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Monthly Archives: May 2013

Nokia just unveiled its Lumia 925 at an event in London, and I’ve managed to take an early look at the handset ahead of its release in June. Nokia has swapped out a unibody polycarbonate look and feel for metal. Aluminum to be precise. The result is a stunning, slimline Lumia that weighs just 139 grams. It’s really noticeable when you pick up the Lumia 925 for the first time. With a polycarbonate rear, and aluminum frame wrapping around the side of the device, it feels almost as plastic and lightweight as a Samsung Galaxy. But the aluminum makes it a lot more sturdy and brings it to similar design and hardware levels as Apple’s iPhone 5.

 

The rear features an 8.7-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization and the PureView moniker, all packaged into a neat little hump. The sensor is identical to the Lumia 920 model, and most of the changes on the Lumia 925 are focused on the design and weight. Nokia has placed the micro-SIM slot at the top, alongside the Micro USB port, which leaves the bottom of the device clean with no ports. The rear also includes a dual-LED flash and points for the wireless charging sleeves to attach. The extra padding for wireless charging takes away from the design of the device, and the colors tend to look a little odd when attached to a grey or black metal case.

Nokia’s Lumia 925 screen is a 4.5-inch OLED one, and it’s encouraging to see the company move away from LCD. Equipped with Gorilla glass that curves ever so slightly, the effect is beautiful and the colors and blacks are reproduced well. Viewing angles are equally good, with Windows Phone’s interface really taking advantage of the display running at 1280 x 768.

WINDOWS PHONE STILL HOLDS BACK NOKIA’S HARDWARE

When I first saw the Lumia 720 earlier this year, I declared it the best Lumia body yet at the time. Nokia’s Lumia 925 design and body builds on the 720 and takes it a step further. With a great camera included, and Nokia’s range of exclusive apps, the Lumia 925 is the best Windows Phone yet. The specs haven’t moved on from the Lumia 920, but Nokia is improving the areas — loud speaker, camera, and design — that count. The only problem here is Windows Phone. It’s a solid operating system, but it needs improving and a higher quality of apps. Nokia is once again fleshing out its Windows Phone range, but it’s up to Microsoft to push the software forwards.

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Xi3 Piston

When Valve announced its Steam Box in January at CES, we saw what was supposed to be a prototype of the console. Produced by Xi3, the little box shown was a very small form-factor PC, able to fit in the palm of your hand. Xi3 recently opened up pre-orders for that box, dubbed the Piston, but also stated it’s not a Steam Box. If you believed what the internet had to say, this news might’ve come as a shock, but we already knew the Piston wasn’t a Steam Box. Technically speaking, the Steam Box is actually clearly defined. Hypothetically speaking, though, no one has any idea what constitutes a Steam Box.

First, it must be noted that the prototype Steam Box shown off at CES, the Piston, wasn’t actually a Steam Box. Think of it as more of a spiritual prototype, or a proof-of-concept. The little box was made by Xi3, a company that sells similar little boxes that act as modular, small form-factor computers. Valve didn’t point to the Piston and state in a loud, booming voice, “This is the Steam Box.” It didn’t even point to the Piston and state “This is one of the Steam Box models.” The company pointed toward the Piston and said “This is what we are thinking of doing with the Steam Box.” So, if you read one of the many articles or tweets on the internet in the past few days that stated the Piston is suddenly not the Steam Box, don’t be disheartened, because it never was, and you were supposed to know that.

You might have also read that the Piston isn’t the (or aSteam Box because it is shipping with Windows, and the true Steam Box is supposed to ship with Linux. However, Gabe Newell himself said that while the Steam Box will ship with some form of Linux, you’re free to install Windows over it if you want. On top of that, Newell said that Valve won’t be the only people making a Steam Box, and that any manufacturer can stuff whatever guttyworks into the box that can fit. So, if manufacturers can change the hardware, there will be different kinds of hardware for the console, and Valve is fine with you installing Windows on it (which can run Steam with Big Picture mode like a normal PC), then wouldn’t that make the Steam Box a regular small form-factor PC? Yes, but also nope.

Piston front and back

It’s difficult to define the Steam Box. Whenever Valve releases an official one, it’ll be easier to point to that unit as the Steam Box. However, considering Newell’s statements about how different companies can make their own, and you don’t even need Valve’s chosen OS installed, what really makes a Steam Box a Steam Box? The only two vital cemented details we have are that it has to run Steam, and it should have a small form-factor. With the help of Steam’s controller-friendly Big Picture mode, you can make your own Steam Box right now. Or, you could buy the Piston, install Steam, and hook it up to your TV. Yeah, you could just hook your regular gaming rig up to your TV.

What the definition of a Steam Box really comes down to are two pieces of information that Valve hasn’t released. First, if the Linux-based OS will be specialized and optimized in such a way to where it acts as more of a game console than a traditional PC. For example, if the operating system is just the Steam client, removing a barrier of entry (albeit a very small barrier of entry — dealing with a traditional operating system) for more casual users. Second, what the controller ends up being like, and how the console interacts with it. Right now, with Big Picture mode, you can coherently navigate Steam with a controller, but that doesn’t mean every single game you can play through Steam has a coherent controller option. So, if the Steam Box is able to — somehow — translate all PC game controls to a couch-friendly controller, that would be a defining aspect that sets Valve’s console apart from being “just a small form-factor PC.”

So, the Piston isn’t an “official” Steam Box (which it never was), but considering it’s a literal box as well as a PC that can run Steam, it might as well be. The thing is, we don’t know ifValve has anything surprising up its sleeve regarding the Steam Box, so we can’t really define it yet. If you want a tiny PC that can plug into a TV and run Steam, though, you can get one right now pretty easily and call it whatever you want.

 

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GTX Titan

Nvidia’s GTX Titan officially launches today. We covered the chip’s announcement a few days ago and are still working on in-depth project that explores Titan’s capabilities more fully than standard
going to get a lot of people excited. It’s impressive, even if its $1000 price point is far out of reach for most consumers.FPS numbers would indicate. For now, though, we’ll explore Titan’s impact on the graphics market and PC gaming itself. This is a graphics card that’s

The rise of multi-monitor gaming, the increasing popularity of so-called “second screens,” and the advent of cards like Titan — which can push multiple displays without breaking a sweat — are all parts of the same trend. At a time when game development costs are skyrocketing, developers are looking to create more immersive experience. The idea of 3D gaming is all but dead — but multi-screen gaming, in some form, has more momentum behind it.

With the PS4 now officially announced and set to make a debut at the end of the year, Nvidia will undoubtedly position the Titan as the high-end enthusiast’s card of choice, even if AMD manufacturers the GPU inside all three of the new consoles.

Did Nvidia win the GPU design war?

For Nvidia, today’s Titan launch will be viewed as vindicating the company’s long-term vision for GPU design. For the past six years, Nvidia and AMD have pursued different strategies for their respective graphics chips — and for most of that time AMD was judged to have the upper hand.

AMD's "new" GPU strategy

In mid-2008, AMD announced a new strategy for itself. Rather than building monolithic GPUs with ever-increasing core counts and a focus on top-end performance, AMD declared that it would target the midrange of the market with its single-GPU products. The company’s top-end cards would consist of two GPUs on a single PCB.

Die sizes - AMD vs Nvidia through 2009

Die sizes – AMD vs. Nvidia through 2009

AMD’s HD 4000 series walloped Nvidia’s GT200 family as far as price/performance ratio. Nvidia made the 65nm-55nm transition from 2008 to 2009, but the high-end HD 4870 and HD 4850 debuted on 55nm in the summer of 2008. Opting for a smaller, less-complicated die had paid off.

It paid off again in 2009 when the HD 5000 family launched. Again, Nvidia was left gasping; the company’s own GTX 480 was delayed for months. The GF110 (GTX 580) narrowed the gap between Team Red and Green, the HD 7000 family briefly grabbed the performance crown for AMD once more… and then Kepler happened.

If GK104 (GTX 680) was an excellent example of what Kepler could do when Nvidia emphasized game performance over scientific workloads, GK110 (Titan) is proof that the company can build supercomputing products and then integrate those chips at the top of the consumer space.

The problem here isn’t that Nvidia has somehow “won” the GPU market — it’s that Nvidia, not AMD, is now firmly controlling the conversation, and thus the various price points.

AMD’s options

There are two ways to think about GTX Titan and its impact on AMD’s competitive positioning. From a purely logical perspective, AMD doesn’t need to do anything. Radeon 7970s are available for as little as $379.99, $359.99 if you count the rebate. Based strictly on price, Titan doesn’t threaten AMD’s market because the price gap is simply too wide.

Unfortunately, human beings aren’t purely rational creatures. The GTX 690 already commanded the top end of the graphics market — a grip Titan cements further. The halo effect is very real; a potential customer who sees GeForce cards dominating the high end is more likely to pick a midrange card based on the same technology.

Make no mistake — AMD could do something. The company’s S10000 GPU supposedly launched last November, though it’s not clear whether it’s actually commercially available. We checked AMD’s own product pages and searched the system configurators of several server partners, but found no mention of the chip.

AMD FirePro S10000

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that the silicon exists and could be launched in a consumer variant. That doesn’t mean it makes sense for AMD to do so. The S10000 is based on Tahiti Pro/Tahiti LE, not the full 7970 chip. Power and heat considerations are another factor: AMD’s listed power consumption for the S10000 is 375W at a clock speed of just 825MHz. Bringing clock speeds up to the 7950 Boost Edition’s 925MHz would drive power consumption even higher. The final card would contain nearly nine billion transistors (4.3B across two chips). It’s an expensive, power-sucking configuration that won’t match the performance of two 7970 GHz Editions.

Personally? I think Rory Read and his executives chose this path because it offered the chance to secure long-term console revenue. The warning signs have been in the air for over a year — the departure of Carrell Killebrew, the original architect of AMD’s middle-of-the-road strategy, was a clear sign of impending change.

There’s a road forward for AMD out of this. The problem is perception and possibly channel support. Rumors that AMD attempted to reduce its investment in OEM design wins has been substantiated by data from Mercury Research:

AMD notebook share vs. Nvidia

AMD notebook share vs. Nvidia

If AMD spends the next 6-9 months refining its next-generation architecture, it should be prepared to tango with Nvidia’s Maxwell GPU by the time that chip is ready for market. If GCN 2.0 won’t drop before the end of the year, that’s just the way it is — but when the new core arrives, it’ll need to be a hands-down winner if the company wants to retake the lead.

 

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GTX Titan

It has only been two months since Nvidia launched the GTX Titan, its super-powerful, extremely efficient, very expensive graphics card. The Titan isn’t the most powerful card on the market, but it’s up there, and given its power efficiency, brings a lot to the table. However, new leaks reveal that Nvidia doesn’t think the card brings enough to the table, and is working on two new models of Titan: a cheaper model, and an even faster one.

 

The report comes out of 3DCenter.org, which suggests that Nvidia will be giving the Titan two new buddies, expanding the card’s moniker into a brand rather than letting it sit stagnant on just one model. First, it would seem Nvidia realizes the Titan is a little too expensive at $1,000 — regardless of its strength and efficiency — and will be releasing a budget model of the card. The cheaper model, dubbed the GTX Titan LE, will reportedly feature 208 TMUs and 2,496 CUDA cores (the standard Titan has 240 TMUs and 2,688 CUDA cores). The LE’s memory will also drop from 6GB of DDR5 to 5GB, but its power consumption will drop as well, from the standard model’s 206W to around 180W or so.

 

GTX Titan - Display ports.

 

If you already own a Titan and you’re happy a budget Titan might release so others can experience it, but are getting a little bored withits ruthless efficiency, 3DCenter.org also points out that a newer, upgraded Titan is on the books. The card, either dubbed the GTX Titan II or GTX Titan Ultra, will bump the TMUs and CUDA cores up to 256 and 2,880, respectively. The Ultra’s clock speed would increase from 837MHz to 950MHz, which would increase the TDP from around 206W to somewhere in the ballpark of 220W. As Bit-tech points out, though, the GPU used in the Titan — the GK110 — has exactly 2,880 available CUDA cores, which would mean if the Ultra is planning on offering that many, then Nvidia would have to avoid any little issue or defect — something at which the company hasn’t yet succeeded.

 

There isn’t yet word on what the price of either model might be.

 

If this information is a controlled leak from Nvidia — perhaps as a feeler to see which way the consumer market would want the company to go — the budget Titan would seem more likely to leave the Thunderdome. Everyone likes more power, but the rumored specs on the budget model aren’t that much lower than the standard Titan. There really aren’t enough consumer-grade products (games, mainly) that would justify an even more powerful card that’s even more expensive than the standard Titan. However, a product that is cheaper, saves even more power, and performs at a similar level is an enticing trifecta. It would also seem a little too soon for a Titan upgrade, but stranger things have happened in the hardware industry. (See: AMD destroys Nvidia at Bitcoin mining, can the gap ever be bridged?)

 

AMD’s $1,000 competitor, the Radeon HD 7990 launches on April 24, and with its dual-GPU setup, the single-GPU Titan can’t match its overall power (ignoring the comparison between dual and single GPUs). So, perhaps Nvidia is combatting the launch of the HD 7990 with some controlled rumors, or perhaps it’s combatting the 7990 with the budget Titan’s monetary savings. The report points to a 2013 summer release for a budget Titan, and a more vague late 2013 or early 2014 release for the Ultra. Should they actually exist, that is.

 

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Vaio Fit May Be the Laptop Windows 8 Has Been Looking For

Sony’s new Vaio Fit laptop line could give Windows 8 a nice lift. It’s not an Ultrabook — but it’s not priced like one, either. “The Vaio Fit looks like a stylish, extremely serviceable laptop that should be an attractive option for numerous consumer and work applications,” said Pund-IT analyst Charles King. “Touch-enabled products like the Vaio Fit could help Microsoft significantly.”

Sony introduced its new line of entry-level laptops on Tuesday. The new Vaio Fit series starts at around US$550 with the Fit E, which offers Intel’s Core processors, discrete Nvidia graphics processors, and hybrid hard drives, as well as a full-sized keyboard and trackpad. The step-up Vaio Fit, at $649, offers an aluminum chassis.

 

Vaio Fit 14

Sony’s Vaio Fit 14

 

The Fit models utilize Sony’s Exmor R sensors, which enable a webcam that can capture respectable images even in low light. They have near-field communication capability for quick exchange of Web URLs, as well as the option to enable Bluetooth and WiFi direct connections to compatible NFC devices.

Although large enough to include an optical drive, the Fit notebooks are smaller than most thin and light laptops.

“It’s interesting that Sony [isn’t] classifying these as an ‘Ultrabook,'” said Craig Stice, senior principal analyst for compute platforms at IHS iSupply.

“Now whether or not Sony just decided not to, or if there are actually specific specs within the new Vaio Fits that don’t meet Intel’s Ultrabook requirement, I don’t know,” he added.

“This could also be a trend that we might start to see more of,” Stice told TechNewsWorld, “meaning, an ultrathin-designed system with powerful features, but maybe misses one of Intel’s Ultrabook specs so they can’t call it as such — but this in turn allows for a lower-priced unit.”

 

Prices Trending Down

The Fit lineup is available in 14- and 15-inch models in black, silver and pink. The Fit 15 features an HD 1920×1080 display resolution, while the Fit 14 has 1600×9000 resolution. The Fit E provides 1366×768 — enhanced definition level resolution — in both the 14- and 15-inch models.

“Overall, the Vaio Fit looks like a stylish, extremely serviceable laptop that should be an attractive option for numerous consumer and work applications, especially considering its pricing,” said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

The Fit suggests makers are looking to go ultra small and sleek, even with machines that may not meet Ultrabook specs.

“It does appear to be a nicely packed system with good performance features at a very reasonable price point,” added Stice.

“One might consider this the next wave of the ultrathin class of Mobile PCs — and what I mean by that is the PC OEMs are finding ways to create a strong performing ultrathin PC, with touch, and at price points that aren’t going to turn away heads,” he explained.

“Six months ago, these types of systems were in the $1,000 price range, but seeing these down now in the $650 range as it appears the entry Fit 14 will be, it is a good sign that the trends are going in the right direction,” Stice said.

Lightweight and Light on the Pocketbook

Sony’s new Vaio Fit lineup features the company’s ClearAudio+ technology, along with a virtualized surround sound experience. The step-up Fit models come with ArtRage Studio, a touch-oriented painting program that takes advantage of Windows 8 touch-enabled functionality.

For the price, the Vaio does seem like an affordable alternative to a tablet with a few more productivity options.

“The Sony Fit is one of the first of a new wave of Windows 8 Touch laptops at price points that the market is ready to accept,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

“At launch there was a huge separation between high-quality products and the price people were willing to pay for them,” he recalled. “Average prices were in the $1,100 range and the market was far closer to $650. This release brings quality touch products down into the price ranges where people are willing to buy them.”

Sony’s brand has taken some hard knocks in recent years; could products like the Vaio Fit help get the company back into fighting shape?

“These are attractive thin and light products that are surrounded by Sony’s Apple-like build quality — and unlike Sony machines of the past, they aren’t full of crapware destroying the user experience,” Enderle pointed out.

However, “Sony doesn’t have the funding they once had,” he observed, “and that suggests that marketing could be underfunded — and without strong marketing, these won’t sell to their potential.”

Road to PC Tablet?

The release of Sony’s Vaio also comes as Microsoft’s Bill Gates predicted that the iPad and Android tablet users might make a move to PC tablets, as the latter offers better productivity options. Windows 8, which has not exactly been a smash hit, nevertheless has passed the 100-million-license mark — and devices such as the Vaio Fit could help further convince people to give the touchscreen-enabled OS another look.

“Touch-enabled products like the Vaio Fit could help Microsoft significantly,” Pund-IT’s King told TechNewsWorld. “In fact, though Sony is certainly ahead of some PC competitors, I expect to see numerous notebooks similar to the Vaio Fit as the year progresses.”

Given that Microsoft is giving Windows 8 a makeover with Windows 8.1, aka Windows Blue, users could find fewer problems with it and more to like.

“These products (such as the Vaio) will be followed by offerings from other vendors who don’t have this marketing shortcomings, suggesting the hardware for Windows 8 is getting sorted,” said Enderle. “While much of the market may still wait for Windows Blue expected later this year, these moves should significantly improve Windows 8 adoption rates.”

 

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Skype Rival Viber Joins the Desktop Phone, Video Chat Party

It’s starting to get a little crowded on computer desktops for phone and video calling services. Viber, a mobile messaging app that has quickly gained 200 million users worldwide, announced this week its availability for PCs and Macs. Those taking bets on a Skype-Viber showdown, however, should consider the latter’s technology and what it can — and can’t — enable for users.

Viber, a proprietary cross-platform instant messaging VoIP app for smartphones, is now available for Windows and Mac OS X desktops, Viber Media announced on Tuesday.

Viber's Desktop Calling Service for PCs

The mobile version of Viber runs on Android, iOS, Symbian and some versions of the BlackBerry and Windows Phone OSes.

Viber works on both 3G and WiFi networks. The app is currently free to download, although the company reportedly plans to begin monetizing its service later this year.

The application has been viewed by some as a competitor to Skype. It claims to have more than 200 million users worldwide.

What Viber Brings to the Desktop

Activating the Viber Desktop app requires the user to have a cell phone since the service is tied to cell phone numbers. Users key in their mobile number, get a confirmation code on their phones, and the desktop is ready to go.

Viber immediately syncs a user’s mobile phone contacts to the desktop and will do so continuously.

Users can transfer calls seamlessly between desktops and their mobile devices running Viber with a click or tap. Received and sent messages are shown on all devices, but only the device currently being used will beep. All messages and conversations are synced among all devices, so deleting them from one device deletes them from all.

Viber Desktop offers video calls so users can make desktop-to-desktop calls to friends just as they would with Skype and Google+. This feature is still in beta and is not yet available to mobile users.

Viber supports several languages.

Analyzing the Viber Experience

Viber claims users get to make free messaging and HD-quality free phone calls, but calls made to people who don’t have the Viber app may incur carrier network charges. International roaming rates might apply for calls between Viber app users in different countries.

“You could go on WiFi, but WiFi isn’t available everywhere,” said Julien Blin, a directing analyst at Infonetics. “Or, if you have a data plan then you will be using those data minutes.”

As for the HD-quality phone calls, “I’ve tried Viber myself and the quality is not that great,” Blin told TechNewsWorld. “Like Skype, it uses VoIP, and VoIP connections often drop calls.” Further, “to expect that quality would be as good on VoIP over wireless as it would on VoIP over landlines doesn’t make sense to me.”

Viber can’t answer questions about its new desktop version until Wednesday, company spokesperson Jonah Balfour told TechNewsWorld.

Security and Privacy

Viber has had security and privacy issues. Attackers could apparently lock the homescreen of a user’s Android device because the Viber mobile app’s permissions include a clause that lets the app do so.

The mobile Viber app also accesses the address book of the device it is installed on, and stores the names and phone numbers gleaned in Viber Media’s servers on a live database that does not have a historical backup, according to Viber’s privacy policy. If a user deletes the address book from the company’s servers, that deletion will be instant and permanent.

Much of the other stipulations are similar to those of Google, Facebook and other Web-based companies.

Viber has apparently fixed the homescreen lock problem.

Taking On Skype

Although Viber is seen by some as being a competitor to Skype, it might not quite fit that description.

Skype users can make international calls at a discounted rate, but Viber users can’t. Also, Skype does not automatically grab the contents of a user’s address book.

“Skype’s got the brand and a very large installed base,” Blin said, “and it’s going to be very hard to compete against.”

 

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