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Meet the Blind YouTubers Making the Internet More Accessible

Meet the Blind YouTubers Making the Internet More Accessible

To be blind on the internet, at its worst, is to be told that you are a liar. “Every time I say I’m visually impaired,” says Casey Greer. “someone will try to shut me down, saying ‘Well then how did you type this comment?!’ It feels silly that in 2019, I always have to explain that blind people use and love the internet just as much as anybody else.” The antidote? YouTube’s thriving community of blind creators, which includes Greer.

These creators have become voices for a poorly understood and often overlooked group of people, who, apparently unbeknownst to many sighted people, share digital space with them every single day. If you are sighted, visual impairment YouTube answers questions you likely never thought to ask: How do blind people keep houseplants? Do blind people understand concepts like “translucent” or “reflective”? How do they use Instagram? And how do their Tinder matches react when they find out they’re blind? In offering a window into their lives, not only have these YouTubers become de facto educators for the general public, but also they’ve become rallying points for the broader visually impaired community—a place to share stories and tips about navigating the world, online and off.

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On first examination, YouTube doesn’t seem like the most natural fit for visually impaired people. Along with Instagram, it’s the social platform that relies least on things that can easily be spoken aloud by your screen reader. But for some blind YouTubers, like Tommy Edison, that’s exactly why they got into the game. “I went to see Tropic Thunder and all the resolution was visual,” Edison says. “I’d spent two hours with these characters, and in the end, I had no idea what the heck had happened to them.” He turned that frustrating experience into a YouTube channel: the Blind Film Critic.

Edison's troubles didn’t necessarily end there, though. “As far as I know, I was the first blind person on YouTube, and in 2011 when I started, it wasn’t very accessible at all,” he says. “I couldn’t even find the buttons to pause or play a video. Forget about reading comments.” Screen readers, which audibly describe visual text, can only work if developers fill in the fields to tell them what to say—otherwise you end up with silence, or (and this really drives Edison “right around the bend”) buttons that just say “Button.” YouTube in 2011 was a largely silent experience for Edison, and glitchy too because those fields were often misaligned. Since then, YouTube has not only recalibrated those problem areas and provided tutorials on using a screen reader, but also enabled keyboard shortcuts that automatically take blind users to key features like the search bar. “Now I can [read comments] for hours,” Edison says.

For others, though, video is a more accessible format than you might think. The majority of blind people have some residual vision, and legally blind filmmaker James Rath has been using cameras to help him see the world since childhood. “When I was eight, I discovered in my parents’ basement that cameras are a glorified magnifying device,” Rath says. “My retinas are too weak to read, but if I zoom in enough, checking the composition of a shot is totally possible. I’ve had a YouTube account since I was nine.”

Greer too remembers bringing a camera to the zoo so she could zoom in to make out the animals, and has been on YouTube since she was 16. And, as all are quick to point out, there’s a lot about YouTube that’s accidentally accessible: unboxing videos, reviews, and story times are all basically podcasts with talking heads. (The reverse is also true: Blind YouTuber Molly Burke has amassed almost 2 million subscribers by doing regular YouTuber stuff like jumping out of planes, dying her hair, and introducing her dog to a pig.)

These creators are trying to do more than translate experience for the sighted—they employ a host of technical tricks to give their entire audience the best possible experience.

Still, these creators are trying to do more than translate experience for the sighted—they employ a host of technical tricks to give their entire audience the best possible experience. “Contrast is huge for people with low vision,” says Sam Seavey, frontman for the channel TheBlindLife. “You’ll never see me in front of a bookcase. I purposely have a large blank wall behind me. And much to my wife’s chagrin, I’ll get a really good camera and upload in 4k.” They’re also careful to explain everything they’re doing in great detail. According to Rath, allowing people to upload audio description tracks the same way YouTube allows users to upload captions in other languages is the platform’s biggest missed opportunity to help its visually impaired users.

Of course, being truly helpful and inclusive goes beyond tweaking a video’s look and feel. “I want to be the foremost channel on YouTube for assistive technology for the visually impaired,” Seavey adds. “I’m very proud that the majority of my audience is visually impaired, and I’ve always geared my channel toward people who are new.” He knows exactly what it’s like to be “new”: Seavey's vision has degenerated over the course of his adult life, ending a career working in restaurants and leaving him isolated and unemployed—until he came to YouTube. “If my videos can teach them how to brush their teeth and use a screen reader and which magnifier apps are best, I’m helping out,” he says. Living with disability is a learned skill, and these YouTubers are the teachers.

That instruction is as philosophical as it is practical. “To be brutally honest, people don’t see us," Edison says. "To be able to show a chunk of the world who I am and what I’m capable of is amazing for a lot of different people, including me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a message that says something like, ‘I have a 2-year-old blind child and we were scared to death about what his life would be like, but your videos made us feel so much more comfortable.’ Those are the ones that make me cry.” For the creators and their audiences—visually impaired and sighted alike—these channels not only expand their world, but also normalize it too. “It’s such a simple thing, but it’s great for people to see that we’re really not that different,” Greer says.

Seavey might be onto something in saying this is the best point in history to be living with visual impairment; in large part, that’s because of technology. These YouTubers are helping their peers make the best of that incredible new asset, while also making sure their community is considered as tech continues to develop. “The way I look at it, accessibility isn’t just for people with disabilities," says Rath the filmmaker. "Being able to do things without looking at them lets you multitask and be more productive, and I think it’s important for everyone to understand those benefits now." Besides, he points out, anyone's circumstances can change: "You may end up joining our community at any time, whether you want to or not.” Thanks to these YouTubers, those new members will have more support than ever.

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Original author: Emma Grey Ellis
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Japan Display shares jump on latest report of rescue

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FILE PHOTO: Japan Display Inc's logo is pictured at its headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, August 9, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo

TOKYO (Reuters) - Shares in Japan Display jumped 11 percent on Wednesday after a report said the smartphone screen maker was in talks for funding from Taiwan’s TPK Holding Co and China’s Silk Road Fund in exchange for a stake of around 30 percent.

The Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the matter, described the talks as “advanced”. Japan Display, which denied a similar report a month earlier, declined to comment.

The Apple Inc supplier has struggled with losses due to competition from cut-price Chinese players and slowing growth in smartphone demand. Analysts have also blamed its delayed adoption of organic light-emitting diode (OLED) screens, as Apple opted for such screens for its iPhoneX and bought them from rival Samsung Electronics Co.

Japan Display’s biggest investor, the Japanese government-backed INCJ fund, could not immediately comment while TPK did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reporting by Tokyo Newsroom; Additional reporting by Jessica Macy Yu in TAIPEI; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Explainer: What happens next in Huawei CFO Meng's case?

TORONTO (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department said on Tuesday it will pursue the extradition of Huawei Technologies Co Ltd’s [HWT.UL] Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, arrested in Canada in December on allegations she participated in a conspiracy to defraud banks.

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FILE PHOTO: Meng Wanzhou, Huawei Technologies Co Ltd's chief financial officer (CFO), is seen in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters December 6, 2018. Huawei/Handout via REUTERS File Photo

Meng, 46, is due to reappear in a Vancouver court on Feb. 6 to set further court dates. Her Dec. 1 arrest sparked a diplomatic row between Canada and China. China has since arrested and detained two Canadian citizens and sentenced another, a convicted drug smuggler, to death.

WHAT IS THE EXTRADITION PROCESS IN CANADA?

The process begins with a provisional warrant from a country Canada has an extradition agreement with, like the one with which the United States authorities requested Meng’s arrest.

The requesting country has 60 days from the initial arrest to make a formal extradition request. Canada’s new Justice Minister David Lametti, appointed last week in a cabinet shuffle, will then have 30 days from receipt of the request to decide whether to issue an authority to proceed. If he grants it, as expected, Meng’s case would be sent to the British Columbia Supreme Court for an extradition hearing.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

The hearing can take weeks or months. The judge will determine whether the case meets a prima facie standard, meaning a judge or jury hearing and believing the evidence would be enough for a conviction.

If a judge decides the U.S. evidence is strong enough, they will issue a committal order effectively recommending extradition to the Justice Minister.

The Canadian Justice Minister decides whether to issue the surrender order that would extradite Meng to the United States.

There are avenues for Meng to contest either a committal order from a judge or a surrender order from the minister, which could stretch her case out for years, lawyers told Reuters.

COULD THE NEW CANADIAN MINISTER ASK FOR EXTRA TIME?

“When there’s a deadline, generally speaking, the minister doesn’t have any power to get an extension,” said Vancouver-based lawyer Brock Martland, adding that the minister would likely want to go by the book in this highly scrutinized case.

WHAT DOES THE JUSTICE MINISTER TAKE INTO CONSIDERATION?

Legal factors loom large, said Martland, but so do political and humanitarian ones, such as if a wanted person is elderly and may not fare well in a U.S. jail. Those circumstances do not arise commonly, he added.

There tends to be a strong sense of obligation to an extradition partner, Martland said.

“But I think there are cases where the minister is maybe concerned about whether the process has been compromised or the fairness of the process isn’t what it should be.”

U.S. President Donald Trump told Reuters in December he would intervene in Meng’s case if it would serve trade or security interests.

“If time marches on and more things are said and it becomes clear this isn’t a meritorious prosecution they’re running ... that could lead the minister to say, ‘At the end of the day, I’m not prepared to order surrender, here’,” Martland said.

FILE PHOTO: Logo of Huawei is seen in front of the local offices of Huawei in Warsaw, Poland January 11, 2019. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo

HOW DO U.S. AUTHORITIES ARRANGE ARRESTS IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES?

Federal and state prosecutors in the United States cannot simply ask that foreign counterparts arrest and turn over an individual. Such requests must be made through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs (OIA).

The OIA maintains lines of communication with authorities in other countries and is responsible for the next steps leading to an arrest and an extradition.

Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli

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Viacom will buy Pluto TV streaming service for $340 million

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FILE PHOTO - The Viacom office is seen in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, April 24, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

(Reuters) - Viacom Inc (VIAB.O) said on Tuesday it will buy Pluto TV, a free video streaming TV service, for $340 million in cash to expand its advanced advertising business.

The owner of MTV Networks and Nickelodeon sees the purchase of the six-year-old company as another way to build a so-called direct-to-consumer business, Viacom said, while avoiding the capital intensive task of competing directly against subscription video services owned or to be built by Netflix Inc(NFLX.O), Walt Disney Co (DIS.N) and AT&T Inc’s (T.N) WarnerMedia.

Viacom’s moves reflect a rekindled interest in advertising supported digital media kicked off by Roku, a device maker that helped viewers stream online videos on TVs that was spun off from Netflix. Amazon has also launched a free TV service recently.

Pluto TV claims 12 million monthly active users and licenses programming from 130 film and TV partners, including Viacom.

It is available on devices made by Roku Inc(ROKU.O) , Amazon.com Inc(AMZN.O), Sony Corp(6758.T) and Apple Inc(AAPL.O). The app is also available on smart televisions from Samsung(005930.KS) and Vizio.

Viacom said it sees Pluto TV as an important outlet for it to sell advanced advertising that has the ability to target viewers based on their habits.

While Viacom has no plans to make current shows on pay TV services available for free on the service, it sees Pluto TV as a way to make money off its archives.

Reporting by Kenneth Li; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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Hedge funds push for overhaul at eBay

(Reuters) - Hedge funds Elliott Management and Starboard Value have taken stakes in eBay Inc (EBAY.O) and are pushing for changes including the sale of some of the e-commerce company’s businesses.

In a letter to the company’s board, Elliott asked eBay to hive off its StubHub ticket sales business and eBay Classifieds Group as part of a plan the hedge fund says could double the company’s value.

Starboard has also taken a significant stake in eBay and been pushing for changes including asset sales in the past few months, a source familiar with the matter said separately. Starboard did not respond to a request for comment.

Shares of eBay rose as much as 12 percent before trading up 5.7 percent at $32.78 early Tuesday afternoon. They had lost a quarter of their value last year.

Elliott, which owns a more than 4 percent stake in eBay, said the company’s share price could reach $55-$63 by 2020 if it implemented the hedge fund’s restructuring plan.

“While we believe that execution missteps and unclear focus have impaired value, eBay is far from broken, and its future should be bright,” Elliott’s Jesse Cohn wrote, adding that his mother had built a successful business on eBay by selling jewelry for more than a decade.

EBay said it would review the proposal and is looking forward to engaging with Elliott.

“The eBay Board and leadership team regularly engage with our shareholders and value their input,” the company said.

The online seller has been a target for activist investors before. Carl Icahn urged eBay to spin off payments unit PayPal in 2014, a move the company followed through on in 2015.

Elliott said StubHub on its own could be worth $3.5 billion to $4.5 billion and eBay Classifieds, which has an international footprint, could be sold or spun off and worth between $8 billion and $12 billion.

Elliott also asked for an initial meeting with the board to discuss its concerns and for the board to form an operations committee to execute on an improvement plan.

An eBay logo is projected onto white boxes in this illustration picture taken in Warsaw, January 21, 2014. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/File Photo

DA Davidson analyst Tom Forte said he agreed that restructuring could create more value for shareholders.

The company “has been primed to see activist intervention for some time now,” Benchmark Co analyst Daniel Kurnos said.

“The general consensus is that a true cleanup is needed.”

Reporting by Arjun Panchadar in Bengaluru and Liana B. Baker in New York; additional reporting by Vibhuti Sharma, Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru and Svea Herbst in New York; Editing by Maju Samuel and Patrick Graham

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Huawei calls for swift end to case of executive arrested in Canada

DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) - China’s Huawei Technologies wants a quick resolution of the case of its former finance chief Meng Wanzhou, who is accused of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran and has been detained in Canada, its chairman said on Tuesday.

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FILE PHOTO: The Huawei logo is seen during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

The United States has told Canada it will request Meng’s extradition, but has not said when it will do so, David MacNaughton, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., said in a Globe and Mail interview on Monday.

“We are following this issue closely but haven’t had direct contact with the authorities. We will call for a quick conclusion for Ms. Meng so that Ms. Meng can have her personal freedom,” Chairman Liang Hua told media on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.

Weng, who is the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, was arrested in Canada on Dec. 1 and released on bail last month. The deadline for filing an extradition request is Jan. 30 and Meng is due to appear in court in Vancouver on Feb. 6.

The world’s biggest producer of telecommunications equipment faces scrutiny over its relationship with Beijing and U.S.-led allegations that its devices could be used for spying.

Huawei, which has repeatedly rejected such allegations, will allow foreign officials to visit its labs, Liang, who was appointed acting chief financial officer in December, said.

“We operate our business globally, and in every country we fully comply with local laws and regulations,” Liang said, adding the company welcomed requests to see the tech giant’s product development business as well as other units.

Meng’s arrest soured relations between China and Canada, with Beijing detaining two Canadians and sentencing to death another who was previously found guilty of drug smuggling.

The detention has also damaged already tense Chinese relations with the United States, with President Donald Trump telling Reuters in December he would intervene in the U.S. Justice Department case if it would serve national security interests or help close a trade deal with China.

MEDIA BLITZ

Liang’s appearance in Davos is part of a public relations blitz by the Chinese tech giant as it seeks to ease concern among Western nations.

“We don’t see any evidence ... to say that Huawei is not safe. Cybersecurity is a common challenge. It is not an issue about any single company,” he said.

Polish authorities arrested a Huawei executive on spying allegations this month. While the Chinese national, who was sacked, denied the allegations, Huawei is preparing for potential fallout from its biggest Western markets.

It been shut out of Australia and New Zealand’s markets for fifth-generation (5G) mobile telecoms equipment, while Trump may ban all Huawei equipment with an executive order.

“It’s customers’ choice if they don’t choose Huawei, and for the customers who choose us, we will focus on providing better services,” Liang said.

Liang said cybersecurity and privacy protection are a “top priority”, adding that Huawei will invest $2 billion in the next five years on its software engineering capability and product reliability.

Reporting By Soyoung Kim and Leika Kihara in DAVOS, Switzerland; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Soyoung Kim; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Alexander Smith

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Is Big Tech Merging With Big Brother? Kinda Looks Like It

Is Big Tech Merging With Big Brother? Kinda Looks Like It

When he offered to arrange a swifter mode of transportation, she declined. When he asked why, she explained that she “needed the steps” on her Fitbit to sign in to her social media accounts. If she fell below the right number of steps, it would lower her health and fitness rating, which is part of her social rating, which is monitored by the government. A low social rating could prevent her from working or traveling abroad.

China’s social rating system, which was announced by the ruling Communist Party in 2014, will soon be a fact of life for many more Chinese.

By 2020, if the Party’s plan holds, every footstep, keystroke, like, dislike, social media contact, and posting tracked by the state will affect one’s social rating.

Personal “creditworthiness” or “trustworthiness” points will be used to reward and punish individuals and companies by granting or denying them access to public services like health care, travel, and employment, according to a plan released last year by the municipal government of Beijing. High-scoring individuals will find themselves in a “green channel,” where they can more easily access social opportunities, while those who take actions that are disapproved of by the state will be “unable to move a step.”

Big Brother is an emerging reality in China. Yet in the West, at least, the threat of government surveillance systems being integrated with the existing corporate surveillance capacities of big-data companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon into one gigantic all-seeing eye appears to trouble very few people—even as countries like Venezuela have been quick to copy the Chinese model.

Still, it can’t happen here, right? We are iPhone owners and Amazon Prime members, not vassals of a one-party state. We are canny consumers who know that Facebook is tracking our interactions and Google is selling us stuff.

Yet it seems to me there is little reason to imagine that the people who run large technology companies have any vested interest in allowing pre-digital folkways to interfere with their 21st-century engineering and business models, any more than 19th-century robber barons showed any particular regard for laws or people that got in the way of their railroads and steel trusts.

Nor is there much reason to imagine that the technologists who run our giant consumer-data monopolies have any better idea of the future they're building than the rest of us do.

Facebook, Google, and other big-data monopolists already hoover up behavioral markers and cues on a scale and with a frequency that few of us understand. They then analyze, package, and sell that data to their partners.

A glimpse into the inner workings of the global trade in personal data was provided in early December in a 250-page report released by a British parliamentary committee that included hundreds of emails between high-level Facebook executives. Among other things, it showed how the company engineered sneaky ways to obtain continually updated SMS and call data from Android phones. In response, Facebook claimed that users must "opt-in" for the company to gain access to their texts and calls.

The machines and systems that the techno-monopolists have built are changing us faster than they or we understand. The scale of this change is so vast and systemic that we simple humans can’t do the math—perhaps in part because of the way that incessant smartphone use has affected our ability to pay attention to anything longer than 140 or 280 characters.

As the idea of a “right to privacy,” for example, starts to seem hopelessly old-fashioned and impractical in the face of ever-more-invasive data systems—whose eyes and ears, i.e., our smartphones, follow us everywhere—so has our belief that other individual rights, like freedom of speech, are somehow sacred.

Being wired together with billions of other humans in vast networks mediated by thinking machines is not an experience that humans have enjoyed before. The best guides we have to this emerging reality may be failed 20th-century totalitarian experiments and science fiction. More on that a little later.

The speed at which individual-rights-and-privacy-based social arrangements collapse is likely to depend on how fast Big Tech and the American national security apparatus consummate a relationship that has been growing ever closer for the past decade. While US surveillance agencies do not have regular real-time access to the gigantic amounts of data collected by the likes of Google, Facebook, and Amazon—as far as we know, anyway—there is both anecdotal and hard evidence to suggest that the once-distant planets of consumer Big Tech and American surveillance agencies are fast merging into a single corporate-bureaucratic life-world, whose potential for tracking, sorting, gas-lighting, manipulating, and censoring citizens may result in a softer version of China’s Big Brother.

These troubling trends are accelerating in part because Big Tech is increasingly beholden to Washington, which has little incentive to kill the golden goose that is filling its tax and political coffers. One of the leading corporate spenders on lobbying services in Washington, DC, in 2017 was Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, spent more than $18 million. Lobbying Congress and government helps tech companies like Google win large government contracts. Perhaps more importantly, it serves as a shield against attempts to regulate their wildly lucrative businesses.

If anything, measuring the flood of tech dollars pouring into Washington, DC, law firms, lobbying outfits, and think tanks radically understates Big Tech’s influence inside the Beltway. By buying The Washington Post, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos took direct control of Washington’s hometown newspaper. In locating one of Amazon’s two new headquarters in nearby Northern Virginia, Bezos made the company a major employer in the area—with 25,000 jobs to offer.

Who will get those jobs? Last year, Amazon Web Services announced the opening of the new AWS Secret Region, the result of a 10-year, $600 million contract the company won from the CIA in 2014. This made Amazon the sole provider of cloud services across “the full range of data classifications, including Unclassified, Sensitive, Secret, and Top Secret,” according to an Amazon corporate press release.

Once the CIA’s Amazon-administered self-contained servers were up and running, the NSA was quick to follow suit, announcing its own integrated big-data project. Last year the agency moved most of its data into a new classified computing environment known as the Intelligence Community GovCloud, an integrated “big data fusion environment,” as the news site NextGov described it, that allows government analysts to “connect the dots” across all available data sources, whether classified or not.

The creation of IC GovCloud should send a chill up the spine of anyone who understands how powerful these systems can be and how inherently resistant they are to traditional forms of oversight, whose own track record can be charitably described as poor.

Amazon’s IC GovCloud was quickly countered by Microsoft’s secure version of its Azure Government cloud service, tailored for the use of 17 US intelligence agencies. Amazon and Microsoft are both expected to be major bidders for the Pentagon’s secure cloud system, the Joint Enterprise Defense Initiative—JEDI—a winner-take-all contract that will likely be worth at least $10 billion.

With so many pots of gold waiting at the end of the Washington, DC, rainbow, it seems like a small matter for tech companies to turn over our personal data—which legally speaking, is actually their data—to the spy agencies that guarantee their profits. This is the threat that is now emerging in plain sight. It is something we should reckon with now, before it’s too late.

In fact, big tech and the surveillance agencies are already partners. According to a 2016 report by Reuters, Yahoo designed custom software to filter its users’ emails and deliver messages that triggered a set of search terms to the NSA.

The company’s security chief quit in protest when he learned of the program. “Yahoo is a law-abiding company, and complies with the laws of the United States,” the company said in a statement, which notably did not deny the activity, while perhaps implying that turning over user data to government spy agencies is legal.

While Google has stated that it will not provide private data to government agencies, that policy does not extend beyond America’s borders. At the same time as Yahoo was feeding user data to the NSA, Google was developing a search engine called Dragonfly in collaboration with the Communist Party of China. In a letter obtained by The Intercept, Google CEO Sundar Pichai told a group of six US senators that Dragonfly could have “broad benefits inside and outside of China” but refused to release other details of the program, which the company’s search engine chief, Ben Gomes, informed Google staff would be released in early 2019.

According to the documents obtained by The Intercept, Dragonfly would restrict access to broad categories of information, banning phrases like “human rights,” “student protest,” and “Nobel Prize” while linking online searches to a user’s phone number and tracking their physical location and movements, all of which will presumably impact social ratings or worse—much worse, if you happen to be a Uighur or a member of another Muslim minority group inside China, more than 1 million of whom are now confined in re-education camps. China’s digital surveillance net is a key tool by which Chinese authorities identify and track Muslims and others in need of re-education.

Google is also actively working with the US intelligence and defense complex to integrate its AI capacities into weapons programs. At the same time as Google was sending its letter about Dragonfly to Congress, the company was completing an agreement with the Pentagon to pursue Project Maven, which seeks to incorporate elements of AI into weaponized drones—a contract that is expected to be worth at least $250 million a year. Under pressure from its employees, Google said in June that it would not seek to renew its Project Maven contract when it expires in 2019.)

It doesn’t take a particularly paranoid mind to imagine what future big-ticket collaborations between big-data companies and government surveillance agencies might look like, or to be frightened of where they might lead. “Our own information—from the everyday to the deeply personal—is being weaponized against us with military efficiency,” warned Apple chairman Tim Cook during his keynote speech to the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners in Brussels. “Taken to the extreme this process creates an enduring digital profile and lets companies know you better than you may know yourself. Your profile is a bunch of algorithms that serve up increasingly extreme content, pounding our harmless preferences into harm.”

Cook didn’t hesitate to name the process he was describing. “We shouldn’t sugarcoat the consequences,” he said. “This is surveillance.”

While Apple makes a point of not unlocking its iPhones and SmartWatches even under pressure from law enforcement and surveillance agencies, companies like Google and Facebook that earn huge profits from analyzing and packaging user data face a very different set of incentives.

Amazon, which both collects and analyzes consumer data and sells a wide range of consumer home devices with microphones and cameras in them, may present surveillance agencies with especially tempting opportunities to repurpose their existing microphones, cameras, and data.

The company has already come under legal pressure from judges who have ordered it to turn over recordings from Echo devices that were apparently made without their users' knowledge. According to a search warrant issued by a judge trying a double-murder case in New Hampshire, and obtained by TechCrunch, the court had “probable cause to believe” that an Echo Fire picked “audio recordings capturing the attack” as well as “events that preceded or succeeded the attack.” Amazon told the Associated Press that it would not release such recordings “without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us,” a response that would appear to suggest that the recordings in question exist.

Under what, if any, conditions Amazon would allow government spy agencies to access consumer data or use the company’s vast network of microphones and cameras as a surveillance network are questions that remain to be answered. Yet as Washington keeps buying expensive tools and systems from companies like Google and Amazon, it is hard to imagine that technologists on both ends of these relationship aren’t already seeking ways to further integrate their tools, systems, and data.

The flip side of that paranoid vision of an evolving American surveillance state is the dream that the new systems of analyzing and distributing information may be forces for good, not evil. What if Google helped the CIA develop a system that helped filter out fake news, say, or a new Facebook algorithm helped the FBI identify potential school shooters before they massacred their classmates? If human beings are rational calculating engines, won’t filtering the information we receive lead to better decisions and make us better people?

Such fond hopes have a long history. Progressive techno-optimism goes back to the origins of the computer itself, in the correspondence between Charles Babbage, the 19th-century English inventor who imagined the “difference engine”—the first theoretical model for modern computers—and Ada Lovelace, the brilliant futurist and daughter of the English Romantic poet Lord Byron.

“The Analytical Engine,” Lovelace wrote, in one of her notes on Babbage’s work, “might act upon other things besides number, where objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations, and which should be also susceptible of adaptations to the action of the operating notation and mechanism of the engine. Supposing, for instance, that the fundamental relations of pitched sounds in the science of harmony and of musical composition were susceptible of such expression and adaptations, the engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.”

This is a pretty good description of the principles of digitizing sound; it also eerily prefigures and predicts the extent to which so much of our personal information, even stuff we perceive of as having distinct natural properties, could be converted to zeros and ones.

The Victorian techno-optimists who first envisioned the digital landscape we now inhabit imagined that thinking machines would be a force for harmony, rather than evil, capable of creating beautiful music and finding expressions for “fundamental relations” of any kind according to a strictly mathematical calculus.

The idea that social engineering could help produce a more efficient and equitable society was echoed by early 20th-century American progressives. Unlike 19th- and early 20th-century European socialists, who championed the organic strength of local communities, early 20th-century American progressives like Herbert Croly and John Dewey put their faith in the rise of a new class of educated scientist-priests who would re-engineer society from the top down according to a strict utilitarian calculus.

The lineage of these progressives—who are not identical with the “progressive” faction of today’s Democratic Party—runs from Woodrow Wilson to champions of New Deal bureaucracy like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes. The 2008 election of Barack Obama, a well-credentialed technocrat who identified very strongly with the character of Spock from Star Trek, gave the old-time scientistic-progressive religion new currency on the left and ushered in a cozy relationship between the Democratic Party and billionaire techno-monopolists who had formerly fashioned themselves as government-skeptical libertarians.

“Amazon does great things for huge amounts of people,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer told Kara Swisher of Recode in a recent interview, in which he also made approving pronouncements about Facebook and Google. “I go to my small tech companies and say, ‘How does Google treat you in New York?’ A lot of them say, ‘Much more fairly than we would have thought.’”

Big Tech companies and executives are happy to return the favor by donating to their progressive friends, including Schumer.

But the cozy relationship between mainstream Democrats and Silicon Valley hit a large-sized bump in November 2016, when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton—in part through his mastery of social media platforms like Twitter. Blaming the election result on Russian bots or secret deals with Putin betrayed a shock that what the left had regarded as their cultural property had been turned against them by a right-wing populist whose authoritarian leanings inspired fear and loathing among both the technocratic elite and the Democratic party base.

Yet in the right hands, progressives continued to muse, information monopolies might be powerful tools for re-wiring societies malformed by racism, sexism, and transphobia. Thinking machines can be taught to filter out bad information and socially negative thoughts. Good algorithms, as opposed to whatever Google and Facebook are currently using, could censor neo-Nazis, purveyors of hate speech, Russian bots, and transphobes while discouraging voters from electing more Trumps.

The crowdsourced wisdom of platforms like Twitter, powered by circles of mutually credentialing blue-checked “experts,” might mobilize a collective will to justice, which could then be enforced on retrograde institutions and individuals. The result might be a better social order, or as data scientist Emily Gorcenski put it, “revolution.”

The dream of centralized control over monopolistic information providers can be put to more prosaic political uses, too—or so politicians confronted by a fractured and tumultuous digital media landscape must hope. In advance of next year’s elections for the European Parliament, which will take place in May, French Ppresident Emmanuel Macron signed a deal with Facebook in which officials of his government will meet regularly with Facebook executives to police “hate speech.”

The program, which will continue through the May elections, apparently did little to discourage fuel riots by the "gillets jaunes," which have set Paris and other French cities ablaze, even as a claim that a change in Facebook's local news algorithm was responsible for the rioting was quickly picked up by French media figures close to Macron.

At root, the utopian vision of AI-powered information monopolies programmed to advance the cause of social justice makes sense only when you imagine that humans and machines “think” in similar ways. Whether machines can “think,” or—to put it another way, whether people think like machines—is a question that has been hotly debated for the past five centuries. Those debates gave birth to modern liberal societies, whose foundational assumptions and guarantees are now being challenged by the rise of digital culture.

To recap some of that history: In the 17th century, the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz amused himself with thinking about the nature of thinking. His most eloquent modern American popularizer, the UC Berkeley philosopher John Searle, asked Leibnitz’s essential question like this:

Imagine you taught a machine to speak Chinese and you locked it in a room with a man who did not speak Chinese. Then you had the machine produce cards with Chinese words and sentences on them, and the man took the cards and slid them out of the room through a slot. Can we say, Searle asks, that there’s anyone or anything in the room that understands Chinese?

If you believe, like Searle and Leibnitz, that the answer is no, you understand thinking as a subjective experience, a biological process performed by human brains, which are located in human bodies. By definition, then, the human brain is not a machine, and machines can’t think, even if they can perform computational feats like multiplying large numbers at blinding speeds.

Alan Turing gave an elegant answer to the Leibnitz/Searle question when he said that the only true mark of consciousness is the ability to think about oneself. Since you can build machines that fix their own problems—debug themselves—these machines are innately self-aware, and therefore there’s nothing stopping them from evolving until they reach HAL-like proportions.

What does the history of thinking about thinking have to do with dreams of digitally mediated social justice? For Thomas Hobbes, who inspired the social-contract theorist John Locke, thinking was “nothing more than reckoning,” meaning mathematical calculation. David Hume, who extended Hobbes’ ideas in his own theory of reason, believed that all of our observations and perceptions were nothing more than atomic-level “impressions” that we couldn’t possibly make sense of unless we interpreted them based on a utilitarian understanding of our needs, meaning the attempt to derive the greatest benefit from a given operation.

If, following Locke and Hume, human beings think like machines, then machines can think like human beings, only better. A social order monitored and regulated by machines that have been programmed to be free of human prejudice while optimizing a utilitarian calculus is therefore a plausible-enough way to imagine a good society. Justice-seeking machines would be the better angels of our nature, helping to bend the arc of history toward results that all human beings, in their purest, most rational state, would, or should, desire.

The origin of the utilitarian social calculus and its foundational account of thinking as a form of computation is social contract theory. Not coincidentally, these accounts evolved during the last time western societies were massively impacted by a revolution in communications technology, namely the introduction of the printing press, which brought both the text of the Bible and the writings of small circles of Italian and German humanists to all of Europe. The spread of printing technologies was accompanied by the proliferation of the simple hand mirror, which allowed even ordinary individuals to gaze at a “true reflection” of their own faces, in much the same way that we use iPhones to take selfies.

Nearly every area of human imagination and endeavor—from science to literature to painting and sculpture to architecture—was radically transformed by the double-meteor-like impact of the printing press and the hand mirror, which together helped give rise to scientific discoveries, great works of art, and new political ideas that continue to shape the way we think, live, and work.

The printing press fractured the monopoly on worldly and spiritual knowledge long held by the Roman Catholic Church, bringing the discoveries of Erasmus and the polemics of Martin Luther to a broad audience and fueling the Protestant Reformation, which held that ordinary believers—individuals, who could read their own Bibles and see their own faces in their own mirrors—might have unmediated contact with God. What was once the province of the few became available to the many, and the old social order that had governed the lives of Europe for the better part of a millennium was largely demolished.

In England, the broad diffusion of printing presses and mirrors led to the bloody and ultimately failed anti-monarchical revolution led by Oliver Cromwell. The Thirty Years’ War, fought between Catholic and Protestant believers and hired armies in Central and Eastern Europe, remains the single most destructive conflict, on a per capita basis, in European history, including the First and Second World Wars.

The information revolution spurred by the advent of digital technologies may turn out to be even more powerful than the Gutenberg revolution; it is also likely to be bloody. Our inability to wrap our minds around a sweeping revolution in the way that information is gathered, analyzed, used, and controlled should scare us. It is in this context that both right- and left-leaning factions of the American elite appear to accept the merger of the US military and intelligence complex with Big Tech as a good thing, even as centralized control over information creates new vulnerabilities for rivals to exploit.

The attempt to subject the American information space to some form of top-down, public-private control was in turn made possible—and perhaps, in the minds of many on both the right and the left, necessary—by the collapse of the 20th-century American institutional press. Only two decades ago, the social and political power of the institutional press was still so great that it was often called “the Fourth Estate”—a meaningful check on the power of government. The term is rarely used anymore, because the monopoly over the printed and spoken word that gave the press its power is now gone.

Why? Because in an age in which every smartphone user has a printing press in their pocket, there is little premium in owning an actual, physical printing press. As a result, the value of “legacy” print brands has plummeted. Where the printed word was once a rare commodity, relative to the sum total of all the words that were written in manuscript form by someone, today nearly all the words that are being written anywhere are available somewhere online. What’s rare, and therefore worth money, are not printed words but fractions of our attention.

The American media market today is dominated by Google and Facebook, large platforms that together control the attention of readers and therefore the lion’s share of online advertising. That’s why Facebook, probably the world’s premier publisher of fake news, was recently worth $426 billion, and Newsweek changed hands in 2010 for $1, and why many once-familiar magazine titles no longer exist in print at all.

The operative, functional difference between today’s media and the American media of two decades ago is not the difference between old-school New York Times reporters and new-media bloggers who churn out opinionated “takes” from their desks. It is the difference between all of those media people, old and new, and programmers and executives at companies like Google and Facebook. A set of key social functions—communicating ideas and information—has been transferred from one set of companies, operating under one set of laws and values, to another, much more powerful set of companies, which operate under different laws and understand themselves in a different way.

According to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, information service providers are protected from expensive libel lawsuits and other forms of risk that publishers face. Those protections allowed Google and Facebook to build their businesses at the expense of “old media” publishers, which in turn now find it increasingly difficult to pay for original reporting and writing.

The media once actively promoted and amplified stories that a plurality or majority of Americans could regard as “true.” That has now been replaced by the creation and amplification of extremes. The overwhelming ugliness of our public discourse is not accidental; it is a feature of the game, which is structured and run for the profit of billionaire monopolists, and which encourages addictive use.

The result has been the creation of a socially toxic vacuum at the heart of American democracy, from which information monopolists like Google and Facebook have sucked out all the profit, leaving their users ripe for top-down surveillance, manipulation, and control.

Today, the printing press and the mirror have combined in the iPhone and other personal devices, which are networked together. Ten years from now, thanks to AI, those networks, and the entities that control them—government agencies, private corporations, or a union of both—may take on a life of their own. Perhaps the best way to foresee how this future may play out is to look back at how some of our most far-sighted science fiction writers have wrestled with the future that is now in front of us.

The idea of intelligent machines rising to compete with the human beings who built them was seldom considered until Samuel Butler’s Erewohn, which was published in 1872. Riffing on Darwin, Butler proposed that if the species can evolve to the detriment of the weak, so could machines, until they would eventually become self-sufficient. Since then, science fiction has provided us with our best guides to what human societies mediated or run by intelligent machines might look like.

How precisely the machines might take over was first proposed by Karel Capek’s R.U.R., the 1921 play that gave us the term robot. Interestingly, Capek’s automatons aren’t machines: They emerge from the discovery of a new kind of bio-matter that differs from our own in that it doesn’t mind abuse or harbor independent desires. In the play, the humans are degenerates who stop procreating and succumb to their most selfish and strange whims—while the robots remain unerring in their calculations and indefatigable in their commitment to work. The machines soon take over, killing all humans except for a single engineer who happens to work and think like a robot.

In the play’s third act, the engineer, ordered by the robots to dissect other robots in order to make them even better, is about to take the knife to two robots, a male and a female, who have fallen in love. They each beg for the other’s life, leading the engineer to understand that they have become human; he spares them, declaring them the new Adam and Eve. This soulful theme of self-awareness being the true measure of humanity was taken up by dozens of later science fiction authors, most notably Philip K. Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which became the film Blade Runner.

Yet even classic 20th-century dystopias like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984 tell us little about the dangers posed to free societies by the fusion of big data, social networks, consumer surveillance, and AI.

Perhaps we are reading the wrong books. Instead of going back to Orwell for a sense of what a coming dystopia might look like, we might be better off reading We, which was written nearly a century ago by the Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin. We is the diary of state mathematician D-503, whose experience of the highly disruptive emotion of love for I-330, a woman whose combination of black eyes, white skin, and black hair strike him as beautiful. This perception, which is also a feeling, draws him into a conspiracy against the centralized surveillance state.

The Only State, where We takes places, is ruled by a highly advanced mathematics of happiness, administered by a combination of programmers and machines. While love has been eliminated from the Only State as inherently discriminatory and unjust, sex has not. According to the Lex Sexualis, the government sex code, “Each number has a right towards every other number as a sex object.” Citizens, or numbers, are issued ration books of pink sex tickets. Once both numbers sign the ticket, they are permitted to spend a “sex hour” together and lower the shades in their glass apartments.

Zamyatin was prescient in imagining the operation and also the underlying moral and intellectual foundations of an advanced modern surveillance state run by engineers. And if 1984 explored the opposition between happiness and freedom, Zamyatin introduced a third term into the equation, which he believed to be more revolutionary and also more inherently human: beauty. The subjective human perception of beauty, Zamyatin argued, along lines that Liebniz and Searle might approve of, is innately human, and therefore not ultimately reconcilable with the logic of machines or with any utilitarian calculus of justice.

In We, the rule of utilitarian happiness is embodied in the Integral, a giant computing machine/spaceship that will “force into the yoke of reason other unknown beings that inhabit other planets, perhaps still in a wild state of freedom.” By eliminating freedom and all causes of inequality and envy, the Only State claims to guarantee infinite happiness to humankind—through a perfect calculus that the Integral will spread throughout the solar system.

In reality, sexual relationships are a locus of envy and inequality in the Only State, where power rests in the hands of an invisible elite that has removed itself somewhere beyond the clouds. But the real threat to the ideal of happiness incarnated in the Integral is not inequality or envy or hidden power. It is beauty, which isn’t rational or equal, and at the same time doesn’t exclude anyone or restrict anyone else’s pleasure, and therefore frustrates and undermines any utilitarian calculus. For D-503, dance is beautiful, mathematics is beautiful, the contrast between I-330’s black eyes and black hair and white skin is also beautiful. Beauty is the answer to D-503’s urgent question, “What is there beyond?”

Beauty is the ultimate example of human un-freedom and un-reason, being a subjectivity that is rooted in our biology, yet at the same time rooted in external absolutes like mathematical ratios and the movement of time. As the critic Giovanni Basile writes in an extraordinarily perceptive critical essay, “The Algebra of Happiness,” the utopia implied by Zamyatin’s dystopia is “a world in which happiness is intertwined with a natural un-freedom that nobody imposes on anyone else: a different freedom from the one with which the Great Inquisitor protects mankind: a paradoxical freedom in which there is no ‘power’ if not in the nature of things, in music, in dance and in the harmony of mathematics.”

Against a centralized surveillance state that imposes a motionless and false order and an illusory happiness in the name of a utilitarian calculus of “justice,” Basile concludes, Zamyatin envisages a different utopia: “In fact, only within the ‘here and now’ of beauty may the equation of happiness be considered fully verified.” Human beings will never stop seeking beauty, Zamyatin insists, because they are human. They will reject and destroy any attempt to reorder their desires according to the logic of machines.

A national or global surveillance network that uses beneficent algorithms to reshape human thoughts and actions in ways that elites believe to be just or beneficial to all mankind is hardly the road to a new Eden. It’s the road to a prison camp. The question now—as in previous such moments—is how long it will take before we admit that the riddle of human existence is not the answer to an equation. It is something that we must each make for ourselves, continually, out of our own materials, in moments whose permanence is only a dream.

David Samuels is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. He is a longtime contributor to Harper’s, N+1 and The New Yorker.

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Original author: David Samuels
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Have Phones Become Boring? Well, They’re About to Get Weird

Have Phones Become Boring? Well, They’re About to Get Weird

This week, Chinese smartphone-maker Vivo released a video calling out one of the brand’s signature innovations from 2018: a pop-up camera that extends from the top of the phone’s metal frame and eliminates the need for a cut-out notch in the display. Vivo calls this particular feature the Elevating Front Camera, which makes it sound like it hovers above the phone in an act of magic. In reality, the camera behaves like the mechanical flash module on a digital camera.

The Vivo video primarily highlights last year’s tech, and since it’s already late January, seems belated. But it also included another message—that the company plans to “take the Elevated Front Camera further in 2019!” Based on [early reports],(https://www.tomsguide.com/us/vivo-apex-phone-design-release-date,news-29187.html) this year’s innovations might just be a phone without ports. Your new Vivo smartphone might look like something akin to a large pebble, or a bar of metallic soap.

Smartphones, it seems, have gotten weird. And they’re only going to get weirder in 2019. Our glass slabs will be punctuated by pop-out cameras, foldable displays, hole-punched notches, and invisible fingerprint sensors. These features will be marketed as innovations. Some will be innovative. Some will just be weird, in the way that tech inevitably feels forced when design decisions are borne out of a need to make mature products appear exciting and new.

"Everyone is making foldables out to be the next savior of the industry, and that only makes sense if they can deliver on the value."

Wayne Lam, principal analyst at IHS Markit

Just look to foldable displays. The concept isn’t new, but Chinese display maker Royale kicked off the most recent hype cycle at the end of October when it debuted a 7.8-inch flexible display named FlexPai. A week later, electronics giant Samsung showed off its own concept for a folding phone, one that “fits neatly inside your pocket” and then unfurls into a 7.3-inch display. The company declined to share a timeline for when the concept phone will be released, but Samsung’s annual flagship phone event is scheduled for next month, and it’s possible we’ll see more demos of the folding phone in addition to a new Galaxy smartphone.

Then last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Motorola Razr phone will make a comeback this year, evolving from a flip phone into a high-priced smartphone with a foldable display. (WIRED emailed Lenovo-owned Motorola for comment; a spokesperson responded with an animated “shrug” emoticon.) Chinese smartphone maker Oppo is also reportedly planning to unveil a folding smartphone at MWC Barcelona next month.

Flexible display tech has clearly gotten good enough that smartphone makers believe it can be deployed in a mass market consumer product. During the Samsung event, company executives suggested that the “tech has improved to the point where it’s possible to fuse an ultra-thin screen onto the foldable design,” as WIRED’s Arielle Pardes wrote.

But those technological leaps don’t automatically create a use case. Wayne Lam, principal analyst at IHS Markit, says he sees two paths for foldables: a larger foldable, in which a phone-like device turns into a 7- or 8-inch tablet; or “making the thing smaller—you take a phone and fold it in half, or you wrap it around your wrist and it becomes a wearable.” Either path presents challenges in terms of cost, value proposition, even ergonomics. “Everyone is making foldables out to be the next savior of the industry, and that only makes sense if they can deliver on the value, if you can truly replace your phone and your tablet,” Lam says.

Even non-bending phones will include features driven by display tech this year. If 2017 and 2018 were the years of the notch, that unsightly cutout at the top of screen-suffused smartphones, then 2019 might be the year of eliminating it. Vivo’s pop-up camera is just one example of moving parts around in order to make the most of an edge-to-edge display. Huawei has attempted to minimize the notch on its new View 20 smartphone by shrinking the cutout—it now looks like it’s been hole-punched in the display—and moving it to the left-hand side of the phone. Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy flagship phone is rumored to have a hole-punched face as well.

Edge-to-edge displays have also forced the hands (or, ahem, fingers) of innovators when it comes to bio-authentication. Once upon a time, our smartphones had chins, which were useful for housing fingerprint sensors. Now that displays stretch to all four corners of a phone, there’s no place to put that sensor, except for under the displays themselves. Which is exactly what Vivo, Oppo, and Xiaomi have done recently, and is something we’ll almost certainly see from other smartphone makers this year.

The big question isn’t whether these new features are actually innovative or not. On some level, phone makers have always experimented with new tech—or at the very least, with miniaturizing components that were originally designed for much larger products. To Lam's earlier point, if the innovations provide a real value, they find a home. The question to ask as smartphones reach increasing levels of weirdness in 2019 is: why? Or maybe: why now?

The short and lazy answer might be that smartphones have gotten boring. Most now have good cameras, decent battery life, lovely displays, and a swath of software features optimized to run on even low-end hardware. Consumers aren't seeing the need to upgrade to a new phone when they’ve all started to look and perform the same, and when internal boosts, while legitimate in some cases (like Apple’s seven-nanometer A12 Bionic chip), are described in uninterpretable tech terms.

As a result, smartphone makers are doing everything they possibly can to make smartphones seem exciting again. "At a functional level, there is not much basis for differentiation," David Webster, partner at international design firm IDEO, wrote in an email to WIRED. "This is when semiotics become more significant. Which brand tells the most aspirational story? Whose device is the most powerful prestige symbol? The iPhone was obviously the winner for a long time on that front, but now they all look pretty much the same from the other side of the room."

It's not just that smartphones are boring, or that they've plateaued. Sales of smartphones have actually declined (and so, again, smartphone makers are going to do everything they can to hawk their wares). According to research firm IDC, global smartphone shipments were down 6 percent in the third quarter of 2018, from 373.1 million to 355.2 million units. That IDC report marked the fourth consecutive quarter of year-over-year declines. In December, the same research firm said it expected worldwide smartphone shipments to show 3 percent declines for the whole year, from 2017. And in early January, Apple cut its revenue guidance for the first quarter of 2019, citing macroeconomic factors and slowing iPhone sales in China as a key reason.

The reason for slowing sales may ultimately be a combination of the aforementioned factors: trade tensions, economic softness, and a resistance from buyers to upgrade every year. As IHS Market's Lam points out, the smartphone market is an increasingly bifurcated one. Right now, “there’s China, and then there’s the rest of the world," he says. Experimentation from Chinese phone makers is great for the market; it's also an indicator that the market is "kind of stalling, too."

But Lam doesn’t think these very real headwinds will keep certain smartphone makers from trying. “I would probably characterize it as a Cambrian Explosion, with so many new species coming out, and they’re trying every little thing," Lam says. “The Chinese market is nothing but risky or ambition in their designs.”

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Original author: Lauren Goode
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EU Privacy Law Snares Its First Tech Giant: Google

EU Privacy Law Snares Its First Tech Giant: Google

French regulators fined Google €50 million (equivalent to $57 million) on Monday for violating European Union privacy law. That's not much considering Google's parent company Alphabet reported $33.7 billion in revenue in its most recently reported quarter. But much like the EU's $2.7 billion fine against Google for antitrust in 2017, a record at the time, the fine may be less important than the potential changes to Google's business model that might follow.

The fine is the first of potentially many actions against US tech giants for violations of the EU's sweeping General Data Protection Regulation, which took effect in May 2018. Privacy advocates have lodged complaints against several other companies, ranging from Amazon and Netflix to credit reporting companies like Equifax and Experian. Depending on how EU regulators rule, companies large and small may be forced to change the way they collect and store personal information online. Meanwhile, similar laws in California and Washington state, along with proposed legislation in New Jersey and other states, could force companies to rethink data privacy in the US as well.

The French data privacy authority CNIL ruled that Google violated GDPR because the company hadn't properly gained consent from users to use their data to personalize advertising. Google allows users to opt out of ad personalization, and users must choose to do so. CNIL also ruled that the company makes it too hard for users to find out how their personal information is used and how long that information is stored.

Google hasn't announced whether it will appeal the fine. "People expect high standards of transparency and control from us," a Google spokesperson said in a statement. "We’re deeply committed to meeting those expectations and the consent requirements of the GDPR. We’re studying the decision to determine our next steps."

If Google doesn't appeal, or if it loses the appeal, the company will need to either switch from an opt-out to an opt-in model for ad personalization, or find a legal justification for using personal data without explicit consent.

CNIL launched an investigation into Google last year after receiving complaints from the French advocacy group La Quadrature du Net and the Austrian group NOYB (short for "none of your business").

"We are very pleased that for the first time a European data protection authority is using the possibilities of GDPR to punish clear violations of the law," NOYB founder Max Schrems said in a statement. He added that Google and other large tech companies have "often only superficially adapted their products. It is important that the authorities make it clear that simply claiming to be compliant is not enough."

But there's still disagreement over what GDPR requires. "There's still a lot of gray," according to Brian Kane, a former Google executive and cofounder of Sourcepoint, a company that makes software that helps companies comply with GDPR.

For example, the GDPR outlines the circumstances under which companies are allowed to use—or "process"—personal information. The law emphasizes obtaining explicit consent from users, but it outlines some circumstances under which consent isn't necessary, such as when a company must gather data to comply with another law, or when it's necessary for a company’s "legitimate interests."

That's led to some uncertainty about when companies actually need consent. This week's Google fine doesn't clear that up, because the company claimed it had user consent, not that it had legitimate interests.

But there are plenty of other cases to clarify GDPR. Last week, NOYB filed another complaint against Google, along with seven other technology companies, including Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Spotify, over the way their streaming services respond to users’ requests for their own data. Last year, the group Privacy International filed complaints against seven ad-tech, data brokering, and credit monitoring firms, including Equifax, Experian, Oracle, and Quantcast. The complaints brought by Privacy International challenge the use of "legitimate interest" as a legal justification for collecting data.

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Original author: Klint Finley
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Travel Back in Time With These Vintage Computers

Travel Back in Time With These Vintage Computers

By today's standards, the Univac I was a clunky behemoth of a machine. It filled an entire room, weighed as much as four cars, and had an adjusted-for-inflation cost of around $8 million. But when it accurately predicted the outcome of the 1952 presidential election, it sold the public on computers.

Mark Richards pays tribute the Univac I and other computing trailblazers in his book Core Memory. It travels the annals of bits and bytes, from the 1890s, when nobody could imagine a modern computer (much less carrying one around in their pockets), to the 1990s, when the stylus became a (thankfully short-lived) status symbol.

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"We stand on the shoulders of giants," Richards says. "That's an oft-used cliche, but if you're picking up your iPhone to read the president's tweet, there's a lot of people that got you there."

He's not just talking about Jobs, Wozniak, or Gates. He also means lesser-knowns like Herman Hollerith, inventor of a late 19th-century census tabulating machine that turned handwritten notes into machine-readable data; and Curt Herztark, an Austrian engineer who refined the design for his famed calculator while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Their inventions paved the way for others, and now belong to the 90,000-strong collection at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, where Richards shot the photos for his recently updated book.

Richards—a Vietnam vet, former war photographer, and history buff—first visited the museum roughly two decades ago. Though not a techie per se, he fell in love with the machines—"objects of beauty," he says—and asked to photograph them. So began a monumental, three-year project documenting more than 1,000 items. A gloved technician gently placed those light enough to carry against white and black velvet backdrops for Richards to shoot with his Canon 1DS Mark II, using simple overhead fluorescent lighting for illumination. Richards loved it. "How often do you get to be in the middle of history?" he says. "In this case, I wasn't in the middle of it, but I could literally touch it—of course, only if I had gloves on."

It's fun to see the ingenuity and resourcefulness that went into many of these machines. Allan Alcorn's 1972 Pong prototype has a black-and-white TV for a screen, while chopsticks sub for a stylus in Jeff Hawkins' 1997 wooden PalmPilot model. For Richards, it shows how "success is gaffer-taped together. It's not this wonderful stack of PowerPoint presentations, but the fact that you pull it together, out of your ass, from the most amazing bullshit circumstances."

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Original author: Laura Mallonee
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Feds Also Say That Oracle Underpaid Women and Minorities

Feds Also Say That Oracle Underpaid Women and Minorities

Oracle allegedly underpaid thousands of women and minority employees by $401 million over four years, according to a document filed Tuesday by the US Department of Labor, as part of an ongoing discrimination lawsuit against the software giant.

In the document, the Labor Department also claims that Oracle strongly prefers hiring Asians with student visas for certain roles because they are “dependent upon Oracle for sponsorship in order to remain in the United States,” so the company can systematically underpay them. Between 2013 and 2016, the department says, 90 percent of the 500 engineers hired through its college-recruiting program for product development jobs at its headquarters in California were Asian. Over the same four years, only six were black.

Once they are employed, Oracle also systematically underpays women, blacks, and Asians relative to their peers, the complaint claims, alleging that these disparities are driven by Oracle’s reliance on prior salaries in setting starting salaries and the company’s practice of steering black, Asian, and female employees into lower paid jobs. The department says some women were underpaid by as much as 20 percent compared with their male peers, or $37,000 in 2016.

“Oracle’s suppression of pay for its non-White, non-male employees is so extreme that it persists and gets worse over long careers; female, Black, and Asian employees with years of experience are paid as much as 25 percent less than their peers,” according to an updated complaint filed Tuesday. “Oracle’s compensation practices cause an increasing pay gap as those employees devote more of their lives to Oracle.” The Labor Department began investigating because Oracle has government contracts worth more than $100 million a year.

Oracle did not respond to a request for comment.

The document says Oracle underpaid more than 1,200 female employees by $165 million, more than 2,700 Asian employee by $234 million, and a smaller number of black employees by $1.3 million. The government’s case looks primarily at employees in product development, IT, and support roles at Oracle’s Redwood City, California, headquarters. In 2014, the department says, Oracle employed 7,500 of its 45,000 US employees at the Redwood City office. The agency claims that the total cost of Oracle’s discriminatory practices are likely “much higher” than $400 million because the company’s discrimination has continued since 2016.

The government’s allegations against Oracle echo those in a private lawsuit by former Oracle employees who say the company discriminated against them on the basis of sex. On Friday, lawyers for that group alleged in a new court filing that Oracle paid women $13,000 less than men in comparable jobs with comparable experience, based on expert analysis of Oracle’s pay data.

Pay equity is an increasingly high-profile issue in Silicon Valley, part of a broader examination of race and gender discrimination in hiring, promotion, and funding, as well as sexual harassment. When 20,000 Google employees walked out to protest the company’s practices in November, pay equity was ranked second in their list of demands.

The government lawsuit, which began in January 2017, was filed by the department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and will be decided by an administrative law judge. The OFCCP is demanding that Oracle pay injured employees and applicants for lost wages and to correct discriminatory practices, including additional hiring.

But a bigger threat to Oracle may be the OFCCP’s demand to cancel all of Oracle’s government contracts and to bar the company from future contracts until it complies. The same office sued Google, which is also a federal contractor, for discrimination against women, alleging systemic bias against female employees. That case has been delayed while the two sides argue over how much pay data the government can get from Google.

Annual diversity reports published by major Silicon Valley companies show low numbers of under-represented minorities. In the four years since they began sharing the information, there has been little progress in improving those ratios to reflect the diversity of the industry’s billions of consumers around the world. Employers often allege that the numbers stem from a shortage of qualified candidates.

The OFCCP’s claims about systemic race discrimination at Oracle are based on comparing the number of recent college graduates of a particular race hired by Oracle versus the number of graduates at the schools where Oracle recruited and who had the degrees Oracle targeted.

However, the agency says its figures are incomplete because, it says, Oracle did not track race or ethnicity for the majority of applicants and deleted data requested by the Labor Department, including an email inbox where college recruits submitted their resumes. “There is a presumption that the information Oracle has refused to produce or destroyed was unfavorable to Oracle,” the complaint says.

Oracle tried to dismiss the Labor Department’s case based on the method for choosing administrative law judges. But last week, an administrative law judge ruled against Oracle.

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Original author: Nitasha Tiku
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Google Gives Wikimedia Millions—Plus Machine Learning Tools

Google Gives Wikimedia Millions—Plus Machine Learning Tools

Google is pouring an additional $3.1 million into Wikipedia, bringing its total contribution to the free encyclopedia over the past decade to more than $7.5 million, the company announced at the World Economic Forum Tuesday. A little over a third of those funds will go toward sustaining current efforts at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia, and the remaining $2 million will focus on long-term viability through the organization’s endowment.

Google will also begin allowing Wikipedia editors to use several of its machine learning tools for free, the tech giant said. What's more, Wikimedia and Google will soon broaden Project Tiger, a joint initiative they launched in 2017 to increase the number of Wikipedia articles written in underrepresented languages in India, and to include 10 new languages in a handful of countries and regions. It will now be called GLOW, Growing Local Language Content on Wikipedia.

It’s certainly positive that Google is investing more in Wikipedia, one of the most popular and generally trustworthy online resources in the world. But the decision isn’t altruistic: Supporting Wikipedia is also a shrewd business decision that will likely benefit Google for years to come. Like other tech companies, including Amazon, Apple, and Facebook, Google already uses Wikipedia content in a number of its own products. When you search Google for “Paris,” a “knowledge panel” of information about the city will appear, some of which is sourced from Wikipedia. The company also has used Wikipedia articles to train machine learning algorithms, as well as fight misinformation on YouTube.

Even efforts like GLOW—which will now expand to Indonesia, Mexico, and Nigeria, as well as the Middle East and North Africa—can help Google’s own bottom line. When the initiative first launched in India, Google provided Chromebooks and internet access to editors, while the Centre for Internet and Society and the Wikimedia India Chapter organized a three-month article writing competition that resulted in nearly 4,500 new Wikipedia articles in 12 different Indic languages. Smartphone penetration in India is only around 27 percent; as more people in the country start using Android smartphones and Google Search, those articles will make the tech giant’s products more useful. Wikipedia’s blog post announcing Google’s new investment makes this strategy fairly clear, noting that the company also provided Project Tiger with “insights into popular search topics on Google for which no or limited local language content exists on Wikipedia.”

Google is also providing Wikipedia free access to its Custom Search API and its Cloud Vision API, which will help the encyclopedia’s volunteer editors more easily cite the facts they use. Each time a Wikipedia editor adds a new piece of information to an article, they need to cite the source where they learned it. The Search API will allow them quickly look up sources on the web without having to leave Wikipedia, while the vision tool will let editors automatically digitize books so they can be used to support Wikipedia articles too. Earlier this month, Wikimedia also announced Google Translate was coming to Wikipedia, allowing editors to convert content into 15 additional languages, bringing the total available to 121.

These machine learning tools will absolutely make it easier for Wikipedia to reach people who speak languages currently underrepresented on the web. But the encyclopedia is also the reason many AI programs exist in the first place. For example, Google-owned Jigsaw has used Wikipedia, in part, to train its open source troll-fighting AI. The encyclopedia is also used by hundreds of other AI platforms, particularly because every Wikipedia article is under Creative Commons—meaning it can be reproduced for free without copyright restrictions. Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa smart assistants use information from Wikipedia to answer questions, for instance. (Both companies also have donated to the Wikimedia Foundation as well.)

Google’s new investments in Wikipedia, specifically in GLOW, will address a genuine problem. The majority of Wikipedia’s tens of millions of articles are in English or European languages like French, German, and Russian. (There are also lots of articles in Swedish and two versions of Filipino, but most of these pages were created by a prolific bot). As the estimated half of Earth’s population that still lacks an internet connection comes online, it will be important that reliable information is available in the native languages people speak. That doesn’t mean, though, that in helping solve these issues companies like Google—or Facebook—don’t also have something to gain.

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Original author: Louise Matsakis
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'Black Panther' and Netflix Just Got Historic Oscar Nominations

'Black Panther' and Netflix Just Got Historic Oscar Nominations

Hello, and welcome once more to The Monitor, WIRED's roundup of the latest in the world of culture. We hope you had a nice Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. What's been going on since the end of last week? Welp, Black Panther got a historic Oscar nod, M. Night Shyamalan's trilogy-ending almost-superhero film Glass ruled the long-weekend box office, and Pixar lost a big director. Oh, and there's a new American Gods trailer too!

Black Panther Up for Best Picture

It finally happened: After much hand-wringing and speculation, Black Panther got nominated for an Oscar, becoming the first superhero film to earn a Best Picture nod. Director Ryan Coogler's film also scored nominations for sound editing, sound mixing, costume design, production design, original score, and original song for Kendrick Lamar and SZA's "All the Stars." Not to be outdone, Netflix earned its first Best Picture nomination with Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, which landed 10 nominations total. Hulu's Minding the Gap nabbed a nom in the Best Documentary Feature category, the streaming service's first Oscar nod.

Glass Breaks a Box Office Ceiling

M. Night Shyamalan's Glass won the box office, bringing in $47 million in North America during the holiday weekend. While it came in under expectations, it was one of the highest-performing MLK weekend openings of all time, and a good showing for the traditionally dreary month of January. And since Shyamalan put up the film's $20 million budget himself, Glass should come out all right.

Coco Director Leaves Pixar

Lee Unkrich, the co-director of Coco and director of Toy Story 3, announced last week that he's leaving Pixar, where he has been making films for the last 25 years. The director's next move remains unknown. "I'm not leaving to make films at another studio," Unkrich said in a statement to the Hollywood Reporter. "Instead, I look forward to spending much-needed time with my family and pursuing interests that have long been back-burnered."

American Gods Is Still Happening

Hey, did you remember that Starz still has a show based on Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel American Gods? It’s true! In the 18 months since its first season ended, it lost a few showrunners and a star or two, but American Gods still kicking, and now there's a new trailer for its second season. Sure looks like there's an epic battle of the gods on the horizon. We'll find out when it returns March 10.

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Original author: Angela Watercutter
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Fender American Acoustasonic Telecaster: Pricing, Specs, Release Date

Fender American Acoustasonic Telecaster: Pricing, Specs, Release Date

Few guitars carry more historical weight than the Fender Telecaster. With its compact body and brash, incisive twang, the Telecaster—first introduced by Fender in the 1950s—played a pivotal role in the evolution of country music, electric blues, and, most of all, rock and roll. Bruce Springsteen, Keith Richards, and Joe Strummer are all Tele guys. And when Bob Dylan mounted his first tour as an electric act, he did it with a Telecaster around his neck.

But if the Fender American Acoustasonic Telecaster had been around when Bob was breaking hearts and blowing minds back in '66, he would have been able to play both the acoustic and electric portions of his concert on the same guitar.

With its round sound hole and naturally resonant body, the Acoustasonic plays and sounds like an acoustic guitar. But inside the instrument is an array of electronics that lets the player dial in a wide variety of sounds; when amplified, the Acoustasonic can take on the tonal character of different styles of acoustic guitar as well as solid-body and hollow-body electrics.

You can see one pickup positioned next to the bridge in the image above. Hidden inside the body is a three-piece system designed by Fender with the folks at Fishman, a company famous for its acoustic guitar pickups. (A 20-hour battery, which you charge via a USB port next to the cable jack, powers the pickups.) The Acoustasonic also has two wooden knobs and a selector switch. On a normal Telecaster, the selector switch would allow the player to swap between pickups, turning one on and the other off. But on the Acoustasonic, that switch lets you scroll through a series of digitally modeled tones that mimic different guitar types.

That Acoustasonic Telecaster headstock.

Fender

Flip the switch forward to get the forceful bass of a big, spruce-top dreadnought acoustic. Move it into the middle to find the fingerstyle-friendly midrange tones of a small-bodied mahogany guitar, or the propulsive drive you'd get from a flat-top acoustic with a hot pickup in it. Push the selector switch all the way back and you can even make the thing sound pretty close to an electric guitar.

Each of the five positions on the selector switch activates two distinct tones, and that's where the knobs come into play. That second knob, the one closest to the tail of the guitar, toggles between the two sounds you've selected using the switch. Rock it all the way forward to get the first sound, rock it all the way back to get the second sound. Twisting the knob to any position between the two sounds blends them together. So if you want 71 percent of sound A and 29 percent of sound B, you can do that. (The knob closest to your hands still controls the volume like you'd expect.)

Play Test

So how does it sound? Anybody who plays an acoustic guitar on stage with a band is going to love it. Most of the selectable tones are bright and lively, with lots of punch and glassy harmonics. The best ones respond with a warm, percussive thwack when you strum with a pick. The mellower, folky sounds of a true hollow-body acoustic guitar are tougher to dial in. But that driving sound you get when you fit a full-size acoustic guitar with a pickup and plug it into a great vintage amp—this guitar can do that sound.

The ability to blend the various sounds together is the Acoustasonic's best feature. It gives the instrument a tremendous sonic palette, and I found that the most interesting stuff tends to happen not with the blend knob dialed all the way to one side or the other, but somewhere in the middle.

String Theory

Purists will scoff at the Acoustasonic as a soulless digital abomination, and that's fine. This sort of 21st-century machine is never going to be for everyone. I will say that the feel of the instrument is excellent. It's set up like an acoustic guitar (complete with a wound G string), but the small Tele body and slim neck make it much easier to noodle around on than your typical big box. Still, it's meant to be plugged in. It has the character of an acoustic guitar when you strum it unplugged, but it doesn't come close to filling a room or drawing forth rivers of human tears the way a real-deal acoustic does.

It's the same on the other end. The "electric" voices in the Acoustasonic sound nothing like an actual Telecaster, but they do make it sound more like an electric guitar than an acoustic guitar—an impressive feat anyway.

The idea is that if you're an artist who treasures sonic variety, you can just buy one of these guitars (which lists for $2,000 by the way) and play it all night instead of switching guitars between every song. I would argue that people who switch guitars multiple times during a show are cool. That's a very cool move, pulling out some shiny vintage showpiece for this song, then another for that song. The Acoustasonic negates that cool factor. But since you can't buy cool, why not just buy convenience?

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Original author: Michael Calore
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Samsung 970 EVO Plus review: Samsung's entry-level NVMe SSD is faster and cheaper

Samsung's 970 EVO has always been the fastest of the low-priced NVMe SSDs, and the company's new 970 EVO Plus, announced Tuesday, further cements that position. Samsung claims up to a 57 percent increase in performance for the Plus over the older 970 EVO. I didn't see quite that, but sustained writes when the drive was using its SLC cache increased by 10 percent, and jumped by a very welcome 42 percent when writing to the main body of TLC NAND.

Note that the 1TB version will be the first out the gate. The 2TB version in the photos will be available later. 

Design and specs

The 970 EVO Plus is basically the same drive as the 970 Evo, using the same 64-layer stacked TLC (Triple Level Cell/3-bit) NAND and Phoenix controller with improved firmware. Note that Samsung refers to the NAND not as TLC, but as 3-bit MLC V-NAND (vertical). MLC (Multi-Level Cell) was a poorly conceived moniker that became associated strictly with 2-bit NAND, but obviously can be applied to any type of NAND that stores more than one bit per cell. 

The 970 EVO Plus is available in 250GB, 500GB (the capacity we tested), and 1TB flavors for a $90, $130, and $250, respectively. At 25 cents per gigabyte in the largest capacity, and a little bit more in the lesser capacities, those are good prices. There are 1TB PCIe x4 NVMe drives out there that are pushing the 15-cent mark, though without delivering the same level of performance.

samsung970evoplus l perspective black Samsung

Samsung's 970 EVO Plus in its 2TB capacity, which isn't shipping yet according to the company's PR. We tested the 500GB version.

The 970 EVO Plus carries a nice five-year warranty and is rated for 150TBW (TeraBytes Written) per 250GB of capacity over the life of the drive. Don't be surprised if you don't hit that write figure even in 10 years, or if the drive lasts longer than that. It's been quite a while since I saw an SSD fail, and I've yet to write enough data to one for it to lose capacity. 

Samsung also claims that the 970 EVO Plus is more power-efficient than its predecessor, though that's something that generally only interests pros who run lots of them in arrays or servers. 

Performance

The 970 EVO Plus (green bars) is indeed quite a bit faster than the plain EVO (gold bars) in several ways, especially with sustained writes to the main body of NAND and 4K writes when lots of queues are in play. Note that the numbers below are from the 500GB drive we tested. The plain copy test times will vary according to capacity, due to different cache sizes and other related factors.

970 plus cdm 6 IDG

As you can see, there's a nice improvement over the plain 970 EVO in terms of write speed. CrystalDiskMark 6. Longer bars are better.

While CrystalDiskMark 6 rated the older EVO as a faster reader than the Plus, it also showed a significant advantage for the Plus when it came to writing. Note that these speeds are with caching in play. See the next section for info on what happens when the EVO Plus runs out of cache.

970 plus as ssd IDG

4K write performance in AS SSD was a landslide victory on the part of the newer EVO. Longer bars are better.

The AS SSD 2 benchmark showed a huge improvement in small block 4K write performance for the EVO Plus over the plain EVO. So much so that we tested and cross-checked twice to confirm what we were seeing.

970 evo plus 48gb IDG

Thanks to a higher write rate when it runs out of cache, the EVO Plus proved significantly faster with sustained writes than the plain EVO.

Our 48GB copy tests bore out the CrystalDiskMark and AS SSD results, though less dramatically. The drive is faster, so given the same price, definitely go for the EVO Plus. Or of course the 970 Pro, which, while considerably more expensive, suffers no performance drop-off during long writes.

Performance caveats

One thing to note about the performance is that 3-bit NAND, when written natively as such (it can be treated as 1-bit or 2-bit NAND with a corresponding increase in performance), isn't all that fast. Once cache has run out, performance on all TLC drives drops. I've seen as low as 90MBps, but that's rare anymore (except for 4-bit QLC--see the 860 QVO review). The 970 EVO Plus drops only to about 850MBps, which is still nearly twice as fast as a SATA SSD. That's also about 200MBps faster than the older 970 EVO when it runs out of cache.

970 evo plus slowdown b IDG

The 970 EVO Plus's sustained write rate dropped from about 1.7GBps to around 850MBps. That's still almost twice as fast as SATA and better than many TLC NVMe SSDs.

But cache size generally varies according to the capacity of the drive. The 500GB 970 Plus I tested ran out of it at around the 20GB to 30GB mark during a long write. Though I didn't have the other capacities to test, it's quite likely that the 250GB drive's speed will drop at around 10GB mark, and the 1TB drive's at around 40GB to 50GB. There is some smart caching going on (Samsung calls it "Intelligent TurboWrite"), so exactly when you run out might vary according to how full the drive is, or how much data you are writing.

Not many users will write outside of the cache very often, and 850MBps is still a pretty fair transfer rate. But if you don't want to see this kind of drop, you'll need something like the 970 Pro, or WD's Black NVMe.

Conclusion

The 970 EVO Plus is more affordable than ever, and will run like a champ the vast majority of the time. Even when it drops out of cache, 850MBps isn't going to cause you much buyer remorse. If you want something better than bargain-basement (which is still pretty fast in the grand storage scheme), the the 970 EVO Plus is what you're looking for.

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Original author: Jon L. Jacobi
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Arlo security cameras are losing one of their key benefits

There's bad news for anyone buying one of Arlo's new Ultra 4K cameras: free cloud video storage is gone.

With the new camera, consumers will get a year-long trial of Arlo's paid cloud storage, but they'll need to pay for the service if they want to continue it.

imageArlo Ultra 4K

That's disappointing because the constant seven days of free storage currently offered with Arlo's high-definition range is a key difference between it and competitors like Nest and Ring. It's also one of the main reasons why TechHive named the Arlo 2 our top pick as the best indoor security camera.

The Arlo Ultra was first shown off at CES in Las Vegas and is already rolling out to stores. It's the first security camera from a major smart home vendor to feature 4K video streaming, and that means sharper, clearer pictures.

Storing video in the cloud costs Arlo money, of course, and 4K footage will require more space, but it's disappointing that consumers will now be faced with an upfront bill for the camera and an ongoing monthly charge to get the most from it. To be sure, it won't be useless without a storage plan, but users will be restricted to live streaming and won't have the ability to review what's already happened in the camera's view, which is one of the key benefits of a video security system.

It's doubly disappointing because there is another way: Netatmo, a Paris-based smart-home security vendor, doesn't offer a cloud storage service at all and instead records all video on an microSD card embedded in its Presence outdoor and Welcome indoor cameras.

Users can remotely access that video via a server built into the camera, or they can have the video automatically uploaded to their personal Dropbox or FTP server, putting themselves in complete control.

Arlo actually has a microSD slot on the base station for the new Ultra 4K, but it's not remotely accessible. You have to physically remove the SD card to access the recordings.

So Arlo decided to pursue one of the favorite business models of cloud and internet companies: a monthly subscription that never ends.

Arlo will charge $2.99 per month per camera, or $9.99 per month for up to ten cameras, and that's to record in high-definition. 4K video recording costs an additional $1.99 per month per camera. So, a year of 4K recording will cost almost $60 for a single camera.

If you plan to subscribe to Arlo's cloud service to gain the benefits offered, then none of this matters anyway. Arlo Smart Premier also attempts to analyze video clips to provide better alerts to users. It's capable, for example, of distinguishing between a person, an animal, or cars, so you might set alerts for only people and ignore others. But it's once again worth noting that Netamo offers something similar with its Presence camera/security-light combo at no additional cost.

So there are benefits to subscribing beyond cloud storage. It's just a shame that Arlo is moving towards making a subscription an effective requirement. Arlo did confirm that it has no plans to drop the 7-day free recording on current cameras, so that's good news.

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Original author: Martyn Williams
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TiVo talks streaming apps, Android hardware, and a potential live TV service

In the age of cord-cutting, an entirely predictable thing has happened to TiVo’s consumer business.

From 2017 to 2018, TiVo has lost about five percent of its cable-DVR subscriber base, roughly in line with the overall decline of cable TV subscriptions. During the same period, however, TiVo’s over-the-air DVR subscriber base has grown by 10%. That’s been boosted by products like the TiVo Bolt OTA, which can record broadcast channels from an antenna.

Although TiVo has largely become a licensor of software and patents since being acquired by Rovi in 2016, TiVo’s vice president of consumer products and services Ted Malone said that the company remains committed to the consumer business. To that end, the company is working on several new features, including apps for Roku, Apple TV, Fire TV, and Android TV that can access a TiVo box remotely. He also hinted at a potential live TV streaming service and Android-based consumer hardware.

“I would say our business is healthy—it’s profitable—but I would like to see more growth,” Malone said during an interview at CES earlier this month. “I took over the business about a year-and-a-half ago, and I’m pushing to bring more new innovation to consumers.”

TiVo streaming apps

As announced during CES, TiVo will release apps for Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices in the second quarter of this year. Apps for Apple TV and Android TV will follow in the third quarter.

If you have a TiVo that supports transcoding (including the Roamio Pro, Roamio Plus, Bolt, Bolt Vox, and Bolt OTA), these apps will let you stream live and recorded video to another TV, either at home or on the road. For other TiVo devices that lack transcoding, such as the entry-level Roamio or Roamio OTA, you’ll need a separate TiVo Stream box to use the apps.

tivoroku TiVo

TiVo’s streaming apps for Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV, and Android TV will let you watch on other televisions without extra TiVo Mini hardware.

In a demo, the streaming apps looked similar to the menu system on TiVo’s own hardware, but they do have one notable limitation: Video streams will be limited to 720p resolution at 30 frames per second. That means you won’t get the smooth motion of 60-fps video for sports, news, and talk programming, nor will you be able to watch broadcasts in their native MPEG-2 format.

“I want 720p 60 [fps],” Malone said. “I’ve done some internal demos proving that 720p 60 [fps] is actually noticeably better than 720p 30. It’s really a battle for resources and just getting it done.”

Malone said the TiVo hardware can technically support higher-quality streams, but not without dialing back some other capabilities, such as streaming to TiVo Mini Vox boxes. For better or worse, Malone still believes those Minis—which do support MPEG-2 video—are the best way to access TiVo on additional televisions. (Each TiVo Mini costs $180, and wireless connectivity will require an extra $60 adapter that’s coming out later this year.)

“Even with Roku and Apple and Fire TV, the Mini still is a better multi-room solution if you want the same remote, the same performance, the same video quality,” Malone said.

Adding more content

My major complaint with TiVo in recent years is that its app selection is far behind dedicated streaming devices, such as Roku and Fire TV. While TiVo offers several popular apps—including Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO Go—it’s missing lots of others, such as Showtime, Starz, Sling TV, Philo, PBS Kids, Crackle, Pluto, and NBA TV. To access those services, you need a separate streaming device, which means you’ll constantly be switching inputs and remotes.

One way to solve that problem might be to migrate the TiVo software over to another platform, like Android TV, which has a much larger selection of streaming apps. In fact, TiVo already offers Android TV-based hardware to cable providers.

Malone said TiVo has recently started considering an Android TV device for consumers, but it’s unclear what exactly that product would be.

“I think the question is, if we’re going to do something in the Android TV space, what should it be able to do?” Malone said. “Should it be an accessory to a DVR? Should it be a standalone device? Should we do our own streamer? Those are the kinds of questions I would ask you and your readers: Why?”

Another approach for TiVo would be to offer its own live TV streaming service, similar to what SiliconDust has done with its $35-per-month HDHomeRun Premium TV offering. That way, cord-cutters could keep the DVR experience they had with cable and get more than just over-the-air channels. Malone said TiVo has considered offering such a package.

“I think if we were to do something there, we would want it to be seamlessly integrated into the tuner experience,” Malone said. “We don’t have any plans to announce right now, but… I would like to have something to announce in the area.”

More DVR features

One of the more innovative features TiVo demoed at CES earlier this month didn’t involve any new hardware or new apps: An upcoming feature called “Smart Extend” will automatically record sporting events until they’re over, even accounting for overtime or extra innings.

To enable this feature, TiVo partnered with a company called Thuuz, which works with sports leagues to monitor games in real time. TiVo then matches Thuuz’s game data with its own internal clock, and sets the DVR timer accordingly. (You can also add an extra 15-minute buffer just to be safe.)

Unfortunately, Smart Extend won’t work for programs that appear after a sporting event, so a major gripe with all DVRs—that shows get clipped when sporting events run long—will remain unaddressed for now. Still, Malone said he’d been asked about that issue several times during CES, so perhaps the company will figure out a solution before long.

The tie-in with Thuuz could also enable some other interesting DVR features. Malone pointed out that Thuuz gives every game an “excitement” score of up to 100, based on factors such as player statistics, injuries, and the actual game score. In the future, he said, TiVo might let users avoid recording games that don’t reach a certain excitement threshold.

“Maybe you like baseball, but you don’t want to watch 160 games a year. You could just say, ‘Record my favorite teams when they’re in a game that starts getting exciting,’” Malone said.

He then added: “Anybody who says there’s no room left to innovate in the DVR world is not thinking broadly enough.”

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Original author: Jared Newman
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Best VPN services of 2019: Reviews and buying advice

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Choosing the right virtual private network (VPN) service is no simple task. A VPN should keep your internet usage private and secure, but not every service handles your data in the same way. Just look at the critiques of notable computer security experts and online pundits to understand the challenge.

(Want to know more about VPNs and what they can and can’t do? Skip down to our “What is a VPN?” section below.)

VPN cheat sheet

Since it takes research to find out if a VPN service has a history of good or bad behavior, we’ve done the legwork to find the best VPN out there. In order to win our seal of approval, the service has to protect online privacy; allow you to keep anonymity; offer a good variety of locations from which to direct your traffic; offer fast, reliable performance; and provide an easy-to-use interface.

If you’d like to have more flexibility and choose for yourself, we also offer our tips on what to look for in a VPN. Just keep reading past our Best VPN and Best VPN for U.S. Netflix recommendations. (And if you live in the United Kingdom and are looking for a VPN, check out VPN recommendations from our sister site, TechAdvisor.)

Links to full reviews of all the VPN services we tested can be found at the very bottom of the page. 

Best VPN overall

imageMullvad (late 2018)

Sweden-based Mullvad is like the Swiss Bank account of VPNs. Instead of attaching your account to an email address, the company auto-generates an account number for you, which is all that's required to log in. Mullvad now offers a much improved and user friendly interface, its speeds are good, and the company takes privacy very seriously.

It’s hard to select the best overall VPN. Some services are weaker on privacy, but are significantly easier to use, while others could stand an interface redesign.

Nevertheless, the point of a VPN is to remain private and to have your internet activity kept as private as possible. For that reason, we’re choosing Mullvad as the best overall VPN (see our full review of Mullvad). The company recently released an overhauled desktop client, and the VPN does a great job at privacy. Mullvad doesn’t ask for your email address, and you can mail your payment in cash if you want to. Like many other VPNs, Mullvad has a no-logging policy and doesn’t even collect any identifying metadata from your usage.

Mullvad is also fast, though not the fastest VPN we’ve tested. Last year, we said if Mullvad added a more user-friendly interface it would be nearly unbeatable and that is definitely the state of affairs at this writing.

Runner-up

imageCyberGhost

CyberGhost is an easy-to-use VPN with impressive speeds with features that will appeal to both novice and experienced users.

CyberGhost gives Mullvad some stiff competition in the speed department, especially for locations in North America and Europe. It does a good job protecting user anonymity, too—requiring no identifying information and using a third-party service for payment processing—albeit not to the same degree as Mullvad. Add to that CyberGhost’s unique, easy-to-use interface, good price, and streaming unblocking (although not for Netflix), and this VPN is a solid choice. (See our full review of CyberGhost.)

Best VPN for U.S. Netflix

imageWindscribe Pro

Windscribe won't win any speed showdowns compared to other VPNs we've looked at, but it's still got some great servers in Europe and North America. The service also has added extras like a link shortener with warnings about ad trackers on the destination page, and it currently works with U.S. Netflix.

If you live outside the U.S. (or are a U.S. resident and traveling abroad), a VPN is the only way to access Netflix’s US library. But ever since Netflix began blocking VPNs, few services even bother to do battle with the streaming behemoth.

Fortunately, there are some brave companies that are still trying to stay one step ahead of Netflix’s VPN catchers. Currently, Windscribe Pro is our top choice. The service delivers good speeds on its U.S. servers, and has a very simple approach to Netflix: Just select the “Windflix” connection from the desktop app or browser extension and you’re good to go. Windflix is still technically in beta, but it works well and there’s even a Windflix U.K. option if you’d like to experience Netflix from the other side of the pond.

Of course, Netflix could block access at any time, but right now Windscribe is one step ahead of the streaming giant’s crackdown. (For more about Windscribe Pro see our full review.)

Fastest VPN

imageHotSpot Shield Premium

HotSpot Shield offers fast speeds, a beautiful and simple desktop app for windows, and 25 country locations. But it's privacy policy means your activities are recorded—though not tied to you. Still, this is not what privacy-conscious users will be looking for.

HotSpot Shield has some of the best speeds we’ve seen yet, and it’s not even close. In our tests, HotSpot Shield dipped around 35 percent below the base speed. That’s substantially less impact than you’ll see with most VPN services—though your
experience may vary.

On the downside, HotSpot Shield doesn’t allow for a way to pay anonymously and its privacy policy may not sit well with some.

Still, HotSpot Shield has excellent speeds, it’s desktop application is very nice, and as a bonus it works with U.S. Netflix (read our full review).

Best VPN for U.S. speeds

imageIVPN

Gibraltar-based IVPN has a small network of servers, but good speeds, and a solid privacy policy. It's pricier than most VPN servers, but for those who don't need a wide number of country choices it can be a good choice.

IVPN has by far the best speeds we’ve seen on U.S. (and UK) connections. Your individual results may vary, but with a free, three-day trial, anyone looking for good speeds from the U.S. or UK should give IVPN a try. IVPN’s Windows program is very easy to understand and manage; however, it is a pricey service at $100 per year
and there’s no guarantee it will work with Netflix. (Read our full review.)

Best VPN for torrents

imagePrivate Internet Access

on Private Internet Access

Private Internet Access has an excellent price and recently backed up its privacy-policy claims in dealings with the FBI. It also has good number of country locations and a ton of servers.

Torrents get a bad rap, and if we’re honest, that’s for good reason. Using torrents is the number one way to download pirated material including movies, TV shows, music, and games. But that’s not all there is to torrenting. It’s a very efficient way to download legitimate software such as Linux distributions and authorized content from sites such as BitTorrent Now.

If you’re going to use torrents, however, life is easier if you use a VPN—especially if the network you’re on blocks torrenting. There are many VPNs among our top picks that could be used for downloading torrents, but our preferred choice is Private Internet Access. This no-frills VPN has an absolute ton of servers, good speeds, and a nice amount of country locations to remain relatively anonymous. (Read our full review.) The price is right at less than $40 a year, and its privacy policies have been tested in court. Plus, advanced users can adjust their level of encryption for data encryption, data authentication, and handshake.

What is a VPN?

VPNs create a secure tunnel between your PC and the internet. You connect to a VPN server, which can be located in the United States or a foreign country—say, France or Japan. Your web traffic then goes through that server to make it appear as though you’re browsing from that server’s location, and not from your actual location.

When you’re using a VPN, it’s difficult for others to snoop on your web-browsing activity. Only you, the VPN service, and the website you’re visiting will know what you’re up to. 

A VPN can be a great response to a variety of concerns, such as online privacy, anonymity, greater security on public Wi-Fi, and, of course, spoofing locations.

safervpn SaferVPN

A good VPN offers you a wide variety of locations to connect to. 

While a VPN can aid privacy and anonymity, I wouldn’t recommend fomenting the next great political revolution by relying solely on a VPN. Some security experts argue that a commercial VPN is better than a free proxy such as the TOR network for political activity, but a VPN is only part of the solution. To become an internet phantom (or as close as you can realistically get to one), it takes a lot more than a $7 monthly subscription to a VPN.

If you want a VPN for political reasons, this article cannot help. But there are other places you can turn to online such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Moving on to less serious topics, a VPN is an excellent choice for staying secure while using Wi-Fi at the airport or your local café. Hackers sitting on public Wi-Fi can try to hack your PC, but a VPN makes that task much harder.

Finally, you may want a VPN to spoof your location to download content you shouldn’t have access to, but this too has limits. A VPN used to be the go-to solution to watch U.S. Netflix overseas. That changed in 2016 when Netflix opened up to almost every country on Earth. Since then, the company has invested a lot in detecting and blocking VPN users. Even people using a VPN inside their own country will be blocked by Netflix if detected.

There are VPNs that can fool Netflix, but they are rare and there are no guarantees these services will outsmart Netflix forever.

Beyond Netflix, a VPN can help to download an Android app that is only available on a foreign version of Google Play, or stream content from regionally restricted services such as the UK-bound BBC iPlayer or Pandora.

One final note of caution: Do not rely on your VPN to protect banking information on an open Wi-Fi connection. Whenever possible, leave online financial dealings for home over a hard-wired connection.

What to look for in a VPN

Before anything else, understand that if you want to use a VPN you should be paying for it. Free VPNs are either selling your browsing data in aggregated form to researchers and marketers, or giving you a paltry amount of data transfer every month. Either way, a basic rule of thumb is that a free VPN will not protect your privacy in any meaningful way.

The next thing to consider is a VPN’s logging policies. In other words, what kind of data is a service collecting about you and your VPN activity, and how long is that data saved?

Privacy is the basic principle of a VPN, and what good is it to avoid passive government surveillance only to have a VPN provider record all your website visits?

Ideally, a VPN will say it only keeps logs for the briefest of periods. Some providers, for example, only log activity in RAM during a session or automatically send all records to oblivion once they’re created. Other providers may keep records for a few hours, days, weeks, or even months.

privateinternetaccess Private Internet Access

The settings window for Private Internet Access.

VPN policies also vary when it comes to personal information. Some VPNs want to know very little about you, preferring users sign on with a pseudonym and pay with Bitcoin. That’s a little exotic for most people, which is why many services also accept PayPal.

Paying this way isn’t ideal for privacy, but it means the VPN doesn’t have your payment information on record—though it would be available from PayPal.

After the logging policies, you want to know how many servers the VPN offers and how many country connections it has. The number of servers provides an idea of how much load a VPN can take before slowing to a crawl due to overwhelming traffic.

The country connections, meanwhile, matter most to those who want to spoof their location; however, non-spoofers should also make sure there are connections in their home country. If you live in Los Angeles, for example, and want access to American content, then you’ll need a VPN that provides U.S. connections. It won’t work to try and watch Amazon Prime Video over a Dutch VPN connection, because as far as Hulu’s concerned your computer is in the Netherlands.

Some users will also want to research a VPN provider’s peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing policies. There are VPNs that block torrents. Others turn a blind eye to them, but will sell you out in a heartbeat should you be up to no good. P2P is not our main focus here, but we will note in each review whether a particular provider allows file sharing or not.

Finally, how many devices does a VPN support from a single account? In this age of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and PCs, a VPN’s cost should include licensing for at least five devices. Also, a provider should have Android and iOS apps to make it easy to connect a smartphone or tablet to the service.

How we tested

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Original author: Ian Paul
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Watch The Full Nerd talk GTX 1660 Ti rumors and Super X-Fi review right now!

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The Full Nerd is live on YouTube, Twitch, Facebook, and Twitter. thefullnerdlogo1280x720Adam Patrick Murray/IDGJoin The Full Nerd gang as they talk about the latest PC hardware topics. In today's show we cover the rumors surrounding an Nvidia GTX 1660 Ti that wouldn't have RTX, Gordon and Adam's Super X-Fi review (spoiler: it's awesome), and the return of the Q&A section. As always we will be answering your live questions so speak up in the chat.

If YouTube is not your thing uou can also watch us on Twitch, Facebook, and Twitter!

Check out the audio version of the podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or your favorite podcast app so you can listen on the go and be sure to subscribe so you don't miss the latest live episode!To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter feed.
Original author: Adam Patrick Murray
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The latest Samsung Galaxy S10 camera rumors show just how important its folding phone will be

In case you haven’t been on Twitter in a while, we pretty much know everything there is to know about the Galaxy S10. It has slightly slimmer bezels, a hole-punch in the corner of the screen for the camera, and a generally refined aesthetic.

Now Samsung has pretty much confirmed the biggest change to the S10: the camera. According to a press release announcing the new 1/3.4-inch Isocell Slim 3T2 sensor, which will be entering mass production in the first quarter of this year, the part “fits into a tiny module making more space for ... the latest display features, such as the ‘hole-in display’ or ‘notch design.” Additionally, Samsung says, “the small size of the image sensor also reduces the height of the tele-camera module by around seven percent when compared to Samsung’s 1/3-inch 20Mp image sensor, allowing more elegant smartphone designs.”

Translation: Those S10 pics showing a hole-punch selfie cam and slim top and bottom bezels, tweeted by leakster extraordinaire Evan Blass and leaked by case makers, are likely accurate. And while they’re definitely intriguing and attractive, when you break it down, the S10 is really just another safe Galaxy S release. Not since the Galaxy S6 Edge has Samsung taken a real risk with its flagship phone. Even with a new “Lite” model, the S10 is shaping up to be more of the same. It even still has a headphone jack.

Based on what we can glean from the pics and the spec leaks, there’s no 3D face-scanning tech like on the iPhone XS, no funky camera-hiding tricks like on the Oppo Find X. Even the camera specs outlined here (20MP sensor, higher-resolution 10X digital zoom, and pixel-merging Tetracell tech) are fairly pedestrian for a 2019 phone.

galaxy s10 sizesOlixar

The Galaxy S10, S10 Lite, and S10 Plus shown in leaked renders here will surely be excellent phones, but they’re not going to light the world on fire.

Consider last year’s Isocell announcement, which similarly came a few weeks before the S9’s unveiling. That sensor brought super-slow motion and an added DRAM layer for clearer low-light shots and real-time HDR images. As a result, Samsung “reimagined” the camera on the S9 with dual aperture, adjustable portrait mode, and 4K video recording—typical “tock” phone enhancements that improved upon the S8’s hardware without reinventing the wheel. Like Apple, Samsung tried to sell us on modest enhancements as it smacked up against the smartphone innovation wall. 

That’s not changing with the S10. Even with the new camera sensor, all Samsung is really promising is a thinner bezel and a slightly tweaked design. Sure, the S10+ will reportedly pick up a second selfie cam, and both models will likely have a triple-camera array, but we’ve already seen those from the likes of LG and Huawei.

Will the S10 be one of the best Android phones you can buy? Sure. Will it be something you need to have? Probably not.

But while the S10 might not be runaway hit—especially if the latest rumors of sky-high pricing are accurate—Samsung isn’t putting all of its eggs in that basket. Alongside its flagship phones, Samsung is expected to announce its first folding phone. It’s the radical change we’ve been waiting years to see. If done right, it will overshadow the S10 in every way—and influence every phone that comes after it, from the Note to the iPhone.

samsung folding phone openSamsung

Samsung’s upcoming folding phone will be the radical change we’ve been waiting for.

At least that’s the hope. While the folding Galaxy phone will likely be out of reach for the average premium smartphone buyer, the message is clear: This is the future. With the Galaxy F or Fold or whatever it’s called in the mix, Samsung can begin the transition away from premium rectangular slabs. Folding screen will influence everything about the future of phones, from how they look, how we use them, and what they can do.

So you need only look at the S10 rumors to see how much the folding Galaxy has riding on its shoulders. Not only will it be the culmination of more than five years of development (Samsung first showed a concept video of a folding phone in 2014), but it will be the flagship of Samsung’s smartphone fleet for years to come. It will get people interested in Samsung again. In an age of sagging smartphone sales, that could be its most important role of all.

To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter feed.

Original author: Michael Simon
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