Tech Today w/ Ken May

Archive for October, 2017

Surface Book 2: More cores, more GPU, and more screen

Posted by kenmay on October - 17 - 2017

Just over two years ago, Microsoft unveiled its Surface Book hybrid laptop : a tablet with a detachable hinged keyboard base. It was a compelling concept , with Microsoft pulling off some clever tricks. The base contained a battery, boosting the life of the tablet portion substantially, and could optionally contain a discrete GPU, too. A little under a year ago, the Surface Book was partially refreshed: a new base was offered with a bigger battery and a faster GPU. The tablet portion, however, was left unchanged. Today, Microsoft unveiled not only a full refresh of the system—both tablet and base are being updated—but a whole new version of the machine. Surface Book 2 (Microsoft is using numerical version number suffixes here, even after abandoning the practice with the Surface Pro ) will come in two sizes. There’s a 13-inch model, same as before, but this is now paired with a 15-inch version. The broad concept of Surface Book remains the same. The screen half of the “laptop” is in fact a tablet computer, containing the processor, memory, mass storage, and a battery; the “keyboard” half is a larger battery, some expansion ports, and, optionally, a discrete GPU. The systems look essentially the same as the old versions, too, with the 15-inch version looking for all intents and purposes like a scaled-up version of the 13-inch one. Read 15 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Microsoft says it has already fixed the problem for customers running supported versions of Windows. From a report: “We have released a security update to address this issue, ” says a Microsoft spokesperson in a statement to The Verge. “Customers who apply the update, or have automatic updates enabled, will be protected. We continue to encourage customers to turn on automatic updates to help ensure they are protected.” Microsoft is planning to publish details of the update later today. While it looks like Android and Linux devices are affected by the worst part of the vulnerabilities, allowing attackers to manipulate websites, Google has promised a fix for affected devices “in the coming weeks.” Google’s own Pixel devices will be the first to receive fixes with security patch level of November 6, 2017, but most other handsets are still well behind even the latest updates. Security researchers claim 41 percent of Android devices are vulnerable to an “exceptionally devastating” variant of the Wi-Fi attack that involves manipulating traffic, and it will take time to patch older devices. Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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Outlook for desktops will behave a lot like the mobile app

Posted by kenmay on October - 16 - 2017

Outlook on computers can be overwhelming, to put it gently. The interface is loaded with buttons you probably aren’t using, and it generally isn’t as intuitive or fluid as the mobile and web versions . Thankfully, Microsoft knows this — and it’s planning a revamp that could give the email and calendar app a breath of fresh air. Microsoft recently previewed Outlook redesigns for Mac and Windows that are nearly as clean and intuitive as their mobile counterparts. You can still have a customizable “ribbon” at the top, but it’s stripped down and less intimidating to newcomers. The navigation panel (on the left) also takes its cues from Outlook’s mobile apps, making it much easier to switch folders or entire accounts. Mac users may notice the difference the most. This time around, Microsoft is aiming for an “authentically Mac” look instead of shoehorning the Windows interface into a Mac app. This won’t matter much if you’re interested in features above all else, but it could help you adjust if you’re switching from Apple Mail or another Mac-native email program. There’s no mention of when the new Outlook will hit your PC, although it wouldn’t be surprising if Microsoft rolls this into Office 2019’s release next year. Whenever it arrives, it’ll reflect how much Microsoft’s software priorities have changed in the past few years. Where Outlook’s desktop version has largely focused on business users circulating memos and scheduling meetings, it now has to court home users who may just be looking for an app similar to what they have on their phones. Microsoft’s challenge will be to please these relative newcomers without alienating the corporate crowd. Via: MSPowerUser , The Verge Source: Microsoft Ignite (YouTube)

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Netflix could spend $8 billion on content next year

Posted by kenmay on October - 16 - 2017

Once again, Netflix’s quarterly earnings report ( PDF ) shows it’s added even more customers (5 million in the US alone), and now boasts more than 115 million subscribers worldwide. The company is now five years into its “original content strategy” that first drew attention with House of Cards , which turned into a string of series including hits like Stranger Things and Orange is the New Black . Of course, with more competition turning up (Amazon, Hulu, CBS All Access and, eventually, Disney), things are getting more expensive, as the company says it will spend “$7-8 billion on content” next year — even if it’s off the hook for 30 Rock . That’s potentially a billion dollars more than what Ted Sarandos predicted in August, and up to two billion more than it spent this year. Those differences also explain why prices are going up on some of its plans , as it continues a push to become more profitable. The company is predicting it will add slightly fewer new customers next quarter than it did last year, although it’s unclear if that’s due to the price changes or simply running out of people who want Netflix but don’t have it yet. The company will broadcast the video from its quarterly earnings call on YouTube at 6 PM ET, if there are any interesting anecdotes, we’ll update this post. Source: Netflix Q3 2017 earnings report (PDF)

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What is Intel Coffee Lake?

Posted by kenmay on October - 16 - 2017

Intel’s 8th-generation “Coffee Lake” CPUs are now on the market. These chips come with a modest bump in CPU frequency, but the big news is that Intel is finally adding 6-core processors to its mainstream i7 and i5 lines. More cores means these chips will perform better at tasks that benefit from multithreading, such as content creation and data processing, and the increase in frequency and cores will give a boost to gaming frame rates. Intel used to release chips on a “tick-tock” cycle that saw every release alternate either a new design, or a new manufacturing process – called a “node.” A new process node, like moving from 45nm to 22nm, means smaller transistors and a faster or more power-efficient chip. But manufacturing challenges made tick-tock falter a few years ago, and now new releases are much harder to predict. “Coffee Lake” is the fourth chip Intel has released at 14nm, and the third based on the “Skylake” design from 2015. New designs and nodes are coming, but we’ll probably have to wait until they arrive in 2018 to see a big jump in performance.

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It’s hard to get excited about an Android tablet in 2017. Samsung is still trying to take on the iPad with its premium Galaxy Tab S lineup , and there are countless slates from other companies that seem more obligatory than innovative. Mostly it boils down to one thing: Google hasn’t done much to make Android tablet-friendly. That makes Amazon’s newest Fire HD 10 tablet all the more special. It features a great 10-inch screen, it’s fast enough to run plenty of apps, and, most important, it costs just $150. Hardware From the beginning, Amazon took a different route with its Fire tablets. They use Android at their core, but they feature a custom “Fire OS” that puts all of the shopping giant’s services front and center. In a way, they’re basically digital Amazon catalogs, allowing you to easily shop and catch up on the latest Prime Video shows. While the company dabbled in the high-end arena with its Fire HDX line, it eventually shifted focus entirely to inexpensive tablets. They’re not exciting, but they’re ideal for people who want a cheap and easy-to-use slate that can run the occasional Android app. In that vein, not much has changed with the new Fire HD 10. It has the same overall design as the 2015 model, with a plastic body and large bezels around the 10.1-inch screen. Notably, there’s no aluminum case, like there was with last year’s entry , but that makes sense, since Amazon was clearly trying to cut costs. At 9.8 millimeters thick, the Fire HD 10 isn’t exactly slim, but its rounded edges make it easy to hold. It’s only a tad heavier than the 9.7-inch iPad, clocking in at 1.1 pounds. I don’t expect much from a $150 tablet, but the Fire HD 10 surprised me — first, with its sturdiness. The plastic case didn’t flex when I tried to bend it, and there weren’t any any noticeable creaking noises either. It feels like something that could take a tumble with ease. That makes it particularly well suited to children and the chronically clumsy. It’s odd that Amazon didn’t make an extra-strong “Kids Edition, ” even though it did for the smaller Fire 7 and HD 8. Those are more expensive than the standard versions, but they come with protective cases and, most important, a two-year warranty against all sorts of damage. The most immediate upgrade is the Fire HD 10’s 1080p screen (224ppi), which is a solid bump up from the 720p (1, 280 x 800–pixel) display of its predecessor. Under the hood, it packs in 2GB of RAM (twice as much as before), as well as a 1.8GHz quad-core processor, which Amazon claims is 30 percent faster than the last model’s. The tablet also includes 32GB of storage, and you can add an additional 256GB via the microSD slot. The Fire HD 10 features two stereo speakers, as well as Dolby Atmos for headphones, which helps to make surround-sound audio more immersive. Amazon also included a 2-megapixel camera on the rear, which is a laughably low resolution for a front-facing camera these days, let alone a primary shooter. There’s also a front-facing VGA (640 x 480 pixels) camera that feels like a blast from the past. It’s been more than a decade since I last saw such a low-res camera on anything. Beyond that, the HD 10’s hardware is fairly straightforward. It still charges over micro-USB — you’ll have to wait a bit longer for Amazon to jump on the USB-C bandwagon. Software While we’ve seen Alexa in the Fire HD 8 before, the new Fire HD 10 is Amazon’s first tablet to offer completely hands-free communication with its virtual assistant. Instead of pressing a button to issue commands, you can simply say “Alexa” out loud, even when the tablet is asleep. It works much like Amazon’s Echo devices, except you also get some on-screen feedback in addition to the assistant’s voice responses. Aside from the addition of hands-free Alexa, Amazon’s Fire OS hasn’t changed much. It’s still broken down into several columns: “For You, ” which directs you to Kindle and Prime Video content in your library; “Home, ” where all of your apps live; and sections for books, videos, games, apps, Audible and newsstand content. And, of course, there’s also one category dedicated to shopping on Amazon. It’s all fairly straightforward, though the huge variety of sections can be intimidating at first. In use Devindra Hardawar/Engadget I’ll admit, I typically dread testing out Amazon’s tablets. They’re not bad, especially given their low prices, but they’re much slower than the gear I normally use. Not so with the Fire HD 10. It’s the first inexpensive Amazon tablet that’s fast enough to keep up with my needs. That’s mostly because the company has finally moved beyond a paltry 1GB of RAM. But I also appreciated having some extra CPU horsepower under the hood. It didn’t matter whether I was scrolling through Twitter feeds, browsing demanding websites, playing Amazon Prime movies or hopping between apps — the Fire HD 10 handled it all without slowing down. Surprisingly, the stereo speakers sound great, even at high volumes. The tablet can even run some games decently, though it would stutter with anything graphically demanding. While the tablet has received a huge performance boost, its GPU is still underwhelming. Really, though, the biggest improvement you’ll notice in the Fire HD 10 is its 1080p screen. That might not sound very exciting these days, but it’s a significant leap for Amazon. The higher resolution makes videos and photos much clearer than before, and the improved brightness makes everything pop. It’s also sharp enough to display text clearly, which is ideal for Kindle books. Sure, the screen doesn’t hold a candle to the insanely bright OLED displays Samsung is using in the Galaxy Tab S2 and S3, but they’re also far more expensive. If you haven’t been bitten by the Amazon Echo bug yet, the Fire HD 10’s Alexa integration will give you a taste of what you’ve been missing. You can ask the virtual assistant to do things like tell you the weather, set timers and relay the latest news. But it also takes advantage of the tablet’s screen to display cards with more information. For example, when you ask about the weather, you also get a preview of what’s to come over the next few days. Alexa can also start playing a video or song on Prime services at your request — unfortunately, that doesn’t work for other platforms like Netflix. The tablet has only one microphone, but it managed to hear my voice requests most of the time, even in noisy environments. Compared with other Android tablets, Amazon’s interface feels far more refined, despite being a bit cluttered. You’re never more than a few swipes away from a new TV show to binge, a book to read or a pair of Cole Haan boots. It’s a consumption machine, for better or worse. The Fire HD 10 lasted nine hours and 45 minutes while playing a downloaded HD video on loop. That’s pretty close to Amazon’s 10-hour battery life claim. While you can install popular Android apps on the Fire HD 10, like Netflix, Evernote and Spotify, Google’s services are noticeably absent from Fire OS. That means no Gmail, no Google Maps and no Google Calendar. Of course, that’s been the case with all of Amazon’s tablets, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. You can, of course, use the built-in email app and Amazon’s Silk browser, but they’re no match for native Android Gmail and Chrome. There are also ways to hack the Fire HD 10 and install Google’s services, but that’s not something that’ll help mainstream users. Given just how much Amazon had to customize Android for Fire OS, there’s little chance Google would ever grant access to its apps. But since Android slates have been in a death spiral over the past few years, it’d be wise for Google to work more closely with the one company that’s built successful tablets on its platform. Let’s face it: The search giant needs to do more than just shove Android apps into Chromebooks . Pricing and the competition In addition to the standard 32GB Fire HD 10 for $150, there’s a 64GB model going for $190. You can also remove Amazon’s special-offer ads on both for an additional $15. While there are plenty of cheap Android tablets on the market, there aren’t many I’d actually recommend. Even Google has given up on its Nexus tablet lineup (a shame, because the Nexus 7 was great). Consequently, Amazon basically competes with itself when it comes to low-end slates. The new Fire HD 8 starts at $80, with 16GB of storage, and the svelte Fire 7 goes for just $50, with 8GB. If you’re worried about the portability of the HD 10, the 8-inch model might be a solid compromise. If you want something even more powerful, with a wider assortment of apps (including Google’s), then it’s worth looking at Apple’s newest iPad. It’s just $329 and features a much better screen and superior hardware. Of course, that means hopping over to iOS, but your only other alternative in the Android arena is the Galaxy Tab S2 , a two-year-old slate that still sells for $300. It has a gorgeous screen and it’s incredibly thin, but its aging hardware doesn’t seem like a good investment today. (If you find it on sale, though, it’s worth a close look.) Wrap-up The Fire HD 10 is a glimmer of hope in the barren Android tablet wasteland. It fixes everything we didn’t like about the last model, while dropping down to an incredibly low price for a 10.1-inch slate. It’s just a shame that such a well-crafted Android device can’t run Google’s services. As it stands, though, the Fire HD 10 is still the cheap slate to beat this year.

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Enlarge / 750,000 Estonian cards that look like this use a 2048-bit RSA key that can be factored in a matter of days. (credit: Steve Jurvetson ) A crippling flaw in a widely used code library has fatally undermined the security of millions of encryption keys used in some of the highest-stakes settings, including national identity cards, software- and application-signing, and trusted platform modules protecting government and corporate computers. The weakness allows attackers to calculate the private portion of any vulnerable key using nothing more than the corresponding public portion. Hackers can then use the private key to impersonate key owners, decrypt sensitive data, sneak malicious code into digitally signed software, and bypass protections that prevent accessing or tampering with stolen PCs. The five-year-old flaw is also troubling because it’s located in code that complies with two internationally recognized security certification standards that are binding on many governments, contractors, and companies around the world. The code library was developed by German chipmaker Infineon and has been generating weak keys since 2012 at the latest. The flaw is the one Estonia’s government obliquely referred to last month when it warned that 750,000 digital IDs issued since 2014 were vulnerable to attack . Estonian officials said they were closing the ID card public key database to prevent abuse. Last week, Microsoft , Google , and Infineon all warned how the weakness can impair the protections built into TPM products that ironically enough are designed to give an additional measure of security to high-target individuals and organizations. Read 18 remaining paragraphs | Comments

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Big Hairy Ian quotes New Atlas: A key focus of electric vehicle (EV) makers is maximizing the range users can get from each charge, and for that reason new battery technologies are poised to play a huge part in driving their adoption. Toshiba has developed a new fast-charging battery it claims could allow EVs to travel three times as far as they do now, and then be fully recharged again in a matter of minutes. Toshiba’s SCiB (Super Charge ion Battery) has been around in various forms since 2007, with its chief claim to fame an ability to charge to 90 percent of capacity in just five minutes. It also boasts a life-span of 10 years and high levels of safety, and has found its way into a number of notable EVs, including Mitsubishi’s i MiEV and Honda’s Fit EV. The current SCiB uses lithium titanium oxide as its anode, but Toshiba says it has now come up with a better way of doing things. The next-generation SCiB uses a new material for the anode called titanium niobium oxide, which Toshiba was able to arrange into a crystal structure that can store lithium ions more efficiently. So much so, that the energy density has been doubled. Toshiba calls the battery “a game changing advance that will make a significant difference to the range and performance of EV, ” and hopes to put it “into practical application” in 2019. Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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dryriver writes: China launched a space laboratory named Tiangong 1 into orbit in 2011. The space laboratory was supposed to become a symbol of China’s ambitious bid to become a space superpower. After two years in space, Tiangong 1 started experiencing technical failure. Last year Chinese officials confirmed that the space laboratory had to be scrapped. The 8.5 ton heavy space laboratory has begun its descent towards Earth and is expected to crash back to Earth within the next few months. Most of the laboratory is expected to burn up in earth’s atmosphere, but experts believe that pieces as heavy as 100 kilograms (220 pounds) may survive re-entry and impact earth’s surface. Nobody will be able to predict with any precision where those chunks of space laboratory will land on Earth until a few hours before re-entry occurs. The chance that anyone would be harmed by Tiangong-1’s debris is considered unlikely. When NASA’s SkyLab fell to earth in 1979, an Australian town fined them $400 — for littering. Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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