Don't tell your iObsessed iBuddies but the iPad Air 2 is a bit of an iBore

Subject: General Tech | October 30, 2014 - 01:01 PM |
Tagged: iPad Air 2, apple

There were long lineups of people desperate to get their hands on the new iPad Air 2, regardless of the fact that the internals cost a mere $1 more than the initial model.  To be fair that is not the best way to judge the quality of the upgrade, that should rely more on the screen quality ... which is exactly the same in all respects except for a new anti-reflective coating.  Apple is also reducing their markup, from 45-61% down to a paltry 45-57% for this generation so at least that $1.00 extra in materials will not raise your purchase price overly.  The internals such as the TSMC made A8X and camera match the iPhone 6 to a large extent making it a more powerful phablet than the original, so don't disparage it too much.  You can read more on The Register if you are into fruit.

ipadair2_exploded.jpg

"New iPad Air 2 components cost Apple just one dollar more than the previous model, according to the teardown bods at IHS."

Here is some more Tech News from around the web:

Tech Talk

Assassin's Creed Unity Has NVIDIA-exclusive Effects via GameWorks

Subject: General Tech, Graphics Cards | October 29, 2014 - 06:12 PM |
Tagged: ubisoft, assassin's creed

Ubisoft has integrated GameWorks into Assassin's Creed Unity, or at least parts of it. The main feature to be included is NVIDIA's Horizon Based Ambient Occlusion Plus (HBAO+), which is their implementation of Ambient Occlusion. This effect darkens areas that would otherwise be incorrectly lit with our current limitations of Global Illumination. Basically, it analyzes the scene's geometry to subtract some of the influence of "ambient light" in places where it is an unrealistic approximation (particularly in small crevices). This is especially useful for overcast scenes, where direct sunlight does not overwhelm the contribution of scatters and bounces.

The other features to be included are Temporal Anti-alising (TXAA), Percentage-Closer Soft Shadows (PCSS), and GeometryWorks Advanced Tessellation. TXAA and PCSS were both included in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, alongside the previously mentioned HBAO+, so it makes sense that Ubisoft continues to use what worked for them. GeometryWorks is a different story. NVIDIA seems to claim that it is like DirectX 11 tessellation, but is better suited for use alongside HBAO+ and PCSS.

unity2.jpg

Assassin's Creed Unity will be available on November 11th.

Source: NVIDIA

Skyrim on Frostbite ... no not the engine

Subject: General Tech | October 29, 2014 - 01:45 PM |
Tagged: gaming, skyrim, frostfall

Last week RPS engaged in a bit of a theme, reviewing various survival games which is a genre which has really taken off this year.  Perhaps the most interesting was this article describing life with mods that make Skyrim into a much colder place to live, with frostbite becoming a serious concern as well as weather effects which are far more than just eye candy.  They also chose a mod which disables fast travel and removes dragons and the Dragonborn, instead playing a random outlaw out for an adventure.  All told this makes for a very different game than the vanilla and for those really looking for a new experience there is a comprehensive list of survival mods in this post, check out the comments below as well if you want to start counting your calories.

If you prefer survival of the fittest in a multiplayer game, then drop the single player mods and check out what the Fragging Frogs are up to this week.

6_youaredrunk.jpg

Drinking also has an effect.

"But more importantly, Meeko kept me warm in Skyrim’s deadly mountain passes. One of the mods I have installed is Frostfall, which gives the player a few extra things to worry about. Exposure can leave you freezing to death, while being wet means you succumb to the cold even faster. You have to keep yourself warm at fires and fill up on hot soups to keep your ‘exposure meter’ from dropping too low. Once, I tried to swim across a small, icy river and before I could get a fire going on the opposite shore I passed out from hypothermia. I woke up in a familiar inn, penniless, frostbitten and with this note in my pocket."

Here is some more Tech News from around the web:

Gaming

Surface Server, WinARM, WARM? What shall we call it

Subject: General Tech | October 29, 2014 - 12:22 PM |
Tagged: arm, microsoft, windows server

The Register does not specify which version this was, likely a recent but highly modified version, but Microsoft has demonstrated their Server OS running on ARM hardware.  This will give them another inroad to low cost server builds which don't necessarily have Intel or AMD inside, as well as hedging their bets against Linux.  Linux is already happily running on just about any hardware you could want, or will be soon and Microsoft is likely worried about losing share to the open source OS.  It will be interesting to see what Microsoft can offer the price conscious shopper to convince them to spend the money on an OS license when Linux is free.  The days when the older generations of techs who have grown up with large UNIX servers and through Microsoft replacing it are numbered and they have always been one of the obstacles for the growth of upstart young Linux.  The Register also points to the possibility of it being an in house solution to keep the costs of maintaining Microsoft's Cloud applications.

7217.Windows-Azure-logo-v_6556EF52.png

"That's not a stunning feat: having developed Windows RT – a version of Windows 8 running on ARM chippery – Microsoft clearly has the know-how to get the job done. And it's not an indication that Microsoft intends to make Windows Server on ARM a product. It's just a test."

Here is some more Tech News from around the web:

Tech Talk

Source: The Register

GoG Releases LucasArts Classics. More on the Way?

Subject: General Tech | October 28, 2014 - 06:10 PM |
Tagged: pc gaming, disney, lucasfilm

Lucasfilm games (think LucasArts) and Disney Interactive have recently been re-introducing their back catalog to the PC. Earlier this month, Disney unleashed its wrath upon Steam, including Epic Mickey 2, which was not available on the PC outside of a limited, Eastern Europe release. Today, they licensed (different) titles to GOG.com: three Star Wars titles and three point-and-click adventures.

lucasarts-tiefighter.jpg

As for the Star Wars titles? Two of them are X-Wing Special Edition and TIE Fighter Special Edition. Both titles include their 1994 and 1998 releases, as well as any applicable expansions. They, along with Sam & Max Hit the Road, have never been sold through digital distribution platforms, prior to today.

Honestly, I never had a chance to play X-Wing and TIE Fighter. I liked space combat games, but I pretty much just played Privateer 1 and 2 as well as some console games, like Star Fox and Rogue Squadron. I was a kid. I played a handful of games to death. I keep hearing that X-Wing and TIE Fighter were, supposedly, the best of the genre. I have no experience with them, though.

These titles are currently the top six best sellers on the service, pulling ahead of The Witcher 3 pre-order as I wrote this post. The press release claims that more titles are on the way "in the coming months".

Source: GOG

The Alienware 13 comes with an optional Graphics Amplifier

Subject: General Tech | October 28, 2014 - 03:42 PM |
Tagged: alienware, Alienware 13, graphics amplifier, gaming laptop

The Alienware 13 is a gaming laptop which comes with a very interesting optional product, the so called Graphics Amplifier which is an external enclosure for a desktop GPU.  Finally the product which we have been waiting for has arrived, though only for a specific system.  The box will cost you $300 but will allow you to connect a GPU to your laptop with a single cord.  It does not ship with a GPU but there is a 460W PSU inside.  The GPU can be at most a double slot card, larger ones will not fit and it can have a maximum power draw of 375W which is not really an issue as that limit come from the PCIe interface.  The single cord you can see coming out of the back of the enclosure in this picture from Gizmodo provides a combined PCIe and USB connection to the laptop and when connected will disable the laptops internal GPU and allow the external desktop GPU to power the system. 

gntiejiarspy2nch7uxb.jpg

You cannot hotswap your GPU, you will need to reboot your system to switch between the external GPU and your internal GPU and SLI an option.  You do get to choose between your integral display or an external one connected via HDMI or Mini DisplayPort; the most expensive model of Alienware 13 does ship with a 2560x1440 touchscreen but it is still only 13" in size. 

a131.JPG

The internals are quite nice with a Haswell Core i5 4210U, a choice of either 8 or 16GB of DDR3-1600, a GTX 860M and either a large HDD or a 256GB M.2 SSD.  That is enough power to keep this laptop from lagging behind in performance for the next few years and with the external GPU you could feasibly upgrade your graphics for a few generations which will keep you in the game without needing a whole new system.

a132.JPG

From the tests that Gizmodo performed the external GPU functions perfectly when it is enabled which is great news for those of us who have been hoping that PCIe would eventually bring us a product such as this one.  The proprietary nature should not be too much of a concern, if Dell has managed to pull it off there is no reason why other companies would not be able to make a version which could work with other laptops which have the proper ports.  This certainly changes the biggest issue that gaming laptops have faced; now you can upgrade the laptop through several generations instead of needing to purchase a completely new system every other generation or so.

Source: Dell

Get your Win7 machines while you still can

Subject: General Tech | October 28, 2014 - 01:46 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, win7, inevitable

It is official, at the end of this month consumers will no longer be able to get their hands on a machine with Windows 7 installed, unless they luck into a machine which has been sitting on the shelves for a while.  If you buy through a corporate account you will still be able to order a machine with Win7 but that will be the only way to get your hands on the OS which is already almost impossible to find.  That puts shoppers in a bit of a bind as Win10 will not arrive for a while yet which leaves Win 8.1 as your only Microsoft based OS.  Of course there is always Linux, now that many games and distribution platforms such as Steam support the free OS it is a viable choice for both productivity and entertainment.  You can get more details at Slashdot or vent your spleen in the comments section.

images.jpg

"This Friday is Halloween, but if you try to buy a PC with Windows 7 pre-loaded after that, you're going to get a rock instead of a treat. Microsoft will stop selling Windows 7 licenses to OEMs after this Friday and you will only be able to buy a machine with Windows 8.1. The good news is that business/enterprise customers will still be able to order PCs 'downgraded' to Windows 7 Professional."

Here is some more Tech News from around the web:

Tech Talk

Source: Slashdot

Sony PS4 and Microsoft Xbox One Already Hitting a Performance Wall

Subject: General Tech, Graphics Cards | October 27, 2014 - 04:50 PM |
Tagged: xbox one, sony, ps4, playstation 4, microsoft, amd

A couple of weeks back a developer on Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Unity was quoted that the team had decided to run both the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 variants of the game at 1600x900 resolution "to avoid all the debates and stuff." Of course, the Internet exploded in a collection of theories about why that would be the case: were they paid off by Microsoft?

For those of us that focus more on the world of PC gaming, however, the following week an email into the Giantbomb.com weekly podcast from an anonymous (but seemingly reliable) developer on the Unity team raised even more interesting material. In this email, despite addressing other issues on the value of pixel count and the stunning visuals of the game, the developer asserted that we may have already peaked on the graphical compute capability of these two new gaming consoles. Here is a portion of the information:

The PS4 couldn’t do 1080p 30fps for our game, whatever people, or Sony and Microsoft say. ...With all the concessions from Microsoft, backing out of CPU reservations not once, but twice, you’re looking at about a 1-2 FPS difference between the two consoles.

What's hard is not getting the game to render but getting everything else in the game at the same level of performance we designed from the start for the graphics. By the amount of content and NPCs in the game, from someone who witnessed a lot of optimizations for games from Ubisoft in the past, this is crazily optimized for such a young generation of consoles. This is really about to define the next-generation unlike any other game beforehand.

We are bound from the CPU because of AI. Around 50% of the CPU is used for the pre-packaged rendering parts..

unity1.jpg

So, if we take this anonymous developers information as true, and this whole story is based on that assumption, then have learned some interesting things.

  1. The PS4, the more graphically powerful of the two very similarly designed consoles, was not able to maintain a 30 FPS target when rendering at 1920x1080 resolution with Assassin's Creed Unity.
     
  2. The Xbox One (after giving developers access to more compute cycles previously reserved to Kinect) is within a 1-2 FPS mark of the PS4.
     
  3. The Ubisoft team see Unity as being "crazily optimized" for the architecture and consoles even as we just now approach the 1 year anniversary of their release.
     
  4. Half of the CPU compute time is being used to help the rendering engine by unpacking pre-baked lighting models for the global illumination implementation and thus the game is being limited by the 50% remaining performance power the AI, etc.

It would appear that just as many in the media declared when the specifications for the new consoles were announced, the hardware inside the Playstation 4 and Xbox One undershoots the needs of game developers to truly build "next-generation" games. If, as this developer states, we are less than a year into the life cycle of hardware that was planned for an 8-10 year window and we have reached performance limits, that's a bad sign for game developers that really want to create exciting gaming worlds. Keep in mind that this time around the hardware isn't custom built cores or using a Cell architecture - we are talking about very basic x86 cores and traditional GPU hardware that ALL software developers are intimately familiar with. It does not surprise me one bit that we have seen more advanced development teams hit peak performance.

unity2.jpg

If the PS4, the slightly more powerful console of the pair, is unable to render reliably at 1080p with a 30 FPS target, then unless the Ubisoft team are completely off the rocker in terms of development capability, the advancement of gaming on consoles would appear to be somewhat limited. Remember the specifications for these two consoles:

  PlayStation 4 Xbox One
Processor 8-core Jaguar APU 8-core Jaguar APU
Motherboard Custom Custom
Memory 8GB GDDR5 8GB DDR3
Graphics Card 1152 Stream Unit APU 768 Stream Unit APU
Peak Compute 1,840 GFLOPS 1,310 GFLOPS

The custom built parts from AMD both feature an 8-core Jaguar x86 architecture and either 768 or 1152 stream processors. The Jaguar CPU cores aren't high performance parts: single-threaded performance of Jaguar is less than the Intel Silvermont/Bay Trail designs by as much as 25%. Bay Trail is powering lots of super low cost tablets today and even the $179 ECS LIVA palm-sized mini-PC we reviewed this week. And the 1152/768 stream processors in the GPU portion of the AMD APU provide some punch, but a Radeon HD 7790 (now called the R7 260X), released in March of 2013, provides more performance than the PS4 and the Radeon R7 250X is faster than what resides in the Xbox One.

xboxonegpu.jpg

If you were to ask me today what kind of performance would be required from AMD's current GPU lineup for a steady 1080p gaming experience on the PC, I would probably tell you the R9 280, a card you can buy today for around $180. From NVIDIA, I would likely pick a GTX 760 (around $200).

Also note that if the developer is using 50% of the CPU resources for rendering computation and the remaining 50% isn't able to hold up its duties on AI, etc., we likely have hit performance walls on the x86 cores as well.

Even if this developer quote is 100% correct that doesn't mean that the current generation of consoles is completely doomed. Microsoft has already stated that DirectX 12, focused on performance efficiency of current generation hardware, will be coming to the Xbox One and that could mean additional performance gains for developers. The PS4 will likely have access to OpenGL Next that is due in the future. And of course, it's also possible that this developer is just wrong and there is plenty of headroom left in the hardware for games to take advantage of.

unity3.jpg

But honestly, based on my experience with these GPU and CPU cores, I don't think that's the case. If you look at screenshots of Assassin's Creed Unity and then look at the minimum and recommended specifications for the game on the PC, there is huge, enormous discrepancy. Are the developers just writing lazy code and not truly optimizing for the hardware? It seems unlikely that a company the size of Ubisoft would choose this route on purpose, creating a console game that runs in a less-than-ideal state while also struggling on the PC version. Remember, there is almost no "porting" going on here: the Xbox One and Playstation 4 share the same architecture as the PC now.

Of course, we might just be treading through known waters. I know we are a bit biased, and so is our reader base, but I am curious: do you think MS and Sony have put themselves in a hole with their shortsighted hardware selections?

UPDATE: It would appear that a lot of readers and commentors take our editorial on the state of the PS4 and XB1 as a direct attack on AMD and its APU design. That isn't really the case - regardless of what vendors' hardware is inside the consoles, had Microsoft and Sony still targeted the same performance levels, we would be in the exact same situation. An Intel + NVIDIA hardware combination could just have easily been built to the same peak theoretical compute levels and would have hit the same performance wall just as quickly. MS and Sony could have prevented this by using higher performance hardware, selling the consoles at a loss out the gate and preparing each platform for the next 7-10 years properly. And again, the console manufacturers could have done that with higher end AMD hardware, Intel hardware or NVIDIA hardware. The state of the console performance war is truly hardware agnostic.

Earphones without the flashy colours and branding

Subject: General Tech | October 27, 2014 - 02:33 PM |
Tagged: audio, Takstar, HD5500

Some people still prefer headsets with a simplistic design and understated branding as opposed to models with colours bright enough to pass for emergency beacons and a logo large enough to be spotted from orbit.  Takstar understands this and even offers their product for less money than their ostentatious competitors, but that is only half the story as they still need to sound good.  It has a variety of connection options, a 1/8" adapter designed for mobile devices as well as a larger 1/4" connection for use on stereos.  On a mobile device the bass is lacking, which is more because of the lack of power as the headsets sounded much better on the 1/4" plug from a more powerful source.  Do not expect a miracle from $75 circumaural headphones but for the value conscious you should take a look at TechPowerUp's review.

hd5500.jpg

"Takstar is well-known for their bang-for-the-buck headphones, and today, we take a look at their HD5500s. Priced at $74.50, these headphones are for mobile users who want a solid and well-sounding pair of headphones. We take the HD5500s for a spin to see if they can live up to such expectation."

Here is some more Tech News from around the web:

Audio Corner

Source: techPowerUp

No new Intel for you this year

Subject: General Tech | October 27, 2014 - 12:35 PM |
Tagged: Haswell-EX, Haswell-EP4S, Intel, server, xeon, Broadwell-DE, Skylake

Intel's release schedules have been slowing down, unfortunately in a large part that is due to the fact that the only competition they face in certain market segments is themselves.  For high end servers it looks like we won't see Haswell-EX or EP4S until the second half of next year and Skylake chips for entry level servers until after the third quarter.  Intel does have to fight for their share of the SoC and low powered chips, DigiTimes reports the Broadwell-DE family and the C2750 and C2350 should be here in the second quarter which gives AMD and ARM a chance to gain market share against Intel's current offerings.  Along with the arrival of the new chips we will also see older models from Itanium, Xeon, Xeon Phi and Atom be discontinued; some may be gone before the end of the year.  You have already heard the bad news about Broadwell-E.

index.jpg

"Intel's next-generation server processors for 2015 including new Haswell-EX (Xeon E7 v3 series) and -EP4S (Xeon E5-4600 v3 series), are scheduled to be released in the second quarter of 2015, giving clients more time to transition to the new platform, according to industry sources."

Here is some more Tech News from around the web:

Tech Talk

Source: DigiTimes