Most Americans believe algorithms will always be biased


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If you’re convinced that many algorithms are biased, you’re not the only one. Pew has conducted a survey indicating that 58 percent of American adults believe algorithms and other programming will always contain some kind of human bias. That figure is partly skewed by age (63 percent of those over 50 didn’t believe algorithms could be completely neutral), but even the relatively optimistic 18-29 crowd showed some distrust, with 48 percent believing there would still be some bias.

Why the skepticism? To some extent, it could stem from social networks. A clear 74 percent of study participants didn’t think social media accurately reflected society. It pushed their emotional hot buttons (88 percent were at least sometimes amused, 71 percent angry) and frequently led to heated discussions whether or not they had all the facts. Respondents also weren’t big fans of how social networks used their data in some cases. They were fine with events and potential friends, but balked at having their data used to target ads — especially political ads.

The survey also suggested that most Americans didn’t believe algorithms should be used in situations with far-reaching consequences. About 56 percent didn’t believe criminal risk assessment algorithms were acceptable, and they showed stronger objections to algorithms being used for automated resume screening (57 percent), job interview video studies (67 percent) and personal finance scores (68 percent). Many didn’t believe algorithms could accurately reflect complex human nature, and that the algorithms were both unfair and could violate privacy.

While the study doesn’t make any definitive pronouncements, it’s evident that tech companies and governments will have a lot of work to do if they’re going to convince the public that algorithms are better than humans in certain cases. It also hints that these bodies may want to avoid algorithmic decision-making unless they can convince the public that the code is reasonably fair.

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Apple Mac Mini review (2018): A video editor’s perspective

The Mac Mini has had a rough few years. Its last update, in 2014, was disappointing. After offering quad-core CPUs on the 2011 and 2012 editions, the 2014 model was stuck with a dual-core CPU. This meant it was actually slower at some tasks than the computer it was supposed to replace. Add in the fact that aside from storage it was not upgradable, and you had a computer that left a lot of users unhappy. Amazingly, until last month the 2014 Mini was still available on Apple’s web store for $500. The lack of updates over the past four years left a lot of us wondering if we’d ever see a new model.

Fortunately, Apple has rectified the situation with the 2018 Mini. This new model retains the unibody design that we loved on the 2014 edition but sports a sleek space-gray color — a first for the Mini line. (It’s also now made entirely from recycled aluminum, as is the new MacBook Air.) With vastly improved components, the Mini is now a viable competitor in the compact-desktop market.

And it does have competition. In the past four years, micro PCs have vastly improved, and most of the major manufacturers now offer a tiny Windows machine. Still, I was impressed with the Mini’s performance, and it’s the cheapest way to get a macOS machine. Despite this, the 2018 Mini has a few flaws that will probably keep it from being the best choice for most people.

Engadget Score


Poor


Uninspiring


Good


Excellent

Key

Pros
  • Compact design
  • Versatile port selection including USB Type-A and HDMI
  • Fast CPU performance
  • Least expensive Mac in Apple’s lineup
Cons
  • Limited graphics performance (and no meaningful way to improve it)
  • Upgrade options get expensive fast
  • RAM isn’t technically user upgradeable

Summary

The 2018 Mac Mini is the first new compact computer we’ve seen from Apple in four years. With an eighth-generation Intel processor and abundant connectivity, including four Thunderbolt 3 and two USB Type-A ports, the Mini is designed to be fast and flexible. Apple is positioning the new Mini as a “pro” machine, but we found that the lack of a dedicated GPU holds this system back. Still, if you don’t need particularly powerful graphics and are looking for a speedy desktop, the Mini has a lot to offer for both the size and the price.


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Hardware

The most impressive thing about the new Mini is its selection of ports. There’s Ethernet, a headphone jack and four USB-C connections (supporting Thunderbolt 3). It also sports a full-size HDMI port and two old-school USB-3 Type-A ports. Apple has been so aggressive about removing useful ports I was worried we’d see a box with nothing but a pair of USB-C inputs. The connectivity options make the new Mini easy to customize, with the option to add external SSDs, external GPUS or whatever else you might need. Unfortunately, shared controllers mean those Thunderbolt ports can only support two displays but add in the HDMI and you can run three 4K monitors from the Mini (or one 5K and one 4K display).

Mac Mini (2018) review

Compared to previous Minis, you do lose the analog microphone input, but considering USB-based digital-analog converters are plentiful and effective, that’s not a huge loss.

I tested the entry-level $799 model, which comes with a quad-core, 3.6GHz Intel Core ii3-8100b processor, Intel UHD 630 graphics, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. Intel’s b-series processors are soldered/integrated versions of their full desktop chips, and this one was pretty impressive, though the i3 model in my test unit doesn’t support either hyperthreading or turbo boost speeds, in case those things are important to you.

Unlike the 2014 Mini, you can upgrade the RAM in the new model yourself, though it’s challenging enough that Apple recommends you have the work done at a service center. If you don’t want to pay Apple’s price for RAM (frequently two to three times market rate) you can do it yourself, but it’ll take a set of Torx drivers and you can kiss your warranty goodbye.

Performance

Previous Mac Minis were positioned as low-cost computers for the home or office, and the new model excels at those tasks. Its i3 chip is more than up to handling word processing, multiple browser tabs, video streaming and music playback. Unlike earlier models, though, Apple is clearly positioning the new Mini as a machine for designers and other professionals. The company’s website describes it as a “workhorse” and lists advanced rendering software like Autodesk Maya and Luxion Keyshot among the apps that should see improved performance. So the real question is: How does this computer perform compared to Apple’s other “pro” machines? The answer there is a little tricky.

Mac Mini (2018) review

In Cinebench, which analyzes CPU and GPU processing for graphics rendering, the Mini did pretty well. In single-core CPU performance, it edged past the i7 in a MacBook Pro and was only about 15 percent slower than the Xeon chip in an iMac Pro. In multicore testing, though, the lack of hyperthreading was obvious, as the Mini fell 20 percent behind the MacBook Pro, and was only one third as fast as the iMac Pro.

Geekbench 4 single-core results were more encouraging, with the Mini’s i3 outperforming the MacBook Pro by a hair, and approaching the iMac Pro. In multicore, the Mac Mini was also only about 5 percent slower than the MacBook Pro, though it still fell more than 50 percent behind the iMac.

In fairness, the Mini costs less than a third of either of these systems, and its i3 processor is more powerful than I would have expected, but while the CPU might have given a strong performance, with graphics the Mini struggled. In Cinebench’s GPU test, the Mini was only able to manage half of the MacBook Pro’s performance and one-third of the iMac Pro.

Mac Mini 2017 2.8GHz i7 Macbook Pro iMac Pro 3.2GHz Xeon
Cinebench Single-Core 151 149 176
Cinebench Multi-Core 585 716 1671
Cinebench GPU 40.61 78.13 123.69 fps
Geekbench 4 Single-Core 4726 4601 5255
Geekbench 4 Multi-Core 14391 15469 33093
Geekbench 4 OpenCL Compute 21359 36026 160901
Adobe Media Encoder Cineform to MP4 11:12 11:02 5:55

Geekbench painted a similarly disappointing picture. Against its OpenCL computer test, the integrated Intel graphics in the Mini were 40 percent slower than the MacBook Pro and scored only about one eighth the speed of the iMac Pro.

Benchmarks are only part of the picture, though. I’m not a programmer or a 3D designer, but I am a video editor, and to provide a real-world test I edited an episode of Engadget Today on the 2018 Mini using Premiere Pro.

The Mini performed better than I expected. Cutting footage, moving it around the timeline and basic playback were all smooth. It even played back 4K footage from my Sony FS5 with barely a hitch. The limitations of the machine become particularly apparent when I began adding titles and color-correction. Premiere Pro (and most editing software) relies heavily on the GPU to render real-time previews once you’ve started modifying the footage with color and effects. That proved to be a real challenge for the Mini, and the preview playback became increasingly choppy as I added even basic effects. Reducing the playback resolution helped a bit, but at a certain point, the footage just became challenging to work with.

Mac Mini (2018) review

On one test of 4K footage using color, correction, a blur and a title, the Mini managed to display only 10 percent of the frames during a 10-second playback. And forget about working at double speed (which many editors do to save time); once effects were added, the audio wouldn’t even play if I tried to preview faster than real-time. Even using proxies (low-res temporary files in a format that should be easier for the program to read) barely helped the situation.

When exporting the footage, a task that generally doesn’t rely heavily on the GPU, the Mini performed better. Despite the effects and color correction, Engadget Today came out with no glitches, though it took nearly three times as long as it does on the iMac Pro.

Another test, transcoding a CineForm file to MP4, worked even better: The Mini was just slightly slower than my MacBook Pro, and about half as fast as the iMac Pro.

The lack of a dedicated graphics processor really seems to be the weak point here, and unfortunately, there’s no easy way to rectify that. There are only three processors available for the Mini, and no option to add a discrete GPU. An extra $300 on the base model we’ve been testing will get you a 3.2 GHz six-core processor with hyperthreading and Turbo Boost up to 4.6 GHz. That’s probably enough speed to leave the MacBook Pro in the dust, and should give the Mini some serious CPU processing power, but it won’t improve the graphics performance at all. Apple is clearly expecting some people will use the Mac Mini with an external GPU, but that’s at least an additional $500, and hooking up a bulky box with its own fans and power supply seems to defeat the purpose of a compact machine.

For a sense of how poor the graphics performance is, I tried one more test, Unigine’s Valley benchmark. This is the most recent test available for macOS, and while Unigine’s benchmarks are intended as extreme stress tests for gaming graphics performance, Valley is from 2013, so it’s not exactly cutting-edge. Even so, on the lowest “basic” settings, at 1,280 x 720 resolution, the 2018 Mini could only manage 20 frames per second. Switching to “Extreme” at 1920×1080, that dropped to a pitiful four. Four frames per second. This is definitely not a system for gaming.

Mac Mini (2018) review

Configuration options and the competition

Beyond the processor, there are a few other components you can upgrade. It costs $200 to double the RAM to 16GB, which might be a worthwhile decision, and you can spend up to $1,400 extra for 64GB if you really need it (64GB RAM kits are hard to find right now, but just $329 will get you 32GB if you don’t buy from Apple). You can also pay thousands for a larger SSD, but with the number of Thunderbolt ports, I’d just recommend an external RAID or SSD.

If you don’t care about having OSX, there are Mini PC alternatives that can provide more graphics power. Intel’s Hades Canyon NUC starts at $719 but doesn’t come with storage and RAM. What it does have is one of Intel’s new Kaby Lake G chips. These are built from an unlikely alliance between Intel and AMD and marry an Intel eighth-gen processor to an AMD Vega GPU. They pack a remarkable amount of performance into a small SoC, and it’s frankly odd this chip isn’t an option in the 2018 Mac Mini, considering AMD graphics are already used in the higher-end iMac and MacBook Pros.

If you aren’t interested in gaming and you really want a professional Mini system, HP’s Z2 Mini G4 packs the same six-core i7 processor, 16GB RAM, and 512GB SSD as a $1,699 Mini, but also includes a pro-grade Nvidia Quadro GPU and can be found for $100 less.

If you’re in the market for a new system and are committed to macOS, the 2018 Mini does have a few selling points. At $799, the base Mini we tested is the cheapest way to get a new Mac today. Despite its poor graphics performance, the Mini’s base processor is solid, and the available $300 upgrade is not a bad way to get a fast six-core processor that should keep the Mini feeling speedy for years. Aside from 3D modeling and video editing, Apple mentions XCode and Music production on their website, and these actually seem like compelling use-cases for the Mini. CPU-dependent tasks like coding and audio engineering make sense for this system and wouldn’t be held back by its specs.

When Apple unveiled the Mini, it floated the idea of chaining multiple Minis together into a “Mini” server, and for serious CPU-based number crunching, that’s actually an intriguing idea. Four Mac Minis upgraded to an i7 and 16GB of RAM would get you 24 cores with 48 threads and 64GB of memory for only $200 more than the eight-core iMac Pro. You would need a pretty specific workload to take advantage of a setup like this (office server? Code compiler? Render farm?), but it’s an interesting concept.

Mac Mini (2018) review

Wrap-up

Apple’s own marketing materials refer to the new mini as “part racehorse, all workhorse,” and though they didn’t go as far as branding this the “Mac Mini Pro” Apple is clearly positioning it as a high-performance computer. This makes the lack of a reasonable GPU all the more confounding. Graphics performance is important for designers and media producers (in fact, both Autodesk Maya and Final Cut Pro can benefit greatly from an OpenCL capable GPU), but graphics cards also power OpenCL or CUDA based compute performance. These types of GPU-driven number crunching are increasingly useful for scientific computing and data analysis tasks like encryption, image recognition, optimization and machine learning.

For music producers and people writing apps in Xcode, maybe the new Mini makes sense, but I don’t imagine most other “pro” users will be happy with this level of performance. I can’t help but shake my head at Apple’s charts and graphics showing off how much faster the new Mini is than the 2014 model. Not only do a lot of the benchmarks they’ve published only highlight CPU intensive tasks (rendering in Keyshot, exporting from Final Cut) instead of actual workflows, but they’re also comparing a $4,300 2018 Mini with a six-core processor and 64GB of RAM to a 2014 machine that couldn’t even beat its own 2012 predecessor. Four years later, I’d certainly hope the new model would be faster.

Maybe this highlights the best professional use case for the new mini. A rendering machine that can handle CPU intensive tasks like compiling code and rendering graphics, but that you wouldn’t actually want to do your daily work on. When Apple unveiled the Mini, it floated the idea of chaining multiple Minis together into a “Mini” server, and for serious CPU-based number crunching, that’s actually an intriguing idea. Four Mac Minis upgraded to an i7 and 16GB of RAM would get you 24 cores with 48 threads and 64GB of memory for only $200 more than the eight-core iMac Pro. You would need a pretty specific workload to take advantage of a setup like this (office server? Code compiler? Render farm?), but it’s an interesting concept.

For general consumers, the Mini seems to fill the role of the family computer in the living room; a small, reliable desktop that should feel speedy and take care of basic work. But with many people having laptops or tablets, how essential is that any more? As a media box, $799 is quite a lot to spend, the aforementioned Apple TV is an easier way to stream, and even a Roku box can get you Netflix and play MP4s off a thumb drive for $100. If performance doesn’t matter to you at all, then the new MacBook Air or even an entry-level MacBook Pro might be a better choice.

All of those caveats aside, I actually like this machine. The design is terrific, and I love the options for add-ons and expandable storage, but I wouldn’t want to have to work on it. It’s possible that there’s a cohort of people out there who are looking for an inexpensive macOS desktop with a ton of useful ports, who don’t care about GPU performance and have been waiting for the past four years for a new computer. For them, the Mac Mini is the perfect fit.


Video
Presenter & Script: Chris Schodt
Script Editor: Terrence O’Brien
Camera: Kyle Maack
Editor: Chris Schodt

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Wirecutter's best deals: Get an iRobot Roomba 960 for $100 off

This post was done in partnership with Wirecutter. When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, it may earn affiliate commissions that support its work. Read Wirecutter’s continuously updated list of deals here.

Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance A19 3-Bulb Kit with Dimmer Switch

bulb

Street price: $170; deal price: $120

Down to $120, this is a solid price on this 3-bulb variant of our top smart LED light bulb pick with an included stick-anywhere dimmer switch. Just when we started to wonder if we might not see significant Hue bulb deals this holiday season, this deal arrived. As this kit is around a $170 value, this is a nice opportunity to save.

A four-bulb variant of this kit without the dimmer switch, the Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance A19 Starter Kit, is the top pick in our guide to the best smart LED light bulbs. Grant Clauser wrote, “The Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance A19 bulbs are the best all-around smart bulbs you can buy. The Hue bulbs do everything their competitors do, but their wider product and app ecosystem allows for more flexibility and creativity than any other smart bulb. The third-generation Hue produces richer colors than the previous model, so reds will be a truer red, not just a deep pink. This means they’ve caught up with LIFX in terms of color accuracy, making them an even clearer choice.”

Dell UltraSharp U2717D Monitor

dell

Street price: $390; deal price: $300

At $300, this is the lowest price we’ve seen for this recommended 27-inch monitor. The Dell UltraSharp U2717D has recently hovered around $390 and we’ve only seen previous drops into the mid-$300s, so this is a nice savings even relative to previous deals. Sign-in to your Dell account or create one (free) to get the deal.

The U2717D is the runner-up pick in our guide to the best 27-inch monitor. David Murphy and John Higgins wrote, “The Dell UltraSharp U2717D is a great alternative to the HP Z27n if the HP is sold out or too expensive. It’s nearly identical to the Z27n in most respects, from the ultra-slim side and top bezels to the sturdy adjustable stand (with the same degrees of freedom and angles of inflection) to the number of USB 3.0 ports—even a charging port. Like the HP, the Dell has a fantastic 27-inch 2560×1440 IPS screen with excellent image quality, though the U2717D isn’t quite as accurate and its response rate is a little slower. At the lowest brightness setting, it can get dimmer than the HP, but its contrast ratio doesn’t match the HP’s. Like our pick, the U2717D has a three-year warranty and a no-bright-dot guarantee, but Dell will ship a replacement out the next business day, while HP charges extra to add this option to its warranty.”

Eddie Bauer Stowaway 20L Packable Pack

bag

Street price: $33; deal price: $15 w/ code COUNTDOWN

Use code COUNTDOWN in cart to knock the price of the Eddie Bauer Stowaway 20L Packable Pack down to $15 shipped. That’s a very nice deal on this recommended packable daypack, usually around $25 these days. While this bag sees regular sales at $15 with $8 shipping, this beats those deals handily. Eddie Bauer almost never runs free shipping sales, so this is one to jump on.

The Eddie Bauer Stowaway 20L Packable Pack is the runner-up pick in our guide to the best packable daypack for travel. Jean Yoon wrote, “The Stowaway 20L Packable Pack represents a clear step above the cheaper bags we tested, such as the Hikpro, AmazonBasics, and New Outlander models. Despite costing just a few dollars more than those cheaper bags, the Eddie Bauer pack is made of noticeably higher-quality materials and built much more sturdily. Little details such as bar tacking, double stitching at the main opening, and YKK zippers speak to its superior build quality. It also feels better to wear than the cheaper options, and its paneled and shaped design just looks better.”

iRobot Roomba 960

roomba

Street price: $550; deal price: $450

If you’re seeking a do-it-all robot vacuum, this is a great opportunity to save on this recommended model. The Roomba 960, which we praise for its great battery life, superior carpet cleaning, and smartphone control, is the upgrade pick in our guide to the best robot vacuum. Over $600 until recent months, it hit $550 in September and has now dropped to $450, an excellent price and as low as we expected to see it this holiday season.

The iRobot Roomba 960 is the upgrade pick in our guide to the best robot vacuum. Liam McCabe wrote, “If you want a smarter, stronger robot than our other picks, check out the iRobot Roomba 960. It follows a predictable path, so given enough time, it can clean an entire level of a house without missing any patches. It’s one of the most powerful cleaners we’ve tested, and we’ve found over years of testing that it’s less likely to get stuck or confused than the mapping bots made by other brands.”

Because great deals don’t just happen on Thursday, sign up for our daily deals email and we’ll send you the best deals we find every weekday. Also, deals change all the time, and some of these may have expired. To see an updated list of current deals, please go here.

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With keyboard and mouse support on Xbox, Microsoft closes the gap on PCs

After years of unfulfilled promises and a few weeks of build-up, the Xbox One family finally supports keyboards and mice. Alright, so it’s still a feature reserved for members of the beta-esque Xbox Insider Program and few games actually work with the different control scheme, but it’s here nevertheless. Keyboards, mice and consoles aren’t an abnormal pairing. I remember playing Unreal Tournament on the Dreamcast with keys and clicks, and the PS4 has supported the alternative peripherals for years, even if developers have largely ignored them. It’s a slightly bigger deal on Xbox One, though. After all, it technically runs Windows 10, the OS of choice for PC gamers, albeit with the clunky Xbox UI on top. The line between console and computer, then, becomes ever blurrier.

In the immediate future, the impact of keyboard and mouse support on Xbox One is negligible. Games that work with the control option on day one or within the next few weeks include Bomber Crew, Children of Morta, Deep Rock Galactic, Minion Master, Moonlighter, Strange Brigade, Vigor, War Thunder, Warface, Warframe, Wargroove, Warhammer: Vermintide 2 and X-Morph Defense. I know little to nothing about any of these titles. DayZ on the other hand, I am familiar with, but that’s been a dead game for a while now.

Adapters that trick the Xbox One into accepting keyboard and mouse inputs have existed since the console launched, but official support is something different. There’s going to be a special Designed for Xbox program for approved peripherals that include an Xbox home button, for instance — the first product of which is likely to come from well-known gamer brand Razer early next year. More importantly, developers will have to actually consider the control scheme when creating or updating games, rather than simply translating inputs into pad-speak as adapters do.

SKOREA-ESPORTS

Five years since the Xbox One launch seems like a long wait for such a feature to be implemented, but it’s a touchy subject. Particularly in the first-person shooter world, a keyboard and mouse is considered essential for high-level play. Not only do you have more buttons available for switching between weapons or using abilities but a mouse offers the speed and precision a thumbstick can’t match. And yes, I’m aware that some Fortnite pros can build, edit and aim with a pad just as well as their keyboard warrior friends and foes. Aside from these exceptions, though, it’s a fact: A keyboard and mouse gives you a competitive advantage over pad players.

If you’re Microsoft then, you have to consider alienating players that don’t want to spend on additional peripherals. Then there’s the further risk of this contingent getting forever stomped every time they jump into an online lobby. This could affect not only morale but the bottom line. Some people could just stop playing games, stop buying games and cancel their Xbox Live subscriptions. There’s further complications in that some games are balanced differently across consoles. In popular team-based shooter Overwatch, for example, the turrets some characters can place do less damage on the console versions of the game, making up for the fact they are harder to take out with less accurate aiming on a thumbstick.

Most games are identical across platforms, though, like Fortnite, which is the same game on mobiles, through consoles and all the way up to PCs. It’s also by far the highest-profile Xbox One title to support keyboard and mouse control from the offset. Developer Epic Games is preemptively avoiding any complaints of unfair advantages before they occur. Like on PS4, Xbox One players using keys and clicks will be matchmade with each other, leaving pad players to duke it out in their own, controller-specific lobbies. Unfortunately, it won’t weed out the punks that use adapters that mimic controller inputs, but these few bad apples have always existed and will continue to.

Aside from the console games we all know and love, official keyboard and mouse support could theoretically open the door to ports of games that live only in the PC realm. Sure, I’m impressed with how tight the controls are on PUBG Mobile, and I don’t feel limited playing the MOBA Arena of Valor on the Nintendo Switch. Games that seem like they shouldn’t can work on different platforms, but let’s not pretend Starcraft II is playable on a pad.

The Xbox One runs a version of Windows 10, and Windows is the gaming OS. I’m no developer, but I don’t believe it’d be impossible to lock in a standard graphics setting and port something like a complex real-time strategy over to Xbox One. Of course, this comes with its own problems. If you start launching games made specifically for keyboard and mouse controls, you automatically estrange people without those peripherals.

Gamescom 2018

The Microsoft Store is also hardly a big gaming destination. Between Steam and developer-specific ecosystems like Origin and Battle.net, distribution is all sewn up. Would Microsoft want too big a cut from sales of these Xbox One ports?

That said, the distance between consoles and computers has been shrinking at a rate, particularly within this generation of living-room hardware. Many games these days support crossplay, allowing you to match with friends and randoms despite your platform differences. You can play Fortnite on a PC with a pad, or stream the game from your PS4 or Xbox One to your PC. With the Xbox Play Anywhere program, you buy a game once and can play it on your PC or Xbox, with saves and achievements persisting across platforms. Even mid-generation hardware upgrades like the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X feel geared towards closing the graphical gap between consoles and PCs. And with PSVR, you don’t need a proper gaming rig to experience something better than 360-degree videos on your phone.

Keyboard and mouse support on its own seems minor, but it’s another small nudge towards making the Xbox One a more viable and appealing PC alternative. In the end, though, it’s key that developers actually make use of the new control option. I reached out to a bunch of the big studios to get their thoughts, but they’re keeping cards close to chests. Of those that responded, EA said: “As developers, we’re excited about crossplay, mouse and keyboard support. We’re always researching new ways we can make our games better in the future.”

US-INTERNET-GAMES-COMPUTERS

343 Industries, developer of the most recent Halo games, told me: “We’re always exploring the best player experiences for Halo and are excited for mouse and keyboard support on Xbox; we don’t have any further comments to share.” I also asked Microsoft about what it means for the company and Xbox gamers, but the response was basically along the lines of ‘it’s up to developers now,’ shrug. The wait-and-see reaction was expected, but it does feel like we’re approaching a natural end-game for Xbox. Microsoft has something Sony doesn’t: Windows. And leveraging that could help Microsoft fare better in the console war’s next reboot, having lost this round convincingly to Sony.

Being all things to all people isn’t necessarily a winning formula, mind. Valve has famously failed to put gaming PCs in the living room with the now legendary but easily forgotten initiative that was Steam Machines. These mini-PCs were built by third parties based on Valve’s reference design and ran the Linux-based SteamOS. There was no single box to get behind, and Steam Machines were underpowered compared with Windows counterparts. What’s more, the controller that sat in limbo for years didn’t end up translating PC controls to pads quite as promised. Combine all this with a lack of developer support, and you get a good idea of why they never took off.

Microsoft is in a slightly different position, of course. It has Windows and the Xbox brand. Perhaps next console generation, they’ll encroach even further on the dominion of PCs. And eventually, we won’t think about the distinctions at all.

Images: Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images (LAN cafe); Christian Petersen / Getty Images (Fortnite tournament); Franziska Krug / Getty Images (Xbox controllers); Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images (Master Chief helmet).

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Microsoft’s Surface Headphones are a good first try

Microsoft is a software giant first and foremost. It’s where it earned billions of dollars and created an empire that permeated almost every aspect of the corporate office. But it’s also been diving head first into hardware from mice to the Xbox to the Surface tablets and laptops — the tech company is no slouch when it comes to tangible items. So it should come as no surprise that it launched its own noise-canceling headphones.

Gallery: Surface Headphones review | 5 Photos

The $349 Surface Headphones are aimed squarely at category leaders like Bose and Sony. It’s a herculean task to take on two companies that have decades of experience. Microsoft (never one to shy away from a new market) is trying its best to unseat the kings of ignoring the world while listening to music. It’s a bold gambit and a good start, but the headphones don’t quite reach the heights that the best Bose and Sony products have to offer.

That’s not to say the company hasn’t done a good job. For a first outing, the Surface Headphones are a solid pair of cans. The sound is satisfying if a bit neutral in its tuning for my taste. The low end is there, but it’s not accented as much as, say, Beats headphones (which, like it or not, has done well for the brand). The mids and highs don’t sound muddy, but they are also not as crisp as I would like for cymbal crashes.

Surface Headphones Review

Overall, the sound feels slightly subdued and not as crisp and warm as I like from my audio equipment. I listen to a wide range of music, but mostly I listen to bands with actual instruments, and I really like hearing the ringing of a cymbal. Neutral might be what you’re looking for, but in that tuning, the high end loses some of its magic. At least to me. The low end is better represented, but even that is slightly squelched. It feels like Microsoft was going for a happy medium hoping to appeal to as many people as possible.

Making the headphones appeal to a large swath of the population has also resulted in a comfortable wearing experience. The flexible band has been engineered to fit most heads without putting undue pressure on the wearer’s ears or skull. I have an extra-large head and even after a few five-hour stretches, I didn’t have any headphone fatigue. Even when wrapped around my giant noggin, the cans had plenty of give for someone with an even larger skull (possibly a bear) to wear the headphones.

The soft memory-foam materials made it feel like I was wearing tiny pillows on my ears. Which is nice. The band also has smooshy material that caresses the top of your head. The headphones are comfy and they should be great for long plane rides.

Unfortunately (and surprisingly), I was not traveling while reviewing the headphones. It would have been nice if I had time to try these on a plane to fully appreciate their nois- canceling capabilities. In the office, though, the feature completely cut out the rather loud HVAC system. It also made my coworkers sound really far away when trying to get my attention.

Surface Headphones

For those times when I actually had to pay attention to my coworkers and boss, Microsoft added the ability to adjust the strength of the noise-canceling. The headphones have 13 levels of ambient noise, including one that actually slightly amplifies what’s going on around you. This is helpful when walking around the city or when your boss is yelling at you, asking where the hell that headphone review is at.

It seems like a weird feature to actually enhance the noise around you, but it’s actually a great way to listen to music while still being able to interact with others. It’s also something others in the market are adding to their headphones. Bragi had it at launch, and Nuraphones added it a while back. Turns out we all have situations in which being able to actually hear what’s going on and manufacturers are filling that need.

While interacting with humans is great, the Cortana interactions are a weird inclusion. Yes, it works. You can ask Cortana questions using the iOS and Android apps or via a Windows machine and she answers them without much bother. You can also add things to your calendar, start phones calls, send emails and generally do the things you expect from a voice assistant. The rub is that Cortana robs the headphones of precious battery life.

Surface Headphones Review

The Surface Headphones will last up to 15 hours on a charge. That time could be longer if Cortana wasn’t always listening for the “Hey Cortana” wake words. Microsoft is mulling an update that would allow users to turn off Cortana to get more battery life. Meanwhile, the Bose QuietComfort 35 IIs will last up to 20 hours, and the Sony Sony WH-1000XM3s will keep you rocking for 30 hours. That’s almost as long as a Phish concert!

Also, any smartphone you connect these headphones to will already have a voice assistant that you can use. Siri, Google Assistant — they’ll work with any Bluetooth headphones with a mic. You just use the wake word while wearing the headphones and your Apple and Android devices react. I understand Microsoft wants to push Cortana, but if it needs an app or a Windows machine to work and it sucks up battery life, what’s the point?

Even with the weird inclusion of Cortana, Microsoft has built a very nice pair of headphones for its first try. It pulled together people from within the company from a bunch of different departments to make this happen. And while the first Xbox was a triumph and the first Surface tablet was less so, the Surface headphones land somewhere in the middle. A great first start, but they’re not going to unseat the reigning headphone champions Bose and Sony. But they’re in the running, and that’s a good start.

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A cheaper, smaller Raspberry Pi 3 is now available


Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi Foundation released its upgraded flagship computing board, the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+, earlier this year. Now the boards are shipping in volume, the company has been able to turn its attention to what it calls one of its “most frequently requested ‘missing’ products“: the Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+.

The new board incorporates most of the improvements made to its B+ brother, taking it down to a lower price point ($25/£23) and shrinking the board down to 65x56mm, the size of a HAT (hardware attached on top), an add-on board. The A+ features a 1.4GHz 64-bit quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 CPU, 512MB LPDDR2 SDRAM, dual-band 802.11ac wireless LAN and Bluetooth 4.2/BLE, plus improved USB mass storage boosting and thermal management. Plus, like its sibling, the whole board is certified as a radio module under FCC rules, which will significantly reduce the cost of conformance testing Raspberry Pi–based products.

They’re smart enhancements, but ultimately the board is a pared-back version of its predecessors, and a lower price tag will make it — and the Raspberry Pi Foundation ethos of promoting computer science in schools and developing countries — more accessible to all. The launch marks the end of the 3+ platform. As the company explains in a blog post, whatever it does next will be less of an evolution as it explores new core silicon on a new process node with new memory technology. “So 3A+ is about closing things out in style,” it says, “answering one of our most frequent customer requests, and clearing the decks so we can start to think seriously about what comes next.”

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Windows 10 preview adds smarter active hours and a true light theme


Microsoft

Microsoft only just resumed rolling out its problematic Windows 10 October update, but it’s already looking toward the future. The company has released a Windows 10 Insider Preview to Fast ring users with some big updates in tow, both conspicuous and otherwise. We’ll address the elephant in the room right away: there’s a true light theme that changes the entire interface, including the taskbar, Start menu and keyboard. If you think Windows is too dour (or just miss the old days of light-colored Microsoft UIs), you just have to make a quick settings change.

There are more substantial improvements under the hood, particularly if you’re tired of Windows forcing updates at inopportune times of the day. There are now intelligent active hours that can automatically adjust your no-reboot time based on your activity. That could be more than a little helpful for freelancers or anyone with not-so-regular usage habits. And if you want to manually force Windows to stop patches, Pause Updates is now easier to find in Settings / Update and Security / Windows Update.

Other improvements include better text narration for accessibility (such as less verbosity and improved phonetic reading), a clearer print dialog and smarter screen selection. As always, you’ll only want to try a preview like this if you’re not worried about the potential for glitches. If you’re willing to live life on the edge, however, it might be worth jumping on this update relatively quickly.

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EA will remaster the first two 'Command & Conquer' games in 4K


EA

EA recently hinted that it would hop on the real-time strategy revival bandwagon and remaster Command & Conquer games, and now we know just what that entails. The publisher has confirmed that it’s remastering both the original Command & Conquer and Red Alert (i.e. the best games in the series) in 4K, with all the expansions included. And no, these won’t be excuses to wring out a steady stream of cash from nostalgic gamers. Unlike C&C Rivals, EA is promising that the remasters will go “without microtransactions.”

The company is also going so far as to recruit Petroglyph Games, which includes “many” of the original Westwood Studios team, for help creating the remaster. In theory, they’ll maintain the spirit of the games over two decades later. This even includes the return of composer Frank Klepacki, so you might get an updated “Hell March” if you’re lucky.

It’s still very, very early — work hasn’t even started on the remasters, let alone hinted-at original PC projects. All the same, this could be comforting news if you were concerned that EA was only interested in reviving C&C as yet another mobile cash-in rather than capturing the essence of what made the original games so special.

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The best mobile and computer accessory gifts

If there’s someone in your life who spends most of their time with a phone in their hand or at a computer, we’ve got you covered for gift ideas with our holiday gift guide. We’ve shortlisted 11 great phone and computer accessories that are sure to brighten up their holiday. We mean that literally with the LuMee Duo smartphone case, which has built-in lighting for perfect selfies. Meanwhile, we also threw in a pair of gadgets that can keep their phone battery topped up.

We haven’t forgotten about gamers this year either. Streamers especially will love Elgato’s Stream Deck Mini and Blue’s Yeti Nano microphone (also a solid choice for someone who’s been promising to start a podcast for years). You might also opt for a quality mechanical keyboard or gaming mouse to liven up a loved one’s Fortnite sessions — we have some strong picks for those too. Meanwhile, if you know someone who’s desperately in need of more portable storage, it’s worth checking out Western Digital’s My Passport Ultra external hard drive.

All products recommended by Engadget were selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company, Oath. If you buy something through one of our links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Check out the full list of selections in our 2018 Holiday Gift Guide here!

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Apple adds faster AMD Vega graphics options for 15-inch MacBook Pro


Apple

Apple has acted on its promise to give the 2018 MacBook Pro a much-appreciated graphics performance boost. You can now configure the higher-end 15-inch laptop with Radeon Pro Vega 16 or 20 GPUs that, if you ask Apple, deliver up to 60 percent faster processing power for tasks like 3D modeling and GPU-accelerated video edits. Both options come with 4GB of memory, so your choice boils down to the level of computational power you want.

Get ready to pay a premium if you do like either video chip. In addition to having to buy a higher-end MacBook Pro, you’ll pay $250 more for the Vega 16 and $350 more for the Vega 20. That raises the minimum price for a Vega-equipped Pro to $3,049 — this is really for creatives, not enthusiasts hoping to squeeze higher frame rates out of Fortnite. Nonetheless,this is very welcome if you thought the Radeon Pro 500-series didn’t cut the mustard for a portable workstation.

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