ASUS calls on tinkerers to make custom ZenFone 6 firmware

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Richard Lai/Engadget

While many Android phone makers are locking their devices down in the name of security, there are a few vendors courting enthusiasts who want to install their own firmware — and ASUS is one of them. The company has teamed up with XDA to help seed ROM development teams with ZenFone 6 units, including LineageOS, CarbonROM, OmniROM and TWRP. They’re also reaching out to individuals developers behind projects like the unofficial Google Camera port.

This isn’t a formal development program, XDA noted. Rather, it’s a “trial” that will gauge the impact of supporting the custom ROM community this way. OnePlus and Xiaomi’s Poco brand have tried similar things in the past.

The effort reflects ASUS’ newfound focus on power users as part of its leadership upheaval. It wants to cater to the kind of people who insist on maximum control over their devices, and that means ensuring a healthy ROM community. There’s no guarantee it will help ASUS’ bottom line. People sometimes install ROMs like LineageOS precisely to delay buying new phones (as they can get Android updates beyond official support). However, it could foster a loyalty that isn’t very common in the Android world, enticing tinkerers to come back when they’d otherwise drift to whatever phone is trendy and reasonably open.

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This year’s Computex was a wild ride with dueling chip releases, new laptops and 467 startups

After a relatively quiet show last year, Computex picked up the pace this year, with dueling chip launches by rivals AMD and Intel and a slew of laptop releases from Asus, Qualcomm, Nvidia, Lenovo and other companies.

Founded in 1981, the trade show, which took place last week from May 28 to June 1, is one of the ICT industry’s largest gatherings of OEMs and ODMs. In recent years, the show’s purview has widened, thanks to efforts by its organizers, the Taiwan External Trade Development Council and Taipei Computer Association, to attract two groups: high-end computer customers, such as hardcore gamers, and startups looking for investors and business partners. This makes for a larger, more diverse and livelier show. Computex’s organizers said this year’s event attracted 42,000 international visitors, a new record.

Though the worldwide PC market continues to see slow growth, demand for high-performance computers is still being driven by gamers and the popularity of esports and live-streaming sites like Twitch. Computex, with its large, elaborate booths run by brands like Asus’ Republic of Gaming, is a popular destination for many gamers (the show is open to the public, with tickets costing NTD $200, or about $6.40), and began hosting esport competitions a few years ago.

People visit the ASUS stand during Computex at Nangang exhibition centre in Taipei on May 28, 2019. (Photo by Chris STOWERS / AFP) (Photo credit should read CHRIS STOWERS/AFP/Getty Images)

The timing of the show, formally known as the Taipei International Information Technology Show, at the end of May or beginning of June each year, also gives companies a chance to debut products they teased at CES or preview releases for other shows later in the year, including E3 and IFA.

One difference between Computex now and ten (or maybe even just five) years ago is that the increasing accessibility of high-end PCs means many customers keep a close eye on major announcements by companies like AMD, Intel and Nvidia, not only to see when more powerful processors will be available but also because of potential pricing wars. For example, many gamers hope competition from new graphic processor units from AMD will force Nvidia to bring down prices on its popular but expensive GPUs.

The Battle of the Chips

The biggest news at this year’s Computex was the intense rivalry between AMD and Intel, whose keynote presentations came after a very different twelve months for the two competitors.

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The biggest news at Computex 2019

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Our week in Taiwan is coming to a close, and as Team Engadget bids goodbye to the dumplings and beef noodles, it’s time to look back on all the news we saw this week. As always, ASUS was the star of the show in its home turf, and this year was especially significant as the company celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. It unveiled attractive new special editions of the ZenBook and ZenFone, as well as a dual-screen laptop.

This Computex, chip makers ruled the show with their powerful new products. Intel even wowed us by showing off intriguing concept devices with dual and integrated companion screens, as well as the first slate of laptops from its Project Athena program. Qualcomm and Lenovo were also here to announce their “Project Limitless” collaboration with the first 5G laptop. And then there’s the usual onslaught of new gaming PCs, laptops, keyboards and accessories. It’s been a particularly interesting show with exciting news for the PC industry, and we can’t wait to come back next year for more.

Catch up on all the latest news from Computex 2019 here!

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Pushing a 28-core CPU to its limits: 6GHz and beyond

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I’m mesmerized by the way liquid-nitrogen vapor flows across the motherboard. There’s something oddly therapeutic about extreme overclocking, especially when the cold air gently touches my skin, making even the tiniest bumps in clock speed the more worthwhile. There’s probably no better place to see it in action than Taipei’s Computex, where gaming PC memory maker G.Skill gathers the world’s best overclockers for its OC World Cup event (with a $10,000 top cash prize).

Our previous attempt to tame the 18-core Intel Core i9-7980XE was already rather ambitious, but this year, we decided to go all the way with the massive 28-core, 255W Intel Xeon W-3175X, a rare CPU gem that costs at least $3,000 — if you can even find one. Our goal was to break the chip’s records at the time: pushing it from its 3.1GHz base frequency to beyond 5.68GHz on Cinebench R15, or at least beyond 6.5GHz via the more lightweight CPU-Z validation. With this many cores, it posed a much bigger cooling challenge to run at higher speeds, especially compared to the quad-core i7-7700K I tinkered with the year before.

Overclocking at Computex 2019

Like before, G.Skill let us go wild with its tanks of liquid nitrogen on the far end of the stage. Once again, I teamed up with my overclocking Meister, Joe “Steponz” Stepongzi, who secured an impressive rig for our CPU challenge: a beastly ASUS ROG Dominus Extreme motherboard with 12 G.Skill Trident Z Royal 8GB sticks, totalling 96GB of RAM (though the motherboard supports up to 192GB), plus a cooling pot made by another professional overclocker, Roman “der8auer” Hartung. With the CPU included, the whole rig costs somewhere between $8,000 and $10,000. “Why buy a car when you can have this setup?” Stepongzi joked.

The challenge with overclocking the W-3175X is partly due to having to keep tabs on all 28 cores, which creates more variables in power and thermal properties. The most important prep work, according to Stepongzi, is finding a suitable mounting mechanism to ensure the hefty cooling pot touches the CPU evenly. For a CPU of this size, uneven mounting will risk losing some of the memory channels — six here instead of the usual two or four — and drastically reduce performance.

An overclocker applying thermal paste onto an Intel Xeon W-3175X before mounting a cooling pot.
Richard Lai/Engadget

The usual precautions apply. The motherboard has to be insulated with dielectric grease to fend off any accidental drops of water. Likewise, paper towel lines the gap between each memory slot, and then yet more paper towel wraps around the pot and memory sticks, to soak up condensation. A small fan helps blow the vapor away, too. When CPU performance drops or the paper towel gets too wet, you’ll want to bring the kit’s temperature back up using a blowtorch, dismantle everything, clean thoroughly and then reassemble to try again. This process alone could take a good 20 minutes at least.

Depending on the benchmark, the W-3175X had to be lowered to between -100°C/-148°F and 120°C/-184°F. That gave us more leeway compared to last year’s i9-7980XE, which would stop functioning — hitting a “cold bug” — if it went below -104°C/-155.2°F.

After spinning up CPU-Z, we made some some fine adjustments on the clock speed and voltage in between pours, eventually stopping at 6.1GHz. That was still some way away from the 6.5GHz world record at the time of writing, but we had to make-do with the piece of silicon we got.

Looking serious

But the benchmark that we cared more about was Cinebench R15, which pushed all 28 cores and 56 threads to run at 100 percent — as opposed to around 10 percent or less for the CPU-Z validation. That’s tough. We even sought help from another top overclocker, Hiva “Hiwa” Pouri, but the PC kept ending up with a blue screen whenever we went beyond 5.5GHz. Dismantling and cleaning the kit didn’t help much, either, so we settled with a score of 7,865 cb at 5.5GHz — not far off from the 8,391 cb (at 5.68GHz) record.

According to Stepongzi, this was really impressive, considering that his i9-7980XE last year reached 5.6GHz on “just” 18 cores, and now we have a similar 5.5GHz speed but on 28 cores. That is to say, Intel has come a long way with the W-3175X’s stability when overclocked. Stepongzi added that this easily blows away the i9-9900K, Intel’s recent octa-core flagship, in the same benchmarks (though the i9-9900KS announced at Computex should see much improved performance).

Even though we failed to break any record, there are ways to improve our chances in the future. For one, a less humid environment would help a lot. Steponz said he could set up a rig in a dry place, like Las Vegas, and then bench for hours with no ice or vapor potentially affecting performance. The rest is all in the prep details. That, and a bit of luck.

Catch up on all the latest news from Computex 2019 here!

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PC makers are getting better at copying smartphone innovation

For a long time, the PC industry was stagnating. Computer makers had grown comfortable with iterative annual updates to their devices, relying on yearly processor advancements to push consumers to buy new laptops. But recently, things changed. PC makers started borrowing features from smartphones to make their laptops stand out, just as phones keep trying to become more like computers. There were plenty of examples at Computex 2019, but instead of displaying purely imitated features, the PC industry showed it can actually do some of them better.

Companies at Computex this year are continuing to take features like eSIM, built-in LTE and instant unlock and advancing them for laptops. For example, Lenovo and Qualcomm announced they are collaborating on the first 5G laptop, bringing next-gen cellular connectivity to the PC world. Meanwhile, Intel showed off the first devices from its Project Athena program, whihch promises to deliver computers that wake up from sleep in under a second. Instant resume is already a feature that Microsoft offers, but Intel uses nifty new tricks to make sure your laptop is always ready for you to get to work.

Companies also want to make their PCs last at least as long as smartphones, and this year’s Computex announcements had a major focus on battery life. For instance, Lenovo and Qualcomm promise days of juice on the Project Limitless 5G laptop, while Intel is enforcing a minimum of nine hours on its Project Athena devices. That’s still not close to what you’d get on your phone, but it’s a marked improvement.

PCs are also starting to look different — we’re thankfully seeing fewer boring black rectangles here. Many of them have aesthetics that appear to be inspired by phones. The new Dell Inspiron series, for example, comes in a lilac hue that’s reminiscent of the lavender Galaxy S10. HP also unveiled Envy laptops with wood inlays, and this, along with the leather in last year’s Spectre Folio, feel similar to Samsung’s leatherette Galaxy Note 3 and S4 as well as Motorola’s wood finish on the Motos.

HP Envy x360 wood

In addition to borrowing (ahem, stealing) fundamental traits from phones, PCs are also exploring the wilder concepts that burgeoned in the mobile realm. Fascination with dual screens and foldable fever is taking hold in smartphones, and laptop makers want in on that fun, too. Ahead of Computex, Lenovo showed off a prototype of what it’s calling the “world’s first foldable PC” — a laptop with a bendable screen. Here at the show, though, we saw companies experiment more with dual displays and secondary screens.

These ideas had been tried to death in the smartphone world with little success, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work on laptops. In fact, with their bigger bodies and larger batteries, notebooks might just be the right vehicle for the dual-screen format to take off. The ZenBook Pro Duo seemed surprisingly useful, while ASUS’ refined ScreenPad 2.0 promises to be more intuitive and power efficient than its predecessor. The Intel prototypes that we saw also offered intriguing applications, with dual-screens that weren’t just eye-popping but, more importantly, had purpose.

Finally, PC and chip makers have also started to use AI to allocate a device’s resources to optimize performance and prolong battery life. That’s basically what Huawei introduced with its AI-powered Mate 10, and it’s a feature Samsung then borrowed in the Galaxy S10, which it calls Intelligent performance.

Samsung Galaxy S10 hands-on

With Intel’s Dynamic Tuning, for example, a computer can figure out what you’re doing and optimize system settings to give you the best experience. If you’re using a chat app or working on an essay, for example, it will tap low-power components. It’ll only fire up the more energy-sucking parts, like the GPU, for when you launch more intensive tasks like gaming or video editing.

As the line between laptops and smartphones continues to blur, it’s nice to see the two industries inspire each other to deliver compelling new features in their respective products. Imitation, as they say, is the sincerest form of flattery.

Catch up on all the latest news from Computex 2019 here!

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