Monthly Archive: September 2016

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Hands on: Asus ZenBook UX305CA

Asus 305CA QHD

The Asus UX305CA stands out for being extremely thin and for its 3200 x 1800 matte screen.

Image: Asus

The Asus ZenBook UX305CA[1] hails from a successful line of ZenBook Ultrabooks first launched in 2011. The UX305CA can be compared to Apple’s MacBook (2016)[2], partly because of its appearance — the original ZenBooks had distinctive brushed aluminium patterns that aren’t on the creamy white UX305CA — and partly because it has the same Skylark-based Core m3-6Y30[3] and 8GB of RAM. The two laptops look and perform much alike, despite their noticeably different screen sizes.

The ZenBook UX305CA I had on loan from Asus for a few months had a matte IPS screen with a resolution of 3200 x 1800 pixels and accurate color rendering. It beats the MacBook’s screen resolution of 2304 x 1440 pixels, though the UX305CA obviously has a bigger screen: 13.3 vs 12 inches.

Neither laptop has a touch-sensitive screen, so you have to rely on trackpad gestures. Having now spent several years with touch-screen laptops and tablets, I missed this feature a lot.

The ZenBook UX305CA obviously beats Apple’s MacBook in the number of ports. Where the MacBook has a single USB type C port, the UX305 has three USB 3.0 ports, a microHDMI port and — great for photographers — an SD card slot. Although it doesn’t have a full-sized Ethernet port, Asus provides a USB-to-RJ45 cable.

The UX305CA also has a higher-resolution 720p webcam than the MacBook’s 480p FaceTime camera.

The Core m chip design falls between the Atom and mainstream Core chips in terms of performance, but offers better battery life. I found it perfectly adequate for everyday tasks such as email, web browsing, and word processing with Microsoft Office. It also runs Adobe Lightroom, though I wouldn’t recommend it for Adobe Creative Suite.

In use

All-in-all, the ZenBook UX305CA has a lot going for it, starting with the aluminium construction and very good screen. It’s very thin, has lots of ports, and is reasonably priced. I thought the cream surface might pick up my inky fingerprints but it still looked like new after the occasional wipe down.

But there’s always a but, and this case, I have two.

First, I didn’t much like the keyboard, which isn’t backlit and has tiny cursor keys. I admit to a preference for big clicky keys, and I’ve never found an Ultrabook keyboard I’ve actually liked. If you’re used to flat Chiclet-style keyboards, you may well like it, but I’ve had better Asus keyboards. (As it happens, the Apple MacBook’s keyboard is also worse than the MacBook Air and Pro keyboards. Being ultra-thin has its price.)

On the other hand, the UX305CA’s trackpad is both big and good, though not quite up to Apple standards. You won’t end up packing a mouse.

Second, the battery life could be better, I was getting about six hours of web-connected work out of the UX305CA with normal settings (ie not a power saving mode). This is somewhat short of the promised “up to 10 hours”. It would be good for a full-spec Core chip, but I’d hoped for a little more from a Core m3 with a 44Whr battery.

The otherwise similar MacBook, which only has a 41.4Whr battery, also claims “up to 10 hours of wireless web”. It would be interesting to run the two side by side. I suspect that with the same screen brightness and my typical work patterns, the result would be roughly the same.

At least modern power adaptors are small and light enough to carry around….

Crapware

My UX305CA loaner arrived with quite a lot of bundled software, not all of it useless. The selection included Cyberlink Power Director 12 and Cyberlink Photo Director 5, WPS Office for Asus (otherwise known as Kingsoft Office) and Foxit Phantom PDF, Magix Music Maker Jam, Ice Power’s Audio Wizard, WinRAR 5.40, Evernote 5, TeamViewer 10, and McAfee anti-virus software.

It also included some Asus utilities such as Asus Smart Gesture, Asus USB Charger Plus, and WinFlash, which is a BIOS update utility.

WPS Office starts in premium mode and the word processor was more than good enough to write this review. Cyberlink Photo Director 5 seems reasonable, and offers a paid upgrade to the current version. I didn’t run any of the others.

Benchmarks

As usual, I ran the NovaBench[4] benchmark on the UX305CA, because it’s quick, easy, and free. It means you can test your current laptop for comparison purposes.

The Core m3-6Y30 was unusual in producing inconsistent results for CPU speed, which presumably depends on its variable clock speed. In six tests, the CPU scores ranged from 285 to 321, but all of them were lower than the 346 scored by the same CPU in a Lenovo Yoga 700.

On balance, I’m plumping for a NovaBench score of 562, because the UX305CA managed that in half the tests. This was made up of 180 points for the 8GB memory, 321 for the CPU, 44 for the HD515 graphics and 17 for the storage. This is significantly better than the 408 scored by an Asus T100HA[5] with an Atom x5-Z8500, and significantly worse than the 766 scored by a Dell Latitude E5470[6] with a Core i5-6300U, both of which I’ve reviewed here.

Conclusions

The UX305CA is a good-looking, well-made silent (fanless) and cool-running 13.3-inch portable at a good price. You can get one with the Quad HD screen and 256GB of storage for less than £650 inc VAT, which compares with £1,049 ($1,299) for a similar 12-inch Apple MacBook. And, of course, you could save even more by shopping around for a UX305 with a lower-res screen and 128GB of storage, depending on your needs.

The Core m3-6Y30 offers more performance than an Atom chip, and is fine for everyday use word processing and browsing. However, if it’s your main machine, you’d be better off with a different model with a Core i5 or i7. There are plenty of those in the ZenBook range.

SEE ALSO

ASUS ZenBook UX305CA, First Take: An affordable ultrabook with all-day battery life[7]

References

  1. ^ Asus ZenBook UX305CA (www.asus.com)
  2. ^ Apple’s MacBook (2016) (www.apple.com)
  3. ^ Core m3-6Y30 (www.notebookcheck.net)
  4. ^ NovaBench (novabench.com)
  5. ^ Asus T100HA (www.zdnet.com)
  6. ^ Dell Latitude E5470 (www.zdnet.com)
  7. ^ ASUS ZenBook UX305CA, First Take: An affordable ultrabook with all-day battery life (www.zdnet.com)
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Cybathlon, the world’s first ‘bionic Olympics, merges tech, disabled athletes

The Rio Paralympic Games are still fresh in our memories, but there is another event on the immediate horizon that will showcase the abilities of disabled athletes — and even throw in a good dose of cutting-edge tech for good measure.

The occasion is next week’s Zurich-based Cybathlon[1], the world’s first ever international sporting competition in which disabled athletes from 21 countries compete using bionic assistive technology.

There are six events in total at what can (unofficially) be best summed up as the bionic Olympics. These include a brain-computer interface race, which asks pilots to steer an avatar through a virtual reality obstacle course using their brain waves; a bike race based around functional electrical stimulation; powered arm and leg prosthesis races; a powered exoskeleton sprint; and powered wheelchair race.

Related: How BMW’s self-driving car tech will give American swimmers a leg up in Rio[2]

In short, if you’ve ever admired the skill and training of top athletes, but thought it could do with a bit more input from top research labs, this is probably the sporting contest for you.

“It’s not an event just to show off technology, nor to show off pure human abilities,” organizer Robert Riener[3], head of the Department of Health Sciences and Technology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, told Digital Trends. “It’s designed to demonstrate the balance between technology and human users in order to help people perform daily challenges. The goal isn’t to develop cyborgs; the goal is to develop technology that will work together with humans.”

We wrote about the Cybathlon earlier this year[4]. However, with little over a week to go until the one-day event on October 8, it all seems a lot less speculative and more real — including to Riener.

“We’re incredibly busy right now,” he continued. “There’s been so much interest from the media and the general public. Even now, we’re hearing from people who want to enter, although it’s too late to take extra people at this stage. It’s been really exciting to see it come together after we’ve been working toward it for so many years.”

The event is being live broadcast in German-speaking countries and streamed internationally over the internet. But while we’ll have to wait and see if it all goes according to plan, Riener is already looking to the future.

“There will have to be other events,” he said. “There is still so much to be done when it comes to questions of inclusion and developing technologies for people with motor disabilities. We want to do further international events, road shows, smaller national competitions, and more. We can’t stop here.”

References

  1. ^ Cybathlon (www.cybathlon.ethz.ch)
  2. ^ How BMW’s self-driving car tech will give American swimmers a leg up in Rio (www.digitaltrends.com)
  3. ^ Robert Riener (www.sms.hest.ethz.ch)
  4. ^ wrote about the Cybathlon earlier this year (www.digitaltrends.com)
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The only thing ‘Luke Cage’ lacks is a villain big enough for a fair fight

At this point, it feels like an understatement to suggest that the bar is set pretty high for every new chapter added to Marvel’s rapidly growing cinematic universe on Netflix.

With two wildly successful first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones already in the bank, and proof – in the form of the equally popular second season of Daredevil – that the shows have staying power with audiences, the new series Luke Cage arrives on the scene with big shoes to fill.

Fortunately, as he points out on several occasions during the show’s first season, Marvel’s hero of Harlem is a size XXL.

Led by showrunner and head writer Cheo Hodari Coker (Notorious, Southland), Luke Cage brings back actor Mike Colter as the steel-skinned superhero Luke Cage, who made his debut in the first season of Jessica Jones. The series is set just after the events of Jessica Jones, and picks up where that series left off: with Luke putting Hell’s Kitchen in his rearview mirror and heading north to Harlem.

Although he tries to keep a low profile, Luke’s efforts to stay under the radar are complicated by the machinations of local crime boss Cornell Stokes (played by House of Cards actor Mahershala Ali), and he’s forced to come out of the shadows in order to protect the neighborhood from the sinister forces – both outside the law and within it – that threaten to tear it down.

Marvel has done an impressive job so far with handling the first seasons of its small-screen superheroes’ adventures. Both Daredevil and Jessica Jones have been introduced in story arcs that weave the obligatory origin stories into the seams of the season-long narrative and bring the audience into the immediate action without spending too much time dwelling in the past.

Luke Cage takes a similar approach to getting you familiar with its titular hero, but spends noticeably more time exploring the character’s life before he got superhuman powers than any of the previous series spent with their super-powered protagonists. The reasons behind the show’s emphasis on Luke’s history become clear as the season unfolds, and the slow burn is handled well by Coker, who expertly paces the expansion of what we know about Colter’s character.

As for Colter, the former The Good Wife and The Following actor handles the transition from supporting character to series lead well, and proves that he is indeed capable of carrying his own show – something that critics and fans both wondered after seeing him play a secondary role in Jessica Jones. With the exception of a few scenes in which he doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with Coker’s comics-inspired dialogue or extended, philosophical monologues, Colter does a fine job of selling his character’s super-powered evolution and everything that goes along with it.

The series also benefits from a great group of actresses in supporting roles.

Simone Missick (The Road to Sundance) holds her own as police detective – and popular Marvel Comics character – Misty Knight, who becomes an instant addition to the list of characters you’ll want to see more of in future series. Oscar nominee Alfre Woodard (Cross Creek) also seems to revel in her role as a powerful councilwoman with more than a few skeletons in her closet.

Mike Colter proves that he is indeed capable of carrying his own show.

Still, while Colter successfully follows in the footsteps of previous, well-received Marvel series leads Charlie Cox (Daredevil) and Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones), Luke Cage suffers a bit for lack of a similarly memorable villain.

The first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones featured some of the most impressive small-screen villains in recent history, with Vincent D’Onofrio’s crime boss Wilson Fisk and David Tennant’s mind-controlling killer Kilgrave stealing the spotlight in their respective roles. In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that those first seasons were defined as much by their villains as their heroes, and owe quite a bit of their success to their brilliant bad guys.

Unfortunately, Luke Cage opts to go for a host of mediocre antagonists instead of one standout villain, with Ali never quite mustering much of a threat to Luke Cage, and the eventual emergence of another, more powerful villain offering too little, too late. Crafting a worthwhile antagonist for a character with bulletproof skin and super strength can’t be easy, but anyone familiar with the two previous Marvel series will likely feel like something big – and bad – is missing from Luke Cage.

The differences between Luke Cage and the two earlier Marvel series aren’t all negative, though.

Coker and the series’ creative team clearly intended to make the setting of Luke Cage a character in and of itself, and they do a fantastic job of bringing Harlem alive on the screen and forging a connection between the neighborhood and the show’s audience. The series’ cast of characters are prone to waxing philosophical about the importance of Harlem and its role in both the history of America and that of the African-American experience in the U.S., and the series conveys that vision of the famous borough with surprising effectiveness. It’s difficult to watch Luke Cage and not feel some sort of strong emotion about Harlem, even if you’ve never set foot in New York.

netflix_marvel_luke_cage_011

Coker also uses the music in Luke Cage in a way unlike any of the previous Marvel shows.

Early reports about the series had hinted that Coker intended to pay special attention to the musical component of the show, and it becomes clear early on that this is indeed the case – and only becomes more apparent as the season unfolds. Whether the audience watches Luke take down a building filled with criminals against the backdrop of the Wu-Tang Clan track playing through Luke’s headphones or simply having the tone of the episode set by extended takes of the performers in Cornell Stokes’ club, music often does as much to define the series’ narrative as the actors’ performances and the dialogue. The music of Luke Cage is its own character, and it plays a key role in each and every episode.

Although the first season of Luke Cage doesn’t quite match the all-around success of its Marvel peers on Netflix, it still manages to be one of the best new, original series to premiere this year. The series’ fresh, innovative use of music and the way it makes its setting an integral part of the story are unlike anything done in the previous Marvel shows, and it’s encouraging to see the studio’s willingness to try new things in its small-screen universe and break the existing mold – particularly when it’s a mold that Marvel itself created.

Like the incident that gave the show’s title character his powers, Luke Cage is a risky experiment – but it’s one that pays off in the end.

Facebook’s Messenger Day feature is a Snapchat Stories copycat 0

Facebook’s Messenger Day feature is a Snapchat Stories copycat

It seems like everyone is trying to copy Snapchat these days.

Shortly after Facebook-owned Instagram launched a Stories feature[1], which lets users broadcast a collection of photos and videos that disappear after 24 hours, Facebook has begun testing a similar feature in its Messenger app. It’s called Messenger Day. This new feature and Instagram Stories directly rip off Snapchat’s Stories feature. Instagram’s CEO even gave credit to Snapchat when unveiling Instagram Stories.

If you remember, Facebook reportedly tried to buy[2] Snapchat for $3 billion in 2013, but when it was turned down, it launched a clone app called Slingshot[3] (that never took off and was eventually shut down). Now, instead of making standalone apps to compete with Snapchat, it’s baking popular Snapchat functionality directly into its already popular Instagram and Messenger apps. Messenger Day is now live in Poland.

TechCrunchfacebook-messenger-day

TechCrunch[4] said the feature allows Messenger users to share a collection of photos and videos with friends that will disappear in 24 hours. These photos and videos can be decked out with text, scribbles, stickers, filters, and much of the same stuff you find in Snapchat Stories. Facebook said Messenger Day is only in testing among a small group of users in Poland, and that it has nothing more to announce at this time.

Keep in mind companies commonly test new features on small groups before doing worldwide rollouts, so Messenger Day could arrive soon for all, though Facebook hasn’t confirmed that’s the case.

References

  1. ^ Instagram launched a Stories feature (www.pocket-lint.com)
  2. ^ Facebook reportedly tried to buy (www.pocket-lint.com)
  3. ^ launched a clone app called Slingshot (www.pocket-lint.com)
  4. ^ TechCrunch (techcrunch.com)