10 tips for buying a Back to School laptop

While you’re getting ready to go Back to School, you might find yourself shopping for a Back to chool laptop. Buying a laptop for school comes with its own particular questions you’ll need to think about before you buy. 

Whatever type of laptop you’re thinking of getting about for school, you’ll want to check out these tips to make sure you don’t pick something too quickly. It’s easy to forget an important consideration when you’re faced with something that seems like it’s the perfect choice.

1. Plan for multiple years

There’s a lot you need to balance to get the right Back to School laptop, and among them is getting hardware that’s high-end enough to make it through the rest of your education. While you might have to eat some greater up-front costs, you’ll be better off in the long run. 

If you get a low-budget computer, you might struggle with performance the whole time. Worse still, you may need to get multiple new computers every few semesters. It’s better to get something with decent hardware by maxing out the internal upgrade options like more RAM and increased storage.

Back to School laptop

(Image: © Huawei)

2. Battery and power draw

You don’t want to worry about your battery running out in the middle of studying, class, a lecture, or a presentation. Many laptops these days are coming with all-day batteries, so when you check reviews, make sure your pick can last throughout the day.

Another factor to this is to be sure you’re getting a laptop with efficient internals. Some gaming laptops offer decent battery life, but the crazy powerful ones can burn through their batteries incredibly fast. You’ll need to find a machine that balances power and performance so you can get productive for as long as possible. If you see the computer uses a large, high-wattage power supply, odds are the battery drains quickly.

3. Weight

This is simple: if you’re going to carry a laptop around with you everyday, you should do yourself a favor and make it light. It’ll make it easier to bring around, so you won’t decide not to bring it with you when you really should. 

The tricky thing, is if you want to get a powerful laptop with a big battery, it may end up getting heavy fast. You can avoid some weight by going with a laptop that doesn’t have a spinning hard drive. So look for laptops with SSDs, and if you need more storage, opt for an external drive. That way, you only have to carry the extra weight when you need the extra data.

4. Operating system

Before you get too far into your computer shopping, make sure you’ve look at the details offered by your classes. Certain course might have specific requirements for the operating system use because they may use software only supported on one operating system.

Yes, cheap Chromebooks can be effective for a lot of school work, but they may not support any class-specific software. Art programs might require Mac OS-specific programs or only explain how to complete tasks in the Mac version of the software. It can vary by school, so make sure you know what your classes require, and don’t spend too much on a computer that won’t do the job.

5. Cooling vents for lap-use

If you do get a powerful laptop, make sure you’re aware of the way it cools itself. Lots of laptops will have air intake vents on the bottom of the chassis, and the more powerful the laptops are, the more important it will be to ensure good airflow.

Since you may be using your laptop at school with it actually on your lap, you may have a hard time not covering those vents up with your legs. That can be bad for your laptop and uncomfortable for you, as the heat goes up. If you pick a laptop with air intakes, plan to keep them uncovered or get a cooling pad. 

6. Pen input can be useful

One feature you may want to give serious consideration is proper active stylus input. If your schoolwork is going to involve a lot of PDF reading, you’ll be able to save a lot of time and space if you don’t have to print them out or try scribbling notes with your laptops touchpad.

A stylus can make it super simple to markup PDFs and other documents with notes. When you’re taking notes in lectures, you may have an easier time copying down figures or mathematical notation as well. While the benefits may not be for everyone, having the option is certainly nice. To make the most of a stylus input, a laptop that can fold open on itself will also be handy.

7. Don’t go all in on gaming

While it can seem logical to buy one machine that fits all your curricular and extra-curricular needs, it may not be the best idea. If you’re really into gaming and want to get a machine that’s going to give you incredible performance for high-quality settings and fast frame rates at high resolutions, you’re going to be picking a computer that’s overkill for class and extra expensive.

In that case, you may find that you’re actually better off buying yourself a gaming desktop and a more affordable laptop for class. Rather than going with a $2,000 gaming laptop, you’ll probably get a lot more mileage out of a $1,300 desktop and a $700 laptop. You’ll save even more money when you want to upgrade your gaming specs after a couple years and don’t need to buy a whole new machine to do it.

8. Don’t neglect durability

On paper, you might find a computer that sounds perfect. It could have a great balance of price, performance, and efficiency, but that won’t mean much if it’s built poorly. A Back to School laptop is probably going to be traveling with you a lot in your backpack, and may be subjected to the occasional accident. So, if it’s not built strong, you may find yourself replacing it way too soon.

Laptop reviews will often give the screen hinge a bit of stress, put some torque on the screen, and put pressure around the chassis of the laptop. If you’re buying online, make sure you look for reviews like this that have tested for weakness in the build. If you’re buying in a store, check for yourself whether any parts feel flimsy or easily breakable. 

9. Get a laptop sleeve with it

While you’re thinking about the durability of your Back to School laptop, think about what else you can do so that the solid construction doesn’t have to get tested too often after you purchase it. A laptop sleeve is a smart way to make sure your new laptop stays in good shape.

On top of protecting your laptop with a little bit of extra cushion, a sleeve can also help keep liquids and other debris inside your bag from getting into the computer. Considering the cost of most laptop sleeves, there’s little reason not to get one, especially when it effectively acts as a secondary insurance policy.

(Image: © Huawei)

10. Bright and matte screens can help your eyes

If you think you’ll be using your laptop much outdoors, considering that not all screens are created equally. You’ll probably see “matte” or “anti-glare” and “glossy” listed in relation to laptop screens when you’re shopping. While glossy may look better for imagery, you’ll be doing your eyes a major favor by having a matte or anti-glare screen when you’re in sunny settings.

Then, you need to think about brightness. For laptop screens, this will likely be listed in hundreds of nits, though not every laptop will advertise this. 300 nits isn’t bad, but if you think you’ll want to be working outdoor, even under an umbrella or awning, you should to see if you can find a laptop with 400 nits or even better. For a few examples, this year’s Samsung Notebook 9, Huawei MateBook X Pro, Dell XPS 15, and last year’s Razer Blade Stealth all screens offering at least 400 nits.

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What Vitalik Buterin’s tweetstorm means for the future Ethereum blockchain

It took 75 tweets, but Ethereum blockchain founder Vitalik Buterin has clarified the roadmap for implementing a new consensus mechanism that promises to greatly increase the speed with which new entries can be added to the distributed electronic ledger technology.

Buterin devoted most of the tweets to explaining the history of Ethereum developer efforts to create a Proof of Stake (PoS) consensus mechanism that would streamline the process while also combating nefarious attacks to control blockchain content.

He also clarified that a PoS system will be implemented independently from another effort to roll out sharding on Ethereum. (Sharding is a way of distributing the computational work needed to validate new documents, known as blocks, on the distributed ledger technology). The PoS and sharding development efforts had been part of one project, but they will now be rolled out separately.

Proof of Work and Proof of Stake

The two most popular mechanisms or algorithms for authenticating new entries on a blockchain and governing changes to the networks are Proof of Work (PoW) and Proof of Stake.

PoW algorithms force computers on the peer-to-peer (P2P) network to expend CPU power to solve complex cryptographic-based equations before they’re authorized to add data to a blockchain ledger; those computer nodes that complete the equations the fastest are rewarded with digital coins, such as Ether on Ethereum or bitcoin on the competing technology. The process of earning cryptocurrency through PoW is known as “mining,” as in mining bitcoin.

As the name suggests, PoS consensus models enable those with the most digital coins (the greatest stake) to govern a cryptocurrency or business blockchain ledger. To date, however, the most popular blockchain-based cryptocurrencies — Bitcoin, Ethereum (Ether) and Litecoin — have used PoW as their consensus mechanism.

While PoW algorithms are excellent at ensuring the authenticity of new documents posted to a ledger, they’re also slow and expensive to run.

The PoW process chews up a lot of electricity, both from running processors 24/7 and from the need for cooling server farms dedicated to mining operations. Those mining operations are siphoning off so much electricity that cities and even countries have begun clamping down on mining operations.

PoW protocols can also be extremely slow due to the lengthy process involved in solving the mathematical puzzles; approving a new entry on a blockchain ledger can take 10 or more minutes. PoW algorithms are, however, excellent at thwarting users who would try to game the blockchain, as it’s simply too expensive to expend the CPU power and time.

In contrast, PoS algorithms can complete new blockchain entries in seconds or less.

“Proof of Stake algorithms definitely have the potential to overtake Proof of Work,” said Vipul Goyal, an associate professor in the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). “However, there are still some significant research challenges that need to be overcome before that happens.”

Ethereum Twitter Vitalik Buterin Twitter

Ethereum began working on a PoS system in 2014 and last year introduced the mechanism on a testnet called “Casper” (as in Casper the Friendly Finality Gadget or Casper FFG). Casper was intended to be overlaid on Ethereum’s current PoW algorithm. Its release had been scheduled for some time this month but has been delayed.

There have also been internal development wars over the way Casper should be implemented.

As with other PoS models, the Casper consensus protocol would work by creating “bonded validators,” or users who must place a security deposit down before being allowed to serve as part of the blockchain consensus or voting community. As long as bonded validators act honestly on the blockchain, they can remain in the consensus community; if they attempt to cheat the system, they lose their stake (their money). Ethereum’s Casper PoS system would enable a consensus mechanism to process new transactions in about four seconds.

A hybrid system

Last year, two developments in the effort to implement a new consensus model came in the form of a standalone PoS mechanism named Serenity and a hybrid PoW/PoS system named Metropolis. Metropolis was divided into two phases: the development of a byzantine fault-tolerance mechanism launched last year and a project known as Constantinople — the hybrid PoW/PoS system.

The Constantinople name was dropped earlier this year and the effort to implement a new Casper PoS and sharding system is now being referred to as Ethereum 2.0.

The PoS system, whether hybrid or standalone, was going to require that validators deposit 1,500 Ether coins to become part of the consensus mechanism. In his tweet storm, however, Buterin announced the number of Ether coins required to become a validator will now be 32.

Jake Yocom-Piatt, creator of the digital currency network Decred, believes the best governance model is one that employs both PoW and PoS mechanisms, as Buterin and the Ethereum development team are proposing.

In a hybrid model, deference is given to the PoS validators who can override bad behavior on the PoW network.

“If you’re a Proof of Work miner and you’re playing games and causing problems on our network, the stakeholders on the network can penalize them and strip them of their rewards,” Yocom-Piatt said. “You can also vote on consensus rule changes. This acts as a dispute-resolution and decision-making mechanism for major decisions in the cryptocurrency,” Yocom-Piatt said, referring to new software releases and other blockchain changes.

In Ethereum 2.0’s latest model, the blockchain would grow in blocks using the current PoW algorithm, “but every 50 blocks is a PoS ‘checkpoint'” where finality is assessed via a network of PoS validators, a white paper explained.

Over its development lifecycle, the PoS protocol faced a number of challenges, the most difficult of which is what is known as “posterior corruptions,” which could undermine the authenticity of a blockchain. For example, a set of users on a blockchain can hold the majority stake, and then sell that stake. In a PoS system, those entities could still hold the cryptographic keys that gave them governing power in the past and use that authority to create a new blockchain or “attack chain” off the primary chain (known as a fork). In effect, they would still have their money stake as if it had never been sold and control the blockchain’s direction.

“If the attack chain diverges from the main chain at a fairly recent point in time, this is not a problem, because if validators sign two conflicting messages for the two conflicting chains this can be used as evidence to penalize them and take away their deposits,” Buterin wrote in his Twitter thread. “But if the divergence happened long ago (hence, long range attack), attackers could withdraw their deposits, preventing penalties on either chain.”

To deal with long-range attacks, Ethereum developers introduced a change requiring clients log on at least once every four months and that their deposits take four months to withdraw, so the incentive to avoid a penalty would no longer be available.

Ethereum developers also considered other consensus algorithms “inspired by traditional byzantine fault tolerance theory,” such as Consensus by Bet, but eventually abandoned them as “too risky.”

Shawn Dexter, an analyst with Mango Research, said the most recent Ethereum update has people confused because much of the explanatory information is contained in comment sections across various forums. Even in an explainer last week, Dexter cautioned things still may change between now and when a PoW/PoS and sharding algorithm is implemented.

Casper and sharding will likely not be launched on the beacon chain together, Buterin explained, saying that while they’ll be implemented on the same chain, Casper could come first or sharding. Both will be implemented on a new overlay network known as Beacon Chain.

Buterin ended his Twitter thread by saying there is no formal timeline for implementing the new consensus mechanism. While at one point he said Casper would be released this month, his last tweet said there are still “formal proofs, refinements to the specification, and ongoing progress on implementation,” which have already been started by three developer teams.

Martha Bennett, a principal analyst with Forrester Research, cautioned against speculating on when Ethereum 2.0 would be released. “The PoS consensus design took several iterations,” she said via email, “and we simply won’t know until it’s been implemented and has been running for a while whether it’ll work in the desired fashion or not.”

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Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset

Virtual reality sounds terrible. The bevy of 360-degree video cameras are visually immersive, but what they lack is the ability to reproduce convincing ‘lifelike’ audio. And, at first glance, you might not expect the Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset to be any different but, give them a listen, and you’ll realize that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

In fact, these aren’t the kind of earphones you can position into a set category because, in some ways, they’re meant to produce rather than just play. It’s that element that makes them “smart” – you get active noise-cancellation, binaural 3D audio recording and audio transparency to enhance the ambient noise around you. Not to mention an app with a decent equalizer and other custom options.

The concept behind the Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset is simple; it can record moving sound. If you take a video of a car driving from left to right across the shot while wearing it, the audio will move with it. Using an omni-directional microphone in each ear, it records the audio where you hear it. And it gets better; the recorded audio can then we played back through any regular pair of headphones. 

But they also sound really good, so the main checks are marked. The biggest problem they face, honestly, is that it’s unclear who would benefit most from this mix of audio wizardry.

Design

But, if there’s one group we can rule out, it’s Android owners.

For now, these earphones only exist for the iPhone; the audio cable is terminated in Apple Lightning (which also provides the power), though Sennheiser told us that it will also develop a version for Android devices. The Apple Lightning termination is critical because it takes advantage of new audio processing features in OS 10.3.1. 

They have grilles housing microphones underneath that are designed to record spatially to capture sound in what Sennheiser is calling “3D.” It’s more marketing than misnomer because it’s just a fancier way of saying surround sound. 

The point of having it is to record far more audio information than an iPhone or iPad could hope to achieve. Doing that would then result in a video or audio recording that captures far more of the scene’s audible surroundings. The beauty of it for Sennheiser is that users don’t need to wear the Ambeo to hear the effect afterward. Binaural recordings are complex because they mimic the way in which human ears process sound, which is to say that sound doesn’t enter one’s ears at the exact same moment. That’s exactly what this headset sets out to emulate.

Thankfully, 3D audio capture is pure plug and play. Controls are on an in-line remote on the cable, though there’s not much to explore; the binaural mode is always-on, the volume buttons are standard issue, and there’s the usual mic for hands-free calls. There is a ‘transparent audio’ control for reducing or increasing background noise, but that’s about it. Inside the in-line remote is an analogue-to-digital converter and Apogee’s SoftLimit tech, which syncs the timing, volume and timbre of the sounds captured from different directions to create the 360-degree soundfield. 

Within the Ambeo app (available free on the App Store), there is a QuickStart Guide to explain how the different features work, including video, along with a graphic EQ and selections to adjust the situational awareness options.

Features

There was something weird about wearing a pair of earphones, and yet feeling like we could hear everything around us with noticeable clarity. Indeed, we were struck, when using them in Amplify mode – an ANC function which boosts everything around you, filtering your surroundings through without forcing you to take off the earphones – that we could overhear conversations of people sitting nearby. 

Let’s be clear, though – the Ambeo isn’t some Bond-style spy contraption. We weren’t pulling in conversations from across a room, but there was a noticeable boost that enhanced voices. It happened when walking by people talking on the street, as well as on a bus or subway train. We reckon the distance was as close as two feet in most cases, but we even caught the gist of a conversation from double that distance. 

That was crazy, and even a little creepy. We had no intention of eavesdropping, yet it wasn’t lost on us that we were essentially wearing a hearing aid. There’s no way to record anything using Amplify, though we did try to see if there were workarounds. Recording anything always defaults to whatever (Natural or Reduced) is set.

We were also plenty impressed when turning the tables the other way: Noise-cancellation was excellent, drowning out the noise common with public transit. We could barely hear a peep of the roaring and screeching of the subway train and, if anyone was talking around us, we couldn’t hear it.

It continued at street level, too. We played around by noting how good noise-cancellation was, but also the audio recording. Any city street will have its share of random noises coming from different directions, so we tried shooting video to gauge it. 

In one instance, a truck’s diesel engine passed by at a fairly slow speed. People walked by chattering. A couple of honking sounds. It was a pretty standard combination of street sights and sounds. When played back on the Ambeo, however, the audio felt far more spatial than a similar video we shot using the iPhone X’s microphones. Even playing it on other third-party headphones produced a similar effect.

The best part was that it was easy to hear when a sound was coming closer and from which direction. Sounds captured by the left microphone were distinct on that side, just as it was with the right mic. Sennheiser suggested users move their heads in the same direction as the phone when shooting because of how the two earphones record sound. Since the phone isn’t capturing audio itself, the spatial audio could feel off if the phone is facing a different direction than your eyes.

Even so, as cool as all of this was, the recordings aren’t totally bulletproof. There’s a slight hiss that we confirmed when shooting in total silence. It’s less obvious in a noisier recorded audio or video, but it’s still there.

Performance

Amidst all the audio trappings is the Ambeo’s standard ability to playback music. Not surprisingly, these earphones delivered. Bass was nice and hearty, with solid highs, bridged together by superb mids. We weren’t really left wanting when listening to anything on these.

Naturally, there’s always room for improvement. We could see some users wanting more bass (or cowbell?) or feeling more pop in the vocals, but we’re of the mind that most wouldn’t complain too much about this mix. Whether it was hip hop, rock, house, pop, jazz or great movie scores, the Ambeo pumped it all out with verve.

We should also note that phone calls were excellent as well. Callers sounded really clear, with equal clarity noted on the other side. We had callers unsure as to whether we were using earphones at all. 

Final verdict

The binaural sound effects are impressive, and they do really add something that the virtual reality era is missing or, at least, will miss once VR hits the mainstream; 360 degree sound is the future. Despite the main feature being theoretically complicated, the form factor is familiar and it’s so easy to use. Videos can be exported from the iPhone to a computer or tablet for listening to that same exact, original binaural sound field via any pair of earphones or headphones, or through a home cinema’s surround sound system. 

However, the Sennheiser Ambeo Smart Headset’s biggest win isn’t in creating binaural sound, but just in capturing better, more intricate sound. That’s underlined further by the fact that these are also just plain great stereo earphones. 

But, conversely, it’s just that the sum of all these parts isn’t for everyone. If you’re not into the 3D recording and audio transparency, it’s hard to justify spending $300 (£259, AU$469) on the Ambeo. Not to mention Android users are cut out of the equation and the awkward sports styling that might not be everyone’s taste.

If you’re an iPhone user and like the idea of experimenting and using the audio frills squeezed into these earphones, however, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything comparable right now.

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Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 vs AMD Radeon RX Vega 64: which ultimate graphics card is best for you?

The Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 is finally a real, tangible GPU and with six times the power of Pascal-based GTX GPUs, it’s a beast. But how does Nvidia’s best graphics card ever stack up to its eternal rival, AMD, with its Radeon RX Vega 64?

Well, it’s never going to be apples-to-apples comparisons when it comes to products from different companies. However, since they both aim to generate incredible visuals for your favorite PC games, we’ll pit them against each other on paper before taking them into the lab later this year.

That being said, from their design, to their projected performance, to how much that performance will cost you, let’s look at which graphics option for you is better: the Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 versus the AMD Radeon RX Vega 64.

Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080

The new Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 in the silicon.

Design

Right off the bat, the designs of these two graphics card are drastically different: The AMD Radeon RX Vega 64 uses a traditional, air-based cooling mechanism with a single fan drawing cool air in and driving it out the rear vents while the RTX 2080, uses a dual-fan approach which involves a heat sink in the process of dispersing hot air. (Of course, the idea here is for greater temperature control, but we won’t see that bear fruit until a full review.)

AMD has a slight leg up here on Nvidia in producing an official liquid-cooled version of the RX Vega 64, whereas Nvidia has yet to publicly discuss any such option for its newest card. We’ll see whether Nvidia’s dual-fan air cooling system bridges that gap.

The other major important factor of design, connectivity, is where the RTX 2080 pulls ahead with the capability to house a USB-C port in addition to the usual DisplayPort and HDMI ports. This comes standard on Nvidia’s Founders Edition version of the card, and is likely available for manufacturers to implement if they so choose. 

The RX Vega 64 has no such option, but of course includes all of the latest connectivity standards otherwise.

This distinction is important, because USB-C is poised to become the de facto official connection for virtual reality (VR) hardware and applications in the near future. The RTX 2080 is ready for this next phase in simplifying VR, and the RX Vega 64 is not.

AMD Radeon RX Vega 64

Here’s what the stock AMD Radeon RX Vega 64 looks like.

Performance

Of course, we have yet to run any benchmarks on the RTX 2080 because of how fresh-off-the-presses this card is. However, we can compare the two graphics cards on paper using their ratings for various basic performance metrics.

Before we tackle the RTX 2080, let’s lay out what the RX Vega 64 is capable of first. This graphics card operates at a 1,247MHz processor frequency, or clock speed, which is able to boost up to 1,546MHz using basic tools. 

The RX Vega 64 GPU itself contains 4,096 stream processors and houses 8GB of High-Bandwidth Memory 2 (HBM2) video RAM that can process up to 484.3 gigabytes of data per second, or GB/s, with a speed of 1.89 gigabits per second, or Gbps.

Now, the RTX 2080 runs at a base clock speed of 1,515MHz, just a hair shy of the RX Vega 64’s boosted speed, and at 1,710MHz when boosted. While Nvidia’s CUDA cores and AMD’s stream processors are different, they generally accomplish the same task: rendering pixels and carrying out other compute tasks. 

To the RX Vega 64’s 4,096 stream processors, the RTX 2080 has just 2,944 CUDA cores. However, the CUDA cores are more versatile than the stream processors, able to carry out a wider variety of compute tasks, whereas stream processors are more specialized for efficiency.

Back to more meaningful comparisons, the RTX 2080 also has 8GB of video memory, but on the new GDDR6 standard – a follow-up to GDDR5X– rather than AMD’s HBM2. This memory actually has marginally less bandwidth than the RX Vega 64, able to process up to 448GB/s, but at an exponentially higher speed of 14Gbps.

The RTX 2080 does all of this with 215 watts (W) of power, while the RX Vega 64 requires 295W from your system’s power supply.

In the end, judging by processor and memory speed alone, as well as power draw, the RTX 2080 looks to be a clear winner here. However, this doesn’t account for differences in processor design and other factors, so only a full run of benchmarks will hold the true answer.

The Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 is far and away the more expensive option – surprising no one.

Price

Now, for the ultimate deciding factor: how much these things cost. 

AMD’s current suggested retail price for its RX Vega 64 is $499 (£549, about AU$630), but third party manufacturers, like Gigabyte and Asus, are still selling the card for far more than that on account of increased demand from cryptocurrency miners.

Meanwhile, the RTX 2080 is considerably more expensive, with the Founders Edition costing $799 (AU$1,199, about £602). That’s a much higher price than the GTX 1080 of yesteryear, a mere $599 (£600, AU$925) in comparison.

Of course, you should also consider the implied cost of these graphics cards, judged largely by their power draw. The RTX 2080 requires less power than the RX Vega 64, which could see you needing a beefier power supply to support the latter – an incurred cost, if your system isn’t properly equipped for the job.

AMD Radeon RX Vega 64

The AMD Radeon RX Vega 64 next to last generation’s Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080.

Which card is the better pick?

As pricey as it is, the RTX 2080 offers features in games that simply aren’t possible with the RX Vega 64 – namely real-time ray tracing for more realistic lighting and shadows in games. That fact alone, not to mention the price, makes this versus bout a difficult one.

Sure, on paper, the RTX 2080 wins in almost every regard. But, that doesn’t account for what you actually need from a graphics card.

If you seek the absolute most up-to-date capabilities from your graphics card, then clearly the RTX 2080 – or even the slightly cheaper $599 (AU$899, about £451) RTX 2070 – is your ticket to the latest and greatest. 

The RTX 2080 looks as if it’s going to burn through games at Ultra settings and 4K resolution, much less make them look better with ray tracing. However, if you simply want to be able to game at 1080p or even 1440p resolutions with the settings all the way cranked up, the RX Vega 64 is by far a more cost-effective way there.

So, even in 2018, the classic dichotomy between Nvidia and AMD graphics cards remains: splurge for Nvidia if you need the absolute latest and greatest, but AMD’s best will serve more mainstream gamers just as fine for far less.

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Facebook gives users trustworthiness score

Facebook has confirmed that it has started scoring some of its members on a trustworthiness scale.

The Washington Post revealed that the social network had developed the system over the past year.

The tech firm says it has been developed to help handle reports of false news on its platform, but it has declined to reveal how the score is calculated or the limits of its use.

Critics are concerned that users have no apparent way to obtain their rating.

The BBC understands that at present only Facebook’s misinformation team makes use of the measurement.

The tech firm has, however, objected to the tool being described as a reputation rating.

“The idea that we have a centralised ‘reputation’ score for people that use Facebook is just plain wrong and the headline in the Washington Post is misleading,” said a spokeswoman.

“What we’re actually doing: We developed a process to protect against people indiscriminately flagging news as fake and attempting to game the system.

“The reason we do this is to make sure that our fight against misinformation is as effective as possible.”

Fact-checking

The Washington Post’s report was based on an interview with Facebook executive Tessa Lyons about the platform’s battle against “fake news”.

It reported that she said it had been developed to improve a fact-checking scheme begun in 2016, in which posts that Facebook users flag as being false are sent to third-party organisations to decide if they should appear lower in people’s news feeds.

To make the system more efficient, she explained, her team wanted to know which flaggers were themselves trustworthy.

“People often report things that they just disagree with,” Ms Lyons explained, adding that the system gave users a score between zero and one.

The BBC understands that this is calculated by correlating the false news reports with the ultimate decisions of the independent fact-checkers.

So, someone who makes a single complaint that is substantiated gets a higher score than someone who makes lots of complaints, only some of which are determined to be warranted.

‘Automated and opaque’

Facebook is far from being the first tech firm to privately score its users.

Uber has long rated its customers according to the marks each driver gives them. But originally it required clients to email in requests to find out their count before it decided to make the information available via its app.

Twitter’s co-founder Ev Williams said in 2010 that it gave users a secret “reputation score” to help it recommend which members to follow.

The Chinese state is also piloting a system in which citizens are given a “social credit” score based on a mix of their online and offline behaviour.

But one expert said that Facebook’s use of an “automated and opaque” scoring system raised particular concerns.

“It’s unsurprising that Facebook would want to assess the credibility of its users, considering how some of them are highly suspicious, gullible or out to deliberately misinform others,” said Dr Bernie Hogan, from the Oxford Internet Institute.

“But consider the analogy of one’s credit score.

“You can check your credit score for free in many countries – by contrast, Facebook’s trustworthiness is unregulated and we have no way to know either what our score is or how to dispute it.

“Facebook is not a neutral actor and despite any diplomatic press materials to the contrary, it is intent on managing a population for profit.”

Civil rights campaigners have also been critical.

“This is yet another example of Facebook using people’s data in ways they would not expect their data to be used, which further undermines people’s trust in Facebook,” said Ailidh Callander, a solicitor at Privacy International.

“Facebook simply must learn some hard lessons, and start being transparent and accountable about how they use people’s data to profile and take decisions.”

It is not clear if the scoring system is applied to EU citizens.

But a spokeswoman for the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office noted that under the recently introduced General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) organisations must be “transparent” about what they do with people’s personal information.

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Xiaomi Mi A2 Lite / Redmi 6 Pro Review

Xiaomi’s Redmi 6 Pro is exciting for two reasons. First, it’s the exact same phone as the Mi A2 Lite, which is interesting to users outside China for its Android One operating system and Google apps. And second, it’s a seriously good budget phone.

With change from £200 the Redmi 6 Pro boasts a 19:9 Full-HD+ display, dual rear cameras, an appealing design and decent performance. There’s loads of storage too, and space for more.

It bests the Honor 9 Lite – the current leader of our budget phones chart – in a number of ways, yet it comes in at a cheaper price. And that makes this Redmi 6 Pro well worth a second look.

The Redmi 6 series is Xiaomi’s current budget line, but things get a bit confusing. As well as this Redmi 6 Pro there’s the standard Redmi 6 and cheaper still Redmi 6A. The 6 Pro has very little in common with either of those phones, as we’ll outline below.

And then there’s the Redmi 6X, which is more of a mid-range phone than a budget model. As with the 6 Pro and Mi A2 Lite, the 6X is actually the same phone as the Mi A2, but running MIUI 9 rather than Android One.

(Xiaomi also sells budget phablets in its Redmi line, but we won’t confuse the situation any further here – see best Xiaomi phones for more details.)

Xiaomi Redmi 6 Pro / Mi A2 Lite

What’s the difference between Mi A2 Lite and Redmi 6 Pro?

The Redmi 6 Pro is primed for users in Xiaomi’s home territory of China. It’s running MIUI 9, which is a custom version of Android Oreo. It doesn’t come preinstalled with Google services such as the Play store and related apps, though it is possible to install them via the Mi Store. We’ve done exactly that for the sake of this review.

The other thing it lacks is 800MHz 4G LTE connectivity, which is worth noting for UK users – especially those on O2’s network (or GiffGaff, Sky Mobile and any of the others that piggyback it), since those networks don’t support either of the other 4G LTE bands used in the UK and supported by the 6 Pro.

The Mi A2 Lite is arguably a better fit for UK users with its Android One (in essence plain Android with timely updates) operating system, Google apps and services, and support for 800MHz 4G LTE. 

On the Mi A2 Lite you won’t find any Chinese characters or preinstalled apps, and that will be especially appealing to users who aren’t especially tech-savvy. It’s going to be easier for an English-speaking user to pick up and get started with the Mi A2 Lite, but of course the reverse is true for the Redmi 6 Pro and Chinese users.

With a little bit of tech-savvy the Redmi 6 Pro is perfectly usable in the UK. Installing Google services takes only a few minutes, and it’s easy enough to uninstall the Chinese apps from the home screen and install a more familiar keyboard.

Xiaomi Redmi 6 Pro / Mi A2 Lite

Where to buy the Xiaomi Redmi 6 Pro

Our Redmi 6 Pro was supplied by GearVita, which is a Chinese importer. When shipping to the UK from China you need to be prepared to pay import duty (20 percent of the value on the shipping paperwork), but GearVita does offer the option for delivery within the EU which negates that issue.

GearVita offers the 6 Pro in a range of colours (our sample is black) at $219.99 (roughly £171.53). Until the end of August it’s offering an extra $30 off the 6 Pro using coupon code RMI6PRO, which drops the price to an unbeatable level.

Shipping is not free, but neither is it extortionate. Your cheapest option here (at the time of writing) is $8.94 (£6.97) via Swedish Registered Air Mail.

Where to buy the Mi A2 Lite

GearVita also stocks the Mi A2 Lite at $185.99 (£144.56), which is actually a bit cheaper than the Redmi 6 Pro. So the Mi A2 Lite is starting to look a bit like a no-brainer, for UK users in any case.

Xiaomi Redmi 6 Pro / Mi A2 Lite

Xiaomi Redmi 6 Pro (Mi A2 Lite) Design & Build

The Redmi 6 Pro is almost unrecognisable from its cheaper Redmi 6 and 6A brothers, instead looking a lot more like the Redmi 6X – here the most notable difference is the lack of a screen notch on the 6X.

Even before you turn it on you’ll notice it has a metal body, whereas the cheaper models are plastic. It’s not a unibody design, and there’s a noticeable ridge between the screen’s plastic bezel and the metal frame. There are also plastic top and bottom end caps at the rear, which should improve cellular signal, but even despite this the overall feeling in the hand is much more premium.

At the back the Pro has the same centrally mounted fingerprint scanner as the Redmi 6 and 6X, and like the latter its dual-camera sits vertically with the LED flash in the middle of the arrangement. The Redmi 6’s flash instead sits to the side looking more like an afterthought.

You’ll also spot the speaker grille that is rear-facing on the 6 and 6A has been moved to the Pro’s bottom edge, with drilled holes sitting either side of the Micro-USB port – perhaps the biggest giveaway of this phone’s budget roots.

There is just one speaker here, with the other row of holes concealing one of the phone’s two mics – you’ll find the other on the top edge, where the 6 Pro also offers an IR blaster.

If we can’t have our phone’s speakers at the front then the next best place is at the bottom – on the rear as they appear on the two cheaper models they tend to fire sound directly into your palm. While we’re on the subject of audio, the three cheapest Redmi 6 phones offer a 3.5mm headphone jack at the top but the 6X does not.

Xiaomi Redmi 6 Pro / Mi A2 Lite

Unique to the Pro in the Redmi 6 series is an enlarged slot-loading SIM tray that can accept both two SIMs (Nano) and a microSD card up to 256GB in capacity. Given that the Pro already offers 64GB internally storage is very generous, but we’re equally impressed that unlike the Pro doesn’t force us to choose between two SIMs and storage expansion.

The Redmi 6 Pro is a fraction taller than its cheaper siblings, but you wouldn’t expect Xiaomi to have been able to achieve so much with the extra room. Not only is there a 4,000mAh battery inside, which is 1,000mAh more than you get with the 6 or 6A, but Xiaomi has also been able to fit a larger screen – 5.84in up from 5.45in. The Redmi 6X is fractionally larger still at 5.99in, and without the notch.

And here’s where we get to the major aesthetic difference within the Redmi 6 family. Whereas the 6 and 6A are fitted with HD panels, the 6 Pro has a 19:9 full-HD+ display. There’s a notch at the top, as seen on the Mi 8, which includes the front-facing camera, earpiece and sensors. 

The screen is fantastic quality for a budget phone, with its IPS display tech offering realistic colours, excellent clarity, and a maximum brightness of 456cd/m2 in our tests. More than anything else, though, its 19:9 aspect ratio and notch just make it look a lot more special.

The Redmi 6 Pro still has a fairly chunky bottom bezel, despite the fact its navigational buttons are onscreen (or not, if you opt for full-screen gestures within MIUI 9). But it’s smaller than you see on the Redmi 6 and 6A, and the side- and top bezels are pleasingly slim.

Overall the Pro looks and feels great in the hand – not like a flagship, but also nothing like a budget phone.

Xiaomi Redmi 6 Pro / Mi A2 Lite

Xiaomi Redmi 6 Pro (Mi A2 Lite) Core Hardware & Performance

We’ve already touched on the Redmi 6 Pro’s increased battery capacity, but numbers on a spec sheet don’t mean much when you also consider the fact this phone has a larger, higher-resolution screen and a faster Qualcomm processor than the 6 and 6A, which are both fitted with MediaTek chips.

We’ve not yet had a chance to benchmark the Redmi 6X, and while it should prove faster than the Redmi 6 Pro with its Snapdragon 660 CPU and Adreno 512 GPU it’s unlikely to match its battery performance with a smaller 3010mAh pack. (Our review of the 6X should be online within the next couple of weeks.)

We ran Geekbench 4’s battery test, in which the 6 Pro bested the Redmi 6 by a full 2 hours with a 10 hour 36 minute result. That’s a very good score in this test, and in the real world it’s not going to stumble getting you through dusk till dawn. Xiaomi claims this is a two-day battery, but in reality that’s going to depend on how much you use your phone.

None of the Redmi 6 models support wireless charging, but the 6 Pro is supplied with a fast (not Quick Charge-fast) 10W adaptor in the box while the Redmi 6X has Quick Charge support. If you’re buying in the UK note that you’ll need an adaptor for our three-pin sockets, or you can just use your existing phone charger.

Xiaomi Redmi 6 Pro / Mi A2 Lite

Xiaomi has fitted the Redmi 6 with a MediaTek Helio P22, and the Redmi 6 with a MediaTek A22. This 6 Pro comes with a mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 625, clocked at 2GHz and integrated with 650MHz Adreno 506 graphics. There’s 4GB of RAM, too, but 3GB of memory in the 6 and just 2GB in the 6A.

(In fact, the Redmi 6A’s core hardware really isn’t anything to get excited about with a meagre 16GB of storage. The 6 Pro’s 64GB looks colossal by comparison.)

So we probably don’t need to tell you that the Redmi 6 Pro outclasses the 6 and 6A in our benchmarks. The others got a lot closer in GFXBench, with the Redmi 6 actually taking the lead by a few frames, but that’s only because the 6 Pro has a higher-resolution screen and therefore more pixels to push. We’d much rather play games and watch movies on its larger, Full-HD+ screen.

The benchmarks also reveal much higher performance scores than those achieved by the Honor 9 Lite, which is really the 6 Pro’s main competition. Whereas the Honor scored 3668 points in Geekbench 4, for example, the 6 Pro stomped all over that with 4294.

Both those scores point to phones that may not keep up with the flagships, but offer decent, usable performance for daily tasks.

You can compare all our test results in the chart below.

Xiaomi Redmi 6 Pro (Mi A2 Lite) Cameras & Photography

If photography is a priority for you then we’d advise looking closer at the Redmi 6X, which features a 20Mp + 12Mp dual-camera at the rear and a 20Mp selfie camera at the front. The Redmi 6 Pro is pretty well specced for a budget phone camera, however – and, again, better specced than either the Redmi 6 or 6A.

Xiaomi has fitted the 6 Pro with a 12Mp + 5Mp dual-camera with 1.25um pixels, PDAF and a single LED flash at the rear, and a 5Mp selfie camera at the front. It supports some intelligent AI features, such as smart selection of preset filters and settings, and a bokeh-effect (blurred background) portrait mode. It can also shoot 1080p video at 30fps, or 720p slow-mo at 120fps.

Our tests shots (some of which are pictured below) revealed a camera that offers decent quality at this price. Viewed at full-size noise is noticeable, and there’s not as much detail as we’d like, but colours and exposure are good.

Xiaomi Redmi 6 Pro / Mi A2 Lite Auto

Xiaomi Redmi 6 Pro / Mi A2 Lite HDR

In low light the Redmi 6 Pro did a reasonable job, and we were impressed with how it picked out the different shades of black and how well it reproduced text. The overall result is not as pin-sharp as we’d like, but we can hardly complain at this price.

Xiaomi Redmi 6 Pro / Mi A2 Lite Low Light

Xiaomi Redmi 6 Pro Software

If you do opt for the Chinese version of the Mi A2 Lite, there are a number of benefits to running MIUI. Right now that’s MIUI 9, but soon we’ll see an update to MIUI 10.

MIUI is quite a departure from standard Android, and the first thing you’ll notice is there’s no app tray. The Settings menu is also rearranged, and everything just looks a bit different and unfamiliar.

You won’t find any Google apps preinstalled (you must install these yourselves if you wish to use them), but Xiaomi offers its own alternatives for most things.

Xiaomi Redmi 6 Pro / Mi A2 Lite

There’s also rather a lot of what seems to be bloatware on this phone, but we couldn’t tell you what half of it is because it’s in Chinese. Fortunately you can uninstall most of it, just drag the app icons toward the top of the screen and you’ll get an Uninstall option if it’s possible.

There are some features within MIUI that you don’t see in standard Android, for example Dual Apps (which lets you run two instances of individual apps) and Second Space (which lets you create a separate environment on your phone and is handy if someone else is using it). You can also access features designed for ease of use, such as Quick Ball and One-handed mode.

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Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot preview

Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot preview

Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot is a new virtual reality spin-off from MachineGames and Bethesda’s recent Wolfenstein reboot series, placing you in the shoes of an ‘80s resistance hacker with the ability to take control of Nazi war machines and turn them against their masters.

In short, that means you really get to play as a variety of different Nazi robots as you tear through environments and slaughter other Nazis, with all the immersion the HTC Vive can provide. We tried it out for ourselves at Gamescom on a Vive Pro, and here’s what we think.

Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot: Price and availability

Cyberpilot is so far only set for a release some time in 2019, and we don’t know much more than that. We know it’s coming to HTC Vive and Vive Pro, but other platforms – namely Oculus and PlayStation VR – are yet to be confirmed.

Naturally that means pricing is up in the air, and with the sheer variety of prices we’ve seen for other big VR games, it’s hard to make a good guess.

Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot: Preview

The modern Wolfenstein games have toed a delicate line between schlocky B-movie sensibilities and attempts to tackle the weightier moral and emotional crises that any Nazi story necessarily provokes.

Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot, on the other hand, looks to more firmly come down on one side of that line. This is a game about killing Nazis, pure and simple, clearly hoping that widescale destruction and the novelty of VR will carry players through.

The game leaps 20 years on from the events of Wolfenstein 2, and apparently the Nazis are still in power (which doesn’t exactly bode well for your hopes of winning in the expected third game). That time jump is mostly an excuse to justify the narrative hook that you’re a hacker, able to remotely take control of the Nazis’ many and varied war machines.

In our demo, that meant the Panzerhund – essentially a giant, fire-breathing tank dog. Using the regular Vive Pro controllers, the right trigger fired a flamethrower mouth, the left initiated a ram attack, and a combo of motion controls on the right controller and the touch pad on the left were used for movement and turning.

Simple controls for a simple game then, as this is pure arcadey fun. From what we saw there’s not much narrative, minimal exploration, and it’s not even especially tough. You basically just move forward, splattering and burning baddies, with larger groups and new enemy types popping up as the demo goes on.

There’s nothing here so far that won’t be familiar to anyone who’s played the two main games or their DLC. Every enemy type – regular troopers, Super Soldaten, even a giant mech – has been lifted from the main series, and even streets of ‘80s Paris look surprisingly familiar to those of ‘60s Berlin from Wolfenstein: The New Order.

That’s in part because the ‘80s setting is a bit under-used. MachineGames may well be planning to add fascist synth pop and neon tanks, but right now the game doesn’t make the most of the time jump – and series fans will no doubt be annoyed that Nazi tech apparently hasn’t advanced one bit in 20 years.

SHOULD I BUY WOLFENSTEIN: CYBERPILOT?

Still, this demo is very early days for the game, and the devs have a lot of time to expand on the setting, ramp up the style, and hopefully diversify the combat a little.

Until then, this looks like the sort of dumb empty-headed fun that The New Order first appeared to be – before revealing itself to be so much more. Let’s hope MachineGames is just trying to pull the same trick twice.

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