Tag Archives: Gadget Reviews

Meltdown and Spectre flaws loomed large over CES

Intel faced the brunt of the early criticism, when initial reports pegged the potential exploits as something that affected only its chips. It turns out that’s not the whole story. The Meltdown vulnerability is specifically aimed at Intel’s hardware, but Spectre will be an ongoing issue for every modern CPU. All the same, no massive security hole was going to put a stop to Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s opening CES keynote — not when its big-budget show was being held at a giant music venue at the Monte Carlo hotel.

After an opening act that featured virtual instruments and a virtuoso child dancer, Krzanich went into crisis response mode almost immediately. “The collaboration among so many companies to address this industry-wide issue across several different processor architectures has been truly remarkable,” he said, praising the unusual way competitors rallied together. “Security is job number one for Intel and our industry. So the primary focus of our decisions and discussions have been to keep our customers’ data safe.”

Krzanich went on to assure the audience that Intel hasn’t heard about anyone using these exploits to steal customer data. And he also gave us more clarity about the company’s response, noting that it plans to fully patch its product line from the past five years by the end of the month. As for reports of fixes slowing down processors, he reiterated Intel’s line about the impact being “highly workload dependent.” Microsoft gave us a bit more insight into what that means the next day — basically, you can expect noticeable slowdowns with Intel’s chips from 2015 and earlier.

As for AMD, its CTO, Mark Papermaster, told press and analysts that it still believes there is “near zero risk” for its users. Thanks to architectural differences from Intel, the Meltdown (aka “Rogue Data Cache Load”) vulnerability doesn’t affect AMD’s chips. When it comes to the two Spectre vulnerabilities, he said Variant 1, otherwise known as “Bounds check bypass,” will be fixed through OS and software patches.

Papermaster reiterated that there’s “near zero risk” for its architecture to Variant 2, or “branch target injection.” Specifically, he noted, “vulnerability to Variant 2 has not been demonstrated on AMD processors to date.” That carefully worded statement leaves room for the possibility that hackers could come up with new exploits that take advantage of that flaw.

This CES was a particularly ill-timed launch for one of the strangest collaborations in the tech industry: Intel’s new 8th-generation Core CPU with AMD’s RX Vega GPU. When we first heard about the chip, we were intrigued by the possibilities. It finally gives computer makers the flexibility to make ultraportables with solid gaming chops. But now, with the threat of Spectre, the chip’s luster is ruined a bit. Similarly, it’s just tough to get too excited about AMD’s upcoming Ryzen desktop CPUs. Even its promising Radeon Mobile GPU, which could bring even faster performance to laptops than its Intel collaboration, is still tainted by its connection with AMD’s affected processors.

In an interview with Engadget, Jim Anderson, AMD’s Radeon head, said, “Regardless of Spectre and Meltdown, we are always focused on continuing to improve our security. … It’s key for two very important markets for us, both data center and the commercial PC market.” As for any potential performance hits, Anderson said the impact should be “negligible.” Since our chat with AMD, Microsoft has halted patches for Windows systems running the company’s chips. It turns out the update ended up bricking some machines. Microsoft blamed AMD’s documentation for not conforming with earlier instructions, and it’s unclear when the patches will resume.

It’d be bad enough if Spectre affected only individual devices, but this year at CES, tech companies also doubled down on connected platforms built on user data. LG has its ThinQ AI, and Samsung is bringing Bixby and SmartThings to more products. And on a similar front, we’re also seeing more companies integrating with smart assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant. It’ll be more important than ever to ensure that smart home platforms are secure locally in your home, and that the servers powering all of the assistants are also as secure as possible. (Google, Amazon and Microsoft all say they’ve patched their servers against known exploits.)

The worry isn’t that a hacker could discover your Netflix guilty-watch queue. Instead, there’s the potential for them to tap into smart home platforms to track your location, use your home cameras to peep on your family and access the microphones spread throughout your home. Indeed, we’ve already seen how vulnerable connected baby monitors were, which allowed people to spy on kids and potentially communicate with them. As gadgets reach deeper into our lives, so does the potential for serious attacks.

Tim Alessi, LG’s director of product marketing for home entertainment, assured us that the company has “always had a history of making our devices as secure as possible.” And when it comes to the widespread data collection that LG’s ThinQ smart devices will employ, he noted, “We’re not just collecting data for data’s sake. It’s to help people get the most out of their TVs. And, during setup, it’s very clear during the opt-in process to make their own decision.”

Article source: https://www.engadget.com/2018/01/14/spectre-meltdown-ces/

Amazon’s ‘Electric Dreams’ anthology arrives on Prime Video

Of course, the BBC-produced series aired in the UK back in October, so it’s about time it made the jump to the US. (It’s also now live for viewers in Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Latin America, Spain and Turkey on Amazon, and will air on the Space channel in Canada and Stan channel in Australia). Electric Dreams has an incredible cast (Anna Paquin, Janelle Monáe, Bryan Cranston, Greg Kinnear, Vera Farmiga, Terrence Howard, Benedict Wong, Steve Buscemi and many others) and is executive produced by a similarly-impressive lineup including Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica) and Maril Davis (Outlander) along with Cranston (Sneaky Pete).

Article source: https://www.engadget.com/2018/01/14/amazon-s-electric-dreams-anthology-arrives-on-prime-video/

Facebook goes back to basics: People

In a blog post, Facebook CEO and Founder Mark Zuckerberg said the goal is to ensure that users feel happy when they’re on the site, something that’s easier to accomplish if you’re seeing baby pictures rather than news articles about Russia investigations. During the early days of Facebook, the focus was simply on communication between friends, but over the past couple of years it began to actively promote and push content from media companies into users’ feeds. It’s something Facebook had to do in order to keep people on the site for longer period of times and, of course, gave the social network a solid source of revenue in the process.

For better or worse, the platform quickly became more of a news curator. And while that may have helped it grow as a business and become the most powerful social network, with more than 2 billion monthly active users, it also meant the company strayed away from its roots. By bringing the focus back to interactions between friends and family, Facebook is simply going back to basics. The the latest News Feed tweaks are attributed to recent user feedback, noting that people have said posts from businesses, brands and media are crowding out the “personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other.”

Facebook hopes that by eliminating some of that media noise, and creating more personal connections, people will stress less. “Research shows that strengthening our relationships,” Zuckerberg said, “improves our well-being and happiness.” He added that although he expects the amount of time people spend on Facebook will go down, he believes keeping users in a good mood will be better for the business and community in the long term — but he didn’t say how, exactly, that’s going to happen. It seems the fear is that, while users may spend more time on the site now, the negative atmosphere could eventually drive them away.

Though news articles or videos will still show up on your feed every now and then, Facebook is making it clear that from now on the priority is going to be to content from friends, family and groups you’re part of. That’s a punch in the gut for publishers who have built their strategy around Facebook.

Of course, it’s no secret that Facebook is still under scrutiny for its role in Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. Facebook became the preferred platform for Kremlin-sponsored trolls to spread misinformation (aka fake news) and dubious ads, as part of a vicious (and successful) campaign designed to undermine our democracy and encourage hostility between the American people. Last year, the company revealed to Congress that over 126 million users were exposed to that content in the lead-up to the election, in what was a major blow to Facebook’s reputation.

Although Facebook doesn’t say this is the reason for the change, it’s not hard to imagine that what happened in 2016 helped shape the upcoming News Feed. Less negative articles and more positive, personal posts could create a healthier community. It remains to be seen if the changes will actually help prevent another major headache for Facebook, but at the very least it will make it feel like less of a media company — something it keeps claiming not to be, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

“Some news helps start conversations on important issues,” Zuckerberg said. “But too often today, watching video, reading news or getting a page update is just a passive experience.” The problem he highlights isn’t exclusive to Facebook, either: Similarly Twitter has become exhausting and toxic, thanks to non-stop political bickering and harassment. If you’re Facebook or Twitter, that’s definitely not what you want to hear.

Article source: https://www.engadget.com/2018/01/13/facebook-news-feed-people/

Prototype satellite makes way for 4K ‘Earth observation’

The prototype satellite has a UHD camera aboard, which will be able to capture high-res images of locations anywhere on Earth, as well as record up to two minutes of video similar to Urthecast. It’s just the first step for Earth-i, though; the company plans to use CARBONITE-2 to prove that its tech is viable, as well as demonstrate what the eventual group of satellites can do. The company has already ordered its next five satellites in the Vivid-i constellation.

“The launch of VividX2 is a significant next development of Earth-i’s constellation, and welcomed by ESA,” said Josef Aschbacher, the director of Earth observation programmes at the European Space Agency. “The Vivid-i Constellation will provide capabilities we haven’t seen before including full-colour video, and an assured stream of high-quality data from space to help improve both our planet and our lives on Earth.”

The CARBONITE-2 launched on the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, from the Sriharikota rocket launch center in southeast India. It was one of 31 payloads aboard the rocket and was the first launch for the PSLV after it suffered a payload fairing error last August.

Sample video from an earlier prototype, CARBONITE-1, shows satellite video of traffic on a highway in Dubai:

Article source: https://www.engadget.com/2018/01/13/prototype-satellite-earth-observation-full-color-motion-video/

Tech wants to solve our tech-related sleep problems

Smartwatches and fitness trackers have tracked sleep for years, using the principles of actigraphy: Monitoring how you move as you sleep with algorithms used to calculate your cycles. The less you move, the thinking goes, the deeper your sleep.


This week, companies like Nokia and Emfit both launched new underbed sensors that do the same job, but without a device on your wrist. The former will track your sleep duration and quality and offers a sleep-coaching function if you’re having trouble nodding off. In addition, the Nokia Sleep sensor offers control of your smart home with IFTTT, triggering recipes as you begin to nod off.

Using sleep technology as an extension of the smart home seems to be the beachhead from which these companies plan to enter our homes. Sleepace exhibited a whole suite of connected home gear that’ll automate your pad when it senses you’re sleeping. Spend enough cash and your residence will turn off the TV and draw the blinds as soon as you climb into bed. When you’re rousing the following morning, the system could gently turn on the lights and fire up the coffee machine.


Wake-up lights were sleep technology well before sleep technology was a thing, using daylight simulation to trigger your natural circadian rhythm. It’s probably best exemplified by Philips’ Wake Up Light, and at CES 2018 competing products appeared from companies like Witti and Aromarest. The latter pulls double duty as a scent diffuser, much like Bescent’s forthcoming night-time sleeping aid.

Other devices are attempting to appeal more to the marginal-gains crowd looking to get an edge on their bodies. Dreamlight, for instance, is an intelligent sleep mask that offers light therapy in the eye cups and sleep coaching. If you have taken a genetic test with 23andMe, you can even customize the sleep programs according to your DNA. Even to the point where, should your genetics indicate so, you can attempt to sleep like Leonardo DaVinci, who famously took 20-minute polyphasic sleep naps every four hours.

Sleep Number, which sells smart beds that cost upwards of a thousand dollars, claims that its SleepIQ platform is the “future of health and wellness.” The company believes that its monitoring technology will soon be able to proactively spot and warn you of medical conditions ahead of time. For instance, its future beds may be able to identify symptoms such as an irregular heart rate or breathing pattern, look for signs of you being laid up with the flu and relay vital signs to medical professionals. Assuming, of course, that its users are comfortable with the sheer volume of data that is being collected against them.


Then there are the more extreme interventions, like the recently launched bed from Magniflex, which will actually try to stop you snoring each night. Should its sensors detect your nostrils making the sound of falling rocks, the head of the bed will lift up by a couple of inches. That gentle motion should be enough to motivate your unconscious body to shift around, jolting you into stopping snoring.

There’s also Somnox, a pricey sleep robot in the shape of a peanut, which you cuddle up to over night. The device is designed to simulate breathing as if you were snuggling up to a loved one or pet, playing soothing music to get you off to sleep. Although setting you back $550 to buy one might make you reconsider just how much you need to spend on getting some shut-eye.

Of course, the lingering issue over many of these products is if there is a genuine need for them at all. Professor Jean Tenge at San Diego State University believes there is a much simpler solution to solve our sleep-related woes: put down the phone. In an editorial at The Conversation, she explained that limiting smartphone use is the fastest way for us to enjoy more restful sleep. The rule of thumb is to avoid using your phone as an alarm clock, don’t take it to bed and don’t use it in the hour before you sleep. If we want to remain sane, our bedrooms need to be as analog an environment as possible. Not that the technology industry will tell you that, of course, because very few people get rich by not selling you things.

Additional photography: Nicole Lee and Chris Ip.

Click here to catch up on the latest news from CES 2018.

Article source: https://www.engadget.com/2018/01/12/sleep-tech-ces-2018/

Google details how it protected services like Gmail from Spectre

However, the second variant of Spectre proved a lot more problematic. Google’s engineers thought the only way to protect against it was to switch off the CPU features that made the chips vulnerable to attackers. Unfortunately, doing that slowed down applications considerably and caused inconsistent performance, so the tech titan had to look at unusual or “moonshot” solutions. It found the answer in Retpoline, a technique conjured up by Google Senior Staff Engineer Paul Turner, which “modifies programs to ensure that execution cannot be influenced by an attacker.”

Retpoline allowed Google to protect its services from the second variant of Spectre without having to modify source codes or to switch off hardware components. And by December, the company was done rolling our protections against all three variants. Google reiterates that it received no support tickets related to the updates, but then again, people might have attributed their complaints to other things if they didn’t know about the flaws.

Google considers this set of vulnerabilities the “most challenging and hardest to fix” it’s had to deal with in the past decade. That it was able to find solutions for them relatively quickly demonstrates just how powerful the company is. Thankfully, the tech titan isn’t keeping Retpoline a secret: it has shared its research with other tech companies in hopes that it “can be universally deployed to improve the cloud experience industry-wide.”

Article source: https://www.engadget.com/2018/01/12/google-spectre-meltdown-protection-details/