Friday, June 03, 2016

MSI's Backpack PC is an imperfect solution to VR wires


One of the problems with the current crop of non-smartphone VR headsets is that they need to be connected to PCs via thick, heavy cables. These might hamper your movements when you're busy playing a game, or worse, you could trip over an errant wire and fall face flat on the floor. Well, a few companies have come up with an interesting solution: VR backpacks that carry a full-fledged PC, enabling you to move around unencumbered. MSI's version is called the Backpack PC. Since it was on display here at Computex 2016, so I took a few minutes to try it out for myself.

Equipped with an Intel Core i7 processor and a GeForce GTX980 graphics card, the entire rig weighs in at around 10 pounds. That sounds pretty hefty, but to my surprise it actually didn't feel too heavy when I strapped it on. This particular backpack was attached to a HTC Vive, which the helpers at the MSI booth then fitted to my head. I then played a game demo that had me shooting at flying robots, which shot back tiny red energy balls that I was supposed to avoid. If I didn't dodge those bullets, my "ship" would be destroyed.

As a result, I found myself moving around a lot, bobbing and weaving as much as I could. Compared to the normal Vive experience, I have to admit the lack of wires feels pretty freeing. Instead of worrying on whether I was about to wrap myself around in cables, I could just enjoy the game. Still, wearing a backpack feels pretty silly, plus its battery life is only around an hour before you have to charge it again.

MSI hasn't announced pricing or availability for its Backpack PC just yet, but the company says it should be out later this year. I don't imagine this will be too popular for normal home use, but I could see it being useful for perhaps in-store demonstrations or amusement parks where wires lying around could be a real hazard. Or, you know, if you want to feel like you're one of the Ghostbusters.

Stay on top of all the latest news from Computex 2016 right here.


Thursday, June 02, 2016

Google's new software lets anyone make interactive displays


Google has created an intriguing new piece of open-source software in the form of AnyPixel.js, where anyone can create their own large, interactive displays. "Big and unusual" are the key operators here, and that seems to be exactly what Google has done as its first project.

While brainstorming ideas for something interesting to put in the NYC office, Google came up with an interactive light-up arcade button installation, taking over six thousand buttons and coordinating control via web page, opening up the panel of buttons to developers to create something fun. The result is an awesome-looking set of light-up buttons that you can press on your own for colorful, swirling designs or patterns you can watch over and over.

Google wants to put that kind of power in your hands, so you can create your own similar setups, whether you choose balloons, lightboxes, or a myriad of other components to bring your ideas to life. Before you get started you can take to Google's browser previewer as well to get some sort of idea of how your project will look when it's completed, so you don't have to be in the dark throughout the creative process.

If you're interested in working with AnyPixel.js, you can grab it from GitHub right here.


Wednesday, June 01, 2016

AMD's 7th generation laptop chips are stronger Intel competitors


AMD has always been the cheaper alternative to Intel's processors, but with its latest generation of mobile chips, it's also aiming to close the performance gap. Announced at Computex today, the new high-end FX chips are 56 percent faster compared to AMD's previous generation of laptop processors, while its entry-level chips are 52 percent faster compared to the last-gen. And compared to Intel's fastest Core i7 mobile chip, the 7th gen AMD FX offers 53 percent faster graphics and a 51 percent bump in compute performance. Basically, these are the laptop chips AMD fans have been waiting for.

As is usually the case with major processor upgrades, AMD also focused on power efficiency for the new chips. The company claims its high-end FX chips now use 12 percent less power than the last gen, and the latest A9 processors use 41 percent less power when playing local 1080p videos. At the lower-end, AMD added "Excavator" cores to the new A9, A6 and E2 processors, which gives them a decent performance bump and makes them more efficient at playing HD video.

AMD says its new manufacturing process also allowed it to reach faster clock speeds with the chips. Its high-end FX 9830P offers 3GHz base speeds (with maximum speeds of 3.7GHz), while the lowest end E2-9010 is clocked at 2GHz (max up to 2.2GHz). The new A9 chip, which is being positioned as an Intel Core i3 competitor, gets max speeds 1.5GHz faster than the i3-6100U.

While AMD isn't talking about specific pricing details for these chips (it's not like you can buy them on their own), partners including Dell, HP, ASUS and Lenovo are already using them in new system designs. And of course, you can expect them to reach even more laptops (and some all-in-ones) throughout the year.


AMD's Radeon RX480 GPU is VR ready for just $199


For its upcoming Polaris GPUs, AMD doesn't just want to entice hardcore gamers. Instead, it's aiming to bring virtual reality-capable PCs to just about everyone with its new Radeon RX480 video card, which will retail for a mere $199. The RX480 is capable of more than 5 teraflops of computing power, whereas NVIDIA's new GTX 1070 packs in over 6 teraflops for $380, and the high-end GTX 1080 sports around 9 teraflops for $600. On paper alone, AMD's new card is an astounding value (and one that NVIDIA can't yet counter without lowering prices).

The RX480 is based on AMD's new Polaris architecture, and it'll be available in 4GB and 8GB memory configurations. It'll support AMD's Freesync technology to smooth out frame rates, as well as HDR gaming with DisplayPort 1.3/1.4 support.

Really though, the key selling point of the RX480 is its cost. Currently, the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift require video cards costing around $300 at the minimum. By delivering a $199 card that's VR capable, AMD has dramatically lowered the cost of entry to VR for consumers. It's also a smart strategy for AMD, since NVIDIA has currently sewn up the high-end and mid-range market with the GTX 1080 and 1070.

Still, it's not as if the RX480 won't be good for gamers. In a remote video, Id developers praised its ability to run the new Doom remake (though we didn't get exact frame rate numbers). You could also run two RX480 units simultaneously, a configuration that managed to beat out NVIDIA's GTX 1080 while playing Ashes of Singularity. (And better yet, that configuration would only be around $400, compared to $600 or more for the 1070.)

The RX480 clocked in 62.5FPS, while the GTX 1080 was a bit lower at 58.7FPS. AMD's Radeon head Raja Koduri proudly pointed out that the dual-RX480 system only reached around 50 percent of its computing capacity, while the NVIDIA card was maxed near 100 percent.

The RX480 will hit store shelves on June 29th, and we're aiming to get our hands on it soon for testing.


Double Robotics turns its telepresence robot into a VR rig


There's one big problem with trying to capture virtual reality video while moving... those pesky humans. Even if you have stabilizing gear, the person carrying the camera will still limit what and how you shoot. Double Robotics has a simple answer to that, though: its newly-launched 360 Camera Dolly robot transforms the company's telepresence bot into a remotely controlled, silent VR camera rig. If you want to record a cinematic tracking shot or college campus tour, you don't need any people or noisy equipment on the scene.

The dolly has an attachable mount that accepts virtually any VR camera array weighing less than 5 pounds, including those built for action cameras and smartphones. It's not a trivial purchase at $3,000 for a full kit (the same as the regular telepresence robot), but that's still reasonable for pro VR productions. And if you only need the mount, you can buy it by itself for $249.

Source: Double Robotics


Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Samsung's new 512GB SSD is smaller than a postage stamp


Storage in your laptop or smartphone is a compromise between volume, access speed and physical size. But, the industry's competition to shrink them while boosting their specifications is fierce. A few months after shipping a 16TB solid-state drive, Samsung has announced a fast, efficient 512GB SSD that's half the size of a postage stamp.

Samsung's press release claims that the drive is the first mass-produced 512GB SSD with non-volatile memory express (NVMe), a host-controller interface with a streamlined register for speed, in a single package. Unlike other hard drives in multi-chip packages (MCP), Samsung's new drive is organized in a ball grid array into a collected unit, making it simpler to fit in and connect to other parts in the device. This makes the drive ideal for the ultra-slim notebook PC market, where space and weight are at a premium.

A senior Samsung VP said in a press release that the tiny drive triples the performance of a typical SATA SSD. Its read/write speeds of up to 1,500MB/s and 900MB/s, respectively, mean you could transfer a 5GB HD video in 3 seconds. Samsung will start selling the drive in June in 512GB, 256GB and 128GB models.

Source: Samsung


Up close with the ASUS ZenFone 3 series


Like it does every year at Computex, ASUS announced a bunch of new smartphones that won't break the bank. Only this time, the best-looking device turned out to be the base model: the ZenFone 3. I managed to get some hands-on time with this $249 device and to my surprise, it looks just as good in real life thanks to the spun-metal finish on the back. It also has a more premium feel than its predecessor due to the switch from a plastic body to a combination of metallic frame and 2.5D glass panels. At this price point (with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage), there's little to complain about, but it'll take some real-life usage to see if the mid-range Snapdragon 625 will suit your needs.

The high-end ZenFone 3 Deluxe isn't far off either. It has a metal unibody case that's subtly curved on the back for better ergonomics, and unlike most competing metallic phones, the Deluxe manages to cover up most of its antenna bands -- the remaining bits are just on the body's chamfer. Still, I wouldn't mind having the ZenFone 3's body for the Deluxe as I'm more mesmerized by its concentric circles on the back, which is more effective than the same effect applied to the Deluxe's chin and ear pillow on the front side. On a more positive note, the Deluxe's Super AMOLED screen is visibly more vibrant, though we've yet to find out how well it performs under daylight. As for performance, we're confident that the 6GB of RAM (at $499, with 32GB of storage) plus the Snapdragon 820 will keep things running smoothly, assuming the final software build won't have any major bugs.

This leaves us with the 6.8-inch ZenFone 3 Ultra. Compared to its two smaller siblings, the Ultra has a less exciting design, featuring a flat metal unibody simply decorated with a chamfer, but at least it feels solid like the other two. As with the ZenFone 2, the Ultra's volume keys are also placed on the back, which is a bit odd given that the other two ZenFone 3 models have them on the side. On a similar note, the Ultra's fingerprint reader is located on the front side instead of the back like on its siblings, which perhaps makes more sense given that you're less likely to be holding up the phablet as often; it is notably heavier, after all (233g instead of the Deluxe's 170g), mainly because of the generous 4,600mAh battery.

One thing I must praise is that those dual speakers at the bottom are super loud, which says a lot because even the single speaker on the lesser ZenFone 3 models is already pretty powerful. I just wish they were facing the front. $479 for this model gets you 4GB RAM and 64GB of storage, so even though it's running on a Snapdragon 652 (which should be more than plenty for everyday use), it probably wouldn't take much to convince those who are addicted to watching videos on the road. As to how big that market is, only time will tell.

Based on my early hands-on time, it's safe to say that ASUS is generally headed in the right direction with its latest smartphones, but there are still questions remaining: Are the cameras as good as they claim to be? And how stable is the latest ZenUI? We'll need to spend some more time with these devices -- and fully put them through their paces -- to know for sure.


Intel's 7th generation of Core CPUs are coming later this year


Besides its $1,723 10-core Core i7 Extreme Edition processor, Intel just teased some other chip news during its keynote presentation at Computex. There aren't many details available, but the company confirmed the the 7th generation of its Core CPU technology will go on sale later this year. They will be joined by its Apollo Lake chips, which are a cheaper version of the current 6th gen Skylake family. Apollo Lake should bring 4K video capability and USB-C to cheaper, 2-in-1 laptop/tablet style devices with smaller batteries. As far as the 7th generation of Core CPUs, buyers can expect support for Thunderbolt 3, and IR cameras used for features like Windows Hello's facial recognition.


Digital Storm's latest gaming all-in-one packs a 10-core CPU


The trend of gigantic all-in-one gaming PCs isn't ending any time soon. Digital Storm has unveiled a new version of the Aura, a 34-inch curved system that packs some truly high-end hardware. To begin with, it's one of the first PCs to use Intel's enthusiast-oriented, Broadwell-E-based Core i7 Extreme Edition processors -- you can equip it with up to a 10-core chip if you're bent on juggling multiple apps at the same time. You can also stuff in a GeForce GTX 1080 to make sure games play smoothly at the Aura's ultra-wide 3,440 x 1,440 resolution.

As with other all-in-ones of this caliber, you're not giving up hardware upgrades to save space. Digital Storm promises that you can replace just about everything, including the graphics card and the motherboard. It even supports liquid cooling, in case you hate the idea of a noisy (or just hot-running) rig. Just be prepared to open your wallet if you like the concept. The Aura starts at $1,999, and history suggests that you'll be paying much more to get your dream machine.

Source: Digital Storm