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1 week ago

Qualcomm's Bluetooth SoC aims to make truly wireless headphones a whole lot better

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Qualcomm's new Bluetooth SoC will bring Bluetooth 5.0, Active Noise Cancellation, and aptX HD to future truly wireless earbuds.

While Qualcomm is mostly known for its smartphone chips, it also makes components for PCs and headphones. The latter category is our focus today, as Qualcomm has announced its new QCC5100 Bluetooth SoC.

This component will go into truly wireless Bluetooth headphones, and will bring features that only larger headphones have had until this point. Most importantly, the new chip will be more power efficient than current solutions, allowing you to spend more time listening to music and less time with your earbuds in their charging case.

Qualcomm is also including support for "Hybrid" Active Noise Cancellation on the SoC itself, rather than requiring a dedicated component for the ANC. There will also be dedicated support for voice assistants such as Alexa and Google Assistant. From Qualcomm:

At CES® 2018, Qualcomm Incorporated (NASDAQ: QCOM) today announced that its subsidiary, Qualcomm Technologies International, Ltd., introduced the new Qualcomm® Low Power Bluetooth SoC QCC5100 series that is designed to help manufacturers develop a new generation of compact, feature-rich, wireless earbuds, hearables and headsets. To help meet consumer demand for superior audio quality as well as extended battery life and playback time in wireless audio devices, the breakthrough SoC series is engineered to reduce power consumption by up to 65 percent for both voice calls and music streaming, compared to previous single-chip Bluetooth audio solutions.

The SoC architecture supports low power performance and includes a Bluetooth 5 dual-mode radio, low power audio and application subsystems. Designed to serve various "on-the-go" consumer use cases requiring robust, high quality, truly wireless listening experiences, the platform supports advanced features including Qualcomm® TrueWireless™ Stereo, Qualcomm® aptX™ HD audio, Integrated Hybrid Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) and third-party voice assistant services.

"This breakthrough single-chip solution is designed to dramatically reduce power consumption and offers enhanced processing capabilities to help our customers build new life-enhancing, feature-rich devices. This will open new possibilities for extended-use hearable applications including virtual assistants, augmented hearing and enhanced listening," said Anthony Murray, senior vice president and general manager, voice & music, Qualcomm Technologies International, Ltd. "Without sacrificing our superior sound quality, we can now help to pack tremendous functionality into small, wireless hearable devices. Audio designers are looking for a platform solution that brings an ideal combination of power, size and functionality and user experience – and the QCC5100 series is designed to deliver exactly that."

The exact features will depend on exactly what OEMs want to enable, so your next pair of earbuds may not have all the features this SoC will bring. Are you in the market for a new pair of earbuds this year? Let us know in the comments!

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1 week ago

Oculus' first standalone VR headset is manufactured by Xiaomi

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Xiaomi is manufacturing the Oculus Go and a second standalone VR headset exclusively for China.

Hugo Barra, who now leads the VR efforts at Facebook, has announced at Qualcomm's CES press conference that Oculus' first standalone VR headset will be built by Xiaomi. Xiaomi is also rolling out a standalone VR headset of its own — dubbed the Mi VR Standalone — that will be launching exclusively in China later this year.

The $199 Oculus Go was first announced late last year, but details were light on the hardware powering the device. We now know that the device — as well as Xiaomi's VR headset — feature Qualcomm's Snapdragon 821 Mobile VR Platform.

The Oculus Go is notable because it doesn't need to be hooked up to a phone or PC to function. The Snapdragon 821 should provide plenty of juice for the headset to run visually-demanding titles. Oculus didn't announce availability details just yet, but with the headset making its way to the FCC recently, a launch is imminent.

Meanwhile, the Mi VR Standalone has the same core features as Oculus Go, and both headsets look similar too. Xiaomi's headset also supports Oculus' Mobile SDK, which allows Oculus developers the ability to port their content over to the Mi VR platform. Xiaomi has stated that it is working on bringing popular content from the Oculus store to its users in China.

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1 week ago

Qualcomm's high-res Bluetooth audio codec aptX HD is now on over 60 devices

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Qualcomm announced that more than 60 devices use its aptX HD codec, bringing more detailed music over a wireless connection.

As more and more manufacturers turn towards ditching the headphone jack, more and more users are turning to Bluetooth headphones and speakers to get their jam on. This used to mean compressed, horrible sounding music, but no so: with features like aptX, your songs sound much better than they used to with older headphones.

The latest version of the aptX codec family is aptX HD, and at CES 2018 Qualcomm shared that over 60 products were on the market with support for the codec. Manufacturers with devices with aptX HD include:

Wondering if your device supports aptX HD? Qualcomm has the full list on its site. From Qualcomm:

At CES® 2018, Qualcomm Technologies International, Ltd, a subsidiary of Qualcomm Incorporated (NASDAQ: QCOM), today announced its high definition Bluetooth® wireless audio codec, Qualcomm® aptX™ HD, is now available on more than 60 products, meaning consumers and audiophiles now have more options than ever to access and enjoy premium HD sound with the support of our technology.

aptX HD is an enhanced codec that supports 24-bit music quality over Bluetooth and has been engineered to improve the signal-to-noise ratio, resulting in lower background noise. This improved technology helps listeners to hear even the smallest details in their music and is designed to provide realistic audio quality that is hard to distinguish from the actual live sound produced by the musician.

"We helped to revolutionize the Bluetooth stereo listening experience with aptX, which is designed to vastly improve the quality of music delivered over a Bluetooth connection and the aptX logo on a package represents this proven quality. Now with aptX HD we are helping to meet growing demand for high resolution audio from consumers looking for even higher levels of sound quality from their devices," said Jonny McClintock, director, product marketing, Qualcomm Technologies International, Ltd. "It's a very exciting time for both consumers and the audio industry because with aptX HD we're helping to make the Bluetooth wireless listening experience indistinguishable from wired and we're seeing growing traction commercially as a result."

Does your smartphone feature aptX HD? Let us know down below!

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1 week ago

Android Oreo is now on 0.7% of devices, but Marshmallow is still king

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Android Oreo is very slowly but surely climbing in usage.

Google releases the Android Distribution numbers once per month to let developers know which OS versions to target, and January's numbers are now available. Not surprisingly, Marshmallow is still on top with 29.7% of the Android pie.

Oreo did make some gains, though. Android 8.1 is making its first appearance with 0.2% of the Android marketplace, while Android 8.0 stayed at the same 0.5% it was at last month. Nougat is still in second place with 26.3%, with Lollipop at 25.1%. KitKat and Jellybean lost marketshare, while Ice Cream Sandwich and Gingerbread are still somehow hanging on.

As we move through CES and into MWC, we'll see more phones announced running Oreo, with last year's devices like the Galaxy S8 and OnePlus 5T getting their updates to Oreo in the next few months. Once that starts happening, Oreo's marketshare will take off.

Which version of Android does your phone have? Let us know down below!

Android Oreo

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1 week ago

The Lenovo Smart Display is the first Google Home I might actually buy

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The Lenovo Smart Display is a Google Home with a built-in screen – and that makes it the very first Google Home I might consider buying. While you still control it primarily with your voice, the touchscreen lends much more versatility to the notion of a home assistant: you can check on the Nest Camera monitoring your baby room, start a Duo call with your Pixel-toting friends, or stream the latest video from your favorite YouTuber (ahem). Yes, those are all blatantly transparent house ads for Google's own products, but more importantly they're things that are difficult or impossible to do on the Smart Display's principal competition, Amazon's Echo Show.

The Lenovo Smart Display with Google Assistant will come in 8" and 10" sizes when it debuts this summer, with prices starting at $199 and topping out at $249. Check out the MrMobile hands-on and Android Central's own take, and let me know in the comments if you'd like to see my traditionally mobile-only coverage fleshed out with a Lenovo Smart Display review later in the year!

Stay social, my friends

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1 week ago

With expansion to screens and cars, Google Assistant is officially everywhere

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Google Assistant is moving into more places in and outside the home.

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When Google debuted the Assistant at I/O in 2016, it was this tiny little feature inside a little-used messaging app called Allo.

But by the time it expanded to Pixel phones and the Google Home speaker later that year, we knew that this wasn't some fly-by-night project the company would later abandon, but a line-in-the-sand statement on the future of computing. Or maybe it was just a way to get back at Amazon's not-so-slow encroachment into the smart home space. Either way, Google Assistant was a big deal.

At CES 2018, Google is taking even more steps towards Assistant ubiquity, both with its physical presence at the show and its multitudinous announcements surrounding the nascent smart home space.

Google not only sold six million Home speakers during the holiday sales period but it has positioned the cloud technology as the one-stop shop for Google's widely-used Knowledge Graph, which encompasses everything from search to maps to shopping.

The Lenovo Smart Display appears to be what the Amazon Echo Show wanted, but failed, to deliver.

Today, Assistant is debuting in two more important places: screens, and cars. On the screen side, the Lenovo Smart Display is the first of many Assistant-focused products that can show rather than tell. YouTube videos, recipes, maps, Duo video calls, and everything else one can do on a tablet can be recalled using voice on a stationary and attractive showpiece that also doubles as a speaker.

Though Google says it worked extensively with Lenovo on the industrial design of the Smart Display, which comes in two sizes and debuts this summer, other similar (and likely cheaper) products will be forthcoming in the months ahead from JBL, LG, and Sony.

Cars are also getting in on the Assistant through Android Auto support. While it's been possible up to this point to call on Google in the car using voice, Google has reworked the way Assistant communicates with Android Auto, both through the app and in-car displays. Some cars can even use Assistant on the phone or inside the home to lock and unlock doors, check fuel levels, and more. The future is here, and it's weird (and awesome).

Finally, Google is expanding Assistant further into existing categories, including TVs and headphones. Television makers like LG, Changhong, Funai, and Haier will integrate Assistant into their custom operating systems this year, while Android TV-powered sets from TCL, Skyworth, and Xiaomi will gain the same functionality through updates.

Ultimately, Google wants Assistant to be a consistent experience wherever possible and is leveraging its relationships with hardware companies all over the world to make it happen. If last year's CES was the year of Alexa, Google Assistant is dominating the conversation in 2018. While some of the products appear underwhelming or may not come to market at all, that Assistant is expanding to more form factors is a big deal, especially given that it is available in far more countries than Amazon's Alexa platform.

Get used to saying "Hey Google" a lot more often.

Google also appears to be doubling down on "Hey Google" as a call sign for the Assistant; in briefings given to Android Central throughout the week, representatives from Google and other companies demoing products didn't use "OK Google" at all, and actively encouraged us to start using the less formal greeting going forward. It's not quite as catchy as "Alexa", but it's an improvement.

Google says that Assistant is now running on 400 million devices around the world, and that number should reach a billion within a year. To make the platform more enticing, it is consolidating its disparate commands under the name "Actions". In a blog post, Google described the reasoning for the change:

Since the Assistant can do so many things, we're introducing a new way to talk about them. We're calling them Actions. Actions include features built by Google—like directions on Google Maps—and those that come from developers, publishers and other third parties.

A new directory makes it easy to check whether one's smart home products or apps work with Assistant, and should help drive sales of those products as well.

In the meantime, if you're in Las Vegas for CES this week, you can catch a glimpse of Google's Assistant ambitions while riding the monorail.

Actually, don't do that.

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1 week ago

Lenovo's Smart Display is the Google Assistant-powered Echo Show we've been waiting for

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Lenovo Smart Displays

It's time for Google Assistant to branch out, starting with displays in the home.

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Google Home and Amazon Echo match up in both the small and medium speaker segments, but the hardware offerings start to diverge from there.

Amazon has clearly taken the lead with screen-toting assistant speakers with its Echo Show and Echo Spot, with no response from Google in the category. That is, until now.

Leave it to Lenovo of all companies to make a direct competitor to the Echo Show running Google Assistant: it's called the Lenovo Smart Display, and it has just been announced at CES 2018. But this isn't just a Google Home with a screen — it's so much more.

At its most basic level, the Smart Display combines the experience of having a Google Home and a Chromecast-connected TV — but in a single device. It offers 100% feature parity with Google Home, but has the added benefit of being able to display information similar to the way it would show up on your TV if you asked your Google Home to send something visual to a Chromecast.

The Smart Display comes in two screen sizes, 10 and 8 inches, but the design and capabilities are the same in either aside from the larger version having a great bamboo back. From the front, it's very inviting with a soft white plastic frame surrounding the display and speaker. The unique wedge shape looks funky at first, but then you realize it lets the Smart Display stand vertically just as comfortably as horizontal it makes sense. A set of rubber feet and rather substantial weight — 2.2 or 2.6 pounds — keep it stable with touches, intentional or not.

So let's talk about how the Smart Display actually works, because it's quite clever. At its core, it's running Android Things, which is Google's Android build designed for these IoT type of products that don't need to run a full-fledged Android system (as some would have in the past) but still have lots of useful smart home hooks and a custom interface. It's clear that the Smart Display is just the first of many Assistant-powered devices that will use this interface, as Google will standardize it across devices just as it has done with Assistant on smartphones, tablets, speakers and TVs.

Think of a Google Home and a Cast-enabled screen linked together.

The always-on ambient screen is literally just the same "backdrop" experience as a Chromecast — it can pull from Google Photos or a variety of other sources, configured in the Google Home app. It's waiting for the "Hey Google" wake word, including personalized results based on your trained voice, but you can also tap the screen once to be taken to the main "home screen" of sorts. Here you'll see upcoming events and reminders, plus cards for ongoing tasks — whether that's a timer, current weather, directions to an appointment, ongoing media controls or just about anything else. This is the only place where you could actually launch experiences by touch — everything else is accomplished by voice.

And of course, you can just talk to the Smart Display just like a Google Home — but you get far more in response. Any regular search-style knowledge questions come back with responses in both text/images and voice. Ask for a video and it plays right away in YouTube. Ask for directions, get an interactive map (and directions sent to your phone). Set reminders, timers, appointments and more, and get confirmation both on the screen and audibly. There is, of course, the cliché demo showing step-by-step cooking instructions, and little games that you'll play once to impress your friends and never touch again.

Sound-wise, there's an array of microphones to listen to commands from a distance just like a Google Home, plus a big 10W speaker that'll sound just as good. A front-facing camera is designed to work with Duo right out of the box, calling both phones and other Smart Displays, and Google's open to the idea of having other applications — video calling or otherwise — be able to access the system just as they do now on Google Home. There are hardware volume keys along one side, and even a physical camera cover to squash privacy concerns.

The devices we were able to see and use were clearly not finished in either hardware or software, which isn't surprising considering the release is slated for mid-summer. Despite that, the hardware looks and feels fantastic. It's light, inviting and unassuming, particularly in the smaller 8-inch size. The screen isn't fantastically bright or clear, but for the distance you'll be using this at in a home with good lighting it'll do well. The pricing is right, at $199 for the 8-inch and $249 for the 10-inch, bookending the current Echo Show price.

For those who want the security and accessibility of having a display to work with, it'll be a small price bump over the $129 Google Home to get something that truly feels like more of a home hub to then be augmented by Google Home Minis elsewhere. This is absolutely a growth area for Google, and Lenovo is simply the first partner out the gate with it.

More: With expansion to screens and cars, Google Assistant is officially everywhere

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1 week ago

NVIDIA partners with Acer, ASUS and HP for new 65-inch 4K HDR gaming displays that run Android TV

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Well this is surprising.

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NVIDIA's stepping into the gaming display space, partnering with a bunch of companies — Acer, Asus and HP to start — to release their own version of a BFGD, or Big Format Gaming Display. These 65-inch gaming displays are aimed at hardcore PC and console gamers who want a huge screen, and they have impressive specs like 4K resolution, HDR, G-Sync, 1ms latency and a 120Hz refresh rate. The panels are identical between the manufacturers, but each one will bring its own physical design and extra features in terms of audio, HDMI inputs, etc.

Interestingly, they also have a full-on Android TV experience built in.

The pitch is that the hardcore gamers will come to the BFGD for the best experience when they hook up their PC and play, but then when they're done with that and want to take a break they flip over to a full NVIDIA Shield Android TV experience:

This critically-acclaimed device, that before now was only available as a separate box, runs at up to 4K, in HDR, and has a whole host of apps and features. For streaming there's support for Amazon, HBO, Hulu, Netflix, YouTube and many other key channels; for home and remote playback there's best-in-class Plex and Kodi support; for extra gaming fun there are Android games and exclusive conversions of classic titles, such as Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3; for remote PC playing there's GeForce NOW and GameStream; for relaxed user control there's voice-powered Google Assistant; and for future household tech there's SHIELD's Smart Home technologies.

So not only do you get the benefit of having Android TV, but you get the NVIDIA version of that — that means Amazon Video (in 4K HDR to boot), GeForce Now streaming and GameStream streaming. This is rolling with the same specs as a standalone NVIDIA Shield Android TV box, which is easily still the industry leader for Android TV boxes. A few other TV manufacturers have gone with Android TV for their default interface, but this is interesting to see as a value-add for something that is primarily focused on having the right specs for optimal gaming performance.

NVIDIA says that the Shield Android TV portion of the BFGDs is on the exact same software track as the standalone Shield boxes, and they will be updated at the same time directly by NVIDIA. The companies will be able to update their portions of the display firmware on their own terms.

Because this is a partnership deal, NVIDIA is leaving it to Acer, Asus and HP to make their own announcements about BFGD releases. So we don't know details about availability or pricing — the best we know is the "second half of 2018" right now. ASUS has announced that its version will be the ROG Swift PG65, but has no details beyond that.

NVIDIA Shield Android TV

Amazon

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1 week ago

Planet Gemini hands-on: The dream of the 90s is alive in Vegas

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The Planet Gemini feels like a device from some alternate universe where the Personal Digital Assistant never died. Its eyeglass-case chassis evokes the old Sony Tablet P, while its miniature QWERTY keyboard suggests a laptop that stumbled into a shrinking machine. But its closest relative is probably the Psion PDA from the 1990s — a device beloved as much for its powerful scheduling software as for its robust physical keyboard.

The Planet Gemini is no mere throwback. It's available in Wi-Fi and 4G versions (for both GSM and CDMA networks), it dual-boots Android and Linux, and you can even make phone calls on it. Planet says the Gemini is meant for bloggers, longform writers and other creators who live and die by a physical keyboard, and it's easy to see why it'd be a tempting purchase for such folks. Still, it's hard to envision many people ponying up for a device that slots in somewhere between the smartphone and laptop, yet professes to replace neither.

Of course, you don't need to imagine it; you can just head on over to Planet's Indiegogo page to see how many customers have already devoted their dollars to picking up a Gemini of their own. If you're keen to join them, the device is available for $299 or $399 in Wi-Fi and 4G versions, respectively, with units already in production. The Planet Gemini ships to early backers later this month; deliveries will continue into the spring, at which point I'll hopefully follow up with a full review.

Stay social, my friends

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1 week ago

Allo and Duo Head of Product leaves Google for Facebook

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Amit Fulay is no longer leading the Allo and Duo charge.

If you're a frequent user of Google's Allo and/or Duo, there's a good chance you're familiar with Amit Fulay. Fulay has been serving as the Head of Product for Real-Time Communications at Google since back in 2010, and along with the more recent Allo and Duo, Fulay also played a big part in creating Hangouts.

However, Fulay's time at Google has come to an end. On his Twitter account, Fulay said that today, January 8, 2018, is his first official day working at Facebook. His Twitter bio has been changed to indicate that he's now "Product @ Facebook", but it's unclear what his exact position within the company is.

Here's Fulay's full message:

Although they may not be Google's most popular services, I personally love using Allo and Duo. Google's yet to say who will be filling Amit Fulay's shoes, and it'll be interesting to see how these two platforms grow and possibly change throughout the year.

Facebook's M virtual assistant is being shut down on January 19

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1 week ago

Asus Chromebox 3 announced with 8th Generation Intel Core processors

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The Chromebox 3 has a new Intel Core processor, USB Type-C, Google Play Store support, and more.

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Chromeboxes didn't see nearly as much love as Chromebooks did in 2017, but so far in 2018, we've already gotten two big Chromebox announcements from HP and Asus. HP took the wraps off its Chromebox G2 ahead of CES 2018, and just a couple days later, we have the Asus Chromebox 3.

Asus didn't reveal all of the Chromebox 3's juicy details, but there's still enough here to get us excited. For starters, it'll ship with 8th Generation Intel Core processors. We aren't sure which specific Core processors will be present, but if Asus follows in HP's footsteps, we should see Core i5 and i7 options. DDR4-2400 RAM will be used for "faster, smoother and more energy-efficient performance", and there will also be a USB 3.1 Type-C port.

Other specs include dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Gigabit LAN, and ports for HDMI and DisplayPort. Along with this, the Chromebox 3 will support a wide array of Android apps and games via the Google Play Store.

There aren't any details on price or availability, but Asus says these will become available upon release in the second half of 2018.

HP Chromebox G2 has a Kaby Lake Core i7 and 16GB RAM

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1 week ago

Meltdown Hack and Spectre Bug: How it affects Android & Chrome Users

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The information you need to know so you can stay safe.

You might have heard that the sky has fallen and the security apocalypse has happened because of two new attacks named Meltdown and Spectre. If you work in IT or any other area of large-scale computer infrastructure, you probably feel like it has, too, and are already looking forward to your 2018 vacation days.

Media outlets first heard rumors of this mother-of-all-exploits in late 2017, and recent reports were wildly speculative and finally forced companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google (whose Project Zero team discovered the whole thing) to respond with details. Those details have made for an interesting read if you're interested in this sort of thing.

But for everyone else, no matter what phone or computer you use, a lot of what you're reading or hearing might sound like it's in a different language. That's because it is, and unless you're fluent in cyber-geek-security-techno-speak you might have to run it through a translator of some sort.

Good news! You found that translator, and here's what you need to know about Meltdown and Spectre, and what you need to do about it.

What they are

Meltdown and Spectre are two different things, but since they were revealed at the same time and both deal with microprocessor architecture at the hardware level, they are being talked about together. The phone you're using right now is almost certainly affected by the Spectre exploit, but nobody has found a way to use it — yet.

The processor inside your phone determines how vulnerable it is to these types of exploits, but it's safer to assume that they all affect you if you're unsure. And since they aren't exploiting a bug and instead are using a process that's supposed to happen, there's no easy fix without a software update.

Look at the phone in your hands; it's vulnerable to some of these attacks.

Computers (this includes phones and other tiny computers, too) rely on what's called memory isolation for security between applications. Not the memory that is used to store data over the long term, but the memory used by hardware and software while everything is working in real time. Processes store data separately from other processes, so no other process knows where or when it gets written or read.

The apps and services running on your phone all want the processor to do some work and are constantly giving it a list of things they need to be computed. The processor doesn't do these tasks in the order they are received — that would mean some parts of the CPU are idle and waiting for other parts to finish, so step two could be done after step one is finished. Instead, the processor can move ahead to step three or step four and do them ahead of time. This is called out-of-order-execution and all modern CPUs work this way.

Meltdown and Spectre aren't exploiting a bug — they attack the way a processor computes data.

Because a CPU is faster than any software could be, it also does a bit of guessing. Speculative execution is when the CPU performs a calculation it wasn't yet asked to do based on previous calculations it was asked to perform. Part of optimizing software for better CPU performance is following a few rules and instructions. This means most of the time there is a normal workflow that will be followed and a CPU can skip ahead to have data ready when software asks for it. And because they are so fast, if the data wasn't needed after all, it gets tossed aside. This is still faster than waiting for the request to perform a calculation.

This speculative execution is what allows both Meltdown and Spectre to access data they would otherwise not be able to get at, though they do it in different ways.

Meltdown

Intel processors, Apple's newer A series processors, and other ARM SoCs using the new A75 core (for now that's just the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845) are vulnerable to the Meltdown exploit.

Meltdown leverages what's called a "privilege escalation flaw" that gives an application access to kernel memory. This means any code that can get access to this area of memory — where the communication between the kernel and the CPU happens — essentially has access to everything it needs to execute any code on the system. When you can run any code, you have access to all data.

Spectre

Spectre affects almost every modern processor, including the one on your phone.

Spectre doesn't need to find a way to execute code on your computer because it can "trick" the processor into executing instructions for it, then granting access to the data from other applications. This means an exploit could see what other apps are doing and read the data they have stored. The way a CPU processes instructions out of order in branches are where Spectre attacks.

Both Meltdown and Spectre are able to expose data that should be sandboxed. They do this at the hardware level, so your operating system doesn't make you immune — Apple, Google, Microsoft, and all sorts of open-source Unix and Linux operating systems are equally affected.

Because of a technique that is known as dynamic scheduling that allows data to be read as it's computing instead of it needing to be stored first, there is plenty of sensitive information in RAM for an attack to read. If you're interested in this sort of thing, the whitepapers published by the Graz University of Technology are fascinating reads. But you don't need to read or understand them to protect yourself.

Am I affected?

Yes. At least, you were. Basically, everyone was affected until companies started patching their software against these attacks.

The software that needs updating is in the operating system, so that means you need a patch from Apple, Google, or Microsoft. (If you use a computer that runs Linux and aren't into infosec, you've got the patch already, too. Use your software updater to install it or ask a friend who is into infosec to walk you through updating your kernel). The awesome news is that Apple, Google, and Microsoft have patches either already deployed or on their way in the immediate future for supported versions.

The specifics

  • Intel processors since 1995 except for the Itanium and pre-2013 ATOM platform are affected by both Meltdown and Spectre.
  • All modern AMD processors are affected by the Spectre attack. AMD PRO and AMD FX (the AMD 9600 R7 and AMD FX-8320 were used as proof-of-concept) CPUs in a non-standard configuration (kernel BPF JIT enabled) are affected by Meltdown. It's expected that a similar attack against side-channel memory reading is possible against all 64-bit CPUs including AMD processors.
  • ARM processors with Cortex R7, R8, A8, A9, A15, A17, A57, A72, A73, and A75 cores are suspectable to Spectre attacks. Processors with Cortex A75 (the Snapdragon 845) cores are vulnerable to Meltdown attacks. It's expected that chips using variants of these cores, like Qualcomm's Snapdragon line or Samsung's Exynos line, will also have similar or the same vulnerabilities. Qualcomm is working directly with ARM, and has this statement on the issues:

Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. is aware of the security research on industry-wide processor vulnerabilities that have been reported. Providing technologies that support robust security and privacy is a priority for Qualcomm, and as such, we have been working with Arm and others to assess impact and develop mitigations for our customers. We are actively incorporating and deploying mitigations against the vulnerabilities for our impacted products, and we continue to work to strengthen them as possible. We are in the process of deploying these mitigations to our customers and encourage people to update their devices when patches become available.

  • NVIDIA has determined that these exploits (or other similar exploits that may arise) do not affect GPU computing, so their hardware is mostly immune. They will be working with other companies to update device drivers to help mitigate any CPU performance issues, and they are evaluating their ARM-based SoCs (Tegra).

  • Webkit, the people behind the browser rendering engine of Safari and the forerunner to Google's Blink engine, have an excellent breakdown of exactly how these attacks can affect their code. Much of it would apply to any interpreter or compiler and it's an amazing read. See how they are working to fix it and keep it from happening the next time.

In plain English, this means that unless you're still using a very old phone, tablet, or computer, you should consider yourself vulnerable without an update to the operating system. Here's what we know so far on that front:

  • Google has patched Android against both Spectre and Meltdown attacks with the December 2017 and January 2018 patches.
  • Google has patched Chromebooks using the 3.18 and 4.4 versions of the kernel in December 2017 with OS 63. Devices with other versions of the kernel (look here to find yours) will be patched soon. In plain English: The Toshiba Chromebook, the Acer C720, Dell Chromebook 13, and the Chromebook Pixels from 2013 and 2015 (and some names you've probably never heard of) aren't patched yet but will be soon. Most Chromeboxes, Chromebases, and Chromebits are not patched but will be soon.
  • For Chrome OS devices that aren't patched, a new security feature called Site Isolation will mitigate any issues from these attacks.
  • Microsoft has patched both exploits as of January 2018.
  • Apple has patched macOS and iOS against Meltdown starting with the December update. The first round of Spectre updates were pushed out in early January. Check out iMore for everything you need to know about these CPU flaws and how they affect your Mac, iPad, and iPhone.
  • Patches have been sent to all supported versions of the Linux kernel, and Operating Systems like Ubuntu or Red Hat can be updated through the software update application.

For Android specifics, the Nexus 5X, Nexus 6P, Pixel, Pixel XL, Pixel 2, and Pixel 2 XL have been patched and you should see an update soon if you haven't already received it. You can also manually update these devices if you like. The Android Open Source project (the code used to build the OS for every Android phone) has also been patched and third-party distributions like LineageOS can be updated.

How to manually update your Pixel or Nexus

Samsung, LG, Motorola, and other Android vendors (companies who make phones and tablets and TVs) will patch their products with the January 2018 update. Some, like the Note 8 or Galaxy S8, will see that before others, but Google has made the patch available for all devices. We expect to see more news from all partners to let us know what to expect and when.

What can I do?

If you have a product that's vulnerable, it's easy to get caught up in the hype, but you shouldn't. Both Spectre and Meltdown don't "just happen" and depend on you installing malware of some sort that leverages them. Following a few safe practices will keep you immune to either exploit on any computer hardware.

  • Only install software that you trust from a place you trust. This is a good idea always, but especially if you're waiting for a patch.
  • Secure your devices with a good lock screen and encryption. This does more than just keep another person out, as applications can't do anything while your phone is locked without your permission.
  • Read and understand the permissions on everything you run or install on your phone. Don't be afraid to ask for help here!
  • Use a web browser that blocks malware. We can recommend Chrome or Firefox, and other browsers may also protect you against web-based malware. Ask the people who make and distribute them if you're unsure. The web browser that came with your phone may not be the best option here, especially if you have an older model. Edge and Safari are also trusted for Windows or MacOS and iOS devices.
  • Do not open links on social media, in an email, or in any message from someone you do not know. Even if they are from people you know, make sure you trust your web browser before you click or tap. This goes double for redirect links that mask a site URL. We use those sort of links pretty often and chances are a lot of online media you read does, too. Be careful.
  • Don't be stupid. You know what this means to you. Trust your judgment and err on the side of caution.

The good news is that the way these side channel exploits are patched is not going to bring the huge slowdowns that were hyped before any updates were released. That's just how the web works, and if you read about how your phone or computer was going to be 30% slower after any fix was applied, it was because sensationalism sells. Users who are running updated software (and have been during testing) just aren't seeing it.

The patch doesn't have the performance impact some claimed it would bring, and that's a great thing.

This all came about because these attacks measure precise time intervals and the initial patches change or disable the precision of some timing sources through software. Less precise means slower when you're computing and the impact was exaggerated to be a lot bigger than it is. Even the slight performance decreases that are a result of the patches are being mitigated by other companies and we see NVIDIA updating the way their GPUs crunch numbers or Mozilla working on the way they calculate data to make it even faster. Your phone won't be any slower on the January 2018 patch and neither will your computer unless it's very old, at least not in any noticeable way.

Stop worrying about it and instead make sure to do everything you can to keep your data safe.

What to take away from it all

Security scares always have some sort of real impact. Nobody has seen any instances of Meltdown or Spectre being used in the wild, and because most devices that we use every day are updated or will be very soon, reports will probably stay this way. But this doesn't mean they should be ignored.

Take security threats like this seriously but don't fall for all the hype; be informed!

These side channel exploits had the potential to be that big, serious game-changing event people worry about when it comes to cybersecurity. Any exploit that affects hardware is serious, and when it attacks something done on purpose instead of a bug it becomes even more serious. Thankfully, researchers and developers were able to catch, contain, and patch Meltdown and Spectre before any widespread use happened.

What's really important here is that you get the right information so you know what to do every time you hear about a new cyberthreat that wants all of your digital stuff. There's usually a rational way to mitigate any serious effects once you dig past all the headlines.

Stay safe!

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1 week ago

Westinghouse has a 43-inch 4K Android TV that costs just $350

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Also available in 50, 55, and 65-inch flavors.

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Although 4K TVs used to be reserved for television enthusiasts with thousands upon thousands of dollars to spend, that's quickly changed over the last few years. 4K TVs are now more affordable than ever, and Westinghouse has a new unit of its own that looks darn tempting.

For just $350, Westinghouse will sell you a TV with a 43-inch screen, 4K resolution, built-in Wi-Fi, and 120Hz refresh rate. The whole package is powered by Android TV, meaning you'll have access to most major apps and games via the Google Play Store.

Westinghouse will also be releasing similar models with screen sizes of 50, 55, and 65-inches, and while pricing details on these have yet to be announced, expect them to also be quite competitive.

None of Westinghouse's' new TVs support HDR, and while that means you won't get quite as vivid colors compared to more expensive models, you're still getting a lot of TV for just $350.

Q3 of 2018 is when the televisions will be released, and that's likely when we'll get pricing info for the larger models.

The Nebula Capsule projector is now available on Amazon for $349

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1 week ago

Sony Xperia XA2 and XA2 Ultra hands-on: No more quirks, these are just good phones

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Sony Xperia XA2 and XA2 Ultra

Caveats are gone, so let's start looking at Sony's phones again.

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Putting aside Sony's struggles with flagship phones in the U.S., the company has quietly picked up solid sales of its mid-range devices, with notable standouts like the Xperia XA1 and XA1 Ultra in 2017. It stands to reason that a refresh would be in the works, and so we have the appropriately named Xperia XA2 and XA2 Ultra at CES 2018.

Alongside having the distinguished position of marking the return of fingerprint sensors in U.S. Sony phones, the XA2 and XA2 Ultra also show that Sony's willing to change its long-held positions on other parts of its phone designs as well. This is a good thing.

At a glance, the XA2 and XA2 Ultra are unmistakably Sony phones. The symmetrical design, large bezels, lightly textured metal and bright colors are hallmarks of its phones, even at sub-$400 price points. Pick either phone up, and it feels fantastic, befitting a much higher price. The smaller XA2 in particular, with its 5.2-inch screen, sits in the hand really well and doesn't have the overwhelming weight of the 6-inch XA2 Ultra. Both of the displays, despite being standard 1920x1080 resolution LCDs look wonderful with good colors and viewing angles.

Sony Xperia XA2 and XA2 Ultra

But there are subtle changes all around that show you they're definitely new. The fingerprint sensor, of course, is a giveaway. But the backs also now have a subtle curve to them rather than being perfectly flat, which you immediately notice in your hand. The side bezels have shrunken down to the same size you find on any modern Android phone. Yes the top and bottom bezels are still quite large, but trust me even they're a tad smaller than before — and with 16:9 displays, the phones aren't very tall. The NFC is in a reasonable place, right under the camera on the back. The XA2, with its relatively small size, has a very big 3300mAh battery.

With all of those design changes, Sony is continuing to get the basics right as well. Big batteries (3300 and 3580mAh) pair up with 1080p screens and a solid Snapdragon 630, which is a recipe for fantastic battery life. The phones have Android 8.0 Oreo and the January 1 security patch out of the box, alongside a simple and unoffensive set of visual customizations. They charge over USB-C in a normal place (centered on the bottom) and have 3.5 mm headphone jacks on the top.

These are all little fixes and improvements that add up to relieving longstanding pain points with Sony phones. And at the same time, it feels like they've lost a little bit of their charm and quirkiness that made Sony phones somehow desirable even though they weren't practical. But looking at the Xperia XA2 and XA2 Ultra, that's just fine. Because they're just ... good phones, without any caveats.

And remember that these are just Sony's first mid-range phones of 2018. They're expected to debut under $400, and will be sold unlocked in the U.S. Provided Sony takes these same fresh philosophies and steps up another level with its flagships, we could be looking at a year where Sony phones are at least back in the conversation in the U.S., rather than just an opportunity to crack a joke about its numerous missteps. Bring it on, I say.

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1 week ago

Facebook's M virtual assistant is being shut down on January 19

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Two years later, Facebook's pulling the plug on M.

Back in 2015, Facebook announced its own virtual assistant by the name of "M." M was different from the likes of Siri and Alexa due to the fact that it was regularly monitored by a group of humans to help grow the platform, and because of this, M could do things book reservations, order gifts, and more. The assistant was only ever made available to a small group of people in California, and on January 19, 2018, Facebook will be shutting it down.

In a statement that the company issued, Facebook said:

We launched this project to learn what people needed and expected of an assistant, and we learned a lot. We're taking these useful insights to power other AI projects at Facebook. We continue to be very pleased with the performance of M suggestions in Messenger, powered by our learnings from this experiment.

As mentioned above, M Suggestions that was released for all users in the United States last April will live on. M Suggestions isn't as powerful as the full M assistant, but it can be used in Messenger conversations to suggest stickers that you can use, create calendar appointments, etc.

M showed signs of real potential, and while it might be disappointing to some users to see it die, we're anxiously awaiting to see how Facebook uses this tech with future products and services.

Until then, rest in peace, M.

The first baby monitor with Alexa is coming in February for $229

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