All posts in “Gadgets”

Intel ships update for newest Spectre-affected chips


Intel has announced that the fix is out for its latest chips affected by Spectre, the memory-leakage flaw affecting practically all computing hardware. The patch is for the Skylake generation (late 2015) and newer, though most users will still have to wait for the code to be implemented by whoever manufactured their computer (specifically, their motherboard).

The various problems presented in January by security researchers have to be addressed by a mix of fixes at the application, OS, kernel, and microarchitecture level. This patch is the latter, and it replaces an earlier one that was found to be unstable.

These aren’t superficial tweaks and they’re being made under pressure, so some hiccups are to be expected — but Intel is also a huge company that has had months of warning to get this right, so people may be frustrated by the less-than-optimal way the flaws have been addressed.

As before, there isn’t much you as a user can do except make sure that you are checking frequently to make sure your PC and applications are up to date — in addition, of course, to not running any strange code.

If you’re on an older chipset, like Sandy Bridge, you’ll have to wait a bit longer — your fix is still in beta. You don’t want to be their test machine.

Featured Image: Alice Bevan–McGregor/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE

A system to tell good fake bokeh from bad


The pixel-peepers over at DxOMark have shared some of the interesting metrics and techniques they use to judge the quality of a smartphone’s artificial bokeh, or background blur in photos. Not only is it difficult to do in the first place, but they have to systematize it! Their guide should provide even seasoned shooters with some insight into the many ways “computational bokeh,” as they call it, varies in quality.

Generally the effect created by an SLR with a good lens open wide, leading to smoothly blurred backgrounds and predictably shaped light points, is the gold standard.

The advantages and disadvantages of artificial background blur, as found in most flagship phones these days, come from the basis they all have in dual cameras. By using both cameras to capture information about a scene, then using that information to determine a depth map and blur out things beyond a certain distance or object, a passable simulation of the SLR’s effect can be created.

Look at that smooth background blur… photo by me.

But of course it can be done well or poorly. There are telltale signs of having taken this shortcut, many of which the DxOMark review team has identified and fit into their review schema. Some are expected, while others are a bit surprising. But they all show up in the rather crazy test setup concocted to provoke these undesired behaviors.

For instance, you probably know that these artificial bokeh systems occasionally blur out pieces of the bits they’re meant to keep sharp — a curl or hair, a hand or nearby plant. That’s points off, of course, but real background blur also ramps up smoothly on either side of the focal point, meaning things near the sharp part will be only slightly blurred, while items far away like distant lights will be reduced to circular smudges.

For a phone to simulate that, it would need to calculate an accurate depth map for everything in the scene and render the blur progressively. That kind of processing costs time and battery, so few do anything like it. Still, it’s what they should do if they’re imitating this optical phenomenon — so DxOMark grades them on it.

That’s only one of several pieces of the puzzle, however, so read the rest and next time you read one of the site’s reviews, you’ll have a bit more insight into where all those points come from.

Apple could be buying cobalt from mining companies directly


Cobalt is the new oil. Car companies and battery manufacturers are all rushing to secure multiyear contracts with mining companies for their lithium-ion batteries. According to a Bloomberg report, Apple is also participating in this game as the company wants to secure its long-term supplies.

The company has never done this before with cobalt. Apple relies on a ton of suppliers for all the components in its devices — including for batteries. And yet, cobalt prices have tripled over the past 18 months. Chances are Apple will secure a contract much more easily than a battery supplier.

While an Apple Watch battery is an order of magnitude smaller than a car battery, Apple sells hundreds of millions of devices every year. All those iPhone and Mac batteries represent quite a bit of cobalt.

But the issue is that car manufacturers are putting a ton of pressure on cobalt suppliers. BMW and Volkswagen are also looking at signing multiyear contracts to secure their supply chains. And other car manufacturers are probably also paying attention to cobalt prices.

As a side effect, buying cobalt straight from the mines makes it easier to control the supply chain. It’s hard to know where you cobalt is coming from when you buy batteries from third-party suppliers. And in that case, it can be a big issue.

Amnesty International published a report in January 2016 about cobalt mines, saying that tech companies and car manufacturers aren’t doing enough to prevent child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — the country is responsible for 50 percent of global cobalt production.

A couple of months ago, Amnesty International published an update, saying that Apple is more transparent than others. The iPhone maker now publishes a list of its cobalt suppliers. But there’s still a long way to go in order to make sure that mining companies respect basic human rights.

But let’s be honest. In today’s case, Apple mostly wants to be able to buy enough cobalt at a fair price for its upcoming gadgets. And the company has deep enough pockets to sign this kind of deals.

Nest rolls out a $5 cloud recording plan for its cameras

Just a quick bit of news for those with Nest cams around the house: a new, cheaper Nest Aware (read: the cloud recording service that also gives the camera a bit more smarts) plan is on the way.

Nest has long offered two plans: a $10/month plan that lets you store the last 10 days of video history, and a $30/month plan that gives you 30 days of video history. This new plan will cost $5 per month and, as you’ve probably deduced, will give you five days of video history.

This is something folks have been asking for for a while now. Most people don’t really need 10 days or more of their video logs; in most cases, the bit of security footage you’re most interested in is from the last day or two. It’s also nice news for those with multiple Nest cams — each one needs its own Nest Aware subscription, so that $10 per month minimum added up fast.

In addition to the cloud video recording, a Nest Aware subscription also taps the cloud to teach the Nest Cam a few new tricks: it lets you set “Activity Zones” (letting you set up alerts when there’s motion in certain areas like, say, a door way), create timelapses and it can try to tell whether that thing moving around your living room is a person or just your dog.

One of Nest’s cameras can now double as a Google Assistant

After Google announced earlier this month that it was going to wrap Nest back into Google’s hardware operation, everyone figured we’d see a bit more overlap between the two. Sure enough, just two weeks later: the Nest Cam IQ Indoor is getting support for Google Assistant.

Nest says the app update that lets users toggle Google Assistant functionality should hit sometime today. The Nest Cam IQ already has a microphone and speaker built-in for two-way communications, so this just repurposes that existing hardware.

Once you’ve turned on the functionality, Google Assistant on the Cam IQ should work the same as it does on any Google Home device — just say “OK Google” followed by your question.

It sounds like this functionality is only coming to the Cam IQ Indoor for now — so don’t try barking commands at the outdoor Cam IQ or your old Dropcams just yet.