Sunday, 3 July 2016

The best laptops of 2016: Budget PCs, 2-in-1s, Ultrabooks and more

Laptops had a banner year in 2015, and all signs keep pointing to an even better selection in 2016. It’s still confusing out there, though: The number of choices to navigate just continues to grow. Picking a form factor (traditional, 2-in-1, or convertible) only begins your run through a gauntlet of decisions.But whether you’re choosing between the new crop of incredibly sleek 15-inch ultrabooks, hunting for a worthwhile luxury laptop, or finding the convertible that has the most value, it’s been a great year so far for anyone buying a new system, and will only get better.To help you with your decision, we’ve been hard at work evaluating more laptops—our latest reviews include the HP Spectre X360 15TDell XPS 15Samsung Galaxy TabPro S, and LG Gram 15. Though our existing winners hung on to their crowns, competition was fierce enough that we’ve added runners-up to our Best Ultrabook (Razer Blade Stealth), Best Convertible (Samsung Galaxy TabPro S), and Best Gaming Laptop (Origin EON-17) categories.

Best Ultrabook: Dell XPS 13 (2016)

Dell’s 2016 XPS 13 keeps the same big display and small form factor that helped make last year's model the best Ultrabook of 2015.
When Dell's XPS 13 launched last year, it got a well-deserved nod as our pick for best Ultrabook. Its aluminum exterior and carbon fiber top exuded quality; its nearly bezel-free 13" screen resulted in a laptop body that wasn't much bigger than a typical 11-inch notebook.The 2016 version of the XPS 13 keeps its predecessor's excellent chassis, while including a USB Type-C port that serves as an alternative charging port and offering upgrades to the processor and storage types. Battery life takes a small hit with the move to Intel's newer Skylake CPUs, but the difference is minor enough that it's worth having the option of either NVMe or PCIe M.2 drives.The only complaints that remain are the small keyboard, and the lack of auto updates for driver and BIOS updates. They're far from being deal-breakers, but slightly bigger keys and an easy way to update system software would be welcome.
RUNNER-UP: Razer Blade Stealth
If you’re bored by the standard look of ultrabooks, the Razer Blade Stealth certainly has a flashiness to it. Besides featuring the same sleek, black MacBook Pro-esque design of Razer’s gaming laptops, the Blade Stealth also sports a beautiful keyboard with customizable per-key RGB backlighting.Inside is a Core i7-6500U Skylake processor along with 8GB LPDDR3/1866MHz RAM, and anywhere from 128GB-512GB of storage space. Overall, performance stays competitive with rivals in the Blade Stealth’s price range, but a small performance drop in low-intensity tasks keeps it out of our winner’s circle.

iPhone 7 rumors: Say goodbye to space gray and hello to space black

The new iPhone doesn't come out until September, but that won't stop the rumor mill from churning at a furious pace.
Now that WWDC is over, the iPhone 7 rumors are getting even louder, since its expected unveiling in September is probably the next time we’ll see Tim Cook on stage. Yes, that’s still a good while from now. To help keep track of all the scuttlebutt, we’re collecting every rumor we’ve heard so far—and every new one that crops up between now and the day Tim pulls the new iPhone out of his pocket. 

The rumor: It’s not easy being green, and iPhone owners might be starting to get envious of how many colors you can get an Android phone in. iPhones used to be pretty monochromatic, until Apple added gold and then an even brighter splash of color with last year’s rose gold hue (OK, OK, it’s pink). Japanese blog Macotakara and 9to5Mac are both reporting that Apple plans to switch it up this year, swapping the space gray color for space black, which will look more like the Apple Watch’s version of space gray (a much darker hue than the iPhone uses). The Japanese site first said a deep navy was in the cards for this year’s iPhone, but has since changed its tune.

Headphone jack after all?

The rumor: Via Engadget comes some component photos from Rock Fix, a smartphone repair shop in China. They allegedly show a dual-SIM tray, another shows a dual-lens camera for the larger Plus model, and curiously, there’s even an Lightning assembly that still has the headphone jack attached. People who need a lot of storage will be pleased to hear another photo shows SanDisk memory ships up to 256GB, which would be the most storage Apple’s ever offered in an iPhone.

Plausible? It’s hard to give much weight to photos of components, and as reported in the same Engadget article, conflicting rumors about the dual-lens camera surfaced within days. But it is plausible that these components could be for the iPhone 7—and we know plenty of people who would be thrilled if the new phone had a headphone jack after all.

You have a deadline: Windows 10's free upgrade ends July 29

Here's what to expect and how to get ready for it.

The Windows 10 free upgrade ends July 29. We’ve known that for a long time, but now the deadline is looming. You have just 31 days from today to do the deed. 
Or not. In the past month, Microsoft’s strategies for getting people to upgrade have swung from deceptive back to friendly, making it hard to know what the company will pull next as the pressure mounts. You see, Microsoft has a goal: It wants Windows 10 on 1 billion devices by 2018. It just hit 300 million in May, so there’s still a long way to go. 

We’ll be with you for Windows 10

Even if you’re turned off by Microsoft’s tactics, don’t endanger your PC by turning off updates. Microsoft has its own FAQ and advice pages for the upgrade, and we’ll be posting stories all month about managing the process and troubleshooting problems. 
Look for our Windows 10 banner to find all of our stories about the upgrade, the Anniversary Update (coming August 2!) and more. 
win10 minibanner

1. Confirm your system is ready for Windows 10

Like any operating system, Windows 10 has system requirements. Microsoft has ahelpful page on this topic, but here’s the gist:  
  • CPU: 1GHz
  • Graphics: Must support DirectX 9 or later with WDDM 1.0 driver
  • Display resolution: 800x600
  • RAM: 1GB for 32-bit systems, 2GB for 64-bit
  • Free storage: 16GB for 32-bit systems, 20GB for 64-bit
While it’s possible your older system could run Windows 10, it may not be pretty. Microsoft even has special error codes to signal when your system falls short of the requirements. 
For most people, however, the upgrade should go smoothly. Use these preparation tips to maximize your chances for success. 

2. Brace yourself for error codes

Nothing ever goes wrong in an upgrade, right? Right. Microsoft has an entire page devoted to upgrade issues, and over the coming weeks we’ll alert you to the most common errors and problems and tell you what to do about them.
One problem that might crop up immediately is a botched download—corrupted or missing files. We’ve looked into that and have some workarounds for you. 
Another unpleasant surprise would be running out of storage space for the installation process. We have some guidance for squeezing more capacity out of your drive. 

Which browser is best for battery life: We test Edge vs. Chrome vs. Opera vs. Firefox

In this power struggle, the answer is not what you'd think.
Lots of claims are made about which browser is better or worse for a device’s battery life. Can a browser really make that much of a difference? Yes indeed, but determining just how much of a difference and whether it even matters to your individual use case is the difficult part.
I began testing the question of different web browsers’ impact on battery life about two months ago, and what I’ve concluded is that there’s a lot of work to be done here.

What’s generally wrong with browsing tests

I’ve read about people using browsing as a rundown test for laptops but I have concerns about how that’s done. As you know, the internet is a dynamic living organism. What I get when I point my browser at at 2:14 a.m. EDT on August 29, is going to be different than what I get on 8 a.m. on January 1.
Even trying to browse with the same laptop just minutes apart could yield quite a different experience in terms of Flash ads, embedded videos, and other dynamic elements.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The coolest camera gear of CES 2016

Most people nowadays snap pictures with a smartphone, but a stand-alone camera is still a vital tool with a big presence at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. Here’s the coolest camera gear from the show.

Windows 10 Redstone Insider seeds are on the way

Patience, grasshopper: According to Microsoft's Gabe Aul, a new build will come to Windows Insiders in "a few more days." Meanwhile, a new Windows 10 Mobile Insider build is now available.

If you’re eagerly awaiting the next PC-centric Insider build of Windows 10, here’s some good news: You can expect the next build to arrive soon.

Aul added in a followup that “Once we actually *start* flighting in 2016, then we expect to see more frequent builds than last year.” More good news.
It’s been a few weeks since Microsoft seeded its last build to WIndows Insider testers.According to Neowin, the most recent Insider build for PC users was a Windows 10 “Redstone” build released on December 16. Neowin also reports that Microsoft began seeding a new Windows 10 Mobile build to Insiders on Friday, the first such build since December 17.
The story behind the story: Windows 10 codenamed Redstone is Microsoft’s next big revision to its flagship operating system. Due for release sometime later this year, we’re still not entirely sure what Redstone will bring, but reports suggests that improvements to Cortana and support for third-party extensions in the Edge browser are on the way. Redstone may also herald the return of OneDrive’s Placeholders feature, a space-saving feature from Windows 8.1 that went missing in Windows 10’s initial release.

The world's first 13TB SSD is here

Be prepared to fork out around $13,000 for the drive.

If you have around US$13,000 to spare, the world's first 13TB solid-state drive could be yours.
Fixstars on Wednesday announced the mammoth SSD-13000M, which will ship by the end of February. SSDs today have no more than 6TB of storage, and the 13TB drive more than doubles that capacity.
An official price hasn't been determined by Fixstars. But a rough estimated selling price is around $1 per gigabyte, or $13,000, said Shien Zhu, a spokesman for Fixstars.
The pricing could fluctuate, but not by much, Zhu said.
The 13TB drive will be sold directly by Fixstars and won't be available through online retail stores or sites. The company is targeting the SSD at enterprises, but anyone with a big wallet can touch base with Fixstars to purchase the drive.
The 2.5-inch drive plugs into SATA 6 slots on motherboards. It has sequential read speeds of 580MBps (megabytes per second) and write speeds of up to 520MBps. The random read and write speeds were not provided by the company.
Competitors haven't indicated they would catch up to the 13TB capacity. SanDisk has said it would release 6TB and 8TB SSDs this year. Samsung has said it would release a 4TB SSD this year.
The Fixstars 13TB SSD is based on NAND flash from Toshiba, which holds a minority stake in Fixstars. It uses a proprietary controller from Fixstars that is designed for faster sequential read and write speeds.
The drive is targeted at companies creating or streaming video, which requires sequential reads and writes by accessing large blocks of data. It could also be used for scientific computing and cold storage.
Fixstars, based in Japan, started off as a software company serving parallel computing needs, but started making SSDs with its controller to meet the sequential data transfer needs of enterprise users.
Fixstars also announced a SSD-10000M, a 10TB drive. The price for the drive wasn't immediately available.

Razer's selling all of its PC peripherals for 50 percent off for 24 hours

If you're looking for a new mouse, keyboard, headset, or any other PC peripheral, you won't want to miss Razer's 24 hour sale.

Razer’s known for unveiling audacious new technology at CES—witness Project Christine and Forge TV as recent examples—and mopping up awards as a result. At CES 2016 the gaming hardware company won a Best of CES People’s Choice award for the sixth year in a row with its Razer Blade Stealth laptop, and to celebrate, Razer’s online store is slashing prices on almost everything it sells by a whopping 50 percent for 24 hours.
You won’t be able to pick up a Razer Blade or any other systems at half-off, however. The offer only extends to Razer’s peripherals—which, honestly, is the vast majority of Razer’s product lineup and the way the company earned its reputation with gamers in the first place.
There are a few more caveats. The discount only applies to a single item, and you’ll need a Razer ID linked to Razer’s Insider forum to participate. Information on how to set that up can be found in this Razer Insider post, where you’ll also be able to generate a sale code for the discount once you’re ready to rock.
That code won’t work until the sale kicks off at 9 p.m. Eastern/6 p.m. Pacific time. While the offer lasts for 24 hours, Razer’s warning that “stocks are finite and are expected to go fast,” so if you have your heart set on a particular mouse, keyboard, headset, ormousepad that lights up with 16.8 million customizable colors, it’s probably smart to snap it up sooner than later once the chosen hour hits. You won’t find Razer’s PC hardware on such steep sale very often. Just be sure to keep an eye on shipping costs, which couldtarnish the allure of the sale depending on what you're buying—if the 50 percent discount drops your order total under $50, you'll have to plunk another $14 down for shipping.

What you need to know about home IoT standards at CES

Don't get too excited about all your devices getting along—yet.
The Open Interconnect Consortium used a model house to demonstrate IoT interoperability at the IoT World conference in San Francisco on May 12, 2015.

When Internet of Things devices debut at this year’s CES, one of the biggest questions will be how they’ll connect to all the other smart-home gear on display. But anyone who expects a clear answer to that is like a kid who gets up Thanksgiving morning looking for a bunch of gifts under a tree.
The fact is, it’s too early to say what standard or protocol will become the glue that can turn a pile of cool gadgets into a system that runs your whole house for you. New systems are just starting to emerge, and though they may eventually work with each other and with older platforms, buying one of each and expecting harmony is still wishful thinking.
Connected homes may make life easier eventually. A thermostat linked to a garage-door opener could tell who’s coming home and set the heat or air-conditioning for their preferences. Compatible room lights and an audio system could join in, too.
That vision’s starting to catch on. Ownership of connected home devices in the U.S. grew by 50 percent this year, and fully 43 percent of all households in the country will buy one in the next year, research company Parks Associates said last month.
For now, most people only have their eye on one device, said NextMarket analyst Michael Wolf. They may buy a connected thermostat for its features, or buy a networked garage-door opener because their old one broke, but they’re not after a whole-home setup yet.
For those who are, there are already ways to tie devices together without giving up a weekend. Many vendors offer hubs to make their own home products work together, and some have opened these systems up to others. Samsung has SmartThings, Belkin has WeMo, retail chains like Lowe’s and Staples have their own platforms, and smart-home specialist Insteon has a line of hubs and devices, to name just a few. 
Broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast also offer selected products and ensure they work together. These systems may start with home security and expand to include things like lighting and climate control.
But having a vendor or carrier decide which products can understand each other won’t be enough in the long run. Some new platforms are designed to offer a broader selection of products that consumers can add on easily.

That’s where new buzzwords like AllJoyn, OIC, Brillo, Weave, Thread and HomeKit come in. But there are two things to keep in mind. 

Network protocols to keep an eye on

At CES, some vendors will also be talking about the network protocols they use, though consumers are less likely to shop based on networking. Here are some highlights:
Wi-Fi: The ubiquitous wireless system will remain at the heart of most home networks, but many small, battery-powered devices won’t talk to it directly because of size and power requirements.
IEEE 802.11ah: A version of Wi-Fi with lower power consumption, due for approval in 2016.
Bluetooth: The familiar personal-area network tackles IoT with the power-efficient Bluetooth Smart (or Low Energy) version and is expected to add longer range and mesh capability in 2016.
Z-Wave: A low-power mesh technology licensed by silicon maker Sigma Designs and used in a wide range of connected-home devices.
ZigBee: A mesh network based on the IEEE 802.15.4 standard and widely used in low-power home devices.
6LoWPAN: An IPv6-only version of IEEE 802.15.4 mesh networking.
Thread: A protocol introduced in 2014 and based on 6LoWPAN, with added features for security, routing, setup and device wakeup.
ULE (Ultra Low Energy): A recently introduced low-power version of the DECT cordless-phone network technology.