Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

Samsung Galaxy Fold review: The future is an ugly disappointment

January 24th, 2020

The Galaxy Fold was supposed to be The Future™. Samsung, the world's leading display manufacturer, invested six years and $130 million to birth its ultimate creation: the flexible OLED display. And with the holy grail of display technology under its belt, Samsung would revolutionize the smartphone industry by introducing the "foldable" smartphone—a device that would be a portable, pocketable smartphone when closed and a multi-pane, multi-tasking, big-screen tablet when open. Samsung might have started the modern smartphone era as "that company that just copies Apple," but after surviving a thousand lawsuits, ushering in the big-screen smartphone, and eventually surpassing Apple in sales, Samsung would finally, indisputably plant its flag atop the smartphone market with the Galaxy Fold, a device that would redefine the modern smartphone.

At least, that was the plan. Things have not gone to plan.

Catastrophe struck, allegedly during the development of the Galaxy Fold. At the end of 2018, Samsung said the foldable display technology it spent so much time and money to develop was stolen by a supplier and sold to two Chinese companies for $14 million. All of Samsung's R&D work was supposed to give it a sizable head start in foldable smartphones, but that technological lead was suddenly evaporating.

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Unauthorized Bread: Real rebellions involve jailbreaking IoT toasters

January 22nd, 2020
Now that is some artisanal toast.

Enlarge / Now that is some artisanal toast. (credit: Tor Books)

"Unauthorized Bread"—a tale of jailbreaking refugees versus IoT appliances—is the lead novella in author Cory Doctorow's Radicalized, which has just been named a finalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's national book award, the Canada Reads prize. "Unauthorized Bread" is also in development for television with Topic, parent company of The Intercept; and for a graphic novel adaptation by Firstsecond, in collaboration with the artist and comics creator Jennifer Doyle. It appears below with permission from the author.

The way Salima found out that Boulangism had gone bankrupt: her toaster wouldn’t accept her bread. She held the slice in front of it and waited for the screen to show her a thumbs-up emoji, but instead, it showed her the head-scratching face and made a soft brrt. She waved the bread again. Brrt.

“Come on.” Brrt.

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Are bioplastics all hype or the future of textiles?

January 20th, 2020
Spilled garbage on the beach off the Black Sea in Bulgaria.

Enlarge / Spilled garbage on the beach off the Black Sea in Bulgaria. (credit: iStock / Getty Images Plus)

The English metallurgist Alexander Parkes never saw the widespread realization of his spectacular 19th-century invention, celluloid, the first plastic. While a revolutionary breakthrough, Parkesine, as it was called, was expensive and brittle. It was used in objects like buttons and combs, but ultimately quality control issues led Parkes’ company to bankruptcy in 1868 just 12 years after the discovery.

Parkesine, however, was also the first bioplastic—a plastic made from renewable plant material instead of fossil fuels. And today with the environmental impact of plastics increasingly on the public mind, bioplastics are making a big comeback. They’re proposed by some as the solution to beaches deluged with plastic and fish bellies stuffed with bottle caps. And perhaps bioplastics can replace oil-based polymers that commonly trash oceans with materials that can break down more easily and would protect a planet already smothered in these resilient substances.

Bioplastic items already exist, of course, but whether they’re actually better for the environment or can truly compete with traditional plastics is complicated. Some bioplastics aren’t much better than fossil fuel-based polymers. And for the few that are less injurious to the planet, cost and social acceptance may stand in the way. Even if widespread adoption of bioplastics occurs down the line, it won’t be a quick or cheap fix. In the meantime, there is also some pollution caused by bioplastics themselves to consider. Even if bioplastics are often less damaging than the status quo, they aren’t a flawless solution.

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This year may finally fulfill the promise of private human spaceflight

January 15th, 2020
Giant airplane carrying smaller spacecraft.

Enlarge / Is this the year paying customers fly into space on VSS Unity and White Knight Two? (credit: GENE BLEVINS/AFP/Getty Images)

This year could see the fulfillment of a number of long-promised achievements in human spaceflight. For the first time, private companies could launch humans into orbit in 2020, and two different companies could send paying tourists on suborbital missions. The aerospace community has been watching and waiting for these milestones for years, but 2020 is probably the year for both.

We may also see a number of new rocket debuts this year, both big and small. A record number of missions—four—are also due to launch to Mars from four different space agencies. That's just the beginning of what promises to be an exciting year; here's a look at what we're most eagerly anticipating in the coming 11.5 months.

Commercial crew

Yes, it's happening. Probably. Both SpaceX and Boeing have made considerable progress toward launching humans to the International Space Station from Florida. They've also had setbacks. SpaceX's Crew Dragon performed a successful test back in March, but a month later the capsule exploded during a thruster test. Boeing completed an orbital uncrewed test flight in December, but it was hampered by a software issue and unable to perform the primary task of its flight, approaching and docking with the International Space Station.

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HP Spectre x360 13 review: A high-end two-in-one that’s hard to beat

January 13th, 2020
It is sleek.

Enlarge / It is sleek. (credit: Valentina Palladino)

There was a lot to love about the 4th-generation HP Spectre x360 13, but HP wasn't satisfied. The new 5th-gen laptop, which debuted at the end of 2019, has more improvements than you'd think just by glancing at it. in fact without inspecting it thoroughly, you may think the new Spectre x360 13 looks and feels just like the previous model. But fear not, it's different—HP significantly shrank the device, added a mic-mute button, gave it optional LTE support, and stuffed 10th-gen Ice Lake Intel processors inside of it.

When OEMs make improvements and try to fix problems on a laptop, they often have to make sacrifices. With thin-and-light flagships like these, sacrifices typically come in power, battery life, and port selection, just to name a few areas. But HP didn't remove anything from the 4th-generation laptop when making the newest model—a fact that will work in its favor as it has to compete with the likes of the Dell XPS 13 two-in-one and the new Dell XPS 13 laptop. But just how much better did HP make the Spectre x360 13, and are there any hidden negatives about the newest iteration? We recently spent a few days with the laptop to find out.

Look and feel

Specs at a glance: HP Spectre x360 13 (2019, as reviewed)
Screen 13.3-inch FHD (1920 x1080) WLED touchscreen
OS Windows 10
CPU Intel Core i7-1065G7 (Ice Lake)
Storage 512GB PCIe SSD + 32GB Optane Memory
GPU Intel Iris Plus Graphics
Networking Intel Wi-Fi 6 AX 201 (2x2), Bluetooth 5
Ports 2 x Thunderbolt 3, 1 x USB-A, 1 x microSD card, 1 x headphone jack
Size 12.1×7.7×0.7 inches
Weight 2.88 pounds
Battery 60Whr 4-cell
Starting price $1,099.99
Price as reviewed $1,299.99
Extras Camera kill switch, mic-mute button, optional LTE, active pen included
(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

If you spend an inordinate amount of time around laptops like I do, the new narrowness to the 5th-gen HP Spectre x360 13 would immediately strike you. The previous model had chunky black bezels at the top and bottom of its display, increasing the overall width of the device. HP slashed most of that unnecessary space here, leaving behind a modest bezel at the bottom of the display with the HP logo on it. The company developed a super-tiny (2.2mm) IR camera as well, so it could keep that form of Windows Hello on the shrunken top bezel.

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Inside TASBot’s semi-secret, probably legal effort to control the Nintendo Switch

January 11th, 2020

A sneak peek of the Super Mario Maker 2 gameplay that TASBot will show off, live, on stock Nintendo Switch hardware and software this weekend

For years now, the TASBot team has shown time and again that tool-assisted speedruns—which can feature superhuman input speeds powered by frame-by-frame emulator recordings—can actually work on unmodified console hardware. Thus far, though, TASBot's efforts have focused on defunct retro consoles from the Atari 2600 up through the Gamecube and Nintendo DS.

This weekend, TASBot will finally take its talents into the modern gaming era, showing off expert-level Super Mario Maker 2 gameplay on an actual Switch during the livestreamed Awesome Games Done Quick speedrunning marathon. And this time, the TASBot team is taking pains to make sure no one else can copy its method—to hopefully avoid Nintendo's potential legal ire in the process.

Flipping the Switch

The effort to let a Linux computer take external control of a Switch game began a bit inadvertently back in 2018, when the TASBot team attempted to partner with the AbleGamers charity. Their goal was to create an Arduino interface that would allow inputs (and pre-recorded input macros) from any controller to be re-mapped into input signals for any console interface.

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Forget Top Gun: Maverick—let’s settle Blue Thunder vs. Airwolf once and for all

January 10th, 2020
A child or someone with a head injury has drawn Blue Thunder and Airwolf battling on a sheet of notebook paper.

Enlarge / Look at this crap I used to do in elementary school. (credit: Peter Opaskar)

In June 2020, the nostalgia-industrial complex will pump out Top Gun: Maverick, which will undoubtedly feature hotshot pilot Tom Cruise slaughtering a few dozen foreigners in order to complete his character arc. Cruise may do the hardest salute you've ever seen, but the real star of TG:M could just as easily be his F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet.

The movie is a sequel to 1986's Top Gun, which was part of the 1980s' obsession with turning cool vehicles into movie and TV stars. Depending on how pedantic you feel like being, this subgenre/cycle/craze kicked off with either The Dukes of Hazzard (1979) or Knight Rider (1982) and continued through Firefox, Iron Eagle, Black Moon Rising, and no less than 10 Knight Rider remakes/sequels/video games before culminating in Knight Boat. Even Magnum, P.I.'s Ferrari and The A-Team's van were more recognizable than any of their actresses. (I know I just rattled off more Gen X signposts than a season of Family Guy, but bear with me.)

Attempts to revive the genre have been mixed. Why? Because now that you can sit down at a computer and make thousands of spaceships out of pixels and Red Bull, the idea of building an entire franchise around one vehicle seems silly. It was only in the '80s—which came after the rise of the summer blockbuster but before CG-everything—that the vehicle show could flourish. (The closest analogs currently on the market are the Fast & Furious movies, which have the technology and budgets to create a world in which muscle cars outnumber people 10 to 1.)

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How Ars tests Wi-Fi gear (and you can, too)

January 8th, 2020
Behold the glory: four refurbished Chromebooks, each with an additional Linksys WUSB6300 Wi-Fi adapter for out-of-band control and communications.

Enlarge / Behold the glory: four refurbished Chromebooks, each with an additional Linksys WUSB6300 Wi-Fi adapter for out-of-band control and communications. (credit: Jim Salter)

After our review of Google's Nest Wi-Fi kit last fall, we received an unexpected request: Ars reader GerbilMagnus hopped into the comments and asked for an explainer about how we test Wi-Fi.

Machination minutiae hadn't necessarily struck us as something of interest, but ask and you shall receive dear readers. Today, we're taking GerbilMagnus' lead and taking readers behind the scenes of our Wi-Fi testing process—we'll also toss in a little theory and practice along the way. If you want to try our methods at home, know up front that you don't necessarily have to replicate our entire test setup to start seeing useful results for yourself. But if you want to put the latest and greatest mesh gear through the gauntlet, we'll absolutely cover everything from top to bottom before we're done.

Why we run complex tests

Most professional Wi-Fi tests are nothing more than simple Internet speed tests—set up a router or mesh kit, plop a laptop down 10 feet away, and let 'er rip. The idea here is that the highest top speed at close range will also translate into the best performance everywhere else.

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Turn-by-turntables: How drivers got from point A to point B in the early 1900s

January 6th, 2020
Jones Live Map disc

Enlarge / The Jones Live Map was an early 20th century attempt at turn-by-turn navigation. (credit: Seal Cove Auto Museum)

It’s easy to take modern GPS navigation for granted; it’s no longer a novelty. Not only is it offered on the dashboard of your car, it’s on every smartphone in everyone’s purse or pocket. But if you who think that in-car navigation systems started with Garmin in 1991, guess again.

The more savvy amateur car historians might think in-car navigation began with the Etak Navigator. The brainchild of engineer Stan Honey and financier Nolan Bushnell (the cofounder of Atari), Etak was launched in 1985 without use of the US Military’s Global Positioning System—the addition of GPS wouldn’t happen for another decade. Yet Etak paved the way for the systems that followed, using digitized maps stored on cassette tapes since they could resist a bumpy car ride or the heat of a car interior on a hot day. Information was posted on a vector-based CRT screen. Each tape held 3.5 MB of map data. A windshield-mounted electronic compass mated to wheel sensors to determine speed the vehicle’s speed and direction. Two models were offered: the 700, with a 7-inch screen for $1,595, and the 450, with a 4.5-inch screen for $1,395. Map cassettes cost $35 each. Initially offered only with San Francisco area maps, Etak soon offered other major metro areas, with installation provided by local car stereo and cell phone shops.

Initially successful, sales inevitably slumped. In 1989, Etak was purchased by News Corporation for $25 million, followed by Sony Corporation and others before being absorbed into Tom Tom.

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How modern tech has powered our favorite superheroes through the years

January 4th, 2020
a small sampling of Lee's work

Enlarge / Just a small sampling of Stan Lee's work. Indisputably, he was the creator or co-creator of some of the most iconic comic book characters of all time (credit: Marvel Comics)

From Wonder Woman to Watchmen, it's not easy to envision what pop culture would be like today without the impact of superheroes. It's also not easy to comprehend how any comic book about a flying alien, or a furious green monster, or a super-soldier who defeats a whole army by himself has anything to do with the worlds of technology and science. But as we all know, appearances can be deceiving.

Although the influence of superheroes on modern culture is undeniable, the influence of modern culture on many superheroes remains hazy to this day. Comic creators, perhaps often wanting to maintain a little mystique, have historically been hesitant to get explicit about their inspirations. But when thinking through 80-plus-years-and-counting of our favorite caped crusaders changing slightly with the times, their real world analogues become clearer and clearer.

Science and science fiction

One of comics’ most iconic heroes might also be the perfect example of this. Since his first appearance in Action Comics #1 in 1938, Superman has adapted to the times. The "Man of Steel" we saw in 2017's Justice League didn't just happen overnight, after all. Superman’s long term evolution is the result of many transformations and technological advancements throughout the decades.

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