MediaTek unveils Helio P20, a ‘true’ octa-core SoC built on 16nm process

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MediaTek has added a new member to its “P” family of chipsets as Mobile World Congress 2016. The Helio P20 improves on its predecessor, the Helio P10, in virtually every category with a focus on energy efficiency.

The MediaTek Helio P20 is a true octa-core SoC that foregoes the popular big.LITTLE configuration in favor of eight ARM Cortex-A53 cores, each clocked at up to 2.3GHz. Graphics duties will be handled by ARM’s high-end Mali T880 GPU clocked at 900MHz, we’re told.

Other noteworthy additions include an integrated Cat. 6 LTE modem that supports 2×20 carrier aggregation at speeds of up to 300Mbps down / 50Mbps up and Dual-SIM plus Dual Standby support. The Helio P20 is also said to be the first SoC to support low-power double data rate random access memory (LPDDR4X) which cuts the voltage from 1.1V down to just 0.6V. It’ll also use the same Imagiq Image Signal processor (ISP) as MediaTek’s Helio X20.

The Helio P20’s enhancements are largely made possible by MediaTek’s move to a 16-nanometer FinFET+ manufacturing process (the Helio P10 was a 28-nanometer affair).

So what does all of this mean for the consumer? According to MediaTek, the Helio P20 offers 25 percent better power efficiency, is 20 percent faster than the Helio P10 in terms of CPU speed and provides 25 percent better graphics performance compared to the previous generation. A full list of specifications can be found on MediaTek’s website for those looking to dig a bit deeper.

MediaTek expects to ship its Helio P20 to manufacturers sometime in the second half of this year.

Amazon quietly increases free shipping minimum for those without Prime to $50

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Free two-day shipping is the main reason why millions of people are willing to shell out$99 annually for a subscription to Amazon Prime. What some may not know, however, is that many items sold on Amazon can be shipped for free without a Prime membership (albeit a bit slower) so long as you spend a certain amount.

For the longest time, that minimum order amount (on qualifying items) was $25 although in late 2013, Amazon raised it to $35. Now, Amazon has quietly bumped that minimum up to $49 as first noted by TechCrunch.

Interestingly enough, there’s sort of a way around it as order that include $25 of eligible books will ship for free.

Amazon continues to dominate the e-commerce sector in the US and has bolstered its Prime membership to include same-day delivery in certain cities, access to a wealth of streaming music, movies and TV shows, unlimited cloud photo storage, free Kindle eBooks and early access to select deals, just to name a few perks. Those investments have certainly paid off as Amazon’s Prime subscriber count grew by 51 percent worldwide last year.

The company’s latest move is little more than a subtle push to try and get more people to sign up for Prime (not that there is anything wrong with that). In addition to securing $99 up front, signing people up for Prime eliminates the minimum order threshold for free shipping which means members are likely to order more frequently and make impulse buys.

Samsung Portable SSD T3 1TB

Samsung’s ultra-compact T1 SSD made a strong impression around this time last year when it topped our performance charts as the quickest USB 3.0 storage device we’d ever tested.

Having been based on an mSATA version of the company’s SSD 850 Evo, the T1 shared similar performance to that TLC SSD, and although USB 3.0 doesn’t offer quite as much bandwidth as SATA 6Gb/s, Samsung touted sequential read and write speeds of 450MB/s, which at the time was more than twice that of the fastest thumb drive we’d handled.

Upon release the T1 series was $180 for the smallest 250GB model, $300 for the 500GB unit that we tested and $600 for the 1TB flagship. Now 13 months later the T1 pricing has been adjusted somewhat and the huge 1TB model can be had for just $360, 40% less than its debut price.

Having lowered its T1 series to a new price bracket, Samsung has made room for a newcomer — no, not the T2 series, but rather T3. The new Samsung Portable SSD T3 drives will be available in four capacities ranging from 250GB all the way up to 2TB.

The company tells us that the T3 features several significant upgrades based on the T1’s consumer feedback.

The key upgrade as far as we can tell is the change from USB 3.0 to USB 3.1, providing the T3 series with the easier to use and more convenient USB Type-C connection. That being said, let’s move on to discover all of said significant upgrades.

Samsung T3

Samsung has enjoyed a lot of success with its SSDs over the past few years and its current drives are as good as ever. The SSD 850 Pro is the world’s fastest 2.5″ SATA SSD, while the SSD 850 Evois arguably the best value going.

Both are based on Samsung’s proprietary 3D Vertical NAND (V-NAND) technology which overcomes cell-to-cell interference by stacking cell layers in 3D like manner. Stacking 32 cell layers of cells on top of one another allows for greater density and more performance without an increase in size, while overcoming the interference and manufacturing challenges which had previously limited progress.

Having already proved this technique with the SSD 850 range, Samsung released an external portable SSD known as the T1 in early 2015. The T1 was essentially an mSATA 850 Evo stuffed in a sleek enclosure with a SATA to USB 3.0 adapter card.

The 850 Evo 500GB boasts read and write speeds of 540 to 520MB/s over SATA 6Gb/s. Since USB 3.0 offers slightly less bandwidth, the T1 was limited to read and write throughputs of 450MB/s.

Now we have the T3, though from a performance point of view little appears to have changed. Samsung is still claiming the same sequential 450MB/s performance despite upgrading to the USB 3.1 spec. There’s good reason for this however as the T3 is based on the USB 3.1 Gen1 (5Gbps) spec rather than Gen2 (10Gbps).

As the T3 is still based on an mSATA SSD the dimensions are similar to the original model. The T3 measures just 74.0mm wide, 10.5mm thick and 58mm deep, or a fraction larger than the T1. The heaviest T1 model came in at just 30 grams while the T3 2TB model will tip the scales at 51 grams, and while that’s much heavier, it’s still extremely light.

Being compact and light, the T3 feels sleek but it also looks the part thanks to a mostly metal enclosure. The T1 features an all-plastic enclosure and didn’t look or feel particularly durable.

The T3’s metal case with shock-resistant internal frame increases the durability for tough environments. It can withstand up to 1500G of force and will survive a drop of up to two meters.

Included in the package is an 11cm USB 3.1 Type-C to Type-A cable that’s been custom designed for the T3, though there is nothing special about the cable besides its appearance. The cable is short because the T3 is designed to be used much like a thumb drive and thanks to its lightweight design it can hang from the cable safely while it’s plugged in.

If you want a longer wire, any USB 3.1 Type-C cable will do the trick. On that note it would have been great if Samsung also included a USB 3.1 Type-C to Type-C cable as well.

Samsung’s portable SSD works effortlessly with both Windows and Mac PCs using the exFAT file system, eliminating the hassle of having to reformat for every type of computer.

The T3 can connect with not just PCs but also Android mobile devices and large screens (Smart TVs). This means users can now send content to and from PCs, access content through Android mobile devices, and view multimedia on large screens, including TVs, with ease and reliability. The T3 also comes coupled with a brand-new complementary Samsung Portable SSD Android mobile app to make password changes and remaining capacity checks easy and convenient.

Additionally, those concerned with security will appreciate the T3’s support for AES 256-bit hardware encryption along with an optional password to access the drive. Samsung has included some basic software to set up the T3 for the first time and this lets you apply a password.

The MSRPs for the various T3 models are set at $130 for the smallest 250GB model, $220 for the 500GB unit, $430 for the 1TB model that we are testing, and $850 for the flagship 2TB drive. Samsung backs the series with a three-year warranty. Ideally, we would have appreciated an extended five-year warranty, particularly for the $850 2TB drive.

Valve’s latest utility determines your PC’s VR readiness, pinpoints bottlenecks

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You’ve made the decision to invest between $600 and $800 on a premium virtual reality platform but do you know if your computer is up to the task? It’s a concern that at least a few will fail to address and wonder why their new toy is riddled with lag.

Fittingly, Valve has released a new utility that takes the guesswork out of the equation and determines if your PC is capable of powering a premium VR setup like the HTC Vive. It’s called the SteamVR Performance Test and you can give it a try right now although you’ll need the Steam client to do so.

The description says the utility measures your system’s rendering power using a two-minute sequence from Valve’s Aperture Robot Repair VR demo. After collecting the necessary data, the utility will indicate if your machine is capable of powering virtual reality content at the target 90fps and how much “eye candy” you’ll be able to get away with.

Should your system fall short of the recommended threshold, the utility will let you know if it’s the CPU, GPU or a combination of both that’s the bottleneck.

If you’d rather not fool with the utility, note that HTC recommends an Intel Core i5-4590 / AMD FX 8350 equivalent processor or better, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 / AMD Radeon R9 290 or greater, at least 4GB of RAM, an HDMI 1.4 / DisplayPort 1.2 video output or newer, at least one USB 2.0 port and Windows SP1 or newer to get the best experience out of the Vive VR.

Oculus calls for nearly the exact same setup for its Rift with the exception of at least 8GB of RAM and two USB 3.0 ports.

Those in the market for a new computer to handle VR duties can save a few bucks by purchasing an Oculus Rift PC bundle (assuming of course that the Rift is your VR platform of choice). You may be able to save even more money by upgrading your existing system or building one from scratch but understandably, that’s not an option for everyone.

HTC Vive VR headset will be $799, ships in early April

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The photo above is showing the finalized consumer version of the Vive on display at MWC 2016. Scroll down below for a few more shots.

HTC’s Vive VR headset, considered by many to be the only serious competitor to theOculus Rift, now has a price and release date. If you were put off by the “high” price of the Oculus Rift, HTC won’t provide any solace.

The Taiwanese technology company revealed at Mobile World Congress that its Vive VR headset, built in collaboration with Valve, will retail for $799 – a full $200 more than the Facebook-owned competition is commanding. For that price, buyers will receive the headset itself, two wireless controllers with haptic feedback (one for each hand) and a pair of “Lighthouse” laser base stations for tracking purposes.

It’s worth mentioning that the Oculus Rift doesn’t include any motion-based controllers, instead shipping with a standard Xbox One controller (and two games: Eve: Valkyrie and Lucky’s Tale). Motion controllers for the Rift are slated to arrive later this year although pricing remains a mystery at this hour.

As UploadVR notes, the consumer version of the Vive is virtually (no pun intended) identical to what was shown at CES back in January. The only notable difference to the actual hardware is a more ergonomic head strap.

There’s also a new feature called Vive Phone Services that lets you place and receive calls and text messages without removing the headset and a front-facing camera to connect users to the “real world.” Other notables include an internal microphone and Bluetooth connectivity (presumably to use the aforementioned smartphone features).

Like the Rift, the Vive VR comes with a pair of games: Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives from Owlchemy Labs and Northway Games’ Contraption.

HTC recommends an Intel Core i5-4590 / AMD FX 8350 equivalent processor or better, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 / AMD Radeon R9 290 or greater, at least 4GB of RAM, an HDMI 1.4 / DisplayPort 1.2 video output or newer, at least one USB 2.0 port and Windows SP1 or newer to get the best experience out of the Vive VR.

HTC will begin accepting pre-orders on February 29 with plans to ship in early April.

The devices formerly known as smartphones

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Mobile World Congress in Barcelona has served as the location for major smartphone announcements for a long time, so it’s no surprise to see that happening again this year. Splashy introductions have been made by Samsung, LG, Lenovo and other usual suspects.

But there is an important twist for 2016. It stems from the transformation of smartphone-sized devices that has been going on for several years now. In essence, the question boils down to this: when is a smartphone no longer (or not primarily) a smart ”phone”?

For many younger people, arguably that’s been the case for quite some time. We know they essentially use their phones as mobile computing devices and very rarely use the traditional phone features. In fact, in a survey of over 1,000 US consumers done last fall by TECHnalysis Research, voice calling only represents 5.8% of the 18-24-year-old segment’s total smartphone usage time. Even with older consumers in the 45-54 age group, voice calling and texting together only account for just over ¼ of a typical user’s smartphone time. The rest is spent on more computing-device type activities, such as browsing the web, listening to music, gaming, reading email, social media, etc.

Alongside these consumer trends, we’ve seen tremendous changes in work habits. For example, in that same survey, over half of employed respondents said they used a personal phone for work tasks during a typical week, spending an average of 2.3 hours on those efforts. While a good portion of this is likely for email, there’s no question a large amount of time is spent doing work-related, computing-style tasks on our personal smartphones. Throw in the large number of employer-provided smartphones in active use where—theoretically, at least—most of the time spent is on work tasks, and the total hours of computing done on smartphones becomes enormous. Plus, this is just for the US, where PC penetration is quite high. In many developing regions, smartphones are essentially the only computing device many people own or have access to. As a result, smartphone-based computing on a global basis is now on a staggering scale.

Given this context, thinking of a smartphone as more of a traditional computing device than just a communications tool seems incredibly obvious. But for many traditional applications, there is that one thing — screen size.

Now, as someone who finds reading glasses to be an increasingly necessary accessory, I’ll admit I don’t have the razor sharp eyes of my youth. I also acknowledge that it never ceases to amaze me how much today’s young people can do on the 5-5.5”-sized screens the smartphone industry has coalesced around. Still, there is a limit that most people face when it comes to what they can achieve on these smaller screens, particularly when a fair amount of input is required.

That’s why I’m intrigued by HP’s new Elite X3. At first glance, the 6-inch Qualcomm Snapdragon 820-powered device looks to be just another smartphone—a Windows 10 Mobile-based one at that. But in conjunction with some of the hardware accessories the company specifically developed to be used alongside it, along with the capabilities of Windows 10 Mobile’s Continuum features, the X3 can morph into a full-on, big-screen computing device.

Now, cynics will argue we’ve seen this before. Anyone remember the Motorola Atrix? Or how about Microsoft’s own Lumia 950 from last fall? Both notable but ultimately failed efforts to develop a smartphone form factor computer. The difference with the X3, however, is the focus and detailed vision. On the Atrix and Lumia 950, the computing features were add-ons to an existing smartphone. The X3 seems to be positioned and designed primarily as a computer, with the smartphone capabilities essentially built in.

On the Atrix and Lumia 950, the computing features were add-ons to an existing smartphone. The HP X3 seems to be positioned and designed primarily as a computer, with the smartphone capabilities essentially built in.

Admittedly, that may sound like semantics and, of course, whether the final execution lives up to the promise remains to be seen. However, a quick glance at some of the details suggests HP has thought things through pretty well. First, the hardware accessories—particularly the clamshell form factor Mobile Extender, with its 12.5” HD screen, three USB Type-C, micro HDMI and audio ports—add a whole new level of connectivity and input options to the phone-based computing experience. You connect the X3 to the Mobile Extender via one of the USB Type-C ports—where you’ll get the added benefit of being able to power and recharge the X3 through the Mobile Extender’s built-in battery—but HP will enable also wireless connections, though that may come after the product launches.

On the software side, because it’s Windows 10 Mobile-based, the full Microsoft Office suite is built-in. As an ARM-based device, however, there is the potential for compatibility problems with existing Windows apps (other than newer universal Windows 10 apps, which can run natively on Windows 10 Mobile ARM devices, but those applications are still very limited in number). To avoid the Windows RT-like incompatibility stigma, HP is working to provide a virtualization-based solution that will allow traditional x86-based apps to run on the X3—a huge boon for most potential users.

Even with all these efforts, it’s not clear to me a device like the X3 will become most people’s only, or even primary, computing device. Nevertheless, in a world where people are looking for more flexible computing options, and are accustomed to working across multiple devices, the X3 concept seems to be well timed.

Mobile World Congress also saw the debut of some smartphone form factor computing devices from Panasonic. The company’s new ToughPad FZ-F1 and FZ-N1 (Windows 10 IOT Mobile Enterprise and Android-based, respectively) are ruggedized, have a 4.7” screen and are Qualcomm Snapdragon 801-equipped handheld computers with integrated barcode scanners. At first glance they look like ruggedized smartphones with a large protrusion (for the barcode reader), but interestingly the company will actually be selling a version that supports WiFi only (and can do voice via VOIP), in addition to an LTE-equipped option. Though clearly not designed to be a general purpose computing device, like the HP X3, these Panasonic FZ devices exemplify how hardware companies are evolving smartphone form factors to meet unique mobile computing needs.

To be sure, the “traditional” smartphone will continue to be the dominant opportunity for these 5” screen-based devices for some time. But as the category matures and dramatic new technology innovations for them continue to slow, it’s clear we’re entering an era where smartphones, as we know them now, will likely cease to be.

Google is closing its online comparison shopping product just one year in

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Google is getting out of the online comparison shopping market. In a recent e-mail to partners obtained by Search Engine Land, the search giant said it would begin winding down Google Compare this month before pulling the plug entirely on March 23.

Google Compare for Auto Insurance launched in early March 2015 as an auto insurance aggregator designed to help consumers make a more informed decision when shopping providers. If a shopper chooses an insurance provider using the service, Google gets a referral bonus for generating the lead.

The service expanded to include other financial products such as travel insurance, credit cards and even home mortgages which featured partners such as Lending Tree and Zillow.

Google said in its e-mail to partners that the service hasn’t been as successful as they’d hoped. After a lot of careful consideration, Google has instead decided to focus more intently on its AdWords business and future innovations that it hopes will better serve customers and provide the best return on investment for financial services partners.

A Google spokesperson confirmed the e-mail’s authenticity with the publication, adding that revenue from the service was minimal. One of the likely reasons for its limited success is due to the fact that services are not offered in all states.

It’s worth noting that Google is closing the entire operation, not just its US branch. Google has offered a similar service in the UK since 2012.

Activision Blizzard completes $5.9 billion acquisition of Candy Crush developer King

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Activision Blizzard announced intentions to purchase Candy Crush maker King Digital Entertainment back in November for a staggering $5.9 billion. On Tuesday, the two sides officially completed the acquisition.

Bobby Kotick, Chief Executive Officer at Activision Blizzard, said in a press release that they now reach over 500 million users across almost every country, making them the largest game network in the world. Kotick added that they see great opportunities to create new ways for audiences to experience their favorite franchises across mobile devices, consoles and on the PC.

True enough, Activision Blizzard’s portfolio now includes two of the top five grossing mobile games in the US, the world’s most successful console game franchise and the world’s most successful PC game franchise.

King Entertainment CEO Riccardo Zacconi said this team is thrilled to now be a part of Activision Blizzard and can’t wait to start working together. The executive thanked everyone at King for their hard work since the company was founded 13 years ago and said they’re excited about what the future holds.

Activision Blizzard, best known for its Call of Duty, Diablo, Starcraft and World of Warcraft franchises, paid $18 in cash for each outstanding share of King. The figure represents a 26 percent premium on the company’s market capitalization of $4.7 billion which no doubt put smiles on the faces of investors.

Looking ahead, King will operate as an independent unit of Activision Blizzard. The company will continue to be led by the aforementioned Zacconi, Chief Creative Officer Sebastian Knutsson and Chief Operating Officer Stephane Kurgan, we’re told.

Activision Blizzard’s stock is down just over two percent on the day.

Amazon quietly launches its own clothing brands

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Amazon has never hesitated to compete with traditional brick-and-mortar outfits (no pun intended) and its latest endeavor is certainly no exception. The e-commerce giant has quietly launched its own in-house fashion lines comprised of more than 1,800 individual fashion products across seven different brand names.

According to WWD, KeyBanc Capital analyst Ed Yruma disclosed the launch in a recent note to investors. Amazon’s “house” brands include Franklin & Freeman, Franklin Tailored, James & Erin, Lark & Ro, North Eleven, Scout + Ro and Society New York. The brands sell a range of products including men’s dress shoes, suiting and accessories and a variety of women’s clothing.

The majority of products are said to be in the women’s dress and handbags line, Society New York, which makes up 911 of the roughly 1,800 SKUs. Men’s accessories line Franklin Tailored features around 250 unique SKUs, we’re told.

Those in the fashion industry aren’t entirely surprised by the move. WWD reports that in recent weeks, the e-commerce powerhouse has posted job listings looking for marketing and senior brand managers, a head of marketing, a senior sourcing manager and a senior merchandiser to staff its private label unit.

Pricing on some of the private label brand products indicates Amazon is content to tackle the cheaper end of the price spectrum. While that approach may not bring in the most profit per sale, it’s likely that Amazon generate more sales overall to make up for the difference.

Build your own computer case with the Aerocool Dream Box

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Selecting the perfect PC case can often seem like an exercise in futility. While there’s no shortages of options to choose from, finding one that appeals to your taste, accommodates your hardware and physically fits where you want to use it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Worse yet, all of that hard work may go out the window if you move, switch to a watercooling setup or change form factors.

If you’ve ever found yourself in this situation (and you like to build things), the Dream Box from Aerocool may be worth a look.

The Dream Box is a DIY case in the truest form. The starter kit comes with 188 components – an assortment of joints, pipes, brackets, metal beams, an I/O port, PSU bracket and more – that allow you to build a chassis that’s limited only by your imagination.

In fact, you don’t even have to build a computer case as Aerocool suggests all sorts of things such as coat hangers, toys, a table, lamps and more. Think of it as a grown-up version of an Erector Set.

While the kit offers a ton of flexibility, it notably doesn’t include any sort of panels. If you’ve got young kids or curious pets, this could certainly pose a problem. I imagine it wouldn’t be too difficult to carve up some custom panels but of course, that requires extra time, money and effort.

The Aerocool Dream Box retails for $150.