Category Archives: Features

The tragedy of FireWire: Collaborative tech torpedoed by corporations

Enlarge / In retrospect, perhaps our favorite port logo. (credit: Flickr user jeremybrooks)

The rise and fall of FireWire—IEEE 1394, an interface standard boasting high-speed communications and isochronous real-time data transfer—is one of the most tragic tales in the history of computer technology. The standard was forged in the fires of collaboration. A joint effort from several competitors including Apple, IBM, and Sony, it was a triumph of design for the greater good. FireWire represented a unified standard across the whole industry, one serial bus to rule them all. Realized to the fullest, FireWire could replace SCSI and the unwieldy mess of ports and cables at the back of a desktop computer.

Yet FireWire's principal creator, Apple, nearly killed it before it could appear in a single device. And eventually the Cupertino company effectively did kill FireWire, just as it seemed poised to dominate the industry.

The story of how FireWire came to market and ultimately fell out of favor serves today as a fine reminder that no technology, however promising, well-engineered, or well-liked, is immune to inter- and intra-company politics or to our reluctance to step outside our comfort zone.

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OnePlus 5 review—The best sub-$500 phone you can buy

Smartphone companies don't seem to care about cultivating a true "lineup" of phones. If you aren't spending at least $650, most companies will offer you anonymous, second-rate devices that seem like they've had no thought put into them. With the death of the Nexus line and with Lenovo's continued bungling of Motorola, the "good but not $650" market is slimmer than ever. Enter the OnePlus 5, which continues the company's tradition of offering an all-business, high-end smartphone for a great price.

SPECS AT A GLANCE: OnePlus 5
SCREEN 1920×1080 5.5" (401ppi) AMOLED
OS Android 7.1.1 (Oxygen OS)
CPU Eight-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (Four 2.35GHz Kyro 280 Performance cores and four 1.90GHz Kyro 280 Efficiency cores)
RAM 6GB or 8GB
GPU Adreno 540
STORAGE 64GB or 128GB
NETWORKING 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 5.0, GPS, NFC
BANDS GSM: 850/900/1800/1900 MHz
WCDMA: Bands 1/2/4/5/8
FDD-LTE: Bands  1/2/3/4/5/7/8/12/17/18/19/ 20/25/26/28/29/30/66TDD-LTE: Bands 38/39/40/41TD-SCDMA: Bands 34/39
CDMA EVDO: BC0
PORTS USB 2.0 Type-C, 3.5mm headphone jack
CAMERA Rear: 16MP main camera, 20MP telephoto camera,

Front: 16MP

SIZE 154.2 x 74.1 x 7.25mm ( x  x in)
WEIGHT 153 g (5.4 oz)
BATTERY 3300 mAh
STARTING PRICE $479 / £449
OTHER PERKS "Dash" charging, three-position physical notification mode switch, fingerprint sensor, notification LED, Dual SIM slots

Today OnePlus is both announcing the OnePlus 5 and lifting the review embargo on the device, which we've had for about two weeks now. $479 (£449) gets you an aluminum-clad pocket computer with a 2.45GHz Snapdragon 835 SoC, 6GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, and a 3,300mAh battery. You still get OnePlus' physical 3-way alert switch, a USB-C port, capacitive buttons with a front-mounted fingerprint reader, and a headphone jack. The phone has two cameras on the back: one 16MP main camera and one 20MP telephoto camera, arranged in the most iPhone-y way possible. Besides the $479 version, there's a more expensive $539 (£499) version, which ups the RAM from 6GB to a whopping 8GB, adds another 64GB of storage for a total of 128GB, and changes the color from "Slate Grey" to "Midnight Black." This more expensive version is the one we tested.

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The pitfalls and potential of inexpensive 3D scanning solutions

The odd documentary, feature article, or typical marketing hype may make you think that today's 3D scanning can perfectly capture the real world, but that's only true with expensive, professional equipment (not to mention considerable editing and post-processing). Generally, current consumer versions of 3D scanners produce decidedly modest results.

Still, personal 3D scanning has made great strides in recent years. And though it continues to take a backseat (in market- and mind-share) to 3D printing, 3D scanning has grown into a technological revolution worth exploring all on its own. So let's look closer at two of the main personal 3D scanning categories available: software- or hardware-based solutions that work with equipment you may already have and hardware-based solutions that are mostly self-contained. As a bonus, we'll also look at services where you can view and store 3D models, as well as ways to turn your 3D models back into physical objects.

While it's impossible to provide an exhaustive look at the ever-growing number of 3D scanning products, this selection of solutions should provide a solid overview of what's currently possible and where this technology might be headed next.

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Surface Pro review: Incremental improvement isn’t enough

Enlarge / Surface Pro with a Cobalt Blue Type Cover.

Every new Surface Pro has been the best Surface Pro yet. The new fifth-generation Surface Pro—unnumbered, Microsoft having dropped numeric suffixes—continues that trend. It is as good as or better than its predecessor, the Surface Pro 4, in every way.

And yet, the new machine strikes me as unambitious in a way that older models weren't.

The 2017 Surface Pro is an extremely incremental update. What was once a Skylake processor is now a Kaby Lake chip, which brings a healthy improvement in battery life and additional GPU features such as accelerated 4K HEVC video decoding. Overall, the new Surface Pro runs a bit faster and lasts longer away from the wall socket. The screen size and resolution remain the same (a beautiful 12.3" display with a strange 2736×1824 resolution), pen latency is lower, and parallax error seems improved. The pen itself is better.

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Review: 10.5-inch iPad Pro is “pro” hardware waiting for pro software

Andrew Cunningham

Nothing Apple has done in the last three years has reversed the iPad’s sales decline, or stopped it, or even really slowed it down all that much. But 2017 has made clear that if the iPad keeps falling, it won’t be for lack of trying.

On the software side, you’ve got iOS 11, an update that makes iOS 9’s multitasking additions look rudimentary and quaint. It adds a distinctly Mac-like application dock and dramatically changes how the device runs and interacts with multiple apps at the same time. The changes allow for much-improved "window" and file management, and you can easily drag-and-drop content between apps.

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Xbox Unleashed: Our deep-dive study of how millions use Xbox Live

Enlarge (credit: Aurich)

For three years now, Ars’ Steam Gauge project and the public sampling projects it has inspired (such as Steam Spy) have provided an important behind-the-scenes look at what kinds of games are popular on PC gaming’s most popular marketplace. Today, after years of work, we’re ready to unveil a new effort that similarly uncovers what’s popular among Xbox Live users on the Xbox One and Xbox 360.

As we introduce you to our data and our methodology, you probably won’t be surprised to see the enduring popularity of franchises like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and Halo on Microsoft’s platforms. You might be more surprised by just how often the average Xbox console is used as nothing more than a streaming video box, or by how a relative handful of games dominate the total play time spent on both consoles, or by the specific, branded Xbox 360 adver-game that still sees relatively significant play years after its release.

We’re just beginning to play with all the data about Xbox Live users we now have at our disposal. But first, a little about where that data comes from.

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VPC’s MongoosT-50 joystick: A rare Russian-style controller for skies or space

Enlarge / The MongoosT-50 stick in a Warthog base, left, compared to a standard Thrustmaster Warthog stick at right. (credit: Lee Hutchinson)

I had an epiphany when Ars Senior Technology Editor Lee Hutchinson asked me to review the VPC MongoosT-50 flight stick grip, which he had sitting on his desk awaiting its turn at the front of the review queue. As I removed the mounting plate of my Thrustmaster HOTAS Warthog from its place on the right side of my VolaireSim cockpit, I looked over at the empty space it had occupied, then at the handmade Eastern European MFG Crosswind rudder pedals nestled at the base of my cockpit, and then to the HTC Vive and its now-dusty Oculus DK2 predecessor hanging off the side of my nearby desk.

The epiphany was this: Lee had pulled me down into his special crazy place where dropping hundreds of dollars on flight sim accessories, all to play a single game, seemed like a totally normal and sane thing to do.

This time around, the newest shiny in my office isn’t shiny at all, it's rather a svelte matte black: the VPC MongoosT-50 BE Grip, the Black Edition of the new company’s freshman-effort flight sim controller. Unlike most flight sticks for sale on the US market, which tend to be based with varying levels of verisimilitude on US fighter aircraft control columns, the MongoosT-50 is built to mirror the control stick on Russian aircraft—specifically, the fifth-generation Russian Sukhoi Su-35 and PAK FA (T-50). Few existing peripheral manufacturers offer Eastern-style controls, so this stick from Belarus-based VirPil Controls (VPC) is a bit of a rarity.

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Security-obsessed wait, but can AI learn to spot the face of a liar?

(credit: Bill Couch)

In 2009, 22-year-old student Nicholas George was going through a checkpoint at Philadelphia International Airport when Transportation Security Administration agents pulled him aside. A search of his luggage turned up flashcards with English and Arabic words. George was handcuffed, detained for hours, and questioned by the FBI.

George had been singled out by behavior-detection officers—people trained in picking out gestures and facial expressions that supposedly betrayed malicious intentions—as part of a US program called Screening Passengers by Observation Technique or SPOT. But the officers were wrong in singling him out, and George was released without charge the same day.

As the incident may suggest, SPOT produced very little useful information throughout its decade-long history. And in light of the technique's failures, some computer scientists have recently concluded a machine could do a better job with this task than humans. But the machine techniques they intend to use share a surprising history with SPOT’s training procedures. In fact, both can be traced back to the same man—Paul Ekman, now an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California.

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Android execs get technical talking updates, Project Treble, Linux, and more

Enlarge / Meet some of the people doing Android heavy lifting...

Google I/O doesn't need skydivers or LCD Soundsystem to keep us interested year-to-year—we'll happily settle for what's becoming an annual chat with members of the Android team. Heading into this year's conference, the group was fresh off the release of the second Android O Developer Preview and the announcement of Project Treble, a massive modularization of Android's hardware dependencies that should make updates a little easier on everyone involved with the OS. So as usual, there was plenty to talk about.

Dave Burke, VP of Engineering for Android, has made time for us at several recent conferences, but this year we also had Stephanie Saad Cuthbertson, PM Director for Android, in on the conversation. Given the opportunity, we tried to keep these questions pretty technical. What follows is a transcript with some of the interview lightly edited for clarity. For a fuller perspective, we've also included some topical background comments in italics.

Project Treble

The second Android O developer preview was a big departure from past developer preview releases. Other than a bunch of new emoji, there weren't any new major features or additions. Compare this to the Android N Developer Preview, which added features like Vulkan,  a new VR platform, and a new update installation process in the second and third preview releases. What's the deal?

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How to build your own VPN if you’re (rightfully) wary of commercial options

Enlarge (credit: Aurich / Thinkstock)

(In the wake of this spring's Senate ruling nixing FCC privacy regulations imposed on ISPs, you may be (even more) worried about how your data is used, misused, and abused. There have been a lot of opinions on this topic since, ranging from "the sky is falling" to "move along, citizen, nothing to see here." The fact is, ISPs tend to be pretty unscrupulous, sometimes even ruthless, about how they gather and use their customers' data. You may not be sure how it's a problem if your ISP gives advertisers more info to serve ads you'd like to see—but what about when your ISP literally edits your HTTP traffic, inserting more ads and possibly breaking webpages?

With a Congress that has demonstrated its lack of interest in protecting you from your ISP, and ISPs that have repeatedly demonstrated a "whatever-we-can-get-away-with" attitude toward customers' data privacy and integrity, it may be time to look into how to get your data out from under your ISP's prying eyes and grubby fingers intact. To do that, you'll need a VPN.

The scope of the problem (and of the solution)

Before you can fix this problem, you need to understand it. That means knowing what your ISP can (and cannot) detect (and modify) in your traffic. HTTPS traffic is already relatively secure—or, at least, its content is. Your ISP can't actually read the encrypted traffic that goes between you and an HTTPS website (at least, they can't unless they convince you to install a MITM certificate, like Lenovo did to unsuspecting users of its consumer laptops in 2015). However, ISPs do know that you visited that website, when you visited it, how long you stayed there, and how much data went back and forth.

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