Category Archive : Gadgets

How to buy a monitor in 2020

That’s already a lot to know, and I won’t even be delving into gaming monitors here. However, if you know what you’re using your monitor for and how much you want to spend, then you’re already well ahead of the curve. We’re here to help you sort out the rest of the nitty gritty and choose the best monitor for your budget and needs.

The basics

Resolution

It’s great to have a 4K monitor (or 5K or even 8K), but you’ll need a reasonably powerful PC to go with it. Otherwise, you might be better off with a 1080p or 1440p display.

Who needs a 4K monitor? If you’re a content creator, especially a video pro, a 4K monitor is a must these days. I’d get at least a 27-inch 4K display and preferably a 32-inch model. With anything smaller, you won’t notice much difference between a 1440p model. On the other hand, I wouldn’t get a model larger than 27 inches unless it’s 4K, as you’ll start to see pixelation and won’t benefit from the extra size.

When it comes to gaming, FPS players should probably stick with 1080p or 1440p because frame rates can drop substantially at 4K unless you have a really powerful PC. However, if you play less demanding games that look beautiful, a 4K display might be more appropriate. For watching streaming movies, a 4K HDR display is preferable if you can afford one.

Screen size and shape

The majority of monitors come in a 16:9 aspect ratio, and if you work in video, that’s a good thing. However, there are some other options, most notably ultrawide 21:9, curved and 16:10. Size-wise, monitors keep getting bigger, with 32- to 34-inch sizes now relatively common. In general, bigger is better, so long as you’re scaling the resolution with the size.

Aspect ratio is also important because it can confuse buyers as to the true size of a monitor. For instance, a 30-inch superwide 21:9 monitor is the same height as a 24-inch model, so you might end up with a smaller display than you expected. A good way to make sure you get the right size is to choose a 16:9 size you like and add 25 percent for a 21:9 monitor. So if you’re good with a 27-inch 16:9 screen, then you’ll probably want a 34-inch superwide display.  

HDR

We can broadly divide monitors into HDR and non-HDR models. On a basic level, HDR is a standard that improves monitor brightness, contrast and color range over regular models. It has the potential to punch up movies and graphics in a more noticeable way than the resolution boost offered by 4K.

For TVs and projectors, consumers are mostly concerned with what kind of HDR their set supports, whether it’s HDR 10, HDR 10+ or Dolby Vision (that’s another discussion). Regardless of which type of HDR TV you choose, though, you can be sure it meets minimum standards for contrast, color gamut and bit depth (10 bits), while having reasonable brightness levels. 

However, most PC monitors support HDR 10 only (though two recent models support Dolby Vision) and most can’t reach the required 1,000 nits of brightness, so other features and specifications are more important. Until late last year, there was no set baseline for HDR monitors, other than that they need to be bright, high contrast and color rich. 

Luckily, that all changed when VESA unveiled the DisplayHDR standard in 2017. At the time, there were three certification levels, DisplayHDR 400, 600 and 1000, with the number referring to the maximum brightness level in nits. 

In 2019, VESA updated the spec to DisplayHDR CTS 1.1, with multiple new performance tiers. Those now include DisplayHDR 400, 500, 600, 1000 and 1400, along with 400 True Black and 500 True Black. Again, the numbers refer to the maximum brightness level in nits on certain tests. The new standard also requires active dimming, with more demanding tests for luminance and color accuracy. 

Refresh rate

Even if you’re not into gaming, refresh rate is still an important feature. A bare minimum nowadays is 60Hz, and 80Hz refresh rates and up are much easier on the eyes. However, most 4K displays top out at 60Hz with some rare exceptions. Also, the HDMI 2.0 spec only supports 4K at 60Hz, so you’d need at least DisplayPort 1.4 (4K at 120Hz). HDMI 2.1 supports 4K at up to 120Hz, but no video cards exist to support it.

Inputs

There are essentially two types of modern input: DisplayPort and HDMI. Most monitors will come with both, matching the outputs on a desktop PC, while a select few (typically built for Macs) will use Thunderbolt. If you’re monitor shopping for a laptop with no HDMI or DisplayPort, USB-C and Thunderbolt support DisplayPort natively, a DisplayPort to USB-C cable or dongle is the way to go.

Panel type

The cheapest monitors are still TN, which are strictly for gaming or office use. VA-type monitors are also relatively cheap, while offering good brightness and high contrast ratios. However, content creators will probably want an IPS LCD display that delivers better color accuracy, image quality and viewing angles.

If maximum brightness is important, a quantum dot LCD display is the way to go. OLED monitors are coming soon, too, though they’re not widely available yet. Those have the best blacks and color reproduction but lack the brightness of quantum dot displays — and cost a lot. 

The new panel on the block is MiniLED. It’s similar to quantum dot tech, but as the name suggests, it uses smaller LED diodes that are just 0.2mm in diameter. As such, manufacturers can pack in up to three times more LEDs, delivering deeper blacks and better contrast. 

Color bit depth

Serious content content creators should consider a more costly 10-bit monitor that can display billions of colors. If budget is an issue, you can go for an 8-bit panel that can fake billions of colors via dithering (often spec’d as “8-bit + FRC”). For entertainment or business purposes, a regular 8-bit monitor that can display millions of colors will be fine.

Color gamut

The other aspect of color is the gamut. That expresses the range of colors that can be reproduced and not just the number of colors. Most good monitors these days can cover the sRGB and Rec.709 gamuts (designed for photos and video respectively). For more demanding work, though, you’ll want one that can reproduce more demanding modern gamuts like AdobeRGB, DCI-P3 and Rec.2020 gamuts, which encompass a wider range of colors. 

Engadget picks

Best monitor under $200

AOC 24V2H

AOC monitor

AOC

The AOC 24V2H 21.5-inch panel is more about quality and design than size. While relatively petite, it has a tasteful three-sided frameless design, along with a 1080p IPS panel with a punchy image and wide viewing angles. That’ll make it good for watching movies, but it’s also not a bad gaming display thanks to a five-millisecond response time and decent 75Hz refresh rate. Best of all is the price: just $105.

Buy AOC 24V2H at B&H — $105

Best monitor under $300

BenQ PD2500Q

BenQ monitor

BenQ

If you’re looking to break into design on the cheap, BenQ’s $299 PD2500Q is a top choice. It offers 2,560 x 1,440 resolution with a 25-inch true 8-bit IPS panel that covers 100 percent of the sRGB space. At the same time, you get factory calibrated Technicolor-certified color accuracy, slim bezels, an anti-glare finish and HDMI/DisplayPort inputs for compatibility with most PCs or Macs.

Buy BenQ PD2500Q at B&H — $300

Best monitor under $400

ASUS PB287

ASUS PB287

ASUS

This is a rich category with seemingly limitless choices, but I’m going to go with the ASUS PB287Q 28-inch 4K monitor here. For what it offers, including 4K (3,840 x 2,160) resolution, a one millisecond refresh time, 60Hz refresh rate and a billion colors (8-bit + FRC TN panel), it’s incredibly cheap at $370. It’s also reasonably bright at 300 nits and can even flip around 90 degrees to do casual print work. Overall, this would make a great entertainment and casual gaming display. 

Buy ASUS PB287Q at B&H — $373

Best monitors under $500

HP Pavilion 32 QHD

HP Pavilion 32 QHD

HP

If size is important, HP’s Pavilion 32 QHD 32-inch monitor might be a good fit. While it offers 1440p 60Hz rather than 4K resolution, you still get an 8-bit + FRC VA panel with decent color accuracy and a good 3,000:1 static contrast ratio. Most critically, it gives you tons of screen real estate, so it’s particularly well suited to watching movies or YouTube videos, and all for $399.

Buy HP Pavilion 32 QHD at B&H — $400


LG 27UK650-W

LG 27UK650-W 

LG

For HDR on the cheap, take LG’s 27-inch 27UK650-W 4K HDR monitor. It offers specs usually found on much more expensive models, like 4K resolution, DisplayHDR 400 compatibility (350 nits average brightness), 8-bit + FRC color support and 99 percent sRGB color gamut coverage. At just $400, it would make a great monitor for entertainment and some casual content creation work.

Buy LG 27UK650-W at B&H — $400


Dell UltraSharp 27 UP2716D

Dell UltraSharp 27 UP2716D

Dell

If you’re a content creator looking to eke the most out of a limited budget, take a look at Dell’s UP2716D. Sure, it’s nearly five years old, with resolution that tops out at just 2,560 x 1,440 (60Hz) and it doesn’t support HDR. But it delivers billions of colors thanks to an 8-bit + FRC display, offers great color accuracy with Delta E < 2 and covers 98 percent of the challenging DCI-P3 color gamut. You can also flip it 90 degrees for print work and, best of all, you can pick it up for just $499 — not bad, considering it was almost double that when it came out in 2015.

Buy Dell UltraSharp 27 UP2716D at B&H — $500

Best monitors under $700

Dell UltraSharp 27 U2720Q

Dell UltraSharp 27 U2720Q

Dell

Dell’s 27-inch, 4K U2720Q IPS monitor offers 4K HDR performance for a decent price. It conforms to the DisplayHDR 400 spec while offering 10-bits of color and 99 percent sRGB coverage, with a Delta E color accuracy of less than two out of the box. So this is a good monitor for HDR movies and doing some graphics chores, particularly HDR video work — all for under $600.

Buy Dell UltraSharp 27 U2720Q at Dell — $580

BenQ PD3200U

BenQ PD3200U

BenQ

For under $700, there are a lot of good options for content creators. BenQ’s 4K PD3200U is a good example. For $700, you get a 10-bit IPS panel that covers 100 percent of the sRGB and Rec. 709 color spaces, with a factory Delta E calibration of less than three — meaning it’s ready for your video- or photo-editing chores right out of the box.

Buy BenQ PD3200U at B&H — $700

Best monitor for Mac users

LG Ultrafine 4K and 5K

LG Ultrafine 5K

LG

Apple’s $5,000 Pro Display XDR is much too rich for most of us, so the next most logical option is LG’s $1,300 Ultrafine 5K display, also sold on Apple’s Store. With a 27-inch 5K panel, you not only get very high resolution but also 500 nits of brightness (albeit, without HDR capability). It’s color-accurate out of the box, making it great for video- and photo-editing work on a Mac or MacBook. Finally, it supports Thunderbolt 3 with daisy chaining and power delivery, all of which is very useful for Mac users.

If that model is too much, you can also consider LG’s 24-inch Ultrafine 4K. For nearly half the price ($700), it offers many of the same features (including the powered and daisy-chained Thunderbolt ports, color accuracy and more) in a smaller size and with just a bit less resolution.

Buy LG Ultrafine 5K at Apple — $1300

Buy LG Ultrafine 4K at Apple — $700

Best ultrawide monitor

ViewSonic VP3481

ViewSonic VP3481

ViewSonic

Ultrawide 21:9 monitors, while not everyone’s jam, are a great option if you’re considering dual monitors for photo work, flight sims or financial work. The best all around model is Viewsonic’s VP3481, which can do all three jobs with aplomb for just $699. It’s HDR capable with up to 400 nits of brightness, covers up to 99 percent of the sRGB space and is factory calibrated for accurate colors. At the same time, it has a 100Hz refresh rate and AMD FreeSync support, making it a great display for game design.

Buy ViewSonic VP3481 at B&H — $700

Best luxury monitor for creators

ASUS ProArt PA32UCX

ASUS ProArt PA32UCX

ASUS

Remember when I said there were just two monitors that support Dolby Vision HDR? The ASUS ProArt PA32UCX mini-LED monitor is one of those (the ASUS ProArt PQ22UC OLED is the other), and it’s a game-changer for content creators. With Dolby Vision, colorists and other creative pros can do end-to-end HDR encoding in all major formats used by Netflix and other services. That can be done on DaVinci Resolve 16, for instance, provided you’re willing to pay Dolby a license fee.

The PA32UCX has other top-notch specs for HDR editing, too. It meets VESA’s CTI 1.1 HDR1000 standard and can pump out an incredible 1,400 nits thanks to the quantum dot display with an 1,152-zone mini-LED backlight, arranged in a 48×24 array (that compares to just 384 zones on most high-end QLED displays). While it’s not quite on par with OLED in terms of deep blacks, it’s getting closer and is much brighter than any OLED display.

It also offers 10-bit native color depth and 89 percent coverage of the difficult-to-reproduce Rec.2020 VESA standard. That means it’ll easily cover the DCI-P3 standard required for video editing nowadays, letting talented colorists get the most out of RAW and 10-bit video footage. Colors are supremely accurate straight out of the box, with a delta-E of less than one, better than any other display in this category, by far.

The drawback here is the $3,999 price, but that’s actually a relative bargain compared to some professional displays. Should you need most of the features of the PA32UCX but can’t afford the price, a good alternative is the ASUS ProArt PA32UC. For $1,400, it also covers the DCI-P3 and Rec2020 color gamuts but does so at “just” 95 and 85 percent. The downside is less impressive brightness, but still peaks at 1,000 nits. Also, ASUS will soon sell a smaller 27-inch version of the PA32UCX, the PA27UCX.

Buy ASUS ProArt PA32UCX at B&H — $4000

Buy ASUS ProArt PA32UC at B&H — $1393

Best 8K display

Dell UltraSharp 32 UP3218K

Dell UltraSharp 32 UP3218K

Dell

Faster than we think, 8K video will be upon us, so you might be pondering an 8K monitor to stay ahead of the curve. Dell’s UP3218K is part of its UltraSharp lineup for creators, so it not only delivers 8K (7,680 x 4,320) 60p resolution but other nice pro features, too. 

The 10-bit native IPS panel delivers 400 nits of brightness, though the UP3218K isn’t an HDR monitor. It also delivers 1.07 billion colors and covers 98 percent of the DCI-P3 color gamut, with a Delta E of less than two out of the box. It’s also one of the few monitors that flips around 90 degrees, making it good for portrait photo work. 

This monitor isn’t cheap either at $3,500 (8K monitors are still very rare), but Dell’s UP3216Q 4K monitor has most of the features for less than half the price ($1,440 at Dell). It’s not quite as bright at 350 nits and covers just 87 percent of the DCI-P3 gamut, but it offers 1.07 billion colors and is just as precise for color correction out of the box.

Buy Dell UltraSharp 32 UP3218K at B&H — $3500

Buy Dell UtraSharp 32 UP3216Q at Dell — $1440

Todoists latest feature helps you better organize upcoming tasks

Todoist Upcoming View

Todoist

Upcoming View will be easily accessible in the left navigation right under Today and simply labeled “Upcoming.” You can either scroll down to a specific day or jump directly to it by clicking on it in the week’s calendar across the top. To venture into the future, swipe left or use the arrows until you get where you need to be. You can also jump to a specific month with the drop-down menu. And when you have already assigned items to a specific day, a dot will appear under the number in Upcoming View. With a glance, you can tell what days are completely free without have to search for any details.

Thanks to the “dynamic add” button Todoist introduced in October, you can drag and drop the add task button on a specific date in Upcoming View. You can also drag and drop individual tasks to reschedule them as needed without having to navigate elsewhere.

The company has also given the app more room to accommodate your productivity on desktop and the web. A wider layout that works better with larger displays than Todoist has in the past. To make the space even more efficient, you can also hide the left navigation entirely to focus on a particular list. Simply hit “m” to switch between the two or click the menu icon in the top left. Clicking anywhere on a task will now open up the task view, which puts any sub-tasks, comments and the activity log front and center.

Upcoming View is rolling out to Todoist users over the next 24 hours, so you shouldn’t have to wait long to give it try. The app is free to use, but more robust features are available to Premium subscribers for $3 a month. Those tools include reminders, filters, labels, comments, file uploads and the ability to add tasks and comments by forwarding an email.

Sonarworks brings its SoundID audio customization to Mac and Windows

Sonarworks SoundID

Sonarworks

That’s why today’s news is significant. Sonarworks has revealed the SoundID Listen app for Mac and Windows which allows users to apply their personalized audio profile to everything they listen to on their computer. The mobile and desktop apps are still a 1-2 punch though, as the hearing test only resides inside the phone software for now. The company says it may consider bringing that process to the desktop, if there’s enough interest. Until then, you’ll need to do the initial setup on your phone before hopping over to your Mac or PC. Once you sign in, your profile automatically syncs with the desktop app. From there, you simply need to select the headphones you’re using so the software can use the appropriate sound calibration.

SoundID currently supports over 350 headphone models, but there are some omissions. For example, the Bose 700 and Beats Solo Pro aren’t available (yet). However, Apple’s AirPods Pro, Sony’s WH-1000XM3 and other notable options are on the list. There’s a mix of wired and wireless headphones too, so you do have a lot to choose from.

I’ve been using SoundID Listen on a MacBook Pro for about a week and the results are consistent with what I heard at CES. Ditto for what I’ve experienced with the limited abilities of the SoundID iOS app. Again, the initial test is quick and easy, and if you input your sex and birthday, it will also factor in average hearing loss into your profile. I had no trouble syncing my personal setting in the macOS app, and the headphone selector is front and center. And there’s an obvious on/off button for the SoundID personalization so you don’t have to go hinting for it should the need arise.

Sonarworks SoundID Listen

Sonarworks SoundID Listen

Like I mentioned before, Sonarworks takes a more even-handed approach to applying your sound profile, so the change is more subtle. However, it does make a noticeable difference, and as far as I’m concerned, a noticeable improvement. That being said, the tweaks are more prominent in some genres than others. There’s more presence, depth and a bit more clarity. I could barely hear the change with SoundID Listen on with some bass-heavy electronic tracks compared to what the software did with metal, rock and other styles. Sonarworks says this is evidence the software is working as intended based on the initial test. In order to fit your preferences, for example, Gojira’s bruising metal might need more adjustment than Run The Jewel’s bombastic hip-hop. Of course, that example was my experience, and yours might be the complete opposite — which is kind of the beauty of this.

Sonarworks makes calibration software for recording studio headphones and monitors, which is where the company got its start. It also debuted the True-Fi app for headphone calibration a few years ago. True-Fi featured a similar hearing test to gauge your personal preferences before allowing you to pick from hundreds of presets for hundreds of headphone models. That app also allowed you to further tweak the EQ and dive deep into settings. However, Sonarworks admits it never really took off, so it discontinued support in early March to focus on the simplified and more user-friendly SoundID app. The company has a solid track record when it comes to audio calibration, and now it’s bringing that knowledge to the masses.

SoundID Listen is available now as a 60-day free trial. When that initial period is up, the desktop app will cost $4.99 a month. If you commit to a year before May 18th, you’ll get it for the 6-month plan price of $24.99 (saving you $20). The SoundID mobile app — which includes the hearing test — is free on Android and iOS.

The Morning After: The Last of Us Part II leaks popped up

Good morning! And, if you enjoy a look inside a new smartphone along with your breakfast, then we have good news — iFixit has already torn apart the new iPhone SE. However, as they can explain, if you’ve already taken a peek inside an iPhone 8, there isn’t much new to see here. Apple’s budget iPhone with a top-of-the-line CPU owes a lot to its predecessor, but the lack of 3D Touch is disappointing, especially since the newer Haptic Touch tech doesn’t work with notifications on this model.

— Richard

‘The Last of Us Part II’ will be released on June 19th

Be careful: There are already some leaked spoilers out there.

'The Last of Us Part II'

Naughty Dog / Sony

The Last of Us Part II will finally launch on PS4 on June 19th. Sony and Naughty Dog had originally planned a February 21st release date, but they pushed the sequel back to May 29th. Earlier this month, they delayed the game indefinitely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fortunately, you’ll only need to wait an extra few weeks for the next chapter of Ellie’s story. This is a timely announcement: Major spoilers about The Last of Us Part II seemed to emerge in leaked videos, including gameplay and some pivotal cutscenes. Be careful what you Google.
Continue reading.

Library of Congress app lets you make hip hop with century-old samples

‘Citizen DJ’ was created by the library’s innovator-in-residence Brian Foo.

Citizen

Citizen DJ

The US Library of Congress has launched Citizen DJ, a digital tool that allows you to remix sounds from its massive collection of film, television, video and sound recordings. It was created by “innovator in residence” Brian Foo to recapture the ‘80s and ‘90s golden age of hip-hop sampling. 

You can draw samples from six collections (including the Free Music Archive and Variety Stage Sound Recordings and Motion Pictures) and remix them into beats using patterns like ‘60s funk, ‘70s soul and ‘80s/’90s hip hop. Once you find a clip, you can remix it using the simple browser-based DJ app. The project is still in a test site phase through May 15th, with just a subset of available sounds. The library plans to collect feedback to improve the app.
Continue reading.

UK’s NHS won’t use Apple–Google approach to COVID-19 tracking

It’s opting for a centralized approach.

Apple and Google are expected to release their contact tracing technology to developers tomorrow, but the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) says it won’t use the tech companies’  “decentralized” approach, where the contact tracing happens on users’ devices. Instead, the NHS is opting for a “centralized” model, in which the matching and alerts happen via a computer server. This has privacy implications, while benefits to the NHS’ approach allow it to monitor the system and adapt it as new scientific evidence comes in.

Apple’s solution lets the contact tracing happen in the background on iPhones, but the UK’s app would have to wake up every time the device detects another nearby device running the same software, meaning more battery drain in the process. The UK government is set to discuss its approach to the issue later today.
Continue reading.

Sponsored Content by StackCommerce

Stack Commerce TMA Newsletter 4/28/20

Review: Google’s overhauled Pixel Buds

These Google Assistant earbuds may be worth your money.

Pixel Buds
Pixel Buds

Engadget

According to our review by Billy Steele, Google’s updated Pixel Buds are a revelation compared to the previous model. Not only are they true wireless now, but the smart features are reliable, the touch controls are easy to master and comfort is top-notch. Battery life is on par with Apple’s AirPods, but it’s well below average in 2020. Still, at $179, Google has a powerful set of earbuds for the Android faithful that really shine when paired with a Pixel phone.
Continue reading.

DJIs Mavic Air 2 offers 34 minutes of flight time and 48-megapixel photos

Much of DJI’s camera functionality comes from the numerous auto-shot and “smart” modes. Again, there are some new goodies here. DJI was eager to talk up the new “scene recognition” feature which sounds like the trick we’ve seen on flagship phones where the camera knows (or, rather, guesses) where you’re shooting and automatically optimizes the settings for you. DJI claims the Mavic Air 2 can detect five scenes: sunset, blue skies, snow, grass and trees. That might not seem a lot, but up in the air that’s most things covered we guess. Along with the aforementioned HDR mode, there’s also “Hyperlight” for when shooting in low light conditions.

Videos will benefit from two layers of stabilization now. The 3-axis gimbal as before, with some additional help from EIS (which we hope/presume is optional). The Mavic Air 2’s FocusTrack feature offers some updated tracking modes: Spotlight 2.0, ActiveTrack 3.0 and Point of Interest 3.0. The former is a hand-me-down from the Inspire 2, which locks the camera onto a target, leaving you to simply fly the drone. Active Track we’ve seen before, but this time it should be more robust at following targets even when they go out of view temporarily. The updated Point of Interest mode claims to be better at recognizing different surfaces and more dynamic tracking — again, we’ll have to wait and see what that really means once we test it. 

It’s not all about the fun stuff though, DJI has added some new safety features which might be less sexy, but certainly much appreciated. Most notably, the inclusion of ADS-B — which means the drone will be able to sense when something else (as in, actual planes etc.) is flying nearby. One last acronym for now, and that’s APAS 3.0 — something we saw introduced in the first Mavic Air. In short, it’s what allows the drone to fly around things that its sensors detect, and DJI claims it’s smoother and more fluid this time around. I’m very interested to see if it comes anywhere close to Skydio’s mind-bindingly good obstacle avoidance, something DJI hasn’t been able to compete with thus far in my opinion.

DJI Mavic Air 2.

DJI

One last small, but important thing. It looks like DJI has updated the radio controller so that your phone will now perch on top, rather than clip in below. This might seem a minor detail, but as anyone with a larger phone will attest (especially if it’s in a case), clipping it into the old controller was clumsy at best. Let’s hope this new setup is simpler and more comfortable.

As rumored, the Mavic Air 2 will cost $799 at launch, but thanks to the pandemic, it’s only available in China right now, with a global rollout set for mid-May (around the 11th). DJI has a habit of semi-cannibalizing its own products, with new drones offering features even its flagships don’t have, and that seems to be the case here. Which is both great, and slightly confusing when it comes to deciding which one is for you. The premium Mavic Pro 2 series, with its superior camera, or the Mavic Air 2 with it’s longer flight time and new software tricks? Once we get it in for review, hopefully we can help you decide. 

The Morning After: Twitch and the non-stop Valorant streams

Everyone’s talking about Valorant, a new first-person shooter from the makers of League of Legends. And I haven’t even played it. The shame.

Everyone’s watching it, too, despite the fact that it’s still in beta — something that creators Riot worked particularly hard to achieve. Its debut broke records on Twitch, and it’s benefitting from more streaming viewers as the coronavirus pandemic keeps more of us in our homes, looking at screens.

Like you are, right now. Now, on to everything that happened over the weekend.

-Mat

Twitch has a problem with non-stop ‘Valorant’ streams

Beta key handouts have led to a lot of Valorant.

Engadget

Riot’s Valorant may be the game of the moment, and everyone wants a beta key to play the thing. That’s led to Twitch streamers running Valorant streams 24/7, as keys drop from the service after you watch for at least two hours. Naturally, no-one can possibly play all that time, so many streams consist of live segments interspersed with reruns and edited highlights.  This is artificially skewing viewing stats, making Valorant’s audience seem even larger than it is, and hurts smaller streamers who get pushed down the rankings. Continue reading.

You can use some iPhone 8 parts inside the new iPhone SE

Don’t expect to replace the battery, though.

Engadget

So, the new iPhone SE is an iPhone 8 with a high-tech makeover, but how much hardware does it truly share? According to iFixit, quite a lot. The cameras, display assembly (including the mic and proximity sensor), SIM tray (wow!) and Taptic Engine will all work in the newer model. However, there are a few swaps you’ll have to rule out — and not just obvious ones like the processor. You won’t be able to replace the Touch ID button from another iPhone — you’ll have to visit Apple and authorized repair shops. You’ll also have to forget about replacing the battery. That said, iFixit still sees the second-generation SE as an improvement. Many new iPhones have no compatibility whatsoever with older models. Continue reading.

iPhone SE can take portrait photos of non-humans using an app

Australia rolls out COVID-19 tracking app amid privacy concerns

Germany, meanwhile, is switching to a more private option.

Engadget

COVID-19 contact-tracing apps are coming to a smartphone near you — some privacy implications with them. Australia has launched its tracing app, COVIDSafe, despite criticisms of its approach to privacy. The voluntary software is based on Singapore’s TraceTogether and uses a mix of Bluetooth and stored contact data on both the app and servers to let people know if they’ve been in close contact with people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19. The Australian government has promised that its app doesn’t collect locations and only shares data with health officials, and it vows to delete the data once the pandemic is over. (TBA on when that will be, however.)

In Germany, the country has ditched its centralized approach to COVID-19 tracking, based on Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT), in favor of a “decentralized architecture.” This seems closer to Apple and Google’s approach (set to arrive mid-May), by only storing contact data on devices themselves. Continue reading.

Sponsored Content by StackCommerce

Stack Commerce TMA Newsletter 4/27/20

Coursera announces free courses for the unemployed

Government agencies can help the displaced return to work.

Coursera is opening access to its online courses to those newly unemployed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The service has apparently made 3,800 courses and 400 specializations available for free through government agencies hoping to find jobs for residents. The courses focus on skills that should help people find new jobs and opportunities, like business writing and careers like app development. Some courses include professional certificates from companies like Google, IBM and SAS. You’ll still have to pay for more… esoteric courses.

Organizations have until September 30th to enroll workers, who themselves will have until the end of 2020 to complete their courses. In the US, Arizona, Illinois and Oklahoma will all offer courses, while countries like Colombia, Costa Rica, Greece, Malaysia, Panama, Ukraine and Uzbekistan have followed suit abroad. Continue reading.

What were watching: Dispatches from Elsewhere

An alternate reality game (ARG) takes game elements like puzzles and mysteries and places them into the real world for its players to work through and solve. These can manifest through all sorts of media, from new media like websites and apps to old media like newspapers and magazines. You might have heard of the more famous ones from the last decade like ‘The Beast’ and ‘I Love Bees.’ Escape rooms are similar to ARGs in a lot of ways. Or maybe you saw the film Dispatches from Elsewhere is based on, a documentary called The Institute about a real ARG that took place in San Francisco back in 2008.

As someone who plays a lot of games — electronic, board and even some tabletop roleplaying — there’s so much I recognize in the show. It’s fair to say that an ARG is basically a video game in the real world, since it shares the same immersive nature and sense of wonder. Sure, fighting monsters and casting spells is fun escapist fantasy, but there’s also magic in opening up a drawer and discovering someone’s teenage diary, or pictures of people long dead. I used to spend summers at my grandmother’s house and, when things got boring, I’d dig through random drawers and cabinets, finding things like my aunt’s junior high school report card. The closest I ever got to that feeling since was through video games, digging through bins and boxes in the Zero Escape series, or clambering over rooftops in various Assassin’s Creed titles. It’s part of why I love video games.

Wouldn’t it be nice to capture that feeling in the real world, though? I’ve tried to travel more and visit more places I’ve never been here in New York City (before quarantine, of course), and I even took up birding as a sort of real-life Pokémon quest. But poking around other people’s houses without permission is rude, while exploring an abandoned warehouse can be both dangerous and illegal. And none of these have a firm narrative to drive you forward.

That’s what makes an ARG so attractive, in that it takes all these appealing game elements and injects them into your real life. Over the course of the first season, we watched the four protagonists visit offices, climb on rooftops and yes, visit “abandoned” warehouses as they’ve gotten caught up in an overarching narrative of the Jejune Institute versus the Elsewhere Society. There’s some modern tech in there, like VR and internet searching, but also decidedly old fashioned research like perusing microfiche at the library. And of course, the team must exhibit teamwork to solve the mystery.

Andre Benjamin as Fredwynn
Andre Benjamin as Fredwynn

Jessica Kourkounis/AMC

In fact, it’s the learning to cooperate as a group that presents the greatest challenge to our protagonists, because they’re so different in temperament and experience. Here I see echoes of my own gaming life, because each of the team members represents a type of player. Anyone who’s played a tabletop RPG like Dungeons & Dragons knows them well. Simone, portrayed by Eve Lindley, is just looking for something to do. Andre Benjamin’s Fredwynn is the munchkin, the guy whose job it is to overthink everything and strip down the game beyond recognition because he just wants to win. (As you can imagine, he’s not very fun to play with.) Janice, played by Sally Field, is just happy to be included. And Peter… well, he’s the guy who doesn’t have a lot going on in real life so he ends up getting overinvested in the game, hoping it will add some meaning to his existence or make him a more interesting person. He wants the game to go on forever, even when everyone else says it’s time to go home.

It’s an eclectic mix of personalities, which is great for solving real-life challenges but less productive in a game where the game master is trying to keep everyone going in the same direction. Janice can be too passive, requiring constant prodding to get her to engage with the mysteries and obstacles set in front of her. Fredwynn is just the opposite: He’s convinced it’s all part of a deeper conspiracy and has no qualms about completely derailing the fun for everyone else. As the show later reveals, this is an absolute nightmare for the game’s architect, who needs to keep the game running but also get the errant players back on track.

Though I’m more of a Janice now, I used to be a Peter. I used to think about games a lot. I would draw pictures of my RPG characters and write long backstories and just talk about the campaign with my friends even when we weren’t playing. Even though I’m more casual about my gaming now, Dispatches from Elsewhere is so appealing because it speaks to me directly. And that’s not just a metaphor, it’s quite literal at times: Corporate boogeyman Octavio breaks the fourth wall on a regular basis to address the audience directly.

In fact, what if this isn’t just some ordinary TV show? Was I supposed to check the website for a secret code? Was there some kind of cypher hidden in the wallpaper? Is there a phone number I can call? Maybe, like Peter, I don’t really want the show to end because I’ve just been enjoying it so much. Even if you don’t go looking for some deeper meaning in the program, it works as a character study and a rumination on what kind of people play games. And if that’s not good enough for you, well, I guess it’s time to pull a tab off a mysterious flyer the next time you’re allowed outside.

— Kris Naudus, Buyer’s Guide Editor

Your Home Made Perfect

A CGI-heavy property show is appointment viewing

Your Home Made Perfect is a British home remodeling show in which people, often a married couple, struggle with a knotty architectural problem. Two architects go in, examine the issue for themselves and then have four months (or so) to come up with a solution. The twist, is that rather than showing off their designs on paper, or on video, they do so… in VR. Yes, that was “tech angle” enough that I could justify writing about my favorite property show on Engadget.

The two architects are Laura-Jane Clark and Robert Jamison, who go on a bad design tour of the UK’s worst homes. Oftentimes you’re watching, slack-jawed, at the state of some of these houses, which are often badly extended by the previous owners. Often, in an attempt to improve resale value, zealous home builders will add on bedrooms so small prison cells blush in envy. The result is a knotty maze of inflexible design that nobody should be forced to live in. 

After a few months, the couple (it’s almost always a married couple) are invited to the studio in Brixton to see the architectural pitches. Clark’s work is often focused on making spaces seem bigger and airier than they were before, with quirky additions like secret doors. Jamison’s, on the other hand, hews toward the operatic, offering radical and dramatic changes to how people live. And bench seats, because all of his designs have to look a little bit like a waiting room. 

When they’ve arrived, the owners are coaxed into an empty room and handed a Gear VR to wear. Then, the architects will, in turn, take them on a tour of their original house, explain the numerous problems with it, and then show them their inspiring design. 

Of course, two people looking at VR headsets, slack-jawed (we all get VR mouth the first time we wear one) isn’t very televisual. So the show then re-films the architect and owners on a green-screen studio, with the three pretending to be “inside” the virtual reality demo. And it’s actually a pretty CGI-heavy show, especially from a genre that rarely ever goes in for VFX.

Acting against a green screen is hard even for professionals, and is often a challenge for the contestants. You can see how well (or not) they did depending on how much of their facial reactions we can see in this sequence. I imagine that, for those who struggled with the acting, they just cut in the sound from the first VR demo and use lots of back-facing shots.

Unintentional comedy aside, it’s probably the first time that VR has been used as a gimmick in a non-techy TV show that actually works. Of course it’s natural that people would find it easier to understand architectural changes if they can see a working render of their home. And it’s also inspiring and empowering if you, like me, are seeing your own home remodel drag on for years.

Producer Joff Wilson explained to Broadcast that Your Home Made Perfect’s unique twist is that, unlike most property shows, it has multiple money shots.  “Viewers flock to that last 15 minutes, and for good reason — it’s joyful,” he told the industry magazine last year, “it’s flooded with tips, inspiration and uplifting sync.” But in this show, you get not one, but three shots at a finished home — two virtually, and one real. 

Peeking inside people’s homes before, during and after their grand rebuilds can be an eye-opening experience. Especially when you play spot the difference between the sparkling VR renders and the finished build as reality, budgets, and taste get in the way. It’s always fun trying to spot signs of delight, and despair, in the architect’s faces as they see their work made.

Your Home Made Perfect is one of a handful of shows that I’ll take time out of my day to watch live. And, most importantly, it’s offering me inspiring tips on how I can avoid the mistakes that other would-be renovators did. Hopefully, if my place turns out okay, we can give some of the credit to the folks from the show. I’ll just need to brush up on my VR skills first.

— Dan Cooper, Senior Editor

Google Pixel Buds review (2020): Truly smart earbuds

The first key difference between the two sets of Pixel Buds is that this new model is true wireless. The earbuds themselves still have the circular shape of the originals, but they’re much smaller. In our review of the first version, my colleague Chris Velazco noted the two-part design meant that half of the bud stuck out of your ear. With the new ones, even the tip that goes into your ear canal is smaller, so these don’t stick out nearly as far. This also means they fit more snugly, and the improved seal does a better job of blocking out ambient noise. 

Speaking of fit, Google replaced the cord hoop on top of the first Pixels Buds with a more traditional fin. It’s a part you see on a lot of earbuds — both wired and wireless. The fin is rigid rubber, so it actually helps keep the Pixel Buds nestled in place. Not once did I feel like these were going to fall out, even during cardio workouts. Since the new Pixel Buds are IPX4 rated, they’ll easily stand up to sweat if you want to take them on a run or some other physical activity. 

Pixel Buds review

Engadget

The compact size of the Pixel Buds makes them comfy to wear for long periods of time. Having something inserted into your ear holes will only ever be so comfortable, but keeping the size and weight down goes a long way. I was able to wear these for hours and I never felt like they were more taxing than they should be. They’re small and light, much like Jabra’s Elite 75t and Samsung’s Galaxy Buds+ — two other sets of earbuds that are easier to wear for hours than a lot of the competition. 

One thing that was consistent on the first Pixel Buds were the touch controls, and they still work well. While the options for play/pause, skipping tracks and adjusting volume used to solely reside on the right earbud, they’re now mirrored on both sides. You still tap once for play/pause, twice to skip to the next song and three times to go back to the previous one. Turn the volume up by swiping from back to front and turn it down from swiping from front to back. The new Pixel Buds will also automatically pause when you remove one of them from your ear. Unlike the touch controls on some earbuds and headphones, I was able to master these almost right away. Not once did the Pixel Buds mistake a triple tap for something less. And I had no trouble changing the volume. 

Like the earbuds themselves, the charging case is also much smaller. This isn’t much of a surprise given the fact that it no longer needs to accommodate a cord. Google says it designed the new Pixel Buds case to look and feel like a river stone. Indeed, the oval-shaped case is small and smooth, easily fitting in the palm of your hand or a small pocket in your bag. The magnetic closure is secure but not so much that you can’t flip open the lid with your thumb. When you do, separate LEDs (one outside and one inside) will let you know the charging status of both the case and the buds. Around back, there’s a Bluetooth pairing button you’ll need if you want to use these with a non-Android device, and the USB-C charging port is located on the bottom edge. The also supports wireless charging with a Qi-certified pad. 

The company completely overhauled its Google Assistant earbuds to make something worth your money.

Engadget

Speaking of that pairing button, the Pixel Buds will work with iOS devices, your desktop machine and any other gadget that supports Bluetooth 4.0 or higher. Of course, you sacrifice a lot of the handy features when you pair connect these to an iPhone or non-Android device. For example, the press and hold touch gesture doesn’t activate Siri. So while you can do it, you probably wouldn’t want to unless you really have to. 

Even with all of the improvements, Google still didn’t include active noise cancellation (ANC) on the new Pixel Buds. Instead, the company opted for a feature called Adaptive Sound that automatically, and temporarily, adjusts the volume based on your surroundings. Once you get away from the raucous crowd, the earbuds should return to the volume you had set. It’s supposed to function like an automatic brightness adjustment for your display, only for sound. Given the current state of the world, I’m not visiting a packed coffee shop or other noisy venues these days, so I had to test this the best I could at home.

With things like a white noise machine and running water to wash dishes (the latter of which Google mentions as a specific use case), I wasn’t able to trigger Adaptive Sound to do its thing. I was able to activate it with crowd noise from an archived soccer match on my TV, but the sound increase is very subtle. I almost couldn’t tell it even happened. For this to be useful, the change needs to be noticeable, and perhaps coincide with a notification of some kind. So for now, the jury is still out.

If you like to let some of the sound of what’s going on around into your headphones or earbuds, these don’t do that either. So when you need to order a cortado or answer someone close by, you’ll have to pause the audio or risk shouting over it. 

Why is video conferencing so exhausting?

Similarly, Tarek, a law student in New York, told the MIT Technology Review that after long days of classes via Zoom, the extra video chats with friends and family feel exhausting. What’s more, turning down an invitation for virtual socialization can spur feelings of guilt, because they don’t have much of an excuse amidst the shelter-in-place. Friends have confessed to me that the constant video chats have been tiring them out as well, perhaps even more so than real-life interactions. 

Young female executive having video call in office. Business women on a video call using digital tablet.

Luis Alvarez via Getty Images

The issue is, online video interactions are fundamentally different from face-to-face ones. “When we’re sitting face-to-face with someone, we are physically present and this allows us to be more in-the-moment and not feel so ‘stilted’ or ‘performance-oriented,’” Suzanne Degges-White, a professor and chair of Counseling and Higher Education at Northern Illinois University, told Engadget. “[On video chat] we have to be more conscious of the words we choose and when we jump into conversations.”

That’s different from in-person communications, where there are helpful physical cues. “In face-to-face meetings, we’re able to gauge the climate and better read the room to know when it’s best to jump in and share a diverse or different perspective,” she added. “In video meetings, we don’t get to see the ‘clues’ that body language and facial expressions send nearly as well.” Plus, she said, we lose about 85 percent of communication due to the absence of body language, and we don’t necessarily pick up on others’ non-verbal cues appropriately. Video chats can therefore require a lot more energy and focus, while in-person interactions are a little less demanding. 

“Many of us are experiencing non-verbal overload,” said Jeremy Bailenson, a founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, who recently wrote about the topic in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. This is especially true with software like Zoom, which wasn’t really designed for social interaction in the manner we’re doing now. “In a normal workplace, people rarely engage in long bouts of mutual gaze — that is, looking directly into the eyes of another,” he told Engadget. “With Zoom, a grid of people stare right at you from the screen for the entire meeting.” 

Back view of Asian business woman talking to her colleagues about plan in video conference. Multiethnic business team using computer for a online meeting in video call. Group of people smart working from home.

ake1150sb via Getty Images

In an experiment at Stanford, Bailenson and his colleagues studied the consequences of this “constant gaze” using virtual classrooms. He discovered that while productivity did increase, the students’ discomfort went up. “People report being very uncomfortable getting stared at for an entire meeting,” he said. “The brain is particularly attentive to faces, and when we see large ones close up, we interpret them as being close by. Our ‘fight-or-flight’ reflex responds.”

There’s also often an added pressure to “perform” while on video chats. Marissa Shuffler, an associate professor at Clemson University, told the BBC that there’s often social pressure when you’re on a video conference when you know everyone’s looking at you. “Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful,” she said. Plus, silence in a video call can feel more awkward than usual. A 2014 study in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies pointed out that delays on conferencing technologies can sometimes make people think the other person is less friendly, or less focused.

What makes matters more complicated is that most if not all of our socialization is now through the internet. “Most of our social roles happen in different places, but now the context has collapsed,” Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead, told the BBC. “Imagine if you go to a bar, and in the same bar you talk with your professors, meet your parents or date someone, isn’t it weird? That’s what we’re doing now.”

Using tablet for video call with family at home

Jasmin Merdan via Getty Images

There are a few tech innovations that could help mitigate the fatigue. Instead of using your own face for example, Bailenson said that Apple’s Animoji and Samsung’s AR Emoji can help maximize social connectedness while minimizing the aforementioned non-verbal load. He also suggested companies like High Fidelity and Loom.AI, both of which are developing surprisingly life-like 3D avatars that can offer a more realistic version of the same thing. 

But if that’s a little too high-tech for you, there are a few steps that you can take today to help reduce video chat exhaustion. “Don’t schedule back-to-back meetings,” suggested Degges-White. “Take a break away from the screen between meetings and get fresh air.” She also recommends making sure that your “office” feels different from your “living area.” You could perhaps change the lighting or switch out your clothes to signify to yourself you’re changing modes. “When you feel you’re working 24/7 and are unable to leave the ‘office’ to see friends, having tricks to help you feel there’s a boundary between work and play can be important.”

You could also simply choose to turn the camera off during your video conferences. In one meeting for example, Bailenson decided to have it so only the person talking needed to stream the video. “It helped,” he said. “Highlighting our wall-hangings behind us is not critical to most meetings.” Additionally, he said that software like Zoom does let you control the positioning and size of the windows that show other people’s faces. “Play around with these settings to find one that creates the right balance for you,” he added.

Last but not least, you could ditch the computer altogether. “There’s always the telephone,” said Bailenson. Degges-White likes that idea too. “It can be less stressful when you ‘show up’ in voice only,” she said. “Cut yourself some slack and phone it in next time. Your overstrained eyes and the muscles you use for that ‘attentive meeting participant face’ will thank you.”