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8
Apr

‘Ghost in the Shell’ is more cyberposeur than cyberpunk


Spoilers ahead for the Ghost in the Shell anime and US remake.

The original Ghost in the Shell anime feature is a cultural landmark. It was a neo-noir story set in a startlingly fresh vision of a connected world, and it was particularly timely in 1995 since the internet was just finding its legs in the real world. The film’s lead was a badass cyborg woman privy to bouts of existentialism. And, like the best cyberpunk science fiction, Ghost in the Shell (and its original manga) asked deep questions about our relationship with technology. There was little chance a Hollywood remake could successfully grasp what was special about its source material. And, unfortunately, the Scarlett Johansson vehicle is just as disappointing as we expected. It completely misses the point of cyberpunk.

If you’re not a sci-fi aficionado, it’s worth clarifying what cyberpunk actually is. In broad terms, it describes near-future stories that explore tech’s impact on society, and often with a cynical view about progress. They’re the modern equivalent of noir detective stories, with hard-boiled characters and all. The term was popularized during the 1980’s following works like William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, but it could also be applied to science fiction from previous decades. Most notably, the term encompasses the work of Philip K. Dick, whose 1968 book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? serves as the source material for Blade Runner. While most people would consider The Matrix the de facto 1990’s example of cyberpunk, it was also heavily inspired by Ghost in the Shell.

The exploration of identity is a common occurrence in cyberpunk, and indeed it’s core to the original Mamoru Oshii-directed film. If we can upgrade ourselves to be smarter and stronger, at what point do we become more machine than human? And with the rise of artificial intelligence, how do we even define life? Ghost in the Shell’s main character, Major Motoko Kusanagi, spends much of the film pondering who and what she is. She knows that she has a human brain encased in a cybernetic body (the film’s iconic opening sequence shows her “birth” and should be familiar to Westworld viewers). But does that make her a person, or just a unique machine?

“Everyone who’s entirely made of cybernetic parts like me wonders if I died a long time ago, and the current me is just a pseudo-person made of cyberbrain and body parts,” she says at one point. “Or maybe ‘I’ didn’t even exist in the first place.” And after her colleague Bato reminds her that she has a real brain, she counters with a bit of philosophical jiu-jitsu: “No one ever sees one’s own brain. We just determine from our surroundings that someone like us exists.”

In the Rupert Sanders-directed remake, Johansson’s character Major also wonders who she is, but she’s far less thoughtful about expressing it. And, typical of an American retelling of an Asian story, her ultimate answer is unsatisfyingly concrete. She eventually discovers that she was the victim of an evil corporate plan to kidnap people, steal their brains and plug them into cyborgs. But after successfully vanquishing the villains, she doesn’t question her fate — or anything, really. She just accepts her role as an intelligence agent. Simple. Existential dilemma solved!

There are, of course, deeper questions about identity where the American film completely fails. Cultural critics have been arguing for months that casting Johansson in the lead role was a form of whitewashing. Major Kusanagi, a Japanese character, was an ideal role for an Asian actress in Hollywood. Instead, she became just another action role for Johansson. Rather than figuring out a way to counteract the criticism, the film somehow manages to make it worse by revealing that Johansson’s character also has the brain of an actual Japanese girl. (There’s no shortage of think pieces online about why the casting was problematic.)

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Paramount Pictures

Beyond the gunplay and set pieces, the Ghost in the Shell anime also set itself apart by throwing you into the deep end of a world where technology is completely integrated with humans. Most people have cyberbrains — metal cases for their organic brains that allow them to “jack in” to computers and networks. The film doesn’t slow down much to explain the concept of a cyberbrain to you, but you eventually grasp it by how characters use them. At one point, you see an official’s hands expand into a multitude of robotic digits, which is clearly a big help for typing faster. While the remake echoes this imagery, it doesn’t do anything thoughtful with it.

Take the character of Togusa, for example. In the anime, he’s established as the least augmented member of Section 9, the intelligence group led by Major Kusanagi. He uses a traditional revolver, and his lack of cybernetic implants seems like a detriment when he’s surrounded by literal supersoldiers. But as he starts to question why he’s even on the team, Kusanagi makes an intriguing point: A system with standardized components will inevitably fail. If every member of her team was cybernetically enhanced in the same way, that leaves them open to an attack that could take them all out.

Togusa’s mere presence is a check against that design flaw. The entire exchange is something we see often in cyberpunk: Technology doesn’t always mean progress. In the remake, they point out that Togusa uses an old gun and that’s it.

Perhaps the biggest failure of the American version of Ghost in the Shell is that it simply doesn’t do anything new. Whereas the original brought plenty of innovative ideas to the table — it was one of the few science fiction films to actually build on the Blade Runner aesthetic — the adaptation is perfectly content with copying surface-level style while dumbing down deeper concepts. While the film has been praised for its style, ultimately it’s basically just the original Ghost in the Shell aesthetic mashed together with Blade Runner and a boatload of CGI. The remake’s vision of New Port City is also oddly sterile. There’s none of the lived-in sense of grit you’d find in most cyberpunk stories.

Even the villain is far less interesting. In the remake, it ends up being yet another evil corporate plot. But in the anime, the “Puppet Master” is a completely synthetic life form “born out of the sea of information.” He’s not inherently evil, he’s just trying to figure out who he is.

“It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself,” the Puppet Master says when someone claims he’s just a computer program. “Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So, man is an individual only because of his intangible memory… and memory cannot be defined, but it defines mankind. The advent of computers, and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.”

Cyberpunk stories have rarely been about easy answers, and that’s yet another concept the Ghost in the Shell adaptation fails to grasp. Every conflict ends up having a distinct conclusion, be it the villain or Major’s place in the world. At the end of the anime however, Major Kusanagi doesn’t defeat the antagonist in the traditional sense. She joins with him to create an entirely new being — a union of a human soul and brain together with a purely cybernetic being.

After being transplanted into a new body, she looks out over the cityscape and simply asks: “And where do I go from here? The network is vast and infinite.”

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8
Apr

Recommended Reading: iFixit wants to show you how to repair everything


Meet the $21 Million
Company That Thinks
a New iPhone Is a
Total Waste of Money

David Whitford,
Inc.

We’re no stranger to iFixit’s in-depth teardowns here at Engadget, but the company has a plan that’s much more than ripping apart the latest gadgets to see what’s inside. Inc. takes a look at how the the company is helping the masses repair everything from smartphones to kitchen appliances and why they offer guides for doing so free of charge.

When Shazam Scoops Your Album Announcement
Marc Hogan, Pitchfork

Well, this is awkward.

Funny or Die at 10: An Oral History
Brian Raftery, Wired

Funny or Die carved out a unique spot when it comes to online comedy. Wired takes a look at the site’s history that began with a two-minute Will Ferrell sketch.

How Do You Beat the Smartphone Camera?
Rob Walker, Bloomberg

One tactic is enlisting a well-known industrial designer with a proven track record to work on your 16-lens point-and-shoot camera.

Peter Moore Talks Leaving Electronic Arts for Liverpool FC
John Davison, Glixel

Glixel chats with the former head of EA’s esports division who left to take the CEO chair at Liverpool FC about stepping away from games after a 19-year career.

8
Apr

SCOBY yourself: How to make kombucha from scratch


So you’ve ditched your home-brewed beer, are too impatient for homemade wine, and are justifiably wary of making bathtub gin. But you’re also tired of paying thirty bucks a case for kombucha, a drink that has been made by people from virtually nothing for centuries. Making kombucha from scratch has to be easier than some of these farm-to-table recipes, right? Not only is it a breeze, but it’s also a labor you’ll love.

More: Caffeine consumption: The difference between cold brew, espresso, and coffee

What is kombucha, anyway?

If you’re still reading, you’re probably either a fan of kombucha, or have at least sampled a commercially produced version. For the newbies, kombucha is a zesty, fermented, lightly effervescent drink made by adding bacteria and yeast to sugar and tea (black or green), and then letting the process of fermentation do its work. Science, yeah!

Make no mistake: Kombucha is a funky drink, and it’s often an acquired taste. It’s sometimes referred to as “mushroom tea,” because it has an earthy, savory aroma with hints of alcohol and vinegar. That’s why aficionados often add juice to the base brew to make the tea taste better.

The drink is fermented in three stages, which we’ll discuss below. Kombucha is high in acid and contains sugar, vinegar, B vitamins, antioxidants, trace amounts of alcohol due to the fermentation process, and a few other trace chemical compounds. An eight-ounce mug of kombucha contains about 60 calories. By comparison, an eight-ounce café latte from Starbucks contains about 100 calories.

Kombucha is produced by fermenting tea using a SCOBY (this one’s important, so remember it for the test, kids). The acronym stands for “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast,” and while it sounds like some kind of scary mutant, this chemical cocktail is a crucial tool in creating a truly unique drink.

Home-brewers either buy a “kombucha mother” starter, or use a starter sample from an existing culture to grow a new starter that ferments in a jar for a couple of weeks.

A Brief History of Kombucha

No one really knows where kombucha originated, but here’s what we think we know.

The common wisdom is that kombucha originated in what is now Manchuria around 220 BCE and was largely limited to that region for over a century. It is apocryphally reported that the drink and its recipe was imported to Japan in 404 CE by Kombu, a Korean physician called upon to treat the Japanese Emperor Ingyo using a special tea. The Chinese referred to kombucha as the Tea of Immortality and the Elixir of Life, so the drink’s unproven health benefits have a long history.

The first recorded mention of kombucha comes from Russia and the Ukraine late in the 19th century. Spread via Russian and German POWs after World War I, kombucha began to reach new countries quickly, according to The Atlantic. By the 1920s, the drink was brewed throughout Germany as a home and folk remedy. It was also sold in pharmacies under a variety of names.

The word itself has a murky history as well. Dictionaries suggest it probably originates with the Japanese word kombucha, meaning tea made from kombu, the Japanese word for kelp. Kombucha was sometimes confused with a kelp-based infusion due to the thick, gelatinous nature of the drink’s base culture.

8
Apr

Common problems with installing Windows 10 Creators Update – and how to fix them


The Windows 10 Creators Update is an impressive improvement over the Anniversary Update, chock-full of new features and user interface tweaks. Any time you upgrade your operating system, however, you risk something going wrong. Like any complex piece of software, Windows 10 and its installation process are vulnerable to mistakes, glitches, and hardware errors. That being the case, here are some of the most commonly-encountered problems that arise when installing or upgrading to the new version of Windows, and how to solve them.

More: Curious to see how the Creators Update stacks up to the Anniversary Update? Check our full review.

Low disk space

External hard drive

Windows 10 requires quite a bit of free disk space on your hard drive or solid state drive in order to install. The 32-bit version of the OS — used mostly on tablets and less expensive laptops at this point — needs 16GB of free space, the 64-bit version needs 20GB, and if you’re installing from a file stored on your computer itself with the Microsoft upgrade tool, you’ll need an additional 2 to 4GB just for the installation files.

If you have a full storage drive, or a small one to begin with, you’ll need to make some room. The quickest way to do this is to uninstall space-hogging programs. Robust 3D games and complex packages like Adobe Creative Suite take up gigabytes of space. Uninstall them and be sure to back up any save files or settings. Don’t worry, you can re-install them from the installation discs or with a download once Windows 10 is properly set up.

Should you still need, it’s recommended you remove files in the following order: video files, audio files, images of all kinds, then documents and other files. An external USB hard drive is the quickest and easiest way to accomplish this — simply save any files you can’t delete to the external media, and they’ll be easy to restore once you’ve installed Windows 10. Afterward, empty the Recycle Bin to clear the deleted files, or run a program like CCleaner to clear out your browser caches, logs, and other things that take up storage space.

To check your progress, click the Start button, type “This PC,” and click the result. The drive labeled “Windows” is what Windows 10 will install to — make sure you’ve got at least 20GB free, preferably a little more, just to be safe.

8
Apr

Master your Samsung Galaxy S8 with these tips and tricks


samsung-unpacked-background-banner-280x7

Samsung’s Galaxy S8 is finally here, and it’s a looker. The South Korean company’s phone packs a gorgeous edge-to-edge curved screen, a beefed-up front-facing camera, a top-of-the-line processor, and a new virtual assistant powered by artificial intelligence. But like many devices of the Galaxy S8’s caliber, not every feature is easy to use — or find.

Luckily, we’ve spent enough time with the Galaxy S8 to get a handle on a few of its most useful functions. Here’s what you need to know.

More: Show your Galaxy S8 you care with one of these great cases

S8 tips for Bixby, S-Health, and emojis

How to use Bixby

Bixby, Samsung’s new AI-powered assistant, is a tap away from every screen. The Galaxy S8 has a dedicated Bixby button that will eventually trigger actions like sending a photo to a friend and casting a video to a smart TV. For now, though, it pulls up Bixby Home, Samsung’s take on a Google Now-style anticipatory assistant.

Bixby Home consists of cards highlighting the weather forecast, breaking news, and more. But it’s more than just an organizer. Home learns your preferences and habits over time — if you typically call a loved one after work, for example, it’ll serve up contact info at the appropriate time each day.

There’s more to Bixby than Home. Saying “Hey Bixby” pulls up Bixby Voice, a Siri-like voice assistant that gives restaurant recommendations, dictates text messages, controls Samsung’s Connected line of smart home products, and more. Bixby Vision, yet another component of the overarching AI, recognizes objects and text in images and directs you to relevant shopping links.

How to schedule a doctor’s appointment with S Health

Whether you’re feeling under the weather or due for a physical, the Galaxy S8’s built-in S Health app has you covered. Thanks to deep integration with WebMD and Amwell, you can browse symptoms and drugs, find nearby pharmacies, schedule an online visit with a doctor, and reserve a video appointment with a certified physician.

The new S Health app is capable of more. It can store information regarding upcoming appointments like symptoms, photos, prescriptions, and insurance information, and it offers quick access to emergency services.

How to use the new emoji

The Galaxy S8 ships with a bundle of new emoji from Emoji 4.0, the newest collection of icons approved by the Unicode Consortium. They include a giraffe, broccoli, a pretzel, chopsticks, a scientist, judge, pilot, teacher, and a boy with bunny ears.

Using them is as easy as pulling up the Galaxy S8’s default keyboard and tapping the emoji button. Then, it’s just a matter of scrolling through the the list until you find the one you want.

8
Apr

Vertu Constellation Review: The Billionaire’s Phone


vertu-constellation-2017-camera-hero.jpg

What do you get when you pay $6,000 for a phone?

Most of us live in a world where smartphones cost somewhere between $200 and $800. There’s a wide variety of phones in that range, from bargain ZTE and Motorola devices to top-end iPhones and Samsung Galaxy handsets. But there’s a whole world beyond that, the exclusive and expensive realm of the luxury smartphone. The latest phone to join those rarified ranks is the 2017 Vertu Constellation. This is both a pedestrian smartphone and one that’s sporting out-of-this-world services and construction. The Constellation is a measure in contradictions, as many things made for the billionaire class are.

vertu-constellation-2017-logo.jpg?itok=t

Vertu has been at this for many years. They were founded as a division of Nokia and have traded hands since a few times; most recently the company was purchased by Turkish businessman Hakan Uzan for £50 million. So Vertu is a small, niche company that deals in small, niche electronics. Their latest release is the 2017 edition of the Constellation, which is what amounts to their mid-tier smartphone.

Mid-tier in Vertu Land means a starting price of $6,000.

Yeah, that’s a lot for a phone. Can it possibly be worth that much?

See at Vertu

About this review

We’re publishing this review after two weeks with the Vertu Constellation, running on the AT&T network in Cincinnati and New York City. Our review unit, loaned from Vertu, was running Android 6.0.1 with the 1 January 2017 security patch.

Vertu Constellation Video Review

Feels so good…

Vertu Constellation Hardware

The Vertu Constellation stands out in a sea of black slab phones. Where more and more phones are becoming more and more anonymous, Vertu has opted to adorn the front of their smartphone with, well, bling. There are at least seven different materials showing on just the front of the phone, yet somehow it’s an attractive device. There’s no denying that it’s ostentatious (the shiny chrome accents see to that), but I found myself liking it as soon as I pulled it out of the box, and it’s grown on me ever since.

There’s no denying that it’s ostentatious, but I found myself liking it right away.

Those materials are a mix of machined aluminum, calf leather, and sapphire. Owing to their relatively small production count, Vertu can get away with sourcing truly premium materials for their phones. Apple tried and failed hard to get a sapphire screen for the iPhone, and after using the Constellation I can understand why Apple spent hundreds of millions of dollars on that quest. The sapphire display cover here is smooth, crystal clear, and supremely hard — sapphire is one of the hardest materials out there, and is far more scratch resistant than even the latest iteration of Gorilla Glass. It’s also expensive, especially at the 140 carats needed for the Constellation.

vertu-constellation-2017-front.jpg?itok=

That display is a sharp 5.5-inch QHD model with a 534ppi pixel density. It’s an AMOLED panel, but it’s been tuned without the excessive color saturation that’s a hallmark of AMOLED king Samsung. The panel wasn’t incredibly bright, though, and struggled with visibility in sunlight.

Right below the screen, wrapped in a silver accent, is a front-facing fingerprint sensor. This is a first for Vertu, and it’s spacious, accurate, and highly responsive. The set-up process is straight Nexus Imprint, with none of the customizations for customization’s sake that other manufacturers have seen fit to implement. The fingerprint sensor also doubles as a home button in conjunction with the on-screen key.

These are, hands-down, the best sounding and loudest speakers I’ve heard on any phone.

Flanking the screen at top and bottom you’ll find a pair of stereo speakers. These are, hands-down, the best sounding and loudest speakers I’ve heard on any phone — even the lauded HTC BoomSound speakers of years past. They’re offering Dolby tuning with on-the-fly EQ adjustments through a widget or the on-screen volume controls. The remarkable quality of these speakers helps make up for the regrettably large bezels on this phone — in an era where smartphones are moving more and more towards smaller and smaller bezels, Vertu has either bucked or lagged behind on that trend. The flip side is that there’s plenty of space for the large 13mm x 17mm drivers and the necessary acoustic chambers.

Wrapping around the sides of the Vertu Constellation is a hefty machined aluminum frame. Eschewing the smooth and rounded aesthetic of Apple and Samsung, the constellation’s metal has a sand-blasted finish, hard corners, and a concave character line that runs the entire height of the phone. It looks like it should be really uncomfortable, but it actually feels great, and helps this large phone grip with ease. That frame is host on the right side of the phone to a volume rocker and an unfortunately wiggly power button, while the left side is home to the dual SIM card/microSD card tray and a ruby button to launch the Vertu Concierge service (more on that later). Up top is a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, while on the bottom left corner is a USB-C port — it’s angled to match the slightly pointed base of the phone.

If you thought the front of the Constellation was busy, wait until you get a load of the back. We’re again looking at multiple materials, and without the requirement to work around the phone’s black rectangular screen, Vertu’s designers had a canvas to work with. Given what has come out of Vertu’s workshops in the past… I think they showed remarkable restraint. It’s a relatively simple layout — a band of brushed aluminum bordered by chrome strips stretches across the phone about 1/3 of the way from the top, with the camera and dual-LED flash housed dead center; the matte aluminum frame wraps around on either side, and the rest of the space is filled with a flat expanse of soft brown leather.

vertu-constellation-2017-leather-detail.

The end result is a phone that has some serious heft — at 241 grams it’s one of the heaviest phones we’ve seen in a long time, but then again, Vertu never made any claims otherwise. And there’s something that just seems right that a luxury smartphone should be a weighty one. It’s a tech reviewer cliché, but the Vertu Constellation truly does feel great in the hand, and in a completely different manner than a svelte, smooth, and featherweight phone like the new Galaxy S8.

So if this phone is so heavy and expensive, you’d hope for some high-end internals, right? Eh… you’re not getting a state-of-the-art smartphone here. The Vertu Constellation launched in early 2017, but it’s sporting the specifications of a phone from a year prior. Crack it open an inside you’d find a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of internal storage augmented by a microSD card slot. Yep, that’s what you would find in a Samsung Galaxy S7 or LG G5 from a year ago — not even the later-in-2016 Snapdragon 821 made it into this phone. The reasoning is simple: Vertu doesn’t work in big numbers of anything, so their purchasing power is limited, their development team is small, and their engineering lead time is longer. Will the Snapdragon 821 and the brand-new 835 eventually make it into Vertu phones? Without a doubt, but you’ll be waiting for a while.

The Vertu Constellation launched in early 2017, but it’s sporting the specifications of a phone from early 2016.

That said, the Snapdragon 820 is still a mighty fine chip, even if it’s no longer the best in town. It carries the Vertu Constellation with aplomb, certainly far better than the Snapdragon 801 handled itself in the Vertu Signature Touch of 2014. It could simply be that with an 820 running things, the less-than-optimized Vertu software just can’t bog it down enough to matter.

Rounding things out on the hardware front, the Constellation sports dual-mode Qi + PMA wireless charging, Bluetooth 4.2, 21 LTE bands, dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and a 3220mAh battery. That’s far from the largest battery we’ve ever seen, and for the weight of this phone we’d have expected something more inside. But then again, Vertu doesn’t have the engineering bench to quickly bring the latest processors to market, let alone develop space-age battery tech.

img_20170324_163646.jpg?itok=0fCzI8avimg_20170324_162828.jpg?itok=kp7IVOAQimg_20170324_161944.jpg?itok=1O5ZU52Himg_20170324_195043.jpg?itok=hosx0K5Rimg_20170324_201615.jpg?itok=GFhVZrXFimg_20170324_202159.jpg?itok=OQWzTfjXimg_20170324_172859.jpg?itok=j8GRE72Kimg_20170324_211635.jpg?itok=DMMcvR68img_20170325_142450.jpg?itok=yd7cvcu_img_20170325_142858.jpg?itok=dKx8iNfypano_2017-03-24_17-29-04.jpg?itok=70cY1Vimg_20170324_165603.jpg?itok=p-uc5-aN

You’ll find a 12MP camera on the back and a 4MP shooter on the front. Both are reasonably good in daylight, though they often struggled with focus and fell short when night fell. I’d have expected more, but as we saw for a long time with Android phone manufacturers: doing cameras right is hard and takes a lot of engineering talent. Vertu might have a great sensor behind that lens, but the pictures it puts out are merely adequate.

vertu-constellation-2017-back-camera.jpg

The numbers story

Vertu Constellation Specs

Operating System Android 6.0.1
Display 5.5-inch QHD AMOLED 140-carat sapphire cover
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 820
RAM 4GB
Storage 128GB + microSD (uses SIM slot 2)
Audio Stereo Dolby front-facing speakers 3.5mm headphone jack
SIM Dual Nano
Rear Camera 12MP ƒ/2.0, 1.55 micron pixels phase detect autofocus, dual-tone LED flash
Front Camera 4MP ƒ/2.0, 2 micro pixels
Battery 3220mAh non-removable
Charging USB-C
Dimensions 162mm x 77mm x 10mm
Weight 241g

Marshmallugh.

Vertu Constellation Software

So if the Vertu Constellation’s design is aesthetically unique (and debatably attractive — I get it if you don’t like it, though I’ll admit that it looks a lot better in person), it’s certainly got to have some sort of software ace up its sleeve, right? Yes and no. When it comes to the Android OS, Vertu’s gone close to stock Android here, with only a custom launcher, old-school-style notification shade, and a few widgets on top of Android 6.0.1. There’s nothing terribly special about Vertu’s implementation of Android.

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The custom analog clock widgets are nice, both in a functionality and a throwback sense. They show the time, and tapping in the center will take you to the clock app, as you’d expect. But along the outside you’ll find colored strips indicating your upcoming appointments — tapping there opens an agenda view that will take you to the Vertu Calendar app. And, of course, Vertu felt the need to build their own versions of apps like Calendar and Gallery, but they’re blessedly few and easy to ignore. Vertu’s software shines in the form of the services it ties into: Vertu Certainty, Vertu Life, and Vertu Concierge.

vertu-constellation-2017-concierge-hero.

Certainty is a suite of apps — some third-party, others from Vertu, that aim to provide peace of mind for the Vertu owner. Some are security apps like Silent Circle for encrypted phone calls and messaging or Vertu’s own “anti-theft service” (it does not stop your phone from being stolen, only giving you the ability to remotely locate, lock, and wipe the phone through Vertu’s website). Others are about convenience, including sync to Apple’s iCloud calendar, contacts, and reminders and global Wi-Fi hotspot access through iPass.

Also rolled under the Certainty umbrella is remote assistant support where Vertu’s support staff can actually remotely take control of your phone to fix a setting for you or show you how something is done. That’s the sort of thing that Vertu can afford to do when they have a relatively small userbase and charge thousands of dollars for their phones.

vertu-constellation-2017-life.jpg?itok=z

Vertu Life is essentially what’d happen if the concierge had a bulletin board. Vertu’s agents have arranged for access to a wide range of events and venues, and they’re all available to you. From backstage passes for Coachella to 19th-century port wine to a luxury vacation to Antarctica (complete with emperor penguins and champagne) to priority reservations with perks at restaurants around the world, you’ll find a lot worth exploring in Vertu Life. It all comes at a cost, though. Vertu might have arranged for special discounts or bonuses with these packages, but none of them will be particularly cheap.

The crown jewel of the Vertu services is Concierge. If there’s any reason to buy a Vertu, this is it. Concierge isn’t some newfangled AI or virtual assistant — it’s real people making real judgment calls about what will best help you. Concierge is all about meeting your needs, be it something as basic as booking dinner reservations or things far more complicated. They offer communications in voice call, text chat, or via email — whatever suits your needs at the moment.

When the service is first set up for a new user, Vertu will call you (after making sure it’s a good time to call) to orient you with the service, what they can do (basically anything), and how it all works. I took the opportunity to ask my primary Concierge manager, Melanie, what the most unique request she’d fulfilled was: she booked a Hollywood A-list makeup artist to fly to Miami and spend five hours teaching a client how to do makeup like the stars.

vertu-constellation-2017-concierge-chat.

I could have searched through thousands of restaurants in New York City, but I let the concierge make a reservation for me. The steak was phenomoenal.

I used Concierge for something a bit more pedestrian: dinner reservations in a city I don’t know that well. I was in New York City for the Samsung Galaxy S8 launch event, and for that evening I wanted to be able to take the team out for dinner (and to celebrate the simultaneous birthday of one MrMobile). I could have been a normal person and spent too much time researching restaurants on Google and Yelp (Did you know that there are a lot of places to eat in New York? Who knew!) and then finding an available reservation via OpenTable.

Instead, I hit the ruby button on the side of the phone, fired up the Concierge chat, and asked for a reservation for someplace nice but still somewhat casual. The concierge I was connected with confirmed the date and number of guests, and then went to work. An hour later, there was a reservation in my inbox for a steakhouse in downtown Manhattan. I probably wouldn’t have picked it myself, but that’s for the best, because it ended up being one of the best steaks I’ve ever had. Vertu even went so far as to arrange for complimentary appetizers (have you ever had a religious experience with bacon, because I did that night) and a round of Prosecco for the table at dessert.

You’re special

Vertu Constellation In Real Life

It’s kind of strange to think that something as simple as a phone could make you feel special, but Vertu phones do that to me. It might simply be because they’re absurdly expensive and it feels so weird to know that I’ve been walking around with one in my pocket. And it might be because of the human-driven power of Concierge and knowing that it’s just a ruby button away from fulfilling my every wish. Or it might be because I’m just kind of smitten with this phone, flaws and all, because it is so ridiculous and ostentatious.

vertu-constellation-2017-ruby.jpg?itok=4 It’s a real ruby!

But there is no getting around that this is not a perfect phone, especially for what you might expect for a $6,000 price tag. You’re not getting top-end specs or the latest Android software (Nougat is several months away, if ever coming at all), and with heavy use you’ll still struggle to make it through the day, despite the heft of this phone making you think it must be full of lithium-ion battery.

For all those shortcomings, though, the Vertu Constellation is still the sort of phone I think would be fun to have weighing down my pocket. It’s certainly a conversation starter amongst my also-not-billionaires friends — I usually start with telling them which phone it is, walk them through the various features and materials, and then ask for a price. Everybody lowballs it because nobody can conceive of a phone costing this much.

Do you wear a crown? A real one?

Vertu Constellation: Is it worth it?

This isn’t an easy phone to review. In 2017 I feel as if I should be lighting on fire and throwing into a dumpster any phone that comes with these specs at anything approaching consumer flagship pricing, let alone blowing past it on its way to thousands of dollars as the Vertu Constellation does. But a Vertu phone is more than just the specs, more than just a dumb screen to run smart apps like every other Android phone.

It’s a status symbol; that you can afford to live the kind of lifestyle where a $6,000 phone is nothing and where you have the time and money to ask a Concierge to arrange for you to do things like party backstage at Coachella or reserve a dinner at the booked-for-the-next-year hot restaurant of the month.

vertu-constellation-headphones-hero.jpg?

You can see the target customer in setting up your Vertu Account. Where a typical phone might offer only a few options for title — Mister, Miss, Doctor — Vertu Accounts offer a laundry list of titles, ranging from King and Queen to Sheikh and Lord and His Excellency (my favorite). This is a phone for the super rich, for oil barons and oligarchs and literal royalty.

You’re not getting a technically superior product in the Vertu Constellation. You’re getting a luxury product, with all of the trappings that a luxury gadget should provide. No, a Vertu can’t make you coffee, but it can help you find the best coffee shop on the planet and book a private jet to get you there.

As the old saying about prices goes, “If you have to ask…”

See at Vertu

8
Apr

Vertu Constellation hands-on: The $6000 smartphone


If you’re here, then you already know: good phones aren’t cheap. The flagship phones from the big manufacturers can easily run you $700 or more. Many would consider it a luxury to have one. Then there’s the Vertu Constellation. Luxury doesn’t even begin to describe what this phone is aiming for, and it all starts with a $6,000 price tag.

I’m Michael Fisher, aka the High Duke Baron Chancellor Von MrMobile, and no, I can’t afford this phone. But honestly, there’s few things about this phone that would make me want to (though that Concierge service has its perks …). Hit up that video above, and watch me take a spin through how the other half lives. And if you’re seriously considering this phone, and want to know more about it, check out Android Central’s review here. Also, I’m available to discuss it over the phone (for a moderate hourly rate), or in person if you’re willing to send your private jet.

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8
Apr

YouTube TV made this baseball fan finally cut the cord


I don’t watch a lot of TV. I don’t watch Game of Thrones or Walking Dead or many of the TV shows that are usually at the top of the popular zeitgeist. Instead, my daily entertainment is usually filled with YouTube videos and on-demand shows from Hulu or Netflix. In almost all respects, I am the perfect candidate to cut the cord. There was only one thing holding me back: baseball. I am a huge San Francisco Giants fan and I have a deep desire to watch games live. With the arrival of YouTube TV (and a few other services) I am now, at long last, finally free.

It’s not like I haven’t tried to get out from under cable’s clutches before. I signed up for MLB.TV (and downloaded the At Bat app) a few years ago, thinking I would be able to watch baseball games on the go. But unfortunately, Major League Baseball black out restrictions meant that I couldn’t watch local games live. Sure, I could hook up to a VPN and watch it that way, but I couldn’t figure how to have that work on all the devices in our house (We have three computers, two phones and a Roku). Sticking to cable was just easier.

Last week, however, things changed. When I heard Congress voted to roll back regulations that would prevent ISPs from selling your browser history, I decided to finally end my 20+ year affair with Comcast’s Xfinity. I was already uncomfortable with the company due to its data caps and reports that it was throttling bandwidth. Plus, my monthly fees had recently gone up and I couldn’t work out a way to get a cheaper rate despite multiple calls to customer service. And even though Comcast had said it wasn’t going to sell customers’ browser history, it still uses “non-personally identifiable information” from internet and cable TV packages and you have to opt out of targeted ads. I was done.

I decided to switch to Sonic, a small local ISP that made a public statement urging Congress to preserve the FCC’s Broadband Privacy Rules prior to the vote. Sonic’s also one of a few ISPs that is highly recommended by the Electronic Frontier Foundation for its defense of user rights. DSL still isn’t as fast as cable in my neighborhood, but I didn’t care — I’ll take the speed hit just to get away from Comcast.

But that doesn’t solve the TV problem. As I said, I really want to watch local baseball live. We thought of going with Dish, because that would give me pretty much the same TV package that Comcast did. But the idea of a two-year contract didn’t sit right with me, plus the monthly bill would end up costing more anyway. I felt like I was stuck. Maybe I don’t need to watch baseball live. Maybe I could go without it. The thought hurt my heart, but maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. I could still listen to the games on the radio, right?

Two days ago, my husband sent me a text that read “Hmm. YouTube TV has NBC Sports Bay Area” (That’s the local channel that airs Giants games). I was intrigued. So I signed up for a 30-day trial and to my delight, he was right. Not only that, but with YouTube TV, you can actually select your favorite team and add it to your library. This means that it’ll automatically record every single game your team plays, in perpetuity, regardless of channel or time. So if the Giants game is on, say, ESPN instead of NBC, it’ll still automatically record it. What’s more, with YouTube TV’s unlimited DVR (up to nine months anyway), I wouldn’t have to worry about storage space. I was over the moon. This could finally be the solution that I was looking for.

In order to do due diligence, I looked at the other cord-cutter packages on the market. I was pleasantly surprised to see that both Sling TV and Playstation Vue offered regional sports too, so we signed up for trials for both. I was disappointed to find that Sling TV wouldn’t let me rewind or pause live TV, and recording games on Playstation Vue isn’t as easy. With PS Vue, I can’t just follow a team like I can do with YouTube; I still had to know which channel and what time the game will be on in order to record it. It really looked like YouTube TV would be best for my needs.

Yet, it’s not perfect. YouTube TV doesn’t have Turner networks, which means I would miss out on games that aired on TBS and TNT. So we decided to supplement YouTube TV with another cord-cutter service. Since Sling’s Orange package is just $20 a month (versus PlayStation Vue’s $40 a month), we decided to go with that. Altogether (YouTube TV and Sling), that would be just $55 a month, which is a bargain compared to most cable and satellite packages.

Yes, YouTube only has a handful of channels and Sling’s DVR feature isn’t up and running just yet, but this slim combo was enough for me to cut the cord after two decades of cable dependence. And who knows, even this might change. YouTube could very well add Turner networks in the future. Hulu’s upcoming live TV service might have regional sports as well, which could be even better than what YouTube is offering. The beauty is that now, I can switch services any time I want because I am no longer tied down by any one company.

The idea of cord-cutting has always appealed to me, but there was never a package that seemed right. YouTube probably didn’t have sports fans front and center when it planned its service, but it delivers a solution that is probably of interest to them anyway. At least for people like me. So, it’s official. I’m a cord-cutter. And I have YouTube to thank for showing me the way.

8
Apr

The Morning After: Weekend Edition


Hey, good morning! You look fabulous.

Welcome to the weekend. While Apple Music and Spotify subscribers will have to do without most of Jay Z’s hits, we’re checking out YouTube TV and offering advice on how to find the right VPN.

Cloud problemsJay Z’s albums disappear from Apple Music and Spotify

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The downside of streaming music services is that if there’s a licensing dispute, some of your favorite artists can come and go overnight. That happened this week with Jay Z, who is suddenly mostly missing from Apple Music and Spotify (but, is still easily found on his own service Tidal, as well as Google Play Music and Soundcloud Go.) No one’s talking about why the albums aren’t available to subscribers, but you’ll need to find some other way to get your Big Pimpin’ fix this weekend.

Show and proveUS Dept. of Labor claims Google’s pay disparities are ‘systemic’

According to Department of Labor regional director Janette Wipper, her office found “systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce.” The department is suing Google to hand over employment records that it’s required to give up as a federal contractor, but the company claims that request is too broad. According to its lawyers, “Every year, we do a comprehensive and robust analysis of pay across genders and we have found no gender pay gap.”

That’s one way to get fasterMcLaren’s F1 team will 3D print parts trackside

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As 3D printing becomes easier and more ubiquitous, it’s moving into new areas. The latest one is pit lane, as McLaren-Honda announced it’s bringing a Stratasys uPrint SE Plus to testing and races. It’s also 3D printing parts back at the factory, like a hydraulic line bracket and hollow brake cooling ducts.

FinallyGoogle will flag fake news stories in search results

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For certain subjects, Google will start including content from a fact check page like PolitiFact or Snopes at the top of search results. That will include information about the subject, whoever made a claim, and whether or not that site thinks it’s true. Google already rolled out similar tweaks on its News search, and Facebook has taken steps on its website. Of course, even with unbiased facts available, it’s tough to know if people will prefer the truth to whatever propaganda they were trying to look up.

Trust IssuesBad Password: Good luck finding a safe VPN

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Now that ISPs aren’t facing new rules that would restrict them from selling customer data by default, many people have looked at VPNs (virtual private networks) as a way to maintain their privacy. As Bad Password columnist Violet Blue explains, while that may be a practical solution to the problem, it can have its own pitfalls. That could be anything from a misconfiguration that fails to protect users, to outright fakes. Fortunately, there are ways to find a good VPN, and then check to make sure it fulfills any privacy promises.

One more way to cut the cordYouTube TV: You could do a lot worse for $35

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Google’s skinny TV bundle is available in five cities, offering access to 39 channels plus YouTube Red. We gave it a spin and found a lot to like, even if some elements could use a little more work. The interface isn’t complicated, although access is currently limited to the web, Android, iOS and Cast-ready TVs. The unlimited storage DVR is easy to use too, and will automatically record games for any teams you follow.

But wait, there’s more…

  • Mastodon’s sudden popularity should serve as Twitter’s wakeup call
  • The Siime Eye connected vibrator’s camera is disturbingly easy to hack
  • The Engadget Podcast Ep 35: TV Party
  • Oops: Apple is sorry about the Mac Pro, vows to relaunch it in 2018
  • Sonos Playbase review
  • Apple iPad review (2017)
  • Project Scorpio specs revealed
8
Apr

New Apple iPad 2017 review: Solid, affordable replacement for the aging Air


With the tablet market slowing down, and upgrade cycles being so long, Apple could perhaps have been forgiven for focussing mostly on its laptop-challenging Pro series. In fact, it’s been almost two and a half years since the regular full-size iPads got a refresh. 

  • New Apple iPad 9.7 vs iPad Air 2: What’s the difference?
  • Which iPad is best for you? 

With the 9.7-inch iPad for 2017, Apple focussed on trying to give a great all-round experience, without canniblising its Pro series and making it as affordable as possible. In almost every way the company has succeeded and, simultaneously, brought sense to the iPad range naming scheme.

New iPad review: Design

  • 7.5mm thin
  • Weighs 469 grams
  • Space Grey, Silver and Gold models

As far as looks go, the new 2017 iPad sits somewhere between the original iPad Air from 2013 and the iPad Air 2. That’s to say, it’s the same thickness as the first, but with refined ports, drilled holes and fingerprint sensor from the second.

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Despite being slightly thicker than the iPad Air 2, the new 2017 iPad at just 7.5mm is still a slim device and rests easy in the hands thanks to weighing just under 470 grams. It has the Air-like rounded edges and corners to make it feel comfortable when held, and has the chamfered edges. Except they’re no longer polished, they’re given the same soft bead-blasted anodisation treatment as the rest of the metal casing.

You’ll find the usual selection of ports and buttons on the new iPad. This includes the Lightning port flanked by 13 milled mini-holes on either side on the bottom edge, pill shaped volume buttons recessed into a groove on the right edge and a power/sleep key on the top.

There’s nothing entirely new or exciting in the aesthetic department, but that’s not a bad thing. The iPad’s sturdy, slim and attractive minimal styling has long been one of its strong points. This remains, as does the series of under-the-hood magnets for using accessories like the Apple Smart Cover.

Unlike the iPad Pro, there are no connectors for smart keyboards, which means you need to stick with the usual Bluetooth keyboards for typing on the go, if you don’t like using the on screen virtual QWERTY. And yes, there is still a headphone jack.

Apple iPad (2017) review: Display

  • 9.7-inch LCD IPS panel
  • 1536 x 2048 resolution
  • 264 pixels per inch

If there’s any area Apple has taken a slight step backwards, it’s on the display. Sure, it has the same 1536 x 2048 resolution panel based on LED backlit LCD technology as before, but it’s not fully laminated like the iPad Air 2 screen was. That means there’s a small gap between the surface glass and the actual display panel, where there wasn’t in the last model. This is why the 2017 iPad is slightly thicker, and cheaper, than the previous generation.

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What that means in real life use for the average consumer: not a lot. You won’t get the same “floating on the surface” effect that gets you close to your content, but the screen is still full of attractive and natural colours. It doesn’t really take away any of the enjoyment you get from binge-watching your favourite Netflix videos in bed, or agonising trying to get those last few Disney Crossy Road characters unlocked.

It’s still more than 260 pixels per inch on display, meaning everything looks sharp at arm’s length, but you will see individual pixels if you hold it close to your face. Again, this isn’t something you’d notice in daily use, and the resolution is pretty much standard for 9.7-inch tablets. Even the much more expensive Samsung Galaxy Tab S3 and iPad Pro have the same pixel density and resolution.

The most obvious difference between this and the iPad Pro’s display – apart from the Apple Pencil support – is the True Tone technology on the Pro, which adjusts the white balance based on ambient lighting conditions. It does, however, have iOS Night Shift which cuts out the blue light to help relax your eyes when you’re winding down in the evening.

On the whole, it’s as good a platform for your favourite content as it has been. No better, and not really any worse.

Apple iPad 9.7 review: Software

  • iOS 10.3 at launch
  • New messages app
  • Split screen multitasking
  • Apple Pay support

As with all new iOS devices, the 2017 iPad runs the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system. In this instance, that’s iOS 10.3, which comes with all the latest features that aren’t iPhone or iPad Pro specific.

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That means, just like the iPhone, your iMessages can be brought to life with bubble and full-screen effects, and various images and animations from the iMessage App Store. With some installed apps, the iMessage capabilities will also mean being able to share useful information and articles from apps like iMDB and Pocket or challenge your friends to a game of 8 Ball Pool, right from the Messages conversation.

  • Apple iOS 10 tips and tricks: See what your iPhone and iPad can do now
  • iOS 10 Messages explained: What’s new and how to use it

You also get the new Home app which brings together all of your HomeKit enabled accessories into a simple, intuitive dashboard. If you want to – and you don’t have a fourth generation Apple TV – you can opt to use your new iPad as the central hub for HomeKit devices, providing it’s an iPad that never leaves the house.

One of the most useful features, which only made its debut in recent years, is the split screen multitasking. When using any app in landscape mode, you can drag your finger across from the right side of the screen and select any app to run alongside it. It’s particularly useful if you need to look something up while chatting to a friend, or if you need a constant reference point while working on a document.

As for things you don’t get: there’s no Raise to Wake feature like you get on the iPhone, and no quick actions shortcuts from app icons, since the screen isn’t pressure sensitive.

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Where iPad does succeed, and where it always has, is in the richness of its App Store ecosystem. There are thousands of great apps which are optimised for the iPad’s larger screen. These include great games, as well as fantastic creative programs like Paper by 53 and Procreate. So far, despite many years trying, this is an area where the iPad consistently outdoes Android tablets.

New Apple iPad review: Performance and battery

  • Dual-core A9 processor
  • 2GB RAM
  • 32 or 128GB storage
  • 10 hour battery

Like most new iPads since the first model launched seven years ago, the overall performance of the 9.7-inch iPad is slick and smooth. Its game loading speeds might not blow anyone away, but the A9 chip inside is still one of the most efficient and speedy processors on the market.

Transitions between apps, interactions with content on screen and touchscreen responsiveness are all good. In short – it gets everything done with no hiccups and no drama. For an everyday tablet, that’s all you can ask for, and all you really need. Even running two apps side-by-side didn’t pose any real problems.

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To keep it running all day there’s the non-removable battery which, as always, is built to survive ten hours of constant use, and many, many days on standby. Depending on your own usage, the results will vary, but we’ve found the 10 hour use target to be fairly accurate. Some days you might get less, other times more. If you only use the iPad for a couple of hours a day, it could easily survive four to five days without needing to be plugged back into a power source.

Perhaps one slight downside is, unlike many new smartphones and tablets from other manufactures, the iPad (like the iPhone) still doesn’t have any kind of fast-charging solution. The included 10W power adapter is the same as it has been for many years, and will charge your iPad from empty to full in the space of 2-3 hours.

iPad 9.7 review: Cameras

  • 8MP rear camera
  • Full HD video at 30fps
  • 1.2MP FaceTime camera

While photography is never a primary focus on iPads, it can be useful to have both the front 1.2-megapixel and rear 8-megapixel snappers, especially for Facetime calls. Apple’s tablet remains one of the most useful windows for video calling. It’s easy to pick up and move around, and easy to switch between those two cameras to show what you’re looking at. 

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Camera quality is decent enough too. Photos aren’t as balanced as those you’d see from high end smartphones, but they’re good enough for those who want to just snap something quickly to share with friends and family. It tends to struggle a little with over exposure and, like many, has a hard time focussing on objects that are really close. 

Verdict

This new iPad offers a solid, consistent tablet experience at the lowest price we’ve seen from Apple in a new, full-size tablet.

In essence, it answers the question for those with dying 2-3 year old iPads who want to know what they should upgrade to, without spending £500+ on an iPad Pro.

What’s more, it fits into the iPad range right in the middle, and brings cohesion to Apple’s tablet range. Now we have iPad mini, iPad, and iPad Pro.

This iPad is easy to recommend to anyone.

Alternatives to consider

Pocket-lint

Pixel C

As it stands, the Android tablet market is a little bare, but the Pixel C shows off the best, cleanest version of Android in a stunning piece of hardware. It’s really well made, has a great screen and is fast enough to cope with pretty much anything. It costs nearly £500, however, which is some premium over the regular iPad. 

Read the full review: Google Pixel C review: Pixel perfect?

Pocket-lint

iPad mini 4

If you want a great Apple tablet without the size of the 9.7-inch iPad, the fourth generation iPad mini is an easy choice. Because the screen is smaller than the regular iPad, it’s considerably sharper. It shares many of the features with the iPad 9.7, but just has them in a smaller package. It does, however, cost a little more than the iPad. 

Read the full review: Apple iPad mini 4 review: Compact without compromise

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