can save $70 on one of Seagate’s IronWolf 8TB HDDs. These drives are well suited as backup drives and network storage solutions due to their large capacity and long-term MTBF rating.

Seagate IronWolf 8TB 7,200RPM NAS HDD ($189.99)

Seagate designed its Ironwolf NAS HDDs as long-term network storage solutions. This particular model features a large 8TB capacity with 256MB of cache, and it’s MTBF rating is set at 1,000,000 hours. Currently, it’s marked down from $259.99 to $189.99.

iRobot Roomba i7+ 7550 Robot Vacuum w/ Automatic Dirt Disposal ($769.99)

If you’ve used a robot vacuum before, you may have found the need to empty its small dust bin a frequent nuisance. With the Roomba i7+, this becomes a significantly less bothersome choir as the robot is able to empty its dust bin into one 30 times larger located in its charging base. Currently, you can get it from Amazon marked down from $1,099.00 to $769.99.

Ring Alarm 8-Piece Kit with 3rd Gen Echo Dot ($169.00)

This eight-piece Ring Alarm kit comes with two motion sensors and three contact sensors to detect people walking around and opening doors in your home. The system also comes with a speaker that works as an alarm, a keypad for arming and deactivating the system, and a range extender to keep the various components connected. The bundle also comes with a 3rd gen Echo Dot that can be used to control the security system with voice commands. You can get it from Amazon right now marked down from $239.00 to $169.00.

Dell G3 15 Intel Core i7-9750H 15.6-Inch 1080p Gaming Laptop w/ Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti Max-Q, 16GB DDR4 RAM, 512GB NVMe SSD ($854.06)

Dell’s G3 gaming laptops are designed with a focus on providing the best performance possible at an affordable price. The system’s quality may not hold up against Dell’s higher-end XPS and Alienware notebooks, but with an Intel Core i7-9750H and a GTX 1660 Ti Max-Q graphics processor, it has plenty of performance for running modern games. Normally this system retails for $1,398.99 but right now you can get it for $854.06 with promo code SAVE17.

Roku Express+ HD ($30.00)

Roku is one of the oldest combatants in the neverending battle for dominance in the media streaming market. Its Express+ HD media player gives you unbiased access to over a thousand streaming channels without any monthly subscription fee. Right now you can get it marked down from $35.00 to $30.oo from Walmart.

Dell XPS 8930 Intel Core i7-9700 Desktop w/ Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti GPU, 16GB DDR4 RAM, 512GB M.2 NVMe SSD ($949.99)

Dell’s XPS 8930 desktop comes with an Intel Core i7-9700 processor with eight CPU cores that can operate at clock speeds as high as 4.7GHz. The system also comes with 16GB of DDR4 memory and one of Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1050 Ti graphics cards that can run games with medium graphics settings. You can get this system marked down from $1,399.99 to a more affordable $949.99 from Dell with promo code DTXPSAFF1.

Note: Terms and conditions apply. See the relevant retail sites for more information. For more great deals, go to our partners at TechBargains.com.

September 9th 2019, 4:02 pm

4 Automakers Agree to Cleaner California Air. Now They May Be Sued.

ExtremeTech

Is this crazy, or what: Four automakers face a Department of Justice investigation and possible lawsuit because they possibly conspired to, uh, build more fuel-efficient cars and help make California’s air cleaner. BMW, Ford, Honda, and Volkswagen are the reported targets of a Justice Department investigation into whether they skirted federal competition laws by agreeing with each other to agree to stricter emissions standards in California.

President Trump is mad at California and automakers standing in the way of his administration’s plan to roll back climate change regulations. It’s possible the DOJ is onto something if it can show the automakers agreed among themselves to act in a way that limits competition or product choices without involving the government beforehand. For instance, reducing the number of big SUVs sold there may be good for the air, but it might be seen as collusion.

States’ Rights vs. Executive Power

At a high level, the disagreement is over the rights of states to set a higher standard for higher fuel efficiency and lower air pollution–in this case, a right granted by federal laws (rather the 10th Amendment holding the “powers not delegated to the United States [are] reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”), and on the other hand, the powers of the executive branch.

The law at play here is the federal Clean Air Act, which dates to the 1960s. It has been modified over the years. It says the feds, not individual states, get to set clean air regulations. But there’s a huge loophole: Because California is the state most affected by car-driven air pollution since the end of World War II, the act lets California set more stringent standards. And it allows the other states to follow the same rules California sets (but not its own rules). Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico (model year 2011 and newer), New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington currently use California’s rules. These states represent the entire Pacific West Coast as well as the eastern seaboard from Maine to Washington, DC, and about a third of the US population. For what it’s worth, every California-rules state except Pennsylvania went for Clinton, not Trump, in the 2016 election.

In 2018, President Trump sought to roll back or freeze some fuel economy and air pollution standards. California wants to keep stricter rules. California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols, who was involved in the July agreement with the four automakers, says California’s emissions goals are achievable and they help US automakers because other countries, particularly China, hew closely to California’s rules. In other words, even if the US were to roll back standards, any automaker that wants a global footprint still has to engineer cars to meet the most stringent standards.

Trump “Enraged.” California Gov: “Political Interference.”

The President used his bully pulpit — Twitter — to excoriate BMW-Ford-Honda-VW. He called them “politically correct Automobile Companies [capitalizations his]” run by “Foolish executives” while the Golden State “will squeeze … [automakers] to a point of business ruin.”

Trump also tweeted that “Henry Ford would be very disappointed if he saw his modern-day descendants wanting to build a much more expensive car, that is far less safe and doesn’t work as well.” Pollution controls will increase vehicle cost — $3,000 a car according to Trump, or $2,100 a car by the Trump administration’s earlier statements. Factcheck.org said there’s little or no evidence that cars with higher mpg are less safe in accidents.

Lighter cars in accidents with heavier vehicles fare less well, but economy improvements could come from greater efficiencies rather than lightening a vehicle. At the same time, a lighter car does less damage to another lighter-weight car.

Consumer Reports weighed in and said Americans as a group will lose $460 billion in fuel savings “in the coming years if the federal government goes forward with plans to roll back the nation’s fuel economy and emissions standards for new cars and light-duty trucks.”

When The New York Times reported Trump was “enraged” by the audacity of California, his handlers opted to alert others in the media that The Times has correctly captured the President’s mood, according to Politico. California Gov. Gavin Newsom fired back at Trump’s “blatant political interference.”

Administration critics of the BMW-Ford-Honda-VW deal with California say the deal to raise fuel efficiency could mean the end of big SUVs and crossovers. Here, the 2019 Ford Expedition, with three rows of seats, room for eight, and EPA ratings of 18-20 mpg overall. The pact would raise efficiency to almost 50 mpg by 2026, although fuel efficiency mpg is higher than real-world mpg.

How It Came to This

The backstory dates to the early 1950s and the understanding almost 70 years ago of how smog affects California, to California clean air legislation signed by then Gov. Ronald Reagan, federal fuel economy and clean air legislation of the 1960s, and the California-US agreement thanks to the unique status of California and, in particular, the Los Angeles basin that traps smog.

California’s authority to act comes from the Clean Air Act, which was signed by President Richard Nixon.

When the Trump administration sought to ease some of the clean air standards, 17 automakers urged the White House to continue talks with California and avoid a legal battle. They warned that failure to reach agreement would lead to “an extended period of litigation and instability.” Of the 17, BMW, Ford, Honda, VW continued to discuss with California their support for strong clean-air/higher-mpg standards. They announced an agreement in late July. That’s what enraged the President.

The agreement has the four automakers agreeing to increase fuel efficiency standards by model year 2026, just six years away, to almost 50 mpg (fleet average). Note that what the government calls miles per gallon is considerably higher than the real-world mpg compliant cars would actually get. Between credits and dispensations that are the work of accountants and legislators, not engineers, a vehicle that gets roughly 35-40 mpg would be, roughly, a 50-mpg car for sake of the rules.

According to a Sept. 6 Wall Street Journal story by Timothy Puko and Ben Foldy with the tagline Politics (not Cars):

The four companies [BMW, Ford, Honda, VW] and the California Air Resources Board announced the deal in July to signal support for keeping one, nationwide emissions standard. Justice Department officials believe the agreement could effectively restrict competition by potentially limiting the types of cars and trucks the auto companies offer to consumers, according to people familiar with the department’s thinking. Such an impact of the deal—potentially cutting production of sport-utility vehicles and crossovers that burn more gasoline—could cross legal lines, the people said. Courts have prohibited such deals even if the motivation was for a public good, the people said.

The automakers would also be hurting themselves because big SUVs and pickups often have profit margins on the order of $10,000 per vehicle. To keep selling them, they’ll need to sell even more compact cars and hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and EVs.

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September 9th 2019, 2:19 pm

Microsoft Releases First Windows 10 PowerToys Add-Ons

ExtremeTech

In an earlier technological era when desktops ruled and laptops were briefcases, Microsoft released a suite of Windows 95 extensions called PowerToys. Despite a committed fan base, PowerToys faded away in newer versions of Windows, but Microsoft announced some months back that it was reviving PowerToys in Windows 10. Now, the first PowerToys utilities are available for download

For those who have forgotten (or are too young to remember), PowerToys debuted in Windows 95. These free add-ons extended the capabilities in Windows 95, and many of them became default features in newer versions of the operating system. The original batch of tools included starting a command prompt from an Explorer folder, auto-launching CD-ROMs, and moving window focus automatically with the mouse. In Windows XP, Microsoft experimented with batch image resizing in IE, file/folder synchronizing, and a more powerful calculator. Microsoft retired PowerToys following the release of Vista. 

It’s taken four months, but the first two PowerToys add-ons for Windows 10 are live on Microsoft’s GitHub. To get started, download the PowerToys installer and launch it. PowerToys lives in the system tray, allowing you to enable or disable each tool. Currently, there are two PowerToys available in the client: FancyZones and Shortcut Guide. 

At the time of the announcement, Shortcut Guide was the only tool Microsoft had fleshed out. The version we have now is indeed similar to what the company demoed in May. This tool helps you use all those Windows key shortcuts you probably don’t use. Simply hold the Windows key for a moment, and an overlay appears on the screen to remind you of features like managing virtual desktops, launching taskbar apps, and various setting shortcuts. 

The other PowerToys module, known as FancyZones, is a bit more advanced. This tool lets you create custom window layouts for more efficient multitasking. For example, you might want to split your monitor into three columns instead of the two zones you get with snapping in Windows 10. Alternatively, you might just want windows floating in a particular area of the screen. Just create a layout or choose one of the templates, and then hold Shift while dragging to drop windows into one of your custom zones — they’ll snap right into place. You can also choose to override the Windows Snap hotkey (Win + arrow) with FancyZones. 

This is only the first release, and Microsoft plans to release a lot more tools. If the new PowerToys is anything like the old one, it may give us a glimpse at features that will come bundled in future Windows builds.

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September 9th 2019, 1:46 pm

These Top-Rated Keyboards and Mice Are All on Sale For Labor Day

ExtremeTech

Laptops are great, but when it comes to doing serious work as either a student or professional, sometimes you just need a standard keyboard and mouse to get the job done. These keyboards are mice have all received rave reviews online, and each one is available for a significant discount today only.

1. Azio GM2400 Gaming Mouse

Dominate your gaming competition with this LED-enabled and ergonomically-designed mouse, which features a rubberized surface and contouring for increased grip consistency and accuracy.

2. Azio MK MAC USB Keyboard

This minimalist, tactile keyboard gives you greater control as you type, and allows you to intuitively roll the volume adjustment wheel if you need to raise or lower your sound.

3. Azio Retro Classic Mouse (RCM)

This stylish mouse features the latest PixArt sensors that will help you work efficiently on your most detailed projects, and you’ll be able to connect wirelessly via Bluetooth or a USB receiver.

4. Azio Aventa Mouse

Featuring a top-of-the-line PixArt optical sensor, this mouse is ideal for gamers who want ultimate control and comfort. It even boasts a link alloy exoskeleton for added stability.

5. Azio Retro Classic Bluetooth Keyboard

This classic keyboard combines old-school style with modern functionality—thanks to a 50s layout along with Bluetooth connectivity.

6. Azio Atom Mouse

Perfect for gaming fanatics who want a combination of power and comfort, this mouse features an optical sensor and a whopping 20-million-click lifecycle along with micro-switches.

Prices are subject to change. 

September 9th 2019, 11:31 am

Huawei’s Kirin 990 SoC Is the First Chip With an Integrated 5G Modem

ExtremeTech

Huawei’s year has been anything but good, but the company has pushed ahead with new technology introductions and smartphone designs. The Chinese firm has now announced its latest SoC, the Kirin 990. The new chip will ship in two flavors — the Kirin 990, and the Kirin 990 5G. These two chips are based on the same SoC design, but there are some significant differences between them.

First, the Kirin 990 5G is built on TSMC’s 7nm+ process node, which utilizes EUV. The Kirin 990, in contrast, is a standard 7nm design. It seems as though Huawei will be the first customer to ship a part that uses EUV for manufacturing. Huawei’s stated reason for using EUV for the 5G variant is that it allowed for a smaller die. Die size on the 5G part is larger than 100mm2, while the LTE chip is less than 90mm2. Transistor counts are also significantly different, with the LTE chip at 8B and the 5G chip at 10.3B.

One interesting fact that Anandtech mentions is that the Kirin 990 was originally expected to use ARM’s Cortex-A77 CPU, not the Cortex-A76. Apparently the Huawei team didn’t like how the Cortex-A77 clocked on TSMC’s 7nm process node. The A77 had higher peak performance, but overall power efficiency between the A76 and A77 was practically identical on 7nm and the A76 design was capable of hitting much higher clocks. Supposedly the A77 tops out around 2.2GHz on 7nm at the moment and the design may not be used widely until 5nm CPUs are available.

The new ARM Mali-G76 implementation is substantially wider than the 10-core implementation used on the previous generation Kirin 980. GPU power efficiency can often be improved by using a wider GPU clocked at lower frequencies, and Huawei believes the new GPU design will still be more power-efficient than the old Kirin 980, despite being substantially wider.

The NPU design is a homegrown Huawei effort. Where the company previously licensed an NPU from Cambricon, the new Kirin 990 uses Huawei’s Da Vinci architecture. Huawei intends to scale this AI processing block from servers to smartphones. It supports both INT8 and FP16 on both cores, whereas the older Cambricon design could only perform INT8 on one core. There’s also a new ‘Tiny Core’ NPU. It’s a smaller version of the Da Vinci architecture focused on power efficiency above all else, and it can be used for polling or other applications where performance isn’t particularly time critical. The 990 5G will have two “big” NPU cores and a single Tiny Core, while the Kirin 990 (LTE) has one big core and one tiny core.

Huawei’s Balong modem will support sub-6GHz 5G signals with a maximum of 2.3Gbps download and 1.25Gbps upload. Overall CPU performance improvements from the Kirin 980 to the Kirin 990 are modest — Huawei claims single-threaded gains of 9 percent and multi-threaded boosts of 10 percent. Power efficiency, however, has improved significantly. The top-end cores are supposedly 12 percent more efficient, the “middle” cores of Huawei’s Big.Little.littlest are supposedly 35 percent more efficient, and the low-end Cortex-A55 chips are 15 percent more efficient. Most workloads are supposed to run on the middle cores for maximum performance/watt.

It seems unlikely that these devices will come to the US market in any numbers, though you may be able to buy them from third-party resellers if the Trump Administration doesn’t take further action against the company. While devices are going to start carrying 5G modems from this point forward, I’ve yet to see a 5G phone I’d actually recommend. While it’s true that the first generation of LTE devices didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory, the first generation of LTE devices didn’t overheat and shutdown when summer temperatures rose above 85F / 29.4C. They didn’t require you to be literally standing underneath an LTE access point in order to see faster service, either. Verizon has already stated that outside city centers, its 5G network will closely resemble “good 4G,” which raises the question of what, exactly, consumers are paying all this money for.

The first LTE devices were the HTC Evo 4G, the Samsung Craft, and the HTC Thunderbolt. They sold for $200, $350, and $250, respectively, though this was in the era of two-year contracts. Apple’s first LTE device was the iPhone 5, which cost $649 if purchased without a contract. Assuming Apple and the other Android manufacturers continue to offer 5G as a luxury feature, we’ll likely only see it on devices at or above the $1000 price point for the next 12 months. I wouldn’t pay $1000 for a phone under any circumstances, but I definitely wouldn’t step up to a $1000+ device to buy a feature that I’ve got no chance of using at any point in the next few years.

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September 9th 2019, 10:43 am

Ring Provided a Map of Its Customers to Police

ExtremeTech

Ring was one of the first companies to make video doorbells and has since expanded to other home security products. As part of its aggressive strategy after the Amazon acquisition, Ring has partnered with hundreds of police departments across the US. This program has proven controversial, and it becomes more so with each new report. According to a new leak, Ring’s pitch to police sometimes includes a map of active Ring customers, something it previously said it would not do. 

Ring’s current strategy seems to be signing up as many law enforcement organizations as possible to be partners. The agreements signed with police call for departments to promote Ring products, in some cases creating new positions specifically to coordinate with the company and residents. Buy getting residents to sign up for the Ring Neighbors app, police earn credit toward free cameras they can distribute to the community. The benefit to police is access to the Ring Neighbors portal. There, police can request access to video clips from doorbells around their jurisdiction. 

Ring has long maintained that it protects the privacy of users in the Neighbors portal. The newly leaked emails and documents certainly call that into question. The emails relate to Ring’s deal with Georgia’s Gwinnett County Police Department. A Ring representative shared two maps with the police, both showing active Ring camera locations inside Gwinnett County. One map was zoomed out, showing just an unresolved blob of red dots, but the other was more zoomed in, showing more accurately where the cameras were. 

The maps of active Ring cameras provided by Ring to Gwinnett County Police.

In the months after the maps went out, Ring and Gwinnett County went back and forth to hammer out the deal. Ring eventually provided about $15,000 worth of cameras to get police started. Like other leaked “Memorandums of Understanding,” the agreement with Gwinnett County required the police to spend time promoting Ring’s products and services. In some cases, police even provide Ring with access to 911 call data in order to post updates in the Neighbors app. The company believes this helps encourage users to engage with police and provide video footage when asked. 

On some level, it’s not outlandish to help people voluntarily provide video footage to police. Police have long done the same thing simply by canvassing areas around crime scenes for security cameras. The issue cited by privacy advocates is how easy Ring makes it for police to request mountains of data they may not need. Ring itself also has a sordid history. It’s been less than a year since Ring came under fire for giving employees full access to customer video. It’s hard to trust Ring to run a surveillance operation with police in an ethical way with no oversight.

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September 9th 2019, 9:43 am

World of Warcraft Classic vs. Retail, Part 1: Which Early Game Plays Better?

ExtremeTech

Ever since World of Warcraft Classic launched, I’ve been burning a significant amount of time in Azeroth. While the game is no longer as popular as it once was, it’s played on an ongoing basis by millions of people worldwide. Classic offers a unique chance to return to the original version of a multiplayer game and to experience a bit of gaming history in the process. This article compares the leveling and adventuring experience of the first third of WoW, spanning levels 1-20.

In this article, “Retail” refers to the current version of the game, “Classic” refers to the new servers Blizzard launched in late August, and “Vanilla” refers to the original game and associated experiences from 2004 onwards. References to Vanilla are historical references.

About the Author, Test Rules

I have played World of Warcraft since well before the game launched. I joined the Closed Beta in March 2004, just after the Tri-Horde push. I briefly played a Paladin, but ultimately wound up maining a Warlock and hit Lvl 60 before the game launched. I wrote extensively on Warlocks at the time, but once WoW had actually shipped I decided I’d rather try a new role and class and rolled a Paladin on Zul’jin. I have mained a Paladin ever since and have reviewed the game and its expansions over the past 15 years, for various publications.

Lakeshire, Redridge Mountains. Left is Retail, right is Classic. I’m rather proud of how well I was able to blend these two images, screenshots are hard to match across two different game clients. Click to enlarge.

I’ve tested the game(s) by leveling a Paladin in both Retail and in Classic. I recall the original Paladin leveling experience in Classic, and I wanted to use a class I was familiar with in both versions of the game. Paladins are not the fastest levelers in Classic, but they have excellent survivability. They are also capable of fulfilling all three of the game’s primary roles (DPS, healing, tanking) while leveling in both Classic and Retail. Protection Warriors are preferred tanks for endgame raiding in Classic, but for leveling, all of the hybrid classes (Druid, Shaman, Paladin) have healing, DPS, and tanking options.

My goal with this series of articles is to compare the leveling and game experience between Classic and Retail, without taking advantage of any of the additional bonuses Retail players can use to level faster. Retail WoW offers Heirloom gear — items that increase in level every time you do. Several of these items also increase the amount of experience you earn. My Retail playthrough does not use these items. I do not craft gear for my Retail Paladin using a different character. This means that my Retail Paladin will not level as quickly as a Retail player with alts is likely to level today. My goal, however, is not to compare the experience of playing WoW with tons of alts, but to compare how the game feels and plays with a new player experiencing the game for the first time in both versions. I’ve met people in Classic and Retail experiencing WoW for the first time in 2019.

I have sought to duplicate my original play-through in all the particulars I can still remember. My Paladin — Tovah on Classic, Tovahlt on Retail — has used the same zones for leveling and played through the same content. I have taken the same professions (Blacksmithing, Mining) on both. I have spent time in game leveling both my professions and my character, but I handle the profession leveling at natural down points for doing so. I have avoided going Away From Keyboard (AFK) on either character so that my leveling speed measurements remain accurate. If I need to go AFK, I log out first.

I have used no add-ons for my Lvl 1-20 experience. While I played with add-ons as an endgame Vanilla raider, there weren’t very many available when I was leveling in the earliest parts of Classic, and I wanted to replicate my experience as closely as possible.

Finally, please keep in mind that this is a leveling comparison that specifically focuses on Lvl 1-20. It is not a dungeon comparison or a DPS/tanking comparison. It most certainly is not an endgame raid comparison. I will address all of these topics as they are relevant in future articles.

Let’s Get to Fighting

The first thing to know about World of Warcraft Classic versus Retail is that these are two different games that happen to share a common engine and the same graphical assets. The experience of playing a Paladin in WoW Classic is entirely different from the experience of playing in WoW Retail. Retail is faster, more polished, and less grindy, but has a very different difficulty curve. Classic is slower and requires more grinding, but can also feel more rewarding.

Three Corners, at the border of Elwynn and Redridge. Classic WoW, click to enlarge.

In both cases, my Paladin begins the game with a handful of core capabilities. In Classic, Paladins use what’s called the Seal/Judgement system. Seals affect your attack in various ways. My first Seal, Seal of Righteousness (SoR), inflicts a flat amount of additional holy damage on any mob I strike. I can then cast Judgement a target to inflict additional damage, but this consumes the Seal (which must be re-cast and costs mana). In Retail, I have a quick melee attack, Crusader Strike, on a long cooldown. Judgment still exists in Retail, but it isn’t linked to any other attack and doesn’t require that I refresh a separate ability after I use it. Characters in Retail WoW have far fewer spells than Classic WoW does and class abilities are gated based on your current specialization (Holy, Retribution, or Protection for healing, damage-dealing, and tanking roles).

Three Corners, Retail WoW. Click to enlarge

The first difference I notice favors Retail. Casting Crusader Strike and watching the animation play is viscerally more interesting than SoR. SoR adds damage, but it doesn’t play a different attack animation when it triggers. The flow of combat is completely different between the two games. In Retail, mobs die so quickly, there’s no meaningful skill or strategy required to deal with them. I spend far more time waiting for my two abilities (Crusader Strike and Judgment) to come off cooldown than anything else.

In Classic, you start with the Holy Light healing spell and the game expects you to use it. It becomes immediately apparent that the class is designed around the idea that you will heal during combat. Retail creatures have far fewer hitpoints and kill speed in Retail is much faster than it is in Classic. It can take 15-60 seconds to kill a single creature in Classic, particularly if it is 3-4 levels higher than you. In Retail, this is impossible — all creatures are the same level you are unless you deliberately enter a zone you aren’t ready to play in yet. You don’t even get a heal until Lvl 8 and you’ll scarcely use it.

The slideshow above compares Retail and Classic WoW in terms of graphical settings, draw distance, and some other changes between the two versions. I went for as close to an “apples-to-apples” comparison as I could frame between the two.

Game Difficulty, Leveling Speed

The biggest difference between Retail and Classic is the underlying difficulty of the game. Classic WoW can be genuinely difficult, particularly if you wander around in areas intended for players above your level. It is not unusual to see mobs spawn in packs of 3-5. A Paladin between levels 1-20 might manage to kill a pack of three monsters but pulling 5 creatures at equal level with normal gear is going to get you killed. Mobs are often packed close together and spawn with no warning. Because creatures in Classic WoW have their own independent levels, you can adjust the game difficulty by where you choose to play. Playing in a zone with quests a little too low for you will be easier; playing in a zone where the quests are orange or red will be significantly harder or downright impossible. There are fewer quests overall, and you may wind up making long treks to other areas (or simply killing monsters) to finish off a level and open more content.

In Retail WoW, all creatures are the same level you are. They have far fewer hitpoints and you carve through them like butter. This level-matching means that the game offers a flat difficulty curve. Classic WoW had some quests that were substantially harder than others. In Retail, quest difficulty is static and stuck on “Easy.” This disparity is part of why leveling in Retail is so much faster than leveling in Classic. Retail also has more quests available, the quests are gathered into the same area to make finding them easier, quest items are highlighted, and there are more flight points to move you around the early zones. When you don’t have a mount yet, those flight points are worth their weight in gold.

In Classic, if I see someone running away from a group of enemies, it’s because they’re about to die. In Retail, if I see someone being chased by a group of enemies, it’s because they’re gathering them up for more efficient slaughter. If I had to pick one observed difference between the two games that captures the essence of playing them, it would be that.

Classic doesn’t have to be a challenge, but you can play it that way if you want to. Retail leveling simply isn’t challenging. The only exception to this was when I walked into the Deadmines (a 5-man instanced dungeon) and started killing the elite mobs on my own. Gold elite mobs in Classic will have your guts for garters if you try to take them 1v1 in the early part of the game. In Classic, I have to be careful about how many mobs I pull, and what level they are relative to me. I also have to make sure I’m topped up on mana and health before a multi-mob fight and I will have to heal between every engagement. In Retail, I almost never stop to eat or drink.

The combined impact of these changes means that leveling in Retail WoW is much, much faster than in Classic. Below are my leveling times for each level in Classic versus Retail. The line isn’t straight because I was able to bounce through some levels faster than others by turning in a ton of quests at the same time. The graph below shows my cumulative leveling time at each level. The trend is quite clear:

As of this writing, I have played 492 minutes (8.2 hours) in Retail and 1713 minutes (28.5 hours) in Classic. 17-18 was a pain point; the zones I was questing in were both stuffed with players and it took me a while to complete quest objectives. I also spent time leveling up professions at 17. I hit Lvl 20 in Retail more than 3x faster than I achieved the same goal in Classic.

In Classic WoW, the best way to increase your leveling speed is to level in dungeons or do quests in groups. The relatively short time I spent going from 18-19 and 19-20 is because I ran Deadmines in the first instance and grouped up with people to do quests in the second. In Retail, it scarcely matters. Hitting dungeons is a good way to learn how to group and get some quests out of the way, but you don’t need to do it. If you have Heirloom gear, you already have better items than you’ll get otherwise.

How the Class Evolves

In Classic WoW, the Paladin is a support class, with strong, short-term buffs. Paladins have more buffs than any other class and our buffs have unique effects that no other single class has. We can give bonuses to attack power and mana regeneration, reduce the damage taken by physical attacks, reduce the threat other classes generate, transfer damage taken by other classes to ourselves, and buff the resistances of other classes (and ourselves) to various elemental damage. I’m still missing most of these abilities at Level 20, but I cast the ones I have constantly. In Classic WoW, your choice of specification (Ret, Holy, Protection) is basically a “flavor” layered on top of a strong support class. Running around the world and buffing random folks is one of the joys of Classic WoW and people frequently return the favor, even though our buffs are short (5 minutes).

In Retail WoW, each class has far fewer abilities and the abilities you do have are tied much more tightly to your particular spec. Because Blizzard has made a number of changes to WoW to reduce its difficulty and the importance of grouping, most of our buff capability is gone as well. In Classic, I buffed people from Lvl 1 forward. In Retail, I won’t even get Blessing of Kings until Lvl 58. Distinctive class abilities in Classic, like the ability to Lay on Hands (fully heal my target at the expense of all my mana), are already unlocked by Lvl 20 but don’t unlock until much later in Retail.

Both versions of the game have Talent points that you invest periodically to improve your skills and abilities. In Classic, you begin unlocking talent points at Lvl 10 and earn one talent point per level. The value of each individual talent point is mostly low. Classic WoW has certain core talents in each tree that you unlock after investing a certain number of points.  One problem with Classic that hits every class in one way or another is that certain talents have much less utility than others. Discipline Priests, for example, have to invest 5 points in either Wand Specialization (more wand damage) or 15% fear/stun/interrupt resistance. Wand damage is marginally useful for leveling. Neither option is very good.

Every class has a number of subpar talent choices like this. Retribution Paladins, however, have some reasonably solid choices for talent point investment when leveling and my 11th talent point at Lvl 20 unlocks the primary DPS ability I’ll use for the rest of the game: Seal of Command. Talents cannot be changed in Classic without paying gold to an NPC who can reset them for you, and the fee for resetting your talents goes up each time you do it, to a maximum of 50 gold.

Technically this is a screenshot from WoWHead, but it displays the data in higher resolution than a cropped shot in WoW. Classic WoW Paladin Talent Calculator 

In Retail WoW, talents are unlocked every 15 levels except for the last. Each specialization has its own talent tree and there are always three options for each level. The retail talent system reflects Blizzard’s efforts to fix the old Talent system. Every class in Classic WoW has at least some talents that are borderline useless, and some classes have entire trees or roles that are unused in the endgame due to poor design and a deliberate decision made by Blizzard to force all of the hybrid classes into principally healing roles for endgame content. Retail WoW has never completely solved the useless talent problem, but there’s usually at least one good option out of three. This system may well work better mechanically, but it doesn’t feel as fulfilling while leveling, at least not to me. Opinions on this point are split and may reflect how good (or bad) your classes talent trees were in Classic to start with.

WoW Paladin Talents Retail. Some of the Classic talents are still available in this tree.

I have far fewer talents and spells to juggle in Retail than in Classic. Combined with the very low difficulty and high kill speed, this makes Retail WoW rather boring to play while leveling by comparison. The flip side, as we’ve seen, is that leveling is much faster. At Lvl 20, my Classic Paladin’s utility comes from his ability to heal himself and others during combat, his damage, and his buffs. In Retail, I kill things quickly… and that’s pretty much it.

Why Leveling Is More Fun in Classic WoW

Leveling in Classic WoW is slower than in Retail, but in my opinion, it’s also far more fun. There’s a contradiction at the heart of the Classic versus Retail comparison that has to be unpacked to be understood. By every objective metric, Retail should be more fun. Leveling is faster, and difficulty is more consistent. Quests are easier to do. Some quest chains are frankly more interesting, thanks to the use of phasing content (phasing refers to the ability to change how the world looks for players who are on a specific part of a quest chain; WoW Classic completely lacks this feature).

But one consequence of this complete lack of difficulty is a sort-of boring sameness. In Classic, I check people’s health bars as I run by and buff nearly everyone I see. Even if I had buffs in Retail WoW, they wouldn’t matter, because no one needs them. Kill speeds are so fast, there’s no point in even trying to help someone. By the time I reach them, they’ve already killed whatever mob they targeted. It’s still faster to level in a group, but there’s no real need to work together in any way to do it, beyond targeting the same type of mob. When I group with other people in Classic, I assume whatever role will bring utility to the group — healing, if I’m the only healer, or DPSing if I’m not.

The dramatically lower difficulty and the way the game has been streamlined means that many NPC trainers are useless in Retail today. They still exist, but they can’t teach you anything — skills are acquired automatically, at no cost. Classic WoW requires you to carefully manage your money and weigh the benefits of purchasing an item on the AH against what your future skill upgrades will cost you. Retail requires no such calculation.

Why has Blizzard flattened, accelerated, and simplified leveling this way? Because of alts.

When Blizzard built World of Warcraft, it designed the game to make it easy to hit max level and to maintain alternative well-geared characters, known as “alts.” New character classes and races have been introduced with several expansions, along with new starting areas or experiences to give players incentive to hit the leveling treadmill once again.

While it’s absolutely possible to level a character in WoW using different zones (and therefore having different experiences), people who have leveled 4-12 alts have long since worn the bloom off the metaphorical rose. Players have consistently pushed Blizzard to make leveling faster and easier. When the overwhelming majority of people are playing in the endgame, making people run a bunch of dungeons to hit maximum level in an acceptable amount of time just encourages them to quit playing altogether. All of the changes Blizzard has made to leveling, as near as I can tell, stem from a desire to make the game more accessible to people leveling their 10th character as opposed to their first. And players have relentlessly pushed for these changes because no one really enjoys running through the exact same content for the 10th or 15th time.

It makes perfect sense, but the end result is a substandard experience. Thus far, from levels 1-20, there’s virtually no challenge in Retail WoW. Classic WoW is not particularly hard by default, but you can play it in a way that’ll stretch your own abilities. The wide availability of buffs and the difficulty of higher-level content encourage grouping in a way that Retail doesn’t require.

Community

Right now, two things are true:

  1. WoW Classic’s community is vastly more vibrant, polite, fun, and enjoyable than anything currently going on in retail.
  2. I am not certain I can argue this makes WoW Classic’s community “better” in any lasting way.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that the current community atmosphere in WoW Classic is more fun than anything I’ve seen in retail in years. People are grouping together, playing together, and being downright polite. Chat is full of mock arguments over whether it’s called Deadmines or Van Cleef, not political debates. Chuck Norris memes and discussions of vanilla game mechanics dominate chat. Yes, I’ve seen people being jerks. It hasn’t been the norm.

I have a few ideas about why this is true.

First, remember that a lot of people have fond memories of WoW Classic. Nostalgia is a powerful draw; being able to run content with your friends and family for the first time, again is a powerful draw. I know parents who play WoW with their children and spouses who raid together. A lot of people are having a lot of fun in Classic for this reason alone. Happy people buff each other, they take turns on spawn points, and they line up for quests. Classic WoW’s very early game (1-10) is definitely more difficult than Retail WoW’s equivalent, but Elwynn Forest is still a pretty gentle place to play.

When I’m walking in Stormwind…

WoW’s early game hits an agreeable sweet spot in terms of leveling speed, and while zone crowding is annoying, there are usually some ways to mitigate it — some zones are more popular than others, and there are optimal routes to take in terms of leveling speed. Spawn rates and drop rates are low enough to be annoying, but they aren’t so annoying as to make the game unplayable. There are advantages to having a lot of people running around. Folks are willing to group up easily and groups can knock out higher-level quests than a solo player can. Leveling speed in groups is fast enough to compete with Retail, and the game encourages grouping. Right now, the game is easy enough that even a not-very-good player can play it.

I’ve spoken to people who explicitly say they came back to Classic because they wanted the more challenging experience it offers. I’m one of them. There’s a contingent of retail players that sneer at the idea that anyone would want to go back to Classic. They’re wrong to do so. A lot of people, including me, are having more fun in Classic than we’ve had in Retail WoW in years.

But as nice as the current situation is, any fair consideration of the topic has to acknowledge the other side of the coin.

Yes, Classic WoW is currently a fun, happy place to be — certainly happier than retail. But the bloom is currently very much on the rose. There’s a certain critical mass of players that need to be moving through a zone in World of Warcraft Classic to ensure enough people to form groups for various dungeons, or even for quests. Without enough people to do group quests or dungeons, you’re locked out of the better items and quicker leveling these areas offer. People who like doing quests to see the plot points don’t get to see them. Gear that would make your leveling easier remains out of reach.

As people level up, the early zones empty out, and leveling slows down. It’s going to be harder to find people to group up with to do quests and move through content quickly. Running dungeons is a great way to level, but running dungeons on alts still requires finding people to play with. As the early zones empty out, groups get harder to find. Joining a guild can help, but leveling alts was still a pretty slow process and one consistent complaint that players made to Blizzard was that it was too hard to find people to run dungeons with.

I’m only discussing community in terms of groups in this article — the damn thing is long enough already — but I think that makes sense for 1-20, where most grouping is done in temporary clusters rather than in-guilds. Nonetheless, Classic WoW encourages grouping for mob-tagging and faster questing/dungeoneering. That’s a wonderful thing when there’s plenty of people to play with. It’s not great at all when you don’t have them around.

WoW Classic is designed to funnel players toward endgame content. Level 60 is the end-state. This is one issue that’s going to reoccur, and that’s why I’m not terribly comfortable waxing poetic about the wonderful nature of the Classic community. It’s not because people aren’t being helpful; they very much are. It’s because some of the changes that Blizzard put into the game between Vanilla and Battle for Azeroth may have weakened the community bonds of the game, but they were changes Blizzard made to try and support what many players themselves said they wanted. At the same time, yes, there were players who were absolutely against these changes. Every expansion of WoW has made significant changes to the underlying game mechanics.

The social dynamics of WoW changed when cross-server battlegrounds went in (I was making my own run for Commander at the time). They changed when multi-queue battlegrounds went in. They changed when the LFG and LFR tools were put into the game. There are people who preferred the social dynamics of the game in Vanilla and people playing Battle for Azeroth today who wouldn’t go back to Vanilla if you paid them to do it. I don’t know that one is better than the other, but I do know that Vanilla’s original social model certainly wasn’t perfect.

But I will say this. There is no better time to play Classic World of Warcraft than right now. The game is best experienced on a well-populated server, with plenty of people leveling alongside you.

Classic Isn’t Perfect, But It Wins the Early Game Comparison

Are there downsides to Classic? Absolutely. You’ll spend a lot of time running hither-and-yon in search of quest mats and quest givers, taking notes from Person A to Person B, and staring at the ass-end of a gryphon. Retail has some better quests and better quest availability. Being able to find a group in the dungeon finder can be a godsend if you only have a little while to play and wanted to get in a dungeon run. Retail WoW is more flexible and vastly more respectful of your time. If I had to pick which game I’d rather level five characters in, I’d pick Retail. Asked which game I’d rather level in once — at least from 1-20 — I’d pick Classic. That may change as we progress.

In some of my past articles on WoW, some of you have asked why I didn’t really dive into the differences between Retail and Classic. This article is the reason. Once I started unpacking the differences, there were a lot of differences to be unpacked — so many that after some consideration, I realized I’d have to split the article into parts. There’s simply no other way to speak to the way WoW has evolved in its intervening years or to explore the differences in content and community.

One thing I also want to note is that I’m not speaking strictly from nostalgia, here. Last year, I persuaded my fiancée to give WoW a try for the first time and leveled a Monk with her. I’ve done the leveling experience in Retail already and my opinion on it hasn’t changed that much between then and now. Doing it on two different versions of the same character class gave me a lot of insight into how Paladins have changed and having Classic to play has let me refresh my 15-year-old memories — but it hasn’t changed my thoughts on the Retail side of the experience.

I understand why Blizzard has made the changes that it made to WoW and why it made them, but I hope the company spends some time analyzing the fact that a 15-year-old memory of its game offers a better starting experience than the current one does. I’m not saying WoW has to evolve back towards Vanilla to make itself more fun, but the current Retail experience just isn’t as good. It feels hollowed-out compared with the original game, and the lack of any real difficulty means I’m not looking forward to playing it as much as I’m enjoying Classic — at least so far. We’ll see what 21-40 hold.

In conclusion, for those of you who made it this far, I’ll leave you with the below. Keep an eye out for Hodor and Ronda Rousey.

I’m glad to be back in Classic — gladder than I ever thought I would be, to be honest. That may change as I move into the endgame. It’s not clear yet if Druids, Shaman, and Paladins will get a better shake in non-healing rolls in 2019 than they got in 2004, and a lot of hybrid players were unhappy with WoW precisely because of this limitation. Classic WoW had endgame balance problems that are not apparent while leveling and while I’m focused on reviewing the game as I’m playing it, I recall those issues all too well.

But all of that is in the future. For now, I’m off to craft myself a hammer and see what I can smash with it.

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September 9th 2019, 9:32 am

DMVs Are Selling Data to Private Investigators, Marketing Firms

ExtremeTech

A new report shows that the DMVs (Department of Motor Vehicles) in many states are taking full advantage of the modern information economy, and they’re making bank doing it. The data we’re required to hand over by law in order to qualify for a driver’s license is being used for very different purposes than you likely intend. Specifically, it’s being sold to private investigators.

That’s the result of a major Motherboard investigation into how DMVs are using the personal data of the citizens they supposedly serve. Like a lot of companies these days, DMVs sell data. Insurance companies buy some of the data, but much of it is being sold to other sources, like private investigators. Such data is apparently popular for surveilling cheating spouses, and the same private investigators that advertise such services are apparently major purchasers.

Data and graph by Vice

Multiple DMVs stressed that they don’t sell social security numbers or photographs, as if this represents some kind of meaningful protection. Some contracts with these investigators are for bulk searches; some are targeted searches. The cost per search is as low as $0.01, and these contracts can run for months at a time.

“The selling of personally identifying information to third parties is broadly a privacy issue for all and specifically a safety issue for survivors of abuse, including domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and trafficking,” Erica Olsen, director of Safety Net at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told Motherboard in an email. “For survivors, their safety may depend on their ability to keep this type of information private.”

All of this is perfectly legal, thanks to the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, which was passed in 1994. While that law was specifically intended to increase the protections surrounding DMV databases, it included specific carve-outs for private investigators. Granted, the text of the law states that private investigators are only allowed to access these records for a “permitted” DPPA use, but apparently that’s not an issue.

The exact data sold varies from state to state, but it typically includes at least a name and address. Other data, including zip codes, phone numbers, date of birth, and email address are also included depending on the state. The DMV also sells data to credit reporting companies like Experian and LexisNexis. Delaware has arrangements with more than 300 entities. Wisconsin has more than 3,000.

Why are DMVs going down this road? Money. Delaware brought in $384,000 for itself between 2015 and 2019, while the Wisconsin DMV brought in $17M in 2018 alone, up from just $1.1M in 2015. In Florida, the DMV made an eye-popping $77M just in 2017. The contracts with various DMVs explicitly state that the purpose of these agreements is to generate revenue, and the states are aware that some of the information they sell to third-parties is abused. Whether their controls for catching and locking abusers out of these systems are adequate are an entirely different question.

It is long past time for the United States to pass better privacy laws. There is absolutely no justification for the current free-for-all. There is no standard for how data-sharing agreements should be overseen. Local investigations have found that Florida is selling data to marketing firms, not just private investigators, and some citizens have been hit with an onslaught of robocalls and spam as a result. Florida sells data to Acxiom, one of the largest data brokers in America. Acxiom is not a PI firm, just in case you were wondering. Citizens who have been slammed with robocalls, direct mail, and even door-to-door salesman showing up at their homes as a result of this relentless data-selling have no recourse. There’s no one to complain to, there’s no way to get taken off the lists, and there’s no way to prevent their own data from being endlessly sold. Robocalls have become such an epidemic, people now actively avoid answering the phone unless they know the number of the person calling them.

People often ask questions like “Why should I care if someone sells my data?” but don’t connect the question to the fact that they get 15 robocalls a day. Sexual assault and domestic violence survivors may not have those kind of options. But privacy shouldn’t be a right that depends on whether someone is threatening to harm you physically. Privacy should be the default state, particularly when it concerns the government organizations virtually all of us are required to interface with.

If you ever drive in the United States, you must have a driver’s license. Just as with credit reporting agencies, none of us get any choice in the manner. The legal system allows states and the federal government to create effectively mandatory standards because it recognizes that doing so helps ensure the safety of everyone. But if the legal system is going to require that citizens submit data to the federal and/or state government for licensing and registration purposes, it ought to simultaneously require that said data is kept private and only accessed under strictly controlled conditions. The idea that people “opt in” to these practices simply by existing has been stretched past the breaking point. It’s time for a change.

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September 9th 2019, 7:58 am

Lemonade Uses AI To Get You Insurance Claims Paid Out Faster

ExtremeTech

We’re guessing that every adult you know either owns or rents a home. Whether they’re living it up in a mansion in Malibu or squeezing by in a five-person studio in Queens, having a home is understandably important for most of us.

Yet surprisingly few people invest in-home or renter’s insurance and those who do tend to drastically overpay.

Lemonade eliminates all of the inevitable headaches that come from purchasing insurance for your all-important abode—offering full coverage for a fraction of what you’ll pay in a more traditional insurance market.

With renter’s insurance starting at just $5 per month and homeowner’s insurance beginning at just $25, this streamlined digital platform is perfect for urban dwellers who want to protect their belongings without breaking the bank.

Lemonade uses the latest AI technology in order to craft the perfect policy for your specific needs, and you’ll be able to get insured in a matter of seconds. And in the event that you need to make a claim, you can receive your funds in as little as three minutes with the click of a button.

Simplify the insurance mayhem by signing up with Lemonade. Your home and your wallet will thank you.

September 7th 2019, 1:41 pm

Best CPU Deals: Intel Core i7 and AMD Ryzen Threadripper Processors – September 2019

ExtremeTech

A computer’s CPU is arguably the most important component inside of any computer. It has the biggest impact on a system’s overall performance, and it’s typically one of the most expensive parts as well. Thanks to the stiff ongoing competition between AMD and Intel, however, you can take advantage of sales and price cuts to save on these critically important parts.

Featured Deals

AMD CPU Deals

Intel CPU Deals

Important Considerations When Buying A CPU

Before purchasing a processor, it’s imperative that you first research the parts performance and compatibility. In general the more cores and a higher clock speed a processor has the better it will perform, but this is far from the only important factors. For more information on how specific CPUs perform, I suggest you check out the PCMag’s processor reviews.

As for compatibility, is designed to fit inside of a specific socket and to work with specific motherboard chipsets. All modern Intel processors use the LGA1151 socket. If you are buying an 8000 or 9000 series processor, you will specifically want to purchase an LGA1151 socket motherboard with a 300-series chipset. LGA1151 socket motherboards that use the old 100 and 200 series chipsets were designed to work with Intel’s 6000 and 7000 series processors respectively and will not work with newer CPUs.

AMD customers will want to purchase a motherboard with an AM4 CPU socket. If you purchase an AMD Ryzen 1000-series processor, you will be able to use it with any 300 or 400 series chipset motherboards, but 1000-series processors are incompatible with AMD’s new X570 chipset. Similarly, you cannot use the new Ryzen 3000-series processors on any of the old 300-series chipsets. Instead, you will need to purchase either a 400 or 500 series chipset. Last but not least AMD’s Ryzen 2000-series processors are a bit easier to work with as they are compatible with all AM4 motherboards currently on the market regardless of which chipset is used.

Note: Terms and conditions apply. See the relevant retail sites for more information. For more great deals, go to our partners at TechBargains.com.

September 7th 2019, 1:41 pm

At a Glance: MSI GE65 Raider Review

ExtremeTech

MSI is one of the most active companies in the gaming laptop market. With a half-dozen ongoing product lines and multiple products in each, MSI’s approach is to flood the market with tons of choices for gamers to choose from. In general, this is great, as it often helps to have plenty of options. But it can also create some confusion as to which system is best, and some laptops such as MSI’s GE65 Raider get left without a clear position in the market.

Design

In terms of its size and design, the GE65 Raider sits directly between MSI’s more compact GS65 Stealth and more powerful GT63 Titan notebooks. Aesthetically the Raider looks like the Titan’s little brother, with the two systems looking quite similar overall. The Raider at 26.9mm thin is significantly smaller than the Titan (39.8mm), giving it a clear advantage in portability. The Raider, in turn, is considerably thicker than the 17.9mm-thin Stealth.

So far then the Raider looks to be targeted as a solution between these other two systems, but this doesn’t hold true when we and components into the mix. All three systems support processors up to Intel Core i9 9th Gen, but the best GPU you can get in the Raider is an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070. Both the Titan and the Stealth support RTX 2080 graphics cards though, which gives them an advantage in their top-tier configurations.

The Raider does have one advantage over the Stealth, however: It features better cooling hardware, thanks in part to its larger form factor.

Test Model & Benchmarks

Our sister site PCMag got hold of one of MSI’s GE65 Raider notebooks and tested it against several other systems including the aforementioned Stealth. The system tested came equipped with an Intel Core i9-9880H processor with eight CPU cores and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 graphics card as well as 1080p 240Hz display. As configured, this system sells for $2,699. The rest of the system specs, as well as the specs of the other tested notebooks, can be found in the chart below.

As the only octa-core processor in the group, the MSI GE65 Raider blows everything else out of the water when tested with Cinebench R15.

We see the same results when testing with Photoshop CC. It’s clear that these six-core processors simply can’t stand up against the bigger eight-core CPUs in a head to head competition.

This trend continues when we turn our attention to synthetic gaming benchmarks. Although the GPU in the MSI GE65 Raider is outclassed by the GPUs inside of the Acer Predator Triton 500 and the Gigabyte Aero 15-Y9, the Raider still pulls ahead in these tests thanks to its more powerful processor. It’s possible that the Raider’s thermal solution is also helping to improve the notebook’s performance relative to the other systems, but we don’t have sufficient evidence to know this for sure.

What’s even more surprising is that the RTX 2070 inside of the Raider continues to run laps around the RTX 2080s inside of the Acer Predator Triton and Gigabyte Aero 15-Y9. This is especially noticeable on Rise of the Tomb Raider, which shows the Raider with between a 13 and 31fps lead over the Acer Predator Triton 500.

Conclusion

According to PCMag, while performing these tests the CPU and GPU maintained average temperatures of 83C and 80C, respectively. At the same time, the GPU reportedly maintained an average core clock of 1,630MHz, which is significantly higher than the RTX 2070’s stock clock speed of 1,440MHz. This indicates it has been factory overclocked by MSI to improve performance. Clearly the thermal solution also performed exceptionally well during these tests, as thermal throttling was not a noticeable issue.

Thanks to its exceptional performance against the competition as well as its high-end specs, I’d recommend the MSI GE65 Raider as an excellent solution for those in need of a powerful gaming laptop. You can get it now from Amazon for $2,699.00.

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September 7th 2019, 10:07 am

Huawei Announces Refreshed P30 Pro with Android 10

ExtremeTech

Everyone involved in the mobile industry is watching Huawei’s next moves closely. With a pending export ban in place, Huawei can’t launch new phones with Google-certified Android, so the upcoming Mate 30 may be the first major Android phone to launch without Google apps. Huawei just launched a new phone, but it’s not the Mate 30. In fact, it’s not even “new” by some definitions. The revamped P30 Pro has been unveiled at IFA with a new exterior design and Android 10. 

Huawei first launched the P30 Pro in March of this year, several months before the US Commerce Department added it to the “Entity List.” People and companies land on this list when the government decides they pose a threat to US interests. In this case, Huawei is accused of having close ties with the Chinese government and engaging in espionage activities. Huawei vehemently denies these claims. 

The new P30 Pro has a redesigned exterior with a textured glass effect covering the lower two-thirds of the back panel. It looks a bit like Google’s current Pixel phones, but it’s available in much more fun colors like Mystic Blue and Misty Lavender. The matte glass makes the phones less slippery in the hand as well. The internals specs are unchanged with a Kirin 980 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. 

The re-released P30 devices will also have Android 10 at launch, along with a new version of its system skin known as EMUI 10. Huawei has made a number of design changes in the new EMUI including bolder app fonts, a Pixel-style quick settings bar, and new icons. Huawei also has a gesture navigation system similar to Google’s. You also get the standard Android 10 features like dark mode, more granular privacy controls, and more. 

So, why re-release the P30 right now? Huawei currently enjoys a second 90-day delay on the full implementation of US export controls. Since the P30 Pro (and other P30 variants) launched before the trade ban, Huawei can continue certifying updates for those phones under the terms of the temporary delay. However, it can’t launch new phones with Google’s support. So, it seems all but certain that Huawei will have to release the Mate 30 without the Play Store and other apps everyone expects on Android. 

The re-launch of the P30 Pro might be a way for Huawei to compensate for the Mate 30. While the Mate 30 will suffer from its lack of Google support, the Google-y P30 Pro is back for another round, and it’s a very similar piece of hardware. It might soften the blow of losing Google apps, but it’s just a temporary fix.

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September 6th 2019, 4:21 pm

ET Deals: AMD Ryzen 7 2700X $199, Samsung Evo 128GB MicroSDXC $19, Dell XPS Intel Core i9-9900 Deskt

ExtremeTech

If you’re planning to build a new PC then you will want to have a look at our top deal today, which is one of AMD’s Ryzen 7 2700X processors marked down to just $199.

AMD Ryzen 7 2700X w/ Wraith Prism LED Cooler ($199.00)

AMD’s Ryzen 7 2700X comes with eight SMT enabled CPU cores with a max clock speed of 4.3GHz, which gives you exceptional performance for multitasking and running power-hungry applications. Currently, you can get it from Amazon marked down from $329.00 to $199.00.

Samsung Evo Select 128GB U3 100MB/s MicroSDXC Card ($19.00)

This microSDXC card gives you an extra 128GB of storage space for your phone and other devices. It’s also able to transmit data at speeds of up to 100MB/s, which makes it relatively fast for a microSDXC card. Currently, these cards are on sale from Amazon marked down from $24.99 to $19.00.

Dell XPS 8930 Intel Core i9-9900 Desktop w/ 8GB DDR4 RAM and 1TB HDD ($854.89)

If you aren’t a gamer but still want a fast computer for work and everyday tasks, then this model of Dell’s XPS 8930 desktop is perfect for you. It features an exceptionally fast Intel Core i9-9900 processor that has eight CPU cores that can hit a max speed of 5GHz. This makes well suited for running any number of high-performance tasks. You can get this system marked down from $1,079.99 to a more affordable $854.89 from Dell with promo code SAVE17.

TCL 55R617 4K HDR Roku Smart 55-Inch TV ($529.00)

TCL’s R617-series of TVs feature localized dimming technology that reduces light bleeding and gives you an improved image with deeper blacks. This model also sports a 4K display panel and support for HDR for improved color, and right now you can get it from Amazon marked down from $799.99 to $529.00.

Apple iPad 6th Gen 2018 w/32GB Storage and WiFi ($249.99)

Apple’s 2018 iPad utilizes the company’s A10 Fusion SoC that first made its debut inside of the iPhone 7. It also has an HD display and a battery that is rated to last for up to 10 hours. Right now Walmart is offering this tablet marked down from its regular retail price of $329.99 to just $249.99.

Roomba iRobot Model 960 Vacuum w/ Wi-Fi Connectivity ($499.00)

This smart robot vacuum is here to make your home life a little easier. It has sufficient power to clean difficult messes such as pet hair, and it supports an intelligent navigation program that allows it to carefully work its way through your home. It also supports Alexa voice commands and can be controlled via your smartphone. Right now you can get it marked down from $699.99 to $499.00 from Walmart.

Note: Terms and conditions apply. See the relevant retail sites for more information. For more great deals, go to our partners at TechBargains.com.

September 6th 2019, 4:21 pm

The LG G8X Is the Company’s Latest Attempt to Make Dual-Screen Phones a Thing

ExtremeTech

Smartphones have basically gotten as large as they can reasonably get without some sort of radical design change. Samsung and Huawei are working with foldable OLED technology to allow phones to transform into tablets, but LG is still pushing the dual-screen design. The new G8X is the latest phone with one of the company’s snap-on Dual Screen accessories. Even with some new design refinements, this is going to be a tough sell. 

As you might have guessed, the LG G8X ThinQ is a modified version of the G8 that launched earlier this year. It ditches the silly and almost inoperable motion controls, allowing for a smaller display notch. Inside, it’s a typical 2019 flagship phone with a Snapdragon 855, 6GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage. There’s also a headphone jack, which is something of an anomaly these days. 

The phone itself isn’t the interesting part; it’s how the phone interacts with LG’s latest Dual Screen case. The 6.4-inch OLED in the phone clocks in at 2340 x 1080 and the case has an identical OLED. This is a change from past Dual Screen accessories which didn’t always match the phone’s display. In fact, the case even has a fake display notch at the top for its non-existent camera. There’s another display on the outside of the Dual Screen case as well. This 2.1-inch monochrome panel lets you quickly check the time and notifications without opening the phone. 

Past Dual Screen cases also relied on pogo pins on the back of the phone for connectivity, but this one connects to the phone via the USB Type-C port. LG also says it’s less of a drain on the phone’s battery, which has grown to 4,000mAh from 3,500mAh in the previous G8. 

With the Dual Screen case connected, you can run two apps side-by-side on the G8X. Those could be two separate web pages or something more elaborate like a game and a video player. You can even turn the phone into a miniature laptop by pulling up LG’s keyboard app on one screen with an app in landscape on the other. 

At this point, you may think this sounds like a good deal. After all, flip cases for phones are not exactly a new idea and plenty of people like them. However, like all LG Dual Screen systems, this thing is bulky at about 15mm thick and 326 grams. For comparison, the Galaxy Fold only weighs 263 grams, and it’s about half a millimeter thicker when closed. App developers need to get on-board to enable advanced functionality, too. LG will have to move a lot of units to have any hope of significant support, and that’s far from a certainty. 

LG will ship the G8X ThinQ in the fourth quarter of the year. Specific market availability and pricing will be announced closer to release.

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September 6th 2019, 3:36 pm

Will Tesla, GM, and Nissan Get a Second Shot at EV Tax Credits?

ExtremeTech

A proposed expansion of the $7,500 electric vehicle tax credit has become another polarizing issue, both for fiscal conservatives (“boondoggle … don’t need it”) and liberals and environmental advocates (“an important tool to slow climate change”). It is of greatest interest to Tesla and General Motors, which have already hit the cap. GM is still in the wind-down phase, with a maximum one-quarter credit, or $1,875, for the six months starting next month. Nissan will likely hit the cap in 2-3 years. Ford and Toyota may get there by 2025.

A proposal in front of Congress would expand the tax credit by another 400,000 vehicles per automaker for a total of 600,000. The maximum tax credit would become $7,000, not $7,500, and it would continue t0 apply to purely electric vehicles as well as to plug-in hybrids, but not to hybrids that only go a mile or two on battery power.

Tesla and GM are already over the current cap of 200,000 vehicles eligible for a $7,500 (max) federal tax credit. The site evadoption.com estimates Nissan will get there in 2022 or 2023.

Bill Before Congress

Tax credits for electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids have been available since 2010. Tesla, by far the largest seller of EVs in the US, has maxed out is tax credit allocation, and General Motors is winding down its tax credits during a 12-month phaseout period. (See below for more details.)

In April, Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Susan Collins (R-ME), along with Congressman Dan Kildee (D-MI), introduced the Driving America Forward Act that would extend the phaseout of the federal EV tax credit.  The legislation, if enacted, could include cars purchased between the phaseouts for Tesla and GM. Or not. Or it could be a partial credit, as people bought with little expectation of getting tax credit money. (But legislation with no provision for interim-period credits would drive EV sales close to zero in the months before passage.)

Proponents say the tax credits help drive buyers toward cleaner electrified vehicles during the period when battery technology is still costly. They note the government subsidizes other forms of energy-reducing transportation such as buses and commuter rail. There are subsidies for rebates for efficient houses, furnaces, appliances, and even light bulbs. (Some LED bulbs after energy company rebates are little more than $1 a bulb.)

While critics blame President Obama, the tax credit was passed in the George W. Bush administration, in the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008.

“Washington has been underwriting EVs for nearly 30 years,” a Sept. 3 Wall Street Journal charges.

“It’s hard to imagine a more blatant income transfer for the well-to-do,” says a Sept. 3 Wall Street Journal, adding, “Washington has been underwriting EVs for nearly 30 years.” Critics of EV tax credits include people who say the government shouldn’t be in the business of shaping buying decisions. Others — fewer each year — say climate change/global warming is a hoax. The foes got a boost this week with a Wall Street Journal lead editorial, “Subsidize My Electric Car, Please,” that claimed the tax credits mainly benefit the wealthy and that market forces should decide the fate of EVs.  Separately, Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) sent a letter to GOP senators urging them not to extend the EV tax credit.

Pro-EV credits people say the WSJ editorial made assertions that bear Snopes-style fact-checking, such as that “Washington has been underwriting EVs for nearly 30 years” and claiming it’s a “blatant income transfer for the well-to-do [of EVs, which have] a starting price of around $36,000.” Facts are slippery things. The feds have underwritten energy research (many kinds) for decades, but the first EV/PHEV credits weren’t until 2010. The average vehicle in 2018 sold for about $38,000 (per Kelly Blue Book), including options. Also, while four in five EVs sell to people with household incomes over $100,000 (in 2016), many were higher-priced Teslas like the Model S and X. Also, the majority of EV transactions are leases where it’s hard to determine income.

A more valuable piece of information would be to know the income of people acquiring mainstream EVs such as the Nissan Leaf, Volkswagen e-Golf, Chevrolet Bolt EV, and Hyundai Kona Electric.

If legislation does pass — and it is not currently being fast-tracked — it’s possible the backers might agree to a reduced or zero tax credit for costly EVs. If somebody buys or leases a Porsche Taycan EV — starting price $152,000 — it’s safe to say they are not in the mainstream of American wage-earners. Legislation also faces uncertain odds of being signed by the President. EV credits flow especially to staunch blue states such as California more than, say, West Virginia (the reddest state of the 2016 election). For tax credit backers, the long game may be waiting to see which way the nation votes in 2020. If the Senate, House, and President all go Democratic, the odds of a tax credit reinstatement are higher. The winning arguments may revolve around climate change issues and supporting new technologies.

For 2019, however, the No. 1 automotive/climate change discussion revolves around how much control California and a dozen other states have in setting their own pollution rules. For decades, California, because of its unique pollution issues especially in the Los Angeles basin, has had the choice of following federal air pollution regulations or setting its own. Thirteen other states have chosen to use California’s emissions rules: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

In July, four automakers cut a deal with California to adopt even tougher tailpipe emission rules. That effectively snubbed President Trump’s goal of a standards rollback.

Rules for the EV Tax Credit

The tax credit for an EV has several rules. They’re not hard to understand once you grasp it’s a credit on taxes you’d otherwise owe. It’s not a check, and it’s not always $7,500. To qualify for a tax credit:

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September 6th 2019, 1:36 pm

Razer’s Upcoming Intel-Powered Switch 13 Will Offer 25W Switchable TDP

ExtremeTech

When Intel took the lid off of Ice Lake, we noted that the performance data for the CPU was complex. On the GPU side of things, Ice Lake is a huge leap forward, with substantially higher performance than anything we’ve seen from Intel integrated graphics before. The CPU, however, was a rather mixed bag. When restrained to a 15W TDP, Ice Lake CPUs weren’t necessarily faster than the Coffee Lake chips they are intended to replace and were often somewhat slower. If you give the CPU additional headroom, this problem resolves — but of course, giving the chip more power to play with has a negative impact on heat and battery life.

When Intel invited reviewers to test Ice Lake, the test systems it offered had a toggle switch to flip from 15W to 25W envelopes. That’s how PCMag and other publications were able to test the laptop in both modes, as shown below:

Users don’t usually have this kind of option. TDP ranges are typically pre-defined by the OEM and are not something that the end user can modify, for obvious reasons — cranking up laptop TDP is a good way to overheat the system if you don’t know what you’re doing and if the laptop isn’t specifically designed to run at the higher power level. To the best of our knowledge (until today), no consumer laptop could actually change its TDP values on the fly. At the Ice Lake testing event, Intel told reviewers that the Ice Lake laptops sold at retail wouldn’t have this option, either.

There appears to be at least one exception to this rule, however. The Razer Blade 13 will have an adjustable TDP that can be configured through Razer’s Synapse software. Supposedly this capability has always existed, going back to the original Razer Blade. If this is true, it’s not something the company previously seems to have highlighted — Google doesn’t bring up any results referring to an adjustable TDP on previous versions of the Razer Blade, unless you count the fact that the laptop would down-clock under load in some circumstances. To be clear, the ability to run the CPU in a lower power envelope under load isn’t the same thing as being able to voluntarily put it in a higher TDP mode and operate it with additional power headroom.

Given that Intel had already told reviewers not to expect adjustable TDP ranges as a major laptop feature, this raises the question: Is this specific to Razer, or will we see more laptop manufacturers taking advantage of these new capabilities? Will Intel make adjustable TDPs a feature that high-end customers can shell out for if they want the option?

Razer’s website for the new Blade states that the system will use a 25W Ice Lake CPU, but does not mention anything about the system being adjustable within a 15W versus a 25W power envelope.

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September 6th 2019, 10:47 am

The $399 Sonos Move Is the Company’s First Portable Speaker

ExtremeTech

Sonos pioneered multi-room audio long before Chromecast, AirPlay, and the other newer systems arrived on the scene. With all the Sonos speakers over the years, none of them have been portable until now. The aptly named Sonos Move is the first speaker from the company that you can haul around outside the house, but it’ll also work with your existing in-home Sonos system. 

The Sonos Move is not to be confused with the recently released Sonos One. that smaller speaker supports voice control via Alexa and Google Assistant, and it’s “portable” in that it’s small and light. You can move the One around your house, but it needs an external power source. The Sonos Move is a big, powerful speaker with its own internal battery and Bluetooth support for easy streaming away from Wi-Fi. The Sonos Move also supports Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa when it’s connected to Wi-Fi. 

The Move is almost 10-inches tall, and it weighs more than six pounds (about 3 kilograms). So, it’s not exactly convenient to carry around like a smaller Bluetooth speaker, but you don’t have to take the whole thing with you. The Sonos Move has a handle in the molded plastic shell, and it disconnects from the charging base when you pick it up.

The base has two pogo pins that charge the speaker whenever it’s plugged in, ensuring you’ve got a full battery when you take the speaker on the go. There’s also a USB Type-C port on the back to juice the speaker up when away from the dock. Sonos made the battery replaceable, so you can get a new one if you wear the original out. Although, that’ll take a while; Sonos promises up to 900 charge cycles. 

Sonos has always stressed audio quality in its speakers, which is why the Move is so weighty. It has two class-D amplifiers powering the tweeter and midrange woofer. Sonos claims the system is powerful enough to overcome audio falloff common when using speakers in outdoor spaces. The Move also has an integrated TruePlay tuning, which automatically adjusts the speaker’s output to the space. Previous Sonos speakers required you to set up TrueTone by walking around the room with a phone, but the Move can use its microphones to do that for you. 

The Sonos Move is available for pre-order today at $399, and it will ship at the end of the month.

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September 6th 2019, 10:32 am

Microsoft: Latest Windows 10 1903 Update Can Cause CPU Spikes, Break Desktop Search

ExtremeTech

Microsoft's technical improvements aren't the issue here

Earlier this week, reports surfaced that some Windows 10 users are having problems with Windows 10 1903. The latest cumulative update released for the OS, KB4512941, can cause CPU usage to surge to 30 percent or even as high as 100 percent. Separately from that, some users are also reporting that Windows Desktop Search is completely broken.

According to Microsoft, the broken search issue only affects systems which have disabled the “Search the web” functionality embedded in desktop search. I admit, this kind of acknowledgment always makes me a bit grumpy, mostly because I’ve never understood why anyone would want web-search functionality integrated into desktop search in the first place. If I’m searching my desktop, I’m definitionally not searching the World Wide Web. Cluttering my results with data from locations that aren’t going to contain what I’m looking for isn’t a value-add, it’s an active detriment to the entire point of using a desktop search as opposed to a web search.

Separately from these issues, Windows 10 1903 is still grappling with a laundry list of problems. The company still doesn’t recommend installing 1903 on Surface Book 2 models with a discrete GPU because the update can break discrete GPU functionality. Some Qualcomm and Realtek device driver versions aren’t compatible with the update. Some users with an Intel Audio Driver have reported faster-than-expected battery drain, and the company hasn’t fixed an issue causing problems with gamma ramps, color profiles, and night light settings. This one produced some spectacular (and puzzling) visual results while we were testing the 5700 and 5700 XT for AMD’s Navi launch back in July.

In most of these cases, Microsoft has “mitigated” the problem by blocking affected products from updating to Windows 10 1903 automatically. The problem with that approach, however, is that it doesn’t address the issues of people who updated to 1903 already and didn’t discover it was the cause of their issues until the rollback window had already passed. It’s easy to remove a single Windows Update, like the cumulative KB4512941 that’s causing the new issues with CPU usage, but rolling back the entire 1903 installation is something you have to do within 30 days.

As for the broken desktop search functionality, that’s an issue I’ve actually run into before with earlier Windows 10 updates. When I updated my desktop to Windows 10 1809, it broke desktop search. I rolled the update back as a result, even though I wasn’t impacted by the data-deletion bug that affected some users.

Affected users should try uninstalling KB4512941. Users who still can’t install 1903 should wait to see if Microsoft will be able to resolve any of these issues before 1909 comes out. Microsoft has made significant changes to how it tests future Windows builds in the Windows Insider program. The result of these changes should be a longer overall test cycle and hopefully updates that will break less code moving forward, but 1903 was released before these changes had gone into effect. We may not see the impact of these changes until Windows releases its 2020 updates.

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September 6th 2019, 9:59 am

Sony Is Back to Making Compact Phones With the Xperia 5

ExtremeTech

It is traditional for Sony to launch two flagship phones per year, so naturally, everyone expected its big IFA 2019 announcement to be the Xperia 2. After all, it released the Xperia 1 earlier this year. Instead, Sony unveiled the Xperia 5. The numbering scheme is unusual because this phone is essentially a smaller version of the Xperia 1, and that could make a lot of people very happy. 

For years, Sony was the only smartphone maker that resisted the trend toward larger and larger phones. Companies that did make “mini” versions of their phones often hobbled them in some way to keep the price down. Sony simply made “Compact” editions of its larger flagship phones with all the same features and specs. It moved away from that as sales slumped, but the Xperia 5 could be a return to form. 

The Xperia 1 sports a 6.5-inch 4K OLED display, but it’s a 21:9 ratio. That makes it very tall and narrow. Thus, it was more comfortable to hold in one hand than a 16:9 or 18:9 phone with the same diagonal measurement. Although, the overall length made the phone somewhat awkward at times. The Xperia 5 has a 6.1-inch OLED at 1080p, and it’s still 21:9. At just 68mm wide, it’ll be easy to use one-handed, provided you don’t have to reach up to the top of the screen too often. By comparison, the Note 10+ is almost a full centimeter wider. 

On the inside, the Xperia 5 has almost the same setup as the Xperia 1. There’s a Snapdragon 855, 6GB of RAM, and 128GB of internal storage. The battery is necessarily a little smaller at 3,140mAh (3,300mAh in the Xperia 1), but the lower resolution display should more than make up for that. The phone runs Android 9 Pie, and Android 10 just launched a few days ago. It’s not uncommon for phones launched each fall to ship with a year-old version of Android, and Sony’s track record with Android updates is spotty at best. 

The Xperia 5’s triple-camera system includes a 12MP main unit, a 12MP telephoto, and a 12MP wide-angle shooter. Sony says the camera app uses the same autofocus technology found in its line of Alpha mirrorless cameras. Although, Sony’s software processing has fallen behind the likes of Google and Samsung. 

The Xperia 5 should be available for pre-order next week in Europe with shipping in October. We don’t have a price, nor confirmation of a US launch timeline just yet.

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September 6th 2019, 8:59 am

Tyrannosaurus Rex Had an Air Conditioner Built Into Its Skull: Researchers

ExtremeTech

Credit: Scott Robert Anselmo/Wikimedia Commons

One of the frustrating things about studying long-extinct animals is how thoughtless they were. Dinosaurs — already factually* proven to be the coolest creatures to ever exist — were terribly bad at leaving us good examples of their soft tissues to study. Instead of lining up in neat orderly rows under ideal conditions for long-term fossilization, they just died everywhere. This has made it vastly more difficult to study them appropriately. In most cases, fossilization only preserves bone, though faint markings, scratches, or preserved ‘shadows’ sometimes still show where soft tissue existed.

Because we can’t examine soft tissue directly, paleontologists have to study them indirectly, by examining the bone structures that were preserved for millions of years and comparing them with creatures that still exist today. By tracing the evolutionary lineage of still-extant creatures backwards in time to when it converges with now-extinct creatures, scientists can observe how these features evolved and intuit some aspects of how older structures might have functioned.

Researchers examining the skull of Tyrannosaurus Rex have published a paper arguing that these creatures effectively had air conditioners built into their skulls. Maintaining appropriate body temperature can be a challenge in large animals, and many creatures have adapted various strategies for solving the problem. Elephants have large ears to radiate heat from blood vessels and can flap their ears to create cooling air currents. Some large animals spend a great deal of time in or near water to keep their own body temperatures regulated. Some are active mostly at night when temperatures are lower.

Tyrannosaurs, on the other hand, had holes in their skulls. These holes, known as dorsotemporal fenestrae, have long been thought to function as massive anchors for the creature’s huge jaw muscles. These muscles were thought to entirely fill the cavity when the creatures were alive. According to new research published in The Anatomical Record, however, muscles weren’t the only thing tyrannosaurids packed into the space. These fenestrae may have served a dual function by providing important cooling capability as well. They write:

[H]ere we present numerous lines of evidence which indicate that a sizable portion of the dorsotemporal fenestra in crocodylians, non-avian dinosaurs, and many other fossil archosaur lineages was not wholly muscular but instead likely housed vascular tissues. When skull roof tissues were elaborated in fossil specimens, evidence indicates that blood vessels found in the dorsal temporal fossa were often involved in supporting soft tissue cranial display structures… and possibly vascular physiological devices.

Several factors led the paleontologists to this conclusion. For one thing, the anatomical location of the holes made them a difficult attachment point for the jaw muscles. For another, the bone in this area of the skull is smooth. Attachment points for muscles typically aren’t. To test their theory, the scientists used a FLIR camera and measured the body temperatures of alligators, paying special attention to the temperatures of the dorsotemporal fenestrae. What they found is that these areas of the body are markedly hotter when the alligator is basking in the sun and cooler when it dozes in the shade.

“One of the major physiological challenges that large animals have is being able to shed heat,” Casey Holliday, the leader of the study, told National Geographic. “If big theropod dinosaurs were warm-blooded … then they too probably had challenges dissipating heat in some instances.”

Other dinosaurs, like ankylosaurs, have been found to have large, complex nasal passages filled with blood vessels as a means of dissipating heat. Tyrannosaurids lacked this adaptation, which means the creatures — which were as much as 40 feet long and 20 feet tall — had to dissipate heat through some other means. Radiating it outwards from the skull would protect the creature’s brain from overheating. National Geographic also notes that some dinosaurs had fenestrae that were close to their neck frills, which are thought to have been used in mating and threat signaling. It’s possible that Tyrannosaurus Rex or its family members may have been able to use its blood vessels for color-changing displays, though this is strictly a theory at this juncture.

* – As measured by eight-year-old me.

Top image credit: Scott Robert Anselmo/Wikimedia Commons

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September 6th 2019, 8:16 am

Android 10 Code Confirms Pixel 4 90Hz Display

ExtremeTech

We don’t even have to assume a new Pixel flagship phone is coming this year — for the first time, Google has announced features of its new phone before the big reveal. Google already showed off the back of the phone and talked about the Soli radar sensor, but we haven’t heard any official details on the screen. The next best thing after an announcement is code features from Google engineers, and XDA found some lines in Android 10 that support the report of a 90Hz screen. 

The standard for mobile device screens has long been 60Hz. It took a long time for Android to even hit 60 frames per second in the UI consistently, but Google has prioritized smoothness in the last few versions of Android, and it optimizes Pixel phones aggressively. Laptops and desktop monitors have long advanced beyond 60Hz with 100, 144, and higher refresh rates readily available for a small premium. However, computers have a lot more power at their disposal, and phones need to remain efficient and pocket-sized. 

It has only been in the last 12-18 months that high refresh mobile displays have become viable. Razer launched the original Razer Phone with a 120Hz display, but that was an LCD with serious efficiency problems. It ran at 90Hz out of the box, and even that drained the battery quickly. Asus improved matters with the ROG Phone, which had a 90Hz OLED panel. OnePlus launched the OnePLus 7 and 7 Pro earlier this year with a high-refresh OLED as well. 

Several weeks back, the first reports of the Pixel 4’s 90Hz “Smooth Display” appeared. Now, XDA has spent some time digging through the just-released Android 10 open source code and found supporting evidence. Android contains a service called SurfaceFlinger, which links apps and system UI with the display controller. Naturally, the SurfaceFlinger service needs to be aware of the display refresh rate. SurfaceFlinger in Android 10 includes a manual 90Hz toggle that wasn’t present in previous versions of the OS. 

In the current build of Android 10, the 90Hz mode exists as a temporary solution for testing purposes — a permanent version is already in AOSP, too. The code notes that the switch should only be used on “P19 devices.” Presumably, that means the 2019 Pixels, and not the Pixel 3a. Those budget phones launched last Spring, and they’re 60Hz. So, it’s a foregone conclusion that the Pixel 4 and 4 XL will indeed have 90Hz displays.

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September 5th 2019, 5:36 pm

ET Deals: Dell Vostro 10th Gen Core i5 Laptop $586, Roku Express+ $30, Alienware Aurora RTX 2080 Gam

ExtremeTech

Today you can save on one of Dell’s Vostro 15 laptops that comes equipped with one of Intel’s new 10th Gen processors. There’s also an excellent deal on a gaming desktop, LG’s G8 high-end smartphone, and a Roku media player.

Dell Vostro 15 5490 Intel Core i5-10210U 1080p 15.6-Inch Laptop w/ 8GB DDR4 RAM and 256 M.2 NVMe SSD ($586.46)

Dell upgraded this laptop with one of Intel’s new 10th generation Core i5-10210U processors that has four CPU cores clocked at 1.6GHz. The system also comes with a fast NVMe SSD storage device and a 1080p display, which makes it well suited for just about any type of work or any non-gaming activity. You can get it now from Dell marked down from $1,081.43 to just $586.46.

Roku Express+ HD ($30.00)

Roku is one of the oldest combatants in the neverending battle for dominance in the media streaming market. Its Express+ HD media player gives you unbiased access to over a thousand streaming channels without any monthly subscription fee. Right now you can get it marked down from $35.00 to $30.oo from Walmart.

Dell Alienware Aurora Intel Core i7-8700 Gaming Desktop w/ Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080, 16GB DDR4 RAM, 256GB M.2 NVMe SSD and 1TB HDD ($1,452.49)

Dell’s Alienware Aurora pairs a fast Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 graphics card with a powerful Intel Core i7-8700 processor. The system also comes with a 256GB NVMe SSD in addition to a 1TB HDD and 16GB of DDR4 RAM. This system typically retails for $2,254.99, but with promo code SAVE17 you can get it from Dell for just $1,452.49.

LG G8 ThinQ 128GB Unlocked Smartphone ($499.99)

LG G8 ThinQ features a 6.1-inch OLED display with a resolution of 3440×1440. This phone is also one of the fastest on the market with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 octa-core processor and 6GB of RAM. Amazon is offering this phone marked down from $849.99 to $499.99.

Lenovo ThinkCentre M93 Intel Core i7-4770 Quad-core SFF Win10 Pro Desktop w/ 16GB RAM, 128GB SSD and 1TB HDD ($399.99)

This compact computer comes loaded with a fast quad-core Intel Core i7-4770 processor with 16GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. This system is sold as an off-lease refurbished system, but its reduced price of $399.99 makes it an excellent option for those that need a fast and affordable PC.

Ring Alarm 8-Piece Kit with 3rd Gen Echo Dot ($189.00)

This 8-piece Ring Alarm kit comes with two motion sensors and three contact sensors to detect people walking around and opening doors in your home. The system also comes with a speaker that works as an alarm, a keypad for arming and deactivating the system, and a range extender to keep the various components connected. The bundle also comes with a 3rd gen Echo Dot that can be used to control the security system with voice commands. You can get it from Amazon right now marked down from $239.00 to $189.00.

Note: Terms and conditions apply. See the relevant retail sites for more information. For more great deals, go to our partners at TechBargains.com.

September 5th 2019, 3:35 pm

ESA Calls for Space Traffic Rules After Near Miss With SpaceX Satellite

ExtremeTech

We talk often about how big space is, and indeed, it is really, mind-bogglingly big. However, space around Earth is feeling smaller all the time. SpaceX has launched the first few dozen of what will eventually grow to a swarm of thousands of satellites. Several days ago, the ESA had to perform the first-ever satellite avoidance maneuver to avoid colliding with a SpaceX Starlink satellite. This has prompted experts to call for a universal space traffic control system to avoid future collisions. 

SpaceX plans to use its Starlink satellite network to deliver broadband internet access to Earth and deployed 60 of them earlier this year. That’s just the beginning, though. Elon Musk and company plan to have around 2,000 satellites in space by the end of 2019. Eventually, the SpaceX “mega constellation” will include more than 12,000 satellites. SpaceX isn’t the only company planning to launch large fleets of satellites, either. Companies like OneWeb and Kuiper intend to have large networks in Earth orbit soon. 

What a SpaceX Starlink satellite looks like in orbit.

Despite the hugeness of Space, the ESA’s Aeolus satellite (above) found itself on a possible collision course with Starlink 44 earlier this week. The chance of collision was about 1 in 1,000, but that’s 10 times higher than the ESA’s acceptable risk level. That’s not great, sure, but the real issue is the ESA was unable to contact SpaceX operators to discuss the problem. The agency decided to alter Aeolus’ course just to be safe, and no satellites were harmed. 

SpaceX says a bug in its on-call paging system prevented officials from seeing the ESA’s messages. The company had last communicated with the ESA several days before when the estimated chance of collision was orders of magnitude less likely. However, all this communication happens over email, and the ESA contends this is a dangerously inefficient way to manage space traffic in the age of mega-constellations. 

There are currently about 5,000 satellites orbiting Earth, but only roughly 2,000 are active. SpaceX by itself could more than double the number of satellites whizzing around Earth. Add a few more companies with mega-constellations, and there could be some awful traffic jams. Attempting to coordinate all that via email is infeasible. Even one collision could produce thousands of microscopic pieces of debris that could hit other satellites, setting off a chain reaction that damages important space-based systems. 

According to the ESA, now is the time to develop traffic rules and communication protocols to prevent satellite collisions. It might be too late if we wait until SpaceX has 12,000 satellites beaming down broadband.

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September 5th 2019, 2:47 pm

NTSB: Autopilot Design Flaw, Inattentive Driver Led to Tesla-Firetruck Crash

ExtremeTech

The NTSB said a combination of a  flaw in Tesla’s highly regarded (certainly by Tesla) Autopilot system, plus driver inattention, caused a Tesla Model S to slam into an on-call firetruck parked on a California freeway in January 2018. No one was injured, but the 2014 Tesla Model S P85 needed more than Dent Wizard repairs.

The National Transportation Safety Board said:

[T]he probable cause for the crash was the Tesla driver’s lack of response to the fire truck parked in his lane, due to his inattention and overreliance on the car’s advanced driver assistance system; the Tesla’s Autopilot design which permitted the driver to disengage from the driving task; and the driver’s use of the system in ways inconsistent with guidance and warnings from Tesla.

An NTSB timeline of the January 2018 crash in which a Tesla Model S rear-ended Engine 42 of the Culver City, CA, fire department. Orange segments show when Autopilot was engaged and the driver was hands-off the wheel. The crash is the right side of the timeline.

The NTSB recreated the 66-minute trip that ended in the crash (graphic above), with the help of Tesla’s onboard data recorder and various sensors. It found the driver was hands-off (on and off) for 12 of the 13 minutes leading up to the crash. The driver is supposed to always have hands at least lightly on the wheel to allow safe Level 2 self-driving. The latter means the car stays centered in its lane (if there are no sharp curves, this is almost never a problem on interstates) and maintains a set speed and/or paces the car in front. Most drivers of  Level 2 cars soon learn they can get away with giving the steering a little jiggle every 10-15 seconds and in some cases, even less often.

Here’s what the NTSB said in this week’s preliminary finding (NTSB accident ID HWY18FH004):

The NTSB’s investigation revealed the crash trip lasted about 66 minutes, covering about 30 miles, with the “Autopilot” system engaged for a total of 29 minutes, 4 seconds. Hands were detected on the Tesla’s steering wheel for only 78 seconds of that 29-minute, 4-second period. For most of the time the system was engaged, it did not detect driver -applied steering wheel torque (hands on the steering wheel). The “Autopilot” system issued several hands-off alerts during the last 13 minutes, 48 seconds prior to the crash and was engaged continuously during those nearly 14 final minutes of the crash trip. In the last 3 minutes, 41 seconds before the crash the system did not detect driver-applied steering wheel torque.

During most of the driver’s operation with the “Autopilot” engaged, the system detected and followed a lead vehicle, one that was ahead of the Tesla. In the 15 seconds prior to the crash the system detected and followed two different lead vehicles. Data show that 3 to 4 seconds before the crash, the lead vehicle changed lanes to the right, a movement commonly referred to as a “cut-out scenario” in testing and research. When the Traffic-Aware Cruise Control no longer detected a lead vehicle, the system accelerated the Tesla from about 21 mph toward the preset cruise speed of 80 mph, which had been set by the driver about 5 minutes before the crash. The “Autopilot” system detected a stationary object in the Tesla’s path about 0.49 seconds before the crash and the forward collision warning activated, displaying a visual warning and sounding an auditory warning. By the moment of impact, the Tesla had accelerated to 30.9 mph.

In simple terms, Autopilot finally recognized the firetruck when the two vehicles were 40-45 feet apart (basic math: a vehicle at 30 mph covers 44 feet per second), about two car lengths. The 47-year-old male driver told the NTSB he bought the Tesla in part because he could use the HOV lane to get to work in LA from his home in Woodland Hills (median home price: $815,000) without taking on a passenger. He was, however, accompanied by a cup of coffee and a bagel, but can’t remember if he was drinking coffee or eating the bagel when the car struck the firetruck and the airbag went off. (Memo to NTSB: Check the shirt for spatter marks.) He bought the Model S used, did not real the manuals, but did have the car safety-checked and says the Tesla staff explained the workings of Autopilot.

As a result of the accident, the report says, the NTSB went to the makers of Level 2-autonomy cars in the US and asked what they were doing to develop apps to “more effectively sense the driver’s level of engagement and alert the driver when the engagement is lacking while automated vehicle control systems are in use.” It went to VW Group (which includes Audi), BMW, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, and Volvo. According to the NTSB, “All manufacturers except Tesla have responded to the NTSB.”

So, while the driver was not paying fullest attention, the blame for the crash, according to the NTSB, also goes to the “Tesla Autopilot’s design … which permitted the driver to disengage from the driving task … and the driver’s use of the system in ways inconsistent with guidance and warnings from the manufacturer.”

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September 5th 2019, 1:47 pm

Udemy Class Review: Ubuntu for Beginners

ExtremeTech

The operating system market today is dominated by Microsoft and various versions of Windows to such an extent that some people still don’t even know there are alternatives. One of the most popular is Ubuntu, a free OS based on Linux. If you’ve never used Ubuntu, you will likely encounter difficulties performing relatively simple tasks such as installing programs. Not to fear though: The Ubuntu For Beginners course from Udemy aims to teach you exactly what you need to know to get up and running on Ubuntu.

Course Overview

Starting up this lecture series you’ll want to skip straight to section 2. The first section is aptly titled “Course Overview” and will list off the topics that will be covered in the course, but there aren’t any real lessons here. Section 2 explains what Ubuntu is and some of the pros and cons of using it as opposed to other operating systems. An important distinction of Ubuntu is there are versions with long-term support with regular software updates, which is uncommon in the Linux world.

Next, the lecturer will instruct you on how to obtain a copy of Ubuntu and install it. This really isn’t all that different from installing Windows from a flash drive, but for true beginners, this could prove useful. This is followed with some information about using a virtual machine, which will be helpful for students unfamiliar with that software.

About a quarter of the way through the course you will start to be taught how to use the OS itself. First up is installing applications using the terminal, followed by the commands to uninstall applications. The lecturer then teaches you how to do these tasks using the graphical interface, and then he dives into additional lessons involving the terminal interface such as managing accounts.

Large portions of the next few sections are spent working closely with the terminal, so get used to this above image. The lecturer will teach you how to perform numerous tasks inside of the terminal and focuses on its use for the remainder of the course. Although this is beneficial and likely where new Ubuntu users could use the most instruction, there is a notable lack of information on how to use the graphical user interface.

Conclusion

Evaluating the course as a course is somewhat difficult. The course is well organized and the individual lessons feel well-paced and informative. The high volume of tasks you will learn to perform from inside Ubuntu would undoubtedly prove useful if you plan to use the operating system on a regular basis. But the course as a whole feels like a lot to absorb in just one sitting and far more than you need to just use the OS on a basic level.

I can’t really fault the course for providing too much information, though, and if you want to learn how to use Ubuntu I would recommend it, but I’d also suggest taking the course slowly over an extended period. Students will likely benefit the most from taking just the first half of the course and then taking time to use the operating system and familiarize yourself with the software. The remaining lessons could then be taken as needed, which I feel will ultimately make the course easier and more effective for most students. If you are interested in trying this course, you can get it now from Udemy for $18.99.

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September 5th 2019, 1:35 pm

Throne of Games: Acer’s ‘Affordable’ Predator Thronos Air Chair Costs $14,000

ExtremeTech

Last year, Acer showed off the Predator Thronos, a $20,000 gaming station with a motorized “Zero-G” reclining system. That was a huge investment, even for the gamer with cash burning a hole in their pocket. Acer has followed up the Predator Thronos with a less expensive version called the Predator Thronos Air. Although, “less expensive” is only an accurate description when comparing the Thronos Air with the original. The new one is still a whopping $13,999. 

It’s not even obvious what the Predator Thronos Air is when you first see it. The best way to describe the product might be a very, very fancy desk that you sit in instead of at. It doesn’t come with a gaming PC, monitors, or even a keyboard and mouse — you have to provide all that yourself, at which point you could probably have bought a reasonably priced midsize sedan instead. 

The selling point here is immersion. Last year’s Predator Thronos accomplished that with a motorized system that tilted the chair, desktop, and monitors with a single press of a button. Acer trimmed the original’s $20,000 price tag by six grand by doing away with all the motors and control panel buttons (there’s still plenty of RGB). Instead, you manually adjust the chair’s position, and the steel armature brings the monitors and peripheral tray along for the ride so they remain in a usable position. It’s not all barebones, though. The Predator Thronos Air has a back massager, because why not? There’s an optional cup holder, too. 

The Predator Thronos Air supports up to three monitors, but you can use just one if you prefer. Although, I can’t imagine anyone willing to buy a $14,000 immersive gaming desk being satisfied with a single monitor. Likewise, you could connect a laptop to the monitor and play that way, but anyone considering this beast probably has a high-end gaming PC already. There’s a small platform for the PC behind the chair. An integrated cable management system helps you get all the wires where they need to go without ruining the contraption’s look or getting in the way of the moving parts. 

Acer plans to launch the Predator Thronos Air late this year in North America and Europe. It’ll probably be quite a production to get the device, though. You still can’t outright purchase last year’s Predator Thronos. You have to fill out a purchase inquiry form and wait for Acer to get back to you.

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September 5th 2019, 11:47 am

Intel Core i9-9900KS Ships in Oct., Cascade Lake-X Nearly Doubles Performance Per Dollar

ExtremeTech

Intel made some product announcements at a pre-IFA event in Berlin this week, including news on the Core i9-9900KS that it announced earlier this summer and an upcoming product refresh for its Core X family. Intel has been pushed onto its proverbial heels by AMD’s 7nm onslaught, and it has yet to respond to those products in a significant way. These new parts should help do that, albeit at the high end of the market.

First, there’s the Core i9-9900KS. This CPU is a specially-binned Core i9-9900K, with the ability to hit 5GHz on all eight CPU cores, and a 4GHz base clock. That’s a 1.1x improvement over base clock on the 9900K, but the impact of the all-core 5GHz boost is harder to estimate. A sustained all-core 5GHz clock speed would be substantially higher than the Core i9-9900K we have here at ET — but Intel CPUs no longer hold their full clocks under sustained load. Our Core i9-9900K will turbo up to high clocks for 20-30 seconds, depending on the workload, before falling back to speeds in the lower 4GHz range when run on our Asus Z390 motherboard.

A faster Core i9 will undoubtedly improve Intel’s positioning against the Ryzen 7 and Ryzen 9 family, but even a chip that could hold an all-core 5GHz boost won’t catch the 12-core/24-thread Ryzen 9 3900X in most multi-threaded applications that can scale up to 12 cores. The gap between the two parts is too large to be closed in such a manner.

What the 9900KS will do for Intel, however, is give it a little more room to maneuver in gaming performance, which is where the company is making its stand. On the desktop side of things, Intel is facing a genuinely tough competitive situation, and even the advent of 10-core desktop CPUs may not solve the problem.

Cascade Lake May Meaningfully Respond to Threadripper

For the past two years, AMD has hammered Intel with high-performing, (relatively) low-cost workstation processors. Even though Intel’s Skylake X CPUs have often punched above their weight class compared with the Core family, AMD’s willingness to shove tons of cores into its chips has secured it the lead as far as performance/dollar, as well as the absolute performance lead in many well-threaded applications.

Intel may intend to challenge this in a far more serious way this year. The company showed the following slide at IFA:

The implication of this slide is that Intel will launch new Cascade X CPUs at substantially lower per-core prices than it has previously offered. We say “implication,” however, because technically this is a slide of performance per dollar, not price. Imagine two hypothetical CPUs, one with a price of $1,000 and performance of 1x, while the other chip costs $1,500 and has 2x the performance of the first chip. The second chip is 1.5x more expensive than the first but offers 1.33x more performance/dollar.

With AMD potentially eyeing Threadripper CPUs with up to 64 cores, however, Intel may not feel it has a choice. We haven’t heard from AMD on this point yet, so much is up in the air. There seems to be a battle brewing in these segments — hopefully, Intel will bring a much more price-competitive series of parts to market.

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September 5th 2019, 11:47 am

Intel Is Suddenly Very Concerned With ‘Real-World’ Benchmarking

ExtremeTech

Since at least Computex, Intel has been raising concerns with reviewers about the types of tests we run, which applications reviewers tend to use, and whether those tests are capturing ‘real-world’ performance. Specifically, Intel feels that far too much emphasis is put on tests like Cinebench, while the applications that people actually use are practically ignored.

Let’s get a few things out of the way up-front.

Every company has benchmarks that it prefers and benchmarks that it dislikes. The fact that some tests run better on AMD versus Intel, or on Nvidia versus AMD, is not, in and of itself, evidence that the benchmark has been deliberately designed to favor one company or the other. Companies tend to raise concerns about which benchmarks reviewers are using when they are facing increased competitive pressure in the market. Those of you who think Intel is raising questions about the tests we reviewers collectively use partly because it’s losing in a lot of those tests are not wrong. But just because a company has self-interested reasons to be raising questions doesn’t automatically mean that the company is wrong, either. And since I don’t spend dozens of hours and occasional all-nighters testing hardware to give people a false idea of how it will perform, I’m always willing to revisit my own conclusions.

What follows are my own thoughts on this situation. I don’t claim to speak for any other reviewer other than myself.

One wonders what Maxon thinks of this, given that it was a major Intel partner at SIGGRAPH.

What Does ‘Real-World’ Performance Actually Mean?

Being in favor of real-world hardware benchmarks is one of the least controversial opinions one can hold in computing. I’ve met people who didn’t necessarily care about the difference between synthetic and real-world tests, but I don’t ever recall meeting someone who thought real-world testing was irrelevant. The fact that nearly everyone agrees on this point does not mean everyone agrees on where the lines are between a real-world and a synthetic benchmark. Consider the following scenarios:

You’re going to have your own opinion about which of these scenarios (if any) constitute a real-world benchmark, and which do not. Let me ask you a different question — one that I genuinely believe is more important than whether a test is “real-world” or not. Which of these hypothetical benchmarks tells you something useful about the performance of the product being tested?

The answer is: “Potentially, all of them.” Which benchmark I pick is a function of the question that I’m asking. A synthetic or standalone test that functions as a good model for a different application is still accurately modeling performance in that application. It may be a far better model for real-world performance than tests performed in an application that has been heavily optimized for a specific architecture. Even though all of the tests in the optimized app are “real-world” — they reflect real workloads and tasks — the application may itself be an unrepresentative outlier.

All of the scenarios I outlined above have the potential to be good benchmarks, depending on how well they generalize to other applications. Generalization is important in reviewing. In my experience, reviewers generally try to balance applications known to favor one company with apps that run well on everyone’s hardware. Oftentimes, if a vendor-specific feature is enabled in one set of data, reviews will include a second set of data with the same featured disabled, in order to provide a more neutral comparison. Running vendor-specific flags can sometimes harm the ability of the test to speak to a wider audience.

Intel Proposes an Alternate Approach

Up until now, we’ve talked strictly about whether a test is real-world in light of whether the results generalize to other applications. There is, however, another way to frame the topic. Intel surveyed users to see which applications they actually used, then presented us with that data. It looks like this:

The implication here is that by testing the most common applications installed on people’s hardware, we can capture a better, more representative use-case. This feels intuitively true — but the reality is more complicated.

Just because an application is frequently used doesn’t make it an objectively good benchmark. Some applications are not particularly demanding. While there are absolutely scenarios in which measuring Chrome performance could be important, like the low-end notebook space, good reviews of these products already include these types of tests. In the high-end enthusiast context, Chrome is unlikely to be a taxing application. Are there test scenarios that can make it taxing? Yes. But those scenarios don’t reflect the way the application is most commonly used.

The real-world experience of using Chrome on a Ryzen 7 3800X is identical to using it on a Core i9-9900K. Even if this were this not the case, Google makes it difficult to keep a previous version of Chrome available for continued A/B testing. Many people run extensions and adblockers, which have their own impact on performance. Does that mean reviewers shouldn’t test Chrome? Of course it doesn’t. That’s why many laptop reviews absolutely do test Chrome, particularly in the context of browser-based battery life, where Chrome, Firefox, and Edge are known to produce different results. Fit the benchmark to the situation.

There was a time when I spent much more time testing many of the applications on this list than we do now. When I began my career, most benchmark suites focused on office applications and basic 2D graphics tests. I remember when swapping out someone’s GPU could meaningfully improve 2D picture quality and Windows’ UI responsiveness, even without upgrading their monitor. When I wrote for Ars Technica, I wrote comparisons of CPU usage during HD content decoding, because at the time, there were meaningful differences to be found. If you think back to when Atom netbooks debuted, many reviews focused on issues like UI responsiveness with an Nvidia Ion GPU solution and compared it with Intel’s integrated graphics. Why? Because Ion made a noticeable difference to overall UI performance. Reviewers don’t ignore these issues. Publications tend to return to them when meaningful differentiation exists.

I do not pick review benchmarks solely because the application is popular, though popularity may figure into the final decision. The goal, in a general review, is to pick tests that will generalize well to other applications. The fact that a person has Steam or Battle.net installed tells me nothing. Is that person playing Overwatch or WoW Classic? Are they playing Minecraft or No Man’s Sky? Do they choose MMORPGs or FPS-type games, or are they just stalled out in Goat Simulator 2017? Are they actually playing any games at all? I can’t know without more data.

The applications on this list that show meaningful performance differences in common tasks are typically tested already. Publications like Puget Systems regularly publish performance comparisons in the Adobe suite. In some cases, the reason applications aren’t tested more often is that there have been longstanding concerns about the reliability and accuracy of the benchmark suite that most commonly includes them.

I’m always interested in better methods of measuring PC performance. Intel absolutely has a part to play in that process — the company has been helpful on many occasions when it comes to finding ways to highlight new features or troubleshoot issues. But the only way to find meaningful differences in hardware is to find meaningful differences in tests. Again, generally speaking, you’ll see reviewers check laptops for gaps in battery life and power consumption as well as performance. In GPUs, we look for differences in frame time and framerate. Because none of us can run every workload, we look for applications with generalizable results. At ET, I run multiple rendering applications specifically to ensure we aren’t favoring any single vendor or solution. That’s why I test Cinebench, Blender, Maxwell Render, and Corona Render. When it comes to media encoding, Handbrake is virtually everyone’s go-to solution — but we check in both H.264 and H.265 to ensure we capture multiple test scenarios. When tests prove to be inaccurate or insufficient to capture the data I need, I use different tests.

The False Dichotomy

The much-argued difference between “synthetic” and “real-world” benchmarks is a poor framing of the issue. What matters, in the end, is whether the benchmark data presented by the reviewer collectively offers an accurate view of expected device performance. As Rob Williams details at Techgage, Intel has been only too happy to use Maxon’s Cinebench as a benchmark at times when its own CPU cores were dominating performance. In a recent post on Medium, Intel’s Ryan Shrout wrote:

Today at IFA we held an event for attending members of the media and analyst community on a topic that’s very near and dear to our heart — Real World Performance. We’ve been holding these events for a few months now beginning at Computex and then at E3, and we’ve learned a lot along the way. The process has reinforced our opinion on synthetic benchmarks: they provide value if you want a quick and narrow perspective on performance. We still use them internally and know many of you do as well, but the reality is they are increasingly inaccurate in assessing real-world performance for the user, regardless of the product segment in question.

Sounds damning. He follows it up with this slide:

To demonstrate the supposed inferiority of synthetic tests, Intel shows 14 separate results, 10 of which are drawn from 3DMark and PCMark. Both of these apps are generally considered to be synthetic applications. When the company presents data on its own performance versus ARM, it pulls the same trick again:

Why is Intel referring back to synthetic applications in the same blog post in which it specifically calls them out as a poor choice compared with supposedly superior “real-world” tests? Maybe it’s because Intel makes its benchmark choices just like we reviewers do — with an eye towards results that are representative and reproducible, using affordable tests, with good feature sets that don’t crash or fail for unknown reasons after install. Maybe Intel also has trouble keeping up with the sheer flood of software released on an ongoing basis and picks tests to represent its products that it can depend on. Maybe it wants to continue to develop its own synthetic benchmarks like WebXPRT without throwing that entire effort under a bus, even though it’s simultaneously trying to imply that the benchmarks AMD has relied on are inaccurate.

And maybe it’s because the entire synthetic-versus-real-world framing is bad to start with.

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September 5th 2019, 9:17 am

Porsche Taycan EV Sedan Debuts: $152,250 and Up, 670 hp, 0-60 in 3 seconds

ExtremeTech

Photography: Christoph Bauer Postproduction: Wagnerchic – www.wagnerchic.com

Game on, Tesla. The Porsche Taycan EV sedan unveiled Wednesday (Sept. 4) in advance of the Frankfurt auto show is a vehicle of superlatives, a low-slung sedan with speed, handling, and most of all, the Porsche name. It will cost half again as much as a Tesla Model S Performance model, a plus for early buyers with deep pockets who want to show off, and later on a challenge because there’s a limit to how many super-costly cars the market can absorb.

According to the trio of worldwide announcements — in China, in Europe and in Niagara Falls, Ontario — the Taycan Turbo will be $152,250 in the US (including freight), while the Taycan Turbo S will be $186,350 with launch-special pricing, after which they go up an additional $2,410 and $2,610. The “Turbo” part of the name is a misnomer (the Taycans are electric-only vehicles) but why not: There’s enough BS already floating around the high end of the EV business. What’s a little more among friends?

The Porsche Taycan, here in its side view, looks like the Panamera.

Mission E Comes to Life

The 2020 Porsche Taycan evolved from the concept car called the Mission E that was unveiled at the 2015 Frankfurt auto show. The Mission E-now-Taycan is Porsche’s first electric except for a couple dating back a century. In silhouette, it looks a lot like the Porsche Panamera sedan.

The Taycan is an all-wheel-drive vehicle with a motor for the front axle and a second for the rear axle. The Taycan uses an 800-volt electrical architecture with the possibility of lightning-fast recharges at the right charge-points. It is the same electrical architecture as the Audi e-Tron GT. Porsche says it takes just 22.5 minutes to run up the battery from 5 percent to 80 percent with a DC fast charger that produces 270 kW of power, under ideal conditions. (Tesla says it takes 20 minutes to charge to 50 percent, using a 150-kW Supercharger.) Charge times can be reduced if the owner sets a departure time into their phone app and the battery will be warmed or chilled, depending on ambient conditions, prior to charging. US-bound Taycans will get free charging (the first 30 minutes) for three years through Electrify America.

Inside, there’s a 16.8-inch LCD instrument panel, a center stack LCD smaller than Tesla’s, and an optional passenger-facing LCD display for entertainment. It can’t be seen by the driver. As on the Panamera, the center console is chock full of gauges and switches and extends almost to the back seat.

The Taycan and solar panels.

Porsche Taycan vs. Tesla Model S

Both the Taycan and Model S are low-slung midsize sedans with two seating rows and four doors. Many dimensions are similar: 195.4 inches long (Porsche) versus 195.7 (Tesla Model S), and width is about 77 inches for both. But Tesla is markedly taller, 56.9 inches versus 54.3 inches, with a longer wheelbase (116.5 versus 114.2 inches) for a smoother ride. Tesla also has more trunk space, 28.4 cubic feet rear and front combined versus 16.8 cubic feet. If you’re going on vacation, the two are competitive — if you, as a Porsche owner, use FedEx second-day for your golf clubs.

Looking at the high ends of the line, the Taycan Turbo S battery is 93.4 kWh, the Tesla Model S Performance is 100 kWh. Both battery packs are under the floor. Porsche projects a range of 265 miles using the WLTP (Worldwide Harmonized Light Vehicles Test Procedure) methodology versus 365 miles for Tesla. (WLTP figures are about 10 percent more optimistic than EPA numbers.)  Car and Driver estimates 260-270 miles for the Turbo and 225-250 for the Turbo S.

Porsche rates the Taycan at 617 hp (751 hp for a 2.5-second overboost acceleration) while Tesla is rated at around 760 hp. Porsche claims 3.0-3.5 seconds 0-60 mph for the Turbo and less than 3 seconds for the Turbo S, both versus 2.4 for Tesla’s Model S Performance. Porsche’s top speed is 162 mph (260 kph); Tesla’s is 161.

Porsche has the bigger instrument panel LCD, Tesla has the bigger center stack display, and Porsche has an optional LCD for passenger entertainment and control. Tesla has semi-autonomous (Level 2) Autopilot self-driving.

One difference is modernity: The Tesla Model S interior feels dated. It has been around since 2012 with continual improvements and is still the same basic car.

Porsche Taycan cockpit

Why Porsche Did It: The Future Is Electric

From the perspective of the US, the idea of climate change may be still in doubt — in some minds, at least. Thus the comparatively lower interest in electrified vehicles here. The long distances across the US are more suited currently to a combustion-engine cross-country drive: From Stuttgart, home of Porsche, to Moscow is less in kilometers (2,400) than from Silicon Valley to Manhattan is in miles (3,000). But the world’s automakers are convinced they have to electrify, which means more EVs and more charging points every year. And they also know that nothing provides performance like an electric-motor vehicle.

Porsche Taycan instrument panel: 16.8-inch LCD.

Volkswagen last fall said its next generation of combustion engines, rolling out in 2026, will be its last new combustion engines ever. (With modifications, that could still be two more decades.) Porsche is part of Volkswagen.

Since the Taycan price is high, there’s already talk (among analysts and journalists) that Porsche might do a rear-drive model only to bring the price further below $100,000. To some, that would be the ideal commuter car, since it’d be eligible for an HOV sticker.

Tesla legitimized the EV market. Porsche adds an honored nameplate. Interest in high-performance EVs may grow the market and help those automakers already with great vehicles that haven’t yet caught the public eye, particularly the Jaguar I-Pace. With Porsche coming to market along with Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW can’t be far behind.

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September 5th 2019, 8:17 am

Acer’s New Predator Triton 300 Is a Budget-Conscious Gaming Laptop

ExtremeTech

Most consumers buy laptops these days, but many gaming laptops might as well be desktops for how impractical they are to haul around. It’s understandable when gaming laptops have to cram in so many high-end components. However, Acer’s new Predator Triton 300 takes a different approach. This gaming laptop weighs just 5 pounds (2.3 kilograms) and has enough power to satisfy the average gamer. 

While this could be aptly described as an “entry-level” gaming laptop, it’s significantly more powerful than your average mainstream notebook. The Triton 300 packs a 15.6-inch 1080p LCD with a 144Hz refresh rate. Whether or not you see all those extra frames in games will depend on what you play. The Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 video card isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it’s an able gaming GPU for a laptop. 

The Acer Predator Triton 300 also has Intel’s latest-generation Core i7 processors and 16GB of RAM in the base model. On the storage side, the laptop comes with two 1TB SSDs as standard. The drives are in RAID 0, so the two drives act as one large drive. This makes them faster, but there’s no fault tolerance or redundancy. You can upgrade that to 2TB as well. 

The Predator Triton 300 is thinner and lighter than most gaming laptops, and the price tag isn’t obscene. The trade-off: mid-range specs for a gaming setup.

The entire chassis is under 20mm thick, an impressive feat for a laptop with a high-end processor and dedicated video. It’s thick enough to house a full Ethernet port, but there’s also Wi-Fi 6 support. Since this is a gaming laptop, Acer took some measures to make it look the part. There’s a full keyboard (with number pad) with RGB backlighting. The WASD keys are also concave to help position your hand for gaming. For typing, it sounds like it would be rather unpleasant. The rest of the design isn’t too extreme. The lid has a beveled edge and some unnecessarily angled corners. There are also some superfluous hoods on the rear vents. 

The Predator Triton 300 will launch in Europe this fall for €1,300 (about $1,434). Acer hasn’t committed to launching it in the US yet. However, the states will get the upgraded Triton 500, which now sports a 300Hz display. That laptop starts at €2,699 (almost $3,000).

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September 4th 2019, 4:31 pm

There Are Rumors Apple Will Soon Resurrect the iPhone SE

ExtremeTech

Still the best iPhone. Fight me.

It’s rumored that Apple could resurrect the iPhone SE in 2020, partly as a competitive measure to take market share from low-end Android device manufacturers. The iPhone SE, which was introduced in 2016 at a base price of $400 (it later fell to $350), was built on the same form factor as Apple’s iPhone 5S. The small-screened device was never a huge sales driver, but it found a fan base with small device enthusiasts and people looking for a lower-cost Apple device with good performance and excellent battery life. When Apple decided to jack up its prices, it unceremoniously killed the SE, removing it from the product lists without even an acknowledgment.

This has been a sore spot for a lot of fans ever since. Now, Nikkei reports that Apple may bring the product back — at least, sort-of. This “new” SE wouldn’t be based on the iPhone 5S, but would instead use the slightly larger iPhone 8 as a point of reference. Nikkei writes that Apple is reportedly considering the move as a chance to reverse pressure on its sales, which have been falling. The company is now the third-largest smartphone manufacturer in the world, having lost the number two spot to Huawei. Sales of the iPhone SE were supposedly 30 million in 2016 and a further 10 million from 2017 – 2018.

Apple has reportedly cut its production run of new retail iPhones this year by about 10 percent compared with previous years, reflecting the fact that the company doesn’t expect strong performance. The smartphone market has slowed globally and the ongoing US-China trade war has harmed commerce between the two countries. The rumor mill around the next-generation iPhone has mostly focused on how ugly the devices are, and how limited the new feature set is. Apple won’t have a 5G device in-market until 2020 at the earliest, although given the terrible performance of 5G products, that’s probably a genuinely good thing. Right now, I consider a 5G-enabled smartphone to be much less appealing than an LTE variant. High prices, limited range, and the fact that these devices fail if exposed to ambient temperatures above 85F make them distinctly undesirable.

As 9to5 Mac notes, however, refreshing the iPhone SE as an iPhone 8 form factor means the device won’t really be an iPhone SE at all. Refreshing the body of the iPhone 8 with internals from current iPhones, keeping cost-conscious factors like the LCD, and dumping some capabilities is exactly what the SE was, but it won’t be the same size and shape. This is true. In fact, I do prefer the size of the SE, even compared with a device like the iPhone 8. But I also recognize that part of the reason the SE featured the iPhone 5S design was probably because Apple had chassis sitting around that it could get cheap. Re-using iPhone 8 components is part of what makes this device cheaper for the company to build, and it’s probably why they do things this way.

An iPhone 8-sized SE would be a little larger than I might like, but I won’t deny that the larger screen would also be a little nicer. I can still use the device in one hand, even if it isn’t quite as comfortable. So long as the iPhone SE 2 keeps the battery life and lower price point, I can see getting behind this product — assuming these rumors actually come true.

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September 4th 2019, 4:01 pm

ET Deals: Dell Alienware M15 GTX 1060 Gaming Laptop $788, Netgear Nighthawk AC1900 Wi-Fi Router $92,

ExtremeTech

The best deals available today include a couple of Dell PCs, some high-end networking equipment, and a large 75-inch 4K TV.

Dell Alienware M15 Intel Core i7-8750H 15.6-Inch 1080p 144Hz Gaming Laptop w/ Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060, 8GB DDR4 RAM and 1TB SSHD ($788.49)

If you want a fast notebook with plenty of performance for running the latest games, then you may want to consider Dell’s Alienware M15. This system was literally built for gaming and it features a fast six-core processor, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060, and a high-quality 1080p 144Hz IPS display. You can get this system from Dell marked down from $1,379.99 to $788.49 with promo code IGD17.

Netgear Nighthawk R6900P Smart AC1900 WiFi Router ($92.49)

Netgear’s Nighthawk R6900P offers solid performance for a home network. It supports dual-band broadcasting that decreases latency and improves performance. It’s also able to transmit over an area of up to 1,800 sq ft with speeds up to 1900Mbps. Currently, it’s discounted from $150.56 down to $92.49 at Amazon.

Dell XPS 8930 Intel Core i5-9400 Desktop w/ Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 GPU, 8GB DDR4 RAM, 256GB M.2 NVMe SSD and 1TB HDD ($699.99)

This model of Dell’s XPS 8930 desktop comes with an Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1660 graphics card that is perfect for running games with max settings at 1080p resolutions. The system also comes with a capable hexa-core processor and 8GB of RAM. You can get this system marked down from $1,099.99 to a more affordable $699.99 from Dell with promo code XPSDTAFF01.

Dell SE2419H 24-Inch 1080p IPS Display + $50 Gift Card ($139.99)

Dell’s SE2419H doesn’t come with a robust feature set. In fact, it’s about as bland as a 24-inch 1080p IPS display can be. That said, it’s perfectly fine for essentially any task and it will work well for anyone that simply needs a new monitor or an extra one. It also happens to be an excellent deal at the moment, as in addition to being marked down from $199.99 to $139.99, it also comes with a free $50 Dell gift card.

Apple MacBook Pro Intel Core i9 Laptop w/ 16GB RAM and 512GB SSD ($2,399.99)

Apple engineered this laptop with an aluminum chassis and a fast Core i9 processor with eight CPU cores. The system also has a high-res IPS display and can last up to 10 hours on battery. Amazon is offering these systems discounted from $2,799.00 down to $2,399.99.

TCL 75S425 75-Inch 4K HDR Roku Smart TV ($799.99)

TCL’s designed this TV with a large 75-inch panel that will turn your living room into a miniature home theater. It sports a 4K panel with HDR support for higher color accuracy and more realistic images. Right now it’s marked down from $1,299.99 to $799.99.

Note: Terms and conditions apply. See the relevant retail sites for more information. For more great deals, go to our partners at TechBargains.com.

September 4th 2019, 3:50 pm

Cash Value of Android Zero-Day Exploits Surpasses iOS

ExtremeTech

Apple has long positioned itself as the more secure option to open platforms like Windows and Android, but that might no longer be the case. As previously unreported “zero-day” iOS exploits pile up, security researchers are seeing the cash value of such research fall. Zerodium, the largest purchaser of such flaws, has updated its bug bounty payments. Android exploits now command a maximum of $2.5 million, but iOS tops out at $2 million

Last month, we reported on a series of iOS exploits uncovered by Google’s Project Zero. Google isn’t in the business of selling exploits, so it researched the scheme and reported it to Apple in a responsible manner. Google detected websites using multiple attack chains to steal data from almost all versions of iOS, and they were operating for at least two years.

Apple rolled out an update to iDevices that blocked those exploits, but you have to wonder how many more unreported attacks are floating around out there. The perpetrators of this hack weren’t even treating the exploits like a valuable commodity. They were hacking iPhone users indiscriminately when they could have been using targeted attacks against high-value targets. They might never have been caught going that route. 

Apple talks up iPhone security, but Zerodium says it’s falling behind.

Zerodium buys exploits for big money so it can exclusively report the research and mitigation measures to its corporate and government clients. Zerodium founder and CEO Chaouki Bekrar says that the company still gets ample submissions for iOS exploits, mostly connected to Safari and iMessage. There are so many that the company has started turning down some offers from researchers. On the other hand, functional zero-click or one-click exploits for Android are increasingly rare, especially for versions 8.0 and later. 

Given the state of the major operating systems, Zerodium decided it makes sense to assign a higher value to Android exploits. Zerodium doesn’t pay $2.5 million for just any Android hack, though. Researchers have to submit basic details of the hack first, and then wait on an offer from Zerodium. The $2.5 million top offer only applies to serious flaws in Android 8, 9, or 10. Apple’s lower $2 million maximum bounty is still nothing to sneeze at — serious exploits for desktop systems top out at $1 million. Since mobile platforms were built more recently, they have more security features integrated at a low level. That makes them harder to hack than desktop operating systems.

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September 4th 2019, 2:33 pm

This Coin-sized Linux Computer Is Available for Just $69

ExtremeTech

The endless tinker-ability of Linux systems makes it a favorite among true tech aficionados who love to build awesome gadgets and programs from scratch. Whether you’re trying to write a new OS, set up a home automation platform, or simply want to amplify a WiFi signal on the go, Linux always manages to get the job done.

This VoCore2 Mini Linux Computer Bundle makes it easier than ever to utilize the power of Linux in any environment, and it’s available for over 10% off at just $69.

Complete with a display screen, portable interface, and a wide range of external equipment, this mini-computer packs a serious punch for a fraction of what you’d pay for a traditional PC.

You’ll be able to use this open-source platform in order to build a VPN gateway, an AirPlay music streaming station, a private cloud for data storage and much more—thanks to a super-fast screen that offers high-quality display usage for embedding devices.

You’ll also be able to send and receive data directly through USB, and there are multiple A/D converters along with an on-board antenna for added functionality.

Take your Linux tools with you on the go with this VoCore2 Mini Linux Computer Bundle for just $69—over 10% off its usual price for a limited time.

Prices are subject to change.

September 4th 2019, 2:33 pm

AMD Sales Are Booming, but High-End Ryzen 3000 CPUs Still in Short Supply

ExtremeTech

After the Ryzen 3000 family debuted on 7nm, German retailer Mindfactory.de released data from its own CPU sales showing that demand for the smaller CPU manufacturer’s products had skyrocketed. That demand continued straight through August, but product shortages may be hampering overall sales.

Once again, Ingebor on Reddit has shared data on CPU sales, CPU revenue share, and average selling prices. The results are once again a major win for AMD, though overall shipments declined this month compared with July.

While the absolute number of CPUs fell, AMD held virtually the same market share. Sales of second-generation products continue to be strong, even with third-gen Ryzen in-market. On the AMD side, shipments of the Ryzen 9 3900X fell, as did sales of the Ryzen 7 3700X, and 3800X. The Ryzen 5 3600 substantially expanded its overall market share. Intel shipments appear to have been virtually identical, in terms of which CPU SKUs were selling the best.

Now we look at the market in terms of revenue. Intel’s share is higher here, thanks to higher selling prices. The Ryzen 9 3900X made a significantly smaller revenue contribution in August, as did the Ryzen 7 3700X. Sometimes the revenue graphs show us a different side of performance compared with sales charts, but this month the two graphs generally line up as expected.

One place where the Ryzen 5 3600’s share gains definitely hit AMD is in terms of its average selling price. In June, AMD’s ASP in Euros was €238.89. In August, it slipped downwards, to €216.04, a decline of 10.5 percent. Intel’s ASPs actually improved slightly, from €296.87 to €308.36, a gain of ~4 percent. This could be read as suggesting that a few buyers saw what AMD had to offer and opted to buy a high-end Core CPU instead. And on Reddit, Ingebor notes that low availability on the Ryzen 9 3900X definitely hit AMD’s revenue share, writing:

Except for the 3900X, all Matisse CPUs where available for most of the time and sold pretty well (not so much the 3800X, which dropped in price sharply towards the end of the month). These shortages can be seen in the revenue drop and a lower average sales price compared to last month.

For most of the month, the 3900X was unavailable with a date of availability constantly pushed out by mindfactory. Seems like the amount of CPUs they got do not suffice to satisfy their backlog of orders. The next date is the 6th of September. Hopefully the next month will finally see some decent availability. Also it remains to be seen when the 3950X will start to sell and whether it will be in better supply.

Ingebor also noted that there’s been no hint of official Intel price cuts, despite rumors that the company might respond to 7nm Ryzen CPUs by enacting them.

The Limits of Retail Analysis

It’s incredibly useful that Mindfactory releases this information, but keep in mind that it represents sales at one company, in one country. We don’t doubt that AMD is seeing sales growth across its 7nm product lines, but the retail channel is a subset of the desktop market, and the desktop market is dwarfed by the laptop market.

Data from Statista makes the point. Even if we ignore tablets, only about 36.7 percent of the computing market is desktops. Trying to estimate the size of the PC retail channel is difficult; figures I’ve seen in the past suggest it’s 10-20 percent of the space. If true, that would suggest Mindfactory, Newegg, Amazon, and similar companies collectively account for 3.6 to 7.3 percent of the overall PC market. AMD and Intel split this space, with the size of the split depending on the relative competitive standing of each company, hardware availability in the local market, and any country-specific preferences for one vendor versus the other.

This is why you’ll see websites write stories about how AMD is dominating sales at a specific retailer, followed by stories that show a relatively small gain in total market share. It’s not that either story is necessarily wrong; they capture different markets.

Overall, AMD is in a strong competitive position at the moment. Just keep in mind that data sets like this, while valuable and interesting, only capture a small section of the overall space.

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September 4th 2019, 10:59 am

USB4 Branding Is Reportedly Downright Bad

ExtremeTech

The USB-IF has apparently decided to extend the already-confusing naming scheme it used for USB 3.X in new and exciting ways. To briefly recap: Up to USB 3.0, USB branding was sane. With the introduction of USB 3.1, the USB-IF decided to create a new naming convention. USB 3.1 capability would be known as “USB 3.1 Gen 2,” while USB 3.0 would be rebranded as “USB 3.1 Gen 1.”

This was confusing enough. Then, earlier this year, the USB-IF made it worse. When it introduced USB 3.2, it rebranded every previous product generation again. Now we had three standards: USB 3.2 Gen 1 (aka, USB 3.0), USB 3.2 Gen 2 (aka, USB 3.1 Gen 2), and USB 3.2 Gen 2×2. The new product matrix looked like this:

An engineer familiar with the USB-IF’s plans has shared details surrounding the upcoming USB4 standard. The new brand is apparently “USB4” not “USB 4.0,” which makes some sense — people often drop the space between “USB” and “3.” But according to the source, USB4 will also be marketed according to the number of lanes that it offers.

Once the specifications are released, there will be a new round of confusion,” the source told TechRepublic. “It’s going to be USB4, but you have to qualify what USB4 means, because there are different grades. USB4, by definition, has to be [at least] Gen 2×2, so it will give you 10 Gbps by 2, that’s 20 Gbps. There’s going to be USB4 Gen 3×2, which is 20 Gbps per lane. 20 by 2 will give you 40 Gbps.

USB4 Gen 3×2 is stated. USB4 Gen 2×2 is implied. Why not staple on some Greek letters or Linear B script while you’re at it? Companies like Intel, Nvidia, and AMD have absolutely made branding mistakes — Intel’s Xeon Scalable product family is not particularly easy to parse — but they also take care to offer product labels that mix numbers and letters in ways that give readers an idea of overall performance. We expect the GeForce 2080 to be faster than the 1080, and the 2080 to be faster than the 2070. The Ryzen 7 3700X is faster than the 2700X, the Core i7-8550U is faster than the Core i7-7500U. When companies deliver new products that are numbered higher than older ones but don’t deliver better performance, as sometimes happens in the GPU market, we call it out. “USB4 Gen 3×2” isn’t a misrepresentation; it’s just incomprehensible to someone who isn’t plugged into the tech industry.

We Have Obviously Made a Terrible Mistake

The problem appears to have begun, as all problems do, with XKCD.

Comic by XKCD

When USB-C was unveiled, it was touted as the “everything” cable. USB-C can deliver power. USB-C can deliver Thunderbolt. USB-C can deliver DisplayPort. USB-C is, to its credit, an extremely flexible standard. The problem is, companies want to sell that standard in a huge range of configurations, and they don’t want to pay for features or cable capability they don’t require.

This has created real problems with USB-C cable qualification and capability. The days of being able to automatically assume that every micro USB cable was just like every other micro USB cable are over. Using a USB-C cable that isn’t built to the specs your device requires results in issues that range from annoying (not being able to use a cable for video output) to highly destructive (literally bricking hardware).

I sympathize with the USB-IF, which is attempting to roll out a comprehensive standard time when that standard has to cover a huge variety of products. But there simply must be a better way to balance a comprehensive standard with a comprehensible standard. One place to start would be to drop the linkages out of the product name and simply use the provided bandwidth. USB4 40Gbps. USB4 60Gbps. And even if those simple ideas are unworkable, there has to be a better way to communicate the relationship between standard and bandwidth than asking people to compare the relative merits of “USB 3.2 Gen 2×2” versus “USB4 Gen 3×2.” Branding is supposed to make it easier for a company to communicate product advantages and features to the public, not confuse them.

We’re still assuming that USB 3.2 and 3.1 will not be redefined as “USB4” parts in some future update. If those products are also respun again, the USB-IF might actually win a competition against the iBeat Blaxx for one of the worst consumer product names ever. (Those of you with your own memories of worthy “worst product name ever,” contenders are invited to drop them below).

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September 4th 2019, 9:45 am

Survey: Many AMD Ryzen 3000 CPUs Don’t Hit Full Boost Clock

ExtremeTech

Overclocker Der8auer has published the results of a survey of more than 3,000 Ryzen 7nm owners who have purchased AMD’s new CPUs since they went on sale in July. Last month, reports surfaced that the Ryzen 3000 family weren’t hitting their boost clocks as well as some enthusiasts expected. Now, we have some data on exactly what those figures look like.

There are, however, two confounding variables. First, Der8auer had no way to sort out which AMD users had installed Windows 1903 and were using the most recent version of the company’s chipset drivers. AMD recommends both to ensure maximum performance and desired boost behavior. Der8auer acknowledges this but believes the onus is on AMD to communicate with end-users regarding the need to use certain Windows versions to achieve maximum performance.

Second, there’s the fact that surveys like this tend to be self-selecting. It’s possible that only the subset of end-users who aren’t seeing the performance they desire will respond in such a survey. Der8auer acknowledges this as well, calling it a very valid point, but believes that his overall viewing community is generally pro-AMD and favorably inclined towards the smaller CPU manufacturer. The full video can be seen below; we’ve excerpted some of the graphs for discussion.

Der8auer went over the data from the survey thoroughly in order to throw out results that didn’t make sense or were obviously submitted in bad faith. He compiled data on the 3600, 3600X, 3700X, 3800X, and 3900X. Clock distributions were measured at up to two deviations from the mean. Maximum boost clock was tested using Cinebench R15’s single-threaded test, as per AMD’s recommendation.

Data and chart by Der8auer. Click to enlarge

In the case of the Ryzen 7 3600, 49.8 percent of CPUs hit their boost clock of 4.2GHz, as shown above. As clocks rise, however, the number of CPUs that can hit their boost clock drops. Just 9.8 percent of 3600X CPUs hit their 4.4GHz. The 3700X’s chart is shown below for comparison:

Data and chart by Der8auer. Click to enlarge

The majority of 3700X CPUs are capable of hitting 4.375GHz, but the 4.4GHz boost clock is a tougher leap. The 3800X does improve on these figures, with 26.7 percent of CPUs hitting boost clock. This seems to mirror what we’ve heard from other sources, which have implied that the 3800X is a better overclocker than the 3700X. The 3900X struggles more, however, with just 5.6 percent of CPUs hitting their full boost clock.

We can assume that at least some of the people who participated in this study did not have Windows 10 1903 or updated AMD drivers installed, but AMD users had the most reason to install those updates in the first place, which should help limit the impact of the confounding variable.

The Ambiguous Meaning of ‘Up To’

Following his analysis of the results, Der8auer makes it clear that he still recommends AMD’s 7nm Ryzen CPUs with comments like “I absolutely recommend buying these CPUs.” There’s no ambiguity in his statements and none in our performance review. AMD’s 7nm Ryzen CPUs are excellent. But an excellent product can still have issues that need to be discussed. So let’s talk about CPU clocks.

The entire reason that Intel (who debuted the capability) launched Turbo Boost as a product feature was to give itself leeway when it came to CPU clocks. At first, CPUs with “Turbo Boost” simply appeared to treat the higher, optional frequency as their effective target frequency even when under 100 percent load. This is no longer true, for multiple reasons. CPUs from AMD and Intel will sometimes run at lower clocks depending on the mix of AVX instructions. Top-end CPUs like the Core i9-9900K may throttle back substantially when under full load for a sustained period of time (20-30 seconds) if the motherboard is configured to use Intel default power settings.

In other realms, like smartphones, it is not necessarily unusual for a device to never run at maximum clock. Smartphone vendors don’t advertise base clocks at all and don’t provide any information about sustained SoC clock under load. Oftentimes it is left to reviewers to typify device behavior based on post-launch analysis. But CPUs from both Intel and AMD have typically been viewed as at least theoretically being willing capable of hitting boost clock in some circumstances.

The reason I say that view is “theoretical” is that we see a lot of variation in CPU behavior, even over the course of a single review cycle. It’s common for UEFI updates to arrive after our testing has already begun. Oftentimes, those updated UEFIs specifically fix issues with clocking. We correspond with various motherboard manufacturers to tell them what we’ve observed and we update platforms throughout the review to make certain power behavior is appropriate and that boards are working as intended. When checking overall performance, however, we tend to compare benchmark results against manufacturer expectations as opposed to strictly focusing on clock speed (performance, after all, is what we are attempting to measure). If performance is oddly low or high, CPU and RAM clocks are the first place to check.

It’s not unusual, however, to be plus-or-minus 2-3 percent relative to either the manufacturer or our fellow reviewers, and occasional excursions of 5-7 percent may not be extraordinary if the benchmark is known for producing a wider spread of scores. Some tests are also more sensitive than others to RAM timing, SSD speed, or a host of other factors.

Now, consider Der8auer’s data on the Ryzen 9 3900X:

Image and data by Der8auer. Click to enlarge

Just 5 percent of the CPUs in the batch are capable of hitting 4.6GHz. But a CPU clocked at 4.6GHz is just 2 percent faster than a CPU clocking in at 4.5GHz. A 2 percent gap between two products is close enough that we call it an effective tie. If you were to evaluate CPUs strictly on the basis of performance, with a reasonable margin of say, 3 percent, you’d wind up with an “acceptable” clock range of 4,462MHz – 4,738MHz (assuming a 1:1 relationship between CPU clock and performance). And if you allow for that variance in the graphs above, a significantly larger percentage — though no, not all — of AMD CPUs “qualify” as effectively reaching their top clock.

On the other hand, 4.5GHz or below is factually not 4.6GHz. There are at least two meaningfully different ways to interpret the meaning of “up to” in this context. Does “up to X.XGHz” mean that the CPU will hit its boost clock some of the time, under certain circumstances? Or does it mean that certain CPUs will be able to hit these boost frequencies, but that you won’t know if you have one or not? And how much does that distinction matter, if the overall performance of the part matches the expected performance that the end-user will receive?

Keep in mind that one thing these results don’t tell us is what overall performance looks like across the entire spread of Ryzen 7 CPUs. Simply knowing the highest boost clock that the CPU hits doesn’t show us how long it sustained that clock. A CPU that holds a steady clock of 4.5GHz from start to finish will outperform a CPU that bursts to 4.6GHz for one second and drops to 4.4GHz to finish the workload. Both of these behaviors are possible under an “up to” model.

Manufacturers and Consumers May See This Issue Differently

While I don’t want to rain on his parade or upcoming article, we’ve spent the last few weeks at ET troubleshooting a laptop that my colleague David Cardinal recently bought. Specifically, we’ve been trying to understand its behavior under load when both the CPU and GPU are simultaneously in-use. Without giving anything away about that upcoming story, let me say this: The process has been a journey into just how complicated thermal management is now between various components.

Manufacturers, I think, increasingly look at power consumption and clock speed as a balancing act in which performance and power are allocated to the components where they’re needed and throttled back everywhere else. Increased variability is the order of the day. What I suspect AMD has done, in this case, is set a performance standard that it expects its CPUs to deliver rather than a specific clock frequency target. If I had to guess at why the company has done this, I would guess that it’s because of the intrinsic difficulties of maintaining high clock speeds at lower process nodes. AMD likely chose to push the envelope on its clock targets because it made the CPUs compare better against their Intel equivalents as far as maximum clock speeds were concerned. Any negative response from critics would be muted by the fact that these new CPUs deliver marked benefits over both previous-generation Ryzen CPUs and their Intel equivalents at equal price points.

Was that the right call? I’m not sure. This is a situation where I genuinely see both sides of the issue. The Ryzen 3000 family delivers excellent performance. But even after allowing for variation caused by Windows version, driver updates, or UEFI issues on the part of the manufacturer, we don’t see as many AMD CPUs hitting their maximum boost clocks as we would expect, and the higher-end CPUs with higher boost clocks have more issues than lower-end chips with lower clocks. AMD’s claims of getting more frequency out of TSMC 7nm as compared with GF 12/14nm seem a bit suspect at this point. The company absolutely delivered the performance gains we wanted, and the power improvements on the X470 chipset are also very good, but the clocking situation was not detailed the way it should have been at launch.

There are rumors that AMD supposedly changed boost behavior with recent AGESA versions. Asus employee Shamino wrote:

i have not tested a newer version of AGESA that changes the current state of 1003 boost, not even 1004. if i do know of changes, i will specifically state this. They were being too aggressive with the boost previously, the current boost behavior is more in line with their confidence in long term reliability and i have not heard of any changes to this stance, tho i have heard of a ‘more customizable’ version in the future.

I have no specific knowledge of this situation, but this would surprise me. First, reliability models are typically hammered out long before production. Companies don’t make major changes post-launch save in exceptional circumstances, because there is no way to ensure that the updated firmware will reach the products that it needs to reach. When this happens, it’s major news. Remember when AMD had a TLB bug in Phenom? Second, AMD’s use of Adaptive Frequency and Voltage Scaling is specifically designed to adjust the CPU voltage internally to ensure clock targets are hit, limiting the impact of variability and keeping the CPU inside the sweet spot for clock.

I’m not saying that AMD would never make an adjustment to AGESA that impacted clocking. But the idea that the company discovered a critical reliability issue that required it to make a subtle change that reduced clock by a mere handful of MHz in order to protect long-term reliability doesn’t immediately square with my understanding of how CPUs are designed, binned and tested. We have reached out to AMD for additional information.

I’m still confident and comfortable recommending the Ryzen 3000 family because I’ve spent a significant amount of time with these chips and seen how fast they are. But AMD’s “up to” boost clocks are also more tenuous than we initially knew. It doesn’t change our expectation of the part’s overall performance, but the company appears to have decided to interpret “up to” differently this cycle than in previous product launches. That shift should have been communicated. Going forward, we will examine both Intel and AMD clock behavior more closely as a component of our review coverage.

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September 4th 2019, 8:28 am

Report: Samsung Working on Clamshell-Style Foldable Phone

ExtremeTech

As Samsung struggles to bring the Galaxy Fold to market, the company is reportedly already working on a new foldable phone with a familiar form factor. According to Bloomberg, Samsung plans to launch a clamshell phone with a more durable flexible OLED. This phone should cost less than the nearly $2,000 Fold, and it will offer a compact square form factor when closed. Clearly, Samsung is counting on the nostalgia factor. 

So, why leave the Fold in the dust already? Clearly, the price is the main stumbling block for the Fold, guaranteeing it won’t sell many units. Even the best flat phones are barely half as expensive, and the Fold got plenty of negative press after several early review units failed after several days of use. The Fold is also a giant brick of a phone thanks to the tablet-like 7.3-inch folding OLED. It also leverages new Android features that developers have barely acknowledged. It will look and feel like an experiment. 

Samsung is said to be working with designer Thom Brown to make its new foldable a device that has broader appeal than the Galaxy Fold. The chassis will be thinner than the Fold, making it easier to drop in a pocket. When folded, it will be roughly square. When open, it will have a standard smartphone display ratio. Therefore, developers won’t have to fiddle with multi-window features just to make their apps work properly on the phone. 

While the smartphone market in most markets has moved to the flat glass slab, there are still some places where clamshell phones never died. It’s common for companies like Samsung and Sharp to make giant Android-powered flip phones for Japan and Korea. Those phones have a single internal display, though. Samsung’s rumored foldable would include a large 6.7-inch OLED panel covering both “halves” of the flip. Samsung is reportedly exploring a new generation of flexible glass that’s just 3 percent as thick as conventional Gorilla Glass on smartphones. This could avoid some of the durability issues expected with plastic-wrapped foldable OLEDs. 

A rumored Motorola phone may have a similar form factor to the phone Samsung is working on.

The report says this phone will include a hole-punch camera at the top of the inner display. There will also be a pair of main sensors on the back. However, those cameras face front when the clamshell is closed. Assuming there’s a small external screen like the clamshells of old, users should be able to take higher-quality selfies when the phone is closed. 

Samsung has refused to comment on the report, which isn’t surprising. It will re-launch the Galaxy Fold in the coming weeks, so it doesn’t want to talk about a potentially better, cheaper foldable right now.

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September 4th 2019, 8:28 am

Hurricane Bonus: Tesla, GM Unlock More Range, OnStar Services

ExtremeTech

Legend had it that cool, rainy weather made dad’s carbureted car run smoother. In 2019, there is one automotive advantage to rainy, stormy weather: Automakers are unlocking or freeing up features to customers affected by Hurricane Dorian.

Tesla will unlock free Supercharger access, unlock the software-limited range ceiling on some cars, and force-charge PowerWall batteries to full power. General Motors will provide enhanced OnStar services for anyone with a digital-technology OnStar system (2006-present), and give lapsed OnStar customers free service for the duration of the storm. And now that OnStar is no longer the only telematics game in town, others will probably match GM and OnStar crisis assistance programs. Based on past hurricanes, automakers will likely offer discounts of, say, $1,000 if you have to replace a storm-damaged vehicle.

Assuming your car still has power, the car’s rooftop antenna and more powerful radio transmitter allow for better call quality and more distant connections in case the most current cell tower isn’t functioning. Cars with Wi-Fi hotspots allow owners to email or text relatives to show they’re safe and then turn to social media to show everyone how bad the storm is where they live.

Tesla Powerwall. (Does your garage look like this?)

“Why Is Tesla Crippling My Range?”

Hurricanes lead Tesla to take a multi-point approach to owner assistance. This hurricane — Dorian, the one that stalled over Bermuda before turning its attention (as of Tuesday) to the US coastal seaboard as far north as the Carolinas — is getting a similar response.

First, Supercharger stations are unlocked in storm areas. You don’t pay for electricity during the storm, as long as there is electricity at the Supercharge site. This may lead to longer lines as Tesla people flock to top off their vehicles. Our advice is simple: If have power at home, charge there! It’ll cost you a couple of bucks, but if you own a Tesla, even a Model 3, it’s a rounding error on your lease or purchase payments. Leave the Supercharger stands to apartment dwellers, or those fleeing north or inland. See Elon Musk’s shortest-ever tweet, below (shortest unless he ever told someone No in a tweet):

In addition, Teslas with a more powerful battery embedded than buyers actually paid for, will have the full power and range available for the duration of the storm. For instance, Tesla Model S and Model X 60D vehicles were sold at a price commensurate with having a 60-kWh onboard. But it’s actually a 75-kWh battery software locked down to 60 kWh. Similar, standard range Tesla Model 3s have had a software-locked 220-mile range while the Model 3 Standard Range+ has a 240-mile range. They’ll get the additional range for the storm duration. Think of it as a short-term superpower. This software-capped-capability situation annoys Tesla chuckleheads who miss the point: You paid for 60 kWh (Model S, X) or 220 miles (Model 3), so be happy you’re getting 8-24 percent more range for a week, to let you outrun the storm. The correct response to Tesla is “thank you, Saint Elon,” not “class action lawsuit.”

Finally, if you have a Tesla Powerwall at home, Tesla remotely enabled the Powerwall Storm Watch feature. Basically, it makes sure the batteries are fully charged at all times. A home with solar that charges Powerwall might use power-company electricity at night to ensure the batteries are full. People with new Powerwall systems should — in a power-failure condition — not treat them as they might a backup generator with an assured supply of natural gas or propane. A US home on a normal day uses (roughly) 10 kWh to 25 kWh of power. Powerwall 2, $5,900, is rated at 13.5 kWh. Tesla marketing says it’s good for a week … if it’s hooked to a solar array. In reality, it’s good for 1-2 days if you want to use air conditioning, an electric stove or an electric dryer. Using only the bare minimum of lights and appliances, doing without A/C, shutting off the garage refrigerator, you might get 3-5 days.

Some automakers such as Nissan have reverse charging with EVs. In Japan, a Leaf can supply power to the Leaf that most of the year drew power from the Leaf. So far, it’s not a feature in the US. When it happens, the emotional value of EVs will increase. So long as you have a full battery when the storm hits.

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September 3rd 2019, 5:04 pm

Android 10 Starts Rolling Out Today

ExtremeTech

Today is a big day for Google’s Android platform. Android 10 is rolling out to Pixel phones today, marking the first time since 2008 Google has released a version of Android without a dessert name. Android 10 also brings several long-overdue features to phones, and it promises better update support going forward. Unfortunately, it’ll take time for phones outside of Google’s Pixel lineup to get the OTA. 

Google began testing Android 10 (AKA Android Q) earlier this year with an open beta for Pixel devices, and a few OEMs like OnePlus and Huawei followed with their own test builds. Google has made some adjustments over the months, but there are no major surprises in this release. 

Android 10 brings a new gesture navigation system to Android — yes, Google released a “new” gesture navigation system last year, too. The two-button gesture setup from Android Pie didn’t earn many fans, so Google has reworked it in Android 10 to function more like the iPhone. You can swipe up to go home, left and right to change apps, and the back gesture is swiping in from the left or right edge of the screen. Developers will need to update apps to adjust for that gesture, so we could be looking at a rocky few months for apps with a lot of swipe gestures. Thankfully, Google will keep the traditional three-button nav setup around for accessibility reasons. 

The system-wide dark theme is also a big deal. Google has toyed with dark themes in several Android beta tests, but now it’s real and developers can build support into their apps. With the dark theme enabled, apps with support will shift to black/gray interfaces that aren’t as hard on your eyes at night. It’ll also save battery on OLED phones. 

Security and privacy are also a major focus of Android 10. There is a new unified privacy menu in the settings, and the system treats your location permission as a special case. You can give apps persistent location access or only allow access when the app is open. System updates have always been a pain on Android, but Android 10 supports a feature called Project Mainline. With Mainline, Google can implement important security patches without waiting on OEMs and carriers. 

If you can’t wait to get your hands on Android 10, you’d better hope you have a Pixel phone. Those devices will start seeing OTA updates today. If you can’t wait even that long, there are OTA images available for sideloading on Google’s developer site. Other phones will (maybe) get updates in the coming months. Companies like OnePlus and Essential are quick to update phones, but Samsung, LG, and others will take at least 3-4 months to release any updates.

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September 3rd 2019, 4:04 pm

Post-Labor Day ET Deals: Dell XPS Intel Core i7-9700 Desktop $949, Apple AirPods w/ Wireless Chargin

ExtremeTech

Labor Day weekend is over and it’s time for us all to get back to work. But you can make getting back to work fun, too, by picking up a new computer with a sizable discount.

Dell XPS 8930 Intel Core i7-9700 Desktop w/ Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti GPU, 16GB DDR4 RAM, 512GB M.2 NVMe SSD ($949.99)

Dell’s XPS 8930 desktop comes with an Intel Core i7-9700 processor with eight CPU cores that can operate at clock speeds as high as 4.7GHz. The system also comes with 16GB of DDR4 memory and one of Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1050 Ti graphics cards that can run games with medium graphics settings. You can get this system marked down from $1,399.99 to a more affordable $949.99 from Dell with promo code DTXPSAFF1.

Apple AirPods w/Wireless Charging Case ($169.99)

This set of Apple’s AirPods comes with a wireless charging case. Simply set the earbuds into the case whenever you are finished using them and they will automatically start charging. They also have support for Siri to quickly access your iPhone, and they can last for over 24 hours while listening to music. Amazon is offering these AirPods currently marked down from $199.00 to $169.99.

Dell Alienware Aurora Intel Core i7-9700 Gaming Desktop w/ Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070, 16GB DDR4 RAM and 1TB NVMe SSD ($1,286.49)

Dell’s Alienware Aurora pairs a fast Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 graphics card with an immensely powerful Intel Core i7-9700 processor. The system also comes with a 1TB SSD and 16GB of DDR4 RAM. This system typically retails for $2,129.99, but with promo code IGD17 you can get it from Dell for just $1,286.49.

TCL 55S425 55-Inch 4K HDR Roku Smart TV ($269.99)

TCL designed this TV with a 4K panel that supports HDR to produce a more lifelike picture with superior color. The TV also comes equipped with Roku software, which makes it easy to stream content from numerous sources. Right now you can get it from Amazon marked down from $329.99 to $269.99.

Samsung 970 Evo 1TB M.2 NVMe SSD ($169.99)

Reading data at 3,500MB/s, this SSD hits the limits of what the M.2 interface is capable of when connected using PCI-E 3.0 lanes. The drive was built using Samsung’s V-NAND 3-bit MLC NAND, which offers excellent performance. The drive is also rated to last for up to 1.5 million hours before failing. Right now you can get it from Amazon marked down from $299.99 to $169.99.

Roomba iRobot Model 960 Vacuum w/ Wi-Fi Connectivity ($499.00)

This smart robot vacuum is here to make your home life a little easier. It has sufficient power to clean difficult messes such as pet hair, and it supports an intelligent navigation program that allows it to carefully work its way through your home. It also supports Alexa voice commands and can be controlled via your smartphone. Right now you can get it marked down from $699.99 to $499.00 from Walmart.

Note: Terms and conditions apply. See the relevant retail sites for more information. For more great deals, go to our partners at TechBargains.com.

September 3rd 2019, 3:04 pm

WSPR Explained: How to Get Started With One-Way Ham Radio

ExtremeTech

Credit: Gerolf Ziegenhain / Wikimedia Commons

Last Tuesday at 1744 UTC (1:44 PM EDT) UR3RM, a ham radio station in Ukraine blindly sent out a message on 7040.138 kHz.  It was automated. It was text. Maybe someone would hear it. Maybe not.

The “maybe not” part is easy to understand because UR3RM’s transmitter was putting out one milliwatt, .01 watts. To put that in perspective, a Class 2 Bluetooth transmitter, the ones good for around 30 feet, run 2.5 milliwatts.

UR3RM was using a mode called WSPR for Weak Signal Propagation Reporting. Unlike most of ham radio, this is a one-way mode. Not only is there little expectation anyone will be listening, but there’s even less that the signal would make it back. Radio propagation isn’t always a two-way path.

WSPR’s biggest selling point is you can do it on the cheap. It’s easy to set yourself up for not much more than $100 and often a whole lot less. And, though a ham radio license is needed to transmit, anyone can put up a receiver. And the US ham license test is multiple-choice, all published and online.

Most WSPR transmitters run very low power, many well under a watt like UR3RM. And sometimes, like UR3RM that peanut whistle goes far. Tuesday’s 1744 UTC transmission was heard on the Australian island of Tasmania, a distance of 15,140 km. Stated more impressively, the transmission/reception worked out to 9,235,000 miles per watt! This isn’t being done with fancy gear and immense antennas. This particular transmission took place on what we quaintly still call “short wave” radio. WSPR’s greatest accomplishment is it lets this be done on noisy, unreliable, staticky radio bands. And, it lets the receiver know what it’s gotten is good without any confirmation from the sender.

There is a price to pay for making all this reliable: bandwidth. A WSPR signal is 6 Hz wide. A typical voice channel would be around 2,500 Hz. This allows the tiny WSPR of power to be more concentrated and much more effective.

Low bandwidth also limits the signaling rate. In today’s gigaworld, you’ll be shocked to know WSPR runs at 1.4648 baud. No typo. The structured WSPR transmission sends 50 characters in 110.6 seconds, beginning one second after each even minute.

Each message contains the station’s callsign, a grid locator, and transmitter power expressed in dBm. So, when the station in Tasmania picked up the Ukrainian transmission he immediately knew where it was from and how much power got it there.

A map of the Maidenhead Locator System.

Because of their very narrow bandwidth, WSPR signals can often be decoded when human ears can’t detect the signal is even there. It’s claimed a signal 28 dB below the noise in a 2500 Hz bandwidth receiver can be decoded with WSPR. I’ve had the volume turned up and watched stations decoded that were totally indistinguishable from the background noise by my ears.

The narrow bandwidth actually allows a receiver to hear and decode multiple stations at once, often handfuls at a time when the bands are open. Since the receiver has no way to tell the originating stations “job well done,” the reception is reported to a central hub on the Internet. Want to know what ham bands are good for contacting what parts of the world at this moment? Head over to wsprnet.org, where these are plotted out and otherwise quantified.

WSPR was produced by Joe Taylor, a ham operator (K1JT) and Nobel Physics prize winner. In the past, he’s developed other transmission/reception methods to help with moonbounce and meteor scatter radio work.

Like so many other radio advances, this one is really helped by the advent of inexpensive SDR receivers. Though the $20-ish variety sold on Amazon, eBay and others doesn’t do well on these long-distance low frequencies, more sophisticated models are now selling for under $100. The software to decode (and the transmit software too) is free and open source. Prebuilt or mostly built transmitters are also widely available for under $100. Some folks have even figured out how to make a Raspberry Pi act like a 10 milliwatt WSPR transmitter (pictured at top), though some outboard filtering to make sure it only transmits where it’s supposed to is necessary.

Every ham radio band is different, and with the current solar sunspot cycle down near the minimum, conditions are definitely lousy. But WSPR is so vigorous and resilient that even now worldwide communication is possible with flea power. If you’re interested, you can actually dip your toe in the water for free. The dozens of receivers aggregated through http://sdr.hu all have WSPR as an available mode. If you’re like me, you’ll end up spending hours listening to radio signals you actually don’t hear and wouldn’t understand if you did!

Top image credit: Gerolf Ziegenhain/CC BY-SA 3.0

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September 3rd 2019, 3:04 pm

Tesla Model 3 Owners Locked Out of Cars Thanks to App Outage

ExtremeTech

The Tesla Model 3 is the budget offering in Tesla’s lineup, but it’s still jam-packed with fancy technology like custom driver profiles, autonomous driving, and a top speed of 162 miles per hour. You can even control the car from the smartphone app. That app support is usually a selling point, but it was a big problem for some Tesla owners over the weekend. The company experienced an app outage that left some Model 3 owners unable to use their vehicles for hours

Unlike most cars, the Tesla Model 3 doesn’t have a key. In fact, you don’t even get a key fob with the car like other Teslas. Tesla has designed the experience around the smartphone app, which supports passive entry (the doors automatically unlock) and remote operation. The included key cards don’t do that, either. You have to physically tap the card on the door to open it and on the dash to start the car. Naturally, many Model 3 owners have gotten used to just relying on the phone to access their vehicles. 

Starting late on Monday, Model 3 owners began reporting issues with the mobile app. Many users found themselves logged out of the app and unable to get back in. Some who could successfully log in saw no cars listed. Approaching the car as usual did not unlock the door. With no recourse, these unfortunate Model 3 owners had to call Tesla, complain, and wait for a resolution. One Model 3 owner inconvenienced by the server maintenance says the outage lasted about three and a half hours. 

Tesla’s key cards aren’t as capable or convenient as the app, but you should apparently always carry one as a backup.

This is one of those instances where you have to miss the foolproof systems of yesteryear. No one ever got locked out of their boring gasoline-powered sedan because their key needed to connect to a remote server. 

While Tesla makes the phone app its “first-class” Model 3 experience, this incident should be a reminder to owners to always carry their key card as a backup. It’s not as convenient, but it won’t rely on an external server to validate your app should you ever get logged out. In addition, Tesla offers a key fob for the Model 3, but it’s $150 and doesn’t support passive entry like other Tesla vehicle fobs.

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September 3rd 2019, 1:14 pm

At a Glance: Acer Predator Helios 300 (2019) Review

ExtremeTech

Acer’s Predator Helios gaming laptops have been highly competitive in recent years, offering a strong balance between performance and affordability. The new 2019 Predator Helios 300 systems come equipped with the latest processing technology from Intel and Nvidia, giving these new systems a clear edge over last year models.

Design and Hardware

Along with the upgraded hardware comes an updated appearance that helps the new 2019 systems stand apart from their 2018 predecessors. Instead of the overplayed red-and-black color scheme, these new systems are predominantly black with teal highlights. The notebook’s chassis is primarily constructed out of plastic, but the system does feature a metal plate behind the screen that helps to reinforce the body and give the system a more expensive and premium look.

Our sister site PCMag received one of these units from Acer for testing purposes and ran it through a series of benchmarks to gauge its performance. This system came equipped with an Intel Core i7-9750H processor and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti graphics processor as well as 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. The Predator Helios 300 also features a 1080p 144Hz display, and it sells for $1,199.99 as configured.

The test results were compared against four other systems. The full specs for these other systems are listed in the chart above.

Benchmarks

Kicking things off with Cinebench R15, we see the three i7-9750H notebooks dominating the less well equipped Dell G5 15 SE and the Lenovo Legion Y530 — no real surprise there. The Predator Helios 300 manages to best the MSI GS65 Stealth in this test, but it’s not quite fast enough to surpass the Dell G7 15.

Testing with Photoshop CC shows the Acer Predator Helios 300 pull into first place with the Dell G7 15 falling down into third.

The gaming tests run by PCMag show the Acer Predator Helios 300 performing relatively well against the competition, especially against the Dell G7 15 that comes with a more powerful RTX 2060 graphics processor. Generally we would have expected to see the Dell G7 15 maintain a sizable lead over the competition in these tests, but instead, it struggles to surpass the GTX 1660 Ti inside of the Acer Predator Helios 300. Testing with 3DMark shows the Acer notebook just slightly behind the Dell G7, and when tested with Unigine Superposition 1.0 the Dell G7 falls far behind the Acer Predator Helios 300 and MSI GS65 Stealth at 720p resolutions.

Technically the Dell G7 returned the highest average frames per second when tested with both Far Cry 5 and Rise of the Tomb Raider, but the Acer Predator Helios 300 is just one frame per second behind in both titles.

This should come as a real slap in the face for Dell, as it sells the tested G7 15 laptop for roughly $600 more than Acer Predator Helios 300, in large part due to the faster GPU. Unless there is a major sale going on or you are just a big fan of Dell, this removes any real incentive to buy the Dell system when you can have essentially the same performance from the Acer Predator Helios 300 for significantly less.

Conclusion

It’s always enjoyable to see a product get the upper-hand on a significantly more expensive competitor, but does that make the Predator Helios 300 worthwhile? In short, yes. Currently, you can pick up the Acer Predator Helios 300 on sale from Amazon for $1,099. Of the systems included in these tests, the two that came closest to matching the Predator Helios 300 were the Dell G7 15 and the MSI GS65 Stealth. The first of these retails for around $1,803.99 whereas the latter notebook costs $1,699. These higher price tags may come with some extra features and benefits, like the MSI GS65 Stealth’s full metal exterior and more compact form factor, but in terms of raw performance, neither of these more expensive systems best the Acer Predator Helios 300.

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September 3rd 2019, 1:04 pm

Facebook Is Building a Minecraft AI Because Games May Be Great Training Tools

ExtremeTech

It turns out that video games may be an excellent method of teaching skills to artificial intelligence assistants. That’s the theory of a group of researchers working for Facebook, who have focused on Minecraft as a potential teaching tool for building generalist AI — a so-called ‘virtual assistant.’ The research team isn’t trying to build an artificial intelligence that’s super-good at classifying images or other content — it wants to build a generalist AI that can perform a much larger number of tasks reasonably well.

This is, to-date, an under-studied area of research. The authors’ write:

There has been measured progress in this setting as well, with the mainstreaming of virtual personal assistants. These are able to accomplish thousands of tasks communicated via natural language, using multi-turn dialogue for clarifications or further specification. The assistants are able to interact with other applications to get data or perform actions.

Nevertheless, many difficult problems remain open. Automatic natural language understanding (NLU) is still rigid and limited to constrained scenarios. Methods for using dialogue or other natural language for rich supervision remain primitive. In addition, because they need to be able to reliably and predictably solve many simple tasks, their multi-modal inputs, and the constraints of their maintenance and deployment, assistants are modular systems, as opposed to monolithic ML models. Modular ML systems that can improve themselves from data while keeping well-defined interfaces are still not well studied.

According to the team, they picked Minecraft because it offered a regular distribution of tasks with “hand-holds for NLU research,” as well as enjoyable opportunities for human-AI interaction, with plenty of opportunities for human-in-the-loop research. Minecraft, for those of you who haven’t played or heard of it, is a block-based crafting and exploration game in which players explore a 3D voxel grid universe populated with various types of materials, neutral characters, and enemies. The team’s goal is to build an AI virtual assistant that can be given instructions in natural language by a Minecraft player, and that can reliably complete some of the primary tasks that player might engage in, including gathering materials, building structures, fighting mobs, and crafting items.

The authors of the paper target three specific achievements: Create synergy between machine-learning and non-machine-learning components, allowing them to work together; create a “grounded” natural language simulation that allows the AI to understand what players want it to do, and can communicate its success or failure back to the end-user; and create an AI that shouldn’t just be capable of doing what the player wants it to do, but that also its performance should improve based on observation of the human player.

They write:

We intend that the player will be able to specify tasks through dialogue (rather than by just issuing commands), so that the agent can ask for missing information, or the player can interrupt the agent’s actions to clarify. In addition, we hope dialogue to be useful for providing rich supervision. The player might label attributes about the environment, for example “that house is too big”, relations between objects in the environment (or other concepts the bot understands), for example “the window is in the middle of the wall”, or rules about such relations or attributes. We expect the player to be able to question the agent’s “mental state” to give appropriate feedback, and we expect the bot to ask for confirmation and use active learning strategies.

The machine learning code being used for the Facebook-Minecraft bot is available on GitHub. Better AI tools could be useful in many games, though they could also raise serious questions about what constitutes cheating in multiplayer.

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September 3rd 2019, 9:29 am
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