You can’t build an entire PC out of Gigabyte and Aorus components, but that goal just got one step closer. On Tuesday, the company announced that it’s wading into the PCIe M.2 SSD game, after a positive reception to its SATA SSDs in May.
Three PCIe NVME M.2 drives will be available initially, in capacities of 128GB, 256GB, and 512GB, the company said.
The drives carry a three-year warranty. The 256GB drive is rated at sequential read speeds of 1,200MBps and 800Mbps sequential writes. The 128GB drive will hit 1,100MBps sequential reads and 500MBps sequential writes.
Gigabyte officials said the 128GB SSD should sell for $50, while the 256GB drive will be listed at $70. The two lower-capacity drives are expected to be on sale in the US next week. Pricing and availability of the 512GB drive wasn’t available, but if the pricing of the smaller drives is any indication, it’ll be competitive.
They make everything
Gigabyte and sister-brand Aorus now offer branded motherboards, graphics cards, coolers, cases, power supplies, RAM, mice, keyboards, headsets, and monitors. With NVMe SSDs on the list, there’s little left that the company isn’t offering to PC builders.
Why this matters: It used to be that companies stayed in their lanes and worked partnerships. But increasingly, component makers and PC OEMs have been introducing branded hardware. The moves could indicate a search for additional revenue streams, or simply be a sign that the companies are placing an increasing value on building out their own brands.
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You don’t need to live in a smart home to benefit from a Wi-Fi-connected smart speaker. Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana, and other digital assistants can help you in dozens of ways, and you don’t have to lift a finger to summon them—just speak their names. If you already know you want a smart speaker, scroll down for our top recommendations.
But consider your decision carefully. In a perfect world, these devices would be interoperable, so you could buy one brand because it’s better for music, another brand because it’s the best for smart home control, and a third because it’s superior for retrieving general information from the internet. That’s not how it works in the real world. Once you commit to one platform, you’ll want to stick with it.
On the upside, choosing one brand of smart speaker over another generally won’t tie you into that brand’s entire ecosystem. Buying an Amazon Echo, for instance, won’t limit you to subscribing to Amazon’s music services—you can also use it with Spotify, Pandora, SiriusXM radio, and several other services. And even if you have a smart home system from one company, you can control smart home products that would be otherwise incompatible with that system with voice commands—provided they’re compatible with your digital assistant of choice.
That said, if you’re wedded to Google Play Music, streaming music from your account to an Amazon Echo is not perfectly seamless (the same goes for streaming music from Amazon’s services to a Google Home). And there are some major coexistence exceptions: Google is currently blocking its YouTube videos from appearing on the Echo Show and Echo Spot devices, for instance, and it looks as though Apple’s HomePod will stream music only from Apple Music. If you plan to mix and match third-party products with your smart speaker, do the research to make sure they’ll work together.
If you want to know more about what smart speakers can do in general before you pick one, skip down to the “What can smart speakers do?” section.
Updated August 7, 2018 to add our review of the Google Assistant-powered JBL Link 300 smart speaker. This unit is in the middle of JBL’s Link series, which includes one larger speaker, two smaller battery-powered models, and one with a display (our review of the Link View is in progress). We liked the JBL Link 300 for its big sound and for its multi-room audio chops, awarding it four stars; but that wasn’t enough to knock off any of our other top picks in this category.
Latest smart speaker news
Samsung announced its entry into the smart speaker market on August 9. The Samsung Galaxy Home looks to be an upscale smart speaker that will leverage Samsung’s Bixby digital assistant and its SmartThings smart home hub. You’ll find a more detailed story here.
Best all-around smart speaker
The Echo line is the most widely adopted by consumers, and it’s the one most widely supported by third-party products and services. While you could save $30 and buy the displayless Echo (2nd generation), the Echo Dot’s touchscreen is well worth the extra cash. And once you become accustomed to an Echo with a display, you’ll want them in all the places you’d otherwise put an Echo Dot (or you would if the Spot didn’t cost $80 more than the Dot).
After getting off to a slow start, Google is now giving Amazon a run for its money. The original Google Home sounds better than any of the Echos, and it’s been far better when it comes to asking for general information. Google Home and Google Assistant aren’t as broadly compatible with third-party products and services as the Amazon Echo and Alexa, but Google is aggressively closing that gap and should achieve parity soon. Google Home is also a good choice for people who are deep into the Chromecast ecosystem and who subscribe to Google’s streaming services: YouTube Red and Google Play Music.
Best smart speaker for music
It’s no contest on this score, Google Home Max is the best-sounding smart speaker we’ve heard. Our opinion could change when we lay ears on Apple’s HomePod, but the Google Home Max crushes every other smart speaker on the market. Four Class D amplifiers drive two 4.5-inch aluminum cone, high-excursion woofers with dual voice coils. Two more amps are dedicated to a pair of 0.7-inch polyester dome tweeters. The amps have integrated DACs capable of supporting up to 24-bit/192kHz bit streams, although Google says it’s only tested sampling rates up to 48kHz. This speaker will fill even larger rooms with sound, but if you find that one just isn’t enough, you can pair two for stereo.
If the Google Home Max is beyond your budget, give the Sonos One a listen. It’s currently compatible only with Amazon’s Alexa, but the company promises to add Google Assistant capabilities this spring. It’s about the same size as the older Sonos Play:1, but it sounds even better. Despite the similarity in appearance, Sonos designed its smart speaker from scratch. Sonos is the king of multi-room audio, and no other brand supports more music services. What’s more, once you have a Sonos One on your network, you can control all your other Sonos speakers with voice commands, too—and from any Alexa-compatible speaker (the Sonos One, however, is the only smart speaker in the Sonos lineup).
Best smart speaker if you use another speaker for music
No matter which smart speaker you buy, none of them will sound as good as many of the dumb powered speakers on the market today. Guess what? You don’t have to compromise! If you only want a smart speaker for its brains and not its audio performance, Amazon’s Echo Dot has both a Bluetooth radio and a 3.5mm analog line-level output so you can pair or plug in your favorite outboard speakers and really rock the house.
The Google Home Mini is prettier than Amazon’s Echo Dot, but it takes the runner-up spot here not only for the same reasons the Google Home does in its category, but because it doesn’t have a line-level output. What’s more, you can’t pair an external Bluetooth speaker to it, either. What you can do is pair an external Chromecast speaker, but that limits your options to Chromecast speakers or buying a Chromecast Audio dongle.
Best smart speaker with a large display
Google didn’t have a horse in this race. until Lenovo shipped its Smart Display. This smart speaker is prettier than Amazon’s Echo Show, and both the 8- and 10-inch iterations have larger displays than the competition. And that display serves to emphasize how strong Google Assistant has become in the past year. Good job, Google (and Lenovo!)
The Amazon Echo Show’s best feature is its ability to make video calls to people on your contact list (it can also function as a video intercom within your home). But having a digital assistant that can also show you things has plenty of other useful applications, too: displaying album art (and lyrics, with Amazon’s service) when you play music; shopping and to-do lists that you edit on the screen; illustrations that accompany your weather forecast; slideshows from your personal photo library; still photos from Wikipedia entries; and a whole lot more. It’s very much like using a computer, except you don’t need a keyboard.
What can smart speakers do?
With the exception of Amazon’s Echo, smart speakers are powered by the same digital assistants used with smartphones. Siri comes from the iPhone, Google Assistant comes from Android phones, and Cortana from Microsoft’s now-dead Windows Phone platform (Cortana has since found a home in Windows 10). Alexa was created exclusively for the Amazon Echo, but can now be found in a host of other devices, ranging from the Ecobee4 smart thermostat to the Logitech ZeroTouch phone dock.
At its most basic, a digital assistant is cloud-based software that understands natural language voice commands, performing tasks and fetching information for you. In the real world, digital assistants aren’t quite as sophisticated as that. While you don’t need to talk like a robot—e.g., “Alexa, set timer, 20 minutes”—they do get confused easily, and you’ll hear a fair amount of responses such as “Sorry, I don’t know that one” (that’s an Alexa phrase, incidentally) when you trip them up. The cool thing is that the algorithms powering digital assistants can learn over time and become better at predicting what you need.
Here are just a few of the things that most smart speakers can do (you can add “and more!” to the end of each bullet list):
Stream music over Wi-Fi
Stream music over Bluetooth (most models)
Work with Chromecast devices (Google Home models)
Control your TV (with a compatible universal remote)
Stream music to multiple speakers (multi-room audio)
Stream videos (models with displays)
Retrieve news and information
Date and time
Manage your schedule
Serve as an alarm clock
Maintain to-do lists
Help in the kitchen
Recite recipes (and show them on models with displays)
Set multiple timers
Get measurement conversions (“How many cups are in one quart?”)
Maintain shopping lists
Set the temperature for a sous vide cooker
Get nutrition information (“How many calories are in an apple?”)
Contact friends and family
Make and receive phone calls (video calls on models with displays)
* There are caveats when it comes to using a smart speaker for home control. Smart home devices that can be controlled via Wi-Fi don’t require any other hardware. Products that use the ZigBee or Z-Wave protocols depend on the presence of a smart-home hub, such as a Samsung SmartThings or Wink Hub. Amazon’s Echo Plus is an exception to that rule, because it has an integrated smart home controller (although it’s limited to ZigBee)
Our latest smart speaker reviews
We’ll update this list as new models arrive.
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Occasionally, for whatever reason, we browse parts of the web we know could be dangerous, where malicious pop-ups, ransomware or other malware could infect our PCs. While no solution is totally safe, Microsoft now has a free, specialized version of its Edge browser specifically designed to protect you online: Windows Device Application Guard, or WDAG.
WDAG was originally developed for Windows 10 Enterprise, protecting companies with billions of dollars at stake. Now that same protection has migrated to Windows 10 Pro—sorry, Windows 10 Home users—as an optional feature that you can turn on within Windows, for free. It debuted on Windows 10 Pro as part of the Windows 10 April 2018 Update, and will receive some new features as part of the October 2018 update, too.
You may have heard that Google Chrome works by “sandboxing” your browser, isolating the browser renderer and protecting Windows, other PCs on the network, and other devices from malware. WDAG takes sandboxing a bit further, using your PC’s capability for virtualization to protect against malware escaping from the browser. Essentially, Windows is creating a small “virtual” OS and browser for every untrusted browser session (and not every tab), and isolating it from the rest of your PC. Even if malware manages to crash the browser, the idea is that the rest of your PC will remain untouched.
Is browsing with Chrome safer than browsing in an Edge WDAG tab? As you might expect, that’s not an easily answered question. While security experts seem to think highly of WDAG’s sandbox implementation, WDAG does come with some limitations, which we’ll discuss further.
Microsoft Edge (apparently without WDAG enabled) was hacked several times in the Pwn2Own 2017 hacking competition, while Chrome remained untouched. Edge was also hacked in the March 2018 competition. But the bottom line seems to be that Chrome has existed for years, and has built up its defenses over time—including a new site isolation capability that helps better isolate one tab from another. Edge WDAG doesn’t yet seem to have built up that same history of comprehensive third-party testing — though it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s any less safe.
Right now, it’s safe to say that browsing with Chrome and a coterie of security plugins is more convenient, though.
WDAG—a true hidden feature of Windows
Normally, when we review the semi-annual feature updates for Windows 10, we include a “best hidden features” companion article—a sort of junior-varsity list of features that hide deep within the OS. WDAG was significant enough to make our review, but it certainly qualifies as hidden. In the October Update, though, it will emerge from the shadows.
WDAG requires two elements to work: Windows 10 Pro (updated to the April 2018 Update or beyond) as well as a 64-bit, Hyper-V capable processor. Generally speaking, most sixth-, seventh- and eight-generation Intel Core chips will include this capability, and many AMD64 chips will as well. Don’t worry too much about researching this information, however—if your PC supports both of these, WDAG will be enabled.
To find it within the April 2018 Update, you’ll need to open your PC’s Control Panel, then open the Turn Windows features on and off menu. Here you’ll find a list of all the features that lie deep within Windows, but don’t necessarily need to be enabled. Scroll down to the Windows Device Application Guard box and toggle it on. If you’re running the October 2018 Update, simply navigate to the Settings menu (Settings > Update & Security > Windows Security (AKA Windows Defender) > App & browser control) and then down to “Isolated browsing”.
WDAG uses a subset of the Hyper-V virtualization technology that allows you to create virtual machines—self-contained versions of Windows—within Windows 10 Pro. But according to a Microsoft support document, you don’t need to toggle on Hyper-V to use WDAG. WDAG will take care of it itself. After toggling on WDAG and exiting the Features list, Windows will hunt around a bit for the proper software and then ask to reboot the PC. After a small update is applied, your PC will be ready to browse the web with Edge WDAG enabled.
If you’re in the Oct. 2018 Update, you’ll also be able to choose between some Settigngs options that will add some convenient functionality that is turned off in the earlier version, like the ability to print. Enable them if you feel like it.
Browsing the web with Edge and WDAG
Using WDAG to browse the Web with Edge is about as simple as it’s designed to be. To do so, open Edge, and from the ellipsis (three-dot) menu in the upper right, select New Application Guard window.
Application Guard requires some initialization time as the virtual machine spins up. (It took a minute or so on a Surface Pro 4 as well as a Surface Book 2, so it might be somewhat dependent on whether your laptop includes an SSD.) Fortunately, Edge WDAG doesn’t require that same setup time if you open subsequent WDAG tabs, and launching another session is much quicker, too.
Once the WDAG window is opened, the bright-red Application Guard label in the upper left corner distinguishes it from other Edge windows. (It’s black on Oct. 2018 Update builds.) On the taskbar, a small shield icon overlays the task icon, indicating that a WDAG window is in use. Note that you can also open an InPrivate private-browsing window within a WDAG environment, for an additional layer of privacy.
Right now, WDAG is built for security, not speed or (to be honest) even convenience. The Settings menu doesn’t allow much flexibility, with most options grayed out. (Edge itself doesn’t seem to offer any dedicated WDAG controls, either.) Here’s a list of WDAG limitations in the April 2018 Update edition of WDAG, as of press time:
You can’t import Favorites. Nor can you cut and paste a URL from another, non-WDAG window—or from a WDAG window to anywhere else.
Most downloads are currently blocked.
Extensions are disabled.
WDAG doesn’t offer any way of blocking ads, so there’s still the possibility that you’ll see a deceptive ad, or one that takes you to a website where you’re encouraged to enter personal information. All WDAG does is secure the browser window.
Note that the October 2018 Update allows you to download files, and print, and cut and paste URLs in and out of WDAG, if you enable them via the Settings, above.
Also, if WDAG is enabled in Windows 10 Enterprise, system admins can set a persistence policy, which allows you to navigate to a site within WDAG and add it manually to the Favorites menu. It will then persist until the next session. That capability doesn’t appear in the Windows 10 Pro version. And even though you can “download” something, it doesn’t mean you can actually use it; WDAG’s protected Downloads folder doesn’t seem to be user-accessible. (It is in the Enterprise version, Microsoft points out.)
Your WDAG browser history, though, is preserved until you sign out of your PC. Naturally, you can clear your history from within Edge, or use InPrivate for even more covert browsing.
Still, WDAG performance can be somewhat slow. WDAG is built for one thing: browsing the Web and keeping you secure, and that works best in a text-based environment. If you want to surf a site and download something you probably shouldn’t, though, that probably won’t work either.
While WDAG may protect your browser, however, it can’t do anything to protect you from thinking your browser might have fallen prey to malware. WDAG doesn’t seem to do anything to prevent a webpage from launching another tab, or block pop-up scams from appearing.
A pop-up scam will launch a browser popup with an apocalyptic message, claiming, for example, that your PC will remain infected until you call the number listed in the message. They’re sometimes accompanied by a klaxon, a siren, or an automated voice warning that leaving the website will disable your PC. In my case, one pop-up refused to yield when I tried to close the browser or the taskbar, and I was forced to reboot my machine. That’s the kind of headache a good ad-blocker or script-blocker can help avoid. Edge WDAG doesn’t support these, yet.
So if Edge WDAG is a browser that doesn’t let me download anything, or save Favorites, or protect against the kind of pop-up takeovers that cause relatives to call you in a panic, what good is it?
Right now, WDAG isn’t an ideal solution. To get there, Microsoft needs to add extension support so sites don’t have the power to trigger pop-up takeovers. It would be nice to be able to right-click a link in Edge and open it in a WDAG window. While download capability isn’t essential, it would be nice — though a security risk, too. Chrome’s sandbox, loaded up with a few script-blocking and ad-blocking extensions, can provide a decent alternative.
This may indicate why Microsoft has been a bit shy about WDAG. Though it noted WDAG’s addition to the Insider builds before the launch of the April 2018 Update, it didn’t exactly trumpet it to the public.
WDAG doesn’t cost a dime, though, and with a little polishing Edge could have an enterprise-class security solution that’s friendly enough for a consumer to use. WDAG’s not a guarantee that your browser won’t be hacked, and it won’t prevent you from carelessly giving up personal information. But it is an added layer of protection, and worth keeping in mind as Microsoft continues developing Edge.
This story was updated at 3:07 PM on Sept. 18, to add details of the version of WDAG found within the Windows 10 Oct. 2018 Update and an explainer video.
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In 2015, when Microsoft unveiled the very first public iteration of the HoloLens, product managers demonstrated the augmented reality headset by asking users to re-wire an actual light switch, live, guided by a remote professional. Three years later, Microsoft has finally commercialized that demo with a HoloLens-enabled version of Microsoft Dynamics.
Microsoft is commercializing two Dynamics apps with HoloLens: Dynamics 365 Remote Assist, which allows a remote viewer to assist a front-line worker, and Dynamics 365 Layout, which uses the HoloLens spatial-mapping abilities to help lay out a retail space or factory floor.
Remote Assist is what Microsoft originally wowed journalists with, and here’s how it works: Imagine building a PC, wearing a HoloLens, but you forgot to insert the memory with the proper spacing, or some other error. HoloLens Remote Assist would allow a remote support tech to see what you’re seeing via your HoloLens, with the ability to highlight what you should be doing. In addition, the remote assistant could use Skype to tell you to tighten the proper bolts, for example, or not to mix CPU pastes.
What this means: Chances are that you’ll never use the HoloLens in such a way, unless you’re a field tech for a company like Chevron, which has purchased 100 HoloLens headsets for field technicians. What this means, though, is that Microsoft has finally found an immediate, easily understandable, practical use for the HoloLens—which, honestly, has languished somewhat out of the public eye. That’s the best news for HoloLens in years.
Remote Assist to the rescue
While field techs might have on-the-job experience, a more experienced worker might be back at headquarters many miles away. By using HoloLens with Dynamics 365 Remote Assist, an escalated support call can be solved using augmented reality to tell the field technician exactly what to do, rather than go through the time-consuming exercise of describing the issue, said Lorraine Bardeen, the general manager of Microsoft’s Mixed Reality at Work.
There are some hitches, Bardeen explained in an interview. The HoloLens requires Wi-Fi, so a direct LTE connection won’t work. (Microsoft has tuned the Remote Assist app to minimize bandwidth, however, including dialing down the resolution of the Skype video.) But, she said, some customers are deploying HoloLens as essentially part of a support contract: If there’s a problem in the field, the customer can wear the HoloLens and the remote engineer can guide them through the solution.
Dynamics 365 Layout, by contrast, uses the HoloLens to “scan” the physical area around you. For a game like RoboRaid, the HoloLens “knows” where the walls and furniture around you are, and can summon robotic enemies to fire bolts of energy at you. Layout works somewhat more prosaically: Microsoft customers will create 3D models of machinery, desks, and other objects, then use Layout to place them on a factory floor, office, or retail space. The idea is to be able to use them to organize a physical workflow or map a customer experience in virtual space.
Again, there are some limitations: Microsoft’s HoloLens maps only a small area at a time, so customers may have to go from “cell” to “cell” of a given space, Bardeen said. But they can then stitch those together, and each cell will remain in the Microsoft cloud, ready to be edited or adjusted in the future.
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Everyone’s talking about how great the new iPhone XS and XS Max are but I’m not so sure they’re going to feel the same way after a few weeks have gone by. The fall season is jam-packed with flagship Android releases, and several of them have the potential to beat Apple at its own game. I talked about three of the best Android phones coming later this year as part of my new show, Android Confidential:
Huawei Mate 20: The Huawei Mate 20 and newer P20 are already two of the best phones you can buy, but the Mate 20 could beat them both (along with the iPhone XS). Rumor has it that Huawei will be using a triple-Leica setup on the Mate 20, an impressive array that has already shown tremendous results on the P20, the current Last Cam Standing reigning champ. Add to that the Kirin 980 chip and a 6.9-inch screen, and you’ve got a maxed-out Android phone that can beat the iPhone XS Max.
Google Pixel 3: Google’s Pixel 2 XL already has a camera that’s on par with the best phones you can buy now, and it’s a year old. While the Pixel 3 XL might not best the iPhone X in the looks department, it could beat it where it counts: the camera. Google does amazing things with just a single camera thanks to its top-notch image signal processor, and it’s rumored that it will be adding a second lens to the front of the phone. That means selfies would be wider and crisper, and portrait selfies would be next-level. For Instagrammers and Snapchatters, that could be worth more than a shiny new gold color.
OnePlus 6T: OnePlus isn’t exactly a household name in the U.S., but that could be changing with the 6T. For one, it’s rumored to be sold at T-Mobile this year, which would be the first time a OnePlus phone is available through a major carrier. For another, it’s going to have a killer new feature: an in-display fingerprint sensor. That’s not a rumor, it’s been confirmed by CEO Carl Pei. So the OnePlus 6T won’t just have premium specs and a low price tag, it’ll have a feature you won’t find on the Note 9, LG G7, Pixel… or the thousand-dollar iPhone XS.
The fate of the world is at stake, and I haven’t even made it out of the starting city. The Bard’s Tale IV seems long, to say the least—I’m ten hours in as I write this, and I feel like I just finished the prologue. Suffice it to say, we’re not slapping a score on this one yet.
And perhaps that’s a good thing, because The Bard’s Tale IV ($35 on Humble) is a fascinating game that desperately needs polishing up.
A looming high-resolution shadow
Let’s just deal with performance first, because it really is abysmal. Listen, I’m running a PC with an overclocked i7-5820K and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 Ti. It is absolute overkill for even the most cutting-edge games, and The Bard’s Tale IV isn’t one of them. Art direction is strong, but you wouldn’t look at it and go “Wow, what a technical feat.” Indeed, the recommended specs on the Steam page are a fairly reasonable i5-4590 and a GTX 970.
I cannot get smooth performance out of The Bard’s Tale IV though. It doesn’t matter if I’m running on Ultra, it doesn’t matter if I drop everything down to Medium, I can’t maintain even 30 frames per second at times let alone 60—at 1080p, no less! I do see a 5 to 10 frame per second bump when I lower the quality, but there’s still noticeable hitching in areas (especially the initial city and anything else outdoors), lots of texture pop-in, and lengthy load times.
Oh, the load times. I’ve grown fairly accustomed to a long up-front wait these days, the price we pay for seamless open-world background loads. But in The Bard’s Tale IV, every load time is hefty—like, at least 30 seconds. Need to pop into the Adventurer’s Guild to get your next quest? Expect a 30-second load into the building, then another 30 to 60 second load on the way out, every single time.
And The Bard’s Tale IV just doesn’t look that great. That’s the kicker. I’m never going to be excited about poor performance, but there are games where I at least sort-of understand the trouble. The Bard’s Tale IV has great art direction as I said, but the models and so-on, the raw guts of it, don’t look like anything special. There are a lot of moving parts, but coming off the back of Destiny 2 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider I can’t help but feel The Bard’s Tale IV needs another handful of optimization passes.
Then there are all the bugs, many of which are minor but still really damn annoying. My least favorite, and one I’ve come to dread in my seven hours, is a bug that makes it so none of your gear’s stats are applied correctly. This is important, because in The Bard’s Tale IV your stats (Strength, Constitution, Intelligence, and Armor Class) primarily come from your gear. Multiple times now I’ve thought “Why is this character doing almost no damage now?” only to check and notice their Strength is set to 0 for no reason.
The only fix I’ve found? Reloading, which is easier said than done, as you have to either reach a save point or exit to desktop and then run the game again. Oh, and sit through those interminable load screens one more time.
So yeah, it’s frustrating. Fixable? Absolutely, and I’ve no doubt a lot of these minor issues will get stamped out in the next week or two. That’s the way of things these days, and it’s definitely the way of things when it comes to InXile’s games. I loved Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera but bug-free they were not.
Still, if you’re hotly anticipating The Bard’s Tale IV, it might be worth holding off a bit until some of the technical issues get sorted. I’ve seen characters disappear from the world, quest scripting break, and innumerable other problems so far.
Down in the underground
It’s a shame too, because what I’ve played has been fantastic. How funny, to see inspiration come full-circle. First Legend of Grimrock borrowed from Bard’s Tale to create a modernized dungeon crawler, and now Bard’s Tale borrows quite openly from Legend of Grimrock—though not without some interesting changes.
There’s no grid, for one. It’s the feature I probably associate most heavily with the dungeon crawler genre, grid-based layout and movement. Legend of Grimrock even leaned into it, allowing you to turn off the automatically generated map and draw your own on graph paper.
In The Bard’s Tale IV the map is still based on a grid, and in some areas you can pull up the map and see those squares. You have freedom of movement though, almost as if you were playing an Elder Scrolls game. (You can turn grid-based movement back on in the settings, if you’d like.)
It’s a change with far-reaching consequences, as it evidently required The Bard’s Tale IV to come up with a new combat system too. The solution is either a high-concept card game or a very constricted tactics game, depending on your point-of-view. Fights are played out on a 4×4 grid, and your actions governed by a pool of points. Swinging your sword might cost one point for instance, while a “Rain of Arrows” might take two points and an extra turn, although it’ll also strike three squares at once.
I’m finding it very satisfying, especially as I get further into the game and have more options. The Bard class is particularly interesting, as most of their attacks require swigging alcohol beforehand—and later, you can open up a skill that throws the empty bottle at an enemy for extra damage. I wish you could have more skills accessible at a time, as the skill trees are large and you only get to “memorize” four per character. There’s a lot of depth though.
Those are the two aspects that feel the least dungeon crawl-y, and the two I expect will be most divisive for longtime Bard’s Tale fans. And that’s fair—they’re big changes. To some extent, The Bard’s Tale IV asks you to reconsider what constitutes the dungeon crawler genre.
I’ve settled on level design, because that’s where The Bard’s Tale IV excels most, and it’s what kept me playing even after I got frustrated by myriad performance issues. You start in the oft-threatened town of Skara Brae, a throwback to the old Bard’s Tale games, but soon venture into a vast underground area (“Skara Brae Below”) with secrets packed into nearly every corner.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve wandered deep down some corridor, pushed a switch, watched part of the wall disappear, walked out, and thought “Wait, I’m back here?” I love that feeling. It’s one of my favorite parts of any dungeon crawler, and in The Bard’s Tale IV it’s pervasive.
There are also hidden nooks and their equally hidden chests, weakened walls to bust down, mechanical gear puzzles to solve—so many secrets. And those are just the small ones. One area I’ve barely scratched the surface of, Mangar’s Tower, is essentially an enormous puzzle box. And then there’s this tantalizing door governed by seven switches tucked into the darkest corners of Skara Brae’s cellars:
As with Legend of Grimrock, I find myself wishing non-dungeon crawlers put as much work into their environments. I remember being so excited to find that first scrawled puzzle in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, only to realize later it was…basically the only puzzle in the game, just copy-pasted as needed and with a few minor details changed. The Bard’s Tale IV makes good upon its puzzles, and it’s a delight wandering in circles and on the fifth time realizing “Oh, I missed that fake rock the first four times through here.”
Or at least it’s a delight for me.
Seriously, though: Wait a few weeks if you can. The Bard’s Tale IV ($35 on Humble) is shaping up to be a special adventure, one of my favorites of 2018, but I’m enjoying it in spite of itself. Exploration is a core focus, and it’s been top-notch so far—but I really wish I could enjoy exploring without the painful load times, or the all-too-frequent framerate hitches.
I’ll keep plugging away at it, and hopefully in the next week or two some of the more egregious issues get patched out. Stay tuned.
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This dash cam is designed to capture a clear view during any time of the day or night, with WDR providing a balanced picture and NightHawk technology keeping an eye out even when it’s dark. You’ll also get 1080p quality, with Sony’s Exmor IMX323 sensor and the Ambarella A12 chipset, and catch up to four lanes of traffic with the wide-angle lens. And in case you live somewhere with extreme seasonal swings, this dash cam is tough enough to withstand a wide range of temperatures.
This dash cam is much cheaper than the ones we chose for our best dash cam roundup, making it a great starter option. And although we haven’t tried it ourselves, it’s well-received by buyers on Amazon, with 4.3 stars out of 5 over nearly 300 user reviews.
That’s a great deal, and while it would be nicer without the hassle of a mail-in rebate, it’s still worth the paper work. The RX 580 is a fantastic option for 1080p gaming. You can expect a solid 60 frames per second in many AAA games with the settings cranked. If 1440p is more your style, you should get some pretty good performance there too, and VR is also possible. If you want 4K, however, that’ll require something higher up the product line.
As for the games, you get the aforementioned Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, as well as Star Control: Origins (which rolls out on Thursday), and Strange Brigade. That’s not bad value at all, and it’s definitely enough to warm up that new GPU.
Vizio’s Home Theater Sound System with Dolby Atmos, model number SB36512-F6, is a high-value, high-tech soundbar that delivers a taste of immersive audio magic.
This is a 5.1.2 solution, meaning there are left, right, and center drivers–plus two front height channels–in the main speaker cabinet; two discrete surround speakers, and a (wireless) subwoofer. Vizio’s approach leans towards the pragmatic, not the aesthetic. The main speaker cabinet measures approximately 36-inches wide, 2.5-inches high, and 3.25-inches deep.
The left and right surround speakers deliver a genuine surround-sound experience that no virtual speakers can match. Measuring around 5.75-inches high, 2.75-inches wide, and 2.5-inches deep, they’re small enough to blend into any room’s décor or even sit on a window sill. These are passive drivers, so they aren’t wireless. You’ll need to connect them to the subwoofer using the RCA-terminated speaker cables Vizio provides. But there really is no such thing as a truly wireless speaker. Unless it runs on batteries, it will need at least a power cord.
The included wireless subwoofer (yes, it has a power cord) is an upright design that comes pre-paired to the soundbar out-of-the box. It’s rated to deliver sonic slam all the way down to 40Hz—far lower than its footprint would suggest.
The Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers are oriented at a 20-degree angle to bounce height sound effects off the ceiling down to your listening position. In order for this effect to work, your room must fulfill several requirements, as outlined in Dolby’s Atmos-enabled speaker spec.
In a nutshell, for the overhead effect to work you need a flat, reflective ceiling between 7.5 and 12 feet above the speakers—although ceilings as high as 14 feet might work. If your room doesn’t meet those requirements, don’t expect the height sound cues to work well—or at all. The height effect won’t work with angled ceilings, drop ceilings, or any non-reflective ceiling material either. I’ll tell you my impressions of the overhead effects further along in the review
If you’re looking for front and rear height channels, then look to Vizio’s upcoming 46-inch, 5.1.4 Dolby Atmos system. It adds a physically larger subwoofer and two Dolby Atmos-enabled speakers in the surround speakers for a total of four overhead speaker channels. It will cost $999.99 when it ships later this year. I heard both the 5.1.2 and 5.1.4 systems at the company’s private press unveiling in New York City earlier this year. The two additional height speakers make a noticeable difference.
High tech and high value
Vizio is known for delivering value for the dollar, and that’s certainly the case here. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity are standard, of course, but there’s also an ethernet port if you’re fortunate enough to have a wired network in your home theater. Source input options include 3.5mm analog, S/PDIF optical, USB, and HDMI in and out, with ARC (Audio Return Channel) support on the output so you can use your TV’s tuner and streaming features. Just make sure that your TV also supports ARC and that you have HDMI CEC enabled on both your TV and the soundbar.
Chromecast makes the Vizio Home Theater Sound System with Dolby Atmos a star. I was able to stream music from Tidal and every other Chromecast-enabled audio app on my smart device: Spotify, Pandora, iHeart Radio, and Google Play Music are just a few of the compatible services.
But it gets even better. Using the Google Home app on my iPhone, I could search my network for any Chromecast-compatible speakers and create groups or even a whole-home zone. I created a whole-house group with the soundbar and my Cambridge Audio Yoyo (L), called “Hall of Justice” in the screenshot above, and streamed music to both speakers simultaneously.
With its most recent update, my Roon music server supports Chromecast, too. Using that software, I could select the Vizio soundbar as a speaker endpoint and group the Vizio with any other audio setup in my home, including my two-channel audio setup. I could even pair the Vizio with AirPlay speakers.
Use IR or the mobile app for system control
You have two control options: Use the included infrared remote control or the free Vizio SmartCast app for Android or iOS. The included remote is excellent. It’s a real remote, not the cheap credit-card type that some manufacturers include. I could easily make out its various buttons by touch. The remote’s text display, on the other hand, is far too difficult to read in dim lighting. Vizio needs to address this issue with a backlit screen–or at least one that offers better contrast. Individuals with vision problems will have difficulty using this one.
The SmartCast app is a thing of beauty, offering full control over every aspect of the soundbar’s performance, including treble and bass settings; volume for the center, subwoofer, and surround channels; and instant access to EQ presets.
Of special note are the volume leveler and night-mode settings. Activating both night mode and volume leveler dramatically reduced program dynamics and bass response. In other words, if you want to enjoy your show but don’t want to wake up the kids or disturb the neighbors, Vizio has you covered.
But Vizio’s SmartCast app isn’t your ordinary app-based remote. It’s an entire suite of audio and video media access centered around Google Chromecast. If you’re using a Vizio TV, then the SmartCast app’s value increases considerably. Not only can you control both the TV and the soundbar from a single interface, but you can also “cast” TV shows, movies, and live TV from your mobile device to your Vizio TV while controlling your audio at the same time. I am currently working on a review of Vizio’s P-Series 65-inch 4K UHD smart TV, and using it with the soundbar is a truly seamless experience.
Control your Vizio with Google Assistant
Configuring this soundbar to work with Google Assistant was also a breeze. I used my Google Home Mini to play specific musical artists and tracks with voice commands, and I was also able to raise or lower the Vizio’s volume level that way.
Dolby Atmos onboard
The soundbar’s key selling point is the inclusion of Dolby Atmos support. Unlike traditional surround sound, Dolby Atmos adds a third dimension—height—for overhead sound effects.
Just make sure you have all the required pieces in place: an Atmos source, a compatible player, and the proper ceiling. You’ll need a 4K UltraHD Blu-ray title with Dolby Atmos (Dolby has a list here) or a digital copy. Be careful, not all streaming boxes sold today support Dolby Atmos. The Roku Ultra, Chromecast Ultra, and the Apple TV 4K do (although Apple TV 4K owners must upgrade to tvOS 12 to get it).
When the Vizio senses a Dolby Atmos audio signal, it displays a green LED on the front of the soundbar. Alternatively, you can press the Menu button on the soundbar’s remote and navigate to the Info option, using the up/down keys on the remote, and then press the Play/Pause button. The bar will announce the current input followed by the currently playing audio format and their associated LEDs will light up. From the SmartCast app, you can also select the Gear icon and go to System—> System Information—> Soundbar information—> Audio Type.
You might wonder if you can take a two-channel or traditional surround-sound title and upmix it to immersive audio. The answer is yes, you can. There are two ways to do this: When the Vizio’s height channels are on (the default setting), the soundbar uses Dolby Audio Processing for all input formats (e.g. 2.0 or 5.1). The Vizio will upmix that signal to 5.1.2 and use all its speakers.
If, however, the height channels are turned off or the height channels are set to virtual mode (which you can do via the remote or the SmartCast app), Dolby Audio Processing is turned off and DTS’ Virtual:X kicks in. Here’s the important difference: Virtual:X uses 5.1 channels for this effect by incorporating digital signal processing and psychoacoustics. Virtual:X does not use the Vizio’s height channels. A Vizio representative explained that some consumers might find Virtual:X useful in situations where you don’t have an optimal setup/room/ceiling configuration to utilize the physical height channels.
I should note that the Vizio does not support DTS:X, an immersive audio format that competes with Dolby Atmos. If you feed the Vizio a 4K UltraHD Blu-ray with a DTS:X signal via its HDMI input, it will decode the DTS-HD Master Audio layer and then upmix it. If you are using HDMI ARC, then DTS Digital Surround will be decoded and upmixed.
A taste of immersive audio magic
Setup is a breeze. Vizio pays meticulous attention to your setup experience and clearly knows many (most?) of us hate to read user manuals. Someone at Vizio deserves a pat on the back for coming up with the idea of including stickers on the soundbar. The labels provide exactly the right instructional cues to help you avoid frustration during initial setup.
I installed the Vizio in my main living room in a table-top configuration about 12 feet from my primary listening position. The room has a flat, 9-foot reflective ceiling, right in line with Dolby’s specifications for Atmos. I placed the two side-surround speakers approximately eight from the TV, two feet behind my primary listening position at close to ear height. I used an Oppo UDP-205 to play 4K UltraHD and Dolby Atmos titles, and an Apple TV 4K (pre-tvOS 12 update) as my primary sources. Because the Vizio doesn’t have multiple HDMI inputs, I switched them out manually. Vizio’s 65-inch P-Series served as the display.
If you have a 4K UHD TV and 4K sources, you’ll be happy to know that the Vizio passes 4K UHD signals—including HDR-10 and Dolby Vision HDR—through to the display. I had no problem enabling Dolby Vision on an Apple TV 4K or playing 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Dolby Vision titles such as Spider-Man Homecoming.
On the audio front, the Vizio Home Theater Sound System with Dolby Atmos shines. Dialog is highly intelligible and the system plays with ample dynamics—easily filling my relatively large 24-foot x 30-foot space with audio excitement.
Movie EQ does yeoman’s work with bass response in movies. Bass response is exceptionally good considering the price point and footprint—just don’t expect it to be completely free of bloat or to fully register depth-charge-deep bass.
But let’s look a bit more into the reason why you’d consider this soundbar system: Dolby Atmos.
I fired up the 4K UltraHD Blu-ray disc version of X-Men: Age of Apocalypse, which has a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. I’ve played this movie countless times to demo overhead effects. At the 10:08 mark of the movie, Scott Summers’ (AKA Cyclops) concussive eye beams blast open a bathroom stall and cuts into in the ceiling as he looks up. This act sends debris hurling down everywhere from above. The effect is uncanny in my dedicated Dolby Atmos theater, I can make out debris fragments as they fall around me.
The Vizio did a fine job conveying the sensation of space in the Atmos track, and it did a credible job creating the illusion that debris was falling down from above. Think of the difference as my dedicated theater being able to render the effect in precise high definition, while the Vizio was more fuzzy in its rendition. I also played this scene without the Vizio’s height channels engaged and I much preferred the Atmos presentation.
Pacific Rim in 4K UltraHD Blu-ray is another demo-worthy film. In Chapter 2, a mechanical robot Jager faces the Kaiju Knifehead. The battle takes place in the middle of the ocean amidst a fierce thunderstorm. The Visio excelled at presenting the scene’s intense dynamics, never missing a beat. Dialog was clear and intelligible. Rain and thunder weren’t so much noticeable from above; but the Dolby Atmos soundtrack did create a better sensation of space and envelopment.
A high value proposition
Not everyone can install a dedicated Dolby Atmos theater system in their home, and that’s where Vizio’s Home Theater Sound System with Dolby Atmos’ value proposition kicks in. Vizio’s 5.1.2 package gives you a taste of immersive audio magic in a small footprint while fitting into most aesthetic and architectural constraints.
The Vizio will create an expanded sense of space and depth that you won’t get from a traditional setup—and that’s a huge part of what immersive audio is all about. Just don’t expect this package to rival the height effects rendered with a dedicated Dolby Atmos setup. No speaker system can defy the laws of physics. Think of this as an appetizer instead of a full-course meal.
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Free-to-play naval combat game World of Warships will make a drastic and controversial U-turn and add submarines to the mix next year, Wargaming officials announced Tuesday morning.
Gamers can get a taste of the silent service October 31. The company will let players sample submarines for the first time as part of a temporary Halloween gag, where ships and subs take on spooky themes.
Submarines, however, aren’t just a short-term gag. Wargaming officials said submersibles will be added as the permanent 5th class of vessels alongside World War II-era battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. World of Warships is known for its meticulously modelling of ships such as the H.M.S. Hood, Bismarck, and U.S.S. Missouri.
Why this matters: This dive into the briny deep marks a drastic change for the free-to-play naval combat game, which has focused solely on surface combat since its inception three years ago. It’s also a pretty big about-face, because the company has pledged multiple times never to add them to the team-based game. But Wargaming wants to broaden the appeal of World of Warships beyond naval enthusiasts and those who live to watch black-and-white Victory At Sea re-runs from a leather recliner in the den. These moves could give the player population a much-needed boost.
It’s a cat-and-mouse, and dog-and-lion game
Some basic principles of World of Warships won’t change. In each match, up to 12 ships battle on an ocean map with naval gunfire, bombs, and torpedoes. To broaden interest, Wargaming has also added player-versus-environment and clan battles. The company said so far, more than 28 million people worldwide have registered to play the game on PC.
The addition of subs, however, complicates a game that has long faced the circular problem of “balance.” This is best illustrated with the children’s story of a homeowner who tried to solve a mouse problem by getting a cat. To get rid of the cat, a dog is brought in, and to get rid of the dog, a lion is brought in. To get rid of the lion, an elephant is brought in. Finally, to get rid of the elephant, a mouse is brought in.
For example, earlier this year, after complaints that too many battleships populated games and hid in back, Wargaming added a new destroyer with long-range stealth torpedoes that could only hit battleships. Of course, months later, to help prune back an overpopulation of destroyers sniping battleships, World of Warships added more cruisers with radar.
Submarines will likely shake it up all over again by adding a third dimension underwater. Subs can dive and surface, and fire torpedoes from stealth. If you’re a slow-moving battleship, having three torpedoes slam into your side can ruin your day. Even worse, radar, which effectively pruned back destroyers, won’t spot submerged submarines.
That’s where destroyers newly equipped with depth charges will come in, the company said. Yup, there’s that cat-and-mouse game.
Aircraft carriers are getting nerfed, too
Submarines won’t be the only major reshuffle. The company is in the process of taking drastic actions with the ultimate naval battle machine—the aircraft carrier. Unlike battleships, cruiser, and destroyers, which are all played from a third-person perspective, aircraft carriers are controlled from a real-time strategy (RTS) map view.
As in World War II, the aircraft carrier has been the most deadly of all ships, but the skill level to play it well has been rare. That’s led to mostly one-sided matches, with one side salty as the Pacific Ocean and screaming profanities.
To address the skill disparity, Wargaming will change aircraft carriers from an RTS map to a third-person view, with the aircraft carrier player flying individual squadrons rather than commanding an entire air wing.
Wargaming is sensitive to the feelings of players who’ve invested time and money in aircraft carriers, so it’s preparing to offer refunds to those who have purchased premium ships, such as the famous U.S.S. Enterprise or the Imperial Japanese Navy carrier Kaga. As with the submarines, the company expects to implement aircraft carrier changes fully in 2019.
In another drastic change for the game, some players are saying World of Warships is being dumbed down to cater to the soon-to-be-introduced World of Warships Legends for Xbox and Playstation 4 (due next year).
Wargaming officials told PCWorld the worriers were wrong. Instead, North American Publishing Director of World of Warships Sasha Nikolaev said, the move is genuinely to make the game more approachable to all players, and ultimately increase the player population.
Nikolaev said the company views increasing the overall population as the best way to solve the game’s issues with the matchmaking system, which often seems to pair inexperienced players against experienced players, or create teams where one side has a huge advantage in capable ships, against one side that doesn’t. World of Warships has already added crossover play with Japanese anime show High School Fleet and steampunk-style ships in hopes of adding to the population. That, in turn, allows the matchmaking service to be more selective in face-offs, Nikolaev said.
Nikolaev said the company is fully aware of the delicate balancing act of trying to keep as many players happy at once in a single world. Wargaming is planning extensive beta testing of the features.
The changes also come at a tumultuous time for the company. Earlier this year, Wargaming cut more than 100 positions in its Emeryville, Calif. office and consolidated most of its operations in Austin, Texas.
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