FASTEST MOBILE NETWORKS 2017 Which network is fastest where you live?
FEATURES GOOGLE’S AI REWRITE: BUILDING MACHINE LEARNING INTO EVERYTHING
PCMag spent a day at Google’s headquarters exploring how AI and ML are finding their way into everything the tech giant does.
WHAT’S NEW NOW SAMSUNG DEMOS STRETCHABLE OLED DISPLAY You can change the shape and size of these panels without distorting the image.
THE COOLEST FEATURES IN IOS 11 Not everything can be a standout—but these are.
BEST OF COMPUTEX 2017 in Taipei this year, we saw the building blocks of tomorrow’s technology.
TOP GEAR What we loved most this month.
REVIEWS CONSUMER ELECTRONICS Motorola Moto Z2 Play HTC U11 Six Top Smart Light Bulbs
HARDWARE Samsung Galaxy Book (12-inch, LED)
Motorola Moto Z2
SOFTWARE & APPS Five Top Photo Printing Services KeepSolid VPN Unlimited (for Android)
Samsung Galaxy Book
KeepSolid VPN Unlimited
OPINIONS DAN COSTA First Word
READER INPUT MICHAEL MUCHMORE
Can the New IPad Pro Replace My Laptop? Not Quite.
Who do You Trust More With Your Safety: Google or Ford?
If Watson is so smart, could it play the game of go against the Google machine?
JOHN C. DVORAK
With HomePod, Apple Just Wants to Shake Things Up
TIPS & HOW TOS TIPS
What to Do if Your Laptop Is Plugged in But Not Charging
How to Sync Notifications Between Windows 10 and Your Phone
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y boss recently asked me to to define what PCMag fights against. This is an interesting formulation. I spend a lot of time telling people what we stand for and rallying the staff around our cause. I also use every opportunity to present our incredibly useful, positive, and proactive mission statement. In fact, let’s review it quickly:
Fighting the Right Fights
PCMag.com is a leading authority on technology, delivering Labs-based, independent reviews of the latest products and services. Our expert industry analysis and practical solutions help you make better buying decisions and get more from technology. But I don’t often think about what we are against. That’s a mistake: Some enemies are worth having, and some battles reveal who you really are. I am not talking about the current political landscape, where we’ve refined the art of talking past one another. We should be able to debate public policy with respect, comity, and common purpose. I’m drawing lines as editor, a publisher, and a business. I’m talking about PCMag picking the right fights. So let’s get ready to rumble! BRAND SPIN I get the purpose of advertising—and our business depends on it—but I’m amazed at how different the products you see in advertisements are from
those same products in the real world. Setting aside the feel-good, straight-up brand building, a lot of products just don’t work they way they do in commercials. Screens are Photoshopped in, animations replace interfaces, and features are invented. Vendors also push out an amazing amount of content every day across an array of channels. With some exceptions, most of it is useless at best and at worst, deceptive. PAYOLA The FTC is doing its best to crack down on bloggers who accept gifts, payments, and other incentives to write about products, but most payola goes unnoticed. Mediakix recently found that 93 percent of the top celebrity Instagrammers did not even disclose their sponsored links. Interestingly, there are actually fewer restrictions on professional journalists. But PCMag writers don’t get paid by vendors, they don’t keep products they test, and they can’t even own individual tech stocks (mutual funds are OK). FANBOYS Passion is a good thing, and we welcome technology enthusiasts. That said, slamming the iPhone because you’re an Android fanboy makes no sense. The same goes for every platform out there. There is good traffic to be had stoking these flame wars and spreading random incendiary stories, but it ultimately doesn’t help users make buying decisions and get more from technology. Let’s argue about tech, but let’s use facts. HACK JOURNALISM Journalists don’t get a pass here, either. Plenty of professional writers publish before checking their facts or even pretending to offer facts. There’s a
place for opinions in tech publishing, but too many writers pass their biases off as news. There’s nothing wrong with a hot take, but the vast majority of PCMag’s resources go into testing products in our Lab, collecting data, and helping users get more from their technology. I don’t know if these are all fights we can win, but I’m stepping into the ring. My first punch will be this month’s cover story, “Fastest Mobile Networks 2017.” I think it is a haymaker (but not a comeback—this is our eighth year doing the story.) Organized by Lead Mobile Analyst Sascha Segan, PCMag editors drove through and between more than 30 cities over three weeks, testing all four major carriers’ performance. They used identically configured Samsung Galaxy S8 phones and custom benchmarking software to measure download speeds, upload speeds, and overall reliability. “Fastest Mobile Networks 2017” is as good a snapshot as you can get of the wireless networks in the U.S. right now. If you’ve wanted to find out which is the fastest carrier in your home town, now you can. And our results are a lot more trustworthy than the ads you see on TV or the endorsements you see in your Facebook feed. If you agree, share the article with a friend. Even better, buy them a subscription to our ad-free Digital Edition. That way you can join the fight, too. Is there a fight you think we should be taking up? Let me know on Twitter: @dancosta.
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Can the Microsoft Surface Laptop Compete With Apple? PCMag Hardware Senior Analyst Joel Santo Domingo posited that the Surface has a fighting chance as a MacBook competitor. Readers are (as always) split on the issue.
Baffling that Apple has abandoned the [MacBook] Air market. I work with Apple and Surface due to my job, but I use my Surface more and more. I wanted to upgrade my Air to something higherperforming with USB-C and USB 3.x, but Apple just seems to be out of touch with what their customers want in a lightweight, highperformance laptop. I get not using the latest Intel chips (last year) due to production delays, but will they recover this year? I can’t see replacing hundreds of dollars of perfectly valid USB 3.x devices because of a “fashion statement,” either. If I didn’t use my Air to back up my phone and iPad, I could probably sell it and never look [back]. It’s sad, really, that Microsoft is trouncing Apple in their former strong suit! —crdkennon
Relax, Google and Apple. Nothing to fear from a company that can never deliver hardware that works right out of the box, or [one that] constantly delivers software/updates that brick your computer. —Jonathan
Hey Apple! Listen to your customers. We love the Air, but you have not done any real upgrades since 2016, except for [adding] more RAM. You can’t afford to lose this part of the market, especially students. Pros are too expensive, and the 12-inch is also too expensive. Also, the
MacBook pro keyboard is terrible—too flat. You need a $1K laptop, period! —Davy
I think the article missed an important feature of this new device: [the] touch screen. Nothing in Apple’s current stable is close… Apple has not put out anything cool since Mr. Jobs’ passing. Sad. I am not an Apple fan, but [the company] used to raise the bar, making everyone try harder. And that Surface Studio! Wow, talk about understanding what is needed and nailing it. —photo_ted
Beware of Microsoft sales reps bearing gifts. The annual fees and lock-in don’t come cheap. —Robert Fibber
CORRECTION: In our June 2017 issue, the price of the Acer Predator 21 X was listed as $3,999.99. The actual price is $8,999.99. We apologize for the error.
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Samsung Demos Stretchable OLED Display BY RYAN WHITWAM
amsung was one of the first manufacturers to make OLED screen technology a viable option for consumer electronics, and it currently makes the best panels on the market. The company has been showing off flexible AMOLED panels for years, but now itâ€™s demoing something new: stretchable OLEDs. In addition to bending and flexing, you can also change the shape and size of these panels without distorting the image. Samsung unveiled the prototype display at Display Week 2017 in Los Angeles. The OLED panel is 9.1 inches, which is in the size range for a tablet. The larger size also helps show off the impressive stretching capabilities. What sets this apart from other flexible displays shown in the past is that it can be deformed in two directions: It can bend but also become convex or concave.
This panel is elastic enough to recover from repeated stretching, but it’s important to remember that this is a demo. A flexible screen you sell to people needs to remain elastic for years, but this prototype needs to last only through a week-long conference. In fact, most of the “flexible” display technology we have now has only gone toward forming curved screens that don’t bend after manufacturing. Samsung currently sells a number of phones with curved displays, including the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus. The curved variants of past phones sold better than the flat ones, so Samsung isn’t even making a flat version of the GS8. Maybe in the future you’ll be able to get a Galaxy smartphone that can stretch, too. Samsung’s prototype has one interesting bonus that current curved and flexible panels don’t have — it can adjust the image to eliminate distortion. This only works for up to 12mm (about half an inch) of stretching, after which the image will no longer look “flat.” Samsung would not comment on how far the display was capable of stretching, but presumably it’s more than 12mm. The hope is that stretchable OLEDs could become useful in devices where screens need to be compact or unusual shapes—for example, in wearables and IoT products. You could also alter interfaces when a display stretches — like 3D Touch that’s actually 3D. There are also plentiful gaming applications. Just bear in mind that it took several years for curved displays to move from trade show demo to real product, and this technology will probably take even longer.
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In addition to bending and flexing, you can also change the shape and size of these panels without distorting the image.
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The Coolest Features in iOS 11 BY CHLOE ALBANESIUS
pple kicked off its annual Worldwide Developers Conference in June with six key announcements: One was its newest mobile operating system, iOS 11. Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, promised “hundreds of new features and incredible updates” for existing iOS apps. The company released a beta version of iOS 11 to developers at the conference and promised a public beta in July for those who like to tinker with new software. Everyone else will get iOS 11 in the fall, which is likely when new iPhones will be released.
With hundreds of new features, not everything can be a winner. A new look for the App Store? Meh. Revamped Control Center? Better than before, but it looks a bit cramped. But several things caught our eye and will likely improve the iOS experience come September. Here are the features we’re most looking forward to trying out. AUGMENTED REALITY Though some of its biggest rivals have embraced virtual and augmented reality, including Microsoft’s HoloLens and Samsung’s Gear VR, Apple has mostly observed from the sidelines. Last fall, Tim Cook said AR was “incredibly interesting,” but that’s all we’ve heard from Cupertino on the matter, even as millions of Pokémon fans ran around the country last summer catching AR creatures on their iPhones.
The company released a beta version of iOS 11 to developers at the conference and promised a public beta in July.
INSTANT AR GRATIFICATION ARKit, a new software tool from Apple, lets developers create AR apps that will work with current iPhones.
Now it appears Apple is finally ready to embrace augmented reality with new tools for software developers that will allow them to bring augmented reality apps to iPhones and iPads. Using ARKit, developers will be able to create AR apps that work with people’s existing iPhones; you won’t need a special phone to see AR tricks like you do with Google Tango. Apple just needs developers to start creating.
APPLE PAY PERSON TO PERSON Apple Pay is cool; I’ve used it to buy shampoo at Duane Reade and perfume at Sephora. What a world. It hasn’t allowed for person-to-person money transfers a la Venmo, though. But with iOS 11, you’ll be able to send money via iMessages to friends who also have iOS devices. They can then add the payment to their Apple account, send it to someone else, or transfer it to their bank accounts. No more hunting down friends for that $20 they owe or having to (gasp!) write a check. SIRI TRANSLATION Siri has a lot going for her, but she’s still a work in progress. At WWDC, Apple touted Siri’s increasing smarts, including her multilingual capabilities. In iOS 11, Siri will give Google Translate a run for its money by translating things you tell her in English into Chinese, Spanish, French, German, or Italian. Apple’s iOS 11 website notes that this feature is in beta, so be prepared for some iffy answers. If something gets lost in translation, you can always try the universal language: music. A Personal DJ feature will let you ask Siri to play something you’d like, which she’ll do based on previous music choices. MULTITASKING Microsoft is going after Apple pretty aggressively with its Surface Laptop and Surface Pro devices, arguing in part that Windows is easier to use for business types. The company has a point; iOS is beautiful, and the iPad Pro is sleek, but there are some productivity hiccups. Apple wants to change that with the multitasking updates in iOS 11 for iPad. The Files app, for example, lets you “browse, search, and organize all your files in one place,” Apple says. The Dock from the Mac, meanwhile, is also coming to iPad for easy access to apps. If you opt for Slide Over or Split View, both apps will remain active. And the most noteworthy addition? Drag and drop.
MULTI-ROOM AUDIO Music fans who want to keep the party going from room to room will appreciate AirPlay 2, which brings HomeKit support to speakers for multi-room audio. So you can play a song on the Bang & Olufsen speaker in the living room and the Bose in the kitchen. Or have a playlist play on every connected speaker you have in the home—including, presumably, Apple’s upcoming HomePod. APPLE MAPS DO NOT DISTURB Apple Maps has improved since its disastrous debut, though it’s not quite as robust as Google Maps. That could change in iOS 11, which adds features including lane assist, speed limit, and a “do not disturb” mode. With “do not disturb” enabled, you won’t get any notifications or messages while the car is in motion. If someone texts you, they’ll get an auto-reply that says you’re driving and will get back to them at your destination. In an emergency, though, it has the option to break the “do not disturb.” And passengers can select “I’m not driving” so they can still peruse Instagram on the commute. Apple also promised detailed maps of hundreds of airports and shopping centers, for when you really need to track down that Shake Shack before your flight. LIVE PHOTOS Apple’s Live Photos, which arrived with the iPhone 6s lineup, attaches 3-second videos to your still photos. With iOS 11, Live Photos will add three new tricks: the Vine-like Loops; the Boomerang-esque Bounce; and a Long Exposure option, which will make your photos look as cool as the one below.
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Best of Computex 2017 BY JOHN BUREK
n 2017, the organizers of the Computex trade show in Taipei—the second biggest one in the world for tech, apart from the CES bombast in Las Vegas every January—refocused the annual show on several new axes: among them were IoT, cloud services, gaming, and VR. The last two fields are tied closely, of course, to core changes in the PC-component ecosystem. That’s why we go to Computex every year, and boy, 2017’s show delivered on that front. Computex is always a showcase for the best new PC tech coming out of Taiwan’s major PC players, as well as major core-tech anchors such as Intel and Nvidia. And Asus, Acer, MSI, and others showed off impressive new products, from budget 2-in-1s to lots of powerhouse gaming laptops. Asus in particular announced a massive collection of new devices, most of them slimmer and lighter than ever.
Chip giant Intel took the wraps off what look like its most powerful consumeraccessible PC processors ever, in the Intel Core X lineup. The nine new CPUs top out with the Core i9-7980XE, an 18-core, 36-thread monster. This was an obvious answer to AMD’s impressive Ryzen CPU launch earlier in 2017, and the imminent Threadripper/X399 platform, which AMD says will include a 16-core, 32-thread CPU to arrive sometime this summer. Nvidia started off the show not by announcing new GPUs but instead revealing a more efficient “Max-Q” technology to leverage its existing “Pascal” chips for laptops. The most impressive of the new Max-Q laptops we saw at the show was the Asus ROG Zephyrus, a GTX 1080/Core i7 system that’s well under an inch thick and weighs less than 5 pounds. And while there were no new graphics chips launched at the show, we were impressed by the Zotac GeForce GTX 1080 Ti Mini, a powerhouse card that’s just over 8 inches long—and overclocked! But that’s just the crest of the Computex product wave. Here are some of the best products we saw at the show this year. BEST NEW GAMING LAPTOP: Asus ROG Zephyrus
There’s no denying Asus’ ROG Zephyrus has some design quirks, like its keyboard and touch-pad placement. But the company worked with Nvidia and its new Max-Q initiative to squeeze GeForce GTX 1080 graphics, a 7th Generation “Kaby Lake” processor, and a high-refresh-rate screen into a device that’s just 0.74 inch thick and 4.85 pounds. That’s impressive from an engineering standpoint alone, but we also like the way the laptop looks, with its straight lines and copper edge accents. The hinge, notably, is tied into the ventilation system, with the vents at the back opening wider when you lift the lid. This may be the most interesting new laptop we saw, period. It’s going to be expensive with a GTX 1080 at $2,699. But if you’re willing to step down to a GTX 1070 model, Asus says that version should run $2,299.
BEST NEW MAINSTREAM OR BUDGET DESKTOP: Dell Inspiron 27 7000 AIO
Dell has had an increased presence at Computex over the last few years, and it used the 2017 show as a platform to launch a very special all-in-one PC. It’s not special because of the design, though it is quite sleek; it’s special because it’s built wholly around AMD core CPU/GPU components—and it’s not a bare-budget play but a power machine. The Inspiron 27 7000 will be available in a number of configurations around full desktop AMD Ryzen processors and Radeon RX 500 graphics, topping out at the RX 580. With an RX 580 inside, this AIO will be well capable of powering virtual-reality headsets.
BEST NEW GAMING DESKTOP: Zotac Mek
Look out, Tiki; look out, Predator; you’re up against a mech now. Along the same size lines as the Predator G1 or Falcon Northwest Tiki, the Zotac Mek goes for a Tron-like minimalist-cool design and leverages the company’s strong position in small video cards. Zotac has pushed out Mini versions of most of the GeForce GTX 1000-series “Pascal” cards, and the company says the Mek should debut with a GTX 1080 plus a Core i7-7700 desktop chip, quite the power pair. A 450-watt power supply and a PCI Express NVMe SSD boot drive complete the config, and it will come in black or white with LED strips down the front. Unlike many of the company’s Zbox PCs, which tend to ship bare-bones with some parts left to you to supply, these will be fully configured PCs. No pricing or availability yet, but this Mek looks ready to do some hurtin’.
BEST NEW MAINSTREAM/BUDGET LAPTOP OR 2-IN-1: Acer Spin 1
The Spin 1 is a 2-in-1 rotating convertible that is all about the numbers: 1080p, 11.6-inch, 0.55-inch, $329. Well, it’s also about build quality. For a laptop this inexpensive, it impressed us with a nifty metal body. At a 0.55-inch thickness, this is a lean machine for such a low price, and it weighs just shy of 2.8 pounds. The 11.6-inch IPS (in-plane switching) panel provides fine viewing at any angle. The unit’s base specs are modest but in keeping with the price. Pentium or Celeron chips will be the order of the day, along with 4GB of RAM and eMMC storage (at 32GB, 64GB, or 128GB). We’d estimate the $329 config would be a 4GB/Celeron/32GB model, but we’ll have to wait and see. You also get two USB 3.0 ports, plus an HDMI out. Availability by midyear was Acer’s latest projection.
BEST NEW TABLET OR 2-IN-1: Asus ZenBook Flip S
Asus Chairman Jonney Shih came out swinging with the first major laptop announcement of Computex 2017: a wildly skinny 2-in-1, 360-degree convertible. And the ZenBook Flip S features—surprise, surprise!—support for up to a Core i7 U-series processor. Why that matters: The chassis, Asus claims, is the thinnest of any Core-based 2-in-1. The rotating hinge on most convertible laptops of this kind make these machines thick by nature. Here, though, the laptop is just 10.9mm thick (well under half an inch!) and weighs just 2.4 pounds. It’s done up in milled aluminum and in a choice of blue or grey.
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What We Love Most This Month BY STEPHANIE MLOT
FELIK This artificially intelligent toy keeps your pets busy when you can’t. From its perch on the wall or countertop, Felik monitors the room for movement and uses an infrared-sensitive camera to track your cat or dog. Its AI predicts predatory activity (it knows when the animal is about to pounce) and prepares to react appropriately. The real selling point is Felik’s ability to behave naturally, moving the laser to simulate actual prey rather than in the random directions humans typically aim. $179 (shipping in November), wwwfelik.net
BIKI The unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), aka the “world’s first bionic robot fish,” was designed with advanced bionics tech developed for arctic research. Boasting automated balance, obstacle avoidance, and a 4K camera, the fish-like device lets you “visualize the underwater world from a completely new perspective.” It offers 90 to 120 minutes of video capture at depths up to 196 feet. Moving at only 1.12 mph, BIKI looks and acts like seafood. But instead of gills, it had a 150-degree wide-angle, 4K camera lens, able to capture videos and photos with the press of a remote button. $1,024 (shipping in September), www.mybiki.com
RIVE Tyler Nathan, CEO of RiVE, wants to make driving safer for everyone with a new set of hardware and software that “eliminates the driver’s physical interaction with the phone.” Simply plug the device into your dashboard USB hub and attach the charging clip to your handset, physically blocking the home button; an accompanying app holds all notifications while the vehicle is in use. RiVE still allows access to music, maps, contacts, and 911; the system aims to prevent distractions from popping up on screen. $100 (shipping in November), www.riveanddrive.com
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Can the New iPad Pro Replace My Laptop? Not Quite
pple is slowly coming around to the realization that touch screens work on laptops. With iOS 11, its touch-screen laptop wannabe—the iPad Pro—will get not only file folders, complete with drag and drop, but also a macOS-style Dock, Apple’s less-functional response to the Windows Taskbar. But these positive moves don’t go far enough. The most common way to use an iPad Pro—in fact, the only way I’ve seen them used—is with the Smart Keyboard, which adds another $159 to $169 to the tablet’s already-laptop-level price of $649 to $1,229. If you’re using a keyboard, a mouse might seem like second nature, but the iPad Pro doesn’t support them. The other big lacuna for those using iPad Pros as laptops concerns windowing. Apple has nudged the iPad Pro’s windowing forward, but it’s still limited to a grand total of two. And let’s not even get started with the abundant multiple virtual desktops Mac users (and more recently, Windows 10 user) adore. Touch-screen laptops like the Surface Book even offer touch gestures that let you switch among running apps and between virtual desktops.
Michael Muchmore is PCMag’s lead analyst for software and Web applications. He got his start in computing when he wrote a BASIC program for a Radio Shack TRS-80.
Dragging files onto an email to create an attachment is cool, but you’ve been able to do that on the Surface or any PC with a touch screen for a while. In fact, none of the iOS 11 improvements for iPad Pro users represent things you can’t already do on a Windows tablet. And with those, you can use a mouse and have lots of windows and virtual desktops. Then there’s the issue of an OS that uses mobile device app icons on a nearly 13-inch screen, which would be fine if you could use a mouse to open them. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a believer that all screens should be touch screens. I love being able to poke the occasional OK button and swipe through photos and adjustment sliders, even on my 23inch all-in-one PC screen. I disagree strongly with Apple spokespeople who contend that touch on a laptop is absurd and will cause your arm to fall off after a day’s use. That said, I like having the option to switch to a mouse. (Note that I’m not talking about pen or pencil input here, which I applaud on both the iPad Pro and the Surface Pro. It’s just not something in my wheelhouse when it comes to productivity computing.) The iPad is an awesome device. It’s light, fast, reliable, and offers every kind of useful and fun app you can think of. I use one nearly every day— as a tablet. For any kind of productive activity, I need a real computer. And with no mouse, no more than two Windows open, and an interface that’s first and foremost tailored to smartphone and tablet usage, iOS 11 doesn’t fill that bill. firstname.lastname@example.org
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Who Do You Trust More With Your Safety: Google or Ford?
decade ago, it would have been unimaginable that a tech company like Google could successfully challenge automakers, that Tesla would be worth more than Ford, or that ridesharing firms would be major players in personal transportation. Fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) are expected to massively disrupt the car industry, but who will win the hearts and minds of consumers and the inevitable self-driving car war: automakers, tech giants, or ridesharing companies? It’s “a new battleground,” according to Bob Pishue, a senior economist at Inrix. In a recent survey, Inrix polled about 5,000 people from five countries who had purchased a new vehicle in the last four years. Respondents were asked which kind of company they would trust most to build an AV: traditional automakers (such as BMW and General Motors), established tech giants (such as Apple and Google), newer carmakers (such as Tesla and Fisker Motors), ridesharing companies (such as Uber and Lyft), trust all equally, or none of the above.
Car tech expert Doug Newcomb has written for Popular Mechanics, Road & Track, and other publications, and is the author of Car Audio for Dummies.
The level of trust varied by region. For example, respondents in the U.S. were slightly more trusting in tech powerhouses such as Google and Apple than automakers to build AVs (27 percent versus 23 percent, respectively). This outlook shifts significantly in Germany, where nearly three times as many respondents trust traditional car makers most to build AVs. But in all the countries surveyed (France, Italy, and the U.K. were also included), fewer than 4 percent of respondents had confidence that ridesharing companies will get robo-rides right. Despite Americans’ marginally higher faith in tech providers over automakers, the survey found that car companies have a distinct advantage in several respects. “With unknown and potentially unproven technology such as autonomous driving, consumers may default strongly to trusted brands such as the traditional car manufacturers,” Inrix stated. “It will be important for car manufacturers to demonstrate that they can develop successful high-tech products.” My cynical side says, good luck with that, since automakers have had a difficult time successfully integrating smartphone interfaces into cars, allowing Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto to gain traction. But building a smartphone interface—or a smartphone—is nowhere near as complex as manufacturing a car, and this is where tech companies could falter and consumer confidence waver. “A problem that new entrants like Google, Apple, and Uber may face in convincing consumers to use AVs they manufacture is that
they have no experience or familiarity of these brands in this space,” Inrix stated. As car owners become more familiar with semiautonomous driving technologies such as Volvo’s Pilot Assist, this could help automakers keep consumers in the fold in a future of autonomous driving. The survey also says that “familiarity with these emerging technologies and their benefits will be central to winning customers, especially early adopters of AVs.” While it’s inconceivable that some automakers could be sidelined within a decade, history hasn’t been kind to incumbents in the tech space and is littered with once-prominent pioneering brands such as Kodak, Atari, and Palm. Car companies at least have a potential head start in the AV race. email@example.com
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History hasn’t been kind to incumbents in the tech space and is littered with onceprominent pioneering brands.
With HomePod, Apple Just Wants to Shake Things Up (for Now)
pple’s HomePod speaker is a depth charge dropped into the ocean where Google Home and Amazon Echo sail. At $349, it’s not going to dominate the voice assistant world. But for Apple to achieve its goals, the HomePod just has to keep the waters rough enough to make its competitors seasick. There are a bunch of weird things about Apple’s HomePod announcement. First, Apple doesn’t like to announce products six months in advance. And while the iPhone and iPad are expensive, they’re not double the prices of rivals. The HomePod is also being sold as a music device above all else rather than virtual assistant. One interpretation is that Apple isn’t going after competing voice assistants but the midrange, wireless multi-room speaker market—the domain of companies including Sonos, Bose, and Logitech. Yes, those companies have $200 options, but the Sonos Play:3 costs $299, and the Bose SoundTouch 20 costs $350. Those companies have been slow to adopt the kinds of flexible voice capabilities we’ve seen on Echo and Google Home, and they tend to appeal to a higher-end consumer who thinks the Amazon and Google products look and sound cheap.
Sascha Segan is the lead mobile analyst for PC Magazine. His commentary has also appeared on Fox News, CNBC, CNN, and various radio stations and newspapers
But I think Apple’s strategy is a little trickier than that. The midrange speaker market is in fact ripe for disruption, and I think Apple’s correct to assume that people who have expensive speakers probably also have an iPhone. But by announcing the HomePod six months in advance, Apple’s also trying to draw developer attention away from Alexa and Google Home, making sure that it’s in second, not third place, in the eventual war of the voice assistants. Second place is a very comfortable place for Apple, because it’s focused on profit share rather than market share. In a battle between Apple and Amazon, it’s easy enough to see a repeat of the iOS/Android war, where Echo speakers eat up the bottom end of the market while Apple reaps profits at the top. Amazon actually wouldn’t mind this, as (like Google with Android, but not like Android phone makers) its business isn’t dependent on making a profit from hardware. DEVELOPERS CAN HANDLE ONLY TWO PLATFORMS Platforms need developers, and we’ve seen over and over that the tech world is capable of supporting two platforms in most areas. On the desktop, it’s Mac and Windows, not Linux. On phones, it’s Apple and Android, not BlackBerry 10 or Windows Phone. On high-end tablets, increasingly, it’s Windows and iOS, with Android shunted down to the low end. Sure, the third platform often manages to hang on as a niche, but the two major ones dominate the market. Developers just don’t seem to have the resources to split their attention more broadly.
Right now there are three players in voice assistants: Apple, Google, and Amazon. Apple is coming late to the game, but it understands the value of not being third. And as it implied by focusing on music in its presentation, SiriKit is way behind the competition in attracting developers right now. Apple needs to get SiriKit into the conversation and to make sure Google and Amazon don’t lock down voice-assistant developers, which could definitely happen in the next six months. By announcing the HomePod now, Apple throws a bit of confusion into that community; should developers keep their powder dry? Google is likely to suffer more than Amazon from this, because Amazon has a lot of third-party partners and an already vibrant developer community. Look at the list of Alexa skills versus Google Home voice actions: Google is just getting started here. Google’s speaker also sounds better—and costs more—than Amazon’s hotselling Echo Dot, putting it in a little more danger from Apple’s higher-end product. This doesn’t mean that Apple’s HomePod is going to be a best-seller. Sure, it could be the next Apple Hi-Fi, an expensive audio accessory that ends up being overlooked for better third-party products. But it keeps the waters roiled and keeps the Google-Amazon duopoly from fixing in place. When developers can only focus on two platforms, that means at least Apple has a chance. firstname.lastname@example.org
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Moto Z2 Play: Modular Design, Solid Performance
ew aspect ratios, curved displays, and iris scanners—manufacturers have spent the past six months doing just about everything to make their phones stand out from the crowd. The unlocked Moto Z2 Play, on the other hand, builds on a concept Motorola established last year: It has a unique design that works with Motos Mods, useful modular back panels that bring new functionality. It also has snappy performance and great battery life, and it’s compatible with all major U.S. carriers. And unlike the Z Droid, it even has a headphone jack. That makes the Z2 Play a great phone for anyone who’s sold on the modular build. Otherwise, the ZTE Axon 7 gets you a bit more power for less money.
Motorola Moto Z2 Play $499.00 L L L l m
A SLIM, SMOOTH, FAMILIAR DESIGN Available in black, blue, gold, and gray, the Moto Z2 Play is largely the same phone as the Moto Z Droid and Play Droid in terms of design. The svelte device is ringed by a band of metal along the sides, with a set of clicky volume buttons and a ridged power button on the right. The back panel is made of matte metal and features a protruding camera bump and a row of magnetic attachment pins for Moto Mods (more on those later). Measuring 6.1 by 3.0 by 0.2 inches (HWD) and 5.1 ounces, the Z2 Play is identical to the slim Z Droid in dimensions, but it manages to include a headphone jack on the bottom. That said, it’s quite a bit bigger than the Samsung Galaxy S8 (5.9 by 2.7 by 0.3 inches, 5.5 ounces) and the LG G6 (5.9 by 2.8 by 0.3 inches, 5.8 ounces), which feature new aspect ratios to accommodate taller, thinner displays. There’s a sizable bezel above and below the display, making the Z2 Play hard to reach across with your thumb and difficult to operate with just one hand, especially when you’re using a thick Moto Mod.
Motorola Moto Z2 Play PROS Useful modular design. Current software and virtually no bloatware. Compatible with all major U.S. carriers. Long battery life. CONS Difficult to use with one hand. Tinny speaker. Slightly pricey for the specs.
EASY ON THE EYES The Moto Z2 Play features a 5.5-inch, 1080p AMOLED display. Colors are rich and saturated, and blacks are dense and inky.
There’s a USB-C charging port on the bottom with the aforementioned headphone jack next to it. The top has a combined SIM/microSD card slot that worked fine with a 256GB card. The phone has a water-repellent coating to help resist splashes, but it’s not IP-rated in any way, so keep it dry when possible. If you want a waterproof handset, the Galaxy S8 is rated IP68 for water protection (and is also significantly more expensive).
The phone’s 5.5-inch, 1,920-by-1,080 AMOLED display is easy on the eyes, with 401 pixels per inch. While it’s not as sharp as the Quad HD S8 (580ppi), G6 (564ppi), or Axon 7 (538ppi), it’s crisp enough that you won’t notice any pixelation. Colors are deep and saturated, and blacks are perfectly inky, only lighting up pixels as needed. Screen brightness is almost blinding at maximum, and viewing angles are excellent, so you’ll have no trouble using the phone outdoors. The phone also has a Night Display mode that automatically adjusts color temperature to warmer tones to help you sleep better at night.
CHARGING MOD The Style Shell is a Moto Mod that combines an attractive wooden back cover with support for Qi and PMA wireless charging.
TWIST IT, BOP IT, SPLIT IT, SWIPE IT Using the preloaded Moto app, you can enable Moto Actions. These include gestures such as twisting the phone to launch the camera app, chopping it twice to trigger the flashlight, and swiping down to shrink the screen for one-handed use. The most useful feature is Split Screen mode: Holding down the Recent Apps button allows you to divide the screen and run two apps side by side. Moto Display works similar to the always-on display on the Galaxy S8 to show you notifications without you needing to press a button or unlock your phone. Instead of being continuously on, however, the screen lights up only when you reach for the phone. Simply extending a hand toward the Z2 Play will bring up the time, date, battery percentage, music controls (if music is playing), and notifications. You can set the display to fade in and out, so even when you trigger it accidentally, it won’t drain too much juice. Moto Voice lets you control the phone with voice commands. You can have the phone speak calls and texts out loud and ask questions using the trigger words “show me.” For instance, “show me the weather” will bring up the forecast, and “show me the calendar” will pull up your schedule and upcoming events. But ultimately, this doesn’t provide much functionality beyond what Google Assistant already offers, and I prefer using the latter for its deeper Google integration and AI-assisted capabilities.
ONLY THE APPS YOU WANT The phone comes running a nearly stock version of Android 7.1.1 Nougat with no bloatware.
Enabling One Button Navigation lets you use the fingerprint sensor to perform various on-screen functions. Like the Moto G5 Plus, the Z2 Play supports One Button Navigation. Enabling it lets you use the fingerprint sensor to perform various on-screen functions. Swiping to the left takes you back, swiping right brings up recent apps, touching the sensor once unlocks the phone, touching it again lets it function as a home button, and holding it down brings up Google Assistant. This is a simple and intuitive way to interact with your phone: It also spares your thumbs from reaching around so much and frees up some screen space. A TRULY MODULAR EXPERIENCE Along with its predecessors, the Z2 Play is among the few truly modular smartphones. Unlike LG, which abandoned its Friends accessories, Motorola has not only stuck with Moto Mods but has also opened the door to third parties. The sky’s the limit, which is part of what makes Moto Mods so fun and flexible. You can add such components as a wireless charging and backup battery, a projector, or just a simple, stylish back cover. The best part is that they’re perfectly streamlined: Snap on the magnetic back, and your phone instantly recognizes which Mod you’ve attached, shows you how much battery power it has, and turns the Mod on automatically.
Several new Mods launched with the Z2 Play. We tested the JBL SoundBoost 2 ($79.99), a compact but powerful speaker with a kickstand, a splash-proof coating, and 10-hour battery life. There’s also the Moto TurboPower Pack ($79.99), a snap-on battery pack with a 3,490mAh cell that can add an extra day of battery life and fast charge your phone at 15W speeds. The Moto Style Shells ($39.99) offer attractive designs and add support for both Qi and PMA wireless charging standards at 10W speeds with minimal bulk, but you’ll need to buy a wireless charging pad separately. Don’t worry if you already own earlier Mods—the Z2 Play is fully compatible with them. The Moto Insta-Share Projector ($299.99) and Hasselblad True Zoom Camera ($299.99) both worked seamlessly with the phone.
NETWORK PERFORMANCE AND CONNECTIVITY The Z2 Play supports CDMA (850, 1900MHz), GSM (850, 900, 1800, 1900MHz), UMTS (850, 900, 1700, 1900, 2100MHz), and LTE bands (1/2/3/4 /5/7/8/12/13/17/20/25/26/28/29/30/38/41/66). It’s the same set you’ll find on the G5 Plus, allowing the phone to work on all major U.S. carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. We tested it on T-Mobile in midtown Manhattan, where we recorded solid network performance with top speeds of 14.3Mbps down and an unusually high 17.6Mbps up.
FAST, LONGLASTING POWER The Z2 Play comes with a Turbo Power adapter, which supports fast charging. And battery life is excellent; the phone lasted 8 hours 18 minutes in our rundown test.
Other connectivity protocols include dual-band Wi-Fi (2.4GHz and 5GHz), Bluetooth 4.2, and NFC, allowing you to use Android Pay. Phone calls are decent but nothing to write home about. Transmission clarity is fine, but voices have a rasping, robotic edge. Noise cancellation is good at blotting out background sounds, and we didn’t have any trouble carrying on a conversation in a noisy environment. The earpiece is loud, which is good because it also serves as a speaker. That makes it great for phone calls, but subpar for music. Then again, you can always use the Soundboost 2 Mod. PLENTY OF POWER The phone is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 626 processor clocked at 2.2GHz. It’s a solid chipset, scoring 68,040 on the AnTuTu benchmark, slightly edging out the 625-powered G5 Plus (63,845). It can’t match the powerful Snapdragon 820 processor in the Axon 7 (141,989) or the top-of-the-line Snapdragon 835 in the Galaxy S8 (158,266), but testing ran without a hitch. The combination of a lightweight Android skin and 4GB of RAM under the hood is more than enough to handle all of your multitasking needs. We were able to play demanding games like GTA: San Andreas and Injustice 2 without a single stutter. Battery life is excellent. The phone clocked 8 hours 18 minutes in our battery rundown test, in which we stream full-screen video over LTE at maximum brightness. That’s nearly an hour longer than the G5 Plus (7 hours, 35 minutes) and significantly better than the S8 (5 hours, 45 minutes). With average use, it’s more than enough juice to get you through the day. If you want even more power, the aforementioned TurboPower Pack Mod will give you a nice boost. The included Turbo Power adapter supports fast charging.
SOLID SHOOTING The Z2 Play has a 12-megapixel rear camera that takes crisp pictures in well-lit settings. It can’t quite match higher-end phones, but we were impressed by the accurate color reproduction and the fast-focusing laser autofocus. Shots of detailed objects such as plants and buildings showed little to no noise, and clarity was good. That said, the Z2 Play does lean heavily on post-processing, and shots taken on a cloudy day looked over-processed and a little artificial. The phone’s camera performed reasonably well in low lighting. Some pictures taken indoors were noisy, and autofocus didn’t lock on as fast, but that’s the case with most phones. We were still able to get some solid low-light shots by using manual controls to adjust exposure and shutter speed. You can also tweak white balance, ISO, and focus to improve picture quality. The Z2 Play can record 4K video at 30fps. Recordings are crisp and fairly stable. Generally, we found the phone to be a better shooter than the G5 Plus but unable to compete with the S8. The 5-megapixel front camera is also solid. Pictures are sharp and detailed, and objects in the background come across clearly. Low-light shots can be a little grainy, but there’s a dual-LED flash on the front and support for HDR, so we were usually able to take clear photos.
PURE ANDROID (ALMOST) The Z2 Play comes with Android 7.1.1 Nougat, the same up-to-date build you’ll find on the Google Pixel XL and essentially stock, aside from some special Motorola flavoring (the aforementioned Moto Actions, Moto Display, and Moto Voice). Motorola has a respectable track record with updates, so there’s a good chance you’ll see Android O on the Z2 Play in the near future. The phone is free from bloatware aside from two preinstalled apps from Motorola. One is the Moto app that allows you to configure gestures and voice controls. The Moto Mods app doesn’t do much aside from take you to the Motorola website; all the functionality that recognizes when a new Mod has been attached and gives you configuration options is built right into the Settings menu, so this app seems superfluous. Out of the 64GB of internal storage, the phone has 48.68GB free for use. That’s a decent amount of space, but if you need more for apps, games, or 4K video, you can always use a microSD card and format it as internal storage. CONCLUSION The Moto Z2 Play is yet another solid modular phone from Motorola. On its own, it offers respectable performance, long battery life, and compatibility with all major U.S. carriers. It pulls ahead of some of the competition when you start snapping on Moto Mods, offering a unique level of flexibility you don’t get with the G6, the S8, or any other non-Motorola phone, for that matter. That said, the Z2 Play doesn’t have the fastest processor or the highestresolution screen you’ll find in this price range. The ZTE Axon 7 may be nearly a year old, but it gets you a higher-resolution display, a more powerful processor, and consistent software updates for $100 less than the Z2 Play. If you’re willing to spend more, the Galaxy S8 is the best Android phone we’ve tested, with a sharper display and the fastest processor you can get. And if you’re looking to save money and Moto Mods aren’t of interest to you, the Moto G5 Plus remains a perfectly solid option. AJAY KUMAR
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HTC U11 Phone Faces the Music
TC’s passion for sound has come through in its phones for years, and I hear it again in the U11 for Sprint, a shimmery slab of audio excellence. There’s a lot more going on with the U11, however. It’s also the first U.S. phone with always-on Alexa support, and it’s potentially Sprint’s fastest LTE phone yet. But if you’re going to pick one reason to buy it right now, it’s the sound. Otherwise, the Galaxy S8 remains a slightly more well-rounded device and our Editors’ Choice.
HTC U11 $696.00 L L L l m
MODELS AND DESIGN HTC offers two U11 models: one for Sprint and an unlocked model (available for $649 from HTC.com) that will work on the three other major U.S. carriers. We reviewed the Sprint unit. Many of the other reviews you see out there will be for the unlocked unit, which has slightly different firmware. The first thing you notice about the phone is the design. The U11 is gorgeous. It comes in black or silver, but the color you really want is the deep, automotive-paint blue. There’s a big price to pay for the baked-in, unscratchable color, though: The phone is a fingerprint magnet, and it’ll be perpetually greasy unless you go for a (clear, please) case. I’ve been very spoiled by narrow phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S8, the LG G6, and the BlackBerry KeyOne recently. At 6.07 by 2.99 by 0.31 inches and 5.96 ounces, the U11 is a standard size for a 16:9, 5.5inch phone, but it still feels too wide in my hand. The sleek back turns slippery quickly, and especially when you’re trying to squeeze the edges of the phone, it feels like you can drop it.
HTC U11 PROS Excellent audio quality. Useful squeeze sensor. Gigabit LTE. Fast processor. Alexa compatible. CONS Camera doesn’t measure up to its marketing. No headphone jack. Back panel attracts fingerprints.
SHIMMERY AND GORGEOUS The U11 comes in black or silver, but the color you really want is the deep, automotivepaint blue.
The 2,560-by-1,440 Super LCD 5 is visible outdoors and in and looks razor sharp. Below it is a fingerprint sensor/ home button flanked by two fixed, capacitive keys. On the sides of the phone, invisible, is the innovative “squeeze” section, a pressure sensor that can launch the camera, flashlight, or any other app. The phone is IP67 water-resistant, which means it can be dunked in up to three feet of water for 30 minutes. HTC’s previous generations of phones weren’t waterresistant, but competing flagships from other manufacturers tend to be now. NETWORKING AND BATTERY The U11 is billed as Sprint’s first gigabit LTE phone. It’s the first phone with 4x4 MIMO on Sprint’s Band 41, completing the trio of technologies that should allow it to get the fastest possible speeds on Sprint’s network. We tested it against a Samsung Galaxy S8 using our field test software, though, and didn’t see the difference, at least not yet. Comparing three locations with good Sprint signal in Manhattan, we got an average of 29.2Mbps down on the S8 as compared with 23.6Mbps on the U11. That said, you’ll find a dramatic improvement in Sprint coverage in weak signal situations when you compare the U11 with older phones. The U11, like the Galaxy S8 and LG G6, has HPUE (high performance user equipment), which we’ve seen improve Sprint signal in several different tests. Performance on other U.S. carriers with the unlocked model should be very good but will probably fall short of the Galaxy S7 and S8, as the U11 lacks the 4x4 MIMO antennas for other carriers’ bands. It has all of the bands T-Mobile and Verizon use, but it lacks AT&T’s supplementary bands 29 and 30, which help in hightraffic areas.
You’ll find a dramatic improvement in Sprint coverage in weak signal situations when you compare the U11 with older phones.
Battery life on the 3,000mAh cell was good, at seven hours and one minute of LTE video streaming with the screen on full brightness. The phone supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge technology but not wireless charging. ANDROID AND PERFORMANCE The U11 runs Android 7.1 with HTC’s relatively aggressive skin. The skin doesn’t hold back performance: With the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor platform on board, we got absolutely terrific benchmark scores and all-around smooth performance. The phone has 64GB of storage, 11.54GB of which is taken up by system files, plus room for a microSD card in the nano SIM card slot. The most exciting new feature, of course, is the squeeze sensor, which HTC calls Edge Sense. A sensor area about two-thirds of the way down the sides of the phone can be calibrated to your liking when you set the phone up. Then when you squeeze it, it’ll launch the camera or the flashlight. The sensor is completely customizable—you can actually use it to launch any app, and HTC says it will release an app that lets the Edge Sense hook into other apps on your phone, as a click action within the apps. Yes, it’s a gimmick. It’s not going to change your life. But it’s a useful gimmick, much like Motorola’s twist-to-camera feature. I ended up using it less than I thought I would, though, because I found the U11 to be a little uncomfortably wide to securely grip and squeeze in my hand. Folks with larger hands will likely get more use out of it. HTC’s most imposing change is to put NewsRepublic news headlines on your lock screen. Turn it off, and you’ll still get aggressive NewsRepublic alerts in your notifications. Fortunately, you can disable NewsRepublic entirely. You’ll still see news headlines in Blinkfeed, the Flipboard-like page found to the left of the main home screen.
There’s also the mystery that is HTC’s Sense Companion. It’s supposed to suggest local attractions to you, and things like when to recharge your phone, but I didn’t get any suggestions from it during my test period. It may simply need more time to work. Other bloatware on the phone: UA Record, a fitness app that’s part of HTC’s deal with UnderArmour; Viveport, HTC and Valve’s VR app store; Boost, a memory optimization app; and HTC’s Zoe video editor. In general, though, HTC managed to hold off from adding too many redundant apps. The browser is Chrome, the photo app is Google Photos, and the music app is Google Play Music. HEY, ALEXA! One of the U11’s most interesting features cannot be tested right now: It’s the first “dual wake word” phone. That means you can say “OK Google” to get the Google Assistant or “Alexa” to wake up Amazon’s voice assistant. You can even switch back and forth, query by query, depending on which one tends to give the best responses. This isn’t a mandatory feature. Alexa will be a downloadable add-on you’ll be able to get later this summer. And HTC has some potential kinks to work out: You’ll probably have to set all of your Amazon Echo devices to a different wake word, or the phone and your Echos will fight over your query. But with the growing popularity of Alexa, it’s worth keeping an eye out for this feature. No other carriersold phone in the U.S. lets you holler “Alexa!” to wake up Amazon’s assistant. And for what it’s worth, “OK Google” works fine, just as it does on other leading Android phones.
The most exciting new feature, of course, is the squeeze sensor, which HTC calls Edge Sense.
A SOUND CHOICE The HTC U11 for Sprint is the best music phone around, and its unusual squeeze sensor is a fun new way to interact with a mobile device. It features Gigabit LTE and a fast processor, and it’s Alexacompatible.
A MARVELOUS MUSIC PHONE The U11 is the best music phone we’ve tested. Start with the speakers. In speakerphone or music playback mode, HTC uses a speaker on top as a “tweeter,” while the main speaker, on the bottom, is a more powerful “woofer.” The top speaker basically offers a little bit of high-end enhancement, but the overall effect is more than the sum of its parts—a noticeably richer sound than on most other phones. The included earbuds are a treat. HTC includes special Usonic USB-C earphones that work only with this phone. They use a sonar-like technology to map your hearing and equalize the phone’s sound to compensate. It’s an especially effective technology for older ears like mine: With Usonic, I got to hear a lot more high-end than I usually do, because that part of my hearing is shot. The earbuds also do a little bit of active noise cancellation when they’re playing music, but it isn’t active when music isn’t playing. The U11 has no headphone jack, but HTC supplies a special dongle with a DAC (digital to analog converter) inside. Paired with super-high-end headphones, I could hear the difference when compared with the otherwise excellent Galaxy S8: The U11 has more detailed highs, better texture and shape to sound, and longer decay. This is the first convincing argument I’ve heard for using a dongle. One exception to the U11’s audio excellence is that if you rely on wireless headphones, the phone doesn’t stand apart. It’s even a step behind the Galaxy S8. With Bluetooth 4.2 rather than Bluetooth 5.0, it can’t do the new trick of playing to two sets of headphones at once, and the sound quality of Bluetooth audio is dependent on the encoding scheme, not the phone’s own amp.
PHOTOS AND VIDEOS The U11 has a 16-megapixel front-facing camera and a 12-megapixel rear camera. The phone records “3D audio” surround stereo using its four microphones. Still-camera quality wasn’t quite up to the fearsome standards of the Galaxy S8 in testing. This is an area in which my results differ from other early reviews, and the difference may be that my phone is using Sprint firmware while other reviewers are using international units. HTC told me that the international models have a newer version of the camera software than the Sprint units do.
That said, the U11 took slightly washed-out photos in which the blacks weren’t as deep and true as on the S8. In low light, the U11 managed to eke images out of even very dark surroundings, but at the cost of some blur and precision. The front-facing camera gave me a lot of pixels, but in dimly lit scenarios, the images were aggressively filtered and sharpened. HTC says camera upgrades will come.
PHOTO PROOF People may be a little skeptical considering HTC’s heavy photo focus in its marketing, but the proof is in the images above. The left one was taken with the U11, the right one with the S8.
Video recording tested better than still photos. Videos in both 1080p and 4K were smooth and clear, and stabilization is available on the 1080p clips. CONCLUSIONS HTC has spun out a confusing and unconvincing set of phones so far this year. Seeing the U11, which is clearly HTC’s flagship, I wonder why the HTC U Ultra and HTC U Play came out at all—although they didn’t fully come out in the U.S., as neither phone got official carrier support. Also, the HTC U11 has a lot of unrealized promise— features we couldn’t quite test. Alexa integration, for instance, sounds great but isn’t here yet. Sense Companion doesn’t seem to do much. Gigabit LTE could pull the U11 ahead on network speeds later this year. And HTC is promising camera software upgrades to fix the image issues we saw during testing. The U11 is the best competition for the Galaxy S8 on Sprint. We’re going to keep our Editors’ Choice with the S8 for its superior camera and network performance in our tests; even though the U11’s spec sheet says differently, we have to go by our results. But while the U11 doesn’t outpace the S8, I’d suggest it to audiophiles for whom music and speakerphone are primary uses. We’ll take another look in the months ahead to see whether this promising phone evolves into a winner. SASCHA SEGAN
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We’ll take another look in the months ahead to see whether this promising phone evolves into a winner.
Six Top Smart Light Bulbs
ight bulbs have grown exponentially smarter in recent years. You can now replace your standard incandescent bulb with a variety of connected solutions you can control with just a few taps on your smartphone or tablet. But with so many options flooding the smart-home market, which one is right for you? We’ve rounded up our highest-rated smart bulbs, along with some points to consider while shopping. PRICE Smart bulbs use light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and a variety of technologies to work, so they are more expensive than traditional bulbs. That’s important to keep in mind, especially if you want to upgrade your entire house. But smart bulbs also use less energy and last a lot longer, meaning you can save money in the long run. And as you can see, most of the options on this list fall well below $100, so the price of entry isn’t as steep as it used to be even a year ago.
COLOR AND LUMINANCE Some of the bulbs on this list are just white, while others have the ability to take on any color of the rainbow. Color is a fun way to add atmosphere to your home but often results in a pricier bulb. Most of the smart bulbs we review are marketed as equivalent to 60-watt incandescent models, which sounds self-explanatory—but some bulbs are brighter than others. To see just how bright a light is, you need to look at the lumens it puts out: the more lumens, the brighter the light. Even then, the light can disperse in a narrow beam or distribute brightness in a wide swath, so make sure to read the reviews to find out how each bulb works. Another factor to keep in mind is color temperature. Higher temperatures, like 8,500K, look like harsh office lighting, which is fine for staying awake or working. Lower temperatures, like 2,500K, translate to a cozy, warm glow that’s perfect for relaxing. CONTROL Since you’ll mostly be controlling these lights from your phone or tablet, you want to make sure that it’s easy to do. If you have multiple bulbs, for instance, you’ll want a companion app that lets you easily arrange them in groups and adjust the brightness or color of an entire group at one time. Do you have an Amazon Echo at home? Look for a bulb that works with Alexa so you can control it with your voice. Of course, any bulb plugged into a socket can always be turned on or off by just flipping the switch. We pay close attention to how each app works and provide a detailed overview in each review.
Since you’ll mostly be controlling these lights from your phone or tablet, you want to make sure that it’s easy to do.
FEATURES Smart bulbs offer a degree of control and interactivity you just can’t get with traditional bulbs, including scheduled timers and remote control options. They’re also more convenient; it’s easier to tap on a smartphone screen than to get up and trudge over to a wall switch. Most of the bulbs we’ve reviewed can be scheduled or controlled remotely, which is great if you want to save on energy costs or you often forget to turn off the lights before leaving the house. Some bulbs use geofencing, which means they work with the GPS in your smartphone to pinpoint your exact location and can automatically turn the lights on or off when you reach a certain point. Color-changing bulbs are great for mood lighting, and some can even sync up with certain movies and TV shows. As we mentioned, some bulbs hook up with Amazon’s Alexa, Apple HomeKit, or Google Assistant, so you can control your home lighting with your voice. You can also integrate some of the bulbs on this list with security cameras, thermostats, and other smart home devices. If This Then That (IFTTT) compatibility lets you create recipes that automatically cause your lights to react to certain triggers, like phone notifications or changes in weather. We don’t currently recommend bulbs that do double duty as speakers, as we haven’t found any particularly good ones in testing. DO YOU NEED A HUB? One more important factor to keep in mind is that many smart bulbs need to connect to your smartphone through a home automation hub such as the Wink 2. Other bulbs cut out the middleman and connect to your phone or tablet directly via Wi-Fi, including the LIFX models. Others connect with Bluetooth, but in that case, you’re limited to control only within Bluetooth range, which means you can’t change the lights when you’re away from home. A hub also means spending more money and adding another step to the installation process. But based on the bulbs we’ve seen so far, the best ones use hubs. With all that in mind, we’ve gathered the best smart bulbs we’ve tested in this roundup. Depending on your needs, any of these options is a good place to get started in connecting your home lighting to more than just a wall switch.
Philips Hue White Review $14.95 EDITORS’ CHOICE
L l l l m For anyone looking to get into smart lighting (not to mention existing Hue users), the Hue White is an excellent option. It’s affordable enough that you can add multiple bulbs around your home without taking out a second mortgage, and the Hue ecosystem simply has more features, support, and versatility than any other smart bulb line out there.
Philips Hue White and Color Ambiance A19 Starter Kit Review $199.99 EDITORS’ CHOICE
L l l l m $200 for the White and Color Ambiance A19 Starter Kit and $50 per additional bulb is quite expensive for the average consumer. If price isn’t an issue, however, the Hue White and Color Ambiance are the smart bulbs we recommend. They’re easy to install, customize, and control remotely, and they integrate with many other devices and services you probably already use. Despite the intimidating start-up cost, they are shining examples of what smart bulbs should be and our Editors’ Choice.
C by GE Starter Pack Review $50.00 L l l l m As the name suggests, the C by GE Smart Bulb Starter Park is an excellent way for smart lighting newbies to jump right in. There are some caveats, such as the lack of Android support and advanced scheduling options, as well as the inability to integrate the bulbs with other smart home ecosystems. But if this is your first smart bulb set, there’s no better option besides the TikTeck Smart LED, which costs $9.99. GE has a better app and brighter light, but the TikTek bulb changes colors and works with Android out of the box.
Cree Connected LED Bulb Review $14.97 L l l l m If you’re looking to make the jump to connected lighting, but you don’t want to spend well over a thousand dollars to outfit your entire home, you can’t go wrong with the Cree Connected LED. It’s simple to set up and control and casts a very pleasant white light.
GE Link Connected LED Review $14.97 L l l l m All told, the GE Link is pretty much interchangeable with the Cree Connected Bulb, The GE Link has a nicer design, but when powered on, we prefer the way the Cree bulb diffuses light. For the (same weirdly specific) price, you really can’t go wrong with either one.
LIFX Color 1000 Review $59.99 L l l l m The LIFX Color 1000 bulb is brighter than the Philips Hue and just as easy to control. And aside from HomeKit support, it nearly matches the Hue ecosystem in terms of big-name third-party integration. But $60 is a lot to pay for a single bulb, especially when you’re planning to put a bunch of them around your house. But if you’re looking to give Wi-Ficonnected lighting a try without investing in a hub, the LIFX Color 1000 is a solid option.
ALEX COLON, TIMOTHY TORRES
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Samsung Galaxy Book: Gorgeous Screen, but Pricy
he Samsung Galaxy Book is a 2-in-1 detachable-hybrid tablet running Windows 10. It’s Samsung’s answer to the Microsoft Surface Pro 4, our current top pick. Because of their included hardware keyboards, 2-in-1 laptops are better bets for productivity than slate tablets. (Ever tried editing a long Word document on an iPad?) The Galaxy Book packs a brilliant Super AMOLED screen, LTE connectivity, and an impressive 14 hours of battery life, which help it stand out in a crowded field. The downside: You get only 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, and at this price, you should get at least double that.
Samsung Galaxy Book (12-inch, LED) $1,127.99 L L L m m
THE SCREEN IS THE STAR The Galaxy Book’s 12-inch touch-enabled 2,160-by1,440-resolution Super AMOLED display very well may be the main reason to buy this tablet. Images are crystal clear, and colors pop. The screen is accurate and a good match when you use programs such as Adobe Lightroom CC for organizing and proofing photos. The display on the Galaxy Book looks brighter, has better black levels, and shows more details than the In-Plane Switching (IPS) displays on the Huawei MateBook and Surface Pro 4.
Samsung Galaxy Book (12-inch, LED) PROS 14 hours of battery life. Very thin and light. 2,160-by1,440 Super AMOLED screen is sharp and brilliant. 4G LTE connectivity. Keyboard cover and S Pen are bundled. CONS 4GB of RAM and 128GB SSD. Lacks a kickstand. USB Type A adapter is not included. Pen storage is flimsy. No Windows Hello or fingerprint security support.
STANDOUT FEATURES The Galaxy Book has a brilliant Super AMOLED screen, 14 hours of battery life, and LTE connectivity.
Bundled with the Galaxy Book is Samsung’s excellent S Pen stylus. The size and shape of a regular ink pen, it has 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity, and it doesn’t need an AAAA battery like the Surface Pen or to be periodically charged like the Apple Pencil. The stylus supports Windows Ink and full-brush tilting in programs such as Adobe Photoshop, which makes it a useful tool for digital artists.
The pen is responsive in use, but because it is passive, it functions a little differently than active styli, including the Surface Pen and the Active Pen for the Lenovo Miix 510. A button on the side of the S Pen controls erase functions, but it has no right-click or shortcut options, both of which would require powered Bluetooth. The side button also invokes Air Command, Samsung’s overlay that acts as an alternative to Windows Ink. Air Command lets you use the pen to mark up the screen and create sticky notes. The S Pen comes with a plastic loop that sticks to the keyboard cover for storage. It seems secure, though I’m not sure how long the adhesive will last before the pen loop falls off. I prefer the way the Surface Pen sticks to the side of the Surface Pro 4 or the Surface Book with magnets, or the combination of magnets and a tether line used by the Dell Latitude 5285 2-in-1. The tablet’s 5-megapixel webcam is fine for selfies and Skype calls, and the 13MP rear-facing camera is adequate for snapshots, although it could use a flash for low-light shots. Stereo speakers vent out of the left and right sides of the tablet and can fill a small- to medium-size room with sound. You’ll hear more treble than bass, but that’s not uncommon for tablets and ultraportable laptops. KEYBOARD INCLUDED Detachable hybrid tablets like the Galaxy Book give you the option of using a lighter slate-like tablet when you want to sketch a quick drawing or read an ebook, but they also let you clip on a keyboard when you need to type more than 140 characters. Unlike the Apple iPad Pro and the Surface Pro, the Galaxy Book is bundled with a keyboard case. The keyboard is a must for working in a desktop operating system such as Windows 10.
S PEN It’s the shape of a regular ink pen and doesn’t need an AAAA battery or to be charged, as competitors do.
The keyboard has a magnetic stand that clips on to the back of the tablet and gives you four usable angles, from near flat to standing straight up. It works well but is ultimately less convenient than the continuously variable angle available from kickstands on the Dell Latitude 5285 2-in-1, the HP Spectre x2, the Lenovo Miix 510, or the Surface Pro. The omission keeps the tablet slim at 7.87 by 11.47 by 0.29 inches (HWD), and light (1.66 pounds; 2.57 pounds with the case). But this also means you’ll need to carry the case with you, since the tablet can’t stand up on its own. The backlit keyboard built into the case is comfortable to use, with a full keystroke, but it flexes when you press hard on the keys around its midsection. (That’s pretty common among keyboard covers, with the exception of the metalbound keyboard case on the HP Spectre x2.) The one-piece touchpad is smooth and reacts quickly to inputs. It doesn’t have a two-stage latch, so you can’t tilt the keyboard as you can on the Surface Pro and most competitors. SPARSE (BUT SMART) CONNECTIVITY The Galaxy Book has two USB-C ports on its right side, double the number found on the Samsung Galaxy TabPro S and the Huawei MateBook. That’s important, because it means there’s a free port when you’re charging the tablet with the included USB-C cable and quick charger. The only other I/O port is a headset jack, also on the right side. Notably, the Galaxy Book doesn’t come with a USB-C-to-Type-A adapter, which is included with the HP Spectre x2. Even though you can buy one for less than $10 on Amazon, the omission is disappointing, considering that the system costs $1,300. You’ll need this adapter to connect older hard drives, flash drives, and other peripherals.
QUITE ADAPTABLE Detachable-hybrid tablets like the Galaxy Book let you clip on a keyboard when you need to type more than 140 characters.
Wireless is handled by 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1, and there’s also a 4G LTE radio in this Verizonexclusive model for always-available connectivity. You’ll need to sign up for an LTE data plan, but that’s easily done online or in person at a Verizon store. You can easily switch between Wi-Fi and 4G LTE networks when you’re in range of a hotspot. LTE is an option in tablets including the HP Spectre x2 and the upcoming 2017 version of the Microsoft Surface Pro but not in the Surface Pro 4. SHORT ON STORAGE, MEMORY, SECURITY The $1,129.99 base model and the LTE-equipped version of the Galaxy Book come with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. While that’s usable, a Windows 10 tablet should really come with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, especially at this price. You can purchase a version of the tablet with those specs for $1,329.99, but you won’t get an LTE radio. The Surface Pro 4 comes with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD for $1,299, though you’ll have to purchase its $129 Type Cover separately. The main concern is that you can’t upgrade the memory postpurchase, so you’re stuck with what you get when you open the box. On the bright side, the Galaxy Book, the HP Spectre x2, and the Surface Pro 4 all give you the option of adding up to 256GB of storage with a microSD card (in the case of the Galaxy Book, the card slot on the left side).
The keyboard has a magnetic stand that clips on to the tablet’s back side and gives you four usable angles.
Security features are lacking compared with similar models. Many high-end tablets come with Windows Hello (including the Dell Latitude 5285), which uses an IR Camera to log you in without a password, or a fingerprint reader (the Huawei MateBook), or both (the Microsoft Surface Pro 4). The Galaxy Book supports neither of these biometric-based security features. Instead, it comes with Samsung Flow, which lets you log into your tablet using the fingerprint reader on your Samsung Galaxy phone. The catch is it wonâ€™t work if you use another brand of Android phone or an Apple iPhone. Samsung covers the Galaxy Book with a one-year warranty. DECENT PERFORMANCE, FORMIDABLE BATTERY LIFE Under the hood is an Intel Core i5-7200U processor with integrated Intel HD 620 graphics, which helped the Galaxy Book eke out a win over the Surface Pro 4 on the PCMark 8 Work Conventional (2,906 points), Handbrake (2:16), and CineBench (318 points) tests. The Dell Latitude 5285 was the overall winner on these three tests, thanks to its faster Core i7 processor. The Surface Pro 4 aced Photoshop test with the Galaxy Book coming in a distant third (4:07). The Galaxy Book, the Latitude 5285, and the Surface Pro 4 were faster across the multimedia tests than the HP Spectre x2 and Huawei MateBook, both of which use low-powered Core m processors. None of these tablets produced playable scores on our 3D gaming tests, though the Latitude 5285 came the closest.
JUST OK FOR WORK Youâ€™ll be able to get your work done, but it will feel slower, and storage will fill quicker than it would with some competitors.
At 14 hours, 6 minutes, the Galaxy Book excelled on our battery rundown test, outlasting the Latitude 5285 (11:09), the Surface Pro 4 (10:19), the Spectre x2 (9:38), and the Huawei Matebook (6:19). With a fully charged battery, you can watch locally stored movies on the Galaxy Book for an entire trans-Pacific flight from San Francisco to the Philippines. Using the Wi-Fi or the 4G LTE connections will sap the battery faster, but it’s fair to say that the Galaxy Book will make a good travel companion if you’re going to be away from a power plug for an extended period of time. STELLAR SCREEN, BUT WITH SHORTCOMINGS The Samsung Galaxy Book has a top-notch screen and category-leading battery life, but several shortcomings hold it back. There is no excuse these days for 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD when you’re paying more than $1,000 for a Windows PC. You’ll be able to get your work done, but it will feel slower, and storage will fill quicker than it would with competitors such as the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and its upcoming successor, the Microsoft Surface Pro. The Surface Pro 4 remains our top pick for high-end tablets, the Dell Latitude 5285 2-in-1 is your bet for business, and the Lenovo Miix 510 will save you some money. JOEL SANTO DOMINGO
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With a fully charged battery, you can watch locally stored movies on the Galaxy Book for an entire transPacific flight.
Origin Neuron: A Stellar Gaming Machine Consumer gaming and 3D performance are being pushed to absurd new heights on the back of Nvidia’s Pascal graphics architecture and Intel’s latest generation of processors. EDITORS’ CHOICE Both of these platforms are on full display in the Origin Neuron, with dual GTX 1080 Ti graphics cards and an overclocked Core i7-7700K processor. These components help the Neuron blow past competitors in our gaming tests; it’s also speedy with productivity pursuits and comes with a huge amount of storage to boot. This configuration is expensive, but for what you get and relative to the Editors’ Choice Digital Storm Velox, the pricing is fair. Given its superior performance and overall execution, the Origin Neuron is our new top pick for high-end gaming desktops.
Origin Neuron $964; $3,900 as tested L L L l h
FORM, FUNCTION, AND MORE Built into Phanteks’ Enthoo Evolv mATX case, the Neuron is relatively unassuming when you look at it head on. But there’s a lot to like inside, once you start poking around. Its black aluminum frame stands 17.8 by 9 by 15.7 inches (HWD) with tempered glass panels on both flanks. The left side is nearly a full window, while the right is backed with aluminum and has a small cutout window for the SSDs. The case isn’t a small-form-factor design, but it’s on the smaller side for traditional towers. For size comparison, the Velox stands 22.2 inches tall, 9.25 inches wide, and 19.5 inches deep, taking up much more space.
Origin Neuron PROS Extraordinary gaming proficiency. Plenty of storage plus speedy M.2 SSDs. Stylish, relatively compact tower. Easy access for maintenance and upgrades. Customizable case and RAM lighting. CONS Pricey as configured.
TAKE A LOOK INSIDE The Neuron’s black aluminum frame stands 17.8 by 9 by 15.7 inches (HWD) and has tempered glass panels on both flanks.
The panels on either side are actually doors on rear hinges, held closed magnetically toward the front. They both swing open easily, making for one of the most accessible cases I’ve seen in a while. This lets you in to either side of the tower, which is good for swapping out components and cable and storage management beneath the motherboard. Having such easy access to the space with no screws or removable doors makes it a breeze to pop open and work in the case despite the size, and everything is organized neatly within. This includes neatly cut and routed cables, which are clipped together and funneled behind the motherboard.
The CPU cooler stands vertically along the front panel and vents out the front, with a rear case fan in the back and slits along the top panel for more ventilation. The top panel lifts away if you remove one rear hand screw, though there’s not much reason to take it off. The bottom of the case is raised about 2 inches by front and back feet, so most of the bottom is above surface level. This allows the bottom vent more room to breathe, and a removable filter over it keeps out dust and debris. The front panel pops off, revealing case fans behind another removable dust filter. Since the case on our review unit is all black, the only color comes from an array of LED lights. The customization is handled through the included Asus Aura software, for which there’s a slight learning curve. It’s not immediately clear where each setting is (and the arrow to switch between each lighting element is particularly small), but once you spend some time poking around, you should get the gist of it. The color and effects of an interior LED light strip, the RAM, the LED ring around the power button, and a slim strip on the front panel can all be changed.
Given its superior performance and overall execution, the Origin Neuron is our new top pick for highend gaming
OOH, SHINY! The left side of the Origin Neuron is nearly a full window, allowing you to look in at the components and show off the lighting.
The RAM in our unit is G.Skill TridentZ RGB, which is illuminated in customizable segments. You can change the colors of five discrete sections of each stick, which can lead to some cool designs and color combinations or make lighting “flow” down each stick in conjunction with the case lighting, which is a really cool effect. All of the lighting can also fade in and out slowly, or you can have the LED strip and RAM alternately strobe on and off. The case is not only well designed for maintenance but is also packed with the high-end components you’d hope for at this configuration’s price. Everything is powered by an 850W EVGA SuperNOVA G3 power supply, which can run the demanding dual graphics card setup (two Nvidia GTX 1080 Tis in SLI), and the wattage leaves you some headroom. A lightning-fast Intel Core i7-7700K processor, overclocked to 5.0GHz out of the box, serves as the heart of the system. To supplement that are 32GB of the 3,000MHz G.Skill memory in our model, and since it’s set up as four 8GB sticks, the system has no free DIMM slots. Storage comes in the form of two 250GB Samsung 960 EVO NVMe M.2 SSDs in a RAID 0 array, along with two 2TB Seagate Firecuda hybrid drives—a one-two punch that delivers a massive amount of storage and a super-fast boot drive. It adds to the price for sure, but if you do a lot of media work, you’ll appreciate the added speed, and there’s more than enough room for many projects and games. As configured, two 2.5-inch and two 3.5-inch storage bays are still free.
CONNECT UP The rear panel has a USB-C port, a USB-A port, four USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, and the seven DisplayPort connections and 3 HDMI ports from the graphics cards.
The Neuron won’t leave you wanting for connectivity options. At first glance, it doesn’t seem as though the case has any front-facing ports, but a small panel at the top retracts to reveal two USB 3.0 ports as well as a headphone jack and a mic jack. The top panel has no ports, just the LED-ringed power button. The rear panel holds the vast majority of connections: a USB-C port, a USB-A port, four more USB 3.0 ports, and two USB 2.0 ports. Via the graphics cards, you get a total of seven DisplayPort connections and three HDMI ports. The system also has built-in Bluetooth and dual-band 802.11ac wireless. Origin includes lifetime 24/7 support and free lifetime labor, alongside a one-year partreplacement warranty. INSANE POWER FOR GAMING AND PRODUCTIVITY With such premium parts, it’s no surprise that the Neuron is a performance dynamo. When you’re paying for a dual 1080 Ti desktop, you should expect no less than top-end speed, which it delivers across all tests. In terms of general productivity, the Neuron was one of the fastest computers we’ve tested. Its PCMark 8 Work Conventional score beat all comers, including the Digital Storm Velox, the 2016 Falcon Northwest Talon, and the Maingear Rush X99 Super Stock. In the multimedia test results (timed Photoshop and Handbrake tests, plus the CineBench score), the Neuron didn’t lead the pack in such dominant fashion, but it was right up there with the best of the category.
Gaming and 3D performance are where the Origin Neuron really separates itself from the pack.
Gaming and 3D performance are where the Origin Neuron really separates itself from the pack. The competitors are all fast desktops, many of which are equipped with GTX 1080s in SLI, but the 1080 Ti upgrade pushes the Neuron to the front. It scored a category-best 21,481 points on 3D Mark’s Fire Strike Extreme test. Its Cloud Gate score is on the top end, as well. I should note that in real-world use, the Falcon Northwest Talon’s dual Pascal Titan X cards should provide more power, which doesn’t fully translate on the synthetic tests, but the Talon configuration we tested rings north of $9,500. The Heaven and Valley gaming tests tell the same story of the Neuron’s capabilities. Set to Ultra quality and 1080p resolution, the Neuron averaged 278 frames per second (fps) on Heaven and 175fps on Valley. When it’s cranked up to 4K, the desktop averaged 95fps and 113fps on these same tests, proving it’s more than capable of smooth 4K gaming. I further confirmed this by playing Doom in 4K at maximum settings; the in-game frame counter hovered around 100fps or higher for most of the time I was playing. I also played The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in 4K with all the settings and effects on Ultra, and I had a similar smooth experience. A CLEAR LEADER IN DESKTOP GAMING Sure, the Neuron is more expensive than single-GPU desktops such as the Gamer Master Ultra, but you get what you pay for. It’s still thousands of dollars less than other high-end systems, including the Falcon Northwest Talon and Maingear Rush X99 Super Stock (though those PCs do come with their own top-end advantages), and the stylish but functional case provides a great home for the premium hardware. If you can afford the high-end components, it’s tough to beat the power, design, and organization offered by the Origin Neuron. For its design, pricing, and impressive gaming capability, the Origin Neuron is our new Editors’ Choice for high-end gaming desktops. MATTHEW BUZZI
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Five Top Photo Printing Services
ure, you can always hold your phone up to someone’s face to show them snapshots of your baby niece. But you can’t really mount your phone on a wall or stash it in your wallet for anytime viewing of a favorite shot. Even though it seems like we’ve moved past printed matter, printing your most prized photos still has value, and there are plenty of services that can do it for you. Here’s what you should consider when you need to create physical mementos from your digital memories.
FIRST AND FOREMOST: PRICING It turns out that you can get hardcopy keepsakes of your visual memories without breaking the bank. Some services we tested, including Snapfish and York Photo Labs, produce 4-by-6-inch prints for just 9 cents apiece, and those two services have offers that get you the first 100 and 20 prints free, respectively, not including tax and shipping. Surprisingly, Walgreens Photo is the most expensive service when it comes to 4-by-6 prints, charging 29 cents each. But you pay for the convenience of local pickup, and after 50 prints, that price drops to 20 cents per 4-by-6. The next-priciest 4-by-6 photos among the services we tested were from Nations Photo Labs, at 27 cents each, but the company provided the best image quality and paper. In the middle is Shutterfly’s 15-cent 4-by-6 prints. Even when you want enlargements at popular sizes such as 5-by-7 and 8-by-10, you don’t have to spend a lot. Snapfish offers 5-by-7 prints for just 69 cents each, and Nations Photo Labs produces excellent-quality 8-by-10 photos for a mere $1.90 each. That’s the best price we found for 8-by-10 prints; most competitors charge a still-reasonable $2.99 to $3.99. For wall-art size prints, of course, you’ll pay more, but it’s still not exorbitant: All of the services sell 16-by20 prints for under $20, and most charge closer to $15. PLASTER YOUR PICTURES ANYWHERE Why stop at ordinary photo prints when you can have your pictures grace mugs, playing cards, and even pillows? The services reviewed here offer a remarkable assortment of objects that you can personalize. All offer greeting cards, calendars, and photo books. Most offer phone cases, blankets, and drinkware. Shutterfly offers the largest selection of photo gifts, including flower pots, blankets, phone cases, pillows, shower curtains, and even pet-food bowls. But York Photo Labs is the only service we found that can sell you a necktie featuring your picture. EDITING, ORDERING, AND SHARING When you’re ordering photos online, it helps if the service has a friendly, navigable website. For example, most services, including Snapfish, let you simply check off all the sizes you want on a single-page grid. Others make you select a size for printing before choosing the images you want; you then must start over again if you want prints in other sizes.
The services offer good photo-editing tools, letting you brighten or darken an underexposed or overexposed shot, for example. Many services automatically apply color correction. Nations Photo Labs offers high-level photo editing for a price premium, but we didn’t see a big difference in our test prints between premium color-corrections and standard prints. Online sharing is offered by some services, and Shutterfly is particularly strong in this capability, even letting you create online mini-websites for your photos. Snapfish and Walgreens Photo let you share online galleries that can be viewed as full-window slideshows. York Photos shared galleries are little more than batches of thumbnails, and Nations Photo Lab doesn’t get involved in online gallery sharing. MOBILE APPS The most popular camera these days is one that’s always with you: your phone. And smartphones have come a long way in terms of image quality; some capture images with more than 20 megapixels of resolution. With most photos now being taken by phones, it only makes sense for a photo printing service to offer a mobile app to get the images straight from your phone to the print service. York offers a very basic app that lets you only upload and order prints. Shutterfly adds the ability to order photo gifts, and Snapfish and Walgreens Photo’s apps can import photos from social networks, perform some editing, and share photos with friends. Nations is the only service in this group with no mobile app. DELIVERY When you want your pictures pronto, Walgreens Photo is the way to go. (Look for upcoming reviews of Walmart Photo and CVS Photo, which also let you pick up prints locally.) In our testing, Walgreens Photo didn’t provide the best enlargements in terms of image quality, but its smaller prints were perfectly acceptable.
When you can wait a few days or you want special options not available with local pickup, such as matte finish, mail order is provided by all the services tested. None of them took an inordinate amount of time, and shipping costs for our order of 22 photos of various sizes ranged from $2.34 for York Photo Labs to $7 for Nations Photo Labâ€”but the reason for the difference was stark. York packaged the photos in a thin, standard large envelope, while the carefully protected Nations order arrived in multiple layers of cardboard and clear plastic envelopes. Need faster delivery? Most services offer second-day and overnight shipping, but keep in mind that the products still have to be produced, so that doesnâ€™t mean your photos will arrive the day after you order them, necessarily, even if you pay the $15 for overnight shipping. But it may mean your pictures arrive four days earlier. In practice, none of our test orders, for which we used the lowest-cost shipping options, took more than five days to arrive. PRINT QUALITY For us, this is the most important factor when ordering prints: how accurately the photos reproduce the images you shot. Most of the prints I received, especially at the smaller 4-by-6-inch size, revealed acceptable image quality. When you get to enlargements, however, the differences became far more apparent. In particular, we found that the Walgreens Photo prints exhibited discoloration and lost detail, while the Nations Photo Lab prints showed the best image quality. In one mountain photograph we had printed, the sky in the Walgreens Photo picture had a pinkish and purplish tinge that wasnâ€™t in the original, and some cloud detail was lost to white.
With most photos now being taken by phones, it only makes sense for a photo printing service to offer a mobile app.
Images from Nations Photo Lab, on the other hand, looked natural and showed the truest black in a portrait with a black backdrop. Nations is also the only service that uses the truly professional-quality Kodak Endura paper. Here are our evaluations of five photo services. (Prices are for one 4-by-6 print.)
Snapfish $0.09 EDITORS’ CHOICE
L l l l h You might think there’s no difference between the two big names in online photo-print ordering services, Snapfish and Shutterfly, but I was surprised and impressed at the striking difference. Snapfish not only uses a more modern and powerful web interface, it also delivers better-looking images at lower prices. In fact, its prices were the lowest among the services I tested, and you even get the first 100 4-by-6 prints free. For value and website design, Snapfish earns our Editors’ Choice, but the slightly more expensive Nations Photo Lab, also an Editor’s Choice, offers slightly better image quality and packaging.
Nations Photo Lab $0.27 EDITORS’ CHOICE
L l l l m Buying prints from Nations is a bit less streamlined than with the bigger consumer-targeted services like Shutterfly and Snapfish, but the results are worth it. Not only did my test prints reveal the best overall image quality, but they were shipped in the most protective packaging. And pricing is very reasonable. Nations Photo Labs is PCMag’s Editors’ Choice for photo printing services for its top image quality, joining Snapfish, which is our top pick for best value in the category.
Shutterfly $0.15 L l l h m Shutterfly has a few feathers in its cap, but overall, it’s a middle-of-the-road service. Print and image quality is average, pricing is average, and the website experience is neither wonderful nor terrible. The feathers: Packaging is excellent, online galleries are shareable, and the service prints the filename or photo title on the back of photos. If those things are paramount to you, then Shutterfly is worth a look. For the best image quality, however, look to Nations Photo Lab, and for the best value, look to Snapfish.
York Photo Labs Review $0.09 L l l h m York Photo Labs is a member of the exclusive 9-cent-per-print club, along with Snapfish, but its website and packaging don’t quite match up. Print quality isn’t bad at all, and in fact, it’s nearly identical to that of Shutterfly. But for the best print quality, check out Nations Photo Lab, and for the best value, Snapfish delivers.
Walgreens Photo Review $0.20 L l l m m If you need your photos today, Walgreens is a viable option, though you won’t get the best color rendering or quality paper. And it’s not the cheapest. You can save money by ordering from Snapfish or Nations, our top picks for value and print quality, respectively.
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An Affordable Android VPN with Extra Protection To keep your information safe and your privacy protected, even on an Android device, you need a virtual private network (VPN). The KeepSolid VPN Unlimited app secures your EDITORS’ CHOICE web activity from prying eyes and offers several advanced tools to keep you safe. The service stands out with an excellent mobile interface and a robust network of international servers, and it even blocks ads—and all that is offered at an exceedingly reasonable price. It joins Private Internet Access, with its unmatched network size, and the versatile, powerful NordVPN as an Editors’ Choice winner for Android VPN apps.
KeepSolid VPN Unlimited (for Android) $6.99 per month L L L l h
WHAT IS A VPN? When you’re connected wirelessly to your home router, you can be reasonably certain that it’s safe. Out in the wild, it’s a different story. It’s very difficult to tell if you’re actually connected to the Starbucks Wi-Fi or to a malicious network being run by a data-hungry scammer. With a VPN, you can be assured that no matter where you go and no matter what networks you connect to, your data is always secure. The VPN software creates an encrypted tunnel to a server the company controls, meaning that anyone snooping on your traffic will see only unreadable ciphertext.
Once you’re online, advertisers can track your movements among websites with sophisticated cookies and trackers embedded in ads, associating your traffic with your known IP address. But with a VPN, you can rest assured that your privacy is respected. That’s because instead of seeing the actual IP address of your mobile device, the advertisers see only the IP address of the VPN server to which you’re connected.
KeepSolid VPN Unlimited (for Android) PROS Fast and affordable protection. Simple, well-designed app. Includes advanced features, like granular Wi-Fi reconnection settings. Stealthy VPN option. Ad and tracker blocking. CONS No free version.
When you’re away from your relatively safe home Wi-Fi, it’s difficult to tell if you’re actually connected to the Starbucks Wi-Fi or to a malicious network being run by a datahungry scammer.
When you’re connected over a cellular network, the situation is a little different. The 3G and LTE bands are encrypted and considered fairly safe. But a dedicated hacker can use a Femtocell, basically a portable cell tower, to offer up an unsecure 2G network and then jam the higher bands, forcing you to fail over to the unsecure network. A VPN can help protect against this kind of sophisticated attack too, though it’s worth noting that the chance of coming up against such a sophisticated cell hacker is very small. They’re far less common than the garden-variety Wi-Fi snooper. PRICING AND FEATURES A month-long subscription with VPN Unlimited costs only $6.99, making it quite affordable as VPNs go. It’s just 4 cents more expensive than Editors’ Choice winner Private Internet Access. You can also choose to pay $39.99 for a year or a 100-year plan for $499 (on sale for $149 at the time we wrote this), if you plan on doing some serious web browsing over the next century. Those are the plans listed on the site, but you have a lot more flexibility once you create an account with KeepSolid. There is, for example, a three-month subscription for $14.99 and a one-week subscription for $2.99. I really like KeepSolid’s pricing, especially the super-short plans. It’s perfect for when you’re traveling abroad, where you’re likely to be subject to all kinds of attacks. You can pay even less for a VPN. TunnelBear, for example, offers an excellent free VPN option. With a free account, you get 500MB of data across all your TunnelBear devices, and can earn additional data by Tweeting about the company. Unfortunately, there aren’t many other free VPN services for Android. If you already use KeepSolid VPN Unlimited on your desktop, don’t worry; you don’t have to pay extra for mobile devices. They do, however, count toward your five simultaneous connections. That’s an average number of devices for a VPN subscription, and it’s surprising how fast these add up. If you need more devices on your plan, you can add one for 99 cents per month, five for $2.99 per month, or 10 devices for $5.99.
You also get access to the service’s 1,200 servers across 80 global locations. That’s not as many as Editors’ Choice winner NordVPN, which boasts hundreds of servers, or the thousands of servers available with Private Internet Access, but it’s not bad. While companies often spin servers up and down as needed, these are important figures to keep in mind. The more servers a company offers, the less likely it is that you’ll have to share precious bandwidth with other users on the same server. The more server locations there are, the more likely it is you’ll find one nearby. A good rule of thumb is that the closer the server is to your actual location, the better speed and performance you’ll have. (And many server locations give you more options when spoofing your location.) If you’re traveling (or living) in a country with restrictive information policies, you can also use KeepSolid Wise, a feature that trades speed for a stealthier connection that disguises your VPN connection as normal HTTPS traffic. This feature is available on Android and is best used when connecting in countries that frown on the use of VPNs. As with the desktop version, the Android app uses the OpenVPN protocol. I appreciate it when services embrace this newer open-source protocol, which gets frequent updates as needed. Some companies offer one set of protocols with the desktop app and a different set with the mobile version, an approach I don’t favor.
Recently, KeepSolid added a collection of new features. The Censorship Test automatically detects when any of a set list of sites is blocked on your network, and you have the option to send the results to KeepSolid in exchange for an extra day added to your subscription for free. The DNS Firewall is actually a collection of tools, including malware detection, tracker blocking, and ad blocking. I’m really glad to see these features included, but don’t mistake them for perfect protection. Instead of scanning for threats, these are blacklists maintained by KeepSolid. It’s a good start but hardly complete protection. HANDS ON WITH KEEPSOLID VPN UNLIMITED KeepSolid sticks with its clean, minimalist desktop design for its Android app. At the center is a map showing your current location. Tap the green bar at the top, and you can select the server of your choice, although the app recommends what it thinks is best based on your location and the traffic already flowing through its other servers. I particularly like that the app shows you which servers are the most crowded and which allow torrenting. You can search for servers at the top and favorite servers for later use. KeepSolid’s app reminds me of NordVPN quite a bit, with its large map at the center. But I prefer a few things about NordVPN, such as specialized servers for connecting to Tor and double encryption. KeepSolid has added a specialized video streaming server, which I appreciate. A toggle switch at the bottom of the screen switches the VPN on and off. You can also do this from a panel in the notifications pull-down menu. When connected, the Android OS shows a little key next to the time at the top of the screen.
The Censorship Test automatically detects when any of a set list of sites is blocked on your network.
THE INTERFACE KeepSolid VPN Unlimited secures your traffic and offers additional protection to boot. It offers good speeds and a strong server selection, making it an excellent choice.
By default, the app always reconnects if it loses communication with the VPN server. But you can choose to have it reconnect only when you’re using Wi-Fi or to reconnect only when you’re using an unsecured network. That kind of granular control is great when you’re on a mobile device. It’s a feature I like, and I am disappointed that I have yet to see it become commonplace among other VPN apps. If lots of settings and features are what you need in a VPN, KeepSolid will get you most of the way there, but Private Internet Access has still more going on. With that service, you can select which apps must use the VPN and which don’t have to, giving you total control of how your data moves. TunnelBear VPN also offers this feature. When I reviewed the company’s VPN service for PCs, a company representative confirmed KeepSolid’s zero-logging policy. That means it retains little information about users, ensuring your privacy. The company is also located in New York, meaning that it’s not subject to specific data-retention laws. Also, KeepSolid does not inject ads into your web browsing experience, as some lessreputable VPNs have been known to do in the not-so-distant past. SPEED TESTS No matter which VPN service you choose, it will have an impact on internet connection performance. Generally, it’s not a good one, although my work testing desktop VPN apps has revealed that the fastest VPNs can sometimes improve performance.
When I test mobile VPN apps, I aim for a best-case scenario. First I deactivate mobile data, and then I connect to our super-fast FiOS Wi-Fi network. That’s because a Wi-Fi network offers more repeatable test results than a cellular network can, and because insecure or malicious Wi-Fi networks are a much more prevalent threat than complex cellular attacks. I then compare the average results with the VPN enabled to the average results without the VPN and work out the percent change. I measure the speeds using the Ookla Speedtest.net app. (Note that Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, which also owns PCMag.) In my testing, I found that VPN Unlimited increased latency by 131.3 percent. That might seem like a lot, but we’re talking milliseconds here. TorGuard had the smallest impact on latency I’ve yet seen, increasing it by only 12.5 percent. In the download test, VPN Unlimited reduced speeds by 35.32 percent. That’s an improvement over the last time I tested KeepSolid’s Android app. It’s also the second-best score I’ve recorded so far. VPN Unlimited still trails Private Internet Access, however, which showed a remarkable 10.3 degradation in download speeds. In my testing, I found that with KeepSolid, upload speeds fell 18.8 percent. That’s one of the best scores for this test, but it’s still behind Spotflux VPN, which actually improved upload speeds in my testing. A EXCELLENT CHOICE Along with its core VPN technology, KeepSolid VPN Unlimited comes with a few other tricks up its sleeve to keep you safe. It also performed well in my speed tests and offers a robust global infrastructure to secure your web traffic no matter where you are. Best of all, it has the most comprehensive and flexible pricing of any VPN I’ve yet reviewed, making it an excellent purchase. For all that, it takes an Editors’ Choice award for Android VPN, along with NordVPN and Private Internet Access. MAX EDDY
PC MAGAZINE DIGITAL EDITION
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BY SASCHA SEGAN
erizon Wireless remains America’s fastest mobile network by a nose in our closest Fastest Mobile Networks race ever. In our tests across the U.S., Verizon offered the most reliable and consistent high-speed network overall, but it split our 36 cities and rural regions three ways with AT&T and T-Mobile—the first time we’ve seen that kind of even divide. Clearly, all three carriers are pushing hard to improve their networks. No matter where you live, they’re all great choices. Although Verizon is the fastest mobile network, AT&T has the fastest average download speeds in the nation, and T-Mobile can cost less than Verizon while offering very close to the same performance. For our eighth annual test, we spent most of May driving within and between 30 cities, with Samsung Galaxy S8 phones continually running speed tests based on a customized version of Ookla’s Speedtest.net software. We collected more than 124,000 data points and then balanced downloads, uploads, latency, and reliability to create our Speed Score. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon all offer strong performance this year, but they don’t each offer strong performance everywhere. For example, AT&T is weak in New York City but strong in Indianapolis, and T-Mobile is the other way around. So it’s important to check our individual city results when you’re making a carrier choice.
Sprint seems to have hit a roadblock after vaulting hugely forward between 2015 and 2016. While we saw the same spectacular peak speeds on Sprint that we got on the other carriers, they were far less consistent: Sprint’s speeds would shoot up and then plummet within cities more often than speeds of other carriers, creating lower averages.
This is a snapshot of network performance from May 1 to 23, 2017. Networks can, will, and should change as the year goes on. ALL CARRIERS ARE THESE CARRIERS We test the four big nationwide carriers, but these results also apply to most of the other brands available in the U.S. That’s because most other big names— except for U.S. Cellular, which runs its own, predominantly rural network—just borrow and rename one of these networks. For instance, Cricket is AT&T; MetroPCS is T-Mobile; Virgin and Boost are Sprint; and Google Fi is a mix of Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular. TracFone can be any one of the four major networks depending on what kind of SIM card you have. If you aren’t using one of the big brands, though, you may not get top speeds. For instance, Verizon throttles other brands’ customers to 5Mbps. But our study’s data on reliability and latency still apply. For more information on which low-cost brands use which networks, see our story, “The Best Cheap Cell Phone Plans You’ve Never Heard Of” at PCMag.com. EIGHT YEARS OF FASTER NETWORKS When we started Fastest Mobile Networks, the speeds we’re seeing today were absolutely unheard of. Fastest Mobile Networks 2010 was our first report, and at the time, Verizon was running a slow 3G data network. Sprint was on WiMAX, a now obsolete technology that claimed to be 4G but ended up as a dead end. No carrier averaged over 5Mbps.
Verizon introduced LTE by 2011. AT&T followed that lead a year later, and then T-Mobile and Sprint did the same. But speed increases weren’t steady. AT&T’s network plummeted under a heavy load in 2013, and Verizon’s network suffered the year after.
The gains we’ve seen over the past few years show no sign of stopping. There’s a 2X jump in maximum download speeds every two years or so—from 50Mbps to 60Mbps in 2014, to 120Mbps in 2016, and this year to 200Mbps. LTE has more to give. A well-designed gigabit LTE network, such as Telstra’s in Australia, can deliver 400Mbps to 450Mbps on a regular basis. In 2018 and 2019, we’re hoping to see those speeds from carriers here in the U.S. By 2020 and 2021, we’ll have 5G phones. Demos I’ve seen at Qualcomm have shown the potential for speeds of 4 gigabits and up to each device. That will potentially enable real-time group VR and other science fiction–like experiences. We’ll keep testing, just to make sure. GIGABIT LTE ISN’T JUST THE FUTURE AT&T is evolving. So are T-Mobile and Verizon. All three carriers have introduced “gigabit LTE,” a mix of three new technologies that can really accelerate your wireless speeds. No, gigabit LTE won’t give you actual gigabit speeds, but our tests show it can double your download speeds from previous network generations.
AT&T has branded its gigabit LTE network “5G Evolution” (it isn’t 5G) and said it’s coming to at least 20 cities this year. Its first two cities are Austin and Indianapolis, and true to its word, AT&T won both of those cities. It would have done even better in Indianapolis if we were measuring speeds only within AT&T’s network rather than going out to an external speed-test server. After several years of flat or declining speeds, AT&T rocketed ahead this year with its new initiative. T-Mobile has also leapt forward with both speed and coverage. The carrier is clearly installing gigabit LTE technology and has broader rural and suburban coverage than we’ve seen in previous years. Any lingering ideas about T-Mobile as a discount, cities-only carrier should be dispelled. Given how loud AT&T and T-Mobile have been about their gigabit evolutions, Verizon turned out to be the quiet surprise this year. The company has confirmed that it’s installing all three of the gigabit technologies—it’s just not being so loud about it. If you don’t see these speeds, you might not have a gigabit LTE phone. We used the Samsung Galaxy S8, the nation’s first gigabit LTE device. In the section of this story called “Why You Need a Faster Phone,” we show the huge advantage the S8 has over its competitors, especially the notoriously slow Apple iPhones. The HTC U11 and Moto Z2 Force also have gigabit LTE, and we expect to see it in more flagship phones throughout the year. While the Galaxy S8 has gigabit speeds on three networks, during our testing, there was no gigabit phone available that was compatible with Sprint. That might help explain Sprint’s weaker performance. But it also shows a habitual problem Sprint has: Because the carrier has a unique radio network, device manufacturers have to go out of their way to optimize their phones for it. The HTC U11 is Sprint’s first gigabit phone.
LOOKING FORWARD TO 5G This is our eighth year running Fastest Mobile Networks and our first looking only at LTE networks. Pretty soon, though, we’ll be looking at 5G. 4G LTE speeds will continue to advance over the next year. T-Mobile will fill in its rural coverage gaps with its new deployment of 600MHz spectrum starting this fall. Sprint is working on its urban coverage gaps with its new Magic Box micro-cell units; if you have an issue with Sprint coverage, you should get one. The next great leap forward will be 5G. And we don’t mean AT&T’s “5G Evolution” (again, it’s not 5G; it’s 4G) or the pre-5G home internet systems AT&T and Verizon are setting up this year. Real 5G will arrive at the end of 2018. It’ll require new phones—but it won’t just be for phones. With very low latencies, 5G will be a major technology in self-driving cars. Coming at a very low cost, it’ll enable a wide variety of cheap, connected sensors; T-Mobile’s COO told me it’ll let you “Lo-Jack everything.” On your phone, 5G will push augmented and virtual reality experiences. It’ll probably also blur the difference between home and wireless internet, letting you have one subscription or service plan for both. For people who don’t use the most data-hungry services, it will hopefully bring down costs. After watching the growth of LTE through Fastest Mobile Networks, though, we can theorize that it’s going to be a long time before 5G is dominant. We tested our first 4G LTE networks in 2011, but only now, six years later, are we finally casting off 3G testing. 4G will probably be the backbone of mobile data service for the next five years or so, as 5G networks spread and develop new features.
This is our eighth year running Fastest Mobile Networks and our first looking only at LTE
Carrier and Network Profiles AT&T The carrier is this year’s big surprise. The company has been doing fine but not great since 2013. This year, though, it leapt forward with a massive increase in speed based on its poorly marketed 5G Evolution plan. 5G Evolution is really just gigabit LTE, the same cocktail of 4G technologies that the other carriers are installing. But AT&T is doing a good job of it, and the company is only getting started. We saw in Indianapolis, for instance, that AT&T has industryleading speeds out to the internet, and speeds to a server within AT&T’s network were absolutely blistering. As the carrier further builds out connectivity, we expect speeds will get even higher. AT&T also may be benefitting from a dramatic loss in customers over the past few years. Millions of AT&T smartphone subscribers have been decamping to other carriers, replaced on AT&T’s network by smart cars and Internet of Things devices that use less data. That’s made its network less congested and has probably helped contribute to its excellent results this year. SPRINT Sprint made a great leap forward between 2015 and 2016, becoming competitive for the first time in years. It couldn’t keep up the momentum this year, though—its average speeds stayed pretty much the same as in 2016 while other carriers advanced. That doesn’t match up with Sprint’s rhetoric, but I have some ideas as to why we’re seeing this result. Sprint made the conscious decision to privilege downloads over uploads on its network, with the justification that because people mostly download, network speeds should reflect that. The argument would hold up better if Sprint showed spectacular download speeds, but its peak speeds only match the competition—they don’t exceed it.
Sprint also struggled with severe variability within cities. The carrier relies on 2.5GHz signal for its best speeds, and that spectrum doesn’t travel well. The Samsung Galaxy S8’s High Performance User Equipment feature is supposed to extend 2.5GHz coverage, but we didn’t see that happening enough in our nationwide tests to fill in Sprint’s gaps. A few moves later this year should help Sprint’s performance. The HTC U11 and Moto Z2 Force phones have 4x4 MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) antennas for Sprint’s 2.5GHz spectrum, which will improve both coverage and speeds. And Sprint’s innovative “Magic Box” micro-cells could really improve the evenness of its network if they’re deployed broadly in major cities. T-MOBILE It’s the nation’s number two wireless network, no question about it. The carrier has improved by leaps and bounds in the past few years—first on speed and now on coverage. T-Mobile’s download and upload speeds have been on a steady upward climb, aided by Gigabit LTE technologies we saw in the Galaxy S8. The carrier’s major improvement this year is in coverage. Just a few years ago, we had to disqualify T-Mobile in some rural areas because of an utter lack of 4G. Now, having built out its “extended range” 700MHz network, T-Mobile can actually duke it out on coverage with Verizon and AT&T in states including North Carolina, Georgia, and Utah. T-Mobile’s coverage is only going to get better, especially in the west. The company just bought a huge amount of 600MHz spectrum nationwide, which is very good for covering rural areas. Much of it is currently occupied by TV stations, which have to vacate it within the next three years, but T-Mobile has said it’ll start building out in available areas this year. Of course, you’ll need a new phone to get that even-better coverage—Galaxy S9, anyone?
VERIZON Verizon doesn’t put out as many press releases and social blasts as T-Mobile does, but it’s matching T-Mobile upgrade for upgrade. The carrier has confirmed, often quietly, that it’s installing all three of the Gigabit LTE technologies across its network, and our tests bear that out. We’re seeing better results on the (gigabit) Galaxy S8 than the (non-gigabit) S7, and we think the gap between those two devices will grow. Verizon has been building that speed on top of the nation’s most reliable network, which has the broadest existing LTE coverage. This doesn’t make a huge difference in highly populated cities any longer, especially where T-Mobile has installed building-penetrating 700MHz LTE. But out in Wyoming, Verizon clearly still has a rural advantage. The next stop for Verizon is 5G. The carrier is taking a detour into home internet by launching a pre-spec home 5G system later this year. That will give Verizon the option to sell home-and-mobile internet bundles that may make its network an even easier choice for subscribers. WHAT ABOUT OTHER BRANDS? We tested only the four major nationwide networks. There are smaller carriers that we didn’t test, as well as many “virtual” operators, or MVNOs, that rent and resell capacity from the big four networks. U.S. Cellular is the fifth-place provider in the U.S., with five million customers. We don’t evaluate it because its primarily rural coverage isn’t compatible with our metro-centered testing. Small regional providers also may offer great rates, such as C Spire in the Southeast, Cellcom in Wisconsin, Appalachian and Bluegrass in Kentucky, and Union and Viaero in Wyoming and Colorado. These tiny local companies run their own networks and usually roam on one of the nationwide providers outside their coverage area.
City Results ATLANTA: T-MOBILE This year’s test in Atlanta turned out to be a very close battle between Verizon, which won last year, and T-Mobile. T-Mobile pulled it out, primarily thanks to faster average download speeds, although we’d like to note that Verizon was more consistent and reliable. We’re talking about two very good networks here, and if we’d weighted our score differently, the win could have gone to Verizon. All four networks acquitted themselves well, actually, with peak speeds approaching 150Mbps and few really slow spots. Sprint’s lower score is partly due to the fact that at one test spot, in a parking lot right on the Emory campus, our Sprint phone dropped to 3G for the duration. That just shouldn’t happen in a major city in 2017. T-Mobile showed one spectacular test result, right on the Little Five Points bar strip, where we saw an average of 124Mbps down(!) and 21Mbps up. It’s safe to say that if you’re chronicling your late-night drunken escapades in Little Five Points, T-Mobile has you covered.
AUSTIN: AT&T Along with Indianapolis, Austin is one of AT&T’s first 5G Evolution (gigabit LTE) cities. And make no mistake: AT&T absolutely smokes it in Austin.
Along with our own tests to external servers, we did some tests within AT&T’s network. The results were even faster, with a maximum download speed of 221Mbps and an average of 44Mbps, but we didn’t see the kind of dramatic difference we did in Indianapolis. That may mean the Austin network is slightly more mature. Where AT&T wins, in this case, Verizon loses. But Verizon’s loss isn’t as dramatic as the average speed numbers make it out to be. Our consistency number is measured as the percentage of downloads over 5Mbps, and Verizon has the most consistent network across the city. While AT&T users will have the fastest connections by far, Verizon customers will still be able to plug along at decent, reliable speeds.
BALTIMORE: VERIZON Verizon showed the best overall speeds in Baltimore, a town full of surprises. Wireless carriers once used Baltimore as a test site, because it has a variety of terrains: hills, flat land, water, tall buildings, and low-slung residential areas. It can be a tough city to cover. Verizon managed speeds topping 100Mbps both at Patterson Park and by Lexington Market, but AT&T’s network was stronger and faster near the Johns Hopkins campus. Verizon took the crown as a whole by offering much better balanced upload speeds as well as fast downloads.
Sprint really struggled in Baltimore at multiple locations, with average download speeds under 10Mbps at three of our test sites. T-Mobile did well, but not as well as in some other Northeastern cities, mostly because it hit a slow spot in our Druid Hill Park test but also because it never achieved the spectacular peak speeds we were seeing from Verizon and AT&T.
BOSTON: AT&T Last yearâ€™s race in Boston was tight. This year, AT&T pulled ahead with the fastest and most consistent downloads in the city by a sizeable margin. Itâ€™s also worth noting that in our Suburban/Rural Northeast area, which includes our drives through Connecticut and Rhode Island, AT&T also triumphed. Sprint and Verizon both suffered a bit with consistency at our Boston test sites. Verizon had issues at the Back Bay train station and by the airport. Those are busy areas, which tells us that the problems probably result from network congestion.
Boston may be a metro area where AT&T’s recent loss in customers has been to its advantage. AT&T has dropped millions of subscribers in favor of T-Mobile and Verizon over the past few years. A less congested network is a more reliable network, and a shift of customers from AT&T to Verizon in the Boston area seems to have changed network conditions to AT&T’s advantage.
CHARLOTTE: AT&T AT&T has done well in the Carolinas for several years, and it maintains its lead in Charlotte. While we saw some variability citywide, AT&T managed to maintain very respectable download speeds of 50Mbps to 60Mbps through several of our tests, outpacing its competitors, although Verizon had slightly higher peak speeds. This wasn’t a good city for T-Mobile or Sprint. T-Mobile’s network was reliable and usable, but it couldn’t keep speeds high enough to compete against AT&T or Verizon. Sprint’s network guttered out at several locations and doesn’t come off as a reliable choice across Charlotte. CHICAGO: AT&T AT&T won Chicago by having the most consistent high-speed network citywide. Verizon offered higher average upload and download speeds, but AT&T edged it out in terms of the percentage of tests with downloads over 5Mbps. Reliability is as important an aspect of perceived speed as the maximum speed you get in a city, so AT&T’s slightly more reliable network tipped the balance. Although Chicago is one of AT&T’s upcoming 5G Evolution (gigabit LTE) cities, we didn’t
see the huge difference from its competitors we saw in Austin and Indianapolis, so the upgrades must not be in place yet. All of the carriers performed well in Chicago. Even Sprint, the slowest of the four, showed a more consistent experience than it did in other major cities, making it an acceptable choice. Although AT&T was consistent citywide, Verizon and T-Mobile both had hot spots where they showed spectacular speeds. In Verizonâ€™s case, it was right behind the Merchandise Mart, with 127Mbps average speeds. Motorola is based in the Merchandise Mart, so maybe its employees should yoke their new Z2 Force phones to Verizon. For T-Mobile, stellar speeds erupted at Union Station.
DALLAS: T-MOBILE Dallas has always been a strong spot for T-Mobile. The city was the home of MetroPCS, which T-Mobile bought a few years ago, and as a result T-Mobile has a deep bench of spectrum and strong coverage throughout the Dallas Metroplex.
Reliability is as important an aspect of perceived speed as the maximum speed you get in a city.
Verizon really gave T-Mobile a run for its money, though, as we’ve seen in many other cities. The constant back-and-forth dueling is what put them so close in our national results. T-Mobile primarily won in Dallas because of better upload speeds, which are important now that many people are uploading videos to social media. T-Mobile’s reliability is also now within one percent of Verizon’s and AT&T’s in the Dallas area. As we saw elsewhere, Sprint achieved very good peak speeds but was hit by consistency issues. Sprint lacks low-band spectrum, which fills the gaps between high-frequency hot spots. In Dallas, Sprint stalled out at South Beacon Street and Lindsley Avenue, and our phone dropped off the LTE network entirely on one of our downtown tests. Sprint needs to fill in these gaps.
DENVER: T-MOBILE With the fastest download and, especially, upload speeds, T-Mobile is the clear choice in Denver. The biggest difference we saw between the winner and the competition in Denver was on uploads. That’ll matter quite a lot when you have your GoPro live streaming through your phone on the ski run, when you’re trying to broadcast tasty videos of your pot edibles, or when you’re doing any other task that involves content creation and cheap Denver stereotypes. Digging a little deeper, Sprint fell back this year because of consistency issues. All the carriers hit soft spots, but a third of our test locations were tough for Sprint, which dragged down both its overall averages and its consistency score. We didn’t see spectacular speeds in Denver all around.
T-Mobile’s network stayed solid from Denver up through Fort Collins; its coverage has improved a lot in the past year or two. If you regularly go to Wyoming, though, you need Verizon. All the other carriers dropped to 3G or worse on our trip through Wyoming. We also hit a deer. DETROIT: VERIZON Detroit was almost a three-way tie between AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon. But Verizon just nabs it, according to our testing methodology. Verizon had by far the highest peak LTE download speeds and the best average upload speeds, although AT&T beat it on average download speeds. Verizon’s gigantic 150Mbps peak was a bit of a fluke in a city that, all around, was not one of our fastest. But the carrier didn’t hit any noticeable slow spots, while speeds on T-Mobile and Sprint varied sharply from test site to test site. HOUSTON: T-MOBILE Houston delivered fast speeds on all four major carriers, with everyone peaking over 100Mbps. It was also Sprint’s fastest city and one of a very few cities where Sprint had the fastest average download speeds. T-Mobile won by pairing fast download speeds with equally excellent upload speeds, for a network that’s enjoyable for both content creators and consumers. T-Mobile’s network was also more consistent than Sprint’s, offering fewer ups and downs as we traveled around the city.
AT&T also did well in Houston, and that carrier might be the best choice for people who travel more widely around Texas. While T-Mobile’s coverage in Houston was excellent, we got the occasional dead spot around smaller towns including Columbus and La Grange. AT&T maintained coverage a bit better between Austin and Houston. INDIANAPOLIS: AT&T Indianapolis is one of AT&T’s 5G Evolution markets, and we saw the carrier’s speeds rocket upward this year—enough to easily take the crown. But our official results tell only half the story in Indy. Along with our own tests, we ran a set of backup tests to servers that were often within their carriers’ networks. We didn’t use those download speeds in the official results, because we think that most of the data you’re downloading is from outside your carrier’s network. But those results show that AT&T’s maximum speed shoots up to 196Mbps and its average download speed rockets to 59Mbps. That’s the biggest difference between on-carrier and off-carrier connections we saw nationwide. What’s happening is that AT&T’s gigabit LTE network is mid-build. It’s built out the radio connections but may not have linked it up fully to the rest of the internet yet. As AT&T finishes its buildout in Indianapolis this year, expect speed and performance to grow by leaps and bounds. AT&T will be an even stronger choice in the city as time goes on.
Indianapolis is also one of T-Mobile’s weakest cities. T-Mobile has had historic problems here based on a lack of broad, deep spectrum lanes in Indiana and Ohio. Hopefully, it can close the gap over the next few years. KANSAS CITY: AT&T AND VERIZON (TIE) We saw some of our highest Sprint speeds nationwide in Kansas City, the carrier’s hometown. And yet AT&T and Verizon share the crown here—AT&T for spectacular download speeds and Verizon for consistency and low latency. Sprint’s problem was all about consistency. Throughout our Kansas City tests, we saw our Sprint devices shoot up to spectacular speeds, then plummet to very low speeds at a different location an hour later. While that doesn’t show up in our download averages, Sprint really took a hit in our measurement of the percentage of tests above 5Mbps. Building a uniform network has been a problem for Sprint, because the carrier’s spectrum is predominantly high-band and thus short-distance. The Galaxy S8’s HPUE (high performance user equipment) feature should have extended the reach of Sprint’s spectrum in Kansas City, but it doesn’t seem to have done quite enough. Let’s note that KC was one of the fastest cities we saw overall. All of the carriers are powerful choices here, and it’s one of the few Google Fiber cities. Kansas City is growing as a Midwestern tech hub, and it appears to have the infrastructure to suit.
LAS VEGAS: VERIZON When the going gets tough, Verizon keeps going. We’ve seen this phenomenon before in Fastest Mobile Networks: When we encounter a city where, for some reason, speeds are low all around, Verizon tends to do well. Such is the case in Las Vegas this year, where the average speeds are half what we saw in some other cities. T-Mobile, especially, guttered out across Vegas, although it picked up wins in the next two cities on this drive route, Salt Lake City and Denver. None of the carriers in Las Vegas had what we’d call strong, consistent showings. That’s in line with my experience on many trips to Vegas, where tall buildings on the Strip and downtown tend to create reflections and canyons that can bedevil wireless signal. Our driver is a Vegas local, though, and we got slow speeds in places including Warm Springs and Enterprise, where signal should be just fine. AT&T had a strong second-place showing, which is a leap forward for a carrier that we hadn’t considered to be a major player in the city for a while. As Sprint and T-Mobile have won Vegas in previous years, it’s clear that this is a competitive market where any carrier can win if they get lucky. LOS ANGELES: VERIZON Verizon repeated its dominance of Los Angeles with the fastest upload and download speeds, although T-Mobile really gave it a run for its money. AT&T’s recent network improvements paid off with high peak speeds, but that highspeed network hasn’t been laid out all around the LA metro area, as AT&T’s lower consistency score shows. Verizon offered the best overall experience across our 14 test locations. MIAMI: T-MOBILE T-Mobile crushed the competition in Miami. The carrier got a perfect score by dominating or tying every one of our assessment categories. No matter what aspect of your Miami experience you want to make wireless—uploads, downloads, Snapchat major key alerts—T-Mobile will serve you best across the metro area.
Verizon also did pretty well in Miami. Sprint suffered from the same inconsistency issues we saw in many other cities. While it’s doing well on peak speeds, its average speeds were just too variable from test spot to test spot for it to succeed this year. That’s not all bad news for Sprint subscribers. The company’s new “Magic Box” micro-cell units can help smooth out coverage, and if you’re having issues with Sprint speed, we suggest you get one. NEW ORLEANS: VERIZON New Orleans could have been Sprint’s big win this year. This should be Sprint’s first gigabit city, where it tried out its fastest LTE technologies during a demo in March. But Sprint suffered in our ratings because of its lopsided network. Although it had the highest peak and average download speeds in New Orleans, it had very low upload speeds, which will make it a more frustrating network for content creators and Snapchatters. Verizon, our winner in New Orleans, won because of a balanced network. Its fast download speeds were very consistent across our test locations, and it had the best average upload speeds of any carrier. AT&T came a close second, but Verizon takes the crown here.
NEW YORK CITY: VERIZON Verizon and T-Mobile are the best choices in New York City, as they have been for the past few years. Verizon has a near-perfect network in the five boroughs, with breathtaking speeds and relentless consistency across all of our test sites. It’s a carrier that New Yorkers can truly rely on.
While AT&T did very well in much of the rest of the country, New York City is the carrier’s weakest major market. AT&T has struggled in New York for years, and our tests showed surprisingly low upload speeds and less consistency than we expected. OKLAHOMA CITY: T-MOBILE T-Mobile’s LTE network stayed solid all the way from Kansas City to Oklahoma City and then remained rock steady down into Texas. In Oklahoma City and Moore, meanwhile, T-Mobile hit it out of the park, with upload and download speeds that simply scorched competitors—all this without its 700MHz “extended range” LTE. T-Mobile achieved just about 100Mbps in Midtown OKC, while AT&T hit 100Mbps or more by the 40/44 junction. Sprint, as we saw in several other cities, was handicapped by very inconsistent performance. In four out of our 12 test locations, Sprint showed very low speeds, while it hit peaks of nearly 100Mbps elsewhere. The carrier needs to get a handle on its coverage issues in the Oklahoma City area. PHILADELPHIA: T-MOBILE We didn’t see very fast speeds in Philadelphia all around. T-Mobile takes the crown for having a symmetrical, reliable network with a great balance of uploads and downloads across the city.
Fastest Mobile Networks isnâ€™t just about downloadsâ€”average download speeds are only 20 percent of the score. While Verizon had faster average downloads than T-Mobile, T-Mobile had more consistently reliable broadband upload and download speeds, as well as faster overall uploads. That makes for a better, broader LTE experience. PHOENIX: VERIZON Verizon took the crown in Phoenix with the fastest average download and upload speeds. We tested across the sprawling Phoenix metro area, including Chandler, Mesa, and Scottsdale, to make sure that we collected the best possible data on coverage and speeds. Both Sprint and T-Mobile showed some interesting results. Sprint had very good but inconsistent download speeds and very poor upload speeds. This is a choice that Sprint has made, preferring downloads over uploads in a big way. We agree that people download more than they upload, but we think Sprint has gone a bit overboard with the weighting. T-Mobile had very good upload and download speeds, but it got socked on consistency because of slow results at two of our 12 test points. Verizon delivered fast speeds at more places across the Phoenix area.
PORTLAND: T-MOBILE T-Mobile’s home is in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s by far the fastest carrier in both Portland and Seattle. For a Northeasterner like myself, it’s surprising to see a region where Verizon doesn’t do all that well. But T-Mobile has clearly poured network resources into Portland, giving it the fastest uploads and downloads in the city, as well as excellent coverage. One thing that jumps out is how much more consistent T-Mobile’s Portland network is at delivering broadband speeds than the other carriers. Using our measurement of the percentage of tests over 5Mbps, we see that T-Mobile just didn’t hit any weak spots around the city, while the other carriers each had a soft spot or two. That makes T-Mobile the best choice in the Portland area.
RALEIGH-DURHAM: AT&T It’s been true for a few years now that if you want great service in the Carolinas, you go with AT&T. The former Southern Bell(e) racked up wins in both the Triangle and Charlotte areas with download speeds noticeably faster than the competition.
T-Mobile has clearly poured network resources into Portland, giving it the fastest uploads and downloads in the city.
In the Raleigh-Durham area, we tested in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and even Apex. (Why Apex? One of our readers asked us to test there, and we do our best to accommodate.) Verizon scored some excellent peak speeds, but AT&T’s downloads were faster at more locations. We got especially spectacular speeds on both AT&T and Verizon in central Cary, at Walnut Street and Buck Jones Road. At that location, both carriers pushed 100Mbps down. I have family in the Raleigh-Durham area, and I know they’ve been hesitant about considering T-Mobile as a choice, especially considering the carrier had poor coverage in North Carolina as recently as two years ago. The good news is that T-Mobile’s coverage has really shaped up. Our T-Mobile device almost never dropped off the LTE network. ST. LOUIS: VERIZON Both of our Missouri test cities showed excellent performance. In St. Louis, Verizon took the lead with faster uploads and downloads than any of its competitors, although they all turned in very respectable speeds. If you travel a lot in the St. Louis area, you may also be interested in our results from our Missouri and Illinois drive corridors. Verizon did best on the Illinois side of the border, while Verizon and T-Mobile shared the honors in Missouri. If you’ve been concerned about T-Mobile’s coverage, think again. Our T-Mobile device didn’t drop LTE signal all along the I-55 and I-70 corridors.
SALT LAKE CITY: T-MOBILE It’s T-Mobile by a nose in Salt Lake City, and I’m going to go as far as to say it’s T-Mobile with a big asterisk. T-Mobile barely won over Verizon, according to our methodology, because of much faster uploads and, surprisingly, better reliability in the urban Salt Lake area. T-Mobile has also dramatically improved its coverage in recent years, and we had solid LTE signal all the way down the I-15 corridor, including in Provo. But Verizon showed higher download speeds and better coverage in severely rural areas, which don’t factor into our SLC city score. If you go to Wyoming, for instance, you need Verizon. Ultimately, we recommend T-Mobile for the content-creating, urbanized Silicon Slopes set churning out videos in Salt Lake’s new tech hubs, and Verizon for people going to the actual slopes. SAN DIEGO: AT&T AT&T commanded some absolutely slamming download speeds in San Diego this year, showing a dramatic improvement over last year. Seriously, AT&T’s average speeds more than doubled from previous San Diego tests, letting it pull ahead of Verizon and a somewhat congested T-Mobile network to nab the win. I suspect these speeds are part of AT&T’s 5G Evolution plan, which is otherwise known as gigabit LTE. That means that for the best AT&T performance in San Diego, you’re going to need a Samsung Galaxy S8, an HTC U11, or another rumored future phone, such as the Motorola Z2 Force, that can handle gigabit LTE. AT&T customers in the San Diego area should definitely switch phones before they think of switching carriers. Sprint was very weak in both San Diego and Tucson.
SAN FRANCISCO: AT&T Every year, we pick one city to go deep on, doing twice the number of test sites we normally hit. This year we decided to focus on the home of the U.S. tech industry—the San Francisco Bay Area. The Bay Area is a huge sprawl, but we tried to get to the cities of San Francisco and San Jose as well as key points in the East Bay and on the peninsula. The old Pacific Bell, San Francisco’s local phone company, AT&T did spectacularly well in our tests around the Bay Area. None of the carriers did very badly here—even Sprint had solid speeds. But AT&T distinguished itself on all of our measures. That being said, if you don’t have the best experience with AT&T in the Bay Area, try getting a new phone with a Qualcomm X16 modem, such as the Samsung Galaxy S8 or HTC U11. The terrific performance we saw, with peak speeds over 200Mbps, is probably in part thanks to new technologies in our Galaxy S8 test devices. Verizon was no slouch either, with an amazing 215Mbps peak speed at one point and consistent speeds around 173Mbps in south San Jose. The carriers are clearly pouring capacity into the nation’s tech center. T-Mobile and Sprint both suffered a little bit from lack of consistency. In T-Mobile’s case, we hit a soft spot in the Mission that weakened its score a bit. In Sprint’s case, the network’s choice to greatly privilege downloads over uploads hurt it.
SEATTLE: T-MOBILE In our tests in Seattle, Redmond, and Bellevue, the hometown hero did best. T-Mobile proved itself to be Seattle’s best carrier with a peak speed of just about 200Mbps and average upload and download speeds that were better than the competition’s. No carrier did badly in Seattle, and it was one of Sprint’s stronger markets. We were surprised to find that Sprint had faster and more consistent downloads than Verizon did, although we dinged Sprint for its slower upload speeds, which are a choice that the carrier has made (to focus on downloads) rather than a flaw in its network.
TAMPA: VERIZON Verizon absolutely destroyed its competition in our tests across Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater. The win isn’t even because Verizon was spectacularly fast—it’s that the other carriers were surprisingly slow. And it wasn’t just about one bad location, either; AT&T, for instance, was reliable and consistent but just slow across the whole metro area. Some of the issue may be which carrier has the best connectivity in the Tampa area beyond its own network. Testing entirely within the T-Mobile network, for instance, showed better results than going out to external servers on the internet. (People using the consumer Speedtest.net app often see results from those in-network servers.) But web users roam far and wide in the virtual world, and Verizon therefore offers the best experience for them.
TUCSON: AT&T Tucson wasn’t one of our fastest cities, but AT&T separates itself from a tight pack with a noticeable lead on download speeds. We saw 100Mbps maximums in the city, while some other places showed 200Mbps. But AT&T users won’t have a problem: It got an average of 34Mbps down with solid consistency across the city. Verizon came in second with equally solid reliability. Sprint had a tough time in Tucson. Its performance was so poor that we double-checked to make sure our test server selection wasn’t a problem; performance was just as bad to a different server. We can’t recommend Sprint in Tucson at this time. WASHINGTON, DC: T-MOBILE T-Mobile’s network blazes in the nation’s capital, with the highest upload and download speeds and the lowest latency of any carrier. That makes it by far the best choice for Washington area residents. Sprint, as we saw elsewhere, just got socked by the variability of its network. While Sprint’s maximum speeds are nothing to be ashamed of, it couldn’t keep those speeds up across our ten test sites. Our test sites at Courthouse in Arlington and just south of the Smithsonian especially suffered. A new technology called HPUE (high performance user equipment) in the Galaxy S8 is supposed to help smooth out those peaks and valleys, and we saw that in our initial Galaxy S8 review, but it didn’t bear out on the streets of DC. Verizon and AT&T both managed to occasionally reach some spectacular speeds. Verizon blew past the competition near American University with average speeds over 100Mbps. But T-Mobile takes the day across the metro area as a whole.
T-Mobile’s network blazes in the nation’s capital, with the highest upload and download speeds and the lowest latency.
RURAL/SUBURBAN NORTHEAST: AT&T Our drive through the Northeast took us down from Boston diagonally across Connecticut to New York, down the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey to Atlantic City, then through Amish Country and York, PA to Baltimore. In Virginia, we took a long amble off the interstates and along side roads down to North Carolina. (We consider Virginia part of our Northeastern journey because the Washington, DC metro area extends into it. Also, that lets us draw a line across the country that matches up with the bottom of Missouri.) AT&T had the best overall performance along this drive route, although no carrier was perfect, and they all hit dead zones. While AT&T and Verizon both did very well through New England, and Verizon was superior in the immediate New York metro area, AT&T was clearly faster through rural Virginia. There’s a big asterisk on that, though. As we drove down Route 20 from Charlottesville to Hampden-Sydney, for instance, both our AT&T and Verizon phones would drop to 3G or sometimes drop out entirely. Rural coverage still isn’t perfect. T-Mobile and Sprint coverage in most of the Northeast is much, much better than it used to be. They’re both basically reliable in the suburban Northeast, but they got hit pretty hard on that rural Virginia drive, with T-Mobile dropping out entirely for a while south of Charlottesville. AT&T is the most reliable choice there, as well as the fastest.
RURAL/SUBURBAN SOUTHEAST: AT&T Our drive through the Southeast took us from the Triangle to the Triad, down 85 to Charlotte and Atlanta with a stop in Greenville, down 75 to Orlando, over to Tampa, and then back across on FL-70 to West Palm Beach and Miami. As we saw in the Northeast, AT&T did the best on our Southeastern segment, in this case with the best upload and download speeds. Verizon, long renowned for excellent coverage, was a close second. But in my mind, the big news here is that T-Mobile is now a viable player in North Carolina, where it struggled with coverage for a while. T-Mobile was in the green all through our NC drive, but Sprint coverage dropped a few times north of Charlotte. Verizon may be a better choice than AT&T in Florida because of coverage. AT&Tâ€™s LTE network struggled a bit on our cross-Florida drive, with dropouts in the swampy middle of the state along FL-70. Verizon kept on truckinâ€™ with LTE the whole time.
RURAL/SUBURBAN NORTH CENTRAL: VERIZON This drive took us from Detroit down past Toledo, then on state highways through Ohio and Indiana to Indianapolis, up to Chicago, down to St. Louis on I-55, stopping in Springfield, across Missouri on I-70, and then down through Kansas on I-35, stopping in Emporia and Wichita. Verizon outpaced AT&T primarily because of the weight we give to uploads and reliability. On our whole trip, Verizon’s network dropped only once, briefly, in the middle of Missouri. AT&T didn’t do that much worse, but it hit weak spots on and off in Kansas. Sprint is based in Kansas City, and coverage varied sharply depending on which state we were in. In Illinois, Missouri, and eastern Kansas, it’s great, but the carrier really struggled in Indiana. Sprint’s score mostly got socked for having slow uploads, though. For those in this region, I’d like to throw in one more option out of left field: Google Fi. It combines Sprint, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular, a predominantly rural carrier we don’t test but which has very good coverage in rural Illinois, Wisconsin, Kansas, and Missouri. Combining the three less-expensive carriers will give you a better experience than running with just one of them.
RURAL/SUBURBAN SOUTH CENTRAL: AT&T AT&T’s traditional strength in Texas gave it a solid win in our South Central drive, which took us down I-35 from Oklahoma City to Dallas and Austin, and then across primarily on I-10 to Houston and New Orleans. We made extra stops in Purcell, OK, Temple, TX, and Lake Charles, LA. AT&T had the fastest download and upload speeds in Texas and Oklahoma, making it an easy pick. The biggest surprise here, meanwhile, was when Sprint did very well. 87Mbps and 113Mbps downloads in Temple? Yes, please. Sprint’s wobblier coverage on the Texas-Louisiana border prevented it from scoring better, though. RURAL/SUBURBAN NORTHWEST: VERIZON Our Northwest driving segment included the I-5 corridor from Seattle to San Francisco, I-15 through Utah, I-80 through Wyoming, and I-25 from Fort Collins to Denver. Verizon won by a landslide here because of its superior coverage. It’s the only nationwide carrier with a solid LTE network through both Utah and Wyoming. AT&T had surprising coverage drops in both Utah and southern Oregon.
T-Mobile also failed in Wyoming, but it was a pleasant surprise in Utah, where it rarely dropped. T-Mobile won most of our Northwest cities, and for those who spend a lot of time in western Washington or the more populated parts of Utah, it’s a very good choice. RURAL/SUBURBAN SOUTHWEST: T-MOBILE Our Southwest drive took us along the I-5 corridor in California, I-8 across to Tucson, and Route 93 up to Las Vegas. T-Mobile’s surprise win speaks to its dramatically improved rural coverage over the past few years. The carrier did especially well in southern California, with good speeds and few dropped connections. T-Mobile has also focused on building out popular corridors, so it’s very solid along the TucsonPhoenix corridor and between Las Vegas and Boulder City, Nevada. That said, if you’re going to be way out in the desert, note that Verizon had the most consistent network in extremely rural areas such as on I-8 west of the Sonoran Desert National Monument. AT&T had the highest download speeds on this route overall but dropped to 3G through almost all of our drive through northern Arizona, which really hurt its reliability score.
Verizon had the most consistent network in extremely rural areas such as on I-8 west of the Sonoran Desert National Monument.
REGIONAL AND NATIONAL WINNERS NATIONWIDE: VERIZON WIRELESS It’s Verizon, by a nose. The three leading carriers evenly split our 36 cities and rural areas this year, but when we averaged it all out nationwide, Verizon came out ahead. Verizon understands that it isn’t quite enough just to install fast LTE technologies. You have to have the nation’s most reliable 4G network as well, and that’s where the company came out ahead. That said, this was the tightest contest ever. T-Mobile has largely closed its coverage gap with Verizon within metro areas, making it an excellent lower-cost choice. And AT&T sprinted ahead this year, especially in the Southeast and Midwest. Sprint seems to have hit a speed bump, mostly in terms of consistency, but it’s also much more competitive than it was two years ago.
NORTHEAST: T-MOBILE T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T all won cities in the Northeast, and as you can see in the chart below, the decision between T-Mobile and Verizon was as close regionally as it was nationwide. Verizon showed some spectacular peak speeds, but lower latency and greater reliability (!) pulled it out for T-Mobile.
SOUTHEAST: T-MOBILE AND VERIZON (TIE) There’s always one result every year that’s a little weird, math-wise. In this region, AT&T takes the Carolinas, T-Mobile has Atlanta, and Florida belongs to Verizon. The way weighted averages work, T-Mobile’s lower latency outweighs Verizon’s other advantages in our Speed Score equation. That means this region’s results are a tie.
NORTH CENTRAL: VERIZON Verizon and AT&T split the wins in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri, with Verizon taking the regional crown thanks to a balance of uploads, downloads, and low latency. Give AT&T a few months, though, and its steadily improving Indianapolis network could change things. T-Mobile shows great promise in Chicago and St. Louis but still has issues in Indiana and Ohio.
SOUTH CENTRAL: AT&T AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon all notched wins in Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana, and even Sprint marked excellent speeds in Texas. AT&T won this region by a hair thanks to a reliable network with low latency, which the company has said is a priority.
NORTHWEST: T-MOBILE T-Mobile won four out of our five Northwestern cities, and its coverage has improved quite a lot in Washington, Oregon, and Utah over the past few years. The carrier’s one loss is in the San Francisco Bay Area, where AT&T has clearly put a lot of effort in and come out on top.
SOUTHWEST: VERIZON Verizon’s coverage advantage played out in the Southwest, where it achieved a better reliability score than its competitors. AT&T and T-Mobile also did well, but the Southwest was Sprint’s weakest region.
WHY YOU NEED A FASTER PHONE Annoyed by your phone’s data speeds? Your phone may be the problem. Driving around the country for Fastest Mobile Networks, we used the fastest phone in America, the Samsung Galaxy S8. It’s the first phone with the Qualcomm X16 modem, which brings together three key technologies—threecarrier aggregation, 256 QAM encoding, and 4x4 MIMO antennas—to offer what carriers call “gigabit LTE.” (It isn’t truly gigabit, but that’s the brand.) Using Ookla’s Speedtest Intelligence tools, we dug into a huge, crowdsourced data set to see how much a faster phone matters. It matters a lot: The Galaxy S8 has double the download speeds of the Apple iPhone 6 on AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Remember, this is data from the same day—the major variable is the phone the testers are using.
The cutting-edge Galaxy S8 won’t be alone in the gigabit sweepstakes for long: It will soon be joined by the HTC U11, Moto Z2 Force, and other rumored phones later this year, such as the OnePlus 5, the LG V30, and the Google Pixel 2. Meanwhile, it’s clear that if you want the fastest LTE connections, you shouldn’t buy an iPhone. Apple typically trails by a year or two when it comes to LTE technology, and you can see in our chart that the iPhone 7 is noticeably slower than the Samsung Galaxy S7 on every network, even though the Galaxy S7 came out earlier in the year. We expect that the same thing will happen with this year’s iPhones, because of Apple’s ongoing war with Qualcomm. Apple is now splitting its modem purchases between Qualcomm and Intel. Qualcomm has a gigabit LTE modem this year; Intel does not. So to make sure that iPhones have consistent speeds, the Qualcomm iPhones will probably be kneecapped down to the speed of the Intel devices. The difference isn’t as sharp on upload speeds, but it’s still noticeable. If you want the best network speeds, you have to get the fastest phone. For now, that’s one with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 platform and X16 modem, such as the Galaxy S8. It makes a real difference.
To make sure that iPhones have consistent speeds, the Qualcomm iPhones will probably be kneecapped.
TESTING METHODOLOGY For Fastest Mobile Networks 2017, we used custom field-test software designed by Ookla, the creator of Speedtest.net. The software was loaded onto sets of four Samsung Galaxy S8 phones. We chose the S8 because it was, at the time we tested, the only device able to access new “gigabit LTE” networks at full speed. Three sets of phones were driven around the country in rental cars: one down the east coast, one down the center of the country, and one down the west coast. The software runs tests every 90 seconds. We measured uploads and downloads to a neutral, non-carrier server as well as pings to the nearest server in Ookla’s network. Over the course of driving, we tested downloads from 160 different servers and pings to 407 different servers. We stopped at between 12 and 15 locations, for at least 15 minutes each, in each of 30 cities. We averaged the data in each location, then averaged the locations together for an overall city result. The aggregated data from traveling between the test locations counted into the overall averages as two more locations. As we are testing LTE networks, we did not average in speeds on non-LTE networks. If a phone dropped off an LTE network, it was treated as though the test failed.
Along with our 30 cities, we reported on suburban/rural areas, which are summaries of the drives between the metro areas. Our six regional scores are averages of the five cities in each region, plus the suburban/rural score. Our national score is an average of the 30 cities and six suburban/rural regions. We tested mostly during business hours, from May 1 through May 22, 2017. We visited different cities on different days. We ended up with about 124,000 data points, which we processed through a MySQL database and summarized on an Excel 2016 spreadsheet. THE PCMAG SPEED SCORE The PCMag Speed Score is a weighted average that looks at six components of the mobile data experience. We used the same speed score methodology as we did last year, for consistency. It takes into account downloads, uploads, latency, reliability, and consistency. Since most mobile Internet usage is web page downloads and small-screen video streaming, it’s just as important to have a consistent experience as a fast one. Smartphone users may not be able to see the difference between 20Mbps and 100Mbps, but they can definitely feel the difference between 2Mbps and 5Mbps. So we created a “threshold score” showing the percentage of downloads over 5Mbps and the percentage of uploads over 2Mbps. To create our reliability score, we counted the number of tests and divided by the number of non-zero LTE uploads and downloads. Stalled tests and areas without LTE coverage received reduced scores. Here’s how it all comes together: AVERAGE DOWNLOAD SPEED (20 PERCENT) DOWNLOADS OVER 5MBPS THRESHOLD (20 PERCENT) AVERAGE UPLOAD SPEED (10 PERCENT) UPLOADS OVER 2MBPS THRESHOLD (10 PERCENT) PING TIME (20 PERCENT) RELIABILITY (20 PERCENT)
CROWDSOURCING VS. DRIVE TESTING There are a lot of “fastest” awards. They’re all correct, according to their own testing and methodology, and they all have something interesting to say. In testing, the main division is between crowdsourcing and drive testing. Crowdsourcing, which is done by Mosaik/Sensorly, Nielsen, Ookla Speedtest, and OpenSignal, relies on users to run speed tests on their own devices. With a big enough crowd, you can get a good picture of a network. Crowdsourcing is always happening, so it’s up to the minute. And it uses a great range of devices, so you can tell the difference between them. We use Ookla’s crowdsourced data in our analysis showing how the Galaxy S8 is faster than earlier phones, for instance. But crowdsourced apps often can’t tell whether a test is indoors or outdoors, which make for very different results. They may not do a good job of finding dead zones, if their users don’t run tests in places which obviously have no signal. They may have bigger crowds with some carriers or in some cities. And they leave open the possibility that people using one carrier might be using better phones, in better weather, on a less congested day than people on another carrier. Drive testing is what we do, along with Root Metrics and P3. This kind of testing lets us compare carriers using the same device, in the same place, at the same time. In this way, we can eliminate variables and map out coverage on our route. It lets us make sure we have as much data as we want in each city, so we feel confident in our results. But drive testing takes enough work that it isn’t happening continuously in every city. It won’t show you the performance of phones you don’t drive with. And it can cover only the routes you drive along. Methodology-wise, we balance six different elements for our speed score. Other studies may focus on downloads, use a different measurement of latency, or (in Nielsen’s case) use a totally idiosyncratic attempt to measure the speeds coming into various mobile apps. We think our balance makes the most sense, but we also respect the different decisions others have made.
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EVERYTHING BY ROB MARVIN
akoto Koike is a cucumber farmer in Japan. He’s a former embedded systems designer who spent years working in the Japanese automobile industry, but in 2015 he returned home to help out on his parents’ farm. He soon realized that the manual task of sorting cucumbers by color, shape, size, and attributes such as “thorniness” was often trickier and more arduous than growing them. Inspired by the deep learning innovation of Google’s artificial intelligence (AI) software AlphaGo, he set out to automate the task.
Using the open-source TensorFlow machine learning (ML) library, he started inputting images of cucumbers.
Businesses are beginning to implement practical AI in all sorts of ways, but it’s safe to say that no one saw Koike’s cucumber-sorting solution coming. Koike had never worked with AI techniques before, but using the open-source TensorFlow machine learning (ML) library, he started inputting images of cucumbers. Thanks to computer vision algorithms for recognizing objects and deep learning to train TensorFlow on the nuances of cucumbers, Koike realized it could identify and sort the vegetables with a high level of accuracy. Then, by using nothing but TensorFlow and a cheap Raspberry Pi 3 computer, Koike built his automated sorting machine, which the farm still uses today.
Makoto Koike’s cucumber-sorting machine makes use of computer vision algorithms and deep learning to identify and sort the vegetables.
TensorFlow is one of the many open-source algorithms and tools revolutionizing what businesses and developers can solve using AI. The company expanded on its mission to “bring the benefits of AI to everyone” with the release of Google.ai at its Google I/O conference, bundling all its AI resources together into a unified platform. Google is also incorporating these techniques and application programming interfaces (APIs) into everything it does, baking ML into its products and fundamentally redefining how its software works in the process. PCMag visited the Googleplex and spoke to executives from G Suite, Google Cloud Platform (GCP), and the company’s Machine Learning Advanced Solution Lab (ML ASL) about how Google is rebuilding itself with AI. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE EVERYWHERE Let’s say one of your customers is having an issue. An agent from your company’s helpdesk department is in a live chat with the customer through a chat app that stores data on Google Cloud Platform. To help resolve the issue, the user needs to send the agent some sensitive personal data. Now let’s say that customer is your grandma. The customer service rep asks grandma for a few pieces of data, but instead, grandma sends way more information than she needs to when she uploads a picture of her social security card to the chat. Instead of Google archiving that personally identifiable information (PII), the picture shows up with the social security number and other PII automatically redacted. The agent never sees any information he doesn’t need, and none of that data goes into Google’s encrypted archive. During a demo of the DLP API technology at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., the company pulled back the curtain on how ML algorithms analyze text and images to make this happen.
Google pulled back the curtain on how ML algorithms analyze text and images to make this happen.
Rob Sadowski, trust and security marketing lead for Google Cloud, explained that the automatic redaction is powered by Google’s data loss prevention (DLP) API working under the surface to classify sensitive data. The algorithm does the same thing with data such as credit card numbers, and it can analyze patterns to detect when a number is fake. This is but one example of Google’s subtle strategy of weaving AI into its experiences and giving businesses and developers such as Koike the resources to do the same.
Google is far from the only tech giant that’s building a connective intelligence layer into its software. But along with Amazon and Microsoft, Google has arguably the most widespread breadth of cloud-based intelligence tools and services available. Breaking down the company’s products, you can find Google Assistant and various machine learning and computer vision APIs in use just about everywhere. Google Search uses ML algorithms in its RankBrain AI system to process and refine queries, re-ranking and aggregating data based on a host of changing factors to continually improve the quality of search results. Google Photos uses computer vision to stitch related photos together into memories and combine multiple shots of the same location into panoramas. Inbox gives users autogenerated Smart Replies to choose from and surfaces relevant emails by bundling similar categories together. The company’s new Google Allo chat app comes with Google Assistant built in. The list goes on.
All of these apps run on Google’s cloud infrastructure, and the company is even applying ML in its data centers to reduce power consumption by adjusting cooling pumps based on load and weather data. Sadowski said this also serves as the final layer of defense in Google’s security strategy, where the company uses machine intelligence and risk scoring within its security stack to determine whether a system is compromised using predictive analytics. “Google takes all these ML and AI models we’ve developed and tunes them for security,” Sadowski explained. “Security changes a lot more radically than most sectors of IT. Products that were the core of your security infrastructure three or four years ago, like firewalls and endpoint protection, are still important, but we want to provide defense in depth, at scale, and by default over a multi-tenant infrastructure with millions of daily active users. “It starts with the underlying data center hardware [such as the newly announced Titan chip],” Sadowski continued. “On top of that is application services and authentication with fully encrypted data and communication. On top of that is user identity. And the last layer of defense is how we operate with 24/7 monitoring, detection, and incident response. It’s how we solve for things like secure remote access with the identity aware proxy. It’s the programmatic DLP service finding and preventing data leaks and helping with data governance as well as security. We aim to make these capabilities easy, consumable, and get them working at scale.” A SMARTER G SUITE Machine learning is also embedded throughout Google’s G Suite productivity apps. Allan Livingston, director of product management for G Suite, broke down some of the ways AI is making G Suite smarter and more contextual without users even realizing it. “Think about how G Suite brings all these applications together in a naturally integrated way,” said Livingston. “You start your work in one of them and flow through as appropriate. You open a Gmail attachment in Drive, and that takes you into Docs; it’s really automatic.
“We’re trying to take thinking out of it for the user, and that also involves machine learning. We started with smart replies in Inbox, and we’ve had good success with Gmail, and that has led to the Explore feature in Docs, Sheets, and Slides,” he said. Rolled out last fall, Explore applies natural language processing (NLP) to the in-app productivity experience. In Docs, Explore gives you instant suggestions based on the content in your document and automatically recommends related topics and resources. In Slides, it generates design suggestions to cut down on presentation formatting. The most interesting use case, however, is in Sheets. Livingston explained how Explore uses ML to simplify data analysis and business intelligence (BI) insights. “A lot of users don’t know what something like a pivot table is or how to use it to visualize a sheet of data,” Livingston explained. “Let’s say you’re dealing with sales data for a customer, where each row is an item that has been sold. Explore lets you type in natural language queries like, ‘What’s the top item on Black Friday?’ and spits out a response like, ‘You sold 563 pairs of pants.’ We’re addressing data analysis in a way that saves time in making data-driven decisions, using machine learning to improve a common problem in a natural way.” According to Livingston, Google plans to expand this kind of ML-driven cloud search to third parties and to start building an ecosystem around it. The overarching idea is a common theme in practical AI: automating manual processes to free users up for more creative work. That idea is at the heart of most apps of ML apps: to automate repeatable business processes and everyday tasks, including cucumber sorting. “In business and with consumers, users have these natural interaction patterns. The shift to the cloud and to mobile productivity are really changing the way people work, and these applied machine-learning techniques are fundamental to it,” said Livingston. “Because of our strength in machine learning, because of our products serving as a base, because of all the data in our cloud, we’re in a unique position to apply that and scale infinitely.”
POWERING A MACHINE-LEARNING REVOLUTION The foundation of everything Google does around AI is rooted in its APIs, algorithms, and open-source tools. The company’s TensorFlow library is the most widely used ML tool on GitHub, spawning apps such as Koike’s cucumber sorter. The suite of APIs underlying Google Cloud — algorithms spanning computer vision, video intelligence, speech and NLP, prediction modeling, and large-scale ML through the Google Cloud Machine Learning Engine — is the technology powering every AI feature integrated into Google’s apps and services and now the Google.ai platform as well.
Francisco Uribe, product manager for Google Cloud’s AI/ML team, works at the heart of the engine that’s rewriting how Google works. Uribe oversees Google’s aforementioned ML ASL, a lab with an immersive program in which Google ML experts work directly with enterprises to implement AI solutions. By using Google’s APIs and the Cloud ML Engine, the lab works with businesses to train and deploy their own models into production.
The foundation of everything Google does around AI is rooted in its APIs, algorithms, and open-source tools.
Uribe has worked in the AI space for more than a decade. He founded BlackLocus, a data-driven startup that built an automated pricing engine for retailers, which was acquired by Home Depot in 2012. After that, he joined Google and worked for four years on the Search Ads team applying ML to improve the ad experience. In 2016, he moved into a research role running the ML ASL and acting as a mentor in Google’s Launchpad Accelerator. Uribe said he’s continually surprised by how businesses and developers are using Google’s tools. “We’ve seen use cases across the board — from healthcare and finance to retail and agriculture,” said Uribe. “We’re trying to help customers improve perception capabilities. Speech translation, image analysis, video APIs, natural language: they’re all part of democratizing access to machine and deep learning algorithms, which have finally entered applicability.” The ML ASL has worked with HSBC Bank plc, one of the largest banking and financial services organizations in the world, on ML solutions for anti-money laundering and predictive credit scoring. The ML ASL has also worked with the United Services Automobile Association (USAA), a Fortune 500 financial services group of companies, to train the organization’s engineers on ML techniques applied to specific insurance scenarios. eBay used Google’s tools to train its ShopBot digital assistant. When the ML ASL works with a company, Uribe explained the four pillars that make up the process. “You need a strong compute offering to deal with the extreme requirements of ML jobs, and GCP’s distributed fiber-optics backbone moves data from node to node very efficiently,” said Uribe. “We have the Cloud
‘We’ve seen use cases across the board — from healthcare and finance to retail and agriculture,’ said Uribe.
Machine Learning Engine to help customers train models. We help customers execute on data with access to Kaggle’s community of 800,000-plus active data scientists. Finally, you need the talent to be there, so on the research side of things, we have the Brain Residency Program to train engineers on complex ML curriculum. We see these as the building blocks to help customers build intelligent applications.” This all feeds into the open-source community and third-party ecosystem that Google is building around its AI technology. The company even announced a ML startup competition earlier this year, which awards up to $500,000 in investment to ML startups. Uribe talked about some of the innovative applications he’s already seen of Google’s technology and where other possibilities might lie. “Let’s say you’re a customer service analytics company. Think about a speech API to transcribe the content of calls and then sentiment analysi s to improve the quality of your customer service,” said Uribe. “Use the vision API to take a photo of a street sign in a foreign country and then the translation API to translate that content in real time through an app experience. It’s not just about increasing efficiency; it’s about creating new and unique user experiences.” Uribe sees tools such as TensorFlow as the great enabler for large-scale ML adoption in the marketplace. Not only have these technologies become core to what Google is and how it approaches product development, but also, Uribe believes, widely available ML technology will help optimize businesses, open new revenue streams, and invent a new class of intelligent apps. “Think of it like a new industrial revolution,” said Uribe. “We’re seeing these tools enable orders-of-magnitude increases in efficiency and experiences you’ve never seen before. It’s amazing to see how startups are applying it. Look at the cucumber farmer in Japan. He used TensorFlow to build a model for classifying and sorting cucumbers based on patterns, size, textures, etc., and then built specialized hardware to execute it. That level of democratization is incredible to see, and we’ve barely scratched the surface.”
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TIPS & HOW TOS
What to Do if Your Laptop Is Plugged In But Not Charging BY BRIAN WESTOVER
hen you plug in your laptop, you usually find yourself greeted with a cheerful chirp from your PC, a new glowing LED indicator light, and a display that perks up and beams a bit more brightly.
At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen. Sometimes, though, you connect the AC adapter—usually because the battery is nearly drained—and you get nothing. No chirp, no lights, and no brightened display. And no battery charging. What went wrong, and what can you do about it?
Between the wall outlet and your battery are several steps and parts that can all fail. Some are easy to fix yourself with a software tweak or a new battery, but other problems may require a visit to a repair shop or even a full-blown system replacement. Knowing which is which can save you hours of frustration and hundreds of dollars in repairs. By taking an inside-out approach, you can quickly narrow down where the problem originates and find the most economical solution. 1. Are You Plugged In?
It sounds silly, but you need to make sure the laptop is actually plugged in. No software tweak or hardware repair can make a disconnected laptop magically power on. So before you do anything else, ensure that the AC outlet and laptop plugs are firmly seated. Check the AC adapter brick and verify that any removable cords are fully inserted. Next, make sure that the battery is properly seated in its compartment, and that there is nothing wrong with either the battery or laptop contact points. Finally, find out whether the problem doesn’t lie with the laptop at all: Try plugging the power cord into a different outlet to see if you’ve got a short or a blown fuse. At this point, we’ve determined that it’s not just user error causing the problem. There is a real issue with powering the laptop; now it’s simply a matter of figuring out where the problem may be. That begins with eliminating where it isn’t. We’ll start with the most common and easy-to-address issues. 2. Lose the Battery
A simple way to check the integrity of the battery is to remove it entirely and try plugging in the laptop. If the laptop powers on properly, the problem is likely a bum battery.
No software tweak or hardware repair can make a disconnected laptop magically power on.
3. Make Sure You’re Using the Right USB-C Port
USB-C is a popular cross-platform standard for charging, peripherals, and data transfer. The new standard allows for thinner devices but might also cause some confusion. Some manufacturers have opted to make USB-C ports data-only—so those ports can’t be used to charge your device. For example, the new Huawei MateBook X has two USB-C ports: one that can be used for charging or data transfer and one that is designated only for data transfer or connecting to a dock. If you run into a non-charging issue, make sure you are connected to the correct USB-C port. 4. Breaks, Burnout, and Shorts
Feel along the length of the power cord, bending and flexing as you go, to check for kinks or breaks. Check the ends for broken connections, such as plugs pulling loose or spots that may have gotten chewed by a pet or caught in a vacuum cleaner. Inspect the AC brick. Is it discolored? Are any parts warped or expanded? Give it a sniff—if it smells like burnt plastic, that’s likely where the trouble lies. 5. Check the Connector
When you plug in the laptop’s power connector, the connection should be fairly solid. If it’s suddenly wobbly or loose, or if the receiving socket gives when it should stay firm, the power jack may have broken inside the chassis. Are there discolorations or any sort of burning smell? If there seems to be any damage to the power connector, repairs will be in order.
6. Beat the Heat
A non-charging battery can sometimes be caused by an overheating laptop. The system is shutting down to prevent overheating a battery and perhaps causing a fire, so the problem is actually two-fold. Also, as the temperature rises, the battery sensor may misfire, telling the system that the battery is either fully charged or missing completely, causing the charging problems. These problems become far more likely with older laptops, which donâ€™t have the quality of cooling technology used today, or when youâ€™re using the laptop on the couch or in bed with a blanket or pillow covering the cooling vents. Let the system cool down and take the time to make sure that the air vents are clean and unobstructed. GET OUT OF BED! It might be cozy, but if a blanket covers your laptopâ€™s cooling vents, the machine could overheat and shut itself down.
7. Swap Out the Cord and Battery
These are the cheapest and easiest-to-swap parts on the laptop. A replacement power cable can often be had for under $10 on Amazon, and replacement batteries can be picked up for under $100. Replacement cables are most easily found by searching under the model name of the laptop, while batteries often have their own model numbers. Look for a replacement that matches the voltage specifications of the equipment your laptop came with, and be aware that cheap replacement parts from third-party manufacturers may not have the quality of the originals.
At this point, we’ve eliminated the problems caused by kinked cords or environmental causes. If you still find yourself powerless, the problem lies within the computer itself, either a software issue or faulty hardware. Let’s start by looking at the settings and software. 8. Check Your Settings
Windows laptops: In the Control Panel, open up Power Options. Open the plan settings and visually check that all are properly set. Be on the lookout for incorrect settings for the battery, display, and sleep options. For example, your battery settings may cause trouble if you set the computer to shut down when the battery level drops too low or set the low battery level at too high a percentage. You can also assign actions including sleep and shutdown when your lid is closed or the power button is pressed. If these settings have been changed, it’s easy to suspect a power malfunction even though there’s no physical problem with the battery or charging cable. The easiest way to make sure that your settings aren’t causing problems is to restore the power profile to default settings. Mac laptops: In System Preferences, select the Energy Saver pane and review your preferences. Mac settings are adjusted with a slider, letting you select the amount of time the computer can sit idle until it goes to sleep. If the interval is too short, you might suspect battery issues when settings are the true culprit. And don’t forget to check these settings for both battery power and wall power. You may want to revert back to the default settings to see whether a change in settings is causing the problem.
9. Update Your Drivers
Windows laptops: Open the Device Manager. Under “Batteries,” you should see three items: one for the battery, another for the charger, and a third listed as “Microsoft ACPI Compliant Control Method Battery.” Open each item, which will bring up a Properties window. Under the “Driver” tab, you’ll see a button labeled “Update Driver.” Go through the driver update process for all three. Once the drivers are all up to date, reboot the laptop and plug it in again. If this doesn’t resolve the problem, uninstall “Microsoft ACPI Compliant Control Method Battery” completely and reboot.
Mac laptops: On a Mac, you’ll need to try resetting the System Management Controller (SMC). For laptops with removable batteries, this is as simple as shutting down power, removing the battery, disconnecting power, and pressing the power button for 5 seconds. Reinsert the battery, reconnect the power, and fire up the laptop.
For newer Macs with batteries sealed into the chassis, shut down the computer but leave the power adapter connected. With the power off, press and hold the power button while pressing the Shift-Control-Option keys on the left-hand side of the keyboard. Release the keys and power button simultaneously, then attempt to power on the laptop. 10. Call In Outside Assistance
If you haven’t already, this is probably a good time to contact tech support. Your particular make and model of laptop will likely have unique issues, and a seasoned tech-support operator will have seen all of them. He or she will likely walk you through many of the steps outlined above but will also be aware of software and hardware issues specific to your configuration, such as which hardware commonly fails. 11. Problems Inside
When all your options are exhausted—you’ve tried other power cables and batteries, you’ve checked and rechecked your settings, you’ve fixed any potential software problems—the problem is likely found inside the machine. Common culprits include a faulty motherboard, wonky logic boards, damaged charging circuits, and malfunctioning battery sensors. Like a sick person consulting a doctor, you need to see a specialist. Contact your manufacturer about what repair options are covered under your warranty or call up a local computer repair shop.
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Your make and model of laptop will likely have unique issues, and a seasoned tech-support operator will have seen all of them.
TIPS & HOW TOS
How to Sync Notifications Between Windows 10 and Your Phone BY LANCE WHITNEY
ouâ€™ve just set up an appointment in Windows 10 via the Cortana voice assistant. The only problem is that you may not be in front of your Windows 10 computer when the alert goes off telling you the appointment is due. No problem. You can set up the same notification so it also appears on your smartphone. The key here is Cortana. By installing Cortana on your smartphone, you can share reminders and other notifications between your phone and your Windows 10 device. And this process works on iPhones, Android phones, and Windows Phone handsets. Hereâ€™s how.
First, install the mobile Cortana app on your iOS or Android device if you haven’t already done so. Apple iPhone and iPad users can download Cortana from Apple’s App Store. Android users can download Cortana from the Google Play store. Cortana is built into Microsoft Windows Phone handsets, so there’s no need to download it separately. On your iPhone, enable Notifications for the Cortana app, which you’ll be asked to do when you install the app. If you didn’t do so during the installation, follow these steps. On your iOS device, tap on Settings > Notifications. Scroll down the list until you see Cortana. Tap on the entry for Cortana and then turn on the button to Allow Notifications. Open the Cortana app on your iPhone and sign in with your Microsoft account. On your Android device, tap on Settings > Notifications. Tap on the entry for Cortana and turn on the button to “Display notifications.”
Open Cortana and sign in with your Microsoft account. Grant Cortana access to your location and various media. Tap on the account icon in the upper-right corner and tap on the entry for Settings. At the Settings screen, tap on the option to “Sync notifications.” Turn on the buttons for all three settings— Missed call notifications, Low battery notifications, and App notifications sync.
Tap on “Allow” to the question “Allow notification access for Cortana?” Return to the previous screen and tap on the command “Choose which apps to sync.” You can leave all of the apps turned off, and the notifications will still work. But you may want to also turn on synchronization for certain apps, such as Calendar, Contacts, Email, and Photos.
Next, on your Windows 10 device, click in the Cortana search field at the bottom of the screen where it says “Ask me anything.” Click on the Settings icon (the one that looks like a gear). Scroll down the pane until you see the section called “Send notifications between devices.” Make sure that setting is turned on. Then click on the button that says “Edit sync settings.” Make sure the options to “Get notifications from this PC on my phone” and “Upload notifications from this PC to the cloud” are both turned on. Now type or speak your reminder to Cortana on your Windows 10 device. For example, you can say to Cortana: “Set up an appointment with Mary for 3 p.m. on Tuesday to discuss next week’s presentation.” When your notification comes due, you’ll see and hear it on your phone as well as on your Windows 10 device. As long as you have one or the other with you, you’ll be sure to get the virtual tap on the shoulder for your appointment.
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JOHN C. DVORAK
as anyone surprised that Google’s AlphaGo program, developed as part of its DeepMind operation, defeated the world’s best go player? IBM’s Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov, and Watson prevailed on Jeopardy! It’s time we stopped pitting computers against people; there’s no point.
Forget Man vs. Machine: It’s Time for Computer vs. Computer
It’s great that one computer can house the entire Library of Congress. But until an artificial intelligence system can synthesize an actual new idea from the knowledge contained in those books, these machines are still nothing more than grandiose, soulless adding machines. Now that doesn’t mean the game-playing machines can’t provide interesting entertainment, especially if you rethink playing the games and add some new twists. We already have computer programs that can play bridge, for example. Step it up by having them face off against bridge superfans Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. This twosome would love to take on this challenge and might even finance the whole thing. Bridge-playing computers win a lot of championships and would probably beat Gates and Buffett. Let’s find out. Computer versus man chess matches go back to the 1950s. It has improved the programs over time, but how about someone laying down a cool $1 million and having computers play against computers? Anyone who likes chess would love to see how new strategies might evolve.
Man versus machine is fun but futile and proves nothing. There have been computer versus computer showdowns, but not with big stakes; not enough to encourage new developments. How about machine versus machine in other arenas? If Watson is so smart, could it play the game of go against the Google machine? Iâ€™d love to see how that showdown goes. How about Watson versus Deep Blue? The games would be played at breakneck speed; thousands might be played in a few minutes and end up in all stalemates. Final matches between two fabulous chess-playing machines might run for months before a victor appeared. Then what would happen if you had to win two out of three? I think a lot of people would find this a lot more interesting than computers versus humans, over and over.
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Published on Mar 12, 2018